Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I've never liked miracles; they seem to violate the natural order of things. But sometimes, an account of a miracle does more than that; it makes me mad.
For instance, there's a miracle recorded in the Bible. Seems Jesus and some of the Apostles are walking past a man who was born blind. One Apostle asks, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" The answer was that no one had sinned. The man was born blind so that he might help demonstrate the power of God. Wherewith, the blind man was healed, and could see again.
This miracle is often quoted to prove a theological point: a person can sin before he or she is born -- ergo, they lived before this life. Because I focused on this point, I for years overlooked what is now to me the salient point of the story. It's this: A man was forced to live for about 30 years in darkness, unable to run or play as a kid, unable to learn or ply a trade, unable to see the sunrise or the sunset, to read, to recognize the faces of his family -- all this so that someone could pull a stunt and impress the rubes.
This strikes me a both callous and a bit of an overkill. I mean, couldn't he simply be born with a wart on his face, a not unattractive wart, that could be removed miraculously? I can see the scene now: "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born with a not entirely unattractive wart?" The answer, "No one. He was born with a wart so that the power of God could be manifest in a non-cancer-causing operation."
Same result -- the rubes are impressed, the guy gets better looking, and all is much more humane.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Imaginary Friends

When I was growing up in Palmer, Alaska, there was a kid in school who had an imaginary friend. He'd walk around the playground during recess talking to this friend. He'd talk, then listen, then shake his head or nod or gesture, and reply. This is supposed to be a harmless aberration in kids, but an aberration nonetheless. In adults, it's considered to be not so harmless (Unless it's some guy talking on a bluetooth).
But, 'cha know, I have a host of imaginary friends. Everybody does. We talk about them as if they are real, and I think we realize only dimly that they are not. My friends include Sherlock Holmes, for instance, Long John Silver, Mary Poppins, Hamlet, Elizabeth Bennett, Nancy Drew, Harry Potter, Tugboat Annie, Harry Bosch, Bertie Wooster, Frodo Baggins, James Bond, Little Dorrit, Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Remus, The Scarlet Pimpernell, and Lord Peter Wimsey.
I care about these people. I worry when their lives don't go right. I rejoice in their triumphs. I read "Pride and Prejudice" once every two years or so, and am always tickled to death when Lizzy and D'Arcy finally get together.
I mention this because I'm worried about one of my favorite TV characters. She was shot at the end of the season last year, and it looked like she died -- right there on camera. I'm pretty sure it was a cliffhanger, but I can't be certain. What if she's really dead?
There's a part of me that realizes she's a figment of someone's imagination; that the actress speaks the lines she's been given. But there's also a part of me that wonders where to send the flowers.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A New Religion

I've been thinking about starting a new religion. I want it to be a success, and I haven't had any visits from angels, spirits, deities, or other religion-founding sources, so I guess I'm on my own. I've thus been forced to think about what the requirements for a good religion might be, and I've come up with a few:
Doctrine: Of course, you've got to have a doctrine. What the doctrine is really doesn't matter much. What does matter is that the doctrine has to be a mix of how-to-live-a-good-life advice with some really hard-to-believe tenets. I mean, if a religion were based on science, it wouldn't be a religion; it would be science. Now a lot of doctrinal points that are hard to swallow are already taken (virgin birth, earth 6000 years old, day of the sabbath really important), so I can either go ahead and use someone else's doctrine or invent my own. Best would be to invent my own. I can borrow from science fiction, I guess. The number of outlandish doctrines should be kept to a manageable number -- three is a good one, I think. And remember, the emphasis should be on the outlandish, but there should be enough of the live-a-good-life that the membership can actually exist on the planet. Remember what happened to the Shakers and the Jonestown group.
A Conduit: The best religions have a pipeline to deity. Religions that rely on sacred texts alone tend to splinter and to fight with each other. A charismatic leader, on the other hand, can shift doctrine to suit the needs of a changing world. He (or she) can get a revelation that we all need to eat more broccoli, and voila! the church is healthier. The leader also becomes a magnet for new converts. Let's face it, a leader with lots of ethos beats sound doctrine every time.
Rigor: Those religions which demand a lot of their people seem to thrive. From those to whom much is given, much is required (That's a quote but I don't know if I got it right; hence no quotation marks). People don't value something that's free. So, in my religion I will require both money and time. The money because even religious leaders need Ferraris, and the time because it keeps people occupied and out of trouble.
Isolation: Not total isolation, the way some religions separate themselves from the "world," but a degree of separation. One of the best ways to do this is to teach your people to distrust anything that is printed, broadcast, aired, said, written, or mimed by any "unapproved" source. This has two benefits. First, it can be used to keep believers away from annoying counter arguments and from science in general. Second, it creates a category of sin, which means that curious people will also be feeling guilty about it.
Sin: The concept of sin is a wonderful one for religions. Let's face it; you can't have a religion without sin if you want to survive. Sins don't exist naturally. That is, there is no such thing as a sin in nature. In nature, there are acts and there are consequences. So, both sin and law are inventions. The neat thing about sin is that it isn't subject to the will of the people, the way laws can be. If the religious leader says, "This is a sin," then it's a sin. End of story.
A mark: Really good religions have something about them that tells non-believers who they are. Best is some item of clothing that is an announcement. A hat, a hairstyle, a tattoo -- these are all nice. This gives the members of the congregation a sense that they are set apart from (translation: better than) other people.
Just six simple things, and you're on your way to world domination.

Monday, August 22, 2011


I've been thinking about faith lately. The Apostle Paul said, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen." Which sounds kind of neat, except that when you examine it closely, it ends up not meaning much. Exactly what is "the substance of things hoped for?" The other half, "the evidence of things not seen" makes a little more sense, except that I'd say that the evidence of things not seen is -- evidence. We can't see the back side of the moon, but we accept that it's there, based on, what? Faith. No, I'd say that we have faith based on evidence.
And yet the idea of evidence-based faith runs counter to most religious thought today. One religious leader said, "Faith precedes the miracle," which I interpret to mean, if you believe hard enough, it will come into being. Kind of a twist on the "If you build it they will come" mantra from otherworldly movies like "Field of Dreams."
So, I'd like to posit that there are three types of faith.
Faith A is faith that you have because of the evidence. What the Greeks called "logos." When my doctor told me I had blockage of the cardiac artery and showed me the X-ray, I believed. I had faith. Some people differentiate between knowledge and faith, but that's a false dichotomy. If you believe because of the evidence, you have Faith A. In a court case, both sides present evidence, and one side engenders more faith than the other. Then you get a verdict.
Faith B is a faith that you have in the absence of evidence. This is what most people think of as faith, and perhaps what Paul had when he started his maundering definition. I believe in God, or Jesus, or Buddha, or Mohamed, or Zoroaster, or astrology or the Tarot, or tea leaves, even though there is no real evidence that the information is true.
Faith C is a faith that you have in spite of the evidence. The belief that the earth is 6,000 years old, for instance, or that God created a certain number of animal species which has remained constant, that there was a world-wide flood -- you get the picture. This faith is the scary one. It's one thing to believe in a 6,000 year-old earth when all you have to go on is some old texts, but it's quite another when you can walk out in your back yard and see the folding in the earth that took place a good sight longer ago than a measly six grand years. In order to keep your belief, you have to reject not only the accumulated evidence, but pretty much rational thought itself. The work that people will go through to explain away data is awesome. One person explained to me in solemn detail how the layers in the earth's crust were the effect of a giant earthquake that shook things up and made them naturally sort themselves out into layer. Sir William of Occam is twirling in his grave.

Friday, August 19, 2011

What's it all about?

About the creation of the world, two alternative hypotheses.
First, everything in the world could have been created with humans in mind. That is, the world is a setting for whatever happens to us. This is the viewpoint of a great many religions. What that means is that a certain locust, which sleeps in the ground for 17 years, emerging to eat, mate, and go back into the ground, was fashioned with humanity in mind. This is not to mention things like duckbilled platypuses, octopi, camels, tse-tse flies, mountain goats, and perhaps Sasquatch itself.
So, one muses, "Why?" What could God have possibly had in mind when He created this intriguing mishmash of stuff? The answer from religionists is invariably a variation on one of two themes: "There are some things that man was not meant to know," and "God doesn't think like we do." Both of these answers mean the same thing - "Beats me. Let's blame God," and are simply not acceptable answers for a complex variety of reasons.
Second, none of the things in the world have been created with humans in mind. This strikes me as a much more sensible alternative, because it not only satisfies the demands of Occam's razor, being the simplest explanation that fits the data, but it also doesn't lead to innumerable questions such as why those strange undersea fissure tubes were created.
Notice that this doesn't say anything at all about the presence/absence of a creator, though it is clear that option two doesn't need a creator. Another reason to prefer it.
There is a third option, actually, that the world and everything in it were created for some beings other than humans. This is the Douglas Adams interpretation, and frankly, it makes as much sense as the first option.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Much is in the news lately about marriage. Exactly whom can one marry? Can a guy marry a guy, a doll marry a doll, a man marry two women, or a woman marry two men?
My question is, "Why not?" Most arguments against non-traditional marriages (though polygamy is certainly traditional, isn't it?) are one of two types:
1. Marriage is ordained of God to be between a man and a woman.
2. Non traditional marriages would wreck the institution. I mean, what would happen if a gay couple married and then decided to separate?
Argument number one is simply not so. Religious texts seem to support a rather more open idea of marriage. One in which, if you're a king, you can have 1000 wives and concubines, or as in the case of more recent times, 27. All the fulminations against anything but one man one woman are all fairly recent, and in fact, God hasn't commented on it at all, at least not to me.
Marriage has until recently been about property rights and bloodlines and inheritances. If you were the Duke of Omnium, you needed to know who was yours so you could decide who got the money and who had to go into the priesthood. Nobody cared about the lower orders; they weren't much more than animals anyway, and if they married, why, jumping over a broomstick was good enough for them. It's only recently, in fact, that love has even entered into the occasion.
Argument number two is bogus also. How can we wreck something that is in shambles anyway? When two younguns get married, it's with a 50/50 expectation that they'll be divorced before it's all over. I suspect that statistics among gay couples are certainly no worse, and probably better.
We might even speculate on when marriage began. Currently, the earliest true human is believed to be a woman, puckishly named "Eve," who lived 800,000 years ago, give or take,
Was she married? Certainly not (who would perform the ceremony?). What about her offspring. Nope also.
So, when did marriage enter the picture? I'd guess, shooting from the hip, that it was about the time that two ideas emerged: property and clergy. Which would mean that for most of the time we've been human, there hasn't been such a thing as marriage.
It would be scary and tragic if the same flowering of humanity that gave us Lascaux also gave us marriage.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Book Report

I just read a fascinating book. Read it in a single sitting, almost. It's called Denialism, and no, it's not about the Egyptian river (sorry, couldn't resist). It's about a general trend that the author believes is very strong in the world today: people not believing in science. The author treats a number of subjects, including genetic manipulation and pharmaceuticals, but my favorite is vaccinations. I had assumed that everyone was enthusiastic about vaccination. I remember as a child standing in line to be given a sugar cube with a drop of the Salk vaccine absorbed in it. It was the first Polio vaccine. Every summer was Polio season, and my mother worried all summer about one of us getting the disease. A friend of mine developed a headache one day after we went swimming at a lake near my home. Shortly after that, he was paralyzed with Polio. I'd been swimming right beside him that day. The Salk vaccine changed all that. Because of vaccines, I've been more or less safe from a variety of diseases, some annoying (I wasn't vaccinated for mumps, and it was a real drag to have them), some really dangerous (diphtheria, for one). Yet I read that today people are opting not to have their kids vaccinated, in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccination is both safe and necessary. As if to put an exclamation point behind it all, in the newspaper yesterday I read about measles outbreaks in Utah. Measles! I have come to two conclusions about the people who don't have their children vaccinated. The first is that they have no idea of the immense relief that vaccination brought to the mothers and fathers of children who were saved from a host of childhood diseases. They have no concept of a world without vaccination, a world where influenza is a major cause of death. The second is that those people who withhold vaccinations from their children have that smug arrogance that only truly profound ignorance and stupidity can bring.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Advice from Harvard

I had to sit in on a discussion by a Harvard Professor last week (Threats were made). In it, the professor deigned to talk to us but didn't go so far as to actually prepare something to say. Instead he had a sort of open mic session in which we could voice supplications and he would reply to them (Are you sensing my response to the whole thing?). One thing he did say (a couple of times) is that if changes are to be made in English Departments (And by English he means literature, blithely unaware that half of English department people don't teach literature), the "leaders" in the field (Harvard) will have to do it first and then the rest of the world will follow like imprinted ducklings. Not so, my Brahmin colleague. In fact, it's the other way around. There is no reason in the world why the "leaders," the ones with the endowments and the prestige, should make any changes. They are quite happy at the top, looking down on the inchworms struggling up the slopes. Change comes from the newcomers, from the proles trying to get ahead in the world of academe. Some upstart university way out past the Mississippi (where civilization ends) will create the first completely on-line Master of Science degree in technical communication. "Technical Communication?" quizzes our Harvard man? "What's that?" P.S. Utah State University, Logan, Utah, developed the first and still very successful on-line program in technical and professional communication.

Monday, March 21, 2011

On Nuclear Disasters (or "The Sky is Falling")

A quick quiz.
How many people were killed as a result of the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown? How many people got serious radiation poisoning? How many people got light doses of radiation poisoning? How much radiation carpeted the countryside?
Answers to the above: none, none, none, and none.
The nuclear problem in Japan is a different story, sort of. It's still ongoing, of course, so it's hard to tell what is going to happen, but as of this date the answers to the quiz would be the same. That's kind of lost in all the hysteria about nuclear energy. Here's a nuke that got a double whammy, earthquake and tsunami, and has still released only very small amounts of radiation, amounts small enough that they are detectable but not life-threatening. Now, no one wants to eat sushi that glows in the dark, but "radiation" is a word that carries such ominous overtones that we forget it's really an everyday part of life, and that we are irradiated constantly by a variety of things.
If you look at the news coverage, though, you'd assume that all of the seacoast of Japan was bathed in the kind of greenish glow you see in sci-fi films, and that the damage from the earthquake and the tsunami is merely an afterthought to the nuclear disaster that has overtaken us all.
The truth is that more than 18,000 people have died and that so far nuclear radiation has had nothing to do with those deaths.
In the end, I think that the nuclear plant problems will reveal heroic efforts, grim possibilities, some short term problems, but will ultimately be a footnote to the larger horror that is the devastation of the earthquake and the flooding.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Who's on First?

I don't know who irritates me most, the Utah legislature, which seems to have more than its share of gooney birds, or the news media, which seems to have more than its share of vultures. I'm coming to think, though, that the legislature is mostly sincere people who do their homework, try to keep the good of the state in mind, and generally are worth their salt. We do have the zingers in there who want to to legislate away evolution, hand out guns on the street corners, and make pi a flat 3.000; who are unwilling to accept anything that science tells us if it interferes with their beliefs, and who are always willing to speak into any microphone, mug before any camera, collar any newsperson.
These are the ones that we read about in the newspaper, see on TV, watch on Yahoo!
So, whose fault is that? It's gotta be the news media, who see no news value at all in sober, hard work, and lotsa news value in oddball antics. A case in point: One legislator wants to make the Colt model 1911 the state firearm. Not a bad choice, actually. It was designed by one of the foremost firearms geniuses in history, a Utah resident. Not only the 1911, but a plethora of other firearms that served our country well in a number of wars, saving the @#$ of many a serviceman.
But it's no big deal, really. It's a footnote to the business we are conducting in the legislature. So, why is it in the paper every day? Well, there's always the "any gun is evil" chant spit out by people who have no experience with guns at all, but in this case I think that it's simply that the news media think it's worthy of some sort of campaign, a "let's show the legislature being concerned with insignificant things" push. Take a small item, make a big thing of it, and wa-la (for those of you who can't pronounce voila), we have a legislature we can snigger at.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Idiots in the Legislature

I wonder about the members of the Utah Legislature a lot. Of course, I have only the daily newspaper to go on, so I freely admit my sources may be biased.
Mark Twain said, "Suppose you are a member of congress. Suppose you are an idiot. But I repeat myself." Is this true? We have a member of the legislature who seems to fit this mold, and he is not averse to showing us. He is against evolution. I don't mean that he is against evolving, though that might be true, but he is against teaching the theory. It's not just that he's against it, but that his public pronouncements indicate that he doesn't even understand it. Hasn't a clue.
I see three ways this could go: A) He is truly ignorant of the data available; B) He is dumber than a post and will never get it no matter what, or C) He knows all right, but his politics dictate that he fight against it.
I have a sneaking suspicion that it's option C. I don't think he's stupid. The guy has the casual arrogance of a safe seat in the legislature. He's sure that his way is the right way. Not only the right way, but the righteous way. Given those those conditions, he's free to say any dippy thing he needs to in order to get his way.
A guy like that is even liable to opine that he knows how the schools should be run better than the people who've worked at it all their lives.