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Inconsistency corrected September 25, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Language, Religion.
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I recently mentioned the Christian Scientist church across the street from my apartment, where the ironic subject of last week’s Bible sermon was “Reality.” Well, my blog must be favored by someone in high places, because look at the subject of this week’s sermon:

If next week’s subject is “Gullibility” I may have to become a believer.

Yes, you do look fat in that dress September 24, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics.
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In a new essay entitled “Lying”, Sam Harris argues that lies are “the social equivalent of toxic waste”, and that we must commit to avoiding them — even so-called “white” lies:

When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives — about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. This is an extraordinary stance to adopt toward other human beings, and it requires justification. Unless someone is suicidal or otherwise on the brink, deciding how much he can know about himself seems the quintessence of arrogance. What attitude could be more disrespectful of those we care about?

Moreover: even seemingly harmless lies undermine trust, foreclose opportunities for deepening relationships, and generally have unforeseen and unintended consequences. Hard as it might be, we must learn to tell our friends and loved ones when we don’t like a gift, when their spouse is cheating on them, when they can’t act or sing, and when they look fat.

It looks inconsistent September 19, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Humor, Religion.
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The view from my apartment window is dominated by a large Christian Scientist church. Notice the subject of this week’s sermon:

Mark Twain once wrote about how, after falling off a cliff in Austria and breaking some arms and legs, he was visited by a Christian Scientist named Mrs. Fuller — who explained that “Matter has no existence; nothing exists but mind; the mind cannot feel pain, it can only imagine it… Pain is unreal; hence, pain cannot hurt.” After his fractures had healed, he turned to the local horse-doctor, who managed to cure his lingering stomach-ache and cold. Then it was time to settle the bill:

The horse-doctor charged me thirty kreutzers, and I paid him; in fact, I doubled it and gave him a shilling. Mrs. Fuller brought in an itemized bill for a crate of broken bones mended in two hundred and thirty-four places — one dollar per fracture.

“Nothing exists but Mind?”

“Nothing,” she answered. “All else is substanceless, all else is imaginary.”

I gave her an imaginary check, and now she is suing me for substantial dollars. It looks inconsistent.

Hear no evil September 14, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Religion.
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Four (male) cadets have been dismissed from the Israeli Military’s officer training academy for walking out of a commemorative ceremony. Why did they walk out? Because the event included women singing solo, and the cadets’ religious beliefs forbid them from hearing such things. The matter has been appealed to the Supreme Court.

So, should the military allow religious soldiers to skip a ceremony if attending goes against their faith? Phrased that way, the answer must automatically be no: granting special privileges exclusively to religious people discriminates against the nonreligious. “Freedom of Religion” doesn’t mean that we must allow people to do anything their religion tells them to do; it means that everyone shall be treated equally, regardless of their religion (or lack thereof). The rule “all soldiers must attend official ceremonies, except for religious soldiers” is just as discriminatory as the rule “all soldiers may apply for officer training, except for religious soldiers.” If the military is entitled to require its personnel to attend certain ceremonies, then no one should get a pass merely because of their religious beliefs.

Of course, sometimes it is reasonable to allow exceptions to a rule due to special circumstances, such as medical reasons: an epileptic soldier could be exempted from participating in ceremonies that include flashing lights, for instance. But again, all such exceptions should apply to religious and nonreligious individuals equally: religious people’s preferences do not deserve special consideration merely because they are religious. If some soldier wants to claim that hearing women sing gives him an uncontrollable urge to commit rape, that’s one thing (though such a person needs professional help and shouldn’t be in the military to begin with); but merely saying “that’s what my religion tells me to do” is not a reason that deserves any special consideration.

Some may say: Why make a mountain out of a molehill? Can’t we show some flexibility for the sake of social cohesion and harmony? Can’t we respect other people’s beliefs, even if we disagree with them? But this conflict has far-reaching implications, and must be confronted head-on. The general problem is that religion (like all dogma) causes well-intentioned people to do morally repugnant things, while thinking they are doing good. The dismissed cadets are certain that they occupy the moral high-ground, since they are obeying God’s will; but the worldview that is actually promoted by their actions is one where women are considered impure vehicles of temptation and sin, to be controlled by men (who apparently cannot control themselves). Needless to say, this view is baseless and dysfunctional, and must be unequivocally opposed. The cadets need to understand that refusing to hear a woman sing just because she is a woman indicates a moral failing, comparable to shunning blacks or gays. The fact that such bigotry is supported by religious beliefs doesn’t make it any more respectable — it merely discredits those beliefs.

If you don’t get this, I don’t want you leading an army.

In Mississippi, common sense isn’t September 9, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Freedom, Religion.
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The Mississippi Supreme Court has allowed a “Personhood Amendment” to appear on the state ballot this November:

Voters in Mississippi will be given a chance to decide whether life begins at conception, a controversial abortion-related ballot initiative that the state’s highest court has refused to block…

The measure would amend the constitution to extend “personhood” to the unborn, likely rendering abortions illegal in the state if upheld…

“Although our opponents were beaten in this lawsuit, we know that they will not stop in their desperate attempts to deny the obvious truth that life begins at conception and that every life deserves to be protected in the law,” said Steve Crampton, general counsel of the conservative legal group Liberty Counsel. “Not only Mississippians, but all Americans, should support this commonsense amendment.”

Really? Every life deserves to be protected in the law? How about cockroaches? Or spiders? Or bacteria? Their lives aren’t protected in law — nor should they be, because (as far as we can tell) they lack the cognitive complexity necessary to make them worthy of our moral concern. I challenge the Liberty Counsel (which apparently doesn’t care about the liberties of pregnant women) to provide an empirical criterion for “personhood” that applies to human zygotes but not to insects. This is no more a matter to be decided by popular vote than whether women or blacks or gays are to be considered full-fledged persons (irrespective of some people’s so-called “common sense”).

Now, where did the Liberty Counsel get the idea that zygotes are persons? Is it a result of extensive research in embryology and neuroscience and psychology? Hint: the Liberty Counsel’s board of directors has adopted a “Christian doctrinal statement.” As 9/11 approaches, we should remember the consequences of basing one’s worldview on dogma.

You’ll call it fate when you show up too late September 8, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Music.
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Happy birthday to Aimee Mann! I could (and do) listen to her songs over and over and over. For one thing, I love the intricate rhyming patterns she manages to construct:

Eyes the color of candy
lies to cover the handicap
though your slippers are ruby
you’ll be led to the booby trap

And there’s no prize
just a smaller size
so I’m wearing the shoe till it fits
then I’m calling it quits…

As for her subject matter, on its face it would seem rather bleak and depressing: it’s mostly bad relationships, addiction, self destruction, etc. But for some reason, her songs don’t feel bleak or depressing — at least not to me. Maybe it’s their sardonic, ironic tone. Or maybe it’s because really understanding a bad situation — by articulating its essence precisely — is the first step towards bettering it.

But you sit there in the darkness
and you make plans but they’re hopeless
and you blame God when you’re lonely
and you’ll call it fate when you show up too late
and it’s over

‘Cause nothing can wait forever
they don’t give unlimited chances in life
they’ll hand you the knife
and tell you to cut it or run
so baby let’s run…

My faith dispels any doubts September 2, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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A Pakistani mother explained her position on female genital cutting to Newsline:

“I have two daughters and five nieces, all circumcised by doctors. I do not consider it a human rights violation because, according to our religious teachings, it has been divinely ordained. My faith dispels any doubts that some might put in my mind,” says Shaheen Abdullah.

This is exactly why religious faith is so pernicious: it dispels doubt, where doubt is really necessary. Faith makes it okay to believe things with no demand for evidence or rational argument or critical thinking. Why is it justified to cut the genitalia of little girls? Because our religious teachings say it is divinely ordained. How do we know those teachings are true? And why would divine ordination make a thing right? Don’t doubt — have faith.

(via Butterflies & Wheels)