Thursday, February 28, 2013

The myths behind the martyrs

Here's an interesting article from The Chronicle of Higher Education:
For the first three hundred years of its existence, tradition maintains, Christianity was a persecuted and suffering religion. Members were hunted down and executed, their property and books burned by crusading emperors intent on routing out the new religion. Women and children were thrown to the lions and boiled alive in caldrons, as maddened crowds bayed for blood. Jesus, Stephen, and the Apostles were only the beginning.

As Christianity grew, so did the ranks of martyrs. According to the fourth-century historian Eusebius, early Christians were racked, whipped, beaten, and scourged. Tens of thousands were condemned to the amphitheaters to face wild animals, forced to fight gladiators, beheaded, strangled quietly in jail, or burned publicly as a mark of shame.

The history of early Christianity, as we have received it, is a history of victimization and pain. It underwrites the idea that Christians are at odds with their world, engaged in a continuing struggle between good and evil.

But that narrative has very little basis in the documentary record.

There is almost no evidence from the period before Constantine, traditionally called the Age of Martyrs, to support the idea that Christians were continuously persecuted. That idea was cultivated by church historians like Eusebius and Sozomen and by the anonymous hagiographers who edited, reworked, and replicated stories about martyrs. The vast majority of those stories, however, were written during periods of peace, long after the events they purported to describe. Even those that are roughly contemporaneous with the events have been significantly embellished.

Martyrs are big in the Catholic Church, I know, but I don't remember ever hearing about them in Methodist services. Well, it's been a long time.

But persecution is still just as popular as it always was. I mean, the idea that your group is being persecuted. Heck, we see that in the "war on Christmas" at Fox 'News.' Christians are supposedly being persecuted in America, a land where they're the overwhelming majority at all levels of society.

Similarly, 'men's rights' activists complain about persecution, since not every government official, judge, and corporate CEO these days is a man (just the vast majority). White supremacists complain about how white people face discrimination, since we've elected one non-white president in the past 200 years. I guess this is just human nature.

Certainly, the idea that early Christians were martyrs for their faith has long been popular in Christianity, so the elaborate stories developed in response are certainly no surprise. Most Christians just assume that everything they've been taught is historically true,... though only when it comes to Christianity. Obviously, the traditions of other religions are just tall tales, right?

Well, most people, centuries ago, were illiterate. Without television or movies, they relied on storytellers - often, religious storytellers. And storytellers know what their audiences want to hear. Even if there was a grain of truth in a story, it's likely been embellished a lot. And sometimes, it's just been invented whole cloth, especially if the teller has a religious motive for doing so.

Awhile back, I blogged about Steve Shives reading, and commenting on, Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ. Apparently, Strobel's "case" boils down to "because it says so in the Bible." You see, according to Strobel, it takes centuries for legends to become established, so beliefs only a few decades after the fact just must be true.

Shives points out how stories about Elvis Presley still being alive were common even very shortly after his death. Tall tales about George Washington's wooden teeth or his chopping down the cherry tree didn't take centuries, either. Good stories are good stories, and that's not even considering the strong motivation of religious believers in trying to persuade others.

Anyway, I thought this was a very interesting article. It's not that Christians weren't killed, sometimes (or that they didn't kill others when they got the power). It's just that church traditions aren't an unbiased source. And the bias is all in one direction:
Early Christians, like virtually everyone in the ancient world, expanded, updated, and rewrote their sacred texts. The problem lies not with the use of these texts as religious stories­—but with their acceptance as historical records. The account of persecution and martyrdom encoded in these texts makes claims about the motives of non-Christians and the place of Christians in the world. It is easily adopted to justify vitriol and polemic in other contexts.

There is no doubt that Romans executed Christians, just as they executed other social and political subversives. There is even evidence to suggest that there were brief periods (AD 257-58 under Valerian and 303-5, Diocletian's tetrarchy) when Christians were deliberately singled out by Roman legislators and administrators. But Christians were not the victims of sustained persecution by the Romans, as has been mythologized in popular imagination. For the vast majority of the pre-Constantinian period, Christians flourished. ...

The explosion in martyrdom literature from the fourth century on was due both to the popularity of martyrs and to the ease with which these heroes could be adapted by skilled authors to speak to later theological and ecclesiastical concerns.

It was said in late antiquity that when martyrdom stories were read aloud, the saints were truly present. Martyrs became enshrined in their legends, in texts and architecture. Local stories were solidified in the cult of saints, and the centers of worship that sprang up around those saints attracted worshipers­—and thus revenue. The institutionalization of martyrs, and competition among religious centers, required ever more gruesome and dramatic stories.

The visions and miracles that were often added drew the Christian faithful to obscure towns and out-of-the-way shrines. In exchange they offered communion with the memory of victorious heroes; for a brief moment, the divide between heavenly and earthly affairs would disappear. If the shrines presented the opportunity for personal contact with a martyr, the stories provided the narrative and conceptual map for those physical experiences. Claiming friendship with the martyrs led to more pious exaggeration and well-intentioned forgery.

Martyrs were such seductive figures because their willingness to suffer and die made them unimpeachable witnesses and persuasive representatives of the church. Later authors reshaped their saintly protagonists into representations of orthodoxy and proper religious conduct. An anecdote in which a famous martyr denounced a heretic was worth a hundred rational arguments about why that heretical position was wrong. A martyr's support for an individual's candidacy for the episcopacy offered the strongest kind of endorsement.

I must admit that I'd never given this much thought. I'd assumed that these stories of martyrdom were... basically true, just not the magic parts of them. Funny, isn't it? Even as an atheist, some things were just too common a part of my environment to really question.

I do know - because I've been interested - that the Bible's stories about Jesus aren't backed up by anyone or anything else. They were written after the events they purport to describe, and they were also, much later, edited to suit whatever the various editors wanted people to believe.

Some of the stuff can't be true, since it conflicts with the historical record; some of it is clearly borrowed from other cultures, other myths; and some of it - like the dead rising from their tombs en masse and walking around Jerusalem - beggars belief, especially that no one would think it unusual enough to record.

Not even letters to friends and family about such things? Yeah, I guess zombie outbreaks were just too common to mention, huh?

The funny thing is, most people won't believe similar stories from today. We've got countless eyewitnesses to aliens and other bizarre events - eyewitnesses, not just stories written down decades later - which no one with any sense believes. But ancient stories are somehow believable, just because they're old.

Well, ancient stories which back up your own religion, at least. No one has any problem dismissing the similar stories from any other religion, do they?

Edit: I just saw this article about the same topic (the author of the first article has written a book about it), and it includes some interesting details, including this:
In the immediate aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, a modern myth was born. A story went around that one of the two killers asked one of the victims, Cassie Bernall, if she believed in God. Bernall reportedly said “Yes” just before he shot her. Bernall’s mother wrote a memoir, titled “She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall,” a tribute to her daughter’s courageous Christian faith. Then, just as the book was being published, a student who was hiding near Bernall told journalist Dave Cullen that the exchange never happened.

Although Candida Moss’ new book, “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom,” is about the three centuries following the death of Jesus, she makes a point of citing this modern-day parallel. What Bernall truly said and did in the moments before her death absolutely matters, Moss asserts, if we are going to hold her up as a “martyr.” Yet misconceptions and misrepresentations can creep in so soon. The public can get the story wrong even in this highly mediated and thoroughly reported age — and do so despite the presence among us of living eyewitnesses. So what, then, to make of the third-hand, heavily revised, agenda-laden and anachronistic accounts of Christianity’s original martyrs? ...

One of the most enlightening aspects of “The Myth of Persecution” is Moss’ ability to find contemporary analogies that make the ancient world more intelligible to the average reader, such as the Cassie Bernall story. But that story has an additional lesson to offer, about the true believer’s imperviousness to unpalatable facts. Bernall’s family and church are unmoved by the schoolmates who were present at the shooting and who have debunked the “She said yes” legend. “You can say it didn’t happen that way,” the Bernalls’ pastor told one reporter, “but the church won’t accept it. To the church, Cassie will always say yes, period.”

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Political cartoons

It's been a long time since I posted a selection of political cartoons, so some of these are a few weeks old. And there's a bunch of them I liked, so I won't write any commentary this time. Enjoy!

And baby is three

Has it been three years already? Yes, I started this blog three years ago today, February 27, 2010.

Looking at last year's post, most things are still the same. I'm still blogging nearly every day. I'm still spending way too much time at it, yet I can't even come close to blogging about every interesting topic I find.

And it's still fun. Make no mistake, I'll quit the minute it stops being fun. (Although, 'fun' isn't always the right word. 'Catharsis' might be closer, for many posts.)

Last year, I mentioned how I'd started to get more readers. I write this for myself, of course, but it's always good to get readers. Unfortunately, this year has been a huge disappointment in that respect. My readership declined last spring and summer, and it never recovered. In fact, I think it's still declining (and it never was very large).

I'm talking about returning readers, because that's what matters to me, but even new visitors, even page loads, are anemic. I really don't understand that, because I've got a lot more posts now. Wouldn't I be getting more Google hits, just from that reason alone?

But I don't care about that, I really don't. (No advertising here, so no worry about 'hits.') I don't understand how those stats are compiled, anyway. Do I get a hit when a blog page just comes up in a Google search, without anyone needing to click on the link at all? Certainly, I don't seem to get many comments - and almost none from non-regulars - even from posts with a lot of hits.

I do care about returning readers, even though I write this mostly for myself. Has there been a change in the kinds of posts I write? That sort of thing is hard for me to notice. I just write what I feel like writing, and I don't restrict myself at all. Have you noticed a change in the past year or so? If so, was it welcome or unwelcome?

Lately, I've been posting more about computer games, and I know that's not popular with some of my regular readers. But Gregg, much as I enjoy your own blog, I'm not particularly interested in your home repair instructions, either. (Although, living here, I suppose I should be!)

Otherwise, politics and religion dominate, as usual. I haven't been posting many book reviews lately,... but I said the exact same thing last year, when my readership was high higher. Maybe I'm posting more videos? Videos are just so easy, though. And I'm addicted to YouTube, I think.

I'd be interested to hear what you like and what you don't, and if you've noticed any changes here. I'll probably continue posting whatever I feel like, though. Heh, heh. This is mostly for me, after all. And yes, I know my posts are way too long. But maybe I'll listen to complaints if I get enough of them, you never know. :)

(I should note that my proportion of hits from mobile devices has been increasing - not surprisingly. But I don't know how my blog shows up on them, since I only see it in Firefox. I'm not good at graphic arts, so when I began the blog, I just picked a ready-made template. Of course, extraordinarily long posts probably aren't ideal in the age of Twitter and text-messaging, anyway, huh?)

I look at my stats every week, because I find that sort of thing interesting. Week after week, the one post which almost always gets more hits than anything else is this post on house sparrows from almost a year ago. It's funny, because I used to be a very active birder, but I don't do that now, and I've hardly written any other posts about birds.

Well, as house sparrows are the most common bird in the world, "sparrow" and "house sparrow" seem to be very common search terms, too. But I never get any comments on that old post, and none of those people seem to return here (reasonably enough, I guess). As I say, I have to wonder whether I'm getting hits from Google searches, without anyone actually reading the post at all.

My posts about computer games, even old posts - especially about Dwarf Fortress - always get a lot of hits, too (but, again, almost no comments, so I do wonder if they're even being read). Going by Google searches, Dwarf Fortress is still very popular, apparently - or maybe just so difficult to learn that gamers are searching for help. :)

So, if I really cared about hits, maybe I'd make this a birding or gaming blog. On the other hand, none of those people ever seem to return, so that probably wouldn't make much difference in what I do care about, return visitors and regular readers. (Of course, I don't typically blog about birds. And as a game-player, I'm far older than most gamers, so my concerns probably aren't theirs.)

Finally, I get hits from all around the world - mostly from the United States, of course, but you'd be surprised at how many countries show up in the stats. (If you're wondering, Germany is second on the list this week, and France third. But Russia and the UK frequently take those positions.)

One country which almost never shows up is the most populous nation in the world, and the nation with the most internet users, China. I got hits from China one week only and never again. I wonder if that was their government, checking to see if I ever blogged about politics? (No, never. I promise.)

Of course, I don't know if the Chinese are allowed access to any part of the rest of the world. Either way, it's clear I'm not going to get any return visits from there, huh? But I'd still like more return visits from somewhere. :)

Maybe I'll start blogging about celebrities.

A catastrophic drop in standards

The war on Purim

Jessica Williams does such a great job here, doesn't she? I really thought this was funny. Will Fox 'News' start complaining about the War on Purim now?

Dov Hikind is a conservative Democrat and an Orthodox Jew representing one of the largest communities of Orthodox Jews outside Israel. As such, he is eager to protest any hint of antisemitism, but seems strangely blind to similar concerns in other communities.

I might note that he also continues to fight against gay marriage (since 'God' doesn't like that, don't you know).

His religious beliefs are his own, but I find it odd how often religion goes with complete cluelessness about other people. Oh, you're very determined to fight against discrimination, but only when it's directed at you.

It's the hypocrisy that makes this so funny, don't you think?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Limbaugh wails

This is your good news for the day. :)

Of course, Rush Limbaugh is just playing to his 'dittohead' audience. His histrionics, even when he's wailing, is just performance art for morons. But it's still good to hear him weeping, rather than celebrating, isn't it?

And, hmm, it's funny how the 'left' has created so many 'low-information' people using higher education, isn't it? Don't people know that education is a tool of the Devil? :)

Anyway, I thought this was a good addendum to my previous post today. Steve Oh and Jimmy Dore talk about poll results showing that the American people support progressive policies far more than conservative ones.

Unfortunately, all too many of us still vote Republican. This doesn't translate nearly as well as it should into votes. And it's not that the Democratic Party is too liberal, since progressives - certainly including these people at TYT - are almost as unhappy with Barack Obama as the right-wing is.

From what I see in polls, the majority of us American people seem to be to the left of the Democratic Party, if anything. (Of course, that's not surprising, since the Democrats aren't nearly as liberal - and certainly not 'socialist' - as their opponents try to paint them.)

But the Republicans are very good at scaring voters (and, usually, making money on it, too). They're very good at persuading voters to vote against their own best interests - and even their own opinions. They're very good at lying. After all, the alternative is that scary Muslim Kenyan socialist in the White House, right? Isn't all their tax money going to support black gang members and crack whores?

So this is good news, but we haven't won yet. Far from it, in fact. And the right-wing can still do a lot of damage to America, anyway. Indeed, from voter suppression to schemes to rig the Electoral College, they haven't given up on their dreams of controlling America even as a minority party.

When your enemy is reality

When your enemy is reality, ignorance is your friend. That's why the right-wing has become anti-science, and it's why knowledge in general isn't welcome in today's GOP.

It probably began with the tobacco industry. After all, there was a lot of money to be made selling tobacco products. Were they really going to let medical researchers put an end to that?

And most smokers wanted to be fooled - at least, they wanted to believe what they wanted to believe. So, even if Big Tobacco couldn't fight the science (since it was true), they could muddy the waters and let their addicted customers continue to believe what they wanted.

That was a lesson today's right-wing has taken to heart. Big Oil, especially, has followed the lead of Big Tobacco. But global warming deniers have actually improved upon those earlier tactics, partly by allying with everyone else who's also fighting against reality, turning the Republican Party completely anti-science.

Still, the political success of the NRA is just astounding, don't you think? They're a very small minority, but a determined minority with a lot of money. (The NRA pretends to be a grass-roots organization, but it's funded by gun manufacturers.)

At first glance, it's just astonishing that the NRA should so totally dominate Congress that they could ban the Centers for Disease Control from studying gun violence at all. After all, the NRA position has always been the minority position. Common-sense gun restrictions have always had majority support in America.

And as Stephen Colbert notes, recent polls show that nearly 93% of Americans favor background checks for all gun buyers. So that should be a slam-dunk in Congress, shouldn't it? But how many of us are willing to work for that? How many of us are even willing to vote, based on that issue?

Gun nuts, on the other hand, might be a small minority, but they're vocal and active. And the gun lobby - funded by wealthy gun manufacturers - has a lot of money for bribes donations to Congressmen (or to fund attack ads against politicians who don't go along with them).

Plus, as I say, the gun lobby has joined with other wealthy interests - like Big Oil, and the defense industry, and right-wing religions - to control the entire Republican Party. They all push the party line so their small part of it gets backed by everyone. That's how wealthy minorities can dominate our political system, especially in the age of Citizens United.

I keep seeing these articles and videos about how Democrats might do well in 2014. (Typically, the party in power loses seats during midterm elections.) But Americans overwhelmingly back Democratic positions, rather than Republican positions, from gun control to increasing the minimum wage, from immigration reform to a balanced approach to deficit reduction.

But so what? Polls show that even Republicans generally support Democratic positions, but they'll still vote Republican. Partly, that's through ignorance (Republicans from Fox 'News' on down work very hard to keep them misinformed), partly, it's because they might only care about one particular issue (guns or abortion, typically), and partly, it's just due to solidarity. They're Republican, so they go along even when they disagree.

To some extent, we all do that. We're never going to agree with a politician - or anyone else - on everything. If you do, you're not thinking, you're just following mindlessly. But if you identify with a political party, it's very easy to dislike the people you actually agree with, just because they're 'the other side.' Or, of course, because of their race or ethnic identity (the Republican 'Southern strategy').

Anyway, I didn't mean to write all that (story of my life!). I posted this because there's a lot in this video segment I loved, like Colbert's comment that "Some journalists are so prejudiced against guns they've sunk to journalism." Or "Let the CDC know they can take our ignorance when they pry it from our cold, dead minds." Or his mention of David Barton getting 'history' from a fictional western (which I previously noted here).

My favorite part? After Colbert said, "Even if Barton did borrow the story, there's nothing wrong with taking a story from a book and saying it's real," on the screen, it says "Works for Religion." Heh, heh. I was cheered by the applause that got, too! (Hmm,... this is the second time recently I've noticed Colbert taking a swipe at religion. I'm beginning to wonder if his own Catholicism is just as fake as his Republicanism.)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Spontaneous human combustion in Oklahoma

Did you see this story?
The sheriff of Sequoyah County in Oklahoma believes that a 65-year-old man recently died by spontaneously bursting into flames.

“If you read about spontaneous human combustion that’s what we have here,” Sheriff Ron Lockhart told KFSM. ...

“The body was burned and it was incinerated,” Lockhart explained. “You hardly ever have a burned body, especially when there’s no damage to the house. Where the fire occurred, there was no damage to the furniture or anything around the fire. So, it was a low-heat fire.”

“We started researching and talking to other fire investigators and we started looking at this spontaneous human combustion, and anything that’s in that is basically what we have,” he added. “It’s an unusual and bizarre case, but we’re not ruling out spontaneous human combustion.”

Lockhart said that Vanzandt drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes, but it was not possible for those factors to cause the type of fire that incinerated the body.

I used to be crazy about this kind of thing when I was a kid. But then I grew up. Then I learned more about these "unexplained phenomena."

And my god, it's the 21st Century! How can a sheriff, even in Oklahoma, be this ignorant? He even talks about "researching and talking to other fire investigators." Were all of them this clueless?

True, in the original article, he doesn't seem to be completely irrational (although he is rather grammar-impaired):
“We wasn’t saying the guy just busted into flames, you know there’s gotta have an ignition source and that’s what we’re looking at is an ignition source such as lighting a cigarette and catches himself on fire, sucks the flames down his throat, and falls down,” Lockhart said.

But he just shrugs off the fact that this guy was "an alcoholic and an avid smoker," and certainly of an age where a heart attack might seem plausible.

Anyway, here's Joe Nickell:
SHC [spontaneous human combustion] is a non-explanation for bizarre burning deaths, no better than positing the attack of a fiery demon, because there is not only no scientifically authenticated case of SHC but no credible mechanism by which it could happen. On the other hand, careful investigation usually shows what much more likely happened in a given instance.

In the Oklahoma case, the 65-year-old victim was “incinerated” but there “was no damage to the furniture or anything around the fire,” Sheriff Ron Lockhart told KSFM radio (broadcast Feb. 18). He concluded, “So it was a low-heat fire.” Lockhart admitted that the victim, Danny Vanzandt, was a cigarette smoker and drinker of alcohol, but he insisted that those factors could not have caused such incineration.

Obviously the sheriff is unaware that—given only the facts he mentioned—an obvious hypothesis naturally presents itself: The possibly intoxicated victim, who was alone so there was no one to intervene and rescue him, accidentally set himself on fire and collapsed, whereupon his clothing acted as a wick, absorbing the burning body’s melting fat to fuel still more burning—a cyclical process known to forensic experts as “the wick effect.” Thus there is a relatively low-temperature fire which does little damage to surroundings while efficiently consuming much of the body over an extended period.

Is this what happened? I don't know. But it's certainly possible, and it doesn't involve postulating some bizarre event that would rewrite the laws of physics.

If the guy was drunk, he could have passed out with a lit cigarette. Or he could have had a heart attack while smoking. He could have fallen asleep and, when he woke up with his clothes on fire, lungs full of smoke, just panicked.

Nickell goes on to say:
Forensic analyst John Fischer and I investigated numerous historical “SHC” cases from the eighteenth century onward and published our results in the journal of the International Association of Arson Investigators in 1984. I have done much additional work since then and have presented on the subject at forensic conferences. In 2010 I gave a three-hour illustrated lecture on alleged SHC as a special instructor at the New York state Academy of Fire Science.

When I was a kid, I used to think this stuff was neat. But I think it's a lot neater when people use their brains to look for plausible answers, rather than just pushing the sensational. Of course, this would not have gotten any media attention at all without that "spontaneous human combustion" claim, would it?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Humility, obedience, and Michelle DeRusha

My local newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star, publishes a monthly column by Michelle DeRusha about her Christian beliefs,... and I usually leave a comment in rebuttal. :)

OK, she sounds like a very pleasant young woman, but she sees everything - and I mean everything - through her god-goggles. And all my life, I've seen puff pieces like this in the newspaper, often written by reporters, not just guest columnists, without any critical thinking at all, let alone alternate viewpoints.

Now that these things are online, I just want to remind people that it's not a given, that some of us do see things differently and that we think we've got good reasons for doing so. I don't expect to change any minds, but I think it's important that we atheists become visible.

But I thought maybe I'd start posting replies here, too. I don't spend a lot of time on them, but all of this takes more time than you might think. And I guess I'm just interested in the topics she raises, since her thinking is so alien to my own.

Today, her column is Learning the practice of humility the hard way:
Humility, in a nutshell, is placing God first, often by placing others before ourselves.

Because Benedict knew practicing humility would challenge his monks, he broke the concept down into 12 steps, one of which is this: To believe in your heart that others are better than you. ...

This is what makes humility and obedience so tough. Benedict did mean everyone -- not just the saints and the heroes. Not just the people who think like us and believe the same things we do. He meant even the annoying people. The people who have wronged us. The ones with whom we disagree.

Right. Everyone is better than you are. Thieves, rapists, murderers - they're all better than you. You're just so humble, aren't you?

Is it just me, or is this false humility that offensive to everyone else, too? Christians like this brag about their humility. They compete on how humble they are. And they don't mean one word of it. (They shouldn't, either. There are some really nasty people in the world. Trust me, you are better than them.)

But this is part of the Christian narrative about how arrogant atheists are, compared to humble, Christ-like believers. Oh, in reality, atheists actually know that there's a god - the Christian God, naturally - but they don't want to admit it, because they're just too arrogant to serve in Heaven. Better to reign in Hell, eh?

But here's the deal: Christians think that the entire universe was created just for them, and that the omniscient, omnipotent Creator of the universe watches over them every minute, desperately concerned about each one, right down to the details about their sex life. And every Christian soldier is fighting for the most important thing ever. Each is a critical component of God's plan.

Does that sound humble to you? Compare that to the atheist view that we're just another species of ape, an animal which evolved on a small planet around a nondescript star lost in a vast galaxy, which is itself lost in the immensity of the universe. Our entire biosphere is like the scum on one grain of sand on the world's largest beach.

But that's OK. I don't place a lot of value on humility, anyway. Human beings are important. And I'm always going to be important to myself, if not necessarily the most important person in my life. (All of us know people we'd die for, I suspect.) I'm certainly a better person than some people in the world!

If that makes me arrogant, so be it. I think of it as being honest. And, you know, honesty tends to be an important value to us atheists.

DeRusha, as Christians tend to do, links humility with obedience. Humble believers obey God. And when you understand what a miserable little worm you are, you can see how questioning God is so ridiculous. Who are you, after all, to question his glory and his majesty?

That kind of talk makes me nauseous, and I'm not sure if it's better or worse that they don't actually believe it. (As I say, this is false humility, at best.) Who am I? I'm a human being with a brain, and I'm going to use that brain the best I can. I might get it wrong, but so what? How does that make us any different?

This reminds me of evangelist Eric Hovind, who tries to argue that, because we don't know everything, we can't know anything, and so we must rely on a God who does know everything. But even an 11-year-old kid can spot the flaw in that. If you can't trust your reason, how can you trust your belief in a god? How do you know your omniscient God actually exists?

When you talk about obedience, it's not obedience to God, but obedience to what other people - usually men - have said your god wants. It's men who wrote the Bible. It's men who taught you about the Christian god. (If they'd taught you about the Muslim god, instead, you'd believe in that one.) It's men who interpret the Bible, explaining how it doesn't really mean what it says.

God doesn't tell you what he wants - or if he does, it's not anything you can clearly distinguish from delusion. After all, people have done some truly horrid things because they thought that God was telling them to do it. If you really want to be humble, then think about that! You could be delusional.

No, we all rely on our brains for these kinds of decisions. Some of us just use our brains better than others. Oh, I'm sorry, did that sound arrogant? Am I not being humble enough? Yes, I think I'm right. Yes, I think I've got good reasons for my beliefs - and my disbelief, too.

Admittedly, I could be wrong. Yes, I freely admit that. Isn't that humble enough for you? But if you think I am wrong, you'd better have a good argument.

I'm humble enough that I welcome contrary arguments. If I'm wrong, I want to know it, so I can change my mind. But obedience? I obey the law - usually - even when I disagree with it. We're social animals, and we have laws so we can live together in peace.

But before I'd obey God's laws, I'd have to be convinced that (1) your particular god exists, (2) your god really does want us to follow a particular law, and (3) it's a good law. (Alternately, instead of that last condition, you could convince me that God would punish me for disobeying his law, and I might obey it even if I thought it was a bad law. But not without protest.)

So far, though, no believer has come close to showing me why I should believe his god even exists, so I'm not going to lose any sleep worrying about the rest of it.

When Richard Dawkins dies

My thanks to Jim Harris for the link!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Shoveling snow

(Illinois Back Institute)
Yesterday, it snowed most of the day. No problem, since I didn't have to go anywhere. But as the day went on, my back started to hurt.

It was my lower back, too, which is unusual for me, especially when I haven't been doing anything strenuous. I've heard that some men experience labor pains when their wives are pregnant. Was this just phantom snow shoveling pain, just from looking at the snow?

This morning, it was even worse, and then my back muscles started to spasm. It was really painful, and I found it hard to do much of anything. (You should have seen me trying to put on my shoes and socks!) But there was a good 6" of snow out there (less than they'd forecast, luckily), and it wasn't going to shovel itself.

Now, a few years ago, I had to dig up a huge flowering quince. The bush must have been older than I am, and it was certainly bigger. The ground was just a mass of roots, so I was using a hatchet more often than a shovel.

But I was doing OK. I'd been working for hours, so I was tired, but that was all. By then, I had this massive hole in the ground, so I was sitting on the edge, leaning over to chop at more roots with my hatchet,... when my back muscles started to spasm.

Oh, it was very painful, and it was such a surprise that I dropped the hatchet and fell on my side, wondering if I'd even be able to stand up again. Well, I could, with difficulty. Eventually, I was able to hobble into the house to get some painkillers.

But I still had that hole in the yard, and I was afraid that it was going to rain. So I hobbled back out to the hole again, picked up my hatchet, and started back to work.

It was difficult at first, hard to even move without a spasm of pain, but it got better as I went on. And pretty soon, I'd worked through the pain almost entirely. I still don't understand that, since my back muscles went into spasms doing the exact same thing that seemed to cure it again.

Well, this time, I hadn't been doing anything, but I still wondered if I could take a lesson from that earlier experience. And, after all, I had to shovel my walks and driveway. Heck, they're forecasting snow again on Monday, so I really wanted to get this cleaned up.

So that's what I did. It was very awkward, at first, and quite painful. I even took my first two scoops of snow one-handed. But it got easier as I continued. My back still hurts, but it's a lot better than it was. And my walks and driveway are shoveled clear.

I suspect I'll be hurting worse again in the morning - or maybe even later today, when I've had a chance to sit awhile. But I'm sure glad I went ahead with the shoveling. It was so tempting to use my back pain as an excuse. (Yeah, I'm a great procrastinator.)

Hmm,... maybe I shouldn't blog about this, since I might want to use it as an excuse for something else, sometime. But no, if you want me to help you move, I've got plenty of reasons to politely decline already! :)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Dominions 3: The Awakening, pt. 2

(All screenshots from Strategy Informer)

Note: This is the conclusion of a post which started here. Please read that first, because I'll be starting right off from that.

Some Dominions 3 maps wrap, so you can travel in any direction and eventually end up where you started. This one wasn't like that, so there were edges to the map, and that made a nation's initial placement very important.

My two biggest rivals had apparently started at the south and east map edges, where their backs were secure. By the time I encountered them, they'd squeezed a hapless race of lizard people between them until there was hardly anything left of that nation.

And now they were free to attack me.

The Marverni were a nation of warrior tribes not too much different from my own people. They had a massive army, the biggest in the world, led by a pretender god - a gigantic bull - which was easily the biggest unit I've seen yet.

The Hinnom were giants, bigger and better than my own troops, one on one. They proved to be incredibly hard to stop.

And while each could concentrate on attacking me, I had four different enemies in four different parts of the map. (I'm not counting the lizard people, whom we all bordered, since they were almost done by then.) Indeed, I was surrounded by enemies (mostly because of the ocean at my back).

Just a few of the 600+ magic spells

So I figured I needed to defeat Oceana and Abysia as quickly as possible, hoping to keep Marverni and Hinnom at bay until I could turn my full attention to them. Otherwise, I'd have to keep my army split into four different sections.

I still hadn't found any amphibian troops, but I had a lot of gems, so I created items which would let me send some commanders, with their troops, underwater. (Note that I led the game in gem production and money, so I really tried to take advantage of that.)

As quickly as possible, I sent about a hundred of my most expensive troops, along with my two best water mages, into one of Oceana's least defended underwater provinces. But, right away, I discovered that I'd made a few errors.

First, I'd assumed that I could buy province defense underwater, like I could on land. Well, Oceana could do that, because they had amphibian troops for that purpose. But my own province defenders couldn't breathe underwater, so I couldn't buy any defense for those provinces.

Secondly, that first underwater province was so poor in resources that I couldn't recruit aquatic soldiers there, either - or very, very few. And finally, my soldiers could breathe underwater, thanks to magic, but since they didn't have fins, they moved very slowly. Also, since you can't use missile weapons underwater, their javelins were worthless.

I did win that initial battle, but I lost more troops than I expected. And I couldn't go into any other province without either splitting my army (again) or leaving that province completely undefended, at which point Oceana would simply take it over again.

Another Dominions 3 battle

My plan still succeeded - mostly by having those water mages summon underwater creatures to aid us (again, my gem supply made a huge difference) - but it was much slower than I'd expected. I ended up killing Oceana's triton god three times (gods are hard to kill permanently) - twice because he made the mistake of attacking me on land.

And I still haven't completely knocked them out of the game, though I've taken their home province. So my plan to quickly finish off Oceana, so I could turn my attention elsewhere, was a failure.

I did destroy Abysia, though that wasn't as quick or as easy as I'd hoped, either. I'd penned them up in their home province, so they had nowhere else to go (they responded by assassinating many of my priests), then I laid siege to their fortress.

This was a nation of fire creatures and fire mages, and although they never controlled many provinces, they were very skilled in magical research. So, when we finally broke down the gate to their fortress, the battle was much harder than I expected.

One of my mages had cast a winter spell on the province, lowering the temperature there, and another caused it to rain. But even so, their fire attacks were devastating. We won, but it was quite a close call. Most of my army had run away by the end of it.

Still, that was the end of them. Since they had no more provinces remaining, there was nowhere else for them to go. Their god still had many supporters (my own priests are working hard to change that), but he can't come back without a province they control. I lost a lot of troops in the fight, but at least I could put that dominion behind us.

Meanwhile, as I say, Hinnom was proving to be really hard to stop. They kept smashing into my provinces, taking one after another (and destroying my temples). I'd follow along behind them, retaking the provinces again, until I could finally wear them down and kill them, but they were just really hard to stop.

Against both Hinnom and Marverni, I took to attacking weakly defended provinces, ramping up the taxes, then leaving again before they could counter-attack. My goal was to cut into their income and, especially, to destroy their temples.

That worked best against Marverni. They had a truly massive army at the start, but I was able to whittle it down. I even sent a "thug," a strong unit decked out in all the magic items I could create, to sneak around behind enemy lines, attacking wherever he found an opportunity.

We even killed the Marverni god, and I'd been wondering if that would even be possible. Honestly, he was huge! But he didn't have enough support units in one battle, so my guys surrounded him and eventually cut him down. True, they'll probably resurrect him again, but we've already taken one of their fortresses, and we're besieging another.

One of the 2,000+ units in the game

But if the Marverni have been easier to defeat than I expected, I certainly can't say the same about Hinnom. Every time I think I've got them weakened, they come roaring back. Right now, in fact, they're making another strong play for my territory. (Clearly, I haven't discovered the right tactic against them. I guess I need to think it through.)

Still, I'm so far ahead of the other dominions that it's just a matter of time, now. When I finally finish Oceana, that will free up a lot of experienced troops to throw into the fight against Hinnom. (Marverni is already on the ropes. I'm really not very worried about them.)

This has been a lot of fun, but I probably won't wait for the final victory. I'm anxious to start another game with a different nation, a different god, different opponents, different kinds of magic, and a different strategy altogether. There are just so many different options in this game that I'm really eager to try something new.

The huge variety of, well,... everything makes it hard to know where to start, but it's worked well for me to just jump in and try something. Tir na n'Og was a random nation - and it wasn't even a nation described in the manual (for which there are suggestions on how to play them). But it was still fun.

If this game sounds fun to you, too, then check it out. You can try the demo for free here. Or watch a few of these videos. As I say, I've really been enjoying it.

Note: Check out my other game posts here.

Inventing the 'Friends of Hamas'

Yes, this is more Chuck Hagel stuff. But hey, I live in Nebraska, so I'm justified, right? After all, he used to be our senator. Besides, this is just too good. :)

Remember that claim about Hagel and the 'Friends of Hamas'? Now, a reporter explains how he apparently started that whole thing, completely by accident:
Here’s what happened: When rumors swirled that Hagel received speaking fees from controversial organizations, I attempted to check them out.

On Feb. 6, I called a Republican aide on Capitol Hill with a question: Did Hagel’s Senate critics know of controversial groups that he had addressed?

Hagel was in hot water for alleged hostility to Israel. So, I asked my source, had Hagel given a speech to, say, the “Junior League of Hezbollah, in France”? And: What about “Friends of Hamas”?

The names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically. No one could take seriously the idea that organizations with those names existed — let alone that a former senator would speak to them.

Imagine that! A reporter tried to check out a rumor, to see if there was actually anything to it!

Not so Ben Shapiro of the loony far-right website Truth? Who cares if it's actually true? Heck, who cares if it's completely insane, as long as they can attack Barack Obama with it (in a roundabout fashion, by attacking the conservative Republican who agreed to serve as Obama's Secretary of Defense).

And once it's posted on a right-wing website, no matter how crazy and unreliable that website might be, it spreads throughout the right-wing bubble they all inhabit. Soon, it's an important issue, since, after all, everyone is talking about it, right? (Everyone in the right-wing bubble, at least.)

But what's particularly funny is this:
Reached Tuesday, Shapiro acknowledged “Friends of Hamas” might not exist. But he said his story used “very, very specific language” to avoid flatly claiming it did.

Sure, that organization doesn't actually exist, but Shapiro was very careful to only imply that it did. Indeed, he had absolutely no reason to think that it did exist, but so what? His intent was to make noise while attacking Barack Obama, and that's exactly what he did.

The fact that it makes right-wing loons like him look completely ridiculous doesn't matter, since they all live in their reality-free bubble anyway. And in the bubble, you can bet that most people still believe - and will believe, no matter what the reality might be - that this is true.

And so the ignorant and the gullible will continue to be fired up by complete lies,... and they'll keep frequenting Fox 'News' and websites like And many in the great mass of ill-informed people outside the bubble will likely hear, and believe, the original claim, too, so that makes this a success for that reason, as well.

Studies show that denials don't change minds. Indeed, a denial often just makes the original claim seem even more believable. So don't expect to see any changes in right-wing behavior. This did exactly what they wanted. Informed, rational people might laugh at them, but that's not their target audience, anyway.

Country first?

Crazy, isn't it? We all care about four dead Americans. But why don't Republicans care about the more than 4,000 Americans dead in Iraq (plus tens of thousands wounded, often horribly - brain injuries, amputations, castrations, etc.) in an invasion based entirely on a lie?

Well, we all know why that is, don't we? It was a Republican president who lied to us and invaded an innocent country, and it was many of these same politicians who enthusiastically supported that. Hey, so it was a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes, right? (Remember, Bush made another one by ignoring warnings about al-Qaeda before 9/11. But we couldn't investigate that, either, could we?)

But Libya is different, because, and only because, there's a Democrat in the White House. So Republicans won't let this die (which is fine by me, even when it's entirely a matter of politics) and will hold up the normal and necessary functions of our government in order to grandstand (which is not).

No one has lost my respect as much as John McCain. When he ran for president, he had to appeal to the right-wing loons who control the Republican Party, so he not only denied he'd ever been a 'maverick' (even denied he'd ever claimed otherwise, which was a complete lie), but he chose Sarah Palin to be one heartbeat away from the presidency!

But it got worse. He lost - he's still furious about that - and in Arizona, he even faced a primary challenge just to hold his Senate seat. (Did I mention how loony the Republican Party has become?) So he ran even further to the right, especially on immigration reform. Anything to pander to the crazies. Anything to stay in office. (No wonder he's a Republican!)

Well, he seems to be really determined to keep the right-wing happy now, although much of this also seems like sour grapes. He just can't get over the fact that Barack Obama beat him in 2008. Yes, I've lost all respect for the man, and Jon Stewart does a great job of showing why.

Oh, and did you notice, at the end of that second video clip, when McCain was talking about Chuck Hagel? He said, "when he [Hagel] was a Republican." Heh, heh. Chuck Hagel is still a Republican. Indeed, Hagel is a conservative Republican.

But he was unhappy that America had invaded a completely innocent country for no reason (at least, their stated reason was a lie, and it would have been a stupid move even if that hadn't been a lie). And Hagel really does put "country first," so he agreed to serve as Secretary of Defense in a Democratic administration (as patriots have done... pretty much always).

So I guess Republicans have disowned him. Heck, that probably makes him a traitor in their eyes, huh? And a secret Muslim, too, no doubt.

Djesus Uncrossed

That looks like the Republican Jesus, don't you think? Admittedly, the Democratic Jesus is just as imaginary.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Starting Dominions 3: The Awakening

(All screenshots from the Dominions 3 website)

I started watching this video Let's Play on YouTube, and I just had to reinstall Dominions 3. (Yeah, it's a curse.)

I'd bought the game in 2008, but I didn't play much, and I hadn't remembered much of anything about it. As I recall, my computer crashed, and I just never reinstalled it. But I've always got more games than I have time to play, anyway.

Still, that video series reminded me, and it turns out there's still a devoted fan base for this game. (The game can be played multiplayer, though I just play against the computer AI.) In fact, the most recent update was released in November, and the developers are still working to improve the game.

Dominions 3 was originally published in 2006, but it never relied on fancy graphics, so it hasn't aged like other games might. No, this is a pure strategy title. You start with a nation based on world mythology - a nation of men or other creatures - and a 'pretender god,' and your goal is to make your deity the only surviving god in the world. There's no tolerance here, and no peaceful coexistence. Everyone else is the enemy.

But how can I describe what's unique about this game? Think of it as the opposite of chess. Chess is a game you can play for a lifetime, but learn in just a few minutes. There are just a handful of different pieces in chess, with very simple moves, played on a very simple board. It's not easy to master, but it's not complicated at all.

Dominions 3, on the other hand, is a fantasy strategy game with more than 70 different playable nations, 2,000 different military units, 600 different spells in several different categories (two different sets of categories, in fact), 300 different magic items, and a designable pretender god with virtually unlimited options. And that's just the vanilla game, with no mods installed.

The game isn't hard to play, but it's hard to know where to start. Note that there's a very good tutorial included with the game, and you can download a free demo, if you want, to try it out first. Also, that video series I mentioned would be really helpful, too. But to a big extent, you just need to learn while playing. That's what I'm doing. (As I say, I didn't remember the game at all.)

I started by selecting a random nation - for me and my opponents. The game picked Tir na n'Og for me, which, as it turned out, wasn't in my game manual. (Apparently, it was added in a later patch.) But the description seemed simple enough. They're based on Irish mythology, with spear- and javelin-wielding infantry, air, nature, and water magic, and 'average' priests. I think it was a good nation to start with, easier to play than some others, certainly.

But I still had to design a pretender god, and that was harder. For advanced players, your goal should be to design a god who'll take advantage of your nation's strengths and/or shore up your weaknesses. But you really have to know a lot about the game to do that. (Or cheat and look at the wiki for suggestions. But at the start, I think it's more fun to just play the game.)

Since a ghost king was selected for me (that seems to be one of several default options when playing Tir na n'Og), I just went with that. One of the advantages of a ghost king is that new magic paths cost only 20 points each (instead of 50), so I made a god with a broad, but not particularly deep, knowledge of magic, making sure to include those paths - air, nature, and water - specific to my nation.

Since I didn't know which of those 600 different spells I'd need - or even what they all were - I didn't think that specializing made much sense. And my king would be efficient in searching out magic sites, which would provide gems my nation's mages could use. (Apparently, this is called a 'rainbow mage' strategy.) That was the idea, anyway, and it worked well enough. Besides, it let me start playing without spending a lot of time on research first.

My Fir Bolg infantry turned out to be cheap enough to amass in large numbers, with pretty decent stats - very effective in the early game. True, I didn't seem to have any really powerful units, but I had no trouble expanding into the independent provinces nearby. And that gave me more money and more resources with which to buy more military units.

My starting province bordered the ocean, and the first rival dominion I encountered was Oceana, an aquatic realm of tritons and mermen. That was both good and bad. It was good because they were weak on land, no real competition for the provinces I wanted. But it was bad because I had no way to attack them in the water.

Eventually, I could make magic items which would allow my troops to fight underwater, if not particularly well. And if I were lucky, I might discover amphibian units - literally, amphibians - on land somewhere, which I could recruit after conquering the province. But none of those things would help me in the early game. And Oceana could attack me anywhere along the coast, since they did have amphibious units.

But they weren't very strong on land, and they wouldn't be very strong on land if I didn't give them an opportunity. I discovered that they'd already conquered one land province nearby, so I kicked them out of that one and tried to keep them from getting a foothold anywhere else. Still, they were always a threat with, as I say, the potential to attack any coastal province I owned (i.e. no short border to defend).

Thus, my strategy for the early game was to expand rapidly, with my back to the coast, and to fortify those provinces to keep Oceana out. Province defense is expensive at higher levels, but there's no maintenance cost to it. And if they're successful in defending the province from attack, they'll automatically rebuild their numbers, at no cost to me, ready for the next attack.

True, these are weak troops, so they're not very effective later in the game. But Oceana was weak on land, anyway. So, most of the time, my defenders kept them out. Occasionally, I'd have to retake a province after a particularly powerful attack, but even then, they'd be weakened by my province defense. So this strategy worked pretty well.

In the meantime, I tried to research spells and magic items which would allow me to attack underwater, and I looked for amphibian troops (which I didn't find, or not until much later). Since I'd need magic gems to cast those spells and make those items, I set my pretender god to searching our provinces. That seemed like a reasonable plan to me, and still does. Admittedly, I might have done a few things differently...

Later in my expansion, I encountered Abysia, a land of fire creatures (with a fire god). They'd started along the coast, too, and they also bordered Oceana. In fact, they were on a small peninsula which jutted out into the ocean. But they hadn't expanded hardly at all. I don't know why.

It wasn't that they'd been fighting Oceana for provinces - or it didn't seem to be that way, at least - since most of the provinces around them were still independent. Neither nation had taken them. Of course, some independent provinces are pretty tough, so maybe they'd tried, I don't know. (Game statistics seem to show that they were putting a lot of effort into magical research, instead.)

At any rate, it looked to me like I could knock them out of the game entirely, or at least pen them up in their home province, if I moved quickly and boldly enough. That would mean getting between Oceana and Abysia, but I was still trying to keep Oceana from getting established on land, anyway. Abysia had taken some provinces, so I tried overwhelm those before they could react.

Unfortunately, about this same time, I encountered the final three dominions in our world, including two who had become very powerful. (You can see graphs of what's happening in the world, even before you encounter the other dominions, so you always know where you stand in the various rankings.) But maybe I'd better talk about them in a later post.

For now, I want to mention one big problem with Dominions 3. There's a lot to think about in the game, and it gets more and more complicated as the game goes on (especially on a large map, like the ones I like to play). Like many strategy games, the turns get quite long later in the game, too, when lots of battles are happening every turn.

So it's very easy to forget to do something - there aren't any automated reminders - and there's only one saved game. If you forget something important, you're just out of luck. (There is a third-party backup utility you can install, though I've never tried it.)

Two things in particular are easy to forget: (1) buying province defense when you conquer a new province, to prevent an opponent from just taking it over again (and they will take any provinces that are completely undefended), and (2) rehiring mercenaries when their term of service is up. (I can't believe there's no reminder for that one!)

There are other things, too, so I write reminders on a piece of paper, and I check each of them just before I end the turn - every turn. (Later in the game, it can be especially hard to make sure everything is done, so I strongly recommend pressing the F1 key and checking province defense on that page, just to make sure you haven't missed a province.)

I've also had the game lock up - surprisingly often - when I'm watching the battles play out. I don't know what's up with that, whether it's a problem with my specific install or not. It's simple enough to close out of the game and start it up again, so it hasn't been a big problem, but it's certainly annoying.

Still, the game is lots of fun. I still haven't finished my first game, but I'm really tempted to start again and try something different (just because there are so many, many different options I'd like to explore). But we'll see. Certainly, before I finish this game, I'll write another post about the events here, after I encountered my two big rivals.

Note: Here's the sequel to this post. For other posts about specific games, listed alphabetically, see this page.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ireland's Magdalene Laundry scandal

If you need another lesson about theocracy, about the dangers of mixing church and state, here's another scandal involving the Catholic Church, long a power in Ireland:
After more than seven decades of exploitation and a 10-year struggle for justice, Ireland on Tuesday admitted its role in the enslavement of thousands of women and girls in the notorious Magdalene Laundry system, but stopped short of issuing a formal apology from the government.

A long-awaited report headed by Senator Martin McAleese said there was "significant state involvement" in how the laundries were run – a reversal of the official state line for years, which insisted the institutions were privately controlled and run by nuns. ...

Labelled the "Maggies", the women and girls were stripped of their names and dumped in Irish Catholic church-run laundries where nuns treated them as slaves, simply because they were unmarried mothers, orphans or regarded as somehow morally wayward.

Over 74 years, 10,000 women were put to work in de facto detention, mostly in laundries run by nuns. At least 988 of the women who were buried in laundry grounds are thought to have spent most of their lives inside the institutions. ...

Among the key findings were:

• Over a quarter of the women, at least 2,500, who were held in the Magdalene Laundries for whom records survived were sent in directly by the state.

• The state gave lucrative laundry contracts to these institutions, without complying with Fair Wage Clauses and in the absence of any compliance with Social Insurance obligations.

• The GardaĆ­ pursued and returned girls and women who escaped from the Magdalene institutions.

As the article indicates, this only covers the 74 years between the founding of the Irish state in 1922 and 1996, when the last of these laundries finally closed, but "they have a much longer history." Yes, the Catholic Church has been enslaving women for a long, long time.

They could do it then because they had the power to do things like this. These days, they're losing that power, even in Ireland. In fact, they're even losing the power to keep such things a secret. And so, we're uncovering scandal after scandal - child rapes, enslaving women, stealing and selling newborn babies, castrating male rape victims, etc.

The amount of harm a religion can do - will do - is directly related to how much power it has. And power corrupts, even when your god is telling you what to do. No, especially when you think your god is telling you what to do!

Here's testimony from one of the victims of the Magdalene Laundry:
"I was 12 years of age and my father had died, my mother had remarried and my home situation was abusive.

"They told me I would have a great education and I went off to New Ross from my primary school, actually in a laundry van. When I arrived there they took my books from me that my mother had bought. That was the last I saw of them; that was the last time I had a decent education. From then on it was laundry every day, where it was horrible, where you were not allowed to talk to anyone. All it was there in the laundry was work, work, work.

"There was physical abuse where they would dig you in the side with a thick cross off the rosary beads, where you got a thump on the side of the head and where there would be constant putting you down, shouting, verbal abuse. You got the cross in the side of the ribs if you slowed down on your way around the laundry.

"[The nuns] ate very well while we were on dripping, tea, bread. I remember another torture – one when we were all hungry – we could smell the likes of roast beef and cooked chicken wafting from where the nuns were eating. That was like another insult."

It's not as bad as it could have been, no doubt, but her story is from the 1960s, not back in Charles Dickens' day. As it happens, this was a girl just a year younger than me. And I've always been a reader, so taking my books away would have been horrible.

But while I kept my books and got a good education, she got nothing but abuse. I particularly like how nuns would use the cross, their holy symbol, as a weapon...

Well, it's easy to pick on the Catholic Church, but the real problem is that the Catholic Church had the power to do such things. For centuries, they burned heretics alive. They tortured Jews and Muslims and suspected 'witches' and... well, anyone they wanted.

Then came the Reformation and they started losing power. Oh, make no mistake, Protestants eagerly killed heretics, too. They were at least as eager to burn witches and to force their beliefs on everyone. But the splintering of Christianity meant the slow decline in power of any one sect. Eventually, that led to America's freedom of religion and strict separation of church and state. And our example has led to churches losing even more power, worldwide.

In places like Ireland and Spain, the Catholic Church maintained an overwhelming dominance. And there was no separation of church and state, so the abuses continued to be terrible in those places. But now, they're losing that power, too. They're left with just the power of persuasion, which is the only power religions should have.

Today, we're fighting Muslim fundamentalists who are determined that this doesn't happen to them. They want to keep the power to do whatever they want, and they'll kill anyone who objects. Ironically, the example of Christianity - and the Catholic Church in particular - just makes them more determined to deny freedom of religion.

I don't know how that's going to turn out, but I can't imagine why the example of the Taliban, of Hamas, of al-Qaeda doesn't demonstrate to all of us what's at stake here. But apparently not. Instead, right-wing Christians in the Republican Party seem more determined than ever to bring theocracy to America.

I suppose, after more than 200 years, we've forgotten why we created a secular government, strictly separate from religion, in the first place. But shouldn't the Muslim world be a good reminder for us? Or even these continual scandals from the Catholic Church?

My father was Satan

At BuzzFeed, there's a post about the 15 questions atheists are sick of answering. It's pretty good, but... I really have to disagree. I don't get tired of answering such questions, even the really dumb ones.

And also, I have to admit that question #2 is valid, because Dad really was Satan.

But he was a good dad. He was good to me and the rest of the spawn of Hell. He was very good to Mom (unlike God, Satan didn't hate women). He worked hard to provide us a good life.

My earliest memories are of Dad and his pitchfork. He wouldn't let me play with it, because that sucker was sharp, but I got a little toy pitchfork for Christmas one time. (Yes, we celebrated Christmas. Get over it!)

We used to go on vacation in August, when Nebraska and Hell become pretty much indistinguishable. Dad kept his temper well enough, all things considered - Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? - but we kids were usually smart enough to shut up when the trees started to spontaneously combust as we drove past.

OK, he wasn't perfect, but who is? I must admit that the furnace in our house was a little creepy. The screams would keep me awake at night, sometimes. But on the bright side, it kept us toasty warm, even in January.

For better or worse, I take after my mother. Still, after I've been out in the sun awhile, you can really see my resemblance to Dad, too. (Admittedly, I'm not usually that horny.)

Sadly, Dad is dead now. Science and reason killed him. But that's OK. It was time for him to go. It really was. And we still have the memories...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Gun accidents just didn't happen in the past

Right-wing Christian pastor, turned pseudo-historian, David Barton is at it again:
After a decade of debunking pseudo-historian David Barton’s claims about American history, it’s pretty hard for anything that comes out of his pie hole to surprise me, but even I was taken aback by the utter preposterousness of one of his latest claims — that gun accidents just didn’t happen in the founding era! ...
BECK: “Kids did not shoot each other.”

BARTON: “Oh no. No, no, no. Again, two accidents I have seen in two hundred years of everybody having guns. It just didn’t happen.”

Barton claimed on his radio show to have “searched” and only found two gun accidents in the founding era, but his claim became even more incredible on [Glenn] Beck’s show. Now it’s two gun accidents in two hundred years!

I really have to wonder just where the eminent historian Barton actually “searched” to only find two gun accidents in two hundred years when I was easily able to find countless reports of gun accidents in just a few minutes with nothing more than a quick search of Newsbank’s historical newspapers archive. All it took was simply searching on a few combinations of words that you’d expect to find together in articles about gun accidents.

I found a plethora of articles about hunting accidents and other accidental shootings among adults, but what I primarily want to focus here on the accidents involving children, since Barton’s claim is that all children were taught to use guns and that is why there were no gun accidents.

This is a just small sampling of the articles I found, many of which, as you’ll see, sound just like the articles you see today — most of them ending with warnings to parents about leaving guns around children or letting children play with guns, and many of them noting that gun accidents were a very frequent occurrence...

Why do people believe anything David Barton says? Partly, I suppose, it's because he sounds so authoritative. And he's an evangelical Christian pastor. He wouldn't just lie, would he?

This isn't just about religion, unless you think Jesus was a big fan of assault rifles. Barton is that combination of religious nut and right-wing political fanatic that's so common in the Republican Party these days.

As she says, Chris Rodda has been debunking Barton's claims for decades. And in this post, she points out some other examples of his dishonesty. For one thing, she shows how he used excerpts of a letter from John Quincy Adams to deliberately give the wrong impression on Glenn Beck's show. And then there are the parts he leaves out:
Not to digress too much, but I can’t help but mention something else here about the way Barton portrays John Quincy Adams and his son George. In addition to the letter about learning to use guns, Barton loves to bring up the letters that Adams wrote to George instructing him on how to read and study the Bible. But what Barton never mentions is how George turned out. What was the result of the strict regimen of Bible study and manly-man activities that Adams imposed upon his son? Well, George took to drinking and gambling, knocked up a servant girl at the home of a family friend, and eventually committed suicide at the age of twenty-eight. Barton never gets to that part of the story.

But my favorite is how David Barton takes a story from a work of fiction and presents it as history:
After reading from the letters of Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, Barton told his tale about a classroom full of gun-toting elementary school children in the 1850s saving their teacher’s life by whipping out their guns to stop a gunman who came to their school — a story that appears to have come not from an actual historical event, but from the Louis L’Amour novel Bendigo Shafter, as I wrote last week in my post “Is David Barton Now Getting His ‘History’ From Louis L’Amour Novels?” (An update on that post: Barton never answered my email requesting a source for his story.)

This is the kind of "historian" David Barton is. But, of course, he's not a historian. He's a right-wing pastor trying to rewrite history to suit his political and religious beliefs.

And he's very popular on the right. After all, those real historians are all just liberal eggheads following Satan's orders to promote the socialist New World Order, right? So who are you going to believe?

If you're watching Glenn Beck in the first place, you're probably going to believe Barton. Well, when you're faith-based, you're going to believe what you want to believe. But this wouldn't be a problem if it were just Glenn Beck's audience. No, it's a lot wider than that. It's become the entire Republican Party these days.

No, not every Republican believes this stuff, I'm sure, but these are the people who control today's Republican Party. Thanks to the GOP's notorious 'Southern strategy,' these people have become the Republican base.

Even the leaders of the Republican Party praise David Barton. He's a real favorite on Fox 'News.' In the right-wing bubble they live in, they create their own reality, and David Barton's rewriting of history is just the kind of fantasy they want to believe.

We've seen how today's Republicans have become anti-science. We've seen how they reject anything they don't want to believe about the real world, despite overwhelming evidence. But this is how they treat history, too. And this is the history they want to teach to children, as well - in some states, like Texas, the history they do teach to children.

The fact that it's not true is immaterial. Their faith will make it true, right? As Winston Churchill said, history is written by the victors. And they're determined to win in America, no matter what it takes.