Friday, January 31, 2014

Cereal apologists

Insane, isn't it? I was going to write about this anyway, but luckily, I delayed until this video was released.

It's not funny, though. It's pathetic!

From TPM:
“Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/ biracial family,” the tweet read.

Maybe the rightwing will hate it? Maybe? That's what's got Republican panties in a twist? That's what got MSNBC not just apologizing profusely to the Republican Party - why? Republicans weren't even mentioned in the tweet! - but firing the person responsible?

And remember, I just posted this bigoted response of right-wingers to a mixed family! And yes, that was on Fox 'News' even. Not to mention the earlier response by right-wing racists to that very same cereal commercial, as Cenk Uygur notes.

Tell me something. Will Fox 'News' abjectly apologize if any of their people say something mean about liberals or left-wingers? Will they fire anyone who says something unkind about progressives? Ha!

Can you imagine the Democratic Party even making an issue of something like that? Can you imagine them making threats to Fox 'News'? If by some miracle they did, can you even imagine Fox apologizing? Of course not! Fox 'News' does this every day of the week, and no one even bats an eye.

How pathetic can MSNBC get? This is just maddening, isn't it?

This isn't the first time, either. Well, when extortion works, why stop?
It's not the first time Priebus has issued an ultimatum to the peacock. He demanded last year that NBC pull a planned miniseries on Hillary Clinton or risk losing its partnerships with the RNC for 2016 presidential debates. The network eventually scrapped the miniseries.

This kind of wimping out just makes me furious! How about standing up to bullies sometime?

The Great Decline: 60 years of religion

From Religion News Service:
Religiosity in the United States is in the midst of what might be called ‘The Great Decline.’ Previous declines in religion pale in comparison. Over the past fifteen years, the drop in religiosity has been twice as great as the decline of the 1960s and 1970s. ...

During the post-war, baby-booming 1950s, there was a revival of religion. Indeed, some at the time considered it a third great awakening. Then came the societal changes of the 1960s, which included a questioning of religious institutions. The resulting decline in religion stopped by the end of the 1970s, when religiosity remained steady. Over the past fifteen years, however, religion has once again declined. But this decline is much sharper than the decline of 1960s and 1970s. Church attendance and prayer is less frequent. The number of people with no religion is growing. Fewer people say that religion is an important part of their lives. All measures point to the same drop in religion: If the 1950s were another Great Awakening, this is the Great Decline.

Undoubtedly, this is good news, though there are a few problems. The biggest is that the lack of a scale on the left side of the graph makes it hard to interpret.

According to the article, "The top of the graph is two standard deviations above the average; the bottom is three standard deviations below the mean. Differences between two points can be compared with differences between two other points, e.g., the difference between the 1960s and 1980s is a decline of about 1.5 standard deviations, but the difference between the late 1990s and 2012 is nearly three standard deviations."

But the whole point of a graph is to show in visual form what is happening. The decline I get. But for me, this makes the degree of decline harder to grasp with any degree of confidence.

The reason for this is that the graph is "a combination of different measures with different scales." You can find the whole report here, if you wish, but that's bound to add a lot more questions about how the authors combined those "different measures with different scales."

And I really wish the graph started earlier than 1952. (Note that phrase "previous declines in religion." But there's only one previous decline shown on the graph.)

Sure, the data is probably not available any earlier than that - certainly not much earlier. However, the graph shows American religiosity increasing in 1952, but we don't know from what level. (The article says that some considered it "a third great awakening.") Is this "Great Decline" just the normal ebb and flow of religion in America?

I suspect not, but I don't know. And as I've learned more about non-belief in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, I've discovered that being taught nothing about non-belief in America back then doesn't mean that it didn't exist.

One reason I'm cautious is that it's easy to mislead with graphs like this - even unintentionally. But another is that we don't want to assume that progress is inevitable. Yes, we should celebrate our successes, but nothing is inevitable.

Some years ago, I was surprised to discover that racism in many parts of America - race relations, at least - had gotten worse in the early 20th Century, compared to the late 19th Century. OK, sure, that's just a generalization, and the details matter. But that really shocked me.

In my naiveté, I'd assumed that progress was one-directional. But that's not necessarily the case. We've progressed, yes. And we should never minimize that. If you don't recognize your successes, you'll likely become discouraged and apathetic. Celebrate our successes. But you can't assume that further successes are inevitable - or even that we won't slip backwards.

When I was a kid, everyone I knew was a Christian - at least, as far as I knew. No one ever expressed the slightest doubt about God, and you certainly didn't hear atheism discussed in the news media - or anywhere else, either.

Christianity seemed to be universal (in my part of America, I mean - I knew, of course, that other religions existed), but also rather casual. It didn't seem to matter at all which Christian denomination you belonged to, and religion seemed to be kept to church on Sundays (for those Christians who bothered to go to church at all).

Christianity just seemed normal. It was just the default. (Indeed, when my mother urged us to go to church, she didn't say anything about God, let alone Jesus. Church-going was just something decent people did. It was just our culture.)

I swear I never encountered evangelicals or fundamentalists when I was a kid. Even at college, in the very red state of Nebraska, there were only a bare handful of religious nuts. I think I encountered as many atheists as evangelical Christians - a tiny, insignificant number in either case. That's how it seemed to me, at least. (The student body was still overwhelmingly Christian, of course.)

But look at that graph. As religiosity in America has declined, the fanaticism of our religious believers has increased. Not all of them, of course. And most people who don't attend church or don't belong to a particular denomination (the "nones") still believe in a god (almost always the Christian God, since that's the one they were raised to believe).

But it's kind of like the Republican Party. As rational people drift away, the crazy becomes concentrated in those who remain. That tends to drive more people away, which concentrates the true-believers even further.

This is both good and bad. Rather, it's good, but it's also dangerous. And the thing about progress is that there's always a backlash. Look at the progress women have made towards equal rights and the resulting backlash both from religious conservatives and so-called 'men's rights activists.'

This graph does make me optimistic, especially since it confirms the evidence I've seen everywhere else, too. But further progress is not inevitable. The status quo always has immense power, and that's nowhere more obvious than when it comes to religion.

In fact, I suspect that the only reason we can make progress at all is because religious believers can't even agree among themselves. (Obviously, that's one of the problems with being faith-based, rather than evidence-based.)

However, the more threatened they feel, the more they'll be willing to put their differences aside and work together, at least in the short-term. (That's how you can get Bill Donahue and John Hagee pushing the same political party.)

As rational people increasingly abandon religion, the people who remain won't be more rational, but less. And people who think they're losing often become increasingly fearful, increasingly desperate, and increasingly fanatic.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Evolution, scientific ignorance, and biblical cherry-picking

This is from episode #838 of The Atheist Experience TV show, hosted by Matt Dillahunty and John Iacoletti on November 3, 2013.

The caller is just remarkably ignorant - not just about evolution, but about the very concept of race (which is a social concept far more than a scientific one). Did whites and blacks come from the same ape? What kind of question is that? It's so stupid, you can see it even took Matt Dillahunty by surprise.

Incidentally, that stuff about Charles Darwin and the 'skull-hunters' of Australia can easily be found on the Internet, but it seems to be just Creationist crap. Europeans - Christians - were killing aborigines in Australia long before Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and racism certainly existed before that.

By modern standards, Darwin was a racist, sure,... just like everyone else in the 19th Century. But he opposed slavery, and he was actually progressive for his time. Not that that has anything to do with his theory of natural selection, of course. He could have been a serial killer or a cannibal, and that wouldn't mean that his ideas about evolution were necessarily wrong.

Creationists, though, continually try to smear Darwin with such stuff, though it's hard to imagine why they think that will accomplish anything. Modern biology owes a lot to Charles Darwin, but we've moved far beyond what Darwin ever dreamed of. After all, it's been more than 150 years. Science, unlike religion, progresses. Heck, Darwin didn't even know about DNA!

But 150 years after The Origin of Species, Americans are still this ignorant about the very foundation of modern biology. Indeed, Republicans are going backwards in their scientific illiteracy, with fewer believing in evolution all the time (despite zero controversy in science about the basic fact of evolution). It's just incredible, isn't it?

BTW, this is from Exodus 21, which Matt mentions (I picked the 'New Revised Standard Version' of the Bible this time, pretty much at random):
When a slave-owner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives for a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.

And here's Leviticus 25:
As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.

Of course, the Old Testament doesn't count, right? Gee, I wonder why it's included in the Bible at all, then. Um,... isn't that supposed to be the same 'God'?

And if the Old Testament doesn't count, what's with all the effort of erecting Ten Commandments monuments on public property (not to mention citing it when opposing gay rights)? Or is it only the parts of the Old Testament which have become embarrassing these days, as human beings have finally advanced beyond such thinking, which don't count?

Well, you know, some of us have advanced beyond the need to believe in magic at all.

The evolution of morality

Neat, isn't it? This is a very small clip from a much longer talk (well, the original video is less than 17 minutes long, so it's not that much longer), but it really demonstrates how monkeys have a sense of fairness, doesn't it?

It's experiments like this - and there are many more examples - which clearly show that other animals have a rudimentary sense of morality. Of course, this can also be shown in very young children, too. In both cases, it's innate.

And it has nothing to do with gods, unless you want to say that this sense of fairness is one reason why human beings invented gods. After all, life isn't fair. And gods can be one way to change that - or to make ourselves feel better about it, at least.

Don't worry. You may only get cucumbers here on Earth, but after you die, you'll get all the grapes you want. Trust me. :)

Republicans eager for bipartisanship

Why don't reporters just laugh in Republican faces when these politicians claim to want bipartisanship? Cooperation? Heh, heh. Really?

Of course, they're not going to do that. But why doesn't every news article and video bring up the reality which Jon Stewart shows us here?

Republican leaders met before Barack Obama had even taken office for his first term and agreed that they'd oppose everything he wanted, no matter what it turned out to be.

This is fact. And so are the results of that, as Stewart also points out. It's no accident that Republicans have set new records of obstructionism. They agreed to do that before Barack Obama had even taken office.

"Make a public show of wanting to work with the president, but block him at every turn in order to deny him any bipartisan victories, for which Obama will be blamed, because he's the guy who ran on bipartisanship."

“If he was for it,” former Ohio Senator George Voinovich explained, “we had to be against it.”

And they've held to that, even when the Democrats adopted the Republican plan for health care reform! Instantly, every Republican turned against their own plan. But that's just one small part of this (if a particularly egregious example).

Jon Stewart puts it well:
The only problem with their 'we just want to work with him' is that it's total bullshit. It's bullshit - premium, Grade A, grass-fed, free-range bullshit, collected and packaged by hand. No,... hear me out. It is bullshit, collected and packaged by hand from the polished anuses of award-winning Texas longhorns that have been bred for peristaltic perfection so that each individual dookie meets the exacting standards of the American Bullshit Association. It is bullshit! ...

This notion that the Republicans are interested in working with the president is a game that they play. It's a play that they put on for the cameras.

So why does it take a comedian to point that out? Why doesn't every journalist in America note this when reporting about Republican claims of wanting to cooperate? (By "journalist," I don't mean anyone at Fox 'News' or on talk radio, of course.)

Well, it's not because Republicans threatened to toss them off a balcony, and I'm sorry that Jon Stewart went in that direction at the end of this clip. Rep. Michael Grimm is a real piece of work, but he was never going to toss a reporter off a Capitol balcony, and both of them knew that.

It was an empty threat by a macho bully who knew full well that he was perfectly safe, not just from physical attack but even from having to carry out any of his threats. After all, he wasn't making a threat in a seedy bar, where there might actually be consequences.

If the camera hadn't been on, there would have been no consequences at all from this. (Most likely, there still won't be.) He could act as tough as he wanted and know that he wouldn't have to back up any of it. Furthermore, if the reporter had acted unprofessionally in any way, that congressman could have gotten him fired. They both knew that, too.

But Grimm was definitely angry. He was angry because he'd actually been asked a real question by a journalist. Just think of how rare that must be for a politician to get this angry.

Remember that 'gotcha' question that Katie Couric asked Sarah Palin? "And when it comes to establishing your world view, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this — to stay informed and to understand the world?"

What newspapers and magazines do you read? That's supposed to be a 'gotcha' question? It was a softball interview,... but Sarah Palin still made a fool of herself. And she and her supporters still blame Katie Couric for that.

Politicians expect softball questions. Politicians demand softball questions. If they don't get them, they're not going to throw a reporter off the balcony. No, they'll do worse than that. They'll stop giving the reporter access. Heck, they'll stop giving his whole news station access. And if they're Republicans, at least (Democrats wish they were this organized), they'll probably get the rest of the party to do the same.

So the mainstream media solemnly report whatever a Republican politician wants to say - wants to lie - about 'cooperation' and 'bipartisanship.' They could easily demonstrate that it's a lie, but they won't. I don't know how reporters keep a straight face when they hear this stuff, but apparently they've had lots of practice.

Note that politicians are media whores. They need the news media a lot more than the news media need them. But Republican politicians can always go on Fox 'News' and get, not just softball questions, but a concerted effort to make them look as good as possible.

And even the 'mainstream' media don't want to risk the loss of access, because they're competing with other mainstream media who aren't likely to be so principled. After all, these are all corporations, and the bottom line is the bottom line. They're not in business to inform American citizens. They're in business to make money.

Sure, if they just stuck together, if they held to professional standards of journalism, they could report what's really happening. As I say, politicians are attention whores. They need the media far more than the media need them.

But that's not how it works. Republican politicians are quite willing to march in lockstep, and that gives them a lot of power. Heck, they seem to direct political discourse in America even as a minority party. Democrats, who struggle even to face in the same direction, can't even use their majority effectively.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Right-wing insanity has no limit

I keep posting this stuff, wondering if there's any limit to right-wing insanity. Every time I think I've seen it all, heard it all, plumbed the very depths of bigotry and idiocy, I'm proven wrong.

Here, again, we've reached new lows in 21st Century America. Republicans really are dragging us backward, aren't they?

I know, I know, I've said this many times before, but could they get any crazier? Please tell me that this is the limit. At least tell me that there is a limit.

Remember, this was the reaction from Fox 'News,' not the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK doesn't get nearly the respect that Fox does. This wasn't just from isolated weirdos, but from well-organized, well-funded, politically powerful weirdos.

The Bible, Pt. 25: Leviticus, Chapter 13 - 15

Continuing my commentary on the Bible directly from Part 24. Note that all quotes are from the King James Bible, 1769 edition.

Chapter 13:
1 And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, saying,

2 When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, a scab, or bright spot, and it be in the skin of his flesh like the plague of leprosy; then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests:

3 And the priest shall look on the plague in the skin of the flesh: and when the hair in the plague is turned white, and the plague in sight be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a plague of leprosy: and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.

4 If the bright spot be white in the skin of his flesh, and in sight be not deeper than the skin, and the hair thereof be not turned white; then the priest shall shut up him that hath the plague seven days:

The next three chapters are mostly about primitive medical care, with the emphasis on primitive. I can't help but wonder how much suffering would have been avoided if only God had mentioned the germ theory of disease, or even taught the scientific method in general.

I really can't criticize these people, though, because they didn't know any of that, and they didn't have a god to tell them such things. This is a religious text, not a medical text, and for the most part, its purpose seems to be quite narrow: to identify "the plague of leprosy." (Whether that's specifically leprosy or just communicable skin diseases in general, I don't know.)

If someone is suspected of having leprosy, the priest looks for specific symptoms or markers of the disease. (Knowing nothing about leprosy myself, I have no idea how accurate these are.) If the patient is diagnosed with leprosy, he's pronounced unclean, and they're done. (In a few verses, we'll get to the details of what happens after that.)

If it doesn't appear to be leprosy, then you lock up the patient for seven days and check him again. If it still doesn't look like leprosy, you lock him up for another seven days. At that point, unless it's gotten worse, "it is but a scab: and he shall wash his clothes, and be clean."

Now, there are 59 verses in this chapter alone, but most of it is the same basic thing. Obviously, there's a lot of repetition here! But there are a few things which are interesting:
9 When the plague of leprosy is in a man, then he shall be brought unto the priest;

10 And the priest shall see him: and, behold, if the rising be white in the skin, and it have turned the hair white, and there be quick raw flesh in the rising;

11 It is an old leprosy in the skin of his flesh, and the priest shall pronounce him unclean, and shall not shut him up: for he is unclean.

12 And if a leprosy break out abroad in the skin, and the leprosy cover all the skin of him that hath the plague from his head even to his foot, wheresoever the priest looketh;

13 Then the priest shall consider: and, behold, if the leprosy have covered all his flesh, he shall pronounce him clean that hath the plague: it is all turned white: he is clean.

14 But when raw flesh appeareth in him, he shall be unclean.

I really don't know anything about leprosy, but this seems nuts, doesn't it? If there's raw flesh, then he's got leprosy. OK, that makes sense. (Again, they don't lock up anyone who actually has leprosy.)

However, if the leprosy covers all of him, head to toe, then he's considered clean? I really have to wonder about that.
38 If a man also or a woman have in the skin of their flesh bright spots, even white bright spots;

39 Then the priest shall look: and, behold, if the bright spots in the skin of their flesh be darkish white; it is a freckled spot that groweth in the skin; he is clean.

40 And the man whose hair is fallen off his head, he is bald; yet is he clean.

41 And he that hath his hair fallen off from the part of his head toward his face, he is forehead bald: yet is he clean.

42 And if there be in the bald head, or bald forehead, a white reddish sore; it is a leprosy sprung up in his bald head, or his bald forehead.

Luckily for me, freckles are OK. So is baldness,... unless you've got a leprous sore in your bald spot, at least. Yeah, you wouldn't want to be treated as a leper just because you were losing your hair, would you?
45 And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean.

46 All the days wherein the plague shall be in him he shall be defiled; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be.

I don't understand what kind of "covering" lepers are supposed to put on their upper lip, but the rest of this is clear enough. You're not only forced to live away from everyone else, you have to cry out "unclean, unclean" so that no one comes close even by accident. Well, they couldn't cure it, so none of this is very surprising.

This next part, though, I don't understand at all:
47 The garment also that the plague of leprosy is in, whether it be a woollen garment, or a linen garment;

48 Whether it be in the warp, or woof; of linen, or of woollen; whether in a skin, or in any thing made of skin;

49 And if the plague be greenish or reddish in the garment, or in the skin, either in the warp, or in the woof, or in any thing of skin; it is a plague of leprosy, and shall be shewed unto the priest:

50 And the priest shall look upon the plague, and shut up it that hath the plague seven days:

51 And he shall look on the plague on the seventh day: if the plague be spread in the garment, either in the warp, or in the woof, or in a skin, or in any work that is made of skin; the plague is a fretting leprosy; it is unclean.

52 He shall therefore burn that garment, whether warp or woof, in woollen or in linen, or any thing of skin, wherein the plague is: for it is a fretting leprosy; it shall be burnt in the fire.

Leprosy in a garment? Yeah, leprosy is a bacterial infection, and maybe clothes could become contaminated, I don't know. But you couldn't see that. This seems to be something a priest can see, something that would spread if he locked up the garment for seven days.

Well, there's a lot here I don't understand. Maybe they confused some kind of mold or other fungus with leprosy?

Chapter 14:
3 And the priest shall go forth out of the camp; and the priest shall look, and, behold, if the plague of leprosy be healed in the leper;

4 Then shall the priest command to take for him that is to be cleansed two birds alive and clean, and cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop:

5 And the priest shall command that one of the birds be killed in an earthen vessel over running water:

6 As for the living bird, he shall take it, and the cedar wood, and the scarlet, and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water:

Without treatment, I don't think that leprosy just goes away on its own. But undoubtedly, there'd be people diagnosed with leprosy who didn't actually have the disease. Can you imagine the joy of being healed, when you thought you had leprosy?

Well, the first half of this chapter describes the procedure - including blood sacrifices, of course (and not just of birds) - by which such a person can be cleansed.

The second half is about "fretting leprosy" in a house:
33 And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,

34 When ye be come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession;

35 And he that owneth the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, It seemeth to me there is as it were a plague in the house:


38 Then the priest shall go out of the house to the door of the house, and shut up the house seven days:

39 And the priest shall come again the seventh day, and shall look: and, behold, if the plague be spread in the walls of the house;

40 Then the priest shall command that they take away the stones in which the plague is, and they shall cast them into an unclean place without the city:

This almost has to be mold, doesn't it? And whether it's the same thing as that "fretting leprosy" in a garment or not, they both appear to be something that grows, that spreads - like leprosy on human skin, I guess.

The odd thing about this, though, is that God says he's put the "plague of leprosy" in that house. Why? He doesn't say.

But again, to clean the house requires blood.

Chapter 15:
1 And the LORD spake unto Moses and to Aaron, saying,

2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When any man hath a running issue out of his flesh, because of his issue he is unclean.

3 And this shall be his uncleanness in his issue: whether his flesh run with his issue, or his flesh be stopped from his issue, it is his uncleanness.

4 Every bed, whereon he lieth that hath the issue, is unclean: and every thing, whereon he sitteth, shall be unclean.

5 And whosoever toucheth his bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even.

Whatever a "running issue" is, it doesn't sound good. And not only is the man suffering from it considered unclean, but everything he touches becomes unclean and everyone who touches what he touches becomes unclean.
16 And if any man's seed of copulation go out from him, then he shall wash all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the even.

17 And every garment, and every skin, whereon is the seed of copulation, shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the even.

18 The woman also with whom man shall lie with seed of copulation, they shall both bathe themselves in water, and be unclean until the even.

So,... all sex is unclean? Is that what this is saying? Luckily, you only have to wash (and not in blood, either), and you're only unclean until evening. Worth it, then, huh? :)
19 And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.

20 And every thing that she lieth upon in her separation shall be unclean: every thing also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean.

21 And whosoever toucheth her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even.

OK, this seems to be very similar to the case of a man with a "running issue," although when they say "in her separation," they must mean during menstruation. So is that all that this is about? It doesn't seem like it, but I can't be sure.
24 And if any man lie with her at all, and her flowers be upon him, he shall be unclean seven days; and all the bed whereon he lieth shall be unclean.

25 And if a woman have an issue of her blood many days out of the time of her separation, or if it run beyond the time of her separation; all the days of the issue of her uncleanness shall be as the days of her separation: she shall be unclean.

26 Every bed whereon she lieth all the days of her issue shall be unto her as the bed of her separation: and whatsoever she sitteth upon shall be unclean, as the uncleanness of her separation.

Um,... "her flowers"? Now what are they talking about? Menstrual blood? But they say "blood" in the very next verse!

We saw in Chapter 12 that a woman was considered unclean after giving birth (twice as long if she gave birth to a girl), and apparently it's similar for menstruation.
32 This is the law of him that hath an issue, and of him whose seed goeth from him, and is defiled therewith;

33 And of her that is sick of her flowers, and of him that hath an issue, of the man, and of the woman, and of him that lieth with her that is unclean.

Normal sex, and the normal working of a human body, seem to be considered just as "unclean" as actual illness, if I'm understanding this stuff correctly. And for women, that's especially the case. By combining the two, the Bible has confused me here. I'm really not sure what it's saying.

But whatever it is, it's dull as dishwater. Sorry about that. Sorry about my confusion, and sorry about how boring this is. Leviticus is not proving to be my favorite chapter in the Bible, that's for sure! Even when I do understand it. So I think I'll end this one here and hope that the story gets a little more interesting next time.

Edit: One thing I should have noted here is that they don't even try to cure diseases, whether it's leprosy or not. If you don't have leprosy, they shut you up, and you either get better or you don't. They don't even petition to God for healing. It's only afterwards, if you do come out of it healthy again, that you're supposed to offer blood sacrifices and do other magic rituals to make yourself clean.

Doesn't that seem odd? At the least, it's very different from Christianity. Yet this is supposed to be the same 'God.' Indeed, God himself is relating all this to Moses.

Note: This entire series can be found here.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Bill Maher: balls or bullies?

I don't agree with Bill Maher about everything - well, why would I? - but he often hits the nail squarely on the head, as he does here.

There's a lot I like about this, so it's hard to pick out my favorite excerpts (note that the full transcript is here), but let me just note this:
None of this is going to get better until Democrats stop letting Republicans claim they've got the big balls, just because. ... Democrats have to start being the party that redefines toughness as restraint. And stop responding to Republican taunts that have goaded Michael Dukakis into a tank, John Kerry into a duck hunting outfit, and Hillary Clinton into Iraq.

Because it's not really masculinity conservatives love, anyway — it's bullying. ...

But bullying isn't a masculine virtue; standing up to bullies is. Ignoring society's least-abled people is not masculine; taking care of them is.

I saw this a lot when I was a kid, and as I got older, I still saw it. Bullies defined masculinity for many boys - probably because they'd been taught that themselves, from other bullies.

But even kids who weren't bullies - not natural bullies, certainly - still bought into that narrative. And if they weren't natural bullies, they might try especially hard to prove their own masculinity, because they'd been convinced of that connection.

It's stupid, of course, and as you get older, many men come to realize that. But some don't. In particular, if you've ever worked in an overwhelmingly masculine environment, you'll have seen this same thing even among adults (most of them desperately trying to prove how masculine they are, even as grownups).

Of course, this is typical among the right-wing, and it's one of the many reasons why I despise them. But it's absolutely infuriating when Democrats get goaded into acting stupid by people like that.

I must say, that's one thing I really like about Barack Obama. He just ignores the taunts. And by doing so, he not only demonstrates his own masculinity, he shows how pathetic his opponents are, in contrast.

As Bill Maher notes, bullying is not a masculine virtue. Standing up to bullies is, and so is helping the less fortunate. If you really want to act like a man, don't tear people down. Help them to stand up. Real men aren't threatened by the competition.

If the only way you can feel good about yourself is by making sure that other people stay down, how is that manly?

PS. I don't like describing courage as having balls, anyway, not just because it's sexist, but also because it's stupid. You don't need balls to be courageous. Ask any woman. You do need a spine, though.

So you won't ever find me using that phrase. And I like how Maher points out how useless big balls really are. Besides making it easier to be incapacitated by a kick to the crotch, what use are they? A spine, though - everyone needs a spine, men and women both.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Angry birds vs peace doves

I don't know why I think this is funny - it probably wasn't very funny for those two doves - but I had to laugh:
Two white doves that were released by children standing alongside Pope Francis as a peace gesture have been attacked by other birds.

As tens of thousands of people watched in St. Peter's Square on Sunday, a seagull and a large black crow swept down on the doves right after they were set free from an open window of the Apostolic Palace.

One dove lost some feathers as it broke free from the gull. But the crow pecked repeatedly at the other dove.

It was not clear what happened to the doves as they flew off.

You know what's really funny? This same thing happened last year! Heh, heh. I guess the Vatican doesn't learn from experience, huh?

And why shouldn't I laugh? Releasing doves? That was nothing but a carefully choreographed spectacle to promote the Catholic Church. Children? Check. News cameras? Check. 'Tens of thousands' of adoring fans below the window? Check and double-check.

What did they think was going to happen to the doves, anyway? Were they just releasing tame doves into the wild? How long do you think they would last?

That would be like releasing white chickens into the wild. These pure-white doves are no less artificial, no less domesticated. Now, I don't know, maybe the plan was that they'd return home on their own - if they survived. But if not, it would be far kinder just to wring their necks.

And what did those 'tens of thousands' of superstitious Catholics think of this? Did they imagine that magic was involved? Remember, these are the same people who believe in exorcisms. Did they think that Satan was just playing Angry Birds?

Then what about 'God'? Is he such a wimp that he can't even protect peace doves released by the Pope? You see why I laugh?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Monday morning investment quarterbacking

Bill Nygren, portfolio manager at the Oakmark Funds, has some interesting commentary in his fourth quarter (2013) report:
Investing shares a lot of similarities with sports. Good decisions often lead to bad outcomes and vice-versa. [Note that I'm skipping his introduction about sports, since that doesn't interest me.] ...

One of the most important contributors to successful long-term investing is asset allocation. Investors evaluate the tradeoff between higher returns on riskier assets, such as stocks, and lower returns on more stable assets, such as U.S. Treasury bonds. In constructing a portfolio, they try to balance their desire for maximum returns with their ability to withstand volatility. Long-term data clearly demonstrates that stocks, though more volatile than bonds, have rewarded investors with higher returns. Statistics compiled by Ibbotson Associates show that since 1926, stocks have produced an average annual return of 10% while U.S. Treasury bonds have returned less than 6%. Long-term investors in stocks have been well rewarded for accepting the risk of short-term loss. Obviously, if one could avoid owning stocks in the negative years, one’s return would be even higher (and one’s risk would be lower) than if one used a buy-and-hold approach. With this in mind, many investors attempt to time their investments in stocks. But almost every study has concluded that trying to time the market is futile for most investors.

And yet, despite all of the evidence that stocks are the highest returning asset class over the long term and despite all of the evidence that almost nobody can time the market, the financial media usually treats bears as being more thoughtful than bulls. This is a pet peeve of mine because I believe it is a disservice to individual investors. Much like with Monday morning quarterbacking, investors need to consider the probabilities. Since the stock market has to either go up or go down, you might think this is a 50/50 proposition. However, the S&P 500 Index has had 24 down years since 1926; in other words, in 88 years, only 27% of the years have produced a loss. The probability of a down year has been about the same as the probability of an eight-point underdog winning a football game. It happens, but it isn’t a bet you’d make unless you got good odds. In short, history shows a much higher burden of proof is on the people who predict that the market will fall, rather than on those who predict it will go higher.

When we look back on the S&P 500 gaining over 30% in 2013, it will seem like owning stocks was an easy call. The market had been moving higher in preceding years, valuations weren’t demanding, and the economic recovery was still quite young. But the bears argued that it was foolish to invest after stocks reached a new high in March. They argued that slowing growth in China threatened our economic recovery and that it was too risky to invest when our government was so dysfunctional that it shut itself down. Additionally, they predicted that the Fed tapering would bring a screeching halt to the positive returns. As Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character Roseanne Roseannadanna said 35 years ago, “It just goes to show you, it's always something--if it ain't one thing, it's another." There has always been something for investors to fear, not just last year but every year, yet the market has averaged a 10% annual gain and has gone up in 73% of the years since 1926.

Let me start by saying that there's one thing I don't like about his comments. He seems to be defining "risk" as "volatility." The fact is, when you're an investor, there are all sorts of different risks. But for someone like me, volatility is almost completely immaterial.

Unless I'll be forced to sell when the stock market is down (and I think I've taken prudent steps to counter that possibility) or I'll panic during a market crash (and given that I got through the 2008 economic collapse just fine), why should volatility concern me?

Sure, I'm human, and I hate to see my investments decrease in value - especially since they normally go down a lot faster than they go up (though not nearly as often). But volatility isn't a big risk for me,... and I've got some very volatile holdings.

However, there are two points he made which I really liked. First, good decisions don't always lead to good outcomes, especially in the short term. And bad decisions can make you money,... sometimes.

It's always valuable to look back at the decisions you've made and see what the outcome was. But just because an investment decreased in value, that doesn't mean your decision was wrong - not given what you knew at the time. You have to look at it more closely than that.

Now, sure, you might always be tempted to say that you were right, that it was just the stupid market that was wrong. But sometimes, that's true. More generally, you can make all the right decisions and still be disappointed in the outcome. That's because you can't predict everything (and you should certainly know that).

This past year, the stock market has boomed. If you were in the market at all, you probably felt like a genius. But that's probably not the case. And you're not going to learn to make better decisions if you don't recognize that.

Yes, look at the past. Look at the recent past and look at the long-term. Look at how your decisions have turned out. But also remember why you made those decisions and look at whether your reasoning was valid, however the results ended up.

If I bought a lottery ticket and actually won the lottery, would that mean that buying lottery tickets was a good idea? Sure, it worked out for me that time, and I'd be very happy with the result. But if you look at the odds, it was still a bad decision. (Note that I've never actually won the lottery - or even bought a lottery ticket.)

It can be the same way with investing. You can have good results without making a good decision. But I wouldn't bet on it happening regularly. Likewise, just because you lost money, that doesn't mean your reasoning wasn't sound. It could be that your reasoning wasn't sound, and I'd examine that possibility very carefully. If you keep losing money, I suggest that you've probably overlooked something. But it doesn't have to be that you made the wrong decision.

The second part of this is to remember that the stock market goes up over time. Maybe that will end someday, I don't know. (If it does, we'll probably have bigger things to worry about than our stock market portfolios.) But so far, the stock market - over the long term - has been the closest you can get to a sure thing. If you stay invested long enough, you'll make money.

My holdings generally go down a lot faster than they go up, but they go up far more often. This past year has been especially great, unusually great, and the past five years (despite a down year in 2011) has been absolutely incredible. Of course, that's because the economic collapse at the end of the Bush Administration was so severe that we were at a very low level five years ago. I really don't expect another investment opportunity like that in my lifetime.

But what about this year? What about 2014? I have no idea. A down market wouldn't surprise me in the slightest, but an up market wouldn't really surprise me, either. (Another year like 2013 would surprise me, but look at the late 1990s if you don't think that can happen.)

The thing is, if you bet that the stock market will go down, you might make money. You might even make a lot of money. If you're right. But the odds are against you, because the long-term direction of the stock market is up. That's gambling, not investing.

I'm not a gambler, because I don't like to make bets where the odds are against me. If you buy a lottery ticket, you might win big, but it's a lousy bet. If you go to a casino, you might come out ahead, but it's a lousy bet. Casinos don't make vast sums of money because your odds of winning are good. Just the reverse, in fact.

But your odds are good if you invest in the stock market and avoid making stupid mistakes. (Many small investors do make stupid mistakes, of course. I've done it myself. I probably still do. But that's not what this post is about.) But long-term investors have the odds on their side, which is the exact opposite of gambling.

(I might also point out that investors have the government firmly on their side, too, since most investors are wealthy. Investors pay far lower taxes than people who work for a living, and there are an abundance of ways to avoid taxes altogether. Most of those government policies help the wealthy more than you and me, but we can still take advantage of them.)

At any rate, the stock market will go down someday. And the fact that 2013 was such a boom year (following a great year in 2012, too) probably makes it more likely that 2014 will be down, just because prices are higher now. But will last week be the start of a bear market? I have no idea.

I'm definitely cautious (well, as cautious as I get, which isn't very). I've made a few minor adjustments to my portfolio. But as they say, markets climb a wall of worry. The time to get scared is when that stops, when everyone seems to think that the market will continue going up. Except for those times of "irrational exuberance," I'd just consider such worries as little more than noise.

Over the long term, the odds are in your favor. In the short term, well, who knows? Not me. And not anyone else, either. (You can guess and get it right. But what does that really tell you?)  Bears have the odds against them. They can still make money, just like you can still make money in a casino, but it's not easy. (Besides, successful bears tend to focus their picks on individual stocks, not the market as a whole.)

Maybe it's a personality quirk, but I don't like gambling. I positively hate the idea of betting against the odds. That's a sucker's game, and I don't want to feel like a sucker. So I don't gamble. I risk my money, yes. I take on a lot of risk - more than most people would feel comfortable with. But I always want the odds on my side.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

What's wrong with religion in public schools?

Though a death certificate has been issued for Jahi McMath, many of the 13-year-old Oakland girl’s classmates still believe the “quiet leader” who laughed at jokes that weren't funny will one day return to school — if they just pray hard enough.

“The school told us that she’s not officially dead yet,” said Dymond Allen, one of Jahi's friends at EC Reems Academy of Technology and Arts in East Oakland, a public charter school that serves mostly disadvantaged kids. “And we should keep her in our prayers. I still hope. And God has the last say-so.”

Say what? "The school told us"? This is a public school. What right does a public school have to promote prayer, or to promote magical-thinking in general? (Note that this is supposed to be an "academy of technology," not Hogwarts.)

People have the right to believe whatever they want, and if those students want to pray, that's entirely their own business. But when the school gets involved, that's a violation of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

Not to mention being incredibly stupid. Now, yes, if even half the things they say about Jahi McMath are true, this is a horrible tragedy. Heck, it's a tragedy when any 13-year-old dies, and this seems especially senseless. Jesus, dying from a tonsillectomy? How could a good god allow something like that?

Her friends and family want to believe that there's still some hope, but frankly, they're being preyed on by the Catholic Church. But never mind all that. That's entirely up to the people involved. What's absolutely wrong here is having a public school weigh in on the side of magic.

In this particular case, I wouldn't expect a public school to weigh in on either side, since this is about religious belief. Would you want a public school to tell its students that prayer is useless? Of course not. Me, neither. (A public school could report the failure of prayer in scientific studies, but not as a direct attack on religious belief - and probably not for 13-year-olds, anyway.) That's why the separation of church and state is one of America's fundamental principles.

But maybe you're wondering what's so wrong with it? Well, how about this:
Like many people I have encountered who were raised in a Christian environment, I was indifferent to what I felt were minor infractions of the law that protects the separation of church and state. ... But then, when my stepson, who has been raised a Buddhist, enrolled in the sixth grade at our local school, Negreet High, it became personal, and I could no longer turn a blind eye to the very real harms that occur when school officials violate the separation of church and state.

My stepson started at Negreet in the same class as one of my children. By the end of the first week of school, he was having serious stomach issues and anxiety. We couldn't figure out why. In the mornings, my wife would pull over on the side of the road as they approached school so he could throw up. At first, we thought he was sick and we let him stay home. Soon it became apparent that this was not a cold, but something much worse. Our children informed us that their teacher had been chastising and bullying my stepson for his Buddhist beliefs.

On a science test, their teacher had included a fill-in-the-blank question: "ISN'T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" When my stepson didn't know the answer ("Lord"), she belittled him in front of the entire class. When he wrote in "Lord Buddha" on another exam, she marked it wrong. As she was returning that exam to students, one student proclaimed aloud that "people are stupid if they think God is not real." In response, my stepson's teacher agreed, telling the class, "Yes! That is right! I had a student miss that on his test." The entire class broke out in laughter at my stepson.

The same teacher also told our children that the Bible is "100 percent true," that the Earth was created by God 6,000 years ago, and that evolution is "impossible" and a "stupid theory made up by stupid people who don't want to believe in God." She's also told the class that Buddhism is "stupid."

We were shocked, but we quickly learned from our children that these types of activities were not unusual. School officials were repeatedly imposing their religious beliefs on students in myriad ways.

Again, this was a public school. But this was probably just the result of one bad teacher, right? I'll bet the principal had something to say about this, don't you think?
When we went to the school to meet with the principal, we saw a large picture of Jesus over the school's main doors, a Bible verse on the school's electronic marquee, and numerous religious posters and pictures on the walls. Religious images and messages are displayed throughout the school, in fact.

We learned from our children that official prayers, typically led by the principal or teachers, are routinely incorporated into class and school events ...

We discovered that school officials were distributing religious literature to students. For example, one of our other son's teachers passed out copies of a book from the "Truth For Youth" program, a revivalist ministry. The book included the entire New Testament of the Bible as well as cartoons that denounce evolution and trumpet the evils of birth control, premarital sex, rock music, alcohol, pornography, homosexuality, sorcery, and witchcraft.

OK, then, how about just one bad school? It couldn't be more than that, could it?
We assumed that the Superintendent was not aware of all the unlawful activities at Negreet and would want to know about them so she could rectify the situation, but we could not have been more wrong. She was dismissive and told us that we live in the "Bible Belt" and that this is just how things are. ...

My wife and I were floored. I tried to point out that the "Bible Belt" was not a separate country and that we were still entitled to religious liberty as guaranteed by the Constitution. She would have none of it, however. She asked whether my stepson had to be raised as a Buddhist and even suggested that he "change" his faith to better fit in.

Simple, huh? If you don't want to suffer religious discrimination - in a public school - just change your religion. Problem solved, right?

I wonder how those people would feel if things were reversed, if a public school were pushing some other religion than their own. Would they think that changing their own religion would be a good solution to the problem?

That's why we require a strict separation between church and state in America. That's why we're supposed to have that separation, anyway, even if it doesn't always work out that way in practice. And that's why we need to be vigilant about violations of the law.

Like most people, I suspect, this guy, this parent, had never been particularly concerned about "minor infractions of the law that protects the separation of church and state." But it doesn't seem so minor when it happens to your kids, does it?

And when they switched schools, when his stepson left Negreet High School for a different public school (because, according to the superintendent of the school district, there were "more Asians" there), they found the same thing: "school officials regularly promote Christianity."

It's not just Buddhists. I've heard personal stories from Jews raised in the Deep South, for example, that shame us all. And atheists are regularly bullied almost everywhere.

But if it were Christians suffering discrimination, I'd feel just the same. That's the great thing about the separation of church and state - it protects us all.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Let's play Prophet Quest

Nice! A video that combines two of my interests. :)

(Trust me. Just watch it.)

Fantastic news about wealth inequality!

Isn't this wonderful? The 85 richest people in the world have as much money as the 3,500,000,000 poorest people - half the planet!

What an incentive, huh? Just think if you could become one of those 85 people! Let's see, with 7 billion people on the planet (rounded down), your odds would be worse than 1 in 82 million.

The odds are 240 times better that you'll die from exploding fireworks, a thousand times better that you'll be killed by lightning, a million times better than you'll die in an auto accident. I'm not going to guarantee those exact figures, but you get the point.

Of course, many of those 85 people were born rich. They probably didn't inherit all of their wealth, but they started off with advantages most people could only dream of.

And even people like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett didn't start out dirt poor. They didn't start out hungry, with terrible schools and zero prospects. They didn't start out in an America with wealth and income inequality as bad as it is today.

And if you do make it, what about all those other 3,499,999,999 people? Do you care nothing about anyone else? I'd rather that everyone was doing reasonably well, instead of 85 people lording it over billions of peons - even if I were one of those 85 people.

Remember the America where our goal was a strong middle class, instead of a handful of aristocrats and a horde of serfs? Am I showing my age? Yeah, that almost seems quaint these days, doesn't it? Helping the rich become even richer seems to have become the default.

The loon in this video, incidentally, is Kevin O'Leary, and no, he's not on Fox. Oddly enough, he's in Canada. I guess they've got their crazy people there, too, huh?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Bible, Pt. 24: Leviticus, Chapter 9 - 12

This continues my reading of the Bible, as an ordinary layman with no particular expertise, from Pt. 23. The entire series can be found here, and note that all quotes are from the King James Bible.

Chapter 9:
1 And it came to pass on the eighth day, that Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel;

2 And he said unto Aaron, Take thee a young calf for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and offer them before the LORD.

3 And unto the children of Israel thou shalt speak, saying, Take ye a kid of the goats for a sin offering; and a calf and a lamb, both of the first year, without blemish, for a burnt offering;

4 Also a bullock and a ram for peace offerings, to sacrifice before the LORD; and a meat offering mingled with oil: for to day the LORD will appear unto you.

5 And they brought that which Moses commanded before the tabernacle of the congregation: and all the congregation drew near and stood before the LORD.

6 And Moses said, This is the thing which the LORD commanded that ye should do: and the glory of the LORD shall appear unto you.

Well, this is going to be spectacular, don't you think? God is actually going to appear to the hoi polloi?

But they're going to kill seven animals at once, not to mention "a meat offering mingled with oil." How could God fail to be impressed? This will put him in a good mood, I'll bet!
8 Aaron therefore went unto the altar, and slew the calf of the sin offering, which was for himself.

9 And the sons of Aaron brought the blood unto him: and he dipped his finger in the blood, and put it upon the horns of the altar, and poured out the blood at the bottom of the altar:


12 And he slew the burnt offering; and Aaron's sons presented unto him the blood, which he sprinkled round about upon the altar.


15 And he brought the people's offering, and took the goat, which was the sin offering for the people, and slew it, and offered it for sin, as the first.


18 He slew also the bullock and the ram for a sacrifice of peace offerings, which was for the people: and Aaron's sons presented unto him the blood, which he sprinkled upon the altar round about,

Note that I'm skipping a lot of this - mostly the cutting up and burning of the sacrifices, which we've seen described in chapter after chapter already.
24 And there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces.

That's it? The fire flares up, on an altar covered with the grease from seven animals? My stove has done that, when I've gotten a bit too exuberant in frying bacon. I guess I didn't realize that was a miracle!

Chapter 10:
1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not.

2 And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

OK, that has not happened with my stove - not yet, at least.

Note that Aaron is still head-priest, despite that piddling matter of creating a new god, a golden calf, for the Israelites to worship after Yahweh had ignored them for a whole month.

But God doesn't like the particular kind of incense that two of his sons burn for him, and so they're toast. Literally! Well, God has his priorities, I guess.
3 Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the LORD spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.


6 And Moses said unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons, Uncover not your heads, neither rend your clothes; lest ye die, and lest wrath come upon all the people: but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the LORD hath kindled.

And the family can't even mourn them, lest God get pissed. I guess I can understand why Aaron was looking for a new god, can't you?
14 And the wave breast and heave shoulder shall ye eat in a clean place; thou, and thy sons, and thy daughters with thee: for they be thy due, and thy sons' due, which are given out of the sacrifices of peace offerings of the children of Israel.

Well, would you look at that! "And thy daughters with thee." This is the first we've seen in any chapter that the women of the family can eat the sacrificial leftovers, too!

This is called a "wave offering" here (and in the previous chapter, too), but it's clearly meat. (Admittedly, I don't know what parts of what animal "the wave breast and heave shoulder" actually are.) But it's the fact that women are actually allowed to join the feast, too, that really surprises me.
16 And Moses diligently sought the goat of the sin offering, and, behold, it was burnt: and he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron which were left alive, saying,

17 Wherefore have ye not eaten the sin offering in the holy place, seeing it is most holy, and God hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD?

18 Behold, the blood of it was not brought in within the holy place: ye should indeed have eaten it in the holy place, as I commanded.

Moses is angry that Aaron's two remaining sons haven't eaten all of the goat sacrifice, as they were supposed to. But given that they had seven animals to eat - two calves, two rams, a goat, a lamb, and a steer - plus that meat-and-oil offering, and that their two brothers had just been murdered by God in front of their eyes, I think that he could have cut them some slack, don't you?

Chapter 11:
1 And the LORD spake unto Moses and to Aaron, saying unto them,

2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, These are the beasts which ye shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth.

3 Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat.

4 Nevertheless these shall ye not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: as the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.

This chapter describes what's clean and unclean to eat (and not just eat, either, since even touching unclean animals - dead or alive - will make you unclean).

Many animals are mentioned specifically. For example, camels, rabbits, and pigs are all unclean. (Rabbits are supposed to be unclean because they "chew the cud," though actually, they don't. Gee, I wonder why God didn't know that?)

And you can eat fish - anything with fins and scales - but no other seafood. There's a long list of birds, too, which are also an "abomination," including:
19 And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.

Um, say what? A bat isn't a bird. Wouldn't you think that the all-knowing creator of the universe would know that?
22 Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.

23 But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you.

OK, so you can eat some insects - locusts and 'bald locusts' (no one seems to know what was meant there), beetles (meaning crickets, apparently), and grasshoppers. However, you can't eat any insects with four feet.

Given that there aren't any insects with four feet, that shouldn't be too difficult, huh?

You can't eat mice, or ferrets, or snakes, or moles - really, most of this isn't too tough. But you can't eat snails, so no escargot for you! Still, God's ban on pork and seafood are the real biggies.
45 For I am the LORD that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.

46 This is the law of the beasts, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moveth in the waters, and of every creature that creepeth upon the earth:

47 To make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten.

Luckily, Christians don't pay any attention to Leviticus. So far, there's absolutely nothing in this chapter which any Christian thinks twice about - not the blood sacrifices and not the dietary restrictions.

Gee, I wonder if there's any part of Leviticus Christians do think they should follow? :)

Chapter 12:
1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean.


5 But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her separation: and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying threescore and six days.

6 And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest:

Earlier, remember, these Israelites were required to sacrifice a lamb to redeem their firstborn sons - indeed, to sacrifice the firstborn males of every animal, not just human beings. But now, women are required to sacrifice a lamb, as well as a young pigeon or turtledove, for every single child. What's going on here? Is God just getting more and more bloodthirsty as we go along?

Note, too, that women are "unclean" after giving birth - and giving birth to a daughter makes them unclean for twice as long as giving birth to a son. Just in case daughters started to think they might be as good as sons, you know.

This is a very short chapter, though. I guess there's just not that much to say about women, huh? Well, I suppose I'll stop here, for now, anyway. These posts have been getting pretty long lately - too long. The next few chapters contain a lot of verses (though I'm not sure how much I'll have to say about them), and... well, I'm struggling to stay interested right now.

So we'll save them for next time.

Note: Links to this whole series are available here.

The Made Easy series

This is both an explanation of an entire series of videos, the Made Easy Series, and a useful primer about how rational people decide what's true and what isn't.

The Made Easy Series includes videos about the history of the universe, the origin of life, the evolution of life, the age of the Earth, and the scientific method, among others. These are videos about science, and they'd be great for educational purposes, I suspect.

This one, however - the last in the series - does mention faith-based thinking. He warns in the description that it contains religious content and can't be used in the public schools. Luckily, I can still post it here. :)

Seriously, though, that's a shame, because the message in this one should be taught to schoolchildren. You could do that without mentioning religion. It's easy enough to explain why scientific thinking - evidence-based thinking - is valuable, without mentioning faith-based thinking at all.

Monday, January 20, 2014

White people the real victims of racism?

(image from Psychology Today)
Articles like this just blow me away (and not in a good sense). The headline says it all: "Study Finds White Americans Believe They Experience More Racism Than African Americans."

Say what? I'm a white man, and I'm pretty sure this is one of the stupidest beliefs I've ever heard. Ever. And I've heard a lot of stupid beliefs!

Here's an excerpt:
There’s a saying that “the new racism is to deny that racism exists.” If that is the case, it may explain a study conducted by researchers from Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Business School. Their findings claim that self-described white Americans believe they have “replaced blacks” as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America.

The authors say that their study highlights how the expectations of a “post-racial” society, predicted or imagined in the wake of Barack Obama’s presidency, has far from been achieved.

The study finds that while both Caucasian and African Americans agree that anti-black racism has decreased over the last 60 years, whites believe that anti-white racism has increased. Moreover, the study finds that the majority of Caucasians believe that anti-white racism is a “bigger problem” than what African Americans face.

Talk about faith-based thinking! Do we even need to discuss this? Well, apparently we do. I can't imagine any American being dumb enough to believe this, but... well, it's just astonishing, isn't it?

The article continues:
Tufts Associate Professor of Psychology Samuel Sommers, PhD is the co-author of the article “Whites See Racism as a Zero-sum Game that They Are Now Losing,” from the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. He comments that ”It’s a pretty surprising finding when you think of the wide range of disparities that still exist in society, most of which show black Americans with worse outcomes than whites in areas such as income, home ownership, health and employment.” ...

An astounding 11% of Caucasian respondents assigned the maximum rating of 10 to the seriousness of anti-white discrimination. Compare that with only 2% who reported the same of anti-black racism. Caucasians, the study found, often believe that racial equality is “a zero sum game,” where one group gains at the expense of others.

Get that? More than 1 in 10 whites thought that anti-white discrimination couldn't get any worse, that it was at the absolute maximum in America!

If that doesn't blow you away, it should! I don't think I've ever witnessed one instance of anti-white discrimination my entire life, neither directed at me or at anyone else I've ever known.

In fact, the very existence of anti-white discrimination, the idea that I might be discriminated against on the basis of my race, has never crossed my mind. Ever! Not in my childhood, my youth, my working years, or now. It's just never been a consideration.

But we white people are supposed to be facing discrimination and bigotry? Really? How dumb can you get?

This is depressing, isn't it? That Americans of any race could be this dumb? The only bit of hope I can gather from this is that the sample size of the study was very, very small (only 209 Caucasians and 208 African Americans). Maybe they just got a particularly dumb batch of white people?

Oh, and racial equality is not a zero sum game! Nor is equality in the areas of religion, sex, or gender, for that matter. Equality in general is not a zero sum game - just the reverse, in fact. Letting everyone participate fully in the American dream enriches us all.

If there's a problem in America, it's that we're not quite there yet. We've come a long way, but we've still got a ways to go. And as a straight white man, I'm looking forward to that. Equal rights for everyone else doesn't threaten me one little bit.

Creationism vs science

Quite a contrast, isn't it? Would you really pick primitive, bronze-age mythology?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Bible, Pt. 23: Leviticus, Chapter 1 - 8

I'm starting Leviticus now, after finishing Exodus in Part 22 last time, in my reading of the Christian Bible. All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the King James version.

Leviticus, Chapter 1:
1 And the LORD called unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying,

2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the LORD, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock.


5 And he shall kill the bullock before the LORD: and the priests, Aaron's sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.

6 And he shall flay the burnt offering, and cut it into his pieces.

7 And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire upon the altar, and lay the wood in order upon the fire:

8 And the priests, Aaron's sons, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat, in order upon the wood that is on the fire which is upon the altar:

9 But his inwards and his legs shall he wash in water: and the priest shall burn all on the altar, to be a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD.

Oh, god! Last time, I said I hoped we were done with the interior decorating stuff, and it seems that we are. But what do I get instead? Chapter after chapter of recipes!

OK, not exactly recipes, I suppose, though it gets pretty close to that sometimes. No, these are detailed instructions about how God wants his blood sacrifices prepared - 8 chapters worth! (Note that God is talking to Moses from the tabernacle now, since he's moved into his new home.)

I'm going to skim through this stuff very quickly, because it's mostly just repeating the same thing over and over again. But before I do, let me just re-post this paragraph from Paul Johnson's A History of Christianity (1976), which I first noted back in Part 17:
But the God of the Jews was still alive and roaring in his Temple, demanding blood... (N)othing could hide the essential business of the Temple, which was the ritual slaughter, consumption and combustion of sacrificial cattle on a gigantic scale. The place was as vast as a small city. There were literally thousands of priests, attendants, temple-soldiers and minions. To the unprepared visitor, the dignity and charity of Jewish diaspora life... was quite lost amid the smoke of the pyres, the bellows of terrified beasts, the sluices of blood, the abattoir stench, the unconcealed and unconcealable machinery of tribal religion inflated by modern wealth to an industrial scale. (p. 13-14)

That's what we're talking about here. This is where they got God's instructions for all that. And I have to wonder just how modern Christians rationalize this. After all, this isn't just the God of the Jews, but the Christian God, and the Muslim Allah, too. (And no, none of them do this stuff anymore.)

The Bible emphasizes over and over again how God demands blood sacrifices and how he relishes the sweet savor of burnt flesh. But I went to church for years as a kid, and I never noticed any of that stuff. So what happened?

Did God turn vegetarian, then? If so, why did he change his mind? Did he just lose his taste for blood? Or did he finally have his bloodlust sated, perhaps in the extravagant gore of sacrificing himself to himself to appease himself (the crucifixion)? Remember, this is supposed to be the same god. This is the Christian holy book I'm reading, after all.

And Christians always tell me that their god is eternal, unchanging, timeless. So this Old Testament god is still the god you worship today, then? Really?

Or is this part of the Bible just fiction? But if that's the case, what makes you think that any of it is real? And how do you determine which parts are real and which parts aren't? Do you have any evidence that some parts are real? Or do you just decide which parts you want to believe and which parts you don't?

None of this stuff has ever made sense to me, and the more I read, the less it does. But keep these questions in mind as we continue through this gore-splattered manual of blood sacrifice. (Again, I'll get through it as quickly as possible, just skimming the surface, but there's a lot of it.)
14 And if the burnt sacrifice for his offering to the LORD be of fowls, then he shall bring his offering of turtledoves, or of young pigeons.

15 And the priest shall bring it unto the altar, and wring off his head, and burn it on the altar; and the blood thereof shall be wrung out at the side of the altar:

16 And he shall pluck away his crop with his feathers, and cast it beside the altar on the east part, by the place of the ashes:

17 And he shall cleave it with the wings thereof, but shall not divide it asunder: and the priest shall burn it upon the altar, upon the wood that is upon the fire: it is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD.

When it's sheep, goats, or cattle, the sacrifices usually must be male and "without blemish." God isn't so picky when it comes to birds, though - or maybe it's just harder to tell the males from the females, in some cases.

Chapter 2:
1 And when any will offer a meat offering unto the LORD, his offering shall be of fine flour; and he shall pour oil upon it, and put frankincense thereon:

2 And he shall bring it to Aaron's sons the priests: and he shall take thereout his handful of the flour thereof, and of the oil thereof, with all the frankincense thereof; and the priest shall burn the memorial of it upon the altar, to be an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD:

3 And the remnant of the meat offering shall be Aaron's and his sons': it is a thing most holy of the offerings of the LORD made by fire.

I wasn't kidding about the recipes, or not entirely. Well, note that the priests will eat some of this. Not all of it gets sacrificed to the Lord. (Note that Aaron doesn't seem to have been demoted for his little faux pas of creating a new god, in the form of a golden calf, for the Israelites to worship instead of Yahweh.)

And although the vast majority of this is about the blood sacrifice of live animals, that's not entirely the case. Some offerings are "baken in the oven" or even fried up in a frying pan:
4 And if thou bring an oblation of a meat offering baken in the oven, it shall be unleavened cakes of fine flour mingled with oil, or unleavened wafers anointed with oil.

5 And if thy oblation be a meat offering baken in a pan, it shall be of fine flour unleavened, mingled with oil.

6 Thou shalt part it in pieces, and pour oil thereon: it is a meat offering.

7 And if thy oblation be a meat offering baken in the fryingpan, it shall be made of fine flour with oil.


10 And that which is left of the meat offering shall be Aaron's and his sons': it is a thing most holy of the offerings of the LORD made by fire.

One thing God can't abide, though, is yeast. As we've seen previously, he insists on unleavened bread. He doesn't like honey, either - at least, not in "any offering of the LORD made by fire." And although you can make an offering of fine fruit, that's not supposed to be burnt on the altar. (What they are supposed to do with it is left unsaid.)

Chapter 3:
1 And if his oblation be a sacrifice of peace offering, if he offer it of the herd; whether it be a male or female, he shall offer it without blemish before the LORD.

2 And he shall lay his hand upon the head of his offering, and kill it at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation: and Aaron's sons the priests shall sprinkle the blood upon the altar round about.

3 And he shall offer of the sacrifice of the peace offering an offering made by fire unto the LORD; the fat that covereth the inwards, and all the fat that is upon the inwards,

Most of this is specific instructions for sacrifices of various animals for various reasons, not just the required sacrifice I wrote about earlier of all firstborn male animals (and people, though you're supposed to substitute a lamb for your son - there are no instructions for human sacrifice here).

In this particular context, I really don't know what "peace offerings" are, but it's one of the few times you can actually sacrifice female animals. (They still must be "without blemish," of course.) The instructions are very similar, but we see separate verses for sacrificing lambs and for sacrificing goats.
16 And the priest shall burn them upon the altar: it is the food of the offering made by fire for a sweet savour: all the fat is the LORD'S.

17 It shall be a perpetual statute for your generations throughout all your dwellings, that ye eat neither fat nor blood.

In any case, though, the fat and the blood must be reserved for God. You can't eat any of that. It's a "perpetual statute for your generations" that you must eat neither fat nor blood.

Hmm,... my grandmother - oddly enough, a devout Catholic - used to finish up a rare steak, bacon, or any other meat by taking a piece of white bread and sopping up all the leftover fat and other juices on her plate, so she wouldn't miss a bit of it. (She lived to age 99, too.)

She also liked blood sausage (as I do). So I guess that statute wasn't so 'perpetual' after all, huh?

Chapter 4:
1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,


3 If the priest that is anointed do sin according to the sin of the people; then let him bring for his sin, which he hath sinned, a young bullock without blemish unto the LORD for a sin offering.

4 And he shall bring the bullock unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD; and shall lay his hand upon the bullock's head, and kill the bullock before the LORD.

5 And the priest that is anointed shall take of the bullock's blood, and bring it to the tabernacle of the congregation:

6 And the priest shall dip his finger in the blood, and sprinkle of the blood seven times before the LORD, before the vail of the sanctuary.

7 And the priest shall put some of the blood upon the horns of the altar of sweet incense before the LORD, which is in the tabernacle of the congregation; and shall pour all the blood of the bullock at the bottom of the altar of the burnt offering, which is at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.

The previous chapter was about "peace offerings," while this one is about "sin offerings" - specifically, when you sin through ignorance.

The first part of this seems to be referring to when a priest sins, but it's followed by the instructions for when anyone else sins, too. In both cases, they must sacrifice a steer (in very specific ways, of course).

Ironically, though, if a ruler sins, he only has to sacrifice a kid (a young goat) - a male or a female, depending on the circumstances - or a female lamb, depending on other circumstances. And all this is described, of course, in detail, repeated for each specific circumstance.

The killing, the blood, and the burning are all very, very similar, though.

Chapter 5:
1 And if a soul sin, and hear the voice of swearing, and is a witness, whether he hath seen or known of it; if he do not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity.

2 Or if a soul touch any unclean thing, whether it be a carcase of an unclean beast, or a carcase of unclean cattle, or the carcase of unclean creeping things, and if it be hidden from him; he also shall be unclean, and guilty.

3 Or if he touch the uncleanness of man, whatsoever uncleanness it be that a man shall be defiled withal, and it be hid from him; when he knoweth of it, then he shall be guilty.


6 And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the LORD for his sin which he hath sinned, a female from the flock, a lamb or a kid of the goats, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for him concerning his sin.

More about sin offerings. In most of these, you're guilty even if you don't know about it (which would seem to imply that you need to make sin offerings even if you don't think that you've actually done anything wrong).

In this case, though, if you can't afford a lamb, two turtledoves or young pigeons will do. (The details about how you sacrifice these various animals seem to be very similar - if not identical - to what we've already read over and over again.)
14 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

15 If a soul commit a trespass, and sin through ignorance, in the holy things of the LORD; then he shall bring for his trespass unto the LORD a ram without blemish out of the flocks, with thy estimation by shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary, for a trespass offering:

So how does a "trespass offering" differ from a "sin offering," except for requiring a ram as sacrifice? In both cases, these are clearly explained as being sins through ignorance.

Chapter 6:
1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

2 If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the LORD, and lie unto his neighbour in that which was delivered him to keep, or in fellowship, or in a thing taken away by violence, or hath deceived his neighbour;

3 Or have found that which was lost, and lieth concerning it, and sweareth falsely; in any of all these that a man doeth, sinning therein:

4 Then it shall be, because he hath sinned, and is guilty, that he shall restore that which he took violently away, or the thing which he hath deceitfully gotten, or that which was delivered him to keep, or the lost thing which he found,

5 Or all that about which he hath sworn falsely; he shall even restore it in the principal, and shall add the fifth part more thereto, and give it unto him to whom it appertaineth, in the day of his trespass offering.

6 And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the LORD, a ram without blemish out of the flock, with thy estimation, for a trespass offering, unto the priest:

These, on the other hand, are deliberate sins - or crimes, as we'd consider them. You still have to make the same "trespass offering" to the Lord, but you also must make amends to the people you've sinned against. (Still, it's hardly "get tough on crime," is it? You just have to give back whatever you "took violently away"?)
8 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

9 Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the burnt offering: It is the burnt offering, because of the burning upon the altar all night unto the morning, and the fire of the altar shall be burning in it.


16 And the remainder thereof shall Aaron and his sons eat: with unleavened bread shall it be eaten in the holy place; in the court of the tabernacle of the congregation they shall eat it.


18 All the males among the children of Aaron shall eat of it. It shall be a statute for ever in your generations concerning the offerings of the LORD made by fire: every one that toucheth them shall be holy.

Again, Aaron doesn't seem to have suffered any downside from that whole creating-a-new-god-to-worship thing. Indeed, he and his male ancestors - only the males, of course (did you really expect any differently?) - will eat very well from the leftovers of all the blood sacrifices they perform.

Remember, these are holy, so we certainly can't have any women touching them!

The chapter concludes with instructions about what sacrifices the priests are allowed to eat - indeed, commanded to eat - and what they aren't.

Chapter 7:
1 Likewise this is the law of the trespass offering: it is most holy.

2 In the place where they kill the burnt offering shall they kill the trespass offering: and the blood thereof shall he sprinkle round about upon the altar.

3 And he shall offer of it all the fat thereof; the rump, and the fat that covereth the inwards,

More of the same.

Really, I'm struggling to even stay awake, at this point. And what can I say that's different in this chapter? That one priest gets "the skin of the burnt offering" for himself? That they can eat some stuff only on the day it is offered, but others for two days (however, on no account for three, because that's an "abomination")?

There's a lot of talk about unclean things here - and even "abominable unclean things," which are different, apparently - and unclean beasts, and "the uncleanliness of man," but no information about what those things actually are. I suppose that comes up later, but it seems odd, given the excruciating detail here about blood sacrifices.

The chapter concludes with:
38 Which the LORD commanded Moses in mount Sinai, in the day that he commanded the children of Israel to offer their oblations unto the LORD, in the wilderness of Sinai.

I'm not sure if this means the first time Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mt. Sinai, or the second time. Either way, it indicates a brief flashback, I guess.

However, note that this directly contradicts the very first verse in Leviticus, which clearly indicates that God is talking to Moses from the tabernacle which they had just built for him, in accordance with those instructions on Mt. Sinai, at the very end of Exodus.

You can't have it both ways. Either God is telling these things to Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai, when he also got the instructions for building the tabernacle, or he's speaking from the tabernacle after they built it. This is a clear contradiction.

Chapter 8:
1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

2 Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and a bullock for the sin offering, and two rams, and a basket of unleavened bread;

3 And gather thou all the congregation together unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.

Here, again, we're back after the tabernacle has been built, not when Moses got the commandments on Mt. Sinai. We also see, again, that Aaron is still head priest.

Really, if even creating a new god out of gold and leading the congregation in worshiping it (dancing and singing around it, naked), instead of the real god, isn't a disqualification to be head priest, what would be?
8 And he put the breastplate upon him: also he put in the breastplate the Urim and the Thummim.

I should have mentioned this before, but the Urim and Thummim are like flipping a coin to make a decision (only when you think that God is influencing the coin toss, of course). They're something every priest needs to have in his pocket.
13 And Moses brought Aaron's sons, and put coats upon them, and girded them with girdles, and put bonnets upon them; as the LORD commanded Moses.

14 And he brought the bullock for the sin offering: and Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the head of the bullock for the sin offering.

15 And he slew it; and Moses took the blood, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about with his finger, and purified the altar, and poured the blood at the bottom of the altar, and sanctified it, to make reconciliation upon it.

The rest of this chapter - and, really, the next couple of chapters, too - is just Moses following through with the instructions we've been reading. Here, he garbs the priests (Aaron and his sons), pours the anointing oil over their heads, and sacrifices a steer and a ram (two rams?) - pouring the blood all around, then cutting up and burning both animals exactly as God has commanded.

Had enough yet? I certainly have! My apologies, but I didn't write this stuff. I'm only commenting on it.

I think this is a good place to stop, for now. There's more blood sacrifice coming up, but the instructions are over, I think. Now it's time for the Israelites to follow orders - or try, at least. But we'll get to that next time.

Note: This entire series of Bible commentary is available here.