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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Protecting Religion From Itself

As much as I love to poke fun at religion, I think it is important to recognize that not all religious people are "the enemy" (besides, I consider myself more Pro-Reality than Anti-Religion). We can argue the exact numbers, but there is a sizeable percentage of theists in this country who do not wish to turn our government into a theocracy, though they may not be as vigilant about the separation of church and state as they should be. One such theist who is on the right side of the battle happens to be a reverend in the United Church of Christ and also the executive director of one of the most prominent church/state organizations in the country. I am of course referring to the Rev. Barry Lynn and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. And I have just finished reading his new book "Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom".

There have of course been many books written about church/state separation and how the encroaching religious influence into government is bad for government. And while Lynn makes this argument throughout the book, he spends just as much time, if not more, exposing the other victim of this entanglement: government support for religion is bad for religion. I have been harping on this point for years and I think it may be more effective in convincing theists that they should be supporting the wall of separation. Some examples Lynn uses to get this point across:

"'In God We Trust' on the money has been challenged in court at least twice. In both cases, the federal courts declared use of the phrase "ceremonial" and held that it is not really religious. Phrases like this, courts have said, are merely examples of "ceremonial deism," and they lose their religious significance through constant use over time." (p 112)

"The ceremonial use of religion by the state is among the cheapest examples of empty spirituality available. As time passes, it descends to the level of mere ritual--something that must be done, but not ever thought about. Virtually every politician in America now ends his or her speeches with "God Bless America." Do they say this because they truly want God to bless the nation or because it is expected, because no other closing is seen as acceptable? If it's the latter, and I believe it is, we are simply going through the motions." (p 113)

"What happens when the federal government or the state comes in with a huge grant? Why should congregants dig deeper and go the extra mile if the government is standing by with a check? What's more fulfilling and personally satisfying to a congregation--energizing everyone to work side by side to raise money, build an addition, and open and stock a food pantry or having the church secretary fill out and mail a grant application to the Department of Health and Human Services?" (p 143)

"People often ask me, when I'm out giving a speech, why religion is on the decline in many other Western nations. I really do believe it is because the churches in those countries got too close to the state. As religious groups got more and more of their needs met by government sources, the people in pews grew alienated. Why should they give more on Sunday if they already paid taxes to support religion? Gradually the sense of alienation grew. If all people are asked to do is join in ritual and recite creeds over and over, if they are not drawn more fully into the life of a congregation, they will soon see little need to keep showing up on Sunday morning. So they begin to stay home." (pp 143-144)

"I'm a big fan of interfaith initiatives. If several small or medium-sized churches pool their resources, they can achieve more than they would acting individually and avoid unnecessary duplication of services. These projects also build interfaith cooperation and promote understanding among denominations. We need more of that in times like these. Ironically, the bush faith-based initiative does just the opposite: it actively pits religious groups against one another and against providers in the secular community for a shrinking slice of the social service funding pie." (p 145)

Basically, Lynn demonstrates that government involvement in religion turns religion into a ceremonial triviality, causes followers to become cheap and lazy, and ultimately alienates people from the church. If we atheists were as "evil" as they make us out to be, we would probably give up the fight for separation and let them have their way, knowing that religion would eventually cease to be a major influence in this country, making the US (and most likely the world) a better place for future generations. Maybe we just aren't that far-sighted.

While Lynn does address the dangers of religious influence on government (e.g. abstinence-only education, teaching creationism as science, anti-gay legislation), this book was also written for another purpose, one I feel isn't publicized enough by the secular community--to convince the average church-going American that it is in their, and their religion's best interest to support the separation of church and state. The assault on the wall of separation is an assault on religion itself. If you think about it, this is a win-win situation for us--not only are we protecting everyone's right to religious freedom but we can also argue that we are protecting religion itself from becoming obsolete. What theist can argue with that one?
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Saturday, October 28, 2006

An Evening with Richard Dawkins

I was fortunate enough to get to see Richard Dawkins last night here in Portland. Originally, he was scheduled to speak at our local Powell's book store, but since that venue can hold only 300 people, they decided to move it to a hotel ballroom a few blocks away, which was a good decision since by my estimate there were easily over 700 people in attendance.

The event got off to a good start even before Dawkins took the microphone. Before the official introduction, a bookstore employee came up front to do a little advertising for a few upcoming readings. It just so happens that on Monday, Oct 30th, Deepak Chopra will be in town to discuss his new book "Life after Death: The Burden of Proof". Needless to say, we all had a good laugh, including Dawkins who was waiting just off to the side.

Dawkins spent the first 30 minutes or so reading selected passages from his book. He is a very eloquent speaker and although I had just finished reading the first two chapters of his book while waiting for the event to begin, hearing them again from Dawkin's own voice made them even more impressive. Dawkins book is quite funny in places, and he highlighted many of those parts in his readings:

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolvent bully." (p 31)

Not usually a run of words you would associate with humor, but Dawkins was able to bring the house down with laughter and applause.

"The Catholic Community Forum helpfully lists 5,120 saints, together with their areas of expertise, which include abdominal pains, abuse victims, anorexia, arms dealers, blacksmiths, broken bones, bomb technicians and bowel disorders, to venture no further than the Bs. And we musn't forget the four Choirs of Angelic Hosts, arrayed in nine orders: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels and just plain old Angels, including our closest friends, the ever-watchful Guardian Angels. What impresses me about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along." (p 35)

"Pope John Paul II created more saints than all his predecessors of the past several centuries put together, and he had a special affinity with the Virgin Mary. His polytheistic hankerings were dramatically demonstrated in 1981 when he suffered an assassination attempt in Rome, and attributed his survival to intervention by Our Lady of Fatima: 'A maternal hand guided the bullet'. One cannot help but wonder why she didn't guide it to miss him altogether." (p 35)

Even when he wasn't reading directly from his book he was funny. After finishing up selected passages from chapter 2, he continued (and I'm paraphrasing here):

"And on to Chapter 3, which is entitled Arguments for God's Existence ... (pause for dramatic effect) ... And now on to Chapter 4 ..."

"God ordered Abraham to make a burnt offering of his longed-for son. Abraham built an altar, put firewood upon it, and trussed Isaac up on top of the wood. His murdering knife was already in his hand when an angel dramatically intervened with the news of a last-minute change of plan: God was only joking afterall, 'tempting' Abraham, and testing his faith. A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: 'I was only obeying orders'." (p 242)

"The temptation to sexual infidelity is readily understandable even to those who do not succumb, and it is a staple of fiction and drama, from Shakespeare to bedroom farce. But the apparently irresistible temptation to whore with foreign gods is something we moderns find harder to empathize with. To my naïve eyes, 'Thou shalt have no other gods but me' would seem an easy enough commandment to keep: a doddle, one might think, compared with 'Thou shalt not covet my neighbour's wife'. Or her ass." (pp 243-244)

Of course it wasn't all "shits and giggles" (to quote another famous British gent). Dawkins did leave some lasting impressions on the audience (this one is a little long, but made quite an impact):

"Tamarin [an Israeli psychologist] presented to more than a thousand Israeli schoolchildren, aged between eight and fourteen, the account of the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua:

Joshua said to the people, 'Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction...But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.'...Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and assess, with the edge of the sword...And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.

Tamarin then asked the children a simple moral question: 'Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted righty or not?' They had to choose between A (total approval), B (partial approval) and C (total disapproval). The results were polarized: 66 per cent gave total approval and 26 per cent gave total dissaproval, with rather fewer (8 per cent) in the middle with partial approval. Here are three typical answers from the total approval (A) group:

In my opinion Joshua and the Sons of Israel acted well, and here are the reasons: God promised them this land, and gave them permission to conquer. If they would not have acted in this manner or killed anyone, then there would be the danger that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the Goyim.

In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and learn their bad ways.

Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth." (pp 255-256)

Continuing on a little further:

"Tamarin ran a fascinating control group in his experiment. A different group of 168 Israeli children were given the same text from the book of Joshua, but with Joshua's own name replaced by 'General Lin' and 'Israel' replaced by 'a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago'. Now the experiment gave opposite results. Only 7 per cent approved. In other words, when their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of children agreed with the moral judgements that most modern humans would share. Joshua's action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it." (p 257)

After the reading, Dawkins opened up the event to questioning. Some of the questions were merely people relating their own deconversion stories or just thanking Dawkins for coming to Portland. And then there are always a few people whom it seems want to try and impress the rest of us with their superior intellect by cramming as many syllables into a word as possible or quoting from their doctoral thesis. Even Dawkins was confused by a few of their questions and had to ask them to elaborate before finally trying his best to be polite and give an answer that at least was slighty relevant to whatever it was they were attempting to ask. We did not have any theists come up to the mic and try to argue with Dawkins, but that's not too surprising seeing that the NorthWest, and particularly Portland, has one of the largest non-believer percentages in the country.

WARNING: Extreme ranting of opinion ahead. Of course, I'm not talking about you!

To be honest, I often find the question and answer period to be a little boring, especially in such large groups. Not boring in the sense that Dawkins is a boring speaker but rather boring in the questions asked. Professional interviewers (good ones at least) know how to ask questions which elicit interesting answers that are relevant to the discussion at hand. The general public unfortunately is not quite as good at it and it seems that sometimes the worst of them are drawn to these types of events. The next time, before you ask a question before 700 people, ask yourself "Are the other 699 people in the audience even going to care or understand what I am about to ask?" And further more, your question should actually have an actual question in it. If you can't put a question mark at the end of your sentence (or paragraph as is usually the case), then it is not a question.

OK, done with that. Now for some interesting things that I did remember from the Q & A. In response to someone asking if he had any thoughts as to why Europe was less religious than the US, Dawkins hit the nail on the head as far as I'm concerned. He said that although people have suggested several theories to him, he felt the best explanation was the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state. Separation creates a free-market of religions that compete for your brain, soul, and money, which causes them to work harder and thus they must try to make religion more enticing. In contrast, religion has become boring in Europe because it has come to depend on the State for support. This is "the only good reason I've heard for NOT abolishing the Church of England."

ATTENTION Religious Right theocrats and anyone else who still doesn't get it: Read the above again. The separation of church and state is the only thing keeping you from assimilation with the secular State apparatus you so vehemently oppose. You all should be on the front lines in the battle to protect the First Amendment. Just let me know where I can send those ACLU reg forms.

Someone asked what his plans were for the future. Though he didn't have specifics, Dawkins did say that he would like to write a children's book, maybe a child's version of The Ancestor's Tale. Personally, I think the letter to his daughter at the end of A Devil's Chaplain would make great reading for an older child. On a related note, while he was signing my book, I asked him if he was going to start writing articles for Free Inquiry magazine again and he said yes. Also, somebody asked him when we were going to see a scientific TV series from him similar to Sagan's Cosmos (which got a big round of encouraging applause). He said he would be more than happy to do it but that the decision wasn't up to him, it was up to the producers with the money.

Another person asked Dawkins for advice on how to approach his God-fearing mother who continues to insist that he is going to burn in Hell since he lost his religion. Dawkins explained that sometimes you can't always reason with the unreasonable but the only approach he recommends is through logic and reason. And then he suggested that the young man could start by getting his mother his book for Christmas (tongue-in-cheek of course, and it got a good laugh as well).

Overall, it was a very entertaining evening and I am still slighty awestruck to have been in the midst of such a great thinker. I actually would have preferred a smaller venue, because it would have been more intimate and we might have had a little more time to chat with him during the signing. But I completely understand the need to accomodate more people and did not leave disappointed.
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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Religious Right Pussies

A snipet from a recent press release from the Alliance Defense Fund regarding the NJ Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage:

“Legally, marriage is the state’s way of protecting children by ensuring that whenever possible they are raised by their own mother and father,” said Lavy. “Because same-sex couples can’t procreate, this vital state interest is not advanced by handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The court declined to address this issue because the attorney general specifically refused to make the argument.”

So you really think you are "protecting children" by denying gays the right to marriage? Do you think the American public is that stupid? Do you really think we can't see through your constant pandering to the gay agenda? We didn't die fighting for our freedom to protect children (or at least Jesus didn't) so that you can give them away to any Tom, Dick and Harry.

Let me set you straight. Ever notice that a lot of gays used to be married and have kids? Ever notice that some states allow gays to be foster parents or even adopt children? Ever notice that lesbians can have children of their own through artificial insemination? Surely you are aware that gays are teaching our children in our schools? Does gay marriage have anything to do with these issues at all? NO! Denying gays the right to marry will not stop gays from raising children in their homes or teaching them in our schools. It's time you got serious about "protecting children" and start focusing on the real gay issues in this country:

  • To protect children, we need to remove all gay teachers from our schools. Next to parents, teachers are the biggest influence on our children. Even if gay teachers don't discuss their sexuality with their students, gay can still be transmitted subliminally.
  • For the sake of the children, we need to keep homosexuals from adopting or even foster-parenting children. Why would we willingly allow gays to raise children? That's like throwing Christians to the lions.
  • For the well-being of children everywhere, we need to either remove children from households with a gay person or remove the gay person from the household. If one parent is gay, give sole custody to the non-gay parent and put a restraining order on the gay parent. If both parents are gay, put the children under the State's protective custody until a suitable heterosexual married coupled can be found. If an older child is gay, emancipate him/her immediately and remove him/her from the household (what teenager doesn't dream of being free from their parents control anyway?).
  • For the benefit of children everywhere, artificial insemination should be limited to married couples who can vouch for their heterosexuality with either a note from their clergyman or video tape evidence.
  • Due to certain recent events in Congress, it is my opinion that we need to make heterosexuality a requirement to hold office or at the least, deny homosexual congressmen Internet access.
To the anti-gay marriage movement, I say "Stand up for your values" and start addressing the real issue. Stopping gay marriage will do nothing to protect children because gay people will still have access to our children. If you really care about our nation's children, then drop the "marriage" from "Stop Gay Marriage" and start putting your mouth where your privates are.
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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Wedding Bell Blues

Another step forward for gay marriage?

So, from what I can make of it, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that New Jersey doesn't have to allow homosexuals to get married, but if they don't then they need to set up an "appropriate statutory structure" (i.e. civil unions) that basically gives homosexual couples the exact same rights and privileges as heterosexual married couples. Didn't we already go through this once before as a country? I believe the catch phrase was "Separate but Equal", and we decided that it wasn't.

Theoretically, if civil unions and marriage are supposed to give the exact same rights and privileges as marriage, then we are merely dealing with semantics. So because some bigots don't want homosexuals to be "married", the state of New Jersey might go through the whole process of creating civil unions? Here is my suggestion for the upcoming New Jersey statute for civil unions:

Civil Unions: See all applicable marriage statutes, but replace any reference to "man and woman" with "two human beings".

Why do I have a feeling that it won't be so simple?

As I see it, there are two components to marriage: civil (legal) and religious. The civil aspect encompasses all the legal rights and responsibilites you acquire when you are legally married. These are real-world consequences that among other things allow two people to give each other responsibilities for their well-being that they wouldn't want anyone else to make for them. The religious aspect, on the other hand, is strictly between the couple and their god and is not even a requirement for marriage. Thus, because one (civil) applies to all marriage and the other (religion) is completely optional and has no real-world applications, it only makes sense that when we talk about marriage, we are really talking about "civil" marriage, the civil contract of marriage and all applicable laws, rights and responsibilites inherent in that contract.

So, if we already have the "appropriate statutory structure" in place defining a civil contract for two people who want to form a partnership that we call marriage, then why would we need to create a new "civil union" statute? Why doesn't the court recognize this and merely order the state to change existing marriage statutes to get rid of the heterosexual bias? Here is my guess: because the majority of people in this country (granted, they are slowly becoming the minority) still hold onto some form of anti-gay bigotry and a smaller, very vocal and influential minority are trying everything they can do to keep them narrow-minded.

Not all battles can be won in one fell swoop. I guess sometimes, as unfair as it may seem and as much as you might want immediate results, you must settle for a little less up front because your ultimate goal is unfortunately in the hands of a bigotted majority that is resistant to change ("Be grateful for what you can get because it could be worse"). Creating civil unions with the same benefits as marriage would undoubtedly be a great step forward in New Jersey. But ultimately, if the distinction between "marriage" and "civil unions" is endorsed by government, then that implies that there must be something different between the two concepts, and that my friends is discrimination. And since the difference between them is religious, then that is religious discrimination which even the New Jersey Supreme Court would surely not uphold.

It certainly seems that the New Jersey Supreme Court is sympathetic to the gay marriage cause. After all, they did say that the state either needs to allow gay marriage or create civil unions. They didn't rule out gay marriage, they just passed the buck to the legislature. And with all the current "activist judges" threats coming from the Religious Right (the very same vocal and influential minority who hate gays), they probably wanted to avoid the limelight. But at the same time, is it fair to leave discrimination to the whims of the voters?

Here is my theoretical solution: separate the "civil" from the "religious" in marriage.

As far as the government is concerned, when two people get married, they are entering into a civil contract. The religious aspect of marriage is of no concern to government. And if you remove religion from marriage you end up with a civil union (remember, the NJ Supreme Court has determined that the state should be able to create civil unions with the exact same benefits as marriage). So, from now on I propose that whenever two people want to get "married", what they will actually do is enter into a "civil union". This will also be retro-active, so all couples who are currently married will automatically be considered to be in civil unions.

On your tax forms, you won't file as married, you will file as a civil union. When you fill out the next census, your legal status won't be single or married but rather single or in a civil union. This is a purely legal status which reflects the fact that the only concerns government has about your relationship with another person are civil and thus two people enter into a civil contract we call a "civil union". This is the only step needed in order to have all of the benefits we currently associate with marriage. For people who are already married, they need to do nothing as nothing will change for them because civil unions are exactly the same as today's marriage. And of course, because all people are treated equally under the law, civil unions are open to both heterosexuals and homosexuals.

So if civil unions encompass the civil part of what we call marriage, then what about the religious aspect of marriage? That is the great thing about my plan, you can do whatever the hell you want concerning your religious beliefs about marriage because nobody, including government, cares except you and your god(s). If you want to have a church official marry you in a church, go right ahead. If you want to have a pagan ritual around a bonfire, go right ahead. If you prefer a satanic ritual, be my guest. If you want to get married in a mass ceremony with a thousand other Moonies, more power to you. Nobody else cares what you do for your religious beliefs and it is of no concern of government. Your marriage is entirely disassociated from the state. God no longer has to compete with goverment red-tape.

But remember, a religious ceremony in no way carries any legal recognition of a civil union. The only legal way to get the legal benefits that are currently associated with marriage is to enter into a civil union. Yes, you'll still have to fill out the necessary civil union applications just as you fill out marriage applications now. But guess what, the applications are exactly the same, so for the 50% of you who have filled them out before, it should be a piece of cake.

With my plan, everybody wins because everybody is treated exactly the same under the law and religion is freed from the tyranny of the state. And for those of you who can't handle equality, I suggest you find a country a little more to your liking. I hear Afghanistan is trying to rebuild.
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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

5 quick book reviews

I've been reading a lot of books lately. I don't have time to write full length book reviews on each one, so I thought I'd just do quick summaries.

Conservatives Without Conscience by John W. Dean

Excellent book. Demonstrates how the Republican party has been taken over by a bunch of amoral, power-hungry, bigotted, fear-mongering authoritarians and that they plan to continue to destroy our country from the inside. A self-described "Goldwater Republican", Dean is vicious in his attack on today's Republican leaders:

"What has driven this book is the realization that our government has become largely authoritarian. It is run by an array of authoritarian personalities, leaders who display all those traits I have listed -- dominating, opposed to equality, desirous of personal power, amoral, intimidating, and bullying; some are hedonistic, most are vengeful, pitiless, exploitive, manipulative, dishonest, cheaters, prejudiced, mean-spirited, militant, nationalistic, and two-faced. Because of our system of government, these dominators are still confronted with any number of obstacles, fortunately. Yet authoritarians seek to remove those complications whenever they can." (p 183)

I will say that I think Dean lets Bush off the hook just a little. Dean tends to view Bush as merely a dim-witted puppet controlled by Cheney and Rove, more of a follower than an actual leader, which implies that Bush is somewhat a victim of these authoritarians himself. While all of this may be true, I just have a hard time finding even an ounce of sympathy for Bush. But a main thesis in Dean's book is that there are followers (those who score high on the Right-Wing Authoritarian Survey) and there are leaders (those who score high on the Social Dominance Orientation Survey) and then there are those who score high on both ("Double Highs") who are the biggest threat to our country. These Double Highs include Rove and Cheney but not Bush. Since Dean's book focuses mainly on the Double Highs, Bush does not get the scrutiny that Rove and Cheney receive. Whether Bush is merely a follower or leader or both, I guess history will have the final word.

One last thing that I just cannot let slide. Dean writes about the use of fear-mongering:

"Among the most troubling of the authoritarian and radical tactics being employed by Bush and Cheney are their politics of fear. A favorite gambit of Latin American dictators who run sham democracies, fear-mongering has generally been frowned upon by in American politics. Think of modern presidents who have governed our nation -- Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton --- and the various crises they confronted -- the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean war, the cold war, the Cuban missile crisis, the war in Vietnam, Iran's taking of American hostages, the danger to American students in Grenada, Saddams's invasion of Kuwait, the terrorist bombings at the World Trade Center in 1993, and Timothy McVeighs's 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma. None of these presidents resorted to fear in dealing with these situations. None of these presidents made the use of fear a standard procedure or a means of governing (or pursuing office or political goals). To the contrary, all of these presidents sought to avoid preying on the fears of Americans." (p 171)

Wasn't it Reagan who coined the phrase "Evil Empire"? Wasn't it Reagan who warned us that Nicaragua was only a two days drive from Texas? Wasn't the whole premise of the Cold War that the evil atheist Communists were intent on destroying our American way of life? No sir, no fear there. Dean seems to have forgotten that for the majority of the Cold War, Americans were constantly being reminded that we were one Central American Socialist Democracy away from turning Red. My guess is that the Cold War Presidents didn't have to work as hard as Bush does to convince people to be afraid. But that doesn't mean they didn't take advantage of Cold War fear for their own political agendas. Dean of course is a product of the Cold War, so he may have trouble recognizing his generation's own fear-mongering. Such fear may have appeared legitimate, but that doesn't mean it wasn't used to pursue office and political goals.

Destined for Destiny: The Unauthorized Autobiography of George W. Bush

I really wanted to laugh, laugh out loud, while I read this book. It had so much promise. But you can only take so much of a bit before you get tired of it. I liken this book to one of the various movies made for an SNL character who had a few funny idiosyncrasies but really can't carry a 90 minute movie by constantly bobbing your head to the same song. The book is written in the voice of George W Bush. Literally in the voice of George W Bush, with all his tortured usage of the English language, his dim-witted thought process and his own, twisted version of reality. There are some laughs, especially the first few chapters. And the pictures in middle of the book are hilarious. But just as with the real Bush, you will laugh at some of the stupid things he says and does, and then after a while, it just isn't funny anymore because you remember that he is actually our president. And that is ultimately why this book loses its appeal. Even a fictitious book written to mock the President gradually becomes humorless as you realize that the truth is a lot closer to the fiction than you want it to be.

The Worst Person in the World: And 202 Strong Contenders by Keith Olbermann

I love Keith Olbermann. I love Countdown on MSNBC. Olbermann is surely one of the most honest and outspoken media personalities today in the mainstream media. Which is why I regret that I cannot recommend his new book. First, the book is merely a collection of transcripts from his "Worse Person in the World" segment on Countdown. Other than a brief introduction about why he decided to create the "Worse Person in the World" award, there are no extra insights from Olbermann about his awards, it is straight transcription from TV to book. Now, to be fair, if you do not watch the show or watch it infrequently, then most of these awards will be new to you, so this particular criticism does not apply in all cases. But even if you have never seen the show, my second criticism applies to everyone equally: the "Worse Person in the World" segment does not make interesting reading.

I love Keith's "Worse Person in the World" segment. A lot of times, even if I can't watch the whole Countdown, I'll tune in toward the end just to catch the award ceremonies. But what makes the "Worse Person in the World" so great is the presentation. Keith is a great TV personality and he delivers the awards with the perfect amount of humor, sarcasm, disbelief and outrage. Unfortunately, it just doesn't translate to the writen word. Each chapter of the book represents a month and within each month we are given between 5-10 days worth of transcripts. Because the TV segment is usually just a few minutes long, and there are three recipients for each segment, each recipient ends up getting just a few sentences (each daily segment generally fills up only half to two-thirds of the page). With such little real estate to work with, you really need to make a big impression in a few sentences. And to be sure, some of them do (such as the Bill O'Reilly smack downs, see next review for more on Bill). But overall, most are missing the key ingredient that make them interesting: Keith Olbermann. Imagine reading Seinfeld transcripts having never actually seen the show. Sure, there are laughs here or there, but without Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine, you are missing the best part of the show.

Sweet Jesus, I Hate Bill O'Reilly by Joseph Minton Amann and Tom Breuer

This book had one mission, to make a mockery of Bill O'Reilly, and it succeeds. Granted, this is like shooting fish in a barrel. But Amann and Breuer take ridicule to new heights. The reviews of O'Reilly's various books are particulary funny. There is also a musical at the end that you should not miss. If you want to laugh and you can't stand Bill O'Reilly, this book is for you.

With God on Our Side: One Man's War Against an Evangelical Coup in America's Military by Michael L. Weinstein and Davin Seay

A good exposé on how Christian Conservatives are attempting to take over the military leadership in our country. After Mikey Weinstein's son, who was attending the Air Force academy in Colorado at the time, confided to his father that he was being harrassed by Christians for being Jewish, Weinstein, himself a former Air Force cadet, decides to get to the bottom of things and uncovers an evangelical coup within the academy hierarchy. Weinstein ends up suing the academy after repeated attempts to work for change through the academy power structure in which he ultimately ends up stonewalled by the very evangelical Christians he is fighting against.

Mikey Weinstein may not be the perfect role model. His language is often harsh and injected with expletives. He admits that he is often too impulsive and abrasive and that this has probably cost him some support. His personality has made it somewhat easier for his critics to smear him. But he may also be the only type of person who can really go up against the military power structure and actually make a difference. Sometimes the messenger has to kick a little ass to get his message across. And this makes Weinstein an immensely interesting character as well.

The only disappointing thing about this book has nothing to do with the book whatsoever. Even after the lawsuit and all the publicity Weinstein was able to generate, it appears that little has been done at the academy to address the problem. Although promises have been made and programs have been drawn up to deal with the problem, because the evangelicals in charge do not consider this to be a problem in the first place (their main argument is that proselytizing is a significant part of their religious calling and thus by not allowing them to take advantage of their absolute authority over the cadets in order to force the cadets to endure various forms of religious indoctrination and humiliation, their first amendment rights are being violated), very little has changed. It is going to take a real Commander-in-Chief, one who really values religious freedom and the Constitution, to initiate changes from the top.
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Thursday, October 19, 2006

My Prayer

McCain jokes about suicide if Democrats win Senate

Arizona Sen. John McCain, a likely Republican presidential contender in 2008, joked on Wednesday he would "commit suicide" if Democrats win the Senate in November.

"I think I'd just commit suicide," McCain told reporters, to accompanying laughter from Republicans standing with him. "I don't want to face that eventuality because I don't think it's going to happen."

This is the only prayer I will ever utter in my entire life:

"Oh please God, let the Democrats take control of the House and Senate this November".
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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Excerpts from Letter to a Christian Nation

Just finished reading Sam Harris' new book "Letter to a Christian Nation" and I'd like to post some of my favorite quotes. Most of them are self-explanatory, but I will add comments where necessary to help put them in context.

Remarking on how America stands virtually alone among the developed nations in the percentage of people who read the Bible literally:

"Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. government actually believed that the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency." (p. xii)

The next three quotes demonstrate that the Bible (and all religions in general) is not necessarily the best moral compass to live by:

"The problem, however, is that the teachings of the Bible are so muddled and self-contradictory that it was possible for Christians to happily burn heretics alive for five long centuries. It was even possible for the most venerated patriarchs of the Church, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to conclude that heretics should be tortured (Augustine) or killed outright (Aquinas). Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated the wholesale murder of heretics, apostates, Jews, and witches. You are, of course, free to interpret the Bible differently--though isn't it amazing that you have succeeded in discerning the true teachings of Christianity, while the most influential thinkers in the history of your faith have failed?" (pp. 11-12)

"The moment a person recognizes that slaves are human beings like himself, enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness, he will understand that it is patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment. It is remarkably easy for a person to arrive at this epiphany--and yet, it had to be spread at the point of a bayonet throughout the Confederate South, among the most pious Christians this country has ever known." (pp. 18-19)

(This next quote addresses the anti-choice, anti-contraception, anti-sex education, anti-HPV vaccine, anti-stem cell research crowd):

"One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not -- that is, when they have nothing to do with suffering or its alleviation. Indeed, religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral -- that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings." (p. 25)

And now a good definition of Atheism:

"The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, "atheism" is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a "non-astrologer" or a "non-alchemist". We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious belief." (p. 51)

This quote elaborates on the conflict between science and religion:

"If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Everyone recognizes that to rely upon "faith" to decide specific questions of historical fact is ridiculous--that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the Bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad's conversation with the archangel Gabriel, or to any other religious dogma. It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail." (p. 67)

And now, to knock them off of their religious high horse:

"There is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend an eternity in hell.... An average Christian, in an average church, listening to an average Sunday sermon has achieved a level of arrogance simply unimaginable in scientific discourse--and there have been some extraordinarily arrogant scientists." (pp. 74-75)

And a wake-up call to the rest of us:

"It is worth remembering that the September 11 hijackers were college-educated, middle-class people who had no discernible experience of political oppression. They did, however, spend a remarkable amount of time at their local mosque talking about the depravity of infidels and about the pleasures that await martyrs in Paradise. How many more architects and engineers must hit the wall at four hundred miles an hour before we admit to ourselves that jihadist violence is not merely a matter of education, poverty, or politics? The truth, astonishingly enough, is this: in the year 2006, a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get seventy-two virgins in Paradise. Western secularists, liberals, and moderates have been very slow to understand this. The cause of their confusion is simple: they don't know what it is like to really believe in God." (pp. 82-83)

And finally:

"Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well--by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God." (p.91)
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