Monday, August 29, 2005

The Attorney General of the state of California has sued McDonald's and Wendy's for failing to put warning labels on French Fries telling consumers that they contain chemicals (which in very large doses) might cause cancer or other health problems. Also included in the lawsuit are various makers of potato chips.

The fact that it takes high dosages to give cancer to rats, but that the very, very low dosages found in fried foods (naturally, no less; it's not like the chemical is being added) has not been found to be harmful apparently matters not to this elected official.

But then, like so many, he has no understanding of science. He also lacks the common sense God gave to turnips. Apparently, our state Attorney General is a blithering idiot.

Also, he apparently has way too much time on his hands. What, this state official has nothing better to do than pick on naturally occuring chemicals that people have been consuming without problems for years and years? There are no criminals in need of catching, or whatever it is he is supposed to be doing with his time?

This is why we make jokes about lawyers and politicians.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

According to news reports, the Rev. Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist in Kansas, contends that American soldiers are being killed in Iraq as vengeance from God for protecting a country that harbors gays. The church, which is not affiliated with a larger denomination, is made up mostly of Phelps' children, grandchildren and in-laws. He and his followers have been crisscrossing the country to demonstrate at the funerals of American soldiers who have died in Iraq. At the funeral, they wave signs at the morners and yell at them that "God hates fags" and "God hates you."

This is the same group that also visits the funerals of gay people, most famously at that of Matthew Shepherd, where they wave signs with the deceased's name and the message that the deceased is now burning in Hell.

Apparently, from accounts I've read, this church has successfully sued some municipalities for infringing on their civil rights or failing to protect them properly for their protests.

Nice people these are not.

I can think of many words to use in denouncing Fred Phelps and his followers. But I have to remind myself that Jesus died for them, and that despite their opinion to the contrary, God loves sinners, even sinners like them.

On the other hand, Jesus did not refrain from harsh condemnation of the self-righteous. So his words will work with these vile people:

You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean.In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of
hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:28-29)

I'd like to throw at them what Jesus threw at the self-righteous in his day just a few lines later, in verse 31. But he was God so he could be more certain about someone's actual future destination.

And besides, repentence is always possible. And I also remind myself over and over: salvation is by grace, not by works. Being an asshole does not negate the efficacy of Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
Every so often I receive email from anti-Semites. Today was one of those every so oftens. Since I teach a course on the History of Anti-Semitism, I find such email useful as a primary source; as is very common, the email is a conglomeration of cut and pasted articles, and excessively long.

This one was a little different in that it included a weird diatribe against the Bible, making it too a part of the Jewish conspiracy to rule the world (which seems to be going badly, given how Jews have been, and continue to be so badly persecuted most places in most times).

I find it hard to understand crackpots. Most crackpots I try to ignore. They depress me. Unfortunately, these particular crackpots have been responsible for murdering millions, so I can't in good conscience ignore them or be silent. But arguing with them is as effective as nailing jello to a tree. So what to do? Taking a page from Jesus' response to certain leaders, condemnation is the tactic I use now; approaching them in love and reason consistently results in only condemnation and personal attacks; the nicer I get, the meaner they become. Very odd.

For those who have not swallowed the lies of the hate-mongers, then on the website I've posted a considerable body of material refuting and warning against the crackpots. And I teach that class; I don't know what else I can do.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

You know, I really don't understand statements like this (from a news article):

The Family Research Council, a conservative Christian think tank in Washington, D.C., argues in its book Getting It Straight that finding people are born gay "would advance the idea that sexual orientation is an innate characteristic, like race; that homosexuals, like African-Americans, should be legally protected against 'discrimination;' and that disapproval of homosexuality should be as socially stigmatized as racism. However, it is not true."

First, do these people think that discriminating against gay people is a good thing? It certainly sounds like they do. They frankly give the impression that rouding gay people up and sticking them in concentration camps might be part of their agenda.

I wonder too, what part of what Paul said does the Family Research Council not comprehend:

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Cor. 15:22)

We are sinners because we are born that way. Duh. And all of us are sinners. Why in the world pick on gay people more than gluttons or the prideful, or even the self-righteous? And what part of Jesus dying for us sinners, and that as a consequence we can all be one in Christ, is so tough to get? Do they seriously want to argue that Jesus died for everyone except gays? Sounds like they might.

Or what part of "loving your neighbor as yourself" is so tough to understand? Perhaps hating your neighbor gets in the way of comprehending simple sentences?

Further rantings against those who hate gays shows up in my article, God Loves Gay People.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

I get email. My article that points out that the United States is not a Christian nation and that its founders were not all Christians (see Notes on the Founding Fathers and the Separation of Church and State) has brought me more hate mail than anything else I've written. It's also brought me acolades, however, ranging from the fact that it is frequently cited by others, to its being reprinted at least once by a newspaper back east.

This week I received an email from someone accusing me of blasphemy on the basis of this article. I'm still not quite sure how arguing against the US being a Christian nation falls into that category, despite the letter writer's insistence that it does based on his odd defintion of blasphemy. Anyhow. I've always been a bit concerned about those who wish to argue that the US is a Christian nation. Many of them seem to be part of what is called Dominion theology (and a few of them have also been anti-Semites, though I don't think the two necessarily go together). Most of the negative responses I get consist of people sending me quotes that seem always to be identical to those contained in the books by David Barton (founder and president of WallBuilders), in which he argues against separation of church and state. He insists that the US is a Christian nation and presents many quotes that he believes proves his contention. The fact that many are out of context and even a few just made up seems not to disturb those who have fallen under his influence.

Frankly, one would think that the history of Europe through the middle ages and up to the present time would be enough to demonstrate the wisdom of separating church and state. Roger Williams, the Baptist who founded Rhode Island and argued for the concept, suggested that the state tends to corrupt the church. Jefferson, some years later, argued the other way around, that the church tends to corrupt the state. I think a reading of history demonstrates that both men are right.

I fear that if people like Barton ever got the upper hand, I'd wind up being one of those experiencing what Roger Williams did, when he was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for, well, being a Baptist.
It is a very peculiar thing how Israel is so often targeted by various groups. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America issues anti-Israel diatribes, and so too, now does the Presbyterian Church. It really makes little sense. James Lileks had some interesting thoughts on the motivation behind this odd focus on a tiny country:

The Presbyterian Church (USA) -- not the members, but the learned elders -- has announced it will use its stock holdings to target Israel for being mean to the Palestinians.

But they're not anti-Semites. Heavens, nay. Don't you dare question their philosemitism! No, they looked at the entire world, including countries that lop off your skull if you convert to Presbyterianism, and what did they choose as the object of their ire? A country the size of a potato chip hanging on the edge of a region noted for despotism and barbarity. By some peculiar coincidence, it happens to be full of Jews.

The right and the left seem to take turns deciding who's going to be anti-Semitic. But for some time now, the hard left in the West has led the charge against the Jews -- or, as the sleight-of-hand term has it, the Zionists.

These adolescent spirits love nothing more than a revolution, a story of a scrappy underdog rising up against a colonizing power, and the Palestinians, with their romantically masked fighters and thrilling weapon-brandishing, fit the bill. Plus, there's something so deliciously naughty and transgressive about calling Jews the new Nazis.

It doesn't matter that one side is a liberal democracy that grants rights to women and non-Jews while the other has thugs and assassins for rulers and sends its kids to summer camps where they learn the joys of good ol' fashioned Jew-killing.

According to the hard left's script, Israel was created when some Europeans (hisssss) invaded the sovereign nation of Palestine, even though we all know the Jewish homeland is somewhere outside Passaic, N.J. Then for no reason Israel invaded the West Bank and Gaza -- which for some reason had not been set up as New Palestine by the Egyptians and the Jordanians, but never mind -- and made everyone stand in line and get frisked. Those who joined the line in '67 are just getting through now. Evil Zionists.

You can read the whole thing here. Sadly, anti-Semitism remains alive and well. It merely changes the words it uses so that it can stay socially acceptable. The Presbyterians should be ashamed of themselves. Maybe someday they will be.

Monday, August 15, 2005

I’ve disliked the Intelligent Design concept since I first heard about it when Behe's book came out. Frankly, to me it seems to be another example of the disreputable idea theologians have referred to as “the God of the gaps” theology. That is, there has been a tendency among many Christians to look at things that they don’t understand, then jump up and down with glee, “see, that proves it: there is a God. God did it.” Unfortunately, as our understanding of the universe advances, this “God” will continue to shrink until he becomes entirely unnecessary (and this, I suspect, is why so many Christians and members of many other faiths fear science: they know that this “God” is likely to be destroyed by it, and that’s the only “God” they have). ID has simply repackaged this foolishness and given it a new name. It reminds me of GTE renaming itself Verizon: it’s still the same bad phone company.

I recently read someone who wrote, in thinking about God, that “since natural laws are His, presumably He can violate them any time He feels like it.” This reflects a widespread assumption regarding omnipotence which I don’t think is correct.

I do not think it is accurate to say that omnipotence means God can do just anything at all. I also disagree, therefore, that “miracle” in any way is a violation of natural law. Hume’s comments on miracle are devastating to that traditional concept of miracle, but only assuming this widely accepted definition of miracle is accurate. At least since the late nineteenth century, most theologians who have thought about the issue have attacked Hume’s conclusions by dismantling this key presupposition (one that most people, unfortunately, still believe) that “miracle” means “violation of natural law.” A more precise definition is that a miracle is a sign, or an intervention by God, by which he hopes to get the viewer’s attention.

Most people would find it difficult to commit murder. Their morality constrains their behavior. Most would argue that God is moral and thus is unable to violate his moral precepts, especially given the additional assumption that God is perfect. What if we now also assume that the laws of nature are as much a part of who God is as the moral laws are? What if we modify the definition of omnipotence to then mean that God is capable of doing anything that is consistent with his nature? God is constrained, I would argue, by his own nature and can do nothing in violation of it; nor do I think that he can do anything that is logically absurd. God can no more make 2 and 2 be 5 than I can.

God then, might no more be able to violate natural law than he is able to violate his moral law. Certainly he does spectacular things, but do those spectacular things require violation of natural law? An airplane would be mighty spectacular to a person living in the middle ages, as would flights to the moon or computers. But none of those spectacular things are violations of natural laws. We simply know the natural laws well and can manipulate them in very creative ways. God, to put it oddly, perhaps, is then simply more technologically advanced than we are. And thus, in a universe where God is like this, science then would be compatible with the nature of reality.

I would expect that we could learn in detail how the universe functions down to the smallest level; I thus am content with evolutionary theory and modern science, though I remain a theist who believes that God is intimately involved with his universe, in that his manipulations are no more intrusive or problematic than the manipulations of his creative creatures and differ from them perhaps in degree, but not kind. I would also point out that God made us free, and thus it is always going to be possible for us to explain Him away, precisely because we would not be free otherwise. How free are you when you are aware that your boss is watching your every move? God didn’t want us to live that way, either.

I suspect that the moral laws and natural laws are both a reflection of God’s fundamental nature and that he cannot be other than who he is. For instance, the fundamental forces (weak force, strong force, gravity, electromagnetism) must exist in a certain relationship with one another—to several decimal places--in order to have a universe capable of supporting life as we know it. We can logically posit universes where the forces are different than in our universe, but such universes would be very uncomfortable for us and incompatible with our existence. God is constrained by 2 and 2 always having to equal four. Likewise, “thou shalt not murder” is probably a necessary constraint on a properly functioning universe, too; anything else would be uncomfortable. While God could have done and could do anything, I believe he is constrained by who he is, just as my behavior is constrained by who I am (such as, what are the odds that I will voluntarily drive on the wrong side of the street, even though the only thing stopping me is a double yellow line painted on the asphalt; hardly a big physical barrier).

Thursday, August 11, 2005 is reporting that:


Launch of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been officially reset for Friday morning. The launch team will start a fresh countdown this evening, leading to liftoff at 7:43 a.m. EDT (1143 GMT).

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will join three other satellites currently in orbit around Mars. It will take higher resolution photos than any mission previous to this, and has ground penetrating radar to look for water. It also will be able to send data back at a much faster rate than previous interplanetary spacecraft.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

I set my alarm early this morning so I could watch the landing of the space shuttle Discovery at 5:12 AM local time. It wasn't too long after I switched on the cable news that that I heard the familiar double sonic boom shaking my house and briefly awakening my wife and one of my daughters. The shuttle's route toward its landing at the nearby Edwards AFB (I live just a few miles south of it) was a little different this time around. NASA decided to alter their route so they didn't fly over Los Angeles, just in case the worst were to happen. It seemed like the bang-bang of it dropping subsonic was louder than normal for us in the Antelope Valley thanks to that.

But nothing went wrong this time and Discovery landed safe and sound. Within the next couple of days maybe I'll get a glimpse of the shuttle flying back toward Florida, perched atop its carrier 747 aircraft.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

MSNBC reports:

HOUSTON - As the shuttle Discovery prepared on Friday to leave the International Space Station, NASA scheduled its next shuttle mission for Sept. 22 provided it can find a quick fix to falling fuel tank foam that has grounded the rest of the orbiter fleet.

Seems like more good news.

Friday, August 05, 2005

I was awakened at about 2:30 AM with ideas, oddly enough for next week’s newspaper article that I wrote on Thursday; I write a weekly article for a small paper in Northern California.

It was an added paragraph to conclude the thing. I did the article on 2003 UB313, the newly discovered planet beyond Pluto and the issue of whether to call it a planet, or for that matter, whether Pluto is really a planet, or just one of the estimated 100,000 Kuiper Belt Objects that are out there (about 600 found so far, including the very large Quaoar and Sedna, plus this new object and another (2003 EL61) 70 per cent Pluto’s size that was announced the same day). The addition to the article was to point out that the conflict is a conflict between categories. We have the traditional category called “planets” and this new category called “Kuiper Belt Objects” and that’s the source of the conflict.

I thought that perhaps--and this is what woke me--that a resolution of the conflict would be to simply refer to Pluto, Sedna, Quaoar, 2003 UB313 and the other new object, 2003 EL61, should be designated Kuiper Belt Planets; after all, we have what are called the “terrestrial planets” which are Mercury-Mars and the “gas giants” which are Jupiter-Neptune; seems a nice compromise solution to me. And since I can write anything I care to in the article, why not? So that’s what I did at 2:30 in the morning. Odd thing to be awakened from a dead sleep to write down I suppose.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Well, I changed internet service providers today, abandoning the company that I've used the last eight years. The reason I left the company I was with was because the service had deteriorated radically in the last month. My DSL connection was going down at least once a day, sometimes as often as three times a day, for hours at a time. Technical support, which is now in India, was very polite, but could never resolve the problem. After all they merely follow a script and have little idea on what to actually do, and there was no way to get to someone who might actually be able to think outside the script. So, today, my local cable company hooked me up. I find that my connection is now six times faster, the tech people are local, and it works. Oh, and it costs only a third as much as my old ISP. Maybe I should have done this years ago, but I am a creature of habit and it takes a lot to make me change. I've been with the same bank, for instance, for thirty years. If something isn't broken I tend to keep it.