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

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Cartoon Time
Bishop questions attack by Chief Rabbi over disinvestment decision -19/02/06

A bishop has defended the Church's decision to review investment in companies used by Israel in the occupied territories, and called into question an attack on the decision by the Chief Rabbi. The Church of England Synod voted to review its £2.5m investment in Caterpillar, a bulldozer manufacturer. Christian campaigners say the company's bulldozers, in particular the D9 "armoured" version, have been used to flatten 12,000 Palestinian homes, and killed the US peace activist Rachel Corrie.

But Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, criticised the synod's decision as ill-judged along with other Jewish leaders. In unusually harsh language, Dr Sacks called into question the Jewish community's links with the church in a 1,500-word article in the Jewish Chronicle. Dr Williams wrote to the Chief Rabbi to insist that the vote did not represent a boycott or question Israel's right to exist or to self-defence.

But now Bishop of Hulme, Stephen Lowe, has said there had been an over-reaction to the decision by the Church. The Bishop of Hulme questioned Sir Jonathan Sacks’s argument that Israel needed support, not calling to account. He said Sir Jonathan had over-reacted to criticism of Israel. "I found the reaction to the debate in which I sat in the General Synod a little bit over the top. I do find it difficult that if you criticise anything to do with the Israeli government policy towards the Palestinians one is accused of anti-Semitism. I think that's actually wrong."

The Bishop has been joined by another Anglican who is a leading member of the church's peace and reconciliation movement. Writing in the Guardian newspaper, Canon Paul Oestreicher, who lost his Jewish grandmother in the Holocaust and was a refugee from Nazi Germany, says Jewish groups are engaging in moral blackmail in raising the issue of anti-semitism against critics of the Israeli government. He writes: "The main objective of my writing today is to nail the lie that to reject Zionism as it is practised today is in effect to be anti-semitic, to be an inheritor of Hitler's racism. That argument, with the Holocaust in the background, is nothing other than moral blackmail”.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Germans Investigate CIA Kidnap of Innocent Citizen

by Tony Paterson February 22, 2006 for the Independent

Munich state prosecutors have launched an investigation to determine whether Germany secretly helped the CIA in the abduction of one of its citizens who was held and tortured in a US "renditions" jail in Afghanistan after being mistaken for a terrorist suspect. The investigation centres on 42-year-old Khaled al-Masri, a German of Lebanese descent who was kidnapped in Macedonia by the CIA and flown to an American-run prison in Kabul where he was detained for five months and repeatedly beaten in early 2004.

The German government, which strongly opposed the US invasion of Iraq, has denied complicity in the kidnapping. The affair caused outrage in Germany last year and prompted Chancellor Angela Merkel to demand an explanation from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she visited Berlin in December. But Munich state prosecutors confirmed they were investigating Mr Masri's allegation that a German agent interrogated him at the US prison in Kabul. "The investigation is continuing and we are following up all leads," Martin Hoffmann, a prosecutors' spokesman, said yesterday.

Their inquiry was given new impetus on Monday after Mr Masri identified a senior German police official he suspected of being his interrogator from a 10-person line-up conducted in the presence of his lawyer at a police station in his home town of Neu-Ulm in southern Germany. Mr Masri said he was "90 per cent sure" that the man he picked out of the identification parade was a mysterious German-speaking interrogator, known only as "Sam", who had questioned him three times during his detention in Kabul. "The man was very nervous and could not look me in the eye," Mr Masri said after meeting the man he identified. "The hair is different but the voice sounded very similar."

Germany's Interior Ministry has denied that any member of the country's intelligence services visited Mr Masri while he was held in Afghanistan. Police and state prosecutors were refusing to reveal the true identity of the man he suspected of being "Sam". However, the New York Times yesterday quoted one of the unidentified man's colleagues as saying that the man often took part in undercover operations and helped with "dirty work" for the German foreign intelligence services. Manfred Gnjidic, Mr Masri's lawyer, said it was extraordinary no one in the German government had tried to interview his client about his ordeal. "Germany stood by like a little schoolboy watching what was going on with my client and doing nothing," he claimed.

The Munich state prosecutors said yesterday that they were also trying to determine whether the German embassy in Macedonia had been informed of Mr Masri's abduction and dispatched an agent to Kabul to question him. Germany has insisted that it knew nothing of the abduction until the American ambassador informed its officials shortly before his release in May 2004. German MPs were due to examine details of a government report on the affair today. Members of the group said that they had not been able to obtain any information from what was described as "an ominous German-speaking US secret service worker who is said to have taken part in Masri's interrogation in Afghanistan".

But the government report admitted that German Federal Criminal Bureau agents had previously interrogated another US renditions victim, the Syrian-born German terrorist suspect Mohammed Haydar Zammar, who was kidnapped by the CIA in Morocco in 2001 and flown to a prison in Syria where he has been held ever since. German agents flew to Damascus in 2002 and interrogated Mr Zammar, who is being held in a secret police jail renowned for torture. The government report said that the agents had "crossed a red line" and that Germany's participation in foreign interrogations should cease.

[I wonder if Khaled al-Masri still believes that if you've done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear?]

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Revenge is a meal best served cold.

Another poster from the forthcoming movie 'V for Vendetta'. Though still consisting of some striking use of colour I like this one more for it's composition. A very classic look I thought.
God – The Father?

I sometimes wonder if my relationship with my parents (and in particular with my father) either determined or had an influence on my attitudes and beliefs towards God. I suppose that any psychologist worth their salt would say “Of course it does” and I would tend to agree with them – up to a point.

I have many fond (though rather vague) memories of growing up with my father. I remember going out most weekends visiting various interesting places locally. We never had much money back then so most of what we did tended to be either cheap or free. We went walking in the countryside (after a fairly long bus journey) and I remember Dad always wanting to see what was around the next corner, and the next and the next one too. I remember ‘fishing’ in the local canals for sticklebacks and frogs which we took home in jam jars to live out their short lives in a large tub in our back garden. I remember visiting ships in the cities harbour, riding a gigantic lift on an aircraft carrier and being pelted by giant hailstones on the way home. I remember many, many visits to local cinemas to watch what are now considered classic films of the 1960’s and 70’s.

But as I grew older my father and I grew apart. To this day I have no idea why. Maybe it was just me being a typical teenager, I don’t know. But from puberty onwards my father became progressively a stranger to me. So, what has this to do with God I hear you ask? I can imagine that if I had any theistic feelings at that age that I might have increasingly substituted God the Father for my biological one. Do we get our idea of God from our fathers I wonder? Looking at it from more than a few decades later it certainly seems possible, if not as an actual determinate at least as an influence, maybe even a major influence. Can the relationship with my father be another piece of the puzzle that is my belief system? It’s a good question. Though thinking about it I have to wonder what might have made a difference. Would a father more involved in my teenage years really have made a difference in my attitude towards God? I honestly don’t think it would. I didn’t lose my faith in God in step with the loosening of the ties to my father. As far back as I can remember faith was never an issue for me.

But I do wonder.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Resistance is character building.

As you can tell by now I'm quite taken with the 'V for Vendetta' poster series. I particularly like the use of colour in this one.
I'm an atheist - so what?

By ROBYN E. BLUMNER, Times Perspective Columnist Published August 8, 2004

"What is it," asked German philosopher Friedrich Neitzche, "is man only a blunder of God, or God only a blunder of man?" I vote for the latter. Though I was brought up in a religious faith, it was at a very young age - preteen - that I realized I had no belief in God and no amount of indoctrination was going to change that. This sense of nonbelief has been so strong and abiding throughout my life that I find it virtually impossible to understand the psyches of people who believe in anything supernatural.

Just to be clear, it is not just God that I can't fathom. I also reject the existence of Satan or any form of afterlife beyond the redistribution of the body's matter. In my book there are no ghosts, golems, angels or spirits. I do not believe in psychic power, astrology or predestination - and forget about karma, kismet or crystals. My view is that the "soul" does not exist outside a functioning brain, nothing was "meant to be," and things that seem inexplicable are not miracles or paranormal experiences, they are simply not yet explained.

I have never understood why the fallback position to unanswerable questions about the universe is that an all-powerful, all-knowing being intervened. To me, "we don't know yet" is a fine response. I don't expect to be applauded for these views since they are out of step with the majority of Americans, but neither should I be despised for them. Yet, I will be. I can already imagine the torrent of hate mail, with readers accusing me of all sorts of vile human derangements just because I subscribe to reason and logic to explain the world rather than faith. As an atheist I am a member of the last minority group that is still subject to open and acceptable derision and discrimination. The depths of this hostility was on display at a Tampa City Council meeting recently when three council members walked out rather than be present when an atheist gave the invocation. Kevin White, an African-American on the council, first tried to get the invocation canceled. When that failed he and the two Hispanic members of the council left the room. They showed a shocking lack of tolerance for diversity and difference, considering they too are members of historically excluded groups.

White went on to suggest that it was demonstrably dangerous to hear an atheist speak. He said it could unleash a "snowball effect" on government and compared it to engaging in unprotected sex. Huh? Does he mean that appealing to the rational mind rather than a supreme being is so inherently persuasive that it could catch on? Well, it has. What White may not know is that a far larger percentage of his constituency are already non-believers than he suspects. A 2001 survey conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York found that more than 29-million adult Americans say they identify with no religion. Of those, more than 6-million said they didn't believe in God. Compare that to the number of adult Americans who say they are Jewish (2.8-million), Muslim (1.1-million), Unitarian (600,000) or Buddhist (1.1-million). If national statistics equate even in broad terms to Tampa, then inviting Unitarian and Muslim speakers to give the inspirational words to begin the council meeting represents the views of many fewer residents than inviting atheists to do so.

White doesn't know about the mainstreaming of atheism because atheists don't tend to stand up for themselves. They have been relegated to a closet that is darker and deeper than that in which gays and lesbians find themselves. Certainly in the public sphere, announcing one's atheism is the kiss of political death. According to a 1999 Gallup Poll, half of Americans say they would refuse to vote for an atheist candidate solely on that basis. During this year's oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court case challenging the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, atheist dad and attorney Michael Newdow got into a telling exchange with Chief Justice William Rehnquist. When Newdow suggested that having a religious phrase in the pledge is divisive, pointing to the uproar the case had caused throughout the country, Rehnquist had him admit that Congress unanimously agreed to add the words "under God" in 1954. "That doesn't sound divisive," said Rehnquist. To which Newdow replied, "That's only because no atheist can get elected to public office." The courtroom gallery broke into spontaneous applause at this clever, apt rejoinder.

Today, there are still eight states that have provisions in their state constitutions explicitly barring atheists from holding political office. The Tennessee Constitution states: "No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state." These restrictions are no longer enforceable, but the language remains on the books. No legislator is interested in suggesting their removal. America is a country steeped in religion and as such I expect to be bombarded by it. I take no issue with the right of religious people to proselytize, to erect houses of worship on every corner or to broadcast their fervor on television and radio. All I ask in return is a little consideration for the millions of us who don't join in the "good news." My faith is in mankind and the marvels accomplished by human ingenuity and drive. Why that makes me a pariah to White and others like him is beyond my ken. It certainly says more about them than me.

Friday, February 24, 2006

V for Vendetta.

A group of us went to see Aeon Flux last night @ the local Multiplex and they where showing trailers for 'V for Vendetta' which looked rather cool. So I checked it out and found some rather good posters advertising the film which I found rather impressive.

I do like poster art & sometimes wonder if, in another life, I could have been a graphic artist. I think that I'd have been pretty good at it.
Scientists Call on Churches to Fight 'Intelligent Design'

by Rupert Cornwell February 21, 2006 for the Independent

American scientists have denounced the so-called "intelligent design" movement and are urging mainstream religious groups to help promote the teaching of the Darwinian theory of evolution in the country's schools. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general science organisation, has issued its statement in rebuke to 14 states that are considering legislation that would undermine evolution teaching. The various bills, before legislatures in states including New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas, either highlight alleged "disagreements" within the scientific community or encourage non-scientific alternatives to Darwin, such as intelligent design.

"There is no significant controversy about the validity of the theory of evolution," the AAAS said at its annual meeting in St Louis, which ended yesterday. "The current controversy about the teaching of evolution is not a scientific one." Instead the group appealed for the help of mainstream religion in its quest, arguing that religion and science were not incompatible. Many religious leaders had stated they saw no conflict between evolution and religion, noted the AAAS. "We and the overwhelming majority of scientists share this view." This latest attack on intelligent design comes months after a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled in favour of a group of parents who argued that Darwinian evolution must be taught as fact. School administrators had earlier sought to have intelligent design, which argues that nature is so complex that a creator must have had a hand in designing it, inserted into science curricula. But Judge John Jones ruled that would have violated the constitutional separation between church and state.

His decision has spurred supporters of intelligent design. The state initiatives, said the AAAS, would weaken science education across the US. They threatened not just the teaching of evolution, but "a student's understanding of the biological, physical and geological sciences". Gilbert Omenn, the group's president, went further. Teachers might be tempted to tell pupils that evolution was only a theory. "But evolution is a theory in the same sense that gravity is a theory." It was "a robust organising principle" and supported by "a large body of evidence from many converging fields." At a time when fewer American students were choosing science, "baby-boomer scientists are retiring in growing numbers and international students are returning home to work", Mr Omenn said. "America can ill afford the time and tax-payer dollars debating the facts of evolution." But even George Bush has spoken out in favour of teaching intelligent design. But he did not specify whether it should be included in science or religion classes. AAAS and other groups reject the first, but have little problem with the second.

[It looks like the Counter-Attack has finally begun.]

Thursday, February 23, 2006

During the Next 100 Years…..

I expect we will have permanent bases on the Moon and on Mars.

We will probably have discovered life on other worlds that evolved independently.

We will have developed true Artificial Intelligence to a level at least as intelligent as we are.

We will have produced life in a laboratory from lifeless chemicals.

We will have used our knowledge of genetics to eliminate most heredity diseases.

Nuclear weapons will be used in a conflict either by nation states or terrorists.

We will finally realise that Global Warming is a ‘real and present danger’ and start doing something about it – but only after a series of warming induced disasters.

We will have figured out how to travel faster than light.

The average life expectancy will be in excess of 150 and much higher for the rich.

Nuclear fusion may have finally been developed to the point where it is producing usable energy.

The USA will no longer be the pre-eminent superpower after being passed by China.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

ID cards will provoke a national identity crisis

Andrew Phillips Sunday February 12, 2006 for The Observer

Tomorrow, the House of Lords' eight votes against the Identity Cards Bill come before the Commons. It is still unclear how many the government will concede. Labour argues that most people already carry several identification cards, so why not a single, ultra-safe one? However, industry experts warn that that could create a fraudsters' honeypot. And compulsory ID cards will entitle state authorities to a tranche of biometric and other data, some highly sensitive. The bill devotes 135 lines just to defining that dragnet, with penalties of up to £2,500 for failure to comply. Another comfy notion is that we're only following Europe. In fact, three countries don't have ID cards, 10 do but on a voluntary basis (as the Lords propose), with only 10 having compulsory cards. But none stores nearly as much data as we propose. Our scheme would be a free-world 'first', to add to omnipresent CCTV cameras, phone traffic data, vehicle tracking and so on. Labour trumpets public support. But polling has not been deliberative, the results have varied greatly and, if and when the public understands the ramifications, including cost, opposition could harden, as happened in Australia.

We're endlessly told that 'if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear'. In today's technological and managerial culture, this is difficult to rebut. One must start from every citizen's right to privacy. The Germans understand. Since the Bush wiretapping scandal, Americans are beginning to. But we in Britain are in danger of sleepwalking into authoritarianism, as the information commissioner warned, where the state stockpiles personal data in case it may 'come in useful'. Perhaps the Rubicon was crossed after the discovery in 2000 of 50,000 DNA samples wrongly retained. Instead of tightening the regime, the illegality was legitimised and the law changed to allow retention without charge or caution. That experience feeds expectations of creeping extensions of the ID card database, not forgetting that in 1995 Tony Blair was dead against compulsory ID cards. Scepticism is further stoked by government claims that it has a mandate for compulsory cards. Its manifesto, in fact, talked only of 'rolling out [the scheme] initially on a voluntary basis'. Under close parliamentary scrutiny, some innovations gather credibility, while some wilt, which is why the government lost a series of critical votes. The first attacked its refusal to give an estimate of the all-in costs of the scheme with the excuse that that would compromise commercial sensitivity. That has not stopped the government trying to rubbish the in-depth viability study by 16 LSE professors and teams who have estimated the 10-year cost at £19-24bn.

The government justifies this massive adventure primarily on the basis that compulsory cards will significantly reduce terrorism, crime, social security fraud and illegal immigration. But its rationale has imploded. On terrorism, Stella Rimington and Lord Carlile have torpedoed government claims. As for crime, particularly identity theft, senior police officers disagree with the government, while industry experts reckon that the scheme will be corruptible internally and externally and provide a field day for booming high-tech fraud. As for immigration, would-be incomers do not have to have identity cards and on social security fraud well over 90 per cent is down to lies about circumstances, not identity. There remain some basic cultural doubts. Should the state manifest a presumption of trust towards its citizenry, or is that onus now to be reversed, and, if so, with what effects? Will a surveillance state strengthen or weaken the body politic and citizen allegiance long term? And will our unparalleled new security regime lead to diminishing returns, like an excess of antibiotics? The Lords, after 60 hours of debate, sensed that red lights are already flashing on all these issues and stood resolute against this pig in a poke.
Cartoon Time

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Many UK clergy facing 'burnout' -15/02/06

As churches feel the fallout of post-Christendom, a bishop has said that many vicars are risking burnout. The Bishop of Hulme, the Right Rev Stephen Lowe has said that clergy are working too many hours and has called for a national debate on what parishioners can realistically expect. It comes as the church faces financial pressures and fewer clergy, whilst simultaneously trying to maintain a parish system which covers the whole country.

The bishop said in his diocesan magazine, 'Crux', that many vicars work 70 to 80 hours a week and routinely put their ministry ahead of their families or their own health. Many believe that there should be no limit to their availability and should never take holidays because they are unhappy about leaving the pastoral care of their flock in the hands of a stranger. But over the next few years the nature of clergy employment will change radically as vicars lose their ancient right to freehold office, facing retirement at 65, and their working conditions more closely follow those of ordinary workers.

The bishop urged other bishops and archbishops to begin the debate by looking at the possibility of a 48-hour week, the maximum under the European law, which he said would at least be a “start in slowing down”. "The job is seen as a vocation - a way of life that responds to people's needs in crisis. It is part of the joy of ordained ministry to know that you're wanted at the important moments in people's lives," he said. "But we just can't go on like this. The number of church buildings, PCCs, schools, parish projects, evangelism initiatives and community demands that each priest has responsibility for are increasing inexorably with the decline in the number of clergy."

Monday, February 20, 2006

Myth & Mankind

I have a love of Myth. Many (many) years ago I remember finding a book in my father’s collection retelling the myths of Northern Europe and Ancient Greece. I remember being sprawled on the floor, the volume being far too big for me to hold easily at that age, pouring over the adventures of the Norse Gods and the antics of the Gods of Mount Olympus. I clearly remember the huge gothic illustrations depicting Thor battling his enemies with his magical hammer and he probably became my first childhood hero. The stories where epic and magical and I loved them.

As I matured my allegiance to Thor diminished and I moved my affections to another Norse God – Odin. Odin has many admirable qualities that I still hold in high esteem today – especially a burning desire to know the truth of things no matter what the cost. How can you not admire a being who plucked out one of his own eyes the more to see clearly and who hung himself on a tree for three days and three nights to gain the wisdom of the runes? His dedication to the pursuit of knowledge makes me feel humble indeed.

In many ways our myths make us who we are and I think it is counter productive and maybe even dangerous to try and eliminate myth from our lives. However, I think that it is equally dangerous (if not more so) to confuse myth with reality. This does not diminish the power or the value of myth but quite the contrary. Myths are not ‘real’ in the sense that they are actual historical events that happened to actual historical people. Odin may have been a real reason – or an amalgam of several warrior chiefs – but he was not a God and neither where Zeus or Athena. But that is unimportant. What is important about our myths is what they teach us about our world and ourselves. They are morality tales, teaching aids and comforts in times of trouble. They should be treated as such and admired as such, retold to each succeeding generation in the style of that generation. But we should never view our myths as anything more than that – not matter how admirable they are. Myths are not history and it is a great mistake to treat them as such but nor are they mere stories to be too easily dismissed. Myths are inspirational tales that can enchant a child and point them on a path to seek the truth no matter what the cost. Who could challenge such a gift from the Gods?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

US churches celebrate 'Evolution Sunday' -13/02/06

Nearly 450 Christian churches in the United States yesterday celebrated the 197th birthday of Charles Darwin. The churches say Darwin`s theory of biological evolution is compatible with faith and that Christians have no need to choose between religion and science. Some churches sang praises for "tall boiling test tubes" and "classrooms and labs."

Many churches held adult education and Sunday school classes on evolution, and ministers preached that followers of Christ do not have to choose between biblical stories of creation and evolution. "It`s to demonstrate, by Christian leaders and members of the clergy, that you don`t have to make that choice. You can have both," said Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, who organized the 'Evolution Sunday' event. "Those very shrill, shrieking voices of the Christian fundamentalists we hear so often are not speaking for all Christians," he said.

A variety of denominational and non-denominational churches, including Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Unitarian, Congregationalist, United Church of Christ, Baptist and a host of community churches, participated in the event, which grew out of Zimmerman`s 'Clergy Letter Project', another effort to dispel the perception among many Christians that faith and evolution are mutually exclusive.

Zimmerman got more than 10,000 Christian ministers to sign a letter urging school boards across the country to "preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge."
Books @ my Bedside: God's Funeral by A.N. Wilson

It is extraordinary that in the century that witnessed the greatest period of church-building in human history, the mass revivals of the Evangelicals and the Anglo-Catholics and the founding of missionary societies to convert the heathen should also have been the period when atheism went from being an esoteric and secretive persuasion to being the religion of the suburbs. By the end of the 19th century the great mass of thinking men and women had come to abandon the religion which, for at least a millennium, had dominated the British Isles. A.N. Wilson follows up his sensational biographies of Jesus and Paul with this fascinating account of the lives and ideas of those prominent men and women who, to differing degrees and for many different reasons, felt that they could not number themselves among the Christian faithful. Starting with the works of Hume and Gibbon, Wilson introduces us to the eccentric utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, the agonising doubts of Carlyle, the revolutionary atheism of Marx and the militant defence of unbelief by Huxley. Lyell, Darwin, Freud, George Eliot, Hardy--the list covers what seems like most of the great minds of the century. Wilson's wit, warmth and erudition make God's Funeral enthralling throughout and this reviewer would strongly recommend it to people of all shades of belief. --Douglas Pretsell

[This started out as a bedtime read but quickly moved into my living room as an evening read. The book told the story (in sometimes too much detail I admit) of the rise of English Atheism during the 19th Century. I found it interesting to see the struggles, both intellectual and social, of Great Men and Women against the then accepted truth of Christianity. A must read for anyone concerned with the opposition between reason and faith.]

Saturday, February 18, 2006

A few more Quotes:

Each religion, so dear to those whose life it sanctifies, and fulfilling so necessary a function in the society that has adopted it, necessarily contradicts every other religion, and probably contradicts itself. ~ George Santayana

Forgive him, for he believes that the customs of his tribe are the laws of nature! ~ George Bernard Shaw

How absurd to try and make two men think alike on matters of religion, when I cannot make two timepieces agree! ~ Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor

Friday, February 17, 2006

What Has Happened to America's Jesus?

Monday, February 13, 2006 for USA Today by Rob Borsellino

I remember when Jesus Christ was about religion. That goes back to when he was caring and compassionate all the time, not just during the political campaign season. He used to bring people together and give them hope. He wouldn't have his people get in your face and tell you to fight gay rights or you'll burn in hell. That's not what he was about. That's not the Jesus who made folks such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson rich and famous. He was a different guy from the 21st-century American Jesus Christ. When I recently visited Sicily, Italy, the old Jesus was all over the place. His statue was on the counter at the restaurant and the coffee house. His image was on the wall at the clothing store and in the hotel lobby. And there was a huge painting of him on the side of an apartment building. Sometimes he was with his mom and dad, and sometimes he was sitting with his pals — the apostles. Mostly he was hanging from the cross. Whatever he was up to, it was all about religion.

It was interesting because I didn't go to Sicily looking for a religious experience. I went looking for what's left of my family. My grandfather and his brother came to the United States in 1904 and left behind their parents and two sisters. The sisters had kids, grandkids, great grandkids. I never met any of those people, and I knew nothing about Sicily except the obvious — pizza and the Mafia. My wife thought it was time to connect. She made some calls and let the family know we were coming. We landed in Palermo, got our bags and were met by my cousin Peppino Rizzuti, who was holding a handwritten sign with my name on it. He was there with three other cousins. They hooked us up with more family and spent the next seven days driving us all over the island and stuffing us with mozzarella, prosciutto, olives and about 50 kinds of pasta.

My cousin Maria made the sign of the cross before she ate. My cousin Antonio's car had a figurine of a saint on the dashboard. My cousin Gian Marco had a beautiful cross hanging from his neck. But nobody was going on about God, Jesus and religion. It didn't come up. I saw all that and was reminded that you can be a decent person — a good son, husband and father — and still oppose the war in Iraq. You can be a caring, thoughtful member of your community and still question whether Justice Samuel Alito should have been confirmed. Jesus won't get mad at you. Several times during the week, I thought about telling my family what's happened to Jesus in the United States — how he's been kidnapped by politicians and preachers who decide what he does and doesn't think. They speak for him, and it doesn't always make sense. They say Jesus is "pro life," but he doesn't seem to have a problem with the death penalty. And he thinks stem cell research — something that would save lives — is no different from murdering babies. They say he's the embodiment of kindness, love, decency and compassion. But he hates gays, lesbians and Muslims. And he's not too crazy about Buddhists, Hindus and the rest. Jews? He can put up with them if he has to. The Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka claims to speak for Jesus and goes around the country talking about how "AIDS cures fags." Pat Robertson says it would be a good idea if the United States killed the president of Venezuela. It would be a lot cheaper than starting another war. All week I went over that stuff in my head and decided not to mention any of it to the family. It would make America look ridiculous.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

A 'Long War' Designed to Perpetuate Itself

by William Pfaff for the International Herald Tribune - February 10, 2006

Paris -- The U.S. Defense Department and the White House have decided that the United States is now conducting "the Long War" rather than what previously was known as the War against Terror, then as the Global Struggle against Violent Extremism, and briefly - as one revealing Pentagon study described it - a war against "the Universal Adversary."

President George W. Bush said in his State of the Union address last month that the aim of his administration is to defeat radical Islam. This was a preposterous statement. Shortly afterward, radical Islam began burning embassies from Afghanistan and Indonesia to Damascus and Beirut. The United States is not going to defeat that. There are a great many dismaying aspects of Bush's Washington, but nothing more so than this combination of the unachievable with the hortatory in giving a name and purpose to the military campaigns that already have the U.S. Army and Marine Corps near exhaustion, and a major part of the world in turmoil.

It is customary, politically desirable and morally indispensable to say seriously what a war is about, if only so that the public will know when it is over; when the declared and undeclared measures of exception that have accompanied it, justifying suspension of civil liberties, illegal practices and defiance of international law and convention, will be lifted; and when the killing may be expected to stop. What was originally to be a matter of quick and exemplary revenge, with lightning attacks and acclaimed victories, has now become, we are told, the long war whose end cannot be foreseen. The citizen is implicitly told to expect the current suspension of constitutional norms, disregard for justice, and defiance of limits on presidential power as traditionally construed, to continue indefinitely. We are in a new age, America's leaders say. The Democratic opposition seems to agree.

What started as the war against terror, proclaimed by the president to Congress in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, has undergone a metamorphosis. The initial interpretation was that the people responsible for the World Trade Center attacks and other terrorist outrages against Americans and their interests would be discovered, defeated and killed or brought to justice. Surely that is what most Americans thought when the search began for Osama bin Laden, Mullah Mohammed Omar and members of Al Qaeda. Today bin Laden and Mullah Omar are somewhere in Waziristan, in Pakistan's tribal areas, tracked by the CIA and Pakistani soldiers (with different degrees of enthusiasm). There is an insurrection in Iraq, which had nothing to do with Al Qaeda when it started, but from which Al Qaeda and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi now draw global publicity.

Elsewhere, violent and alienated members of the Muslim diaspora in Europe claim the brand-identification of Al Qaeda to dramatize their own exploits, as do discontented sons of the Saudi Arabian and other Middle Eastern elites. Yet even if you include the 9/11 casualties, the number of Americans killed by international terrorists since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting them) is about the same as that killed by lightning - or by accident-causing deer, or by severe allergic reactions to peanuts. "In almost all years, the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorists is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States" wrote John Mueller of Ohio State University in last autumn's issue of the authoritative American journal Terrorism and Political Violence.

As Mueller concedes, there is a definitional issue: Few insurgents in Iraq are internationals; most are homegrown. And if aspirant terrorists in London or Paris had nuclear bombs, the numbers would become rather different. Nonetheless, a phenomenon that is scattered, limited and under control, and inevitably transient, has been conflated by Washington with something that is huge and very serious: the desperation among the Muslim masses that is directed indiscriminately against Western nations, which are held responsible for Islamic society's backwardness, poverty and exploitation. Al Qaeda and individual international terrorists are the object of worldwide intelligence and police operations. They are a marginal phenomenon. The Bush administration's conflation of them with the social upheaval in their world is exploited to perpetuate changes in American society that provide a much more sinister threat to democracy than anything ever dreamed by Osama bin Laden. The radical threat to the United States is at home.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

US Plans Massive Data Sweep

Thursday, February 9, 2006 excerpted from the Christian Science Monitor

by Mark Clayton

The US government is developing a massive computer system that can collect huge amounts of data and, by linking far-flung information from blogs and e-mail to government records and intelligence reports, search for patterns of terrorist activity. The system - parts of which are operational, parts of which are still under development - is already credited with helping to foil some plots. It is the federal government's latest attempt to use broad data-collection and powerful analysis in the fight against terrorism. But by delving deeply into the digital minutiae of American life, the program is also raising concerns that the government is intruding too deeply into citizens' privacy.

"We don't realize that, as we live our lives and make little choices, like buying groceries, buying on Amazon, Googling, we're leaving traces everywhere," says Lee Tien, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "We have an attitude that no one will connect all those dots. But these programs are about connecting those dots - analyzing and aggregating them - in a way that we haven't thought about. It's one of the underlying fundamental issues we have yet to come to grips with." The core of this effort is a little-known system called Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement (ADVISE). Only a few public documents mention it. ADVISE is a research and development program within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), part of its three-year-old "Threat and Vulnerability, Testing and Assessment" portfolio. The TVTA received nearly $50 million in federal funding this year. DHS officials are circumspect when talking about ADVISE. "I've heard of it," says Peter Sand, director of privacy technology. "I don't know the actual status right now. But if it's a system that's been discussed, then it's something we're involved in at some level."

A major part of ADVISE involves data-mining - or "dataveillance," as some call it. It means sifting through data to look for patterns. If a supermarket finds that customers who buy cider also tend to buy fresh-baked bread, it might group the two together. To prevent fraud, credit-card issuers use data-mining to look for patterns of suspicious activity. What sets ADVISE apart is its scope. It would collect a vast array of corporate and public online information - from financial records to CNN news stories - and cross-reference it against US intelligence and law-enforcement records. The system would then store it as "entities" - linked data about people, places, things, organizations, and events, according to a report summarizing a 2004 DHS conference in Alexandria, Va. The storage requirements alone are huge - enough to retain information about 1 quadrillion entities, the report estimated.

But ADVISE and related DHS technologies aim to do much more, according to Joseph Kielman, manager of the TVTA portfolio. The key is not merely to identify terrorists, or sift for key words, but to identify critical patterns in data that illumine their motives and intentions, he wrote in a presentation at a November conference in Richland, Wash. While privacy laws do place some restriction on government use of private data - such as medical records - they don't prevent intelligence agencies from buying information from commercial data collectors. Congress has done little so far to regulate the practice or even require basic notification from agencies, privacy experts say. Indeed, even data that look anonymous aren't necessarily so. For example: With name and Social Security number stripped from their files, 87 percent of Americans can be identified simply by knowing their date of birth, gender, and five-digit Zip code, according to research by Latanya Sweeney, a data-privacy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. In a separate 2004 report to Congress, the GAO cited eight issues that need to be addressed to provide adequate privacy barriers amid federal data-mining. Top among them was establishing oversight boards for such programs.
Cartoon Time

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Death penalty perverts Christianity, say church leaders -16/01/06

Protestant leaders in Austria have called on the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger to suspend the death penalty and spare the life of an elderly convict on death row. And a Catholic sister who has spent her life counselling both those who commit, or are victims of, capital crime says that Christian supporters of the judicial executions are perverting the message of Jesus Christ. “A country which uses the death penalty violates its citizens’ human dignity,” the Evangelical Church in Austria said in advance of the scheduled execution of 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen on 17 January 2006.

Mr Schwarzenegger is of Austrian origins, though he and his home city, Graz, site of the second European Ecumenical Assembly in 1997, have recently disowned one another. Clarence Ray Allen is blind, diabetic, has a weak heart and is wheelchair-bound. He has been on death row for 26 years. His lawyers argue that it would be cruel to kill him because of his infirmity, though they do not deny the extent of his crime. The Austrian church leaders are taking their stand on the more fundamental judgement that contemporary “biblical and theological arguments point only to a clear and unambiguous ‘no’ to the death penalty.”

This is a position that puts them in direct confrontation with the religious right in the United States. Mr Allen already was serving a life sentence for murder — arranging the strangulation of a witness to his 1974 burglary of a Fresno-area store — when he was condemned to die for calling from his prison cell for the 1980 shotgun slayings of three of that store’s employees. California has 646 people on death row, more than any other state. Last month Governor Schwarzenegger refused appeals against the execution of ‘Tookie’ Williams, the Crips gang leader who recanted his criminal past and spent many years campaigning against gang violence from his prison cell.

Christian opponents of the death penalty, including Sister Helen Prejean, whose story was dramatized 10 years ago in the film Dead Man Walking, say that it is merciless, discriminates against the poor, denies the reality of redemption and risks killing the innocent. Sister Helen was in the UK last week promoting her new book, Death of the Innocents. She has attended the executions of men she knows to be guilty of horrific crimes, but also of those she believes to be wrongly convicted, and prays with and counsels their families and those of their victims. The Louisiana-based nun, aged 66, insists that US politicians’ rhetoric is moderating and that the number of death penalty convictions is in decline.

Public uneasiness about wrongful convictions and the manifest inequity with which the death penalty is implemented is growing, she says. Opinion polls bear this out. Sister Helen is especially scathing about politicians and judges who use the Bible to justify executions. “I call it Christianity-lite”, she declares. “It’s not real Christianity. Truly it is blasphemy. Jesus Christ is being held hostage by these people: his whole message is being perverted.”

Monday, February 13, 2006

C of E to press ahead with women bishops -09/01/06

The Church of England is to press ahead with the ordination of women bishops despite warnings that the move could tear it apart, reports The Times newspaper in London. According to a report leaked to the newspaper, the first woman could be consecrated as soon as 2012. The document setting out how the Church should proceed is expected to be approved by bishops this week at a meeting in Leeds. The report will then go to next month’s meeting of the General Synod for debate.

The proposals include the grounding of the three “flying bishops” consecrated to care for opponents of women priests. In their place will rise a new hybrid, the PRB, shorthand for “provincial regional bishop”. However, one senior traditionalist told The Times: “This report is worse than a fudge, it is a bodge stuffed full of incomprehensible jargon.” His concerns are shared by some rebel bishops who will use the Leeds meeting to attempt to delay the whole process by a further five or ten years. They fear that the controversy over gays has left the Church so fragile that to add women bishops to its burden could finish it off.

Another newspaper reported last year that the Archbishop of Canterbury might decline to consecrate women if the Church decides to allow them to become bishops. The report, to be published officially next week, gives warning of “significant implications” following from the consecration of women. But in a “fractious and often brutal world”, the ordination of women as bishops would allow the Church to illustrate its taking part in the “sacrificial graciousness of God’s love,” it says.

The proposals allow for a woman to be appointed as both Archbishop of Canterbury and Archbishop of York. But a woman would only be appointed to Canterbury at a time when she would not cause further disunity within the wider Anglican Communion. Where a diocese or province would not accept a woman Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishops of London or Winchester would undertake her archiepiscopal functions. The new regional bishops will operate under a system called Transferred Episcopal Arrangements by which the episcopal functions of a woman diocesan bishop will be transferred directly to a PRB where parishes chose to opt out of her care. They will carry out ordinations, confirmations and other duties.

Traditionalists are also planning an emergency rally in London at the end of the month. More than 2,000 clergy, laity and bishops are expected at Westminster Central Hall to fight the plans. They contest the authenticity of sacraments celebrated by women bishops and priests but also, crucially, by any male priests ordained by a woman bishop. However, there is unlikely to be a further large exodus from the Church. Most who could not accept women’s ordination left after the first women were ordained in 1994. Women now account for 16 per cent of full-time clergy. The traditionalists’ own preferred solution, for a “third province” with their own bishop appointed as primate, has minimal support among the bishops because it would create “major schism”, the report says. At present, 315 parishes have opted for the care of the flying bishops. More than 1,000, of the total of 13,000 parishes, have passed resolutions banning the appointment of a woman as their vicar.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Why does Religion exist?

This question has perplexed me for some time. I understand why individuals have religious feelings and beliefs, various though they are, but why does the concept of religion exist? I’m not thinking of any particular religion or belief system here, after all many forms of religious worship have existed from the present back to well before any historical records began. Indeed archaeologists and anthropologists have pointed to the apparently religious burials of our near relative Homo Sapiens Neanderthalis which indicated a belief in an afterlife.

Some kind of religious observance has probably been going on then for approximately 2 million years and has covered every part of the globe. Why? What is it about the human condition that leads (seemingly inevitably) to a religious response? It would need to be something universal, free of historical, geographical or cultural reference and yet be something uniquely human – as it seems evident that no other creature on Earth practices religion. So, what do we all have in common?

We are all human so we all have universal experiences - birth, growth, death and much besides. But I don’t think that’s enough to explain why so many people have believed in external supernatural forces, gods, demons and versions of an afterlife. I think the thing we all have in common, that is central to who we are and how we think of our place in the universe is that we are all self-aware. We are not only alive, but we know we are alive. We know we exist. That makes us different from the majority of other life forms on the planet. I hesitate to say that we alone have this faculty but I do think it is one of our defining traits.

So why is being self aware so important and how does it lead to religion? Self awareness probably emerged sometime over the last 2 million years as a result of the increasing complexity of the brain. It probably wasn’t like a simple on/off switch but was more likely linked to brain complexity. The more complex the brain, the more self aware the ‘owner’ of that brain was – until at some point in prehistory we, as a species, became aware all of the time. I think that any self-aware being will inevitably ask itself two fundamental questions: Why am I/We here and What happens when I die. Because consciousness feels essentially different from its alternative it is hardly surprising that a self aware being would consider itself ‘special’ and unique, maybe even blessed or chosen. But with this gift comes fear. Fear of the end of consciousness, the end of self-awareness - death in other words.

Up until comparatively recently humans had an intimate knowledge of death and reasonably considered it a central mystery in their lives and I think that this is the crux of the matter. We have a feeling that we are special because of our apparent uniqueness in the animal world. At the same time we live in a world where death is the great leveller and I’m guessing that it wasn’t long before the early philosophers decided that death cannot be the end of things because we are so special. There must be, they had to decide, an existence after death. After all, how can something so special as the only self-aware being on the planet simply cease to be after a few short years as if it had never existed? It just doesn’t make any sense. At that moment religion was born. We are self-aware which makes us special. So special that death cannot be the end of things. The detailed mechanisms would have come later; the idea of the soul (after all bodies decay), the idea of a separate realm that the departed enter (later elaborated to a bad place and a good place with a judge who decides) – and so on. But the nub, the crux, the seed of it all was fear. Fear of death, the death of consciousness.

It follows that non self-aware creatures shouldn’t have religions and this certainly seems to be true (or at least as far as we can tell). Does it also follow that a self-aware creature who was completely unafraid of death would also be without religion? It’s certainly an interesting question.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Cost of Wars Soars to $440 Billion for US

by Julian Borger February 4, 2006 for The Guardian

The Bush administration has said it is planning to spend $120bn (£68bn) on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars this year, bringing their total cost so far to $440bn. The spending request, which will soon be presented to Congress, marks a 20% increase over last year, despite plans to draw down US troop levels in both war zones in the coming months. The administration also plans to ask for a downpayment of $50bn on war costs next year. The requests are expected to pass easily. The spending on the Iraq conflict alone is now approaching the cost of the Korean war, about $330bn in today's dollars. Meanwhile the cost of the overall "war on terror" - relabelled The Long War in the Pentagon - is already close to half a trillion dollars, and will soon equal that of the 13-year Vietnam war.

"There is some reason to be surprised that it's this much," said Steven Kosiak, a military spending analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "The Congressional Budget Office had estimated the defense department would need $85bn and that was with no drawdown in troops." A White House budget official, Joel Kaplan, said that some of the extra spending would go towards keeping military equipment going in the desert, to accelerate training of Iraqi forces, and to give US troops better protection against roadside bombs. The budget request did not include reconstruction spending.

The defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, once predicted that the Iraq war would cost $50bn. George Bush's former economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, was forced to resign for being alarmist after predicting in 2002 that the Iraq war could cost up to $200bn. Even before the new supplemental requests, spending on the conflict in Iraq has reached $250bn. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and Columbia University economist, has calculated that the Iraq war could ultimately cost $2 trillion, including lost productivity because of casualties and foreign deployments of reservists, as well as the long-term impact of disability payments and general economic disruption. The administration's low pre-war estimates assumed that the invasion would be largely welcomed and coalition troops would quickly be able to hand over to a new government in Baghdad. The money being earmarked for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is outside the normal defense budget. That budget for 2007 is $439bn, a 5% increase.

The budget will be delivered to Congress at the same time as the Quadrennial Defense Review, in which the Pentagon lays out its longer term strategy. The review envisages the development of more mobile, specialized forces in smaller units. There will be a 15% increase in special operations forces, and a new air force drone squadron. Nearly 4,000 more troops will be assigned to psychological operations and civil affairs units. Military experts have applauded the reforms but say the review does not explain how they will be paid for. There is no mention of cutting back on some of the huge and controversial equipment in development, such as the F22 and F35 fighter planes and the US navy's new DD(X) destroyer.

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters."

It's an oral history. It was passed down, word-of-mouth, father to son, from Adam to Seth, from Seth to Enos, from Enos to Cainan, for 40 generations, a growing, changing, story, it was handed down, word-of-mouth, father to son. Until Moses finally gets it down on lambskin. But lambskins wear out, and need to be recopied. Copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of an oral history passed down through 40 generations. From Hebrew it's translated into Arabic, from Arabic to Latin, from Latin to Greek, from Greek to Russian, from Russian to German, from German to an old form of English that you could not read. Through 400 years of evolution of the English language to the book we have today, which is: a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of an oral history passed down through 40 generations. You can't put a grocery list through that many translations, copies, and re-telling, and not expect to have some big changes in the dinner menu when the kids make it back from Kroger's. And yet people are killing each other over this written word. Here's a tip: If you're killing someone in the name of God -- you're missing the message.

Nick Annis, preface to "God is Good"

Friday, February 10, 2006

Pope condemns use of torture to extract intelligence -13/12/05

In what many will see as a clear reference to the alleged use of torture by the US in the context of the 'War on Terror' and the invasion of Iraq, the Pope has said that war should not be an excuse for disregarding international humanitarian law. The message from Pope Benedict came in an annual peace message today (Tuesday) for the Church's World Day of Peace, celebrated on Jan. 1.

The message comes just a few days after the House of Lords made a landmark ruling that intelligence obtained under torture even in a third country cannot be used as evidence in British courts. Coming at a time when questions are being asked in the UK and around the world about the use of torture, particularly by the US, the Pope said that countries have a duty to respect international humanitarian law - even if they consider that they are at war. "The truth of peace must also let its beneficial light shine even amid the tragedy of war," he said.

In the 12-page message, called "In Truth, Peace", he said the Holy See was convinced international humanitarian law had to be respected "even in the midst of war". Whilst condemning terrorism he said the world community should also look deeper into its political, social, cultural, religious and ideological motivations. The Pope did not name any countries or wars but his words followed controversy over reports of abuse of prisoners by the United States in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, reports the Reuters news agency.

But Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican's Justice and Peace department, told reporters at the presentation of the message that the Pope's words applied to all wars. Asked if Iraq was included, he said: "That's correct." In his message, the Pope called international humanitarian law one of the finest expressions of truth. "Precisely for this reason, respect for that law must be considered binding on all peoples," he said. International humanitarian law "must be brought up to date by precise norms applicable to the changing scenarios of today's armed conflicts and the use of ever newer and more sophisticated weapons", he added. Washington says the Geneva Convention does not apply to foreign captives in its war on terrorism, but human rights activists say it is still bound by the 1984 U.N. Convention against Torture to which it is a signatory. Asked if the Church could condone torture as a means to stop terrorist attacks, Martino said: "Torture is a humiliation of the human person, whoever he is. The Church does not admit it ... there are other means to make people talk."

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Virgin in Prayer by Sassoferrato (1609-1685)

I first saw this painting quite by accident whilst wandering through the National Gallery in London. I think it was the vibrant use of colour that first attracted my attention and once I actually stood in front of it I found that I just couldn’t take my eyes off it.

The image above doesn’t really do this breathtaking work of art justice. Over the years I have bought various representations of this painting but none of lived up to the real thing. The painting, now 350 years old, doesn’t so much reflect light as generate its own light – it’s really quite something to behold. The colours of her garments actually glow. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I remember standing there like a fool, with my mouth open in wonder at the genius of the artist. How can such a thing be made, I thought to myself.

Some of you will probably be wondering about now if I have lost my mind. I am, after all, gushing over a piece of religious art - a representation of the Virgin Mary (and you already know what I think of that story). But if religious feeling and religious myth can produce truly stunning works of art like this one, I can almost (but not quite) forgive it for everything else.

I do love art and as with anything you love it’s hard to put things in a rank order. However, if I had to place this painting in a rank it would definitely be in my top 5 paintings. I honestly can’t think of any other that has had such a profound and immediate effect on me. If you get a chance to visit London, and you like your art, then go see it in the National Gallery. I assure you that you won’t be disappointed.
Different freedoms: or why religion and politics should never mix

Credo by Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth) The Times December 10, 2005

THE election of David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party has quickened the pulse of British politics, and though I believe profoundly that religion and politics should never mix, there are times when it is important to say something religious about the political process itself. In 1996, when one party had been in power for almost a generation, I asked a civil servant in an unguarded moment which he thought more dangerous for a nation: the coming into office of a party most of whose members had no experience of government, or the lack of a credible opposition. Without hesitation he chose the second. Politics lives, he said, on the existence of alternatives, the clash of opinions, the cut and thrust of debate. Without that, democracy dies.

In a flash I realised that he had clarified for me the profound difference between religion and politics and why neither must ever invade the territory of the other. Democratic politics — the worst system ever invented apart from all the others — is more than the rule of the majority. That, as Alexis de Tocqueville rightly said, can lead to the tyranny of the majority and the loss of rights on the part of minorities. Its virtues are that it allows for the non-violent resolution of conflict. It makes possible a change in government without revolution or civil war. Most importantly, it safeguards the free expression of dissent.

Politics turns into virtue what religions often see as a vice — the fact that we do not all think alike, that we have conflicting interests, that we see the world through different eyes. Politics knows what religion sometimes forgets, that the imposition of truth by force and the suppression of dissent by power is the end of freedom and a denial of human dignity. When religion enters the political arena, we should repeat daily Bunyan’s famous words: “Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the gates of Heaven.”

This is easily said, but behind liberal democracy lies a long and bloody past. Twice in the history of the West, religion discovered its inadequacy as a means of conflict resolution. The first occurred in the first century CE, when Jews began their disastrous rebellion against Rome. It failed because of internecine rivalry between Jews themselves. The result was the destruction of the Second Temple and an exile that lasted almost 2,000 years. It was Jewry’s worst self-inflicted tragedy.

The second took place in Christian Europe between the Reformation in 1517 and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. For more than a century Europe was convulsed by religious war, Christian fighting Christian as Jew had once fought Jew. Out of these experiences, first Jews, then Christians, eventually learnt to separate religion from politics, influence from power, the noble dream from the willingness to compromise that alone allows us to live graciously with those with whom we disagree. It may seem odd to say that the most important feature of liberal democracy is its modesty. Humility is a virtue not always associated with politicians. Yet it is built into the system. The secular democratic state has no ambitions to proclaim the truth, fulfil the metaphysical longings of the soul, or pass judgment on the great questions of ethics. It is there to help us get along with one another, making our several contributions to the common good. It is the best way yet discovered of allowing us all to feel heard, our views considered if not always accepted, and of constructing a society we see as tolerable if not ideal.

There is something noble about this self-limitation. Liberal democracy does what few great religions have ever achieved. It makes space for difference. It honours the person regardless of his or her beliefs. It allows societies to negotiate change without catastrophe. It teaches us the difficult arts of listening to our opponents and — in Isaiah’s phrase — “reasoning together”. These are modest virtues but necessary ones. We are living in an age in which, not just in Britain but throughout the world, many people are disillusioned with secular politics, and are turning to religion instead. In itself that is a blessing. Religious faith is our noblest effort to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. The expansive air of the spirit redeems the narrowness of the material world. But to expect it to solve political problems is to invite disaster. Religion becomes political at its peril, and ours.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Britain Defies US with Funding to Boost Safe Abortion Services

February 6, 2006 by Sarah Boseley for the Guardian

The British government will today publicly defy the United States by giving money for safe abortion services in developing countries to organisations that have been cut off from American funding. Nearly 70,000 women and girls died last year because they went to back-street abortionists. Hundreds of thousands of others suffered serious injuries.

Critics of America's aid policy say some might have lived if the US had not withdrawn funding from clinics that provide safe services - or that simply tell women where to find them. The "global gag" rule, as it has become known, was imposed by President George Bush in 2001. It requires any organisation applying for US funds to sign an undertaking not to counsel women on abortion - other than advising against it - or provide abortion services.

The UK will today become the founder donor of a fund set up specifically to attempt to replace the lost dollars and increase safe abortion services. The Department for International Development will contribute £3m over two years. DFID and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) - whose clinics across the world have suffered badly - hope that others, particularly the Scandinavians, Dutch and Canadians, will be emboldened to put money in too.

"I think the UK is being very brave and very progressive in making this commitment," said Steven Sinding, director general of the IPPF. "We're deeply grateful for this gesture not only financially but also politically. Tens of thousands of women who depend on our services are not able to get them. We're committed to the expansion of safe abortion because in any society no matter how efficiently contraception is made available there will be unplanned and unwanted pregnancies."

The "global gag", he said, had increased the number of unsafe abortions by stopping funding to clinics that primarily provide contraception. "What I've never been able to figure out about American policy is why they persist in cutting down funding to organisations that are about preventing unwanted pregnancies." International development minister Gareth Thomas said the government hoped the US position would change: "We work very closely with the Americans but we have a very different view from them on abortion. Friends can disagree. I recognise that the Americans are not going to want to contribute at the moment. We obviously continue to hope that the position will change. It is a position that has been decided by Congress so we're very aware of it and they know that."

DFID asked IPPF to produce a report on the scale of the damage caused by unsafe abortion. Death and Denial: Unsafe Abortion and Poverty, is published today. It reveals that an estimated 19 million women will risk the consequences of an unsafe abortion this year, of whom 70,000 will die. This accounts for 13% of the 500,000 maternal deaths each year. Reducing unsafe abortions is critical to reaching the UN's Millennium Development Goal on cutting maternal mortality, said Mr Thomas.

Women's low status in many poor countries makes them vulnerable to sexual coercion, abuse and exploitation, says the report. Almost 50% of sexual assaults worldwide are against girls aged 15 or less. The death and injury toll is highest in countries where abortion is illegal or severely restricted, as in Kenya, where some 30% to 50% of maternal deaths are a result of unsafe abortion. The Family Planning Association of Kenya, an IPPF member, chose to forfeit US funds rather than sign the "global gag" clause. It was forced to close three reproductive health clinics, scale back others and slash outreach programmes. Many other organisations are affected by the global gag, including Marie Stopes, which is bigger in some countries than IPPF. The money from the new fund will be equitably shared among all those who have lost US funds. IPPF, which has itself lost $15m (£9m) a year for the past five years, together with the provision of contraceptives worth $2m to $4m, hopes the fund may eventually raise up to $35m.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Priests resist condom use in HIV-hit Tanzania

A new school science syllabus in Tanzania that incorporates the teaching of how condoms should be used has been described by Roman Catholic bishops as “unacceptable”, in spite of the spread of HIV-AIDS, writes Frank Jomo for Ecumenical News International. “Introduction of the [teaching of] use of condoms in schools, apart from being sinful, is indeed justification and opening the door for immoral lifestyles,” Cardinal Polycarp Pengo, the archbishop of Dar es Salaam, said in a statement issued by Tanzania's Episcopal Conference this month.

It continued: “Teaching children, some as young as 12 years old, the use of condoms is disastrous.” Development workers vigorously disagree. The disputed part of the syllabus lists several ways of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, including the proper use of condoms. The Ministry of Education released the new primary school science programme in November 2005.

Like some other religious bodies in Africa, Tanzania's Catholic bishops have remained steadfast in their opposition to condoms as a means of contraception and HIV/AIDS prevention, despite two million Tanzanians being HIV positive. The bishops said their opposition did not imply the church was “blind to the magnitude of the loss of life and suffering to millions of people infected by the disease”. Rather, they said it was obliged to defend the human dignity, the Catholic Information Service for Africa has reported.

However an official from the Tanzania Aids Commission, Halima Shariff, accused priests of being unrealistic in their approach to curbing the HIV/AIDS scourge in urging people to abstain from sex. “The clerics say the only way to check further spread of HIV/AIDS is to abstain from sex or to have a single partner. Well, that is indeed good; but what do you do with those who cannot manage to abstain, or stick to a single partner?” asked Shariff.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Customs `camps' cause for concern

From the Press-Telegram by Tom Hennessy 02/03/2006

Maybe a lifetime in the news business makes one paranoid. Or maybe it was just a matter of timing. The story showed up in Tuesday's Press-Telegram, as I was reading "Night," Elie Wiesel's horrifying autobiography of a teenager in Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Appearing on page A5, the story said the federal government had awarded a $385 million contract for the construction of "temporary detention facilities." These would be used, the story said, in the event of an "immigration emergency." Jamie Zuieback, an official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), explained such an emergency like this: "If, for example, there were some sort of upheaval in another country that would cause mass migration, that's the type of situation that the contract would address."

That sounds a tad fuzzy, but let's concede that the camps do have something to do with immigration, illegal or not. In fact, there already are thousands of beds in place at various U.S. locations for the purpose of housing illegal immigrants. But for anyone familiar with history U.S. or European the construction of detention camps for whatever purpose should prompt a chilling scenario.

The new detention camps will be built by Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Halliburton. The latter, as you likely know, is the defense-related corporate giant with fists full of contracts involving the war in Iraq. Halliburton was led by Vice President Dick Cheney from 1995 to 2000. Democrats in Congress have accused the administration of favoring the company via no-bid contracts. But KBR says the detention contract was competitive. Tuesday's story also said the contract was awarded by the Army Corps of Engineers. However, Halliburton says it was awarded by the Department of Homeland Security in support of ICE. The contract is for a year, but includes four one-year options. It is a renewal of an existing ICE contract, notes Halliburton. KBR, in fact, had the $9.7 million contract to build the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. This facility, popularly dubbed "Gitmo," holds 660 prisoners classified by the government as "enemy combatants."

This column is written with the distinct feeling that not many people will give a hoot about any or all of this. But as already noted, a news story about construction of government detention centers should give us all pause. Considering what took place in Nazi Germany, as well as the shameful incarceration of Japanese-Americans in 1942, no detention camp should be built without the widest possible public scrutiny.

Bottom line: The contract cries out for greater attention. So far, the government's expressed reason for building them is insufficient and ill-defined. And even if the camps do relate to illegal immigration, their purpose could be changed overnight. This is an instance in which we could be well served by our representatives in Congress. They need to look at this and give constituents a better picture of what is going on. Let's not have it said, years from now, that no one ever questioned this.

So, the American Government is building ‘detention camps’. Does anyone else have a really bad feeling about this? Or will people just ignore yet another warning sign thinking “This won’t affect me. It’s none of my concern.”

Thanks very much to Prairie Angel for bringing this to my attention.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Careful Not to Get Too Much Education...Or You Could Turn Liberal

by Dr. Teresa Whitehurst posted on December 28, 2004 by CommonDreams.org

Sadie Lou and I had an exchange of views recently about what I said regarding the link between religion & Republicans – that being ignorance. Basically the idea was that too much education can make you an atheist or, worse still, a Liberal. This is an except from the article I remembered reading some time ago.

I've been giving a lot of thought lately to a conversation I overheard at a Starbucks in Nashville last winter. It was a cold and rainy night as I worked away at my laptop, but the comforting aroma of cappuccino kept me going. My comfort was interrupted, however, by two young men who sat down in upholstered chairs near my table. One was talking, the other listening, in what appeared to be an informal college orientation.

"But you do have to be careful about one thing," one of them said quietly, coming closer and speaking in hushed tones, "My professor-I have this great professor-told me that you have to be careful not to get too much education, because you could lose your foundation, your core values." The neophyte nodded solemnly, his eyebrows raised with worry. "If you get a bachelors," the seasoned student reassured, "you'll probably be okay. But my professor said that when you get a master's, and definitely if you go beyond that, you can lose your values. He said that college students have to be watchful because if you get too much education, you could turn LIBERAL. He's seen it happen to a lot of good Christians."

I found it hard to concentrate after that, my mind returning again and again to one question: "What would happen to higher education in America if this fear of "too much education", and this presumption that liberal views are the devil's snare rather than the logical consequences of exposure to science, philosophy, literature and diversity, became widespread?" Sadly, it has already happened, and is growing on college campuses across the US. A recent article by Justin Pope, "Conservatives Flip Academic Freedom Debate: Liberal professors are accused of attempting to indoctrinate students. But some teachers say pupils are trying to avoid new ideas." (AP, 12/25/04) describes this anti-liberal movement, weakly disguised as "balancing" their courses with conservative views.

As the young man in Starbucks said just before he and the incoming freshman got up to leave, "Even at Lipscomb, you have to be careful what you pay attention to. My professor said that a few faculty members might lead you astray without meaning to, by bringing in ideas that aren't biblical. He said that if you're ever taught anything that sounds questionable, you should talk about it with your minister to see if it's right." Even as a Christian raised in the evangelical tradition, this shocked me. I suppose it shouldn't have; the Southern Baptist Convention recently considered a proposal to urge all parents to pull their children out of public schools to prevent their exposure to "non-biblical ideas" which, as it happens, run rampant in fields like medicine, physics, archaeology, literature, philosophy, history, astronomy, psychology, theology-in short, everything.

What will happen to that innovative American spirit if radical "conservatives" have their way with our educational system? How will the US fare in the global marketplace when certain ideas, or entire fields, become off-limits to students who've been indoctrinated to consult their ministers before learning new information? What will happen to medical research, for instance, if this movement proceeds to its logical conclusion: outlawing the scientific method, a method notorious for not relying on biblical principles?

Friday, February 03, 2006

A Few Good Quotes:

"A man's ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death." ~ Albert Einstein

"All religions, with their gods, demigods, prophets, messiahs and saints, are the product of the fancy and credulity of men who have not yet reached the full development and complete possession of their intellectual powers." ~ Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State (1871)

"A religion, even if it calls itself a religion of love, must be hard and unloving to those who do not belong to it." ~ Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology And The Analysis Of The Ego (1921)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Blair and The Religious Hatred Bill

The Independent 01 February 2006

Tony Blair was humiliated in the Commons last night when he failed to cast the vote that would have saved his Government from defeat over plans to create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred. Official voting records showed Mr Blair did not enter the voting lobbies as MPs backed a string of safeguards designed to water down the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill by a majority of just one.

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, accepted defeat and said the amended Bill would go on to the statute book. Conservatives jeered as he told MPs: " The Government accepts the decision of the House this evening. We are delighted the Bill is going to its Royal Assent and delighted we have a Bill which deals with incitement against religious hatred."

Under the Lords amendments, only "threatening" behaviour will be illegal, removing government attempts to outlaw "abusive or insulting" actions. Peers had also changed the Bill to ensure that individuals can only be prosecuted if they intended to incite hatred. The defeat, coming only two months after MPs voted down plans for a 90-day detention period under the Terrorism Bill, took government whips and rebel MPs by surprise. It has profound implications for Mr Blair's ability to push through his main reforms in areas such as ID cards, which are likely to face huge opposition on the Labour benches.

It came at the end of a day of angry protest inside and outside the Commons, the culmination of a powerful lobbying effort by campaigners, including the comedian Rowan Atkinson, who argued the Government's plans could stifle freedom of speech.

Hundreds turned out to oppose a measure that they feared would curb religious debate and undermine free speech, although the Government has insisted it will only be used in rare cases where someone has deliberately or recklessly stirred up hatred of religious believers. Paul Goggins, the Home Office minister, tried to mollify opponents by praising them for making serious points, and insisting his job was to "calm fears". He promised the Commons that when the Bill was eventually passed, it would come with Home Office guidance to make sure it is not misused. But he faced a barrage of anger from all sides of the Commons. Bob Marshall-Andrews , one of the Labour rebels, said: "This legislation is not unclear, it's blisteringly clear. For 300 years we have turned our faces against protecting by legislation because you cannot protect faith without also protecting bigotry." Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said that without the changes "there is a fundamental concern that there would be a fundamental chilling of freedom of speech".

Last night's dramatic defeats for the Government came after the House of Lords moved to tighten the proposed offence of incitement to religious hatred amid claims that it would stifle free speech. MPs were voting on whether to accept Lords amendments designed to make it harder for prosecutors to prove that any statement falls foul of the law. Amendments accepted by the Commons last night mean that people cannot be prosecuted for recklessly inciting religious hatred. Instead, prosecutors will have to prove they intended to do so. Secondly, MPs accepted amendments designed to ensure only the most sinister statements would be caught by the law. Under the amended Bill statements would only be outlawed if they were "threatening", removing an attempt to outlaw "abusive or insulting" statements and behaviour.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

One tenth of stars may support life.

From New Scientist.

One tenth of the stars in our galaxy might provide the right conditions to support complex life, according to a new analysis by Australian researchers. And most of these stars are on average one billion years older than the Sun, allowing much more time, in theory, for any life to evolve. The concept of a "galactic habitable zone" (GHZ) for the Milky Way was first proposed in 2001. Now Charles Lineweaver of the University of New South Wales and colleagues have defined a life-friendly GHZ using a detailed model of the evolution of the Milky Way to map the distribution in space and time of four major factors thought essential for complex life.

"We're looking at what we think are the most robust and conservative pre-requisites for life - but they are very, very basic," Lineweaver says. The researchers conclude that a ring-shaped habitable zone emerged about eight billion years ago, roughly 25,000 light years from the core of the Milky Way. The zone has expanded slowly and includes stars born up to about four billion years ago. It encompasses close to ten per cent of all stars ever born in this galaxy. But other researchers say that too little is known about the prerequisites for life for this kind of mapping to have a great deal of meaning. "We hardly understand the origin of life, let alone the evolution of complex life. Until we do, it is extraordinarily difficult to talk about habitable zones," Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, US, told Science.

Lineweaver stresses that his team is not arguing that complex extra-terrestrial life is probable, or even exists, within their GHZ. "What we're saying is that this is the region that has the most potential for the formation of complex life," he says. The first factor the team considered in mapping the GHZ was the presence of host stars for a solar system. The second was the presence of sufficient heavy elements to form terrestrial planets. The third was a sufficiently safe distance from exploding supernovae. And the fourth was enough time for biological evolution. The team set this figure at a minimum of four billion years, since this was the amount of time it took for complex life to emerge on Earth.

[This was quite an old article but I thought it was worth posting. I think it shows that we are increasingly unlikely to be alone in the Galaxy.]