Friday, December 28, 2007

Priests Duke it Out in Bethlehem, Yes, THAT Bethlehem

Who doesn't get a little cranky after all the stress surrounding Christmas? Apparently, priests are as human as the rest of us. Let's take an example. You need to wash your windows on your house, and need to place a ladder which needs to rest in your neighbors yard. Now, imagine your neighbor starts yelling at you, you get down, and start throwing punches, using brooms and iron rods as weapons in your little brawl.

Change yourself to a Greek Orthodox priest, your neighbor to an Armenian priest, and your house to a church which sits over the place where they guess Jesus to have been born. Oh, now it makes more sense. Seven people were injured over this silly brawl over a ladder which was encroaching on the space reserved in the church for the Armenians.

This isn't the first time a ladder has caused trouble between priests. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in Jerusalem’s Old City, still has a ladder standing after a fight broke out over a trespassing ladder when a priest was repairing a wall. The ladder was left as a reminder to others that disputes should be resolved in a more Christian fashion.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

How to feel very very small

How to feel very very large

Watch this video about how immune cells move from blood into tissue.

Pray for France - Feb 6

Do you know what France has? France has 6,000,000 Muslims. There was a day when 40% of the population was Protestant. Now, 30% of the population is atheist. What can you do to help? Pray. These four organizations have their own goals in this post Lent 40 day pray-a-thon.

CCFOF, the Christian Community Foundation of France, would like to increase Biblical Generosity. Wouldn't we all like to have that kind of money rolling into our favorite organizations?

Objectif France created this 40 days of prayer idea for France, including a limited edition down loadable prayer guide. Free? No, silly, $3.50. Too broke giving Biblically? Read the guide from 2007.

Sentinelle de Prière (The Watchman's Prayer) is a group who coordinates prayer 24/7, because no one person can "pray continuously," as God commands, so it's divvied up to a hour a person.

United Prayer for France is a group of Huguenot decedents from South Africa. And, we can't forget the benefit to South Africa of European immigrants. Anyway, with only one percent in France considering themselves Evangelical, UPF seeks a re-evangelization of France, because God has a special plan for the French in the end times.

So, go ahead, sign up, and wait with baited breath until Feb 6th, when the all out prayer-a-thon kicks off. And if you're an atheist in France, and you feel a burning feeling sometime in February, that's why.

From [Friendly Atheist]

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Christmas

Here's to wishing everyone a happy Christmas, and a happy everyday, because everyday is a chance to make a difference. Keep looking out for those still soft voices around us and reach out.

I'd say the best gift I received was a child sponsorship from Plan USA. I hope the idea of giving donations to charities catches on. Keep that in mind, anyone who doesn't know what to get me. Doctors Without Borders, Home For Life, and the American Red Cross are good starts.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Rochester Area Freethinkers RAFT

I had a great time heading down to Rochester, MN with August to meet up with some members of RAFT for a solstice party. There were lots of great conversations. It seems like many members were open geeks, as well as open atheists. I learned that the LDS do not have a doctrine against birth control or abortion. One thing I do remember from my brief experience with missionaries, was that abortion, while not encouraged, was not something which would get you removed from the church. I hadn't known the bit about birth control, however. I thought that the church's views of masturbation would tie in with more conservative views on sexual activity, to an almost Augustinian level which would be just short of total celibacy, with sex performed only when the woman was able to conceive, and only for that purpose. And so, the formerly one dimension I thought Mormonism was, is opened up again, to a spectrum. People really are free in their own minds, despite dogma or tradition, which is comforting that there is a difference between an organization, and what it asserts, and how individuals apply that or interpret it's application.

So, if you are ever in the Rochester area, look up the Rochester Area Freethinkers on to attend a meeting, which is really a group of good friends who like to have a good time.

Christmas Myths

Let's look back at this history of the upcoming holiday and dive into the myths some people hold.

1. Jesus was born on December 25th. Now, most people who take five seconds to think about the problem of dating and correlating the Jewish calendar with the Julian and Gregorian calendar will realize that the date "December 25th" is rather arbitrary. Historians figure that December 25th was chosen to correlate with celebrations already in place among cultures in the Roman Empire which fell around the Winter Solstice, including celebrating Mithra's birth by Romans. The origin of celebrating Jesus' birth on the 25th of December is somewhat of a mystery. Origen denounced celebrating the birth of Jesus as if he were a "king pharaoh." Tertullian makes no mention of a feast around this time. In 221 CE, Sextus Julius Africanus completed his Chronographiai, a reference book for Christians covering the complete history of the world in five books, from Creation to 221. He placed the Incarnation at March 25, 1 BCE. Tick the clock forward nine months, and you get December 25. Seemed to make sense, it was a popular idea, appeased traditions, and continues to this day. He also dates the birth of Jesus to 5500 years after Creation.

2. Angels sang at Christmas. Go ahead, read the nativity stories in the Bible. Show me when angels sang.

3. Three wise men visited Jesus shortly after his birth. I remember this one from a trivia question which was during a Christmas event at school. The Bible never mentions the number of wise men. Also, Matthew 2:11 tells of the wise men visiting Mary with her young child, not a baby or infant, to present the three gifts. That may be nit picking, but that telling makes more sense when Herod's orders to kill every first born male 2 years and younger.

4. Mary and Joseph fled into Egypt after an angel tips them off about Herod. Matthew 2:14 tells this story, but Luke 2:39 has the trio going off to Nazareth after the post birthing rituals are finished.

5. The Immaculate Conception refers to the birth of Jesus by Mary. This dogma has more to do with the purity of Mary, that she was free from Original Sin. The dogma was not official until 1854, decreed by Pope Pius IX.

6. King Herod ordered the Slaughter of the Innocents. This myth is supported by the Biblical record alone. Maybe it was an event which was not significant to record. Maybe all records of the event did not survive history. Maybe commentary on writings on the event did not survive.

7. Candy canes were created by a candy maker in Indiana as lower case "J's" and were colored with red stripes to represent Jesus' suffering, blood, and whipping. Candy canes are as old as the 1400's, created as a straight stick by French priests. The bent shape was popularized in 1670 by a German choirmaster, who viewed the bent sticks as shepherd's hooks. The red coloring wasn't added until the 1900's.

8. Mary was a virgin before she gave birth to Jesus. The concept of a virginal birth is so strikingly important to Christians that many could not fathom it. Paul makes no mention of a virginal birth in his epistles. John and Mark don't see anything worth writing home about Jesus' birth of a virgin. Of course, this is an Argument from Silence, so you are left to judge it as you may. Some have argued that fleshing out the story of Jesus' birth, adding the Nativity story complete with virgin birth, was done to convince skeptics who doubted the divinity of Jesus. Another element used to convince doubters, was to trace Jesus' lineage through Joseph to David. Check the accounts in Matthew and Luke. They don't seem to add up. Jesus' family is described a humble, not of royal lineage.

9. Jesus was born in a stable. Isiah, who is the basis for the prophesy of Emmanuel, and can be used well to elaborate on details when needed. For example, Isiah 1:3 "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider." See? While Luke includes the manger bit, the stable is left out, you can use Isiah to fill it in. Take Isiah 60:6 "The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD." Now you know why the magi ride on camels, despite that detail missing from Luke or Matthew.

10. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was created for Montgomery Wards. This is true. The story was created in 1939 by Robert L. May, and was loosely based on the ugly ducking story. The character has not passed in to the public domain.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

UNICEF Photo of the Year 2007

Stephanie Sinclair snapped this photo which is UNICEF's Photo of the Year for 2007. Is this 11 year old girl the 40 year old man's A) daughter B) niece or C) soon to be wife. This is culturally intolerant of me, and I am imposing my own values which have been formed by my Western experiences, but I think an 11 year old girl marrying a 40 year old man is wrong.

Point one, it's not her choice, her family is poor, and needed the money.

Point two, marrying a young daughter away for money is a good way to rid yourself of a burden, as women are treated as second class people.

Point three, I'm guessing, but I would imagine 11 may be physically too young to birth children well.

On point one, I don't think poverty is a good excuse for selling your child away to birth children. Is there any good excuse for doing what is done? UNICEF estimates that there are about 51 million girls aged 15 to 19 who are forced into marriage. I don't care if it's religion, or culture, or economic circumstance. I think this practice is wrong.

On point two, this may be a side effect of culture, that women are viewed as second class, but something must be done to reverse this trend. Will education or economic assistance help? And, who are we to judge? We still question whether a woman can be president of our country, and women still earn 76.3 cents to the dollar for their male counterparts. At least we can put a feather in our cap that we don't arrange marriages for our daughters for a price. I really hope that site is fake.

On point three, girls who are 10 to 14 are five times more likely to die in labor then others. 150,000 teenage girls die due to complications.

Granted, these marriages are illegal in Afghanistan, where these two were married. However, that hasn't stopped the practice. Is it tradition, is it out of necessity? But, I'll stand from my pompous American throne, and condemn the practice of child marriage wrong.

Political apathy and fear

Tim Harlow has an interesting article on discussing politics with family over the holidays. One quarter stated, in a survey of 1,000 respondents, that they would refuse to talk about politics with family. Some interesting highlights, young people, and Republicans are more likely to be vocal about politics with relatives. So, watch out for your loud mouthed cousin who happens to be a member of Young Republicans and will tell you point for point why Huckabee will win it all.

Shuttle Pilot = Romeo? NOT!

Normally, I don't care for gossip, but this is NASA love triangle gossip. Emails were released regarding the Lisa Nowak, AKA "crazy diaper, bag with a hammer and rubber tubing astronaut," case. The other angles of the triangle are the super stud "Hop into my Shuttle Cockpit" Shuttle Pilot, William Oefelein, and "The Little General," U.S. Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman.

To prove the title of my point, here is a gem penned by Oefelein to "The Little General:"

"They want your size for the arctic gear...I think I can figure that out -- sized sexy and athletic."

Hot Astronaut Action!

That line was terrible, and was the best I could find. Can you come up with good astronaut pickup lines?

"Watch me extend my Remote Manipulator System"

"I have an extension of the International Space Station in my payload bay"

Ok, I'm done.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Glow in the dark cats?

Well, not really glow in the dark, but glow in the UV cats. Gyeongsang National University in Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province released the picture and information about the cloning process used to modify the genes in a cat to create a red glow under UV light. It's a proof of concept to display the ability to modify genes by using a virus. According to the article, one of the cats died during a caesarian section operation, and on examination, all of the organs were affected by the modified protien.

Now comes the ethical question. Should this kind of research, genetic modification be banned? If it can be done without causing suffering or pain in animals, should it be allowed, or are there other grounds which would restrict this kind of research?

What is the reason?

While in Springfield, Missouri, Jeannette and I noticed the McDonald's in the area sporting nativity scenes with the quote, "Jesus is the reason for the season." Some snarky fellow created this:

Funny Day

I'm on my way to work when I get a call from Visa security about my credit union check card. I put my phone on speaker, and hear about charges for gas made in the Chicagoland area. It looks like there were three main charges, each with multiple transactions made in one day, so someone filling up his buddies cars with gas. What a sweet guy. SO, I'm identifying which charges were mine, which were made in Chicago when a woman rear ends my car when I'm stopped in traffic. I just had my car fixed about 6 weeks ago. So, I get off of the phone with the Visa people, and this woman is pretty nervous, said her breaks failed. I got as much information as I could from her, and gave her mine. At least she had an insurance card, even if it was for another card, it was the same agent, and her car is insured. She said she was broke, and didn't think the damage was that bad, and didn't want me to charge her, because she was broke, and I said, "Don't worry about it, your insurance company will pay for it." She didn't seem to care, and got out of there as fast as she could.

So, long story short, I'll get my car fixed, again, and I've disputed the gas charges and already have a new check card.

Friday, December 7, 2007

What She Said: Kaminer Responds to Romney

Author of "Free For All: Defending Liberty in America Today," among others, Wendy Kaminer, responds to Mitt Romney's unfortunate misrepresentation of secularism. Read her piece, rather then my ramblings on freedom posted earlier. Unfortunately, Romney's concerns about secularism being a new religion are not new. I'm started to read, "In Defense of Secular Humanism," by Paul Kurtz. Right off the bat, in his book published in 1983, he quotes Tim LeHay. Who is Tim LeHay? Well, before he co-wrote the Left Behind series, he was a Baptist minister, founder of the Creationist Institute in San Diego, a leader of the Moral Majority, and Chairman of the Conservative Council, a group of 50 conservatives I'm sure are super fun at parties. Remember, this was all back in 1983, the time of Pac Man. His big claim? Humanists controlled America, from the TV to the schools. He warns in his book, "The Battle for the Mind," that "We are not free to send our children to school where they are safe from violence, drugs, and Anti-American teachers... In fact, to provide our young with the high-caliber education which includes an emphasis on basics and character building, we must pay tuition to send them to a Christian school or to other private schools while paying taxed to subsidize the religion of humanism in our public schools."

I couldn't read much more of Paul Kurtz book, but will provide a review later. What is shocking, is that the argument and dialog between fundamentalists and humanist, secularists, and atheists does not appear to have changed much. It's also apparent that the current conservative push in America has taken a long time to develop. I'm hoping something more sensible doesn't take as long to move it to the fringes.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Freedom Requires Religion

Mitt Romney, A.K.A., "THE MORMON," is running for President. Do I care that he's a Mormon, no. I think all belief in the supernatural is silly, and fortunately many people will prefer the findings of science to literal interpretation of scripture, which at least helps in making policy decisions more rational and based on our material world, without consequence to what may or may not exist in a supernatural world. If you want to have your faith, fine, as long as it doesn't affect me negatively, great. I do remember one atheist being concerned about Romney, because he would create this authoritarian regime as some sort of Mormon theocracy where Starbucks would go out of business and Mormons would procreate at an alarming level, take up all the land, and use up all of the fresh water. I can't think of anything particular which would be "Mormonish" that he would put forward as a policy.

Anyway, to settle the debate about him being Mormon, and concerns that missionaries would now be government workers, Mitt came out and said what everyone expected. In referring to John F. Kennedy's speech about his Catholicism, "Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith." I would have added that it should not matter whether he or she had any faith at all, or a religion. Mitt wouldn't. He warns of people who wish to remove the acknowledgment of God from the public arena as an over interpretation of the Constitution, and helps create a new religion of Secularism. He also said, "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."

This sentiment was echoed once by a Mormon who can come from the local ward to witness to Jeannette and I, along with two missionaries. He mentioned that he thinks that a people's religion determines their successfulness. He talked about the third world, take somewhere in Africa, where there is famine and disease, and the only means of survival is appealing to humanitarian aid groups to provide a meager existence of just basic survivability. Now, if you just took families of Mormons to the same area, in a number of years there would be a thriving civilization. Perhaps that is overly optimistic, but it is a generalization that Mormons are hard working, and who knows? It could be possible. While the words from Mitt are watered down a bit, the same kind of sentiment is still there, although not as specific as prescribing Mormonism to the third world to end poverty, but that freedom itself is dependent on religion.

I would say that religion sets up barriers to freedom, in the same sense that laws set up barriers, there are just more of them, and would be different depending on which dogma you chose to follow. In that sense, true freedom is an illusion. What appears to work best, at least from my limited perspective, is to maximize freedoms without impacting the freedoms of others. Now, this concept isn't reliant on religion at all. Perhaps the freedom Romney is talking about is mental freedom, the ability to cognate possibilities, or examine personal beliefs, and through this process, "commune with God?" Of course, religion doesn't always set up hard barriers to freedom, and each individual is just that, individual, and the application of dogma can be strikingly different, even within rigid religions. But, perhaps this flexibility could be compared to the flexibility people have with laws, some choose to risk being caught, others are flagrant, despite the risks. Violation of the law in a jurisdiction may result in a negative consequence, as carried out by those authorized by society to do so. Violations of religious dogma, by those who consider themselves devout, don't imagine a different scenario. There are consequences, either in this material lifetime, or consequences in the immaterial, or supernatural realm which will be handled by the Creator.

So, I think the case that freedom requires religion is false, and that religion requires freedom is also false. Many major religions do have a good element which usually says something to the effect of, "You can not be forced to believe." Which is good. This implies choice, or freedom, in your decision making process. In the Abrahamic tradition, free will is what Adam and Eve get from God, and they don't know of their ability to choose until they get kicked out of Eden. This can mimic the free will choice that major religions will present to potential followers. Ignorant immortality, or knowledge, suffering, and death are your choices. It's this free will choice which is given to potential converts as well, except in this case, you have the choice to follow God, and follow the rules in this book, or by what the prophet tells you, and as a reward you get eternal life in bliss, or you get death, suffering, and separation from God for all eternity. This is a false choice. Who would willingly choose the latter? I have, but I don't see the choice as an either or choice.

So, is Romney going to be that bad of a president? No, I think he's been successful as a businessman, which I don't think is easy to do. I don't know his family background, so I can't tell whether he's earned all he's done, but you can learn from business, like how to effectively work with different groups of people, and how to appeal to a wide majority. That's on a technical side. He did say he wants to double Gitmo, good for him, but I don't think that would fly, even if he were president. I'm not afraid of labels, like Mormon, or even Republican. I want someone who is skilled at manipulating people well enough to get things done and solve problems. I just get to sit alone in my tower and judge whether those problems which are being solved are being done correctly, or are worthwhile. And, I will, no matter who gets elected/selected/appointed.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Nerds + Nativity = Disaster

While perusing PZ Myers blog for some light hearted humor after reading about I-35 being a "Holy Highway," complete with "Prayer Sieges" and Sherri Shepard being her wonderfully ignorant self, I'm grateful for this post on a Nerdy Nativity intervention. He asks, "Are you nerdy enough to handle this?" Well, are you? Nerd?

Blasphemy! Laws?

The UK still has blasphemy laws, although no one has been jailed for the offense since 1921. How does one blaspheme? If you deny the existence of God, profanely scoff at Holy Scripture, or make fun of Jesus, you are a blasphemer. There is an effort from the British Humanist Association to repeal the blasphemy laws, because every now and then, they creep up. For example, in 2005, the BBC screened Jerry Springer: The Opera. In it, Jesus is dressed up as a baby, and called, "a bit gay." A case was made that this violated the law, which it does, however, Stephen Green, director of the group Christian Voice, did not get to have his case, because the High Court refused to prosecute BBC Director-General Mark Thompson for the airing. Naomi Phillips, BHA Public Affairs Officer, believes there is no place for blasphemy laws in the UK, considering its application would be contrary to the principles of free speech. Does anyone know of other organizations in the UK which are attempting to repeal blasphemy laws? It's a shame this gets the taint of an atheist or humanist cause, which is seen as anti-religious, when the case can be made that it provides for protection of religious freedom.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Archbishop John Nienstedt gets Chastized for Chastizing

Archbishop John Nienstedt, leader of the Minneapolis / St Paul Archdiocese, ruffled a few feathers by restating the Catholic Church's position on homosexuality. In his piece, the Archbishop simply affirms the Church's position on homosexuality, and explains why anyone who endorses or supports immoral behavior should not be allowed to speak, or receive awards from Catholic institutions. From the article:
Those who actively encourage or promote homosexual acts or such activity within a homosexual lifestyle formally cooperate in a grave evil and, if they do so knowingly and willingly, are guilty of mortal sin. They have broken communion with the church and are prohibited from receiving holy Communion until they have had a conversion of heart, expressed sorrow for their action and received sacramental absolution from a priest.

St. Augustine's Confessions, while not unique in its treatment of sexuality, has been echoed through history. Sex isn't the bad part, it's the desire that is. Augustine refers to it as "mud", "thorns", and "an open sore that must be scratched." In his time, and even today, to refuse desire of any kind, choosing rather to devote one's life to God is seen as a virtue. Of course, humanity would not survive very long if everyone remained celibate and relied on virgin births. So, what's the compromise? You may have sex, but only in marriage, and only for the purpose of conceiving a child. Seems good enough, that policy allows humanity to flourish, and cuts down in immoral sexual acts. Immoral in this case is determined by what is "natural," and by "natural," I mean for the purposes of procreation. The desire, therefor, to have sex with someone of the same gender is immoral, or "unnatural" because no matter how you try, you won't procreate, and you give into desire, which takes us back to scratching an open wound. I have not read what the church's position is on enjoying sex with whomever you are married to, and if that's a sinful desire or not.

Anyway, enough about that. About 300 Roman Catholics protested Archbishop Neinstedt. This strong handed treatment of homosexuality AND the family and friends of those who identify as homosexual is wrong, according to Mel White, founder of Soulforce, a group who's Vision Statement reads: "The purpose of Soulforce is freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from religious and political oppression through the practice of relentless nonviolent resistance." Michael Bayly, executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities, believes that the Catholic Church's teaching on homosexual activity will have to change. I agree, but I'm not going to hold my breath for that. Archbishop Neinstedt's words are hurtful, not only for the LGBT community, but for the people who support them. It's nice to see people standing up, and making their voices heard. It's also unfortunate that people love the organization, but don't like the policy, so are unwilling to accept another church or faith. On what justification could the Church change its teaching on homosexuality? From an article, one child at the protest quoted this passage attributed to Jesus, "I came that you might have life - and have it to the full!" That's positive, but I don't know if that would convince a conservative Catholic that gay sex was OK. How would you challenge the Church's teachings on homosexuality? I'll take the role of a conservative, "If it feels good, it must be wrong guy," and you get to use history, scripture, personal testimony to convince me that gay sex is OK.