Friday, December 21, 2007

Religion, moderate or extremist?

Recently at a presentation by the Washington Area Secular Humanists, the speaker was Don Evans, who spoke on the topic of whether religious moderation is as harmful as religious extremism.  Here's an article by him on the same topic.  Fortunately for me, he took the side that religious moderation is okay.  That's good, because I participate in an organized religion and consider myself moderate.
But okay, so what's moderate?  When we look at somebody else's religion, for instance Islam, from the outside, it's easy to decide that moderate Muslims, including all of the dozen or so Muslims that I know personally, are the ones who use their religious practice to form a fellowship, and do not expect anybody else to agree literally with their theology.
Why, then, can we not apply the same standard to our own religion?  Here's an essay by John Shelby Spong, whom I consider to be a religious moderate.  But within the Episcopal church, Spong is considered to be somewhere out on the fringe.  We simply can't accept the idea that belief in the literal truth of the Nicene Creed is actually an extremist view.
In other words, the Episcopal church, one of the most progressively moderate of all denominations, is still about 80% extremist.
I won't bother to go very far into most other denominations because I really don't know what's happening within them, but perhaps the Roman Catholic church should be addressed.  From its inception in 325 AD, the Roman Catholic church has been the most extremist of all denominations, in fact, they even excommunicated Bishop Arius for trying to introduce a few slight shreds of moderation.  In modern times, Pope Benedict XVI has gone to extremes to reaffirm the extremist position and squelch the few small voices calling for moderation.
However, there's one area in which the Roman Catholic church, at least in the United States, has slipped out of extremist control in recent years, and that's in their parochial schools.
Back in the 1950's and 1960's, children entering public high schools from Roman Catholic parochial schools had a tough time of it.  They were several years behind, and had a tough time catching up.  People entering college from Roman Catholic high schools had it even worse.  They had been so steeped in theological doctrine that the very concept of rational thought was total culture shock.
Since then, that situation has changed drastically.  Recent graduates of the Roman Catholic parochial school system now actually have a significant edge over most public high school graduates when they enter college.  Obviously, the proponents of moderation and rational thought have somehow intruded into their school system.
In church, I try to stay out of crybaby contests with the many extremists among my fellow congregation members.  That would just damage the fellowship that I believe to be the fundamental purpose of religion.  I believe that making decisions according to rational thought gets things done, and if others don't have time for rational thought because they're too busy trying to use theological magic, they're the losers.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Terrorism and Attitudes

Here's a letter that appeared in last Friday's Calvert Recorder.  (link here)  I wish I could say it's a parody, but I'm afraid it isn't.  The abject willful idiocy and hate-mongering bigotry are exactly what you'd expect to see on the True Christians Unite parody role-playing site.
Right off the bat, the writer begins by bragging about her education, which the rest of her letter proves she doesn't have.  Then she moans about how horrible it is that her granddaughter is getting an education on topics of importance in the modern world.
Her seething hatred for Muslims is so intense that she even thinks that using correct grammar to talk about them would honor them undeservedly.
Then she claims she's been through something called "a revised history book" without finding any reference to Christians.  I have no idea what sort of history book she's talking about.
She decries the death, destruction, lack of respect, and violence in the modern world, utterly oblivious that it's attitudes like hers that are causing it.
She claims the students are not allowed to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  I have no idea what school she's talking about.  Recitation of the Pledge is a regular thing in all of our public schools in this county.
Then she claims the students are not allowed to say the Lord's Prayer.  Hogwash!  Of course they can, as long as they don't try to cram that primitive tribal war chant down the throats of differently-believing classmates.
She complains that freedom is no longer.  The only freedom that's lacking is her freedom to cram her religion down everybody else's throats.
Somehow she believes that the Constitution has been abolished.  She sounds like one of these people who mistakenly think the Constitution is a Christian document, blissfully unaware that the founders of our nation were of various religious beliefs, with Humanism and Deism predominating.
She doesn't believe that Muslims, almost 25% of the world's population, are a fit topic for study by children who are going to have to deal with them.
And then she mumbles something about God, the American Flag, and the Constitution all in one breath, and tries to claim that the Bible is the greatest book ever written, ignoring that other perfectly law-abiding citizens believe the same about other holy books.
And in other news, there's a terror alert active for the state of Maryland.  (link here)  It appears to be faddish nowadays to blame Muslim extremists for all the terror in the world.  We forget that our nation is full of Christian extremists who are only one small step away from terrorism.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Evolution of the Blog

I've been tagged by Greta Christina.  The meme is "Pick out five blog posts that illustrate the evolution of your blog, link to them, and comment on them."
First, a bit of background.  In about 1997 or thereabouts, I began chatting in several Talk City chat rooms, using more than a dozen different nicknames.  For each registered nickname, Talk City gave you a tiny little one-page web site.  Since then Talk City has quit giving out web sites, so all of those web sites have vanished.  I still use four of those nicknames in other places, however.
In most places I use OrneryPest.
In bicycling and physical fitness forums I use RollFaster.
In religion-parody role-playing forums I play the part of Reverend Howell N. Shreack, the Bible-thumping fire-and-brimstone preacher of a make-believe church called the Fundamental United Celestial Kingdom.
In swashbuckling adventure role-playing forums I play the part of Admiral Worthington Scrimshaw, Esquire, the supreme commanding officer of Her Majesty's fine battleship HMS Neverfloat.
When all of the Talk City web sites vanished, I started web sites on Geocities, Fortune City, and Tripod.  Geocities proved to be by far the most satisfactory host.  I don't even know if the Tripod and Fortune City sites are even there any more.  I suspect probably not.
So, now to address the meme.
First post (or group of posts):  Opinions.  Since religion and politics are the two areas in which my opinions differ drastically from the mainstream, these were my first two topics.
Second group of posts:  Poetry.  Ridiculous little doggerel-verse ditties, actually.  I think my favorite one so far is The Ballad of the Purloined Throne.  I've also got a little essay about how to write poetry.
Then I discovered internet diaries, and put up one at DiaryLand.  Nothing memorable here, but it got me into a community of diarists.
Third group of posts:  One of my fellow diarists (who appears to be no longer on-line) got me interested in Fugue, a sort of essay-of-the-month club.  Here's my first entry.

Nothing happened for a long time.  My Demented Diary was happily swing along, nothing memorable being posted.  Then about last July or thereabouts, Michael Gerson published an astonishingly twisted and upside-down version of where he thought moral values came from.
Fourth post:  Finally, I had something memorable to post in My Demented Diary.  A commentary on what I thought about Michael Gerson's monumental ignorance level.
That got me to thinking.  Serious commentary is out of place in My Demented Diary.  Maybe I ought to set up a more serious diary.  That thought sat there and smoldered for a while, until one Sunday in church the preacher preached a sermon that exposed, in a most spectacular way, the total inability of the Christian religion to address anything realistically.  So, says I, a more serious diary it shall be, and this blog was born.
Fifth post:  My response to that sermon, the first Real entry in this blog.
And now, since no one has responded to my earnest pleas for volunteers to be tagged, I'll just tag five of my favorite diarists.
LA The Sage

Friday, November 9, 2007

Religion and Discrimination

An applicant applies for a job in a hair salon.  The owner states up front that one of the job duties is for the worker to show off her own hair-do.  The applicant holds a religious belief that she must keep her hair covered in public.  The owner says, sorry, but it's a job requirement and if you're unprepared to perform the duty then you're not qualified for the job.  The applicant then files a lawsuit for religious discrimination.  (link to story
Several cases have arisen recently where pharmacy workers have refused to fill birth control prescriptions because their religion opposes birth control.  In most cases, another worker is available to take over and fill the prescription.  But what if another worker were unavailable?  Would the pharmacy be justified in firing the employee for nonperformance of duties?
Some grocery stores sell wine and beer.  Is a cash-register person whose religion opposes booze consumption justified in refusing to deal with a customer who wants to buy some?
Suppose a job (police officer, hotel desk clerk, airline reservation agent) requires a uniform which conflicts in some way with a religiously mandated item of clothing.  Is the employer required to make a special exception for that one employee?
I think that if you can't or won't perform the job duties, for whatever reason, religion or otherwise, then you're unqualified for the job and have no business applying for in the first place. If you really want the job, then change your religion.
As soon as a few religious leaders start realizing that their strange doctrines render True Believers unqualified to get jobs, maybe they'll start receiving mystic revelations from God to change these doctrines.  Strange things like that have happened in history, you know.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Modest Proposal

In the Episcopal church, a great fuss is made over how the communion wine gets consecrated for use, as though properly consecrated wine has magic powers of some sort.  If these magic powers could be verified, it would probably qualify for James Randi's million-dollar prize.  I'm sure there's room for a cool million in just about any parish budget.
I propose, therefore, that the magic powers be tested.  Several steps are involved.
Step one:  A panel of theologians (approved by the Archbishop of Canterbury, of course) shall define precisely what these magic powers are and precisely how they can be verified, and shall design the exact test procedure.
Step two:  A case of wine (twelve bottles) shall be purchased from the usual supplier.  Thirty-six canonically valid communion wine cruets shall be obtained from an approved supplier of religious products.  The cruets shall be marked numerically, and selected at random for the following step.
Step three.  Each bottle of wine shall be divided equally into three cruets.  One cruet shall be consecrated by a priest in the canonically approved fashion.  Another cruet shall have the consecration ceremony performed upon it by a lay-person, thus constituting an invalid consecration.  The third cruet shall remain unconsecrated.
Step four:  A record shall be made of which cruets were validly consecrated, which were invalidly consecrated, and which were unconsecrated.  The record shall be sealed into an envelope and delivered to a bank safe deposit box.
Step five:  Some people who did not witness the consecration ceremonies shall carry the cruets to the testing space where they will be tested by other people who did not witness the consecration ceremonies.
If the magic powers conferred by consecration are genuine, the test team should easily pick out the twelve validly consecrated cruets.  If, however, the twelve invalidly consecrated cruets also have these magic powers, we'll immediately know that an ordained priest is not needed to perform the consecration.
Now, since it will be theologians instead of scientists determining the test procedure, that should squelch any bogus excuses by theologians that theological claims are not scientifically testable.  The only thing we'll require is that the consecrated cruets be correctly identified.
And now, Dear Theologians!  Are you up to the task?  There's a cool million bucks on the table for your church budget!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Holy Spirits and Hogwash

During the seventeenth century when alchemy was beginning to give way to chemistry, it was becoming obvious that the traditional theory of four elements, earth, water, air, and fire, wasn't working.  For one thing, fire was discovered to be a process, not an element.
But just what sort of process was it, anyway.  Well, the new proto-chemists decided that whatever the elements were, one of them was phlogiston, and fire consisted of driving the phlogiston out from the other elements.
But there were problems with the phlogiston theory, so the new alchemists-becoming-chemists set up some careful observations to watch how this phlogiston was behaving, and discovered that the entire phlogiston theory was hogwash.
By contrast, when the Holy Trinity was defined, a dispute arose about whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son, or from only the Father and not the Son.  However, instead of following the very successful example of chemists who made a discovery by making careful observations, theologians simply divided the Christian religion in half on the basis of their disagreements.  If they should bother to set up careful observations to watch the Holy Spirit proceeding so they'd know which is true, they would probably discover that the entire Holy Trinity is just as imaginary as phlogiston.
A further controversy arose as to whether the Substance of the Son and the Substance of the Father are the same, alike, similar, or different.  Theologians dare not try to analyze these substances for fear of discovering that they don't even exist.
In fact, if we made careful observations of all our religious doctrines, we'd soon discover that our entire cast of characters is no more real than imaginary fairies and leprechauns.
And that, folks, is why science has given us good things and religion has given us reasons to refuse to get along.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Lame Apologetics

In general I find Christian apologetics rather dull, but I found this piece rather amusing.  It's called What Atheists Kant Refute by Dinesh D'Souza.
He starts out in the usual fashion, by fabricating a belief out of nowhere and pretending it's what atheists believe and base their arguments on.  In this case, it's the Fallacy of the Enlightenment, the belief that human reason and science can, in principle, eventually understand all of reality.  This was a popular Enlightenment belief but much less popular now.  In the first place, it may not necessarily be a fallacy, and in the second place, I've never met an atheist who believes it nor bases arguments on it.
Next, he brings up Critique of Pure Reason by Kant.  He appears to be blissfully unaware that this monumental tome was the beginning, not the end, of a 150-year-long massive revolution in our understanding of logic.
Then he claims that Kant proved that our knowledge is limited by our limited sensory apparatus, utterly unaware that technological gadgets, even in Kant's day, were already available to detect and measure things far beyond the scope of human senses.  I'm sure Kant was aware of these scientific instruments, but D'Souza appears not to be.
Then he observes (correctly, for a change) that atheists routinely dismiss religious claims for lack of evidence.  Of course they do!  Lack of evidence is grounds for eagerly seeking further knowledge, not for believing silly doctrines dreamed up out of thin air!
Somehow he has concluded that Kant's philosophy "opens the door to faith," which admittedly, Kant himself apparently claimed.  I'll admit I can't figure out how Kant justifies this conclusion.  It sounds like a suspiciously close relative to Pascal's Wager, which is not taken seriously by very many people any more.
D'Souza then dismisses what he calls the "ignorant boast" that atheism operates on a higher intellectual plane than theism.  Since theism, as far as I can tell, operates on the intellectual plane of children in their playpen arguing over whether their imaginary fairies are wearing pink dresses or blue dresses, I don't see why it's an ignorant boast to recognize your own intellectual superiority.
At last, in his final sentence, D'Souza strongly implies, without quite actually saying, that theistic belief offers a mystic pipeline to a form of knowledge beyond the scope of science.  I don't think so.  If something can't be known by methods accepted by science, it can't be known by mere humans.  Science uses observation and logic, the primary components of rational thought.  Theism uses doctrine and faith, the primary components of hogwash.
And now I'd better punch the Publish Post button so I can sit back and finish laughing at Dinesh D'Souza's jibberish.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Happy Birthday Sylvia Browne!

The world-famous Sylvia Browne turns 71 today, according to publicly available sources.  She's been pretending to be psychic since about 1974 according to this Wikipedia entry but her track record appears to be no better than random chance.  Anyone who keeps up on current events could do at least as well.  Nevertheless, she continues to receive incredibly high fees for psychic consultations and is apparently booked up solid for months.
James Randi has offered her his famous million-dollar prize if she can prove under scientifically acceptable conditions that she's really psychic.  But really, she's got no reason to take him up on it.  She'd never win the million, and her failure of the test might risk cutting into the megabucks she's raking in now.
She joins a long list of make-believe psychics, each with their own gimmick.
Uri Geller claims to use psychic powers to bend spoons, a feat accomplished regularly in school cafeterias by students using only their fingers.  I should think that straightening spoons back out again would be a more useful talent.
Jeane Dixon used to flood the mystery fan media with predictions of everything imaginable, then no matter what happened she'll have gotten something right.  Soon after President Kennedy's assassination, she announced that she had predicted it.  Nobody has ever found the publication in which the prediction supposedly appeared, but that didn't stop her from becoming the Official Psychic Advisor to Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
Edgar Cayce is alleged to have used his psychic powers to cure people by telepathy.  None of his supposed cures has ever been verified.
Psychic power has been a generously funded area of scientific research since about the middle of the nineteenth century.  No evidence of psychic power has ever been verified.  I don't think it's ever going to be, either.
I can already hear the shrill voices of True Believers whining, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!"  Sorry, True Believers, nice sound bite but total hogwash.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Global Warming

Now that global warming has happened, what do we do about it?
Sea levels are rising.  Do we spend billions on dikes and levees?  Or do we encourage lowland-using activities to relocate to higher ground?
Major rivers are likely to change their courses.  Do we spend billions on trying to confine the rivers?  Or do we relocate our river-dependent industries?
Agricultural zone boundaries are much farther north than they were forty years ago.  Do we spend billions trying to force nature to do our bidding?  Or do we learn to grow different crops, and grow our old crops in different places?
Formerly well-watered places are now arid, and formerly dry places are now suffering excess rainfall.  Same pair of questions.  Spend billions on dubious technology or learn to relocate?
Our current tax structure and land-ownership pattern makes relocation unduly difficult.  Land is too expensive to buy but too cheap to own for long term.  Relocation means abandoning now-worthless land that was initially bought at great cost, and buying new land at even greater cost.
Landowners are not making much from this scheme.  The only winners are banks who loan ever-increasing amounts of money for bigger and bigger mortgages.
What if we got smart and levied high real estate taxes on the location value of land, thus making it impractical to own land that's not immediately needed?  It seems that initial purchase prices of land would be greatly decreased.  Land that becomes worthless to to changes in the natural world would be much easier to abandon because new land could be more readily bought elsewhere.  The only losers would be banks, who would no longer have a market for huge land-purchase mortgages.
Of course there's still a need to curtail human activities that needlessly result in unnecessary global warming, but a more dynamic land usage pattern is going to be a necessary part of any solution.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

New version of Opera

I'm just trying out this newly downloaded version of the Opera browser to see if it can be used to post my entries here.  The earlier version didn't work so I used Microsoggy Intermuck Exploder which I hate.  In fact, the only worse browser on the market is Netscrape Navelgazer.
It appears to be working.  Okay.  Now I'll hit "Publish Post" and if you can read this entry, it worked.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Getting old

A few days ago, a friend of mine who is a semi-retired psychologist presented a small seminar on aging. Since I'm only seven and a half months short of 65, the magic age at which one becomes a Senior Citizen, I decided to attend. It was very interesting.

First of all, aging is not purely biological, it's biosocial. Social experience can accelerate or retard aging. Many researchers have noticed that members of churches, Rotary clubs, philosophy circles, bicycle clubs, or whatever, appear to live longer than the general population. Party hearty! It's good for you!

Aging is also dependent on the quality of mental activity you choose for yourself. An epidemiologist named Dr. David Snowden (sorry I can't cite the exact reference) studied a large group of elderly people who had written their biographies in their 20's. He found that people who expressed themselves clearly, grammatically correctly, and with high "idea density" (presenting a maximum of ideas with a minimum of verbiage) aged with much less senility. A possible reaction to this finding is, "Oh, my God, it's all in the bag by the time you are in your 20's!"

Actually, I certainly hope my fate wasn't all in the bag forty years ago. I fondly hope there's still room to continue changing my attitude and lifestyle for the better.

And now for the bad news. Medical technology now exists for keeping people alive for months or years after they've suffered ailments that would have been fatal a century ago. Sometimes the person experiences a very high quality of life after the event, sometimes not.

A woman in her sixties suffers a stroke. She's rushed to the hospital, and after a few months of recuperation, returns to a highly satisfying quality of life. Then in her eighties, she suffers a relatively minor accident, is saved temporarily by high-tech measures, only to die in a nursing home after several months of expensive but pointless care. What if the doctors treating her twenty years earlier had decided she's gone anyway, why bother, thus cheating her out of twenty good years?

A man in his eighties is beset by a variety of ailments that weaken him and require progressively more and more medical intervention. Several years ago he was taking five pills a day and walked with a cane. After a few years, he required ten pills a day and walked with two canes. After a few more years he needed twenty pills a day and was just barely able to struggle along with a wheelie-walker. Now he's up to forty pills a day and needs expert help getting back and forth amongst his bed, wheelchair, shower, toilet stool, car, dining table, and so forth. At what point should he simply chuck the pills, forget the doctor appointments, and splurge on a wild party and go out in a triumphant blaze of glorious celebration?

These decisions are not easy to make. An ailment or an accident occurs for which an expensive cure is available. Will it restore the patient to full health, or will it simply prolong the pain and agony? Is it ever ethical to withhold the cure from a patient on the grounds they'll never recover anyway? Is it ethical to saddle society with the costs of expensive treatments that seldon work, just on the chance that this patient might be the rare one who'll recover?

So here I am at 64. Just short of Senior Citizenship. I'm taking only one pill a day, I needed a cane briefly for a few weeks for an ankle injury about three years ago, I can still dig my own garden, ride a bicycle, bench press 1/3 of my body weight, (Okay, laugh, you tough young dudes!), and generally do pretty much everything I've always done. I feel great! I'm also under the delusion that I'll still feel great in twenty more years. But then, the guy on forty pills a day described in a previous paragraph felt that way too, twenty years ago.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Great Cosmic Accident?

A popular pulpit-sport among Christian preachers is to dream up utterly preposterous notions out of thin air and then claim that these ideas are what atheists believe. One such idea is that the entire universe must have just randomly popped into existence as the result of a great cosmic accident. I have never heard that idea expressed by anyone in the atheist community, but it might be worth examining anyway.

Randomness is a well-studied mathematical subject. Mathematicians and theoretical physicists have used the principle of randomness to aid in describing many of the phenomena of the universe. Now, does this mean that randomness alone could have caused the entire universe to exist? Of course not, and no rational person could believe it. However, if randomness is part of Absolute Truth, it is capable of being an uncaused cause of a few of the features of the universe, and these features have been well-defined.

Chaos sounds a lot like randomness to me, but competent mathematicians have assured me that it's an entirely different principle. It, too, has been well-studied, and, if it's part of Absolute Truth, it's also a possible uncaused cause of certain well-defined features of the universe.

Is logic valid! Nobody has yet succeeded in publishing a rigorous logical proof that logic is valid, but an enormous body of empirical experience exists to overwhelmingly support the contention that logic is valid. If logic is valid, then all axioms derivable by using the principles of logic as the only premises are absolutely true in all possible realms of reality, and can be uncaused causes.

For instance, consider the axiom, "If A=B and B=C then A=C." If this axiom is true, then it is the uncaused cause of the measurability of all dimensionally definable things. For instance, everyone realizes that you don't need to take your entire washtub to the hardware store to buy the right size drain plug, you only need to take your little pocket ruler, after having measured for the size you need. A is the size of the drain hole, B is the mark on your ruler, and C is the size of the plug. (If that axiom is not a part of Absolute Truth then maybe there's another universe in which rulers do not work, but let's not go there just yet.)

Many other axioms are also derivable from logic itself, and these, too, are uncaused causes and their effects are known and have been well-studied.

Many apparently non-axiomatic mathematical principles are behind many of the laws of physics. We don't know whether these principles are part of Absolute Truth and thus are uncaused, or whether they are only true in our universe and thus have unknown causes. But at least we know that they have effects, and we know what many of the effects are.

Now, are randomness, chaos, logic, axioms, and non-axiomatic principles enough to account for the existence of the universe? Well, probably not, but at least we do know that these things have been empirically observed in ordinary reality and their effects are definable without resorting to supernatural explanations.

Can our esteemed clergy make equivalent claims about this God they so dearly want us to believe in? I don't think so. Every theologian's description of God is different, and none of them are supportable by observations. Except for a vaporous assertion about something called "Omnipotence" (a poorly defined weasel-word at best), no theologian I know of has ever provided a description of God that includes attributes that imply creative powers.

The explanation "God created the universe" sounds suspiciously like the Great Cosmic Accident that our preachers take such great delight in accusing atheists of believing in.

Now, don't get me wrong! I'm perfectly aware of the possibility that Ultimate Reality may consist of a non-materially hosted conscious intelligence of some sort. But I see no justification for believing any such thing until it's been verifiably observed by enough people to at least agree on a few of its attributes.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Judeo-Christian tradition?

Just what is this Judeo-Christian tradition anyhow? Did Christianity even have any Jewish origins at all?

Christianity appears to be largely based on man-god mythology, a recurring theme in Indo-European mythology, especially Celtic, pre-Zoroastrian Persian, and Indus Vally mythology. The idea that any God could ever appear in human form is utterly alien to Semitic mythology and downright blasphemous to Judaism.

Now, let's look at this list of more than half of the groups to whom Saint Paul addressed epistles: Colossians, Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Thessalonians. Notice anything special about these groups? Yes, they're all in the fringe zone where Greek and Celtic civilizations overlapped. (In fact, the Galatians were entirely Celtic.)

Now, sometime when you haven't got anything to do that's worth doing, sit down and read these epistles. One of Paul's main aims appears to be to get them all to agree on a set of beliefs. It appears that all these groups had already developed their own separate man-god mythologies and Paul saw some value (perhaps political) in uniting them.

Here's another hint: the early Christians used the Septuagint as their version of the Jewish scriptures. The Septuagint was written for the benefit of Greeks wanting to learn about the traditional literature of their Jewish neighbors, and was never considered canonically sacred by any Jews, not even Greek-speaking Jews. There were other Greek translations of Jewish scriptures in use by Greek-speaking Jews.

And yet another hint: all four Gospels were written by people who appeared to have a rather poor knowledge of the geography of Palestine and the customs of Aramaic-speaking Jews in Palestine.

Here's my conjecture, which I'll admit I can't prove, but I think it sounds plausible. Soon after 36 AD when Pontius Pilate was relieved of his political career under highly scandalous circumstances, a number of existing Greek-Celtic man-god cultists (who had, for more than a century, been using the Greek title Christ, meaning Anointed One, to refer to their man-god) decided that Pontius Pilate would be the perfect ruler for their man-god to have been crucified by. Therefore, they had to make a few hasty modifications to their myths to give their man-god a Palestinian Jewish identity. Their meager knowledge of Jewish things was just barely good enough to fool the uneducated masses who formed the entirety of early Christianity.

So, it looks to me like Judaism was simply crammed onto the front end of Christianity as a convenient afterthought.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Fellowship or bigotry?

The Episcopal church is in a bit of turmoil right now. Does anybody care?

The conservative factions within the denomination are, on the basis of about a dozen vaguely worded Bible verses, denouncing homosexuality as sinful. The liberal factions are, on the basis of other equally vaguely worded Bible verses, moving toward accepting gay people into the fellowship.

Here's one issue: At least one openly gay person has been selected as a bishop. The conservatives are rejecting Bishop Robinson because of the sinfulness of his lifestyle. The liberals are supporting him to try to pacify the gay rights community. Nobody is bothering to notice whether he's managing his diocese correctly.

Here's another issue: Some liberal leaders are proposing to introduce rituals to celebrate same-sex commitments for gay people, apparently just to make points with the gay rights folks. Conservatives are opposing these proposals on the basis of a few Bible verses. Nobody is concerned with improving the quality of the church's fellowship.

The worldwide Anglican Communion is, for the most part, siding with the conservatives.

Should the Episcopal church break away from the Anglican Cmmunion? Should the Episcopal church split apart and part of it stay with the Anglical Communion?

This is the sort of thing that's bound to happen to an organization based on nothing. Yes, I'm calling the Bible "Nothing" because it's simply a haphazard collection of primitive mythologies of various bronze-age nomadic tribes. Nobody is examining it in the light of modern knowledge.

Continuing examination of relevant facts would enable us to come to a consensus, and later to modify that consensus when more facts become known. But we can't do that. It would involve regarding the Bible as being of merely historical interest.

Contrast this with Darwin's Origin Of Species and the modern theory of evolution. We now recognize that Origin Of Species contains many factual errors, as Darwin, himself, predicted would be found. As a result of scientists' willingness to examine new observations, the theory of evolution has been greatly strengthened.

Now actually, I think it would be good for Christianity to break up into as many squabbling denominations as possible. It would eliminate the possibility of religion regaining the immense monolithic oppressive power it had during the Dark Ages.

If that means that our church can no longer provide viable fellowship, I'll just quit. No heartburn, no hard feelings. Fellowship can be had elsewhere.

Friday, September 28, 2007


Several decades ago the Navy built a barracks complex designed to make efficient use of the available space and to provide convenience for the troops. Recently, somebody noticed that a Google satellite map of the complex shows it to bear a vague similarity to a swastika, so the Navy has allocated $600,000 to modify or disguise the shape. Stories at and,0,2973328.story?coll=la-home-center .

The swastika has been a symbol of peace and good will for many centuries. It appears in Hindu art, Grecian urns, Navajo pottery, Inca basketry, Persian rugs, monks' robes, cathedral floors, Celtic monuments, Nordic runes, Gothic architecture, and many other places.

For a short period during the twentieth century, the swastika appeared on the flag of an oppressive regime in Germany, the only known evil use of this symbol in all recorded history. For this reason it has now become a reviled symbol of hate. We have short memories, don't we?

Somebody's symbol of good will is likely to be offensive to somebody else. A five-pointed star (with a single point on top and two on the bottom) inscribed in a circle is a good-luck symbol to a certain minor religious cult but a symbol of evil to certain gospel-gobbling Christians. Another five-pointed star (with two points on top and one on the bottom) with a goat's head fancifully inscribed in it is another such symbol. There have actually been cases of people fired from their jobs for wearing simple ordinary jewelry containing one of these symbols.

The traditional Christian cross is a shape that was first introduced as a crucifixion device in 64 AD and therefore couldn't have been used to crucify Jesus. Exactly how it came to be the standard Christian symbol, nobody knows. It may have originated as the symbol of something else. Anyhow, it's offensive to people who remember Christianity as the main oppressive ruling regime during the Middle Ages. Wear a small cross as a piece of jewelry while visiting a Muslim country and see what kind of reception you get!

I'm sure I could find, amongst my earthly possessions, at least a dozen things whose shapes are offensive to somebody. All I can say is, sorry, but go stuff it. I can't reshape all my possessions to satisfy everybody.

I see no reason for the Navy to spend so much as a nickel trying to remodel its barracks complex.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Does Christianity have foundations?

"For more than eight hundred years, the Order has preserved an ancient cache of documents that could shake Christianity to its foundations." (An excerpt from the back cover blurb of The Testament, a novel by Eric van Lustbader.)

That got me to thinking. Just what are the foundations of Christianity, and what could shake them?

The Bible, specifically the New Testament, is usually accepted as the primary foundation of Christianity. It's a hodgepodge of poorly written mythology. The Gospels (including Acts) look like sloppy fairy tales, quite likely largely plagiarized from previous man-god myths. They look nothing like credible biographies at all. The Epistles don't really add much understanding, in fact, most of them appear to have been written by people who didn't even know anything about the Gospel stories. Revelation appears to be the rantings of a madman. So much for the Bible.

Scholarship-minded Christians can find a number of other ancient Christian writings, of which an impressive collection is listed at . None of these writings are very informative.

Who was Jesus? We don't know. No contemporary mention of him has ever been found. The Gospels seem to describe him as, for the most part a nice guy, but little more than a confused dimwit whose most memorable accomplishment was to wangle twelve gullible morons to go traipsing round and about the countryside with him. Everything else written about him is pure fantasy. It's tempting to think he may be entirely fictional.

Who was Saint Paul? A Greek-speaking Jew in Tarsus? A supplier of tents to the Roman Army? A one-time student of Rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem? Assigned to persecute the new cult of Christians but then experienced a mystic conversion and decided to join them?

The pieces don't fit. What sort of Jewish community was there in Tarsus? What was his role in that community? Why would the Romans, who considered the Jews to be troublemakers, buy tents from a Jew. Why would any Jew, who would have considered the Romans to be oppressors, supply tents to their army? Where's the evidence that Paul had any knowledge of anything Rabbi Gamaliel would have ever taught? Who in a position of authority, before 50 AD, would have ever bothered to assign anybody to persecute the nearly unknown cult of Christians?

Who was Saint Peter? A poorly educated fisherman in Galilee who would have been fluent and possibly slightly literate in Aramaic and may have spoken a slight bit of Greek, later somehow makes it to Rome, where he would have needed to be fluent and at least semi-literate in Latin in order to become the leader of the Roman Christians? Seems somehow unlikely.

And then we have the Nicene Creed, based on pure imagination, not supported by any observation nor logical derivation.

And there you have it. Nothing but unsupported vapor. But Christian belief is unshakable. If an ancient document or physical object were to turn up proving that Jesus was a bigamist, married to both Mary Magdalene and Martha of Bethany, or perhaps a fraudulent camel-merchant who cheated all his customers, or maybe a Roman tax-collector in disguise, no modern-day Christian would accept it, no matter how well attested. Nobody's belief would be shaken.

Oh, but The Testament was a rather nice book anyway.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


A cassock worn by Pope John Paul II is being cut up into 100,000 pieces to be sold as relics, so says a recent news report.

I have no idea why anybody would ever pay for such a thing. But then, veneration of relics is a venerable old tradition. Every chapel, no matter how small, poor, or insignificant, has a secret treasure trove including a few small envelopes, each labeled Tertiary Relic of Saint Somebody of Somewhere (or something to that effect) and if you look inside the envelope you see a tiny fragment of some unidentifiable substance. If you should replace this fragment with a bit of dryer lint, nobody would know the difference. In fact, for all anybody knows, these fragments might actually be nothing but dryer lint.

Documentation of the Catholic Church is ambivalent as to whether these relics have magic powers. Officially they say no, a lesser (material) cause cannot have a greater (spiritual) effect. But somehow, the official wording gets twisted and obfuscated to mean yes, if you pray in the presence of a relic your prayer is answered faster. The Episcopal church closely follows Catholic practice, and the Orthodox churches appear to be even more heavily into relics. Most Protestant denominations try to downplay the importance of relics.

Now, here's the hilarious part. Apparently several fraudulent relic-mongers are all set to cut up just any old cloth and sell the pieces as relics from the late Pope's cassock, and the Catholic church is warning believers to beware of these fakes. But how can you tell of you've got a fake? Can its magical powers be scientifically tested?

Veneration of relics is not limited to religion. In the famously over-hyped Tour de France bicycle race, for instance, when a rider finishes all the water from his water bottle he flings it aside and his team's support van pulls up alongside and the support person hands him a new bottle of water. Meanwhile, the spectators pounce on the empty bottle in a mad melee and tear it to shreds (not to mention coming close to tearing each other to shreds in the process) just to possess a piece of it. I have no idea what it would be good for. Suppose somebody shows me a small unidentifiable scrap of plastic and brags, "This is a piece of Lance Armstrong's ninth water bottle from Day Seven." Am I supposed to be impressed?

Now some relics make sense. Pictures of long-dead ancestors, if you know who they are. Sports trophies that represent actual victories. Framed diplomas, if you earned them the honest way. Perhaps maybe nails and bricks, retrieved from the ashes of college buildings destroyed by fire, handed out as mementoes to alumni who have made donations for the replacement building.

But a tiny snicket of cloth alleged to be a piece of some dead pope's cassock? Come on! You'll never sell me one!

Monday, September 24, 2007


A visitor's comment to my Urban Sprawl entry has expressed concern as to how much of the earth's surface is now paved and how much the pavement causes run-off, resulting in rising sea levels and decreasing groundwater availability. That's a legitimate concern, although I think that pollution carried by the run-off is of far greater concern.

In my neighborhood, because I live less than 600 feet from the tidal zone of the Patuxent River just before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay, we have a zoning regulation that prohibits more than 25% impermeable coverage of my property. Impermeable coverage includes buildings with foundations, sidewalks, and paved driveways. It does not include non-foundationed sheds, isolated decorative rocks, and separated-brick or cobblestone walkways and driveways. That sounds, superficially, like good sense.

But is it really good sense? A family requires a certain size house and garage, and enough impermeable surface to park cars. (Most car-owners are aware of the rust problems that quickly develop on the underside of a car that's regularly parked on a permeable surface, especially grass or weeds.) This means that, in effect, you need to own at least four times the area you're going to build on. For many people, no problem, because you'd like to own that much area anyway.

But some people (non-gardeners, disabled people who can't participate in outdoor activities, etc.) could get by with less land area if the law would allow.

Now, here's the effect of requiring a certain minimum property size. Houses and businesses need to be farther apart. Driving distances are increased, thus increasing the need for more (and sometimes wider) paved roads. Fewer trips can be made by walking. More families need two or more cars, thus further increasing their own need for room to park them. Businesses need larger parking lots because higher percentages of their customers arrive by car. So, the total per-capita pavement area of the community is increased.

So it looks to me like the impermeable-surface restriction has backfired.

Here's another problem: over-dependence on cars for personal transportation and trucks for commercial long-haul. This demands paved roads. Even if semi-permeable pavement (far more expensive and shorter-lasting than conventional pavement) is used, the total impermeability of the pavement could be greatly decreased if as much as possible of our transportation could be done by railroads, which require very little impermeable surface for the railbeds.

What's the answer? Opinions, anybody?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Is a church really a charity?

When we do our income taxes, we can deduct charitable giving, including giving to our church, and the church itself pays no taxes. But is a church really a charity? Does it really do anything for the community, or is it merely a self-indulgent social club?

Right now I have before me our church's budget summary for Fiscal Year 2007, trying to ascertain how much of it is actually used for charitable benefit to the community.

47.70% of the budget is for salaries and benefits to a full-time preacher, a part-time assistant preacher, an organist, and an office manager.

What do the preachers do? Primarily, they put on a grandiose show for us. They lead the Sunday morning services, attend our social events, and may perform some administrative duties. Nobody outside of the church sees any of this. It's all for the benefit of the church members. The preachers also serve as figureheads for the church in our dealings with our community, but for the most part, the people outside of the church barely know that the preachers exist. Hardly any charity here.

The organist greatly enhances our enjoyment of the church service, but that has no impact on anybody outside the church. No charity here.

The office manager is necessary for the administration of the church, but does nothing except help keep the church in existence. No charity here.

36.20% of the budget is for operating expense. It's just to keep the church in existence. No charity here.

12.47% of the budget is for buildings and grounds. Two chapels, a parish hall, a graveyard, and about eleven acres of land to do maintenance on. No charity here.

2.42% of the budget is for insurance. A necessary expense, to be sure, but it's not charity.

0.83% of the budget is for ministries support. That serves certain special needs of the congregation members, so I suppose that, by some stretch of the definition, it could be called charity, but it's only for church members, not the community at large.

0.37% of the budget is for outreach. This could be construed as charity of sorts, but it's primarily intended to extend invitations to folks to join the church, not to actually do much good. Charity? Well, maybe.

(I think the remaining 0.01% is the result of arithmetical rounding.)

In addition, some church members participate in a charity called SMILE which is run by a consortium of several of the churches of the community. None of the churches' budgets contribute anything to SMILE, however.

My conclusion is that our church is an almost purely self-indulgent social club, and we've done a masterful con job into hoodwinking the IRS into exempting the church from taxes. The tax break is actually an outright gift from the state to the church, thus constituting a breach in the traditional separation of church and state. Personally, I feel a bit guilty participating in this blatant fraud.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Urban Sprawl

Waldorf, Maryland is an extreme example of urban sprawl. It began as a few widely spaced truck stops, motels, and sleazy bars along several miles of U.S. 301. Then in 1949, slot machines were legalized and all the sleazy bars put them in. Land speculators, seeing the influx of visitors attracted by the slot machines, immediately gobbled up the vast tracts of vacant land between the sparsely spaced businesses.

No sidewalks or crosswalks were ever built, so walking anywhere was difficult, and driving everywhere was necessary. Traffic got congested. More businesses were built, and they all had to have huge parking lots because all their customers arrived by car, none by walking.

The combination of rampant land speculation and the need for huge parking lots forced the businesses to be far apart, thus increasing driving distances and congesting traffic even further. The city planners in their wondrous wisdom built wider roads instead of sidewalks and crosswalks.

The increased width of the roads used up land that would have otherwise been useful for businesses, thus forcing businesses even farther apart, thus increasing everyone's driving needs even further. Traffic became even more congested. Land speculators made a killing.

The city planners in their wondrous wisdom thought the slot machines were to blame, so they banned all public gambling in 1968. That made no difference whatsoever.

U.S. 301 is now up to ten lanes wide in some places. Many businesses were relocated in the process of widening it. The businesses had to be rebuilt even farther out, increasing driving time for everybody even further, and the vicious circle continues.

About 95% of the land area in Waldorf is now roads, parking lots, and giant weed patches owned by land speculators. Only about 5% is available for homes and businesses. Widening the roads even more is no longer possible because there's no available land to widen them onto.

There seems to be two things nobody has ever thought of. First, adjust real estate taxes to bear more heavily on location value of the land and more lightly (if at all) on the buildings, thus putting the land speculators out of their nefarious trade. Second, build sidewalks and crosswalks.

Do you know of any community suffering from urban sprawl? Would these same two solutions be applicable to your community?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Absolute Truth

Is there such a thing as Absolute Truth? I'm inclined to think there probably is. I'm also inclined to think that logic is probably valid and that the validity of logic is probably part of Absolute Truth.

I realize that mathematicians have been unable to prove logically that logic is valid. Every proof of the validity of logic that's ever been published in peer-reviewed mathematics journals has at least one non-rigorous step. However, we have an immense body of empirical experience showing that logic always works, and it appears that the most reasonable explanation is that logic is valid.

If logic is valid, then everything that can be proven using the principles of logic as premises must be necessarily true in all possible realms of reality, and therefore must be part of Absolute Truth.

The ancient Greeks presented the concept of the Logos, a body of truth so absolute that even the gods, if they exist, must be bound by it. They can't do anything that's logically impossible. Anyone bound by anything cannot be a Supreme Being. The Logos itself cannot be a Supreme Being either, because it must remain forever unchanged, and must do only what its nature destines it to do.

Early Christian theologians were very displeased at the thought that a Supreme Being is impossible. Therefore, they invented a new form of Logos, the Word of Truth spoken by God. This means that the Logos is dependent on God, instead of God dependent on the Logos.

The ancient Chinese presented the concept of the Tao, the Way of All Things. All things must conform to the Tao. Ancient Chinese thought appears not to possess any well-defined concept of God, therefore the relationship between God and the Tao is not a part of Chinese Philosophy.

The Tao appears to have had little or no impact on Christian theology. Christian thought, in general, regards the Tao as quaint and amusing, but unimportant.

Physicists have noticed that most of the laws of physics appear to be based on a strikingly small number of mathematical formulations. You can see this readily in Richard Feynman's Lectures on Physics. Whereas most physics textbooks have separate chapters on static forces, dynamic motion, optics, acoustics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, quantum theory, etc., Richard Feynman jumps back and forth amongst these various topics to show that the same mathematical constructs, with different window-dressing, appear at the root of all the laws of these various topics in physics. Therefore, these few mathematical constructs must describe the basic dimensionality of the entire universe.

Now, just who or what could have created such a universe? Could the universe be the necessary result of a body of Absolute Truth? Could the universe exist because its nonexistence would be logically self-contradictory? I find this a very intriguing possibility.

A few junior wanna-be theologians have suggested that God is Absolute Truth, but that idea has apparently not met with much favor in the general theological community. It would imply a powerless God who is incapable of making any decisions, but is absolutely constrained to create what must be created. Such a God would not be anything to whom congregations would sing hymns and recite prayers.

But the existence of Absolute Truth, at the present state of human knowledge, has not been proven. As Richard Feynman has said, our current knowledge of the universe is still not sufficient to determine whether a conscious decision-making God was needed for its creation. (Richard Feynman was Jewish, but he didn't let his religion get in the way of his intelligence.)

So that leaves us all free to believe that the universe was arbitrarily zapped into existence by the capricious whimsy of a conscious decision-making God. Personally, I have trouble believing any such thing.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Property taxes

September is property tax month in my county. I just paid mine. It has gone up substantially since I had my new garage built about a year and a half ago. The garage replaced a decrepit shack that was a neighborhood eyesore and possibly somewhat of a safety hazard, thus ripping it out and replacing it with a decent building was a service to the neighborhood, so I get rewarded with a tax increase.

We're all accustomed to property taxes. The more property you own, the more tax you pay. Fair? Well, perhaps not. The commodity we call "property" is actually two separate things: land and buildings. I don't truly "own" land. I only possess the privilege of putting my house, garage, and garden on it. It's right that I should pay taxes for this privilege, even if I didn't actually exercise the privilege.

It's much better for the community if I keep my buildings in good shape and replace them when they become decrepit, but if I'm penalized with higher taxes for doing so, that rather decreases my incentive, doesn't it?

All of my neighbors except one have had new garages built in the last fifteen years. All except that one have gotten their property taxes increased. The one neighbor who hasn't done so is thinking about it, but his budget is tight and he's not very eager for a tax increase on top of the building cost.

My property sits on a whopping five eighths of an acre, about twice as much as I really need. I suppose I could subdivide half of it off and sell it, but why bother? The legal manipulation would eat up most of the profit and the decrease in my property tax would be insignificant. Besides, it'll probably be worth more next year anyhow.

Just think of what would happen if my neighbors and I paid much higher taxes on our land and little or none on the buildings! We'd all have more incentive to upgrade our houses, garages, and gardens to the max, thus improving the appearance of the community. Those of us with large lots would have more incentive to sell off the excess, allowing a more densely built community with less urban sprawl.

Opinions, anybody? What do you think is fair?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Science versus Religion

Are science and religion compatible? That question seems to be all the rage this year, so I thought I'd speak up and prove that I don't have the answer.

Anybody who claims that science and religion are compatible probably doesn't understand science. Anybody who claims that science and religion are incompatible probably doesn't understand religion. I don't understand religion.

Stephen Jay Gould once claimed that science and religion address non-overlapping magisteria, therefore compatibility between them is irrelevant. I think I can probably agree with that. Science addresses reality. I don't know what religion addresses.

At a banquet that my wife and I attended a few years ago, we were seated at a table with several clergy people and other religious leaders of several denominations. The conversation turned to the philosophical implications of the difference between the two versions of the Nicene Creed, whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, or only the Father and not the Son.

I, in my ignorance, asked, "Has anybody ever conducted an observation to watch the Holy Spirit proceeding, so we'd know which is true?"

One of the clergymen tried to explain, "The proceeding of the Holy Spirit isn't something you observe, it's derived from the equilateral symmetry of the Trinity."

I asked, "But how was the equilateral symmetry of the Trinity measured?"

Another clergyman answered, "The equilateral symmetry of the Trinity isn't measured, it's deduced by means of faith."

I asked, "But how do you do that?"

Another clergyman then tried to explain, "First you must believe, so that you may experience the Trinity in action, then you'll understand the sacred mystery. Read the works of Saint Anselm, who explained it all quite clearly."

At this point, my wife knew what I was about to ask next, so she began poking me under the table, so I figured it was time to drop this utterly futile line of questioning.

I thought, what's this? I'm supposed to believe before I can understand? I thought I had to understand before belief was justified.

Before Galileo could get people to believe that Jupiter had moons, he had to help them understand that a telescope was a tool to extend human vision, not an implement of satanic delusion.

Before Alfred Wegener could get people to believe that continents drift around, he had to help them understand that there was a lot more to it than the coincidental similarity of the shapes of the Atlantic coastlines of Africa and South America.

Before Einstein could get anybody to believe the Theory of Relativity, he had a tremendous amount of explaining to do. The Theory of Relativity still appears to have some holes in it.

And before Saint Anselm can get me to believe anything, well, he can't. He couldn't explain anything in a logically coherent manner when he was alive, and I doubt he'll do it now that he's dead.

Religion is an utterly alien world to me. I only participate because the natural progress of my life has placed me in the Episcopal Church social crowd and it would be needlessly hateful of me to refuse to participate.

So, am I a hypocrite for going through the motions of a religion in which I hold not the slightest belief whatsoever?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Remembering 9/11

Does anybody really know what happened on September 11, 2001? I don't, and I doubt that anybody else has the straight story either.

I don't believe any of the conspiracy conjectures, but I don't believe any official reports I've ever heard either. All I believe is that the official investigation was inexcusably sloppy and crude, and that the official explanation is miserably incomplete.

There are too many inadequately answered questions. How could a mostly aluminum airplane, built no more heavily than absolutely necessary, cause the total collapse of a massive steel and concrete building intended to withstand every imaginable onslaught for centuries? What caused the upper parts of the collapsing buildings to fall almost as rapidly as if the lower parts were not there? Why do photographs of the wreckage show material breakage patterns of a sort that would result from explosives?

Let me offer a humble conjecture. From having spent thirty-two years working in various sorts of office buildings and helping to install systems in some of them, I know a bit of how they're built. They have easily removable lift-out floor plates, quick-drop ceiling tiles, and often easily removable wall panels, all for the purpose of facilitating easy installation and maintenance of phone systems, computer networks, interoffice communication systems, security camera systems, and whatever.

Installation and maintenance technicians are always around the building somewhere, doing something to one system or another. The office workers pay them little mind for the most part, and sometimes even lend them a hand.

Suppose, in the weeks before the 9/11 disaster, a few dozen Al Qaeda operatives showed up disguised as installation technicians, bearing forged credentials and a believable story about what they were going to install. They could easily bring in explosive devices disguised as system components. No one would question them. They would be free to plant the explosives in full view of everybody, and no one would ever insist on double-checking what's inside of the black boxes.

Could this be what happened? I don't know. I have no evidence. But at least I think it's believable. Opinions, anyone? What do you believe?

Monday, September 10, 2007


Is recycling worthwhile?

Since my community lacks reliable trash collection service, we take our trash to the local trash depository. In addition to the large compactor for non-recyclable general trash, there are also bins for various types of recyclable materials.

One huge bin is for mixed metal cans, glass bottles, and plastic containers, all mixed together. Does that make any sense? Is somebody going to sort through it, piece by piece? If they don't, what in the world could they use the mixture for?

Perhaps the job might be eased slightly, but not much, with an array of magnets. Then in one pile they'd have mixed stainless steel cans, tin-plate cans, zinc-plate cans, nickel-plate cans, and stray miscellaneous hardware in one pile, and mixed aluminum cans, clear glass, brown glass, green glass, milk glass, lead-crystal glass, and six formulations of plastic in the other pile. Nope! All the magnets in the world won't do much.

I'd almost be willing to bet that they simply weigh the mixed materials, apply for a federal grant of some sort based on percentage of total trash recycled, write a letter to send out to the public praising us for the great job of recycling we're doing, and send the mixed materials on to the landfill along with the non-recyclable trash.

Another huge bin is for mixed paper and cardboard of all types. Newspapers, magazines, books, catalogs, phone directories, cardboard boxes, all together. Actually, it's imaginable that there may be a few industrial uses for that mix without sorting, since all paper and cardboard products are more or less similar in chemical composition, so paper recycling might not be a total loss.

There's a large receptacle for used but still wearable old clothing for donation to charity. Now that would make sense, in principle, except that sorting items by size and style and getting them to needy people is very time-consuming. It probably is done by volunteers.

There is a large drum for used motor oil. Now that makes good sense, I think. I'm not sure what they refine used oil into, but at least it's possible to dispose of it without contaminating soil or water, even if actual recycling is not feasible.

There's a place in the landfill to dump bulky yard waste, but there's a dumping charge for that. Why? I don't know. It's compostable, whereas most other trash is not. In fact, I compost my own yard waste, and throw kitchen scraps in with it. Better than paying good money for garden fertilizer!

Used cooking oil can be cheaply converted into high-quality diesel fuel, and some estimates have been made that as much as one eighth of our nation's diesel fuel cosumption could be supplied by the used cooking oil from fast-fooderies. However, collecting the stuff would be prohibitively expensive. The typical American community has one or two fast-fooderies every three or four blocks, and each fast-foodery throws out only a gallon or two a few times a day. It would be a monumentally costly to have a collection truck loop around the circuit of fast-fooderies, collecting only a small trickle each stop. No wonder it isn't done except by a few diehard individuals out to prove something!

Now, back to metal, glass, and plastic. If none of it is ever recycled, we'll soon be mining our landfills. I really don't see how that would be bad at all. If all of it is recycled, we'll be mining our landfills almost as soon. For the most part, I think we ought to invest in landfill-mining technology instead of wasting time recycling.

Maybe recycling is just a feel-good thing, to make us feel patriotic.

How do you stand? Opinions, anybody?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Cognitive Dissonance

Since I've just spent the morning in a church-sponsored Bible-reading seminar and the afternoon in a presentation by the Washington Area Secular Humanists on the twin topics of religious freedom and separation of church and state, it's a perfect evening to bring up the topic of Cognitive Dissonance, the disparity between what you can see is true and what you're expected to believe.

As we observe the universe, we perceive regularity at the most basic level. All electrons (as far as we know) have the same unit charge, the speed of light in a vacuum is constant, physical laws appear to be unchanging, logic always works, and so forth. This strongly suggests, to me at least, that the universe must be the result of a body of absolute truth of some sort, of which only a small portion is currently known.

But in the Christian religion, we are asked to ignore all this, and accept the utterly preposterous and totally unsupportable contention that the universe was just magically zapped into existence by the capricious whimsy of some sort of invisible sky-zombie named God. The method used by this God is held to be a sacred mystery we're not supposed to ask about.

Without the slightest evidence that such a God even exists, we've conjectured his detailed anatomy. He's presumed to have the form of an impossibly convoluted three-headed mini-pantheon called a "Holy Trinity" consisting of a "Father", a "Son", and a "Holy Spirit". The precise arrangement of these parts is disputed. Some denominations insist that the Holy Spirit "proceeds" from both the Father and the Son, and others say no, only from the Father and not the Son. Nobody has ever conducted an observation to watch the Holy Spirit proceeding so we'd know which is true. And then there are controversies over whether the "Substances" of the Father and the Son are alike, the same, similar, or different. No one has been able to analyze these "substances" so we'd know which is true. There are many other controversies over even more trivial and utterly unprovable details.

From this point on, the doctrine just gets weirder and weirder. Since nobody has ever detected the slightest evidence of this unlikely monstrosity, we've conjectured that he must live in some unchartable yonder realm called "Heaven" but he's really omnipresent. He's also omnipotent except that we can pretend to boss him around by reciting mystic incantations at our own belly buttons in a strangely useless ritual called "Prayer".

Different denominations have different attitudes toward the combination of careful observation and rigorous logic generally referred to as the Scientific Method, but all agree on insisting that there is a Higher Truth that's beyond the scope of mere science, and that higher truth can only be perceived by standing in ranks and chanting mystic incantations in four-part harmony while merrily vestmented dignitaries stroll down the aisle carrying awkward ceremonial gadgets.

Is it any wonder that our religion has never contributed anything of major value to the world?

To me, religion has only two saving graces. First, we at least pay lip service to the Golden Rule, although most of us have no idea that we plagiarized it from non-religious moral philosophies of about the eleventh or twelfth century BC or earlier. Second, we have a nice fellowship of friendly people as long as you're careful to avoid participating in the crybaby contests sponsored by the resident drama queens of the congregation.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Book review: The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw

Copyright 1998, Random House, ISBN 0-375-50202-5

This is a book from my parents' vast collection of books, which I obtained soon after my mother passed away and my father is divesting himself of many of his earthly possessions as he moves from their home of more than 45 years into an assisted living home.

This book is about the generation of people who lived their teenage years during the Great Depression and arrived at adulthood during World War II. This is my parents' generation. Although one might argue rhetorically whether any generation can rightfully be called greater than any other, it's obvious that the unique crucibles of depression and war shaped the attitudes and characters of the people of this generation, sometimes for the good, and sometimes otherwise.

Living during the depression can affect a person any of several ways. It can instill a lifelong attitude of frugality, or it can condemn a person to a lifetime of defeatism. The frugal survived, the defeatists didn't.

World War II was a war we had to win. Had we lost, we'd probably all be speaking a German-Japanese pidgin dialect of some sort and living under unspeakable tyranny. The people fighting this war and contributing to the war effort, both on and off the battlefield, learned dedication to duty. That sounds trite, but Tom Brokaw does an excellent job of explaining how this dedication built character.

The people described in the book are, of course, exceptional people. They're the people who later became politicians and industry leaders. But the same forces that shaped their lives also shaped the lives of the whole generation of plain ordinary folks nobody will ever remember.

Reading the book has given me a better understanding of why my parents were like they were, and why they raised me like they did.

They insisted on frugality, for instance. Why pay extra for a double-dip cone when a single-dip satisfies, even if you've got the money? Why throw a tantrum demanding fancy toys when a few pieces of scrap wood nailed together, supplemented by the fertile imagination that every kid has got, will do just fine?

They taught devotion to duty. Get that geography lesson learned, not because there's any immediate tangible reward, but because it's the right thing to do. Go help Grandma do her grocery shopping, not because she'll give you a candy bar, but because she needs help.

Many people of this generation have built up substantial pots of savings, which their children (my generation) will inherit. Do I deserve to inherit anything? Of course not! I feel like a vulture even thinking about it. I hope my father uses his money for his own enjoyment during his remaining years. He inherited absolutely nothing whatsoever from his parents, and he's already given me everything a parent rightfully owes his children. I've got no right to ask for more.

Tom Brokaw has, in my opinion, somewhat whitewashed the descriptions of several of the political and industry leaders. He's glossed over the miserable failings of several politicians who, as we've read in newspaper articles, messed up scandalously. But that's okay. He's provided me with an understanding of how societal forces can shape people.

Perhaps I'm unduly arrogant, but I think I'm a bit smarter for having read the book.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A sermon on poverty and hunger

At a recent church service, the sermon topic was poverty and hunger. After the obligatory weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over the amount of poverty and hunger in the world, the preacher presented a comparison between Herbert Spencer and Jesus Christ. Naturally, in accordance with the Christian Party Line, the conclusion was that Jesus Christ had the True Answer. We must increase our charitable giving.

Herbert Spencer was a nineteenth-century English philosopher and political theorist who, upon reading Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, concluded that natural selection leading to the survival of the fittest applied just as well to human society. Give the poor nothing, he said. They're poor because they're less fit. Allow them to starve, and the next generation will be stronger and wealthier because the weaker members will have died without leaving descendents.

Spencer was, in principle, correct, except for one problem. The laws of his time, like the laws of our own time, grant certain people unnatural advantages because they've been born into positions of special privilege, or had the good luck to move into positions of special privilege. If fitness were the primary determining factor of wealth, Paris Hilton would probably be a homeless waif sleeping on steam grates and begging crumbs.

So I think we can safely dismiss Herbert Spencer's proposed solution. But did Jesus Christ really do any better?

We Christians love to think that Jesus was the Supreme Humanitarian. Unfortunately, there isn't much in any of the Gospels to support that view. Although he was a pretty nice guy in most of the Gospel stories, he really doesn't appear to have been particularly intelligent. He appears to have had no idea that poverty is caused primarily by legally enforced special privileges, leading to inequality of opportunity. Charitable giving was all he could think of, utterly ignoring the underlying injustice.

There is one thing that all human activities, without exception, require, and that is a location, a place to be while you are doing it. You can just about hear the real estate salesperson in the background, whispering, "Location, location, location." Food can be grown more easily on land near where strong people live to till the land, and near where hungry people live to eat the food, and people move around for various reasons and their needs and wants change with the seasons.

Our present laws treat land, that is, locations, as property. It doesn't work that way. A location is part of the world, not manufactured by any person, and its value is determined by the activities going on around it, not by anything the owner does. The law of supply and demand simply drives the price up to the point where land is difficult to buy and sell, but easy to own on a long-term basis. We can't just build another factory to make more land and ship it to anywhere we need it, the way we do with automobiles or refrigerators or whatever.

When a piece of land is very expensive to purchase initially but very cheap to hang onto once you've got it, it changes hands very slowly. However, the need for dynamic usage of land is very great. It must change hands frequently as society's needs change.

Therefore, we've got to think of some way to make land very cheap to purchase initially but very expensive to hang onto, in order to dump currently unused, underused, misused, and inappropriately used land onto the market priced for a quick sale. A variety of methods have been proposed, but the simplest approach appears to be to adjust real estate taxes to bear more heavily on the value of the location and more lightly, if at all, on the buildings. Perhaps other taxes, such as income taxes and sales taxes, can also be reduced.

But would our religious leaders ever think of anything like that? Well, it's been about two thousand years and they haven't thought of it yet.

Now, don't get me wrong. Charitable giving and welfare programs will still be needed. But the fundamental justice provided by dynamic land usage patterns is a prerequisite for any sort of charity to be effective.

Monday, September 3, 2007


Welcome to my new blog. In this blog I hope to post lengthier and deeper opinions than would be appropriate in my frivolous Demented Diary over at DiaryLand. I really don't expect my DiaryLand buddies to spend much time over here, nor any of the readers of this blog to have much interest in the silliness over on the Demented Diary.

Oh by the way, does anybody know why the Opera browser can't be used to post here? I've resorted to Microsoft Internet Explorer and it works fine. Opera, my favorite for most of my web surfing, runs into a variety of errors.