Archive for August, 2008

A museum in Italy has put on display a fairly silly, cartoonish even, sculpture depicting a frog being crucified. In response, Pope Benedict XVI has called for it to be taken down and the regional governor went on a hunger strike in protest (here’s a report from the (UK) Telegraph):

The board of the Museion museum in the northern city of Bolzano has refused to take down the modern art piece which the Vatican has condemned as blasphemous. …

The sculpture called “Zuerst die Füsse,” meaning Feet First, depicts a frog of about four feet high nailed to a brown cross holding a beer mug in one outstretched hand and an egg in another. …

Museum staff said the artist, who died in 1997, considered the sculpture a self-portrait representing human anguish.

However, the German Pope did not agree and the Vatican wrote a letter to the regional government, whose President, Franz Pahl, went on hunger strike in opposition to the frog and had to be taken to hospital.

The Vatican’s letter said the amphibian “wounded the religious sentiments of so many people who see in the cross the symbol of God’s love.”

These two really need to get over themselves. The sculpture is, as I said, cartoonish-looking. I’m no art critic, so I have a hard time considering it a wonderful representation of the human condition … but come on, the thing is just too goofy-looking to take seriously! One would think the world has managed to get over depictions and mentions of crucifixions. After all, the controversy over The Ballad Of John And Yoko happened a little less than 40 years ago … haven’t people grown up since then?

In case you don’t remember or are too young, this Lennon tune from 1969 — which was banned in some places — included these lyrics:

Christ, you know it ain’t easy
You know how hard it can be
The way things are going
They’re gonna crucify me.

At any rate, I’m not aware of any entitlement for believers never to be offended, not even in Italy, homeland of the Roman Catholic Church. Hopefully the Holy Father will grow up and see this whimsical little frog as just that — too whimsical to be worthy of any of his time.

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By now you probably have heard about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s remarks this Sunday on the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings about when life begins. I won’t even begin to address the idiocy of a member of Congress making Catholic doctrinal declarations. I will say, however, that she had a valid point. As the Washington Post reports:

On the news show on Sunday, Pelosi (D-Calif.), a Catholic who supports abortion rights, said that the question of when life begins has been a subject of controversy in the church and that over the centuries, “the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition.”

On this at least, she is technically correct, and demonstrably so. Even though the RC Church likes to tell everyone that its position — that life begins at conception — has never changed in all of Christian history, this is simply historical revisionism. In fact, the current RC doctrine is only as old as Apostolicae sedis, a bull issued by Pope Pius IX in 1869. Prior to that, positions had varied considerably, from Church doctor to Church doctor, and over time.

To set the stage: Prior to Christianity, one of the most common views was that ensoulment occurred only at the point where the fetus physically resembled a human being (of course, this an indefinite boundary and can be subjective; moreover Aristotle, one proponent of this view, complicated it by saying that males were ensouled at 40 days and females at 80). Some of the Church Fathers, such as Tertullian (late 2nd century) asserted that ensoulment occurred at conception, and some others agreed with him. St Augustine, however, veered back toward the classical Greek view, and it became common after him to consider ensoulment as occurring at “quickening” — the moment when fetal movement is first noticed. The “ensoulment at quickening” was confirmed by many, including Pope Innocent III and St Thomas Aquinas.

Although this idea vacillated a bit, it was not until the 19th century that RC doctrine was officially changed to what it is now.

The Catholic Church frequently claims its doctrines are eternal, or ancient, when they are not; for instance, celibacy for priests and matrimony as a sacrament are both late-medieval notions and unknown for over half its existence. So it’s not unusual for the Church to attempt revising history — it’s reflexive for them. As it turns out, historically the most common Roman Catholic doctrine is not the modern “conception ensoulment,” but the “quickening ensoulment.”

For more information on the history of ensoulment doctrine in Christianity, I suggest this page on the Religious Tolerance Web site.

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It’s fashionable these days to knock conventional medicine (also known by the adjectives “western,” “occidental,” or “allopathic” — I think a better description is “evidence-based”). People love to spout tired canards like “it doesn’t treat the whole person,” as if that makes any sense … ever seen a conventional doctor cure a broken leg by amputating it, knitting the bone together, then reattaching it? “Alternative” medicine is supposed to be “better” because it’s “ancient,” as if age were a credential. It’s not … infections were deadly, even if treated with poultices, blood-letting, or other “ancient” remedies, for millennia until conventional medicine discovered antibiotics. And people love to whine about how toxic pharmaceuticals are, how the side-effects are so horrible, etc.

Well, I’ve got news for some of you. A lot of those “natural” medicines are just as dangerous, if not moreso! In particular, ayurvedic remedies have been found to be toxic:

Ayurvedic medicines — herbal mixtures dating back thousands of years in India and increasingly popular in the West — are frequently contaminated with lead, mercury or arsenic, according to a study published today.

A fifth of the nearly 200 concoctions tested contained levels of the toxic metals that, if taken at the maximum recommended doses, would surpass California’s safety guidelines.

Dr. Robert Saper, a Boston University professor of family medicine who led the study, said the findings should spur the Food and Drug Administration to start clamping down on the largely unregulated world of pills, herbs and powders classified as dietary supplements.

“It shouldn’t be me trying to figure this out,” Saper said.

Ayurveda is a traditional Indian practice that takes a holistic approach to wellness, employing herbal medicine, meditation and exercise to promote good health. It exists alongside modern medicine in India, with its own network of clinics, hospitals and colleges serving hundreds of millions of patients.

It has spread to the U.S. and Europe with the migration of South Asians around the world and been popularized by figures such as bestselling author Deepak Chopra.

Pardon me if I pass on these wonderfully natural, “holistic” medicines. And remember … poison ivy is “all natural” too, but I doubt you’d want to rub it on a wound.

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In northern India there’s a bit of a contest underway between two “religions of peace” in Orissa state. On the one side there’s Christianity, of “turn the other cheek” fame (cf Mt 5:38-42 & Lk 6:27:31), and on the other hand we have Hinduism, which gave us Mahatma Gandhi, who famously used passive resistance to force the British Empire out of India. These two famously peaceful factions are engaged in a bloody struggle to determine which is the truly peaceful religion:

Authorities issued shoot-at-sight orders and police staged marches Wednesday in Orissa’s Kandhamal District, the region worst-hit by violence between Hindus and Christians.

Kandhamal is a primarily tribal area, where Christian missionaries have worked for decades. Almost 20 percent of the district’s people are Christians.

The clashes erupted after the killing of a Hindu leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four others on Saturday by unidentified armed men. The Hindu leader had been leading a drive to reconvert local residents from Christianity to Hinduism.

Since then, angry Hindu mobs have attacked and damaged churches, Christian homes and an orphanage. Some of the victims were burned to death, when rioters set fire to their homes.

Police say rival groups from both communities have attacked each other with axes, sticks and guns, despite a curfew. New clashes occurred Wednesday.

What a marvelous way to celebrate the non-violence inherent in both these ancient religions.

Really, need I say any more?

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Lying is common in American politics. Both political parties do it, and they do it often. Political lies are especially common on the Internet, where emails and blog entries are frequently inaccurate or outright fabrications. As a committed skeptic I usually take politicians’ claims with a healthy grain of salt (hmm … not a “grain” exactly … maybe “a large truckload”!), and routinely ignore political emails telling me about the latest outrage allegedly committed by some politician or other.

Fortunately there are now tools available to set the record straight — particularly FactCheck.Org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. They claim to be non-partisan and, so far as I can tell, they are — just in the past week they’ve ruled as non-factual claims made by both the major candidates.

They have a special page devoted to political emails which — in almost all cases — are wrong or deceitful:

I’ve noticed that chain e-mails, particularly those about politics, have a lot of things in common: urgent and frightening messages; spelling errors; a tendency to blame mainstream media for not telling the real story; and false, misleading, utterly bogus, and completely off-base claims.

If there was ever a case where readers should apply a guilty-until-proven-innocent standard, this is it. We at ask the public to be skeptical about politicians’ claims. With these e-mails, outright cynicism is justified. Assume all such messages are wrong, and you’ll be right most of the time.

So do yourself, and the rest of the planet, a favor and stop forwarding these outrages to everyone you know! Check them out first and discover for yourself that they’re nothing but bullshit.

Unfortunately this is advice that few Americans are willing to take, which FactCheck concedes:

It seems that no matter the facts, the desire to believe some of this stuff is just too strong.

Americans choose to believe the lies, because they want to believe the lies, and they don’t want to find out they’re not true. This is a pretty immature reason for propagating falsehood, but there you are.

If for some reason FactCheck doesn’t fill the bill for you, try PolitiFact (a service of the St Petersburg Times). Snopes is also a good place to get tall tales (not only of the political sort) checked out, too.

Update: If you must know my political and ideological affiliation, please understand that I have none. I am neither Republican nor Democrat, neither Rightist nor Leftist. Rather, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool tried-&-true Cynicalist who shuns all ideologies of every sort. Many of you will not believe that, but too bad — it’s still the truth.

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One of the examples of “the media being the message” is the annual release of the Farmers’ Almanac predictions of the coming winter. The mass media treat this as a story worthy of being reported. This is in spite of the fact that the Almanac’s predictions are — in the words of magician-comedians Penn & Teller — bullshit. Yet like so many other outlets, the Hartford Courant dutifully and helpfully informs us:

People worried about the high cost of keeping warm this winter will draw little comfort from the Farmers’ Almanac, which predicts below-average temperatures for most of the U.S.

“Numb’s the word,” says the 192-year-old publication, which claims an accuracy rate of 80 to 85 percent for its forecasts that are prepared two years in advance.

The almanac’s 2009 edition, which goes on sale Tuesday, says at least two-thirds of the country can expect colder-than-average temperatures this winter, with only the Far West and Southeast in line for near-normal readings.

Unfortunately the people who publish the Almanac either cannot or will not divulge their prediction method. But fortunately, we can test their predictions’ accuracy … and they fail. Meteorologists have taken on the Farmers’ Almanac (and the similarly-named and similarly-themed Old Farmer’s Almanac, which is in the same business of spewing baseless weather predictions) and have found them to be — well — unimpressive might be the kindest assessment.

Some of their predictions are too vague to be testable … others have been shown to be downright wrong. The bottom line is that the Almanac’s claim of 80 to 85 percent accuracy is exactly and only that — a claim. They can claim to be able to flap their arms and fly to the moon, too, but that wouldn’t be any more correct.

Oh, and that the Almanac has been in print for so many years, also does not give it veracity. Lots of things are old but that doesn’t make them right.

The Courant article obligingly consults an NOAA meteorologist on the matter, who also obligingly

wouldn’t comment specifically on the almanac’s ability to forecast the weather two years from now, but said it’s generally impossible to come up with accurate forecasts more than a week in advance.

It would have been nice if the NOAA scientist had been a little more forceful and stated the truth more clearly and succinctly: “The Almanac is bullshit!” But I guess someone in government can’t afford to be undiplomatic. The Courant wraps up its advertisement for story on the Almanac by giving it a fashionable “green” endorsement:

If there’s a theme to this year’s almanac, it’s environmental awareness, frugality and living a sustainable life. There are articles on water conservation, gas-sipping motor scooters, natural cures and preventions for colds and other illnesses, and on growing food without a yard.

Sorry but I don’t buy bullshit, even if it meets the politically-correct standard of being “green.”

Update: A lot of folks have checked in on this post of late, but it’s not my only one on the subject of the Almanac‘s B.S. I’ve had more to say since, including citations of how and why meteorologists — i.e. people who’ve actually studied the science of weather, as opposed to whoever cranks out the two Almanacs — say these so-called “predictions” are B.S. I’m baffled by how the mass media still continue to take the Almanacs seriously, when in truth, they have no reason to do so.

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At long last, there is at least one national voice that’s as fed up as I am over the way the presidential candidates are bowing and scraping at the altar of American Hyperreligiosity. Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker offers this, in the wake of Pastor Rick Warren’s attempt to abscond with the 2008 election in the name of rabid Christian evangelicals:

At the risk of heresy, let it be said that setting up the two presidential candidates for religious interrogation by an evangelical minister — no matter how beloved — is supremely wrong.

It is also un-American. …

For the past several days, since mega-pastor Rick Warren interviewed Barack Obama and John McCain at his Saddleback Church, most political debate has focused on who won. …

The winner, of course, was Warren, who has managed to position himself as political arbiter in a nation founded on the separation of church and state.

The loser was America.

Parker includes some kindly comments about Warren and understates his obvious theocratic bent, as if she doesn’t want to be too harsh on him … I’d have preferred she call him what he is: A transparent opportunist trying to leverage this election so as to give evangelicals even more political power than they already have, regardless of who wins. Nevertheless, she wraps up with an excellent point:

For the moment, let’s set aside our curiosity about what Jesus might do in a given circumstance and wonder what our Founding Fathers would have done at Saddleback Church. What would have happened to Thomas Jefferson if he had responded as he wrote in 1781:

“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Would the crowd at Saddleback have applauded and nodded through that one? Doubtful.

By today’s new standard of pulpits in the public square, Jefferson — the great advocate for religious freedom in America — would have lost.

It’s ironic, of course, that the Religious Right™ generally claims to be obedient to the Founding Fathers and their “intent” — even though the Founding Fathers were not evangelicals like themselves … mostly because modern Protestant evangelical Christianity didn’t exist in the late 18th century, and also because most of the Founding Fathers were actually freethinkers, not religionists.

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