Saturday, March 31, 2007

Democratic Survey!

The Democrats need MY opinion on a few questions. I figured everyone would want to share this experience with me, right?

I love these surveys. I went to school working on a psychology degree for awhile and a couple of the things I studied were about how psychologists shape tests, and more generally how to get people to react in ways you want them to. It's always funny to look at these questionaires from the point of view of knowing these things and watching where they're trying to tweak my answers. Or, just to watch where the multiple choice responses offered demonstrate the limited viewpoint of Americans.

Here goes!

Question 1. Which of the following issues is the most important to you? Please rank the following from 1-10 with 1 being the most important to you. (This isn't the order they came in, just the order I put them in. It was hard to choose.)

1. Improving public education
2. Iraq War
3. Health Care Affordability
4. Protecting the Environment
5. Reproductive Freedom
6. National Energy Policy
7. (this one was a write in) Rich people need to pay taxes. Especially businesses.
8. Ethics in Government
9. Stem Cell Research
10. Social Security Reform.

There was one that said "Economic/Tax policy" that I didn't fill out because I didn't know what they meant by that, so I didn't feel good about saying I supported it.

Question 2. Do you support an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq?

Question 3. If you don't support an immediate withdrawal.. (skipped this. I do support immediate withdrawal)

Question 4. Do you support increased defense spending to fight the war against terrorism? (Way to let the other side frame the discussion there, guys)
__ Yes, we need a stronger military to stop terrorists threats around the globe.
X No, the money should be spent on domestic needs like education and healthcare.

(See, there's what I'm talking about. Can you tell what they want the Democrats they sent this to to answer? Do you want to KILL PEOPLE with the military, or build schools and hospital guys? Well? Which will it be?)

Question 5. Do you support raising the minimum wage from it's current level of 5.15/hr?
X Yes, the minimum wage should be increased to help workers make ends meet.
__ No, raising the minimum wage will hurt small businesses and cost jobs.

Question 6. When decisions about the future of Social Security are being made, what do you think is the most important?
X Keeping Social Security as a program with a guaranteed monthly benefit.
__ Allowing younger workers to decide for themselves how their Social Security contributions are invested
__ Both guaranteed benefits and investments are important.

(They want me to answer "both" but I was paying attention yesterday to what those Tribune guys are doing with the employees pensions. Why don't we not do more to hand over our tax dollars to big business?)

Question 7. In your view, what is the best way to ensure health care coverage for all Americans?
__Tax credits to help employers provide health care coverage for their employees?
__Medical savings accounts that let families set aside money for healthcare costs?
X A government-run system where everyone is guaranteed health care coverage?

(Government run?! Oh no!... ha, they didn't get me on that one.)

Question 8. What is the single best approach to reducing our dependence on foreign oil? (hehe. Playing on American xenophobia)
__Providing incentives to encourage energy conservation
__Increasing domestic energy production from sources like coal and nuclear power
X Investing in renewable energy resources like solar power, wind power and ethanol. (I crossed out ethanol, because the corn takes up too much farmland to produce even a fraction of the amount of ethanol needed. Solar power, baybee)
__ Requiring automakers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Question 9. Do you support tax cuts targeted at working families?
X Yes, with our economy struggling, working families need a tax break.
__ No, additional tax cuts at this time will only worsen the federal deficit.

Question 10. Should the Democratic congress put a high priority on stopping American manufacturing jobs from being "outsourced to overseas workers?
__ Yes, the manufacturing jobs being lost are essential to our economy
__ No, American consumers benefit from cheaper goods made overseas.
(Guess which answer they're looking for there. Think hard. I wrote in an answer below the other two. My answer was that I think corporations should be regulated so that they are required to treat workers fairly globally if they intend to trade in the US.)

Question 11. Do you think Medicare should be allowed to re-import less expensive drugs from Canada to make prescription medicines more affordable for senior citizens?
X Yes, this will help millions of seniors who struggle to pay for their prescriptions
__ No, it is too risky, as the safety of these drugs can't be guaranteed. (Damn shifty Canadians)(Also wrote in: "This is a non-issue")

Question 12. Think about the issue of education, which of the following is your number one priority? Please select only one answer.
__Funding for early education programs like Head Start.
X Funding for elementary and middle school education to reduce class sizes.
__ Funding for tuition aid programs to make college more affordable.
(I found two things disturbing about this question. One being that funding for elementary education has to be necessarily used for class size (as opposed to wholly overhauling the elementary education system, say, or paying teachers competative salaries) The other thing is that I had to choose one. I want all of these.)

Question 13. What is your opinion about a woman's right to a safe and legal abortion? (that's not a slanted question... oh, wait)
X I support a woman's right to choose.
__ I support a woman's right to choose, but believe we need some restrictions, such as parental notification laws and mandatory waiting periods before having an abortion.
__ I oppose a woman's right to choose.
(write in: I support a woman's right to choose, but with readily available contraception so that unwanted pregnancies can be prevented before they happen, and a responsible economic policy that doesn't force women to face choices like not being able to feed their children or else have an abortion. Poverty increases abortion. Let's take care of that.)
(Also, enjoying the way they framed that. hehe)

Question 14. What is your opinion about environmental laws in America?
X We need stronger environmental laws to protect our air and water and clean up toxic waste, safeguard endangered wildlife and habitat and combat global warming.
__ Our environmental policies are about right, no new laws are needed
__ Our environmental laws burden businesses and hurt our economy.

(The framing on that one is kind of a doozy. You can tell when this is happening because of the evocative language and the lengthy description on one answer when compared to terse responses on the other two)

Question 15. To help make progress on issues like those discussed in this survey, will you join the Democratic National Committee as a contributing member today?


Also: On the outside of the envelope, printed in red, it says "Survey Response Enclosed -- Please Rush" hehe. URGENT Survey results!

Friday, March 30, 2007

Listening to NPR so you don't have to.

One of my regular "features" (if you can call it that) on my regular blog is a series of odds and ends I pick up while listening to NPR at work. I program databases and audit water quality data for the city where I live. Public safety and health and all very responsible, but very dry, as well, so having someone talk to me is helpful to pass the day. So, talk radio. Air America is propaganda for the Democratic party, and also only politics, which bugs me. The other talk radio station locally is propaganda for the Republican party, and what cultural stuff it has is stuff like Dr. Laura, which would cause my eyes to bleed at work, so bad call. So, that leaves NPR and the sports talk channel.

That isn't to say that NPR isn't propaganda. It is. It's just propaganda lite when compared to the other two. Plus, they have other stuff I like. For instance, they regularly have a group of local sommeliers that come on and talk about wine, and I dig that. So, I listen to NPR. But, the propaganda lite occasionally tickles me or makes me boggle, so I write about what I hear on my blog.

For example, the other day, without apparent irony, the announcer said this: "Flanked by veterans and their families, Bush accused the Democrats of political theater."

I laughed and laughed.

Today, two things on NPR interested me, in particular. Well, a few things interested me, actually. The news of the day is all about Alberto Gonzalez, which is fun because it's politics but lurid and corrupt enough to be titilating. Another topic lately has been the crash in not the housing market but in the lending money for housing market. To wit: Sub-prime loans are a racket and now those who got fucked are getting foreclosed on. Will the housing market crash be next? But, only two of the things that I heard interested me enough to write about.

First, the study that shows that working moms are irresponsible, selfish sluts who don't care about their children... oh, I mean, "Daycare causes some increase in negative behavior later in schooling"... oh, no, I mean "kids who go to daycare are less intimidated by the schooling system and therefore aren't as readily cowed by the authority figures within it." That last take is my own. The first take is how the news media seems to have decided to take the results.

(note: for a less biased word on the results that's less dense than reading the actual study, check here.)

I should not be be surprised. This is not the first time that the U.S. media has used whatever excuse was convenient to attack women - mothers in particular - who are anything other than wholly sacrificing of their own personal needs in favor of their husbands and children. Oh, and to those whose financial situations dictate that they must work, in order to live: Just fuck you, bitches. That sort isn't even invited to the discussion. And it's not even the working outside or within the home question, which is sticky enough, considering all that women are being asked to sacrifice for the sake of raising their kids, and that men are not asked, at all, to make any of the same sacrifices. No. Check out the the hack job the Today Show did on Melissa at Suburban Bliss. Mostly, it seems like they're looking for an excuse. Et tu, NPR?

The second thing I wrote on my post-it note to write something about (I keep a post-it with possible blog topics. I know.) was that the Tribune is being sold. They went on in some depth about Zell, who is trying to buying it and treated him like some kind of businessman-rockstar, blah blah blah. The thing is that both of the deals being offered to buy the paper involves using the $1.76 billion employee pension fund to leverage the purchase. This means that one business guy/group is going to give another business guy/group permission to clean out the employees' retirement funds in return for the paper. That's what I'm reading. Ugh.

I know! It's all so depressingly negative! But there were sea otters this morning, right?

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Place Holder

I will be posting soon from work. Meanwhile, think happy thoughts. With the help of sea otters.

Via Echidne of the Snakes.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Thoughts on Homeschooling

I'm guest blogging for Chris while he's camping, and finding myself with a bit of performance anxiety. So, to alleviate this, I'm going to tell a little about myself and then post a post from my other journal that's on topic for Deeply Blasphemous to get my feet wet over here.

I'm a feminist, an atheist and a socialist mother of two, living in Texas. Texas is not an easy place to live when you are all these things, but I try to teach the kids right and keep my head up (and sometimes my mouth shut, since there's only so much social stress I'm able to put up with.) On the walk on the way to my son's school there is a replica Civil War cannon with the words "The Army of the Lord" down the side of the barrel. I think that says a great deal about the community we live in. We call this the Jesus Cannon, around our house. It's a source of great mirth.

But, without further ado, the post:

Maybe someone has thought of this stuff, but Homeschooling is such a sudden sensation (I know it's been around a long time, but has, in recent years, become much more widespread, to, I think, unprecedented levels) that I'm imagining there are a lot of cracks to fall through. Plus, my neighbor across the street recently switched over to homeschooling her son, and her flippancy about how easy the process is (Just having him fill out, essentially, worksheets provided by the company and reporting his scores to the company.) sets off a few alarms in my head.

I mean, the first and most obvious is who is really regulating what kind of education these kids are getting? It doesn't seem to me that there's a lot of real oversight involved in this, which means that there are going to be kids coming out of this undereducated when it's too late to effectively reverse the damage done. Now, I admit that it's my opinion that on average homeschooled kids get a better education than kids in public schools. They get personalized instruction by someone who really cares about them getting a good education, and can learn at their own pace, etc, etc.. but sometimes they're *not*, and who's looking out for those kids?

The second thing, slightly more worrisome in a more long term way is... do these kids get vaccinations? Kids have to have vaccinations to get into school, and a lot of them, frankly, wouldn't get vaccinations if they didn't have thie requirement. Vaccines are unpleasant, inconvenient and often expensive. I remember with my son's vaccines getting into Kindergarten, the pediatrician wouldn't give them unless he also had a full physical, which cost me 120 bucks. Ouch. But, we did it, because we *had to*. Now, I also believe these things should be provided free of charge, but even without the cost there are those who would not get vaccinated if they weren't compelled to do so. And the reasons these diseases are next to unheard of in this day and age is because most everyone has been immunized against them, so they can't take hold here. Without that shield, might we see outbreaks of, say, polio?

Here's my real concern, though... schools catch abuse. Often abused kids have only their teachers and officials at the schools they attend as adults they can trust outside of their families. Homeschooled kids have the potential of being incredibly socially isolated, and thus powerless if they have an abusive parent or parents. There are ways, as my brother (who intends to homeschool) points out, to be sure the kids get socialization with other kids their age - group classes, outdoor activities and the like. But there's no requirement to become involved in these sorts of things, so that homeschooling could be an excellent way to disguise dysfunctional or dangerous family situations.

Like I said, I haven't really researched it. These are just my thoughts, but it seems problematic, on the surface.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Scientology Ahoy!

I've really been laying hard into Christianity in this journal because it is, without doubt, the most powerful religion in America as well as the specific religion that Simon Peter is about, obviously.

However, the character of Jesus in Simon Peter is definitely an amalgam of characters. One of the figures that plays a reasonably big role in the personality of Jesus, in my book, is . . . L. Ron Hubbard. A great online resource is The Bare-Faced Messiah. It's an out-of-print, unauthorized biography of Hubbard and an utterly fascinating read, and a good place to start to learn about Scientology in an entertaining way.

More than any other self-proclaimed messiah, Hubbard embodies the con-man who got suckered into believing his lies. No one believes that Hubbard, originally, was sincere. Enough of his former friends and associates have come forward and said, more or less, that he started a religion to make money – that the talents of a science-fiction writer were wasted writing stories when there were other sheep to fleece. (Since he died worth hundreds of millions of dollars, there's probably something to that. Assuming, of course, that you could look at yourself in the mirror after selling bogus spirituality to needy people.) By the end of his life, few will doubt that he was a complete nutjob, that he was a paranoid, a sexual deviant and quite possibly schizophrenic.

How was he paranoid? Well, after having legal problems in several countries – the US, UK, Germany, Australia – it occurred to him that “70% of the world was without government”. The ocean! So he made this little Scientology navy, the Sea Org, where he went for years going from port to port. Eventually, so many ports in the Mediterranean were closed to Hubbard that he snuck back into the United States where he eventually died.

The Sea Org had some . . . interesting facts about it. One of them was the origin of the Rehabilitation Project Force, the RPF. In Scientology, the two worst sins are “overts” and “withholds” -- which are lies and secrets in English. If you do overts or withholds during “auditing” (the crude bio-feedback enhanced therapy sessions of Scientology) it is possible that you'll be put on the RPF.

When you're on the RPF, you are used for slave labor. I am not exaggerating. You're used for unpaid labor for an indefinite period of time, usually with sleep deprivation and inadequate nutrition. Some people were (and perhaps are) in the RPF for a year or two. You can't leave until they let you. It's literally slave labor.

In the Sea Org, the RPFers would be kept entirely below decks where they'd do the worst jobs – cleaning bilges, chipping paint or rust in bilges and other inaccessible parts of the ships, things like that. Landward, RPFers are often doing manual labor like ditch digging or clearing land.

Another thing that Hubbard started on the Sea Org was the use of “messengers”. Messengers were pretty pre-teen girls that would serve Hubbard – they say not that way, but one of the things they would do is sleep with him. Naked. They would also be his mouthpiece to the fleet, giving his messages – more than a few of them got drunk with this power and became petty tyrants in their own right. But Hubbard liked 'em young, so when they got too sexually developed they got the heave-ho. He also, apparently, often publicly humiliated them if they didn't do things the exact proper way; several of Hubbard's messengers have left Scientology and appear quite emotionally scarred by it.

Speaking of heave-hos, one of the common methods of punishing people would be throwing them off the ship into the water. The main ship of the fleet was a converted cargo ship, and the drop was something like a hundred feet, and often the water itself was cold and choppy. This could happen to a person several times in a row. More than one port revoked their rights based on this punishment.

While in the Sea Org, Hubbard would also go on imaginary treasure hunts. He would say he had a past-life memory of some buried treasure or the other, order the Sea Org to the spot and start trying to find it. Due to the paranoia with which Hubbard regarded all governments, he didn't bother to tell the government or get permission to do treasure hunting and, as a result, caused all sorts of problems for himself because this was during the Cold War. His treasure hunting looked a lot like espionage and his evasions seemed to confirm it.

I could go on for a long time on this vein, but I think my audience out there is seeing what I mean. Hubbard is one of the paradigmic historical messiahs. A sexually deviant person that gets drunk on power and orders people to do the craziest things and acts self-destructively. It's really easy to laugh at the galactic overlord Xenu and body thetans . . . and why not? They're fuckin' funny! But Hubbard isn't funny, really. He was a power drunk madman who's destroyed innumerable lives.

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News & the Fnords & Jon Stewart

I don't really pay that much attention to the news. I browse the BBC and the local paper's website but I read few stories. Up until about a year ago, I was a huge news addict. I'd read, easily, two hours of news a day and was very up-to-date on almost everything. But after several years of that, I saw the fnords and realized most news was literally deception and the more I read, the worst off I became. Garbage in, garbage out, after all. No amount of reading false data would get a good result, I figured, so I stopped. One of the best thing I did. Better to read books and, at least, get something resembling scholarship.

However, as I've said before, Jon Stewart makes me laugh. Hell, he makes a lot of people laugh. However, according to this article (that I found on the PunkAssBlog site), Jon Stewart is as good as the news. I quote:

“There have been a couple academic studies recently of those shows, where researchers study the actual news content in those shows compared to the broadcast news media,” said Rick Swanson, Ph.D., a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “They discovered there was just as much actual news content – news information – given by “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show” as there are in the actual news media broadcasts. And so, believe it or not, students are learning just as much about the news as they would be if they were watching a mainstream news outlet.”

The study, completed this year by Julia Fox, a telecommunications professor at Indiana University, showed that “The Daily Show” had about as much hard information during the 2004 presidential campaign as the average nightly news broadcast.

Huh. The article goes on:

“In an absolute sense, we should probably be concerned about both of those sources, because neither one is particularly substantive,” Fox continued. “It’s a bottom-line industry and ratings-driven. We live in an ‘infotainment’ society, and there certainly are a number of other sources available.”

It's been obvious to me for a while that the "news" is nothing of the sort. Still, it's nice to have someone with a lot of letters after their name confirm the obvious.

This is particularly fascinating for me because, out here in the blogosphere, we live in a news saturated environment. We all post stories and talk at great length, and great passion, about them but the truth seems that they're largely void of content worthy of the effort we put into them! And, worse, out here in the blogsphere, we are largely aware that the news sucks and we still do it!

Jon Stewart's way is better. He makes me laugh. Because, let's face it, the news doesn't contain much information but it is very funny. Especially if you like black humor.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Bible Highlights

On Dwindling in Disbelief, the blog of the author of The Skeptic's Annotated Bible, has posted about the "best" books in the Bible from an atheist point of view.

My favorite bit, by far, however, is that:

Only 35 books are listed. The other 31 have nothing that I can call good.

The list of "bad" books of the Bible - meaning those void of any worthwhile moral content - are:

1. Genesis
2. Numbers
3. Joshua
4. Judges
5. Ruth
6. 1 Samuel
7. 2 Samuel
8. 1 Kings
9. 2 Kings
10. 1 Chronicles
11. 2 Chronicles
12. Ezra
13. Nehemiah
14. Esther
15. Song of Solomon
16. Lamentations
17. Ezekiel
18. Daniel
19. Joel
20. Amos
21. Obadiah
22. Jonah
23. Nahum
24. Habakkuk
25. Zephaniah
26. Haggai
27. 2 Corinthians
28. 2 Thessalonians
29. Philemon
30. Jude
31. Revelation


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Friday, March 23, 2007

Mind Reading Computer Interfaces

I was reading this Pandagon post by Roxanne about the integration of computers with human consciousness, based on this Wired story.

The military is working on a plan to:

figure out how to monitor brain activity while it was happening -- and then have that affect a computer's display of information.

Roxanne characterizes this as “mind-fuck research”. And, let us be fair, when something is being funded by DARPA it isn't because someone wants to do happy warm fuzzies. Those DARPA boys are thinking about improved interfaces for killing machines:

So much of what’s done today in the military involves staring at a computer screen — parsing an intelligence report, keeping track of fellow soldiers, flying a drone airplane — that it can quickly lead to information overload.

This research is about war.

Roxanne asks, “Can you think of any commercial applications?” I can, easily, in everything from surgery to fast-food. A computer interface that adapts, automatically, to my needs even as I conceive them? Yes, there will be commercial applications in just about anything where a person needs to manipulate a large amount of data quickly. This will have some predictable effects that aren't much better than the military applications – it will destroy jobs. As businesses become more streamlined, they'll need fewer and fewer people to do them. It is part of the process that will cause us, some day, to have to confront the post-labor society – very few people will be needed to do a great number of things, and, soon, perhaps none at all.

It will also have truly wide-ranging law enforcement and privacy concerns, as are already happening with brain fingerprinting. A machine that reads a person's mind very obviously has tremendous potential for abuse, but also tremendous potential to stop abuse. No more lying on the stand, right? Hook someone into an augmented cognition device and power it up. It has the potential for effective and certain lie detection.

Hooked up to unwilling participants, it probably also has tremendous use as an interrogation tool – not only in the legitimate sense of catching murderers and the like, but in the illegitimate sense of tracking down enemies of the state or things that are “wrong” but not illegal (such as extra-marital affairs).

Or psychology! A machine that can give real insight into what a person thinks and feels. The ability to look into a person's mind – even partially – will be of great use to psychologists and psychiatrists and could easily lead to very real advances in those fields. Human minds won't be opaque, or at least not as opaque, where the only way “in” is through the clumsy medium of language, often when a person is being hindered in honesty by the same trauma that brings them to a psychologist or psychiatrist in the first place.

On top of that, the huge privacy concerns. There will be this machine and it will be reading your mind. Data theft is an issue with computers now. A machine that can honestly figure out pieces of your consciousness, and manipulates them, will be learning an awful lot about you. Just how much is uncertain, but in the fashion of technological progress it will tend to rapidly increase. After all, the more the computer knows about your wants and needs (even those you keep from yourself) the better it will serve you. The computer will learn things about you that no one else knows, in order to serve you better. To properly adapt will require accurate and useful information about you in all sorts of ways that, initially, we might find creepy. F'rex, what if a person works best while sexually aroused?

For me, the more exciting implications are in consciousness expansion. The computer will know things about us, real things, and personal ones. That data could be shared and studied. After long association with a person that has had a lot of trauma, there will be data about what a traumatized person wants and needs. That data could be shown to others, who then might take understanding about trauma from it.

It will, I think, also show us a lot of trauma that is now hidden. Those conservative fundie Christian workaholic cheerleaders for global corporate imperialism – we'll have access to what motivates them, too. Which will help everyone understand what is going on. Very exciting stuff.

Additionally, if I haven't gone on long enough about this subject, one of the key barriers to a society of consent and not violence is clear and concise data about relevant issues in a person's life. That's the whole point behind enhanced cognition as DARPA envisions it. We are overloaded with data. This is not, precisely, unknown to netizens. This sort of data interface would allow people to get concise information based on their wants and needs, handled in a way that maximizes the efficiency of communication between the computer and the user. And, of course, that computer is connected to the world through the Internet, so it becomes an increasingly efficient interface between users on the Internet. We will be able to share, amongst ourselves, information of increasing complexity and precision more efficiently than ever before. Blogs, newspapers, television will seem ridiculously crude in comparison to this ever updated, every personalized, ever concise and efficient data stream.

And because the more a person uses the system the more it adapts to them in a very personal way, and because these systems are connected, we will gain increasingly large insights into the people who use them. It isn't just that research groups will be able to study this data and talk about what is in our minds, or psychologists use it for therapy, or police for interrogations, but we will be able to use this information to see very personal, very private things about each other – if we are sufficiently brave. (F'rex, do you want your significant other to know that you work best sexually aroused? To know that working makes you sexually aroused?) These systems will, in some ways, mirror our consciousness (at least as when we use them) and that data can be experienced by others – through the same systems.

(Can you imagine what instant messaging would be with something like this? Where the system would try to express your real intentions to the person you're messaging in an adaptive way that increases the depth of conversation? That, to some extent, the enhanced cognition will help them feel what you are feeling? And that the system will know when it has succeeded? Can you imagine a world of increasing certainty in conversation? Where people can feel as you feel?)

People might think I'm being pretty over-the-top with this sort of thing. I don't think so. Sure, initially, it's just going to be a handless interface used in jet fighters or killer robots. But the plans are far more ambitious and we're far closer to realizing them than, I think, most people want to admit. Because what is being discussed is an adaptive control interface that is almost directly between our brain and a computer. To do this, the computer will become a practical learning tool about the consciousness of it's users, connecting us to each other with greater precision and efficiency than ever before. To use this sort of thing on weapons is callow and crude, much like the use of the Internet for weapons was callow and crude and has come to the front as a system of interpersonal communications – people talking horizontally to each other, rather than vertically through tightly hierarchical systems. This will not only expand our horizons, but the depths of communication in magnificent ways. If they succeed – and, eventually, they will – the military will lose control of this almost instantly.

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Friday update!

Jon Stewart makes me laugh.

That said, I'm almost done with part 2 of Simon Peter. As opposed to part 1, which dealt with material that was, largely, non-Biblical, part 2 deals heavily with Jesus' involvement with John the Baptist, which receives some actual play time in the Bible. Simon Peter is only very loosely adapted from the Bible, but there are plenty of events that happen that people will be familiar with. It also deals with historical figures that have an existence outside the Bible, such as Herod Antipas, so I was able to draw on additional sources other than the Bible about these colorful people that populated Judea and Galilee at the time, as well as some medieval myths. As such, at times, it is a very exciting part to write. I plan on getting done with it today, but we'll see how that goes. I could be a thousand words from the end, I could be five thousand words from the end.

Also, over the next week or so I'll be slow to post and perhaps absent at posting altogether. Adrienne and I are going on a vacation to visit some friends in Arizona, and this involves trips to some various parks and camping. There will be pictures when I get back, almost certainly including some that I can turn into various icons for this blog. All the cool kids have pictures, after all, right? I've brought in a ringer or two for that time, but my posting will be periodic, at best.

In the works is an video interview I'm going to make with a a friend, Santiago. The subject matter will be, at least initially, Simon Peter and the reason why I made various decisions that I made. We're seriously thinking of posting it on GodTube because, well, it is relevant to Christianity and part of the work has always been to express myself to Christians as much as atheists, to open a dialog. We'll see! But that's also in the works.

Lastly, Santiago and I are also working on a secret publishing project. It's very hush-hush but we figure it'll make us some money and increase our exposure in a very constructive, productive way - it has nothing to do with our militant atheism or politics - and while I'm not sure the time is right to give details it is very exciting as well. There will be updates.

That's it for right now!

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Separate and Unequal – A Christian Odyssey Into Nothingness

This post was going to go unsent for a couple of days, but in a number of blogs (such as this Friendly Atheist post and this PZ Myer's post) they've been pointing out the MySpace clone, Everything after this paragraph was written before I found out about but I think everyone will agree that it applies and supports my argument.

It wasn't until the Left Behind series had been going for many years that I ever heard of it. I read science-fiction and fantasy and I hadn't heard of it, because for a fairly long time the only place that sold the Left Behind books were Christian bookstores. It didn't stop them from doing very, very well.

Recently, Christians have opened the doors for Conservapedia. A Wikipedia-esque site for conservatives! Also recently coming online has been GodTube, a Christian alternative to YouTube. Also, the homeschooling movement, which is being primarily driven by fundamentalist Christians who don't want their kids to be exposed to sex education and science.

It is looking to me like Christians are starting to . . . opt out. During the 60s, hippies had a saying, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” Well, it's looking a lot like 21st century Christians have discovered this. There seems to be some attempt to withdraw from society – to create a second . . . world. A world where a Christian can do everything that they do without having to contact anyone that ruffles their beliefs at all. They can go to Christian book and movie stores, go to Christian schools, have a Christian Internet. They can create a Christian bubble around themselves, completely ignorant of society at large! And, unlike those hippies, there are two hundred million of them in America.

There are two points, though, I want to make.

The first is even as they try to withdraw from society, they are nevertheless mimicking the very things that they despise. GodTube and Conservapedia are not innovations – but copies. Even now, they are dependent on the outside world to pull away from it. They hope by mimicking something they can exceed it? Rather than demonstrate what a pitiful copy it is? Well, good luck with that.

The second point is that it displays how frightened Christians are of the world. They're terrified of us, so much so that they're retreated into an increasingly closed society. I can't think of any humanist or atheist comparison. Oh, sure, we have our own organizations and all, but we're not trying to create a separate world for ourselves. We understand, generally, that we have to get by in this world and we engage in this world.

I suspect this will create a strange loop. The more they retreat the more, well, other people will step up. Not just atheists, either, but all the fringe groups, gays, feminists, Muslims, Wiccans, New Agers, you name it. And the more they/we step up, the more the conservative Christians will retreat.

Then, like a black hole eaten of it's own mass, they'll disappear.

At least, I hope.

There is precedent for this. The pagan religions that Christianity replaced, some of them were well over 2000 years old. Christians like to think that something that has existed for so long must continue to do so indefinitely (or, at least, to the end of the world – which they're still waiting for, after 2000 years), but there's no reason to assume that, none at all.

So, I say, let them retreat into their shells!

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An American Solution to the Problems of Religion: Unitarians?

I was talking about Pete Stark – the East Bay congresscritter who recently had the guts to admit that, no, he doesn't believe in the Sky Fairy – with my wife, and it was mentioned that he was a Unitarian.

Opines I, “If all religions were like the Unitarians, I probably wouldn't have a problem with religion.”

Then it struck me: is this the American solution to the problem of religion? The problem, to me, isn't really that someone believes in a loosely defined god. The problem is that they do so at the expense of reason, experience and even their own senses - and that belief almost always says they must foist their faith off on others. And, in doing so, they become bigots and worshipers of authority. I think that is, in rough, the basis of my problems with religion.

Unitarians don't do that. They explore religious subjects, including various gods, but in a very humanistic way. They are so open that they do accept atheists, without condemnation.

The United States is it's own place. Part of me really would just prefer chucking out the idea of religion as important – as they're doing in a lot of Europe, so my European friends tell me – but some of that is the anger towards religion that many atheists in America get. However, the US has certain cultural institutions and churches are one of them.

Even beyond the whole god thing, there's a lot of reasons people go to church. I, myself, am of the opinion that one of the reasons religion has made such a resurgence in my lifetime is the destruction of normal social patterns. Adults in America, nowadays, on average, do three long distant moves in their lifetime. Each time they do a long distance move – or, to a lesser extent, even a short distance one – they tear up all connections with their community, they uproot their children, put aside friendships, etc., etc. Moving is a fairly traumatic event. And when you get where you're going, where do you go to make friends? A place that isn't a meat market, that's safe for your children, where you don't have to feel competitive or defensive – that's church! You can move wherever you want, but within a short distance of your new home there's going to be a friendly church with wholesome activities for your family, a good place to meet friends, etc. And to join this happy group of wholesome people, all you've gotta do is profess to “accept Jesus”.

Even if my hypothesis isn't true, it's obvious that churches in America provide a lot of support for the communities they're part of. They're a place to meet people, to socialize, to do good works with more immediacy than supporting government reforms. They're a good place to bring one's children without fear that they'll pick up bad habits (except, of course, the religious bigotry and arrogance I was talking about earlier). Churches are a place of support and love. America's got nothing else like them.

The Unitarians, then, might have hit on something important for the United States. The problem with religion is that religions teach intolerance and deference to authority, and they teach that a book is more important than reason, experience and the evidence of your own senses. Even the “moderate” and “liberal” versions of a given religion teach this. The Unitarians, however, do not.

If the Unitarians became the model for American churches, they would provide all the social infrastructure without any of the real downsides that most religions have (mindless adherence to mythical authority, that smug belief that they're better because they're saved or whatever, not to mention the fundamentalist aspects of a given religion).

To me, this isn't quite as good as rejecting religion altogether. But, ultimately, since I don't believe in re-education camps I'm going to have to accept in a free society that a certain percentage of the people are going to want to believe in things I find absurd (say, UFO or conspiracy cranks) and give them a space to do so without really hurting anyone. Unitarian churches could provide that – a place for people to be non-offensively religious. I think of it as harm reduction.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I should be writing Simon Peter, and I was about to close down the browser and turn off my wireless to get to that when I saw a post over at The Stranger's Blog by Dan Savage that referenced WFMU's blog that, in it's turn, talked about GodTube. Which is a Christian version of YouTube.

Some samples. "Baby's Got Big Bible". Yes, that's a parody of what you think it is:

Apparently, an atheist's worst nightmare is . . . a banana. Who knew?

And then boggle to . . . I kid you not, Christian Clown Training:

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Thoughts on Western Technological Dominace

Most people will just assume that the West has been the technologically dominate force forever – after all, didn't “we” invent science? Most of the rest will realize that during the Middle Ages that technological development was stagnant compared to a lot of the people around them and will generally say that it was the Renaissance when European technology shot ahead of the rest of the world – after all, what else could really explain the European dominance of the world that followed the Renaissance?

Mostly, that's nonsense, however. Europeans achieved clear technological supremacy, globally, only in the 19th century – and by the 21st century, it's been lost, already, as Japan and South Korea have both eclipsed Western nations in terms of technological development (and China is fixing to do so).

I'm going to talk about ships and then metal. I could keep talking about issues like agriculture (in many ways, 20th century agriculture is a step back from 19th century Indian and Chinese techniques because of the consequences of mechanization and fertilization insofar as erosion and soil damage, but it wasn't until the 20th century, really, that Western farmers could claim to have any edge on South and East Asian farmers and even that might be illusionary as the world fuel situation changes).

European ships and exploration

One of the key areas that we believe the West has always had a clear advantage is ships and navigational techniques. That is not, actually, true. Western sailing ships until the 19th century were technologically inferior in most ways to Asian ships, particularly the junk. We see the junk and we think it is a comical ship, but the truth is that it is easier to sail because it has a less complex rigging and holds closer to the wind. This is primarily due to the semi-rigid sail it uses, with horizontal slats with bits of cloth sail between them – this creates a light, stiff sail. All that billowing that Western sails do? That's inefficiency. The Chinese junks quite likely circumnavigated the world in the 1420s as part of the exploration of for trade imperialism. The great Chinese admiral Zheng He is believed by basically everyone to have traveled from at least Egypt to Mozambique to Taiwan to Sumatra. A small, but apparently growing, group of people have followed Gavin Menzies in believing that Zheng He effectively circumnavigated the globe, and traveled to both North and South America, Australia, Greenland, you name it. Paul Chiasson believes that the Mi'kmaq people in eastern Canada are genetic descendants of Chinese sailors. Chinese imperial brass has been found in an archaeological site 250 miles inland in America. At the bare minimum, in the 15th century the Chinese naval prowess was superior to Europeans. If Menzies is right, then the Chinese naval prowess was superior to what Europeans would see until at least the 18th century.

So successful is the junk rig – the way that a sail is made and controlled aboard a ship – that the rig is still being used today. Indeed, some competitive sailors use paneled sails not very different from the ones used by Chinese sailors for most of Chinese history, and paneled sails are indisputably Chinese technology, originally. In contrast, most modern sailing boats use a Bermuda rig, which was developed in the 17th century – and it is largely tradition that keeps the Bermuda rig alive. All said and done, it is impossible to say that European sailing techniques ever exceeded Chinese sailing techniques until the Age of Steam.

Then, as so often happens, luck ruled the destiny of humans. A change in rulers in China put an end to Chinese exploration. The Mings had decided that rather than pursue expensive foreign exploration they would focus on a policy of inward development and cultural isolation. This ruinous policy would, in time, lead to China's domination by Europeans, especially the British, but at the time it looked pretty sensible, I suppose, as China was the richest country in the world. Why did they need anywhere else? So the fleet of Zheng He was destroyed. The Chinese would continue to be active merchants all through East, Southeast and South Asia, but there would be no more coordinated efforts to explore the world. It was into this vacuum of exploration that the Europeans would step.

You might notice I'm explaining Europe's success in exploration in cultural and political, not technological, terms. I am. That's because Chinese ships and navigation techniques were demonstrably at least as good as European ones.

European metallurgy

Europeans also believe that they have held the grip on metallurgy since at last the Renaissance. This is one of the more interesting technological stories.

Since time out of mind, the country that was traditionally regarded as having the finest metallurgy in the world was India. Indian metallurgy was just head and shoulders above everyone else's. Right now, to this day, in Delhi, there is an iron pillar that is 1600 years old that has never taken with rust. They are outdoors where they have been exposed to centuries worth of Indian monsoons. India also developed wootz steel, which was what the legendary “Damascus steel” blades really were (the term Damascus steel is often conflated with pattern welding forge techniques, I should add, so there is ambiguity to the term). Wootz steel was destroyed, along with the rest of the Indian steel industry, in the 19th century. It has only been recently that it has been rediscovered.

Even in the 19th century, while European cannons were made of bronze because steel ones would burst, the largest guns in the world were in the hands of northern Indian warlords, made out of steel that did not burst.

However, by the early 19th century, steel production and export was a big deal to European economies. The British steel manufacturers coveted the Indian market. But they had themselves a pretty big problem. Indians wouldn't buy European steel because it was inferior in quality to locally produced metals. Indian steel output, at this time, was also roughly equal to Britain. British steel makers sent people to India to find out what made Indian so good. They didn't have a lot of luck, though, because Indian steel was made in a distributed system of a lot of small mills with a lot of individualization of techniques. Furthermore, the steel making castes weren't willing to show their trade secrets to the English. Stymied because of the secretiveness of the Indian metallurgists and not able to replicate the economy of Indian metallurgists, and also wishing to disarm the Indians, they decided to handle things the old fashioned way and lean on the British Raj to force the Indian metallurgists to sell their mills, which were then closed down. Having no other option, the Indians started using the lower quality and more expensive British steel.

(The British did the same thing to Indian shipping. They didn't want the Indians to build ships because, y'know, they wanted to maintain India's dependence on England.)


Since I don't want to go on forever about this, I'm going to sum up, here.

None of this is to doubt the intellectual contributions of the West. That'd be absurd. However, Europeans have really undertaken a massive project of cultural imperialism and have stricken out the rest of the world's contributions to the arts and sciences, and ignored or trivialized the debt that Western science owes to other people and other cultures. Most people don't realize the vast debt that the world owes to Chinese and Indian science, including their mathematical advances that were further streamlined and improved by the Muslims before being absorbed into the West during the Enlightenment. When Europeans learn about scientific progress, it's almost inevitably as if Europeans did it all. If people from other cultures are mentioned, it's as a footnote or, perhaps, a sidebar. This is pure racism. When one looks at the actual technological development of non-Western societies it's actually pretty easy to find areas where those societies matched or exceeded the West (and, obviously, are doing so, again). I have given only a few examples but the list goes on and on, especially once you start bringing agriculture into it.

I hope that people will start to more seriously consider non-Western contributions to the sciences as a way of overcoming the continuing racism that the world suffers – I hope that people, when they understand how much we've been dependent on each other for learning and progress rather than seeing other people in other places as an impediment to progress they'll see them as partners in progress.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Graphic novels vs. comic books

Recently, a number of people in a number of places have been quite unwilling to say the words comic books and have said, instead, graphic novel. This is due to 300 coming out as a movie, of course.

I'm not pleased with it. Oh, it's not a big thing, it's just a burr in the back of my head whenever someone calls a comic book a graphic novel. Like comic book is a dirty word!

In particular, with 300 a lot of people - I'm not pointing fingers at any specific person - have called it a graphic novel. It's not. It was a comic book that was published after it's run as a comic in a trade paperback compilation. (The same is true of, say, The Dark Knight Returns, The Watchmen or V for Vendetta.)

I guess I should be glad people are reading comics at all, regardless of what they call them, and recognizing the talents of the artists and writers that make them - and, to some extent, recognizing the awesome impact that these iconic characters and narrative forms have had on American arts - but I dislike the need to distance the "graphic novel" from the "comic book".


First Batch of Homebrew Beer Bottled!

And in other news, me and the little woman just bottled our first batch of homebrew beer, a red ale. We bottled about 4.4 gallons of it. Right now, little yeast cells are turning malt sugar into more alcohol and carbonation! It is very exciting.

The process of making beer is very . . . organic. I know that sounds silly, but dealing with the malt extracts, the grains, the malt sugar, the yeast and the rest of it gives me a very strong feeling of life in beer. I've heard people call beer "liquid bread" before and I knew that beer does actually have a fair bit of nutritional content. But until I dealt with the sticky mess of it I didn't get how much that was true.

Anyway, next time I make beer I hope it's more light out -- we've got a drizzle here in Santa Cruz right now -- so I can take a picture of the glass fermentation jug after the beer is out of it, including the top which was encrusted with dried foam and the bottom which was full of a thick, viscious slime that, processed in less civilized lands, is the raw material for Vegemite and Marmite. It's pretty gross stuff, but it's pure protein -- little dead yeast cells, mostly. Imagine that for a while. ;)

Still, the beer is in the bottles and in a couple of weeks, tops, me and the little lady will be cracking open our homebrew for the first time! More to come.


Condotierri and Anarcho-Capitalism

The book I wrote before Simon Peter is Condotierri. “Condotierri” is an Italian term for mercenary, generally with a deeply negative connotation. Nowadays, we don't get the absolute insult calling someone a mercenary was in earlier days – as people who profited off of war, they were regarded as total scum. But Condotierri sounds cooler than “mercenary”. This refers to the protagonist, Caesar Mailleux, who is a corporate police officer in a futuristic metropolis. He is deeply corrupt – or, another way, he's a mercenary.

In the book, itself, I take an almost retro look at the technological end of science-fiction. I find futurism to be difficult – not to consider, but to write about without become preachy. I mean, hell, I've got a blog to be preachy. I don't need to put it in my novels. And by retro, I mean that the technological infrastructure is basically the stuff we have today, just better. I don't, for instance, go far down the roads of transhumanism, or explore the significance of artificial intelligence.

However, socially, it's a little more up-to-date. I won't give away the mystery, but I will talk a little about where the background comes from.

David Friedman wrote a book, Machinery of Freedom, and I haven't read the whole thing but I did read Chapter 29, the text of which is online. I stumbled upon this by accident. I don't even remember what I was looking for but this excerpt really got to me. I continue to be absorbed by it, because it's so . . . stupid. I'm not even talking run of the mill stupid, but so deeply and profoundly stupid that it beggars the imagination. Go on, read it, if you want, but I'll break it down for you.

In this chapter, he proposes, seriously proposes, that there should be no state run law enforcement, or state criminal laws. Instead, what we'll have is security corporations. Law will be replaced by the policy of the security corporations. Courts will be replaced with non-binding arbitration between those corporations.

Think about that for a couple of minutes. I can wait.

Wow, right?

I read this and several things occurred to me. The first was, “What about the poor?” Then I thought, “Fuck, what about the rich?” Lastly, “What about . . . corruption?”

The official anarcho-capitalist line, touted out by Friedman, is that corporations are honest brokers because dishonestly leads to decreased profits. Which is a proposition so absolutely stupid, contrary to facts and bizarre that I have trouble wrapping my head around it. Of course, in a world without laws, it took me a while to figure out what corruption would be – for employees of the security firm, it would be violation of corporate policy. But without a (theoretically) transparent government looking at corporations, well, wouldn't corporate policy be nothing but a PR trick? Corporations, with no transparency whatsoever, not beholden to anyone whatsoever, would internalize corruption. We don't have to imagine this. Just think of the big scandals in Enron and Chase Manhattan to get an idea of how this might work – but take away the possibility of them being caught (because there would be no one to catch them) or being penalized if they were caught (because there wouldn't be anyone to enforce anything). Getting freaked out, yet? I did when I started coming on this point.

And what about the poor? Let's face it. They're fucked. In our system, which gives at least lip service to the idea of equal rights, the amount of justice a person has is largely determined by their wealth. However, there are still limits. This sort of system would remove those limits. Poor people would be fair game for rich ones – why not? Even if they could afford police coverage, their coverage would be much weaker than a rich person's. Crudely, let's say I'm a billionaire and I get drunk, wander into the poor part of town and shoot a person with no coverage. No coverage, no crime, even if it was caught on camera and there were a hundred reputable witnesses and they had the gun that did the deed with my fingerprints all over it.

But what if they have less coverage? A lot less? Well, economically, how much effort is a corporation put into pressing a case against someone who can afford to stretch out the process for years and years? What they'd do is a risk assessment. They'd weigh the costs of the litigation process against the money lost through bad advertising and whatever – and if the cost of the litigation is more than the losses, fuck 'em. Rich people could even have, y'know, “murder insurance” clauses – they murder someone, the insurance kicks in and makes sure the process is dragged out, or resolved through other means (such as corruption, or finding a patsy for PR purposes – remember, there's no one checking these guys, who's to say what really happened?).

Let's get tricky, now. What if the victim and the murderer have the same insurance corporation. With whom does the security company arbitrate? Itself? I submit that how that goes – a living rich policy holder vs. a dead poor one – is pretty obvious.

Trickier, still. What's to prevent a rich person from having several policies? That way, the security corporation persecuting the case will always be the same one defending it, too.

Even tricker, yet. What does a rich person even need a security corporation for in the first place? Why not just make a little fortress. Let them try and come and get you. The risk analysis becomes much easier if to get the perp you've got to fight a mercenary army, especially if victory isn't assured.

The short answer: the rich can get away with murder.

Right now, of course, the state controls this by maintaining a monopoly on violence. Not even Bill Gates can afford to do battle with the US government. Not even General Motors. The government would stop them from developing the military infrastructure to fight the government long before it occurred. So, even if the people over at GM wanted to, they couldn't just . . . level a neighborhood regardless of who's in it because they know that the police insurance firms for poor people aren't capable much less willing to try to fight the GM security force.

The anarcho-capitalist answer is that, y'know, they wouldn't fight like that because it isn't profitable. Because we know that corporations haven't encouraged and fought wars before, or something. Let's face it, war is profitable if you can win it.

In Condotierri, the premise is that society has moved very far towards an anarcho-capitalist society in this fashion, and it explores the idea of corruption in such a society.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Atheist blogroll!

I joined the Atheist Blogroll, and it joined me! It's there on the sidebar, the whole whopping thing of it. If you have an atheist blog, join! ;)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Language, Atheism and Christianity

When researching Simon Peter, I did reading about the three major groups of Jews at the time: the Pharisees, the Saducees and the Essenes. (Josephus mentions a fourth sect, the Zealots which get the most press, but he was writing decades after Jesus' death and it's historically ambiguous whether the Zealots had a real presence during the 20s and 30s – plus, the Zealots don't play a role in my book whatsoever.)

The Saducees were the aristocratic Jews, remnants of the Hasmonean priesthood, the Hasmoneans being the dynastic of the Maccabees after they threw out the Seleucid Persians. They taught a very stern and literal interpretation of the Torah.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, from which modern Rabbinical Judaism comes, were very interested in the Law. They were the guys who constructed the elaborate oral tradition – the Oral Torah – and had interpretations for everything. They were concerned with making sure that everyone followed the law in every way. (This was probably a result of the Hellenization of upper class Jews and an attempt to cling to specifically Jewish traditions to maintain the ethnic character of their people. It worked. Judaism still exists in the form largely set down by the Pharisees.)

The Essenes, on the other hand, were . . . well, right now, it's hard to say, precisely. The Nag Hammadi library, which contains a lot of Essene literature, shows them to be mystics without a unifying belief other than a general mysticism. Some scholars reject that the Nag Hammadi documents are Essene. Philo and Josephus talk about the Essenes as living in monasteries and practicing celibacy, tho' Josephus also mentions another “rank” of Essene that was allowed to get married. They owned property in common, it seems. Perhaps they were Jewish Pythagoreans. Perhaps they were the “legitimate” high priesthood rather than the Saducees. All these things were said about them. Who knows the truth? Not I.

It is possible that Jesus was either a Pharisee or an Essene. While the Pharisees do question Jesus about things, this was common amongst Pharisees – a lot of being a Pharisee was talking about the Torah, the prophets and related subjects. Perhaps the Pharisees questioning Jesus was an argument between different sects of Pharisees. Others have said he was an Essene because his teachings rejected the tightly argued qualities of Pharisaical doctrine and was more “spiritual”. What the truth is, I dunno. (For the purposes of Simon Peter, I take the point that Jesus of Nazareth was actually Jesus the Nazarene, which was one of the sects of the Essenes, and that this sect was one of the sects that nominally allowed marriage. This does not, however, reflect fact. There are no facts about which sect, if any, Jesus belonged to.)

One of the explicit reasons that Jesus does so well is because he rejects both the dry, very literal interpretation of Saducees as well as the niggling points of law demanded by the Pharisees, neither of which were terribly popular with the people at the time. The Saducees offered no hope of relief from their woes (and, indeed, were tight with the Romans and, as a group, quite Hellenized) and the Pharisees preferred strict adherence to points of law rather than ministering to the emotional needs of the people (or, at least, that's the idea – many modern Jews will reject such a characterization). When a person is wondering why Roman law was such a burden, the last thing people really wanted to hear it was because they hadn't kept their pots apart, that their god was a scribbling accountant who sent the plague of conquest because of trivial sins.

No, no. Jesus spoke the language of the common person. He hung out with fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, he dealt with Romans, slaves, the diseased. He had none of the literalism of the Saducees nor the legalistic worship of minutiae of the Pharisees. (Indeed, so stripped of specifically Jewish content was Jesus' message that he quickly gained a Hellenistic following – starting in the Gospels, themselves, with the Roman centurion who asks Jesus to cure his servant. The Book of Acts is primarily about the Hellenistic followers of Jesus against the Jewish followers of Jesus and the ascent of the Hellenist followers of Jesus.) It was accessible, indeed, designed, for the people.

In this post, in the comments, my friend Becky mentions how she likes my writing style because it is accessible. This is something I aim for in my writing, so it pleases me to hear this said. I have poor humor with people who use a Latin- or Greek-based word where a Saxon one will do the job, and do it better. I also, as a rule, dislike jargon.

Words based on classical languages and jargon are usually used for nothing less than classism. The use of pretentious language serves the immediate purpose of making a lot of discussions inaccessible to people without advanced educations. You can't talk about something if you don't understand the other person's words, after all. So if a person uses a word with a lot of subtle nuances, it becomes trivially easy for them to say that an less educated person lacks the depth of knowledge to participate in the conversation - simply because they don't speak with the same formalities as the educated person.

This has riddled the liberal arts since, well, probably forever. But it's trivially easy to find discussions where an educated person will try to dismiss an apparently less educated person by talking about details of words. This happened to me, recently, in the comments to this post where the relative value of Buddhism to the world became about the subtle meanings of the Sanskrit word dukkha, which is generally translated “suffering” into English.

So, in first century Judea and Galilee, most of the Jewish talk was very scholarly (as most Jewish discourse is, today) - either the learned discourse of the Saducees or the learned discourse of the Pharisees (the Essenes, living in monasteries, didn't interact much with the common folk). Jesus, on the other hand, spoke common language to common people. The Gospels are riddled with homey allegories about farming and fishing. Primitive church converts were, overwhelmingly, from the lower classes, too. For the first two hundred years of Christian existence, it was considered a “slave religion”.

(Christians, themselves, will fall back on the tactic of demanding an elaborate education in order to discuss Christianity, interestingly enough. When talking to prospective converts they'll use the sort of language that Jesus used – simple and clear. When talking to detractors, they get post-modern to the point of nihilism and basically assert if you can't give three quotations to support a given point then you're clearly an idiot who doesn't understand Christianity and, thus, are dismissable. For what it's worth, the way to counter this is to talk about the non-religious history surrounding Christianity – bring up Mithras, bring up Magna Mater, bring up Cyrus the Great, they don't know anything about the cultural influences that informed early Christianity. You don't even have to know much about it, yourself! Let their confusion do your job for you. So, “Oh, that's nothing that Magna Mater didn't preach centuries before Jesus. Jesus is just the Jewish Attis.” Freaking out ensues.)

So, when Becky said in her comments to me that Christianity does well, even today, because it speaks the language of the common person, I think it's fair to look at that. Christianity's early successes were because of the connection between Christians and the common folks, starting with Jesus himself, but obviously continuing with Peter and Paul and all the evangelists. (It took Romans to make Christianity palatable to the upper classes, such as Augustine of Hippo.) Christianity's continuing successes are also due to that. Christians speak very common language.

(F'rex, George Bush! Gore, Nader, Kerry, they're all way too smart for people to trust them. Which doesn't mean that they're particularly intelligent – well, Nader's very bright, and Gore is fairly sharp, but Kerry is a profoundly mediocre intelligence – but they speak in a way alien to many Americans. Bush, tho' an idiot, is an idiot who connects with people on the level of language. He talks like regular people. Clinton, too, who is a brilliant speaker. He can speak intellectually when the situation needs it, but his lasting appeal is that he can speak in a very regular way and do so confidently and easily.)

Atheists? Not so much with the simple communication. Take probably the leading spokesperson for atheism, right now, Sam Harris. In an article in the LA Times he talks about Rep. Pete Stark coming out as a non-theist going to a Unitarian church. Excepts follow:

Of course, one can imagine that Cicero’s handlers in the 1st century BC lost some sleep when he likened the traditional accounts of the Greco-Roman gods to the “dreams of madmen” and to the “insane mythology of Egypt.”

That's in the second paragraph and he's already talking about dead Romans.

The truth is, there is not a person on Earth who has a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead or that Muhammad spoke to the angel Gabriel in a cave. And yet billions of people claim to be certain about such things. As a result, Iron Age ideas about everything high and low — sex, cosmology, gender equality, immortal souls, the end of the world, the validity of prophecy, etc. — continue to divide our world and subvert our national discourse. Many of these ideas, by their very nature, hobble science, inflame human conflict and squander scarce resources.

Subvert, inflame, cosmology . . . cosmology? I mean, there's a lot of diction that's pompous, here, but . . . cosmology? Who the fuck knows what that is, really? Not precisely the language to connect with most people. (Okay, I know what cosmology is - and I know that different people study it in different ways. Theologians study cosmology as much as astrophysicists. It is a diverse and divisive field.)

Outside this sphere of maniacs, one finds millions more who share their views but lack their zeal. Beyond them, one encounters pious multitudes who respect the beliefs of their more deranged brethren but who disagree with them on small points of doctrine — of course the world is going to end in glory and Jesus will appear in the sky like a superhero, but we can’t be sure it will happen in our lifetime.

Pious multitudes?!

Everything that Harris writes is like this. It doesn't bother me most of the time, because despite not liking pompous language, I know a lot of big words and, really, after reading Marx and Hegel everything else is cake. But to a lot of people, their eyes will start to glaze over the minute they hit Cicero. They will get the classist clues that This is Not For Them. That to engage in this discussion, you've got to know classical politicians well enough to catch obscure references to them.

A lot of atheist talk is this way. A lot of atheists are educated people, as virtually every atheist will say, and brag about. There is a strong correlation between atheism and education.

However, we do miss a lot of people with our learned discourse. There are a lot of less educated people who have things to say – important things to say, and the ability to say them with greater poetry than Sam Harris, or myself. But they're all locked out of the discussion because talking like Sam Harris is almost de rigeur to be taken seriously by atheists – unless you wear your intellectual credentials on your sleeve, you're likely to be ignored.

I think this is a pretty big problem and I call on all atheists to speak clearly. Very little of what atheists need to talk about, about atheism, can't be said in simple language. For the purposes of spreading atheism to those most at risk for the Christian (and other popular religions) meme requires us to learn plain talking, because they're already experts at it and have been for thousands of years. Speaking plainly will drain the religious swamp.

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300 review - but just the comic book

I haven't seen the movie. And, oddly, I don't find myself interested in seeing it. Which, if a person knows my movie tastes, which tend towards action movies, and knowing that I'm a trifle bit of a Hellenophile, well, it might strike one as odd.

But I've read the comic. I had to try twice, and the second time I just barely managed to choke it down. But I did read it, so I can comment on it.

First off, I guess, is the overt glorification of war. It's war so great! Which isn't enough, on it's own, to stop me from enjoying something. But with hollow phrases like, “Marry and have strong children” . . . I mean, ugh. Not only glorification but sexism. Could you tone down the testosterone just a little? Hey, it's Frank Miller. I guess I should be glad there wasn't a roller skating ninja prostitute in it. But the glorification was extra special glorification. It went that extra step – or two or three – to make it glorious and all. Gloriously glorious. High sounding. About freedom and reason against the forces of barbarism and tyranny (and I'll get to more of that in a minute). It made me wish for something where the glory was purer – about a soldier's vanity to be “the best”. Then I could have wallowed in the callow murderousness of the characters. But, no. This was about defending Western civilization.

I am, personally, sick and tired of all this crap about defending Western civilization! What's so fucking good about it? Because, for a couple of years, the West was technologically and militarily dominate? Some people might blather on about freedom. Except to all those people who were murdered and colonized. Talk to some Indians here in America about how much Europeans were interested in freedom . . . if you can find any, because they're all dead. (My absolute favorite part of "the West's" false sense of superiority is how, nowadays, we're talking about how those Muslims are persecuting the Jews. This boggles my mind. After Hilter kills six million of them, and Stalin kills who knows how many, we turn around and point the accusing finger at Muslims. The hypocrisy is astonishing.)

Second is the racism. The whole bit about, okay, get this, Spartans being the last hope of reason and liberty in the world is rich. The reason why the Spartans were such bad asses? Around 90% of Laconian population were slaves. Rather than have a few more freemen around, the Spartans decided, instead, to completely militarize their society so when the Helots rose up (which they variously did) the Spartans could put them down. Part of the ritual for becoming a man in Sparta was murdering a Helot. The Spartans were the repository of freedom?

Let's look at the idea that Spartans hold any intellectual values. Can you name a single Spartan of note that wasn't a soldier? A single artist, dramatist, philosopher, poet – really, anything? I can't. I've looked. The only art that the Spartans were good at, it seems, was choral singing, but apparently some people thought if flawed because it was relentlessly martial. So, yeah, the Spartans were the repository of reason.

They were filthy, illiterate thugs that advanced neither the arts or sciences one whit. Yes, filthy. Unlike everyone else in Greece, who bathed often, the Spartans weren't allowed to have water touch their skin, because it would then soften. They did bath. With olive oil. Which they never washed off. I can only imagine the mind-numbing stench, which might explain some of their combat prowess. Who can fight while retching because of the overwhelming stink of months old sweat and rancid olive oil?

While the comic, at least, takes pains to paint the Athenians as weak and . . . yes, gay.

I mean, gay? C'mon! Spartans had whole gay cohorts! We're talking cohort orgy stuff. The Spartans calling anyone else gay? Preposterous! But that's pure Frank Millerisms. Gay people can't be heroes. Homosexuals are all twisted, deformed rapists and perverts.

And, hey, you know that reason and liberty that the Spartans were talking about in the comic? Uh, that was not Spartan. It was, however, Athenian, y'know, all those artists, dramatists, philosophers, scholars, teachers and that democracy thing? Which the Spartans ended with the Peloponnesian War. The comparison to the intellectual and artistic output of Greece before and after the war is stunning. Sparta's domination of Greece ended Greece's golden age. If "weakness" means producing some of the greatest art, philosophy and science the world has ever seen, I'm pretty pro-weakness. (I should point out that it is also simply a canard that the Athenians didn't know how to fight. The people who eventually kicked the Persians out were Athenians in a series of naval battles. If the Athenians hadn't broken the Persian fleet, Mardonius would have conquered Greece, Spartans or not.)

Now let us look at the Persians. Would it really be so bad, for us here and now, if Persia had won that war and conquered Greece? Were the Persians really so bad?

Well, no, not really. Persia was one of the great classical civilizations. At the time, the Persians were ahead of the Greeks in all the arts and sciences -- particularly mathematics and astronomy. Greece was a poor, backwaters nation of goat herds and fisherman. Sure, hundreds of years in the future they would do some pretty cool stuff, but the Persians weren't any worse than the Greeks and in some ways better. (Not to mention that the odds are that the Persians wouldn't have been able to hold Greece even if they conquered it. The Persian Empire historically became overextended by the time it reached the Eastern Mediterranean. You see this again and again.) All through history, the Persians produced artists and scientists, going through several golden ages of their own. Really, things might be a little different if Persia conquered Greece, but it wouldn't have been the extinction of light and reason in the world! Ugh.

And, okay, boys and girls, here's a secret: the Persians were Aryans. They were not black. They weren't even particularly brown. At that time, the Persians were basically three generations from being off the steppes. The centuries of mixing with the various brown people they conquered hadn't happened, yet. The Persians were as white as the Greeks.

Sure, the Persians had subjugated a lot of brown-skinned people, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Jews, Assyrians, etc., and the bulk of the Persian army was certainly brown-skinned people. The key thing here being brown.

So, making the Persians black doesn't make any historical sense. So why do it?

Oh, right, you're portraying things between the noble white defenders of reason and freedom against those dumb sand niggers who are tyrants and idiots. Fuck you, Frank.

Certainly, the Battle of Thermopylae is a thrilling story. And, perhaps, it is “pivotal” to “Western civilization” (tho' I think that “Western civilization” is itself a myth, so I don't buy that the Battle of Thermopylae was much of anything other than a battle of one group of murderous thugs against another band of murderous thugs; see my previous comments about the Spartans). But as the comic was conceived it's nothing but a bunch of war glorifying, racist crap. Therefore, my interest in seeing a movie based on it is very low.

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American religions "education" revealed!

From Hell's Handmaiden I followed a link going to to this Wonkette article about LA Times article. So works the blogosphere. Someone needs to link me, next, and thus continue the cycle of life.

Anyway, it's about how even religious Americans know next to nothing about the Bible, even tho' many of us feel that it is the inerrant word of the Fairy in the Sky.

Some quotations! We love cherry-picked quotations, right? Right!

U.S. citizens know almost nothing about the Bible. Although most regard it as the word of God, few read it anymore. Even evangelicals from the Bible Belt seem more focused on loving Jesus than on learning what he had to say.

In the course of talking to people about writing Simon Peter, I have to say that this is largely the case, yeah. Even people who claim to be Christians know, at best, a few stock phrases out of the Bible, generally meant to "prove" a very specific point. My favorite being that the Bible isn't really anti-gay. I never get tired of hearing how the Bible isn't anti-gay, really. Let's ignore the part about murdering them.

Surveys that are more scientific have found that only one out of three U.S. citizens is able to name the four Gospels, and one out of 10 think that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. No wonder pollster George Gallup has concluded that the United States is "a nation of biblical illiterates."

The depths of ignorance astonish me. Most Christians can't name the Gospels (accepting that around 70% of the populaton is nominally Christian). The irony here is that many atheists are pretty well versed in the Bible. Go figure.

Then, of course, they swoop in for the kill. The Bible should be taught -- in a secular fashion -- in schools, and specifically the Bible.

Some have argued against Bible courses in public schools on the theory that they would unconstitutionally "establish" Judeo-Christianity. For Scripture courses to be lawful, this argument goes, teachers must give equal time to all the world's scriptures, treating the Bible as one scripture among many. But the Bible is of sufficient importance in Western civilization to merit its own course. Treating it no differently from, say, the Zend-Avesta of the Zoroastrians or Scientology's Dianetics makes no educational sense.

Which, if I had any confidence that such a course would factually be taught with the Bible as literature I'd be all about it. Indeed, I'm also thinking that it would be better to teach the Bible as sacred writ -- it's so bad, boring, nonsensical and altogether banal that it would drive people away from Christianity in droves. However, since it is Georgia that is pioneering a program to teach the Bible as literature as an elective . . . well, I think that we all know what's really gonna go on in those classrooms. It is a (transparent) attempt to establish religion which is still illegal.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

A new messiah!

A crazy self-proclaimed messiah.

Let us give snippets:

Tari, the leader of an obscure cult with 6,000 followers, had been on the run since last June, when he escaped from custody with the help of a Lutheran pastor. Suspected of raping scores of girls and carrying out sacrificial killings, Tari eluded police by staying on the move and hiding in far-flung mountain villages.

This is, in my reading, pretty par for the course. Murdering and rapist messiahs are the norm, not the aberration. For another example of this, read about Jeffrey Don Lundgren.

Police are investigating the murder of three girls whose flesh Tari allegedly ate after they were killed.

I have to admit the cannibalism is pretty rare, tho'.

Of course, religious folks will say that their particular messiah was different, and truly inspired by whatever god is said to inspire them, but this is keeping in line with my research on messiahs, generally. They are frauds, kooks or both.

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Moving Blocks to Anthropology – The Value of Work

Yesterday, I posted a YouTube video about a man who was able to move twenty ton blocks pretty much single handed. It's a crazy video. Watch it if you haven't, already. It's the next post down from this one.

The man's obsession is with moving things by hand and with simple tools. He's done stuff like moved barns and the like, essentially alone. Beyond his work being a study for people who are interested in efficiency and low powered, cheap ways of moving heavy objects, he has entered the realms of anthropology, now, because he's making assertions that can't be ignored. He has demonstrated that one guy can move a Stonehenge sized block, which suddenly means that “how they did it” has become vastly simplified. No longer do we have to hypothesize armies of workers like with the Egyptian pyramids, but just some mechanically minded people with rocks and sticks.

It never ceases to amaze me me how things are connected! It never ceases to amaze me that something I wouldn't have thought would go anywhere has gotten where it's gone! A man who, hitherto, had been a construction worker has entered the fray of archeology and anthropology!

It is things like this that convince me never to overlook or underestimate someone's work, that convinces me that the development of humanity is contingent on people doing what they want to do, not what society forces them to do. How many service sector workers are squandering unknown talents because rather than laboring in a system that values whatever it is they choose to do, instead uses economic coercion and social ridicule them into jobs they desperately do not want to do and, really, we could do without, anyway?

Anything can change the world. A man who moves blocks can become significant to archeology! I feel the greatest efforts of humanity are suppressed because we're foolishly tied to a system that channels people into separate bubbles, often against their wishes. This squandering of human talent and potential must end!

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Friday, March 16, 2007


From God is for Suckers comes yet another cool YouTube video!

This man, with neolithic tools, by himself, successfully erected a Stonehenge sized block. By himself. He thinks that the folks in Stonehenge must have done something similar, which may never be known, but he has conclusively demonstrated that it can be done with very simple tools.

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Writing update - a better week

The SCA event I went to last weekend really helped clear me out. While I didn't write as many words as I might have wanted to write -- which I blame on blogging, hehe -- where I am going next is clearly laid out.

Also bolstering my spirits is that Santiago read the first part of Simon Peter and said it was good, and Becky read most of the second part and said that she liked it better than the first part.

I was pleased that she, in particular, seemed to latch onto the point I was trying to make -- about how a reasonably sensible person becomes, over time, to accept the absurdities of a religious nutjob against all reason. A lot of that stuff I took from descriptions of how rational, otherwise intelligent people would join and then stay in cults like Jim Jones' People's Temple or the Branch Davidians -- even after it became clear that the cult leader was a violent hypocrite. It's actually really fascinating stuff, but I've long been fascinated with how intelligent people can make horribly wrong decisions. It is, I think, key to understanding a lot of the world's ills. Not just religious, but political, economic, social, etc.

Next week I should be finishing part two, as well. I hope. I've already started doing the more detailed plotting for part three, which will focus on Jesus' ministry and last days. For those of you who have read any of Simon Peter to this point, I assure you that the sex, violence and intrigue of the first two parts continues quite unabated.

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Christians. Huh.

Centurion, who posted on this blog's comment sections, mentioned me on his own blog. So I commented. Perhaps it wasn't the most polite post I've ever made, but since he was making fun of me -- including the fact that I've been in a couple of college classes, which was weird because you'd think education was good, right? -- I was quite restrained. Also, I wanted to give the people who read his blog a chance to see my site.

So, what does he do? He gives me an angry clown face icon -- that's not my icon -- and he replaces my webpage link! Then he is praised for this by the people who on his board.

Huh. V. interesting, I think. Sure, I wouldn't have expected much of a fair shake on his board, and it's not like I'm in the habit of giving Christians a fair shake on my board, tho' my policy is to be firm but polite (I think they are very wrong, largely, and I am not shy about saying that, but I try to do it in a way that avoids personal attacks), and on every other blog I've posted on, even the ones where I radically disagree with the content of the blog, I've tried to be polite or at least jovial in my disagreement . . . so this treatment, I admit, comes as a surprise.

Particularly from a Christian. My favorite Bible quotation on this subject is Matthew 7:15-23:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them.

Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?' Then I will declare to them solemnly, 'I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.'

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Mr. Deity!

I got this from the God is for Suckers blog. It is v. funny. There are 8 Mr. Deities on YouTube.


An Ann Coulter spoof. Also from God is for Suckers. V. funny.


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Science-fiction and Deeply Blasphemous

My friend, Santiago, a magician . . . er, meaning a performer, not some guy who thinks he can cast fireball three times a day, well, Santiago has convinced me that this space could also be used to discuss the first novel I've written -- also unpublished, hehe -- Condotierri.

Condotierri is a science-fiction novel. I suspect a more precise definition might be cyberpunk. Or perhaps neo-noir. However, a lot of the background is due to my feelings on anarcho-capitalism and the setting was distinctly inspired by David Friedman, the economist. Which will mean that I'll be blogging about a somewhat more diverse array of subjects. Which might be good for my sanity, tho' this remains to be seen.

Anyway, I'm hoping that y'all like science-fiction inspired ramblings, too!

Garrison Keillor vs. Dan Savage -- Pity the Foo'

From the Friendly Atheist I got clued in about Garrison Keillor's latest homophobic and stereotypical faux pas. I've been blessed never to really get his humor -- that folksy crap really just sets my nerves on edge and has always come off as condescending. Well, he hasn't gotten any better with time and is now a fully on bigoted fuckwit.

However, I shan't say more about this because Dan Savage goes on a bit about this, starting with "Fuck Garrison Keillor". Ah, how I do love thee, Dan Savage.

PLUS, Dan Savage on the movie 300! I think I have finally worn myself out on Frank Miller, quite entirely.

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Why Do I Hate Christians?

Is that title risible enough? I hope so. Anyway, the origin of this post was that after posting the stuff about, er, y'know, raping Jesus and attacking the idea of liberal Christians several people told me they were uncomfortable with how I thought about Christians.

I don't hate Christians, though many might think I do, even after I explain why my problems are far more with Christianity. However, I understand and accept that when a person attacks a religion they are attacking one of the absolutely core beliefs of a large group of people. You can't attack Christianity (or any living religion) without attacking a lot of people. Still, to me the distinction is important: I don't hate Christians, my problem is with Christianity in general and those specific individuals that do a lot of horrible things in the name of Christianity. That said, I don't think that the damage done by attacking Christianity (in the sense that Christians will be hurt) is sufficient to deter me from doing it. I feel that Christianity needs to be attacked.

And by attacked, I don't mean that Christians should be attacked physically or even verbally for being Christian. I think that the ideas that support and buttress Christianity need to be attacked, such as the idea that Jesus was the “Son of God” or rose from the dead, or that Christianity provides a solid ground for a moral code.

(I also think that the separation of church and state we have in the US doesn't go nearly far enough. I think it is time to move beyond the establishment of one religion over another being forbidden to the idea that, truly, no religions at all should be established. And by this I mean removing the special rights that religions – all religions – possess. I do not think that religious people should have rights to confidentiality for their parishioners. I don't think that churches should be tax exempt. I think that these sorts of laws establish not a specific religion but religion, generally, by making it easier for religions to exist.)

Still, is Christianity so bad that it needs to be attacked? My answer is, “Yes.”

Right now, in the United States, it is clear that fundamentalist Christianity is the most politically powerful form of Christianity. That would be bad enough in any country. But the damage that fundamentalism can do is magnified by the power of the United States. The US is the “sole remaining superpower”. The authority the US wields, globally, is immense. Fundamentalist Christians can, and certainly do, manipulate the power of the US to enact a global agenda that suits their ends.

For instance, virtually every country in the world believes that the US should stop supporting Israel's conquest of Gaza and the West Bank. One of the key components of continued support of the policy of supporting Israel with three billion dollars of military assistance every year is fundamentalist Christians. They see the existence of Israel as one of the necessary preconditions of their eschatology – meaning that the Second Coming and the end of the world can't happen unless the Jews possess Israel, which is traditionally seen as incorporating Gaza and the West Bank. To at least some extent, US foreign policy is being shaped by the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians and effecting millions of people in Palestine.

Likewise, it is now forbidden for the US to give aid to organizations that provide abortions. While liberal forces in the US are unlikely to allow abortion to be criminalized at home, they aren't willing to fight hard enough to prevent foreign aid being so restricted. Again, international policy is being set to fit fundamentalist priorities.

The forces of fundamentalism in the United States have, through their insinuation into American government, a truly global reach.

Additionally, I don't see or feel, really, Christian attempts to stop fundamentalism from being the dominate political force in America. I can go to the NY Times best-seller lists and find five books, right now, that are attacks on various sorts of religious fundamentalism written by atheists. I can find no attacks on Christian religious fundamentalism written by Christians on that same list. It is trivially easy to find fundamentalist attacks on just about anything done by liberals, leftists or atheists – including attempts to end abortion choices, stop the teaching of evolution in schools, all manner of warmongering, homophobia, sexism, racism, classism by conservative forces. You just have to turn on Fox News or the Christian Broadcasting Channel. Where is the liberal Christian response to this? Scant to the point of being invisible.

Christian religions in other countries also don't seem to be doing very much to stop American fundamentalism. This strikes me as huge cop out. I understand that most religions are pretty local – that truly international denominations are pretty rare. On what grounds would, say, the Danish Lutheran Church condemn the Southern Baptist Convention? I would say “morality”. But, like with liberal Christians in American, if they are challenging US fundamentalists they aren't making a very big noise about it. (This is ironic to me because Christians have little problem telling liberal and moderate Muslims in Western nations that they are morally obligated to control Islam's fundamentalist sects in Middle Eastern countries.)

So, what does a person do? They see a problem – Christian fundamentalism – and they see that Christians aren't doing anything about it. They believe that something, in fact, does need to be done about it. What do they do?

Different people, of course, would do different things. The thing I'm doing, of course, is writing a book about Jesus, Simon Peter and the formation of Christianity and writing on my blog about it. I'm also fixing to try to get speaking gigs on the subject.

Still, this isn't driven by a hatred of Christians, but a deep distrust of Christianity – and the fundamentalists that are trying to wreck the world and the moderates and liberals who aren't doing jack shit about it.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Earliest human ritual was worshipin' a snake!

I stole this from krystalline apostate's blog bibliography and he, apparently, stole it from Logical Cloud's blog, so I'm in good company with the theft.

Anyway, the world's oldest ritual has been discovered. It involves worshiping a python, which is precisely the kind of large, dangerous animal that I think early peoples found easy to deify. Not because of philosophical reasons, but just because a python can crush a stupid human pretty quick -- because the snake was stronger than a human. I mean, there's no way I'd confront a python (if I had any say in the matter) with Middle Stone Age tools!

Messiah on Messiah Combat!

Most Christians are totally ignorant that the 1st century CE was an era of tremendous messiah activity beyond Jesus. (Indeed, generally, the lack of cultural knowledge that most Christians have about that time period that wasn't directly tied to the Gospels I've found consistently shocking. I've met a dozen Christians who know everything about the events in the Bible, but can't hold a conversation about Tiberius, the Emperor at the time of Jesus' death. And, like Mel Gibson, most Christians think that Romans in the area spoke Latin . . . even tho' in the Book of Acts the Gentile party is referred to as the Greeks and the New Testament being an almost entirely Greek document originally.) Jesus had serious competitors in a variety of ways and the Christian victory was sure from assured.

The first place we can see the struggle between messiahs is the struggle between Jesus and John the Baptist. Most Christians accept without thinking about it that John the Baptist was, consciously, waiting for a messiah and that messiah happened to be Jesus, but there was an obvious struggle between early Christians and followers of John the Baptist.

You can see some of this in the Bible, itself. In Matthew 9:14 the disciples of John the Baptist criticize Jesus' disciples for their lax fasting habits. (Jesus answers them that his disciples might as well enjoy the good times while Jesus is still alive, likening himself to a bridegroom, because soon he'll be gone and misery will await them.) In Matthew 11:2-3, a couple of John's disciples question whether Jesus is the Messiah. (Jesus sends them away with no answer, but orders them to go tell John the Baptist of his works and deeds.) (I will also presume that anyone who reads this can find Bible quotations without me linking them. A trifle lazy, perhaps, but I don't use the Internet for my Bible and I don't have links for all this stuff laying around.)

By the time Luke was written – some twenty or more years after Matthew and Mark – there is even more signs of struggle. A fair bit of Luke is designed to demonstrate that John the Baptist is clearly Jesus' inferior, and that John the Baptist recognized it. So, in the Gospel of Luke, there is an extremely self-serving account of John the Baptist's birth where Luke time and against makes it clear that John the Baptist is the inferior of Jesus and knew it. Luke chapter 1 is just full of Elizabeth and Mary going on about how how Mary's child is so much greater than Elizabeth's, specifically the Magnificat and Ave Maria. Otherwise, Luke follows Matthew in the disciples of John the Baptist questioning of Jesus.

By the time that the Gospel of John was written, the overt struggle between Christians and the followers of John the Baptist had largely come to an end. John the Evangelist was very confident in the Baptist's inferiority. In John 1:20, the Baptist clearly says he's not “the Christ”. In John 1:21-23 he says he's not even a prophet, really, but just “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” to “make straight the way of the Lord.” And in John 1:32, the Baptist sees the Holy Spirit descending into Jesus and in John 1:34, the Baptist said, “And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.” Nevertheless, later on the questioning of Jesus that occurs in Matthew and Luke resurfaces in John, too.

Still, this is all pretty veiled. Most Christians don't even realize there's an ancient religion that continues to exist to this very day where John the Baptist is considered the Messiah and Jesus a traitor to John – the Mandeans. These are a non-Jewish, non-Muslim, non-Christian group of people who acknowledge Adam, Noah and John the Baptist as prophets but not Abraham, Moses, Jesus or Mohammad. They also seem to have been influenced by Chaldean and Babylonian religions, as well as Zoroastrianism. I am not claiming expertise. Indeed, it is hard for anyone to claim expertise because the Mandeans have as one of their religious creeds near absolute secrecy.

Unlike Baha'i (who also refer John the Baptist), the Mandeans are an ancient religion. Because of their intense secrecy, small numbers and the vicious persecution that has occasionally befallen them, there is no clear connection between Mandeans and the disciples of John the Baptist who questioned Jesus. It does, however, demonstrate that religions that followed John the Baptist existed in antiquity and that John the Baptist was, and is, the messiah in some people's eyes. This lends considerable credence, I think, to the notion that the treatment of John the Baptist in the Bible is due to the competition between the followers of the Baptist and the followers of Jesus.

However, by the time of the Gospels of Luke and John, Christianity had grown considerably towards Rome and amongst the Gentiles. If we take the Mandeans as evidence of the direction that the followers of John the Baptist went, they went into Persia – which could explain the high-handed way Luke and John treat the Baptist. Christians and primitive Mandeans didn't intersect very much, with Christians spreading to the West towards Rome and the Mandeans going east into Persia. However, it is indisputable that people in antiquity took John the Baptist very seriously as a messiah.

This is bolstered by Josephus in The Antiquities of the Jews where in Book 18, chapter 5, Josephus talks about John the Baptist as a good Jew and a holy man but does not refer to Jesus at all in connection with John the Baptist. So, by the 70s CE, when Josephus wrote The Antiquities, John the Baptist wasn't linked to Christianity much less as an inferior to Jesus.

While, in the end, the cult of Jesus would clearly grow far beyond the cult of John, for a while it was clearly touch and go. But there was a bigger Messiah that Jesus had to face. Growing into the Roman Empire it became inevitable that Christianity would have to deal with, in some fashion, Rome's most powerful religions: Mithraism and Magna Mater.

Mithraism, like all mystery cults, is a hard nut to crack because secrecy was part and parcel of the religion. However, it was very popular amongst the Roman army and was the official cult of several of the Legions. It . . . had certain issues that limited it's popularity, such as being open only to men and having a complex and uncomfortable initiatory rite. As a soldier's religion, it worked because soldiers have all that macho bravado going for them, but amongst the general population the rites were fairly extreme. The cult of Magna Mater, on the other hand, or the worship of the Great Mother, was nigh universal. In the ancient world, over time, the mother goddesses tended to get rolled up into a single character – the Magna Mater – with similar rites from modern Afghanistan to Portugal. Between Mithraism and Magna Mater, virtually every Roman shared in some of their rites.

The struggle against these religions is subsumed under the Christian struggle against “paganism” and even Christians acknowledge that it was a bitter struggle. What they don't seem to grasp is that virtually all the great holy days of the Christian calendar, such as Christmas and Easter, come from either Mithraism or the Magna Mater cult. Indeed, things like the resurrection can easily be traced back to myths about Attis, Osiris, Dionysus and Tammuz, all of whom informed both the rites of Mithraism and Magna Mater and would go on to influence Christianity through those religions.

Christianity overcame this obstacle through a multi-faceted strategy and some luck. If Christianity had stayed a Jewish religion, I suspect it would have died out. But by conversions of Romans, Christianity both spread through the Empire as well as started to adopt more and more characteristics of the big Roman religions at the time which helped to distinguish it from Judiasm. This was particularly assisted by the various destructions of the Jews at Roman hands, both in 70 CE and again in 135 CE. After the second rebellion lead by Simon bar Kochba, there wasn't many Jews left in Judea or Galilee as the Romans destroyed over 900 Jewish towns and villages, destroyed Jerusalem itself and forbid Jews to enter the city after replacing the Jewish Temple with one to Jupiter. The diaspora of the Jews was complete – there was no “home” to return to for 1800 years. This allowed the Gentile sect of Christians to gain total dominance over the religion, with a decidedly Roman character. So, Roman festivals and holidays were brought wholesale into Christianity, making it easier for Romans to convert to Christianity – it was like Mithraism or Magna Mater without a lot of the attending hassles of belonging to those religions.

The second big break came when Constantine I opted for Christianity to receive special Imperial sanction in the Edict of Milan. Effectively, Christianity had become the state cult of the Empire. This allowed Christians to spread without fear of retaliation through the Empire, often engaging in massacres and land theft to bolster their own religion. Most people believe that Constantine, himself, wasn't particularly a Christian and used Christianity to unify the Empire under a single religion for political reasons. I accept this as true. He is a Christian saint in virtually all Christian religions that allow that sort of thing, however.

However, the expansion of Christianity wasn't certain, and Christianity had a lot to overcome towards becoming the world's largest religion.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Good Christian Blogs - Give a Brother a Break!

I'm looking for some good Christian blogs and I can't seem to find any. I'm looking for some that are either intelligently written liberal or leftist Christian blogs or frothing at the mouth fundie conservative blogs. I've been able to find a few with the appropriate content but almost uniformly they've been agonizing to read with hideous color schemes and terrible layouts - so I guess that's a priority, too, that it be readable in a purely aesthetic sense that doesn't defile my eyes.

So, can I get some help, here? Seriously. I promise not to troll . . . well, not too much, and to be as respectful as I possibly can.

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Where Do Gods Come From, Again?

In 1898, in Kenya, two lions killed around 140 people. The Tsavo brothers managed to do this in 1898 in a camp with a dozen people with guns capable of dropping a rhino. The Champawat tiger killed over four hundred people before being shot in 1907.

Could you imagine what it would be like living near something like the Tsavo brothers or the Champawat tiger not in the 19th or 20th century, but, say, the Late Stone Age? These cunning animals killed around six hundred people between them.

Could you imagine what would happen if a lion was terrorizing your community and one man went out and killed it? What would you do?

Well, you'd probably name him Hercules and deify him.

Likewise, a lot of early religions have the gods battling fierce animals. So you have Gilgamesh taking the bull by the horns and killing it. This is mimicked by Mithras defeat of Taurus the Cosmic Bull. Ragnarok is an orgy of wolf on god violence – and, overwhelmingly, the wolves win. Skoll eats the sun, Hati will eat the moon, Fenrir will eat Odin, Garm will kill and be killed by Tyr.

As an urban youth, I was actually slightly confused about the stories of the Nemean Lion and the Cosmic Bull. I thought to myself, “They're just animals.” I think this is commonplace. We have forgotten the power of animals, because for tens of thousands of years in our pre-history, humans waged a terrible struggle against these animals whose conclusion was not obvious to the humans at the time. We can't even imagine what it must be like to try to fight a bull, wolf, tiger, bear or lion with an underpowered bow and spear with a chip of stone for a tip – especially if that animal had already killed someone. Or, perhaps, literally dozens or even hundreds of people. How does a person face it? I suspect, usually they don't survive and either the man-eater destroys the community, moves on or dies of something else. Even a bull, which wouldn't be given to killing humans, could do terrible damage to a fragile neolithic community, quite capable of destroying houses and barns back when they were made of fragile mud and wattle, shattering the jars where grain was stored and generally creating an awesome fuss.

Now, two points. The first is that such an animal could easily be considered divine, either sent by the gods as an affliction or actually being the physical presence of a god. It would be considered unstoppable. Thus all the animal motif gods and goddesses in that old time religion. Before humans had technologically developed enough to protect themselves from animal attacks, there would be pretty good reason to at least consider the possibility that animals – especially large, dangerous ones – were divine. (And, if they were man-eaters, that they were akin to demon gods, thus the Norse obsession with god killing wolves or monstrous Nemean lions and their kin.)

The second point is that if someone did manage to kill one of these monsters they would take on special significance. If a man-eating lion is considered divine, certainly the person who fought and killed such a beast must, therefore, be divine – a god or sent by the gods. Hell, even today if someone killed a man-eating lion not with a gun, not even with a spear, but a club we'd be intensely impressed.

Usually, when people talk about the formation of religion they attribute it to crude attempts to understand the world around them. Arthur Schopenhauer pointed out (in On the Freedom of the Will and perhaps other places) that the difference between your body and all other matter in the universe is that your body is matter that obeys your will directly. So, in primitive times, the hypothesis goes, people attributed all motion to some will – the wind blows not because of differences of heat and pressure in the atmosphere over large areas but because a spirit (a word whose etymology, in nearly all languages, comes from “breath”) wills it to occur. The sun rises and sets not because the earth is rotating on it's axis in revolution around a star, but because a divine force carries it across the sky. The earth moves not because of tectonic activity, but because a divine force causes the ground to shake.

I suspect there is some truth to this. But in most religions before there is a sky god or an earth god there are beast gods. Thus, the neolithic gods such as Coyote or Raven. Or even the bestial Pan and Zeus' numerous transformations into animals (usually to rape some poor woman) and his frequent identification as a bull. Before most people started developing human-shaped gods we developed ones based on animals.

Mostly it has to do with technological development. In neolithic and moreso in paleolithic times, animals could seem to have it pretty good. Not just the big, dangerous ones, either. But while humans are freezing at wintertimes, man animals simply grow a new coat of heavy fur to survive the winter. Animals were, generally, faster and seemed stronger than humans, and rather than having to depend on crude tools they were naturally equipped with claws, teeth, horns – not to mention, sometimes, wings. Very primitive technology didn't seem nearly as good as the things animals were born having.

Also, before the invention of animal husbandry, how did anyone know how clever animals were or weren't? Was the howling of wolves singing in a tongue no person understood? The grunts and snorts of a bull a language unknown to humans? After all, animals seemed to have complex social rituals as well as knowledge of events humans didn't seem to have – such as running ahead of a fire before humans could smell, hear or see it. Without the knowledge of animal husbandry, before humans had prolonged contact with any animals, how could we judge their intelligence at all?

Our first gods were animals, in short, because they could kick our asses. Faster, stronger, able to survive without needing fire, or spears – independent and free – animals were often thought of humans to be superior to humans. I think it was only with the advent of animal husbandry and metallurgy – themselves acts attributed to divine skill – was it that humans started looking for humanocentric and then abstract gods. It took a while for us to be filled with enough pride in our own skill to believe human-like gods worth worshiping and even a little while longer to imagine transcendent gods. But in the beginning, humans worshiped animals because, well, they deserved it. They appeared divine.

Epilogue: I am also thinking that the very notion of placating gods (and the elaborate rituals around that) might have come from the animal worship phase of human pre-history. While it is patently absurd to placate the sun, it is possible to placate a dangerous animal. So, leaving a single goat tied to an altar so the wolves eat that, get their fill and then ignore the rest of your herd in the barn – well, that could happen. That could work. Then, when more human-like and then transcendent gods started replacing animal gods, the sacrifices were transferred over to the new gods even though placation is impossible (thus also the tendency, over time, for sacrifices to be useful to priests and not gods – sacrificing a goat makes sense if you're trying to give a wolf a full belly to save the rest of your stock, but there's only so many goats that a priest could possibly use so, y'know, why not give money instead).

Epilogue 2: The main reason I wrote this is because on a couple of different blogs have spread the sentiments of the post under this link relating Christianity to solar cults around. I am generally of the opinion that solar worship is a very civilized thing and while I think that Christianity does have a lot in common with solar cults (notably, Mithraism from which Christianity stole so much, from virgin births to last suppers to birthdays, tho' I also think that Christianity has been stripped of almost all it's solar content), I don't think that the origins of religion have much to do with the weather which wasn't nearly as important during the pre-civilized periods of human history during which religion developed.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

My first troll!

On my post about liberal Christians I got an anonymous response that compared me to Bush and was so offended about Simon Peter that he wished me financial ruin! (I'm sure he was wishing ill on me in a most Jesus-like way.)

Yay! Troll!

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Why I Wrote Simon Peter

This is a rough draft of an essay that might end up as a epilogue to Simon Peter explaining a bit why I'd choose to write the book as I have. Y'know. Deeply blasphemous.

Why I'm Writing Simon Peter

Does the world need a book where Jesus is viciously raped, the our erstwhile hero is a violent, sexist, racist multiple murderer? Why would anyone feel the urge to devote the huge time and energy it takes to write a novel into writing this novel?

The book is directed, generally, at two groups of people. The first group is Christians and, more generally, anyone who is religious. I think everyone gets that. The second group of people I'm addressing is more subtle. It's atheists.

It is obvious I'm attacking Christians. There is a purpose to the attack, however. What I am trying to emphasize in Simon Peter is that to call oneself a Messiah really puts a person out there on a limb in the sanity department. Christians, of course, believe that Jesus was the Son of God and, therefore, things that would be crazy out of another person are perfectly sane coming from Jesus – because he's the Son of God. But what if he wasn't? Sure, Christians aren't supposed to think that way. There are hints of it in the Gospels, themselves, such as Jesus' doubts in Gethsemane and his cry on the cross that God had forsaken him – brief glimpses which suggest that maybe Jesus was a mortal man and in his last hours he doubted his divinity and, as he came to die, believed himself to be forsaken entirely.

So I ran with that. I said to myself that let us assume that Jesus is akin to other self-proclaimed messiahs. In addition to studying material about the Bible, I also studied self-proclaimed messiahs – L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, David Koresh and Jim Jones. I overwhelmingly preferred messiahs who existed entirely in history and those who lived fairly recently. In other contexts I've done study of Mohammad and Simon bar Kokhba, but with pre-modern messianic figures the texts are both sketchy and highly colored. The newer the research, the more likely the researchers were to try to learn about family details and be able to write about them in an open and honest fashion.

What I found was that, even in the case of Hubbard, money and power don't seem to be the real motivations. The messiah might get rich but that's almost secondary to what they actually seek. What they seek are followers, people who listen to them, who believe them and who love them.

Insofar as I can tell – and it is hard to learn even with these figures in many cases – they share certain childhood traits. All or almost all of them were abused as children or suffered difficult childhoods. At least two of them I mentioned (Jim Jones and David Koresh) were known to be sexually abused. All of them would later display behavior that I believe suggests deep childhood trauma concerning sex.

Indeed, more than any one thing, sex unites this group. All of them used their position to get sex. Hubbard not only used his position to seduce the wives of his followers, he eventually created a staff of preteen girls who would sleep with him (without sex, we are told) in order to replenish his energies. Smith and Young used their position to accumulate many wives, sometimes resorting to harsh means to separate a desired woman from another man (such as forcing the a couple to divorce or break off engagements). David Koresh eventually demanded that married couples don't have sex with each other, but that Koresh would have unlimited access to sex all the Branch Davidians. Jim Jones also used his position to coerce sex from his followers and used some of them as prostitutes to seduce government officials in Guyana. Each and every one of them had sexual habits that radically deviated from the norm that they used their religion to justify.

All of them also engaged in a variety of self-destructive behavior. Smith and Young routinely flouted the authority of the US government and several times brought the wrath of the state down on their church, almost destroying it repeatedly. Jim Jones eventually lead his church into mass suicide and murder. David Koresh provoked the federal government into actions that lead to the destruction of his church and followers, as well. Hubbard was also expert at provoking governments and fled several countries and was chased out of several ports of call. Here is where Jesus fits the pattern more clearly. (It is easy to see Jesus as being kin to these other messiahs, because the Bible talks about Jesus' provocation of the authorities that leads to his destruction. It's one of the main themes of the Gospels.)

But very few novels or stories explore the idea that Jesus was a figure not too different than David Koresh or L. Ron Hubbard. They are either written with Jesus either divine or divinely inspired, or they are written with Jesus being a social revolutionary. To me, the first is impossible because I don't believe in any god at all and the second isn't well supported by the Gospels. Jesus doesn't do anything revolutionary except claim to be a messiah. In our day and age, someone who claims messiahdom is regarded as a liar, mad or both. Reading about messiahs I came to the conclusion that a historical Jesus either did not claim to be a messiah or he did and was a liar, mad or both. In terms of making the story more interesting, it is easy to see why I chose to make Jesus a madman and charlatan.

Then, making him a madman and charlatan, like so-called messiahs seem to be, when constructing Jesus' life I was guided by the messiahs I'd read about. Therefore, he had to have a difficult childhood full of abuse and neglect to justify his later grandiose delusions. He had to enact his childhood trauma in the present with bizarre sexual activity and self-destructive behavior. The character, ultimately, wrote himself and I just had to fit him into the narrative structure of the Gospels (which which I obviously took considerably liberty).

Even if Jesus was as mentally ill, a liar and self-destructive, he would be completely whitewashed by his followers. Of course, as failed messiahs neither Koresh nor Jones have many (if any) followers left to whitewash their names; thus the unusually good quality of information about them. However, Smith, Young and Hubbard all have official biographies that are promoted by their religions, and these official records read radically different than biographies written by people outside their faith. The only records we really have about Jesus that claim to be first-hand accounts are the Gospels, and they're so biased and it is so common for religions to whitewash their leaders that it is impossible to know the truth of any historical Jesus. It'd be like trusting Scientology to give an unbiased record of L. Ron Hubbard's life. I think that my version of events is far closer to the truth than the Gospels – even if you took the miracles and resurrection out of the Gospels, I suspect my story is closer to the truth.

My wild hope with the Christian audience is that they will start to view Jesus as a person, not as this idealized superbeing. I know that's fairly daft of me. Writing a book that has Jesus as a mad charlatan and Peter as a murderer isn't designed to win many Christians over. I can live with that, particularly because there is a second group to whom this is addressed: atheists.

In my experience, most atheists treat the figure of Jesus with fairly elaborate praise. Take Friedrich Nietzsche. Yeah. That Nietzsche. In The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche glorifies Jesus as being this joyous person who fully lived his life and gloriously accepted his death. It goes on for eight pages – this despite Nietzsche's legendary hatred of all things Christian. Except, apparently, Jesus.

That sort of behavior is commonplace. When humanists and atheists write or speak publicly about Jesus, it's always with intense deference to Jesus as a person. So, while a given atheist might condemn Christianity they almost never seriously attack Jesus. Mostly, in my experience, they frame Jesus as this valid social revolutionary trying to transform society, struggling valiantly against the corrupt Jewish collaborators that ran Jerusalem and/or the Roman Empire.

This seriously undermines the atheist stance against Christians, particularly to outsiders of both atheism and Christianity. The Christians say, “Love Jesus! Join us!” And the atheists too often say, “Religion sucks! But, y'know, that Jesus guy is okay.”

Except that we don't know he was okay. At best, he's repeating things said better by other people, such as Hillel the Elder, and cribbing notes from Hellenic mystery cults and Mithraism. So, then, why do we go to Jesus as this important source of ideas that he didn't come up with? Especially in light of the behavior of real people who declare themselves to be messiahs? As I said, the odds are my depiction of Jesus is more accurate than religious accounts. It is also probably more accurate than secular accounts which always have Jesus being this intellectual revolutionary, a serious man about serious business, who was merely speaking in the language of his time. But there is no reason at all to think that way. If a person reads the Bible to find the “historical Jesus” what one comes up with is a simple preacher with an uncontroversial message and delusions of grandeur. But rather than taking the historical Jesus on those grounds, Jesus has become a vessel into which many, many atheists have continued to pour their hopes and dreams into even though they have rejected Christianity.

I think this needs to stop. We're atheists, fer crying out loud! At the best we should be saying that Jesus was a uncontroversial preacher with a god complex. More generally, I think we should say that Jesus was probably of a piece with other self-proclaimed messiahs. That he was as nutty as Joe Smith or Jim Jones. And in any event atheists should stop treating the person of Jesus like he is someone we're obligated to respect. We're not! He's not worthy of our respect, in any case.

By writing about Jesus as I have, I hope to undermine the respect that atheists have for Jesus, and allow atheists to re-examine how they feel about Jesus and why we far too often accord him elaborate respect.

I, of course, think that this reasoning can also be applied to any self-proclaimed messiahs of any religion. Rather than trying to think about them “seriously” as serious people struggling against oppression or whatever, try thinking of them as self-proclaimed messiahs are: very strange, abusive and usually terribly abused people who are constructing elaborate, self-serving fantasies to address the trauma of their lives even as they spread that trauma to their followers. I want to spread the knowledge that insanity and charlatanry is the normal method for all so-called messiahs and, thus, I hope, help stop people from regarding them as holy or even serious. As a group, they're damaged goods, playing out their madness on emotionally vulnerable people – and this is true even of the successful ones.

There are other reasons why I am writing this as I am. Certainly part of it is I like books with sex, violence and intrigue in them. I'm a sucker for the sort of drama that making Jesus a psychologically damaged false messiah and Peter a violent thug create. I am also experimenting, to a lesser extent but with fullness of what I am doing, with trying to write a book that has characters who are sexists and racist but that is not, in itself, a sexist and racist book by presenting the sexism and racism as absurd and ugly – though I am unsure that I don't step, occasionally, into glorification of the things I despise I still feel compelled to try. Some of this is, undeniably, a catharsis. I have complex feelings about religion and it occupies a complex place in my life, as it does for many atheists who were raised religious. While I've worked out my own personal feelings towards religion, the multi-faceted way that religion is important to our society presents an atheist with a constant supply of social and political challenges that must also be addressed. Lastly, I write anything I write because I love the art and craft of it.

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Friday, March 9, 2007

Writing update - a hard week

Writing was pretty hard for me this week. I got virtually nothing done. I feel like the second part of Simon Peter isn't going as well as the first. I'm feeling out of control of the events, as if I'm putting things in just to swell the second part to the length of the first, and I'm feeling as if the drama between the various characters is contrived and unconvincing. I'm trying to buck up. Stephen King (who isn't really an artist I much admire, but he can clearly finish projects) has said that when he feels out of control he just pushes on and that many of this best books have been written this way. So rather than abandon the project - which would be almost insane after 70,000 words of it - I am going to press on. I hope it does work out.

In other news, I'm about to leave for an SCA event. I won't be back until Sunday afternoon, likely, so you won't be seeing any updates until late Sunday or Monday. I already have it written I just won't be here to publish it.

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“Liberal Christians”

Over at No God Blog, I was briefly confused for being a liberal Christian. It was very brief.

I don't think a liberal Christians exist. Maybe before MLK took a bullet they existed, but since then it seems they have gone extinct – if they ever were at all. Today, liberal Christians must be lumped in with what, during the Cold War, were referred to as “fellow travelers” - but in league with the forces of fundamentalism. Sure, they might not be fundamentalist conservative Christians but they are part of the soil out of which fundamentalism grows.

This might be too harsh, but I don't think so. Fairly often in discussion, a Christian will go, effectively, “Not all of us are that way. A lot of Christians are good people of conscience who deplore fundamentalists at least as much as you do.” But it makes me wonder, then, why there isn't more of a visible sign of struggle in American Christianity? I'm sure that fundamentalists and liberal Christians will point to things such as the struggles that are convulsing a small number of churches for letting gays in or being authority figures. And, to them, I'm sure that those struggles seem quite epic. From the outside? It doesn't look so good.

From the outside, what I see, and what other non-Christians see, is a whole lot of fundamentalism. We see so much fundamentalism – only fundies seem to make the news and fundamentalism's influence on the schools and politics, how fundamentalists are courted by businesses and leaders, how fundamentalists are fighting back against secularism and liberalism. We don't see liberal Christians standing up against the fundamentalists. Which isn't to say that people who are liberal Christians don't stand up to fundamentalists, but they almost always do so from a secular position – as humanists, or Democrats, or whatever. Except in a very small number of cases (such homosexuality), liberal Christians fail to address the theological grounds that fundamentalists use to attack everything from evolution to the invasion of Iraq. At least, this doesn't happen publicly.

What does happen publicly is fundamentalists attack human rights, science, propose bloody wars, are sexists and racists. They do this loudly, and without shame.

The denunciations of fundamentalist Christians by liberal Christians are all mincing affairs. There are no nationally televised liberal Christian preachers going on about inclusion – but there are a dozen fundie conservative ones! They have their own network.

I don't know why this actually is. My experience is that liberal Christians are, well, to be honest, less committed to their religion than fundamentalists. They don't let it consume their life. They leave room to be things other than a Christian. Which might be healthy for them, excepting its consequences – that they are railroaded by their fundamentalist co-religionists and have totally lost control of Christianity.

Whenever a liberal Christian tries to defend Christians with the “we're not all that way” argument, I ask them, “Then why are you talking to me? Why aren't you saying this in church, to the press, to everyone who can hear you? Why aren't you trying to reform your religion? And if you are, why are you failing?” I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer as to why they'll often express tremendous anger and work hard to sway atheists but won't fight their co-religionists. (The usual answer I get is, “My church isn't that way.” In the Internet age it's easy to check that. In every case I can think of, they lie and their church is very much “that way”.)

I have a simple term for this: cowardice. Rather than face their neighbors with a fight that needs to get fought for the metaphorical soul of Christianity, they find it easier to brace atheists, or just to shut up and . . . what? Hope the fundies go away? That some metaphorical pendulum swing? I don't know. It just strikes me as entirely fucking gutless for liberal Christians, who claim to be the majority of Christians, sit down and take the shit that their fundie siblings in religion are forcing down on them. And the rest of the world.

So I say, liberal Christians are either extinct or nearly so, replaced by cowardly Christians. I guess they don't want to be the next Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Thursday, March 8, 2007

What are Christians teaching their children, again?

Objective: 4 Kidz with Lambuel! This is a creepy, creepy, creepy website that has some deeply funny and creepy flash animations. Edit: And, it seems, this is a parody site. So the rest of what I said about this subject has to be taken as me being terribly wrong. I am, it seems, very good at being wrong, but I shall keep on and, perhaps, through being wrong I will some day become right. Hey, it could happen! For the record, I toyed with the idea of it being a parody site and decided against it because on their main page they have banner ads to fundie Christian sites that are real. It's beautiful subversion! They're probably getting paid for those banner ads that then fund the parody. Great work, guys. The best parody is one that people take seriously./edit

So, in Habu's Corner, you have an elephant-esque "Hindu", I'm guessing, here, and it says this:

Hey, Habu... How many gods do you have?

"I don't know! I lost count!"

Wouldn't you rather have just one God who loves you a bunch than a bunch of gods that don't love you at all?

Jesus loves everybody, even the unsaved like Habu! Remember to pray for Habu and others like him that they may find Jesus and accept Him into their hearts!

Yeah, Jesus loves Habu so much that unless Habu changes his ways, Jesus is gonna pitch Habu into a pit of fire forever and ever. If that's infinite love, I'll content myself with the mortal variety.


What should you do if you find an Atheist?

If you find an Atheist in your neighborhood,

You may be moved to try and witness to
these poor lost souls yourself, however

Atheists are often very grumpy and bitter and will lash out at children or they may even try to trick you into neglecting God's Word.

Very advanced witnessing techniques are needed for these grouches. Let the adults handle them.

Folks, there's a word for this. Religious discrimination. Could you imagine the uproar if an atheist website said, openly, that if atheist children encounter Christians that the atheists should run away, do not talk to the Christian, tell some adults because the Christian is so threatening so the atheist child's parents could come to convert the Christian? It would be decried as discrimination and they'd be right. Well, this is also discrimination - but it is interesting, too. Note the fear of atheism suggested by this. Children needed to be warned about us, so they can flee our mere presence.

Remember, click on the little figures and things will happen! They move and stuff!

Also of particular note is the Kanga-Jew. I can't make this kind of shit up. I am not that funny.

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Karl Popper vs. logical positivists!

I got into a long discussion with a rather nice fellow over at No God Blog, rainbows4dinosaurs. He mentioned one of my favorite things, falsifiability. That's not even irony! To the extent I possess an education, it's actually in philosophy of science and history of science, so it's a very interesting subject to me - how this idea has shaped science and thinking in general, and how society shapes the creation of ideas.

The idea of falsifiability doesn't bother me at all, but there's an interesting way that Popper's scientific philosophy got to be so important to the world.

Karl Popper, like a lot of philosophers of science at the time, was Austrian. However, the Vienna philosophers were massively logical positivist. Indeed, continental philosophy of science at the time was dominated by logical positivists during the first third of the 2oth century. Popper's ideas weren't getting any love from the Vienna Circle.

Then something big happened. The power of Nazi Germany started to rise, and with it came a powerful anti-intellectualism. The logical positivists were, as a group, very much scientific materialists. In 1936, the leader of the Vienna circle of logical positivists was Moritz Schlick and as he was coming to class one day, a former student of his, Johann Nelböck, shot and killed Schlick.

Nelböck was convicted but was paroled after only two years when the Nazis took over. Subsequently he became a good little Nazi.

You see, Schlick had spoken good of Jews, and he was an intellectual, and in conversation he had been oppposed to Hitler (even before Hitler started annexing places and ramping up for open war). So, Johann Nelböck blew him away.

This had a profound effect on logical positivists. Many fled to America or Great Britain (including Karl Popper, I should note). Some stayed behind. They tended to die, both in Austria and Germany (such as Kurt Grelling who died in Auszwitch or, perhaps, in transport to Auszwitch).

What does this have to do with falsifiability?! I'm getting there, I promise.

In Austria, Popper was surrounded by logical positivists. They had their own criteria for the validity of science, verificationism, and Popper couldn't get much traction in that crowd. However, in New Zealand and then England, the Angl0-American philosophers took to him much more than they warmed to the logical positivists. During this time, however, logical positivists were scattered and socially isolated. There were no proponents of verificationism to challenge Popper's falsifiability criteria (or to note that verificationism functionally included falsifiability) because some of them had been murdered by the Nazis and the rest had been flung to the far corners of the world. Logical positivism, until quite recently, was thought dead. Into that void, Popper was able to place his own philosophy.

This isn't to blame Popper for this. Far from it. I like Popper, even as I like Hempel and Carnap. No, no. I'm blame the Nazis.

This also gives me pause to consider how knowledge gets shaped and formed. In the inter-war period, logical positivism was high and Popperism was low. Because of purely political events unrelated to the relative merit of logical positivism vs. Popper the first was suppressed and the second was enhanced. It's part of the reason I strongly believe that the development of ideas is shaped, strongly, by the surrounding culture and events in the world. Logical positivism wasn't discarded because people found it silly or wrong - it was discarded because one of it's key leaders was murdered causing a mass exodus of logical positivists away from their homes, and those that stayed were persecuted, occasionally to their deaths. It was murdered.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

"Why did you rape Jesus?" - sex and religion

A friend of mine was reading a draft of Simon Peter and asked, "Why did you rape Jesus?" Not really a question you hear every day, but I had an answer. I said that in studying messiahs that existed in history that many of them had histories of verified sexual abuse (like Jim Jones and David Koresh) and they all acted in ways that, to me, suggested such abuse even if it wasn't verified (after all, it's hard to verify sexual abuse, especially for historical figures who lived in a time when no one talked about that sort of thing) and each and every one of them had serious, deep and serious issues with sex.

Enter a story about Ted Haggard and the layoffs at his church. Ted Haggard - I guess I should say Rev. Ted Haggard - used to be the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a body that has thirty million members. He was involved in a sex and drugs scandal. I'd summarize, but the quotation is too darling for me to pass up:

After initially denying the accusations, Mr. Haggard confessed to buying drugs from the former prostitute, Michael Jones, and admitted to what he termed “sexual immorality.” Mr. Haggard has since gone through counseling, and was declared “completely heterosexual” by a member of a panel of ministers appointed to oversee New Life.

Well, he's now completely heterosexual! Phew. For a while there I was worried.

Anyway, this guy had a three year gay sex relationship with a male prostitute from whom he bought crystal meth. Then he denied it and only after massive evidence was clearly available did he admit, if mincingly, to "sexual immorality". THEN he gets declared totally straight by a panel of ministers. If this whole process - the hidden gay sex, the initial lies, the retraction and then being "declared completely heterosexual" - isn't profoundly perverse, I don't know what is.

This is why I raped Jesus. All of these guys are like this.

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Robots and the post-labor society

Robots are one of my favorite things, but, man, they're going to mess with our heads in social terms.

Some societies are addressing that issue. Fairly recently, a British commission wrote a report that said that artificial intelligences will probably rights as organic sentient life (that'd be humans). This would include full legal rights, including the right to health care and retirement. Very exciting times we live in.

In South Korea:

"The government plans to set ethical guidelines concerning the roles and functions of robots as robots are expected to develop strong intelligence in the near future," the ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy said.

The article goes on to praise South Korea's high tech society. Of particular interest to me is this:

A recent government report forecast that robots would routinely carry out surgery by 2018.

The Ministry of Information and Communication has also predicted that every South Korean household will have a robot by between 2015 and 2020.

Fuckin' A right. I have been saying that robots will be carrying out more and more human tasks - including increasingly skilled tasks - for years. Apparently I should have been born a Korean because the government, there, believes as I do.

What no one seems to be talking about, however, is the social and economic ramifications of this. Robots will be so cheap that in 8 to 13 years "every South Korean household" will have a robot. Meaning that every Japanese household will have a robot. And that a couple of years later every American household will have a robot. Translation: they'll be cheap enough for everyone to afford.

Which means that they'll definitely be cheap enough for huge corporations to afford. So I ask my readers - which at this time constitute about two people, alas - this: who'd you rather buy a hamburger from? A sullen and surly youth or a shiny clean robot that's always efficient and polite? For me, this is a no-brainer. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto. What will happen to the the workforce when . . . I mean, not when surgeons are replaced by robots but when fast-food workers and construction workers are replaced by robots? When, in 10 to 15 years and maybe sooner for service and light industrial jobs, literally tens of millions of people start to get fired because technology will have developed to the point where human labor is all but irrelevant?

I say this because we're nearing the cusp that this is a reality. Artificial intelligence will increasingly take over our intellectual labor and robots will very soon make our physical labor downright irrelevant. Our entire economy is based on the concept that people must work for their bread and prosperity - but increasingly that won't be possible.

While I think it's significant that people are starting to think about rights for AIs and rules for human-robot interactions, I think the bigger shift is going to be economic and social when humans are made irrelevant for virtually all economic and social tasks.

For me, this suggests that we are nearing the point of having a post-labor society. Aristotle said that people will labor until the looms work themselves. They're fixing to go totally automated. Soon, very soon, they will work themselves, and fix themselves. But there are going to be so many shocks! How many people define themselves by their labor? They will resist the robots doing everything. And, of course, initially the capitalists will own the robot factories and they'll be trying to make a profit on a shrinking wealth base because robots won't be buying anything (tho' AIs might, of course) but the people that do buy things will be having a harder and harder time getting a job to afford things. People will feel replaced by machines far more than ever before.

I can't say with certainty what the reaction to this will be. I think that once the shock wears off, though, we'll be glad to be able to pursue our own interests without having to worry about having to do anything, because everything that we have to do will be done for us by robots. Which might mean that in the future humans will define themselves by their capacity to be happy, which would thrill me no end.

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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Atheist in Congress?

There's apparently an atheist in the House. Or is there? Well, over at Friendly Atheist he's reporting that the congressperson is actually "non-theist" A lot of atheists out there are saying, "What else can they mean?" Some are saying -- before even knowing who the person is - that they're going to donate as much money as they can to their re-election.

To me, it seems a trifle premature. I know that politicians, as a group, are some of the most loathsome cowards in the universe. The person isn't even going to say "atheist" but, instead, "non-theist". My guess is that they're going to angle towards an agnostic angle - which is pretty far away from being an atheist - and are trying to couch things in as neutral of language as possible. They might be an atheist, but they're going to ruffle as few feathers as possible.

When people do that, it seems to me that they're the atheist version of an Uncle Tom. They're what they are, but they're not going to . . . offend anyone. Oh, heavens, no!

Which might be premature of me. But I'm curious to see what the backlash about this is. My thinking? Next to nothing. The person probably comes from a place where religion isn't the hot button issue that it is in, say, the South. A fairly large number of Californian representatives could get away declaring full on godless atheism and keep their jobs. On the other hand, the person coming out might get crucified at which point why not declare yourself a full on atheist and counterattack?

But it is like I said, politicians tend to be gutless. If you take a stand for much of anything at all that isn't deeply conservative you never get to high office.

2000 Year Old Jewish Names

Writing about Jews in the 1st centure CE has it's problems. Oh, sure, there's the usual -- what historical sources do you believe in about a period that is so theologically significant that it distorts every text written about it in ways both large and small, how does one write in the tone the author wishes to convey without sounding either hopelessly anachronistic or writing forsoothly, not to mention the historical scarcity of real information about some of the most significant members of Western society (such as, well, all the disciples and Jesus, himself). While those problems do exist for me writing Simon Peter, I'll tell you what, as an author, gets to me the most:


They're all named the same names! You've got Judases, Johns, Jameses, Simons and especially Marys all over the place! Like many writers, I like giving characters distinct names so that the readers can more readily keep track of the suckers in the story, but how does one consistently distinguish between the Apostle John and John the Baptist? Or between Mary Magdalene and Mary Salome? And, lastly, why on EARTH would Jews in that period continue to do this? There are roughly a billion good Jewish names, why latch onto Mary for one in four women? You'd think that more people would go, "Well, I like the name Mary and all, but if I name my daughter Judith when I call out my child's name I won't get half the village looking at me."