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

Saturday, March 31, 2007

US court rules Pringle chips are not satanic

By Ekklesia staff writer

22 Mar 2007

Pringles appear to be safe from demonic association after a US court ruled that the devil is not in league with global consumer brand Procter & Gamble (P&G). The ruling brought an end to a 12-year lawsuit pursued by P&G against four distributors of rival Amway, over rumours tying P&G to Satanism. P&G won the $19m (£9.7m) lawsuit when the court concluded that the four had spread a false accusation that P&G subsidised Satanic cults. The rumour had proved popular with evangelicals in the US and some in the UK. During the 1960s, a story began circulating that the corporation was controlled by Satan worshipers. A moon-star symbol was used by the company on many of its products from 1882 to 1985, which was considered suspect. The stars in fact stand for the thirteen original American colonies. But the arrangement of stars in the symbol was said to secretly spell out the Revelation 13:18 "number of the beast": 666. Without examining the facts, many people, most notably evangelicals, signed petitions against Procter & Gamble and boycotted their products in the 1980s and 1990s.

This latest case is one of several unfair competition suits P&G has brought refuting the Satanism slurs. According to P&G, the four distributors had passed on to customers the notion that its logo - featuring a bearded man looking over a field of 13 stars - was a symbol of Satan. "This is about protecting our reputation," said Jim Johnson, P&G's chief legal officer. Amway pointed out that it had successfully defended itself in an earlier case brought by P&G that had been connected with the rumours. It had also, it said, done everything it could to get the rumour stamped out.

[Is it any wonder that Atheists think that Theists are nuts? I mean… Satanic Potato Chips? Please……………………….!]

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Priests to Purify Sacred Mayan Site of 'Bad Spirits' After Bush Visit

by Juan Carlos Llorca for the Associated Press

March 9, 2007

GUATEMALA CITY -- Mayan priests will purify a sacred archaeological site to eliminate "bad spirits" after President Bush visits next week, an official with close ties to the group said Thursday.

"That a person like (Bush), with the persecution of our migrant brothers in the United States, with the wars he has provoked, is going to walk in our sacred lands, is an offense for the Mayan people and their culture," Juan Tiney, the director of a Mayan nongovernmental organization with close ties to Mayan religious and political leaders, said Thursday. Bush's seven-day tour of Latin America includes a stopover beginning late Sunday in Guatemala. On Monday morning he is scheduled to visit the archaeological site Iximche on the high western plateau in a region of the Central American country populated mostly by Mayans.

Tiney said the "spirit guides of the Mayan community" decided it would be necessary to cleanse the sacred site of "bad spirits" after Bush's visit so that their ancestors could rest in peace. He also said the rites - which entail chanting and burning incense, herbs and candles _ would prepare the site for the third summit of Latin American Indians March 26-30. Bush's trip has already has sparked protests elsewhere in Latin America, including protests and clashes with police in Brazil hours before his arrival. In Bogota, Colombia, which Bush will visit on Sunday, 200 masked students battled 300 riot police with rocks and small homemade explosives. The tour is aimed at challenging a widespread perception that the United States has neglected the region and at combating the rising influence of Venezuelan leftist President Hugo Chavez, who has called Bush "history's greatest killer" and "the devil."

Iximche, 30 miles west of the capital of Guatemala City, was founded as the capital of the Kaqchiqueles kingdom before the Spanish conquest in 1524.

[This is just so funny. Actually it’s not just funny….. it’s hilarious.]

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Just Finished Reading: The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury

In 1291AD the city of Acre fell and with it the Holy Land. But as the city burnt a lone ship made its escape carrying with it a secret cargo disappearing from history until the present day. That secret is about to be revealed to the world and there are those that will kill in order to stop it.

Yes, you guessed it – The Last Templar is a Da Vinci Code clone. In it we have a Catholic FBI agent and a beautiful Archaeologist racing to uncover clues before the Vatican can erase them. We also have a centuries old mystery that leads to a revelation – one so powerful that it challenges the very foundations of Christianity.

This book makes no pretence at being anything else other than pulp fiction. The characters are pretty much two dimensional and the plot is largely predictable. It is fairly well written at the beginning but slowly descends into cliché and, I must admit, took a bit of an effort to bother finishing it. It did have a few interesting ideas but their delivery, via an overly long conversation spanning several pages, was poor. It had little of the page turning drama of Dan Browns bestseller and at 440 pages was far too long. The ending was a particularly unbelievable act of cowardice based as it was on a complete about face by one of the major characters. Although entertaining enough it was most certainly light entertainment. If you’re going to read this I suggest you do so at the beach.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Video Time.

Run by Snow Patrol - with amazing video from Final Fantasy.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

An Accident of History.

Those who know me or have been reading my Blog for a while should be aware of my long relationship with Science Fiction. I’ve been reading it since I was about 14 and that’s a very long time in Cyberkitten years. Those who know me will also be aware of my particular interest in Alternate History – a subject I have mentioned here on more that one occasion. This idea postulates that not only could things have been different but they could have been radically different. Not only are their innumerable turning points in the greater History of the world but there are also innumerable turning points in our personal Histories too.

Consider if battles that had been won or lost where instead lost or won. Consider what would have happened if Winston Churchill had been born a woman. It is unlikely that she would have become Prime Minister of England at a time of national crisis. Would the outcome of the Second World War have been different? Consider if the 300 Spartans have not marched to Thermopylae and died heroically to save Greece. Would the Western World be speaking Persian now? Consider if the rock that finished off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago had missed. Would we humans even be here discussing philosophical questions or would we be mere mammalian snacks for dinosaur descendents?

The point I’m making is that History is more fluid than we give it credit for and that this idea has an impact on all of our ideas and beliefs as well as historical events. Personally I am as passionate about my atheism as some of my Blog buddies are about their Christianity and I have already discussed how, if our personal Histories had been different, our beliefs would have been different too. But what about global beliefs, could they have been different? I certainly think so.

The content of the New Testament was decided in the 4th Century. The books within that document formed Orthodox Christianity. The many, many Gospels that also existed at that time became heretical were sought out and, where possible, destroyed. How might Christianity have changed if different Gospels had been incorporated into the Bible? What if the Council that decided such things had been Gnostics and so those Gospels had become the Orthodox teachings of the Church? What would have happened in Constantine had not converted to Christianity and it had not become the religion of the Roman Empire? Would it have remained one religious sect amongst many? Would it have died out and faded from the history books? Would we all be pagan polytheists now?

You see, I hope, what I’m getting at here? The worlds various belief systems are contingent on accidents of History. If things had turned out differently then billions of people would believe very different things than they do now. They would believe them equally passionately and would, knowing humans, be killing each other over the various interpretations of their beliefs. Or maybe not? If Christianity had died during the Roman Empire would we have had Islam? Did practitioners of pagan religions kill each other over their beliefs? Did they wage war on each other claiming that their God(s) superior to that of their enemies? I don’t know but its not ringing any bells.

All of our beliefs are based on Historical Accidents both personal and global. They could very easily have been very different. The passion that we feel for them could quite easily have been a passion for something quite different. Those of us who are certain of our views on such things should ponder this. We are what we are thanks to the fluidity of Time itself. There is no firm ground beneath our feet.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Atheists say they've been threatened over their views

Dylan T. Lovan for Associated Press

Sat, Dec. 30, 2006

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The note on Blair Scott's windshield wasn't a nice one. The anonymous writer had to have seen Scott's atheist-themed bumper sticker, an uncommon sight in the small south Alabama town where he lived at the time. "It just amazed me that people would take time out of their day to return to their car, grab a pen and paper and write a 'You're going to hell and you're going to burn in a lake of fire,' and stick it under my windshield," said Scott, a 36-year-old veteran who installs computer systems in prisons. Outspoken atheists like Scott remain a minority, but there are dozens of atheist chapters sprouting up around the country, and even many in Southern states dominated by conservative Christians. Many who consider themselves atheists said they're afraid to mention their views on religion or that they don't believe in deities. It's an especially unpopular opinion in the South, they said.

"Do I think that any of these people are really afraid if someone knows they're an atheist that they're going to get shot down on the street tomorrow? No. But the thought is always there in the back of your mind," said Joe Mays, Louisville computer technician who helped organize an atheist group that meets monthly. Atheism is generally considered a disbelief in god or other deities, but some self-described atheists said they feel it is better described as a conclusion one arrives at sometime in their life. "I don't really care for the word belief," said Edwin Kagan, a northern Kentucky lawyer who has defended atheist clients. "People say do I believe in evolution? It's not something to be believed in, it's something to be learned. Like the multiplication table. Do you believe in the multiplication table, or do you use it, do you learn it?"

Some estimates say as much as 15 percent of the population is atheist, though few call themselves by that title, said Jim Heldberg, national affiliation director for American Atheists in San Francisco. Heldberg said his group has 60 independent groups in many cities around the country. And there are many high-profile people who have expressed atheist views or a disbelief in God, including cyclist Lance Armstrong, golfer Annika Sorenstam and actresses Angelina Jolie and Jodie Foster. At a meeting of the Louisville atheist group earlier this year, several members spoke of a fear of retribution if they mentioned their views around family or at work. Most didn't want to be identified. The members - including a factory worker, a nurse, a real estate agent, an accountant and some who work in computers - considered putting up flyers in local bookstores to attract new members, but they scrapped the idea when one said they would likely be torn down.

"Nobody's your friend when you're an atheist," one member said. Another member, Christopher Helbert, wryly suggested that he would rather his parents know he was gay than an atheist, because they would say "gay is curable." A study at the University of Minnesota this year lends credence to the group's discussion. It found that Americans favor gays and lesbians, recent immigrants and Muslims over atheists in "sharing their vision of American society." Respondents also said they were least accepting of intermarriage with atheists than with any other group. "I think the key to this animosity is probably this idea that somehow morality and religion are deeply linked and if you lose any kind of religious doctrine, you inevitably lose some purchase upon morality," said Sam Harris, best-selling author of "Letter to a Christian Nation." Harris' book is a response to Christians who have criticized his writings on atheism. "People think unless you've found Jesus, you can't love your neighbor in any significant sense," he said. Some atheists have gone to court to challenge American institutions, most popularly the "Under God" portion of the Pledge of Allegiance, which was added in 1954.

In 2002, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the pledge is unconstitutional when recited in public schools, agreeing with a suit filed by atheist Michael Newdow of Sacramento, Calif. The Supreme Court in 2004 reversed that decision. Newdow has since revived the case and last year a federal judge ruled in his favor. Newdow said atheists cannot get elected to office and that elected officials consistently side with people of faith on many issues." Government sends the message that it's a bad thing to be an atheist," Newdow said in a phone interview. Scott said when he was living in Mobile, Ala., people were tipped off to his atheist views after he wrote an editorial to the local newspaper protesting a proposed bible class at a public school. He said he never mentioned that he was an atheist in the letter. Scott said after that, his car was bashed up by a baseball bat and a cross was planted in his yard. He has since moved to Huntsville and now heads a local atheist chapter in that town, which he said is much more tolerant because of the number of NASA scientists who live there.

"I think there's almost an unwillingness to come out of the closet for most atheists, especially in the Bible belt, because of the type of repercussions from people of faith," he said. "Some nasty stuff has happened to people, some really nasty stuff. And people are afraid of that."

[Why are atheists feared and mistrusted so much – especially in the US? Why does not believing in something seemingly strike terror in the believers of that faith? It’s just too bizarre to get my head around. Again I’m SO happy that I live in Europe. Phew! Much kudos to all you atheists on the other side of the Pond. My thoughts are with you all].

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Poster Time.
Child fingerprint plan considered

From the BBC.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Proposals to fingerprint children aged 11 to 15 as part of new passport and ID card plans are being considered. Immigration minister Liam Byrne told ITV1's The Sunday Edition the proposals were being "looked at". Under existing plans every passport applicant over 16 will have details - including fingerprints - added to a National Identity register from 2008. But there was concern youngsters could use passports without biometric details up to the age of 20, said Mr Byrne. This could happen if they are issued a child passport between the ages of 11 and 15, which would be valid for five years. Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties called the idea "sinister".

Officials at the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) had proposed the fingerprint database, said Mr Byrne. But he added that no final decision had yet been made on whether to go ahead with the idea. "The challenge that officials have been asked to find an answer to, is how do you make sure that people who are 16 and over have got biometric details recorded in their passports?" he told the programme.

Shadow home secretary David Davis said the proposal "borders on the sinister" and added it showed the government was trying to end the presumption of innocence. "This government is clearly determined to enforce major changes in the relationship between the citizen and the state in a way never seen before."

"The determination to build a surveillance state behind the backs of the British people is becoming increasingly sinister," said Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg said. "It is a measure of ministerial arrogance that plans are being laid to fingerprint children as young as 11 without having a public debate first. As millions of British citizens discover that they will have to pay through the nose for the privilege of being included in a range of government databases, ministers should not be surprised if public resistance becomes ever more vocal."

Last month the opposition parties expressed anger that all fingerprints collected for ID cards would be cross-checked against prints from 900,000 unsolved crimes. And campaigners have long battled fingerprinting of children in schools, a practice they estimate happens in about 3,500 establishments. From this month guidelines from privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner will urge schools to get parental consent before taking biometric data. But under the Data Protection Act schools do not have to seek parental consent, and calls to outlaw the controversial practice have been rejected by the government. On Monday campaign group Leave Them Kids Alone will launch a list of 10 questions it recommends all parents ask of their child's school, if biometric systems are being considered or introduced. Campaigner David Clouter said they feared "normalising" the practice in schools would lessen resistance to pressure for the fingerprinting of younger and younger children. "Whatever the reason, it is an infringement of a person's civil liberties," he said.

[Wouldn't it just be easier to just tatoo barcodes on everyone's foreheads at birth or soon after... and while they're at it inject everyone with a GPS tracking device?]

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Atheists' bleak alternative

by Jeff Jacoby for the Boston Globe

December 13, 2006

From the land that produced "A Christmas Carol" and Handel's "Messiah," more evidence that Christianity is fading in Western Europe: Nearly 99 percent of Christmas cards sold in Great Britain contain no religious message or imagery. "Traditional pictures such as angels blowing trumpets over a stable, Jesus in his manger, the shepherds and three wise men following the star to Bethlehem are dying out," the Daily Mail reports. A review of some 5,500 Christmas cards turns up fewer than 70 that make any reference to the birth of Jesus. "Hundreds . . . avoided any image linked to Christmas at all" -- even those with no spiritual significance, such as Christmas trees or Santa Claus.

Presumably the greeting-card industry is only supplying what the market demands; if Christian belief and practice weren't vanishing from the British scene, Christian-themed cards wouldn't be, either. But some Britons, not all of them devout, are resisting the tide. Writing in the Telegraph, editor-at-large Jeff Randall -- who describes himself as "somewhere between an agnostic and a mild believer" -- announces that any Christmas card he receives that doesn't at least mention the word "Christmas" goes straight into the trash. "Jettisoning Christmas-less cards is my tiny, almost certainly futile, gesture against the dark forces of political correctness," he writes. "It's a swipe at those who would prefer to abolish Christmas altogether, in case it offends 'minorities.' Someone should tell them that, with only one in 15 Britons going to church on Sundays, Christians are a minority."

Meanwhile, the employment law firm Peninsula says that 75 percent of British companies have banned Christmas decorations for fear of being sued by someone who finds the holiday offensive. And it isn't only in December that this anti-Christian animus rears its head. British Airways triggered a furor when it ordered an employee to hide the tiny cross she wears around her neck. At the BBC, senior executives agreed that they would not air a program showing a Koran being thrown in the garbage -- but that the trashing of a Bible would be acceptable. "It's extraordinary," remarks Randall. "In an increasingly godless age, there is a rising tide of hatred against those who adhere to biblical values." A "tyrannical minority" of intolerant secularists is openly contemptuous of traditional moral norms. "The teachings and guidance of old-fashioned Christianity offend them, so they seek to remove all traces of it from public life."

You don't have to be especially pious to find this atheist zealotry alarming. Nor do you have to live in Europe. Though religion remains important in American life, antireligious passion is surging here, too. Examples abound: In two recent best sellers , Sam Harris heaps scorn on religious believers, whose faith he derides as "a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement." A study in the Journal of Religion and Society claims that belief in God correlates with higher rates of homicide, sexual promiscuity, and other social ills, and that when compared with relatively secular democracies, the churchgoing United States "is almost always the most dysfunctional." Secular absolutists demand that schools and government venues be cleansed of any hint of religious expression -- be it a cross on the Los Angeles County seal, a courthouse display of the Ten Commandments, or the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

What is at stake in all this isn't just angels on Christmas cards. What society loses when it discards Judeo-Christian faith and belief in God is something far more difficult to replace: the value system most likely to promote ethical behavior and sustain a decent society. That is because without God, the difference between good and evil becomes purely subjective. What makes murder inherently wrong is not that it feels wrong, but that a transcendent Creator to whom we are answerable commands: "Thou shalt not murder." What makes kindness to others inherently right is not that human reason says so, but that God does: "Love thy neighbor as thyself; I am the Lord."

Obviously this doesn't mean that religious people are always good, or that religion itself cannot lead to cruelty. Nor does it mean that atheists cannot be beautiful, ethical human beings. Belief in God alone does not guarantee goodness. But belief tethered to clear ethical values -- Judeo-Christian monotheism -- is society's best bet for restraining our worst moral impulses and encouraging our best ones. The atheist alternative is a world in which right and wrong are ultimately matters of opinion, and in which we are finally accountable to no one but ourselves. That is anything but a tiding of comfort and joy.

[Whilst interesting to see the decline in religious based Christmas cards as yet another indicator of the decline of Christianity in the UK I do rather question this ‘War on Christmas’ fear being whipped up on both sides of the ‘Pond’. I think that’s its nothing more than rank nonsense as is the idea that only Judeo-Christian ethics can ‘save us’ from ourselves. A secular atheist world view is far from bleak. If it was, why is Europe in particular apparently turning its back on Christianity in ever increasing numbers? If the Church was fulfilling an obvious need then why have congregations been falling since the 1950’s? To say that Christianity in particular is the cure for what ails us calls into question why the cure has failed during the last 2000 years - Maybe because it isn’t a cure for anything after all?]

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ancient chimps used stone tools.

From the BBC.

13 February 2007

Chimpanzees in West Africa used stone tools to crack nuts 4,300 years ago. The discovery represents the oldest evidence of tool use by our closest evolutionary relative. The skill could have been inherited from a common ancestor of chimps and humans, the authors say, or learnt from humans by imitation. Alternatively, humans and chimps may have developed tool use independently, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal reports. Chimpanzees were first observed using stone tools in the 19th century. Julio Mercader and colleagues found stone tools at the Noulo site in Ivory Coast, the only known prehistoric chimpanzee settlement.

The excavated stones showed the hallmarks of use as tools for smashing nuts when compared with ancient human or modern chimpanzee stone tools. Also, several types of starch grains were found on the stones, which the researchers say is residue derived from cracking local nuts. "Chimpanzee material culture has a long prehistory whose deep roots are only beginning to be uncovered," write the researchers in Proceedings. The tools were found to be 4,300 years old, which, in human terms, corresponds to the later Stone Age, before the advent of agriculture in the area. The age of the tools was determined by subjecting charcoal from the same ground layers to the technique of radiocarbon dating.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Israel Seeks All Clear for Iran Air Strike

by Con Coughlin for the Telegraph

February 24, 2007

Israel is negotiating with the United States for permission to fly over Iraq as part of a plan to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, The Daily Telegraph can reveal. To conduct surgical air strikes against Iran's nuclear programme, Israeli war planes would need to fly across Iraq. But to do so the Israeli military authorities in Tel Aviv need permission from the Pentagon.

A senior Israeli defence official said negotiations were now underway between the two countries for the US-led coalition in Iraq to provide an "air corridor" in the event of the Israeli government deciding on unilateral military action to prevent Teheran developing nuclear weapons. "We are planning for every eventuality, and sorting out issues such as these are crucially important," said the official, who asked not to be named. "The only way to do this is to fly through US-controlled air space. If we don't sort these issues out now we could have a situation where American and Israeli war planes start shooting at each other."

As Iran continues to defy UN demands to stop producing material which could be used to build a nuclear bomb, Israel's military establishment is moving on to a war footing, with preparations now well under way for the Jewish state to launch air strikes against Teheran if diplomatic efforts fail to resolve the crisis. The pace of military planning in Israel has accelerated markedly since the start of this year after Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, provided a stark intelligence assessment that Iran, given the current rate of progress being made on its uranium enrichment programme, could have enough fissile material for a nuclear warhead by 2009.

Last week Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, announced that he had persuaded Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad for the past six years and one of Israel's leading experts on Iran's nuclear programme, to defer his retirement until at least the end of next year. Mr Olmert has also given overall control of the military aspects of the Iran issue to Eliezer Shkedi, the head of the Israeli Air Force and a former F-16 fighter pilot. The international community will increase the pressure on Iran when senior officials from the five permanent of the United Nations Security Council and Germany meet at an emergency summit to be held in London on Monday.

Iran ignored a UN deadline of last Wednesday to halt uranium enrichment. Officials will discuss arms controls and whether to cut back on the $25 billion-worth of export credits which are used by European companies to trade with Iran. A high-ranking British source said: "There is a debate within the six countries on sanctions and economic measures." British officials insist that this "incremental" approach of tightening the pressure on Iran is starting to turn opinion within Iran. One source said: "We are on the right track. There is time for diplomacy to take effect."

[If such a crazy plan comes to fruition and Israel actually attacks Iran with US approval I shudder to think what the consequences will be. Certainly it will make the present fighting in the Middle East look positively calm by comparison. Haven't people learnt yet that military 'solutions' normally turn out to be anything but solutions?]

Thursday, March 15, 2007

What is Left? What is Right?

Heather Mac Donald for The American Conservative

August 28, 2006

[Nod to The Secular Outpost for linking to this]

Upon leaving office in November 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft thanked his staff for keeping the country safe since 9/11. But the real credit, he added, belonged to God. Ultimately, it was God’s solicitude for America that had prevented another attack on the homeland. Many conservatives hear such statements with a soothing sense of approbation. But others—count me among them—feel bewilderment, among much else. If God deserves thanks for fending off assaults on the United States after 9/11, why is he not also responsible for allowing the 2001 hijackings to happen in the first place? Skeptical conservatives—one of the Right’s less celebrated subcultures—are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it. They ground their ideas in rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral argument. And the conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies. Conservative atheists and agnostics support traditional American values. They believe in personal responsibility, self-reliance, and deferred gratification as the bedrock virtues of a prosperous society. They view marriage between a man and a woman as the surest way to raise stable, law-abiding children. They deplore the encroachments of the welfare state on matters best left to private effort.

They also find themselves mystified by the religiosity of the rhetoric that seems to define so much of conservatism today. Our Republican president says that he bases “a lot of [his] foreign policy decisions” on his belief in “the Almighty” and in the Almighty’s “great gifts” to mankind. What is one to make of such a statement? According to believers, the Almighty’s actions are only intermittently scrutable; using them as a guide for policy, then, would seem reckless. True, when a potential tragedy is averted, believers decipher God’s beneficent intervention with ease. The father of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City girl abducted from her home in 2002, thanked God for answering the public’s prayers for her safe return. When nine miners were pulled unharmed from a collapsed Pennsylvania mineshaft in 2002, a representative placard read: “Thank you God, 9 for 9.” God’s mercy was supposedly manifest when children were saved from the 2005 Indonesian tsunami. But why did the prayers for five-year-old Samantha Runnion go unheeded when she was taken from her Southern California home in 2002 and later sexually assaulted and asphyxiated? If you ask a believer, you will be told that the human mind cannot fathom God’s ways. It would seem as if God benefits from double standards of a kind that would make even affirmative action look just. When 12 miners were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion in January 2006, no one posted a sign saying: “For God’s sake, please explain: Why 1 for 13?” Innocent children were swept away in the 2005 tsunami, too, but believers blamed natural forces, not God. The presumption of religious belief—not to mention the contradictory thinking that so often accompanies it—does damage to conservatism by resting its claims on revealed truth. But on such truth there can be no agreement without faith. And a lot of us do not have such faith—nor do we need it to be conservative.

Nonbelievers look elsewhere for a sense of order, valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or “natural law.” It is perfectly possible to revere the Founding Fathers and their monumental accomplishment without celebrating, say, “Washington’s God.” Skeptical conservatives even believe themselves to be good citizens, a possibility denied by Richard John Neuhaus in a 1991 article. I have heard it said in the last six years that what makes conservatives superior to liberals is their religious faith—as if morality is impossible without religion and everything is indeed permitted, as the cliché has it. I wonder whether religious conservatives can spot the atheists among them by their deeds or, for that matter, by their political positions. I very much doubt it. Skeptical conservatives do not look into the abyss when they make ethical choices. Their moral sense is as secure as a believer’s. They do not need God or the Christian Bible to discover the golden rule and see themselves in others. It is often said, in defense of religion, that we all live parasitically off of its moral legacy, that we can only dismiss religion because we are protected by the work it has already done on our behalf. This claim has been debated ad nauseam since at least the middle of the 19th century. Suffice it to say that, to many of us, Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular. Just compare the treatment of prisoners in the 14th century to today, an advance due to Enlightenment reformers. A secularist could as easily chide today’s religious conservatives for wrongly ignoring the heritage of the Enlightenment.

A secular value system is of course no guarantee against injustice and brutality, but then neither is Christianity. America’s antebellum plantation owners found solid support for slaveholding in their cherished Bible, to name just one group of devout Christians who have brought suffering to the world. So maybe religious conservatives should stop assuming that they alone occupy the field. Maybe they should cut back a bit on their religious triumphalism. Nonbelievers are good conservatives, too. As Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has advised, it should be possible for conservatives to unite on policy without agreeing on theology.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Vatican asks UN for moratorium on cluster bombs

From Ekklesia - 08/09/06

The Vatican's permanent observer to the United Nations has called for a moratorium on submunitions, otherwise known as 'scatterable mines' or 'cluster bombs'. Submunitions are air-dropped or ground launched shells that eject multiple small bomblets, grenades, or mines. Small and explosive or chemical-filled, they are designed for saturation coverage of a large area, and in effect create large mine fields designed to kill or main. As well as military casualties, according to evidence gathered by non-governmental and international organisations, the use of cluster munitions has resulted in a consistent pattern of civilian harm.

Civilian casualties take place at the time of attacks but also in the post-conflict period as a result of unexploded bombs left behind. Campaigners say the full extent of this harm cannot be known because of difficulties in gathering information at the time of attacks and because casualties are still occurring in almost all countries where cluster munitions have been used. The use of cluster bombs has been admitted by both the U.S. and British military. Both used several types of cluster munitions, including those that have caused severe humanitarian problems in the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. The call for a moratorium came from Archbishop Silvano Tomasi was speaking at the 15th Session of the Group of Governmental Experts of States Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) which was held from August 28 to September 6.

Archbishop Tomasi said: "we have heard no convincing evidence from those who consider these arms [sub-munitions] to be legitimate. In any case, all arms are called legitimate before being prohibited or regulated. Was that not true of chemical, biological, incendiary and laser weapons? The fact of declaring a particular armament legitimate does not make it more acceptable or less inhuman." After highlighting how the Holy See considers "it vital to undertake a profound reflection on the nature and use of sub-munitions," Archbishop Tomasi pointed out that the victims of conflict "cannot wait for years of negotiations and discussions. For this reason, there must be a moratorium on the use of these arms. At the same time, the States parties to the CCW must set themselves to work."

In 2004, Pope, John Paul II urged the destruction of landmine stockpiles and called on nations including China, Russia, India and the US to adhere to the 1997 Ottowa Convention to ban them.

[..and the Vactian right on the money.. again. I'm impressed.]

Monday, March 12, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Obsidian Butterfly by Laurell K. Hamilton.

On her return from a routine resurrection vampire hunter Anita Blake receives an unexpected phone call. Her mentor and sometimes fellow monster hunter Edward needs her help. Something is slaughtering its way across New Mexico and Edward wants it stopped in the only way he and Anita know how – hunt it and kill it. But as soon as Anita arrives complication is piled upon complication and death in its many forms is never far away.

This is the ninth book in the Anita Blake, vampire hunter series and by far the longest at just under 600 pages. Despite ‘knowing’ Anita and her world fairly well by now Laurell Hamilton still manages to keep things interesting despite a few annoying literary habits. In this volume we find out a bit more about the enigmatic Edward and the story throws out a few more hints of the wider world they live in. Broadly similar to our own – indeed for several volumes I thought it was our ‘reality’ – the world Anita inhabits is full of vampires, werewolves, witches and much else. It is a world that has come to terms with its long association with the supernatural to the extent that it is a fully integrated part of the culture complete with its own history, mythology and politics. That alone would make her books interesting.

But what I really like about this series of books is the character of Anita herself. Inevitably reminiscent of Buffy, Anita is a diminutive attractive woman with a troubled love life (having both a vampire and a werewolf as her lovers) and a nagging worry about both her soul and her sanity. Her character is complex enough to make her real yet not too fabricated for the reader to lose interest. You find yourself sharing her pain as she goes about her job riding the world of monsters while hoping she doesn’t become one in the process.

Although classified as Horror I would personally call this type of book Action Fantasy. There are certainly horrific elements in most of this series so far – the scene in the hospital nursery comes to mind in this book – but unlike most horror books I’ve read (which actually don’t amount to that many) the horror elements in Hamilton’s books are not their purely to frighten or disturb. They are there to show the reader the level of evil Anita is attempting to vanquish. Hamilton does have an irritating habit of introducing too much sadism and far too much sadistic sex into her novels but if you can skim over that (as I tend to do) you’ll find her novels to be sure fire page turning entertainment.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Bush's Burned Bridges

by Rosa Brooks for the Los Angeles Times

July 21, 2006

Things fell apart so quickly.

At the beginning of this millennium, the Cold War was over, the prosperous United States was the sole remaining superpower and global opinion was largely sympathetic to U.S. aims. In the wake of brutal ethnic wars in Central Europe and Africa, the international community had forged a new determination to prevent conflict and atrocities. The volatile Middle East was quiet, and the world seemed headed toward stability rather than chaos. Only six years later, things couldn't be more different. The Bush administration's tunnel-vision approach to foreign policy has pushed the U.S. and the world into a devastating tailspin of conflict without end.

In Afghanistan, this year is shaping up to be the deadliest yet for U.S. troops. In Iraq, which President Bush promised would be "a source of true stability in the region," the carnage has been mind-boggling, and by late September, the fighting will have dragged on for 3 1/2 years — the same length of time it took us to defeat Germany in World War II. The total implosion of the Middle East highlights the continuing decline of U.S. prestige and influence. As Israeli planes — built with our money — pummel Lebanon, our world is becoming ever more perilous and American pre-eminence ever more fragile. The violent Hezbollah incursion into Israel was a deliberate provocation, to be sure, but Israel's response has dizzyingly upped the ante. Hundreds of Lebanese civilians — a disproportionate number — already have been killed by Israeli airstrikes. More than a dozen Israeli civilians have died in retaliatory Hezbollah rocket attacks. And that's just the beginning.

If Syria or Iran gets drawn into the conflict to bail out their Hezbollah client, Israel will retaliate against them as well. Spooked by Iran's burgeoning nuclear capabilities, Israel may be looking for just such an excuse to launch a punishing strike against Iran. Even if the conflict doesn't spread, it is already hardening the battle lines between the U.S. and our allies and the Muslim world. The conflict will breed a new generation of martyrs, a new generation of hungry children growing up amid the rubble and a new generation of mistrustful, bitter fighters — some of whom will be willing to blow themselves up for the chance of taking Israelis or Americans down with them.

The cataclysm in the Middle East represents the final and total failure of the Bush administration's foreign policy. After 9/11, the world was on our side, and we had a unique opportunity to turn tragedy into triumph, to strengthen the alliances and global institutions that have long sustained American pre-eminence. We wasted that opportunity. We promised to make the world safer, but we've turned it into a tinderbox. We promised to unite our allies, but we've sown rage and division. We promised to promote democracy, but we did so through violent and poorly thought-through "regime change" rather than through diplomacy, friendship and foreign aid. Now Israel, our closest Middle Eastern ally, appears hell-bent on destroying Lebanon — the second most democratic state in the region, which has been struggling successfully to cast off the Syrian yoke.

A year ago, the administration was pledging to support Lebanon's fragile and hard-gained democracy. Today, "the country has been torn to shreds," as Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora bitterly told diplomats. "Is this the price we pay for aspiring to build our democratic institutions?" And as the conflagration worsens, Washington is indecisive and impotent. We might use our leverage with Israel to push for an immediate cease-fire and a long-term political solution, but we lack the courage to criticize Israel. The administration's insistence on the right to unilateral self-defense (no matter how disproportionate) would make any U.S. criticism of Israel hypocritical anyway. We could use our leverage with Syria to get Syria to make Hezbollah back off, but we have no leverage with Syria. We refuse to have direct discussions with Syria anyway. We could use our leverage with Iran to get Iran to make Hezbollah back off, but we have no leverage with Iran. And we refuse to have direct discussions with Iran anyway, unless Iran agrees to all our nuclear demands in advance. And Israel, Syria and Iran all know that they can do as they wish at the moment without fear of a meaningful U.S. response. They understand (as does North Korea's Kim Jong Il) that we're bogged down in Iraq, too overextended to spend time, money or troops to stop the latest catastrophe.

We've burned up every ounce of goodwill we ever had, we've burned every diplomatic bridge we ever had, and now we can do nothing but sit on our hands as the ashes rain down all around us. Engraved on a wall at the British Imperial War Museum is a phrase attributed to Plato: "Only the dead have seen the end of war." It was meant as a warning about the perils of arrogance and empire — and the Bush administration seems determined to prove the aphorism's truth.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Economics of the suicide bomber

by Heather Stewart for The Observer

February 25, 2007

Better-educated suicide bombers are given harder targets and succeed in killing more victims, according to research by American economists. Efraim Benmelech and Claude Berrebi, of the National Bureau of Economic Research, studied almost 150 Palestinian suicide bombings, and found that older recruits, and those with more schooling, were assigned to tougher targets. 'The suicide bomber's age and education and the importance of the target are strongly correlated,' they say. Previous research has suggested that suicide bombers may make a rational economic decision that fame, honour and support for their families outweigh any benefits they are likely to gain from a lifetime of ordinary paid employment.

Benmelech and Berrebi suggest that, since more educated bombers could earn more in the labour market, they may demand higher-profile targets, with greater potential rewards. At the same time, terrorist organisations are likely to want to direct their most educated recruits to the hardest jobs. Of 148 bombers examined, 18 per cent had stayed in education beyond high school, compared with 8 per cent in the Palestinian population as a whole.

[A rather interesting way of looking at a disturbing phenomenon I thought.]

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Rise of the funerals that leave out God

By Caroline McClatchey for the Sunday Telegraph


More than 30,000 funerals in Britain last year were nonreligious, as families turn increasingly to "celebration-of-life" ceremonies rather than church services, according to new figures. The rise is being attributed to people's growing willingness to admit that they are non-believers, and to their desire to avoid "hypocrisy". Ten years ago, a funeral without a minister of religion and reference to God was virtually unheard of but increasingly, services are presided over by a "celebrant" and involve poems instead of psalms, while mourners are often asked to wear something bright rather than black.

One in 20 families now rejects a church service in favour of a celebration of life, according to the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), which represents 85 per cent of the industry. Most of those choosing non-religious funerals were brought up as Anglicans or Presbyterians but have stopped going to church and no longer believe in God, said Dominic Maguire, a spokesman for the association. "Years ago, people thought they needed a minister of some religion," he said. "They were concerned about what the neighbours would think. Now they are saying there's going to be no hypocrisy in death." Lapsed Roman Catholics are more likely to be "dragged" into church by their families, he added.

Christine Frain, 62, from Chiswick in west London, decided on a non-religious funeral for her husband Ron, a photographer who died of cancer in December. She said the 75-year-old jazz fan had not believed in God or an after-life, so a more personal affair "with plenty of Miles Davis" was more true to him. "He was born a Catholic but was deeply suspicious of religion," said Mrs Frain, a retired secretary. "We had poems and I wrote something about his life. It was not religious at all." Caroline Black, 50, a British Humanist Association celebrant, organised Mr Frain's funeral. When she finished her training six years ago, there were 120 humanist celebrants in England and Wales. There are now 220. Referring to herself as the "atheist vicar of Dibley", she said: "Every ceremony is unique and reflects the character of the deceased. The minister or God doesn't own the funeral, the family does."

Miss Black conducted the funeral last year of Linda Smith, the comedian and a former president of the British Humanist Association. The funerals of comics Ronnie Barker, Bob Monkhouse and Dave Allen, and of John Curry, the ice-skater, were humanist. Robert Bolt, the writer and director who wrote A Man For All Seasons and the screenplays for Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan's Daughter, had a secular funeral in 1995. Part of the appeal of non-religious services may also be the increased cost of conventional funerals. Britons spent £1.3 billion on funerals last year and the average cost has risen by 61 per cent from £2,048 in 2000 to £3,307 last year. A celebrant from the British Humanist Association charges an average £130, about the same fee as an average clergyman.

Most non-religious services take place in crematoriums. Up to seven out of 10 bodies are cremated, which is the cheaper option. Many cemeteries will run out of space within 10 years, forcing councils to consider unpopular solutions such as "double-decker" graves, with coffins buried on top of one another. However, cremation also poses problems. The fumes from vaporised dental fillings make up 16 per cent of mercury emissions, according to government figures. More Britons are opting for coffins of wicker and cardboard. The NAFD estimate there are 2,000 "green" funerals every year and that there are now 214 "natural" burial grounds across Britain, compared with 52 in 1997.

The Church of England carried out 207,300 funerals in 2005, down from 228,000 in 2001 and there have been calls for all churches to modernise services to boost numbers. The Rev Paul Sinclair, the founder of Motorcycle Funerals, which uses side-car hearses in place of traditional vehicles, said it was already happening. "Most church ministers I know will happily have music the deceased liked and will not insist on hymns," said the Pentecostal minister. "We need to get the message out to people that the church has come a long way."

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Cartoon Time.

Just Finished Reading: Six Impossible Things before Breakfast – The Evolutionary Origins of Belief by Lewis Wolpert.

Professor Wolpert in this interesting little book puts forward the idea that the foundations of our beliefs – all of our beliefs – originate from the time when early humans began using and making tools for the first time. This process of making tools – almost a definition of humanness in itself – changed the structure of the brain through natural selection ‘designing in’ beliefs regarding cause and effect. Wolpert extends this suggestion to encompass beliefs about health, the supernatural, religion, morality and much else besides.

Whilst full of interesting ideas and snippets of information I think that Professor Wolpert failed to make his case here. I can certainly understand why we can be ‘programmed’ to believe things – to have in effect a ‘belief engine’ as part of our brain structure - but I’m not convinced that this followed on from the process of early tool making. It certainly might have had an impact on the development of beliefs but it wasn’t necessarily at the core of things.

I actually found this book to be fairly badly written. Wolpert made many statements (some of which I agreed with) but made little effort to back them up. I continually found his assertions to be heavy with conjecture but light on the evidence to support them. Even though I agree with his idea that evolution most likely plays a significant part in the development of our belief systems – to the extent that we are built to believe – I would have liked to see a stronger argument put forward to support it. Six Impossible Things was an interesting and often thought provoking read but a little too light for my liking.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Advanced geometry of Islamic art

From the BBC.

23 February 2007

A study of medieval Islamic art has shown some of its geometric patterns use principles established centuries later by modern mathematicians. Researchers in the US have found 15th Century examples that use the concept of quasicrystalline geometry. This indicates intuitive understanding of complex mathematical formulae, even if the artisans had not worked out the underlying theory, the study says. The discovery is published in the journal Science. The research shows an important breakthrough had occurred in Islamic mathematics and design by 1200. "It's absolutely stunning," Harvard's Peter Lu said in an interview.

"They made tilings that reflect mathematics that were so sophisticated that we didn't figure it out until the last 20 or 30 years." The Islamic designs echo quasicrystalline geometry in that both use symmetrical polygonal shapes to create patterns that can be extended indefinitely. Until now, the conventional view was that the complicated star-and-polygon patterns of Islamic design were conceived as zigzagging lines drafted using straightedge rulers and compasses. "You can go through and see the evolution of increasing geometric sophistication. So they start out with simple patterns, and they get more complex," Mr Lu added.

He became interested in the subject while travelling in Uzbekistan, where he noticed a 16th Century Islamic building with decagonal motif tiling. Mr Lu, who designs physics experiments for the International Space Station, was in the region in order to visit a space facility in Turkmenistan.

Islamic art traditionally uses a mixture of calligraphy, geometric and floral designs because of a prohibition on the portrayal of the human form.

[Interesting. I must admit that I found Islamic art and architecture both fascinating and incredibly beautiful on a visit to Spain some years ago. Maybe it was the mathematics?]

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Bush Military Budget Highest Since WWII

by William D. Hartung for CommonDreams.org

February 10, 2007

Even by Bush administration standards, the military spending proposal for Fiscal Year 2008 - the budget year beginning on October 1, 2007 -- is enormous. The request for the "regular" military budget, which includes Pentagon spending plus work on nuclear warheads and naval reactors at the Department of Energy, was $499 billion. This represents a $46 billion increase from the current budget year.

Figures for the regular military budget exclude the costs of the current wars that the United States is engaged in. A proposed supplemental appropriation to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq of $141.7 billion brings proposed military spending for FY 2008 to $647.2 billion, the highest level of military spending since the end of World War II - higher than Vietnam, higher than Korea, higher than the peak of the Reagan buildup. There will also be a proposed supplemental of $93.4 billion added to this year's (FY 2007) budget, bringing the total for the year to $622.4 billion. This spending spree comes at a time when America's main enemy is not a rival superpower like the Soviet Union, but a network of terrorist groups armed primarily with explosives, shoulder-fired missiles, and AK-47s. And even if one accepts the "need" to fight a war like the current US occupation of Iraq, there are tens of billions of dollars in the administration's budget proposal that will never be used in that conflict. Requests for systems like the F-22 fighter ($4.6 billion), the V-22 Osprey ($2.6 billion), the CVN-21 aircraft carrier ($3.1 billion), the SSN-774 Virginia attack submarine ($2.7 billion), the Trident D-5 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile ($1.2 billion), and Ballistic Missile Defense ($10.8 billion) are just a few examples of weapons that are unnecessary, unworkable, or both.

What do all these figures mean? How can the average person make sense of these billions and billions and billions of dollars? Some comparisons may be helpful. Proposed U.S. military spending for FY 2008 is larger than military spending by all of the other nations in the world combined. At $141.7 billion, this year's proposed spending on the Iraq war is larger than the military budgets of China and Russia combined. Total U.S. military spending for FY2008 is roughly ten times the military budget of the second largest military spending country in the world, China. Journalist Jim Lobe of the Interpress Service notes that proposed U.S. military spending is larger than the combined gross domestic products (GDP) of all 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The FY 2008 military budget proposal is more than 30 times higher than all spending on State Department operations and non-military foreign aid combined. The FY 2008 military budget is over 120 times higher than the roughly $5 billion per year the U.S. government spends on combating global warming.

FY 2008 military spending represents 58 cents out of every dollar spent by the U.S. government on discretionary programs - the items that Congress gets to vote up or down on an annual basis. This means that military spending is more than the combined totals of spending on education, environmental protection, administration of justice, veteran's benefits, housing assistance, transportation, job training, agriculture, energy, and economic development. As the poverty rate continues to climb, the FY 2008 budget proposes cuts of $13 billion in non-military related discretionary spending, including cuts of $1.4 billion from the Community Development Block Grant; $436 million from Head Start; $1.1 billion from the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program; $669 million from Special Education; and $111 million from the Child Care and Development Block Grant. Progressives need to come up with more ideas about how to describe the size - and impact - of military spending levels. Educating the broader public on this issue will depend in significant part on whether we can find comparisons that make these massive numbers real to people.

One last point -- despite spending these huge sums on the military, the situation in Iraq is getting worse by the day, and U.S. troops are taking greater and greater risks as a result of shortages of equipment and training and reductions in down time between deployments.

[With all the problems the world is facing – to say nothing of internal US issues – this is a truly obscene waste of time, effort, expertise and money to say nothing of the number of lives that will be lost when these weapons are used (if they ever are). Is the staggering amount of money the world spends on improved ways to kill more people a really productive way to make a better world and make us sleep safely in our beds? I think not.]