Archives December 2011

Sect Fight!

From the AP:

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — The annual cleaning of one of Christianity’s holiest churches deteriorated into a brawl between rival clergy Wednesday, as dozens of monks feuding over sacred space at the Church of the Nativity battled each other with brooms until police intervened.

The ancient church, built over the traditional site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, is shared by three Christian denominations – Roman Catholics, Armenians and Greek Orthodox. Wednesday’s fight erupted between Greek and Armenian clergy, with both sides accusing each other of encroaching on parts of the church to which they lay claim.

But Christianity is a Religion of Peace™, isn’t it?

Reuters also reports:

“It was a trivial problem that … occurs every year,” said police Lieutenant-Colonel Khaled al-Tamimi. “Everything is all right and things have returned to normal,” he said. “No one was arrested because all those involved were men of God.

(emphasis added.)

I guess they were following Matthew 5:39, the What God Really Meant Version: “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. Unless he attempteth to take thy broom, in which case punch the bastard.”

Weak Week
  1. The Boomtown Rats – I Don’t Like Mondays
  2. Yazoo – Tuesday
  3. Elvis Costello – Wednesday Week
  4. The Chameleons – Thursday’s Child
  5. The Cure – Friday I’m in Love
  6. The Dead Kennedys – Saturday Night Holocaust
    (it was either that or 10:15 Saturday Night, but that would be two Cure songs in a row)
  7. U2 – Sunday Bloody Sunday
Goodbye, Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens died today of pneumonia (itself caused by his esophageal cancer), at the age of 62. People more eloquent than I have attempted to sum up his character and the impact of his life, so I won’t attempt it.

Let me simply quote one of his simpler, more distilled adages:

What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.

and replay one of my favorite Hitch bits, from the Intelligence2 debate on whether the Catholic church is a force for good:

That “Adopt an Atheist” Campaign

By now, you’ve probably heard about BillDo’s “Adopt an Atheist” campaign:

Today we are launching our “Adopt An Atheist” campaign, the predicate of which is, “We want atheists to realize that there may be Christians in their community, even if those Christians don’t even know they are Christian.

Here’s what our campaign entails. We are asking everyone to contact the American Atheist affiliate in his area […] Let them know of your sincere interest in working with them to uncover their inner self. They may be resistant at first, but eventually they may come to understand that they were Christian all along.

If we hurry, these closeted Christians can celebrate Christmas like the rest of us. As an added bonus, they will no longer be looked upon as people who “believe in nothing, stand for nothing and are good for nothing.”

(emphasis added)

Here’s what I just sent him:

Dear Mr. Donohue,

I have just heard about the Catholic League’s “Adopt an Atheist” campaign, and am intrigued.

I am an atheist, one of those people who, according to you, “believe in nothing, stand for nothing and are good for nothing.” But apparently, according to your press release, it is possible that I am actually a Christian without realizing it.

I don’t understand how this is possible, but perhaps one of the atheist-adopters with whom you are working can explain it. I am not a member of American Atheists, so sending mail to them will not reach me. Please ask one of your adopters to contact me.

You also write that “We want atheists to realize that there may be Christians in their community, even if those Christians don’t even know they are Christian”. Is this true? Is it possible that there might be Christians in my community? Could it be my neighbors, who attend church every Sunday? Or perhaps the pastor who lives two doors down? Who? Perhaps an atheist-adopter can help me figure it out.

I look forward to hearing back from you or your organization.

I’ll post if I hear back. It ought to be a lot of fun.

How Not to Report Science

One of the stories in the news today is about a study showing that no, US presidents don’t have their lifespans shortened by the rigors of office. The AP writes:

Using life expectancy data for men the same age as presidents on their inauguration days, the study found that 23 of 34 presidents who died of natural causes lived several years longer than expected.

This set off little skeptical alarm bells in my head. And indeed, a few paragraphs later, we find:

Given that most of the 43 men who have served as president have been college-educated, wealthy and had access to the best doctors, their long lives are actually not that surprising, [study author S. Jay Olshansky] said.

I haven’t found the text of the study in question, but LiveScience writes:

“To me, it’s a classic illustration of the benefits of socioeconomic status,” Olshansky told LiveScience. “All but 10 of the presidents were college-educated, they were all wealthy, and they all had access to medical care.”

So yeah, maybe I’m jumping to conclusions, but I suspect that being able to afford living in a neighborhood where you’re not going to get shot by a drug dealer, and getting regular checkups at Walter Reed may have a teensy bit to do with one’s life expectancy.

So really, what this story tells us is that the stress of the presidency, when combined with good lifestyle and health care, is not enough to lower a man’s life expectancy to the national average. What it doesn’t say is what effect the presidential lifestyle has on people’s health. For that, it would be necessary to compare presidents’ life spans to those of people of comparable wealth and access to health care. From the remarks above, I suspect that Olshansky understands this perfectly well, but I don’t know whether that study has been done.

Kitty Theodicy

One of the standard replies to the problem of evil is that evil and pain serve a greater purpose, such as when a mother allows her child to be painfully jabbed with a polio shot. It may suck to have your house robbed, but if God intervened by taking away free will (including the robber), that would be even worse.

I’m not buying it, and here’s why.

I have a cat with an infection, so I’m giving her antibiotics twice a day. For those without pets, this involves laying her on her back, putting an eyedropper between her teeth, and squirting in a bit of liquid (that smells and tastes like medicine, natch) in her mouth. She doesn’t want to swallow, but since she’s on her back, with the liquid pooling in her throat, eventually she has no choice but to swallow. I could have gone with pills, but those are even harder to administer.

In short, to my cat, I’m like the aforementioned god, doing bad things to her for no purpose that she can discern. But we humans, with our superior intelligence, recognize that the pain and suffering I inflict serve a greater purpose.

And that’s where the similarities between me and God end. Among the differences: when I inflict pain on my cat, at least I have the balls to show myself. My cat can see me, smell me, hear me, touch (and scratch) me. I don’t resort to manipulating natural forces to do the dirty work for me. And when I do use an intermediate (such as the vet), I at least try to let her know that I’m there, and that it’s okay.

There’s also a limit to how much pain I will inflict on my cat. If she needed an operation, I would make damn sure she was anesthetized for it. And if she were in constant pain from an incurable disease, I would prefer that she be put to sleep rather than have to suffer.

But it doesn’t work that way in the greater world. Even setting aside the mind-boggling amount of pain in the animal world (e.g., when an Ichneumon wasp larva eats its host from the inside, or when lions eat a still-living gazelle) and concentrating just on God’s favorite species, humans, why are there lingering diseases? Why do people bleed to death after being hit by a rock slide? Why do people’s limbs rot away from gangrene?

For that matter, why does torture work? I don’t mean in the sense of extracting useful intelligence. I mean in the sense of inflicting unbearable pain and suffering without even the release of death? You’d think that an all-powerful and merciful god could set things up so that when the pain gets too bad, a built-in anesthetic could kick in and make us oblivious. In extreme cases, sufferers could quickly and quietly slip away into death. But if there’s any such mechanism, it hasn’t been brought to my attention. Yes, there’s the way people freezing to death are said to die peacefully, feeling warm. Why doesn’t that work for drowning or or poison or stabbing?

In the Christian religion, in particular, there’s a strong emphasis on Jesus’ suffering, both before his crucifixion and on the cross. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ hammered this point home repeatedly, and was quite popular at the box office.

But I don’t remember anyone suggesting that Jesus suffered more than normal, given the things that were done to him. Why did he die after a day on the cross, like crucifixion victim ever? Why not a week, a month, a year? Compare that to Prometheus, who gave humans fire; his punishment was to be chained to a mountain where every day vultures rip out his liver, and every night it grows back to be torn out again the next day. As far as I know, Prometheus is still tied to his rock, while Jesus got to be king of the universe after three days. Now that’s suffering. As has been pointed out, Jesus had a really bad weekend for our sins.

So the sheer amount of suffering is far beyond any reasonable measure, with no relief mechanisms other than the ones we humans have come up with, like morphine and appendectomies. The world looks exactly the way it would if there were no guiding intelligence taking an interest in our well-being.

And even if suffering were necessary for some master plan, you’d think God would be able to at least show up in person and say so, even if our minds are too puny to understand the plan itself. But no. God, if he/she/it exists, can’t even be bothered to show up and say it’s okay. So why worship a being like that?