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Show thanks to water and dust November 25, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach thinks that Jews who do not show immense gratitude towards Christians for donating money to Jewish and Israeli causes are not living up to Jewish values:

So great is the emphasis on appreciation in our religion that our greatest prophet, Moses, is commanded by G-d not to strike the Nile River and turn it into blood in the first plague against the Egyptians because that same river had saved his life when he was a baby. Later, in plague number three, G-d will again warn Moses against smiting the dust of Egypt and turning it into lice because the dust had saved his life when he had to bury the body of a murderous Egyptian taskmaster.

Imagine that. A man who speaks to G-d face to face is told he must show thanks to water and dust. But such is the extent to which Jewish values demands gratitude.

Imagination aside, what these absurd examples actually show is a severe case of misplaced priorities. After all, we are told that God did in fact turn the Nile into blood (killing all the fish and depriving the Egyptians of drinking water), and did smite all the Egyptians with lice — it’s just that the waving of the magic staff in these cases was done by Aaron instead of Moses. The entire bloody Exodus was merely Yahweh’s way of demonstrating his awesome superiority: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. . . . And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch forth My hand upon Egypt” — including killing every Egyptian firstborn. According to Jewish values, then, showing gratitude to inanimate objects is far more important than the suffering of innocent people.

By the way, why does Boteach think evangelical Christians donate so much money to Israel?

To say they do this merely to convert us, or because gathering Jews to Israel will usher in the apocalypse, is to perpetrate a sacrilegious act of character assassination. Christians support Israel out of deep love and brotherhood. . . . I have traveled . . . on Christian relief missions to Zimbabwe, the poorest country on earth, and have listened as they have told me that their first commandment as Christians is to love and protect the Jewish people for no other reason other than G-d commanded it.

But doing something “for no other reason other than G-d commanded it” is nothing to be proud of (grammatically or morally). The corollary is that if you believed God wanted you to kill your neighbor for being gay, or kill your daughter for not being a virgin on her wedding night, you would do that too. This does not make you a moral person — it makes you a mindless slave, and a danger to us all.

Shmuley BoteachShmuley Boteach

The bastard clause November 19, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Ethics, Religion.

Two happy parents gave birth to a child in June, and yet the State of Israel will not allow the father to be listed on his daughter’s birth certificate. Why is that?

The Population Registry Law of 1965 states that no man can be listed as the father of a child unless he was married to the child’s mother or, in the case of unmarried parents, if the mother had not been married to another man 300 days prior to the child’s birth.

The law stems from the Jewish religious law forbidding a woman to remarry for 90 days after a husband’s death or a divorce. The law is meant to prevent uncertainty over the father’s identity and to lift the suspicion of mamzer (bastard) status from any child subsequently conceived.

So because the child was born less than 300 days after the mother’s divorce was finalized, the biological father (the mother’s new partner) cannot be recognized as such, cannot take his daughter to her medical check-ups, cannot register her for school, cannot take her abroad.

Notice, by the way, that this law doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. If we were really worried about the child’s paternity, merely omitting to document the problem wouldn’t solve it. And we could simply do a DNA test and settle the issue. But none of this matters, because the premise upon which the law is based is utterly immoral: penalizing a child for the circumstances of its birth. The Bible says explicitly that a “bastard” (and his or her offspring) can never be married to a legitimate Jew, but what could be more unfair than punishing a person for something done by his parents before he was born? And the parents didn’t even do anything wrong.

Yet another instance of religion insisting that everyone follow its stupid, irrational rules with no concern for the injury caused to innocent people.

You can stop global warming! November 17, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Religion, Superstition.

Here’s what to do:

Israel’s chief rabbis are calling on the public to pray for rain, and declared this Thursday a special day of fasting and prayer to atone for the sins that are likely preventing the direly missing rainfall.

“The summer is gone as is most of the winter, and we are yet to be redeemed by the downfall of rains of blessing, and the state of the waters in the Land of Israel is under duress and great distress, especially since this is not the first year of drought, and the land is dry due to our many sins, and this is a troubling matter,” Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger and Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar wrote in a letter sent out last Thursday. . . .

The rabbis set out the protocol for the upcoming day of fasting, for those who can take it upon themselves, including the order of prayers, and encouraged people to fast as much as they could.

Perhaps we should sacrifice a goat as well, just to be on the safe side.

Chief Rabbi

Of course, the beauty of this scheme is that it’s unfalsifiable. If it eventually rains, that shows the praying and fasting worked; and if not, that’s because our sins are too great, or because God is testing us, or because he works in mysterious ways and who are we to question God anyway. No evidence would ever cause the rabbis to consider the possibility that drought has nothing to do with sin and that prayer and fasting have absolutely no effect on the weather.

I’m constantly amazed by the arrogance and self-importance of those who believe that everything that happens in the universe is about us. And do the rabbis not realize the obscene consequences of ascribing natural phenomena to divine punishment? Which sins exactly cause millions of little children to be tortured by cancer and drowned in tsunamis and buried alive in earthquakes every year? And what kind of God would do such things?

Instead of wasting our time and energy on superstition, perhaps we should dedicate our resources to more scientific study of the climate, and find out whether we can change our behavior in ways that might actually make a difference. In any case, there’s no need to feel guilty about things that are not our fault and are beyond our control. But then guilt is such an important part of religion, isn’t it.

It’s a disgrace that Israeli taxpayers are funding the salaries of witch doctors.

Just stories November 13, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Philosophy.
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In Plato’s Republic, Socrates is worried about the impact that the mythological stories of his day are having on children:

they are stories not to be repeated in our State; the young man should not be told that in committing the worst of crimes he is far from doing anything outrageous; and that even if he chastises his father when does wrong, in whatever manner, he will only be following the example of the first and greatest among the gods. . . .

If [our future guardians] would only believe us we would tell them that quarrelling is unholy, and that never up to this time has there been any quarrel between citizens; this is what old men and old women should begin by telling children; and when they grow up, the poets also should be told to compose for them in a similar spirit. But the narrative of Hephaestus binding Here his mother, or how on another occasion Zeus sent him flying for taking her part when she was being beaten, and all the battles of the gods in Homer — these tales must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have an allegorical meaning or not. For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.

I wonder what Socrates would have thought about the stories of Korah, the Binding of Isaac, the plagues of Egypt, the conquests of Joshua, the destruction of Amalek

Allah does not exist and his Prophet is a coward November 12, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Religion.

Walid Husayin is a 26-year-old barber from Qalqiliya, and a dangerous man.

Over several years, Husayin is suspected of posting arguments in favor of atheism on English and Arabic blogs, where he described the God of Islam as having the attributes of a “primitive Bedouin.” He called Islam a “blind faith that grows and takes over people’s minds where there is irrationality and ignorance.”

If that wasn’t enough, he is also suspected of creating three Facebook groups in which he sarcastically declared himself God and ordered his followers, among other things, to smoke marijuana in verses that spoof the Muslim holy book, the Quran.

The Palestinian authorities didn’t share Husayin’s sense of humor; they arrested him.

Now, he faces a potential life prison sentence on heresy charges for “insulting the divine essence.” Many in this conservative Muslim town say he should be killed for renouncing Islam, and even family members say he should remain behind bars for life.

Isn’t it obvious that anyone who thinks his own position is justified, and cares about the truth, has no reason to feel threatened by the expression of contrary opinions, by criticism or even ridicule of his views? It’s only the coward, knowing he would lose in a fair debate, who seeks to prevent any dissenting voices from being heard — for fear of being exposed for the fraud that he is.

Cognitive misers November 7, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Logic, Puzzles, Reason.
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Jack is looking at Anne, while Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, while George is not. Is there a married person looking at an unmarried person?

(a) Yes; (b) No; (c) It cannot be determined.

Make your choice before reading on.

According to psychologist Keith Stanovich (in an article by Kurt Kleiner), more than 80 percent of people answer this question incorrectly. It seems as though we need to know whether Anne is married; but a bit of further thought shows that it doesn’t matter. If she’s unmarried, then a married person (Jack) is looking at an unmarried person (Anne). And if she is married, then a married person (Anne) is looking at an unmarried person (George). So the answer is Yes in any case.

The solution is obvious once we think it through, so why did we get it wrong to begin with? According to Stanovich,

We are all “cognitive misers” who try to avoid thinking too much. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. Thinking is time-consuming, resource intensive and sometimes counterproductive. If the problem at hand is avoiding the charging sabre-toothed tiger, you don’t want to spend more than a split second deciding whether to jump into the river or climb a tree.

So we’ve developed a whole set of heuristics and biases to limit the amount of brainpower we bear on a problem. These techniques provide rough and ready answers that are right a lot of the time — but not always.

For the vast majority of decisions we face nowadays, it would clearly be better to spend a few more minutes thinking in order to avoid incorrect conclusions. To that end, it’s important to remember how our intuition can fail us, even in easy cases.

Would you want to know if you’re wrong? November 6, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Philosophy.
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In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates makes a useful distinction between two sorts of people:

Now if you are one of my sort, I should like to cross-examine you, but if not I will let you alone. And what is my sort? you will ask. I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute anyone else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute — for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater of being cured of a very great evil than of curing another. For I imagine that there is no evil which a man can endure so great as an erroneous opinion about the matters of which we are speaking; and if you claim to be one of my sort, let us have the discussion out, but if you would rather have done, no matter — let us make an end of it.

Socrates recognizes that there’s no point debating with someone who is not open to the possibility of being proven wrong; while Socrates himself cherishes the opportunity to be refuted.

Later in the dialogue, Callicles (a sophist) offers his opinion of people like Socrates:

for philosophy, Socrates, if pursued in moderation and at the proper age, is an elegant accomplishment, but too much philosophy is the ruin of human life. Even if a man has good parts, still, if he carries philosophy into later life, he is necessarily ignorant of all those things which a gentleman and a person of honour ought to know; he is inexperienced in the laws of the State, and in the language which ought to be used in the dealings of man with man, whether private or public, and utterly ignorant of the pleasures and desires of mankind and of human character in general. And people of this sort, when they betake themselves to politics or business, are as ridiculous as I imagine the politicians to be, when they make their appearance in the arena of philosophy.