The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'religion'
Actor Gabriel Byrne talks about the 1950s Ireland he grew up in, and in which a new BBC crime series he stars in is set:
Both Byrne and Banville, who are old friends, grew up in this Ireland of the 1950s. "It was almost a Taliban-esque society," says the actor, recalling an incident when his mother, who was walking down the street with him while pushing a pram, stepped off the pavement into the road to make way for a priest. "That's how much power they had. Now all the rocks have been lifted and all the maggots have crawled out. The Catholic Church is a tyrannical, evil institution, there's no doubt about it – anti-woman, anti-homosexual, anti-love, anti-condom, totally elitist."The series, Quirke, is to air on the BBC “later this autumn”, and looks like it could be interesting.
A Berlin-based trainer manufacturer named Atheist Shoes has discovered that packages sent to the US with the word ATHEIST on the box have a way of going missing inside the postal service; packages sealed with printed tape reading ATHEIST were ten times as likely to disappear as unlabelled packages, and when they didn't disappear, took on average three days longer to reach their destinations.
Which could mean that a significant proportion of postal workers regard atheism as a hostile ideology to be stopped, even if they are technically committing a federal crime in doing so (even if they were caught and jailed, I imagine that FOX News and/or talk radio would talk them up as martyrs defending America from Satan); or perhaps, mindful of the prevalence of militant atheist terrorism around the world, they prudently detain the packages for extra screening. Of course, there's also the possibility that the tape confuses automated scanning machinery of some sort; perhaps one should repeat this experiment with a third cohort labelled JESUS SAVES; and perhaps a few other religious, political and neutral messages as well?
(I also wonder what the geographic distribution of the effect was. Does mail from Germany to the US usually pass through any fixed points? And would packages to, say, the deep South be significantly more likely to disappear than those to the Pacific Northwest?)
A similar experiment was conducted in the 1960s by the psychologist Stanley Milgram (best known for his infamous obedience experiment with the fake electric shock machine): volunteers would drop sealed, stamped envelopes with the name of an ostensible organisation and the address of a PO box on them, and by counting how many were helped to a mail box, would determine how much sympathy there was for the views encoded in the organisation name; i.e., the Society for the Protection of Cute Kittens would get more help than Friends of the Nazi Party. Only in that case, voicing one's disapproval was a passive act, and not a federal crime.
A Canadian anthropologist has claimed that Apple fandom is, to all intents and purposes, a religion:
"A stranger observing one of the launches could probably be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into a religious revival meeting," Bell wrote to TechNewsDaily in an email. Bell now studies the culture of modern biomedical research, but before she got interested in scientists, she studied messianic religious movements in South Korea.
Even Apple's tradition of not broadcasting launches in real time is akin to a religious event, Bell said. (Today's event will be available live on Apple's website.) "Like many Sacred Ceremonies, the Apple Product Launch cannot be broadcast live," she wrote. "The Scribes/tech journalists act as Witness, testifying to the wonders they behold via live blog feeds."Kirsten Bell, of the University of British Columbia, is not the first academic to draw this conclusion; her assessment follows others, including that of US sociologist Pui-Yan Lam, who, more than a decade ago, called Mac fandom an “implicit religion”.
Bell later clarified her statement, saying that the comparison between Apple and religion is not exact, as few people would sincerely claim that Apple makes any attempt to give life meaning or explain humanity's purpose. However, she says that the metaphor does have some value:
Yet there are strong reasons people have long compared Apple culture to religion, Bell said. "They are selling something more than a product," she said. "When you look at the way they advertise their product, it's really about a more connected life." A better life is something many faiths promise, she said.Surely, though, the same thing could be said about any iconic brand, such as, say, Nike or Harley Davidson, as well as about popular musicians (remember Beatlemania, or even Lisztomania), sports teams (getting behind a team, through thick and thin, gives a lot of people a sense of identity and connectedness) or even films (witness parties forming around screenings of, say, The Big Lebowski or Rocky Horror Picture Show). Some people feel better when they caress the shiny surface of their Retina iPad, just as some people feel better with a platinum Rolex on their wrists or when chanting in unison with 10,000 other fans in a stadium, though from that to the sort of metaphysical transcendence of religion is a bit of a leap.
A report to an inquiry in Victoria has estimated that at least one in every 20 Catholic priests in the state is a child sex abuser, with the real figure being likely to be more like one in 15.
He suggested that, though the Church tried to "fudge the figures" by including other church workers, Catholic priests offended at a much higher rate than other men. If the general male population now over 65 offended at the same rate, there would be 65,614 men living in Australia who had been convicted of child sex abuse — very far from the case.The report, by Professor Des Cahill, also condemned the Catholic Church's institutional culture as “verging on the pathological”, and called for reforms to be externally imposed, including allowing married clergy.
"Bishops are caught between canon law and civil law, and Rome has put a lot of pressure on bishops to make sure canon law and the rights of priests are being observed, but canon law has nothing to say about the rights of child victims," he said. The Melbourne Response — the internal protocol used by the Melbourne archdiocese — was designed to protect the image and reputation of the church and to contain financial liability, and had to be changed. "The church is incapable of reform, so the state will have to do it," he said.Meanwhile, the Vatican is slightly closer to canonising the last emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Karl von Habsburg.
And an Italian court has jailed seven scientists for manslaughter for failing to predict the L'Aquila earthquake of 2009, after they stated that minor tremors recorded before the earthquake were “normal”. The sentence has attracted widespread condemnation.
Britain's Tory-led coalition government has undergone a reshuffle. Among the changes: Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary who tried to rubberstamp Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of the rest of Sky TV, is now minister of health; which is somewhat troubling given his outspoken beliefs in homeopathy, and statements defending the NHS's funding of homeopathic “medicine” (which had, in the past, been roundly denounced in Parliament). Meanwhile, Conservative Chairman Lady Warsi, a fierce opponent of secularism, has been demoted to a newly created “Ministry of Faith”. Whether this is a sinecure intended to keep her out of trouble or a shift towards a more muscularly religious politics in Britain remains to be seen. And so, it looks like the Conservatism the Tories are bringing to government is one hearkening back to a time before the Enlightenment, when faith trumped evidence and reason.
In other news, transport minister Justine Greening, an opponent of the proposed third runway at Heathrow and passionate advocate of high-speed rail, has been replaced by Patrick McLoughlin, who was aviation minister in the ideologically anti-rail Thatcher government, but on the other hand. Given that there is pressure from segments of business for rapid expansion of Heathrow and opposition in the Conservative heartlands of the Cotswolds to having a high-speed railway run through their arcadian idyll, it'll be interesting to see whether the government's (until now commendable) transport agenda does a U-turn.
And finally, meet the new Minister for Equality, Maria Miller:
Though, to be fair, the Racial and Religious Vilification Bill would have acted as an all-faiths blasphemy law, criminalising speech offensive to religious sensibilities and acting as a chilling effect on criticism of, say, misogyny or homophobia in religious garb, so one can't really criticise her for having a part in its well-deserved death.
The next front in the culture war for America's resurgent Christian fundamentalist movement may be set theory. That's right; some fundies find the mathematical theory of sets right down there with critical thinking, mainstream paleontology and Ozzy Osbourne records:
"Unlike the "modern math" theorists, who believe that mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative, A Beka Book teaches that the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute....A Beka Book provides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory."Why do the fundamentalists find set theory so objectionable? It seems to be not because of what it says (unlike, say, evolutionary biology) but because of the kinds of thought it may encourage; set theory, you see, with its paradoxes and its heretical notion of there being different kinds of infinity (i.e., the set of all real numbers and the set of all integers are both infinite, but the former is greater than the latter) could subtly seduce even the most rigorously home-schooled children into modernist habits of thinking, not based in absolute truths and rigid, God-given hierarchies but in ungodly paradoxes. And if there is more than one infinity and the the set of all statements is either incomplete or inconsistent, they may start to wonder what other statements they had accepted on divinely-ordained authority are incorrect, and before you know it, you have atheism, Red Communism and buggery on the Sabbath.
They see modernism as the opposing worldview to their own. They are all about tradition (or, at least, what they have decided is traditional). Modernism is a knee-jerk rejection of tradition in favor of the new. Obviously, they think a very specific sort of Christian God should be the center of everything and all parts of society, public and private. Modernists prefer ideas like secular humanism and think God is something you should be doing in private, on your own time. They believe strongly in the importance of power hierarchies and rules. Modernism smashes all of that and says, "Hey, just do your own thing. Nobody's ideas are any better or worse than anybody else's. There's no right and wrong. Go crazy, man!"
More importantly, they know that [modernists] are subtle, and use sneaky means to indoctrinate children and lure adults into accepting modernist values. So the art, the literature, the jazz—probably the Scandinavian furniture, too, though I never heard anyone mention that specifically—are all just traps. They're ways of getting us to reject to One True Path a little bit at a time. (I should note that, up to this point, I am basing my analysis on what I was taught in Baptist school. After this, I'm speculating, and attempting to connect the ideas I know are present in this subculture with set theory.)
Set theory, particularly the stuff about infinity, has a bit of that wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey flavor to it. It doesn't make sense on the level of "common sense". It's dealing with things that aren't standard, simple numbers. It makes links between nice, factual math and floppy, subjective philosophy. If you're raised in Christian fundamentalist culture, all of that—every last bit—absolutely reeks of modernism. It's easy to see how somebody at A Beka would look at set theory and conclude that it's really just modernist propaganda. To them, set theory is just a step on the road to godless atheism.And so, the red line in the culture war has now ambitiously been pushed back to the 19th century, with a view to rolling back the Enlightenment and bring back the certainties of the mediæval age, when humanity knew its place.
(via Boing Boing)
Indonesia is not a good place to be an atheist. Alexander Aan, a self-proclaimed atheist has been jailed under a “cyber crimes” law, not long after having been beaten for his beliefs:
His crime was spreading his atheist beliefs through his Facebook accounts, “Ateis Minang” and “Alex Aan”, which the court said incited hatred and animosity against religious groups. In one posting, which was used as evidence in court against him, he professed “God does not exist”.
Aan is probably better off, and safer, inside. A local radical Islamic group has been anxious to get its hands on him, again. Before his arrest in February, he was dragged and beaten once the group was able to locate his whereabouts, a remote little town about four-hour drive from the West Sumatra capital of Padang. With his full name and photo posted on his Facebook accounts, it didn’t take long for anyone to find him. While the assailants walked free, Aan now has to serve time in jail.Extrajudicially beating up atheists, mind you, is perfectly fine in Indonesia; in fact, the jury is still out on whether they are entitled to any legal protections at all, or whether a profession of atheism incurs an automatic sentence of outlawry, allowing others to hunt you for sport:
By regarding the case as a cybercrime, the court failed to address the one constitutional dilemma about the presence of atheists in the country. Do they have the right to exist in this country, and more importantly, if they are considered as being outside the constitution, can they expect state protections just as all other citizens
The largely dismissive public and official attitude towards Aan’s case is another sad reflection of the way the nation treats as impertinent a constitutional question such as religious freedom. We have seen this attitude prevailing in regard to recent cases of persecutions against followers of the Ahmadiyah and Shiites, and the increasing harassments against Christians who are deprived of their right to build places of worship. The Ahmadis, the Shiites and the Christians literally have to fight their own battles in the face of the increasingly indifferent Muslims. Aan himself is almost alone in fighting for his rights as a citizen of this country.
A few random odds and ends which, for one reason or another, didn't make it into blog posts in 2011:
- Artificial intelligence pioneer John McCarthy died this year; though before he did, he wrote up a piece on the sustainability of progress. The gist of it is that he contended that progress is both sustainable and desirable, for at least the next billion years, with resource limitations being largely illusory.
- As China's economy grows, dishonest entrepreneurs are coming up with increasingly novel and bizarre ways of adulterating food:
In May, a Shanghai woman who had left uncooked pork on her kitchen table woke up in the middle of the night and noticed that the meat was emitting a blue light, like something out of a science fiction movie. Experts pointed to phosphorescent bacteria, blamed for another case of glow-in-the-dark pork last year. Farmers in eastern Jiangsu province complained to state media last month that their watermelons had exploded "like landmines" after they mistakenly applied too much growth hormone in hopes of increasing their size.
Until recently, directions were circulating on the Internet about how to make fake eggs out of a gelatinous compound comprised mostly of sodium alginate, which is then poured into a shell made out of calcium carbonate. Companies marketing the kits promised that you could make a fake egg for one-quarter the price of a real one.
- The street finds its own uses for things, and places develop local specialisations and industries: the Romanian town of Râmnicu Vâlcea has become a global centre of expertise in online scams, with industries arising to bilk the world's endless supply of marks, and to keep the successful scammers in luxury goods:
The streets are lined with gleaming storefronts—leather accessories, Italian fashions—serving a demand fueled by illegal income. Near the mall is a nightclub, now closed by police because its backers were shady. New construction grinds ahead on nearly every block. But what really stands out in Râmnicu Vâlcea are the money transfer offices. At least two dozen Western Union locations lie within a four-block area downtown, the company’s black-and-yellow signs proliferating like the Starbucks mermaid circa 2003.
It’s not so different from the forces that turn a neighborhood into, say, New York’s fashion district or the aerospace hub in southern California. “To the extent that some expertise is required, friends and family members of the original entrepreneurs are more likely to have access to those resources than would-be criminals in an isolated location,” says Michael Macy, a Cornell University sociologist who studies social networks. “There may also be local political resources that provide a degree of protection.”
- Monty Python's Terry Jones says that The Life Of Brian could not be made now, as it would be too risky in today's climate of an increasingly strident religiosity exercising its right to take offense:
The 69-year-old said: "I took the view it wasn't blasphemous. It was heretical because it criticised the structure of the church and the way it interpreted the Gospels. At the time religion seemed to be on the back burner and it felt like kicking a dead donkey. It has come back with a vengeance and we'd think twice about making it now."
- The Torygraph's Charles Moore: I'm starting to think that the Left might actually be right:
And when the banks that look after our money take it away, lose it and then, because of government guarantee, are not punished themselves, something much worse happens. It turns out – as the Left always claims – that a system purporting to advance the many has been perverted in order to enrich the few. The global banking system is an adventure playground for the participants, complete with spongy, health-and-safety approved flooring so that they bounce when they fall off. The role of the rest of us is simply to pay.
- The sketchbooks of Susan Kare, the artist who designed the icons, bitmaps and fonts for the original Macintosh, and went on to an illustrious career as a pixel artist (Microsoft hired her to do the Windows 3.x icons, and some years ago, Facebook hired her to design the virtual "gifts" you could buy for friends.) The sketchbooks show her original Macintosh icons, which were drawn by hand on graph paper (because, of course, they didn't have GUI tools for making icons back then).
- How To Steal Like An Artist: advice for those who wish to do creative work.
- The street finds its own uses for things (2): with the rise of the Arduino board (a low-cost, hackable microcontroller usable for basically anything electronic you might want to program), anyone can now make their own self-piloting drone aircraft out of a radio-controlled plane. And it isn't actually illegal in itself (at least in the US; YMMV).
- An answer to the question of why U2 are so popular.
Police in London have arrested 179 members of anti-immigrant group the English Defence League, after members of this group were planning a violent attack on Occupy LSX protesters outside St. Paul's, in the name of defending God and Country and bringing to bear the old ultra-violence against some "Cultural Marxists". I imagine that outspoken EDL fellow traveller Anders Breivik would have approved:
The English Defence League had issued statements and made threats on Facebook to burn down protesters tents if they were still outside St Paul's on Remembrance Sunday, according to Phillips.
A statement by the EDL on Thursday was read to the Occupy LSX general assembly on Friday morning to make people aware that there was a threat being made. "They called us all sorts of names in the statement and said we should leave "their" church and stop violating their religion," said Phillips.(Fascists claiming religion as exclusively theirs to defend and wield as a banner is nothing new: "Strength Through Purity, Purity Through Faith", as Alan Moore put it.)
Meanwhile, in eastern Germany, the story of three neo-Nazi fugitives who had been on the run since 1997 came to an end after two had shot each other in a trailer, and a third had been arrested after setting fire to the house they shared. Police searching the ruins of the house found a number of weapons, including the service pistol of a police officer killed by them during a bank robbery and a gun used in the execution-style murders of kebab shop owners across Germany. The three, calling themselves "Thüringer Heimschutz" (which Spiegel translates as "Thuringian Homeland Defence", though "Thuringian Homeland Security" is tantalisingly close) seemingly made little effort to hide, living openly among neo-Nazis in the town of Jena, which raises some questions of how they managed to avoid the attention of law-enforcement agencies:
Martina Renner, a ranking Left Party member in the state parliament, doubts these findings. "I think it's quite unlikely that those three lived for 10 years in Germany without having their cover blown." Even in 1998, she alleged -- when the manhunt began -- there were hints that the state's constitutional protection office had helped them disappear.
Renner says their alleged crimes even before 1998 were not just "petty crimes," but could have involved "explosions" of a "life-threatening magnitude." She says it's important to clarify just how deeply the state domestic intelligence office may have been involved. If a regional intelligence agency like that is prepared to "work with" such dangerous criminals, she says, the question arises whether the agency functions as an instrument to protect a democracy.
There's an interesting piece in Der Spiegel about the rise of secularism and the psychological differences between religious and secular people. According to the article, non-religious people (atheists, agnostics and the nonreligious) make up about 15% of the world's population, placing them third behind Christians and Muslims in number. Meanwhile, secularism is on the rise, with the often discussed religious revivals, in Europe, the US and elsewhere, being, more often than not, illusory. (In the US, a country associated with almost mediaeval levels of religiosity in public life, churches are losing up to 1 million members a year.)turned out to be and also an increasing number of people who identify as religious on surveys admitting that they don't actually believe in a deity.
According to Boston University psychologist Catherine Caldwell-Harris, the differences between the religious and secular minds may emerge from different thinking styles, with religious people being more likely to attribute sentient agency than secular people:
Caldwell-Harris is currently testing her hypothesis through simple experiments. Test subjects watch a film in which triangles move about. One group experiences the film as a humanized drama, in which the larger triangles are attacking the smaller ones. The other group describes the scene mechanically, simply stating the manner in which the geometric shapes are moving. Those who do not anthropomorphize the triangles, she suspects, are unlikely to ascribe much importance to beliefs. "There have always been two cognitive comfort zones," she says, "but skeptics used to keep quiet in order to stay out of trouble."The rise of secularism has led to more study of what secularists do actually believe. And, it seems, there are a few outlooks they tend to share:
Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who hopes to start a secular studies major at California's Pitzer College, says that secularists tend to be more ethical than religious people. On average, they are more commonly opposed to the death penalty, war and discrimination. And they also have fewer objections to foreigners, homosexuals, oral sex and hashish.
The most surprising insight revealed by the new wave of secular research so far is that atheists know more about the God they don't believe in than the believers themselves. This is the conclusion suggested by a 2010 Pew Research Center survey of US citizens. Even when the higher education levels of the unreligious were factored out, they proved to be better informed in matters of faith, followed by Jewish and Mormon believers.The article also looks at the case of religiosity in Germany, where the East was ruled by an officially atheistic totalitarian dictatorship while the West retained strong links to Christianity. After reunification, the East remained considerably poorer than the West. Perhaps surprisingly, these conditions did not result in a new religious revival spreading through the East, but rather the opposite:
When the GDR ended its period of religious repression, no process of re-Christianization occurred. "After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the withdrawal of a church presence in the east actually sped up," says Detlef Pollack, a professor in the sociology of religion at the University of Münster. Ironically, the link between church and state contributed to secularization in the East, he says. Publicly funded theological professorships, military chaplaincies, and the presence of church representatives on broadcasting councils were common. As a result, public perception came to closely link authority with religion, which was seen as coming from the West.As rapidly as secularism is rising, though, we might not see a powerful secular lobby any time soon. For one, secularists remain mistrusted in many places (in the US, according to a 2010 Pew Research survey, atheists are the most disliked group, behind Muslims and homosexuals). And secondly, given the broad differences in a movement by definition not bound by any dogma, the emergence of any sort of consensus is unlikely:
Then he tells of a meeting of secular groups last year in Washington. They were planning a big demonstration. "But they couldn't even agree on a motto," he says. "It was like herding cats, straight out of a Monty Python sketch." In the end, the march was called off.
Not many people defend authoritarianism for its own sake; those who don't abhor it generally regard it as a means to a specific end. Not so Prince:
"I was anti-authoritarian but at the same time I was a loving tyrant. You can't be both. I had to learn what authority was. That's what the Bible teaches. The Bible is a study guide for social interaction."
Sometimes he seems a little too fond of boundaries. "It's fun being in Islamic countries, to know there's only one religion. There's order. You wear a burqa. There's no choice. People are happy with that." But what about women who are unhappy about having to wearing burqas? "There are people who are unhappy with everything," he says shruggingly. "There's a dark side to everything."
Some atheists in the US have found a unique niche for making money from evangelical Christianity: by offering to care for pets left behind when their Christian owners are raptured:
Centre, an atheist, guarantees that if or when the Rapture comes, he or one of his 44 contractors in 26 states will drive to your home within 24 hours, collect your dog, cat, bird, rabbit or small caged mammal, and adopt it. (Rapture rescue services for horses, camels, llamas and donkeys are limited to New Hampshire, Vermont, Idaho and Montana.) The cost is $US135, plus $US20 per additional animal. Payable up front, of course, and good for 10 years.Of course, to make sure that the carers will actually be available to take care of abandoned pets, they're carefully screened, and then required to blaspheme, ensuring that they're ineligible for eternal salvation.
Which raises a few philosophical (if not ethical) questions. If the carers are, in fact, atheists, then by definition they know that they will never be required to deliver the services they are collecting money for (much as their customers know that they will). In which case, would this make this service fraudulent? From the service provider's point of view, it's an easy $135 for doing nothing. Of course, if they leave the country without arranging for a backup to stay around, they could possibly be liable for negligence.
Let it not be said that the Catholic Church is out of touch with the pressing issues of today; a six-day conference in the Vatican this week discussed the alarming, internet-driven rise in Satanism that has been keeping the Vatican's exorcists flat out:
"The internet makes it much easier than in the past to find information about Satanism," said Carlo Climati, a member of the university who specialises in the dangers posed to young people by Satanism. "In just a few minutes you can contact Satanist groups and research occultism."It's good to see that the Vatican is concerned about protecting young people from danger.
An exorcist should be called when "the moral certainty has been reached that the person is possessed", said Father Nanni, a member of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints. That could be indicated by radical and disturbing changes in the person's behaviour and voice, or an ability to garble in foreign languages or nonsensical gibberish.
Father Gabriele Amorth said people who are possessed by Satan vomit shards of glass and pieces of iron, scream, dribble and slobber, utter blasphemies and have to be physically restrained."Amorth" is a great name for a priest specialising in Satanic possession; it even sounds like a Norwegian black-metal musician's stage name.
Whether or not there are any atheists in foxholes, there don't seem to be any in positions of political power who are willing to stand by their principles. Firstly Australia's outspokenly atheistic Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, proclaimed her wholehearted conviction in supporting an unaccountably authoritarian internet censorship system demanded by a Christian Fundamentalist fringe party, and now, Britain's deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, rules out eliminating the bishops from the House of Lords, instead planning to add unelected ministers of other religions for equality's sake. This token sliver of theocracy, these bishops, rabbis and imams will get to vote on legislation which affects all Britons, from waiving anti-discrimination legislation when the discrimination is guided by religious beliefs to blocking equal marriage rights for non-heterosexuals to keeping it a crime for the terminally ill to end their lives with dignity, going against the majority opinion of what is a largely secular society:
Here's a Trivial Pursuit question with an answer that isn't at all trivial. Which two nations still reserve places in their parliaments for unelected religious clerics, who then get an automatic say in writing the laws the country's citizens must obey? The answer is Iran... and Britain.
And here's the strangest kicker in this strange story: it looks like the plans being drawn up by Nick Clegg to "modernise" the House of Lords will not listen to the overwhelming majority of us and end these religious privileges. No – they are poised to do the opposite. Sources close to the reform team say they are going to add even more unelected religious figures to parliament. These plans are being drawn up as you read this and will be published soon. The time to fight is today, while we can still sway the agenda.
The atheists and secularists who are campaigning for democracy are consistently branded "arrogant" by the bishops and their noisy cheerleaders. But who is arrogant here? Is it atheists who say that since we have no evidence about how the universe came into being, we should be humble, admit we don't know, and keep investigating? Or is it the bishops, who claim that they not only "know" how everything was created, but they know exactly what that Creator thinks, how he wants us to have sex, and which pills we can take when we are dying? What could be more arrogant than claiming you have a right to an unelected seat in parliament to impose beliefs for which there is no evidence on an unbelieving population?Fortunately, there are organisations in Britain fighting against such unaccountable religious privilege: the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association are both active in campaigns on issues such as this, and when the plans are published, they're certain to be at the front of the campaign against them. Whether the government will pay any heed to them depends on how many people are in the campaign.
It has emerged that the British government transferred nearly £2 million from Britain's foreign aid budget to pay for the Papal visit last year, on top of £3.7m from the environmental budget. This is presumably in line with the Conservative Party's platform (also shared by New Labour) that religion is a good in itself, from which it would follow that promoting religious organisations such as the Catholic Church increases the total amount of good in the world, and is thus a legitimate use of funds which would otherwise be spent feeding the hungry or eradicating diseases. Not surprisingly, this view is not shared unanimously:
[British Humanist Association] Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips commented, ‘Millions and millions from the public purse has been used to foot the cost of the Pope’s visit to the UK, with much of that diverted from crucial funds, including from foreign aid designated to help some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. It is irrational and wrong for government to say that the money was paid to recognise the work that the Catholic Church does overseas as an NGO – questionable in itself – when the money was used to fund the state visit. Most people, including Christians, did not think that the British taxpayer should pay for the Pope’s visit in the first place, and many will be astonished to see the detrimental impact that this illegitimate use of public funds has already made.’(Disclaimer: I am a member of the British Humanist Association, and recommend this organisation to anyone concerned about religious privilege in the UK (of which there is a considerable amount, from Bishops in the House of Lords to faith schools teaching Creationism in science classes with the blessing of the political establishment).) Or, in the words of another atheist:
An investigation by the BBC's Panorama programme has revealed that children in Britain's Islamic schools are being taught from the Saudi national curriculum, which includes lessons such as the "reprehensible" qualities of Jews and the proper ways in chopping off the hands and feet of thieves.
It claims to have found 5,000 Muslim schoolchildren being taught that some Jews are transformed into pigs and apes and that the penalty for gay sex is execution. Some textbooks are said to teach the correct way to chop off the hands and feet of thieves. A spokesman for the programme said the pupils, aged six to 18, attend a network of more than 40 weekend schools across the country which teach the Saudi national curriculum to Muslim children.Another illustration of why "faith schools" are a bad idea.
Some anonymous person entered the phrase "why are religion so" into Google, and plotted the completions it suggested (based on past searches) in a Venn diagram, coming up with this map of stereotypes:
It's interesting to note that no trait is popularly attributed to all three of the Abrahamic religions. (Perhaps the average web user can't spell "monotheistic"?)
Meanwhile, typing "why are atheists so" suggests the words "stupid", "smart", "intolerant", "mean", "annoying", "angry", "hateful", "hated" and "awesome".
If you've ever wondered why what is commonly called Christianity in the US is so weird; why it so often condemns the poor as being responsible for their own misfortune, defends the right to make a profit above others, and is so obsessed with the evils of homosexuality and abortion, A guy named Brad Hicks wrote an illuminating essay in five parts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) about how political expediency during the Cold War drove evangelical Christians (until then suspicious of worldly wealth) and the Republican Party (until then, the party of east-coast industrialists, with little time for religious pieties) into each others' arms, creating a Christianity that emphasises condemnation over redemption (though, granted, that's hardly new; Calvinism was there for a few hundred years before, though not quite to the same Randian extent), is not at all uncomfortable with getting filthy rich (as long as one donates to the Republican Party), and whilst not throwing any bones to the not-so-rich, manages to unite them with a common activity everyone can get behind: reinforcing a personal morality based in an idealised view of just-before-one-was-born (nowadays, the upright 1950s, that suburban patriarchial Garden of Eden before the serpent that was The 1960s came along and ruined everything), with a call to war against those who transgress against it (gays, feminists, abortionists and such).
The convergence of Christianity and right-wing politics in America has brought its own problems for both, with growing numbers of young Americans turning away from organised religion to avoid the politics. Granted, most of them aren't yet declaring themselves to be atheists (in America, it seems that one has to be pugnatiously anti-religious to feel comfortable using that label), but are filling in their religious orientation as "none".
This backlash was especially forceful among youth coming of age in the 1990s and just forming their views about religion. Some of that generation, to be sure, held deeply conservative moral and political views, and they felt very comfortable in the ranks of increasingly conservative churchgoers. But a majority of the Millennial generation was liberal on most social issues, and above all, on homosexuality. The fraction of twentysomethings who said that homosexual relations were "always" or "almost always" wrong plummeted from about 75% in 1990 to about 40% in 2008. (Ironically, in polling, Millennials are actually more uneasy about abortion than their parents.)
Meanwhile, in Finland, proponents of conservative Christianity have their own problems: after representatives of the state Lutheran church spoke against gay marriage on a TV current affairs programme, a record number of Finns had resigned from the state church. (Finland, like many European countries, has a state church, records citizens' religious affiliations, and levies an additional "church tax" on church members, to be paid to their respective churches.)
On advice of the FBI, Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris has changed her identity and gone into hiding. Norris was the cartoonist placed on a fatwa by Islamists after proposing an Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, in protest against attempts to kill Danish cartoonists who did that, and produced a drawing of random household objects claiming to be the Islamic prophet. Under Islamic law, it is blasphemy for Muslims to draw Mohammed, on the grounds that that encourages idolatry. Norris is not known to be a Muslim.
The latest instalment of OKCupid's data-mining blog looks at the thorny question of race again; this time, analysing the text of users' profiles, correlated by self-identified racial group.
One part of the article mines keywords unique to racial groups from profiles and presents them as tag clouds, resulting in unsubtle stereotypes. It appears that white people here are not White People; white males are straight-up bros/bogans, into Tom Clancy, sweaty guitar rock, and petrol consumption as recreation, and the females are into spectator sports and a mess of wild-nature clichés, such as thunderstorms, horses and bonfires. (An Irish-American cast looms over both genders, with "Ireland" and plastic-Paddy brocore band Dropkick Murphys rating a mention.) Meanwhile, black people are religiously demonstrative (they're more than twice as likely to mention religion as white or Asian profiles), and Asian and Indian users mention interests in hard-headed professions such as mathematics, engineering and computers, and literature such as Freakonomics, Malcolm Gladwell and Calvin & Hobbes. That and the usual stereotypes.
Among the take-aways from this post: if you want to know if white dudes will like something, put "fucking" in the middle and see if it sounds badass. Hence "Van fucking Halen" and "The Big fucking Lebowski", but not "Alicia fucking Keys". (Of course, it breaks down if irony comes into it; if you're dealing not with bros but with hipsters mining the battlefront of the pop-cultural goldmine, they can get away with a lot of stuff. Take, for example, Fleetwood fucking Mac, or Hall and fucking Oates. This does has its limits, though; chances are, there isn't a hipster with big enough post-ironic cojones to make "Celine fucking Dion" sound right.)
Further down, OKCupid also ran a reading-level analysis algorithm over users' profiles, and correlated it with race and religion. The results were fairly close, though self-identified Indians and Asians had the best-written profiles, with "Latino", "black" and "white" profiles being in the bottom half. More interestingly, the analysis by religion shows a distinct inverse correlation between religiosity and writing level.
Note that for each of the faith-based belief systems I've listed, the people who are the least serious about them write at the highest level. On the other hand, the people who are most serious about not having faith (i.e. the "very serious" agnostics and atheists) score higher than any religious groups.
Veteran human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, QC, has published a new book, in which he calls for the Vatican to be treated as a rogue state until it substantially alters its ancient canon law, which, among other things, protects child rapists:
''The worst that can happen, other than an order to do penance, is 'laicisation', that is, defrocking, which permits the paedophile to leave the church and get a job in a state school or care home without anyone knowing of this conviction. Canon law has no sex offenders registry.Robertson also argues that the Pope is not a legitimate head of state, with the 1929 Lateran Treaty, which established the Vatican, not being a legitimate international treaty, but rather a deal between Mussolini and a pro-fascist Pope.
The current Pope is about to make a visit to the UK, which is being treated officially as a state visit. Various humanist, secularist and human rights groups are organising protests.
In New York, Catholics are planning a rally to protest against the Empire State Building's owners refusal to light up the building to commemorate Mother Teresa. The Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights are outraged that the building owners turned down their request to light the upper floors in blue and white to honour the nun's 100th birthday, especially since they did light the same floors in red and yellow for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the (Godless, Communist) People's Republic of China. The building's owners, meanwhile, reiterate a long-standing policy of not accommodating requests by religions or for religious figures. The rally is expected to shut down 34th Street at rush hour.
(In the interest of context: Christopher Hitchens' exposé of Mother Teresa and her works.)
Planning a public transport system in Jerusalem, holy city of three major religions and bitterly contested territory, involves taking some controversial planning decisions:
Under pressure from the influential and growing ultra-orthodox community, some bus lines in Jerusalem have introduced segregation, with women confined to the rear of the vehicle.
The company earlier distributed a consumer survey asking Jerusalem residents if they were "bothered" that the light railway is to include stops in Arab neighbourhoods en route to connecting to Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. Another question asked: "All passengers, Jews and Arabs, can enter the train freely, without undergoing a security check. Does this bother you?"
With the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan having begun, some Islamic scholars are pushing to replace Greenwich Mean Time with a new standard based on Mecca time, at least in the Islamic world. The scholars assure us that the choice of Mecca as a global meridian has a sound scientific basis:
According to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric known around the Muslim world for his popular television show "Sharia and Life", Mecca has a greater claim to being the prime meridian because it is "in perfect alignment with the magnetic north."
This claim that the holy city is a "zero magnetism zone" has won support from some Arab scientists like Abdel-Baset al-Sayyed of the Egyptian National Research Centre who says that there is no magnetic force in Mecca.Not surprisingly, these "scientific" claims have not met with universal acceptance. In any case, magnetism or not, it'll be interesting to see whether Mecca Time makes inroads into replacing GMT in the Islamic world. I imagine it'll have an easier time of gaining acceptance than other proposed time standards (such as, say, Swatch's so-called "Internet Time", a weird form of metric time proposed in the 1990s and not actually connected to any internet standards), given that the conversion is merely a matter of adding a few hours.
(via Boing Boing)
The Rap Guide To Human Nature is a hip-hop album about evolutionary psychology by a Canadian "rap troubador" named Baba Brinkman. It's not a joke: the beats are sharp, and Brinkman rhymes with the speed and dexterity of an accomplished rapper, deftly laying out the theories and controversies of evolutionary psychology, from kin selection to the biological roots of religious and political belief, twin studies to alternative models of human nature, and of course to areas such as sexual competition and social status where hip-hop culture and evolutionary psychology intersect. Note that, as expected from rap, the lyrics are probably not suitable for children.
(via Mind Hacks)
A South Korean man calling himself Profesor Kim is facing fraud charges after selling devices that he claimed transformed tapwater into "holy water", having "digitally captured" what it is that makes holy water from Lourdes holy. The devices, of course, did not work.
As absurd as the idea of holy water is (that an almighty deity has specifically blessed a location—a French town or an Indian river or similar—with magical healing properties), the idea of knockoff holy water takes it one step further. Surely in the sort of universe which features omniscient and omnipotent (not to mention judgmental) deities bestowing boons, actually pirating these boons and passing them onto the unworthy would be impossible, or at least ill-advised. But Kim cherry-picks the most convenient bits of two types of universes—the rational, technological one we live in and the mystical, demon-haunted one in which our fates are controlled by ineffable forces and holy water could be considered to work—and mashes them together like P.T. Barnum's mermaid, hoping that his marks don't notice the seams before parting with their cash.
Skeptic PZ Myers recounts how, when he was a child, a crazy Christian lady converted him, unwittingly, to atheism:
And then she told us to kneel down in the gravel by the side of the road and put our hands on her Bible, which we did, because at this point I was afraid if I didn't our Mommy and Daddy would find our little corpses with our throats slit and a mad woman dancing in our blood. Then she recited some lengthy vow with lots of Jesus in it, looked at us expectently with another mad-eyed grin, and we mumble-whispered "yes, ma'am" and she let us go, throats uncut, hearts still in our chests, heads still attached to our necks, while she capered off triumphantly, having secured two more souls for her lord and master. She thought. But, as you can know now, all she actually managed to do was make me aware that people who believe in Heaven and Hell are freakin' nutbag insane.Myers goes on to tear apart the ideas of an eternal afterlife, using the power of reason, starting with Hell in its various guises, from the absurdly corporeal (lakes of fire, with the damned being magically suspended for eternity in the state of a very physical death-agony; i.e., the stuff designed to scare the less sophisticated thinkers), and then working up to more subtle variations:
Other visions of Hell are a bit more sophisticated — it's a place of psychological torture, unending despair and futility, where you feel regret and sorrow for all time, or suffer because you are deprived of the presence of God. That's a bit more plausible for a disembodied self, I suppose, but still…throw a mob of people in a Slough of Despond for a long, long time, and at some point someone is going to get together with someone else and form a Glee Club, and there will be singing in Hell. And then a rugby match will break out, and there will be cheering and betting, and thespians will be pestering Shakespeare for some new plays, and before you know it, culture will emerge and it won't be Hell so much anymore.
But all right, let's assume God has figured out ways to permanently suppress the human spirit among all those deceased spirits, and actually has contrived a truly painful Hell, one that I can not imagine but that he can, being God and all. Now we've got the problem that the loving God we're all supposed to worship is an imaginative, creative death camp commandant, one who also maintains a luxury spa on the side.Heaven, alas, doesn't fare any better. The visions of the blissful eternal reward awaiting the virtuous (or, in more liberal theologies, everyone) all fall down on closer examination. Some seem, frankly, hellish (an eternity of singing praises to God, surrounded by puritans?), and others are either inconsistent with human nature or have the nihilistic qualities of an eternal crack cocaine binge:
A paradise is also inhuman (I know, one can get around this by arguing that after death you can't be human anymore, by definition; but then that requires throwing away the idea of life after death, which is what most people find appealing). Think about what defines you now: it's how you think, your personality, your desires and how you achieve them — by what you strive for. Finish one project, and what do you do (after a little celebration, of course)? You look for something else to strive for, a new goal to keep you interested and occupied. But now you're in heaven. All wishes are fulfilled, all desires achieved, we're done with everything we've ever dreamed of, making Heaven a kind of retirement home where everyone is waiting to die. Waiting forever.Of course, one could imagine ways around this. Perhaps there would be entire legions of angels whose job would be to lay on the entertainment, distracting the saved souls from eternal boredom in the way that one amuses a housecat (which, remember, is a territorial predator with no prey and nothing to defend its territory against) with a laser pointer. Actually, the idea of one of the newly-dead exploring and pushing against the logical constraints of a heaven, and discovering the infinite layers of distracting angels required to keep it heavenly and keep God's side of the contract to His faithful departed, and coming up against an infinitely sophisticated machinery moulded to the logical necessities (however odd) of keeping humans entertained for eternity, could be a good premise for a sci-fi (or, more accurately, phil-fi) story.
As problematic as the common Western idea of heaven is, the alternative involves the annihilation of the self as we know it in a supernova of infinite, mindless ecstasy, like a heroin overdose that goes on forever. (Blessed are the junkies?) And while that may be plausible, it doesn't sit well with the Abrahamic religions or most people's idea of heaven:
There are some religions that embrace this sublime vision of an ultimate end that does not include the mundane humanity of its believers — the Buddhist afterlife does seem to be a kind of selfless oblivion — but that does not include the Abrahamic religions. They've still got the cartoonish anthropocentric version of an afterlife, where you've got a body with limbs and tongues and penises and vaginas, and you get to indulge in the senses within certain confining rules. You get to meet Grandma and Grandpa again, and they aren't all subsumed in the godhead — they're there to give you hugs and a plate of cookies. And that's just silly. I can't believe a word of it.
Cultural critic Mark Dery has written a series of articles recounting growing up in the 1970s "Jesus Freak" movement (i.e., hippie-influenced grass-roots Christianity), finding it subsumed by the more authoritarian grown-ups' churches and then drifting away from Christianity altogether and finding a new messiah in David Bowie. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). As one can expect from Dery, it's full of substance, from Bowie's explorations in mysticism to similarities between Ziggy Stardust and resurrected messiah figures in religion and mythology.
New York Magazine has an interesting piece on tensions between hipsters and hasidim in Williamsburg, which began when hipsters started moving to the staunchly Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Brooklyn in the 1990s and came to a head with a dispute over a bike lane which, the hasidim complained, funnelled a steady stream of immodestly-clad nonbelievers through the core of their devoutly observant community:
But after a while, says one Hasidic real-estate developer, “People started talking to the rabbis—‘Hey, something’s happening, all these young white people are moving in.’ ” When the Satmars realized that the Artisten—the Yiddish name they used for the bewildering newcomers—were there to stay, something like panic set in. Rabbis exhorted landlords not to rent to the Artisten, builders not to build for them. One flyer asked God to “please remove from upon us the plague of the artists, so that we shall not drown in evil waters, and so that they shall not come to our residence to ruin it.’’ Rabbi Zalman Leib Fulop announced that the Artisten were “a bitter decree from Heaven,” a biblical trial.While there is an element of conservative-old-timers-vs.-offensive-newcomers to the story, it is (as most things are) more complex than that. Most of the property rented out to the artisten was done so by Hasidic owners, who have mostly kept the hipsters out of the core of their community. Meanwhile, there is more interplay between the ultra-conservative community and the newcomers, with some fence-sitters putting a foot in both camps:
For South Williamsburg’s Hasids, Traif Bike Gesheft functions as a semi-secret window onto the larger world and a clubhouse of mild transgressions. Herzfeld rents bikes to Hasids at no cost, just to get them to venture beyond the neighborhood. (Among Satmars, bicycles are not specifically disallowed but are considered taboo nonetheless.) Inside the shop, otherwise righteous men let down their guard. Tongues loosen. “The men, they don’t know how to have a conversation with a woman,” Herzfeld explains, talking a mile a minute. “Whenever they come to the bike shop, the first thing they ask me to find them a prostitute. I tell them, look, you’re searching for answers. You’re not going to find them in the vagina of a woman you’re paying $200 an hour. If you want to meet somebody, you need to step outside of the community, you need to get a hobby. Come over, and I’ll teach you how to fix a bike. So the bike shop is a kind of outreach program.” A friend of Herzfeld’s also uses the shop to slip Hasids traif books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby.
If hipster Williamsburg has a social architect, it is Schwartz. His first project, in 1999, became the mini-mall that redefined Bedford Avenue. The retail collection he developed was both a parody of the American mall and a startling improvement on it. It housed an artisanal-cheese shop, a wine store, a bookseller with Guy Debord window displays, a Tibetan tchotchke store, a vinyl-heavy indie-record emporium, a Mac-friendly computer shop, and, of course, a coffeehouse. Many of these businesses later grew to take up their own storefronts on what became the hipster side of Bedford. Schwartz followed it up with Opera House Lofts, another ambitious development targeted squarely at the Artisten. His latest and largest project—Castle Braid, a 144-unit complex so named after the factory in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—is borderline hipster pandering. The game room has foosball and air hockey. On my arrival, the PA system in the lobby was softly playing Beck’s “Nobody’s Fault But My Own.” The building holds its own film festival (the first prize is six rent-free months) and a tenant-compiled library with Erotica and Gay-and-Lesbian sections. “It is totally kosher,” explains Schwartz, a devout Hasid. “I’ve been joking that I do this to make sure the Artisten stay on the other side!”
(via Ian W.)
An unusual study has examined paintings of the Biblical scene of the Last Supper made over the past 1,000 years, and noticed that serving sizes in the paintings have increased over the millennium; with each painting, thanks to gradual improvements in agriculture, the artist (and their audience) were used to larger meals than previously, which coloured the artist's creative decisions:
There is scant evidence that the body mass index of people in developed societies soared into unhealthy ranges for most of the 1,000 years studied, Young said. But there is little doubt, she added, that that changed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s -- coincidentally, when portion sizes began a dramatic run-up.
The Wansinks, however, suggest that portion growth may have a provenance far older than industrial farming and the economics of takeout food.Instead, they suggest, it's a natural consequence of "dramatic socio-historic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food" over the millennium that started in the year 1000 A.D.
As of Friday, it is illegal to insult religious beliefs in Ireland; this applies to any religion, which is the fiercely Catholic nation's token sop to pluralism. While secularists are dismayed, other religious groups are overjoyed; apparently, Islamic states are already using the Irish law as a template for a United Nations blasphemy law.
A group named Atheist Ireland (
God help them best of luck to them; they need it) are taking on this law and challenging the government to prosecute them by publishing 25 blasphemous quotations, with authors varying from Jesus Christ to Monty Python, from known troublemakers like Dawkins and Hitchens to Holy Men like the current Pope (quoted slagging off Islam, mind you),
13. Bjork, 1995: “I do not believe in religion, but if I had to choose one it would be Buddhism. It seems more livable, closer to men… I’ve been reading about reincarnation, and the Buddhists say we come back as animals and they refer to them as lesser beings. Well, animals aren’t lesser beings, they’re just like us. So I say fuck the Buddhists.”
15. George Carlin, 1999: “Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, talk about a good bullshit story. Holy Shit!”
23. Ian O’Doherty, 2009: “(If defamation of religion was illegal) it would be a crime for me to say that the notion of transubstantiation is so ridiculous that even a small child should be able to see the insanity and utter physical impossibility of a piece of bread and some wine somehow taking on corporeal form. It would be a crime for me to say that Islam is a backward desert superstition that has no place in modern, enlightened Europe and it would be a crime to point out that Jewish settlers in Israel who believe they have a God given right to take the land are, frankly, mad. All the above assertions will, no doubt, offend someone or other.”Atheist Ireland and their allies have a number of other campaigns on their site, including a campaign for a secular Irish constitution.
In Williamsburg, tensions between hipsters and Hasidim have erupted in conflicts over bike lanes. Some Hasidim want them removed to keep fast-moving, indecently-clad cyclists out of their neighbourhood, whereas the cyclists want their direct route to Williamsburg Bridge, and are willing to repaint removed bike lanes to get it:
Many of the hipster cyclists wear too little clothing for the Hasids, who are not supposed to stare at members of the opposite sex and wanted the enticement removed.
Canadian psychology professor Bob Altemeyer has made available online the text of a book examining the psychology of authoritarianism. Altemeyer looks at what he calls Right-Wing Authoritarianism, a personality trait which manifests itself in a high degree of submission to the established authorities, high levels of aggression in the name of the authorities, and a high level of conventionalism, and correlates with the political right, at least in North America. (He also mentions left-wing authoritarianism—think dogmatic Maoism or similar—in passing, though dismisses it as having all but died out in North America, whereas right-wing authoritarianism is going from strength to strength.)
It’s about what happened to the American government after "conservatives" gained control of Congress in the 1990s and the White House in 2000. It’s about the disastrous decisions that government made, which have created the enormous problems we face now. It’s about the corruption that rotted the Congress. It’s about how traditional conservatism has nearly been destroyed by authoritarianism. It’s about how the “Religious Right” teamed up with amoral authoritarian leaders to push its un-democratic agenda onto the country.
For example, take the following statement: “Once our government leaders and the authorities condemn the dangerous elements in our society, it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to help stomp out the rot that is poisoning our country from within.” Sounds like something Hitler would say, right? Want to guess how many politicians, how many lawmakers in the United States agreed with it? Want to guess what they had in common?Altemeyer puts forward a Right-Wing Authoritarian personality scale, with higher scores correlating with the trait. High-RWA individuals have a "Daddy knows best" attitute to the authorities. They defer to their leaders, and even while they often believe that the law, however harsh, must be obeyed, they will exempt their leaders from this if the ends justify the means (such as approving of illegal activities against "radicals" or "enemies of society"). They view the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups, with little sympathy for the latter, and an us-vs.-them outlook, exhibit aggression against those seen to be transgressing against the norms of society, and are quicker than average to join with others to take action against them. And, being highly conventional, they interpret a lot of things as existential threats to the established order. (Authoritarianism, in other words, seems to tie in with a survival-values worldview, driven by the perception of existential threats and the need to deal with them.) Being driven by faith in authority, high-RWAs are more capable than most of compartmentalising contradictory beliefs and resisting challenges to their beliefs posed by logic or evidence.
The Authoritarians looks at the RWA scale and other phenomena, such as religious fundamentalism, social-dominance orientation and real-world politics. Not surprisingly, there are correlations between right-wing authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism, and both are strong predictors of prejudice against out-groups. (Paradoxically, many high-RWA people exhibit both racial prejudices and hostility to overt racism, largely due to not seeing themselves or their peers as racially prejudiced; this would be the dampening effect authoritarianism has on insight and analysis.) Meanwhile, there are both parallels and differences between right-wing authoritarian followers and people who score highly on the social dominance scale; the former don't necessarily want personal power, whereas the latter are less likely to be religious or constrained by rules, though will often happily feign religiosity as a means to an end. Some individuals, of course, score highly on both scales. Because authoritarian followers are receptive to messages that feel right, and are suspicious of critical thought, right-wing authoritarian movements attract more than their share of power-hungry sociopaths willing to pound the right talking points to get willing, unquestioning followers.
The bad news is, the authoritarians have been ascendant over the past decade (in the US, Altemeyer says, they have largely seized the Republican Party). The good news is that right-wing authoritarianism, as a tendency, can be defeated. Studies have found that fear increases RWA scores, in effect making people shut up and follow the leader. (This was used to great effect by the Bush Whitehouse, for example, by instituting a prominent colour-coded terror threat level, seldom dipping below "severe", and raising it inexplicably before elections.) Fearful societies are governed by authoritarian survival values, which have a harder time of getting a grip without fear. Exposure to people unlike oneself and one's "in-group" also weakens authoritarian tendencies, as does a liberal education. A study cited by Altemeyer showed university students' RWA scores declining steadily over the course of their studies, and remaining low throughout their lives. (Parenting, meanwhile, causes one's RWA scores to increase slightly.)
There are other ideas Altemeyer's Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale ties into, such as Lakoff's strict-father/nurturing-parent family dichotomy (which Altemeyer looks at though finds weakly connected), Milgram's obedience experiment, Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, and theories about the mass psychology of fascism. (Of which this strikes me as one of the more useful ones; while it may be fun to posit connections between fascism and manned flight or the mass spectacle of rock'n'roll, those are probably less useful for actually understanding the threat of fascism as a mass movement.)
(via Boing Boing)
What's the difference between the BNP and atheists? The BBC doesn't feel the need to give atheists a forum.
The OKCupid people have been running a free online dating service, backed by psychological matching algorithms driven by user-written tests, for many years, and have build up a huge corpus of data about how people interact. Now they have started a blog, where they discuss the statistical findings that may be gathered from comparing people's profiles and message counts.
One blog posts looks at how well different profile attributes predict whether two people will match. Not surprisingly, the zodiac signs of any two people have no effect on their actual personalities, and thus on how well they would get along:
Race has a slightly greater influence (of a few percentage points either way), presumably because of uneven distribution of cultural backgrounds, but it is still fairly small. (Keep in mind that the match scores are computed from how users answer others' questions, and not from explicitly asking questions like "would you date a Virgo/Polynesian/Buddhist".) Religion, however, turns out to be a lot more telling:
According to this, atheists, agnostics, Jews and Buddhists seem to get along just swell (in fact, Buddhists appear to be slightly more compatible with the nonbelievers than with other Buddhists), whereas the Christians, Hindus and Muslims tend to be somewhat more contentious, not only not getting along with other religions as well but also with each other. Additionally, the more seriously one takes religion, it seems, the less likely one is to get along with others.
Looking again at the issue of race, while race doesn't seem to affect actual compatibility scores, it does affect how likely people are to get responses:
Love may be blind, but it also seems that it, or at least attraction, is deeply racist.
On a lighter note, OKCupid have crunched the word frequencies of successful and unsuccessful opening messages and discovered what to write if you want a reply. Netspeak and "hip" misspellings ('u', 'luv', 'wat') and physical compliments are out, whereas mentions of specific interests are helpful. Unsurprisingly, mentioning religion is generally a bad idea as well.
The British Psychological Society's journal, The Psychologist, has a fascinating article about outbreaks of mass hysteria and "dancing plagues" in the Middle Ages:
The year was 1374. In dozens of medieval towns scattered along the valley of the River Rhine hundreds of people were seized by an agonising compulsion to dance. Scarcely pausing to rest or eat, they danced for hours or even days in succession. They were victims of one of the strangest afflictions in Western history. Within weeks the mania had engulfed large areas of north-eastern France and the Netherlands, and only after several months did the epidemic subside. In the following century there were only a few isolated outbreaks of compulsive dancing. Then it reappeared, explosively, in the city of Strasbourg in 1518. Chronicles indicate that it then consumed about 400 men, women and children, causing dozens of deaths (Waller, 2008).
Not long before the Strasbourg dancing epidemic, an equally strange compulsion had gripped a nunnery in the Spanish Netherlands. In 1491 several nuns were ‘possessed’ by devilish familiars which impelled them to race around like dogs, jump out of trees in imitation of birds or miaow and claw their way up tree trunks in the manner of cats. Such possession epidemics were by no means confined to nunneries, but nuns were disproportionately affected (Newman, 1998). Over the next 200 years, in nunneries everywhere from Rome to Paris, hundreds were plunged into states of frantic delirium during which they foamed, screamed and convulsed, sexually propositioned exorcists and priests, and confessed to having carnal relations with devils or Christ.The article examines these phenomena, dismissing various theories (such as them being caused by ergotism, or the consumption of bread contaminated with hallucinogenic mould), and makes the case that they were culture-bound psychogenic illnesses, enabled by accepted beliefs about the supernatural and triggered by stress:
Similarly, it is only by taking cultural context seriously that we can explain the striking epidemiological facts that possession crises so often struck religious houses and that men were far less often the victims of mass diabolical possession. The daily lives of nuns were saturated in a mystical supernaturalism, their imaginations vivid with devils, demons, Satanic familiars and wrathful saints. They believed implicitly in the possibility of possession and so made themselves susceptible to it. Evangelical Mother Superiors often made them more vulnerable by encouraging trance and ecstasy; mind-altering forms of worship prepared them for later entering involuntary possession states. Moreover, early modern women were imbued with the idea that as the tainted heirs of Eve they were more liable to succumb to Satan, a misogynistic trope that often heightened their suggestibility.
Theological conventions also conditioned the behaviour of demoniac nuns. This is apparent from the fact that nearly all possession epidemics occurred within a single 300-year period, from around 1400 to the early 1700s. The reason is that only during this period did religious writers insist that such events were possible (Newman 1998). Theologians, inquisitors and exorcists established the rules of mass demonic possession to which dissociating nuns then unconsciously conformed: writhing, foaming, convulsing, dancing, laughing, speaking in tongues and making obscene gestures and propositions. These were shocking but entirely stereotypical performances based on deep-seated beliefs about Satan’s depravity drawn from religious writings and from accounts of previous possessions. For centuries, then, distress and pious fear worked in concert to produce epidemics of dancing and possession.The article concludes with examples of modern occurrences of such phenomena, from the rather feeble examples (such as epidemics of fainting) one could find in a materialistic post-Enlightenment society to "spirit possession" among factory workers drawn from rural communities in Malaysia and Singapore, to delusions of penis-stealing witchcraft in western Africa.
The town of Kingsville, Texas, is doing its bit in the battle against the powers of evil by banning the word "hello", which contains the word "hell":
"When you go to school and church, they tell you 'hell' is negative and 'heaven' is positive,'" said the 56-year-old Canales, who owns the Kingsville Flea Market. "I think it's time that we set a new precedent, to tell our kids that we are positive adults."
On Thursday, courthouse employees were answering the phones, "heaven-o." And the chamber of commerce was working on a campaign promoting Kingsville, a Rio Grande Valley town of 25,000, as a "heavenly" place to visit.
Canales, a Catholic but not a regular churchgoer, has been as serious as heck about "hello" since 1988, when he told his brother he might start greeting people with "God-o." His brother suggested "heaven-o" instead.Pointing out that the word "hello" has no etymological connection with the word "hell" (the OED says that it stems from an old German greeting for hailing a boat) is, as one might expect, of little avail to the sort of mediæval mindset that finds omens and portents in things.
At 14 months, Osel Hita Torres was chosen by the Dalai Lama as a reincarnation of a recently departed lama, and became Lama Tenzin Osel Rinpoche. He spent most of his life in the Tibetan exile city of Dharamsala, isolated from corrupting influences and venerated as a living god. But then he escaped, turning his back on the holy life. He is now studying film in Madrid and has denounced the Buddhist order which elevated him to guru status:
Yesterday he bemoaned the misery of a youth deprived of television, football and girls. Movies were also forbidden – except for a sanctioned screening of The Golden Child starring Eddie Murphy, about a kidnapped child lama with magical powers. "I never felt like that boy," he said.
At six, he was allowed to socialise only with other reincarnated souls – though for a time he said he lived next to the actor Richard Gere's cabin.
By 18, he had never seen couples kiss. His first disco experience was a shock. "I was amazed to watch everyone dance. What were all those people doing, bouncing, stuck to one another, enclosed in a box full of smoke?"The article is short on detail about why his parents handed their infant son over to the Dalai Lama and his monks; were they just the usual bovine hippies with heads full of mystical mush, or did the Dalai Lama cult compensate them monetarily for their contribution? In any case, it sounds like child abuse to me.
They now have atheist summer camps:
The five days in Somerset will consist of traditional outdoor activities such as canoeing and cycling, combined with discussions about religion and non-belief. The centrepiece of the camp is an ongoing discussion where participants are encouraged to try to disprove the existence of unicorns, which serve as a metaphor for God.
Campers are told that two unicorns live in the area and cannot be seen, heard or touched. The adult councillors pretend to believe in the unicorns on the basis that an ancient book handed down through the generations says they exist. The children are encouraged to try to prove that the unicorns do not exist. If anyone is successful they will be awarded a £10 note which has a picture of Charles Darwin on it and is signed by leading atheist academic Richard Dawkins.
In the US the prize is a "godless" $100 bill from before 1957, which was when the US placed the phrase "In God We Trust" on all its notes. No child has definitively disproved the existence of unicorns and won the prize. "The idea of the unicorn debate is not to prove God doesn't exist, it is to illustrate that having such debates with religious people is futile because in the end faith trumps everything," said Miss Stein.
The Gini coefficient is a number from 0 to 1 representing the equality or inequality of income distribution in an economy; 0 is theoretical absolute equality, and 1 is one person having everything and everyone going without. In practice, it varies from about 0.2 to about 0.7.
According to it, Europe ranges from the mid-.20s to the high .30s, with a few outliers in the low 40s. At the most egalitarian end, unsurprisingly, are the Jante states of Denmark and Sweden, as well as Iceland (perhaps surprisingly, if it's meant to have been an experiment in cut-throat neoliberalism). Things get more inequitous into Norway, Finland, France, Germany and Switzerland (which stays under .28, despite being home to a lot of the global super-rich), and then on to Italy, Spain, Britain and Ireland, and beyond that, Poland and Lithuania. The most unequal country in Europe is Turkey, which has a Gini coefficient of 0.436, somewhere between Guyana and Nigeria, or, if you prefer, Delaware and Hawaii.
The United States is, unsurprisingly, a lot less egalitarian in income than Europe. American states' Gini coefficients range from 0.41 (the solidly Mormon state of Utah, whose state emblem is the beehive, has a Gini coefficient equivalent to Russia's) to a whopping 0.537 in the District of Columbia (comparable to the Honduras). Other states are twinned with parts of the developing world; Alabama and Mississippi are most like Nepal, California has the income distribution of Rwanda, and New York, barely under the .5 mark, is twinned with Costa Rica. According to the article, this is an astonishing state of affairs for a developed country:
According the the CIA World Factbook (table compiled here), the lowest Gini score in the world is Sweden's, at .23, followed by Denmark and Slovenia at .24. The next 20 countries are all in either Western Europe or the former Communist bloc of Eastern Europe. The EU as a whole is at .307. Russia has the highest number in Europe (.41); Portugal is the highest in Western Europe (.38). Japan is at .381; Australia is .352; Canada is .321.
And then there is the United States, sandwiched between Cote d'Ivoire and Uruguay at .450. Not counting Hong Kong (.523), the US is a complete loner among developed countries. In fact, as you can see from the map above, there is no overlap between any single US state and any other developed country; no state is within the normal range of income distribution in the rest of the developed world. Here's a list of the states with their Gini index numbers, and the country where income distribution is most comparable in parentheses:Other interesting maps on the site include a map of religious nonbelief in the UK (which points out that Scotland and Northern Ireland are the most religious, and asks whether that correlates to the Scots-Irish roots of the US "Bible belt"), of antidepressant use in England and Wales (summary: it's grim up north, and in Cornwall too; either that or Londoners prefer a line of coke), and one suggesting that, as global warming advances, Australia is ecologically fux0red.
In the 1990s, Tony Blair took the helm of the Labour Party and modernised it, ditching its unfashionable brown-suited socialist tendencies and transforming it into a neo-Thatcherite centre-right party with really good PR (or "spin", as they called it). In fact, the spin was so good that it allowed it not only to "outflank" the Tories, pushing them into corners, but to manoeuvre into bizarre and impossible positions, such as supporting George W. Bush's faith-based invasion of Iraq.
Blair's luck ran out, and he left the floundering ship of New Labour. Now, however, he has turned his attention to modernising another organisation he has joined; namely the Catholic Church:
The former prime minister, who converted to Catholicism shortly after leaving office two years ago, said he disagreed with the Pope's stance on gay rights and controversially suggested that the Church should reform itself along similar lines to how he re-organised the Labour Party.
"Organised religions face the same dilemma as political parties when faced with changed circumstances," he said. u can either A: Hold on to your core vote, basically, you know, say 'Look let's not break out because if we break out we might lose what we've got, and at least we've got what we've got so let's keep it'. Or B: You say 'let's accept that the world is changing, and let us work out how we can lead that change and actually reach out'."Of course, there is a lot of merit in the content of what Blair is saying in this specific instance; on gay rights, in my (liberal, atheist, cosmopolitanist) opinion, the Catholic church is out of touch, and Blair is right. A lot of people, of course, would disagree; whether they are a minority as Blair says is another matter.
However, the other part of Blair's statement, about the Catholic church needing to reorganise along New Labour lines, is more thought-provoking. What would a Blairite New Catholic Church look like? Well, firstly they would ditch the unfashionable old-guard dogmas (such as condemnation of homosexuality and contraception, to name two); those who believed in these strictures would be allowed to remain in the margins of the church, much as the left of the Labour Party was, growing steadily into fusty irrelevance, though still occasionally putting on a good, if cranky, show to keep the old believers from completely jumping ship. Freed from these dogmas, the church would be free to move towards the centre and, in classic Blairite fashion, "outflank" rival religions, appropriating their ideas and pushing them further towards the fringes. We could expect Blairite New Catholicism to appropriate everything from new-age crystal healing to promises of an afterlife filled with willing virgins and repackage what works, only with much better presentation.
As with New Labour, presentation would be the linchpin of New Catholicism. The church would be rebranded extensively, with the centuries-old trappings given new designs, crisply contemporary yet with a comforting gravitas. The vestments worn by priests and altar boys would be restyled by Paul Smith or someone, and cathedrals given an overhaul by Damien Hirst, with stained glass by Banksy. And Jamie Oliver would do the communion wafers. The sacred music would have to change, with big-name stars being brought in to give it a facelift. Finally, the Catholic Church would have caught up to that other great innovation of contemporary religious practice, the celebrity centre.
The selling of indulgences would also see a return, with donors not only being able to procure absolution of sins, but in some cases, sainthoods as well. And given the tendency of some clergy to get into scandals, the Blairite faculty of spin could prove very useful.
Sinister things are afoot at the United Nations, with an alliance of countries moving to change the UN Human Rights Council's mission to one prohibiting the criticism of religion. The alliance is comprised mostly of Islamic countries, though China, Russia and Cuba are notable by their presence. (It can only be presumed that they are doing this out of the principle of supporting repression wherever it rears its head.) I heard that the Vatican may also be involved, though this is unconfirmed.
For what it's worth, if you live in the UK, you can petition the Prime Minister to oppose this; if enough people do so, maybe, just maybe, he will.
As bushfires swept across south-eastern Australia, wiping out towns and killing hundreds, people asked why. Some pointed to climate change, the lack of backburning in recent years or flawed town planning. One man, however, has a different theory. According to Pastor Danny Nalliah, former Family First political candidate and friend of the former Howard government, the bushfires were God's wrath for Victoria having recently decriminalised abortion:
The evangelical church's leader, Pastor Danny Nalliah, claimed he had a dream about raging fires on October 21 last year and that he woke with "a flash from the Spirit of God: that His conditional protection has been removed from the nation of Australia, in particular Victoria, for approving the slaughter of innocent children in the womb".
He quoted a headline describing the fires as "The Darkest hour for Victoria". "A few months ago the news media should have reported 'the darkest hour for the unborn', but unfortunately the 'Decriminalisation of Abortion bill' went through parliament and was passed, thus making many people call Victoria 'the baby killing state of Australia,' " Mr Nalliah said.Had Victoria not passed the bill, the bushfires would presumably have been God's wrath for something else, such as permitting divorce, suffering homosexuals to live or wearing clothes of mixed fibres.
Of course, Pastor Nalliah doesn't speak for all Christians or theists; far from it. The Age's religious editor, Barney Zwartz, points out that, actually, that's not what God is about, citing Bible verse to back up his point. Needless to say, he cites different Bible verses to the ones the Pastor does. That's the marvellous thing about scripture; it's so ambiguous that one find things in it to back up wildly divergent positions.
God, meanwhile, could not be reached for comment.
A church in West Sussex has removed a large crucifix on the grounds that it was "a horrifying depiction of pain and suffering" which was also "putting people off". St. John's Church in Broadbridge Heath will replace the sculpture of a suffering Christ on the cross with an appropriately sanitised and inoffensive depiction of the ancient Roman torture/execution implement rendered in stainless steel, much like an Ikea saucepan.
Atheist bus ads roll out across the UK. Having raised £135,000, the Atheist Bus Campaign has broadened its scope considerably, and rather than the original 30 bus ads in London, they're rolling out 800 across the UK, with interior ads giving quotes from famous atheists including Douglas Adams, Albert Einstein and Emily Dickinson.
A similar campaign has run in the USA, not a country typically associated with atheism. However, when the local atheist society tried to run one in Australia (not usually a religiously strident place), the advertising company knocked them back, considering promotion of Godlessness (with the scandalous slogan "Celebrate reason", no less!) to be a bit too much for Australian morés.
Today's heartwarming display of ecumenical outreach between religions comes to us courtesy of Australian Christian-right parliamentarian Reverend Fred Nile, who has tabled a bill to ban toplessness on beaches, to protect the sensibilities of Muslims and Asians who are not used to such licentiousness:
The Reverend Nile has rejected allegations that prudishness is behind a bill he has prepared to ban nudity, including topless sunbathing, on the state's most popular beaches.
Australia's reputation as a conservative but culturally inclusive sociery was at risk of erosion by more liberal overseas visitors, he said.Of course, Australia has only been a "conservative society" for some 11 years. Well, and all the time up to the Whitlam government in the 1970s, but that was a long time ago. Now, it's gradually and haltingly inching its way back towards a Western secular-liberal consensus. (Not at any great rate, mind you; video games unsuitable for children are still outlawed, film censorship is still handled by the Howard government's conservative appointees, and there is that national firewall proposal that keeps lumbering forward, zombie-fashion, despite not being remotely viable; but still...) Some people, though, don't want to abandon their dream of Australia as a spiritually pure Kingdom of Prester John in the South.
"Our beaches should be a place where no one is offended, whether it's their religious or cultural views," he said.No-one? I wonder whether this extends to the Wahhabi Muslims who would be offended by the exposure of naked female ankles and elbows, or even faces, on Reverend Nile's modesty-enhanced beaches. Or even by the fact that men and women can be on the same beach in each other's company. Unless Reverend Nile is prepared to mandate full gender segregation of beaches and the full burqa for women, I suspect he is being a wee bit hypocritical.
Senior Catholics in Scotland are claiming that the old song Hokey Cokey was written to mock the Catholic mass, and singing it could fall foul of hate crime laws:
Peter Kearney, a spokesman for Cardinal Keith O’Brien, leader of the Catholic church in Scotland, said: “This song, although apparently innocuous, was devised as an attack on and a parody of the Catholic mass.”
According to the church, the song’s title derives from “hocus pocus”. The phrase is said to be a Puritan satire on the Latin “hoc est enim corpus meum”, or “this is my body”, used by Catholic priests to accompany the transubstantiation during mass.
The American Humanist Association has taken a leaf from its British counterpart and run its own atheist bus campaign in Washington DC. Being in America, the message was somewhat milder; rather than telling people that "there is probably no god", it asked "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake." Of course, as one might expect, it still aroused an explosive reaction:
It's a simple question: "Why not try Jesus?" Equally simple is an opposite: "Why believe in a god?" Yet in the United States the first question is widely viewed as positive, or at least ordinary, while the second can be perceived as offensive and even hate speech.
The sudden high volume of visitors to our special campaign website www.whybelieveinagod.org crashed our server twice. Soon, the conservative talkshow hosts were clamouring to give us air time so they could argue against us and further rouse their audience. And conservative Christian organisations not only denounced our efforts but encouraged their flocks to come bleat in our ears. All this before our bus ads actually started to appear one week later. By the beginning of December we'd received 37,742 hits on our campaign website, logged 638 new members and received over $6,000 in new contributions.
Boing Boing Gadgets' John Brownlee has an interesting account of playing a robot in an evangelical Christian school play as a child. An evangelical Christian robot, of course:
The play centered around Colby, a sentient Christian super-computer who — for some reason — had set up a secret neighborhood enclave for the Christian kids in the neighborhood. It was called Colby's Clubhouse, and inside, it was a Jim Jones phantasmagoria, in which a dancing, singing Christian robot led a gaggle of Bible-thumping kids in elaborate dance numbers, pausing only occasionally to recite scriptures. The main dramatic arc of the play concerned the arrival of new kid Eddie in the neighborhood: he cracked wise about Jesus, never read the Gospel, and was dismissive not only of the Colby Gang's impromptu hymnals but openly professed an admiration and affinity for that year's hot R&B supergroup, the New Kids on the Block. Eventually, Eddie is shown the error of his ways through the tireless proselytizing of the Colby Gang... as well as the direct intervention of Colby himself, who bluntly informs Eddie that he's going to hell if he doesn't mend his ways. Eventually, Eddie breaks down, falls to his knees, and welcomes Jesus into his heart as his Lord and Savior. At that point, Eddie is welcomed into the Colby Gang as an honorary member, presented with his very own pastel-colored, self-identifying t-shirt, and takes part in the exiting performance of the play's title song, "God Uses Kids." Curtain and applause.Of course, in retrospect, the play looks a lot more disturbing:
At the beginning of the play, Eddie moves into a new neighborhood. He's alone, depressed and friendless. Worse, he quickly discovers that none of the kids in the neighborhood like to play video games or watch movies or listen to records or play with action figures or throw the football around — you know, normal kid stuff. All they ever want to do is sing about Jesus. Raised non-secularly, poor Eddie finds himself ostracized from his newfound peers from the very start, and understandably compensates by adapting the defense mechanism of a smart aleck personality. He acts out. He differentiates himself through cynical non-conformity, but is soundly hated for it.
That's all bad enough, right? Poor Eddie. But consider what happens next. Eddie is invited to the neighborhood clubhouse. Hoping for the acceptance and friendship of the neighborhood's unseen but popular alpha dog — the mysterious but charismatic Colby — he goes, but instead of meeting another kid, the door is locked behind him and a giant metal monster lumbers out of the shadows. Its eyes spit sparks; its servos gnash like rusty teeth. It grabs Eddie by the arms and in a shrill falsetto scream that reverberates with metallic soullessness and the sounds of gears grinding, it inexorably begins to paint Eddie a picture of hell straight out of Bosch. Mewling, fleshless bird things with scissors for beaks. Oceans of boiling feces in which billions bob and drown. Bodies crawling with insects and scabs that never heal. Forced sodomy by impossible geometric shapes. The sound of infants screaming forever and ever and ever and ever. Eddie's mind breaks... as, in fact, had the mind of each and every member of the Colby Gang's under the same nightmarish duress. It is the initiation. He's been accepted. One of us. One of us.And then, of course, there is the theological question of whether an evangelical Christian robot would have a soul, which John's teacher couldn't quite satisfactorily answer.
(via Boing Boing)
Today was the launch of the Atheist Bus Campaign, a project to put advertisements on buses in London telling people that there is probably no god and no reason to worry. (The project was inspired by Christian groups' ads on public transport, which inform the reader that they are doomed to eternal torment unless they submit to the advertiser's particular beliefs, an altogether less friendly message.)
The campaign opened this morning, with a goal of attracting £5,500; half the amount required to run such an ad on 30 buses over four weeks. (Outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins had offered to provide the other half.) It reached its goal just after 10am, and kept snowballing like Craig Shergold's postcards; shortly before 11:30pm, it had passed the £45,000 mark, and was still rising. That's a lot of non-faith.
Looking at the donations and their comments is interesting; a lot of people have an issue with the phrasing containing the qualifying "probably" (which was there to keep from falling foul of truth-in-advertising regulations), finding it insufficiently strident, or likely to lead people into the fallacy of Pascal's Wager. More donors, buoyed by the success of the drive, have called for the ads to be run elsewhere in the UK (Manchester, for some reason, has a lot of demand). There are also a lot of calls for similar ads to be run in the United States; I wonder whether anyone will start such a campaign over there, or whether anyone would agree to run the ads.
The response from Christian groups (who seem to be the only theists interviewed; couldn't they get a rabbi or imam to weigh in?) has been mixed; one pressure group named Christian Voice has equated atheism and bendy buses as "dangers to the public" and predicted that they would be attacked with graffiti, whilst the Methodist Church has taken the view that publicity is good and thanked Professor Dawkins for encouraging a "continued interest in God".
It's not clear what will be done with the surplus £41,000 or so; putting ads inside the buses was one suggestion.
Atheist and Guardian blogger Ariane Sherine took offense at those ads religious groups have on the sides of buses, and decided to start a campaign to put a similar atheistic ad on buses in London. After some wrangling with advertising companies (who were reluctant), one has agreed to run the ad (which reads "There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life"; I think Douglas Adams would have approved, don't you?) if their sponsors can raise £1,100. As such, Sherine is looking for 1,100 atheists, agnostics or fellow travellers to pledge £5 each.
An art gallery is considering whether to withdraw a sculpture of a crucified frog after Pope Benedict condemned it as blasphemous and the president of the regional government went on a hunger strike in protest. The sculpture, Zuerst die Füsse ("Feet First") by the late German artist Martin Kippenberger, depicts an anthropomorphic frog nailed to a cross, its tongue grotesquely lolling, holding a beer stein and an egg, and was intended by the artist as a self-portrait illustrating human angst.
I'm hoping that the gallery stands fast and doesn't remove it. What too many people are forgetting is that one has to choose to be offended by something, and not being offended is not a fundamental human right. If the president of Alto Adige chose to be so offended that he went on a hunger strike and was hospitalised, that was his choice. If we allow one religion to censor art to protect its sensitivities (or, indeed, its claim to cultural hegemony), it sets a terrible precedent.
US Republican electoral strategists' latest tactic against Barack Obama: ads that insinuate that he is the Antichrist, in the hope of getting evangelical Christian voters out to vote for McCain. They're careful not to say outright that Obama is the Antichrist, of course, as that would make them look like lunatics to non-Evangelical voters. Rather, the ad (titled "the One") has an innocuous surface message, ostensibly poking fun at Obama's messianic image, though is peppered with coded references to popular American Christian thriller series Left Behind:
As the ad begins, the words “It should be known that in 2008 the world shall be blessed. They will call him The One” flash across the screen. The Antichrist of the Left Behind books is a charismatic young political leader named Nicolae Carpathia who founds the One World religion (slogan: “We Are God”) and promises to heal the world after a time of deep division. One of several Obama clips in the ad features the Senator saying, “A nation healed, a world repaired. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.”
Sapp knows that the phrasing and images could just be dismissed as a peculiar coincidence. After all, it was Oprah Winfrey who told an Iowa crowd that Obama was "the one!" But, he insists, "the frequency of these images and references don't make any sense unless you're trying to send the message that Obama could be the Antichrist." Mara Vanderslice, another Democratic consultant, who handled religious outreach for the 2004 Kerry campaign, agrees. "If they wanted to be funny, if they really wanted to play up the idea that Obama thinks he's the Second Coming, there were better ways to do it," she says. "Why use these awkward lines like, 'And the world will receive his blessings'?"
It’s not hard to see how some Obama haters might be tempted to make the comparison. In the Left Behind books, Carpathia is a junior Senator who speaks several languages, is beloved by people around the world and fawned over by a press corps that cannot see his evil nature, and rises to absurd prominence after delivering just one major speech. Hmmh. But serious Antichrist theorists don’t stop there. Everything from Obama’s left-handedness to his positive rhetoric to his appearance on the cover of this magazine has been cited as evidence of his true identity. One chain e-mail claims that the Antichrist was prophesied to be “A man in his 40s of MUSLIM descent,” which would indeed sound ominous if not for the fact that the Book of Revelation was written at least 400 years before the birth of Islam.Which sounds like a textbook case of dog-whistle politics. Speaking of which, has anybody seen Lynton Crosby recently?
(via Mind Hacks)
There's an intriguing article in the Guardian about the descendents of German Nazis who converted to Judaism and moved to Israel. The article interviews several such converts (the son of a SS man who's an Orthodox rabbi, a left-wing lesbian campaigner for Palestinian rights, and a professor of Jewish Studies who is related to Hitler, and who describes his (Israeli-born, Arab-hating) son as a "fascist").
One somewhat obvious explanation for this phenomenon is that of assuagement of guilt by rejecting the oppressor population one came from identifying with the victims, and this explanation is floated by an expert on the psychology of the children of perpetrators. Interestingly, though, none of those interviewed, when asked for why they converted to Judaism, mention the Holocaust or Nazism, instead giving theological reasons:
"During my theological studies at university it became clear that I couldn't be a minister in the church," he says. "I concluded that Christianity was paganism. One of [its] most important dogmas is that God became man, and if God becomes man then man also can become God." He pauses. "Hitler became a kind of god."
I tell Bar-On they talk obsessively about the Trinity. But is incredulity really a reason for abandoning a religion with a three-in-one god for one that still believes bushes talk and that waves are parted by the will of God? "That is another way of saying what I have already told you," he says. "They want to join the community of the victim. They may have their own way of rationalising it."
If you break the law, the law will break you: The fabled Australian commitment to free speech, civil liberties and the right of peaceful dissent is once again in the news, as the New South Wales government announced that anyone annoying those attending the Catholic Church's "World Youth Day" may face criminal penalties.
Police and emergency services will have the power to order people to cease behaviour that "causes annoyance or inconvenience to participants in a World Youth Day event" under the regulations. Anyone who fails to comply could be fined A$5,500 (£2,630).
Anna Katzman, the president of the New South Wales bar association, which represents almost 3,000 lawyers, said it was "unnecessary and repugnant" to make someone's inconvenience the basis of a criminal offence. "If I was to wear a T-shirt proclaiming that 'World Youth Day is a waste of public money' and refuse to remove it when an officer ... asks me to, I would commit a criminal offence," Katzman said. "How ridiculous is that?"This is possible under laws related to those used for suspending civil liberties during the 2000 Olympics, and could criminalise planned protests by gay rights, student and secularist groups. Not to worry, though; the authorities have given their word that these sweeping powers will be exercised reasonably.
A Victoria line Tube train waits at Kings Cross St. Pancras station, its doors open. A few people are seated in one carriage, waiting for it to depart.
The door to the other carriage opens, and an elderly man walks in. He is attired neatly, wearing a suit jacket, and has white hair. He is bent over and carries in his hand a wooden crucifix. He walk along the carriage and, facing each person, points the crucifix at them, drawing a cross in the air, before moving on to the next person.
The passengers react in various ways. Most ignore him. One makes devil horns at him with his hand, at which the old man remonstrates. His tone is mild and good-humoured, with an Irish accent and no trace of hostility or aggression, and he chuckles softly to himself as he speaks. One man (an African Muslim, by appearance and dress) appears agitated and uneasy at this aged crusader, and shifts in his seat; once he is gone, he pulls out a set of beads and passes them through his fingers with furious intent, as if to banish a spiritual taint.
Atheism is gaining popularity in the US (by some accounts, it is now more popular than bubonic plague). Now some atheists are discussing whether or not atheists should have their own church. After all, churches (particularly in America) fulfil a social function, distinct from their religious function, as centres of communities and bring people together (which, incidentally, is the literal meaning of the word "religion"), and with recent studies pointing out the health benefits of having a good sense of community, perhaps, the argument would go, it is time for a church for the godless?
Many atheist sects are experimenting with building new, human-centered quasi-religious organizations, much like Ethical Culture. They aim to remove God from the church, while leaving the church, at least large parts of it, standing. But this impulse is fueling a growing schism among atheists. Many of them see churches as part of the problem. They want to throw out the baby and the bathwater—or at least they don’t see the need for the bathwater once the baby is gone.There are already vaguely churchlike organisations for atheists (or those with religious (non)beliefs indistinguishable from atheism): the article mentions the Society for Ethical Culture, a 19th-century "secular cathedral", and Humanist Judaism, which maintains the traditions of the Jewish faith but jettisons the faith bit. And then there are the Unitarian Universalists and other content-free quasi-religions.
Not surprisingly, there is not only no agreement on what the new atheist creed is meant to contain, but also what it should call itself.
At this point, the movement can’t even agree on a name. Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, prefers the term anti-theist because he’s entertained the possibility that God exists and finds the prospect frightening, the spiritual equivalent of living in North Korea. Daniel Dennett continues to promote the term bright, which, he has said, is “modeled very deliberately and very consciously on the homosexual adoption of the word gay.” (In the first chapter of God Is Not Great, Hitchens dismisses the term as conceited.) And Sam Harris, brash young scientist that he is, triggered a minor revolt last fall at the Atheist Alliance International Conference in Crystal City, Virginia, when he lashed out against the term atheist, disparaging those who identify with a negation. “It reverberated in atheist circles as a sacrilege,” Harris told me. “But what’s worse is adopting language that was placed on us by religious people. We don’t feel the need to brand ourselves non-astrologers or non-racists.”
Dennett sees value in atheism’s great awakening, in the energy and money that come from organizing, but he counsels caution. “The last thing atheists want to see is their rational set of ideas yoked up with the trappings of a religion,” he says. “We think we can do without that.” Even Richard Dawkins is not one to reject certain memes based on their churchly pedigree. He calls himself a “cultural Christian,” admitting that he likes to sing Christmas carols as much as the next guy. But there’s a limit to his tolerance of religion.While I can understand the arguments, the idea of an atheist church seems a bit absurd. For one, atheism is a purely negative belief, by which I do not mean that it is harmful or wrong, but that it is only a statement of what one does not believe. If I tell you that someone is an atheist, I am telling you nothing about what that person actually does believe; they could be anything from a Buddhist to a Marxist to a secular humanist, to say the least; the only thing you know is that their belief system does not include a personal supreme being. As such, atheism in itself is not much of a rock on which to found a church. Granted, one could beef it up with a range of complementary beliefs or values (such as beliefs in the beneficience of science, the innate dignity of the individual, the equality of races and sexes or the humour of Monty Python), though then it ceases to be merely atheism and becomes something else.
Besides which, I doubt whether an atheist church could be remotely successful by any standard. Without the promise of eternal salvation (or some equivalent form of supernatural brownie points), going to church becomes just another activity, competing for time with a myriad possible other activities. Do you go to the Church of No God to hear a reading from Douglas Adams and then discuss it over tea and biscuits, or do you read a book or catch up with a friend or go rollerblading or see that new exhibition you've read about? Without the all-seeing gaze of the Almighty keeping tabs on His flock (or, more precisely, the common belief in such), such a church would more often than not take second place to other activities.
In fact, the whole question of whether atheists need their own church appears, to me, to be the wrong question, particularly when attendance of mainstream churches has been declining in recent years. A better question would be how the social function that churches fulfil could be best fulfilled, in today's society, without religion. (The key phrase is "in today's society"; in a world where people move around much more than they used to, don't necessarily live amongst people who share their cultural or religious outlooks, and where communications are often mediated by increasingly powerful technology, such as mobile phones and the internet.) While these changes have led to the breakdown of traditional social structures, they are also ushering in new forms of social connection (as Clay Shirky describes in Here Comes Everybody), and it is far from clear that creating an atheist church would make any more sense than designing a new high-tech buggy whip.
The City of London Police are prosecuting a teenager for calling the Church of Scientology a "cult" during a demonstration:
The incident happened during a protest against the Church of Scientology on May 10. Demonstrators from the anti-Scientology group, Anonymous, who were outside the church's £23m headquarters near St Paul's cathedral, were banned by police from describing Scientology as a cult by police because it was "abusive and insulting".
The teenager refused to back down, quoting a 1984 high court ruling from Mr Justice Latey, in which he described the Church of Scientology as a "cult" which was "corrupt, sinister and dangerous".
The City of London police came under fire two years ago when it emerged that more than 20 officers, ranging from constable to chief superintendent, had accepted gifts worth thousands of pounds from the Church of Scientology. The City of London Chief Superintendent, Kevin Hurley, praised Scientology for "raising the spiritual wealth of society" during the opening of its headquarters in 2006.
Liberty director, Shami Chakrabarti, said: "This barmy prosecution makes a mockery of Britain's free speech traditions. "After criminalising the use of the word 'cult', perhaps the next step is to ban the words 'war' and 'tax' from peaceful demonstrations?"And Charlie Stross weighs in:
I don't care whether Scientology is a "cult" or a "religion", however you slice or dice those terms. Personally, I think the two are interchangeable; your respectable religion is that other guy's cult, and vice versa.
But I am now officially fed up with this public bending-over-backwards to be respectful and sincere towards superstitionists of every stripe, to the point that religion trumps freedom of speech, as this case demonstrates so clearly. And the religious still aren't satisfied — they're out for more. I see no distinction between Christianity, Islam, and Scientology, in this respect: if you give them an inch they'll try and take a mile, as witness the ambush vote on lowering the age limit for abortion that the god botherers have tacked onto the current embryology bill.
We need to kick the bishops out of the House of Lords, ban the Police and judiciary from taking donations from religious organizations, and get religion out of politics by any means necessary.I pretty much agree. The difference between a "cult" like Scientology and a "respectable" religion such as Christianity is not in the plausibility of their beliefs. (Christian doctrines such as the Virgin Birth and Noah's Ark aren't any more rational or less weird than the tenets of Scientology; they only seem that way to us because they're part of the cultural wallpaper of Western civilisation.) IMHO, religions and their believers should be judged on their actions, rather than on the respectability of their particular brand of mythology. (As Voltaire wrote, there is nothing more respectable than an ancient evil.) And religions shouldn't be automatically entitled to be handled with kid gloves and reverential deference, or, indeed, to impose restrictions on those who do not adhere to them (such as the proposed bans on embryo research), just because their organisations are founded on supernatural or unprovable beliefs.
In the popular beliefs of our times, the figure of Albert Einstein fulfils the role of the metaphorical "smartest human being ever", to the point where urban legends attributing factoids to (such as "we only use 10% of our brains") to various luminaries end up mutating into "Einstein said that...". So, not surprisingly, a lot of people are eager to claim the great man's endorsement for their beliefs, however tenuously.
Not surprisingly, there has been much debate about Einstein's views on religion (i.e., whether his famous statement that "God does not play dice" was an acknowledgement of a higher being or mere metaphor), with both theists and atheists claiming him for their team. Now, newly released letters from 1954 reveal that, at least towards the end of his life, Einstein regarded religion as "childish" and "primitive legends":
In the letter, dated January 3 1954, he wrote: "The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.
He wrote: "For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people.The letter recounts Einstein's questioning of religion having begun at age 12.
(via Boing Boing)
In the latest advance in cosmotheology, the Vatican's chief astronomer has stated that extraterrestrial intelligence may exist—and may even be free from original sin.
Muslim scientists have called for Mecca time to replace Greenwich Mean Time as the international standard. Other than the religious argument (not likely to sway many non-Muslims) and the postcolonial argument, they contend that unlike other longitudes, Mecca's was "in perfect alignment to magnetic north":
He said the English had imposed GMT on the rest of the world by force when Britain was a big colonial power, and it was about time that changed.
A prominent cleric, Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawy, said modern science had at last provided evidence that Mecca was the true centre of the Earth; proof, he said, of the greatness of the Muslim "qibla" - the Arabic word for the direction Muslims turn to when they pray.(Youssef al-Qadarawy? Where have I heard that name before?)
The meeting in Qatar is part of a popular trend in some Muslim societies of seeking to find Koranic precedents for modern science.
Tony Blair is launching a foundation to promote religious faith in public life. Blair's Faith Foundation is not specific on which religious doctrine the faith should be in, as long, as long as actual religious faith is involved. Because it would be a shame if the big decisions that affect millions of lives were made on some lesser basis, such as, for example, reason or empirical observation.
Health authorities in the Philippines have warned devout Catholics taking part in Easter crucifixion rituals to get tetanus shots before they flagellate and/or crucify themselves, and to practice good hygiene:
In the hot and dusty atmosphere, officials warn, using unhygienic whips to make deep cuts in the body could lead to tetanus and other infections.
And they advise that the nails used to fix people to crosses must be properly disinfected first. Often people soak the nails in alcohol throughout the year.
In the northern city of San Fernando alone there will be three separate improvised Golgothas - the biblical name for the hill where Jesus was crucified.
The Catholic Church has just revised the list of mortal sins. Among new things which damn the sinner to Hell for all eternity if not absolved is engaging in "manipulative genetic science", i.e., modifying genetic material. To be fair, the Vatican did just erect a statue of Galileo, the scientist they forced on pain of death to recant the theory that the earth went around the sun, so they're not entirely anti-scientific; they just like their science to mature for a few centuries.
Other things Catholics may not do without risking eternal damnation include abortion (natch) and paedophilia, taking or dealing drugs (presumably not including socially acceptable ones, such as alcohol, nicotine or caffeine) or "the excessive accumulation of wealth by a few" (that's a few individuals, not the Church itself).
A poll has shown that fewer than a third of Americans consider nanotechnology to be morally acceptable; considerably fewer people than in Europe:
In a sample of 1,015 adult Americans, only 29.5 percent of respondents agreed that nanotechnology was morally acceptable.
In European surveys that posed identical questions about nanotechnology to people in the United Kingdom and continental Europe, significantly higher percentages of people accepted the moral validity of the technology. In the United Kingdom, 54.1 percent found nanotechnology to be morally acceptable. In Germany, 62.7 percent had no moral qualms about nanotechnology, and in France 72.1 percent of survey respondents saw no problems with the technology.The authors of the poll believe that this is not so much due to any specific moral issue concerning the making of molecule-sized materials or devices per se, but due to many Americans subscribing to a religious worldview that takes a dim view of "tampering with God's creation":
The catch for Americans with strong religious convictions, Scheufele believes, is that nanotechnology, biotechnology and stem cell research are lumped together as means to enhance human qualities. In short, researchers are viewed as "playing God" when they create materials that do not occur in nature, especially where nanotechnology and biotechnology intertwine, says Scheufele.
The moral qualms people of faith express about nanotechnology is not a question of ignorance of the technology, says Scheufele, explaining that survey respondents are well-informed about nanotechnology and its potential benefits. "They still oppose it," he says. "They are rejecting it based on religious beliefs. The issue isn't about informing these people. They are informed."Which is somewhat ironic, if the first post-Enlightenment nation is now dominated by a steadfastly pre-Enlightenment worldview; a people at peace with technology but hostile to the scientific mindset that makes it possible. Or, in the words of one member of a Christian Fundamentalist web forum (of course):
Technology makes peoples lives easier. Technology is the product of inventive geniuses who were inspired by God. Inventions and innovations improve life.
Science causes confustion and makes things complicated. Everytime there is a new discovery the old discoveries and old wisdom are discarded! And theories get more and more complex. Science makes people confused and complicates things. Who is the author of confusion? Satan of course. The bible it the opposite of science. Biblical wisdom NEVER CHANGES, and anyone can get it. Scientific wisdom is always changing and contradicting itself, and really nobody gets it.On a similar tangent: "Dumb and Dumber: are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?", a review of a new book claiming that anti-intellectualism is on the rise in the US.
The charts of Clarence Larkin; fantastic diagrams explaining arcane points of Christian theology and eschatology by analogy to hydraulics, produced between 1914 and 1919. If you ever wondered where the Church of the SubGenius' artists got some of their inspiration, look no further.
It's interesting that Larkin, a man of the 19th and early 20th centuries, used hydraulics (a commonly understood technology of his day) as a metaphor for salvation, damnation and the afterlife. I wonder whether his equivalents today use more contemporary technological metaphors. What would today's equivalents be? The scriptures as a computer bus diagram? UML charts of salvation and damnation? The Lake of Fire as /dev/null?
(via Boing Boing)
Today's Graun has a piece by Alexis Petridis looking at various music scenes in the UK that slip beneath the media's radar by virtue of being confined to various ethnic or religious subcultures. This includes everything from French-horn-wielding Polish new-wave punk rock to Islamic country and western to a thriving canto-pop scene.
The Church of England is delighted that this year's Royal Mail Christmas stamps will contain explicitly religious imagery, rather than, say, snowmen or what have you (Or, as the tabloids would say, "it's political correctness gone mad, I tell you!"). Royal Mail says that it has a policy of alternating between religious and secular themes, though the Church doesn't consider this to be good enough, and has called for explicitly Christian imagery to be used every year:
The Church has argued that Christian-themed designs "remind people of the true meaning of Christmas".There should absolutely be more recognition of the true meaning of Christmas; I look forward to the stamps depicting Thor, Sol Invictus and a bit of old-time public nudity.
In recent health-related news: a cure may have been discovered for the debilitating condition of unrequited love. Researchers in Alabama and Iran have found that a combination of the hormones of melatonin and vasotocin may alleviate the condition:
Intense romantic love is associated with specific physiological, psychological and behavioural changes, including euphoria, obsessiveness, and a craving for closeness with the target.
The key is the pea-sized pineal gland, which produces melatonin. This hormone plays a key role in the circadian cycle. It has also shown anti-dopamine activities in part of the brain, while a second hormone, arginine-vasotocin, also has a key role in romantic love. The researchers suggest that giving the two hormones may be a cure for non-returned romantic love.(Alabama and Iran? I wonder whether there's any deeper significance to two places known for religiously-based social conservatism being at the forefront of research to control a powerful and sometimes disruptive phenomenon. Is it heartening or disturbing that, even as talk of a US/Iranian war grows louder, US and Iranian scientists can join forces in the War On Unrequited Love?)
Also in the same article: taking showers may cause a neurodegenerative condition associated with inhalation of manganese, keeping dogs may cause breast cancer and sunlight may increase violent impulses.
A physics professor and university chair from Pakistan writes about the position of science in today's Islamic world:
Science finds every soil barren in which miracles are taken literally and seriously and revelation is considered to provide authentic knowledge of the physical world. If the scientific method is trashed, no amount of resources or loud declarations of intent to develop science can compensate. In those circumstances, scientific research becomes, at best, a kind of cataloging or "butterfly-collecting" activity. It cannot be a creative process of genuine inquiry in which bold hypotheses are made and checked.
In the 1980s an imagined "Islamic science" was posed as an alternative to "Western science." The notion was widely propagated and received support from governments in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere. Muslim ideologues in the US, such as Ismail Faruqi and Syed Hossein Nasr, announced that a new science was about to be built on lofty moral principles such as tawheed (unity of God), ibadah (worship), khilafah (trusteeship), and rejection of zulm (tyranny), and that revelation rather than reason would be the ultimate guide to valid knowledge. Others took as literal statements of scientific fact verses from the Qur'an that related to descriptions of the physical world. Those attempts led to many elaborate and expensive Islamic science conferences around the world. Some scholars calculated the temperature of Hell, others the chemical composition of heavenly djinnis. None produced a new machine or instrument, conducted an experiment, or even formulated a single testable hypothesis.
The question of how to reconcile religious practices with modern technological realities where their founders' assumptions do not hold has arisen again, as the world's first devoutly Muslim astronaut prepares to go into space, taking with him a document written by 150 Islamic scientists and scholars assembled by the Malaysian space agency on Islamic practice in space:
Dr. Kamal Abdali, a cartographer who is also Muslim and who has written (.pdf) extensively on determining the qibla, favors the great circle route, but adds, "Prayer is not supposed to be a gymnastic exercise. One is supposed to concentrate on the prayer rather the exact orientation." He points out that in a train or plane, it's customary to start in the qibla direction but then continue the prayer without worrying about possible changes in position.
Yet the option to pray while facing a point in space brings up another problem. Muslims face the ground to pray, in part to avoid any hint of pagan sun or moon worship ("Prostrate yourselves not to the sun nor to the moon, but prostrate yourselves to Allah Who created them, if you (really) worship Him" (The Quran, Fussilat 41:37). If the Ka'aba projection happens to line up with the sun or moon, purists might believe the prayer invalid.
Questions like these will continue as more and more religious astronauts travel into space. When is sunset in low Earth orbit if you're experiencing a dozen sunrises and sunsets in every 24-hour period? When does Sabbath begin on the moon, where the sun sets once a month? When is the first sighting of the crescent moon if you're on Mars? Religious councils of all faiths will have plenty to keep them busy for years.
Things aren't going well for the Church of Scientology; now, a Belgian state prosecutor has branded the church as a "criminal organisation", and recommended that it stand trial for fraud and extortion.
A court was told that a 25-year-old Sydney woman with a history of mental illness, who stands accused of murdering her parents, tried to get medication to treat her illness, but her parents objected because their Scientologist beliefs prohibited psychiatric drugs. Unfortunately, the young woman's thetans got the better of her.
A psychiatric report tendered to Bankstown Local Court yesterday said the 25-year-old woman accused of murdering her father and sister in Revesby last Thursday had tried to get help twice last year, but her Scientologist parents had a religious objection to psychiatric intervention.
Mr Brooks went on to argue that modern psychiatry used many methods that were largely "unproven" and such psychiatric assumptions - such as chemical imbalances in the brain - simply did not exist.The Vice President of the Church of Scientology in Australia has issued a statement saying that the link between Scientology and the murder was "a bit of a red herring", and claiming defamation. Meanwhile, a
What is safe to say that, if they find a gene responsible for Scientology, its incidence in the gene pool is slightly less frequent now.
In East Sussex, pagans are pissed off at an ITV makeover programme, for desecrating an archaeological site, the Long Man of Wilmington, with pigtails and breasts:
Arthur Pendragon, a Druid battle chieftain, said: "We are very angry because this is so disrespectful." The nomadic 53-year-old continued: "We, the pagans, would not in our wildest dreams consider putting female breasts and clothing on effigies of any Holy Prophets, be it Jesus Christ, Buddha or any other revered figure of another faith. Why then, does ITV commission Trinny and Susannah to do so at the Long Man of Wilmington?"
One of the protest organisers, Druid Greg Draven, 31, from Eastbourne, told The Argus in Brighton they had staged their campaign at the site to make the programme aware of their views.I wonder whether he is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Draven, or whether 1990s mall-goth movies are considered part of the pagan canon.
Secularist philosopher A.C. Grayling weighs in on the curious case of why the recent publication of half a dozen anti-religious books has caused so much alarm, while the constant flood of religious books attracts no attention:
Half a dozen anti-religious books; what is amazing is how little, if anything, is said about the many thousands of pro-religious books published every year all round the world. The magazine Publishers Weekly reported earlier this year that the member publishing houses of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association between them produced 13,400 new titles in the two years 2005-6 alone. This is just one segment of the religious publishing industry in just one wing of one of the world religions; the mind boggles at the extent of forests being felled for purveyance of religious doctrine, opinion, exhortation and polemic in every shade, nuance and type.I had the good fortune to see Grayling speak at the Hay-on-Wye festival recently, and while he is in a similar philosophical camp to the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, he certainly couldn't be classified as a "militant atheist". Then again, according to this blog post (also via Peter), the very phrase "militant atheist" is one of those weasel words, so thoroughly assimilated into the vernacular that people use it to describe people of quite moderate views, which just happen to be anti-religious:
From the meaning of "militant", you might expect that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are burning down churches, or at least leading protests, stirring up crowds with their fiery rhetoric. You would be disappointed, of course. What Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens have done is write books. Hitchens is more of a curmudgeon than a militant, and Dawkins and Harris are both rather mild-mannered. Nobody is leaving their public events carrying torches and singing the atheist analogue of the Horst Wessel song.I'm not sure I'd agree about Harris; his The End Of Faith seemed to echo a lot of rather ugly neoconservative warblogger polemic.
Though the blogger seems to have a point that a lot of people are willing to cut people a lot more slack if their behaviour or demeanour has a religious justification.
When Jerry Falwell died recently, newspaper obituaries rarely described him as "militant", even though the adjective fit him much better than mild-mannered atheists like Harris. Ironically, however, the Associated Press obituary by Sue Lindsey, referred to Falwell's father and grandfather as "militant atheists".
This year in India, anti-Valentine's Day demonstrators (mostly from the Hindu religious right) have adopted the tactic of forcibly marrying couples found celebrating Valentine's Day:
A 'rath' (decorated vehicle) prepared by the protesters, mainly activists of the Dharam Sena, for "forcibly marrying couples found celebrating Valentine's Day" was seized in Jabalpur, Additional Superintendent of Police Manohar Verma told PTI.It is not clear whether any such forced marriages have actually taken place, or whether, in fact, they would be legally binding.
(via Boing Boing)
A diagram connecting all combinations of the Seven Deadly Sins to produce 21 secondary sins (enumerated):
(via Boing Boing)
After Italy saw a spate of gruesome murders carried out by self-professed Satanists (who, apparently, indulge in "a lethal blend of black magic, hard drugs, sex and heavy metal"), the Italian police are planning to set up a "Satan squad". The special task force will include psychologists and a priest and will investigate "potentially dangerous religious movements". Some are concerned, though, that such a squad would become a hammer of Catholic majoritarianism and persecute harmless minority religions.
A survey of recent research in neurotheology and the biology of mystical experience, from the magnetic "God helmet" to the possibility of a gene that regulates propensity towards mystical/spiritual experience:
Newberg's scans showed that neural activity decreases in a region at the top and rear of the brain called the posterior superior parietal lobe. Newberg refers to this region as the orientation-association area, because it helps us orient our bodies in relation to the external world. Patients whose posterior superior parietal lobes have been damaged often lose the ability to navigate through the world, because they have difficulty determining where their physical selves end and where the external world begins. Newberg hypothesizes that suppressed activity in this brain region (prompted by an individual's willed activity) could heighten a sense of unity with the external world, thus diminishing a person's sense of subject-object duality.
Intriguingly, Newberg has found some overlap between the neural activity of self-transcendence and of sexual pleasure. This result makes sense, Newberg says. Just as orgasms are triggered by a rhythmic activity, so religious experiences can be induced by dancing, chanting, or repeating a mantra. And both orgasms and religious experiences produce sensations of bliss, self-transcendence, and unity; that may be why mystics such as Saint Teresa so often employed romantic and even sexual language to describe their raptures.
Our sense of self, Persinger notes, is ordinarily mediated by the brain's left hemisphere--specifically, by the left temporal lobe, which wraps around the side of the head. When the brain is mildly disrupted--by a head injury, psychological trauma, stroke, drugs, or epileptic seizure--our left-brain self may interpret activity within the right hemisphere as another self, or what Persinger calls a "sensed presence." Depending on our circumstances and background, we may perceive a sensed presence as a ghost, angel, demon, extraterrestrial, or God.
In the 1980s, a team at the University of Minnesota carried out a study of 84 pairs of twins--53 identical and 31 fraternal--who had been raised separately. The study was the first to suggest a genetic component to what the researchers called "intrinsic religiousness," which includes the tendency to pray often and to feel the presence of God.
Eventually Hamer found a variant, or allele, of a gene called VMAT, that corresponded to higher scores for what he had defined as spirituality. VMAT stands for vesicular monoamine transporter. The gene manufactures a protein that binds monoamines into packages, called vesicles, for transportation between neurons. Hamer calls the VMAT variant "the spiritual allele," or more dramatically, "the God gene".
Rick Strassman has proposed a theory even more reductionist and far-fetched than Hamer's, yet one that has empirical support. Strassman, a psychiatrist in New Mexico, traces spirituality to a single compound, dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. In his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Strassman proposes that DMT secreted by our own brains plays a profound role in human consciousness. Specifically, he hypothesizes that endogenous DMT triggers mystical visions, psychotic hallucinations, alien-abduction experiences, near-death experiences, and other exotic cognitive phenomena.The article concludes speculating on the possibilities discovering the biological root of spirituality could open:
Researchers may persist at these efforts because such studies offer the potential to alter our lives. In principle, these findings could lead to methods--call them "mystical technologies"--that reliably induce the state of spiritual insight that Christians call grace and Buddhists, enlightenment. Already Todd Murphy, a neuroscientist who has worked with Persinger, is marketing the "Shakti headset," a stripped-down version of Persinger's God machine, for "consciousness exploration." Electrodes implanted in the brain that electrically stimulate specific regions are now being tested as treatments for depression and other mental illnesses; conceivably this technology also could be used to induce mystical states.
Suppose scientists found a way to give us permanent, blissful, mystical self-transcendence. Would we want that power? Before Timothy Leary touted LSD as a route to profound psychological and spiritual insight, the CIA was studying its potential as a brainwashing agent. Persinger warns that in the wrong hands, a truly precise, powerful God machine, capable of implanting beliefs or signals that seem to come straight from the Almighty, could be the ultimate mind-control device. "Just think of the practical impact," he says. "People will die for this."
(via Mind Hacks)
As the Victorian state election approaches, shadowy extreme-right-wing religious group The Exclusive Brethren (whose religion prohibits them from voting, though apparently says nothing about exerting influence in favour of conservative parties) have beem taking out newspaper ads attacking the Greens.
A few interesting facts about the Exclusive Brethren: other than being staunch supporters of socially right-wing parties in various countries (though, seemingly, not in Britain, where they originated) and having a penchant for anonymous whispering campaigns against progressive politicians, the Exclusive Brethren are the sect into which the occultist Aleister Crowley was born.
It has emerged that the Church of Scientology has been feteing the City of London police with lunches and regular invitations to Scientologist-connected entertainment events, including Tom Cruise blockbusters and an all-Clam "hot jive" band.
A spokeswoman for the Church has claimed that the hospitality is completely benign, part of a constructive relationship stemming from the Church's clean-up campaigns in drug-ridden areas. Meanwhile, a London-based
psychlo psychiatrist has claimed that there are sinister motivations to it; though, given that psychiatrists are evil puppets of Xenu, he would, wouldn't he?
Conservative Catholic youth flock to Glastonbury to "cleanse" it of its pagan influences.
Maya Pinder, the owner of the shop, said: "We've had to hear comments such as 'burn the witches', we've had salt thrown in our faces and at our shop, people were openly saying they were 'cleansing Glastonbury of paganism'.
"It was as if we had returned to the dark ages. This is hugely damaging to Glastonbury ... it is hard enough to trade in Glastonbury as it is, if you were to take away the pagan element it would be a dead town." The Somerset town is known for having a large population of resident and visiting pagans.The Youth 2000 group, a conservative Catholic youth group which organised the pilgrimage, has publicly distanced itself from the incidents.
An Australian branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis, a pagan/occult group founded in the early 20th century by (in)famous occultist Aleister "the Great Beast" Crowley, has been accused of participating in child abuse and human sacrifice:
According to OTO's statement of complaint, Dr Michaelson said it was not a religion but a child pornography and pedophile ring, that its members practised trauma-based mind control, sexual abuse and satanic rituals to discourage its victims from complaining to the authorities, and that it condoned kidnapping street children and babies and children from orphanages for sex and sacrifice in religious rituals.
The article, still accessible on a website run from NSW, suggests senior politicians and television celebrities are part of a top-level pedophile ring and have been protected by some police. It says some members of the ring pretended to support Dr Michaelson's campaign and became board members of her group to subvert it from within.The OTO is suing the Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Program under Victoria's religious-vilification laws.
In his recent book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserted that, in today's America, atheists have a standing similar to what gays had 50 years ago. (According to a poll quoted by Dawkins, only 49% of Americans would approve of an atheist holding public office; other traditionally disenfranchised minorities (women, gays and African-Americans) get scores in the high 70s to 90s.) Dawkins' picture is grim for American atheists: they're routinely vilified as amoral nihilists, and often subjected to intimidation.
Scott Adams (the Dilbert one, not the text-adventure one), however, presents a more optimistic picture: according to him, atheists are the new gays; books by Dawkins and gung-ho neoconservative atheist Sam Harris are topping the sales charts, and, as likeable gay characters did a few decades ago, openly atheist characters are now filtering into TV shows:
Prior to 9/11, it would have been career suicide for a public figure to come right out and say God is a fairy tale. Now it's a feature of popular culture. You can see it on cable of course, in shows such as BullSh*t, Real Time, The Daily Show, and Southpark. But it's also a feature of network TV. The main character on House is written as the most brilliant human on the planet, and he's an atheist. The new show 3lbs has a similar character. I can't remember anything like that ten years ago.Adams puts this down to 9/11; whereas during the Cold War, America was fighting a nominally atheistic Soviet Union (hence "In God We Trust" having been added to US currency during the McCarthy era), it is now fighting adversaries who, whichever way you look at them, epitomise religious faith at its most extreme.
Ask a deeply religious Christian if he'd rather live next to a bearded Muslim that may or may not be plotting a terror attack, or an atheist that may or may not show him how to set up a wireless network in his house. On the scale of prejudice, atheists don't seem so bad lately.Depends on the "deeply religious Christian"; don't a lot of religious hardliners in the US lump everybody outside of the One True Religion, from Godless feminists to Wahhabi Islamists, as part of the same Satanic Other?
Anyway, Dawkins suggested in his book that there are many more atheists in America than are willing to identify them as such, and that many of political leaders (and even some religious leaders) who, for reasons of pragmatism, profess to be acceptably religious, are closet atheists, and that if they started coming out of the closet, this could trigger a change in American political culture. Adams suggests that this may be happening now. He furthers that to propose America's first explicitly Atheist President: Bill Gates.
As the Blair government vaciliates on the issue of faith schools, this article, from an academic, argues that religion is of little benefit to education:
There is no additional educational value that derives from having teachers who share a moral outlook. If anything, universities expect and encourage a diversity of views and approaches among teachers and researchers. There may be unspoken norms, but broadly, doctrinal thought is frowned upon and is considered insufficient to a proper education.
Against all this, the ideal of the university as a place of free thought is not a bad model for understanding how people might learn things. I understand that we live in a society that regards the young as bestial creatures who must be civilised before education is possible - and that this is the job that is handed to religion, with a rolling of eyes at the alleged failures of liberal teaching and child-centred approaches.
The catch is that all must learn to hear and consider unfamiliar and, perhaps, unpalatable views and beliefs, not because becoming educated demands adherence to any particular view, but because becoming equipped to contemplate all views is what makes you educated.
The latest fatwa posted on an Islamist website is against the Apple store in New York; an unnamed organisation claims that Apple's cube-shaped store in New York is "an insult to Islam", because (a) it resembles the Ka'aba in Mecca, (b) is known as "the Apple Mecca", and (c) "contains bars serving alcoholic beverages". Which is fair enough, except that (b) and (c) are false (or at least nobody officially calls it the "Apple Mecca"), and (a) is only true in that both buildings are cube-shaped.
(via The Reg)
Outspoken liberal Muslim woman Saira Khan (who also hosted a BBC Radio documentary on blogging a while ago) speaks in support of Jack Straw's recent comments, in which he stated that Muslim women in Britain should not wear face-covering veils:
It is an extreme practice. It is never right for a woman to hide behind a veil and shut herself off from people in the community. But it is particularly wrong in Britain, where it alien to the mainstream culture for someone to walk around wearing a mask. The veil restricts women, it stops them achieving their full potential in all areas of their life and it stops them communicating. It sends out a clear message: "I do not want to be part of your society."This claim that women veiling themselves is a separatist/exclusionary act is certainly not disproved by some recent letters to newspapers from Muslims speaking out in favour of women wearing veils, which often speak contemptuously of non-Islamic British society as being comprised primarily of violent, drunken, sex-crazed undesirables whom one would naturally want to avoid.
Saira goes on:
Some Muslim women say that it is their choice to wear it; I don't agree. Why would any woman living in a tolerant country freely choose to wear such a restrictive garment? What these women are really saying is that they adopt the veil because they believe that they should have less freedom than men, and that if they did not wear the veil men would not be accountable for their uncontrollable urges -- so women must cover-up so as not to tempt men. What kind of a message does that send to women?
Many moderate Muslim women in Britain will welcome Mr Straw's comments. This is an opportunity for them to say: "I don't wear the veil but I am a Muslim." If I had been forced to wear a veil I would certainly not be writing this article -- I would not have the friends I have, I would not have been able to run a marathon or become an aerobics teacher or set up a business.
Blogging has been accused of being a lot of things, and now, according to an Evangelical church, it is un-Christian:
"Blogging has become a socially accepted practice - just as are dating seriously too young, underage drinking and general misbehaving," notes the monthly of the Reformed Church of God, Ambassador Youth.
"People will now do and say things that should only be done in private, or, frankly, should not be said or done at all," rues Denee. "Propriety, decorum and decency are not elements considered on blogs. People simply blurt things out, without considering the contents or consequences."The Reformed Church of God, who issued this particular fatwa, recommends in lieu of this unnatural and ungodly practice, "maintaining friends the "old-fashioned" way, through actual personal contact, as well as letter writing, emailing or instant messaging".
(via The Register)
BBC News has some excerpts from Richard Dawkins' new book, "The God Delusion":
When I interviewed for television the Reverend Michael Bray, a prominent American anti-abortion activist, I asked him why evangelical Christians were so obsessed with private sexual inclinations such as homosexuality, which didn't interfere with anybody else's life. His reply invoked something like self-defence. Innocent citizens are at risk of becoming collateral damage when God chooses to strike a town with a natural disaster because it houses sinners. In 2005, the fine city of New Orleans was catastrophically flooded in the aftermath of a hurricane, Katrina. The Reverend Pat Robertson, one of America's best-known televangelists and a former presidential candidate, was reported as blaming the hurricane on a lesbian comedian who happened to live in New Orleans.* You'd think an omnipotent God would adopt a slightly more targeted approach to zapping sinners: a judicious heart attack, perhaps, rather than the wholesale destruction of an entire city just because it happened to be the domicile of one lesbian comedian.
Hacker turned theologian Simon Cozens puts forward an argument that the belief system known as "Christianity" in America is not Christianity. By which he means not that is a weird form of Christianity, or even that it is heretical or flawed, but, quite literally, that it is a completely different, unrelated, belief system that happens to have the same name:
The situation only makes sense if you consider a separate entity called "American Christianity" which is an entirely separate religion to Christianity. Not a branch of Christianity, not a form of Christianity, but something with absolutely no connection to Christianity at all. It's a separate religion. And what is the goal of this religion?
look at it phenomenologically, look at it sociologically, and what do you see? Basically a syncretic folk religion, based primarily on American nationalism, an expression of the "pervasive religious dimension of American political life". (Bellah; see also "Civil Religion in America") Its purposes are basically civil and political. Its morality is taken from a highly selective and individualistic reading of the Old Testament, and it mixes in bits of consumerism, Zionism, Republican political values, and corporatism for good measure. Add to this an almost romantic sentimentality concerning the person of Jesus, much like the contribution of Catholicism to Vodou religions, and suddenly it all makes sense.
This past Fourth of July, a megachurch pastor in Memphis, Tennessee, has given the Statue of Liberty a faith-based makeover:
As the congregation of the World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church looked on and its pastor, Apostle Alton R. Williams, presided, a brown shroud much like a burqa was pulled away to reveal a giant statue of the Lady, but with the Ten Commandments under one arm and "Jehovah" inscribed on her crown. And in place of a torch, she held aloft a large gold cross, as if to ward off the pawnshops, the car dealerships and the discount furniture outlets at the busy corner of Kirby Parkway and Winchester that is her home. A single tear graced her cheek.
In "The Meaning of the Statue of Liberation Through Christ: Reconnecting Patriotism With Christianity," he explains that the teardrop on his Lady is God's response to what he calls the nation's ills, including legalized abortion, a lack of prayer in schools and the country's "promotion of expressions of New Age, Wicca, secularism and humanism." In another book, he said Hurricane Katrina was retribution for New Orleans's embrace of sin.On a tangent: I am amused to read that, apparently, atheists in the US are technically a "fringe religion" alongside Satanists, Scientologists and Druids.
In Tampere, Finland, an atheist group has set up a website to help people resign from the church.
Easy resignation through the web site has increased the rate of resignations in Finland. Resigning through the web site only requires filling a short personal information form, after which a local city council will receive an email about the resignation. In cities where the city council does not accept email resignations, Freethinkers will pay the postal fee.
The rate of resignations from the Evangelic Lutheran state church of Finland has increased rapidly in recent years. 27009 people resigned from the church in 2004. 33043 people resigned in 2005, which is 22% more than in 2004. There are approximately 5.26 million people in Finland, which gives a proportion of people resigning from the church of 0.6% in 2005. The most common reasons cited for resigning from the church have been saving church income tax (1.3% on average), lack of religious beliefs and belief in another religion. A person can avoid church income tax by resigning before a new year begins. Increased resignation rates in November and December (shown in the figure) supports the theory that the most common reason for resigning is avoiding the income tax.Finland is officially a Lutheran country, with everyone belonging by default to the state church unless they submit a resignation form. Mind you, one could argue that a universal state church is just another implementation of a secular society; the levels of zeal one can expect from such an organisation make the Church of England look like Branch Davidians by comparison, and many of those who do belong to the church see the inside of one about three times in their lives.
An Essex insurance company has cancelled what may have been the most bizarre insurance policy in Britain. In the policy, three sisters in the Scottish highlands, who apparently were members of a "Christian group" of some sort, had insured their virginity for £1 million, against the event of any of them immaculately conceiving the second coming of Jesus Christ:
Mr Burgess said: "The people were concerned about having sufficient funds if they immaculately conceived. It was for caring and bringing up the Christ. "We sometimes get weird requests and this is the weirdest we have had."
The burden of proof that it was Christ had rested with the women and any premium on the insurance was donated to charity, said Mr Burgess.
The siblings had paid £100 annually since 2000. If they had secured a payout, they stood to receive £1m.The policy was apparently cancelled partly because of complaints from the Catholic Church, which doesn't look kindly on unauthorised immaculate conceptions.
A recent study into the healing power of prayer (conducted in the US, where such things are an important issue to enough people to justify such studies) has found, surprisingly enough, that praying for someone doesn't appear to help them recover. Even more strangely, of the 1,802 patients in the study, those who were prayed for did slightly worse than those who weren't:
Among the first group -- who were prayed for but only told they might be -- 52 percent had post-surgical complications compared to 51 percent in the second group, the ones who were not prayed for though told they might be. In the third group, who knew they were being prayed for, 59 percent had complications.
"Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on whether complications occurred (and) patients who were certain that intercessors would pray for them had a higher rate of complications than patients who were uncertain but did receive intercessory prayer," the study said.
There is "no clear explanation" for the latter finding, it added.The moral of this story is: if someone you care about is fighting for their life, for God's sake, don't pray for them. Or perhaps it isn't.
A telephone survey of 2,000 households across the United States has revealed that atheists are America's most distrusted minority. Americans see atheists as a threat to the American way of life, rate them below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in "sharing their vision of American society", and are the least willing to allow their children to marry one.
Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. "Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years," says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the studys lead researcher.
Edgell also argues that todays atheists play the role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the pastthey offer a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society. "It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common core of values that make them trustworthy—and in America, that core has historically been religious," says Edgell. Many of the studys respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.Of course, not all Americans would prohibit their children from marryin' an atheist. The study found, not surprisingly, that intolerance of atheists is inversely proportional to one's education and exposure to diversity.
A judge in the United States has denied a woman custody of her child after seeing photographs of her participating in Church of the SubGenius events; or so she says, anyway:
On February 3, 2006, Judge Punch heard testimony in the case. Jeff entered into evidence 16 exhibits taken from the Internet, 12 of which are photographs of the SubGenius event, X-Day. Kohl has never attended X-Day and is not in any of the pictures. Rachel is depicted in many of these photos, often wearing skimpy costumes or completely nude, while participating in X-Day and Detroit Devival events.
The judge, allegedly a very strict Catholic, became outraged at the photos of the X-Day parody of Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ — especially the photo where Jesus [Steve Bevilacqua] is wearing clown makeup and carrying a crucifix with a pool-noodle dollar sign on it while being beaten by a crowd of SubGenii, including a topless woman with a "dildo".
His Honor also strongly disapproved of the photos of Mary Magdalen [Rachel Bevilacqua] in a bondage dress and papier maché goat's head. The judge repeatedly asked, "Why a goat? What's so significant about a goat's head?" When Rachel replied, "I just thought the word 'goat' was funny," Judge Punch lost his temper completely, and began to shout abuse at Rachel, calling her a "pervert," "mentally ill," "lying," and a participant in "sex orgies." The judge ordered that Rachel is to have absolutely no contact with her son, not even in writing, because he felt the pictures of X-Day performance art were evidence enough to suspect "severe mental illness". Rachel has had no contact with Kohl since that day, February 3, 2006.Various SubGenii, Discordians, pagans and miscellaneous freakonauts are getting involved in mounting an appeal, a process which is expected to cost US$50,000. Some are concerned that, should this judgment be allowed to stand, it may set a precedent denying practitioners of non-traditional lifestyles equality before the law when it comes to child custody.
There is a discussion of this case on Metafilter, with some comments casting doubt on the SubGeniis' account of the case.
(via Boing Boing)
America may have had Freedom Fries and Freedom Ticklers, but Iran is doing one better: the national confectioners' union has ordered danish pastries to be renamed "Roses of the Prophet Mohammed", in retaliation for a Danish newspaper's disrespecting of the Prophet. Presumably there would also be a mandatory "(peace be upon him)" after that, making the new appellation sound even more awkward.
For those who haven't been reading newspapers or watching the news: a few months ago, a Danish newspaper published cartoons depicting the Prophed Mohammed as a terrorist. Little happened for a few months, then the Saudi state-run press digs up the issue, perhaps to distract attention from the Hajj deaths, and the Muslim world erupts in flames of protest, most specifically in places where the local powers that be find it expedient to fan the flames. A few extremists do things like storm and burn down Danish embassies, gun down Christian priests, or rally on the streets of London calling for suicide bombings and the beheading of blasphemers, doing little to refute the cartoons' association of Islam with violence and extremism which, presumably, they found so offensive. Meanwhile, many countries in the Islamic world have banned trade with Denmark until the government apologises and punishes those involved (because, of course, the only way something can be published is with government approval). Carlsberg and Danish bacon producers are reported to be "unconcerned".
Anyway, here is an overview of the incident. Be warned: it contains copies of the Satanic Drawings; it also contains anti-Semitic cartoons published in the state-controlled press of various Arab countries, which, inexplicably, have failed to result in Jewish mobs razing Saudi and Omanian embassies.
The world's oldest multinational corporation, the Catholic Church, is joining the intellectual-property age; the Vatican has declared it intends to claim copyright on the current and previous Popes' words, and require any publications carrying those words to license them for a royalty equivalent to 3-5% of the cover price. Newspapers are exempted from the royalty, but only by "prior agreement" (i.e., giving the Vatican the power of veto over unflattering uses of the Pope's words). This has raised the ire of those who object to a price being put on the "word of the Lord" and its official interpretation.
(via bOING bOING)
The latest rebranding of Jesus Christ makes him a black revolutionary in Africa:
Instead of robes and homilies about turning the other cheek, this Jesus wears jeans and T-shirts and urges supporters to resist - peacefully - a tyrannical regime in an unnamed southern African country which resembles Zimbabwe. A collaboration between Spier films and the Dimpho Di Kopane, a theatre and film ensemble, the feature, made in South Africa, was shot in rural Eastern Cape and in Khayelitsha, a township outside Cape Town plagued by poverty and crime.
Son of Man, directed by Mark Dornford-May, depicts Jesus as a divine being who performs miracles. But it may prove contentious for switching the story from Roman-occupied first-century Palestine to misruled 21st-century Africa. "He gathers people around him to fight against poverty and political oppression," said Pauline Malefane, who plays Mary. "It feels a bit like apartheid, people living in fear that soldiers could come into the house at any time and kill children."Compare and contrast with the hip Jesus-as-Che/Mao icons that evangelical groups around the world have been using in recent years.
A church in Cambridge has started holding a church service for Goths:
The associate vicar at St Edward King and Martyr church in Cambridge, himself a goth, holds a 45-minute service complete with candles and a specially written liturgy for members of the goth community. There are no hymns but goth music is played instead, including artists such as Depeche Mode, Joy Division and the Sisters of Mercy, said Mr Ramshaw, 34.
After the service, most of the congregation go to a goth evening at the nearby Kambar nightclub called, appropriately enough, the Calling.Of course, if you assume that Goth is intrinsically a manifestation of Judaeo-Christianity (see also: heavy metal, Satanism, Johnny Cash, Nick Cave), this isn't quite as weird as it sounds.
8. Devout Orthodox Jews are three times as likely to jaywalk as other people, according to an Israeli survey reported in the New Scientist. The researchers say it's possibly because religious people have less fear of death.
59. Oliver Twist is very popular in China, where its title is translated as Foggy City Orphan.
74. It takes a gallon of oil to make three fake fur coats.
81. George Bernard Shaw named his shed after the UK capital so that when visitors called they could be told he was away in London.
99. The Japanese word "chokuegambo" describes the wish that there were more designer-brand shops on a given street.
100. Musical instrument shops must pay an annual royalty to cover shoppers who perform a recognisable riff before they buy, thereby making a "public performance".
Quote of the day, from Robert M. Sapolsky's contribution to "What We Believe But Cannot Prove", a collection of short essays on the subject by various eminent scientific thinkers:
Many physicists, especially astrophysicists, seem weirdly willing to go on about their communing with God in contemplating the Big Bang, but in my world of biologists, the God concept gets mighty infuriating when you spend your time thinking about, say, untreatably aggressive childhood leukemia.
The successful Iraqi election, with its broad participation of all ethnic groups and relative lack of bloodshed, has sent Bush's approval rating soaring; however, looking more closely at the situation, the triumph of democracy looks rather hollow. The country is divided along sectarian lines, hardline Islamists dominate all three parts of it, and the pro-Western secularists Washington had hoped would prevail look like getting fewer seats in the new parliament than the hostage-beheading militants. In short, Iraq seems to be fissioning into two or three theocracies, with the Shia faction enthusiastically joining Iran's (Ahmadine-)jihad against Israel and the West and the Sunni part becoming an al-Qaeda fiefdom not unlike Taliban Afghanistan; either that or the whole country turning into Somalia.
"People underestimate how religious Iraq has become," said one Iraqi observer. "Iran is really a secular society with a religious leadership, but Iraq will be a religious society with a religious leadership." Already most girls leaving schools in Baghdad wear headscarves. Women's rights in cases of divorce and inheritance are being eroded.
Today, in theological news: the Catholic church is set to abolish the concept of limbo, as a place for the souls of unbaptised children and virtuous heathens, saying that it "has always been just a theological hypothesis".
Meanwhile, terminally ill patients in Israel will be allowed euthanasia, as long as it's carried out by machines and not humans, as that would be forbidden under Jewish law:
A special timer will be fitted to a patient's respirator which will sound an alarm 12 hours before turning it off.
Normally, carers would override the alarm and keep the respirator turned on but, if various stringent conditions are met, including the giving of consent by the patient or legal guardian, the alarm would not be overridden.
Similar timing devices, known as Sabbath clocks, are used in the homes of orthodox Jews so that light switches and electrical devices can be turned on during the Sabbath without offending religious strictures.As Jamie Zawinski said, "Judaism is so awesome -- it's the only religion composed entirely of loopholes!"
Just as proponents of "Intelligent Design" are rallying against the theory of evolution, their counterparts in linguistics are pushing the (strictly scientific, mind you, and not in the least religious) theory of "Wrathful Dispersion":
The opponents of Wrathful Dispersion maintain that it is really just Babelism, rechristened so that it might fly under the radar of those who insist that religion has no place in the state-funded classroom. Babelism was clearly rooted in the Judeo-Christian story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 19); it held that the whole array of modern languages was created by God at a single stroke, for the immediate purpose of disrupting humanity's hubristic attempt to build a tower that would reach to heaven... Wrathful Dispersion is couched in more cautiously neutral language; rather than tying linguistic diversity to a specific biblical event, it merely argues that the differences among modern languages are too perverse to have arisen spontaneously, and must therefore be the work of some wrathful (and powerful) disperser who deliberately set out to accomplish a confusion of tongues.
One cynical observer has likened WD to Scientology, which "is a religion for purposes of tax assessment, a science for purposes of propaganda, and a work of fiction for purposes of copyright."This article, of course, is a parody. However, this site appears to be all too sincere, and offers up pearls of wisdom such as:
The Tower of Babel scenario of the Biblical account in Genesis 11 posits that all people spoke the same language before the Lord confused human tongues. Up until the nineteenth century it was common knowledge that the pre-Babel tongue was the language of the Bible, Ancient Hebrew and the language of Adam and Eve. ven in colonial America, Hebrew was so revered that the first dissertation in the New World, at Harvard College, was on Hebrew as The Mother Tongue. The Continental Congress nearly made Hebrew the language of the new republic, as much to break away from England as to reaffirm America's status as the new Promised Land.Actually, the claim that Hebrew almost became the US national language is a myth.
And it goes on from there, going into things from the white-supremacist tenets of Darwinism to Noam Chomsky being the connection between Godless non-Edenist linguistics and rabid anti-Israelism, not to mention the "proto-world" fallacy of assuming that languages remain largely static.
More news on the state of scientific thought in the World's Leading Nation: An exhibition celebrating the life of Charles Darwin has failed to find a corporate sponsor in the United States as no company wants to be associated with something as reviled as the theory of evolution.
In contrast, the Creationist Museum in Ohio has recently raised US$7m in donations.
Mental disorder of the day: Scrupulosity is a debilitating form of obsessive-compulsive disorder which takes the form of excessively fastidious religious observance, often in completely arbitrary ways, and fear of not being sufficiently devout or virtuous. It most commonly affects teenagers and recent religious converts:
Ciarrocchi has had patients who spend as much as 12 hours a day praying. He says he once treated a Third World-based priest who, after conducting his weekly outdoor Mass, would crawl on the ground searching for slivers of Communion wafer. In his mind, a priest had to be perfectly fastidious about discharging his holy responsibilities or else risk the wrath of God.
"Many people who are scrupulous have a notion that they're being watched," he says, "and one false move, it's curtains."
He recalls an Orthodox Jewish teenager who made so many promises to God — to drink only so many sodas a day, to visit 7-Eleven only so many times a week, to never switch radio stations midsong — that keeping track of them got logistically impossible. It became debilitating.
"He couldn't move," Mansueto says. "He literally couldn't get out of his chair."
The first five months of his new life were blissful. Then he became increasingly scrupulous. He would retreat into his room for hours at a time, memorizing about 300 Bible verses word for word. He'd dissect church sermons and agonize over his prospects of salvation.Evidence of the phenomenon of scrupulosity goes back to at least the 9th century (when the Christian church brought in the ritual of confession, and compulsive confessors were first encountered), and some say that famous religious figures throughout history, including St. Ignatius of Loyola and Martin Luther, were afflicted with this condition. (Of course, had they been "healthy", they may well have lived their lives out in contented obscurity.)
" 'Do you really think I'm saved?' He'd probably ask me that 10 times a day," his wife says.
"It became a huge tormenting thing for me," he says. "I started fearing I was never converted or saved. I would have blasphemous thoughts, cursing God in my mind. I'd have to pray to get rid of it."
Fortunately, drugs such as Zoloft and Paxil can be used to treat scrupulosity. I wonder how many potential saints the world loses every year to modern psychopharmacology.
George W. Bush, Commander of the Free World, says that God told him to invade Iraq:
One of the delegates, Nabil Shaath, who was Palestinian foreign minister at the time, said: "President Bush said to all of us: 'I am driven with a mission from God'. God would tell me, 'George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan'. And I did. And then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq'. And I did."
Mr Bush went on: "And now, again, I feel God's words coming to me, 'Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East'. And, by God, I'm gonna do it."As they say, "if you talk to God, you're praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia". At least it wasn't his talking dog that told him to invade Iraq or lower taxes for the rich or whatever.
The Whitehouse, however, is denying that Bush made those statements. I wonder whether it's (a) to not alienate the more secular-minded Republican voters (i.e., neoconservatives and libertarians) or (b) because much of the staunchly pro-Israeli US Religious Right would consider the idea of God sanctioning a Palestinian state blasphemous.
Salma Qureshi, a thirtysomething computer programmer and British Muslim, is studying to become Britain's first female imam:
"I'm quite religious but at the same time I'm quite a liberal person myself," she says.
She said that when she was younger, she could not "differentiate what was religion and what was culture," and that she thought Islam imposed "too many restrictions" on women. "It's only afterwards I realised that this is all cultural - religion doesn't really stop women doing anything," she added.Good luck to her, I say. If she can provide a role model for an Islam that's in harmony, rather than at odds, with the values of liberal society, it should take some of the wind out of the sails of extremists (on all sides).
A new study has shown that, far from being essential to a healthy society, widespread religious belief is socially corrosive, and correlates strongly with a range of social ills, from violent crime to sexually-transmitted diseases:
Published in the Journal of Religion and Society, a US academic journal, it says: "Many Americans agree that their churchgoing nation is an exceptional, God-blessed, shining city on the hill that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly sceptical world.
"In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so."In contrast, the relatively secular UK has fewer social ills, and Scandinavia (which has national churches which most people see the insides of about twice in their lives), Japan and the Godless cheese-eating surrender monkeys have been the most successful in reducing murder and early mortality rates, sexually-transmitted diseases and abortion.
The report seems to be mainly about religiosity in the US, where evolution is seen as a litmus test of theological correctness, which causes it to read somewhat strangely elsewhere. (The phrase "pro-evolution democracy" sounds a bit like "heliocentric-astronomy democracy" or something.)
"The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator," he says.Advocates of strong religious values are unlikely to be convinced by this report, especially if they reject the scientific method as Godless.
Mulleted and mustached Molvanian pop idol Zladko "ZLAD!" Vladcik, tried to enter last year's Eurovision contest with his catchy retro synthpop ditty "Elektronik Supersonik", is back. His 2005 entry (also disqualified) is much darker, hearkening back to the perplexing 1980s European trend of minor-key synthpop songs referencing obscure religious heresies and points of theology. It is titled "I am the Anti-pope", and the video featured an ecclesiastically-garbed Zlad being whipped in slow motion by a goth chick in a nun's habit, who is also seen playing a keytar. Some sample lyrics:
I am the Anti-Pope.
I am the Anti-Pope.
Like a lion kills an antelope.
Like a hammer hits a cantaloupe.
Like a neck in a hanging rope.
Like a germ in a microscope.
Like a witch reads a horoscope.
Like a cutter stabs an envelope.
In response to the British government's proposed
all-faiths blasphemy religious-hatred legislation, Christian satirical paper Ship of Fools has published a list of the 20 funniest and most offensive religious jokes. There are 10 of each; be warned that paedophilic priests and off-colour references to religious figures feature prominently:
Jesus came upon a small crowd who had surrounded a young woman they believed to be an adulteress. They were preparing to stone her to death.
To calm the situation, Jesus said: "Whoever is without sin among you, let them cast the first stone."
Suddenly, an old lady at the back of the crowd picked up a huge rock and lobbed it at the young woman, scoring a direct hit on her head. The unfortunate young lady collapsed dead on the spot.
Jesus looked over towards the old lady and said: "Do you know, Mother, sometimes you really piss me off."
An Indian man dies and arrives at the Pearly Gates.
"Yes, how can I help?" asks St Peter. "I'm here to meet Jesus," says the Indian man.
St Peter looks over his shoulder and shouts, "Jesus, your cab is here!"
An excellent rant from Patrick Farley (of E-Sheep web-comics fame) about the present state of affairs:
I'm sick of being told that catastrophe is victory.
I'm sick of being told that mythology is science, and vice-versa.
I'm sick of millionaire drug-addicts instructing me on how to live a virtuous life.
I'm sick of being told that Petroleum is the Lifeblood of Civilization.
I'm sick of being told in late 2005 that "It's all Clinton's fault."
I'm sick of Working Class Heroes who can be depended on to swallow any shit, so long as it's wrapped in a flag and served on a Bible.
I'm sick of "Christian" ministers who show up at funerals carrying signs which read "YOUR FAG SON BURNS IN HELL!"
I'm sick of being told that questioning authority makes me a traitor.
I'm sick of being told I must fear God.
I'm sick of being told that the worship of force is the highest of human virtues.Someone should put this to music.
In the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, a list of charities and their ideological affiliations; in particular, which charities are fronts for fundamentalist religious groups (predominantly Dominionist Christians, as this is a US-specific list), will use money donated for evangelism or pushing a political or theological agenda, or have troubling denominational biases or discriminatory practices (such as, for example, the Salvation Army).
Creationists in the US have launched upon a new offensive: buying up the country's numerous dinosaur-shaped roadside attractions and turning them into Creationist propaganda exhibits, disputing the Godless heathen assertion that dinosaurs died out before humanity arose:
The nearly 7-acre museum, low-tech theme park and science center embodies its founder's belief that God created the world in six days. The dinosaurs, even super carnivores such as T. rex, dined as vegetarians in the Garden of Eden until Adam and Eve sinned -- and only then did they feast on other creatures, according to the Christian-based young-Earth theory.
About 4,500 years after Adam and Eve arrived, the theory goes, pairs of baby dinosaurs huddled in Noah's Ark, and a colossal flood drowned the rest and scattered their fossils. The ark-borne animals repopulated the planet -- meaning that folk tales about fire-breathing beasts are accounts of humans battling dinosaurs, who still roamed the planet.Cranky old atheist scientists have responded with the usual disdain:
"Dinosaurs lived in the Garden of Eden, and Noah's Ark? Give me a break," said Kevin Padian, curator at the University of California Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley and president of National Center for Science Education, an Oakland group that supports teaching evolution. "For them, 'The Flintstones' is a documentary."But the Creationists aren't daunted:
The pastor and the Kanters now hope to turn Mr. Rex's innards into exhibits about cryptozoology -- the study of speculative creatures, such as Bigfoot -- and creationism. They will somewhat mirror those in Santee, which takes visitors from Genesis to modern times with placards that say Darwin "came at just the right time to be the catalyst for a revival of ancient paganism" and that evolution birthed Communism, racism and Nazism.
Kids flock to the huge statues. "And it's not like they're crying, 'Oh, mommy, take me out, I'm scared.' They're drawn to it," Chiles said. "There's something in their DNA that knows man walked with these creatures on Earth."In other words, "in your heart, you know it's flat".
I wonder how long until the Creationists' Australian counterparts start buying or building roadside Big Things to spread their message; and, indeed, how much Federal Government funding they will be eligible to receive for such faith-based programmes.
Along similar lines: a New Republic article on how the religious right adopted postmodernist relativism as a weapon against that frustrating Enlightenment empiricist tradition, paving the way for know-nothingisms like "Intelligent Design" to be passed off as equally valid alternatives. It'll be interesting to see whether they'll succeed by weight of numbers in rolling back the Enlightenment and rendering scientific rationalism as a secret doctrine much like alchemy, taught only on a need-to-know basis to those who design and launch the religious-broadcasting satellites and web browsers the masses use, or whether the counter-Enlightenment will burn itself out, and possibly drive inquiring minds towards hardcore atheism at the same time.
(via bOING bOING)
The latest salvo has been fired in the Australian culture war: Treasurer and cultural conservative Peter Costello has denounced the influence of left-wing schoolteachers in creating a "dangerous" anti-American bias which could leave Australia vulnerable to terrorism.
Perhaps it's time for purges of known or suspected leftists from teaching positions and an ABC-style culture of self-censorship in the schools? They could have anonymous phone lines where students can dob in teachers making left-wing statements. Alternatively, the government could set up a quota system to stack the schools with Assembly Of God/Hillsong fundamentalist types; that would have the additional benefit of making it easier for Brendan Nelson to introduce his proposed Intelligent
Falling Design programmes into science classes.
In other news, Pope
Sidious I Benedict XVI has singled out Australia as a "faithless" country, claiming that mainstream Christianity is dying out there more quickly than anywhere else. I shudder to think how many millions of Australian taxpayers' funds will be redirected to faith-based programmes or even tax incentive schemes to remedy this (and help build up a reliable US-style religious power base for the Tories).