Thursday, October 16, 2014

Updated Blogroll

Blogroll may be an outdated term by this point, but I'm keeping mine just for the hell of it. Looking over mine, I noticed that a lot of the blogs/websites that I read have moved to new locations, some of them I've quit following regularly, some of the inactive blogs have gone completely defunct, and some of my current favorites aren't on there. So, it's time to fix that. Of course, I've updated the blogroll in the right-hand column of the blogs main page. Below is a summary, along with a description of each site. If you're not familiar with these sites, go check them out.


  • Bad Astronomy Blog - Phil Plait's site dedicated mostly to astronomy, but with a dash of general skepticism and science, including global warming and the anti-vax movement
  • The Digital Cuttlefish - A skeptic & atheist who puts almost all of his/her posts (I think his) into verse
  • Dinosaur Dracula - An entertaining blend of nostalgia, candy, toys, and Halloween
  • IFL Science - I Fucking Love Science, with a focus on, obviously, science, kind of aggregating and offering commentary on science headlines
  • Mark Witton's Blog (Paleoart) _ Mark Witton's blog with a heavy focus on paleoart and pterosaurs, but also general commentary on paleontology (he does have a PhD after all)
  • The Panda's Thumb - A group blog dedicated to the science side of the evolution/creation culture war, especially on keeping sound science education
  • Pharyngula - A blog on evolution, atheism, liberalism, & politics (not for the faint of heart or easily offended)
  • Phenomena - Nat Geo Science Salon - National Geographic's blog collective, focusing mostly on biology and evolution
  • Sandwich Monday - Reviews of different sandwiches every Monday (my favorite was 'The Hypocrite' - a bacon cheese veggie burger)
  • Wait But Why - A little hard to explain, but entertaining essays on a variety of topics on a weekly basis, with crude to informative graphics
  • What If? - The XKCD guy (Randall Munroe) gives entertaining but realistic answers to strange questions
  • Why Evolution Is True - Jerry Coyne's excellent website on evolution and atheism

Inactive / Marginally Active:

  • The Ant Hunter - Scott only seems to post an entry every year or so, but they're still worth the read
  • New Minority - Eric's not been very active, either, but what he has is still good
  • Confessions of an Anonymous Coward - An ex-mormon turned atheist - no longer active at all, but very interesting for the archives


  • TerrapinTables - Defunct entirely, but this used to be for my college buddies
  • Greg Richter's Idea Dumpster - Greg seems to post occasionally, but I just basically quit going back to check
  • Pooflingers Anonymous - Defunct entirely, but used to focus on atheism and evolution
  • Sandwalk - A good blog on evolution and science, but I just quit going back to check on it regularly
  • Respectful Insolence - A very good blog on applying skepticism to medicine - I still read it occasionally, but not regularly

Not Exactly Removed, but Replaced with a Blog Network:

  • The Loom - Carl Zimmer's blog is now on Nat Geo's Phenomena (BTW, Zimmer is my favorite science writer)
  • Dinosaur Tracking Blog - Dinosaur Tracking Blog went defunct, but another of Brian Switek's blogs, Laelaps, is now also a part of Nat Geo's Phenomena

And these are a little too frivolous to go into the blogroll, but here are the webcomics I keep up with:


Monday, October 13, 2014

Happy Exploration Day 2014

This is a verbatim reprint of last year's entry, but it's still all relevant. I guess I'll add here that if you don't like the idea of Exploration Day or Bartolomé Day, you can always call today Indigenous People's Day. Just whatever you do, don't celebrate that horrible excuse for a human being, Christopher Columbus.

Moon PrintToday is traditionally celebrated as Columbus Day, but Columbus really was a horrible excuse for a human being. It's not just the myth about him proving the world was round, or lucking into finding a continent that nobody knew existed, but his horrible, horrible treatment of the natives and even the Spaniards in the first Spanish colony in the Americas.

The Oatmeal has a new webcomic explaining just how bad of a person Columbus was, in more detail than I've done and in a more entertaining way than I could do. I highly recommend going to read it:

The Oatmeal - Christopher Columbus was awful (but this other guy was not) Modified Portion of The Oatmeal's Christopher Columbus Comic

While the Oatmeal proposes changing the holiday to Bartolome Day, I prefer a proposal I read before, changing it to Exploration Day. I could simply link to that old entry, but if you're here already reading this, I'll save you the click. Below is an excerpt of the main portion of that old entry, Happy Exploration Day:

I've written briefly about Columbus a couple times before, Debunking a Columbus Myth and Columbus Day. There are a lot of misconceptions about Columbus and his role in history - misconceptions that are still being taught to my middle school daughter, by the way. In reality, he was a bit of a crank. The concept of the Earth being a globe had been known for thousands of years prior to Columbus. In fact, Eratosthenes had calculated the size of the earth to a very accurate degree back around 240 BC (or BCE). Why Columbus had such a hard time securing funding for his trip was that he was so far off in his estimate of the size of the Earth - 15,700 miles in circumference vs the true 25,000 miles. Educated people knew that in theory, you'd eventually end up in Asia by sailing west, but they didn't think any of the ships of the time would allow someone to carry enough supplies to complete the journey. And they were right. Had there not been two unknown continents, Columbus and his men would have starved to death. And Columbus never did figure out that he'd discovered a new continent. He went to his dying day thinking he'd found islands off the coast of Asia.

And if his technical incompetence weren't enough, Columbus was a pretty ruthless governor. To quote an article from The Guardian:

As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on the first Spanish colony in the Americas, in what is now the Caribbean country of Dominican Republic. Punishments included cutting off people's ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets and selling them into slavery.

His actions were so bad that he was arrested and taken back to Spain in shackles. He later received a pardon from the crown, but only after a new governor was put in charge of the colony.

Granted, Columbus was important historically. His unintended discovery of the New World set off a wave of European exploration that changed the course of history. But why do we have a holiday celebrating this tyrant who only lucked his way into the history books instead of starving at sea?

If what we truly want to celebrate on this day is the spirit of exploration, then why not just come out and make that the focus of the holiday? Make a day that honors those like Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Lindbergh, Armstrong and Aldrin, the Wrights, Amundsen, Hillary, Cousteau, the engineers behind the Mars rover. Make a day that honors all those that push the frontiers of our knowledge.

More Info:

I'll note that after I shared some of that information with my wife and daughter, we began using 'Christopher Columbus' as a profanity in place of a certain orifice that everybody has. e.g. Bill O'Reilly can be a bit of a Christopher Columbus when he starts yelling at his guests. I think that's the most appropriate way to remember his legacy.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday Bible Blogging - Psalms 141 to Psalms 150

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleFinally. I'm done with the book of Psalms. This week's entry covers the last ten psalms of the book - 141 through 150.

Psalms, Chapter 141

As I mentioned last week, this is part of a short collection of psalms attributed to David, which began with Psalm 138 and runs through Psalm 145. This particular one is a petition to God to keep the petitioner away from wicked ways.

One thing I've been noticing more (not that it wasn't there in previous books and psalms, just that I'm now noticing it more) is the selfishness of many of these passages. There's little regard for having others turn away from wicked ways and becoming good people or being redeemed. Instead, the writers only ask for punishment for them. Just consider this passage:

Like a rock that one breaks apart and shatters on the land,
   so shall their bones be strewn at the mouth of Sheol.

and especially this one:

Let the wicked fall into their own nets,
   while I alone escape.

Psalms, Chapter 142

Psalm 142 is "A Maskil of David. When he was in the cave." This is fairly typical of this type of Psalm, looking to God for strength and deliverance from enemies.

Psalms, Chapter 143

This is another psalm asking for the Lord to deliver the psalmist from his enemies. There were a few references to Sheol reminding us how different the ancient Hebrew conception of the afterlife was to the modern Christian view. There was also a brief mention of how worthless people are, which definitely is in line with the modern Christian view ("Do not enter into judgement with your servant, / for no one living is righteous before you.") But the most absurd passage came at the very end.

In your steadfast love cut off my enemies,
   and destroy all my adversaries,
   for I am your servant.

Yes, with your 'steadfast love', destroy people. I know, it's steadfast love for the psalmist, not humanity, but it still struck me as a rather odd thing to say. It just gets back to that selfishness I mentioned up above.

Psalms, Chapter 144

Psalm 144 starts off with military language, and one particularly unpleasant image ("my shield, in whom I take refuge, / who subdues the peoples under me"), before moving on to language now familiar by the end of this book characterizing Yahweh as a storm god ("Make the lightning flash and scatter them), then moving on to general praise, before finishing up with a petition for general blessings. Reading the footnotes in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB), it appears that this psalm quotes pretty heavily from other psalms and even other books of the Bible.

Psalms, Chapter 145

This is the last of the psalms attributed to David, and is basically one long poem praising God. According to the NOAB, this is another acrostic psalm (where the start of each line follows the Hebrew alphabet), but the 14th letter is missing.

Psalms, Chapter 146

These final five psalms form, to quote the NOAB, "the concluding doxology to the entire book of Psalms." Again relying on the NOAB, since I don't have access to nor could I read the ancient manuscripts, each of the psalms begins and ends with "Hallelujah", which is traditionally translated, as it was in the NRSV, as "Praise the Lord". And since I'm on a roll in referencing the NOAB, their heading to this psalm is "Praise of the Lord, savior of the downtrodden," which is a pretty good summary of the content of this psalm. In fact, this passage sounds remarkably like something you'd expect to hear attributed to Jesus.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
   the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
   the Lord loves the righteous.

Psalms, Chapter 147

This psalm continues on with the praise for God and listing the reasons for that praise. It's divided into three sections, with the first focusing on Jerusalem, the second on fertility of fields and livestock, and the third on God's "word" as a blessing to Israel, reinforcing their status as God's chosen people.

He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
   they do not know his ordinances.

There was one passage that caught my eye for the weird imagery it invoked.

He hurls down hail like crumbs--
   who can stand before his cold?

Psalms, Chapter 148

Psalm 148 extols all of creation to "Praise the Lord!", listing practically every aspect of creation. Verses 3 and 4 stuck out to me for the cosmology they implied.

Praise him, sun and moon;
   praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
   and you waters above the heavens!

I guess it's no surprise given the accepted cosmology of the time, but this passage just seems to take for granted the idea of a rigid firmament, with celestial bodies being in the firmament, and there being a literal body of water above that firmament. Further, the NOAB notes that the verse about the sun, moon, and stars "may recall other ancient cultures, in which astral bodies were deities."

Psalms, Chapter 149

Whereas the previous psalm extolled all of creation to praise the Lord, this one was directed at the people of Israel. The end, though, is rather disturbing.

Let the high praises of God be in their throats
   and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations
   and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters
   and their nobles with chains of iron,
to execute on them the judgement decreed.
   This is glory for all his faithful ones.

Psalms, Chapter 150

This is it - the last psalm in the whole book. The NOAB rightly refers to it as a "final outburst of praise". Every line in this psalm except one begins with the verb, 'Praise', and the lone exception still includes it in the middle of the line, "Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!" And the very final line is a fitting, "Praise the Lord!"


I'm very glad to be done with this book. It started off okay, and there are some very good parts (Psalm 23 was my favorite), but it's just so much of the same chapter after chapter after chapter. It might not have been so bad just reading a few isolated psalms, but reading the book from start to finish got very repetitive. It didn't help that some of the psalms were nearly verbatim copies of previous psalms or other sections of the Bible (e.g. Psalm 18 and Psalm 70).

This book was full of little reminders that Judaism had evolved from prior religions and traditions, such as the multiple references to other gods and sections where Yahweh was himself described as a storm god, as well as contradictions with other books of the Bible on stories like the creation or the Exodus. There were also numerous reminders that the book of Psalms itself was a collection of several previous collections, such as the repeated chapters I mentioned above. This last point isn't really anything against the book itself, but does speak against some modern literalist interpretations.

Thinking about it, I guess the book of Psalms is almost like a hymnal - a good collection of worthwhile songs, but not the type of thing that's intended to be read straight through.

With this book behind me, next week will be on to a new book, Proverbs.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Friday Bible Blogging - Psalms 131 to Psalms 140

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleThis week's entry covers Psalms are 131 through 140. It finishes up the Songs of Ascents, and begins a short collection of psalms attributed to David. There are a few passages in this week's entry that are pretty familiar.

Psalms, Chapter 131

Psalm 31 is rather short, about taking comfort in the Lord.

Psalms, Chapter 132

This is one of the longest Songs of Ascents, and deals with David, the Ark, and Jerusalem. As the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) points out, verses 11 through 14 are a paraphrase of 1 Samuel 7:5-17. But where the promise here is conditional on David's descendants keeping the covenant, no such condition was stated in Samuel. You get the feeling comparing sections like these that the earlier passage was written in Jerusalem's hey day, when the peole thought it was going to go on forever, and that the later passage was written as a rationalization after the fall of Jerusalem.

Psalms, Chapter 133

This is another Song of Ascent, and back to their usual brevity. The first line is actually very nice, "How very good and pleasant it is / when kindred live together in unity!"

The next verse gives imagery that's a bit odd, though apparently just describing an ordination ceremony.

It is like the precious oil on the head,
   running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
   running down over the collar of his robes.

Ordination ceremony or not, that's still an unpleasant image.

The final vrese referenced "the dew of Hermon", which according to the NOAB was very important to the Israelites' agriculture.

Psalms, Chapter 134

Psalm 134 is the last of the Songs of Ascents, ending the collection with a short blessing.

Psalms, Chapter 135

Psalm 135 got back to a little bit longer length for a Psalm, now that the Songs of Ascents are done with. It was mostly praising God, but with some of the examples not seeming so praiseworthy depending on your point of view - killing all the "firstborn of Egypt, / both human beings and animals" (what'd the poor puppies do to God?), striking down "many nations", killing "many kings", etc. There were also some references to creation, including a mention of "storehouses" for the wind, reminding me of Job, and criticizing other gods as being mere idols. According to the NOAB, "These borrowings, late linguistic features, and the attack on images (vv. 15-18) were characteristic of postexilic times when the concept of authoritative scripture was developing." Also according to the NOAB, this psalm forms a pair with the next one.

Psalms, Chapter 136

This psalm covered similar themes to the preceding one, including the Passover and the Exodus. Interestingly, this psalm included the response, "for his steadfast love endures for ever", after every single verse. Having grown up in a Catholic church with lots of examples where the priest or a minister would lead the congregation in a similar manner, I could almost hear this psalm in my head being spoken aloud in a group.

Psalms, Chapter 137

This is a particularly bitter psalm, with the psalmist upset over the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. The first two thirds of the psalm were about the shame and embarrassment of Jerusalem having fallen (using good imagery of their captors taunting them to sing their previous victory songs). The final third was asking God for vengeance on the Babylonians. The final verse is especially gruesome, and one you'll see brought out often as an example of how bad the Bible can be.

Happy shall they be who take your little ones
   and dash them against the rock!

This was another of the rare times that the NOAB practiced apologetics, reminding readers that it is "the cry of one singer".

Psalms, Chapter 138

This is another of the many psalms attributed to David. In fact, this begins a short collection of such Psalms, running through Psalm 145. This one is part thanksgiving and part praise. The final few verses reminded me a bit of Psalm 23, though not nearly of the same quality as that previous psalm.

Psalms, Chapter 139

The opening of this psalm feels rather constricting - with God's omnipotence and omniscience, there's nowhere you can go to get away. Just consider the word choice in this verse.

You hem me in, behind and before,
   and lay your hand upon me.

And this passage seemed especially desperate to me.

Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast.

The psalmist however then transitioned to accepting God, and seeing the divine presence as a net positive, for all the protection and positive aspects that go along with it. I have to say, though, that after I'd already become an atheist (not as a reason for it), I had a thought exercise that agreed almost exactly with the sentiment in the beginning of the psalm. It's not very comforting to think that you have no privacy, at all, ever, even in your most intimate moments with loved ones.

There were also a couple passages notable for being used extensively in modern day religious discussions. One of these is, "I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." I see this quite often in creationist circles (example).

And the larger passage that that verse came from is all about God creating the person, "you knit me together in my mother's womb." This larger passage is used very often by the anti-choice crowd, as a type of evidence that humans have souls from the moment God begins forming them in the womb.

Psalms, Chapter 140

This is a fairly typical petition, asking God to punish the psalmist's enemies.


So, this week's entry was more of the same, but at least a few of the passages were more familiar. And on the big plus side - I only have one week left to go before I'm done with this book.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Website Update - Chile Relleno Recipe

I've added a new recipe to my How To page, Chiles Rellenos. It's a recipe from one of my sisters-in-law. Even though it's an easy recipe, it is time consuming. Plan on a solid 3 hours from start to finish if you plan to try making them. They're really very good, though, and worth the effort.

Chile Relleno

Image Credit: Me

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for September 2014

Top 10 ListAnother month come and gone, and time once again to review the server logs for the site's activity. The list is actually very similar to last month. I'm not sure exactly what's going on with why some of these pages are popular right now. I suspect it might have to do with spammers, but I'll stay optimistic and assume it's mostly real live people reading the entries. A new page made the list for the first time, Where's My Flying Car?. It is related to an entry that just made the list for the first time last month, When Will There Be an Aircraft in Every Garage?, so maybe there is a real link in some discussion forum sending people here.

Overall traffic is up just a bit from last month, but almost the same.

Top 10 for September 2014

  1. Where's My Flying Car?
  2. Debunking a Columbus Myth
  3. Aviation Books
  4. When Will There Be an Aircraft in Every Garage?
  5. More on Origin of Species
  6. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  7. Review of the Lucy's Legacy Exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
  8. Obamacare Lives (A Discussion of the Individual Mandate)
  9. A Skeptical Look at Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement Therapy
  10. Email Debunking - Tips on Pumping Gas

Friday, September 26, 2014

Friday Bible Blogging - Psalms 121 to Psalms 130

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleThis week's entry continues on in the Songs of Ascent collection with Psalms 121 through 130. They're all relatively short, but a few highlight some of the negative aspects of the Bible.

Psalms, Chapter 121

This psalm mainly focuses on God protecting the psalmist. According to the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB), this might have been a call and response, where a pilgrim posed the question in verse 1, answered himself in verse 2, and then received further response from the priest for the remainder of the psalm.

Psalms, Chapter 122

This psalm, supposedly 'Of David', focuses on Jerusalem. This seems appropriate if these Songs of Ascent were for pilgrims to Jerusalem.

The NOAB pointed out an alliteration in the original Hebrew that I never would have known about reading the English translation. Where verse 6 says, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem", the original Hebrew says, "sha'alu shalom yerushalaim".

Psalms, Chapter 123

This is a short psalm praising God and asking for mercy. The NOAB pointed out an interesting tidbit that I'd glossed over on my own, that this Psalm actually compares god to a female, which is pretty rare in the Bible.

as the eyes of a maid
   to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
   until he has mercy upon us.

Psalms, Chapter 124

Psalm 124 is one of thanksgiving, that the people wouldn't have survived had it not been for God.

Psalms, Chapter 125

This is a psalm discussing the righteous and the wicked, comparing the righteous to Mount Zion "which cannot be moved, but abides for ever."

Psalms, Chapter 126

This psalm starts off by recalling how the Lord had blessed Israel during the return from the Babylonian exile, but then goes on to ask God to "Restore our fortunes". As the NOAB puts it, "The book of Ezra suggests that in fact few returned from Babylon, the return was a disappointment, and the hyperbolic prophecies of Isa 40-55 were not fulfilled." Reading the chapter with that understanding, it's actually a bit sad - here's this group of people who trusted completely in this prophecy, and now they're left wondering why it hasn't been fulfilled.

Psalms, Chapter 127

The first verse of the psalm points out the futility of human endeavors unless the Lord is a part of it - not exactly a ringing endorsement of humanity, but not really out of line for what you'd expect from someone who believes in God.

The second verse can actually be taken as a pretty good message, for people who were burning the candle from both ends even back then.

It is in vain that you rise up early
   and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
   for he gives sleep to his beloved.

But the second half of the psalm is the part that really stood out to me. Here, I'll just quote it in full.

Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
   the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
   are the sons of one's youth.
Happy is the man who has
   his quiver full of them.
He shall not be put to shame
   when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

This short section epitomizes several of the issues I have with the Bible. First, notice the word choice on what constitutes a blessing - 'sons'. It could have been children, but in the sexist culture that gave rise to the Bible, daughters weren't the same type of blessing as sons. Notice also the violent imagery of the passage, with a 'warrior' and 'arrows'. Psalms hasn't been nearly as bad as some of the previous books I read, but many parts of the Bible seem to glorify violence.

And finally, notice the emphasis put on having many children. Granted, at the time this psalm was written, that would have been fine. So long as a person could support all of their children and give them the attention they deserve, there was no reason not to have many. But in the modern day, the human population is just too big, and we know all the ways we're stressing the environment. Having many, many children and adding to that stress is irresponsible. One passage in particular jumped out at me, "his quiver full of them". I checked on Wikipedia, and this is indeed the inspiration for the title of the Quiverfull Movement. In case you've never heard the term, this is a modern evangelical practice with a whole host of practices. It's not just about impregnating your wife as many times as possible, it's also strict gender roles with the husband as the head of the household, often with homeschooling to keep kids away from bad secular influences, women dressing modestly so as not to tempt the men (long dresses, head coverings), etc. If you want to learn more, Vyckie Garrison has a blog, No Longer Quivering, to, according to the blog, "tell the story of her 'escape' from the Quiverfull movement." She has a section on her site, What Is Quiverfull?, as a Q&A to explain the movement. Here's how she closed that entry:

Generally the longer a Christian family is involved in the home school community, the more deeply they become involved in this "family values" lifestyle ~ it is a process which transforms a "normal" family into a patriarchal cult completely at odds with the general population. In fact, the more "peculiar" (set apart) the family becomes, the more they consider themselves "true believers" following "the narrow way" as opposed to their neighbors who are on the "broad path which leads to destruction."

I noticed that even the NOAB practiced a bit of apologetics in their footnotes on this section, which is rather unusual for them, when they said "It is a declaration that one of God's greatest blessings is children (in that culture, sons)..." It's almost like they're trying to slip it past you by putting it in a parenthetical note that the author of this psalm really was talking about sons specifically, not children in general.

Anyway, sorry for the digression, but this movement really does bother me.

Psalms, Chapter 128

This is another psalm praising God and promising how you'll be rewarded if you 'fear the Lord'. But if you just read between the lines, it's another example of the sexism of the Bible.

Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
   within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
   around your table.
Thus shall the man be blessed
   who fears the Lord.

It's specifically 'the man' who will be blessed. And the nature of the blessings makes it seem like his wife and children belong to him, almost like property.

Psalms, Chapter 129

This is a request for the Lord to punish the psalmist's enemies, who have "attacked me from my youth".

Psalms, Chapter 130

This psalm asks for redemption. It makes the point of saying how unworthy people are, but that God is forgiving.


Like I said in the introduction, a few of those psalms really do highlight some of the negative aspects of the Bible. Oh well, that's one more week closer to being done with this book. To continue with the countdown that's become standard by this point - I only have two more weeks of Psalms left to go.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Does Religion Really Answer the Tough Questions?

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismA recent post by Jerry Coyne, Accommodatheism #2: More gratuitous atheist-bashing in an mainstream article on the Creation Museum, called attention to a magazine article, that while good overall, had a kind of jarring passage in the center that was only tangentially related to the rest of the article. As Coyne puts it, it was "a superfluous insertion in an otherwise good piece, a gratuitous solipsism meant only to establish the author's status as 'not one of those damn atheists.' "

The article in question is Were There Dinosaurs on Noah's Ark?, by Jeffrey Goldberg. It is a fairly good critique of Ken Ham's Creation Museum in Kentucky, and the world-view that guides Answers in Genesis and similar evangelical Christians. However, there was one passage that just didn't belong, quoted below.

My sympathies, by the way, do not lie entirely where you might think. I find atheism dismaying, for Updikean reasons ("Where was the ingenuity, the ambiguity ... of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we're dead we're dead?"), and because, in the words of a former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, it is religion, not science, that "answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?" Like Ken Ham, I am appalled by the idea, as expressed by Richard Dawkins, that "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

It's not just Goldberg who says or writes things like this. I hear sentiments like this all the time, so I think it's worth a substantive response. There are so many objectionable aspects worked into that short paragraph. I'll just work through them sequentially.

I find atheism dismaying, for Updikean reasons ("Where was the ingenuity, the ambiguity ... of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we're dead we're dead?")...

Reality doesn't care one lick whether you're dismayed or not. Reality doesn't care, period. Reality is what it is. This objection about atheism being 'dismaying' is merely an argument from consequences. I've used this example before, but I certainly find the Holocaust 'dismaying', to say the least, but I don't doubt that it occurred because of that. As a mature adult, you just have to face up to reality, no matter what the consequences.

Let me parse this statement a little further - "the universe just happened to happen". First of all, no one's really yet sure where the universe came from. Evidence so far points to the Big Bang, but anything before that, if there even was anything, is still conjecture. So, no one can even say "the universe just happened to happen", since no one's really sure where the universe came from in the first place. But the bigger question I think Goldberg is getting at is why there's something rather than nothing, because even if we were to discover what caused the Big Bang, the question would just shift to where that cause came from. But in this sense, how does religion add anything? It's just postulating one possible cause. Even if it were true that Yahweh created the entire universe ex nihlo, the question then shifts to what created Yahweh. And if the religionist's answer is 'Yahweh just happened to happen', then how is that any more satisfying than Goldberg's objection to atheism?

On to the next part of that statement - "when we're dead we're dead". I've actually given this a lot of thought (usually when I'm occupied with mindless chores like raking leaves). If consciousness is an emergent property of matter, as seems to be the most likely scenario, it's still the case that no one really understands how it all comes about. What if you were to take a person's brain, throw it into a blender, use a Star Trek replicator to reconstruct all that raw material into an exact copy of what the brain was like previously, stick it back into the person's skull, and revive them? Would the experience of sensation be the same as before? Would it be a different sense of self, but acting just like the original person? Does it depend on getting the duplication exactly the same as before atom for atom, or does it only matter if the same elements get put in the same places (carbon atom here, oxygen atom here, etc.)? What if you reconstruct the brain differently to match somebody else's brain? Is it the same sensation of experience but with a different personality and memories? Of course, this thought experiment is a little unrealistic in that there's no technology to scan or reconstruct a brain in that level of detail, nor revive a person after such a procedure, but moving on to something real, what happens after a person dies and decomposes, and those atoms in their brain get incorporated into the brains of new organisms? Is this in any way a continuation of the previous consciousness, even though the personality and memories would be entirely different? (BTW, I've coined this concept as 'materialistic reincarnation' in my own head. I'd be interested if anyone knows of a better term or of people who have already gone down this thought path.) Just because most atheists don't believe in souls doesn't mean we don't give any thought to questions like this.

in the words of a former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, it is religion, not science, that "answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?"

This is a false dichotomy. Even if science can't answer those questions subjectively like Goldberg and many others might like (and it can't since science deals in the objective), why should we automatically assume that religion can answer them adequately?

For one thing, there are many mutually contradictory religions, with their own unique answers to these questions. Since at least some of those religions must necessarily be mistaken, then their answers to Sacks' big three questions could also be mistaken. It does no good to try to answer questions like this when your starting from a false foundation. If Yahweh is only a myth, why worry about his dictates any more than those of Zeus?

But even if any religion were true, it's a stretch to think that they would provide meaningful answers to these questions. As I pointed out above, even if Yahweh created the universe, you're left with the problem of where Yahweh came from in the first place, or why he has the characteristics he has. And if you can't answer that, how can you invoke Yahweh to give more than a superficial answer to the question of 'Why am I here?'

There's a very old philosophical point that illustrates the problem with this, the Euthypro Dilemma. It was posed by Plato in Classical Greece, back in the first century BCE, "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" This is usually brought up in relation to morality, and illustrates the inadequacy of ideas such as Divine Command Theory. Following a god's commands is merely obedience, not true morality. Even if a god was real, that only tells you how to act to avoid the god's judgement, not how to be moral.

Like I said up above, limiting your choices to science and religion in this discussion is a false dichotomy. There's another human endeavor with contributions to the topic - philosophy. Try reading about secular humanism for a way to live ethically and morally without relying on religion.

...I am appalled by the idea, as expressed by Richard Dawkins, that "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

Similar to the first statement I critiqued, this is another argument from consequences. Being appalled by an indifferent universe doesn't mean the universe will suddenly start caring about you.

Conversely, now that I've become an atheist, I find this view of the universe more appealing than a theistic view (not that this is a reason to be an atheist, or else I'd be just as guilty of arguing from consequences). If you consider the problem of evil, and all the bad things that happen to good people, it makes you wonder about the nature of any supposed god. I mean, just look at the Ebola outbreak going on right now, and all the suffering it's causing. Understanding that it's a random occurence, and that the people being afflicted are just victims of bad luck, is much easier to take than thinking that some god is letting it all happen, or worse, causing it, and choosing which particular people are in for the worst suffering. And if you consider the Bible to be an accurate portrayal of Yahweh, with both the Old Testament atrocities and the New Testament invention of Hell, then a universe of 'pitiless indifference' is much more comforting than one being ruled by such a petty, vindictive, capricious and cruel being with limitless power.


Overall, Goldberg's article was good. But that one particular paragraph was horrible. It was basically one big argument from consequences, but without really thinking through the consequences as applied to religion. There are tough philosophical questions that we all try to deal with, but there's no reason to assume that religion can answer them.

More Info:

I've dealt with many of these issues previously, so if you're interested, you can read more of my thoughts through the links below. Yes, some of what I wrote here is similar to what I've written in the past, but I just couldn't help myself.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday Bible Blogging - Psalms 111 to Psalms 120

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleThis week's entry covers Psalms 111 through 120. It's a bit of a milestone - Psalm 117 is the midway point of the Protestant Bible, going by chapter count. There are a few ways to determine the center of the Bible, and even a bit of controversy associated with it, so I posted a bonus entry earlier in the week all about it, Friday Bible Blogging - Center Verse of the Bible. Like I wrote at the end of that entry, since I plan to read the Apocrypha in addition to the content normally included in Protestant Bibles, I'm still not halfway through with this project, yet (that won't be until Isaiah).

Other than being the sort of midway point, other highlights this week include both the shortest and longest chapters of the Bible, and chapters with language that most Christians should recognize.

According to the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB), some of these psalms get grouped together. Psalms 111-113 make up the Hallelujah psalms, and Psalms 113-118 make up the Egyptian Hallel Psalms (I guess 113 goes in both collections).

Psalms, Chapter 111

Psalm 111 was a typical psalm of thanksgiving. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) pointed out that it was an acrostic poem - one where the first letter of each line has to follow a specific pattern. Although the NOAB doesn't indicate it exactly, and I don't have access to nor the ability to read the original Hebrew, I'm assuming the pattern here was following the alphabet, since that's the pattern other acrostic psalms followed. The NOAB also notes that "Many scholars think that Pss 113-114 were sung before the Passover meal and Pss 115-118 after it."

Psalms, Chapter 112

Another fairly typical psalm, instructing people to behave morally, and that they'll be rewarded accordingly. And according to the NOAB, this is another acrostic poem.

Psalms, Chapter 113

Another psalm of praise.

Psalms, Chapter 114

Another psalm praising God, with references to Exodus and Jacob.

Psalms, Chapter 115

This is another typical psalm - part praise, part thanksgiving, part petition, and part instruction to the people.

Verses 3 and 4 offered a pretty stark contrast between Yahweh and other gods.

3 Our God is in the heavens;
   he does whatever he pleases.
Their idols are silver and gold,
   the work of human hands.

The next few verses went on to describe other gods as merely idols, and not real gods. Of course, I'm pretty sure that the surrounding cultures didn't see their statues that way.

There was also a verse similar to ones I've mentioned before, showing that the psalmist's concept of the afterlife was very much different than the modern Christian concept.

The dead do not praise the Lord,
   nor do any that go down into silence.

Psalms, Chapter 116

This was a psalm of thanksgiving, where the psalmist was saved from vaguely described distress by the Lord.

One verse caught my eye for how similar it sounds to language I heard going to church as a kid.

I will lift up the cup of salvation
   and call on the name of the Lord...

Since this is the Old Testament, that's obviously not referring to the Last Supper. According to the NOAB, this was a drink offering that would have been poured out.

Psalms, Chapter 117

According to many sources, including the NOAB, this is the shortest chapter of the Bible at only 2 verses long. In fact, here it is in its entirety.

1 Praise the Lord, all you nations!
   Extol him, all you peoples!
For great is his steadfast love towards us,
   and the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever.
Praise the Lord!

Psalms, Chapter 118

This was another psalm of thanksgiving. According to the NOAB, it might have been said by the king as a representative of the people. There was also quite a bit of language making it seem like it might have been part of a ceremony, processing through the gates of the Temple precincts.

This chapter had another verse that's very familiar to Christians, verse 22.

The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the chief cornerstone.

Psalms, Chapter 119

I've seen many sources that claim that this is the longest chapter of the Bible, including the NOAB. In my hard copy of the Bible, it started on page 871, and ran through page 876 - with small print and two columns per page. Just by comparison, most chapters would fit on a single page. Printing an online copy of the verse would take 11 pages. Granted, the psalms have a lot of white space with their poetic structure, but at 176 verses, it's still a long chapter.

It's basically a long petition, with the length coming from the poetic structure. Actually, I'll just quote the NOAB on this.

The psalm is an elaborate acrostic...: Each of the twenty-two stanzas begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each stanza has eight verses and (usually) eight synonyms of "law," more accurately "authoritative teaching": "law," "word," "promise(s)," "ordinances," "statues," "commandments," "decrees," and "precepts."

The NOAB also noted how this psalm was part of a transition in the religion "in the postexilic period". The language used to describe the Torah (and the exact meaning of Torah is unclear in this psalm) was the type of language that had previously been applied only to God (love, true, truth), showing how "the Torah is a type of stand-in for God, who is no longer regarded as imminent."

Psalms, Chapter 120

The superscription to this psalm marks it as the beginning of the collection known as the "Songs of Ascents". According to the NOAB, two possible sources of this name are the literary construction of the poems ("steplike parallelism"), or as "songs sung while going up to Jerusalem for pilgrimage". The collection runs through Psalm 134.

The psalm itself is a petition to God for deliverance from the people mistreating the psalmist.


The psalms this week weren't too bad, but I'm glad I only have three more weeks to go before starting Proverbs.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Air Force Oath Follow-Up

U.S. Air Force LogoWell, I have some good news to report, as a follow-up to an entry I'd written last week, Air Force Makes Religious Oath Mandatory. The short background is that the Air Force had changed their official policy. Previously, a religious section of the enlistment/re-enlistment oath, "So help my God", was optional. No one was forced to say it who didn't want to. Just recently, they reversed that decision, and tried to make that portion of the oath mandatory again. After a complaint brought about by an enlisted airman, and the threat of legal action by the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the Air Force went to the DoD's legal team for advice.

Apparently, either the DoD was the voice of reason, or someone in the Air Force came to their senses, because the oath has been made optional again (see story: Air Force: 'So Help Me God' in Oath is Optional).

I really don't see how this was much of a controversy at all. The requirement was clearly un-Constitutional, going against Article VI's ban of religious tests. And even if the Constitution had no such ban, that type of language in the oath still makes no sense. America is a multi-cultural society with people with all types of religious beliefs, from Christians to atheists* to Buddhists to Hindus. It's really only Christians and Jews who refer to 'God' with a capital G, so that part of the oath is very clearly a pledge to Yahweh. For the many people who don't believe in that god, forcing them to make an oath to him is lying - a tacit admission of his existence. Shouldn't we expect more integrity from the members of our military? Even at best, it makes that party of the oath an empty phrase, recited as a platitude that means nothing to the people saying it. In my opinion, that cheapens the oath overall, and I don't think that's what anyone wants.

Like I noted in that previous entry, if you really want to despair for our nation, go read the comments in the linked article. Here are a few from this one.

Yet another monumentally stupid decision by someone who shouldn't be making decisions, we take God our of our lives more and more and as this is done things get worse and worse. He whosoever denies me shall be denied before the father. If the military denies God then in the future you will lose and then you will all have to change the way you salute each other. Just wait till they make it mandatory to allow call to prayer 5 times a day. Apparently the Air Force Never heard of the phrase Stand Your Ground
Personally I don't trust anyone who refuses to end the oath, 'so help me God.' But that's just me.
Cowards all. Why not also make fighting and uniforms optional?
This shows an act of cowardess the part of the Air Force. My respect for them is down as this appears to be another act of appeasement on their part. Tolerance in this area will lead to tolerance in all other areas and the Good order and Discipline will go out of the window. The AF needs to get up some guts and so does their legal department at the national level.

On the plus side, many of those types of comments had responses from rational people, so it wasn't completely one-sided. It just amazes me that so many people have a problem with making optional a religious section of an oath for a non-religious organization. I don't even know what it's doing there in the first place, and look forward to the day when it gets removed completely.

For now, the voices of reason have a small win, and airmen and officers won't be forced to appeal to a deity they don't believe in.


*Yes, I know - atheism isn't a religion. But these types of beliefs are mutually exclusive. You can't be an atheist Christian (at least, not in the traditional christian sense of accepting Jesus as your savior). So, I think it's fair to characterize them all under the blanket term of religious beliefs. Or to put it another way, not stamp collecting may not be a hobby, but the label does tell you something, even if only a very little, about the person's hobby habits.


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