Wednesday, July 30, 2008


From The Onion (which originated at The University of Wisconsin, I learned recently from my Badger alum girlfriend):
In brightly hued tights, it will be harder for people there to ignore him when he takes on his new planet's lobbyists, auto manufacturers, and enemies of justice.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Happy Birthday, Humanae Vitae

It's the 40th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 Catholic document which, among other things, forbids abortion and contraception.

From Richard Dawkins' blog, several groups of Catholics have taken the opportunity to petition the church to change its stance on contraception, in particular highlighting the role the Catholic Church's stance has had in the spread of AIDS.

While I appreciate the need for this effort, I stand baffled by the notion that they choose to remain Catholic and fight the establishment. From a purely practical standpoint, throngs of would be tithers leaving the church would have much more of an impact than a petition. But the main thing I don't get is why they would choose to remain members in an organization that takes at best decades and at worst centuries to catch up with the moral sensibilities of the modern world.

I'm curious to know what these protesting Catholics think about Catholic morality. Supposedly this morality comes from God. Has God changed his mind? Was Pope Paul VI simply off his rocker? It doesn't seem to me that human nature has changed. We all want to have sex really badly (even those that believe it's a sin) and don't want to get diseases from it.

I dunno, I guess it saddens me that the progressive Catholics seem, in some ways, loopier than the staunch conservatives.

Friday, July 25, 2008

This might be the flakiest thing I've ever seen

Taken at the East West book store in Mountain View.

Type 1 Civilization

Via Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer pens an article for the LA Times in which he argues that more efficient harnessing of the available energy on our planet is crucial to human survival. We need to reach "Type 1", he argues. The definitions of types 1-3:
Type 1 can harness all of the energy of its home planet; Type 2 can harvest all of the power of its sun; and Type 3 can master the energy from its entire galaxy.

This seems vague and arbitrary to me. What about harnessing the rotational inertia of nearby planets? Or other cosmic radiation not generated by the sun, but not limited to the galaxy? And what does it mean to harness all the energy of a planet? And it's unclear how the energy conversion of plants and animals fits into this.

I do get the point that we're not as efficient as we can be, and that our efficiency bears on our survival. If anyone can explain these metrics to me, please do.

But here's where he really loses me, as he breaks down our progress from 0.1 to 0.7 (where we are now, supposedly) to 1.0 historically:
Type 0.1: Fluid groups of hominids living in Africa. Technology consists of primitive stone tools. Intra-group conflicts are resolved through dominance hierarchy, and between-group violence is common.

Type 0.2: Bands of roaming hunter-gatherers that form kinship groups, with a mostly horizontal political system and egalitarian economy.

Type 0.3: Tribes of individuals linked through kinship but with a more settled and agrarian lifestyle. The beginnings of a political hierarchy and a primitive economic division of labor.

Type 0.4: Chiefdoms consisting of a coalition of tribes into a single hierarchical political unit with a dominant leader at the top, and with the beginnings of significant economic inequalities and a division of labor in which lower-class members produce food and other products consumed by non-producing upper-class members.

Type 0.5: The state as a political coalition with jurisdiction over a well-defined geographical territory and its corresponding inhabitants, with a mercantile economy that seeks a favorable balance of trade in a win-lose game against other states.

Type 0.6: Empires extend their control over peoples who are not culturally, ethnically or geographically within their normal jurisdiction, with a goal of economic dominance over rival empires.

Type 0.7: Democracies that divide power over several institutions, which are run by elected officials voted for by some citizens. The beginnings of a market economy.

Type 0.8: Liberal democracies that give the vote to all citizens. Markets that begin to embrace a nonzero, win-win economic game through free trade with other states.

Type 0.9: Democratic capitalism, the blending of liberal democracy and free markets, now spreading across the globe through democratic movements in developing nations and broad trading blocs such as the European Union.

Type 1.0: Globalism that includes worldwide wireless Internet access, with all knowledge digitized and available to everyone. A completely global economy with free markets in which anyone can trade with anyone else without interference from states or governments. A planet where all states are democracies in which everyone has the franchise.

He's equating socio-political systems with energy efficiency. This seems like a dangerous path to go down if you're arguing for political reform. I don't have any numbers, but I bet there have been some wickedly efficient fascist regimes in the past.

I'm all for democracy and I'm all for clean energy, but there are much better arguments for both.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Dark Knight

I went to see the new Batman movie last night.

It's 95% at Rotten Tomatos. I don't get it.

The film wasn't very good. I had about the same response I had to the original Batman with Nicholson and Keaton - the Joker was great, everything else was mediocre or crap. Most of the supposed difficult moral conundrums are laughably contrived, and it gets way preachy at the end. The actions scenes aren't very good, and Bale's deep throaty Batman voice (which I found mildly annoying in the first film, but I wrote it off as a young Bruce Wayne trying to learn how to be scary) is even worse in this film.

Maggie Gyllenhaal had me pining for the complexity of Katie Holmes.


There were 2 good performances - Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart. Eckhart's Harvey Dent was a compelling do-gooder politician who wasn't above temptation to break the rules, but the wheels came off once he became Two-Face. His performance wasn't bad, but the writing just absolutely sucked for the last 30 minutes or so (at 2.5 hours the film was too long anyway). I didn't buy his descent into madness at all.

Ledger's performance is a little over hyped due to his untimely death, but he really did steal every scene he was in. I found him quite believable both as a criminal genius and a madman, which makes for quite the frightening villain. As much as I disliked about the film, I'd recommend it just for his performance.

Book meme

Via Greg Laden's blog:
Below the fold is a memetic book list. You are supposed to copy it on to your blog and bold the ones you've read. The initial assertion is that the 'average American' has read six items on this list of 100. Since this is an international blog, I'd like to see what the non-American perspective is on that.

I check in at 12, although there are a half dozen or so others that I read at least part of, but can't remember if I finished.

My list:

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What is a "belief system"?

Good question.

But one which James Carse does an awful job of answering here (via Andrew Sullivan).
Take a snapshot of the conflicts around the world: Sunnis vs. Shiites, Israelis vs. Palestinians, Serbs vs. Kosovars, Indians vs. Pakistanis. They seem to be driven by religious hatred. It's enough to make you wonder if the animosity would melt away if all religions were suddenly, somehow, to vanish into the ether. But James Carse doesn't see them as religious conflicts at all. To him, they are battles over rival belief systems, which may or may not have religious overtones.

Well, no shit, human conflict will always arise from rival belief systems. What makes religious conflicts so maddening is that, since they have no rational justification, they can not be resolved with rational discourse.
To Carse, religion is all about longevity; it's what unites people over the millennia.

Yes, just as slavery and the flat Earth theory united us over millennia. It was too bad to see those go.

He goes on to make the requisite reference to Nazism.
A belief system is meant to be a comprehensive network of ideas about what one thinks is absolutely real and true. Within that system, everything is adequately explained and perfectly reasonable. You know exactly how far to go with your beliefs and when to stop your thinking. A belief system is defined by an absolute authority. The authority can be a text or an institution or a person. So it's very important to understand a belief system as independent of religion. After all, Marxism and Nazism were two of the most powerful belief systems ever.

I agree that belief systems are worst when they are dogmatic and doubters are punished. And a system does not have to be theistic to satisfy these criteria. But it does have to flow from an authority who can not be questioned, and God fits that bill for most.

Based on this strict definition of "belief system" I would agree that all belief systems are bad. But I think it's a definition contrived to make his point. Why does a belief system have to dictate beliefs? Instead of giving answers, why can it not offer guidelines for finding the answers, and changing them when conflicting evidence arises?

A few good ones that come to mind:
Of course the problem with all of these is that they don't offer a simple set of rules for what to eat, whom to marry, how to manage one's resources, or how to spend Sunday morning. They're a base platform. One has to spend some energy building more specific ethics on top of them.

But, those who start from a base like this will have a common ground on which to defend their beliefs and resolve conflicts. Not so with faith-based beliefs.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Via Andrew Sullivan:
I’d like to abolish the insidious terms Darwinism, Darwinist and Darwinian. They suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed.

I agree with this sentiment, I've often felt dissatisfied with the term "Darwinism". Physics isn't "Newtonism". But I also can't take seriously anyone's attempt consciously to change common language - has that ever worked?

Another money quote from Sam Harris

I was critical of some of his assertions in The End of Faith, but he's really growing on me in this debate with Andrew Sullivan (emphasis mine).
I do not doubt the consolations you get from your faith. But faith is like a pickpocket who loans you your own money on generous terms.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

iPhone review

I've had about 4 days with my new iPhone now. Some features are stronger than others, but overall, it simply rocks.
  • Phone - I have several friends who bought the first iPhone a year ago. They often complained that it was lacking as a phone. I haven't found this at all. It's very clear, and I've had no trouble with AT&T service (we'll see how that holds up once I travel outside silicon valley). I have found that the screen gets a little oily after I've been talking for a while - I don't know if that happens to everyone, or I just need to scrub my cheeks and ears better.
  • Music- As a digital music device, it's better than anything else I've used. The speaker is top notch for a palm device, and the large touch screen UI blows my old Dell DJ away. I've only used about 2 of my 16MB so far - mostly music and a few photos. We'll see how that holds up if I stick a few TV shows and movies on.
  • Video - I have to admit I spent about 20 minutes of my first day with the iPhone watching Weird Al videos. I must strain to recall a moment in my life geekier than that. I don't get the sense that watching even a feature length movie would produce too much eye strain.
  • Browser - This is where it really shines. A couple web sites were a little awkward to read, but mostly it was easy to zoom in and out, select links, and read even large blocks of text. I use Google Reader a lot, and their mobile interface is excellent on the iPhone.
  • GPS/Map - Excellent interface. It integrates well with Safari, too. I got lost the other day. I looked up the web site for my destination. As I clicked on the maps link, it automatically launched the native maps application. I selected directions, then current location (the new iPhones have GPS), and voila - turn by turn directions without having to type a single character.
  • Text Entry - Alas, the Achilles heel. I just can't get the hand of the touch screen keyboard. There is a satisfying "click" feedback with each key, but the lack of tactile sensation is a big obstacle for me. It auto-corrects, but sometimes that's just a pain. 1- and 2-letter words are the worst. I took notes on a talk the other day that ended in a Q&A. I entered "q:" and "a:" before the questions and answers, and it kept auto-correcting 'q' to 'a'. Maybe there's a way temporarily to disable it. Fortunately I don't SMS much, and I don't anticipate sending much email. I might search for a dictation app so I can skip typing notes altogether. There's also no cut-and-paste that I can tell.
So, overall I'd give it an A, the text entry being the only barrier to A+. It really is a quantum leap over any other device I've used. We'll see how the new toy wow-ness factor wears out over time.

Sullivan vs Harris

An interesting exchange here between a conservative yet moderate Catholic (Sullivan) and an atheist (Harris). It's over a year old, so I'm late to the party, but here are my thoughts.

Lots of good exchanges. Sullivan's first salvo is largely based on the "look at all the good works of the faithful" argument. Harris' response is well done - I found this to be the money quote (emphasis mine):
As I have argued elsewhere, the alleged usefulness of religion--the fact that it sometimes gets people to do very good things indeed--is not an argument for its truth. And, needless to say, the usefulness of religion can be disputed, as I have done in both my books. As you may know, I've argued that religion gets people to do good things for bad reasons, when good reasons are actually available

Yes, people of faith do good things, often because of their faith. It still doesn't make their beliefs either true or necessary.

Harris accuses religious followers of lying to themselves and others, that they make claims they can not possibly know. In response to this, Sullivan accuses Harris of intolerance (emphasis mine):
When we speak of things beyond our understanding - and you must concede that such things can logically exist - we are all in the same boat. Your assertion of nothingness at the end of our mortal lives is no more and no less verifiable than my assertion of somethingness. And yet I do not accuse you of lying - to yourself or to others.

First of all, I doubt Harris would tell anybody there is no life after death, but he would say it's highly unlikely. His assertion might be no more verifiable, but it is more reasonable. The lie is in the confidence in the assertion, not in the assertion itself. As Harris points out (emphasis mine):
What if I told you that I am certain that I have an even number of cells in my body? What are the chances that I am in a position to have actually counted my cells (there are on the order of 100 trillion) and counted them correctly? Would it be unfair (or worse, "intolerant") of you to dismiss my assertion as either a product of self-deception or outright dishonesty? Note that this claim has a 50% chance of being true (unlike claims about virgin births and resurrections), and yet it is patently ridiculous.

As to the usefulness of such lies, I love this response from Harris:
Mommy claims to know that Granny went straight to heaven after she died. But Mommy doesn't actually know this. The truth is that, while Mommy may be rigorously honest on any other subject, in this instance she doesn't want to distinguish between what she really knows (i.e. what she has good reasons to believe) and 1) what she wants to be true, or 2) what will keep her children from grieving too much in Granny's absence. She is lying--either to herself or to her children--but we've all agreed not to talk about it. Rather than teach our children to grieve, we teach them to lie to themselves.

Amen, brother. Keep your sweet lies to yourself - let me plow through the harshness of reality to a better, and ultimately happier, resolution.

In Sullivan's next response:
I cannot prove Christiannation it to be true, in empirical fashion, then my faith must be excluded from rational discourse. In fact, if I understand you right, it must not only be excluded, it must be stigmatized. It must be ridiculed.

I don't see how he can claim that Harris wants Christianity to be excluded from rational discourse when he's actively participating in a rational discourse on the subject. He then gets a little wishy washy, trying to differentiate between empirical truths and those truths "beyond reason". I think he goes way off the rails here:
Discovering that historical truth is the vocation of a historian - and it is a different truth than science, and reached by a different methodology and logic.

-loney. It is not a different truth than science, though it is less precise than other disciplines. Historians do take scientific approaches to their work. They allow for new evidence to challenge consensus beliefs. They seek to reach consensus among various source materials. They're basically detectives.

I did like this section from Sullivan:
I may believe these things, but I am aware that others may not; and I respect their own existential decision to believe something else. I respect their decision because I respect my own, and realize it is indescribable to those who have not directly experienced it.

Would that all of the faithful were as open to uncertainly as you, Mr. Sullivan. The problem here is that one who is open to both faith and doubt still has little ammunition with which to engage another armed with faith and certainty.

Sullivan goes into, basically, a Unitarian explanation of the world in his next response - all religions are true expressions of God, but we all have to come to God based on our own place in time and space. he then says:
In fact, people of faith who are not fundamentalists may be the most important allies you've got. Why don't you want us to help out?

This struck me because I asked a similar question in a recent post. I still wrestle with this, but I guess right now my response is that I don't mind you helping out, but I don't think you're going to get very far. Sullivan issues a lengthy testimonial that basically says he has no explanation for his faith, it's just always been there. That's great for him, but how is that supposed to convince anyone else, either atheist or fundamentalist?

Harris is a wizard with analogies. I loved this response to Sullivan's tale of living as a homosexual Catholic:
I find it peculiar that you consider your successful ordeal of living as a homosexual in a homophobic faith to be evidence in support of the religious project. It's like hearing a man who has been unfairly confined to a straight-jacket all his life say that he is grateful to have been taught such "economy of motion."

Anyway, the entire exchange is long but well worth the read. I'm about halfway through it. Despite my obvious alliance with Harris here, Sullivan is an excellent foil for him. I recommend it to anyone who has not yet read it.

Respect for communion and religious liberty

A response to the PZ Myers cracker story, via Andrew Sullivan. It's attributed simply to "a priest".
A person in a free society is at liberty to burn his own Torah scrolls, to tear up his own copy of the New Testament, to plunge his own copy of the Koran in his own toilet, and to trample his own stock of communion wafers. That should be recognized as protected religious or anti-religious expression under the First Amendment.
However, no one is free to break into a synagogue, to take the Torah scrolls enshrined there, and to burn them. Or to do that with a Koran belonging to a mosque where he is visiting, or to take the Bible or the Blessed Sacrament from a church and desecrate them. If a particular religion gives its sacrament or sacred things only to its own members and someone deceives the adherents of that religion in order to desecrate their sacred rituals or objects, then that is a fraud and a violation of the religious liberty of others.
This sounds reasonable enough - you don't have to believe what I believe or worship how I worship, but don't interfere with my attempts to do so.

But, any "cracker abuse" Myers might inflict interferes with nobody's freedom to worship as they see fit. I ask, what in this sequence of events is a violation of the religious liberty of others?
  1. Webster Cook, the UCF student whose actions started the ball rolling on this whole ruckus, attended mass. Instead of swallowing the host, he kept in his mouth.
  2. After returning to his seat, he placed the communion wafer in his pocket and left the building with it. According to Cook, a member of the congregation made both verbal and physical attempts to stop him from doing so.
  3. PZ Myers blogged on the subject, and suggested someone else similarly obtain a communion wafer and send it to him. He did not specify if this agent should be a practicing Catholic. He then promised to "treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web".
In steps 1 & 2, Cook was in violation of church teachings. But, if we are free to choose our own religious beliefs, shouldn't we be able to choose not to believe them? I had several Catholic friends growing up, and none of them believed all tenets of church law (I have yet to meet a lay Catholic who does not practice safe sex). The church is free to boot him, but surely nobody would argue that he is violating the rights of others.

Perhaps the priest was referring only to Myers' actions. Myers' hasn't even acquired his target yet, he's only threatened so. But lets say, for the sake of argument, one Joe Reader does acquire a communion wafer for him.

If Joe is a Catholic who simply questions transubstantiation, is he in violation of others' religious liberties? What if he wants to study the consecrated host at home with his chemistry set? Does he not have a right to do so? Is that even in poor taste? Isn't it within his religious rights to do so? Is this theft? I'd argue the wafer becomes his property as soon as the priest places it in his mouth.

What if Joe is not a Catholic? I think we'd all argue lying is immoral. But it's not illegal. I am in violation of no law if I join the Catholic church but do not believe in Catholic doctrine. And I'd wager there are more than a few Americans in just this state.

Some Catholics believe removing the wafer from the communion service without swallowing it (I fail to see how passing the body of Christ through one's digestive tract is any less abusive than ... I'm not even going to go there) is "abuse". Most of the rest of us do not believe this.

If you give me an object you consider holy, you have every right to be offended by anything I do with it, but I have every right to do it. Nobody's religious liberties have been violated here, and any claim to the contrary is ludicrous.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Humanist meeting

I attended a meeting of Humanists in Palo Alto today. As far as I can tell their only web presence is this meetup group. They seem to meet once/month on Sunday morning. That's a little too churchy for my tastes - aren't sleeping late and attending otherwise crowded places on Sunday morning supposd to be advantages of eschewing church? At least it doesn't start until 11am.

A speaker gave a talk on his perspectives on race in America. Like me, he grew up in the south. I'd estimate he's about 25 years older than me, so my experiences in the 80s and 90s were much different from his in the 50s-70s. But I did identify with some of what he said. He mentioned that he never considered himself a racist, and was raised in a family with (for the time at least) progressive ideals, but he now sees some racism in his own actions. I don't think I ever told a racist joke, but I heard plenty of them, and I'm sorry to say I laughed along with some. Even when I didn't laugh, even when I felt uncomfortable or offended, I rarely if ever spoke up in protest. And while I'm disappointed in my own behavior on this account, I am encouraged that society has progressed.

He mentioned The Tuskegee Experiment, a shameful episode in America's past, to be sure. He offered this to temper reaction to Reverend Wright's suggestion that HIV was invented by the U.S. government to kill blacks. Wright himself said "based on this Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything". I don't think the speaker meant to lend any credibility to Wright's claim, just to remind us of the pain and mistrust that experiment (which lasted 40 years) has caused in the American black community. I can see the point, but it's still a big leap from callous disregard to genocide, and there is no data to back up the HIV claim.

Some comments from the audience that I found interesting (the items in quotes are paraphrases":
  • "Nationalism is a form of racism, both are forms of prejudice": That depends on what your nation stands for. The identity of many nations is tied up with ethnic and religious distinctions, but I certainly hope most democratic nations are capable of rising above that and standing for human rights for all. Discriminating against another nation based on their lack of respect for human rights is clearly different from racism.
  • "Opposition to illegal immigration is a form of racism": I had to roll my eyes at this. While I'm sure many who oppose illegal immigration have a racist bias, there's at least one very good reason to oppose it ... it's illegal. People I know who oppose it have no problem with legal immigration, and do not advocate a racist bias for legal immigration.
  • "Positive racism is almost as bad as negative racism": The idea here is that idealizing, or making excuses for, members of a particular race is almost as bad as denouncing them. I thinkthis is a really good point. Even though it's more complimentary, it's still a snap judgment that doesn't appreciate individual differences.
Even though I didn't agree with everything said, it was a positive experience and gave me food for thought. I don't know if I'll make it every month, but I plan to attend again.

Blogging the Quran

Via The Atheist Experience, I came across the Kafir Girl blog. A female atheist who was raised as a Muslim is trying to read The Quran cover to cover and comment on it (I'll be impressed if she completes the task). I've only read a couple posts, but it's funny, and she offers an interesting perspective since she was raised in school where she had to memorize parts of the Quran.

How to approach fundamentalism

I think most of us without faith, and many of those with faith, would agree that whatever dangers lie in religious thinking, they are worst in extreme religious thinking. But, what does it mean to be extreme? One person's extremism is another's devoutness.

What does it take to be a religious moderate? What is "moderating" the historical, literal scriptural views of Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.?

Is it a natural progression in thinking led by God's hand? Did we as humans simply misinterpret the Old Testament that God favors favor slaughter of our enemies and murder of blasphemers? The New Testament certainly moderated much of that, and few Christians today find their lives guided by much of anything in the Old Testament. But if that's the case, why can't we throw both of them out in favor of an even Newer Testament that, say, takes into account what we as humans have learned over the last 200 years? I'm not holding my breath on this one.

I've recently read books by 2 of the "Four Horsemen", Dawkins and Harris. They both argue that religious moderation owes its roots to secular influences, much of which started with the Enlightenment. They also argue that religious moderates are almost as bad as extremists because they give the latter political cover.

Harris wrote in The End of Faith, "The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside." Barrack Obama seems to be taking a different approach, trying to moderate religion from the inside by bringing it more into the public square, but influencing it be more accepting through federal grants (at least, I hope that's where he's going with that).

I favor the first far more than the second, but my question is this: is the latter a necessary evil? Many of the faithful see any secular incursion as threatening (you know, things like not teaching creationism in public schools) - are moderating forces on the inside needed to make it work? And if so, is it better for secular efforts to form partnerships, or to take the hard stance of Dawkins and Harris? I don't know the answer.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Saturday Bike Ride

My girlfriend Keri and I had a nice day of biking today. Here's the route.
  1. We started with a 2.5 mile ride to The Original Pancake House in Los Altos. This has historically been one of my favorite breakfast spots since I was introduced to it in Dallas, TX. I've had a few cases of lousy service, but they have really good coffee, and I love their two signature dishes, Apple Pancake and Dutch Baby. They're both huge, so it works out well to split one.
  2. Next, 7.9 miles up Foothill Expressway to the Stanford shopping mall. This was a nice ride, not too much traffic, with nice wide bike lanes where cars are not allowed to park. A little hilly, but not bad. We went to the Apple Store and waited in line for about 30 minutes for our iPhone 3Gs. I bought one each for Keri (her birthday present) and myself.
  3. 7.1 miles back to downtown Los Altos where we checked out a Wine & Arts festival for which we saw signs right after breakfast. They had pretty much the same stuff I see at most of these sorts of events. We ate some Greek food from a street side vendor (felafels, grape leaf wraps, and spanakopita) and listened to a decent cover band do some 70s-80s music.
  4. 2.9 miles back to my place where we are now chilling for the rest of the evening.
It was a very nice day, and now I get to play with my new toy!

Friday, July 11, 2008

PZ Myers vs The Cracker

Derek turned me onto the Pharyngula blog a month or so ago, and it's a good daily read. PZ Myers is a scientist and ardent critic of religion. I tend to agree with most of his perspectives, and he's pretty funny when he gets going on a rant.

Recently, he tore into the catholic Church and Cracker-gate. Basically, someone snuck a communion cracker out of a mass, and overreaction ensued. One church spokesperson called it a hate crime, the Catholic League suggested the student should be expelled and labeled the cracker a "hostage" - total lack of perspective. Myers rightly exposed the inanity, and then wrote this:
Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart.
I found the "kick the pope in the balls" comment unnecessary. I think it would have been funnier had he remained above personal attacks and focused on wafer abuse. But whatever rudeness he might be showing is completely overshadowed by the absurdness of the response.

The Catholic League responded. This part is particularly heinous:
It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ.
Remember, "desecrating the body of Christ" is "stealing a cracker". It's pretty insulting to all the people in the world to whom vile things have been committed to say you can't top that.

It has now escalated to the Republican National Convention.

It's sad the Catholic League has gotten any traction out of this. They've apparently gotten the link to Myers' blog removed from his web site and are asking for the school to discipline him, perhaps even fire him. I don't know how much they had to do with changing the title of the original post from "It's a Goddamned Cracker" to "It's a Frackin' Cracker" (note the URL still ends with its_a_goddamned_cracker.php). Richard Dawkins has personally appealed for support of Myers.

And Myers hasn't even done anything to a cracker yet, he only talked about it. I can't wait to see the reaction once we get a youtube video of a consecrated wafer being lit on fire, or dressed like a mini prostitute.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Why I didn't like The End of Faith

My 2 big problems with Sam Harris' The End of Faith:
  1. Harris tends to define morality as that which maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering. I can't improve on Derek's articulation of the problems with this reasoning.
  2. He gets notably unscientific when speaking of some assertions, such as ESP and reincarnation. I share James Randi's disappointment.
He spends the last chapter or so advocating a form of secular spirituality through introspection, in particular focusing on Buddhist-inspired meditation. I respect the rest of Harris' writing enough that it has prompted me to do some research in the area (I'll let you know how that goes). But the ESP and reincarnation comments leave me skeptical of his standards for evidence.

I also found this passage off putting:

The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it.

I'm not sure what he's getting at here. Any reasonable scientist will admit we know very little of what there is to know about consciousness. But I don't see how there's any reason to believe it exists anywhere but in our heads.

I do agree with his assertion that our experience with brains is qualitatively different than our experience as brains, and both paths are necessary to figure out how this thing works. And it's certainly possible that we will never figure it out (my guess is we will some day). But that's no reason to find traditional scientific methods inadequate for its investigation.

And it certainly lends no credibility to ESP or reincarnation, for Pete's sake.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Why I liked The End of Faith

I've just completed reading The End of Faith by Sam Harris. I agreed wholeheartedly with most of it (see my next post for my disagreements), particularly his skewering of religious dogma and the sad affect it has had on human progress. Here's a sampling of my favorite passages, with the money quotes in bold.

The only reason anyone is "moderate" in matters of faith these days is that he has assimilated some of the fruits of the last two thousand years of human thought (democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights, an end to cultural and geographic isolation, etc.). The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside.
This is something I've thought for a while, but never articulated it as well as Harris has. I don't see how religious institutions can take credit for their progress. From Galileo to Darwin to birth control, the church has pretty much always been dragged kicking and screaming into modern thought.

Imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matters of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God.
This really hit home with me, as it was something that I struggled with when I was a Christian. How can a belief system based on scripture ever be expected to make progress? And if scripture is simply an imperfect reflection of truth requiring constant interpretation, why have scripture at all? Pythagoras was a smart dude, but it would be ludicrous to use his writings as a textbook for a modern Geometry class.

p95 (referring to this mistranslation)
It would appear that Western civilization has endured two millenia of consecrated sexual neurosis simply because the authors of Matthew and Luke could not read Hebrew.
Mostly I just found this one funny, but it does point out the absurdity of it all.

Given the constraints of Muslim orthodoxy, given the penalties within Islam for a radical (and reasonable) adaptation to modernity, I think it is clear that Islam must find some way to revive itself, peacefully or otherwise. What this will mean is not at all obvious. What is obvious, however, is that the West must either win the argument or win the war. All else will be bondage.
I agree with this assessment. I don't see any path to "winning the argument" when our identity as a nation is so strongly tied to our Christian heritage, and I don't see that identity changing any time soon. And "winning the war" will have to be ugly, and we'll wind up taking actions for which future generations will be ashamed.

So far, my thought processes beginning here lead me nowhere but to despair.

Jared Diamond's fascinating thesis, to sum it up in a line, is that advances civilization did not arise in sub-Saharan Africa, because one can't saddle a rhinoceros and ride it into battle. ... Faith is rather like a rhinoceros, in fact: it won't do much in the way of real work for you, and yet at close quarters it will make spectacular claims upon your attention.
Another funny one. Despite the heavy nature of the subject matter, Harris offers several biting one-liners that gave me a hearty laugh.

I learned some things about the Catholic Church's behavior surrounding the Holocaust.
  1. As late as 1914, a Vatican newspaper published a story accusing Jews of human sacrifice.
  2. The Catholic Church opened its genealogical records to the Nazis to help them track down German Jews.
  3. No German Catholic was ever excommunicated for actions related to the holocaust (yet Galileo remained so until 1992).
I continue to be sadly amazed that anyone looks to the Catholic Church for moral guidance.

In summary, it's a very well written book, and I would recommend it to anyone. I think he offers a load of compelling evidence for the dangers that religious thought has for our world. As he points out many times, people with 11th century motivations soon will have 21st century weapons, and that should give us all reason enough to examine our values and dispense with blind respect for the pious.

One Without Faith

Why "One Without Faith"?

Inspired by such thinkers as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and my friend Derek, my thoughts lately have been concerned with rationality as the path to wisdom, and the dreadful consequences of some alternatives.

It's not that I think all, or even most, people of faith will ever resort to barbarism of this ilk. It's that I don't think we'll ever have a common language to negotiate the end of such behavior as long as we cling to faith as a justification for beliefs.

I started to name this blog "infidel", but that name was already taken. Plus, the word has modern usages that aren't exactly what I'm going for. So I searched my wikipedia for a definition of infidel, and the literal translation, "one without faith", struck a chord with me.
  1. I am not man of faith. I believe science and rationality provide a much more reliable path to wisdom than faith does.
  2. In addition to the obvious connotation that I am a person without faith, I also like the connotation that, without faith, I am "one" - unified, consistent, at peace. In my youth, the scientific and religious parts of my psyche spent a lot of time arguing. It was only after rejecting my faith that I began to feel like I was capable of living a life I truly believed in.
To be clear, I am speaking of "faith" as belief without reason, as opposed to science or rationality. I am not devoid of "faith" in the sense of belief or trust. It would not be inaccurate to say I have faith in democracy, free speech, the scientific method, the love of my family and friends, or Tony Romo. But those are all beliefs and trusts for which I can offer some rational support. I'll never hide behind faith as a justification.

So, welcome to my blog.