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Entries for March 2011

March 31, 2011

The Imperial Presidency marches on

Glenn Greenwald discusses how the doctrine that the president is unconstrained by either the Constitution or the Congress is being advanced even more vigorously, that "the Obama administration is arrogating unto the President the unilateral, unrestrained right to start wars in all circumstances, whether or not the U.S. is attacked." And Obama's defenders are using the same arguments they criticized when Bush's defenders used them when he similarly ignored the constitution.

Greenwald adds:

Then there's the notion that Presidents in the past have started similar wars without Congressional approval. That's certainly true, but so what? The fact that an act is commonplace isn't a defense or justification. That "defense" was also a common refrain of Bush followers to justify their leader's chronic unconstitutional acts and other forms of law-breaking: Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and FDR interned Japanese-Americans, so why are you upset that Bush is acting outside the law? The pervasiveness of this form of thought underscores the dangers of learned acquiescence: once a government engages long enough or pervasively enough in a certain form of criminality or corruption, the citizenry is trained to accept it and collectively ceases to resist it, even learns to embrace it. What Obama is doing in Libya is either lawful or it isn't on its own terms; whether other Presidents in the past have acted similarly (and they have) is irrelevant.

One's views on the desirability of the Libya war have absolutely nothing to do with whether Obama has acted legally and/or whether his theories of presidential power are valid. This, too, should have been decisively settled during the Bush years, when Bush followers invariably argued that Bush was justified in eavesdropping without warrants or torturing because of the good outcomes it produced (Keeping Us Safe) -- as though Presidents have the power to violate laws or transgress Constitutional limits provided they can prove that doing so produces good results. The one and only safeguard against tyranny is that political leaders are subjected to the constraints of the Constitution and law (we're a nation of laws or a nation of men, said Adams: you must choose). To argue that you're supportive of or indifferent to lawless acts because of the good results they produce is simply another way of yearning for a benevolent tyrant (and is another way of replicating the mindset of the Bush follower).

Ayn Rand the moocher

Ayn Rand is a current favorite among the oligarchy and its serf-like tea party followers since she saw successful people as achieving things entirely on their own with no help from others or society, opposed all taxes as stealing by the government, called for the elimination of all government redistributive efforts, and attacked as weak those who need governments and others to help them in times of need. She called them 'looters' and 'moochers'. The Randians are at the forefront of cutting government programs that do not benefit the oligarchy.

But a recent report reveals that Rand herself was a hypocrite. When she became ill with lung cancer late in life, she applied for and obtained social security and Medicare benefits under a different name name. It should not be surprising that she was a hypocrite and sought out government help when she needed it. They are all like that. Look at the way Wall Street rushed to the government for assistance when the financial system tanked. They only oppose government helping those who are not part of the oligarchy.

I have read only one of Rand's books, The Fountainhead. I am aware that her magnum opus is Atlas Shrugged and it forms the basis for the Galtian fantasies of the oligarchy, but The Fountainhead was such an awful book that I have little stomach to read any other work by her, especially since they are so long. It was not only the politics of the book that I found objectionable but mainly her writing style which consists of characters who have no depth and are merely types, existing mainly to take positions and make speeches that advance her philosophy. Subtlety is not her strong suit.

Mission creep in Libya

We are witnessing the inevitable mission creep in Libya.

The original stated goal was to create a no-fly zone supposedly to prevent the Libyan government using their air power to attack innocent civilians. That quickly changed into destroying the Libyan air forces even while they were on the ground. Then the US-led NATO air attacks started targeting those Libyan forces that were fighting rebel forces and threatening to push them back. Then the air attacks started hitting those Libyan forces that were away from the fighting, even those in their barracks.

Now the air attacks are supposedly targeting munitions stores. We are also told that CIA operatives have been in Libya for several weeks already meeting with rebel forces and that Obama has authorized covert support for Libyan rebels, which likely means including supplying arms. This escalation in involvement has happened remarkably rapidly.

So what is going on? Obama says that Gaddafi must go but that regime change is not part of the mission. Taken at face value, what we seem to be seeing is the US acting as the de facto air force of the Libyan rebels, and slowly increasing its contribution to the war effort to balance ay success by Gaddafi's forces. In other words, the goal seems to be to create either a stalemate or marginally tilt the balance in favor of the rebels.

What is the point of this? After all, a protracted civil war causes immense pain for ordinary people and results in the destruction of a country's infrastructure, causing long term hardships.

And what if Gaddafi stays in power and his forces can withstand the current NATO campaign? The US is far too deep into the conflict now to allow that to happen. So expect to see the next stage of ratcheting up, with bombings of supposedly military targets in cities as a sign to the Libyan people who still support him that his government is incapable of protecting them and thus pressuring them into rising up against him and join the rebel forces. Then we will begin to receive the inevitable reports of a hospital or a school or a mosque or marketplace being hit, resulting in civilian casualties, which will of course be regretted as unfortunate 'collateral damage'.

So we will end up with civilians killed, the very thing that the US action was supposed to prevent. No doubt the dead and their families will be pleased that they were killed by a 'humanitarian' military force rather than by their own government.

And that will set the stage for the final step, sending in US troops or surrogates from other countries or mercenaries.

Russian Television tallies the real cost of America's many wars.

The oligarchy's war on the rest of us

The Daily Show points out that even paying no taxes at all is not enough for the oligarchy.

Stephen Colbert reports on the attacks on working people by state governments. The state governments want to roll back all the benefits and protections that labor unions have given us, and allow employers to have unfettered power over their employees. Collective bargaining has been the way that individuals who have no economic or political clout could gain some bargaining power.

Michael Moore on The Colbert Report points out that just 400 people in America have more wealth than 150 million. And that is still not enough for them. They want to have as much as 250 million and are aided in their greed by the federal and state governments that they have bought, and the dupes amongst the tea party crowd who have no idea that they are being used as fodder for the further enrichment of the oligarchy and will be tossed aside as soon as they have served their purpose.

The country has long been engaged in a one-sided class war that has been waged by the oligarchy on the rest of us. Now people are beginning to fight back as the nakedness of the greed and power grab becomes apparent.

March 30, 2011

Protecting sacred books

Apparently the British government is thinking about granting certain books protected status that can result in the prosecution of people for the burning defacement or disrespect of such books, after a 15-year old girl in England was arrested for 'inciting religious hatred' after burning the Koran. It is wonderful that in the US we have the First Amendment to protect us from this kind of legislative foolishness, at least so far.

One wag has decided to seek protection under this proposed law for the book Classical Electrodynamics by J. D. Jackson and gives very cogent reasons why it deserves it.

I totally agree. In the first year of physics graduate school, taking a course in which 'Jackson' (as it was informally and affectionatley known) was the required textbook was a rite of passage for every student. We all struggled with its difficult problems in order to understand the laws of electrodynamics. After that ordeal, we all ended up revering that book and instinctively go back to it when we encounter any problem in that area of physics. What Jackson says on any issue is considered definitive.

If that does not make it a sacred book, I don't know what does.

The servile media

The 'access' model of mainstream media, where journalists seek to get close to powerful people and report what they say as if this is what constitutes news, leads to the kinds of pitiful servile mentality that The Daily Show skewers.

The god of the apps

A rabbi named Adam Jacobs has offered what he says is "A Reasonable Argument for God's Existence." And what would that be?

It is that because we have not explained (as yet) how life originated, it can only be due to god. Yes, that same old stale argument, the god of the gaps, gets recycled yet again, this time in the form of the mysterious and supposedly inexplicable appearance of DNA and RNA.

This is pathetic. Even Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who is now head of the National Institutes of Health, rejects that argument because he has a sufficiently good knowledge of biology to realize that we are making great progress in solving that problem and that any religious person who bases his or her faith on that particular piece of contemporary ignorance is just asking for trouble.

In his book The Language of God, Collins says:

Given the inability of science thus far to explain the profound question of life's origins, some theists have identified the appearance of RNA and DNA as a possible opportunity for divine creative action . . . Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps. Faced with incomplete understanding of the natural world, believers should be cautious about invoking the divine in areas of current mystery, lest they build an unnecessary theological argument that is doomed for later destruction… [While] the question of the origin of life is a fascinating one, and the inability of modern science to develop a statistically probable mechanism is intriguing, this is not the place for a thoughtful person to wager his faith. (p. 127-129)

Despite Collins's plea, the god of the gaps will never go away because it is only argument that religion has, since there is no positive evidence for god and every other argument for god has been shot down. In fact, Collins himself is being disingenuous because he too resorts to using the god of the gaps argument except his gaps are different from those of Jacobs'.

Most skeptics now know how to effectively deal with the god of the gaps argument, using the recent advances in science. A recent article in the New York Times says that in order to help believers deal with the strong criticisms they are now facing, some people have developed apps to help believers with rejoinders. Yes, really.

Sean McDowell, the editor of "Fast Facts" and some textbooks for Bible students, said he has become increasingly aware of a skill gap between believers and nonbelievers, who he feels tend to be instinctively more savvy at arguing. "Christians who believe, but cannot explain why they believe, become 'Bible-thumpers' who seem dogmatic and insecure about their convictions," he said. "We have to deal with that."

"Nowadays, atheists are coming to the forefront at every level of society — from the top of academia all the way down to the level of the average Joe," added Mr. McDowell, a seminary Ph.D. candidate whose phone app was produced by the B&H Publishing Group, one of the country's largest distributors of Bibles and religious textbooks.

I don't think that atheists are 'instinctively more savvy at arguing' as McDowell claims. It is that atheists have all the facts, evidence, reason, and logic on their side so that arguing with a religious believer should be a slam-dunk, once you have grasped the basic ideas. What the new atheists have done is put all those things in the hands of the general public. Religious believers' arguments, by contrast, are based on ignorance (the god of the gaps) or involve plays on words, such as trying to exploit the ambiguity of the word 'theory' or whether atheism is a 'belief' like religion and thus requires just as much 'faith' as belief in god.

So if you are debating religion with a believer and he keeps looking at his smart phone, it may not be that he is checking his text messages. He may be seeking rejoinders.

The article says that atheists are also developing apps to counter the religious apps. So let the app wars begin!

March 29, 2011

Is the president a lousy negotiator?

Paul Krugman is a politically savvy man so it surprises me that even he thinks that the reason that the Republicans and the oligarchy are getting their own way so easily on fiscal issues is because Obama is a lousy negotiator.

As I have said over and over again, the Democrats negotiating strategy is to betray the middle and working classes that support them and give the oligarchy as much as they can while acting as if they were forced into it or were outmaneuvered. Since even people like Krugman and other liberal commentators seem to have bought it, it means that they have succeeded.

The Democrats behavior is perfectly understandable if you bear this simple rule in mind: When it comes to any policy that the Democrats say they espouse but which hurts the interests of the oligarchy, the Democrats do not want a strategy that will win, they seek one that will lose.

Interactive census map

The New York Times has created an interactive map based on the census data released last week. It is a good example of using technology to bring dry data to life.

You can spend a lot of time on it seeing how patterns are changing in the US.

The death of the afterlife

In February, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris debated rabbis David Wolpe and Shavit Artson on the topic "Is there an Afterlife?" The moderator was Rob Eshman. The 97-minute debate can be seen in its entirety here and a summary by Landon Ross who attended it can be read here.

It was an interesting debate. Hitchens and Harris are seasoned debaters and seemed very much at ease. Wolpe is quick-witted and has a good sense of humor and an engaging manner but Artson had a pouty expression that is off-putting and he seemed to not be happy at being there at all but made a couple of good points. Although the two rabbis (especially Wolpe) got some applause, most of it was reserved for sallies by Hitchens and Harris, despite the fact that the venue of the debate was the American Jewish University, which should have given home field advantage to the rabbis.

Ross's summary captures the main points and I want to focus on a couple of things. Harris pointed out that the idea that we have some form of consciousness that separates from our bodies and floats off intact after we die is simply not tenable in the light of modern science. We know from studying people who suffer brain damage that different types of damage to different parts of the brain result in changes in people's personalities. Apart from the normal changes in brains (and thus personalities) as we age, brain tumors or diseases like Alzheimers can dramatically accelerate that process. So when we die, what exactly is it that continues into the afterlife? The personality/soul that we had at the moment of death, even if it is terribly debilitated? Or some earlier form of it? And if the latter, how does the soul reconstruct itself at the point of death into another earlier, and presumably better, form? At what age does this soul decide, "OK, that's it. I am going to stay this way and make my escape when the body dies." Or does it mean we have two souls, one that grows along with us and dies with us, and the other that at some point reaches perfection and goes into hibernation and awakes just when we die?

In fact, if you believe that life begins at conception and the soul enters the body at that time, then the afterlife is going to consist mostly of the souls of miscarriages, which occurs in about 15-20% of recognized pregnancies, or the souls of fertilized eggs that didn't even get implanted, which occurs about 30-50% of the time.

The same problem arises for those who believe that our physical bodies are resurrected after death, either immediately or at the second coming of Jesus. Which body? If it is the body at the point of death, then the afterlife is going to have a bipolar distribution in ages, with almost everyone being either very old or very young, mingling with lots of fertilized eggs. The remaining few bodies will likely be ravaged by disease or mutilated because of some terrible catastrophe. When evangelist Billy Graham was asked what we will look like in heaven, he said that when we are resurrected we will have glorious bodies that never grow sick or old. Does this mean that heaven looks like Fort Lauderdale during spring break? This hardly solves the problem since it is not clear when we were at our best. Is it when we were children? Young adults? Older adults? Who gets to choose how we look? (I should add that Harris did not go into nearly as much detail as I am on this question.)

The two rabbis are sophisticated people so the approach they took was quite predictable. They disavowed all aspects of religion that most people believe in, effectively becoming what I call 'religious atheists', insisting that they believe in something supernatural while rejecting any concrete form of that belief. Whenever Hitchens and Harris dissected some religious belief, the two rabbis would immediately respond by saying that "That is not what I believe" and that they agreed with the criticisms, while at the same time avoiding stating clearly what they actually do believe. They wandered around in what I have called the fog of religious language. Artson went so far as to say that his god was not omnipotent and was powerless to overturn the laws of science and only had the power of persuasion! Judaism seems to be particularly malleable when it comes to beliefs about god and the afterlife, allowing for far more official disavowal of what we commonly understand than Christianity or Islam. It reminds me of the joke that so many Jews are secular that the Judaic creed seems to be "There is but one god and we don't believe in him."

For example, Artson said how the thought of seeing his grandmother again in the afterlife gave him great comfort. Then a little while later, when he was asked whether he believed in an afterlife in which he and his grandmother would exist as recognizable people, he backtracked, saying that after death we would exist as packets of energy and of course, no one could deny that energy exists! How he, as one packet of energy, would recognize another packet of energy as his grandmother was the key question left unexplained. I think that Hitchens and Harris either did not want to skewer him or felt that his absurdity was self-evident. I must say, though, that I get annoyed when people invoke scientific concepts in such a facile way to gloss over the problems with religion. At least no one brought up that perennial favorite, the uncertainty principle as the loophole by which god evades detection, for which I was thankful.

This debate illustrates why religion is faltering so badly. Its most sophisticated apologists are on the ropes. They know enough of science to realize that the traditional beliefs of their faith traditions are completely incoherent and simply do not stand up to scrutiny. They are thus forced to abandon the concrete core beliefs of the vast majority of their fellow believers while being unable to offer anything in return except content-free metaphors that are meant to parry the criticisms of atheists while presented to the gullible religious folk as deep insights. The creator of Jesus and Mo accurately captures the deliberate ambiguity that is being explopited.

j&m2011-03-11.png

Religion is now brain dead. It has lost any intellectual power that it may have had in pre-modern days. Its body, in the form of religious institutions, is still functioning but just barely and is on life support. And it has no soul that will live on after its death.

March 28, 2011

The incredible whininess of the oligarchy

Glenn Greenwald has another excellent piece on how the US oligarchs, as represented by the Koch brothers, are so greedy as to be delusional, seeing themselves as the oppressed ones, fighting against a President Obama who in their eyes is a 'dedicated egalitarian' who has 'internalized Marxist models' and is 'the most radical president we've ever had as a nation' because he has had 'antibusiness, anti-free enterprise influences affecting him almost all his life'.

Greenewald contrasts this with the reality:

Since Obama was inaugurated, the Dow Jones has increased more than 50% -- from 8,000 to more than 12,000; the wealthiest recieved a massive tax cut; the top marginal tax rate was three times less than during the Eisenhower years and substantially lower than during the Reagan years; income and wealth inequality are so vast and rising that it is easily at Third World levels; meanwhile, "the share of U.S. taxes paid by corporations has fallen from 30 percent of federal revenue in the 1950s to 6.6 percent in 2009." During this same time period, the unemployment rate has increased from 7.7% to 8.9%; millions of Americans have had their homes foreclosed; and the number of Americans living below the poverty line increased by many millions, the largest number since the statistic has been recorded. Can you smell Obama's radical egalitarianism and Marxist anti-business hatred yet?

Then there are those whom Obama has empowered. His first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is a business-revering corporatist who made close to $20 million in 3 short years as an investment banker, while his second, Bill Daley, served for years as JP Morgan's Midwest Chairman. His Treasury Secretary is undoubtedly the most loyal and dedicated servant Wall Street has ever had in that position, while Goldman Sachs officials occupy so many key positions in his administration that a former IMF and Salomon Brothers executive condemned what he called "Goldman Sachs's seeming lock on high-level U.S. Treasury jobs." Obama's former OMB Director recently left to take a multi-million-dollar position with Citigroup. From the start, Obama's economic policies were shaped by the Wall Street-revering neo-liberal Rubinites who did so much to serve corporate America during the Clinton years. Meanwhile, the President's choice to head his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness -- General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt -- heads a corporation that "despite $14.2 billion in worldwide profits - including more than $5 billion from U.S. operations – [] did not owe taxes in 2010": an appointment the White House still defends.

Yes, these are definitely the actions of a doctrinaire egalitarian determined to destroy the capitalist system in the US and usher in a Marxist dictatorship.

John W. Loftus talk on The Christian Delusion

I attended the talk by John W. Loftus on Saturday. There was a crowd of around 35-40 which was very good considering that the event was organized at very short notice and Saturday evenings at 6:00 pm is not the best time to draw a student audience. The officers of the CWRU Center for Inquiry did a terrific job in arranging everything.

Loftus's talk was very interesting for me in that he presents an insider's view of how American evangelical Christians see the world. One has to understand that world view if one is to engage effectively with religious people in the US. As a former evangelical preacher, he is aware of what kinds of arguments might reach them. He presents believers with what he calls the 'Outsider Test for Faith', asking them to apply to their own faith the same criteria that they use to reject competing faiths.

I think that the alliance of people like Loftus, who were once committed Christians and are now atheists, and atheists who come from a scientific background could be very fruitful since we bring complementary knowledge to bear on the problem of how to deal with religion and can learn a lot from each other.

He and I were able to spend some time together before and after his talk and I found him to be as engaging in private as he is as a public speaker. He and I shared books and ideas and I will report on his book The Christian Delusion once I've had a chance to read it.

Meanwhile, his blog Debunking Christianity is lively and well worth visiting.

The game of cricket

Since I am giving updates on the cricket World Cup, you may want to read my 2006 post explaining the game, along with watching this short video.

The lessons of V for Vendetta

After reading the book The Count of Monte Cristo and seeing the 1934 film adaptation, I watched the film V for Vendetta again and enjoyed it even more, as it is one of those films whose message grows on you with repeated viewings (though the plot holes also become more apparent) and I cannot recommend it enough. The trailer focuses a lot more on Natalie Portman, the box office draw, than the film does.

I could see why the character of V would be drawn to the story of The Count of Monte Cristo. Both he and Edmond Dantes seek vengeance for injustices and terrible harm done to them personally, as well as see themselves as agents for bringing evil people to justice. Here is a key scene in which a speech that V gives explains what is going on and why things have to be changed.

I predicted that the film V for Vendetta would become a cult classic and that seems to be coming true. Its basic message, that of people waking up to their oppression and taking on a cruel and ruthless power structure that uses the media and religion as tools of control, has caught on and I have been observing people in various demonstrations wearing the iconic V mask and using the V symbol, mimicking the climactic scene in the film where the people rise up against their oppressive rulers.

V for Vendetta.jpeg v-for-vendetta-logo-wallpaper.jpg

The group Anonymous that consists largely of computer hackers sees itself in the tradition of V, fighting against oppressive structures behind a shield of anonymity. It even uses the V mask on its website where it describes its vision of expanding access to information and breaking down the barriers of secrecy that prevent people from realizing what is actually going on. This group is acting behind the scenes to support the current uprisings in the Middle East.

A recent communiqué further explains its mission.

Under most circumstances, ordinary people have little chance against the massive firepower that rulers will unleash through their security forces against protestors. The prime purpose of the armed security forces in any country is less to defend the country from outside forces and more to be used against their own people if they should challenge the power structure. Soldiers are deliberately hardened during their training so that they will be willing to kill even their own people. We see this happening in Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya, and it is likely to happen in Saudi Arabia and Syria and Jordan. And, yes, it will also happen in the US if the people should really rise up in mass protest against the oligarchic rule that is going on here.

What stops security forces from killing civilians is if they are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers arrayed against them, so that except for the psychopaths, even the most hardened troops on the front line begin to suspect that rather than saving the nation from those who would harm it, they are on the wrong side and are being used as tools to perpetuate a power structure that is actually against the best interests of the nation.

For all the ballyhoo about the use of social networks in the Middle East revolts, that is only a tiny part of the story, since only a small, though influential, minority has access to these new technologies. Besides, technology alone cannot overthrow oppressive governments. The basic message of V for Vendetta is that it is when large numbers of people are willing to get out of their homes and go out into the streets and rise up against their tyrannical rulers that regimes get toppled. As the tagline of the film says, "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people."

The people in the Middle East are doing precisely what V recommends, whether they have seen the film or not. These protests are spreading. I don't know where they will go.

March 27, 2011

Across the Universe

I usually don't like covers of Beatles songs but this version of John Lennon's song performed by Rufus Wainwright, Moby, and Sean Lennon is really well done.

(Via Nicole Belle at Crooks and Liars.)

The oligarchy never has enough

This scene from the 1987 film Wall Street captures perfectly the attitude of the oligarchy towards the rest of us. It is their insatiable greed that will be their downfall.

Cricket World Cup update

It turned out that only three of my four quarter-final predictions were correct. Pakistan and Sri Lanka trounced West Indies and England respectively. India beat Australia (who had won the three previous world Cups) in a more evenly balanced game. The one upset was New Zealand who won in dramatic come-from-behind fashion over South Africa, the country that I thought would become the eventual champions.

South Africa is an enigma. They consistently field strong teams and have often been thought the best in the tournament. And yet they suddenly collapse and lose at key moments, giving rise to the reputation of being chokers. They have not won the quadrennial World Cup since they first took part in 1992 when they were first allowed back into international sports competition following the end of apartheid. England and New Zealand have not won since the series started in 1975.

The semi-final games consist of Sri Lanka v New Zealand on Tuesday (in Sri Lanka) and Pakistan v India on Wednesday (in India). The teams are quite evenly matched and my picks are Sri Lanka and India, because I think they are slightly better teams and each has the home field advantage.

March 26, 2011

Those poor persecuted bigots

The Catholic Church has complained to the UN Human Rights Council that "People who criticise gay sexual relations for religious or moral reasons are increasingly being attacked and vilified for their views."

I had not realized that bigots had such sensitive feelings. No doubt the Catholic Church will next complain about criticisms aimed at those who support pedophilic priests.

It is amazing how people think that saying that one's views originate from one's religion automatically confers immunity from the normal rough and tumble of public political discourse.

(via Machines Like Us)

The Daily Show on the new state governors

They make special mention of Ohio's new governor John Kasich and he richly deserves the treatment.

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

Elizabeth-Taylor.jpgElizabeth Taylor was stunningly beautiful, a wonderful actor, and seemed to be (to the extent that one can infer about public personalities by their public actions) a nice person who supported many worthy causes (especially AIDS prevention and treatment in its early days when many did not want to be associated with it) but who unfortunately could not seem to find happiness in her private life and battled many illnesses and personal demons.

She is the only famous actor that I have seen in person. It happened sometime between mid 1962 and 1963 when I was living in England for a year. My parents were friendly with an executive at Pinewood Studios and he invited my mother and me to spend the day visiting the studios and wandering around the various sets. At lunchtime he took us to the cafeteria and there was Elizabeth Taylor at an adjoining table. They were shooting some final scenes from her epic Cleopatra and she was in costume, famous hairstyle and all.

Of course my mother, a big fan, was far more excited by seeing Elizabeth Taylor than a boy like me who would have preferred to see the action heroes of that time. But even at that age I could tell that she was really pretty and this is the image that I will remember her by.

March 25, 2011

The war on public schools

The way that teachers and unions were attacked in Wisconsin and Ohio was really a covert attack on public schools in particular and the public sector in particular. The war against public schools is now becoming more overt:

Texas Congressman Ron Paul told the crowd government wants "absolute control" of the "indoctrination" of children. Paul spoke along with Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Georgia businessman Herman Cain.

"The public school system now is a propaganda machine," Paul said, prompting applause from the crowd of hundreds of home schooling families. "They start with our kids even in kindergarten, teaching them about family values, sexual education, gun rights, environmentalism - and they condition them to believe in so much which is totally un-American."

Really? Children in public schools are indoctrinated to be anti-American?

Steve Benen points out other examples, including Rick Santorum:

And campaigning in New Hampshire, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, who's homeschooled his seven kids, wasn't subtle about his disdain for the American institution.

...Santorum took a swipe at public schools. "Just call them what they are. Public schools? That's a nice way of putting it. These are government-run schools," he said.

Santorum added that the Head Start program is a Democratic conspiracy to bring "more children out of the household" in order to brainwash and "socialize" them.

As Benen notes, "By most modern standards, these are the kind of remarks that would bring a presidential campaign to a humiliating end, but by today's GOP standards, it's just Tuesday."

As I have repeatedly said, the oligarchy seeks to destroy any sense of collective obligation and responsibility and make the US a land of individuals grabbing as much for themselves as they can. We are truly living in crazy times.

Talk: The Christian Delusion by John W. Loftus

A former preacher turned atheist, Loftus has published two books Why I Became an Atheist and The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (winner of the 2011 About.com Reader's Choice Award). His blog is ranked in the top 5 atheist/theist blogs on the internet today. He has three master's degrees in the Philosophy of Religion and is a graduate of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

His talk is on Saturday, March 26, 2011 in Wickenden Hall, room 322 on the CWRU campus. The talk is sponsored by the CWRU chapter of the Center for Inquiry.

All are welcome and refreshments will be available.

Wickenden Hall is on the Case quad. It is likely that the parking lot 1A right behind Wickenden (entering from northbound MLK Drive) will be open. If you park there, go up the outdoor steps and Wickenden Hall is the building on your immediate right.. The visitors parking lot between Crawford Hall and Amasa Stone chapel (which you enter from Euclid Avenue) will be open.

God makes you obese

That's what a new Northwestern University study seems to find.

The study, which tracked 2,433 men and women for 18 years, found normal weight young adults ages 20 to 32 years with a high frequency of religious participation were 50 percent more likely to be obese by middle age after adjusting for differences in age, race, sex, education, income and baseline body mass index. High frequency of religious participation was defined as attending a religious function at least once a week.

While the result seems pretty conclusive, the causal connection between god and obesity is not clear. Matthew Feinstein, the study's lead investigator suggests, "It's possible that getting together once a week and associating good works and happiness with eating unhealthy foods could lead to the development of habits that are associated with greater body weight and obesity."

I find that unconvincing. Is the food at these religious get-togethers that bad? In my experience, they are usually potluck events, with home-cooked dishes that are actually pretty good. Even if it is bad for you, eating it just once a week seems hardly sufficient to produce this effect. It seems more likely to me that that the desire for food and the desire for god both spring from the same source, a neediness that is never satiated.

Given Americans' obsession with their weight and their propensity to rush out and adopt any and all kinds of diet programs, perhaps atheist organizations should adopt a new recruiting slogan: "Lose god and lose weight!"

Review: The Count of Monte Cristo (no spoilers)

Long time readers may recall that I really liked the 2006 film V for Vendetta (if you haven't seen it, you really should). V's inspiration is Edmond Dantes, the hero of The Count of Monte Cristo and he repeatedly watches the 1934 black and white film with Robert Donat in the title role. You can see that scene here and it made me want to read the book and see that film.

I recently read the book since it was on the iPad that was loaned to me. The novel by Alexandre Dumas, creator of The Three Musketeers, is a classic adventure story centered on the themes of love and revenge. Set in France in the period just after Napoleon had been deposed from power for the first time and is plotting his comeback, Edmond Dantes is a worthy young sailor of humble origins whose merits are recognized by his employer and promoted to captain of his ship at a very early age. He is also betrothed to the beautiful but poor orphan Mercedes.

On the eve of their wedding in his hometown of Marseilles, the apolitical Dantes is framed as being a Bonapartist conspirator by Mercedes' cousin Mondego, who is Dantes' rival for her affections, and Danglars, Dantes' second-in-command of the ship, who is jealous of his promotion over him. These two send an anonymous letter implicating Dantes to the ambitious local magistrate Villefort. The 'evidence' against Dantes also implicates Villefort's father so, in order to protect himself and further his own career, Villefort summarily consigns Dantes without even a trial to solitary confinement in the prison dungeon at the Chateau d'If. (When reading this I thought of places like Guantanamo and the treatment of Bradley Manning. It is depressing how little has changed.)

The bewildered Dantes has no idea why he is being treated this way and becomes increasingly despondent and bitter as the days in his damp and dark dungeon stretch into months and years. After eight years he makes contact with Abbe Faria, a highly educated monk, who is in another dungeon cell and whose attempts to tunnel out take him by mistake to Dantes's cell. They become friends and for the next six years they try to tunnel out together while the Abbe tutors him so that he receives a much better education than what even a nobleman would receive. More crucially, the Abbe is able to figure out and tell the naïve Dantes who the people are who are responsible for his plight and their motives.

But then the old Abbe dies but before he does so reveals to Dantes the location of a great fortune that has been hidden on the rocky island of Monte Cristo in the Mediterranean. Dantes uses the Abbe's death to carry out a daring escape and find the treasure and becomes an extraordinarily wealthy man. He creates a luxurious home on the island and acquires the title of the Count of Monte Cristo.

In the intervening years all three of Dantes's enemies had prospered and moved to Paris. Mondego had married Mercedes and become a count, Danglars had become a wealthy banker, and Villefort had risen to the post of the king's attorney. All of them moved in the same high social circles.

Dantes, as the Count of Monte Cristo, decides to use his newfound wealth and power to plot revenge on his enemies. He also moves to Paris and his great wealth and personal magnetism take the city's elites by storm. Physically changed by the harshness of his long captivity, this mysterious newcomer is not recognized by his enemies. Only Mercedes recognizes him but does not reveal her knowledge even to Dantes.

The playing out of his plan constitutes the major part of the book. The book is a great read in the old-fashioned storytelling sense and is a page-turner. As soon as you encounter them, you know if a character is good or bad so one has no doubt about whom to root for. The plot is Dickensian in that it is full of surprises and consists of different story threads that intertwine. There are many improbable coincidences and characters who briefly appear early on suddenly reappear later, and relationships suddenly emerge between characters whom one thought were unrelated.

Such a complicated plot has to necessarily be trimmed to become a film. A lot of characters and sub-plots and story threads are eliminated, several characters are combined into one, and some relationships are altered. There have been many film adaptations, two of them in English. The 1934 version, which I saw after reading the book, is praised as being the most faithful adaptation but even there they take what seem to me to be unnecessary liberties. I did not see, but did read the plot of, the 2002 remake and they seem to have changed the story even more. You can see the entire 1934 film on YouTube, part 1 of which is below.

In making these adaptations, the film loses much of the richness and complexity of the book. What bothers me are those changes that are made not to simplify the complicated story (which I can sympathize with) but also to eliminate some of the darker elements of the book and to replace the book's bittersweet ending with a more formulaic one. Part of the book's message that is lost in the film version is that some injustices cannot be avenged, some things are irretrievably lost, some things cannot be made whole, and that Dantes's' single minded focus on revenge and his remorseless quest to destroy his enemies can result in incidental cruelty to others.

I can't think of when I have seen a film adaption of a great book that was as good as the book. The closest that comes to mind is David Lean's 1946 version of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations with those two wonderful actors John Mills and Alec Guinness.

Maybe I should just stop comparing them.

March 24, 2011

Bradley Manning demonstration

Here is a news report on the demonstration that took place last Sunday at Quantico base in Virginia to support Bradley Manning that ended in some arrests.

The Daily Show on the increasingly casual way that wars begin

Yesterday, the Libyan war had already been shifted to the inside pages of my local paper The Plain Dealer, with the news from the other 'old' wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The road to ruin

The current war on Libya was sanctioned by United Nations Security Council resolution #1973 that was passed on March 17 and authorized "all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya." It should be noted that the resolution expressly excludes "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory" which means that another resolution will be required if bombing alone does not result in the removal of Gadhafi from power and they want to send troops in.

The resolution passed with ten votes in favor and five abstentions. It is noteworthy that apart from Germany, the other four abstentions consisted of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, countries that constitute the newly formed so-called BRIC bloc, that is emerging as an economic counterweight to the US and Europe.

Immediately after the vote both Russia and China issued very critical statements on the bombing campaign. Since either of them could have vetoed the resolution, it seems highly hypocritical for them to complain now since they had to have known what was coming. (Even if they had vetoed it, the US, Britain, and France would have found some other pretext for bombing, but that is not the point at issue here.)

So why didn't China and Russia veto the UN resolution? I wonder if they want to lure the US and its NATO allies into these wars so that they will simply bleed themselves dry by one misbegotten military adventure after another. Russia, in particular, learned this painful lesson first hand when the US lured them into a long, costly, tragic, and ultimately losing war in Afghanistan. Maybe this is their revenge.

Stephen Walt discusses how the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists in the US, supposedly on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, are actually very similar when it comes to taking the country to war.

The only important intellectual difference between neoconservatives and liberal interventionists is that the former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance… So if you're baffled by how Mr. "Change You Can Believe In" morphed into Mr. "More of the Same," you shouldn't really be surprised. George Bush left in disgrace and Barack Obama took his place, but he brought with him a group of foreign policy advisors whose basic world views were not that different from the people they were replacing.

Libya is another example of how we really have just one pro-war/pro-business oligarchy that rules the country.

Walt also wonders if whether China may not be the ultimate beneficiary of the Libyan war, saying "And who's the big winner here? Back in Beijing, China's leaders must be smiling as they watch Washington walk open-eyed into another potential quagmire."

It might seem to a naïve or conspiracy minded observer that there is some plan being implemented, aided by the political leadership, to deliberately drive America into the ditch. Look at all the efforts currently underway to defund the government and thus destroy public services so that libraries cut back, regulatory agencies are made toothless, public schools are undermined, workers are impoverished, retirement funds are looted, national parks are destroyed by development, logging and mining, roads and bridges fall apart, police and fire protections and other social services are reduced or eliminated, all the while waging more and more wars on other countries that not only cost a lot but breed anger and resentment against the US.

Of course, such an explicit plan is unlikely and is unneeded. All these things are happening as a logical consequence of an oligarchy run amok that seeks only to advance its immediate short-term interests by cutting taxes on the wealthy and eliminating any form of government oversight and restraint and doesn't give a damn about anything else. When coupled with outside forces that seek to draw the US into expensive overseas military adventures and overblown internal security measures (these are, after all, the stated goals of al Qaeda), we are well on the path to the implosion of a once powerful country.

March 23, 2011

Truth or Treason: Panel discussion on WikiLeaks

I will be on a panel discussing WikiLeaks on Thursday, March 24 at 5:30 pm in Nord 310 on the Case quad of the CWRU campus. The other panelists will be Laura Tartakoff and Pete Moore from the Political Science department.

The event is organized by the CWRU chapter of the Young Americans for Liberty and is free and open to the public. Pizza and drinks will be provided.

The poor persecuted religious people in the US

The Daily Show on the Libyan war

Let the euphemisms begin!

Customized freedom packages depending on the country!

Religion headed for extinction

The BBC reports on a new paper presented this week at the annual March meeting of the American Physical Society (of all places) that used mathematical modeling on religious affiliation trends over the last century and arrived at a conclusion that supports my thesis in the recent series on Why Atheism is Winning that religion is in a state of rapid decline.

A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers.

The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.

The team's mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.

The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries.

The team took census data stretching back as far as a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

I looked up the actual paper which can be read here and its abstract outlines the methodology.

When groups compete for members, the resulting dynamics of human social activity may be understandable with simple mathematical models. Here, we apply techniques from dynamical systems and perturbation theory to analyze a theoretical framework for the growth and decline of competing social groups. We present a new treatment of the competition for adherents between religious and irreligious segments of modern secular societies and compile a new international data set tracking the growth of religious non-affiliation. Data suggest a particular case of our general growth law, leading to clear predictions about possible future trends in society.

The basic idea behind the model is as follows:

We begin by idealizing a society as partitioned into two mutually exclusive social groups, X and Y, the unaffiliated and those who adhere to a religion. We assume the attractiveness of a group increases with the number of members, which is consistent with research on social conformity. We further assume that attractiveness also increases with the perceived utility of the group, a quantity encompassing many factors including the social, economic, political and security benefits derived from membership as well as spiritual or moral consonance with a group.

This leads them to a nonlinear coupled differential equation for the proportion of people in X.

So what is their conclusion?

People claiming no religious affiliation constitute the fastest growing religious minority in many countries throughout the world. Americans without religious affiliation comprise the only religious group growing in all 50 states; in 2008 those claiming no religion rose to 15 percent nationwide, with a maximum in Vermont at 34 percent. In the Netherlands nearly half the population is religiously unaffiliated. Here we use a minimal model of competition for members between social groups to explain historical census data on the growth of religious non-affiliation in 85 regions around the world. According to the model, a single parameter quantifying the perceived utility of adhering to a religion determines whether the unaffiliated group will grow in a society. The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction. [My italics]

Of course, this is mathematical modeling but the models seem to fit the existing data very well. The graphs in the paper support my contention that the rate of collapse of religion increases with time.

For decades, authors have commented on the surprisingly rapid decline of organized religion in many regions of the world. The work we have presented does not exclude previous models, but provides a new framework for the understanding of different models of human behavior in majority/minority social systems in which groups compete for members.[My italics]

My reasoning was that this was due to the lack of any rational basis for believing in god and that once that became more widely recognized and the collective delusion undermined, that the decline would be rapid.

March 22, 2011

Talk: The Christian Delusion by John W. Loftus

A former preacher turned atheist, Loftus has published two books Why I Became an Atheist and The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (winner of the 2011 About.com Reader's Choice Award). His blog is ranked in the top 5 atheist/theist blogs on the internet today. He has three master's degrees in the Philosophy of Religion and is a graduate of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

His talk is at 6:00 pm on Saturday, March 26, 2011 in Wickenden Hall, room 322 on the CWRU campus. The talk is sponsored by the CWRU chapter of the Center for Inquiry.

All are welcome and refreshments will be available.

Wickenden Hall is on the Case quad. It is likely that the parking lot 1A right behind Wickenden (entering from northbound MLK Drive) will be open. If you park there, go up the steps and Wickenden Hall is the building on your immediate right.

(Note; Loftus will also be speaking on Thursday, March 24 at 7:00 p to the Northeast Ohio Center for Inquiry. More details can be found here.)

Lying about religiosity

It is a well-known phenomenon that people overestimate their capacities on traits that are deemed to be socially desirable. In the US, since being religious is seen as a good thing, people seem to feel obliged to put on a facade.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that Americans are less religious that they claim to be. The Pew survey of religious knowledge in the US says that 4/7 (about 55%) attend church once a week but a University of Michigan examination of actual time diaries kept by people indicate that the figure is only about 25%, much like many European countries, while self reports were about 35-45%. The gap between self-perception and reality in the US was around 18% whereas the highest gaps elsewhere in the world were only about 4-8%, and these were in Catholic countries.

Given that fact, should we believe the Pew results that say that "more than a third (37%) say they read the Bible or other Holy Scriptures at least once a week, not counting worship services"? I find that really hard to believe. The Bible is not a great read, frankly. There are a few occasional well written and poetic passages but most of it consists of turgid prose dealing with dreary lists of rules.

My guess is that even if we use the same inflation factor of two that exists for church attendance to arrive at about 20% for weekly Bible reading, that would still be too high.

Review: The Nature of Existence

I watched this documentary yesterday. The filmmaker and narrator Roger Nygard is looking for the meaning of existence and his method of finding out is to travel the globe and pose questions on god, the soul, happiness, sex, the afterlife, etc. to people from various religious groups and from scientists and just record their responses. There is no attempt to challenge the stated views or to analyze or to create some kind of synthesis. What we get are snippets of people's views from all across the spectrum.

The documentary is fairly entertaining but not deep. The filmmaker seemed to spend a lot of time on two particular groups. One group consisted of serious scientists whom, as far as I could tell, were all atheists, and the other group consisted of people from more exotic religious groupings, people whom we would not normally encounter, such as druids, new-age spiritualists, Indian mystics, and the like. There was one supposedly very popular Indian guru named Sri Sri Ravi Shankar who got a lot of screen time who had a twinkle in his eye as he delivered his banal fortune-cookie aphorisms that suggested that he knew he was perpetrating a con and was delighted that all these saps around him were buying it.

Mainstream Catholics and Protestants were represented by sober clergy and intellectuals while the evangelical Christians got the short shrift and were largely represented by a preacher who rails at people on university campus grounds, a wrestling ministry that uses wrestling bouts as a means to evangelize, and drag racers. A lot of time was given to an Orthodox Judaic rabbi in Israel who spouted deep-sounding but meaningless words about the finite and the infinite.

The best segments were of a 12-year old girl, the neighbor of the filmmaker, who in a few pithy words dismissed the idea of both god and the afterlife.

Although Nygard did not have any overt point of view and ended with a somewhat trite statement of the 'why can't we all get along' sort, I thought the film had a definitely anti-religion subtext by contrasting sensible atheist views with the mumbo-jumbo of religions.

You can see clips at the film's website.

And now, another war

So now the US (along with the UK and France) is at war with Libya.

I find it incredible that the US goes so casually into war, as if bombing a country was just another foreign policy option. Now the government does not even go through the bother of making up lies to justify its actions of the kind that we were regaled with in the run up to the Iraq invasion, such as weapons of mass destruction, mushroom clouds, haven of terrorists, etc.

The US has used its superior airpower so routinely and frequently that in one sense what is happening in Libya not new. The list of countries that have been bombed by the US is long and growing longer by the day. (This is an old list and does not include Pakistan.)

Korea and China 1950-53 (Korean War)
Guatemala 1954
Indonesia 1958
Cuba 1959-1961
Guatemala 1960
Congo 1964
Laos 1964-73
Vietnam 1961-73
Cambodia 1969-70
Guatemala 1967-69
Grenada 1983
Lebanon 1983, 1984 (both Lebanese and Syrian targets)
Libya 1986
El Salvador 1980s
Nicaragua 1980s
Iran 1987
Panama 1989
Iraq 1991 (Persian Gulf War)
Kuwait 1991
Somalia 1993
Bosnia 1994, 1995
Sudan 1998
Afghanistan 1998
Yugoslavia 1999
Yemen 2002
Iraq 1991-2003 (US/UK on regular basis)
Iraq 2003-05
Afghanistan 2001-05

Because the US can use its air power with little risk of casualties, aerial bombardment has become the preferred option when the cry goes up to 'do something, anything' when some conflict arises somewhere but it is not at all clear what needs to be done or indeed if the US should do anything at all. This kind of war is loved by some liberals and Democrats who resent being seen as wimps. So they love it when they get a chance to launch so-called 'humanitarian wars' that involve just bombing, such as in the Balkans when Bill Clinton was president and now in Libya with Obama. These bombing campaigns seem to make the War Party elites giddy with pleasure as they see so-called 'smart bombs' attacking their own chosen 'bad guys'. NPR's Tom Gjelten is already gleefully talking about the heavy damage inflicted, living up his reputation as the correspondent from National Pentagon Radio.

What is slightly new is that in Libya the US has decided to intervene in a civil war. It has now seemingly decided that it can intervene in a civil war in a country if it does not like the way that war is progressing. But civil wars are always messy and who is in the right and who has legitimacy is rarely clear. What is the current intervention meant to achieve? It seems to have as its purpose to prevent Gadhafi's forces from retaking some of the cities held by the rebels, so the US has essentially sided with the rebels. But who are the rebels? What do they stand for other than being against Gadhafi? Or is that alone good enough to support them militarily? Suppose the air campaign does succeed in creating some sort of stalemate between the two sides. Then what? Surely the three western countries are now pretty much committed to removing Gadhafi from power and thus will be uncomfortable with a stalemate. There is an inexorable logic to these campaigns. They start out attacking military targets. Then when that fails to achieve the desired results, they target infrastructure such as power and water supplies. And when that fails they go for outright terror by hitting high visibility targets in urban areas. All these things ruin a country and produce huge numbers of deaths. (Josh Marshall shares some of my other concerns about the Libyan intervention.)

Let's not forget that Libya is a relatively prosperous country and has the highest Human Development Index of all the countries on the African continent. This index is a composite measure of wellbeing, especially child welfare, and is based on life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living. Will a sustained bombing campaign throw it into poverty? Remember that Iraq used to be one of the most developed countries in the Middle East before the sanctions and war took effect, making it impoverished.

The US has already come under charges of hypocrisy in attacking Libya while not doing anything about the parallel situations in Yemen and Bahrain. While the US and other countries bomb Libya because of its harsh response to an actual rebellion seeking to militarily overthrow the government, it ignores the killing of non-violent demonstrators in the streets of Yemen and Bahrain by those governments. Normally the mainstream media is so deferential to the US government that they never ask these kinds of embarrassing questions about why there are such obvious contradictions in its policy. And they can avoid doing so because the uncomfortable parallel usually occurred in the past and thus can be dumped conveniently into the memory hole. But in this case it was unavoidable because the rebellions in those other countries are going on at the same time. It is interesting to watch people who support the Libyan attacks try to avoid answering the question of why the two situations are treated so differently, even though Bahrain is using foreign troops (most from Saudi Arabia) to attack its own people.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia has banned all demonstrations but that country is immune from any repercussions from the US for anything. After all, fifteen of the nineteen people directly responsible for the attacks of 9/11/2001 were from Saudi Arabia. If the fifteen had been from (say) Syria, that country would have been bombed the next day.

The real problem is that the constitutional requirement that only Congress can declare war is now completely ignored. The framers of the US constitution (Remember that document? Kept in the national archives? Supposed to protect the people from authoritarian rulers?) recognized that war was a deadly serious business and that going to war was not a decision to be made lightly. They were well aware that the Executive branch and the president would use wars to further their narrow and selfish goals if they could, so they gave the power (Article 1, Section 8) to declare war to Congress so that an exhaustive debate by the people's elected representatives would take place before such a momentous decision was made.

But the Executive branch has usurped that function on its way to creating an authoritarian state and the spineless Congress is only too willing to give up this prerogative since it enables them to avoid taking responsibility for making a decision and they can then waste their time on trivialities and carp from the sidelines about tactics.

March 21, 2011

Belonging to a religion but not religious

A survey of 1900 people in England and Wales found the interesting result that while 61% of respondents said they belonged to a religion, 65% also replied "no" when asked if they were religious.

The British Humanist Association conducted this survey to illustrate the fact that the British census, which is due to be carried out soon, gives a misleading impression by asking only the first question and thereby suggesting that people are more religious than they really are. They say that people check off the boxes of belonging to religious institutions for cultural, rather than religious, reasons but that the government uses this inflated data to advocate for funding of things like faith-based schools. They are urging people who are not religious to tick the 'none' box when asked which religion they belong to.

Another interesting result was that "Among respondents who identified themselves as Christian, fewer than half said they believed Jesus Christ was a real person who died, came back to life and was the son of God." That alone would explain the above difference.

It would be really interesting to have a similar survey done in the US. I think the religiosity figures are inflated here too, though maybe not as much.

The iPad and me

Although I use a Mac computer and much prefer its operating system to the Windows alternative, I am not really a fan in that I do not run out and buy the latest Mac gadget unless it has really useful functionality. I do not, for example, have an iPhone. I do have an iPod touch because it is functional. It fits in my pocket and enables to carry around my calendar and address book and sync the former with others in my office. If I am in a Wi-Fi hotspot I can check the internet, though I find the small screen wearying to look at for any length of time.

So when the iPad came out, it was not clear to me what additional functionality it provided. It seemed like a big iPod touch and why would I need that when I had a laptop? It is true that it is smaller than a laptop and so would be easier to carry around to meetings, but it was not clear to me that that was a sufficient advantage to invest in one. As far as I was concerned, it seemed like a solution to a non-existent problem.

But my university's technology department had a few iPads that they were passing around for people to check out to see if they had any ideas about how to use it at work and in teaching so I had one to play with for a few weeks.

My experience with the iPad has been interesting. Initially it was frustrating because I expected it to do everything a laptop did. In particular, I use my computer to write a lot even while reading. For example, I frequently want to jot down notes and ideas that occur to me while reading and the laptop enables me to go back and forth between reading and writing easily. The iPad? Not so much. You had to close one application to open the other and although it was quick, it was still awkward. The touch screen keyboard is big and easy to use but the keyboard being at the same angle of view as the screen made it awkward for me.

I realized that I was asking the iPad to do what it was not primarily intended to do. The iPad is great for receiving information but not so good for input. Once I let go of that expectation and worked with its strengths, it was better. I began to use it primarily as a reading device, to surf the web and read documents and that improved my experience.

One of the things that I was curious about was whether I would enjoy reading books on an e-reader. I had tried it with one of the earlier versions of the Kindle and had not liked it. I decided to give it another shot with iPad. There were five books that came with the iPad that was loaned to me. I had read four before but the fifth (The Count of Monte Cristo) was one that I had wanted to read for a long time, so clearly the anonymous person who had loaded these books onto the iPad was a kindred soul. This book is very long, over a 1,000 pages, and I figured it would be a good test of my ability to enjoy using an e-reader.

It is in reading this book that I have come to like the features of the iPad. The book features are easy on the eye and intuitive. The ability to search the book for events and characters that occurred before (important in long epic novels with lots of characters and complicated plot twists) and the built in dictionary and search features that link to Google or Wikipedia (again useful for a book set in another time and place and originally in another language so that there are many unusual words) are all nice to have. The Count of Monte Cristo has a complicated plot with many characters who take on different names and identities over time and whose stories intertwine. Characters whom one had encountered early on suddenly pop up much later. The ability to search the book made it much easier to keep track of things. I wish I had had it when I read other epic novels like War and Peace or Anna Karenina.

The deficiencies in the iPad as a book reader are the same as I had with the Kindle. One is that while you can change the font size, the size of the illustrations cannot be changed, which makes that feature irrelevant for technical books with lots of intricate figures. The other is that to give citations to things in books, you need to have the page number of a specific print edition. The books on the iPad have page counters but they are internal and vary with the chosen font size. Maybe there are ways to overcome these features that I am not aware of.

One big advantage is that with the iPad, you have immediate and free access to a vast array of classical literature that is now out of copyright. So with the purchase of this device, you had immediate access to all the old books you ever wanted to read without having to track them down. For someone like me who, when it comes to fiction, prefers to read the classics more than contemporary authors, this is a huge benefit.

I also played with some of the games that were on the iPad, including Angry Birds which I had heard so much about. They were ok but I am not a big fan of games and so soon got bored.

I found that I ended up using the iPad most in the last couple of hours at night in bed, reading the book and surfing the web before sleeping. It is much easier to use in bed than a laptop and the big backlit screen makes it easy on the eyes.

So my verdict is that the iPad is primarily an entertainment device and secondarily a work device because of the limited input capability, while the laptop is primarily a work device and secondarily an entertainment device.

Will I get an iPad, especially now that the new iPad2 is out? I've not decided but am thinking about it. Have any readers of this blog used an iPad? I'd be curious to hear your reactions.

March 20, 2011

March madness

No, not basketball. For all the cricket fans of this blog (yes, both of you), this of course refers to the 2011 World Cup currently taking place in India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. The group round-robin qualifying matches have just been completed with no upsets, leaving the eight top-seeded teams to advance to the quarterfinals. From now on, it is sudden death format.

The quarterfinal matchups are:

March 23: Pakistan v West Indies (played in Bangladesh)
March 24: Australia v India (played in India)
March 25: New Zealand v South Africa (played in Bangladesh)
March 26: Sri Lanka v England (played in Sri Lanka)

My picks are Pakistan, South Africa, and Sri Lanka to advance. The India v Australia game is tough to call but I will have to give the home field edge to India.

The semifinal games will be played on March 29 and 30 in Sri Lanka and India, and the final will be on April 2 in India.

How the rich avoid taxes

Brad Reed describes one of the means by which the the rich pay absurdly low taxes.

But of course, these things are of no concern to the people with the serf-like mentality who think that the rich should be able to game the system to pay as little taxes as possible. These people will probably argue that these poor rich people are forced to adopt such stratagems because their taxes are too high so the solution is to reduce their taxes even more.

Religious scientists

When I argue that science and belief in god are basically incompatible, religious people often respond by pointing to the fact that there are religious scientists. The evangelical Christian Francis Collins, who headed one team of scientists that mapped the human genome and is now head of the National Institutes of Health, is the poster child for this group.

Other scientists like Craig Venter, who headed the other team that mapped the human genome, is dismissive of religious people like Collins. In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Venter was asked about this:

SPIEGEL: Some scientist don't rule out a belief in God. Francis Collins, for example …

Venter: … That's his issue to reconcile, not mine. For me, it's either faith or science - you can't have both.

SPIEGEL: So you don't consider Collins to be a true scientist?

Venter: Let's just say he's a government administrator.

The idea that science and religion must be compatible because there are religious scientists is not an argument since it is quite possible for people to hold contradictory ideas in their heads and all of us are good at compartmentalizing our minds in order to do so.

As Jesus and Mo point out, that argument can be taken to argue for the compatibility of almost anything.

j&m2010-01-22.jpg

March 19, 2011

How to read the NYT and WSJ for free

The New York Times will start putting some of its content behind a pay wall on March 28, like the Wall Street Journal already does.

But you can still read the articles for free. The newspapers know of this loophole but they keep it open because they need to keep their search engine rankings high and they think that most people are too lazy to go through the steps to get the free articles.

Opposition to same sex marriage plunges

New polls confirm earlier results that for the first time in the US, those who favor same sex marriage now outnumber those who oppose it. "A whopping 68% of Americans under 30 now support marriage equality, but the percentage is nearly as high, 65%, for Americans in their 30s. A majority of folks in their 40s are on board, too."

Recall that in the earlier poll, there was a drop from 73% opposition in 1988 to 56% in 2004, to only 40% opposition in 2010. So the rate of decline in the opposition has increased by a factor of 2.5 from 2004 to 2010 over that of the earlier period. I predict that opposition will stabilize to about 25%, which is usually the size of hardcore people on any issue.

These results are significant in ways other than the welcome one that the rights of gays for equality are now being recognized. Opposition to homosexuality has no rational basis but is almost entirely religion-based. It is religion that has locked itself into opposition to gay rights and same sex marriage, so this new acceptance is really bad news for religion as well, since it signifies that its hold on people, especially the young, is disintegrating as they reject its intolerance. And once again, as I said in my series on Why Atheism is Winning, it is young people who are leading the way.

Rescue in Japan

Here is some video footage of people who barely escaped the waters of the tsunami and, incredibly, kept their video camera running while they clambered to safety and then observed a rescue.

March 18, 2011

Contradictions in the Koran

It is not only Christians that have the headache of deciding which parts of their holy book they should follow and which parts they should reject. Jesus and Mo point out the same problem that Muslims have with the Koran.

jesusandmo.png

For more examples of the intolerance and cruelty in the Koran, see here. It amazes me that people can claim that their god is a merciful and loving god when their very own holy books have such hateful passages.

The weird anti-intellectual climate in the US

You would think that on issues that should be politically neutral (like climate change and evolution) there would be tendency for the views of political liberals and conservatives to converge with increasing education as the essential facts and arguments become better understood. And in general, you would be right, except for the US. Here it seems that ideology trumps facts and reason.

Aftermath of tragedy in Japan

Usually after a catastrophe like what occurred in Japan there are a lot of human interest stories of people mourning lost loved ones, frantically search for the missing, selfless heroism and generosity, with the occasional good news of someone surviving in the wreckage and being rescued after being given up for lost.

In this case, although we had a double catastrophe of an earthquake followed by a tsunami, the focus on the fate of the nuclear reactors has eclipsed almost everything else. While this is understandable, there are some stories that I feel should have received wider coverage. One is the absence of widespread looting, or any looting at all, in the wake of the disaster. The other is the absence of price gouging by merchants. In fact, many merchants are reducing prices in order to help out the survivors. The third is the orderly and neighborly way that people are behaving to ensure that resources are shared amongst everyone.

All these things reflect well on the capacity of human beings to think of others and the greater good even in times of dire stress and on the Japanese people and culture in particular, and are deserving of greater recognition.

Update on the status of single payer health plans

Despite the sabotaging of the single payer and the public option by president Obama and the Democratic Party during the health care reform debate, it is not yet dead.

In an interview with OpEdNews, Dr. Margaret Flowers of that excellent group PNHP (Physicians for a National Health Program) talks about the moves currently underway in the various states. Vermont seems the most promising state to be the first to implement a single payer system.

Medicare and Medicaid are not the causes of our national deficit, they are the victims of a broken health system. As our overall health care costs rise, so do the costs of Medicare and Medicaid. The most effective way to control our health care costs would be to expand and improve Medicare and put everybody in the country on Medicare instead of using hundreds of different health insurances as we do now.

The administrative savings alone of a single payer national health program would be around $400 billion. There are other ways that single payer/Medicare for All controls health care costs such as giving hospitals and other medical institutions a global budget and negotiating for the prices of pharmaceuticals, medical devices and services.

There is a lot happening at the state level when it comes to single payer. Currently, twenty states have single payer health bills in some phase of the legislative process.

As you may know, California has passed a state single payer bill twice in 2006 and 2008. I just returned from a large health professional student-led march, rally and lobby day at the state capital in Sacramento. The California single payer coalition is continuing to move forward to pass single payer and have it signed by the new Governor. California faces such a serious budget crisis that I was told the legislature will be basing their cuts on what will result in the least number of lives lost.

We are particularly enthusiastic this year about Vermont. They are poised to pass a single payer health bill this legislative session. The state hired Dr. William Hsaio from Harvard to design their health system. He has designed health systems for five countries, the most recent being the single payer system in Taiwan. The new governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin, ran on a strong single payer platform. And, of course, Vermont has Senator Sanders, who has been a long time proponent of single payer.

Even with all of the stars seeming to be aligned, it is going to be a difficult process to get single payer passed in Vermont. The forces who oppose this, primarily the corporations who profit from the status quo, will be putting tremendous resources into that state to stop single payer. For that reason, many of the organizations that support single payer are working to assist the state single payer movement. Single payer advocates from across the nation are volunteering or helping to raise funds for Vermont.

I encourage your readers to visit www.vermontforsinglepayer.org to learn more about the efforts there and to support them.

Legislation will also be introduced at the national level again in both the House and Senate this year. It is important to work at both the state and national levels because we cannot predict where we will be successful first. Of course, the ultimate goal is a national single payer health program so that all people living in our country will have access to care and so that we can control our health care costs at the national level. Health care costs are a significant cause of our national debt.

Ohio's push for single payer is being driven by SPAN Ohio (Single Payer Action Network Ohio).

March 17, 2011

More on the Ray Davis release

David Lindorff, who has been following this story closely, reports on the background to the deal that resulted in the acting CIA chief in Pakistan being freed.

The chances are slim to none that Davis will face any serious investigation in the US for his actions, despite assertions by US government officials to the contrary.

Obama's political expediency

It looks like Obama has stopped paying even lipservice to his ringing promise during his election campaign to close down Guantanamo. Glenn Greenwald points out that his excuse (repeated by many of his supporters) that the Congress forced him to back down is the kind of political sleight-of-hand that Obama is becoming increasingly good at.

It is true that Congress -- with the overwhelming support of both parties -- has enacted several measures making it much more difficult, indeed impossible, to transfer Guantanamo detainees into the U.S. But long before that ever happened, Obama made clear that he wanted to continue the twin defining pillars of the Bush detention regime: namely, (1) indefinite, charge-free detention and (2) military commissions (for those lucky enough to be charged with something). Obama never had a plan for "closing Guantanamo" in any meaningful sense; the most he sought to do was to move it a few thousand miles north to Illinois, where its defining injustices would endure.

The Daily Show points out the obvious.

Cartoonist Ted Rall envisages Obama's kinder-gentler Guantanamo, while Tom Tomorrow captures Obama's political expediency.

CFI talk on Why Atheism is Winning

The talk I gave at to the CWRU chapter of the Center for Inquiry on Why Atheism is Winning produced a lively discussion. The talk lasted for about an hour and was followed by a Q&A that lasted for almost 90 minutes with most people sticking around for the full period.

Both the talk and the Q&A will be posted soon for viewing.

UPDATE: The hour-long talk is now up on YouTube.

I will upload later the lively Q&A that followed the talk.

Why atheism is winning-11: Some concluding thoughts

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The last hope of religion is the fear of death. Fear of death is what religion thinks of as its trump card. In any discussion with believers, they will invariably get around to talking about how you (as an atheist) are risking your immortal soul and ask whether you are not fearful of what will happen in the afterlife. I know that this is coming and tell people who raise this that when I die, nothing spectacular will happen and that I will simply cease to be, with my body returning to the basic elements. I am quite comfortable with the idea. This clearly disconcerts the people who raise it since they are so obviously scared of death and see god as some kind of 'get out of death' card. It is important that we develop an acceptance of death as an inevitable fact of life and I am preparing a series of posts on atheist views of death that will appear some time in the future, unless I die first, of course!

Why atheism is winning is because when a belief structure has no empirical basis, it only survives by everyone agreeing to maintain the illusion that it makes sense. It is the emperor's new clothes syndrome. But such beliefs are highly prone to sudden collapse as soon as it begins to be pointed out that there is nothing there. Once a tipping point is reached, changes in unsupported beliefs (whether it be god or racism and homophobia) can occur very rapidly.

Religion is more tenacious but even there I think that the switch to largely disbelief will occur within a couple of generations (maybe an extra generation in the Islamic world) as people realize that religion is little more than superstition and lies at the heart of many problems. The communication revolution, in addition to spreading the ideas of modernity to an ever-widening audience, will create a greater awareness, especially among young people, that one's religious beliefs are largely a product of where one is born and brought up, and not because they are self-evidently true.. Once you give up the idea that your own religion is obviously true, it is a short step to not viewing religion as a source of truth at all.

On the level of simply ideas, religion is losing because fewer are converting into religion than are converting out, especially amongst the young. That is the demographic time bomb that is going to doom religion. It is what is also working against racism and anti-gay bigotry. Attitudes that have no empirical basis persist mainly because people 'inherit' it from their parents, in that children learn these things at an early age from their families. It is unlikely that someone who grows up in a family that is accepting of people of other races and gays will turn against those views, while the reverse happens more frequently as modernity expands.

It is likely that the level of religiosity even now is overstated because the data usually comes from self-reports in surveys or from the religious institutions themselves and the numbers disagree with objective measures of actual practices. Take for example three key events in a person's life: birth, marriage, and death. According to the March/April 2011 issue of the New Humanist, in England in the 2001 census, 71.8% checked the box for Christian and this was taken as the number of actual Christians in the population. But in 2008 only 11% of children were baptized, only 20% of weddings took place in a church, and only 33% of dead bodies passed through a church on their way to burial or cremation. It would be interesting to see corresponding data for the US.

Religion is clearly on the defensive partly because the new atheists have taken the arguments against god out of the academic and philosophical and theological arenas and put them out in the public sphere and into the hands of ordinary people, and they are able to confront believers much more confidently. A recent article in the New York Times points out that believers are now having a hard time defending their faith against skeptics because the taboos that used to protect them from questioning have now been lifted.

"I don't know that there's more atheists in the country, but there are definitely more people who are openly atheist, especially on college campuses," said the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and author of "Atheism Remix: A Christian Confronts the New Atheists." He said students have asked him how to deal with nonbelievers.

"There is not one student on this campus who doesn't have at least one person in his circle of family and friends voicing these ideas," he said.

Note that the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is one that adheres to the strict literal truth of the Bible, all the way down to a historical Adam and Eve and a 6,000 year old Earth. If its own students, drawn from the most doctrinaire fundamentalist communities, are hearing these criticisms from members of their immediate circle, you know that atheist ideas are spreading into regions hitherto unexplored.

Marcus Brigstocke has a hilarious rant on the absurdity of the three Abrahamic faiths and it is a good way to end this series because what is ultimately going to doom religion is the realization of the ridiculousness of religious beliefs. They are increasingly the targets for humor because they are so rich in absurdity. It is well worth listening to the full audio clip.

Brigstocke's last point is worth reiterating:

I know that most religious folk are moderate and nice and reasonable and wear tidy jumpers and eat cheese like real people. And on hearing this, they'll mainly feel pity for me rather than issue a death sentence. But they have to accept that they are the power base for the nutters. Without their passive support the loonies in charge of these faiths would just be loonies safely locked away and medicated, somewhere nice, you know with a view of some trees, where they can claim they have a direct channel to god between sessions making tapestry drinks coasters, watching Teletubbies, and talking about their days in the Hitler youth. The ordinary faithful make these vicious tyrannical thugs what they are… Without the audience to prop it up… fundamentalist religious fanaticism goes away." (My italics)

This is why the new atheists are pursuing the correct strategy of challenging all religious beliefs, not only the extremist/fundamentalist variants. They all spring from the same source, which is a belief in god and their holy books.

Atheism is winning and 'moderate' religious people will have to learn how to deal with it.

March 16, 2011

If Sarah Palin runs for president…

… the Onion News Network suggests a disturbing possibility.


Morbid Curiosity Leading Many Voters To Support Palin

Noam Chomsky interviewed by the BBC

He talks about the current situation in the Middle East and the US.

I like the bit towards the end where the interviewer asks him why, at the age of 82, Chomsky has not mellowed!

Keep fighting Noam! You are an inspiration to us all.

(Thanks to Norm)

Ray Davis freed

The CIA station chief jailed in Pakistan for the murder of two people has been released after the victims' families pardoned him (something apparently possible under Pakistani law) after receiving an undisclosed amount of 'blood money' as compensation.

The feckless John Kerry

Congressman Dennis Kucinich sent a letter to the Defense Department in response to their stalling for over a month on his request to visit Manning.

My request to visit with Pfc. Manning must not be delayed further. Today we have new reports that Manning was stripped naked and left in his cell for seven hours. While refusing to explain the justification for the treatment, a marine spokesman confirmed the actions but claimed they were 'not punitive.'

Is this Quantico or Abu Ghraib? Officials have confirmed the 'non-punitive' stripping of an American soldier who has not been found guilty of any crime. This 'non-punitive' action would be considered a violation of the Army Field Manual if used in an interrogation overseas. The justification for and purpose of this action certainly raises questions of 'cruel and unusual punishment,' and could constitute a potential violation of international law.

Dennis Kucinich has the decency to protest the treatment of Manning. Contrast this with the weasely behavior of John Kerry and his feeble attempt to find excuses for the appalling treatment of Bradley Manning.

This US senator from Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, is rapidly proving himself to be a totally vapid politician, notorious for sonorously going on and on during Senate hearings, who seems to be more fond of hearing his own voice than of standing up for anything. Here is Kerry during Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearings when his introductory comments went on for so long that she looked like she would fall asleep.

Then there was the time when it was discovered that multimillionaire Kerry, married to an heiress, owned a $7 million yacht but avoided paying Massachusetts taxes by keeping it in a neighboring state.

But a far worse example was in 2007 he continued to blather on, and even attempt to joke, while Andrew Meyer, a University of Florida student who questioned him at a public meeting, was wrestled to the ground by campus security offices and tasered even though he had done nothing to merit such harsh treatment. (This was the famous 'Don't tase me, bro!" incident.) Kerry did not do anything even as the student's screams of pain reverberated through the auditorium. You can see the horrifying video.

To some extent I can understand politicians acting cynically, and even criminally, for personal gain, even if I do not excuse them for doing so. What I truly despise are those politicians like Kerry for whom it would cost nothing to do the right thing (like ask for decent treatment of Andrew Meyer and Bradley Manning) but do not have the common decency to do so.

March 15, 2011

Talk will be recorded

Thanks to the efforts of the officers of the CWRU branch of the Center for Inquiry, my talk tomorrow on Why Atheism is Winning (details here) will be recorded after all and uploaded later.

Of course, this means that I will have to dress better and comb my hair. The sacrifices I make for science and atheism...

New safety concerns about the radiation levels of TSA's full-body scanners

It appears that many of the so-called 'porno scanners' are recording up to ten times the radiation emissions that they are advertised as providing.

Meanwhile the Department of Homeland Security claims that it can unilaterally implement a policy of strip searching all air travelers without any prior public comment or getting approval from any higher authority.

Under the guise of fighting terror, we have created an out-of-control monster in the DHS. All these abuses can be traced back to the odious USA PATRIOT Act that was rammed through after 9/11.

Authoritarians are quick to exploit any scare to further infringe on our rights and liberties under the guise of keeping us safe.

(via Progressive Review.)

I did not see that coming

In an earlier post, I wondered how long it would take for religious nutters to say the recent earthquakes were due to god, who seems to be really cranky, getting ticked off about something or the other. I expected the usual suspects: gays, feminists, abortion, etc. But to my surprise it turns out that it is Japanese atheists who are the cause.

Senior pastor Cho Yong-gi of Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest Christian church in the world [my italics], has faced vicious public condemnation as he called the catastrophic Japanese quakes and tsunamis "God’s warnings."

"I fear that this disaster may be warnings from God against the Japanese people’s atheism and materialism," an online Christian press quoted the elderly religious leader as saying Saturday.

"I hope that these series of events will drive the Japanese to turn their eyes towards God."

Of course, in the midst of the massive death toll there was the usual praise for god for not killing people in an in-group.

Meanwhile, Gyeonggi Province Governor Kim Moon-soo also came close to facing similar public blame with his Twitter remarks.

"I thank God and my ancestors for keeping the Korean peninsula safe," the Catholic governor wrote on his Twitter on Sunday. "The disaster left more than 2,500 dead or injured and 10,000 missing."

How thoughtful of god to single the Korean in-group for preservation while slaughtering those in the Japanese out-group! This must prove that Korea is god's chosen country. Take that, America!

The woman in the following video claims that the events in Japan were in response to her prayers at the beginning of Lent (which was last Wednesday) to teach all the atheists who are around her a lesson. She is thrilled that god responded within two days and says that if more people pray with her during Lent, she is sure that by the end of Lent god will similarly smite those other hotbeds of atheism, namely Europe and the US. (She must have been reading my series on why atheism is winning.)

This was so over the top that I watched closely to see if there was any indication that this was an Onion-type parody but it seems genuine. She is actually taking delight in the massive death and destruction in Japan as answers to her prayers.

It is sad what religion can do to people.

(Via Pharyngula.)

Why atheism is winning-10: Religion and insecurity

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In this post, I want to look at what is happening in the US and why. The US is the outlier nation in that it still maintains high levels of religiosity despite its modernity.

Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman in their article titled Why the gods are not winning say that this is likely a temporary phenomenon and that the US will eventually fall in line with the trends in other modern developed states. As I have discussed earlier, the data suggest that this is already taking place.

The authors suggest that one factor that will drive this increasing disbelief in the US is that men are less likely to go to church. "Women church goers greatly outnumber men, who find church too dull. Here's the kicker. Children tend to pick up their beliefs from their fathers. So, despite a vibrant evangelical youth cohort, young Americans taken as a whole are the least religious and most culturally tolerant age group in the nation."

Paul and Zuckerman point to another factor that distinguishes other developed societies from the US and that impinges on religiosity. The security of middle class life in those societies leads to less of a dependence on god.

Such circumstances dramatically reduces peoples' need to believe in supernatural forces that protect them from life's calamities, help them get what they don't have, or at least make up for them with the ultimate Club Med of heaven. One of us (Zuckerman) interviewed secular Europeans and verified that the process of secularization is casual; most hardly think about the issue of God, not finding the concept relevant to their contented lives.

The result is plain to see. Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity. They all go material.

Compared to people in the rest of the industrialized developed world, Americans have little sense of security. For most Americans, they are only too aware that they are just a pink slip away from dropping out the middle class and one major illness away from bankruptcy and even homelessness. In that climate of anxiety, religion finds a welcoming niche, providing soothing, if fraudulent words of comfort.

Rather than religion being an integral part of the American character, the main reason the United States is the only prosperous democracy that retains a high level of religious belief and activity is because we have substandard socio-economic conditions and the highest level of disparity… To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the US.

Paul and Zuckerman conclude, "In the end what humanity chooses to believe will be more a matter of economics than of debate, deliberately considered choice, or reproduction. The more national societies that provide financial and physical security to the population, the fewer that will be religiously devout. The more that cannot provide their citizens with these high standards the more that will hope that supernatural forces will alleviate their anxieties. It is probable that there is little that can be done by either side to alter this fundamental pattern."

The overall rise in modernity even in the face of increasing disparities within countries due to the growth of the transglobal oligarchy will lead to the inevitable decline of religion, even in those countries that are currently the most superstitious, such as the US and much of the Islamic world. The factors that favor religion's continuance are the fecundity of some religious groups and fears of economic and social insecurity while what is working against religion is modernity.

The internet and ubiquitous global communication tends to increase levels of modernity while breaking down the isolation that results in people thinking that their own beliefs are the only ones that matter or even exist. When looked at dispassionately, religion is nothing more than ancient superstitions dressed up in modern dress. What it has going for it is the determined efforts of some people to make the superstitions seem to have some plausible basis. But it will go the way of other similar superstitions such as fear of black cats or the number 13 or walking under a ladder. A few people may take them seriously enough to take actions based on them while for most it will be at most a casual concern.

To be religious and believe in gods will increasingly be seen as anachronistic.

Next: Some concluding thoughts.

March 14, 2011

Frightening power of the tsunami

The BBC has posted new video of the moment when the water struck land.

Now that's a supper worth attending!

biggerlastsuppercolorflattened.jpg

Not all of the people were obvious to me. Try and guess who they are. I will provide the names in the comments.

Talk on Why Atheism is Winning

I will be giving a talk on this topic on Wednesday, March 16 at 7:00 pm in the 1914 Lounge in Thwing student center on the CWRU campus. It is free and open to the public and free food is provided to compensate you for having to listen to me. The talk is sponsored by the Center for Inquiry.

In my talks, in addition to the tradition Q&A and discussion at the end, I also encourage people to question and comment during the presentation, so come along with your ideas.

Playing for keeps

While deficits and a large national debt are not good things in the long run, it is not the case that it is the greatest problem right now. What is clear is that they are being used as weapons by the oligarchy to strip people of their basic rights and benefits and destroy public services in order to further enrich the few obscenely wealthy people in this country.

Paul Craig Roberts looks at the numbers and argues that we are witnessing a great rip-off.

Rachel Maddow explains what is happening in Michigan as emblematic of what is going on nationwide, which is the wholesale assault on democracy itself. (Thanks to reader Norm.)

As is often the case, what I see happening in the US has precursors in Sri Lanka a few decades ago. In Sri Lanka, elections used to swing back and forth between left-of-center and right of-center political parties, with the range being much greater than in the US. As a result, the government's economic and social policies would change every few years. Since we had a British parliamentary system, governments would sometimes get a landslide, which would later be reversed.

In 1977, the right-of-center party won by a huge landslide. Its autocratic leader decided that he wanted to play for keeps and create a new system that would entrench his party in power indefinitely so that his policies would not be reversed. Using his huge majority, he forced through major changes in the constitution and government and elections and the judiciary system to make it hard for another pendulum swing to occur and reverse his policies, and that even the judiciary would not be able to rein in the anti-democratic measures.

It worked, at least for a while. But eventually people got tired of the government and its corruption and voted in the opposition, despite the rigged system. And now the other party is using those very same powers to entrench itself and its cronies in power. But because of the weakened democratic system and the removal of safeguards, corruption is now endemic and political thuggery and intimidation commonplace.

The lesson in this? It is that we are entering a new phase in politics in the US. The people who are attacking unions and undermining the public sector and the watchdog role of government are playing for keeps. They too want to change the rules of the game so the oligarchy has total freedom to do what it likes and that there will be no going back. They are using the ignorant tea partiers as a wedge to claim popular legitimacy but the tea partiers will be tossed aside once they have served their purpose. The tea partiers will realize only too late that they vociferously cheered on the very people who will turn around and destroy them.

The Democratic Party is too feckless to vigorously fight this assault on democracy, because they are also, with a few rare exceptions, part of the oligarchy. The Democratic Party will only do the right thing if they are forced to do so by an angry public. This is why the mass demonstrations of ordinary people occurring around the country are so important. In the March 2011 issue of Z Magazine, Paul Street quotes the late, great historian Howard Zinn:

There's hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeteria, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.

Street also quotes C. Derber in his book Hidden Power (2005):

The leading agents of significant policy change in U. S. history have not been parties glued to the next election, but social movements that operate on the scale of decades rather than two- and four-year electoral cycles. Political parties have historically become agents of democratic change only when movements infuse the parties with their own long-term vision, moral conviction, and resources.

We have to support the demonstrations in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan and elsewhere that are opposing this attempt to radically reshape the democratic structure to allow total control by the oligarchy.

March 13, 2011

Heartbreaking

These before-and-after satellite photographs show the massive devastation wreaked by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

P. J. Crowley fired

Commenter Matt alerts me to the fact that State Department spokesperson P. J. Crowley has been forced to resign following his criticism of Bradley Manning's treatment.

Although I have strongly criticized Crowley in the past, I find it odd the reasons why people in high positions in government are fired. You can brazenly lie and torture and even kill people and yet escape punishment and even be commended as long as you faithfully espouse the party line. But say what you feel in an unguarded moment, even to a small group and in a private capacity like Crowley did, and you are done for.

In Crowley's case, I wrote a few months ago that I wondered whether he ever looked in the mirror and wondered how he could have sunk so low. It looks like he did.

The abusive treatment of Manning is becoming a bigger and bigger millstone around Obama's neck.

UPDATE: As I expected, Glenn Greenwald weighs in on the Crowley case.

Bill Maher on the absurd way that Americans venerate the rich

Computers more likely to replace white collar workers

We tend to think that computers and automation will threaten only low-skilled workers. Paul Krugman argues that the opposite may be true, that the low-skill jobs that could be replaced have already been replaced, and that it is the high-skilled ones that are now at risk of elimination. It is actually harder to design computers to clean your house or take care of your garden than it is to do legal analysis.

Those middle-class people who have been misled into working against their own interests and supporting the oligarchy's assault on the social safety net and public services because they think it affects only other people may want to think carefully about that.

The Overton window

The new atheists are considered 'bad' atheists because of their clearly stated belief that all beliefs about god are without any foundation. They have been criticized by 'good' atheists (i.e., atheist accommodationists) for being too extreme.

I have said before that the accommodationists should actually thank the new atheists because few people like to be on the extremes of a public debate and the new atheists have greatly broadened the range of the views and made accommodationism part of the center and thus acceptable the religious community. In fact, religious moderates seem to just love accommodationists.

Randy Pelton, president of the Northeast Ohio Center for Inquiry, tells me that this phenomenon of the range of acceptable views being limited and the ways to expand it actually has been studied by the political science community and has the name of the Overton window. The Wikipedia article gives a passage from Anthony Trollope's novel Phineas Finn which captures the idea:

"Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;–and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made."

"It is no loss of time," said Phineas, "to have taken the first great step in making it."

"The first great step was taken long ago," said Mr. Monk,–"taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards."

Oddly enough, it appears that Glenn Beck has written a novel with that title. I have no idea what it is about.

March 12, 2011

Mr. Deity on signs of god

Cue the religious nutters

We have had two natural disasters in quick succession that have killed and injured a lot of people and inflicted considerable damage: The earthquake in New Zealand and the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan.

I am wondering how long it will take before the religious nutters (and I am looking at you Pat Robertson) come out and say that this must be because god is angry with us about something. I am not sure what god could be angry about in these cases but you can be sure that it contravened something in the book of Leviticus or some surah in the Koran.

Since god tends to use very blunt instruments as punishments, indulging in mass killings and wanton destruction that destroy men, women, children, and the elderly indiscriminately, what ticked him off in these cases need not be due to anything that happened in those countries. It could well be that he was angry that 'don't ask, don't tell' was repealed in the US, but didn't want to hurt people here because as his chosen people and country, we are special in his eyes.

Lifestyles of the rich and famous teachers

Samantha Bee of The Daily Show exposes how public school teachers are living high off the hog at the expense of taxpayers.

The Bradley Manning case heats up

There have been some interesting developments concerning Bradley Manning. Amnesty International has called for people to protest his treatment. Other groups are organizing demonstrations nationwide, the first one on Sunday, March 20 outside the military brig in Quantico, VA where Manning is being abused.

Then State Department spokesperson P. J. Crowley, whom I have lambasted many times here for his hypocritical statements when it comes to the torture of foreigners or the attacks on WikiLeaks, told a small group at MIT in response to a question that the way Manning was being treated was "ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid." He later clarified that that was his own opinion, not that of the State Department, but he still is to be commended for voicing at least some criticism, even if it was not nearly as strong as I would have wished.

The same cannot be said for Obama. He was later asked about Manning's treatment at a press conference and said, "With respect to Private Manning, I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assure me that they are."

Really? He actually asked the Pentagon about it and was told everything was fine so now he's happy? Glenn Greenwald is appropriately sarcastic about Obama's response:

Oh, that's very reassuring -- and such a very thorough and diligent effort by the President to ensure that detainees under his command aren't being abused. He asked the Pentagon and they said everything was great -- what more is there to know? Everyone knows that on questions of whether the military is abusing detainees, the authoritative source is . . . the military. You just ask them if they're doing anything improper, and once they tell you that they're not, that's the end of the matter.

I have no doubt that George Bush asked the DoD whether everything was being run professionally at Guantanamo and they assured him that they were. Perhaps the reason there haven't been any Wall Street prosecutions is because Obama asked Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein if there was any fraud and those banking executives assured the President that there wasn't.

Just when I think my opinion of Obama cannot sink any lower, he proves me wrong.

But I am hoping that the increased publicity over Manning will lead to him being at least treated better.

March 11, 2011

Jesus teaches about the Good Samaritan

I have shown this clip from That Mitchell and Webb Look before but it is worth seeing again.

The evangelical Christian paradox

In an article titled Why evangelicals hate Jesus, Phil Zuckerman says:

White Evangelical Christians are the group least likely to support politicians or policies that reflect the actual teachings of Jesus. It is perhaps one of the strangest, most dumb-founding ironies in contemporary American culture. Evangelical Christians, who most fiercely proclaim to have a personal relationship with Christ, who most confidently declare their belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, who go to church on a regular basis, pray daily, listen to Christian music, and place God and His Only Begotten Son at the center of their lives, are simultaneously the very people most likely to reject his teachings and despise his radical message.


Tsunami hits Japan

The BBC plays video of the awesome power of the tsunami that hit Japan today, inflicting heavy casualties.

US media aids government propaganda

In the case of Ray Davis, the acting head of the CIA in Pakistan now in jail for gunning down two men in a busy street in Lahore, the US government claims that he has diplomatic immunity and thus should not have to face prosecution. There is some controversy over whether the diplomatic status was conferred on Davis only after the killings, which would make it dubious.

A former CIA agent who worked in Laos during the Vietnam war says that the use of diplomatic immunity for spies is quite routine and reveals how this works:

In the Vietnam War the country of Laos held a geo-strategic position, as does Pakistan does to Afghanistan today. As in Pakistan, in Laos our country conducted covert military operations against a sovereign people, using the CIA.

I was a demolitions technician with the Air Force who was reassigned to work with the CIA’s Air America operation in Laos. We turned in our military IDs cards and uniforms and were issued a State Department ID card and dressed in blue jeans. We were told if captured we were to ask for diplomatic immunity, if alive. We carried out military missions on a daily basis all across the countries of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Davis is in a bad situation now because most of the people of the world, as we see across the Middle East, are now aware of the lies and not going to turn their head anymore.

I say “most” everyone knows, because our own public, the ones suppose to be in control of the military and CIA, is constantly lied to. It is so sad to see President Obama repeating the big lie.

But it is not just the government that is lying to the US public. It turns out that US media outlets like the New York Times and MSNBC both knew that Davis was working for the CIA, as did the Washington Post and the Associated Press but did not reveal this information to their readers at the request of the government. As a result, they deliberately passed on the government's false information, thus adding support to the view that they are becoming an increasingly obvious propaganda arm of the government.

It was only after the British press revealed the CIA connection that the US media followed suit. The New York Times and its ombudsman tried to justify their lying by saying that the government persuaded them that telling the truth about the CIA connection might have put Davis's life at risk. This does not make much sense. Davis is in custody in Pakistan where the media has been reporting the CIA connection widely from the beginning. How could it make matters worse if Americans knew what Pakistanis already knew?

The NYT's excuses were ripped to shreds by Glenn Greenwald:

It's one thing for a newspaper to withhold information because they believe its disclosure would endanger lives. But here, the U.S. Government has spent weeks making public statements that were misleading in the extreme -- Obama's calling Davis "our diplomat in Pakistan" -- while the NYT deliberately concealed facts undermining those government claims because government officials told them to do so. That's called being an active enabler of government propaganda.

Allowing the U.S. Government to run around affirmatively depicting Davis as some sort of Holbrooke-like "diplomat" -- all while the paper uncritically prints those claims and yet conceals highly relevant information about Davis because the Obama administration told it to -- would be humiliating for any outlet devoted to adversarial journalism to have to admit. But it will have no such effect on The New York Times. With some noble exceptions, loyally serving government dictates is, like so many American establishment media outlets, what they do; it's their function: hence the name "establishment media."

It's one thing for a newspaper to withhold information because it genuinely believes its publication will endanger lives (and I'd love to hear the explanation about why this would). But this situation goes far beyond that. The NYT was regularly printing government claims like the one above ("our diplomat in Pakistan") which were at best misleading and likely false, and also including their own misleading claims in these stories ("the mystery about what Mr. Davis was doing with this inventory of gadgets"). But they had information in their possession -- and concealed it -- which undermined (if not entirely negated) the truth of these statements.

There's a big difference between simply withholding information to protect lives and actively enabling and publishing misleading propaganda. More to the point, there is simply no justification -- none -- for a newspaper to allow government officials to run around misleading the public, and to print those misleading statements, all while concealing information (at the Government's request) which reveal those claims to be factually dubious. (My italics)

Amy Davidson of the New Yorker made a point-by-point critique of the excuses made by the government and the US media for misleading the American public.

This latest revelation should come as no surprise, given the willingness of the major US media to carry water for the US government. We have seen them attack even fellow US journalists who are not sufficiently subservient to the government.

David Lindorff, a member of an independent journalist collective, has also been all over the Ray Davis story, monitoring the press in India and Pakistan to come up with new information about the US embassy's failed retroactive effort to get diplomatic status for him and why he might have been in communication with terrorist groups.

Once again, this illustrates why we need alternative media sources like Lindorff's and WikiLeaks.

March 10, 2011

Want to be a media pundit?

Cartoonist Mark Fiore tells you how.

"Darwin is blasphemy"

A British university scientist who is also an imam of his mosque received death threats for saying in a lecture that Darwin's theory of evolution is consistent with Islam.

Masjid Tawhid is a prominent mosque which also runs one of the country's largest sharia courts, the Islamic Sharia Council. In January, Dr Hasan delivered a lecture there detailing why he felt the theory of evolution and Islam were compatible – a position that is not unusual among many Islamic scholars with scientific backgrounds. But the lecture was interrupted by men he described as "fanatics" who distributed leaflets claiming that "Darwin is blasphemy".

"One man came up to me during the lecture and said 'You are an apostate and should be killed'," Dr Hasan told The Independent.

You would think that he would leave such an intolerant mosque and join another but such is the hold that religion has on people that he preferred to apologize and say he was wrong.

Instead his father, Suhaib, head of the mosque's committee of trustees, posted a notice on his behalf expressing regret over his comments. "I seek Allah's forgiveness for my mistakes and apologise for any offence caused," the statement read.

"I want to go back – I've been going to the mosque for 25 years. It is my favourite mosque in London, and I have been active in the community for a long time. I hope my positive contribution will outweigh their feelings towards me."

(via Machines Like Us)

"According to WikiLeaks..."

It is interesting to note how often the phrase "according to cables released by WikiLeaks…" appears in US news reports these days, even as the US media try to portray WikiLeaks as some kind of rogue outfit. This is because WikiLeaks is simultaneously showing up the major US media as being really lousy journalists while providing them with invaluable information that enables them to do their jobs better. It must be really sticking in their craw to have to give WikiLeaks credit.

There is no question in my mind that WikiLeaks has done us all a huge service.

Why atheism is winning-9: The global picture

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman in a long article titled Why the gods are not winning point out that the percentage of Christians worldwide is declining, that of Hindus is stagnant even as the proportion of people in its homeland India is rising, and the proportion of Buddhists is on a steady decline.

The only growth area is Islam but even here the picture is not optimistic for religion.

One Great Faith has risen from one eighth to one fifth of the globe in a hundred years, and is projected to rise to one quarter by 2050. Islam. But education and the vote have little to do with it. Generally impoverished and poorly educated, most Muslims live in nations where democracy is minimalist or absent. Nor are many infidels converting to Allah. Longman was correct on one point; Islam is growing because Muslims are literally having lots of unprotected sex.

The authors conclude that "The absence of a grand revival of Christ, Allah and Vishnu worship via democratic free choice brings us to a point, as important as it is little appreciated — the chronic inability of religion to recruit new adherents on a consistent, global basis."

The numbers of people choosing to adopt religion is declining while the number leaving it is increasing. Paul and Zuckerman point out that religion has declined rapidly in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan and signs that religion in those countries is on life-support are everywhere. "Churches are being converted into libraries, laundromats and pubs. Those who disbelieve in deities typically make up large portions of the population, according to some surveys they make up the majority of citizens in Scandinavia, France and Japan. Evolution is accepted by the majority in all secular nations, up to four in five in some."

It is this fact that is most dangerous for religion because it shows that "religion is dangerously vulnerable to modernity, that secularism and disbelief do best in nations that are the most democratic, educated and prosperous." As societies become more modern, and we see this happening everywhere, people give up religion. The trend towards modernity cannot be reversed and one should expect to see the decline of religion along with it. That is the key point.

But what about the supposed rise in religion in the 'new Europe', the countries of the former Soviet bloc? The authors argue that religions in those countries seem more nationalistic than devout. "Just a quarter of Russians absolutely believe in God, the portion who say that religion is important in their lives are down in the teens, and irreligion may be continuing to rise in very atheistic eastern Germany and the Czech Republic. Even in Poland, the one eastern bloc nation in which religion played an important role in overturning atheistic communism, just one third consider religion to be very important in their lives, and faith is declining towards the old European norm. It turns out that the "new" Europe is not turning out particularly godly."

The one bright spot for religion is the developing world but even here it is tenuous as modernity takes root. "Mass devotion remains strong in most of the 2nd and 3rd world, but even there there is theistic concern. South of our border a quarter to over half the population describe religion as only somewhat important in their lives. Rather than becoming more patriarchal as democracy and education expand, Mexico is liberalizing as progressive forces successfully push laws favoring abortion and gay rights to the vexation of the Roman and evangelical churches. There is even trouble for Islam in its own realm. A third of Turks think religion is not highly important in their lives, and Iranian urban youth have been highly secularized in reaction to the inept corruption of the Mullahs. In Asia 40% of the citizens of booming South Korea don't believe in God, and only a quarter (most evangelical Christians) identify themselves as strongly religious."

Even in America, the outlier among modern societies that still seems to be holding on to religion, the trend is away from religion and what seems to be driving it is that belief in the literal truth of the Bible is decreasing. "What has changed is how people view the Bible. In the 1970s nearly four in ten took the testaments literally, just a little over one in ten thought it was a mixture of history, fables, and legends, a three to one ratio in favor of the Biblical view. Since then a persistent trend has seen literalism decline to between a quarter and a third of the population, and skeptics have doubled to nearly one in five. If the trend continues the fableists will equal and then surpass the literalists in a couple of decades."

Next: Religion and insecurity

March 09, 2011

Meanwhile, in Iraq…

While the US focus is on the brutal repression of protestors in Libya, the US-backed government in Iraq is brutally attacking and killing demonstrators and journalists in that country without any comment from the US government.

How quickly things can change

In 1988, 73% of people opposed same sex marriage. A new poll finds that for the first time more people favor it than oppose it, by a margin of 46% to 42%. See the trend in this figure.

samesextrend.jpg

Belief in god, like opposition to equal rights for gays, has no rational basis and is thus susceptible to the same kind of collapse in support.

The risk of blowback

Scott Horton says that classified Department of Defense documents show how the enforced nudity practices used on Bradley Manning is deliberate policy to a break prisoner's will but can have unpleasant repercussions.

Manning's special regime raises concerns that abusive techniques adopted by the Bush Administration for use on alleged terrorists are being applied to a U.S. citizen and soldier. Classified Defense Department documents furnish an alternative explanation for the use of enforced nudity: "In addition to degradation of the detainee, stripping can be used to demonstrate the omnipotence of the captor or to debilitate the detainee." Other documents detail how enforced nudity and the isolation techniques being applied to Manning can be used to prepare the prisoner to be more submissive to interrogators in connection with questioning.

Under established rules of international humanitarian law, the detention practices that a state adopts for its own soldiers are acceptable standards for use by a foreign power detaining that state's soldiers in wartime. So by creating a "special regime" for Bradley Manning, the Department of Defense is also authorizing all the bizarre practices to which he is being subject to be applied to American soldiers, sailors, and airmen taken prisoner in future conflicts. This casual disregard for the rights of American service personnel could have terrible ramifications in the future.

It amazes me that people in authority take these measures assuming that their own people will never be at the receiving end. Remember that Ray Davis, a reputed CIA agent, is currently being held for murder in a Pakistan jail. What would be the US reaction if the Pakistani authorities subjected him to this kind of treatment? He is already being kept in isolation with round-the-clock monitoring.

Meanwhile, authorities stressed the stringent measures they have put in place to protect Davis in Lahore's Kot Lakhpat jail, following angry rallies in which his effigy was burned and threats from extremist clerics.

Surveillance cameras are trained on his cell in an isolation wing, his guards have been disarmed and a ring of paramilitary Punjab rangers are posted outside. About 25 jihadi prisoners have been transferred to other facilities.

What if the authorities torture him to get him to talk? What if they forced him to be naked for extended periods of time to break him psychologically? The US would have absolutely no standing to protest, since they are doing it to their own soldier.

Maybe the US authorities just don't care since it is never the policymakers who are at risk of such retaliation but lowly people way down the totem pole and thus expendable.

The Ray Davis mystery

Reports are now emerging that Ray Davis, the American arrested in Pakistan for gunning down two people in the crowded streets of Lahore, was not just a CIA agent but acting head of the CIA in Pakistan, thus making lies of the claim by the US government that Davis was just an ordinary US consular official going about his business who had shot the two people in self-defense as they tried to rob him.

This revelation was hardly a surprise since the official US story right from the beginning simply did not make sense. Look at the items found in Davis's car: a 9mm gun and 75 bullets, bolt cutters, a GPS unit, an infrared light, telescope, a digital camera, an air ticket, two mobile phones and a blank cheque. Hardly the things that a mere consular official would carry around on a shopping trip. Furthermore his behavior during and after the incident was not that of an ordinary person.

On 27 January, Raymond Davis, a bulky 36-year-old CIA agent with a shock of grey hair, was winding through the chaotic Lahore traffic when he stopped at a red light. A motorbike carrying two men, coming from the opposite direction, swerved in front of his Honda Civic. The pillion passenger was carrying a gun. Davis, a former special forces soldier, whipped out his 9mm semi-automatic Glock pistol and, still behind the wheel, opened fire. Five shots sliced through the windscreen. Muhammad Faheem, a 19-year-old street criminal, fell dead.

Davis got out of the car and took aim at the motorbike driver, Faizan Haider, who had started running. Another five shots rang out and Haider fell to the ground, having run 30ft; a postmortem indicated he was hit three times in the front and twice in the back.

Davis walked back to his car, called for help on a military-style radio, then started to photograph the dead men. Anwar Khan watched from his restaurant across the street, amazed at the American's sang-froid. "He was very peaceful and confident. I was wondering how he could be like that after killing two people," he said.

The US government sent John Kerry to Pakistan in an attempt to get Davis released. Kerry pledged that "the U.S. Department of Justice would open a criminal investigation against Davis." The attempt failed. Did Kerry really think that people there would believe his statement, since the US is now notorious for not investigating and punishing anyone in the government who torture their own citizens and murder foreigners? As Scott Horton writes

In order to secure Davis’s freedom, Senator Kerry and Secretary Clinton need to be able to argue to their Pakistani counterparts that the United States is capable of investigating the Lahore incident fairly and taking criminal or disciplinary action as appropriate. Davis claims he acted in self defense, attempting to stop a daytime robbery. The use of lethal force in such circumstances may well be justified. That’s the sort of call that a prosecutor would normally make after a thorough investigation.

The problem is that America’s track record shows clearly that it doesn’t investigate or act on claims involving either intelligence agents or contractors. As I noted in earlier Congressional testimony, the United States has a de facto policy of impunity for its security contractors and agents who kill or injure foreign civilians.

But apparently Kerry did manage to spirit out of the country the other shadowy Americans who, in rushing to Davis's aid in a failed attempt to get him away from the scene, sped along a crowded one-way street in the wrong direction and in the process killed an innocent motorcyclist.

A Pakistani judge has now denied the US government's claim that Davis has diplomatic immunity and thus should be freed and allowed to leave the country. The Pakistani government, a US client, would prefer the higher courts to overturn this decision but there is so much popular anger against Davis and the US that doing so might cause riots and de-stabilize the government. The opposition to his release has intensified ever since the 19-year old widow of one of the victims committed suicide because in addition to her grief she felt that Davis would escape punishment. It is not helping that there are reports that the victims' family members are now being threatened to not give evidence against Davis, and suspicions abound that these thugs are acting on behalf of the US.

So what exactly was Davis doing in Pakistan? The Pakistani newspaper Dawn reports:

Sources have revealed that a GPS chip recovered from Davis was being used in identifying targets for drone attacks in the tribal region.

It was also learnt during the probe that Davis made upto 12 visits to the tribal areas without informing Pakistani officials.

The 36- year-old US official was reluctant in giving out information about his visits to the tribal region, sources added.

The US Embassy officials were exerting pressure on the authorities, asking them not to expose the information received from Davis.

Why was he going to remote tribal areas? David Lindorff, who has been following the case closely and first brought to my attention his murky background, says:

As I reported earlier, both Pakistani and Indian news organizations are claiming, based upon intelligence sources, that Davis was involved in not just intelligence work, but in orchestrating terrorist activity by both the Pakistani Taliban and the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has been linked to both the assassination of Benezir Bhutto and the capture and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Multiple calls to members of both groups were found by police on some of the cell phones found on Davis and in his car when he was arrested in Lahore.

There are so many unanswered questions swirling around this story. Why would the CIA be working with terrorist groups in Pakistan that are ostensibly opposed to the US? What about the long-standing links between the Pakistani intelligence service ISI and groups like the Taliban? Was Davis going behind the backs of the ISI to create direct links with those groups? What about the allegations in the Pakistani media that the two people shot dead by Davis were members of the ISI who were tailing him? I have no idea what the answers to these questions are. Davis clearly has information that may not be palatable to a lot of people and his life is in danger.

In the meantime, Davis is being held under rather extraordinary security because of rumors that the Americans will try to spring him, or even poison him. Davis is being shielded from any direct contact with U.S. officials, and a box of chocolates sent to Davis by the Embassy was confiscated.

I frankly cannot see how this is going to end. The US and Pakistani governments would undoubtedly like to bring this to a quick close and send Davis back to the US, where he will very likely not even be investigated let alone tried. He may even be promoted if past actions are any guide. But people in Pakistan are furious about the matter and releasing him could cause an explosion of anger.

March 08, 2011

Comedian Dara O'Briain on religious knowledge

Meanwhile, in Iraq…

While the US focus is on the brutal repression of protestors in Libya, the US-backed government in Iraq is brutally attacking and killing demonstrators and journalists in that country without any comment from the US government.

The Saudi Arabia problem

Robert Fisk reports that a demonstration against the Saudi regime is planned for Friday and the government is mobilizing troops to quell it. The regime has a reputation for coming down hard on protestors and has reportedly told the leader of neighboring Bahrain that if he does not crack down on dissent within his country, they will do it, to prevent the contagion from spreading. Bahrain's protestors have been having daily demonstrations in that country and this is making the Saudi government uneasy.

If there is a brutal crackdown, this will put Obama and Clinton in a quandary. It is fairly easy for them to condemn Libya's leader for brutality and threaten retaliation against him, although their options are limited. But the corrupt autocrats who rule Saudi Arabia are longtime US allies and friends of US leaders.

Why atheism is winning-8: Objective measures of religion's decline

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

There are more concrete signs that the end of religion is nigh than the ones I gave in the previous post in this series. We have the phenomenon of churches closing all over the place. In Cleveland, the Catholic diocese closed a huge number of churches recently, angering the dwindling number of parishioners who still attended them.

Howard Bess, a retired Baptist minister, says that young people are leaving religion in droves.

In a single generation, the Christian church dropout rate has increased fivefold. The Barna Group, a leading research organization focusing on the intersection of faith and culture, says 80 percent of the young people raised in a church will be "disengaged" before they are 30.

In the past 20 years, the number of American people who say they have no religion has doubled and has now reached 15 percent. Those numbers are concentrated in the under-30 population. The polling data continues to show that a dramatic exit is taking place from American Christian churches.

Beyond those numbers, denominations across the board are acknowledging loss of membership, but it is worse than they are reporting. Many churches report numbers based on baptized constituents, yet actual Sunday morning attendance doesn’t come close to those numbers.

The Secular Student Alliance is growing rapidly with new chapters opening up in colleges at an increasing pace and is even spreading to high schools because of the increased interest in atheism among younger and younger people. This would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Even enrollment in the mega-churches, which once grew rapidly by cannibalizing the mainstream churches, has flattened.

Furthermore, the idea that Americans are much more religious than Europeans has taken a beating with a new study that compared what Americans say about church attendance with what actual diary records that they keep show. In short, Americans lie about how much they attend church.

While conventional survey data show high and stable American church attendance rates of about 35 to 45 percent, the time diary data over the past decade reveal attendance rates of just 24 to 25 percent---a figure in line with a number of European countries.

What about the polls that show that creationism is still going strong and that large numbers are skeptical about evolution? But the polls show that while large numbers of Americans are still creationists, their numbers are slowly declining.

Once declines like this start, things can go downhill very rapidly. We sometimes think that the largely secular countries in Europe have been that way for a long time. In fact, countries like Britain went from Christian to non-believers in just one generation.

When the survey first asked these questions in 1985, 63% of the respondents answered that they were Christians, compared with 34% who said they had no religion (the rest belonged to non-Christian religions).

Today, a quarter of a century on, there has been a steady and remarkable turnaround. In the latest 2010 BSA report, published earlier this month, only 42% said they were Christians while 51% now say they have no religion.

Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman in a long article titled Why the gods are not winning challenge the notion that religion is on the rise and give plenty of other reasons to think that religion is dying. They look at the evidence and come to some encouraging conclusions:

Religion is in serious trouble. The status of faith is especially dire in the west, where the churches face an unprecedented crisis that threatens the existence of organized faith as a viable entity, and there is surprisingly little that can be done to change the circumstances.

They quote the authors of the World Christian Encyclopedia (which it must be noted is an evangelical Christian publication) who say that the rapid rise is disbelief has surprised everybody and that no Christian

"in 1900 expected the massive defections from Christianity that subsequently took place in Western Europe due to secularism…. and in the Americas due to materialism…. The number of nonreligionists…. throughout the 20th century has skyrocketed from 3.2 million in 1900, to 697 million in 1970, and on to 918 million in AD 2000…. Equally startling has been the meteoritic growth of secularism…. Two immense quasi-religious systems have emerged at the expense of the world's religions: agnosticism…. and atheism…. From a miniscule presence in 1900, a mere 0.2% of the globe, these systems…. are today expanding at the extraordinary rate of 8.5 million new converts each year, and are likely to reach one billion adherents soon. A large percentage of their members are the children, grandchildren or the great-great-grandchildren of persons who in their lifetimes were practicing Christians" (italics added)

Far from providing unambiguous evidence of the rise of faith, the devout compliers of the WCE document what they characterize as the spectacular ballooning of secularism by a few hundred-fold! It has no historical match. It dwarfs the widely heralded Mormon climb to 12 million during the same time, even the growth within Protestantism of Pentecostals from nearly nothing to half a billion does not equal it.

Next: The global picture

March 07, 2011

"America is not broke"

The message that is being drummed into our ears every day is that America is broke and that the middle class and the poor are the ones who must bear the pain of solving the problem, because we must never, ever, raise taxes, even on the very rich.

In a speech in Wisconsin in support of the unions, Michael Moore says what I have been saying for sometime, that the problem is not that America is broke but that a greedy oligarchy is looting the country's wealth.

"Let me say that again, and please someone in the mainstream media, just repeat this fact once. We're not greedy. We'll be happy to hear it just once. 400 obscenely wealthy individuals, 400 little Mubaraks, most of whom benefited in some way from the multi-trillion dollar taxpayer bailout of 2008 now have more cash, stock, and property than the assets of 155 million Americans combined.

The nation is not broke, my friends. There's lots of money to go around, lots, lots. It's just that those in charge have diverted that wealth into a deep well that sits in their well-guarded estates. They know. They know. They have committed crimes to make this happen."

As Jason Easley and Sarah Jones comment:

Moore did something brilliant. He shifted the narrative. Republicans want the Wisconsin story to be about the budget. Early on Democrats were focused on the issues of liberty and collective bargaining. Moore broadened the message and created a third narrative about how decades of pro-corporate and pro-wealthy economic policies have redistributed the nation’s wealth from the people to a small group of super-rich haves. This is the story that terrifies both conservative politicians and the network of billionaire wealth that owns them.

I am glad that someone of Moore's prominence is getting that message out. We cannot expect the Democratic Party leadership to do so since they are part of the oligarchy.

Wisconsin Governor Walker gets desperate

There is a clever person who uses the same clip taken from a real German film about Hitler's last days and inserts different subtitles to reflect current situations. Here is one result.

The truth about public sector pensions

Like most people, I had assumed that the shortfall in state public sector pension funds that is causing budget problems was because the states had not made sufficient contributions to the fund to met their promises. Paul Krugman says that he too bought that argument.

But a new study (pdf) by Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that the shortfall emerged only in 2007 and is largely due to the financial crisis. As Baker says:

Most of the pension shortfall using the current methodology is attributable to the plunge in the stock market in the years 2007-2009. If pension funds had earned returns just equal to the interest rate on 30-year Treasury bonds in the three years since 2007, their assets would be more than $850 billion greater than they are today. This is by far the major cause of pension funding shortfalls. While there are certainly cases of pensions that had been under-funded even before the market plunge, prior years of under-funding is not the main reason that pensions face difficulties now. Another $80 billion of the shortfall is the result of the fact that states have cutback their contributions as a result of the downturn.

In sum, most states face pension shortfalls that are manageable, especially if the stock market does not face another sudden reversal. The major reason that shortfalls exist at all was the downturn in the stock market following the collapse of the housing bubble, not inadequate contributions to pension funds.

So the idea that the problem is caused by generous retirement giveaways by state governments to greedy unions is simply false. This serves to remind me that I should not trust any conventional wisdom that aligns itself conveniently with oligarchic interests that control the propaganda apparatus but should always ask for the data.

Problems in 'real' America

About a decade ago, when I was on Ohio's advisory board that was revising the state's science standards, there was the big debate over teaching so-called 'intelligent design' (ID) in science classes. One of the people attending those meetings was the superintendent of schools in a largely rural district that was in the southern part of the state close to the Ohio river that separates us from Kentucky.

He invited me to speak to all the teachers in their school district about the evolution-ID issue during a day-long conference that he organized for his teachers. The session was to be held on a Saturday morning so I drove down on Friday to Chillicothe, arriving there at about 8:00 pm. It is a small town of about 20,000 so I was taken totally by surprise to suddenly find myself in bumper-to-bumper traffic gridlock that took me about half an hour to go the two blocks to reach my hotel in the small downtown area.

I noticed that the cars were full of young people. When I finally reached my hotel and was checking in, I asked the clerk what was going on and he said that this was just a normal Friday or Saturday night when the young people in the area amused themselves by cruising round and around the few downtown blocks.

The next day I gave my talk to a hall full of teachers about the legal and scientific reasons why evolution should be taught in science classes and ID not taught. It did not go well. Not that they booed me or threw stuff at me. Everyone was nice and polite in that mid-western way but it was clear that I was in Christian Bible country and that my message was falling on deaf ears and that this group was far more comfortable with the story of Adam and Eve than that of natural selection.

During the lunch break, I mingled with the teachers, making the usual small talk asking where they came from and I was struck by the fact that almost all of them seemed to have been born and raised in that same county and gone to the small state university in the adjacent county to get their degrees. When I mentioned this to the superintendent he said that this insularity was a real problem. He found it difficult to get teachers to attend professional development programs outside their areas, even in the state capital of Columbus that was just a couple of hours away, and you could forget about getting them to attend national meetings. This was why he had to bring people like me in.

Having lived a nomadic life that has taken me all over the world, I wondered on my drive back to Cleveland what it must be like to live in a small community all your life where the main social activity of young people was to drive around the same few city blocks week after week. It would have likely driven me crazy but I presumed that people chose to do it and were thus happy.

But maybe not.

The Plain Dealer last week had a disturbing series of stories about how the southern Ohio city of Portsmouth, very close to Chillicothe and similar to it, had a huge problem with widespread addiction to painkilling drugs like oxycontin.

At the half-dozen or so pain clinics in this Appalachian county along the banks of the Ohio River, a handful of licensed doctors pump out prescriptions for an estimated 35 million pain pills a year to an ever-mushrooming population of pill-crazed patients who come from near and far just to cop.

Do the math, and it comes to roughly 460 pills for every man, woman and child in this county of 76,000 residents, according to 2008 state pharmacy board statistics.

It's gotten so bad that last year the local health commissioner declared a public health emergency, a rare step usually reserved for disease outbreaks.

Lisa Roberts, a city of Portsmouth public-health nurse on the front lines of the epidemic, says locals call it the "attack of the pill heads." She says a "pharmaceutical atom bomb" has brought the county to the verge of complete social collapse.

Statistics as bleak as tombstones back up Roberts' apocalyptic talk: The county has seen a 360 percent increase in accidental drug-overdose deaths and has the highest hepatitis C rate in Ohio, a rate that has nearly quadrupled in the past five years, thanks to junkies who are shooting up.

Sixty-four Scioto County babies born in 2009 came into the world with drugs in their system -- that's nearly one in 10 births. And swamped drug treatment centers say they are turning away thousands of locals who need help for prescription-drug addiction.

This story reminded me of the film Winter's Bone that was nominated for some Academy awards this year. It provides a bleak look at life in the rural areas of the Ozarks in Missouri where addiction to crystal meth seemed to be rampant and destroying lives.

I was wondering if this drug problem was caused by the impact of modernity on communities that were not equipped to handle it. Modern communications now bring the world into every home making them aware of possibilities that are out of reach.

It is one thing for someone to want to get away from it all and choose to live in a rural and remote area, it is another to be born and grow up in it, to feel trapped but fearful of leaving. In a visit last month to rural Georgia to give a talk, I spoke with a young man who had grown up in that small town, gone to college there, and was now working there. He was clearly feeling claustrophobic, dying to get out and move to a big city (Atlanta in his case) but not able to find a way to do so. From my point of view, that region looked very appealing in its quiet and slower-paced way of life. But his frustration and desperation to get out of there was palpable.

It has become popular these days to contrast the alleged decadence of those who live in the big cities and on the densely populated two coasts with those who live in small towns and in rural America. The latter, we are repeatedly told, are the 'real' Americans, the ones who represent 'real' America and who uphold traditional wholesome values of thrift, temperance, god, patriotism, and morality and that is their voice that should be given priority in the national discussion.

But clearly things are not that simple. My experience in Chillicothe, Winter's Bone, and the rampant drug addiction problem in Scioto county surely do not represent the lives of all people in rural America. What is true is that the people in these small towns seem to be battling the same demons as people elsewhere and we should abandon the rhetoric of 'real' America and 'real' Americans. Every part of it is as real as every the other part, with its good and bad.

March 06, 2011

Hillary Clinton as media critic

At last she says something I can agree with when she points out that when it comes to news coverage and impact around the world, al Jazeera is eating the US media's lunch.

"Al Jazeera has been the leader in that are literally changing people's minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective," she said.

"In fact viewership of al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners," she added.

Who knew that she was such a good media critic? But she should be careful what she wishes for. It is because the US media is so awful that all her hypocrisies (and those of Obama and the rest of the ruling class) do not get exposed.

Because we are above the law, that's why

The US has agreed to a UN resolution to ask the International Criminal Court to investigate Libya for crimes against humanity, but only after a clause was included that exempts any Americans from being brought before the ICC.

Further abuse of Bradley Manning

Glenn Greenwald highlights how the US government's disgraceful abuse of Bradley Manning continues and how they shamelessly lie about it.

A lawyer for Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst accused of leaking secret government files to WikiLeaks, has complained that his client was stripped and left naked in his cell for seven hours on Wednesday.

The soldier's clothing was returned to him Thursday morning, after he was required to stand naked outside his cell during an inspection, Mr. [David E.] Coombs said in a posting on his Web site.

"This type of degrading treatment is inexcusable and without justification," Mr. Coombs wrote. "It is an embarrassment to our military justice system and should not be tolerated. Pfc. Manning has been told that the same thing will happen to him again tonight. No other detainee at the brig is forced to endure this type of isolation and humiliation."

First Lt. Brian Villiard, a Marine spokesman, said a brig duty supervisor had ordered Private Manning's clothing taken from him. He said that the step was "not punitive" and that it was in accordance with brig rules, but he said that he was not allowed to say more.

"It would be inappropriate for me to explain it," Lieutenant Villiard said. "I can confirm that it did happen, but I can't explain it to you without violating the detainee's privacy."

Notice that after requiring Manning to be naked for hours on end, they touchingly say they cannot explain the reasons in order to protect his privacy!

UPDATE: Greenwald says today that Manning will be forced to be naked every night and for morning inspection for the indefinite future.

Can anyone doubt that Manning, who has not even been tried let along convicted, of any crime is being humiliated as a form of punishment and to destroy him mentally in order to warn anyone else who might think of crossing the government of its unchecked power to abuse people?

March 05, 2011

The Daily Show on attacking teachers

Jon Stewart and The Daily Show writers were really on a roll on Thursday about the campaign being waged against teachers. I find it extraordinary that public school teachers of all people are being demonized as a major cause of the country's economic problems. It is a sign of a government, business, and media chattering class that has lost its collective mind and is seeking the destruction of the public school system.

Here are the main clips:

The interview with Diane Ravitch also dealt with education and is worth watching.

Man prosecuted for publicizing jury nullification

I have written before (here and here) about how few people know about 'jury nullification', which is the right of juries to acquit some one even if there is no doubt that the law had been broken, if they think that the law used to convict is itself unjust. It is thanks to jury nullification that we now have constitutional protections of freedom of the press and association and assembly.

Although the right of juries to nullify is well established, judges and prosecutors tend to not like it to be well known, the former because it means that juries have the right to ignore their instructions and the latter because they want juries to convict.

Now there is a case where a retired Penn Sate chemistry professor standing outside a courthouse handing out leaflets informing potential juries of their right to nullify has been arrested and charged with jury tampering.

Scott Horton also talks about the case and the history of jury nullification. Sam Smith also discusses the case.

March 04, 2011

How thoughtful

A Texas Republican state legislator has introduced a bill that makes hiring of undocumented workers a crime in which the employer could be punished by up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine unless they were hired to do household chores, like maid, caretaker, lawn worker, or any type of house worker.

Because you know how hard it is so hard to get good help these days…

Truly ugly anti-Muslim bigotry

What is wrong with these people that they can shout such invective even at small children walking with parents?

And the government lurches on…

So Congress has passed and Obama has signed yet another continuing resolution to extend funding to keep the government running for another two weeks, until March 18, 2011. This is the fifth such extension. The previous ones provided stop-gap funding until December 3, then December 18, then December 21, and then March 4.

These ad-hoc actions are because Congress has still, six months into the fiscal year that began n October 1, 2010, not only not passed a budget but not passed even one of the twelve appropriation bills.

We will now be subjected to another tedious spectacle of wrangling as the March 18 deadline looms, which will likely result in another temporary extension.

How long will they keep kicking this can down the road? It is quite incredible that the world's biggest economy is being run like a struggling mom-and-pop store, not knowing whether it can pays its bills from week to week.

Complicating things is the fact that this not the only contentious budgetary issue. There is also the debt ceiling of $14.294 trillion which is now predicted to be reached some time in April or May. Expect to see another circus around that issue. There is no doubt that it will be raised (because the oligarchy will demand it) but it is an issue that allows for a lot of demagoguery and who can resist that?

Blaming the victims

A recent report said that NATO drone strikes have once again killed a large number of civilians including 20 women and 29 children, in a remote region of Afghanistan.

The killing of civilians by drones is an explosive issue in Afghanistan and Pakistan and soon after the story emerged there was a bizarre report that General Petraeus had told Afghan government representatives that all the people killed were members of the Taliban and that he suspected that Taliban sympathizers in the village might have burned their own children in order to make the US look bad.

(The US has apologized for another appalling drone killing of nine children who had been merely gathering firewood. I shudder to think of the number of people who join terrorist groups because of their rage when members of their family and community are killed like this.)

It is always a bad sign when you accuse other people of things that would be unthinkable if said about your own group. The instinct to protect and shield one's own children seems to be deeply held and universal, is observed in almost all species, and is supported by evolutionary theory. Harming one's own children is the act of a psychopath and thus rare.

This is what makes Petraeus's purported statement so offensive. Other commanders are making it even worse by claiming that burning of their children is a common practice among Afghan parents! To accuse an entire village of doing so is a sign of deep desperation and requires a very high level of proof. It is not a charge to be tossed around casually.

I have said many times before that in the immediate aftermath of a major event where a government has likely committed an atrocity, their immediate instinct is to lie their way out if it in order to gain public support, hoping that by the time the truth slowly emerges, people will have forgotten the event or at least passions will have cooled.

We saw this with the case where a US warship shot down an Iranian civilian plane killing everyone abroad. President Reagan and other officials claimed that the dastardly evil Iranian government had deliberately sacrificed their own people by dive-bombing the US warship so that it would be shot down as part of their plan to make the US look bad. This was absurd on its face and was shown later to be a flat-out lie but the US media lapped it up. After all, we like to believe that we are always good and the enemy is always evil.

Then there was the claim that Iraqi soldiers had removed incubators from Kuwait just for the sheer evil pleasure of wanting babies to die. This was also reported unquestioningly by the media but was later shown to be not only false but a deliberate lie planned and implemented by a public relations firm.

Then there was the case of the Brazilian who was shot dead by British police and where every justification given for the killing turned out to be a lie.

Stories that fit so conveniently into a narrative that saves one's own face and demonizes the enemy have to be treated with deep skepticism. This is why, even though I think that George W, Bush and Dick Cheney are liars and responsible for war crimes, I have never taken seriously the claims of the so-called 'truthers' that Bush and Cheney either planned the 9/11 attack or knew about it in advance and allowed it to happen. Such extraordinary claims require a very high bar of proof and nothing close it has been provided.

As I said before, "This is why I always take initial news reports of such events with a grain of salt. I believe that all governments, without exception, lie to their people. They do this routinely and without shame. But most people are uncomfortable accepting this fact and want to believe that their government is trustworthy. And at the early stages of the events, governments and official spokespersons take advantage of people's trust and use their dominance of the media to make sure that people's early impressions are favorable. The only reason that governments will hesitate to lie is if the media quickly investigates the original story and gives the subsequently revealed facts as much publicity as the original stories. But as we have see, the present media have largely abdicated that role, playing it safe by simply reporting what the government says."

It is up to us to suspend belief in obviously self-serving government claims until we see convincing proof.

March 03, 2011

Westboro church wins funeral picketing case

To no one's surprise, the US Supreme Court by an 8-1 margin ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church had the right to peacefully picket funerals. This was clearly the correct decision, in my opinion, and what surprises me is that there was even one dissenter (Justice Alito).

I don't know why people keep taking this church to court. It only gives them the publicity they crave and makes them into First Amendment martyrs. Their First Amendment rights should not be violated just because we do not like what they say.

Cleveland Freethinkers March Roundtable

I will be talking to this group on Why atheism is winning (followed by a Q&A) on Saturday, March 5th at 7:30 pm.

More details can be found here.

Ron Paul thinks that evolution is only a theory

Why atheism is winning-7: Signs of religion's decline

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The idea that religion is in a period of inexorable decline is, unsurprisingly, not one that is shared by religious apologists. In fact, Alastair McGrath in his book The Twilight of Atheism argues the opposite, that it is atheism that is in decline. I have not read this book but Keith Parsons, a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, has and in an essay that is well worth reading in full, challenges McGrath and in the process reinforces my case that it is atheism that is ascendant.

Parsons says that what is remarkable about the current debate on atheism is that it has generated enormous and widespread interest, extending far beyond the small intellectual circles that were the normal range for such controversies.

These days, says McGrath, we hear not faith's but atheism's withdrawing roar. Now, early in the 21st century, we are told that atheism is in decline and religion is resurgent.

How odd, in that case, to find atheist books recently heading up the bestseller lists and atheists showing up on the TV talk shows to make the case for unbelief. Is atheism becoming chic? The public response to Sam Harris' The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, as well as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, appears to indicate a swelling interest in arguments for unbelief. A bestselling atheist book is really quite a novelty. Speaking from my own personal experience, an atheist book typically sells in the dozens, and its author will die of old age long before seeing a royalty check.

But it is not simply the popularity of atheist books that makes me think that atheism is winning. Another sign is that the more sophisticated believers (theologians and lay) no longer even try to convince us that we are wrong. They do not try to persuade us that god exists apart from half-hearted appeals to the need for faith and the wonder and seeming inexplicability of nature. This is because atheists know these arguments as well as those of Aquinas and Augustine and why they fail. Believers realize that their idea of god in unsupported by science and history. So instead they plead with us to not be too direct and straightforward about why we don't believe, which is what all this deploring of our 'bad tone' is all about.

For example, Ricky Gervais recently wrote a holiday message in the Wall Street Journal. Gervais is, of course, an outspoken atheist and his essay does not hide the fact. He makes the case succinctly saying "I don't believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I've heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe." You can't get more blunt and direct than that.

His essay raised a lot of questions that resulted in him being invited to a follow-up Q&A with readers which was quite hilarious. In it Gervais provides the perfect response to the criticism of where he thinks he gets off, a mere comedian, making pronouncements about god. This response can be used by anyone who is snootily told that they have no right to opine about such a weighty subject as the existence of god until they have studied the works of the major theologians, something that I hear a lot. Gervais says, "Since there is nothing to know about god, a comedian knows as much about god as any one else. An atheist however is alone in knowing that there is nothing to know so probably has the edge."

In response to the common assertion that atheism is as much a belief system as religion, Gervais responds: "Atheism isn't a belief system. I have a belief system but it's not "based on" atheism, it's just not based on the existence of a god. I make none of my moral, social, or artistic decisions based on any god or superstitions. Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby. I've never been skiing. It's my biggest hobby. I literally do it all the time. But to answer your question I am constantly faced with theories of God, and angels, and hell. It's everywhere. But unless there is an ounce of credibility to it, I reject." (My italics)

He also points out the problem with agnosticism, a position that I too have trouble understanding when it comes of the existence of god:

An agnostic would say that since you can neither prove the existence nor the non-existence of God then the only answer to the question "Is there a God?" is "I don't know." Basically they are saying just because you haven't found something yet doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Well firstly we have to know what definition of God we are asking about. Many can be dismissed as logical impossibilities. In the same way that if you were asked can you imagine a square circle the answer is of course "No." Let's give them the benefit of the doubt. Let's just say there is a definition of a God that is possible. Does he exist? "I don't know" in this case is indeed the correct answer. However this must also be the answer to many other questions. Is there an elephant up your a—? Even if you've looked you can't say "no." It could be that you just haven't found it yet. Please look again and this time really believe there is an elephant up there because however mad it sounds no one can prove that you don't have a lovely big African elephant up your a—.

The position of agnosticism makes sense for an issue in which the lack of knowledge is temporary. For example, if you ask me if dark energy exists, I could reasonably say "I don't know", that I am an agnostic in that I do not know at the moment but advances in science may provide an affirmative answer in the future or that scientists will declare that it is an unnecessary concept. But to say "I don't know" to question that is unknowable even in principle (you can never prove the non-existence of god) seems to me to be an evasion. The bases of agnostic actions are indistinguishable from that of atheists. There is no observable difference in the behavior of someone who, in Gervais's more colorful framing, is sure that there is no elephant up his a— and one who is agnostic on the question.

Even though Gervais is as forceful an atheist as any new atheist, Mary Elizabeth Williams, a religious believer, does not try to defend her belief or say why Gervais is wrong but actually praises him as the most persuasive of atheists because he says it is fine with him if people believe in god as long as their beliefs don't ending up harming others and because he uses humor to get his point across. But almost all the new atheists are just like Gervais in that we do not demand that people stop believing, an absurd and unrealistic demand at the best of times. We are all like him in denouncing the harm that religion does to others. We are all like him in that we think believing in a god is silly and say so. The only difference is that we do not have Gervais's deft comedic touch.

Is using humor while propagating the new atheist message all that it takes to placate believers? Believers seem to have given up on defending the truth of their beliefs and seem to be merely seeking to be let down gently, to be allowed to laugh as their religious world collapses all around them. If that is not a sign of religion in decline, I don't know what is.

Next: More objective measures of religion's decline.

March 02, 2011

These people are crazy

Just when I think that the Republican congressional leadership and their nutty supporters could not get any more childish, they surprise me. They are deliberately abandoning biodegradable utensils in the cafeteria (a policy implemented by the previous congress) to bring back Styrofoam, one of the most environmentally damaging materials. The press aide to the new speaker John Boehner was so proud of this move that he felt it worth sending out a tweet.

This kind of pettiness is everywhere. After ridiculing Michelle Obama's creation of an organic garden in the White House as an example of her environmental extremism, they are now attacking her campaign against childhood obesity as an example of the Obamas' desire for a 'nanny state'. Really? You really oppose urging children to eat healthily and get more exercise?

I would not be surprised if she praised motherhood and apple pie, these crazy people would claim that she is an angry feminist who hates men and is also trying to destroy the peach industry.

Those greedy teachers unions

The Daily Show takes on those lazy, pampered, good-for-nothing teachers, with their luxurious lifestyles and cushy jobs.

Daily Show on budget deficits

The easiest solution to the budget deficits is to tax the rich. So why is that not an option?

Donald Rumsfeld on The Daily Show

Rumsfeld is out flogging his book and appeared with Jon Stewart. As is often the case when he interviews powerful government officials, Stewart was not at his best. I have noticed that in these situations Stewart seems to go overboard in trying to be nice to his guest and as a result they get away with claims that he should have directly confronted.

Rumsfeld, once so arrogant, condescending, and dismissive of anyone who even questioned him, now looks and acts like a pathetic old man, trying to explain away his horrible actions while in office, trying to weasel out of responsibility for his monstrous crimes by acting as if he, a control freak, had been misled because he trusted others who were wrong about the evidence in making the case for going to war with Iraq. Despite all the evidence that he was one of the key people pushing to invade Iraq, Rumsfeld now acts like he was a bystander during the whole process while others made key decisions. The book has received terrible reviews and was too much even for court stenographer Bob Woodward. Rumsfeld is simply a brazen liar.

During the interview, Rumsfeld did the usual diversionary song-and-dance that we have become accustomed to from high government officials, invoking 9/11 even though Iraq had nothing to do with it, weapons of mass destruction when Iraq did not have any, pandering to the military, and the tired trope of 'keeping us safe'. I would have expected Stewart to have tons of videos of Rumsfeld ready at hand to contradict Rumsfeld's apologias, the way Stewart did so effectively with Jim Cramer. But he didn't, allowing Rumsfeld to whine about how everyone was so mean to them because were all so misunderstood, the poor babies.

Stewart also did not challenge Rumsfeld's claim that the people who were involved in all these decisions, such as Colin Powell, George Tenet, and Doug Feith, were all 'honorable' people. This is a familiar tactic. Each person goes around saying that the others are honorable and so we are expected to believe that all the massive screw-ups that occurred under them were acts of god, that inexplicably happened despite the noblest intentions of the principal players involved.

I do not accept that premise. I am not aware of what went on in the private meetings but what is available publicly presents a prima facie case that these people were not honorable but instead cooked up evidence and deliberately lied to the world in order to push a covert agenda that was not in the interests of the US or the Iraqis. It is up to them to prove to us that they acted honorably and we should not accept their own self-serving assurances, the way that Stewart did.

Stewart did not even ask Rumsfeld about torture and Abu Ghraib, all of which happened under Rumsfeld's watch, and for which he is now liable for arrest if he travels abroad. Stewart was far too deferential to someone whom I consider to be a liar and a war criminal. What Stewart should do is not interview such people but instead take their interviews with other people and critique them.

For what it's worth, you can see the two–part interview here.

March 01, 2011

Early prediction for the 2012 election

Unless (1) there is a major catastrophe and (2) Obama badly mishandles the response to it, he is going to be re-elected easily.

Remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca

By the creators of That Mitchell and Webb Look. It is probably funnier if you have seen the original 1940 film or read Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel.

Justin Bieber supports single payer health care

The singer will undoubtedly raise the ire of those who devoutly believe that "America is the greatest country in the world in every single way, always has been, and always will be and anyone who doubts that is a an anti-American Islamofascisticcommie" by comparing Canada's single payer health care system favorably to the US system.

The Canadian-born Bieber never plans on becoming an American citizen. "You guys are evil," he jokes. "Canada's the best country in the world." He adds, "We go to the doctor and we don't need to worry about paying him, but here, your whole life, you're broke because of medical bills. My bodyguard's baby was premature, and now he has to pay for it. In Canada, if your baby's premature, he stays in the hospital as long as he needs to, and then you go home."

He's not the only celebrity thinking that the present health care system in the US is evil.

The myth of the parasitic union

There is this odd notion that the public sector employees are living off the largesse of the rest of us, i.e., the taxpayers, and that they have used their union power to somehow pull a fast one. This is false. As David Cay Johnston points out, the pension benefits that unionized workers get is not something that is a gift to them from us. It is essentially deferred compensation that was negotiated with employers. In other words, part of the wages they were entitled to was deferred until their retirement.

Out of every dollar that funds Wisconsin' s pension and health insurance plans for state workers, 100 cents comes from the state workers.

How can that be? Because the "contributions" consist of money that employees chose to take as deferred wages – as pensions when they retire – rather than take immediately in cash. The same is true with the health care plan. If this were not so a serious crime would be taking place, the gift of public funds rather than payment for services.

Thus, state workers are not being asked to simply "contribute more" to Wisconsin' s retirement system (or as the argument goes, "pay their fair share" of retirement costs as do employees in Wisconsin' s private sector who still have pensions and health insurance). They are being asked to accept a cut in their salaries so that the state of Wisconsin can use the money to fill the hole left by tax cuts and reduced audits of corporations in Wisconsin.

The labor agreements show that the pension plan money is part of the total negotiated compensation. The key phrase, in those agreements I read (emphasis added), is: "The Employer shall contribute on behalf of the employee." This shows that this is just divvying up the total compensation package, so much for cash wages, so much for paid vacations, so much for retirement, etc.

The fact is that all of the money going into these plans belongs to the workers because it is part of the compensation of the state workers. The fact is that the state workers negotiate their total compensation, which they then divvy up between cash wages, paid vacations, health insurance and, yes, pensions. Since the Wisconsin government workers collectively bargained for their compensation, all of the compensation they have bargained for is part of their pay and thus only the workers contribute to the pension plan. This is an indisputable fact.

NPR's All Things Considered had an interesting interview with Philip Dray, author of There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America in which he too debunks the idea of parasitic unions and points out that pension benefits were given to teachers to in lieu of immediate salary benefits or improvements in working conditions.

The workers are entirely funding their own pensions, health, and other benefits. It is the employers who reneged on the deal by not paying sufficiently into the retirement funds. That is like an employer arbitrarily holding back some of your salary and using it for other things.

Paul Krugman says that the focus is being placed on contributions to retirement plans to mislead people that public sector workers are a pampered lot compared to the private sector because the truth does not serve the desired ideological ends:

Why, then, are we hearing so much about the meaningless contribution comparison?

The answer is simple: it’s because doing the comparison right doesn’t yield the desired answer. The new report by the Times gets the same answer as other studies: low-paid government workers do a bit better than their private-sector counterparts, but others if anything do worse.

Luo and Cooper report this as a “mixed answer” — but in terms of the political debate, it’s a body blow to the union-bashers, whose whole position is that public-sector workers are welfare queens in Cadillacs. They need to show outrageous overpayment, not rough equivalence at best.

And so they turn to a meaningless comparison that, to the unwary, sounds as if it supports their case.

Yes, some public-sector workers are overpaid. So are some private-sector workers. Doesn’t anyone read Dilbert? But the whole idea that union excesses are at the core of state and local fiscal problems is false, and only deliberate obfuscation keeps that from being obvious.

Thomas Kochan, a professor of management at MIT's Sloan School says that when we take an evidence-based approach to such comparisons, we can arrive at solutions that are fair to every one.

The unions negotiated for their benefits fair and square. If not for the unions, all of us, unionized or not, would be far worse off.