Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lawrence Lessig at Harvard, Live Webcast tonight at 6pm

Just found out Lawrence Lessig, author of Free Culture, is giving a talk about fair use at Harvard tonight, which will be webcast live starting at 6pm ET (2/25/10).  The webcast is right here.  Tune in; Lessig is always really interesting to listen to.

(Sorry for this being so close to the wire; I only just heard about the talk)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Timmy O'Riley by L. Hadron and the Colliders

Being both a science and music geek, I thought this was fantastic:

How can you go wrong with a name that references both The Who and a particle accelerator?  I'm now going to buy my Otamatone Electronic Instrument.

(via Slashdot)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

This is exactly how I feel about the whole Tiger Woods situation

It's off-topic here, but I'm getting tired of seeing this nonsense all over the news.  Here's how to figure out if Tiger Woods owes you an apology:

I actually heard someone on CNN say that Woods has had a worse fall from grace than O.J. Simpson did.  Seriously...

(From Cynical-C Blog.)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Coakley makes herself useful again

After being the most ineffective campaginer I've ever seen, Martha Coakley is starting to redeem herself as the Massachusetts Attorney General (still).  She is challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA):

In court papers filed in US District Court on Thursday, Coakley asked a judge to deem the law unconstitutional without holding a trial on the lawsuit.
Coakley argues that regulating marital status has traditionally been left to the states. She said the federal law treats married heterosexual couples and married same-sex couples differently; for instance, when determining eligibility for Medicaid benefits and when determining whether the spouse of a veteran can be buried in a Massachusetts veterans cemetery.
The law forces Massachusetts “to engage in invidious discrimination against its own citizens in order to receive and retain federal funds in connection with two joint federal-state programs,’’ Coakley said in the court filing.

I think the highlighted argument above is going to make this interesting.  A number of Republicans, including John McCain and Dick Cheney, have argued that marriage should be left up to the states.  I suspect that may be a way to tow the party line without being too controversial by promoting a federal ban like some of the more conservative Republicans, or perhaps supporting gay marriage, in Cheney's case.  However, it certainly is a common theme of the Republican party to promote state rights over the federal government, so it will be difficult for opponents of gay marriage to argue against it.  It gives me hope.

I'm glad to see Coakley taking this head-on. Even though she may not have won the Senate seat, she'll have a real effect on federal law.  I'm looking forward to the results of this motion.

So proud of my former church

Washington DC has recently legalized same-sex marriage. In response, the Catholic Church discontinued its foster-care program, in order not to license same-sex couples.
Edward Orzechowski, president and chief executive of Catholic Charities, the archdiocese's social service arm, said the group is optimistic that it will find a way to structure its benefits packages in other social service programs so that it can remain in partnership with the city without recognizing same-sex marriage.
Asked if that meant looking at ways to avoid paying benefits to same-sex partners or ways to write benefits plans so as not to characterize same-sex couples as "married," Orzechowski said "both, and." 
"Now we're in a position where we need to scrutinize everything," he said. "From our point of view, it's important that we don't in any way compromise our religious teaching." (emphasis mine)
It's nice to know that hating queers is more important to the church than making sure children are cared for.  Giving gays benefits would be compromising their religious teachings, whereas abandoning children doesn't seem to bother them too much.  Any Catholics out there willing to defend this?

EDIT:  I forgot to link to Allison Kilkenny's report on this @ True Slant, where I originally saw this story.  Sorry Allison!

Friday, February 19, 2010

More on Maloney and other assorted quacks

More news on the Christopher Maloney story from PZ.  Apparently another cook, Andreas Moritz, was actually the person who got Michael Hawkins' blog shut down from WordPress  (there's a letter from Moritz posted on Pharyngula).  

After reading Moritz' website, I'm scheduling an appointment with Maloney.  Maloney might have suggested useless folk remedies, but he doesn't blame cancer patients for their illness.  Moritz' nonsense has already been beaten to death by PZ, Hawkins, and Orac, so I'm just going to suggesting reading their stuff.  

And if you're blogging on WordPress, I'd consider backing it up and moving somewhere else.

Scott Brown on the domestic terrorist

Most of you have probably already heard about Joseph Stack, the man who flew his airplane into an IRS building in Austin, TX.  His letter describing his problems with the government and IRS are posted here.  It seems pretty clear that if the letter above is genuine, this was an act of domestic terrorism.

Enter Scott Brown, my new seantor here in Massachusetts.

He appeared on Cavuto on Fox News, and this is what he had to say about it:

This guy flew a plane into a building, and Brown says "People are frustrated" and "No one likes paying taxes, obviously."  Now I don't think that Sen. Brown approves of this type of behavior, but how oblivious do you have to be to use something like that as an example of what happens when your party is out of power?  That's essentially what Brown did when pushing his agenda in the context of this act. 

The correct answer (for anyone) is "Regardless of your disagreements with the government, an act of terrorism like this is not justified."  You put your own agenda aside for 30 seconds, and you strongly assert you don't support terrorism.  Simple.  Easy to remember.

What I find most interesting is that if you read Stack's letter, he has positive things to say about communism and negative about capitalism.  He also complains about religion (specifically the Catholic Church) and the health care problem in the U.S.  This was not a Republican tea-bagger fed up with the Obama administration (he did also complain about big government, so not a classic liberal either).  But Brown's response suggests he assumed that he was.

I'm not sure why he would make that assumption.  Perhaps he believes that this type of action, though not justified, is apprehensible given the state of our current Democrat-controlled government.  Or perhaps he believes this type of extremist behavior to more likely come from his constituency than others.** 

The whole situation makes Brown looks completely clueless and inept.  Here's looking forward to the 2012 election.

** Note that I'm not sure if either of these ideas are even likely correct, I just can't figure out why he would make the assumption he did without looking into it.  I'm mostly just echoing the first things that came to mind, but I'm sure there could be better explanations.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Christopher Maloney is a quack (via PZ)

Most of you reading this here have probably already seen it on Pharyngula, but I thought I should copy it here. 

Christopher Maloney is a naturopath from Maine whose atrocities include  calling himself a doctor (he's an N.D., not M.D.) and dispensing quack advice such as giving children elderberries and garlic capsules to battle the flu.  Just look at his own website:
When I was ill, I went looking for a doctor.
I could not find anyone who did what I wanted.
So I have worked to become the doctor I wanted to find.
From his WHAT DID I WANT? page (caps are his, not mine) he goes into more detail:
It would help if we could discuss the spiritual side of my illness as well, because I think that affects how I feel on a given day. Oh, and I want my doctor to give me bodywork or massage or maybe a foot rub when I need it. That's not too much to ask, is it? 
So because all of his doctors wanted to given him treatment that actually works (you know, medicine), and wouldn't waste their time rubbing his feetsies (because they're doctors, not masseurs/masseuses), he decided to become a naturopathic crank, giving people homeopathic treatments and magical herbs and berries.

Mr. Maloney also spouts nonsense about autism and vaccines, and prion diseases (such as Mad Cow).  On the latter page, he apparently accepted the testimony of one of his patients who knew she had scrapie, even though its believed to not be transmittable to humans.  I assume that means there's never been a case documented in a human.  There's plenty more nonsense to read; take it in small doses if you don't want your brain to explode.

So when a student named Michael Hawkins criticized him for being a quack, Mr. Maloney wrote a well thought-out rebuttal, pointing out the deficiencies of the criticisms against him.

No, wait, that's not right.  Maloney actually cried and whined to WordPress, who hosted Hawkins' blog, and got them to shut the blog down.

Of course, the problem with censoring your critics on the web is that it usually backfires very badly.   I'm making sure that it does for Mr. Maloney.  PZ wants all in the online skeptical community (and anyone else, of course) to pass on the message: Christopher Maloney is a quack.  I'd like to add that Mr. Maloney is also a coward and a crybaby.  If you can't handle criticism, get off the internet.  Please pass it on.

Monday, February 15, 2010

MIA the past few days...

I've been on Long Island the past few days helping my mom move, and helping the fiancee do some wedding planning, so I haven't had much time to write.  Here are a few stories I would have written more about, but didn't get to:

Anne Hathaway leave the Catholic Church in support of her gay brother.  In an interview with GQ magazine:

“The whole family converted to Episcopalianism after my elder brother came out. Why should I support an organization that has a limited view of my beloved brother?”

Hathaway, who also co-starred in Brokeback Mountain as Jack Twist’s wife, said that the Episcopal church isn’t perfect for her either.
“So I’m… nothing (no denomination),” she said, “Fuck it, I’m forming. I’m a work in progress.”

Glad to see others are leaving that homophobic, idiotic organization.  And I have something in common with Anne Hathaway now (besides all the adoring fans).

Rom Houben, who I've written about previously, was tested by his neurologist, Dr. Steven Laureys.  It was claimed that Houben was able to communicate through a keyboard with the help from a facilitator, through a technique called facilitated communication (FC).  Turns out, tests show Houben was almost certainly not communicating.  NeuroLogica and Respectful Insolence both have excellent posts about more of the details.  No surprise here, but as I said earlier, this has to be heart-breaking for Rom's family, if they're even willing to accept what the tests concluded.  I hope they're handling it alright. 

The NCAA bans messages on players' eye black.  How convenient that this rule would be put into place only a moment after Tim Tebow, the poster boy of evangelical collegiate athletes, and the most grievous would-be offender of this new rule, is no longer playing.  Hey NCAA, you're three years too late.  Hemant @ Friendly Atheist also has a story about it here.

...And I'm off to Massachusetts once again. 

Friday, February 12, 2010

Abstinence-only sex ed research

This story has been in the news for a few days:  researchers at Penn found that sixth and seventh grade students in an abstinence-only sex education were less likely to engage in sexual activity in two years, than students in the control group.  Other programs promoting condom use and a comprehensive program which included both abstinence and condoms did not return significant results.

Of course, abstinence-only advocates are running with these findings:
Advocates of abstinence-only education have seized on the new findings as evidence that their approach works best. Some are urging the Obama administration to reverse course and restore federal support for abstinence-only education.
Of course their wrong for several reasons.

First, this is a single study.  Many others have shown abstinence-only programs not to work.  No scientist in their right mind would take the result of a single study of this nature and assume that their results are conclusive.  The study also has only been over for two years, meaning the sixth and seventh graders are now around ninth grade.  What happens in the longer term is still not known.

Also, this abstinence-only program is nothing like the old abstinence-only programs promoted by the Bush administration:
Under current federal law, supported by the Bush administration and conservatives in Congress, abstinence-only programs that seek federal support must meet several rigid requirements that essentially make them abstinence-until-marriage programs.
They must teach, for example, that abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the “expected standard” for all school-age children. This new study would have failed that test. It did not advocate abstinence until marriage but urged students to wait until they were more mature. It encouraged abstinence as a way to eliminate the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, had youngsters draw up lists of the pros and cons of sexual activity, and taught strategies for resisting pressure to have intercourse.
Studies have shown time and time again that Bush era abstinence-only programs were complete failures.

Finally, the goal of sex education should be to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STIs, and this study does not address this at all (at least what has been presented in the NYT article).  According to the report, one third of the students engaged in sexual behavior after two years of being administered the program, while nearly half the control group had sex.  But how many of those students used condoms?  While I know that teaching children about condoms doesn't guarantee they'll use them, I'd much prefer 50% of students having sex using condoms than 33% having sex without even basic knowledge about them any day. 

I'm not going to argue here whether children of a given age should or shouldn't be having sex.  Just like any other form of education, sex education should be about presenting facts and imparting the knowledge to allow students to make informed decisions themselves.  It certainly is a fact that abstinence is the only way to be 100% protected from STIs and pregnancy.  But it's also true that kids are going to have sex anyway, and they should have the knowledge to allow them to be as safe as possible, regardless of what they decide to do.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reading the Qur'an: Juz' 3 (2:253 - 3:92)

I finally had a chance to sit down and read some more of the Qur'an this weekend, so here's my synopsis of Juz' 3.  This section contains the rest of the second sura (The Heifer), and the first half of the third sura (The Family of Imran).

Now that blogger added a stand-alone page editor, I've also created a sort of hub page for all of my writing on the Qur'an, for easy reference.  If you haven't read my earlier posts, you can find the two earlier Juz' I've written about, and the introductory stuff, describing what I'm doing.

Now, back to sura #2:
253. Those apostles We endowed with gifts, some above others: To one of them Allah spoke; others He raised to degrees (of honour); to Jesus the son of Mary We gave clear (Signs), and strengthened him with the holy spirit. If Allah had so willed, succeeding generations would not have fought among each other, after clear (Signs) had come to them, but they (chose) to wrangle, some believing and others rejecting. If Allah had so willed, they would not have fought each other; but Allah Fulfilleth His plan.
This Juz' begins with this problem that I had with the previous one:  contradictory statements about the free will of humans.  If God could have willed something that denies humans full control, then free will is a useless concept.  You can give human free will, but God "freer" will.  A commenter, kat (whose been very helpful; I'm glad to have another point of view on the Qur'an), said this about free will:
Free-Will----look at verse 6 and 7 in the previous Juz [#1]. verse 6 says "as to those who reject faith/trust.... then verse 7 says God has set a seal....Therefore---one has to first choose of ones own free-will before any Divine action is taken. And---as another Quran verse will explain, We will always have the choice to repent our decision and go back to Guidance. God is compassionate and merciful.
So if you choose to reject faith, then God puts a seal on your heart.  But you still can repent and accept faith later (being forgiven isn't really relevant, the fact that you can change your mind is all that matters to me in this case).  Then what exactly is the seal on your heart doing?  It just seems that if humans have free will, then God cannot plan the things he is purported to in the Qur'an.  
254. O ye who believe! Spend out of (the bounties) We have provided for you, before the Day comes when no bargaining (Will avail), nor friendship nor intercession. Those who reject Faith they are the wrong-doers.
A doomsday verse, along with the claim that those who lack faith must be wrong-doers.  Just like other religious texts, the premise is that regardless of your deeds, its what you think that matters.  No matter how many people you help, you're still in the wrong because you didn't do it to please a magical sky-man.  It's probably one of my least favorite assertions that religions make, that without god, we couldn't possibly be moral people (hence my previous post).
256. Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.
According to M. Asad, the beginning of this verse refers to the fact that forced conversion is not valid.  Although this entails some measure of free will (which I've already discussed), it is good to condemn forced conversions.  However, there's also nothing about how we should treat those who choose not to believe here.  And the next verse, along with many others, are pretty clear about non-believers being evil:
257. Allah is the Protector of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light. Of those who reject faith the patrons are the evil ones: from light they will lead them forth into the depths of darkness. They will be companions of the fire, to dwell therein (For ever). 

258. Hast thou not Turned thy vision to one who disputed with Abraham About his Lord, because Allah had granted him power? Abraham said: "My Lord is He Who Giveth life and death." He said: "I give life and death". Said Abraham: "But it is Allah that causeth the sun to rise from the east: Do thou then cause him to rise from the West." Thus was he confounded who (in arrogance) rejected faith. Nor doth Allah Give guidance to a people unjust.
More bad science in verse 258, nothing surprising if we assume the Qur'an is not inspired by a god.
261. The parable of those who spend their substance in the way of Allah is that of a grain of corn: it groweth seven ears, and each ear Hath a hundred grains. Allah giveth manifold increase to whom He pleaseth: And Allah careth for all and He knoweth all things.
262. Those who spend their substance in the cause of Allah, and follow not up their gifts with reminders of their generosity or with injury,-for them their reward is with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.
263. Kind words and the covering of faults are better than charity followed by injury. Allah is free of all wants, and He is Most-Forbearing.
264. O ye who believe! cancel not your charity by reminders of your generosity or by injury,- like those who spend their substance to be seen of men, but believe neither in Allah nor in the Last Day. They are in parable like a hard, barren rock, on which is a little soil: on it falls heavy rain, which leaves it (Just) a bare stone. They will be able to do nothing with aught they have earned. And Allah guideth not those who reject faith.
265. And the likeness of those who spend their substance, seeking to please Allah and to strengthen their souls, is as a garden, high and fertile: heavy rain falls on it but makes it yield a double increase of harvest, and if it receives not Heavy rain, light moisture sufficeth it. Allah seeth well whatever ye do.
Verses 261-273 promote charity once again, mostly good stuff.  However, verse 264 does include the idea that those who don't have faith aren't charitable.  Also, verse 263 contains the phrase "Allah is free of all wants," which is odd.  God makes plenty of demands throughout all of his holy books, it seems that he wants us to act a certain way and think certain things.  I just talked about God's plan earlier, suggesting he has desires.  I suppose they mean to say that God has no petty wants, like wanting money or material possession, but that should be obvious (what use would he have for any of that?).  Asad's translation says "God is self-sufficient," which again seems either false (he requires a lot from people), or obviously true (in the sense that God doesn't need anything because he can do whatever he needs himself). Verse 267 says something similar.

267. O ye who believe! Give of the good things which ye have (honourably) earned, and of the fruits of the earth which We have produced for you, and do not even aim at getting anything which is bad, in order that out of it ye may give away something, when ye yourselves would not receive it except with closed eyes. And know that Allah is Free of all wants, and worthy of all praise.
 This verse also contains another ideal (the first bold section), which leaves me somewhat torn.  I think the main sentiment here is that when we give to charity, we shouldn't just give junk we don't want, that's not a sacrifice.  We should give the poor some of the things we value.  While I agree that we should sacrifice what we can, it's also the case the the poor will appreciate things that we may not value ourselves.  I'm probably overthinking this particular line, but I think the sentiment should be a bit more nuanced.
271. If ye disclose (acts of) charity, even so it is well, but if ye conceal them, and make them reach those (really) in need, that is best for you: It will remove from you some of your (stains of) evil. And Allah is well acquainted with what ye do.
Verse 271 reminds me of the saying: "Character is how we act when no one is watching."  While most people are willing and able to perform under supervision, it takes discipline to do what's right when no one is watching you.  Of course the idea of an ever-present god seems to cheapen this, since no matter what, you're always watched by someone.  In fact, you're always watched by the most important watcher there is; the only one that matters.  

273. (Charity is) for those in need, who, in Allah's cause are restricted (from travel), and cannot move about in the land, seeking (For trade or work): the ignorant man thinks, because of their modesty, that they are free from want. Thou shalt know them by their (Unfailing) mark: They beg not importunately from all the sundry. And whatever of good ye give, be assured Allah knoweth it well.
Nothing new here, but I still don't understand why modest believers would require charity, if God is really looking out for them.  The whole "God is testing us" argument doesn't fly with me.  It's been beaten to death, so I'm not going to do it here.
277. Those who believe, and do deeds of righteousness, and establish regular prayers and regular charity, will have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.
This verse seems to give a quick rundown of what's been presented throughout the rest of this sura, which a Muslim must do.  I agree with righteousness and charity, not so much with believing and praying.   Again, deeds just seem more important to me than beliefs.

Near the end, we learn about the rules for holding debts.  I agree with verse 280:
280. If the debtor is in a difficulty, grant him time Till it is easy for him to repay. But if ye remit it by way of charity, that is best for you if ye only knew.
Be flexible, and don't demand payment from someone who can't afford to pay you right away.  I can get behind that.  The problem I have in this section, though, it with part of verse 282:

282. O ye who believe! When ye deal with each other, in transactions involving future obligations in a fixed period of time, reduce them to writing Let a scribe write down faithfully as between the parties: let not the scribe refuse to write: as Allah Has taught him, so let him write. Let him who incurs the liability dictate, but let him fear His Lord Allah, and not diminish aught of what he owes. If they party liable is mentally deficient, or weak, or unable Himself to dictate, Let his guardian dictate faithfully, and get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as ye choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her...
Yes, because those women can't remember anything, with their periods and their emotions.  Again, no surprise given the time this book was written, but not something we should aspire to.
285. The Messenger believeth in what hath been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the men of faith. Each one (of them) believeth in Allah, His angels, His books, and His apostles. "We make no distinction (they say) between one and another of His apostles." And they say: "We hear, and we obey: (We seek) Thy forgiveness, our Lord, and to Thee is the end of all journeys."
286. On no soul doth Allah Place a burden greater than it can bear. It gets every good that it earns, and it suffers every ill that it earns. (Pray:) "Our Lord! Condemn us not if we forget or fall into error; our Lord! Lay not on us a burden Like that which Thou didst lay on those before us; Our Lord! Lay not on us a burden greater than we have strength to bear. Blot out our sins, and grant us forgiveness. Have mercy on us. Thou art our Protector; Help us against those who stand against faith."
The penultimate verse of this sura remind us again that all of his messengers (Abraham, Moses, Jesus, etc.), were all inspired by God.  The last verse presents the old proverb, that God does not place burdens on people greater than they can bear.  That's quite a statement.  People are quite resilient, often surprisingly so in dire situations, but I don't believe that a just and loving God would allow what has happened in places like Haiti, New Orleans, Sudan, etc.

So to wrap up this sura, it is mostly a rehashing of the laws given to the Jews by God (obey God, be charitable, be fair to your debtors, etc.).  It also points out that true men of God, such as the prophets, submitted to God, and thus were Muslims (ones who submit to God).  Abraham was a Muslim, for example, because he submitted himself to all of God's commands.  However, they also point out that the Jewish people in general were idolaters, who worshiped foreign gods and golden calves.    

Chapter 3: Al-'Imran (The Family of 'Imran):

We made it, the third sura!  I thought that second one would never end.

OK, so this sura, like the previous one, was revealed in Medina.  The Family of 'Imran refers to the lineage of both Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.  According to M. Asad, this sura emphasizes that while Jesus was a man of God, he was not a God himself, and the interpretation of Jesus' message by Christians is arbitrary and misguided.  So let's get to it.

It begins like the second sura: believe in God, unbelievers will suffer, and verse 6 contains more bad science:
6. He it is Who shapes you in the wombs as He pleases. There is no god but He, the Exalted in Might, the Wise.
Unfortunately, genetics says otherwise.  When God produces someone with genes that could not have come from their mother or father, I'll reconsider this.
7. He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book: In it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: "We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:" and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding.
Verse 7 was quite surprising to me.  It's basically saying "don't take everything so seriously" in these holy books.  (Perhaps literally is a better word than seriously.)  Of course, the problem here is that if only Allah knows the hidden meaning, and which verses are allegorical, then how are we supposed to figure it out and conduct ourselves according to God's wishes?   Of course this suggests to me there will be others who explain which verses are allegorical, and what the meaning are.  And M. Asad suggests this is true, referring to Tabari's method for identifying ayat muhkamat ("messages that are clear in and by themselves").  But if he's right, then it's not true that only Allah knows its hidden meaning. 

The sura continues by predicting the Day of Jugment (verse 9), and what awaits those who reject faith (I'll give you a hint, it's worse than heck).  And verse 13 describes more proof of the assertions made:

13. "There has already been for you a Sign in the two armies that met (in combat): One was fighting in the cause of Allah, the other resisting Allah. these saw with their own eyes Twice their number. But Allah doth support with His aid whom He pleaseth. In this is a warning for such as have eyes to see."
Asad suggests a couple of things this verse could possibly allude to, either specifically to the battle of Badr, or more generally to the fact that these types of victories are seen often throughout history.  If course this isn't very good prove.  As I already said when talking about the David & Goliath story in the last Juz', sometimes the smaller army wins, for a multitude of reasons (Brain over brawn, advantage over the environment, just plan luck, etc.)

In addition, if this verse is referring to the act that history seems to show that smaller armies often beat bigger ones, that's likely due to the fact that the underdog stories are more interesting, and thus told and passed along, whereas the story about a large army beating a smaller one isn't interesting, surprising or inspiring.

Through the next few verses, we hear more about punishments for unbelievers (verse 16: save us from the agony of the Fire; verse 21: announce to them a grievous penalty).  Verse 17 contains some mostly good advice (other than the worship part, so far I'm not convinced that's important to act righteously):
17. Those who show patience, Firmness and self-control; who are true (in word and deed); who worship devoutly; who spend (in the way of Allah.; and who pray for forgiveness in the early hours of the morning.
And again, we hear about the problems with the "People of the Book" in verse 19:
19. The Religion before Allah is Islam (submission to His Will): Nor did the People of the Book dissent there from except through envy of each other, after knowledge had come to them. But if any deny the Signs of Allah, Allah is swift in calling to account.
The meaning of this verse, acording to Asad:
all these communities at first subscribed to the doctrine of God's oneness and held that man's self-surrender to Him (Islam in its original connotation) is the essence of all true religion. Their subsequent divergencies were an outcome of sectarian pride and mutual exclusiveness.
That's interesting, given the sectarian sentiments we've already seen in the Qur'an, and what has happened to the religion since then.  One can say that Islam is about self-surrender to God, but there's always the caveat that it has to be done in a certain way; our way.  What if I don't pray 5 times everyday, or I don't fast during Ramadan?  I try my best to be patient, compassionate, and make the world a better place, with what little I can do.  Why must I also believe the unbelievable and, in my mind, waste time reciting repetitious prayers?

Verse 24 is also personally annoying:
24. This because they say: "The Fire shall not touch us but for a few numbered days": For their forgeries deceive them as to their own religion.
It seems to suggest that those who reject faith are unaware of what awaits, according to said faith.  We know what hell is purported to be like.  It wouldn't have to be so painful if your belief system were more likely to be true.  Fear is not a good reason to hold a belief.  It's a bullying move, because there is no other reason for us to believe what you tell us.
28. Let not the believers Take for friends or helpers Unbelievers rather than believers: if any do that, in nothing will there be help from Allah. except by way of precaution, that ye may Guard yourselves from them. But Allah cautions you (To remember) Himself; for the final goal is to Allah.
So Muslims shouldn't even be friends with me, or help me at all.  More insular, intolerant, in group/out group stuff. 
32. Say: "Obey Allah and His Messenger.: But if they turn back, Allah loveth not those who reject Faith.
How compassionate...

Next, we learn about the family of 'Imran, which includes Mary (and thus Jesus), and Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.
33. Allah did choose Adam and Noah, the family of Abraham, and the family of 'Imran above all people,-
34. Offspring, one of the other: And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.
35. Behold! a woman of 'Imran said: "O my Lord! I do dedicate unto Thee what is in my womb for Thy special service: So accept this of me: For Thou hearest and knowest all things."
36. When she was delivered, she said: "O my Lord! Behold! I am delivered of a female child!"- and Allah knew best what she brought forth- "And no wise is the male Like the female. I have named her Mary, and I commend her and her offspring to Thy protection from the Evil One, the Rejected."
I don't recall this story from the Bible.  I'm curious where this comes from.

37. Right graciously did her Lord accept her: He made her grow in purity and beauty: To the care of Zakariya was she assigned. Every time that he entered (Her) chamber to see her, He found her supplied with sustenance. He said: "O Mary! Whence (comes) this to you?" She said: "From Allah. for Allah Provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure."
38. There did Zakariya pray to his Lord, saying: "O my Lord! Grant unto me from Thee a progeny that is pure: for Thou art He that heareth prayer!
39. While he was standing in prayer in the chamber, the angels called unto him: "(Allah) doth give thee glad tidings of Yahya, witnessing the truth of a Word from Allah, and (be besides) noble, chaste, and a prophet,- of the (goodly) company of the righteous."
40. He said: "O my lord! How shall I have a son seeing I am very old and my wife is barren?" "Thus" was the answer "doth Allah accomplish whatt He willeth."
41. He said: "O my Lord! Give me a Sign!" "Thy Sign," was the answer, "Shall be that thou shalt speak to no man for three days but with signals. Then celebrate the praises of thy Lord again and again, and glorify Him in the evening and in the morning."
I do remember these verses (37-41) from the Bible (in Luke, I think, possibly in other gospels as well), though I'm not sure what this story adds here.  Next we have Jesus' birth and life in verses 45-59
45. Behold! the angels said: "O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah.
46. "He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. And he shall be (of the company) of the righteous."
Jesus' childhood is not mentioned in the Bible, although I know some of the non-canonical gospels do describe his childhood, so perhaps verse 46 refers to that.  
47. She said: "O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?" He said: "Even so: Allah createth what He willeth: When He hath decreed a plan, He but saith to it, 'Be,' and it is!
48. "And Allah will teach him the Book and Wisdom, the Law and the Gospel,
49. "And (appoint him) an apostle to the Children of Israel, (with this message): "'I have come to you, with a Sign from your Lord, in that I make for you out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by Allah's leave: And I heal those born blind, and the lepers, and I quicken the dead, by Allah's leave; and I declare to you what ye eat, and what ye store in your houses. Surely therein is a Sign for you if ye did believe;
50. "'(I have come to you), to attest the Law which was before me. And to make lawful to you part of what was (Before) forbidden to you; I have come to you with a Sign from your Lord. So fear Allah, and obey me.
51. "'It is Allah Who is my Lord and your Lord; then worship Him. This is a Way that is straight.'"
So it's the standard Jesus story from the Bible.  Next, the Qur'an plays up unbelief again:
52. When Jesus found Unbelief on their part He said: "Who will be My helpers to (the work of) Allah." Said the disciples: "We are Allah's helpers: We believe in Allah, and do thou bear witness that we are Muslims.
53. "Our Lord! we believe in what Thou hast revealed, and we follow the Messenger. then write us down among those who bear witness."
54. And (the unbelievers) plotted and planned, and Allah too planned, and the best of planners is Allah.
55. Behold! Allah said: "O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection: Then shall ye all return unto me, and I will judge between you of the matters wherein ye dispute.
56. "As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help."
57. "As to those who believe and work righteousness, Allah will pay them (in full) their reward; but Allah loveth not those who do wrong."
58. "This is what we rehearse unto thee of the Signs and the Message of Wisdom."
59. The similitude of Jesus before Allah is as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him: "Be". And he was.
Finally, verse 59 compares Jesus to the creation of Adam.

This whole section plays on the things Jesus said about God as an external agent to himself in the Bible.  This is not surprise, since Muslims reject that Jesus was God; they believe he was a prophet and a man of God, but not a God himself.  Asad describes But they completely gloss over the parts where Jesus does claim to be God (see this site as a small collection of evidence that Jesus claimed to be God).  It's no surprise that Muhammad was quote mining the Bible, everyone else does too.  It's just too inconsistent to be the basis of anything without picking and choosing what you like.

But there seems to be a mistake here.  Verse 45 refers to "Christ Jesus," where "Christ" means Messiah.  Why would God say that Christ is the Messiah, if he is not?
60. The Truth (comes) from Allah alone; so be not of those who doubt.
Truth doesn't come from someone, it's what is in the world.  If I say that 2 + 2 = 4, it doesn't matter if God says so or not, it's true by definition.  Not to mention we've already seen all kinds of bad or incomplete information in the Qur'an, including the bad science I've mentioned.  My experience has shown that the truth comes from doubt and skepticism, not blind faith.  Blind faith means we must believe certain propositions without question, limiting your ability to examine evidence for each proposition.  Whereas skepticism allows us to examine any belief with an open-mind.  
61. If any one disputes in this matter with thee, now after (full) knowledge Hath come to thee, say: "Come! let us gather together,- our sons and your sons, our women and your women, ourselves and yourselves: Then let us earnestly pray, and invoke the curse of Allah on those who lie!"
Damn, I should have kept my mouth shut.  Now Muslims are going to have to put a curse on me.  Very nice...
64. Say: "O People of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you: That we worship none but Allah. that we associate no partners with him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than Allah." If then they turn back, say ye: "Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to Allah's Will).
So they're asking Christians here to reject Christ as God (no partners, etc.).  It almost sounds like Muhammad is trying to sound as if they're making compromises ("common terms"), when of course he's asking others to completely reject a main tenet of their faith.

65. Ye People of the Book! Why dispute ye about Abraham, when the Law and the Gospel Were not revealed Till after him? Have ye no understanding?
66. Ah! Ye are those who fell to disputing (Even) in matters of which ye had some knowledge! but why dispute ye in matters of which ye have no knowledge? It is Allah Who knows, and ye who know not!
67. Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was true in Faith, and bowed his will to Allah's (Which is Islam), and he joined not gods with Allah.
Of course I agree that Abraham could not have been a Christian, because Jesus didn't exist yet.  But he was part of God's chosen people, in fact he is the patriarch of all of them, so I would suggest he was a Jew.  The Qur'an says that because the law didn't exist yet (it was given to Moses), he could not have been Jewish.  But of course Islamic law didn't exist either.  That's not the proper criteria here.  Neither sets of laws existed, so if its possible for him to be a Muslim, its also possible for him to be a Jew.  I suppose he could be both, being both one of God's chosen people, and completely submitting to God (which is the definition of Islam), but that gets even more confusing.  I'm no theologian, but this appears to simply be a semantic ploy to convince people that even before the Qur'an existed, the major prophets were Muslims.

69. It is the wish of a section of the People of the Book to lead you astray. But they shall lead astray (Not you), but themselves, and they do not perceive!
70. Ye People of the Book! Why reject ye the Signs of Allah, of which ye are (Yourselves) witnesses?
71. Ye People of the Book! Why do ye clothe Truth with falsehood, and conceal the Truth, while ye have knowledge?
72. A section of the People of the Book say: "Believe in the morning what is revealed to the believers, but reject it at the end of the day; perchance they may (themselves) Turn back;
73. "And believe no one unless he follows your religion." Say: "True guidance is the Guidance of Allah. (Fear ye) Lest a revelation be sent to someone (else) Like unto that which was sent unto you? or that those (Receiving such revelation) should engage you in argument before your Lord?" Say: "All bounties are in the hand of Allah. He granteth them to whom He pleaseth: And Allah careth for all, and He knoweth all things."
More problems with Jews and Christians here, as people who will distract you from the truth.  I actually agree that those religions are distractions, although I don't think Muslims are any better.  I also find the phrase in verse 73 problematic: "Allah careth for all," because verse 32 already contradicted that for those who reject faith.  (Asad's translation says that God is infinite and all-Knowing, nothing about caring for all things.  Perhaps this is a bad translation by Yusuf Ali.)
74. For His Mercy He specially chooseth whom He pleaseth; for Allah is the Lord of bounties unbounded.
A God would allow anyone (and I mean anyone) to burn in Hell for eternity is not merciful, by any reasonable definition of the word.  I understand punishment for bad behavior and suffering, but an eternity is not merciful.  It can't be, its the worst possible punishment.  If merciful has any definition, it cannot be given someone the worst possible punishment imaginable.

76. Nay.- Those that keep their plighted faith and act aright,-verily Allah loves those who act aright.
Again, this isn't true, unless we're including beliefs as actions.  They've already made it clear that happens to non-believers, regardless of their actions.

The rest of the Juz' (except for the last verse) talks more about non-believers and People of the Book who distort God's message.
77. As for those who sell the faith they owe to Allah and their own plighted word for a small price, they shall have no portion in the Hereafter: Nor will Allah (Deign to) speak to them or look at them on the Day of Judgment, nor will He cleans them (of sin): They shall have a grievous penalty.
78. There is among them a section who distort the Book with their tongues: (As they read) you would think it is a part of the Book, but it is no part of the Book; and they say, "That is from Allah," but it is not from Allah. It is they who tell a lie against Allah, and (well) they know it!
79. It is not (possible) that a man, to whom is given the Book, and Wisdom, and the prophetic office, should say to people: "Be ye my worshippers rather than Allah's": on the contrary (He would say) "Be ye worshippers of Him Who is truly the Cherisher of all: For ye have taught the Book and ye have studied it earnestly."
So here in verse 79, they're making it impossible for anyone to claim that God does not exist, or that something else deserves our respect or worship.  It's a version of the classic (non)argument: If someone disagrees with our dogma, they must be against God/with the devil.  It makes it impossible to question anything, and is common among most religions. 
84. Say: "We believe in Allah, and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in (the Books) given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets, from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another among them, and to Allah do we bow our will (in Islam)."
85. If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah., never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter He will be in the ranks of those who have lost (All spiritual good).
Verse 85 is very clear, one must submit to Allah if you want to make it to a good Hereafter.  There is not valid religion other than Islam.
86. How shall Allah Guide those who reject Faith after they accepted it and bore witness that the Messenger was true and that Clear Signs had come unto them? but Allah guides not a people unjust.
87. Of such the reward is that on them (rests) the curse of Allah, of His angels, and of all mankind;-
88. In that will they dwell; nor will their penalty be lightened, nor respite be (their lot);-
89. Except for those that repent (Even) after that, and make amends; for verily Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
90. But those who reject Faith after they accepted it, and then go on adding to their defiance of Faith,- never will their repentance be accepted; for they are those who have (of set purpose) gone astray.
Verse 90 is confusing.  Allah forgives those who repent (that's been said many times earlier, including verse 89, the previous verse).  But not someone who adds defiance of faith.  I'm not sure what that means.  Asad's translation is similar:
Verily, as for those who are bent on denying the truth after having attained to faith, and then grow [ever more stubborn] in their refusal to acknowledge the truth, their repentance [of other sins] shall not be accepted: for it is they who have truly gone astray.
What exactly does "growing more stubborn" mean, and how stubborn do I have to get before my repentance will never be accepted, no matter what?  
91. As to those who reject Faith, and die rejecting,- never would be accepted from any such as much gold as the earth contains, though they should offer it for ransom. For such is (in store) a penalty grievous, and they will find no helpers.
So why should we offer our money if our penalty is for not believing?  How does offering money fix that? 
92. By no means shall ye attain righteousness unless ye give (freely) of that which ye love; and whatever ye give, of a truth Allah knoweth it well.
This Juz' finishes up with again a promotion of charity and generousity, which is good.  It's saying, once again, that you should give things that have value to you, not just junk that you don't want.  Sacrifice is good, it dissaudes people from greed and promotes being happy with what you have (materially).  

So although this Juz' ends on a good note, it was filled with punishments for those who reject God, regardless of their deeds.  I'm not sure why God is so hung up on being believed in and worshiped.  If people are doing good on earth, why exactly does it matter?  Nonbelievers can make sacrifices, be charitable, help one another.  This reinforces what I talked about in my previous post, that most religions view any dissidents as being completely incapable of morality. 

After reading the last two Juz', I'm struck by how much the Qur'an has, so far, focused on reiterating again and again, what happens to unbelievers.  Unfortunately, it's pretty skim on why I should become a believer, other than fear of punishment.  Perhaps these first few sura are meant to get unbelievers listening, and the good stuff comes later on.  So far, I'm not convinced the Qur'an has anything unique to offer.  I've already been told I'm in trouble by the Bible.  I hope this gets more interesting in the future suras.

Next up, I'll move onto the fourth Juz', where I'll finish this third sura, and move on to the fourth.  So stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Research on Atheists and Morality

According to a study by Dr. Marc Hauser of Harvard, people with no religion know right from wrong just as well as regular worshipers.

Yawn...  Is anyone really surprised by this? 

Unfortunately, I have to assume yes, otherwise it wouldn't be news.  It's not enough for atheists to be upstanding citizens in everyday life; studies are needed to show we can be good people.  We have to defend ourselves actively, and its frustrating and unfair.  Why not study whether black people are equally capable of acting morally as whites, or if Jews are as good as Christians?  Why isn't the converse being studied?  Are religious people as capable of making moral judgments as atheists?

This is a reminder to me that my position as an atheist means that I'm suspect in the eyes of many people, right off the bat.  It's easy to shrug it off and say that people who believe atheists can't be good without god are ignorant, but those ignorant people affect most of us in one way or another.  It effected us enough to require a scientific study to show that we are equally capable of moral behavior as religious people. 

I'd like to hope that a study like this will change things for the better, but I know that's unlikely.

Monday, February 8, 2010

We Love XKCD

Recently found this brilliant video over at Boing Boing, featuring tons of famous geeks like Phil Plait, (the Bad Astronomer himself), Wil Wheaton, Lawrence Lessig and Corey Doctorow (I suspect only the computer geeks will know all of these guys).

It's based on XKCD's parody of the "I Love the Whole World" commercial (a.k.a. "The Boom De Yada song") Discovery Channel made a while back:

I love geeky things....

NPR on Vaccines

Joanne Silberner from NPR wrote an excellent piece on the benefits of vaccinating children, and of the problems with the "over-vaccinating" argument:

Some parents ask their pediatricians to space out the vaccines. But that's a bad idea, says Marcuse. "When you space out the vaccines, you leave your infant susceptible to diseases you could otherwise have prevented, particularly in the first six to eight months of life," he says. Babies can get diseases such as whooping cough or meningitis, and these can be tough on them.
Babies are going to be exposed to bacteria and viruses in one way or another — either during an outright infection, or in the vaccines, says Saad Omer, a vaccine expert at Emory University.
In the vaccines, [Dr. Edgar Marcuse] says, babies are only seeing bits and pieces of the viruses or bacteria, and vaccines are much "cleaner" now than they used to be. "A lot of people say that the number of vaccines has gone up," he says. But, in reality, the number of antigens — the molecules in the viruses and bacteria that spark the immune response — hasn't gone up, it's gone down, he says.

I love that point:  babies are going to be exposed to bacteria and viruses no matter what.  Much better to be given a controlled dose via vaccine, which has been tested for safety than roll the dice on being infected out in the wild.  Saad Omer, a vaccine expert at Emory University, also makes the point that many who don't want to vaccinate don't know what these diseases are like, because of the vaccines we have today:

Omer says parents need to remember that for every type of vaccination, the disease is a bigger challenge to the baby than the vaccine. That's easy to forget today, when few can remember what polio and whooping cough and even measles look like.
"After effective control of these diseases, there's a shift in the mental calculus of parents," Omer says. They stop worrying about the disease, and start worrying about the vaccine. But the measles vaccine causes brain damage in 1 in 1 million recipients. The disease itself, which used to hit the majority of kids, killed 1 in 500 people who got it, and caused brain damage in 1 in 1,000.

The entire article is extremely well written, and should be read by anyone even considering not vaccinating their children.  

Sunday, February 7, 2010

New Pages on the Blog

So Blogger has a new Pages option, so I can have a few stand-alone pages that are always available in a menu (it's over on the right side, just below my little mini-bio), as opposed to the dynamic content that gets updated and shifted down into oblivion over time.  I've created a page called Reading the Qur'an, which contains all of my posts related to my reviews of the Qur'an, so that everything related to that is easily accessible from one place.

I'll probably add an About Me page soon, since everyone seems to be doing it (damn peer pressure!), even though I hate talking about myself.  I have a basic idea about what I'll put there, but if anyone reading my blog has anything they want to know about me, I'd be happy to put it there as well.  Anyone have any questions I can answer?  (Again, I hate writing about myself without guidance, so questions will be extremely helpful...) 

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mindless Blathering

Yes of course I'm talking about Pope Benedict.

The Catholic Church has been openly opposed to the equality laws currently being discussed by Parliament in the UK.  The Guardian recently published an address by the Pope to the Bishops of England and Wales.  No surprise that its filled with nonsense:

Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society. Yet as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed.

I cannot imagine being able to say something like this and being completely unaware how bigoted and ignorant it sounds.  They are directly saying that they have to discriminate because God tells them to, then go on to talk about the love of Jesus Christ.  Absolutely astonishing.

Talking about the natural law sounds just as stupid.  This is the group that persecuted Galileo for describing what actually happens in the natural world.*  Why is it that we regularly see homosexual activity among animals, in the natural world?  Animals we evolved from (given the Catholic church loves to boast about how it accepts evolution).  And if the natural law is what equality is based on, I assume that other moral precepts come from it too.  So where exactly does God come in in this equation?

I urge you as pastors to ensure that the church's moral teaching be always presented in its entirety and convincingly defended.

I'm still waiting for the convincing defense of discrimination against anyone, including gays and lesbians.

Fidelity to the Gospel in no way restricts the freedom of others – on the contrary, it serves their freedom by offering them the truth.

Everyone thinks they know the truth, or at least thinks that given the evidence presented to them, have made the right conclusions based on that evidence.  The difference is that some of us present the evidence we believe suggests that we are right.  The Catholic Church rests on its laurels, and expects everyone to respect their opinion without question.  Yet the evidence thus far is that the Catholic Church has been massively wrong on a number of subjects in the past, suggesting we shouldn't take t for granted they know what they're talking about.

Continue to insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society.

No one is denying you your right to debate and dialogue.  But you don't get some special podium, immune to opposing viewpoints, just because you're the Catholic Church.  If your arguments are bad, we have the right to point that out.  Freedom is applied to everyone equally, including those who believe in magic.

In doing so, you are not only maintaining long-standing British traditions of freedom of expression and honest exchange of opinion, but you are actually giving voice to the convictions of many people who lack the means to express them: when so many of the population claim to be Christian, how could anyone dispute the Gospel's right to be heard?

Again, no one is denying the right for you to present your archaic beliefs.  But you're going to have to convince us that you're right before you get a free pass to treat people differently, particularly given the funding and subsidies you receive from the English government.

In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognise dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.

This is utter horseshit.  You don't have a debate, let alone a balanced one, without dissent.  You have people blowing smoke up each others' asses.  The Catholic Church is basically saying here that only their point of view matters, because they have The Truth, which need not be defended with your silly evidence and facts.

I know my astonishment is mostly due to the fact that I'm a former Catholic, and I know more about this church than others.  But I cannot fathom why so many people that this garbage seriously.

* There is a hilarious explanation for this by Catholic apologists here.  My favorite line: "There is little question that if Galileo had kept the discussion within the accepted boundaries of astronomy (i.e., predicting planetary motions) and had not claimed physical truth for the heliocentric theory, the issue would not have escalated to the point it did. After all, he had not proved the new theory beyond reasonable doubt."  So discuss the heliocentric theory, but not that the earth physically orbits the sun.  What does that even mean?  This is science, not magic.  We use observation and evidence to determine, to the best of our abilities, what's actually, physically happening.  It's no surprise that superstitious cooks can't comprehend that.  I'm not even going to go after the "reasonable doubt" bit, it's too easy.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Milky Way Transit Authority

This is amazing:

Samuel Arbesman, a research fellow from Harvard, created this Milky Way Transit Authority map, which lays out the major points in our Milky Way galaxy in the style of a subway map.  

Here's an example of the types of trips you might plan:
So, what about that trip to Cygnus? Be sure to purchase a Day Pass ticket, take the Orion (Red) Line to the Eagle Nebula, then jump on the Sagittarius (Blue) Line to Carina. Be warned, I hear the station at Carina is expecting some demolition work soon, so jump on the Express to Cygnus as fast as you can to avoid delay (and radiation poisoning). 
This must be made into a t-shirt, ASAP.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Santa Claus vs. Tooth Fairy

Roger Ebert has been very outspoken lately about the problems with religion and other types of woo, so I've been following his Twitter (@ebertchicago) account for a while now (I'm @JeffSatterley btw, for anyone interested in my banal tweets; I'd rather follow Ebert).  He tweeted a link to this letter he received from a fan, which I thought was fantastic, responding to Ebert's review of The Tooth Fairy.  The fan tells his kid's the following story about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, which was based on the movie Underworld:
Santa had a son who fell in love with the Tooth Fairy's daughter. Because Santa could not abide such a mixing of the species, he had the Fairy's daughter killed. The Tooth Fairy responded by killing Santa's son. So began the blood-feud. Elves and Fairies have fought and died by the thousands over the ages. But, most critical, is what happens on Xmas Eve. Should a child be unable to prevent the loss of a tooth on Xmas Eve, it's possible that the Tooth Fairy and Santa end up at that very house at the same time. When this happens, the resulting battle destroys several city blocks.
I love this.  I just picture little kids, who like explosions and the like, trying to pull their teeth out on Christmas Eve, trying to get the tooth fairy and Santa together so that they can witness the destruction.  I know the story's a bit violent, but most kids are exposed to worse normally anyway. 

The reason I'm writing about it here is because I'm still torn about whether to lie to my kids, when I have them.  Should I tell them that Santa comes on Christmas, and the tooth fairy leaves money under your pillow?  My goal is to raise kids who are skeptical thinkers, who believe things based on evidence.  What's the best way to do that? 

I initially thought that lying to my kids would be wrong.  I'm not going to tell them Jesus died for their sins, so why would I tell them Santa exists?  But then again, if I expect to tell my children only the truth, I'm sort of expecting them to never question what I tell them.  That's not the best way to raise skeptical thinkers.  I want my kids to question the things their told, including what I tell them (I know I'll probably regret this when I'm yelling "Because I said so!", but so be it).  So I think stories like Santa will be like little tests for them.  As they get older they'll start questioning the logistics of the fairy tales, and I'll encourage them to think critically about them.

Not only that, but Rebecca Watson, founder of Skepchick, said something in an interview I recently saw that resonated with me.  She said that she's going to lie to her kids about all kinds of stuff.  Santa, the tooth fairy, monsters in the closet, etc., because she has an appreciation for their imagination.  Being a scientist and skeptic isn't just about being logical, imagination is incredibly important, and it's important to allow children to express that imagination. 

But given that, where do I draw the line?  What should I let my kids believe and figure out for themselves, what what topics should I not lie about, and why?   I suspect I'll let my kids believe the fairy tales like Santa and the tooth fairy, but I won't bring religion into the picture (at least not as The Truth, perhaps in a "Some people believe this and others believe that..." sort of way), nor would I tell them bogus things like homeopathy and astrology actually work.  But why some and not others?  Things like religion and homeopathy have a worse track record than the simple fairy tales, both in terms of people outgrowing the beliefs, and in their effects when enacted (violence and bigotry for religion, illness and even death for homeopathy).  But I'm sure some other beliefs will come up that be more difficult to decide on.  I'm still not really sure how best to decide what to let my kids believe, and what to warn them about explicitly.

Maybe I'm putting too much thought into this, and it will come more naturally as I have more experience as a parent.  Anyone out there have any thoughts on the matter?  

Monday, February 1, 2010

Reading the Qur'an: Juz' 2 (2:142 - 2:252)

My post on the first Juz' of the Qur'an is available here, as well as an introduction to what I'm doing here.  The originaly website containing commentary by M. Asad appears to no longer be accessible, so I found another version available online here, for those following along.  The second Juz' is completely contained in the second sura, starting with verse 142.

142. The fools among the people will say: "What hath turned them from the Qibla to which they were used?" Say: To Allah belong both east and West: He guideth whom He will to a Way that is straight.
143. Thus, have We made of you an Ummat justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves; and We appointed the Qibla to which thou wast used, only to test those who followed the Messenger from those who would turn on their heels (From the Faith). Indeed it was (A change) momentous, except to those guided by Allah. And never would Allah Make your faith of no effect. For Allah is to all people Most surely full of kindness, Most Merciful.
The Qibla is the direction in which Muslims pray, which today is toward the Kaaba in Mecca.  The passage refers to the fact the prophet Muhammad used to pray toward Jerusalem, but received revelation while in Medina that the Kaaba was the correct Qibla, which angered the Jews of Medina.

Ummat means community in Arabic.  Thus verse 143 is saying that the Muslim community should be balanced.  According to M. Asad:
a community that keeps an equitable balance between extremes and is realistic in its appreciation of man's nature and possibilities, rejecting both licentiousness and exaggerated asceticism. In tune with its oft-repeated call to moderation in every aspect of life, the Qur'an exhorts the believers not to place too great an emphasis on the physical and material aspects of their lives, but postulates, at the same time, that man's urges and desires relating to this "life of the flesh" are God-willed and, therefore, legitimate.
That's a sentiment I can get behind, and it seems to contradict extremist interpretations of Islam.  Of course this is just one verse; holy books are known for containing contradictory information and precepts.  I'll have to read on, to see how this advice plays out through the rest of the Qur'an.

It's also possible that Asad's interpretation is incorrect.  M.M. Ali translates the beginning of verse 143 as "We have made you an exalted nation", although his commentary does mention "the middle part of everything," and "one not inclining to either extreme."  Given that three different translations/commentaries agree, I'm willing to accept this is an anti-extremism sentiment.  Hopefully this type of message continues.  
145. Even if thou wert to bring to the people of the Book all the Signs (together), they would not follow Thy Qibla; nor art thou going to follow their Qibla; nor indeed will they follow each other's Qibla. If thou after the knowledge hath reached thee, Wert to follow their (vain) desires,-then wert thou Indeed (clearly) in the wrong.
146. The people of the Book know this as they know their own sons; but some of them conceal the truth which they themselves know.  
Here, verse 145 seems to condone close-mindedness, perhaps again saying that God has made us the way we are, and we cannot change.  If God already knows that non-Muslims will not follow the Muslim way, and Muslims will not consider other paths, then how are any of us responsible for our religious beliefs?  Then the last sentence of verse 145 says it would be wrong for a Muslim were to follow another (vain) religious teaching, even though it was already said that a Muslim would not do that.  Similarly, verse 146 seems to give non-Muslims knowledge of their transgressions.

I noticed similar themes when I read the Bible.  It seems to be inconsistent with respect to free will.  God hardens peoples hearts, but also punishes them for it.  If God is the one doing it, how could one be blameworthy for that?  And if that person were going to reject God anyway, why does God have to intervene at all?

147. The Truth is from thy Lord; so be not at all in doubt.
148. To each is a goal to which Allah turns him; then strive together (as in a race) Towards all that is good. Wheresoever ye are, Allah will bring you Together. For Allah Hath power over all things.
According to M. Asad, verse 148 refers to "the various religious communities and their different modes of 'turning towards God' in worship."  It seems like a message of tolerance, but that has to be balanced with what's already been said about the Jews (idol worship, covenant breaking, etc.), and other people of the book.

155. Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere,
156. Who say, when afflicted with calamity: "To Allah We belong, and to Him is our return":-
157. They are those on whom (Descend) blessings from Allah, and Mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance.
Verses 155-157 contain the classic explanation of why bad things happen to good people.  Nothing new here.
158. Behold! Safa and Marwa are among the Symbols of Allah. So if those who visit the House in the Season or at other times, should compass them round, it is no sin in them. And if any one obeyeth his own impulse to good,- be sure that Allah is He Who recogniseth and knoweth.
159. Those who conceal the clear (Signs) We have sent down, and the Guidance, after We have made it clear for the people in the Book,-on them shall be Allah.s curse, and the curse of those entitled to curse,-
160. Except those who repent and make amends and openly declare (the Truth): To them I turn; for I am Oft-returning, Most Merciful.
161. Those who reject Faith, and die rejecting,- on them is Allah.s curse, and the curse of angels, and of all mankind;
162. They will abide therein: Their penalty will not be lightened, nor will respite be their (lot).
Now we get to repentance, which seems similar to Catholicism and other versions of Christianity I'm familiar with.   What's always bothered me about this is that every religion does it the same way: God will forgive you if you repent and make amends, but only while you're alive.  But death, according to these religions, isn't really death.  So why does physical death mean that God can no longer forgive your transgressions?  It's seems arbitrary, if you really believe in eternal life.  I understand the idea of making amends while your alive as an atheist, because all we have is this life, there's no other chance.  But for God to torture people while they are still capable of repenting seems cruel, not merciful.

164. Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allah Sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they Trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth;- (Here) indeed are Signs for a people that are wise.
Here's the first explicit explanation of what these Signs (proof) of God's existence are, and I'm not surprised that all of these no longer require a supernatural explanation.  The Big Bang, heliocentric solar system, evolution by natural selection, and meteorology are better explanations for these phenomena.*  Of course I wouldn't expect a book from the 7th century to mention any of these things, unless, of course, it were written (at least indirectly) by an all-knowing supernatural agency.  Perhaps more justification will come later, but so far I'm not impressed.
165. Yet there are men who take (for worship) others besides Allah, as equal (with Allah): They love them as they should love Allah. But those of Faith are overflowing in their love for Allah. If only the unrighteous could see, behold, they would see the penalty: that to Allah belongs all power, and Allah will strongly enforce the penalty.
166. Then would those who are followed clear themselves of those who follow (them) : They would see the penalty, and all relations between them would be cut off.
167. And those who followed would say: "If only We had one more chance, We would clear ourselves of them, as they have cleared themselves of us." Thus will Allah show them (The fruits of) their deeds as (nothing but) regrets. Nor will there be a way for them out of the Fire.
More of the "If only non-believers would believe, then they would see that they should believe" argument.  This is question-begging 101.  This time, they're saying that if they knew the penalty for not believing, then they would believe.  This isn't an argument, its just a scare tactic.  The message isn't convincing in and of itself, so they resort to making the alternative too scary to consider.

Let me make it clear to religious folk, in case anyone is unaware.  The majority of atheists (myself included) are very much aware of what awaits us if you're right and we're wrong.  I know that I took a long look at the evidence, because if I'm wrong, it could be a miserable eternity for me.  The fact is, we find it so unlikely that you're right, based on evidence, that the risk is negligible.**  I think that's the reason hell is depicted as being so unpleasant.  The unpleasantness has to counteract the fact that its ridiculously unlikely that a good God would create such a place.  If it were more believable, hell would only have to be mildly unpleasant to convince people to follow the rules (especially given how great paradise is supposed to be).
168. O ye people! Eat of what is on earth, Lawful and good; and do not follow the footsteps of the evil one, for he is to you an avowed enemy.
169. For he commands you what is evil and shameful, and that ye should say of Allah that of which ye have no knowledge.
170. When it is said to them: "Follow what Allah hath revealed:" They say: "Nay! we shall follow the ways of our fathers." What! even though their fathers Were void of wisdom and guidance?
171. The parable of those who reject Faith is as if one were to shout Like a goat-herd, to things that listen to nothing but calls and cries: Deaf, dumb, and blind, they are void of wisdom.
I'm torn on verses 168-171.  On one hand, I agree that we all have certain temptations that need to be controlled (I'm not a hedonist).  Moderation, patience and discipline are good qualities to pursue and practice, and the forces against those things are often depicted as demons (or an evil one) in ancient writings.***  On the other hand, these verses suggest that these demons primarily come from other people, such as peer pressure.  I think this is wrong, temptation is from within, and blaming others just shifts the responsibility.  Not only that, it is used to justify horrific acts against others (even if the majority of adherents don't agree with their justification).  For instance, verses 174-176 give us an easy scapegoat: 
174. Those who conceal Allah's revelations in the Book, and purchase for them a miserable profit,- they swallow into themselves naught but Fire; Allah will not address them on the Day of Resurrection. Nor purify them: Grievous will be their penalty.
175. They are the ones who buy Error in place of Guidance and Torment in place of Forgiveness. Ah! what boldness (They show) for the Fire!
176. (Their doom is) because Allah sent down the Book in truth but those who seek causes of dispute in the Book are in a schism Far (from the purpose).
This could apply to anyone who do not believe scripture, or who argue about the meaning of scripture (i.e., don't agree with you). 

The next several verses describe the laws prescribed by God, similar to the laws of the Old Testament.  Some are good (charity), some are arbitrary (fasting), and some are brutal, as in verse 190-193:

190. Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.
191. And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith.
192. But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.
193. And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah. but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression.
M. Asad suggests that these verses mean that only self defense is a justification for war.  However, in verse 191 it says "tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter."  M. Asad defines "oppression" as "any affliction which may cause man to go astray and to lose his faith in spiritual values." In other words, anything that causes a person to not value spiritual things is worse than slaughter.  To me, that suggests that either Asad is wrong, or the Qur'an is inconsistent here.  If oppression really is worse than slaughter, it would be better to start war with those who oppress Muslims than to allow oppression to continue.  And by this definition of oppression, someone who argues against Islam as the truth could be considered oppressors.  While it may be the case that Muhammad wanted violence to be a last resort, his other argument that oppression is worse than violence means that would be an unreasonable expectation, if Asad's interpretation and translation (which is similar enough to Yusuf Ali's) are both correct.

Verses 196-203 describes the pilgrimage (Hajj or Umra) Muslims are required to make to Mecca once a year.  Nothing that interesting for me here. 
204. There is the type of man whose speech about this world's life May dazzle thee, and he calls Allah to witness about what is in his heart; yet is he the most contentious of enemies.
205. When he turns his back, His aim everywhere is to spread mischief through the earth and destroy crops and cattle. But Allah loveth not mischief.
206. When it is said to him, "Fear Allah., He is led by arrogance to (more) crime. Enough for him is Hell - An evil bed indeed (To lie on)!
This seems to be a warning about charlatans who will use the name of Allah and dazzle you with words to sell you nonsense.  I don't think anyone using the name of Allah is selling anything legitimate, including the authors of this book.  Unless we start to see some real evidence presented, the Qur'an appears to also be simply dazzling us with words and promises that this is what God wants.  It is good to be cautious when dealing with these types of people, and perhaps some will take this advice.
210. Will they wait until Allah comes to them in canopies of clouds, with angels (in His train) and the question is (thus) settled? but to Allah do all questions go back (for decision).
211. Ask the Children of Israel how many clear (Signs) We have sent them. But if any one, after Allah's favour has come to him, substitutes (something else), Allah is strict in punishment.
212. The life of this world is alluring to those who reject faith, and they scoff at those who believe. But the righteous will be above them on the Day of Resurrection; for Allah bestows His abundance without measure on whom He will.
Again, more scare tactics, without evidence to back them up.  I'm not (nor are most atheists I have met) asking for God to come down on a cloud, but I'm not going to believe in an of this based on faith alone.  We need evidence.  It mentions the signs given to the Children of Israel, but nothing specific.  I've read the Bible already, and nothing was convincing there.

It is most certainly true that "the life of this world is alluring."  The world is an amazing place, and the fact that those of us who were lucky enough to be born are here to see it, even if for a brief moment, is a precious gift.  Why we squander it by diminishing this life in pursuit of another that seems very unlikely to exists is beyond me. 
216. Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not.
217. They ask thee concerning fighting in the Prohibited Month. Say: "Fighting therein is a grave (offence); but graver is it in the sight of Allah to prevent access to the path of Allah, to deny Him, to prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, and drive out its members." Tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter. Nor will they cease fighting you until they turn you back from your faith if they can. And if any of you Turn back from their faith and die in unbelief, their works will bear no fruit in this life and in the Hereafter; they will be companions of the Fire and will abide therein.
M. Asad recommends that verse 216 has to be balanced by verses 190-193.   As I said earlier, I'm not sure that Asad's interpretation really makes fighting as forbidden as he suggests, if you think about what 190-193 says (at least according to Asad).  Verse 217 also says "Nor will they cease fighting you until they turn you back from your faith if they can," which suggests that many are trying to convert you from your faith, and they will always fight you. It seems to leave a lot of wiggle room for justifying violence via oppression, as defined by M. Asad.****

Verse 220 promotes helping orphans, which is great.  But then we get to some misogyny in verses 221-223:
221. Do not marry unbelieving women (idolaters), until they believe: A slave woman who believes is better than an unbelieving woman, even though she allures you. Nor marry (your girls) to unbelievers until they believe: A man slave who believes is better than an unbeliever, even though he allures you. Unbelievers do (but) beckon you to the Fire. But Allah beckons by His Grace to the Garden (of bliss) and forgiveness, and makes His Signs clear to mankind: That they may celebrate His praise.
222. They ask thee concerning women's courses. Say: They are a hurt and a pollution: So keep away from women in their courses, and do not approach them until they are clean. But when they have purified themselves, ye may approach them in any manner, time, or place ordained for you by Allah. For Allah loves those who turn to Him constantly and He loves those who keep themselves pure and clean.
223. Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will; but do some good act for your souls beforehand; and fear Allah. And know that ye are to meet Him (in the Hereafter), and give (these) good tidings to those who believe.
It mostly presents women as property ("Your wifes are a tilth unto you"), and presents their "monthly course" (i.e., menstration) as pollution.  Verse 226-237 also discusses the rules for divorcing wives.  While most of the rules do urge men to treat women fairly, it still presents men as the controllers of the relationships.  For instance, see verse 228:
228. Divorced women shall wait concerning themselves for three monthly periods. Nor is it lawful for them to hide what Allah Hath created in their wombs, if they have faith in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands have the better right to take them back in that period, if they wish for reconciliation. And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable; but men have a degree (of advantage) over them. And Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise. (emphasis mine)
It's no surprise we see such primitive views, given the Qur'an was written during the 7th century.  But again, an omnipotent being should know better.  This is very similar to the sentiments presented in the Bible.

The rest of this Juz' attempts, once again, to provide evidence (the Signs) for Allah's power (and thus his existence).
242. Thus doth Allah Make clear His Signs to you: In order that ye may understand.
243. Didst thou not Turn by vision to those who abandoned their homes, though they were thousands (In number), for fear of death? Allah said to them: "Die": Then He restored them to life. For Allah is full of bounty to mankind, but Most of them are ungrateful.
I'm not sure who the Qur'an is referring to in verse 243 specifically (neither is M. Asad in his commentary).  It seems to be saying that these people (perhaps Muslims in general, or some specific group), are willing to fight and die for their God.  This isn't convincing, if that's what's being said here.  Plenty of people have fought and died for an idea that turns out to be false.  Just because they are convinced God exists and wants them to lay their lives down for their religion does make it true.  It just makes the message and/or messenger convincing.
244. Then fight in the cause of Allah, and know that Allah Heareth and knoweth all things.
Again, another verse which seems to promote violence to protect Islam.  What constitutes protection depends on your interpretation of earlier verses (as I talked about earlier).  
245. Who is he that will loan to Allah a beautiful loan, which Allah will double unto his credit and multiply many times? It is Allah that giveth (you) Want or plenty, and to Him shall be your return.
There's no evidence that people who believe in and trust God are more likely to be prosperous than those who don't.  Most evidence today suggests that education promotes prosperity, not religion.   And more education is correlated with less religiosity.  That of course does not mean that religion causes less prosperity, but it does show that religion does not guarantee, or even promote, prosperity.
246. Hast thou not Turned thy vision to the Chiefs of the Children of Israel after (the time of) Moses? they said to a prophet (That was) among them: "Appoint for us a king, that we May fight in the cause of Allah." He said: "Is it not possible, if ye were commanded to fight, that that ye will not fight?" They said: "How could we refuse to fight in the cause of Allah, seeing that we were turned out of our homes and our families?" but when they were commanded to fight, they turned back, except a small band among them. But Allah Has full knowledge of those who do wrong.
247. Their Prophet said to them: "(Allah) hath appointed Talut as king over you." They said: "How can he exercise authority over us when we are better fitted than he to exercise authority, and he is not even gifted, with wealth in abundance?" He said: "(Allah) hath Chosen him above you, and hath gifted him abundantly with knowledge and bodily prowess: Allah Granteth His authority to whom He pleaseth. Allah careth for all, and He knoweth all things."
248. And (further) their Prophet said to them: "A Sign of his authority is that there shall come to you the Ark of the covenant, with (an assurance) therein of security from your Lord, and the relics left by the family of Moses and the family of Aaron, carried by angels. In this is a symbol for you if ye indeed have faith."
249. When Talut set forth with the armies, he said: "(Allah) will test you at the stream: if any drinks of its water, He goes not with my army: Only those who taste not of it go with me: A mere sip out of the hand is excused." but they all drank of it, except a few. When they crossed the river,- He and the faithful ones with him,- they said: "This day We cannot cope with Goliath and his forces." but those who were convinced that they must meet Allah, said: "How oft, by Allah.s will, Hath a small force vanquished a big one? Allah is with those who steadfastly persevere."
250. When they advanced to meet Goliath and his forces, they prayed: "Our Lord! Pour out constancy on us and make our steps firm: Help us against those that reject faith."
251. By Allah's will they routed them; and David slew Goliath; and Allah gave him power and wisdom and taught him whatever (else) He willed. And did not Allah Check one set of people by means of another, the earth would indeed be full of mischief: But Allah is full of bounty to all the worlds.
252. These are the Signs of Allah. we rehearse them to thee in truth: verily Thou art one of the apostles.
Now they present the story of David and Goliath, in verses 246-251, as proof of Allah's power.  (Note that "Talut" here refers to Saul in the Bible.) It's not clear the there ever really was a David and Goliath.  But even if we accept that it really happened for the sake of the argument, the story does not need a God to have happened.  Sometimes David beats Goliath (in the metaphorical sense) by luck.  Often, the David character is physically weaker but smarter, quicker, or more skillful, and actually at an advantage against the strong but less agile (mentally and/or physically) Goliath. 

So we saw the first few attempts at providing evidence for Allah, but so far, it hasn't been very convincing (at least to me).  

We're almost done with the second sura!  Juz' 3 finishes it up, and moves on to the beginning of the third sura (Al Imran - The Family of Imran).  So stay tuned!

* I know there's still a lot to learn about some of these theories.  For instance, there is still so much we don't know about the Big Bang.  But that does not mitigate the fact that we know a lot about what the universe looked like 13+ billion years ago.  And that knowledge points to a natural explanation for the beginning, even if we don't know enough to say what that explanation is in full detail yet.

** I know this disregards the more liberal religious people who believe everyone goes to heaven no matter what you believe, as long as you're a good person.  The problem here is that your holy books completely contradict this.  Plus if you're right, I'd prefer to be wrong based on the evidence than be accidentally right based on faith.

*** I'm not suggesting here that we should bottle up all of our desires and deprive ourselves of all pleasure.  I'm just saying that excess in both directions is often bad, and it takes work to develop the discipline to respect moderation.

**** I know there are Muslims who will not interpret this verse in that way.  However, it seems to be an interpretation that should at least be considered, given what is said.  My point is simply that just like other holy books I've had the opportunity to read, I expect there to be parts of the Qur'an that can be used to justify both acts of kindness and of hatred.  If some think the interpretation is wrong, then you're going to have to present evidence, not just wishful thinking.