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

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Ending Nuclear Hypocrisy

by William Hartung for CommonDreams.org

Thursday, May 3, 2007

A few years back, when President Bush described Libya’s decision to put aside its programs for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, he applauded the Qaddafi regime for abandoning its quest for “weapons of mass murder.” When it became clear that Iran was seeking to develop its own capacity to enrich uranium the Bush administration engaged in a vigorous campaign of saber-rattling that included military threats in the form of ominous statements that “no options are off the table” in addressing Iran’s program.

After years of calling for sanctions and other “tough” measures, the Bush administration engaged in serious negotiations with North Korea about its nuclear weapons programs. And the administration justified its war with Iraq in large part by scaring the American public about the need to act quickly to destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime, before waiting for the “smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” This record of anti-proliferation activity - however uneven in its application - certainly gives the impression that stopping the spread of nuclear weapons is a top administration priority. But a closer look at its policy on this issue suggests that nothing could be further from the truth.

Perhaps the clearest example of President Bush’s “do as I say, not as I do” policy is the Department of Energy’s “Complex 2030″ plan to build a new generation of nuclear weapons. With a potential price tag of $175 billion or more over the next two decades, the initiative calls for the replacement of every deployed warhead in the U.S. arsenal and the construction of a series of new facilities, including a multi-billion dollar plutonium production plant. It’s hard to tell other countries that building nuclear weapons is dangerous and unnecessary while the United States proceeds with a plan that will have us in the nuclear weapons business well into the middle of this century.

A second thread in the policy of nuclear hypocrisy involves the myth that there can be “good” nuclear weapons states and “bad” nuclear weapons states, based entirely on which countries happen to be U.S. allies. When India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998, they received a brief slap on the wrist from the Clinton administration; no outrage, no long-term sanctions, and no serious attempts at negotiations to cap and reverse this dangerous development. In fact, in the past few years these countries have essentially been rewarded with large military packages ($5 billion worth of F-16 combat aircraft for Pakistan) and proposals to transfer nuclear technology (the provocative U.S.-India nuclear deal). And of course, Israel’s estimated arsenal of 200 nuclear weapons is never spoken of by U.S. officials, and certainly has never figured in any public discussions about how to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Despite acknowledging in the 2004 presidential campaign that the greatest danger to U.S. security could be the acquisition of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons by a terrorist group, President Bush has failed to accelerate programs designed to eliminate or secure loose nuclear weapons or nuclear bomb-making materials in Russia. This is a huge strategic blunder when one considers that the massive Russian stockpiles are the most likely source for terrorists seeking the bomb.

If this administration or the next is serious about stemming the spread of nuclear weapons, it needs to abandon plans to develop new nuclear weapons; pressure its allies to reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear weapons programs; and invest more resources in putting bombs and bomb-making materials out of terrorist reach. Perhaps most importantly of all, it must get back to the business of radically reducing our own nuclear arsenal, in parallel with efforts to organize a global summit on reducing the nuclear danger. A policy of nuclear hypocrisy is not just unethical - it is also an unacceptable danger to the future of humanity.

[There are SO many questions surrounding the ownership of nuclear weapons: How should they be controlled? Indeed can their distribution be controlled? Who controls them? Who decides on who can and who cannot possess these WMD? Can they be eliminated (obviously they cannot be dis-invented) or at least reduced to manageable proportions? Will they ever be used again either by States or non-State actors…..? What can be done?]

Friday, June 29, 2007

8 Random Things about Me.

I’ve been tagged (twice actually) to do a post giving out 8 random pieces of information about me. I don’t normally ‘do’ tags but I thought this would be a fun challenge. I’m not going to tag anyone else – but feel free to do you own post if you wish.

So:

1. I’m a fussy eater and you’ll often see me ‘dissecting’ sandwiches and throwing away the bits I don’t like.
2. I change my brand of toothpaste after I finish every tube.
3. My favourite part of a woman’s body is the nape of her neck.
4. I am just over 6 feet tall.
5. During the 1980’s IRA bombing campaign in London I missed explosions by 20 minutes and two train platforms on one occasion and by three hours and several feet on another. Living in that kind of environment changes you forever.
6. I have been interviewed on the BBC show Panorama.
7. I have had 4-5 blackouts due to heavy drinking. The memory of those times has never come back.
8. I have been to four weddings but only one funeral.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Battlestar Galactica – The Official Companion by David Bassom.

This was most certainly a nice change of pace from my normal bedtime reading. Not a long word of philosophical point to be seen. In fact this volume was so light that it barely existed at all.

The book consisted mainly of episode reviews and brief interviews with the cast and crew who repeated in various ways how much they enjoyed being on the show and working with each other. This slim work was thin on detail and always left me thinking that there must be more going on during the writing, filming and post production of one of the best shows (never mind the best SF shows) I’ve seen in quite some time.

Maybe I was expecting too much – then again maybe I always do. The book does contain some very nice publicity shots and original art work from the design stage but apart from that would only really interest the shows dedicated fan-base. Not bad but could’ve been a lot better.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Cardinal says religious freedom is part of plural society

From Ekklesia

3 Apr 2007

The freedom to express and live out religious convictions is an important part of what it means to live in a plural and democratic society, the spiritual leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales has said in a major public lecture.

The comments came as part of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s 30th Thomas Corbishley Memorial Lecture – and at a time when the church is facing criticism for its opposition to equalities legislation in areas such as adoption. The Cardinal chose as the topic of his lecture on Wednesday 28 March 2007 'The Kingdom of God and this World: the Church in Public Life'. The lecture series is organized by the Wyndham Place Charlemagne Trust and is held in memory of Fr Corbishley, former Master of Campion Hall, Oxford, and the first chair of Christians in Europe, an ecumenical group dedicated to educating church people about the European Community.

Cardinal O’Connor said that there was a need for reasoned debate on the role of religion today so that society could forge a meeting place for all. A public space that is genuinely plural requires the presence of religion, he said, expressing concern about its increasing marginalisation. The Cardinal spoke of religious freedom as being more than the freedom to worship; "it is the freedom to serve the common good according to the convictions of our faith". He emphasised this point not just for Catholic belief, but for the sake of democracy and British culture as a whole.

"The freedom to put religion into practice is vital to the health of British democracy. True democracy offers a framework for a peaceful exchange of differences, because in the civilised interplay of opposed beliefs, truth and justice have a better chance of being discerned. A democracy is, essentially, an act of faith in human goodwill and reason. The faith that what we have in common is greater than what divides us, and therefore in the public sphere we must always seek to include rather than exclude what we disagree with. As a lawyer wittily concluded, we should not show "liberal tolerance only to tolerant liberals," he said.

"If modern Britain faces a challenge today, it is to recover the language and the spirit of the age of democracy, to forge a meeting place for all citizens. The public sphere is the forum of collective reasoning, and it cannot be a space empty of tradition and particular belief. A tolerant society is not one without constitutive beliefs, since its tolerance flows from a very constitutive belief. There is an ethical hunger in our society and it would be tragic if religious convictions did not have a voice in meeting that hunger." In 2000 Cardinal O’Connor shocked many commentators by suggesting that Christianity had been ‘almost vanquished’ in public discourse. But others have suggested that the problem is not with Christianity per se, but with a particular vision of the faith based on Christendom – the alliance of church and governance, and the expectation that the church’s convictions should automatically shape public life and public institutions which exist to serve a wider constituency.

[I think Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor is overstating his case a little here. Whilst it is arguable that any Democracy worth its salt tolerates a wide range of opinions – including religious ones – it does not necessarily follow that a Democracy cannot exist without a religious voice contained within it. A purely Secular state can still be Democratic. Indeed it could be argued that the more Secular a state becomes the more democratic it becomes since voters are much less likely to be swayed by religious clan affiliation to cast their vote in a particular way.

The Cardinal is most certainly wrong to say that a public space requires a religious element. I don’t think that there is a particularly religious insight into things that cannot be arrived at by non-religious means. Public debate is not inherently diminished by it missing the religious element. It is just a different debate. There might indeed by an ‘ethical hunger’ in society (whatever that means) but religion is not the only way that this hunger can be satisfied. If Ethics were taught in schools (for example) we could address this hunger without resorting to God. Society and the State can survive without religion. It remains to be seen whether the converse is also the case.]

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Being Good – A short Introduction to Ethics by Simon Blackburn

Professor Blackburn not only knows his ‘stuff’ but also writes exceedingly well about it. In consequence this very fine introduction to the world of Ethical thinking is actually difficult to put down.

The author (somewhat strangely in my opinion) begins with what he perceives to be the threats to ethics from ideas as various as the ‘death of God’, relativism and determinism. He then outlines some of the ideas of ethics surrounding birth, death, pleasure, freedom and much else besides. Finally he puts forward the various thoughts on the foundations of ethical thinking and, one by one, criticises them. Ultimately he is brave enough (and correct in my mind) to conclude that no concrete unassailable foundation for ethics actually exists. Like me he does not consider that this unfortunate fact means the field of ethical enquiry has reached a literal dead-end. Like me he views ethics as very much a human construct, one which we must struggle with despite its imperfections.

Well written, tightly argued and intelligent this is a book well worth reading for all those interesting in ethical theory. I shall definitely be reading more by him soon. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Civil rights fears over DNA file for everyone

Jamie Doward for The Observer

Sunday May 27, 2007

Civil liberties groups are warning that the details of every Briton could soon be on the national DNA database, raising fresh concerns of a 'surveillance society'. Controversial plans being studied by the government would see the DNA of people convicted of even the most minor, non-imprisonable offences, such as dropping litter, entered on the national database. The proposals are part of a wide-ranging government review of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace), which campaign groups warn may have profound ramifications for society. 'The danger is that if we start adding the details of people convicted of these sort of minor offences to the database we'll come to a tipping point,' said Gareth Crossman, director of Liberty. 'The government will say: "Actually it's a bit unfair some people aren't on the database; maybe everyone should be on it."'

The DNA database is already proving controversial with some politicians and police officers raising concerns about its use. Liberty claims that, per head of population, the UK has five times as many people on the DNA database as any other country. The government estimates that even if the database is not expanded to include the details of minor offenders, some 4.5 million people will still be on it by 2010. The expansion of the database is prompting fears that people from ethnic minorities are being stigmatised. According to research by the Liberal Democrats, under the existing system within three years the details of more than half of all black men will be on the DNA database. 'The arbitrary method of collecting DNA will alienate minority groups who already feel unjustly targeted,' said Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' leader.

A three-month public consultation exercise on the government's plans to overhaul Pace concludes this month. The government intends to publish responses to the exercise in July and proposals will be put to ministers in January. Currently, the police do not have the power to place details such as DNA and fingerprints of anyone who has committed a minor, or 'non-recordable', offence such as dropping litter or speeding on to the relevant database. However, the government believes there may be a case for recording the details of people who have committed minor crimes. In a briefing document promoting the consultation exercise, the Home Office claims its inability to take personal details such as fingerprints or DNA from all offenders 'may be considered to undermine the value and purpose' of having a searchable database.

A Home Office spokesman said all options were being considered. 'The Pace consultation is about maximising police efficiency and ensuring that appropriate and effective safeguards are in place,' he said. 'We have made no decisions but we must consider anything which might free up police time or improve the efficiency and effectiveness of police investigations.' Arguments that the DNA database should be expanded are growing. Writing in the latest edition of the House magazine, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, a former president of the Police Superintendents' Association, said the case for including more people on the database was overwhelming. 'If I had my way, the DNA we now take from newborn babies to check for genetic disorders would be added to the national database in the national interest,' Mackenzie writes.

The DNA database has led to the successful prosecutions of rapists and murderers in recent years, sometimes decades after the crimes were committed. However, Simon Davies, director of the pressure group Privacy International, which campaigns against state surveillance, said such examples were a red herring. 'The problem is for every such instance if you expand the DNA database there are going to be multiple miscarriages of justice. This is the last domain. There's nothing left after this,' he claimed. Privately, the Home Office anticipates a public backlash against the proposals. 'This is a completely open exercise,' one Home Office source said. 'If there is overwhelming opposition against this we will not go there.'

[Does this idea bother anyone else... or is it just me... again.]

Monday, June 18, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Conquistador by S M Stirling.

It’s 1946 and ex-Marine John Rolfe is putting his life back together after returning from the Pacific War. Whilst fiddling with his Ham radio a blast of energy knocks him across the room. On awaking he discovers the event has caused a gateway in the fabric of space-time which allows him to enter a new world – one where European settlers never ‘discovered’ North America. So begins an adventure for John and a select group of war buddies.

Sixty years later anomalies that cannot be ignored lead the FBI and agents from the Fish and Game Authority to uncover the Gate but before they can report in they are shanghaied. Once in the Commonwealth of New Virginia they soon find themselves opposing a plot to overthrow the existing regime and replace it with a far more repressive one.

This certainly started out with an interesting idea though hardly an original one - People stumble upon a way to escape their world and start a new life far away from the corrupting influence of their own civilisation. The Gateway is purely a plot device to get from here to there. It is never explained and in fact hardly mentioned. The object of the novel appeared to be the grandstanding of Mr Stirling’s idea of a Utopia (or at least that’s how it came across to me). The so-called Alternate History is very sketchy, revolving around the fact that Alexander the Great died years later than he did in this timeline thereby upsetting European history to the extent that in 1946 they still had a medieval level of technology. Also, rather conveniently, the various diseases brought by John and his chums virtually wipe out the Native Americans – so no complex interactions are required with them.

The Commonwealth of New Virginia is described throughout most of the novel in tedious detail (quite a few pages I had to skim over to preserve my sanity). It was basically a Redneck heaven, a Republican wet dream. The East Coast of North America (as well as Hawaii) is governed by 30 Families and their retainers. They have huge tracts of land and enormous personal fortunes. The prevailing attitudes seemed to be stuck in the 1950’s with a distinct deference to Authority at its patronising best. Women are back ‘in their place’ (usually as breeding machines) and are happy with their lot. The workers seem satisfied with low taxes and cheap beer. The ‘servant class’ are Mexicans flown in for short term contracts and chemically sterilised for the duration. The papers, cinema and local Intranet are all censored and dripping with propaganda that no one seems to notice. Everyone is healthy and happy – apart from the few criminals who serve their time on the ‘chain-gang’ before being rehabilitated back into polite society (or shot).

I found the whole culture deeply disturbing and more than a little objectionable. Of course such a society would probably work at least for a while. The society was very resource rich both in land and minerals. The population was low and incredibly homogeneous – having a total of 25 Black Americans out of a population in excess of 150,000. They had access to all the best 21st Century technology money can buy without any of the responsibilities and so on. An oligarchy such as this might be a good place to live for a generation or two – but would only be as good as the leaders who shape it. Once bad leaders appear the Utopian edifice would quickly collapse – as it almost did in the novel.


Overall Conquistador was predictable. Not particularly well written it had two dimensional characters within a plot so thin it was easy to discern the real intent of the book – to sell a critical ideology and to portray and alternative utopian society rather than an Alternate world. Not recommended.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Earth from Space.

New Zealand’s South Island is highlighted in this Envisat image. Located in the South Pacific Ocean, New Zealand is comprised of two major islands – North and South – and a number of smaller islands. The mountain range visible in the image stretching the entire length of South Island down the western side is the Southern Alps. Some two-thirds of the South Island is comprised of mountains, many of which are caused by the collision of the Australian and Pacific Plates.

New Zealand is located at the south-western end of the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, a continuous line (40 000 km long) of volcanoes and fault lines circling the edges of the Pacific Ocean, and straddles the boundary of both the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates. To the east of the Southern Alps are the regions of Canterbury, Otago and Southland. The latter two, visible in the image, are made up of rolling farmland and numerous lakes.

Lake Te Anau, seen in the south-western corner, is located in Southland and covers an area of 344 square kilometres making it the largest lake in the South Island and the second largest in New Zealand, after Lake Taupo. Lake Wakatipu, above Lake Te Anau but in the Otago region, is New Zealand’s longest (80 km) and third largest lake (291 square km). The Remarkables mountain range is on the lake’s southeastern edge.

Also located in the Otago region (above Wakatipu) is Lake Wanaka, which is New Zealand’s fourth largest lake (192 square km). Lake Hawea is seen beside Wanaka. The milky-blue alpine lake above them is Lake Pukaki, which was created by receding glaciers.

This image was acquired on 12 May 2007 by Envisat’s Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) while working in Full Resolution Mode to provide a spatial resolution of 300 metres.


[I thought I'd post this because I've actually been there! Some years ago a friend and I hired a VW campervan and circum-navigated the South Island of New Zealand in 5 fun packed days, which icluded whale watching and a helicopter flight up to one of those glaciers in the satelite shot. It was the middle of a fantastic three week holiday.]

Thursday, June 14, 2007

BBC survey says Christians feel they are discriminated against

By Ekklesia staff writers

18 Mar 2007

A new survey carried out by the BBC has revealed that 33 per cent of Christians in the UK think that the way they are portrayed in the media amounts to discrimination. And 25% said they also experienced discrimination from colleagues in the workplace when their faith was known or talked about. The poll was carried out for the BBC’s Heaven and Earth programme, based on a representative sample of 604 people. Another 22% said they thought Christians faced discrimination in their local community. 19 per cent said they would be passed over for promotion. A third thought the media distorted Christian issues. Matters like the British Airways prohibition on costume jewellery, which prevented an employee from wearing a cross, and suspicion towards Christian service organizations by funding bodies, were cited as examples.

Conservative MP Anne Widdecombe, an Anglican who became a Catholic, said: “It’s now entirely a matter for Christians whether we fight back or take it. My own belief is that we should stand together and fight this discrimination.” But the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which said that the findings confirmed the findings of its own research over the past four years, argued that “retreating into a persecution mentality” is bad for Christianity and bad for society. “Christians are also privileged – for example 26 bishops in the house of Lords, and a quarter of state-funded primary schools are run by churches selecting on the basis of people's faith”, commented Ekklesia co-director Jonathan Bartley on The Heaven and Earth Show this morning.

He also said that when Muslims and Jews faced attacks and desecration of their cemeteries, talk of “persecution” needed to be put into context. “The reason a sizable minority of Christians, especially more conservative ones, are feeling ‘got at’ is because the historic privilege and influence of the churches is being eroded in the public sphere” added Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow after the show. “But this demonstrates how easy it has been, during the era of Christendom, for Christians to mistake their own power for the gospel message – which involves Jesus embodying God’s special concern for those at the margins, not demanding special treatment for religion” he added.

Ekklesia argues that loss of automatic privileges, the challenges of pluralism in public life, and the criticism churches face over discrimination in schools and services is “a historic opportunity for them to recover a vision of the Christian message as rooted in justice and equality. Self-interest and trying to grab power back is an unhelpful response - a counter-witness, even.” The think-tank has also warned about the dangers of "the politics of competitive grievance", where Christians, secularists, Muslims and others try to out-do each others with claims of discrimination, rather than looking at how to work together. A BBC researcher on the Heaven and Earth show team spoke to four other Christian agencies, which made similar claims to those demonstrated in their survey. A spokesperson for one charity in London said it was told to ‘de-Christianize’ if it had any chance of getting funding. Another was told it needed to take all mention of Christianity off its website; otherwise it was at risk of not receiving any money.

A Reading-based Christian homeless group also complained that it was no longer able to employ only Christians. However Ekklesia’s Jonathan Bartley said this was not discrimination, but equal opportunities which Christians, alongside others, were rightly expected to uphold when public money was involved. And the Anglican Bishop of Bolton, David Gillett, responded: “Religion is big news these days, so people have become more conscious of faith issues. That means Christians are now finding decisions going against them in a more high-profile way. But it’s a case of those issues getting more attention, rather than there being more discrimination.” Meanwhile former PR guru Lynne Franks told the BBC's Heaven and Earth show that claims of discrimination against Christians, defended by outspoken Catholic journalist Joanna Bogle, were "off the mark". The National Secular Society's news monitoring service dubbed them "crackpot" and said Christians were "over-privileged".

[I think I agree with the NSS that Christians have been, up till now, an ‘over-privileged’ group in the West. Their claims of discrimination fall, in the main, on deaf ears because of that. It would seem, especially in Europe, that Christians will have to learn to cope with societies that see them as just one more special interest group amongst many. Reality bites…. Doesn’t it?]

Monday, June 11, 2007

Is Atheism Just a Rant Against Religion?

By Benedicta Cipolla for The Washington Post

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Despite its minority status, atheism has enjoyed the spotlight of late, with several books that feature vehement arguments against religion topping the bestseller lists. But some now say secularists should embrace more than the strident rhetoric poured out in such books as "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins and "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation" by Sam Harris. By devoting so much space to explaining why religion is bad, these critics argue, atheists leave little room for explaining how a godless worldview can be good. At a recent conference marking the 30th anniversary of Harvard's humanist chaplaincy, organizers sought to distance the "new humanism" from the "new atheism."

Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein went so far as to use the (other) f-word in describing his unbelieving brethren. "At times they've made statements that sound really problematic, and when Sam Harris says science must destroy religion, to me that sounds dangerously close to fundamentalism," Epstein said in an interview after the meeting. "What we need now is a voice that says, 'That is not all there is to atheism.' " Although the two can overlap, atheism represents a statement about the absence of belief and is thus defined by what it is not. Humanism seeks to provide a positive, secular framework for leading ethical lives and contributing to the greater good. The term "humanist" emerged with the "Humanist Manifesto" of 1933, a nonbinding document summarizing the movement's principles.

"Atheists are somewhat focused on the one issue of atheism, not looking at how to move forward," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the Washington-based American Humanist Association. While he appreciates the way the new atheists have raised the profile of nonbelievers, he said humanists differ by their willingness to collaborate with religious leaders on various issues. "Working with religion," he said, "is not what [atheists] are about." The Harvard event linked via video to a conference on global warming at the Baptist-affiliated Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. Addressing both meetings was biologist E.O. Wilson, whose book, "The Creation," urges the faith community to join the environmental movement.

Even as he complimented the "military wing of secularism" for combating the intrusion of dogma into political and private life, he told his audience that religious people "are more likely to pay attention to that hand of friendship offered to them . . . than to have suggested to them, let us say, Richard Dawkins's 'The God Delusion,' which sets out to carpet-bomb all religion." In his book, Dawkins likens philosopher Michael Ruse, a Florida State University professor who has worked on the creationism/evolution debate in public schools, to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister best known for his appeasement policy toward Nazi Germany. Ruse, in turn, accuses "militant atheism" of not extending the same professional and academic courtesy to religion that it demands from others. Atheism's new dogmatic streak is not that different from the religious extremists it calls to task, he said. Dawkins was traveling and unavailable for comment. The suggestion that atheists may be fundamentalists in their own right has, unsurprisingly, ruffled feathers.

"We're not a unified group," said Christopher Hitchens, author of the latest atheist bestseller, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." "But we're of one mind on this: The only thing that counts is free inquiry, science, research, the testing of evidence, the uses of reason, irony, humor and literature, things of this kind. Just because we hold these convictions rather strongly does not mean this attitude can be classified as fundamentalist," Hitchens said. Distinguishing between strong opinion and trying to impose atheism on others, Phil Zuckerman, associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., also finds "fundamentalist" a misnomer. Instead, he faults atheists for preferring black-and-white simplicity to a more nuanced view of religion. "Religion is a human construction, and as such it will exhibit the best and worst of humanity. They throw the baby out with the bath water in certain instances," he said.

The humanists are taking advantage of renewed interest in atheism -- in effect riding the coattails of Dawkins and Harris into the mainstream -- to gain attention for their big-tent model. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the share of American adults who do not subscribe to any religion increased from 8 percent in 1990 to more than 14 percent in 2001. While only a small portion of the nearly 30 million "unaffiliateds" might describe themselves as atheist, Epstein, from Harvard, sees humanism appealing to skeptics, agnostics and those who maintain only cultural aspects of religion. A common critique of the new atheism is that it conflates belief with religiosity. In his research, Zuckerman has found that people may be outwardly religious not simply because they believe, but also because they're looking for community and solace within congregations. More than a kinder, gentler strain of atheism, humanism seeks to propose a more expansive worldview.

"Atheists don't really ask the question, what are the vital needs that religion meets? They give you the sense that religion is the enemy, which is absurd," said Ronald Aronson, professor of humanities at Wayne State University in Detroit. "There are some questions we secularists have to answer: Who am I, what am I, what can I know? Unless we can answer these questions adequately for ourselves and for others, we can't expect people to even begin to be interested in living without God."

[Showing – yet again for people who missed it the first time – that so-called radical, hard-line or “fundamentalist” atheists are most certainly not above criticism from the Secular Community….. as if they would be.]

Saturday, June 09, 2007

NRA: Don’t Ban Gun Sales to Suspected Terrorists

by Sam Hananel for Associated Press

May 5, 2007

WASHINGTON - The National Rifle Association is urging the Bush administration to withdraw its support of a bill that would prohibit suspected terrorists from buying firearms. Backed by the Justice Department, the measure would give the attorney general the discretion to block gun sales, licenses or permits to terror suspects.

In a letter this week to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, NRA executive director Chris Cox said the bill, offered last week by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., “would allow arbitrary denial of Second Amendment rights based on mere ’suspicions’ of a terrorist threat.”

“As many of our friends in law enforcement have rightly pointed out, the word ’suspect’ has no legal meaning, particularly when it comes to denying constitutional liberties,” Cox wrote. In a letter supporting the measure, Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling said the bill would not automatically prevent a gun sale to a suspected terrorist. In some cases, federal agents may want to let a sale go forward to avoid compromising an ongoing investigation.

Hertling also notes there is a process to challenge denial of a sale. Current law requires gun dealers to conduct a criminal background check and deny sales if a gun purchaser falls under a specified prohibition, including a felony conviction, domestic abuse conviction or illegal immigration. There is no legal basis to deny a sale if a purchaser is on a terror watch list. “When I tell people that you can be on a terrorist watch list and still be allowed to buy as many guns as you want, they are shocked,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which supports Lautenberg’s bill.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, lawmakers are considering a number of measures to strengthen gun sale laws. The NRA, which usually opposes increased restrictions on firearms, is taking different positions depending on the proposal. “Right now law enforcement carefully monitors all firearms sales to those on the terror watch list,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. “Injecting the attorney general into the process just politicizes it.”

A 2005 study by the Government Accountability Office found that 35 of 44 firearm purchase attempts over a five-month period made by known or suspected terrorists were approved by the federal law enforcement officials.

[It’s good to see that the NRA is protecting the rights of all citizens – even those suspected of being terrorists. After all we wouldn’t want to see any infringement of their Right to Bear Arms, at least not before they are whisked off by the FBI/CIA for an extended stay in a certain Cuban facility…..]

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Conventions of War by Walter Jon Williams.

With the death of the last of the ruling race known as the Shaa the empire they left behind is torn apart by Civil War. The client race known as the Naxids are attempting to gain power by occupying the capital world and by defeating the Fleet in deep-space battles. Unfortunately for them a pair of human heroes has arisen – the enigmatic Caroline, Lady Sula and Lord Gareth Martinez. Each a tactical genius they are trust into impossible situations yet manage to triumph against all expectations despite opposition from hostile forces both on their own side and on those of the enemy. Sula must attempt something that has not been achieved in living memory – a successful ground attack against vastly superior forces – whist Martinez must fight in space using the first tactical innovation for generations. The fate of an Empire rests on their shoulders and billions will die no matter who finally wins.

This was the final part of the Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy – the other two books being The Praxis and The Sundering. A huge trade paperback of more than 670 pages it was a roller-coaster of a novel. WJW is a fantastic writer whose work I have been enjoying for decades. I think that this trilogy was his first attempt at classic Space Opera yet he managed to produce one of the best examples of the genre I’ve read. His characterisation was outstanding – particularly of the two main characters. Even those characters you are not meant to like evoke the emotions the author wants you to feel. Every character is important to the plot. Every one is rounded with histories, objectives and failings. The society they inhabit is fully functioning and believable and clearly drives the characters to do what they do. But the best parts where what I read Space Opera for – the battles. Here we are presented with massive space ships without the force fields or inertial dampeners we are used to in shows like Star Trek. No, these engines of destruction need to spend days (or weeks) accelerating up to a decent speed always limited by the endurance of their crews. They are protected by defence lasers and missile batteries using anti-matter warheads because if just one enemy missile gets through – they’re history. There are few wounded ships after these space battles – just the victorious and the enemy ships reduced to an expanding cloud of radioactive plasma.


If you like combat SF at the top of its game I can heartily recommend this series of books

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Williams says the Bible invites listening not dogmatism

From Ekklesia

18 Apr 2007

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has told a mixed audience at a public lecture in Canada that both hyper-liberal and ultra-conservative readings of the Bible are ‘rootless’ and are limited in what they can contribute to the life of the church. In the Larkin Stuart lecture, delivered on 17 April 2007 at an event hosted jointly by Wycliffe and Trinity theological colleges in Toronto, Dr Williams said that Christians need to reconnect with scripture as something to be listened to and heard in the context of Jesus’ invitation to the Eucharist and to work for the gracious kingdom of God.

He declared: “... The Church’s public use of the Bible represents the Church as defined in some important way by listening: the community when it comes together doesn’t only break bread and reflect together and intercede, it silences itself to hear something. It represents itself in that moment as a community existing in response to a word of summons or invitation, to an act of communication that requires to be heard and answered.” This, the Archbishop argues, is crucial in the way in which the communities of Christians are informed by what the Scriptures say: “Take Scripture out of this context of the invitation to sit at table with Jesus and to be incorporated into his labour and suffering for the Kingdom, and you will be treating Scripture as either simply an inspired supernatural guide for individual conduct or a piece of detached historical record - the typical exaggerations of Biblicist and liberal approaches respectively.”

“For the former, the work of the Spirit is more or less restricted to the transformation of the particular believer; for the latter, the life of the community is where the Spirit is primarily to be heard and discerned, with Scripture an illuminating adjunct at certain points.” Dr Williams says that neither isolating texts from their contexts nor dismissing them as limited by prevalent cultural understanding were helpful approaches. Quoting from St John’s Gospel, Dr Williams said that Jesus’ teaching that ‘no-one can come to the Father except by me’ (John 14.6) could not be used simply as a trump card in discussions with other faiths: the verse needed to be heard in its full biblical context as the development of the question posed by his earlier saying, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ (John 13.33). ” … This certainly does not suggest in a direct way a more inclusive approach to other faiths. But the point is that the actual question being asked is not about the fate of non-Christians; it is about how the disciples are to understand the death of Jesus as the necessary clearing of the way which they are to walk.” Similarly, St Paul’s denunciation of same-sex acts in Romans 1. 27 also needed to be properly heard as an ancillary point in an argument about another matter entirely. That did not diminish its force but made it harder either to discard it or to use it as a definite proof text.

“It is not helpful for a ‘liberal’ or revisionist case, since the whole point of Paul’s rhetorical gambit is that everyone in his imagined readership agrees in thinking the same sex relations of the culture around them to be... idol-worship or disobedience to parents. It is not very helpful to the conservative either, though, because Paul insists on shifting the focus away from the objects of moral disapprobation in chapter 1 to the reading / hearing subject who has at this point been happily identifying with Paul’s castigation of someone else ... Paul is making a primary point not about homosexuality but about the delusions of the supposedly law-abiding.”

Christians cannot pick and choose amongst the texts of scripture, he concluded; the whole of the Bible needed to be understood both as inspired and inspiring - the work of the Holy Spirit: “It is the Spirit that connects the periods of God’s communicative action towards humanity and thus connects the diverse texts that make up the one manifold text that we call Holy Scripture. The Spirit’s work as ‘breathing’ God’s wisdom into the text of Scripture is not a magical process that removes biblical writing from the realm of actual human writing; it is the work of creating one ‘movement’ out of the diverse historical narratives and textual deposits that represent Israel’s and the Church’s efforts to find words to communicate God’s communication of summons and invitation. “The Spirit through the events of God’s initiative stirs up the words and makes sense of them for the reader/hearer in the Spirit-sustained community. As [the late Swiss theologian] Karl Barth insisted, this leaves no ground for breaking up Scripture into the parts we can ‘approve’ as God-inspired and the parts that are merely human; the whole is human and the whole is offered by God in and through the life of the body; always shaping and determining the form of that life.”

[I guess that’s told the liberals and fundamentalists what’s what………………]

Monday, June 04, 2007

War a Calamity, Ex-Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski Tells US Congress

by Barry Schweid for the Associated Press

February 3, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. national security adviser, told Congress the war in Iraq is a calamity and likely to lead to "a head-on conflict with Iran and with much of the world of Islam at large."

Testifying before the Senate foreign relations committee Thursday, Brzezinski skewered U.S. administration policy as driven by "imperial hubris" and a disaster on historic, strategic and moral grounds. While other former U.S. officials and ex-generals have criticized administration policy in committee hearings, none savaged it to the degree Brzezinski did. "If the United States continues to be bogged down in a protracted bloody involvement in Iraq, and I emphasize what I am about to say, the final destination on this downhill track is likely to be a head-on conflict with Iran and with much of the world of Islam at large," said the security adviser in the Democratic administration of former president Jimmy Carter. He set out as a plausible scenario for military collision: Iraq failing to meet benchmarks set by the administration, followed by accusations Iran is responsible for the failure, then a terrorist act or some provocation blamed on Iran, culminating in so-called defensive U.S. military action against Iran.

That, Brzezinski said, would plunge the United States into a spreading quagmire eventually ranging across Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Proposing a massive shift in policy, Brzezinski, who holds a senior position at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the United States should announce unambiguously its determination to leave Iraq "in a reasonably short period of time." Second, he said, the United States should announce it is undertaking talks with Iraqi leaders to jointly set with them a date by which U.S. military disengagement should be completed.

Instead, he said, the administration is developing a mythical, historical narrative to justify the case for a protracted and potential expanding war. Initially based on false claims Iraq had secret arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, Brzezinski said "the war is now being redefined as the decisive ideological struggle of our time, reminiscent of the earlier collisions with Nazism and Stalinism."

[Let’s all hope that Mr Brzezinski is wrong shall we…………………..?]

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Ancient Philosophy – A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas

Starting with the tale of Medea who killed her children to spite her husband – the hero Jason – Professor Annas undertakes a brilliant (though short) exploration of the major ideas in Ancient Philosophy. Not only did she manage to change my mind regarding Plato, whom I’ve always had a hard time with, in the section ‘Why do we still read Plato’s Republic?’ but she also managed to turn me on to the Greek idea of virtue and how being a virtuous person can lead to a happy life. This is an idea which I will pursue further. The only section I struggled with (a little) was one on Logic, an idea that I don’t really ‘get’ at a deep enough level. Maybe it explains why I never really ‘got’ mathematics at school?

Anyway, this was my third VSI book and I continue to be impressed by the sheer quality of the work being produced. This book in particular was very well written being at the same time chatty and profound. It most certainly had an impact on me and fuelled my desire to know much more about the subject. If you have an interest in Ancient Philosophy or just want to expand your knowledge in the new direction I highly recommend this book.