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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Crucifixion makes God seem like a psychopath, says cleric

By Jonathan Petre, Religion Correspondent for The Telegraph

05/04/2007

One of the country's most controversial clerics was at the centre of a new controversy yesterday after saying that traditional teaching about the Crucifixion was "repulsive" and made God seem like a "psychopath".

The Dean of St Albans, the Very Rev Jeffrey John, used a Lent talk on BBC Radio 4 last night to attack the Christian theory of penal substitution, which argues that God sent Christ into the world to be punished for the sins of mankind. The dean's comments in the run-up to Easter were met with outrage from leading evangelicals who said his comments verged on the heretical, even though he attempted to soften his message by adding extra lines on the eve of the broadcast.

Dr John, who was forced to stand down as Bishop of Reading in 2003 after it emerged he was homosexual, although no longer sexually active, said he had been taught that Jesus "took the rap" for our sins, but we got forgiven provided we said we believed in him." But even at the age of 10, he had thought this particular explanation for the Crucifixion was "pretty repulsive as well as nonsensical."

"What sort of God was this, getting so angry with the world and the people he created and then, to calm himself down, demanding the blood of his own son?" Dr John said. "And anyway, why should God forgive us through punishing somebody else? It was worse than illogical, it was insane. It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this, we would say they were a monster. Well, I haven't changed my mind since. That explanation of the cross just doesn't work but sadly, it's one that's still all too often preached."

A BBC spokesman said that the dean, reacting to criticism, had added two extra lines to "pre-empt any further misunderstanding or misinterpretation". One of the lines was: "On the cross Jesus died for our sins; the price of our sin is paid; but it is not paid to God but by God." Fellow liberals defended his view, saying that a key difference between them and conservative evangelicals was their view of God. The Rev Giles Frasier, the vicar of Putney in south London, said: "What is at the heart of salvation, punishment or love? Liberals, like myself, believe it is love." Evangelicals were furious, however, and the row will fuel their growing discontent with the liberal wing of the Church. A number said yesterday that Dr John's comments showed how unsuitable he would have been as a bishop, regardless of his homosexuality.

In a statement, the Bishop of Lewes, the Rt Rev Wallace Benn, and the Bishop of Willeseden, the Rt Rev Pete Broadbent, said: "Jeffrey John is saying that the cross is not about anger or wrath or sin or atonement, but only about God's unconditional love. There is, he says, nothing to understand in the cross which is anything to do with sacrifice or Jesus dying for our sins - and we say, No. You've got it wrong." Bishop Broadbent said: "Of course there are some very raw discussions amongst Christians about quite how Jesus died in our place and what that meant and how He suffered for our sins. But to ignore the entirety of the language about atonement and sacrifice and the cross is to nullify the message of what Good Friday and Jesus dying for us is all about. Jesus Christ is sacrificed and he washes away the sins of the whole world and he completes the understanding of Scripture and fulfils it in a completely new way."

He added that he was disappointed that the BBC was using its schedules to undermine the message of Easter. "You cannot read the Old Testament and New Testament and blank out an entirety of language and concept and understanding that means that we are guilty sinners, we need our sins to be paid for and we need Jesus Christ to die for us. That is what the Creeds say, it is what the Bible says and you cannot rewrite them. You cannot understand Jesus Christ without understanding Old Testament atonement material." Bishop Benn added that "the truth that Jesus died as our sin-bearing substitute carrying the punishment for our sins on the cross is the glorious heart of the Gospel. It displays the love of God: Father, Son and Spirit, for us.”

"To deny or vilify that is a tragic denial of the power and heart of the Gospel. I hope Jeffrey John will speedily reconsider and repent of his attack on apostolic Christianity." A spokesman for the BBC said: "Lent Talks are short individual authored opinions in which the contributor is invited to reflect on a different part of Christ's passion. There will be those who agree with the points being made and those who disagree. They are a reflection of ongoing debates within the Church."

[So... It's not just me then...............?]

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Warrior Politics – Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos by Robert D Kaplan.

Kaplan puts forward an interesting idea in this book. His thesis is that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent end of the Cold War the world has reverted back to a geo-political landscape that the Ancients would have recognised. This being so Kaplan proposes that the best way to navigate our way through these dangerous times is to have an appreciation of the political thinking of Ancient Greece, Rome and China. Once we understand the teachings of people like Livy, Thucydides and Sun-Tzu we will be more able to cope with whatever the ‘new world order’ can throw at us.

Warrior Politics is a well written and fascinating book – to say nothing of it being a pleasure to read (and a book hard to put down). The author has an impressive breadth of knowledge and a skill of presenting it well. Drawing parallels between ancient wars in Greece, Rome and China and modern times he makes a solid case for a need to understand the past in order to navigate the present and survive the future. Rather inevitably Kaplan does make the mistake, in my opinion, of comparing contemporary America to ancient Rome but he’s not alone in that viewpoint. But he goes on to make a greater error of judgement when he concludes that not only can America protect the world from itself but that it must do so. Written just before the fiasco in Iraq I’m guessing that the author might be having second thoughts about now.

Questionable conclusions aside this was a very good book which gives an interesting slant on the present and many useful avenues of inquiry on the future political shape of the world. Recommended to anyone interested in our collective future and especially to those who are attempting to shape it.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Whitehall plan for huge database

By Mark Easton for BBC News

Sunday, 14 January 2007

A giant database of people's personal details could be created at Whitehall under government plans which ministers say will help improve public services. Tony Blair is expected to unveil the proposal in Downing Street on Monday. Strict regulations currently prevent one part of government sharing personal information it holds with another. Ministers argue the data-sharing rules are "overzealous" but the Conservatives say relaxing them would be "an excuse for bureaucrats to snoop". So-called "citizens panels" will gauge public reaction to relaxing privacy procedures so people do not have to repeat personal information to different public bodies - particularly at times of stress such as a family death.

Officials think current rules are an obstacle to improving public services. But such data-sharing is controversial. As well as criticism from the Conservatives, the information commissioner - the data watchdog - has warned Britain may be "sleepwalking into a surveillance society". The idea of allowing different Whitehall departments to access centrally-held data emerged during the government's policy review of public services. The review team, headed by Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton, has concluded that it is difficult for services to be as flexible and light-footed as people want because of rules on data. The department cites an example of a family who had a total of 44 contacts with government over 180 days trying to make the necessary arrangements after a family member died in a road accident. Too often, says the review team, it may be legally forbidden to use information other than for a single purpose. At other times services may assume there is a legal barrier when there is none.

And sometimes, the review found, the traditional culture of separate government departments contributes to delays and barriers. However, the government wants to involve the public in deciding how to balance individual privacy against possible improvements in customer care in the public sector. Five citizens' panels of 100 people are being recruited by the polling organisation Ipsos Mori. In a process known as "deliberative democracy", the panels will be briefed on the pros and cons of different approaches to public services and then invited to make their decision. Their views, say ministers, will then feed into government policy. Among the issues the panels will consider are: the role of the citizen and state; rights and responsibilities; and customer care within public services including the idea of data-sharing.

This is not the first time the government has proposed sharing sensitive personal information between Whitehall departments. Last year the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) claimed relaxing rules on data-sharing would help tackle ID fraud and would also identify those "in need". That idea was attacked by the Conservatives. Shadow constitutional affairs secretary Oliver Heald said: "Step by step, the government is logging details of every man, woman and child in 'Big Brother' computers." Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, who is charged with ensuring the state does not collect too much information about citizens, has also been critical of data-sharing and already expressed concern at the "Citizen's Information Project". That is a plan by the Office for National Statistics to create a population database for use by public services. "There are reasons why we need to promote better information," Mr Thomas said, "but whether the right answer is to create a database should be questioned."

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Can Postmodernism Save the World?

by Reza Dibadj for The Baltimore Sun

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Contemporary political discourse is strikingly polarized: good nations vs. evil nations, welfare state vs. watchman state, free markets vs. bureaucrats, Republicans vs. Democrats. While everyone is busy trying to prove he or she is right, problems fester: geopolitical instability, increasing income disparity and impending environmental disaster, to name a few. I have wondered for a long time whether these two phenomena are interrelated - whether the inability to look beyond simple dichotomies has gotten us into the mess we’re in. Re-reading some texts of postmodern philosophy has helped me see the connection.

Admittedly, an obscure philosophical notion such as postmodernism is a decidedly odd place to go looking for help to alleviate the world’s problems. Postmodernism suffers from a bad rap. It is even a dirty word in many intellectual circles. Yet for all of its annoying jargon, postmodernism can be best understood as a movement that struggles with how to represent a messy, chaotic world where simple, reassuring stories will not suffice. Jean-Francois Lyotard offered one of the most useful insights into the term “postmodern” when he defined it as “incredulity toward meta-narratives.” In other words, we should be wary of simple and seductive tales. In many ways, postmodernist philosophers were reacting to 20th-century meta-narratives that began as supposed utopias but ended as horrors - fascism and communism, to pick two particularly troubling examples. Yet, on a less vile and more subtle stage, meta-narratives are at play today; think of the romantic notions that globalization, unregulated capital markets or military might will solve the world’s problems.

Postmodernism questions these clean, reassuring abstractions. We need to stop viewing the world in terms of absolutes: “good vs. evil,” “right vs. wrong.” Reality is much more nuanced. If the essence of philosophical inquiry, as Michel Foucault once noted in describing Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work, is “never to consent to being completely comfortable with one’s own presuppositions,” we need more philosophers. The debate over whether someone’s god or country or race or color or way of life is better than someone else’s cannot be won. It has been tried, with disastrous results. Where does all of this theorizing lead? Two possibilities lie ahead of us as citizens. The first is to continue to be lulled into complacency through reassuring sound-bites that spew out meta-narratives too often demonizing the “other.”

The second is much more time-consuming and difficult and requires us to do our own thinking. It is to engage with those with whom we disagree in dialogue to forge our own localized stories out of the discussion. Maybe progressives should watch Fox News and conservatives should read The Nation. Real political engagement, after all, is a messy, often uncomfortable, conversation. To use a culinary analogy, we can either accept to be fed prepackaged junk food out of a vending machine, or we can choose to cook our own meals from scratch. The latter might be a hassle but it will increase life expectancy. It might be a bit fanciful to intimate that abstruse continental philosophers - postmodernists, no less - might offer insight into the world in which we live. So be it. We’d be better off with more cooks and fewer vending machines.

[I thought that this would interest both Sadie & Laura.]

Monday, April 23, 2007

Video Time.

Ah, the 1980's...... what a decade. I was lucky in many ways with the timing of my introduction to music. I hit pubity and my adult years in the 1970's and basically grew up with the music of the 80's with the likes of this track - Cars by Gary Newman. The times may have been pretty awful but the music was sublime. Those of you that can remember this far back just close your eyes and enjoy the feeling of nostalgia.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Giving fundamentalism a secular boost

By Giles Fraser

9 Mar 2007

Media atheists of the narrower kind are fast becoming the new best friends of fundamentalist Christians. For every time they write about religion they are doing very effective PR for a fundamentalist worldview. Many of the propositions that fundamentalists are keen to sell the public are oft-repeated corner-stones of the media atheist's philosophy of religion. Both partners in this unholy alliance agree that fundamentalist religion is 'the real thing' and that more reflective and socially progressive versions of faith are pale imitations, counterfeits even.

This endorsement is of enormous help to fundamentalists. What they are really threatened by is not aggressive atheism - indeed that helps secure a sense of persecution that is essential to group solidarity - but the sort of robustly self-critical faith that knows the Bible and the church's traditions, and can challenge bad religion on its own terms. Fundamentalists hate what they see as the enemy within. And by refusing to acknowledge any variegation in Christian thought, media atheists play right into their hands.

Fundamentalism was invented only in the 20th century. None the less, in their struggle for secular values, commentators such as Polly Toynbee are effectively handing fundamentalists the title of official opposition. In the context of the fight to extend anti-discrimination legislation to homosexuals, that's a dangerous gift. For it grants the fundamentalist's worldview unwarranted extra lobbying power with government. Many Christians don't believe homosexuality is a sin. Far from it. We think it's a gift of God - a means by which many show love and commitment and compassion. This is not an eccentric view within the church. It's also the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury, though, admittedly, he is insufficiently bold in expressing it.

Indeed, a great many Christians are deeply committed to the sexual orientation equalities legislation. They would have no truck with those who want to ban homosexuals from Christian boarding houses or classrooms. But bigots who dress up in the clothing of faith are being encouraged by media atheists in the view that orthodox biblical Christianity is intrinsically anti-gay. That's rubbish. And the only people who benefit from this line of argument are the religious gay-bashers. Ignoring the fact that Christianity helped invent secularism, Polly Toynbee (writing in The Guardian) recently described the row over sexual orientation regulations as "a mighty test of strength between the religious and the secular".

Christians of the hardline right will have been nodding their heads in agreement. For the more fundamentalists can set up the disagreements concerning religion in terms of a Manichean struggle between the forces of God and "atheistic secularists", the more troops they can summon to the defence of intolerant versions of Christianity. The media generally made a great deal of Christians protesting outside parliament against the passage of anti-discrimination legislation through the Lords in January 2007. And it was easy to be left with the misleading impression that all Christians oppose it. Not a bit of it.

As the editorial in Church Times, effectively the Church of England's trade paper, rightly complained at the time, the "broad support for the Equality Act from the Church of England and the Board of Deputies of British Jews has been drowned out by a small group of conservative Christians". The same article goes on to point out that "mainstream Churches do not share the views of the protesters, and the majority of Christians will have no truck with discrimination on grounds of this kind". And thank God for that.

[So, do outspoken atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris fuel religious Fundamentalism? What then is the alternative? To be softly ‘critical’ of theism? To be quiet in the face of bigotry hoping that moderate Christians will (eventually) reign in their more outspoken brethren? Or maybe we should be expected to support the various world religions in their mutually exclusive efforts to ‘save’ mankind for their own particular God? Or maybe, just maybe, we should call it as we see it?]

Friday, April 20, 2007

Cartoon Time.
Just Finished Reading: After Armageddon – There Will be War Volume IX created by J E Pournelle.

This book has been sitting on my shelf for quite some considerable time so I thought it was right that I should’ve finally gotten around to reading it.

It was part (IX obviously) of a long running series of short combat SF stories covering various aspects of the subgenre. This one (again rather obviously) dealt with the aftermath of Armageddon – not the Biblical version but the man made one. The scenario’s varied from post nuclear war to post population bomb to post AIDS survival. The quality of the writing was uniformly good with notable contributions from J P Boyd (who I’d never heard of) in his The Last Cruise of the Zeppelin Tempest and Norman Spinrad with his Journal of the Plague Years.

The only (slightly) off-putting thing about this series is that the creator/editor Jerry Pournelle does tend to use these volumes to launch right-wing polemics regarding the state of government and the military at the time when the books were being compiled. They can be easily skipped though without undermining the quality of the short stories themselves. If you’re into combat SF this is a good series of books to own.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sea floor records ancient Earth

By Jonathan Fildes for BBC News

Friday, 23 March 2007

A sliver of four-billion-year-old sea floor has offered a glimpse into the inner workings of an adolescent Earth. The baked and twisted rocks, now part of Greenland, show the earliest evidence of plate tectonics, colossal movements of the planet's outer shell. Until now, researchers were unable to say when the process, which explains how oceans and continents form, began. The unique find, described in the journal Science, shows the movements started soon after the planet formed. "Since the plate tectonic paradigm is the framework in which we interpret all modern-day geology, it is important to know how far back in time it operated," said Professor Minik Rosing of the University of Copenhagen and one of the authors of the paper.

Professor John Valley, a geologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison described the work as "significant" and "exciting". "If these observations are substantiated it will be a significant line of new evidence indicating that plate tectonics was active and familiar as early as 3.8 billion years ago," he said. "That really is an important conclusion."

Plate tectonics is a geological theory used to explain the observed large-scale motions of the Earth's surface. The relatively thin outer shell of the planet is composed of two layers: the lithosphere and the asthenosphere. The lithosphere - made up of the outer crust and the top-most layer of the underlying mantle - is broken up into huge plates; seven major plates and several smaller ones. These float above the asthenosphere and move in relation to one another. Today, oceanic crust is created at plate boundaries known as mid-ocean ridges, where magma rises from the asthenospehere through cracks in the ocean floor, cools and spreads away.

As it moves away from the spreading centre towards the edges of the oceans it becomes cooler, denser and eventually starts to sink back into the mantle to be recycled. "Sea floor is not normally preserved for more than 200 million years," said Professor Rosing. Most is destroyed at subduction zones, such as those found along the edge of the Pacific Ocean, where oceanic crust plunges under the buoyant and long-lived continental crust. However, in certain circumstances, fragments of the sea floor known as ophiloites are preserved when they are scraped on to the land. This exceptional process typically occurs when continental crust begins to be sucked into a subduction zone, clogging the system. "It goes down into the subduction zone until the buoyancy of the continent arrests the process of subduction," explained Eldridge Moores, emeritus professor of geology at the University of California, Davis.

"The continent then pops back up, preserving a little bit of the overriding wedge of oceanic crust and mantle that was on the overriding plate." Ophiolites are found today in Cyprus and Oman and show a distinctive structure. At their base, crystalline rocks preserve the top layer of the mantle. Above, "fossilised" magma chambers give way to a layer of stacked vertical pipes, known as sheeted dykes. These represent the conduits through which magma is extruded onto the sea floor as pillow lavas, bulbous lobes of basaltic rock that form when lava cools quickly in contact with water. The rocks analysed in Greenland are found in an area known as the Isua Belt, a zone of intensely deformed rocks in the southwest of the island that geologists have pored over for decades. The ophiolite structure was mapped between outcrops covering 4-5km (2.5-3 miles) and shows the correct sequence of layers found in an ophiolite, except the lowest mantle portion. "You can actually recognise features that formed in a couple of minutes, 3.8 billion years ago - a quarter of all time - and you can actually go and touch them with your hand," said Professor Rosing.

Crucially, they show well preserved sheeted dykes and pillow lavas, clear evidence to many that these are the ancient remains of sea floor created by processes seen today. "What this tells you unequivocally is that the process of sea-floor spreading that we observe today appears to be present in one of, if not the, oldest sequence of rocks on Earth," said Professor Moores. "That is a significant milestone." In particular, it pushes back the oldest known evidence of plate tectonics by at least 1.3 billion years and gives scientists clues to the processes that formed the surface of the Earth today. Although the structures and processes that led to their formation would be similar to the modern era, they would not be exactly the same.

The young Earth was much hotter than now, and as it shed heat, it put many of the tectonic processes into overdrive. "If you had plate tectonics you probably would have had more plates, moving faster, and they probably would have been thinner," said Professor Moores. The rate of recycling of oceanic crust would therefore have been even quicker than today, making the fact that the rocks in Isua are preserved at all even more extraordinary. "These fragments are extremely rare," said Professor Rosing. "It's just very exciting when you get one of these glimpses when you can look back nearly four billion years in time."

[Fascinating stuff, eh?]

Sunday, April 15, 2007

God's Dupes

by Sam Harris for the Los Angeles Times

March 16, 2007

PETE STARK, a California Democrat, appears to be the first congressman in U.S. history to acknowledge that he doesn't believe in God. In a country in which 83% of the population thinks that the Bible is the literal or "inspired" word of the creator of the universe, this took political courage. Of course, one can imagine that Cicero's handlers in the 1st century BC lost some sleep when he likened the traditional accounts of the Greco-Roman gods to the "dreams of madmen" and to the "insane mythology of Egypt."

Mythology is where all gods go to die, and it seems that Stark has secured a place in American history simply by admitting that a fresh grave should be dug for the God of Abraham — the jealous, genocidal, priggish and self-contradictory tyrant of the Bible and the Koran. Stark is the first of our leaders to display a level of intellectual honesty befitting a consul of ancient Rome. Bravo. The truth is, there is not a person on Earth who has a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead or that Muhammad spoke to the angel Gabriel in a cave. And yet billions of people claim to be certain about such things. As a result, Iron Age ideas about everything high and low — sex, cosmology, gender equality, immortal souls, the end of the world, the validity of prophecy, etc. — continue to divide our world and subvert our national discourse. Many of these ideas, by their very nature, hobble science, inflame human conflict and squander scarce resources.

Of course, no religion is monolithic. Within every faith one can see people arranged along a spectrum of belief. Picture concentric circles of diminishing reasonableness: At the center, one finds the truest of true believers — the Muslim jihadis, for instance, who not only support suicidal terrorism but who are the first to turn themselves into bombs; or the Dominionist Christians, who openly call for homosexuals and blasphemers to be put to death. Outside this sphere of maniacs, one finds millions more who share their views but lack their zeal. Beyond them, one encounters pious multitudes who respect the beliefs of their more deranged brethren but who disagree with them on small points of doctrine — of course the world is going to end in glory and Jesus will appear in the sky like a superhero, but we can't be sure it will happen in our lifetime.

Out further still, one meets religious moderates and liberals of diverse hues — people who remain supportive of the basic scheme that has balkanized our world into Christians, Muslims and Jews, but who are less willing to profess certainty about any article of faith. Is Jesus really the son of God? Will we all meet our grannies again in heaven? Moderates and liberals are none too sure. Those on this spectrum view the people further toward the center as too rigid, dogmatic and hostile to doubt, and they generally view those outside as corrupted by sin, weak-willed or unchurched.

The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism. Ordinary fundamentalist Christians, by maintaining that the Bible is the perfect word of God, inadvertently support the Dominionists — men and women who, by the millions, are quietly working to turn our country into a totalitarian theocracy reminiscent of John Calvin's Geneva. Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals — who aren't sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally — deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality. And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society.

People of all faiths — and none — regularly change their lives for the better, for good and bad reasons. And yet such transformations are regularly put forward as evidence in support of a specific religious creed. President Bush has cited his own sobriety as suggestive of the divinity of Jesus. No doubt Christians do get sober from time to time — but Hindus (polytheists) and atheists do as well. How, therefore, can any thinking person imagine that his experience of sobriety lends credence to the idea that a supreme being is watching over our world and that Jesus is his son? There is no question that many people do good things in the name of their faith — but there are better reasons to help the poor, feed the hungry and defend the weak than the belief that an Imaginary Friend wants you to do it. Compassion is deeper than religion. As is ecstasy. It is time that we acknowledge that human beings can be profoundly ethical — and even spiritual — without pretending to know things they do not know.

Let us hope that Stark's candor inspires others in our government to admit their doubts about God. Indeed, it is time we broke this spell en masse. Every one of the world's "great" religions utterly trivializes the immensity and beauty of the cosmos. Books like the Bible and the Koran get almost every significant fact about us and our world wrong. Every scientific domain — from cosmology to psychology to economics — has superseded and surpassed the wisdom of Scripture. Everything of value that people get from religion can be had more honestly, without presuming anything on insufficient evidence. The rest is self-deception, set to music.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Video Time.

KT Tunstall - Black Horse And The Cherry Tree. I've heard this tune in my head for a few days now.... so I thought it was about time I shared it with the world....

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

It’s Asymmetrical, My Dear Watson

by Sean Gonsalves for Cape Cod Times

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

You’re familiar with the story about Sherlock Holmes and his camping trip with Watson, right? They set up tent and go for a hike. Exhausted, they return to camp as night falls. First Watson hops in his cot. Holmes gets under his covers and stares up at the cloudless night sky.

“My dear, Watson. Do you see what I see?” “Oh yes, the Milky Way is quite prominent tonight.” “No. Look closer.” “Now, I see it. The Big Dipper...” “No, no. It’s elementary, Watson. Someone stole our tent!”

Since I first started writing about U.S. policy in Iraq 10 years ago, I keep having the someone-stole-our-tent moment over and over again. Have you been reading these stories about how “the surge” seems to be working. The violence in Baghdad seems to be subsiding. Even Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., who just led a delegation to Iraq, said the Bush push to secure Baghdad “appears to be working,” according to the Associated Press. I suppose his words are supposed to carry some weight because the good senator is of Palestinian descent. He’s one of “them.” That kind of stuff works on some folks – like trotting out Colin Powell and Condi every now and then to explain why yet another nation full of backward dark-skinned people need to be bombed – I mean, “liberated” – from barbarism. Not knowing him personally, it’s hard to say why a smart guy like Sununu would say something so foolish without adding a HUGE caveat.

Of course, the violence is subsiding. This is a guerrilla war! Guerrilla War 101: “When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances.” That’s right out of Mao Tse-tung’s classic treatise On Guerrilla Warfare.

“When the invader pierces deep into the heart of the weaker country and occupies her territory in a cruel and oppressive manner, there is no doubt that conditions of terrain, climate, and society in general offer obstacles to his progress and may be used to advantage by those who oppose him. In guerrilla warfare we turn these advantages to the purpose of resisting and defeating the enemy. Guerrilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them; it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and co-operation. There are those who do not comprehend guerrilla action,” Mao wrote way back in 1937.

The good news is: Gen. David Petraeus is now in charge of our forces in Iraq. A few weeks ago the general said something straight out of a Sean Gonsalves column. “Any student of history recognizes that there is no military solution to a problem like (guerrilla insurgencies) in Iraq.” Then, this past Sunday, the AP reported on Petraeus’ new leadership, illustrating what the fear-induced fools in right-wing radio land and the soft-handed talking heads who play tough guys on TV “news” shows can’t seem to get through their history-challenged heads.

Petraeus “has revamped the counterinsurgency strategy, designed to win back not only the turf but public support... . To set the tone, Petraeus has made several high-profile forays into public markets in Baghdad and elsewhere...smiling and greeting bystanders with simple Arabic phrases” – the kind of Arabic phrases that, if someone were to suggest they be taught in American schools, would trigger conservatives to decry the evil influence of political correctness and multiculturalism. This business of treating Iraqis like human beings instead of evil incarnate as fantasized by jingoists here in the States “carries some risk to U.S. troops...but the U.S. command seems prepared to take the chance. The new motto: ‘The more you protect the force, the less secure you really are’.” Gary Brecher, the “War Nerd,” has been trying to teach us real good on this and it took me some time to notice that someone stole our tent, too. It bears repeating. C’mon, say it with me: short of genocide (dropping nukes and turning the Iraqi desert into a sea of glass), there is NO military solution to guerrilla insurgencies.

It’s elementary, really. Actually, it’s asymmetrical.

[This certainly puts the whole “It’s getting better” story into perspective doesn’t it?]

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Just Finished Reading: The Devil’s Account – Philip Pullman & Christianity by Hugh Rayment-Pickard

I didn’t know this at the time of purchase but the author not only has a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion but it also a Parish priest in London. This may go some way to explain the tone of the book.

Rayment-Pickard (RP) certainly does a fair job of analysing Pullmans Dark Materials trilogy as well as several other Pullman works but failed to hold his own disparaging views in check. Not only was the overall tone of this work sarcastic and cynical but I quickly lost count of the number of snide comments aimed at both Philip Pullman and his books. It was abundantly clear that RP found His Dark Materials deeply offensive. On more than one occasion he dismissed Pullmans own statements regarding his atheism and pointed out that only someone with a deep (and presumably deeply repressed) need for God – indeed an actual belief in God – could have written such a seeming polemic against the Church. The criticisms of Pullmans works oscillated between statements pointing out the overly aggressive treatment of Christianity in his books contrasted with the apparent fact that Pullman was apparently trying to usurp the Christian Myth with one of his own. The charge of hubris was implicit on almost every page.

Thankfully the book was a short one and I didn’t have to suffer too long the overbearing criticism of three of the best books I’ve ever read. The few good points RP made were more than drowned out by his prejudicial stance and spiteful commentary. This book might be useful to those studying Pullman’s work academically but if you want to have a deeper understanding of His Dark Materials in particular I’d look elsewhere.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Why is Easter a Movable Feast?

To be honest Easter confuses me – OK quite a lot about Christianity confuses me but Easter really does. I mean, Easter is supposed to be a celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus right? So why does the date keep moving from year to year? According to Wikipedia:

It celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, which his followers believe occurred on the third day (counting inclusively) after his death by crucifixion some time in the period AD 27 to 33.

I can’t help presuming that like his birthday on 25th December (even if that’s his official birthday rather than his actual birthday) the date of Jesus’s execution on the Cross and his subsequent Resurrection should have an actual date. If such an exact date is unknown (which seems to be the case) then why not pick an official date and declare it doctrine? Having a moving date for Easter makes no sense – at least to me. What makes even less sense is how Easter is calculated. This again from Wikipedia:

At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 it was decided that Easter would be celebrated on the same Sunday throughout the Church, but it is probable that no method was specified by the Council. (No contemporary account of the Council's decisions has survived.) Instead, the matter seems to have been referred to the church of Alexandria, which city had the best reputation for scholarship at the time……. The practice of those following Alexandria was to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the earliest fourteenth day of a lunar month that occurred on or after March 21. While since the Middle Ages this practice has sometimes been more succinctly phrased as Easter is observed on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox, this does not reflect the actual ecclesiastical rules precisely…… The ecclesiastical rules are:

Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after March 21 (the day of the ecclesiastical vernal equinox).

This particular ecclesiastical full moon is the 14th day of a tabular lunation (new moon).

THAT certainly makes a whole lot of sense to me [not]. The word arbitary springs to mind doesn’t it? Then of course there is the origin of Easter itself. Yet again from Wikipedia:

The English and German names, "Easter" and "Ostern," are not etymologically derived from Pesach and according to the 8th century Christian monk and historian Bede are instead related to ancient name for the Anglo Saxon goddess, Eostre, who was celebrated during Eosturmonath, equivalent to April/Aprilis. Bede wrote - "Eosturmonath, which is now interpreted as the paschal month, was formerly named after the goddess Eostre, and has given its name to the festival."

Sounds like the typical Christian hi-jacking of an existing pagan festival doesn’t it?

Of course Easter is a very important, indeed arguable vital, part of the Christian belief system. Paul himself said as much in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:14-17):

"And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ: whom He raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins."

So… if the Resurrection hadn’t happened Christianity would be a false faith? Is that what Paul meant? No wonder people get fired up over claims that the remains of Christ’s body have been found. If he died and his body was buried here, on Earth, then doesn’t that undermine a fundamental pillar of Christianity – indeed maybe the fundamental pillar? Without the Resurrection would Christianity survive? It’s an interesting question to ponder this Easter.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Religions don't deserve special treatment.

By A C Grayling

October 19, 2006

It is time to reverse the prevailing notion that religious commitment is intrinsically deserving of respect, and that it should be handled with kid gloves and protected by custom and in some cases law against criticism and ridicule. It is time to refuse to tip-toe around people who claim respect, consideration, special treatment, or any other kind of immunity, on the grounds that they have a religious faith, as if having faith were a privilege-endowing virtue, as if it were noble to believe in unsupported claims and ancient superstitions. It is neither. Faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason, as between them Kierkegaard and the tale of Doubting Thomas are at pains to show; their example should lay to rest the endeavours of some (from the Pope to the Southern Baptists) who try to argue that faith is other than at least non-rational, given that for Kierkegaard its virtue precisely lies in its irrationality.

On the contrary: to believe something in the face of evidence and against reason - to believe something by faith - is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect. It is time to say so. It is time to demand of believers that they take their personal choices and preferences in these non-rational and too often dangerous matters into the private sphere, like their sexual proclivities. Everyone is free to believe what they want, providing they do not bother (or coerce, or kill) others; but no-one is entitled to claim privileges merely on the grounds that they are votaries of one or another of the world's many religions. And as this last point implies, it is time to demand and apply a right for the rest of us to non-interference by religious persons and organisations - a right to be free of proselytisation and the efforts of self-selected minority groups to impose their own choice of morality and practice on those who do not share their outlook.

Doubtless the votaries of religion will claim that they have the moral (the immoral) choices of the general population thrust upon them in the form of suggestive advertising, bad language and explicit sex on television, and the like; they need to be reminded that their television sets have an off button. There are a number of religious TV channels available, one more emetic than the next, which I do not object to on the grounds of their existence; I just don't watch them. These remarks will of course inflame people of religious faith, who take themselves to have an unquestionable right to respect for the faith they adhere to, and a right to advance, if not indeed impose (because they claim to know the truth, remember) their views on others. In the light of history and the present, matters should perhaps be to the contrary; but stating that religious commitment is not by itself a reason for respect is not to claim that it is a reason for disrespect either. Rather, as it is somewhere written, "by their fruits ye shall know them"; it is this that far too often provides grounds for disrespect of religion and its votaries.

The point to make in opposition to the predictable response of religious believers is that human individuals merit respect first and foremost as human individuals. Shared humanity is the ultimate basis of all person-to-person and group-to-group relationships, and views which premise differences between human beings as the basis of moral consideration, most especially those that involve claims to possession by one group of greater truth, holiness, or the like, start in absolutely the wrong place. We might enhance the respect others accord us if we are kind, considerate, peace-loving, courageous, truthful, loyal to friends, affectionate to our families, aspirants to knowledge, lovers of art and nature, seekers after the good of humankind, and the like; or we might forfeit that respect by being unkind, ungenerous, greedy, selfish, wilfully stupid or ignorant, small-minded, narrowly moralistic, superstitious, violent, and the like. Neither set of characteristics has any essential connection with the presence or absence of specific belief systems, given that there are nice and nasty Christians, nice and nasty Muslims, nice and nasty atheists.

That is why the respect one should have for one's fellow humans has to be founded on their humanity, irrespective of the things they have no choice over - ethnicity, age, sexuality, natural gifts, presence or absence of disability - and conditionally (ie. not for intrinsic reasons) upon the things they choose - political affiliation, belief system, lifestyle - according to the case that can be made for the choice and the defence that can be offered of the actions that follow from it. It is because age, ethnicity and disability are not matters of choice that people should be protected from discrimination premised upon them. By contrast, nothing that people choose in the way of politics, lifestyle or religion should be immune from criticism and (when, as so often it does, it merits it) ridicule.

Those who claim to be "hurt" or "offended" by the criticisms or ridicule of people who do not share their views, yet who seek to silence others by law or by threats of violence, are trebly in the wrong: they undermine the central and fundamental value of free speech, without which no other civil liberties are possible; they claim, on no justifiable ground, a right to special status and special treatment on the sole ground that they have chosen to believe a set of propositions; and they demand that people who do not accept their beliefs and practices should treat these latter in ways that implicitly accept their holder's evaluation of them. A special case of the respect agenda run by religious believers concerns the public advertisement of their faith membership. When people enter the public domain wearing or sporting immediately obvious visual statements of their religious affiliation, one at least of their reasons for doing so is to be accorded the overriding identity of a votary of that religion, with the associated implied demand that they are therefore to be given some form of special treatment including respect.

But why should they be given automatic respect for that reason? That asserting a religious identity as one's primary front to the world is divisive at least and provocative at worst is fast becoming the view of many, although eccentricities of dress and belief were once of little account in our society, when personal religious commitment was more reserved to the private sphere - where it properly belongs - than its politicisation of late has made it. From this thought large morals can be drawn for our present discontents. But one part of a solution to those discontents must surely be to tell those who clamour for a greater slice of public indulgence, public money and public respect, that their personal religious beliefs and practices matter little to the rest of us, though sometimes they are a cause of disdain or amusement; and that the rest of us are as entitled not to be annoyed by them as their holders are entitled to hold them. But no organised religion, as an institution, has a greater claim to the attention of others in society than does a trade union, political party, voluntary organisation, or any other special interest group - for "special interest groups" are exactly what churches and organised religious bodies are.

No one could dream of demanding that political parties be respected merely because they are political parties, or of protecting them from the pens of cartoonists; nor that their members should be. On the contrary. And so it should be for all interest groups and their members, without exception.

[It had to be said… and it was said so well.]

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Cartoon Time.

I always had a problem with the idea that God created Man in His own image - that God looks like us. I always considered that to be the height of arrogance. Then some months ago I thought about it this way: "Image" seems pretty close to "Imagination" meaning "In the Mind". Then I thought that saying God created us by thinking us into existence makes a whole lot more sense than the other interpretation - not that I believe that God did create us, of course....!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Bush is After Our Rights

by Marie Cocco for the Boulder Daily Camera (Colorado)

August 2, 2006

To turn our eyes momentarily from the terrifying war in the Middle East is to discover an ever-more ominous turn in the Bush administration's war on terror. Having been barred by the Supreme Court from treating foreign terrorism suspects as if they had few — or no — legal rights, the president's initial response is not to comply with the high court's finding that detainees must be treated under accepted standards of international law. In fact, the White House pushes to extend the ill treatment to American citizens.

That is, effectively, what the administration's draft of new rules for the military detention and trial of terrorism suspects would do. News and human rights organizations that have obtained the document, marked "deliberative draft — close hold," have criticized the way in which it would obliterate the Supreme Court's ruling. It seeks to have Congress write into law essentially the same procedures for military trials that the high court just said were illegal. That is, terrorism suspects still could be excluded from the courtroom, evidence could be withheld from the defense, and the Geneva Conventions — which the Supreme Court explicitly said must apply, would be circumvented. More chilling is that the draft makes clear that the president wishes to impose these conditions upon any American citizen he calls an "enemy combatant."

A copy of the draft made public by The Washington Post shows that, while an initial version anticipated military trials only for "alien" enemy combatants, the word "alien" is subsequently crossed out. Instead, the document refers time and again to "persons" who are detainees. A "person," under this draft, could be an American seized at a shopping mall, or in a suburban backyard. Here, then, is how the government could treat American citizens if this draft were to become law: A citizen could be designated an "enemy combatant" (a term the administration has never clearly defined) and held in a military prison. There, the citizen would have no right to a speedy trial. Any trials, the draft says, could occur "at any time without limitations."

Once the citizen is tried under rules that mock the constitutional protections he would receive in a federal court, or in a U.S. military court-martial, the outcome would mean little. An acquittal would not necessarily free the detainee. Neither would a sentence imposed, say, for two or three years and served in full. "An acquittal or conviction under this act does not preclude the United States, in accordance with the law of war, to detain enemy combatants until the cessation of hostilities as a means to prevent their return to the fight." Of course, "the fight" as defined in the draft is not necessarily an armed battle. People may be designated "enemy combatants" and subject to these rules if the president and the Pentagon believe they are now or were once "part of, or supporting" the Taliban, al-Qaeda or "associated forces." Support isn't defined. It could mean shouting "long live Osama!" while walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. All these powers are rightly the president's because he is commander in chief of the armed forces, according to the draft.

This is the precise argument the White House has tried, again and again, to get the Supreme Court to accept. It has failed. In two cases in which President Bush indeed did detain American citizens indefinitely and without charge, the courts derailed the effort. After the Supreme Court ruled against the administration two years ago in the case of Yaser Hamdi, the military released him and returned him to his family in Saudi Arabia. In a second case involving Jose Padilla, a citizen who was picked up at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, the government finally issued an indictment four years into his detainment — just as the Supreme Court was considering Padilla's case. The Bush administration now seeks from Congress an authorization for the blank check it once sought to give itself. If lawmakers hand him this, they will be handing over rights that Americans may never regain.

[The questions inevitably emerge from the above article – Is security, or even the illusion of security, worth this kind of infringement on civil liberty? Can we trust our Governments to act responsibly if we give them this kind of power? What can we do about a Government that has forgotten that it works for us and not the other way around?

I feel that more people should be asking these kinds of questions on both sides of ‘The Pond’.]

Monday, April 02, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Gunpowder Empire by Harry Turtledove.

In a new future Los Angeles a family gets ready for its Summer Vacation. But this will not be an ordinary trip, for the Solters family are Crosstime Traders. For a few months each year they work in an alternate reality where the Roman Empire never fell. Selling slightly superior technology for much needed grain they help feed the growing numbers in their own timeline. But this trip is different. After the Mother becomes ill and is rushed back for modern medical aid the portals fail and enemies appear at the gate of their adopted city. The two youngest Solters are left to fend for themselves and need to grow up – fast.

I had a feeling that this was going to be juvenile SF and so it was. But actually it wasn’t that bad considering the age range it was aimed at. The plot was a little thin as was the character development and attention to detail but I could imagine someone who had never come across SF before would find this an exciting read. It certainly raised some interesting questions including the morality of slavery and addressed the idea of cultures that are different to ours but not inferior because of that – though the tone of the book was rather patronising in places. Whilst not exactly the most riveting book I’ve read this year I would recommend it as something to give to a child either to interest them in SF or to get them reading in the first place.

Sunday, April 01, 2007