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Archive for May 2010



Secular Right is back (sort of)

Hope you’re having a good holiday weekend. I decided to reinstall WP because we’ve had several hacks compromise the system over the past few years, and I am beyond stop-gap solutions with the previous install. So I deleted it and installed a new copy of WP. I’ve tried to invest more time in security this time around in the beginning, but nothing’s perfect, so we’ll see.

Obviously I’m going to tweak this set up in the near future. Additionally due to a oversight of mine we don’t have the images for the earlier blog, though I did get all posts and comments. I likely have images on a back up on another computer, but I’m travelling now so that is not accessible. Also, I retrieved all users but they don’t have any privileges, so you may have to re-register (excepting front-page contributors, who I manually upgraded).



Missing the Hymn

An unbeliever can enjoy a good hymn as much as the next man, as many have testified.  (G.B. Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, Kingsley Amis, and E.O Wilson come to mind.  Not sure about Bert Russell; but the religious side of his family were some minimalist nonconformist sect IIRC, and so probably disapproved of hymns anyway.)

This week is Fleet Week in New York City.  I attended a Fleet Week function on Wednesday, watched the ships sailing up the Hudson, and hobnobbed with some naval and USMC personnel — most enjoyable and instructive.

At no point, however, did I get to hear the Navy Hymn, which is in my personal Top Five.  I cannot let this stand.

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Thou shalt not blaspheme democracy

The Big Money has a story about Pakistan blocking Facebook because of the “Everyone Draw Muhammed Day!” page. My issue? The title, This Week in Despotism, Google Edition. Pakistan isn’t a despotism, it has a semi-functioning democracy, and, from what I gather the move was broadly popular in Pakistani society (though no doubt those praising the blockage in public are trying to figure out ways in private to evade the ban). I guess the idea of an illiberal democracy just isn’t going to gain much traction in the modern marketplace of ideas….




The Rise of Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox

There was an interesting piece in Saturday’s Financial Times on how the rise in Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox population is a source of increasing tension within the country. Here’s a key extract

Once a tiny minority, the community today accounts for at least 8 per cent of the Israeli adult population. It is forecast to double every 16 years. In Jerusalem more than half the Jewish children attending primary school hail from ultra-orthodox families. A survey by Israel’s Taub Centre for Social Policy Studies highlighted the economic consequences: almost two-thirds of ultra-orthodox men do not work, meaning that a rapidly increasing share of the population depends on state welfare. Many ultra-orthodox schools refuse to teach the core curriculum, so thousands of pupils grow up with only a rudimentary knowledge of maths and none of other sciences, foreign languages or non-religious history.

“The great majority of ultra-orthodox men are not able to work in most vocations in the modern world. They are very much dependent on government support – and that has aggravated a lot of people,” says Menachem Friedman, a professor at Bar Ilan -university. The ultra-orthodox are coming to be seen as a heavy burden. Calls for reform of their schools are growing, as are demands to draft yeshiva students into the army. Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, declared earlier this month that the state must act against “insulated and ignorant sectors which are increasing at a frightening speed and are jeopardising our political and financial strength”. According to Mr Ilan, the tensions will increase. The next Israeli election, he argues, “will be fought on the subject of religion and the state”.


Food for thought, as, I suspect, is the question of what the increase in the numbers of the Ultra-Orthodox could ultimately mean for the perception of Israel in the West. Yes, there are some evangelical Americans whose enthusiasm for Israel is fueled by their own odd and rather unseemly anticipation of the End Times, but, for the most part, Israel derives its support from the fact that it is seen as a ‘secular’ pro-Western democracy in a part of the world not generally known for such phenomena. For that reputation to be eroded by a growing fundamentalist minority could be very damaging indeed.




Spreading The Word

Via the London Times, an instructive tale from Uganda:

When he arrived at Kampala’s Hotel Triangle for a three-day conference, the Rev Kapya Kaoma knew that he would not like what he heard.
The clue was in the event’s title — “Exposing the truth behind homosexuality and the homosexual agenda” — and in the line-up of guest speakers arranged by Stephen Langa, head of the Ugandan-based Family Life Network (FLN), and an outspoken advocate for the criminalisation of homosexuality in Uganda.
Given top billing at the event hosted by the FLN was Scott Lively, president of Abiding Truth Ministries, an American conservative Christian group from California, and a Holocaust revisionist whose controversial book The Pink Swastika names homosexuals as “the true inventors of Nazism and the guiding force behind many Nazi atrocities.”
Weeks after the Kampala conference in March last year — which followed a meeting between the speakers and members of the Ugandan Parliament — a clause appeared in the country’s draft Anti-Homosexuality Bill recommending life imprisonment for certain homosexual “crimes” or, for “serial offenders”, the death sentence.

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Life Goes On

Blind faith in progress is like most faith a mistake. Nevertheless, on the whole this  (via the Economist) seems to be good news:

Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, the two American biologists who unravelled the first DNA sequence of a living organism (a bacterium) in 1995, have made a bacterium that has an artificial genome—creating a living creature with no ancestor… Pedants may quibble that only the DNA of the new beast was actually manufactured in a laboratory; the researchers had to use the shell of an existing bug to get that DNA to do its stuff. Nevertheless, a Rubicon has been crossed. It is now possible to conceive of a world in which new bacteria (and eventually, new animals and plants) are designed on a computer and then grown to order.


The usual suspects will doubtless grumble, but, writing in the Guardian, a slightly over-enthusiastic Ken Macleod gets in his response first:

It’s a tremendous achievement of human ingenuity and skill. And there’s something wonderfully confirmatory of mechanistic materialism in the building of a genome from chemically synthesised molecules, that genome running a cell, and that cell replicating to a point where no trace of the original cell’s cytoplasm is left in its descendants. This lays to rest, with a satisfying finality, the ghost of vitalism – the spooky, whiffy doctrine that there is some essence of life not captured by “reductionist” biochemistry.


He notes that we can expect the “usual TV studio parade of clergy” giving their opinions.  Well, why not?  Macleod’s “why them?”  is a cheap shot, but he redeems himself by adding:

More significant than the clerics are their secular successors, the ethicists – paid to worry so we don’t have to. They’re already on the case.


“Ethicists” are a modern curse, typified best by that waste of taxpayer dollars,  the “President’s Council on Bioethics” set up by George W. Bush, and its successor,  Obama’s “Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.”  Needless to say,  the busybody-in-chief  has asked the commission to investigate the “implications” of Venter and Smith’s work:

I ask that the Commission complete its study within six months and provide me with a report with its findings, as well as any recommendations and suggestions for future study that the Commission deems appropriate. Given the importance of this issue, I request that the Commission consult with a range of constituencies, including scientific and medical communities, faith communities, and business and nonprofit organizations.

It is vital that we as a society consider, in a thoughtful manner, the significance ofthis kind of scientific development. With the Commission’s collective expertise in the areas of science, policy, and ethical and religious values, I am confident that it will carry out this responsibility with the care and attention it deserves.


Oh, good grief.

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The Dalai Lama, Marxist?

That a monk announces vaguely incoherent support for an millennial cult shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but these remarks by the Dalai Lama seem to have caused some annoyance:
NEW YORK (AFP)— Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama said Thursday that he is a Marxist, yet credits capitalism for bringing new freedoms to the communist country that exiled him — China. “Still I am a Marxist,” the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader said in New York, where he arrived with an entourage of robed monks and a heavy security detail to give a series of paid public lectures.Marxism has “moral ethics, whereas capitalism is only how to make profits,” the Dalai Lama, 74, said.
Dumb, sure, but I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Read the full text of what the Dalai Lama has to say, and it’s easy to see that the exiled Tibetan leader is very far from signing up for the Cheka. That said, the distinction he makes between Marxism with its supposedly “moral” ethics and amoral capitalism is false. Even if we give Marxism some sort of credit for its “morality” (I wouldn’t), the Dalai Lama is comparing apples with oranges. While a moral case can certainly be made for capitalism, capitalism doesn’t pretend to be a moral system in its own right. In essence, it’s nothing but an economic tool. It leaves (and often creates) a space for morality, but does not presume to dictate what those morals should be. Marxism, by contrast, was dreamt up as a comprehensive belief system, and that’s something else altogether. To compare the two in the way that the Dalai Lama has done makes little sense. Then again, he is a monk.

Mao & The Dalai Lama, Oct 13 1954 (AP)


There has been some muted comment about the religious composition of the U.S. Supreme Court after a Kagan approval: 6 Catholics, 3 Jews.

Is this enough Jews, though?  Let’s crunch numbers.

First permit me to switch from religion to self-identifying ethnicity, which is closer to how this stuff actually works.  Less than two percent of non-Hispanic white Americans are religious Jews, but around five percent have Jewish ancestry and consider themselves to some degree Jewish.  Let me just take, as round numbers, 220 million non-Hispanic white Americans, ten million of them self-identifying (to some degree) Jewish.  You can of course rework the following with different numbers if you like.

There are nine seats on the U.S. Supreme Court.  By general agreement (it seems to me) there is one quota-seat for an African American, one for a Hispanic.  That leaves seven seats available for non-Hispanic white justices.  How many of those seven would we expect to go to Jewish nominees?

Leaving aside the obvious temptation to carry out a 5,000-word analysis on that word “expect,” let’s drastically simplify: let’s pick ’em by IQ.   Supposing non-Hispanic white Gentiles to have mean IQ 100 and Jews mean IQ 112 (the figure usually cited, though again you can re-crunch with a different number if you like), with standard deviation 15 in both cases, here’s what I get for various cutoff minimum IQs:

Min IQ         Gentiles         Jews         Seats    
110     53,023,433     5,530,351     0.66
115     33,317,603     4,207,403     0.78
120     19,154,356     2,969,014     0.94
125     10,035,974     1,930,623     1.13
130     4,777,528     1,150,697     1.36
135     2,061,219     625,969     1.63
140     804,380     309,741     1.95
145     283,479     139,034     2.30
150     90,103     56,492     2.70
155     25,802     20,741     3.12
160     6,651     6,871     3.56
165     1,542     2,052     4.00
170     321     552     4.42
175     60     133     4.82
180     10     29     5.19
185     2     6     5.51
190     0     1     5.80

You get three Jewish seats round about cutoff IQ 153, which is pretty darn smart — only 43,000 non-Hispanic white Gentile Americans are that smart.  At cutoff 165 you’d expect four Jewish seats; at around 178 you’d expect five.

That’s all highly abstract, of course.  It assumes up front that anyone actually wants justices as smart as possible, when what presidents usually want is justices that (a) are on their side, lib-con-wise, and (b) are sufficiently bland & unimaginative never to have said or written anything that will raise an eyebrow from the drones on the confirmation committee.

It also assumes that a 180-IQ nominee would be better at judging cases than a 140-IQ-er.  That’s not obvious to me.  I favor the “sweet spot” notion of IQ, where cognitive ability+sense/wisdom max out around 125-135, the sense/wisdom component then dropping off steeply in higher IQ numbers.  If that’s right, we may have one Jewish justice too many!

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Mumbo Jumbo Medicine, Taxpayer-Paid

Via the Daily Telegraph:

Hundreds of members of the BMA [The British equivalent of the AMA] have passed a motion denouncing the use of [homeopathy], saying taxpayers should not foot the bill for remedies with no scientific basis to support them. The BMA has previously expressed scepticism about homoeopathy, arguing that the rationing body, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence should examine the evidence base and make a definitive ruling about the use of the remedies in the NHS.

Now, the annual conference of junior doctors has gone further, with a vote overwhelmingly supporting a blanket ban, and an end to all placements for trainee doctors which teach them homeopathic principles. Dr Tom Dolphin, deputy chairman of the BMA’s junior doctors committee in England told the conference: “Homeopathy is witchcraft. It is a disgrace that nestling between the National Hospital for Neurology and Great Ormond Street [in London] there is a National Hospital for Homeopathy which is paid for by the NHS”.

The alternative medicine, devised in the 18th century by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann, is based on a theory that substances which cause symptoms in a healthy person can, when vastly diluted, cure the same problems in a sick person. Proponents say the resulting remedy retains a “memory” of the original ingredient – a concept dismissed by scientists. [The] [l]atest figures show 54,000 patients are treated each year at four NHS homeopathic hospitals in London, Glasgow, Bristol and Liverpool, at an estimated cost of £4 million.


The junior doctors are, of course, correct.

Of course, there’s absolutely no danger that anyone would ever consider making the taxpayer shell out for mumbo jumbo medicine over here. None at all.

November 03, 2009|Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger
WASHINGTON — Backed by some of the most powerful members of the Senate, a little-noticed provision in the healthcare overhaul bill would require insurers to consider covering Christian Science prayer treatments as medical expenses.

The provision was inserted by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) with the support of Democratic Sens. John F. Kerry and the late Edward M. Kennedy, both of Massachusetts, home to the headquarters of the Church of Christ, Scientist.



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Joe Carter at First Things, The Vincible Ignorance of Atheism:

Even as a fervent believer I can acknowledge that skepticism and atheism can be inspired by the reasons Hart lists. But I fail to understand how that makes them noble, precious, or necessary traditions. Indeed, I wish Christians would recognize just the opposite: We have to abandon the politically correct notion that atheism is intellectually respectable.

Historically speaking, this concession to the greatest lie in the universe is a rather recent development. While there have always been people who deny the existence of a deity, it has not been a prominent view among intellectuals, much less a serious alternative to Christian theism. What previous cultures instinctively understood, and that we in turn have forgotten, is that atheism is a form of (self-imposed) intellectual dysfunction, a lack of epistemic virtue, or—to borrow a term from my Catholic friends—a case of vincible ignorance.

Let me do a substitution on the part I have emphasized: While there have always been people who deny the existence of Allah, it has not been a prominent view among intellectuals, much less a serious alternative to Muslim theism. For much of the history of the West there were strong social sanctions against public expressions of atheism. And quite often the sanctions were not simply matters of ostracism, they were of capital consequence. The last person executed in the British Isles for atheism suffered such a punishment around ~1700 (see How the Scots Invented the Modern World). There were almost certainly many atheists at the commanding heights of intellect in the pre-modern era in the West, but they would certainly not be open about their views lest they suffer extreme punishment. Additionally, in an era where written works were copied in religious institutions the likelihood of atheistic arguments being transcribed seem rather low (there were already pre-Christian works, such as those of Lucretius, which were useful as examples to refute). A window into the atheists at the heights of intellect who we know nothing of may be someone such as Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne, who flourished in a time of transition between the old and new regime in regards to freedom of conscience. He was a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church, but his clerical career was a matter of self-interest, not genuine belief. His materialism and atheism was so well known that the king of France vetoed his advancement within the Church because he believed that de Brienne’s lack of belief in Christianity rendered his aspirations to becoming a prince of the Church unseemly.

But we don’t have just the West as an example. In both India and China many intellectuals have long been skeptical of theism. Granted, this does not mean that the majority of intellectuals were atheists, but the atheist position has not been without defenders. The Confucian sage Xun Zi was arguably a materialist, whose defense of the propriety of religious ritual was purely instrumental. Even those Chinese scholars who were more open to supernaturalism than Xun Zi often found Christian theism to be beneath their consideration, reflecting a more primitive mindset.

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