Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What we know

So you're religious? That's a shame because I like to talk about the subject I've been interested in and have studied for at least 50 years -- but not with people of "faith." Scholars, linguists, archaeologists with and without faith are another matter entirely, but mentioning even the most elementary things about the Bible that one would learn on the first day of your first college class usually produces a reaction similar to Bela Lugosi encountering a cross, or a resounding and peremptory NO!

I've given up mentioning obvious facts like the separate and interleaved Genesis stories; one talking about Yahweh and the other, in a different voice, talking about the Elohim. The details differ remarkably. Ask your Sunday School teacher about the 100 days and nights of rain and Noah loading animals 6 by 6 and watch the reaction.

I'm talking about minutia, of course and I'm staying away from the conclusions to be made from them, but the level of ignorance amongst the most faithful is as astounding as the refusal to actually read the approved source documents much less the banned and earlier documents archaeology has provided us. It requires more than most can or will apply to the task -- and takes all the fun out of it, of course.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life took a poll earlier this year and the results didn't surprise me at all. It appears that Americans are a pretty ignorant lot in terms of how much they know about the Bible, the other religions of the world and things related to the status of religious life in the US, the urge to make public displays notwithstanding. Atheists and agnostics seem to know a good deal more than the general run of the faithful, although you're welcome to ignore the question of whether it's knowledge itself that produces doubt in the places certainty likes to dwell. It does seem that the more educated are -- well, more educated about these things.

Jews seem to do best of all in terms of broad spectrum religious knowledge, but that's not too surprising as religious education in that group is a much different sort of thing and educators may be less shy of difficult questions. They're less likely to get their theology solely from the polyester preachers on TV whose continued existence defies claims of divine forces at work in the world.

The most important lack, in my opinion, is that shown by American Protestants and Catholics who know very little about other religions compared Jews and Mormons and Atheists and that's something I can't explain easily. Less than half of us know that the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist or that most people in Indonesia are Muslim. A tiny 8% 0f us know that Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) was Jewish and I'm sure most of those were Jewish as well.

Apparently the one fact we're most likely to know, is that teachers in public schools may not lead students in prayer and one of the things we're least likely to know is that it is indeed constitutionally permissible to study the Bible and other texts in a comparative religion course. The answer to that opens a whole new perspective in strategic public anger management, but I won't go there either.

Of course all of us seem to know that Islam is inherently and unavoidably evil and some can supply all sorts of reasons to substantiate it and even more reasons to be angry with you if you don't quite agree with it all, but ask what Ramadan is about and only half can tell you it's an Islamic holiday.

So what does all of this mean? Beats me. I do know that too much speculation about these things is likely to get my neighbors and associates to beat me too. After all, as a people we're quite possessive of what we don't know and have good reasons for not knowing it: and of course we are, as always, number one.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Heart of darkness

What do China, Saudi Arabia and Iran have in common? The practice of executing prisoners; and both China and the US have extraordinary numbers of them. It's a condition we oft times associate with tyrannies, police states and governments at odds with the will of the governed. I can't say much as to whether support for the practice owes religious fervor for the passion with which it's defended against all evidence of the inefficacy of 'deterrent' and certainly China has far less of that than do countries without a state religion or those, like the US, that have an unhealthy yearning for one. I can be quite curious when that support stretches the boundaries of what is usually called civilized behavior to the point at which one perceives fangs and claws on the representation of Justice as well as the traditional scales and blindfold.

Virginia once was an important source for the sentiments and values that represented the best of the American revolution although the worst remained an institution there for a long lifetime after the Declaration of Independence. Slavery, witch hunting, the power of religion to make law, define the moral -- and the power to kill people have been subdued in practice if not in spirit. Yet, of late, I think we can see another effort to bring it all back, like buried ancient demons in some H.P Lovecraft tale. I think the so-called Tea Party is but another manifestation of the restlessness of our resident evil and so is the plain but cold blooded lust to kill Teresa Lewis for her complicity in the murder of her husband and stepson.

It's not just that the two accomplices who carried out the crime were spared being strapped to a cross and having corrosive chemicals pumped into their veins while she has been sentenced to death: it's also that she has an IQ of between 70 and 72. If she dies in Virginia's house of death on the day after tomorrow, she will be the first woman since 1912, when Ms Virginia Christian, a black teenager was broiled to death in the electric chair -- if we can call a 17 year old girl a woman. In that enlightened state, the entity with the motto "thus ever with tyrants," the tyrannical ability to kill human beings is tempered by things like age and mental capacity, and an IQ of 70 is considered to be the borderline between incompetence and fit fodder for the sacrificial altar.

In our day of major candidates for high office rattling about witches, masturbation and the wrath of god and even little mice with human brains, is it surprising that a one or two point difference (well within the statistical noise level) can be like a bank vault door sealing off mercy, decency and respect for human life? For those eager from the lofty vantage point of a 20 or 30 point difference it may seem so, leaving those with an additional 60 or 90 to wonder about the moral quotient of those who presume to educate the public and to pass judgment upon us.

Whether or not Mrs. Lewis spends the 40 years she has left in jail or ends her existence in Virginia's sanitized charnel house, the question will arise repeatedly and inevitably, as long as we continue to confuse justice with a system of accounting and allow it to be driven by public anger and prosecutorial polemics. The mad, the imbecilic and even the innocent will continue to die and the beast will continue to rage in the heart of America and our vaunted respect for life will stink of the grave.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ground Hog primary

So we have another source of wisdom and another voice to add to the panel of sages, prophets and certainty sellers we've been inflicted with late and soon. The latest party guest of the Mad Hatter, Christine O’Donnell, told Bill Maher some years ago when the Biblemongers began to suck the blood out of lurid school shooting reportage, that it was all because there wasn't enough Bible study and prayer in our schools. Same old, same old.

It's not that she's the first to link random occurrences with public sin for the purpose of profit. In fact it seems to be the world's oldest profession, but fools that some of us are, we've grown to expect that things like lightening and tornadoes are the inevitable and random results of natural processes and it isn't witches, homosexuals, believers in alternate mythologies and the tolerance of the same who cause them. It was the 90's and nearly every thing possessed of a name could be advanced with the banner "no wonder kids kill kids." It was America where we never make the connection between child molesting, whore humping clerics, Reverend Jones, the Waco whacko, David Koresh and Bible study.

Our world is full of forces enticing kids and adults to kill others as well as being full of tectonic events, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and falling bits of space rock. There simply is no correlation with religious devotion, adherence or piety. It's also worth noticing that holy books are so often cited as a reason and justification for unjust and irrational behavior. The Bible belt is more than roughly congruent with various other belts of things from ignorance and bigotry to bad dental hygiene and Churches are as likely if not more likely to be hit by lightning as houses of prostitution, opium dens, gambling casinos and Mosques.

But candidates Like Palin, O'Donnel and Robertson still win elections, don't they. They still thrive on telling us about witches and heretics and the dreaded libertine liberals as the country slides so far toward the holy right that even Bush and his high father begin to be called liberals. Same old.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Let it bleed

"What about the Jewish heart and Jewish compassion and Jewish morality?"
asks Elie Wiesel. Perhaps those are no different from anyone elses heart, compassion and morality: just ornaments to wear on parade and to mock when it's not profitable or when we're not comfortable. People who are troubled by plans by the State of Israel to deport people born and educated there; sometimes minors, who speak the language and often no other language because their parents, brought in as 'guest workers,' have overstayed their visas.

In a country offering automatic right of citizenship to any Jew, born there or not, it seems inconsistent, unless we consider that universal human tendency to surround one's self with one's ilk. These native residents are not, of course, Jews and apparently the official design of Israel as a "Jewish State" is threatened by religious diversity -- and who or what country remains moral when threatened? Not the US, not Israel.

Eli Yishai, Minister of the Interior and the man who oversees immigration policy invokes the "bleeding heart Liberal" straw man so well used by right wingers everywhere as though compassion, mercy and indeed, morality had no place in that questionable construct: the Judeo-Christian ethos.

The US doesn't seem to be in a position to offer criticism or guidance, of course. We have our own problems reconciling our facade with what goes on, and like Israel, we cling to the word illegal as though it were a solid refuge against moral condemnation. People; small children who are illegal as a result of no action of their own and who have had no ability to comply with immigration laws rightly make one's heart bleed if one has a heart with blood in it. Indeed it can be said of both nations, that they make a big issue of alleging Biblical origins for their laws while using the law as though morality were too expensive, too inconvenient and too frightening.

It's ethnic cleansing and it's always a dirty business and these days our tendency to continue to make such noble statements as one finds on the Statue of Liberty reek of hypocrisy concerns me more than the admittedly real problems with uncontrolled immigration. Perhaps we should come clean and put an "If you're white, you're all right" in Lady Liberty's hand or at least stop pretending our laws are a salute to Jesus. If we follow through on the assault on the 14th amendment, making people born and raised as Americans, who pay taxes, have jobs and businesses but never knew there parent's weren't citizens, we're going to inherit the same moral dilemma. I have to wonder in fact, as to whether, having had a grandfather who was never a citizen, my mother would retroactively be an alien, making me, after 65 years as a citizen, subject to deportation and constant fear lest there be a midnight knock on the door by a black gloved fist.

If there's no moral problem with sending a kid who speaks only English back "home" to Azerbaijan or Guatemala with no chance of appeal, then it's time we stopped pretending we're any different from anybody else.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Things that ring in the night.

If there is any part of "our freedoms" that must be defended more than the right to risk irreparable disaster for profit, the right to sell fraudulent securities, bogus debt reduction plans and to buy election results, it's the right to harass people at all hours of the day and night in their homes, in their cars and at work in the process of fleecing them.

Yes, there are laws regulating telemarketing: no call lists, restrictions on times called, restrictions on robocalls that tie up the line until they're through telling you how evil Nancy Pelosi is or how they can get you out of debt by lending you more money at 400% interest. These laws are scrupulously ignored and lawbreakers are carefully protected by the phone companies who in turn are allowed to buy the privilege of ignoring not only the law, but common decency. Virtually all these calls, including the call that woke me at 3:33 this morning are untraceable. "Hell-O - are you late in your mortgage payments???" I was ready to kill someone, but thanks to an FCC that is owned by the telecommunications industry, I'm not allowed to do what I would be allowed to do if someone in a black ski mask showed up in my bedroom at the same hour. That I don't have a mortgage and am not in debt adds a certain edge to the anger. That I only got 4 hours of sleep hasn't allowed it to dissipate.

I may have to give up my land line. Even in a non-election year, I average about 8 telemarketing calls every day, usually most frequent at 8 O'clock AM, again around dinner time with a late peak at 9 to 10 PM. It rings when I'm in the shower, in the pool, up on a ladder trimming trees or under my car changing the oil. Of course it's nearly twice as bad this year.

My number is registered on that most pathetic of places, the Federal no-call list. I wonder why I bothered to register it. So is my cell phone and yet every loan shark and financial con man sends me text messages and calls me at the most inopportune times, so I have to remain unreachable, which largely defeats the purpose of owning one. Yes, this continues when one is overseas and for some reason, candidates all over the country continue to call me even when I demand to be removed.

Of course, I'm just a crank with no knowledge of how evil Liberals are and no proof that the ever further to the right corporate shills still calling themselves Republicans aren't the cause of our woes. After all, it's just freedom I'm objecting to and the will of the proletariat is that the will of the corporations be the law -- and isn't it typical of loser liberals like me to promote such Communo/Fascist ideas like a right to be left alone by scam hawkers and sleazemongers and political flim flam artists who have a far greater right to use a service I pay for than I do.

Masturbation, mutilation and Tea

Apparently, my feelings about the Tea Party are very funny over in Trollhattan, because I'm regularly accused of stupidity and dishonesty and the entire list of standard calumnies when I mention the evidence of insanity in the house of Tea. "Proof" is the usual demand of the rightly accused and of course there's never proof of insanity; but not only do most people know it when they see it, they also know the preponderance of evidence when they're drowning in it.

Take Christine O'Donnell -- please. Masturbation, says the Delaware Tea Party Express candidate soon to appear on primary election ballots, is the same as adultery and as "proof" she offers the Bible. Yes, the same book that tells us that a cheeseburger is an abomination and damnation results from using cotton thread to sew a linen shirt.
"the Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery. So you can't masturbate without lust."
Of course when she says "the Bible" she's referring to a Gospel and it's inclusion under the biblical rubric is a matter of dispute and a matter in which proof has no place. It's also a document which, like the Koran, has no legal status in our country, yet she rolls on with rapturous certainty:
"When a married person uses pornography, or is unfaithful, it compromises not just his (or her) purity, but also compromises the spouse's purity. As a church, we need to teach a higher standard than abstinence"
she told MTV, some years ago. Of course we're a secular Republic and not a church, but can you think of something of a "higher standard" than abstinence that doesn't include genital mutilation? I can't, but one does not expect the words of a Tea Party candidate to mean what they say any more than one expects Biblical cosmology to reflect reality.

One does expect however that when one refuses to list one's place of residence while running for Representative, using the excuse that her house was broken into, when in fact it wasn't, one will be called a liar as well as a nutjob. Please feel free to do so with my blessing.

Again, I'm sure I'll be called names and "proof" will be demanded. I'm sure I need not remind you that it's the guilty party that demands proof of their guilt, while the innocent often has more faith in the evidence. If there are more nuts in that misbegotten party than in the fruit cake you threw away last Christmas, perhaps this will serve as one more chewy bit of that evidence.

Monday, September 06, 2010


"The wheels of commerce are greased with bullshit"

I don't know who first said it, but it's been passed down in my family for at least a couple of generations. It's true, of course, and it's doubly true of politics. Americans seem to have more fondness for the substance than an African dung beetle and far more ability to swallow huge quantities of it. Bullshit is perhaps the one thing you can have and eat and you certainly can do both and pass on more. Despite our horror of wealth distribution, we do love to share it.

A local souvenir shop made the papers over the weekend, for a huge display of Obamahate items, including an alleged explanation by the president of why Michelle hates the flag. Of course he never said it and it was long ago exposed as having been invented by the Bullshit machine formerly known as the Republican party. Yet it's too precious to let go and the dung beetles formerly known as Republicans are still eager to rub it all over themselves, smear their own walls with it and share it with you without any concern for facts.

Remember the headless bodies Arizona Governor Jan Brewer talked about - the rising crime rate that necessitated 'special handling' for anyone appearing to be of native American descent?
You guessed it, like Saddam's WMD, it's all bullshit and unlike the perpetrators of that disastrous hoax, she's willing to admit she made the whole damned thing up to get votes. Think that's the end of it? Surely not and the headless Mexicans will be talked about long after Washington Irving's tale of Sleepy Hollow disappears into the past -- and they'll be blamed on Obama. It will all be blamed on Obama and more so because more aliens are being deported than by the previous administration, fewer are getting in and crime associated with illegal immigration is going down. Why drink the watery light beer of fact when that Bullshit brew is so much more filling?

Does it matter that the President is not a Muslim? Not as long as Fox is out there spending millions, contributing millions, to tell you he is and that they are doing it is Obama's fault anyway. Bullshit sells the worse it smells.

Think Climate change has nothing to do with human activity? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't, but what you think you know about it has much to do with the Oil Tycoon Koch Brothers who spend a fortune fighting the idea and financing the "Tea Party." Why does that tea taste so much like bullshit?

Think those Climategate e-mails were proof of a vast conspiracy? Sure you do and sure you don't care that they were edited and redacted to make them seem to say something they didn't. Rupert Murdoch and his Arab Oil allies spent more millions to produce enough bullshit to roll in to make all the dogs in America happy.

Those incriminating ACORN pimp videos --- smell that warm bullshit! Why give it up just because it was another right wing media hoax? Since Fox never bothered to tell you that, you can pretend it's still true and you can just keep rolling in it.

I could go on, because the bullshit never stops, but I'm tired of the futility of living in a country where "if it feels good, believe it" is the state religion and where people will fight for their beliefs to the death. We don't live in an information age, we live in a bullshit age. We love Bullshit because it fertilizes the egos of the uninformed.

If these are indeed at last the end times, we can be sure it will not all end with floods and it won't be by any divine agency. It will end with bullshit nd it will be your own damned fault.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Of the nature and State of Man, with respect to the Universe

Say first of God above, or man below,
What can we reason, but from what we know?

-Alexander Pope-

Of course those of the Age of Reason had no idea of the size of the universe and the English language has no word to describe just how much bigger the visible universe is in comparison. Indeed they did know that it wasn't as the ancients thought: our floating planet covered by a rotating bowl with lights affixed, above which gods lived -- a bowl so close that it was possible for bronze age people to reach it by building a tower. Intimations they had, that a universe vast enough to include other suns, other worlds, could not have been designed to be a place for humans; a place for humans to dominate; a place designed for no other purpose.
Ask for what end the heavenly bodies shine,
Earth for whose use? Pride answers, 'Tis for mine

The Anthropic Principle suggests otherwise. As Steven Hawking says, it simply states that the suitability of Earth for life on Earth is self explanatory: any form of intelligent life that evolves anywhere will automatically find that it lives somewhere suitable for it. If existence wasn't created for us, that's one less ineffable mystery that needs to be dressed up in godlike robes.

Indeed, 16th century astronomer Jerome Wolf wrote to Tycho Brahe that the "infinite size and depth of the Universe" ( if only he knew how close to infinite it is) was the greatest danger to Christianity. Fortunately for that enterprise, most today still haven't grasped that size and what it says about the irrelevance of Human values and indeed the importance of anything to do with us.

What we've come to know about the nature of reality; about what the meaning of is is, has presented us with a landscape more vast and more inaccessible to the public grasp than is the 14 billion light year fraction of what is that we can see. There are whole dimensions that we can't see and can't come close to comprehending and what we can see and comprehend is little more than the shadows in Plato's cave. That everything in this infinite universe can be attached to a two dimensional membrane floating in 11 dimensional space/time requires more than fasting, chanting, meditation and drugs to become apparent keeps reality well out of the reach of all of us. Certain conclusions about it however, are hard to avoid without avoiding the entire question of just why is is. To my admittedly limited mind, questions of creation, of entities involved with creation, entities beyond the properties of matter and energy and dimension and in what places they exist, are absurd. Isn't it absurd to discuss the number of angels that can dance on a pinhead without being able to ascribe any characteristics or properties necessary to their existence? And of course we cannot without dragging them into a place of scrutiny, which is impossible.

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatum

Said old William, hundreds of years before the Enlightenment; don't create entities if you don't have to, yet we're still doing it. We're still creating creators, plugging the ever narrowing gaps in our ability to explain nature with gods and demons and angels and disembodied spirits, although it's long since become obvious that we don't need gods of gravity or electricity or of the nuclear forces. We don't need gods to determine why and when it will rain or to give purpose to earthquakes and storms or to make it very important to the cosmos that we worship a certain god and avoid another or refrain from sleeping with the wrong people or obtain knowledge reserved for the gods.

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is Man

What we see as energy and matter and time are properties of other phenomena, not results of conscious or unconscious entities that create and control them. We don't need to create them to explain what is otherwise explained by what we can demonstrate and we can demonstrate that random fluctuations of that fabric which manifests itself in all things can more easily do what the old consciousness needed to create entities to create.

Stephen Hawking's soon to be released book claims that existence explains itself, that there is no need to invoke entities for which existence contains no place and allows no properties to explain the spontaneous origin or virtual particles or indeed that tiny part of an infinite thing called existence. If indeed, current theory is correct, there are such an infinite number of conditions that can be called universes, inaccessible from one another, all our religions become absurd. In such isness, the creation of ever more universes is an inevitable result of the nature of is. No nebulous incorporeal entities need apply.
And in spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear: whatever is, is right

M-Theory is hard to grasp. OK, it's damned near impossible, but as theories do, it predicts outcomes otherwise not predictable. Hawking has come to embrace it as it makes the singularities embedded in classical theories nugatory. It makes it unnecessary to postulate something existing before time that caused time to start, for instance. It makes it unneccesary to postulate the entire idea of anything before time.
"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going,"
Hawking writes in the introduction. Indeed, it's no longer necessary to explain the tides, the winds, the orbits of bodies in space, lightening or the nearly infinite number of gaps in our knowledge in which gods once found refuge.

If there are no more gaps for our gods to hide in, no more firmaments to divide heaven and earth, what then will become of them? Perhaps we'll find him in the one place we have never looked. In ourselves. If universes can be self-creating by virtue of physical law, cannot we be self creating in terms of what we wish to be?

History says no, Glenn Beck thinks it leads to death camps, theologians trip over their tongues trying to show how even if there isn't a God or any place for him or anything he could do if he could -- there is a God. Personally I prefer the freedom of knowing nothing matters for very long; nothing a hundred billion years of time won't wash away. I prefer to think that only the free can be moral, only the mortal can be compassionate and only in our transience can we find glory.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Net Neutrality and you

If you're reading this, you most likely have an interest in the future of the Internet and concern with the ownership thereof. Most of us assume it belongs to us, the way we once assumed the ' air waves' belonged to us -- just like the air itself. The electromagnetic spectrum now largely belongs to those who make a profit from it and the Internet may well follow suit. The phone and cable companies would certainly like to regulate what you may or may not get on line and how fast you get it as well as how much you'll have to pay.

What's at stake for them is the ability to sell you "premium" services over dedicated networks and to be able to "prioritize" or discriminate between traffic that takes up bandwidth and traffic they can make a buck on. Of course it's much more complex than this, but the outcome of FCC deliberations on Net Neutrality may very well have a huge effect on the flow of information and our assumption that everyone has a right to hear and be heard without interference; without corporate censorship.

Of course the ability of the FCC to do anything at all is in question following recent court decisions that seem to be part of the crusade against regulating anything and everything and without such an agency to provide a system of rules to protect a media that's fast replacing print and broadcast as our portal to the world, what you know, what you are able to know may well be determined by what makes the most money or most suits the interests of service providers. Indeed we've already traveled quite a distance down that path.

The FCC is now open to public comment. You can be sure that Verizon and Google, inter alia are speaking very loudly and carrying a very big stick so if there's going to be any slim chance for the public to weigh in on Net Neutrality, you chance to be heard is now.