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The Pope and the Patriarch February 15, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Religion.
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Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church finally got together after a thousand years, and they issued a joint declaration of what’s been on their minds lately.

In affirming the foremost value of religious freedom, we give thanks to God for the current unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith in Russia, as well as in many other countries of Eastern Europe, formerly dominated for decades by atheist regimes. Today, the chains of militant atheism have been broken and in many places Christians can now freely confess their faith…

I’m not myself a fan of the Christian faith, or of religious faith in general, but I certainly think people should be free to confess it. I must say, given the history of Christianity, I’m glad to hear the holy duo are such big supporters of religious freedom. I assume they know what it means, right?

At the same time, we are concerned about the situation in many countries in which Christians are increasingly confronted by restrictions to religious freedom, to the right to witness to one’s convictions and to live in conformity with them. In particular, we observe that the transformation of some countries into secularized societies, estranged from all reference to God and to His truth, constitutes a grave threat to religious freedom. It is a source of concern for us that there is a current curtailment of the rights of Christians, if not their outright discrimination, when certain political forces, guided by an often very aggressive secularist ideology, seek to relegate them to the margins of public life.

And… no. Sorry, guys, but the secularization of society, the removal of God from politics, does not restrict or threaten your religious freedom — that’s exactly backwards: secularism is what makes religious freedom possible, because it denies official status and privilege to any particular religion. That means no one gets to force their religion on you — although I’m afraid you don’t get to force yours on anyone, either.

Anyway, back to the declaration: you were concerned about discrimination against Christians and the curtailment of their religious freedom?

The process of European integration, which began after centuries of blood–soaked conflicts, was welcomed by many with hope, as a guarantee of peace and security. Nonetheless, we invite vigilance against an integration that is devoid of respect for religious identities. While remaining open to the contribution of other religions to our civilization, it is our conviction that Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots. We call upon Christians of Eastern and Western Europe to unite in their shared witness to Christ and the Gospel, so that Europe may preserve its soul, shaped by two thousand years of Christian tradition.

If I didn’t know how deeply Francis and Kirill care about religious freedom, I’d almost think they were encouraging some discrimination against non-Christians there…

Any other big problems to be concerned about?

The family is the natural centre of human life and society. We are concerned about the crisis in the family in many countries…

The family is based on marriage, an act of freely given and faithful love between a man and a woman… We regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level as this union, while the concept, consecrated in the biblical tradition, of paternity and maternity as the distinct vocation of man and woman in marriage is being banished from the public conscience.

Oops, see what you did there? You’re trying to make the general public conform to your own religious rules. I’m sorry, but you don’t get that power any more. I know you’ve been used to having it for a long time, so losing it feels like persecution, but it’s really not. You still get to practice your religion and preach it; but you don’t get to force it on anyone who doesn’t subscribe to it. Isn’t freedom wonderful?

Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill hug each other after signing agreements in Havana

Propagate a perverted interpretation February 7, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Religion.
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President Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore this week. Before I critique some of his remarks, let me first emphasize what I agree with: Anti-Muslim bigotry is no more acceptable than any other kind of bigotry. All Muslim individuals deserve to be treated with dignity as human beings, and should not have to face prejudice or discrimination or hate crime. But — and this is where the confusion begins — it does not follow that Islam, as a belief system, must be treated with respect; or that criticism of Islam is tantamount to bigotry. Islam is a set of ideas, and if some of those ideas are wrong or harmful, that’s something we need to talk about, no matter if some people find it offensive.

On with the criticism, then:

For more than a thousand years, people have been drawn to Islam’s message of peace…  And like so many faiths, Islam is rooted in a commitment to compassion and mercy and justice and charity.

I realize politicians often play fast-and-loose with the meanings of words when telling an audience what it wants to hear, but this Orwellian whitewashing is a very cruel joke at the expense of those who actually live under Islamic law. Like in Saudi Arabia, where the poet Ashraf Fayadh just had his death sentence for apostasy downgraded (after an international outcry) to a mere eight years in prison and 800 lashes. Or in Pakistan, where those accused of blasphemy are often lynched before they even make it to trial, and a 15-year-old recently cut off his own hand to atone for inadvertent blasphemy. Or in Iran, where it’s legal to have sex with a girl — or execute her — at the age of nine (the age of Muhammad’s bride Aisha when their marriage was consummated).

Wait a minute, what am I saying: everyone knows that while religion deserves credit for inspiring people to do good things, it’s never at fault when people’s religious beliefs motivate them to do bad things. Islam is defined to be compassionate and merciful and just, so anyone who commits hateful or cruel or unjust acts in the name of Islam must be perverting the True Faith!

Even as the overwhelming majority — and I repeat, the overwhelming majority — of the world’s Muslims embrace Islam as a source of peace, it is undeniable that a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted interpretation of Islam…

Groups like al Qaeda and ISIL, they’re not the first extremists in history to misuse God’s name.  We’ve seen it before, across faiths.  But right now, there is a organized extremist element that draws selectively from Islamic texts, twists them in an attempt to justify their killing and their terror…

Groups like ISIL are desperate for legitimacy.  They try to portray themselves as religious leaders and holy warriors who speak for Islam.  I refuse to give them legitimacy…

We shouldn’t play into terrorist propaganda.  And we can’t suggest that Islam itself is at the root of the problem.  That betrays our values.  It alienates Muslim Americans.  It’s hurtful to those kids who are trying to go to school and are members of the Boy Scouts, and are thinking about joining our military.

That kind of mindset helps our enemies.  It helps our enemies recruit.  It makes us all less safe.  So let’s be clear about that.

I don’t know which would be more depressing: if Obama really believes all that, or if he thinks that pretending to believe it is the politically expedient thing to do. I don’t doubt that the overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans are horrified by the actions of ISIL; so I understand they might not welcome the idea that their religion is part of the problem. But that’s the truth: the beliefs, methods, and goals of ISIL are taken directly from the seventh-century worldview of Muhammad and his followers, no selective twisting necessary.

We desperately need moderate Muslims to modernize and reform their religion, to discard those parts of it that are incompatible with civil society; but that’s not likely to happen while the President insists that Islam is as awesome as apple pie (and that to suggest otherwise is terrorist propaganda that helps our enemies). By refusing to acknowledge the link between specific Islamic doctrines and the atrocities motivated by them, it’s Obama who’s betraying “our values” (which hopefully include things like freedom of speech and gender equality), turning his back on those who are oppressed daily by Islamic regimes following Islamic teachings.

Muslim Americans shouldn’t be treated like immature children who might decide to go fight for ISIL if we hurt their feelings by criticizing their beliefs. Those who share our values should be willing to stand up for them, even if that means rethinking and revising their own religion when it conflicts with those values. And if some of our fellow citizens are actually committed to anti-democratic ideas (which I’m sure is true for many non-Muslims as well), that’s something we need to recognize and talk about honestly. Denying the problem doesn’t make us safer. I wish the President were more clear about that.

I create my own religion January 25, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason, Religion, Science.
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As part of their upcoming “7 Days of Genius” festival, the 92nd Street Y is sponsoring a “Challenge for a New Religion”:

challenge-for-a-new-religion

Here’s my entry:

The greatest force for good in this world, which cuts across boundaries and is at the core of what it means to be human, is REASON. It is through the rigorous application of reason, using the tools of the scientific method, that we have been able to make continuous material, intellectual, and ethical progress: advancing our understanding of the universe and how we came to be in it, breaking down the divisive dogmas bequeathed to us from the infancy of our species, and gradually widening the scope of our moral concern to encompass all human beings (and nonhuman life as well). I therefore propose the following:

A new tradition: To mark the birth of a child, the parents will choose an existing tradition in our culture to challenge. They will pledge to fight for the elimination of that bad tradition, in order to make the world a better place for all our children to grow up in.

A new rite of passage: On their thirteenth birthday, children will attempt to replicate a famous scientific experiment, and determine whether they accept its conclusions. This will demonstrate the understanding that our beliefs about the world must always be open to reevaluation, and should be based on objective evidence and independent thought, not reverence for authority.

New holidays will commemorate various bad ideas from human history, that were at one time universally accepted. This will serve as a reminder that we must all do our part to correct past mistakes and move humanity forward, and that it’s possible for everyone you know to be certain of something and still be wrong.

You can vote for me here!

(via Why Evolution is True)

“Statistically significant” (probably) doesn’t mean what you think it means January 18, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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Statistical significance is a very important concept to understand when reading about scientific studies — and it’s also very likely to be defined incorrectly in news reports about scientific studies. For example, here is a Cancer Research UK “science blog” writing about a trial that investigated whether taking aspirin can lower the risk of cancer:

The researchers found that [those participants who were overweight and obese] had an even greater increase in bowel cancer risk, compared to those in the trial who were a healthy weight.

But among different sub-groups of people, some of these results weren’t ‘statistically significant’ (meaning there’s uncertainty over how valid they are)…

And here’s The News & Observer writing about the failed test of a new antiviral drug:

Shares of Chimerix dropped 81 percent and hit an all-time low Monday after the Durham drug developer announced that patients who took the company’s antiviral drug in a clinical trial died at higher rates than those who took a placebo…

Chimerix said the increased mortality rate among patients who took brincidofovir was not statistically significant, meaning that the deaths were not caused by the medication.

And here’s The Philadelphia Inquirer writing about the effect of delays in breast cancer treatment:

The risk of death increased by 9 percent or 10 percent … for patients with stage I and stage II breast cancers for each added 30-day interval, the Fox Chase researchers found.  In practice, the increased risk is small, because the chance of death at stage I or II is relatively low. But the difference is statistically significant, meaning it did not occur by chance, researchers found.

All those definitions of statistical significance (or insignificance) are significantly wrong. A result is considered statistically significant if the probability of it being “due to chance” is below some predetermined level, usually 5%. (Wikipedia has a more formal definition.) So even if a result is considered statistically significant, there’s still a probability of up to 5% that the effect measured was actually due to chance and we can’t learn anything from it. (Conversely, even if a result is deemed “insignificant”, there’s still a probability of up to 95% that it was not due to chance — those patients might have been killed by that antiviral drug after all.)

This means we should not put too much confidence in any single scientific result. In fact, out of the thousands of hypotheses published each year supported by “significant” results, we should expect that some will turn out to be wrong — science is hard. That’s why it’s so important to replicate scientific experiments multiple times, and to perform meta-analyses combining the results of many individual studies. Science is hard, and reporters who mislead their readers in the name of simplicity — or a catchy headline — can cause real damage.

Keep that in mind next time you read that green jelly beans cause acne.

green-jelly-beans

Don’t let Scalia tell you there’s nothing wrong January 5, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Politics, Religion.
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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently graced some students in Louisiana with his learned opinions.

He told the audience at Archbishop Rummel High School that there is “no place” in the country’s constitutional traditions for the idea that the state must be neutral between religion and its absence.

“To tell you the truth there is no place for that in our constitutional tradition. Where did that come from?” he said. “To be sure, you can’t favor one denomination over another but can’t favor religion over non-religion?”

I wonder, what are Scalia’s criteria for a religion to be eligible for favored status? Would he include Scientologists? Satanists? Followers of Zeus and Ra? Is any belief too crazy, or is it sufficient to believe in something for which there is no evidence?

He also said there is “nothing wrong” with the idea of presidents and others invoking God in speeches. He said God has been good to America because Americans have honored him…

“God has been very good to us. That we won the revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway was extraordinary. I think one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways,” Scalia said.

“There is nothing wrong with that and do not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that,” he added.

I’m afraid there are several things wrong with that. If we actually look at the other countries of the world, we find that highly nonreligious societies like Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands rank higher than the U.S. on indexes like life expectancy and education; while the poorest countries tend to be the most religious. And you know who else believed they had God on their side? The Romans. And the Mayans. And the Egyptians. For a while, anyway.

It turns out that societies do better when they base their policies on reason and evidence rather than magical thinking and dogmatic adherence to tradition. After all, one person’s religion is just another’s superstition. Do we really want our leaders invoking the magical, and our laws favoring the superstitious? Even Scalia ought to be able to see what’s wrong with that.

(via Why Evolution is True)

scalia

How to solve a hard problem December 25, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science, Humor.
1 comment so far

To solve a hard problem, first break it down into pieces. Then pack those pieces into bins, using as few bins as possible. You’re going to want a little help from your friends, so consult your social network and find the largest clique of people who all know each other. Visit the home of each of those friends (making sure to use the shortest possible overall route), and give each friend a subset of the bins whose overall number of pieces equals that friend’s age. Return home, and wait for your friends to send you their results. (While you’re waiting, you can perfect your game of Candy Crush.) Then find the longest sub-sequence common to all your friends’ results — that sub-sequence is (almost surely) your solution!

Note: If the above procedure is taking too long to terminate, try breaking your problem into more pieces; making more friends; or consulting an oracle.

candy-crush-saga

Backlash December 23, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics.
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  • “Donald Trump Faces Immigration Backlash from Tech-Billionaires” (December 1)
  • “Leaders Warn Against Stereotyping and Backlash After San Bernardino Shooting” (December 3)
  • “‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Backlash After San Bernardino Shooting” (December 3)
  • “Coke pulls offensive Christmas ad but faces backlash from indigenous rights group” (December 5)
  • “Dems Fear Backlash Over Obama’s ‘Weak and Unclear’ Plan to Defeat ISIS” (December 8)
  • “Donald Trump’s Anti-Muslim Demand Sparks Sharp Backlash” (December 9)
  • “Backlash Over Santa ‘Ban’ at NYC School a Misunderstanding” (December 14)
  • “Virginia county closes schools as Islam homework draws backlash” (December 18)
  • “Wisconsin mayor faces backlash for calling Obama a Muslim” (December 22)
  • “Obama administration’s proposed insurance reforms incite industry backlash” (December 22)
  • “Family faces backlash for controversial Christmas photo” (December 22)
  • “Clinton’s Hispanic outreach sparks online backlash” (December 22)
  • “Trump Faces Backlash Over Sexually Derogatory Remark About Hillary” (December 23)
  • “Michael Sam Tweets Major ‘Star Wars’ Spoiler, Draws Fiery Backlash From Followers” (December 19)

Insignificant December 5, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Reason.
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“First you state your null hypothesis, which is your default position in the absence of any evidence, and your significance level, which is the maximum probability you’re willing to accept for rejecting the null hypothesis when it’s actually true. Then you perform your observations, calculate the p-value (the probability of obtaining a result at least as extreme as what was observed if the null hypothesis were true), and reject the null hypothesis if and only if the p-value is below the significance level.”

“Got it. Here goes: My significance level is zero, and my null hypothesis is—”

“Wait a minute: a significance level of zero means there’s no evidence that could ever convince you to abandon the null hypothesis.”

“Oh, is that bad? All right, then: My significance level is five percent…”

“That’s better.”

“…and my null hypothesis is that I will not change my significance level retroactively based on the outcome of the observations.”

“Hmm, let me test that… OK, the results are in, and they are statistically significant: p-value is two percent. You should reject the null hypothesis.”

“No problem — but I’m afraid that means I’ll be changing my significance level to one percent, making your observations insignificant. So my null hypothesis has been proved true after all!”

“The null hypothesis is never proved, it can merely fail to be rejected. And anyway, if your null hypothesis were true, wouldn’t that mean you should not have changed your significance level? Actually — never mind; this is a waste of time. Do you even care whether your belief is based on evidence?”

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

“Excuse me, but I must be going now: evidence has just come in forcing me to reject my null hypothesis.”

“What hypothesis is that?”

“That you’re worth talking to…”

In God’s name October 24, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the UK, has written a book named Not in God’s Name (excerpted in The Wall Street Journal), in which he provides his recipe for defeating religious violence:

Yes, there are passages in the sacred scriptures of each of the Abrahamic monotheisms that, interpreted literally, can lead to hatred, cruelty and war. But Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain interpretive traditions that in the past have read them in the larger context of coexistence, respect for difference and the pursuit of peace, and can do so today. Fundamentalism—text without context, and application without interpretation—is not faith but an aberration of faith…

We must raise a generation of young Jews, Christians, Muslims and others to know that it is not piety but sacrilege to kill in the name of the God of life, hate in the name of the God of love, wage war in the name of the God of peace, and practice cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.

Now is the time for us to say what we have failed to say in the past: We are all the children of Abraham. We are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way. God is calling us to let go of hate and the preaching of hate, and to live at last as brothers and sisters, true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith, honoring God’s name by honoring his image, humankind.

Aw, that’s nice. Though I can’t help but wonder: How does Sacks know all that? How does he know God’s love works one way and not another? How does he know what God is calling us to do? I realize Sacks is a member of the House of Lords, but he admits that a literal reading of the sacred scriptures supports the fundamentalists’ interpretation of God’s will rather than his own. While I’m glad Sacks has found a way to cherry-pick and “reinterpret” the texts such that he doesn’t feel obliged to kill anyone, wouldn’t the fundamentalists be justified in judging his faith an aberration?

The truth is that Sacks is committing the same fundamental error as the fundamentalists: speaking in God’s name, identifying life’s meaning with obedience to God’s commandments, and glorifying faith. That is the real cause of religious violence — and in order to defeat it, we must raise a generation of young people to be wary of claims to knowledge not supported by evidence; to value life, love, peace and compassion for rational reasons, not because “God said so”; and to understand that no scripture is sacred and that faith is not a virtue but a vice.

Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio

A widespread and insensitive mentality September 6, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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Listen up, ladies — an important message from the Pope:

One of the serious problems of our time is clearly the changed relationship with respect to life. A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life. The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails.

That’s funny, because it seems to me that there is a widespread and insensitive mentality and a lack of proper sensitivity regarding the health and autonomy of women — one example of which is the perverse characterization of abortion as a “tragedy” that entails “extreme harm”.

Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.

That’s interesting, because a recent study found that 99% of women who’ve had abortions reported that it was the right decision for them (up to three years later), with both negative and positive emotions about the abortion declining over time. The study also found that higher perceived community abortion stigma was associated with more negative emotions. So I wonder whether the Pope realizes that it’s his callous teachings that are exacerbating the agony and pain of so many women? But then, it’s not the reduction of actual harm to women that is the Pope’s main concern, is it.

The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father. For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it. May priests fulfil this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.

If anyone tells you you’ve committed a grave sin and then offers to forgive you for it if you repent, turn around and walk away.

pope

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