Archive for the “General” Category

Posts of a general nature

The Hartford Courant ran a story recently on a restaurant not far from where I live. The building dates back to Revolutionary times (1780, I believe). For years I’ve heard stories about it being haunted. But now the Courant proudly declares — get this! — that the building is known to be haunted (cached version):

The ghost of Abigail Pettibone is known to haunt the upstairs of the locally famous Pettibone’s Tavern, which dates from the 18th century.

As I said, I’ve heard stories all my life, about that place. Rumors that the building was haunted. Tales about the ghost that lurks there. Assumptions about why she lingers there. And so on.

But until I read this, I had not realized that it was known to have been haunted. As in, certain that it’s haunted, or proven to be haunted.

This is interesting. I must have missed something, because a demonstrable haunting would have made the news — and much further away than just my part of Connecticut.

Sorry, but the reporter is incorrect. The haunting of Pettibone’s Taven is not “known.” It may be “assumed” to be haunted, or “claimed” to be haunted … but it is most certainly not “known” to be haunted.

If it were, I’d say someone ought to apply to the James Randi Paranormal Challenge and make a cool million bucks before the prize runs out next year!

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Most religions have symbols that can be used to denote them. Christianity has the cross, Judaism a star of David, Hinduism the “om” syllable in Devanagari, Sikhism has its khanda, and so on. The various kinds of freethought (Atheism, Agnosticism, etc.) don’t really have a symbol, however. I encountered this problem in creating this site; it would have been nice to offer a nice distinct logo or even a favicon, but nothing really worked.

This is not something that hasn’t received attention over the years, and various groups have adopted their own logos, but none has really gained acceptance as an overall symbol.

But PeterM at the Effing the Ineffable blog has an interesting proposal:

The magnifying glass. Simply a circle and a stick. It can be drawn roughly or precisely, it can be incorporated into other designs, or it can be rendered in three dimensions – as jewellery, for instance, or sculpture.

The magnifying glass (we could refer to it as the rationalist lens) represents rational enquiry, scientific investigation and curiosity about the natural world. Like the Christian fish, it’s easy to reproduce in two or three dimensions, formally or informally. It can be executed as calligraphy, typography or jewellery. It’s simple to remember and easy to explain. And, if you’re of a subversive turn of mind or otherwise need to conceal your affiliations, it makes (like the fish in its day) an excellent piece of clandestine graffiti.

It’s definitely worth consideration! Think about it!

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Has the Discovery Channel become the Religion Channel?

Tonight I saw listed as airing on Discovery Channel a show called Noah’s Ark: The True Story. Folks, there is absolutely nothing “true” about Noah’s Ark. There never was a global flood, there was no ark that contained two of every species on earth, humanity was not saved and preserved by 8 people led by the righteous Noah. It never happened. Nothing about the story is true. Not one speck. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nichts. Nijako.

Of course, the Hebrew scribes who wrote about “Noah” in the 6th or 5th century BCE did not really make the story up, as might be claimed given the story’s ahistorical nature. They actually had a source, that being a story that had been told in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) for perhaps millennia already. The best-attested prior version of this story is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh; we know it from 7th century BCE tablets which in turn were based on legends dating back as far as the 14th century BCE, and were written in Akkadian, the language of Babylon (once ruled by the famous Hammurabi). The flood tale in Gilgamesh is a story-within-a-story, told by the man who survived the flood, named Utnapishtim. But even the ancient Babylonians didn’t make up their flood story … they, too, had a source, which we know from a few fragments in the Sumerian language, as well as mentions of the tale from Greek authors who heard it in classical times. Its hero is Ziusudra, priest-king of the city of Shuruppak.

Nothing about the Noah-Flood story as found in Genesis is a “historical” record. It was, rather, a very old legend even in the Hebrews’ time, which their priesthood used for its metaphorical value — and we have every reason to suppose that previous versions of the story, as told among the Babylonians and Sumerians before them, also had been used for its metaphorical value.

Humanity desperately needs to get over its compulsion to confuse these morality-tales with actual history — because they are not history, they never were intended to be history, and they never will become history, no matter how ardently anyone looks for the Ark. It’s a story, nothing more. Just a story.

We certainly do not need the Discovery Channel — known for its science content, including the excellent show Mythbusters — to provide us with documentaries pretending to tell us “the True Story” about something that never fucking happened!

If you wish to believe that Noah existed, that YHVH saved him and his family from ruin; that he, his wife, his sons, and all their wives gathered aboard an ark, along with two of every animal on earth; and together they all survived a global flood lasting 40 days — well, you go right ahead. Just don’t expect me to accept it as true, and for cryin’ out loud, stop telling everyone else that they should, too, just because you do! Your belief, no matter how deep or sincere, does not equate with veracity. It just doesn’t.

And we sure as hell don’t need television channels usually dedicated to scientific content, to be peddling religion, of all things!

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I continue to be amazed by efforts to merge religion and science. Of course, one expects religionists to attempt to bring science into the fold of religion — being religionists, they don’t know any better — but over the past couple of years, scientists have attempted to encompass religion within their own realm. Scientific American recently published an article about one of the latest of these efforts:

Sacred Science: Using Faith to Explain Anomalies in Physics

In Stuart Kauffman’s emergent universe, reductionism is not wrong so much as incomplete. It has done much of the heavy lifting in the history of science, but reductionism cannot explain a host of as yet unsolved mysteries, such as the origin of life, the biosphere, consciousness, evolution, ethics and economics.

It has become fashionable over the past few years to whine and complain about “reductionism,” or science’s tendency to break things down to minimal bites so as to analyze them specifically. While reductionism has its faults, and does not in fact explain many of the things cited in this quotation, it remains largely a virtue, because until reductionism became common, we did not really understand the universe very well. Physics advanced during the Enlightenment when Kepler and Newton (among others) examined the motions of celestial objects specifically and in isolation. Without their reductionism there would have been no Principia Mathematica, probably no calculus, and very little technological advance. Complaints that “reductionism” goes too far, also fails to account for the fact that scientists engaging in reductionist analyses generally know and acknowledge that they are looking specifically at isolated components of systems; they are not confusing the part with the whole and are up-front about their analytical approach. Critics’ claims that they do confuse the part with the whole, are dishonest and misrepresent scientists.

A good working definition of “science” is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment” (courtesy of Compact Oxford English Dictionary). Nothing about this definition has the slightest thing to do with religion or with any metaphysical notions at all. It deals solely with “the physical and natural world” and not with “emergent entities” or whatever euphemism someone might come up with for “God.” Science began working when it branched away from religion and stopped meddling in the metaphysical. To twist it back around to embracing metaphysics, will serve no one and only make science non-functional.

The desire to “explain” things at all costs, must be resisted. Refashioning science so as to embrace metaphysics, is not the way to explain these things. It may well be that (reductionist) science will explain those things one day … but just not now, this moment, immediately. Impatience it not a virtue.

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People often ask me what harm there is in believing in psychics. They can offer comfort, it’s often said. Mediums who claim to speak to the dead, for example, can reassure the bereaved, regardless of whether or not they are actually in touch with “the Other Side,” so why worry about it? Unfortunately, faith in the power of psychics is not harmless, as at least one Canadian mother and daughter can attest:

Psychic’s vision sets off sex-abuse probe

A Barrie mother of an autistic girl is considering legal action against her local school board after a psychic’s prediction to a special educational assistant sparked a sexual abuse report to the Children’s Aid Society.

“I’m in shock,” said Colleen Leduc, 38. “They reported me to Children’s Aid because of a psychic. Can you imagine?”

It seems an educational assistant at Victoria Leduc’s school had visited a psychic. The psychic told the EA that a child she works with whose name begins with “V” was being sexually abused. School officials are citing “zero-tolerance” policies as the reason the report of abuse was submitted to CAS … but I wasn’t aware that the ambiguous ramblings of a psychic constituted a sufficient trigger. The fact is that the reason for this is not “zero-tolerance,” but the deluded credulity of an EA and school officials who actually considered this “tip” enough of a reason to call in the authorities.

Thankfully, in this case, CAS quickly dismissed the case and all is now well … but it might easily have blown up into a serious matter and caused a lot of trouble and expense. Ms Leduc is still waiting for an apology from the hypercredulous EA and school officials, and offered this amusing quip:

She can only assume that the closing of the file by CAS ends the school’s concerns, said Ms. Leduc.

“Unless they take out a Ouija board and decide to do something else. They might want to take out a Ouija board or hold a seance, I’m not sure.”

Hopefully those involved will mature to the point where they can find it in themselves to say “I’m sorry” to this family … but somehow I doubt it.

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A lot of people who know that occidental religions, with their emphasis on “faith,” can be detrimental, see eastern religions as being superior and not vulnerable to the same abuses. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Hinduism, the dharmic religion that dominates India, has a caste system, which until the middle of the 20th century was strongly observed (and still is, in most places). Indian society is made up of a number of castes, the bottom two of which, known together as the Dalit or untouchables, were once so reviled that they could be punished merely for allowing their shadow to fall on someone of a higher caste. Over the last three millennia or more of Hindu dominance over India, the dalit have been subjected to harassed, ostracized, beaten, and even killed. Given India’s high population and the long history of caste-based abuse, it’s quite likely that much more human misery has been inflicted on humanity via this, than by all the abuses of occidental religion (e.g. the Inquisitions, the Crusades, etc.) combined.

The reason for the emergence of a caste system in India — and the reason that many cling to it still, in spite of civil-rights laws which have been in place since India’s independence — is that Hinduism has reincarnation at its core. People are born into social strata, and thus assigned their lifetime’s dharma, according to their past actions or karma. This actually leads some Hindus (though certainly not all!) to believe that the Dalit actually deserve to be treated like animals (or worse than animals) … because of the fact that they were born Dalit! Had their karma been better they would not have been born so low on the social ladder. What’s more, it is actually necessary to treat them poorly, since if they are not, their dharma will not be fulfilled and they will not ascend higher in their next lifetimes.

Reforms in India meant to improve the lot of Dalit have been met with resistance by large swaths of Indian society; despite their civil rights, the Dalit are still widely harassed.

A recent honor killing brings this point home (WebCite cached article):

Five armed men burst into the small room and courtyard at dawn, just as 21-year-old, 22-week pregnant, Sunita was drying her face on a towel.They punched and kicked her stomach as she called out for her sleeping boyfriend “Jassa,” 22-year-old Jasbir Singh, witnesses said. When he woke, both were dragged into waiting cars, driven away and strangled.

Their bodies, half-stripped, were laid out on the dirt outside Sunita’s father’s house for all to see, a sign that the family’s “honor” had been restored by her cold-blooded murder.

A week later, the village of Balla, just a couple of hours drive from India’s capital New Delhi, stands united behind the act, proud, defiant almost to a man.

Among the Jat caste of the conservative northern state of Haryana, it is taboo for a man and woman of the same village to marry. Although the couple were not related, they were seen in this deeply traditional society as brother and sister.

“From society’s point of view, this is a very good thing,” said 62-year-old farmer Balwan Arya, sitting smoking a hookah in the shade of a tree in a square with other elders from the village council or panchayat. “We have removed the blot.”

If that doesn’t make your blood run cold, I don’t know what will!

Those of us in the western world should not operate under the illusion that the evils of religion and its attendant intolerance are limited only to extreme Christianity or Islam. There is brutal intolerance elsewhere, too, even in the eastern religions that so many in the western world think of as peaceful. Yes, India was the home of famously non-violent Mahatma Gandhi, but he is the exception it seems, not the rule.

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Fitna (the movie)By now most everyone has heard about the short film, Fitna (“strife” in Arabic) by Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders. No doubt you have also heard that it was first available on the Internet video repository site, LiveLeak, then yanked … because of death threats against LiveLeak staff. LiveLeak restored it after taking security precautions; view it here.

I find it an interesting film, although most of the content it conveys, i.e. the calls to violence in the name of al-Lah and Islam found in the Qur’an, is actually old news. The film dramatically overlays these Qur’an quotations — as well as calls for violence in Islam’s name by Islamist-extremist terrorists — with footage of real terrorist acts perpetrated by real Muslims who really believe in these extreme interpretations of Islam and the Qur’an.

Of course, this film has aroused the ire of Muslims around the world, as happened previously with the Mohammed cartoons published by Wilders’ countrymen a couple years ago.

This current reaction to Fitna, now, has exactly the same impetus as the cartoon-controversy in 2006: Muslim immaturity and unwillingness to accept that anyone might criticize their religion.

Yes, I said immaturity. And I meant it. No other word describes it. To be incensed — to the point of violence — that someone does not believe what one believes, can only be called “immaturity.”

A global society such as the one we live in, cannot afford this kind of immaturity. Muslims are simply going to have to accept that there are other people in the world who do not like their religion. No religion — in fact, no ideology or package of beliefs of any sort — is entitled never to be analyzed or critiqued. To expect never to be criticized is irrational and juvenile. Period.

Anyone care to hazard a guess when Islam will collectively grow up and accept that there are people like Wilders who refuse to “surrender” (that is, after all, what islam means in Arabic) to their god al-Lah?

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