2010 08 19
Howard Dean on Park51

Howard Dean says of the community center proposed at Park51:

I think another site would be a better idea.

(Actually, he said it would be a “better i-deer,” but being from New England, I find this endearing.)

In response to criticism from Glenn Greenwald, Dean writes (in part):

My argument is simple. This Center may be intended as a bridge or a healing gesture but it will not be perceived that way unless a dialogue with a real attempt to understand each other happens. That means the builders have to be willing to go beyond what is their right and be willing to talk about feelings whether the feelings are “justified” or not. No doubt the Republic will survive if this center is built on its current site or not. But I think this is a missed opportunity to try to have an open discussion about why this is a big deal because it is a big deal to a lot of Americans who are not just right wing politicians pushing the hate button again. I think those people need to be heard respectfully whether they are right or whether they are wrong.

What I’d like to ask Dean, proud defender of civil unions for homosexual couples, is this: couldn’t this same argument be made in favor of asking those pesky lesbians to refrain exercising their right to attend their high school prom?

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2009 04 12
Recently read: Zen Meditation in Plain English

Posted by in: Books, Buddhism

John Daishin Buksbazen. Zen Meditation in Plain English

A beginner’s book about zazen in Zen Buddhism, the practice of “just sitting.” The book focuses on breathing meditation, and gives practical tips (with sketches to help) about posture, breathing, and dealing with various obstacles encountered in meditation. I found it among the most helpful books I’ve read on this subject. The book has very little to say about Buddhism as a philosophy, emphasizing that the practices of meditation described in the book are compatible with a number of different religious traditions, as well as with atheism.

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2009 04 10
Recently read: Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction

Posted by in: Books, Buddhism

Damien Keown. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction

Keown manages to pack quite a lot into this very short introduction. It’s been popular in the West to see in Buddhism a rational religious alternative that is compatible with a modern secular outlook. While acknowledging that there’s a lot in Buddhism and the Buddhist tradition that lends itself to this treatment, Keown emphasizes just how much of Buddhism this approach manages to sweep under the rug: reincarnation, a belief in spirits, miracles, charms, and so on. Buddhism has a number of schools, and a rich, complicated set of traditions associated with it. This book gives a nice sense of some of that variety.

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2009 04 06
Of Rawls and Self-Improvement

In the growing-up department, I still have a long way to go. Many of my habits are bad bad bad, and I have myriad tendencies that I don’t endorse and that leave me feeling full of self-reproach if acted upon.

But I must say that I felt some sense of pride when I saw this and felt revulsion at the thought of reading it. (The fact that it exists at all, in published form, is more than a bit nauseating, as well.)

There is some hope for me after all, I guess.

Howls of outrage (5)

2009 02 04
A very rough proxy for anger at the Pope

This morning brought the news that Angela Merkel has decided to add her voice to the chorus of criticism directed at Pope Benedict for his decision, on January 21, 2009, to lift the excommunication of holocaust denying bishop Richard Williamson. Pope Benedict was himself a member of the Hitler Youth as a young man, which obviously complicates matters for him when he starts ex-excommunicating holocaust deniers.

I figure a very rough proxy for anger about the issue has to be the number of Google hits for “Nazi Pope” in a particular period of time. Of course, we should expect a baseline number of hits as a result of the controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII, and there’s bound to be a lot of noise (people angrily objecting to the term “Nazi Pope” for example). Anyway, this chart is rough and crappy, but it gives you an idea.

Graph of google hits for nazi pop over time.

It’s even more remarkable if you assume that the vast bulk of the increase comes from the period after January 21, 2009. I wonder what February will look like.

Description of how I made the chart is below the fold, in case anyone wants to check its accuracy.

Continue Reading »

Howls of outrage (13)

2008 05 27
Recently read: Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready!

Posted by in: Books, Religion

Daniel Radosh. Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture

Daniel Radosh may have questionable taste in blogs — we’re currently on his blogroll (though misspelled, as usual) — but it seems he has redeeming qualities as well. Some of them are on display in Rapture Ready!, his exploration of, well, you already read the subtitle. Actually, the subtitle of the book is a bit misleading. Radosh confines himself mainly to white evangelicals. As quickly becomes clear, although white evangelicals are only a subset of American Christian culture, it’s an extraordinarily complex subset, with material enough for a much longer book than Radosh ended up writing.

From my point of view, Radosh is a nearly ideal writer for this material. For starter’s, there’s his own attitude to religion. He practices “Humanistic Judaism,” meaning that he “embrace[s] Judaism as a human development that grants meaning to human lives, without reference to the supernatural.” So, he says, “I belong to a congregation, I study the Hebrew Bible, I go to services with my family and light candles on Friday nights.” What this means in practice is that Radosh writes as an outsider to the world he’s documenting in fairly significant ways, but that he’s open – more open than I tend to be as an atheist – to at least some of what he finds there. This mix of scepticism and sympathy makes the book much more than it could have been, simply an opportunity to laugh at the sillier manifestations of Christian pop culture. To be sure Radosh does poke some fun. He gets angry too, and on pretty much the right issues. But the reader comes away with a much fuller sense of the complexity of this world, which, like the secular world, has some room for intelligence, doubt, left-wing politics, and more. Not bad at all.

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2008 04 30
Reverend Jeremiah Wright

I haven’t been following the Wright thing very closely, but last night I got curious enough to watch a few minutes of his recent press conference on youtube, and just now I skimmed through the transcript.

My impression is: That dude is awesome! What a performance! And he says lots of things very well. True, he’s a little nutty. The AIDS thing is almost a stupid as believing that Iraq was behind 9/11. But you can sort of see how spending a life watching the mainstream deny pretty obvious facts would make you suspicious of mainstream narratives. (I had a (white) relative of mine tell me something similar not that long ago. I was . . . dismissive.) If you want to be angry that someone is so suspicious of the government that he thinks that it might be behind AIDS, I suggest that you spare some of your anger for the government that warranted the suspicion (and boy, has it ever). But as for the rest, unless I’m missing something (and if I am, please tell me in the comments) I think the media is just blowing a fuse because he’s a black man who won’t eat their shit.

I applaud this strange, proud man who doesn’t want to eat shit.

Howls of outrage (9)

2008 01 11
All monotheists are equal, and above others

Via Eszter Hargittai, this report of a court decision that atheists cannot be adoptive parents in New Jersey. It’s now being appealed. The reasoning of the decision as described in that article is transparently loopy. For one thing, it suggests that the state would need take away the biological children of atheist parents, as well. Also [bitter semi-coherent rant about other nutso consequences of this judge’s theory redacted].

One of my students brought a related amazing fact to my attention this past semester. In Maryland, the original state constitution forbade atheists from holding public office. The clause (and similar ones in other state constitutions) were rendered ineffectual by a US Supreme Court decision in 1961, but the text remains in the state’s constitution. Here’s an explanation with details – scroll down to “religious discrimination in state constitutions” and then to “why these clauses are no longer valid”.

This kind of shit fills me with burning fiery anger. I don’t have anything funny to say about, maybe youse guys can come up with something.
(Also, isn’t it odd that fiery is spelled that way, rather than “firey”?)

Howls of outrage (14)

2007 07 18
Um, ew.

There are just so many gems in this NYT piece on abstinence-only education. But this takes the cake:

In northeastern Texas, advocates of abstinence education vow to fight for their mission because to them, it is not just a matter of sexuality or even public health. Getting a teenager to the other side of high school without viruses or babies is a bonus, but not the real goal. They see casual sex as toxic to future marriage, family and even, in an oblique way, opposition to abortion.

“You have to look at why sex was created,” Eric Love, the director of the East Texas Abstinence Program, which runs Virginity Rules, said one day, the sounds of Christian contemporary music humming faintly in his Longview office. “Sex was designed to bond two people together.”

To make the point, Mr. Love grabbed a tape dispenser and snapped off two fresh pieces. He slapped them to his filing cabinet and the floor; they trapped dirt, lint, a small metal bolt. “Now when it comes time for them to get married, the marriage pulls apart so easily,” he said, trying to unite the grimy strips. “Why? Because they gave the stickiness away.”

Tune in next week when Mr. Love uses a straightened paper clip to show that curing homosexuality is as easy as a trip to Office Max.

Howls of outrage (3)

2007 02 05
Attacks on science

A nice editorial in the LA Times about how the Democratic Congress should bring science back to Washington. By Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal – includes a nice discussion of the attack on science from postmodernism and “theory” on the left which the Sokal hoax targeted, in addition to the much more serious recent attacks from religious conservatives and corporate interests on the right.

There’s one point about the religious conservatives’ bad effect on science that I found interesting. So, some of them want to stop the teaching of evolution, and some of them want to stop stem cell research. In the article these agenda items are mentioned as being of a piece, but I think they are quite different.

Trying to stop the teaching of evolution, and disputing the genuine scientific consensus about it with dirty tricks (eg fake scientists and fake science foundations) to sow doubt — about the existing strong evidence for evolution, and even about scientific rationality generally — in the minds of people with weak science backgrounds is wrong. It’s lying. It’s an illegitimate intrusion of religious belief into a question where religious belief has no place.

But trying to stop stem cell research is okay. It’s an ethical objection to a scientific program involving humans, and religious convictions have a proper role to play here in a public reflection on what research programs are okay to pursue. I think stem cell research is fine, but if someone has an honest moral objection to it — if their objection is not a disingenuous backdoor way to attack abortion rights — I think it’s appropriate that they try to stop it. (Provided they do this by having public hearings, writing to bioethical advisory boards, etc, rather than backroom dealing.) That is, it’s possible to attack a certain research program on religious grounds without attacking science. But the standard sort of attacks on evolution are attacks on science itself.

Another nice piece and a place to help here; via Metafilter.

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 11 13
I’m in ur skoolz, corrupting ur kidz

I’m not aggressive about my atheism, but all the same I don’t see a good reason to keep it a secret from my students. This is partly because in class discussions it sometimes helps to make my own commitments clear. For example, there are contexts in which I will assert moral views that only make sense to some students if I also have religious assumptions, and I need to make clear that not only do my views not depend on religious assumptions, but in fact I lack those assumptions altogether.

I try to be careful here: In some situations, it can be an abuse of power to assert strong claims about controversial topics to people who may not feel in a position to challenge them. And religious views are among the most deeply personal that people have. But this is a reason to take care to frame my own views in an unthreatening way, not a reason to stay completely quiet about them. There is also, I admit, a bit of an agenda here: Atheism gets a really bad rap in the U.S., and a great many people seem to think that atheism is equivalent to nihilism, since without God we lose any reason to be good or to hope. It seems to me a reasonable response to this to gently but firmly explain why this is nonsense, whether or not God exists.

So I’m not proselytizing and I’m not staying completely quiet. Still, I think it would be dishonest for me to claim that I don’t think this will have an effect one way or another on my student’s beliefs. I think that in the long run exposure to decent and intelligent atheists has a generally corrosive effect on some of the worst reasons for believing in God (social pressure, fear of nihilism, etc.). And to that extent I do think that really conservative religious parents have a good reason to fear the effect I might have on their children.

(Joke in the title explained here.)

Howls of outrage (9)

2006 08 29
Pay Scientology $10K, learn to sense colors, odors, textures

Posted by in: Religion

Are you gullible, selfish, and do you desperately need to believe you are better than other people? Oh, and do you have money? Have I got a program for you.

Scientology believes there are 57 different senses, and they have a new program designed to train True Believers (who also Pay) to hone their senses. Here’s an article about the program, followed by the hilarious list of all 57 senses. Genius!

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2006 03 11
On the interpretation of experience

Posted by in: Classics, Religion

From Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander (I.5):

Alexander, marching along the river Erigon, made for Pelium . . . When Alexander reached it, he camped by the river Eordaicus and decided to assault next day. Cleitus’ forces, however, held the heights surrounding the city, which were commanding and also thickly wooded, so that they could attack the Macedonians, if they made the assault, from all sides . . . Alexander proceeded to the assault; on which the enemy sacrificed three boys and three girls and three black rams, and then made a rush to intercept the Macedonians; but when the Macedonians drew near, they deserted the strong positions they had occupied, and the newly sacrificed victims were found still lying there.

OK, so it looks as if Cleitus’ forces lost heart for some reason or other. But it’s also possible that other things went wrong to spook them. Either way, it looks as if the gods simply weren’t with Cleitus and his troops that day, in spite of the sacrifices.

I hope it’s not presumptuous of me to assume that you think the experience points up the general futility of child sacrifice. You would, though, wouldn’t you? After all, you’re probably not into sacrifice-based polytheism. If you were, it might be easier to see how we could interpret the experience to yield a different lesson: that they didn’t use enough children. It’s easy to imagine one priest turning to another, “You always skimp on the kids. I’ve told you before, it’s the most important part.”

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 03 04
Blair and God

Natalie Bennett is not impressed with Tony Blair:

Our dangerous, religious, Prime Minister

Tony Blair says “god will judge” his decision to go to war in Iraq.

“If you have faith about these things then you realise that judgement is made by other people. If you believe in God,it’s made by God as well.” His remarks, made in an interview to be shown on ITV’s Parkinson show tonight.

Odd, really – I thought that he had been elected by voters – the citizens and residents of Great Britain, not by a small collection of cardinals, or indeed by the “hand of God”. And since those voters elected him, you’d think he should be worrying about their verdict on his decisions – not some “inner voice”.

I’ve thought for a long time that the messianic gleam all too frequently spotted in Blair’s eyes has been a serious worry, and this only goes to prove it. Such a pity that you can’t just ban religious fanatics from politics.

. . .

Once again the Prime Minister refused to answer when asked if he prayed for guidance before taking the decision to go to war. But given the general tenor of his remarks the conclusion that he did can hardly be avoided. So great, a key decision is made because a voice in the PM’s head told him it should be war. There are other words for that …

As an anti-war atheist, I’m not terribly impressed with Blair or his belief that God will judge the war to have been a good idea. And as a liberal of a certain sort, I do think that providing religion reasons for political positions in the public sphere is a tricky business indeed. Very briefly that’s because religion reasons aren’t the kinds of reasons that we can reasonably expect others to share. In the political sphere we often try to offer our opponents reasons they can reasonably be expected to share, and procede to construct our arguments from that point. At least we do if we’re my sort of liberal. But having said all that, I don’t think that Bennett is right in the bit I’ve quoted.

First, all Blair needs to get his position to fly is the claim that there is such a thing as being right or wrong about an issue independently of what anyone thinks. Since I believe that the Iraq War would have been wrong even if it had had the support of 90% of the people, I’m committed to this claim as much as Blair is. Sometimes unpopular decisions are the right ones. Of course, Blair puts this point in terms of God’s judgement, but in this context that just amounts to saying “really, in fact, right.” God isn’t being appealed to here to back up the claim that the Iraq War was right. Rather, he seems to mean that there’s some other standard for judging these matters than what the latest opinion polls say.

[Update: That needs more care than I’ve given it. I don’t mean that it’s just fine and dandy to simply ignore public opinion. But all the same, the fact that public opinion swings against a position also doesn’t automatically mean that it’s wrong. And sometimes we do admire politicians for taking unpopular positions.]

OK, now what about praying for guidance? Big whup, I say. Decisions like the one that Blair made take their inspiration from all kinds of sources, and it’s pretty obvious that Blair made this particular decision for all kinds of reasons (many quite bad, I’m sure). As far as I can tell, often when people pray, it’s a bit like consulting their conscience or wondering what to do. Prayer can be an expression of humility, or part of an honest attempt to figure out the right thing. Lots of people do it all the time. Surely it’s unreasonable, unfair, and insulting to write off all these people as “hearing voices in their heads.”

(And just to be clear: Of course there’s no God and of course the Iraq War was a terrible idea.)

Howls of outrage (2)

2005 11 05
Thanks to Intelligent Design…

Posted by in: Religion

he’s turning over in his grave. Or….., is his grave revolving around him????

Howls of outrage (3)