Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Oh, that's so much better! Thanks Bill!

Bill Donohue's defense of the Catholic church:








Most of the victims are post-pubescent, therefore its homosexuality, not pedophilia...

And Larry King says nothing.

Mind boggling.

(from Alan Colmes)

Hitchens v. Wolpe in Boston - Video Online

The video of The Great God Debate in Boston, featuring Christopher Hitchens and David Wolpe is now online.  I wrote my reaction to some of Hitchens' points, what do you all think?

Here's the first video:





Parts 2-9 are available here.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

More annoying than proselytizing in person

I never thought it could be accomplished, but I think it has:

http://www.dokimos.org/ajff/?

FAIR WARNING:  This may burn your retinas.  I'm not sure if its the power of the holy spirit, or the most obnoxious JavaScript I've ever encountered.

The person who made this page, along with whomever taught him or her how to create a web page, should be severely punished.

(via Reddit)

Who is to blame?

I haven't written as much as I could have about the recent problems the Catholic Church is having.  I assume anyone reading my blog is already aware of most of the stuff going on, and that Pope Ratzinger and his cronies are either completely insane, stupid or evil (or any combination thereof).  To be honest, I'm tired of writing about them, and plenty of others are doing a good job.  Then I came across this article, and decided I needed a good rant.  Just reading the title set me off:

Therapy led to soaring abuse rate in Irish Church

I'm going to regret this, but OK Mr. Quinn, I'll bite.  How exactly are you going to place the blame on therapy, as opposed to child rapists and the people who covered it up?

Canon law, or Church law, has been blamed for forcing bishops to cover up the allegations, to hide them, and certainly it is true that anyone taking part in a canonical investigation is required to swear an oath of secrecy, or confidentiality.

But the Murphy report itself is very interesting about canon law. It points out that a big problem with this law isn’t that it was used, but that it wasn’t used.
[...] 
Why did it fall into disuse and disrespect? It was because priests and bishops began to regard it as being overly legalistic and too focused on punishment. They decided it lacked compassion.   Therefore, they stopped using it. No longer did priests accused of child abuse face a canonical trial and the possibility of "defrocking".
Instead, and with disastrous consequences, they were sent for therapy and then, "cured", they were reassigned to ministry.

I'll take "Missing the Point" for $500...

First, the title of the article is completely misleading.  Therapy was not the cause of any of this, and that wasn't even the point of the article.  It should have said "Not following canon law led to soaring abuse in Irish Church."  Of course misleading, catchy, sensationalist headlines are more of a rule, rather than the exception, so that's not too surprising.

But even the premise of his article is incredibly poorly thought out.  If any other organization's members were raping children, and that organization decided to punish those people themselves, with their own set of rules they made up, their would be an uproar, and rightly so.  And Mr. Quinn acts as if this would have greatly improved matters:

The bottom line is that if canon law had been used properly, fewer children would have been abused. Civil authorities would still not have been informed, but priests found guilty of child abuse under Church law would have been punished and likely removed from ministry making it more difficult for them to offend again.

Likely removed from ministry?  This is an organization that ex-communicated the doctors who performed an abortion on a 9-year-old, along with her mother, after her stepfather raped and impregnated her with twins (the stepfather was not ex-communicated, of course).  But a priest can rape 200 children in a school for the deaf in Wisconsin, and he would have likely been defrocked.  How good of the Catholic Church to make it harder for them find children to satisfy their sexual needs.   Too bad they didn't follow those rules, things would have been so much better!

And even if they weren't following canon law, where exactly was their common sense?  Do they really need the law to tell them those priests should be turned in to the authorities, or at the very least, should not be allowed access to children?  Mr. Quinn says:

But unless evidence can be found to prove that there is something about Catholicism itself which produces abuse on a scale found in no other institution that cares for children, then we will have to assume this animus is, in fact, a prejudice and treat it as such.

With their insistence on being the morality police for everyone else, and the fact that everyone seems to think they actually deserve some form of deference despite their ridiculous superstitious beliefs, and it would suggest to me they have plenty of reason to cover up any immorality going on by its members.  Add to this the fact that this organization believes it has a god on its side, providing them justification to circumvent secular forms of justice and morality.

But all that is irrelevant.  If this was any other organization being protected as much as the church while performing the same disgusting acts, no one would even think to suggest we are being prejudiced to demand real justice and accountability.  Can anyone out there really defend an accusation such as Mr. Quinn's?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Flake Equation - by XKCD

XKCD recently published "The Flake Equation" (a play on words referencing the Drake Equation, a formula to calculate the number of planets which have intelligent life in the univserse, based on some assumptions about the number of galaxies, planets suitable for life, and others):



What I like about this is that although the comic deals with aliens and UFO sightings, the same principle applies to all kinds of conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.  To be a critical thinker, its important to realize that there will always be evidence out there supporting any position anyone could take.  The difficult part is critically examining that evidence, and deciding which pieces are more likely to be based on reality, as opposed to the fallibility of human psychology or just coincidence.


EDIT:  I forgot to add the hover text (no XKCD comic is complete without it):

Statistics suggest that there should be tons of alien encounter stories, and in practice there are tons of alien encounter stories. This is known as Fermi's Lack-of-a-Paradox.

The Great God Debate: Criticism of Hitchens

As I said in my previous post, I got to see Christopher Hitchens live at the Back Bay Events Center, debating Rabbi David Wolpe, which he's done a number of times before.  It was certainly worth it; I heard this conversation as I was sitting down:

Person 1:  "Where do you want to sit?"  (It was General Admission)
Person 2:  "I don't care, anywhere is better than YouTube!"

Certainly true.  Out of the four horsemen, I think Hitchens is the one I enjoy listening to most.

It wasn't a traditional debate with time limits and strict protocol, more of a conversation with the two panelists.  Tom Ashbrook from NPR was the moderator, and was pretty good with his questions, not showing any favoritism or softball questions to either panelist.  He had some trouble controlling the conversation, but who can really control Hitchens?

Most of the conversation was pretty standard stuff we see and hear from Wolpe and Hitchens.  Wolpe was unconvincing; Hitchens was on point most of the night, and mostly made Wolpe look pretty wishy-washy and non-committal.  But rather than go on and on about how great Hitchens was (and he was), I'd rather talk about a few points I think Hitchens could have stronger on.

First, Wolpe puts out a ridiculously juvenile argument about free will.  He basically asked Hitchens how he could decide to pick up the glass of water in front of him without free will.  Regardless of whether you believe we have free will or not (I don't, in any meaningful sense of the phrase), this example is complete nonsense.  How do dogs decide to drink water from their bowls without free will?  If your picking up of a glass requires free will, then so does this action.

Hitchens, unfortunately, doesn't really address his argument at all, and says, when asked whether we have free will: "We have free will because we have no other choice."  Great line, but it seems meaningless to me.  I was disappointed this argument wasn't addressed more.

The second problem was when Wolpe brought up the fact that religious people seem to do more good in the world (give more to charity, etc.).  Hitchens started by rightfully pointing out that while the charity is good, it's offset by a lot of negative actions as well (child abuse, undermining education).  But Hitchens also brought up his challenge, which most of us are familiar with:  "Name a moral action that a religious person can do, that a non-religious person cannot."  This is a good argument for the case that non-religious people are capable of being just as moral as religious people (or more so), but it didn't address Wolpe's point, that religious people are doing more good deeds in practice.  Also, when he present the corollary to his challenge: "Name a terrible that can be done in the name of religion," Wolpe pointed out that as humans we all have the same essential capability to do both good and bad, and religion has nothing to do with it, and came across well after this exchange.

While I spent a little time being critical of Hitchens, he dominated the debate overall, and was very well received.  His wit and rhetoric are always entertaining, but he got his points across very clearly throughout the night (other than the examples I mentioned above).  He certainly got the biggest applause breaks, which was slightly surprising given that the event was hosted by the New Center for Arts and Culture, which is a Jewish organization.

There is supposed to be a video online in a couple of weeks, which I'll post if I can find it.  I'll also write a post about the encounters I had outside the Back Bay Events Center (take a guess what type of people were out there).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Great God Debate in Boston tonight.

I'm going to the Back Bay Events Center tonight in Boston, to see Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi David Wolpe battle it out in The Great God Debate.  (I love the pictures on the page;  Big picture of Hitchens, little tiny picture of Wolpe's head :-).  Should be a good time, and I'll write something about it after the debate.

It also looks like you can still buy tickets here. Students under 25 get their ticket cheap.  If you're in the Boston area, get over to the Back Bay area and check out the debate.



P.S.  This is my 100th blog post!  W00t!  I guess that means I've really made it, huh?  I expect confetti and noisemakers to blow out of my laptop when I hit the publish button.  I wonder how the other passengers on this train will react?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Johann Hari hits the proverbial nail on the head

... in an article for The Independent about the evil perpetrated by religions, including Muslim extremists and the Catholic Church.  He covered it all, and I don't really have much to say about it.  One of the better op-ed's I've read in a long while.

Anyone have any thoughts on the article?

Counting Calories

I've been trying to lose weight, on and off, for a while.  A few weeks ago I decided to get serious about it again, and as if on queue from an all-knowing universal consciousness (just kidding!), Greta Christina wrote a bunch of blog posts about her weight loss over the past year.  (A few of the posts are here, here, and here.  There are a bunch of others; go read her blog if you aren't already.)

One of the things she said she made it easier for her to eat healthier was to keep a food journal.  Thinking about my obsessive nature, I figured that would be a good way to keep myself from overeating when I'm bored or stressed.  I'm the type of person that will run to my computer to tell it I eat 12 peanuts to make sure my list is up-to-date.

I found a website: caloriecount.com, where I can keep track of what I eat throughout the day, and count not only calories, but also fat, cholesterol, sodium, and various vitamins and minerals.  I can also keep track of how much I exercise, and my weight over time.  So far, it's been enormously helpful.  I have been under my calorie target every day since I started except one (I was 15 calories over yesterday), and I've already lost a few pounds.

Not only is Calorie Count a place to keep track of your food intake and exercise, it's also a social network, like facebook for fat people (again, only kidding)!  Now I certainly don't need another place to waste time reading status updates and joining groups with titles that make me chuckle, but will never visit ever again.  I understand the need for support from others going through similar trials and tribulations.  But I've always been sort of an introvert, keeping my challenges to myself.

But then it recommended a group to me: Nothing Sacred: A Secular Support Group.  That's right, a group for non-religious people!  You know you want some fat atheist love ;-)!

Leaving aside the fact that I have no idea how they would know this group would interest me (that creeps me out a bit), I was really excited and happy to see that group, for a number of reasons.  First, it shows that atheists are becoming more open in their disbelief.  Nearly 200 people on this site are willing to join a group making it explicit that they are not religious.  There's no reason they had to join that group.  They could have joined a group for 20-somethings (or X0-somethings, for whatever age group you belong to), short people (under 5'4"), fans of Korean boy bands (yes, it exists), or whatever other myriad of interests each person has.  But these people wanted to share their struggles with others who shared in their disbelief.

Second, it shows a glimmer of a community helping people with everyday struggles and problems, kind of like a church.  Not only do each of us want support, but we want to support others as well.  Many of the people in that group care about the progress and struggles of others who they've never met, and will probably never meet. It just breaks all kinds of stupid stereotypes religionists have for atheists.  I know there are plenty of places on the internet for atheists to get together, especially on the internet, but when I find one in an unexpected place, it just makes you feel more normal and accepted.*

So far, I've mostly been a lurker on the group site, reading through some of the conversations. I'll be more active once I get more used to using the site.  So if you're trying to lose some weight, or just eat healthier, check out caloriecount.com, and join Nothing Sacred for some secular support!


EDIT:  My fiancĂ©e pointed out that she was the one that found caloriecount.com, and that she deserved the credit for that one.  Thanks hun :-).


* Not that I've been particularly oppressed or anything, but you can't escape the nonsense that a small percentage of our uneducated population spews about anyone who doesn't subscribe to their brand of superstitious nonsense.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Census

I got my census form in the mail today.  And as such, I was required to re-watch this:





Possibly my favorite SNL sketch of recent memory.

"Don't push your politics on me, pal!"

Jesus defends the Catholic Church

Mo seems more on the mark in this one:


It would be funnier if this wasn't the actual defense the Catholic Church is using right now.

(From Jesus and Mo)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Devil lives in the Vatican...

...at least according to their chief ghostbuster exorcist, Father Gabriel Amorth.  Now he just has to find the ghost devil, say some magic words and cast him out.  How hard could that be?

♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ 
When there's something strange
In the Vat-i-can
Who you gonna call?
Superstitious nitwits!!
♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ 


My money is on the guy wearing the big hat:



Here's more ridicule by Allison Kilkenny.  (I don't even have the energy to get into this more.)

I'd like to apply to be chief exorcist of all atheists.  My credentials?  Well, no one can prove they've exorcised more demons than I have.  And I've just called shotgun...

Now where can I get my proton pack?

Friday, March 12, 2010

I Am Not Ashamed...

I just came across the I Am Not Ashamed project, by who else but Answers in Genesis. The goal is to create a video bible out of YouTube videos.  Basically, you submit yourself reading your favorite passage from the Bible, and they all get collected on their website.  Here's a short intro video:








For example, take a look at this guy reading Genesis 1:1-4:








Hey, it's Ken Ham!  No wonder he can read that passage with a straight face.  Actually, a lot of the videos on their site appear to be shot at the Creation Museum.

Of course, suggesting that people recite their favorite bible verse, along with the name "I Am Not Ashamed" itself, might cause some problems.  I'm sure there are plenty of people willing to post John 3:16 or their favorite Psalm or Proverb.  But whose favorite passage is, for example, 2 Kings 2:23-25?

[23] He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, "Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!"
[24] And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 
[25] From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and thence he returned to Sama'ria. 

Well, besides me, of course :-).  Maybe I should submit it!

And who can read passages like these with a straight face?

There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.   (Ezekiel 23:20)
In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he was hungry.  And seeing a fig tree by the wayside he went to it, and found nothing on it but leaves only. And he said to it, "May no fruit ever come from you again!" And the fig tree withered at once.  (Matthew 21:18-19, and the story is also recounted in Mark 11:12-14)

Not to mention the droves of gratuitous violence condoned by God and his prophets throughout the bible.  Thousands upon thousands of people are killed off in the Old Testament because God gave their land to the Jews, or because they broke some ridiculous law about working on the sabbath or properly observing the myriad of rules for burnt, animal sacrifices.

People who can read this stuff and remain unashamed scare me a little bit...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Fundamentals and Fundamentalism

David Heyward is a pastor of a church in Canada, and writes a blog at nakedpastor.com that I've recently started reading regularly.  Before I start, I have to recommend his blog.  If you read Friendly Atheist, you've probably already seen some of his comic strips.  He speaks very freely about both his positive and negative feelings about the church.  From his "About" page:
Even though I believe the church is important, as well as any spiritual kind of community, I think the pain and suffering the church causes must be challenged. I think the church, like any other institution or corporation, can become possessed by the principalities and powers and enslave people. I feel a personal responsibility to resist this phenomenon personally and publicly because I have been a victim of it myself, conspired with it myself, and witnessed the destruction it causes.
David has recently written a number of posts on fundamentalism (some of which are here, here, and here), and makes the point that we are all fundamentalists at some time or another on certain issues (not necessarily religious issues).  I thought about this for a while, and I'm still somewhat conflicted on whether I agree with this premise.  To me, there are two ways to interpret this point:

First, we all mistakenly hold onto beliefs for which we don't have good evidence, even when presented with evidence for an opposing view from time to time.  This I agree with; I know I have held beliefs for which I didn't really have good justification, and would even argue about them with bad logic and reason.  Eventually I've fixed some of these, but I'm sure there are still others of which I'm unaware.

However, I don't think this is a very good definition of fundamentalism.  I try my best not to hold beliefs without good justification for them, and if I realize that something I believe is not properly justified, I reconsider and change my beliefs to better fit the evidence.  While I know I'm not perfect at doing this, I don't think that makes me a fundamentalist, because I aspire to do the best I can.  A fundamentalist willfully adheres to some set of principles without justification for those principles, and believes that they should (i.e., are obligated to) hold certain beliefs without the proper evidence.  To me, fundamentalism is more about a person's overarching attitude toward justification than a practical assessment of the justification for their beliefs.  That doesn't mean David's advice for being compassionate while talking with fundamentalists isn't helpful, but that there is a difference between being mistakenly stubborn about a particular belief, and believing one should be unjustifiably stubborn.

Another way to interpret this is that we all have certain fundamental beliefs that we can't justify, and accept that this must be the case.  This reminds me of the argument that some lob out against the scientific/skeptical community: that everyone must have some basis for their beliefs that can't be justified.  The argument is basically that to justify any belief, we need to assume that something else is true.  All of those assumptions must either be justified themselves, or we are essentially holding them as true without justification.

As an example, I believe evolution happened because of the variety of evidence I have seen supporting the theory, from a variety of sources (fossils, genetics, etc.).  But I also need justification for believing my evidence is credible (e.g., how do I know the fossil is really X years old?), which leads to other assumptions (e.g., justifying my dating mechanism), that seems to lead to an infinite regress.  At some point, it seems like there must be some foundation on which all of these beliefs stand.  Perhaps I take the scientific method itself as true a priori, or something more basic (laws about cause and effect, for instance), but eventually I have to stop justifying things somewhere.

But that assumes a linear progression of beliefs justifying other beliefs (i.e., Belief A justifies belief B, which justifies belief C, and so on).  But my belief system seems, at least to me, more like a complex network of interconnected beliefs.  If I want to know whether I should believe A, its not enough to know that B is good justification for A.   I judge A on the basis of a number of other beliefs I hold to be true, and make sure that everything meshes together.

One consequence is that when I find that certain beliefs of mine are mistaken, even ones that I've held for a long time, it's not usually necessary to throw out a whole line of reasoning that goes along with it.  For instance, many beliefs I hold are based on simple common sense.  However, being a scientist has shown me that common sense isn't always reliable.  Just learning the basics about quantum mechanics made me question all kinds of things.  But I didn't radically change all of my beliefs because of it, because most of my beliefs, while consistent with common sense, are also bolstered by many other beliefs I hold.  I have to think about things from time to time to make sure my beliefs are still consistent, and occasionally I realize that an old belief I've held no longer fits, and I have to adjust.  However, most of my beliefs are held because of their consistency within the larger picture

A possible problem with this view is that if you start out with a bad set of beliefs (e.g., when you're young and susceptible to believe what you're told), then beliefs that are consistent aren't likely to be true.  As we computer scientists say: garbage in, garbage out.  So even if an adult believer doesn't need a fundamental belief without justification, children This is also a problem for a linear progression of belief and justification, although it still has to be dealt with here.

Thinking about this more, there is something that I know that I take for granted in my belief system:  the belief that my sense of the world is an accurate depiction of objective reality.*  Now if you've taken some philosophy courses, you've probably been presented with thought experiments that show problems with this assumption, often called the "skeptical hypotheses."  Epistemological skepticism is the argument that we cannot know anything about objective reality, as opposed to the way we use the word skepticism in everyday vernacular.  As an example, there is the brain in a vat argument:




The basic situation is that although you have experiences of what you think is objective reality, that is simply a simulation created by some deceptive power, which in this case is a supercomputer.  Imagine that you are actually just a "brain in a vat" attached to the supercomputer, which generates all of your experiences, excellently depicted above (thanks Wikipedia!).  Other thought experiments presenting the same point have also been made, including Descartes' evil daemon, and the dream argument.

The question is, how do you know that this hypothesis is false, and your experiences really are "real" (i.e., generated by physical objects in the real world)?  There are very few arguments against the skeptical hypothesis, and I don't find them very convincing, so I'm currently under the assumption that we cannot be certain that our senses are accurately projecting reality.  Given that, how can I make the assumption that my senses are basically trustworthy?

Well let's assume that my assumption is bad, and that my senses are completely untrustworthy.  If that's true, then what does holding that belief get me, other than being right about my senses?  Nothing.  There is no way to hold any other beliefs based on the fact that me senses are essentially worthless.  Without my senses, I have trouble coming up with other ways to generate beliefs (other than perhaps in a few specialized subjects that don't rely on a posteriori knowledge, like mathematics and logic).  However, if I assume that my senses are trustworthy in most situations, then I can use my sense data to justify other beliefs.  While this is quite convenient, it doesn't mean that my sense data really is useful.

Let's assume one more time that my senses are not reliable.  How would that change what beliefs I should hold?  I would suggest it doesn't change anything.  Let's assume further that it's equally possible that right now, I am either a brain in a vat, or actually in a room sitting at a desk with a laptop on it typing.  But in either situation, I have to act as if what I'm experiencing is real.  If I jump out of my second story window, I'm going to experience pain, whether I'm actually jumping out of a physical window, or it's all being simulated in a supercomputer.  In either case, I should act as if what I'm experiencing is real, and therefore it helps to base my beliefs on that premise.  It is possible that my beliefs are wrong, but they are useful. And if those beliefs are wrong, it would be impossible to hold any beliefs that are correct anyway (other than the belief that your senses are useless).

Even if your beliefs are technically false because you're actually a brain in a vat, there is a sense in which they are still true, if modified slightly.  For example, I may hold the belief: "I'm sitting at a desk," which may or may not be true.  Most beliefs about the external world can be internalized in the way, however, it is definitely true that "I'm perceive that I am sitting at a desk" regardless of objective reality, making the question of whether my senses are reliable for recognizing objective reality moot.  So to me it makes sense to develop a belief system based on the assumption that my senses are basically reliable, because even if they aren't the belief system I have is still the best I'm going to be able to come up with.

So there's my armchair philosophical argument for why I'm not a fundamentalist, while still having a useful belief system about the external world.  Anyone have any thoughts on any of this?  (Probably not, only I would spend this much time thinking about this...)




* Accurate enough, at least.  I know that the signal coming from my sense organs (eyes, ears, etc.) is changed all along the way to the brain, and then is manipulated in plenty of ways by my brain to make our senses easier to decipher.**

** That's right, double minor in philosophy and psychology.  What of it?!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

OK Go - This Too Shall Pass

PZ posted this yesterday, and because of my love of Rube Goldberg machines, I'm reposting it here.






I like the fact they kept evidence around that they tried this multiple times, like the pile of broken TVs, and the fact that their clothes already have paint on them. Great video!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

For Nerdy Musicians (or Neuroscientists)

This is Bobby McFerrin at the 2009 World Science Festival.  First, a small example of how music is ingrained in all of us (via the pentatonic scale):






After you watch the video a few times, try watching it without sound.  I found myself singing all of the notes even without his prompting.  Quite cool.

And here's an awesome a cappella improv from the same World Science Festival for good measure:







Enjoy!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Lessig's Webside Chat Online

I posted about this live webside chat on Thursday by Lawrence Lessig, law professor and free culture activist.  I found out about it about 20 minutes before the talk, so I suspect nobody saw my post in time to watch it.  No worries though!  The talk is up on blip.tv, with Lessig's slides for the talk (no video of Lessig himself, and the Q&A session is not up, but it's still very good).  Here's the video:





Enjoy!

Reading the Qur'an: Juz' 4 (3:93 - 4:23)

Finally got through the fourth juz' (travelling and helping my mom move last weekend made it hard to read and take notes).  For those of you who haven't read my previous posts on the Qur'an, here's the hub page with links to all the relevant stuff.  For those who are familiar, I'll just get right into it.

This juz' covers the rest of the third sura and the very beginning of the fourth.  We start with an explanation for why two rules the Muslims follow seem to contradict those written in the Bible:
93. All food was lawful to the Children of Israel, except what Israel Made unlawful for itself, before the Law (of Moses) was revealed. Say: "Bring ye the Law and study it, if ye be men of truth."
94. If any, after this, invent a lie and attribute it to Allah, they are indeed unjust wrong-doers.
95. Say: "(Allah) speaketh the Truth: follow the religion of Abraham, the sane in faith; he was not of the Pagans."
96. The first House (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka: Full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings:
97. In it are Signs Manifest; (for example), the Station of Abraham; whoever enters it attains security; Pilgrimage thereto is a duty men owe to Allah,- those who can afford the journey; but if any deny faith, Allah stands not in need of any of His creatures.
To me, the dietary restrictions and the direction to face while praying didn't have any real justification anyway, so these explanations aren't that interesting to me.  Just a different set of arbitrary rules.
99. Say: "O ye People of the Book! Why obstruct ye those who believe, from the path of Allah, Seeking to make it crooked, while ye were yourselves witnesses (to Allah.s Covenant)? but Allah is not unmindful of all that ye do."
According to M. Asad, verse 99 refers to Jews and Christians who tried to show that Muhammad acted selfishly, twisting ideas from the Bible to suit his own needs.  Seems like the pot calling the kettle black, really.   More complaints about "People of the Book" and those who deny faith follow (nothing new there).
105. Be not like those who are divided amongst themselves and fall into disputations after receiving Clear Signs: For them is a dreadful penalty,
Seems like the signs aren't clear enough if people are divided, which they clearly are, even among Muslims (e.g., Sunnis and Shiites).  Ahh, but verse 109 explains where to get the truth:
109. To Allah belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth: To Him do all questions go back (for decision).
So God is the one to ask all questions.  The problem, of course, is that I need some evidence before I'm going to go to trust "God's answers", which as of now look like Muhammad's answers.  This is classic circular reason you find in most religions.  Why should I believe God exists?  Because this holy book says so.  Why should I trust what this book says?  Because it was written by God...

Not only that, but depending on your interpretation of this verse, its a complete perversion of what truth is.  If by "decision", they mean God makes a proposition true or false, I take serious issue.  It may be the case the God knows the truth about all things, and if that's the meaning here, that's fine.  But truth about the world is not "made" true by an entity.  Truth relies on the correspondence of the entities and relations in a proposition to reality.  To suggest that God ultimately makes something true makes the concept of truth useless.   (Of course, I could be mis-interpreting this; M. Asad doesn't say much about this verse.)

Finally, this also makes human reason and thought useless.  Why exactly give us intellect if we're just supposed to blindly follow whatever you say?
113. Not all of them are alike: Of the People of the Book are a portion that stand (For the right): They rehearse the Signs of Allah all night long, and they prostrate themselves in adoration.
114. They believe in Allah and the Last Day; they enjoin what is right, and forbid what is wrong; and they hasten (in emulation) in (all) good works: They are in the ranks of the righteous.
I'm interested here in the mention of the Last Day.  The most famous work about the Last Day is in Revelation of the New Testament, which includes a significant role for Jesus.  I'm curious if Muslims accept Revelation, or if they have some other story about the Last Day.  While Muslims accept the Bible as a divinely inspired work, most of what I've read so far tries to explain that while Jesus was a great prophet, he was not the son of God, arguing that Jesus didn't believe he was the son of God; others were responsible for spreading that idea.  I would expect it to be difficult to reconcile the Revelation story, but it also wouldn't surprise me if they give it a go.  I'll be looking for more on the Last Day as I read.
116. Those who reject Faith,- neither their possessions nor their (numerous) progeny will avail them aught against Allah. They will be companions of the Fire,- dwelling therein (for ever).
117. What they spend in the life of this (material) world May be likened to a wind which brings a nipping frost: It strikes and destroys the harvest of men who have wronged their own souls: it is not Allah that hath wronged them, but they wrong themselves.
Another fallacy in verses 116-117, it assumes that those who don't believe in God must be focused on material goods.  It's possible for nonbelievers to be good people who focus on the good of all.
118. O ye who believe! Take not into your intimacy those outside your ranks: They will not fail to corrupt you. They only desire your ruin: Rank hatred has already appeared from their mouths: What their hearts conceal is far worse. We have made plain to you the Signs, if ye have wisdom.
119. Ah! ye are those who love them, but they love you not,- though ye believe in the whole of the Book. When they meet you, they say, "We believe": But when they are alone, they bite off the very tips of their fingers at you in their rage. Say: "Perish in you rage; Allah knoweth well all the secrets of the heart."
120. If aught that is good befalls you, it grieves them; but if some misfortune overtakes you, they rejoice at it. But if ye are constant and do right, not the least harm will their cunning do to you; for Allah Compasseth round about all that they do.
More nonsense.  I don't wish ill on people who are Muslim, I simply disagree with them on theological and, in some cases, moral and ethical issues.  Perhaps some people hate those of other religions, but its not true in general.  This is the standard in-group/out-group mentality that occurs in other religions.  Don't associate with the outsiders, they hate you and will try and ruin you.  (What's actually true is that they're beliefs make at least as much sense as ours, and we don't want you thinking they could be right.)

Verse 119 starts with "ye are those who love them, but they love you not."  In other words, it's not our fault they are evil and hate us, we love everyone (we just won't associate with them).  Sounds very similar to the "love the sin, hate the sinner" mentality many Christians have towards outsiders.  It allows them to hate people, with a little loophole, to keep the whole Prince of Peace trope going.  Very backhanded and self-serving.

The next verse describe God's help of the Muslims in the Battle of Uhud.  I find verses 124-125 puzzling.
124. Remember thou saidst to the Faithful: "Is it not enough for you that Allah should help you with three thousand angels (Specially) sent down?
125. "Yea, - if ye remain firm, and act aright, even if the enemy should rush here on you in hot haste, your Lord would help you with five thousand angels Making a terrific onslaught.
Why exactly would 5,000 angels be significantly better than 3,000 angels?  I would think any number of angels from God could take care of your enemy.  Seems like a strange thing for God to brag about.

More assurances follow that only God can help you, you'll burn if you don't believe, etc.  We do get some good advice in verse 134:
134. Those who spend (freely), whether in prosperity, or in adversity; who restrain anger, and pardon (all) men;- for Allah loves those who do good;-
Give to charity whatever you can, and forgive your fellow man.  But then we get the guilt trip in the next verse:
135. And those who, having done something to be ashamed of, or wronged their own souls, earnestly bring Allah to mind, and ask for forgiveness for their sins,- and who can forgive sins except Allah.- and are never obstinate in persisting knowingly in (the wrong) they have done.
Now I'm all for repenting and asking for forgiveness when you actually do something wrong.  But so far wrong doing in the Qur'an has mostly focused on about belief in God and sexual modesty (especially with regards to women), which should cause no one shame.
140. If a wound hath touched you, be sure a similar wound hath touched the others. Such days (of varying fortunes) We give to men and men by turns: that Allah may know those that believe, and that He may take to Himself from your ranks Martyr-witnesses (to Truth). And Allah loveth not those that do wrong.
This verse sounds as though it condones blind vengeance, although Asad's translation is a bit different.  It begins with:
If misfortune touches you, [know that] similar misfortune has touched [other] people as well...
The "know that" part suggests something very different than "be sure" does in the Ali translation.  It's more of an explanation for why sometimes true believers experience hardship while those who lack faith don't (i.e., martyrdom).  Explanations of this sort continue in verse 142:
142. Did ye think that ye would enter Heaven without Allah testing those of you who fought hard (In His Cause) and remained steadfast?
This explanation is common among other religions, as well.  We need a way to explain why bad things happen to true believers, because one would expect a true believer to be protected by God.  So it becomes a test.  Of course, its difficult to use this argument to explain why some children and infants suffer, who are obviously incapable of participating in some kind of loyalty test.  You'd think God would protect them until they are at least able to understand the test he's imposing on them.
144. Muhammad is no more than an apostle: many Were the apostle that passed away before him. If he died or were slain, will ye then Turn back on your heels? If any did turn back on his heels, not the least harm will he do to Allah. but Allah (on the other hand) will swiftly reward those who (serve Him) with gratitude.
Here it stresses that Muhammad is just a messenger; Allah is the one to worship.  This is in contrast to Christianity, which worships Jesus as a God (which Islam rejects).

The sura continues with the message that true believers fight for God, and God protects them, and leads them to victory.  For example:
146. How many of the prophets fought (in Allah.s way), and with them (fought) Large bands of godly men? but they never lost heart if they met with disaster in Allah's way, nor did they weaken (in will) nor give in. And Allah Loves those who are firm and steadfast.
I suspect Muslims will argue that this is only refers to defending yourself against attackers (this has come up before in previous discussions).  However, the allusion here it to previous prophets, presumably from the Bible.  The Bible is filled with stories of these prophets, such as Moses and Joshua, attacking cities of people who believe in rival gods without provocation.  It seems like a bad example to use if God does not want this advice to be used offensively.  Add to this what's said in verse 151:
151. Soon shall We cast terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers, for that they joined companions with Allah, for which He had sent no authority: their abode will be the Fire: And evil is the home of the wrong-doers!
Casting terror into hearts doesn't sound like a defensive stance.  Similarly, in the next verse:
152. Allah did indeed fulfil His promise to you when ye with His permission Were about to annihilate your enemy,-until ye flinched and fell to disputing about the order, and disobeyed it after He brought you in sight (of the booty) which ye covet. Among you are some that hanker after this world and some that desire the Hereafter. Then did He divert you from your foes in order to test you but He forgave you: For Allah is full of grace to those who believe.
God was about to let them annihilate their enemies, until they disobeyed him.  Annihilation is not about defending yourself, its about completely destroying a group of dissenters.  But don't forget, God is Oft-forgiving:
155. Those of you who turned back on the day the two hosts Met,-it was Satan who caused them to fail, because of some (evil) they had done. But Allah Has blotted out (their fault): For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Forbearing. 
156. O ye who believe! Be not like the Unbelievers, who say of their brethren, when they are travelling through the Earth or engaged in fighting: "If they had stayed with us, they would not have died, or been slain." This that Allah may make it a cause of sighs and regrets in their hearts. It is Allah that gives Life and Death, and Allah sees well all that ye do.
157. And if ye are slain, or die, in the way of Allah, forgiveness and mercy from Allah are far better than all they could amass.
158. And if ye die, or are slain, Lo! it is unto Allah that ye are brought together.
More explanation for why believers end up dead in battles if God is on their side.  So it appears that God is either testing you, you disobeyed some minor command, or you sinned earlier and forgot to ask forgiveness.  It all sounds rather petty to me.
160. If Allah helps you, none can overcome you: If He forsakes you, who is there, after that, that can help you? in Allah, then, Let believers put their trust.
Of course whether Allah helps you or forsakes you seems to be based on a his shaky whims.  Don't worry, if you lose, its just a test.  More discussion of fighting for God follows, along with what waits for martyrs in heaven:
169. Think not of those who are slain in Allah's way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord;
170. They rejoice in the bounty provided by Allah. And with regard to those left behind, who have not yet joined them (in their bliss), the (Martyrs) glory in the fact that on them is no fear, nor have they (cause to) grieve.
171. They glory in the Grace and the bounty from Allah, and in the fact that Allah suffereth not the reward of the Faithful to be lost (in the least).
This was quoted by Osama bin Laden in his Letter to America, from 2002.  We also learn more about what the punishment for unbelievers will be:  all kinds of punishments it turns out.  Severe ones (verse 176), Grievous ones (177), and even shameful one (178).  Also those who "covetously withhold of the gifts which Allah Hath given" (verse 180), and those who reject Allah's apostles (183-4) will also not be very happy on the Day of Judgment.
185. Every soul shall have a taste of death: And only on the Day of Judgment shall you be paid your full recompense. Only he who is saved far from the Fire and admitted to the Garden will have attained the object (of Life): For the life of this world is but goods and chattels of deception.
This sentiment is one of my least favorite things about all religion.  It's this idea that this life is worthless, its the next one that really counts. This type of mentality is what allows religious loons to completely disregard everyone and everything, because it all doesn't matter compared to the magic pie in the sky that awaits.  If you'd like to waste your time preparing for your second life (which I've yet to see any evidence for), then be my guest.  But you have no right to deny anyone else the pleasure of living their life to its fullest, because this life is the only one I, and many other, believe we'll be able to experience.  Perhaps that wasn't the intent of the authors of holy books like the Qur'an and th Bible, but I'm not sure why something like this would otherwise be stated.

The rest of this sura talks more about People of the Book who do not submit to God, and that Muslims must not follow in their footsteps.  We get some more bad evidence in verse 190:
190. Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day,- there are indeed Signs for men of understanding,-
Luckily today we understand why night and day exist here on Earth.  No need for a God to explain this.  Not a very convincing sign for "men of understanding."
191. Men who celebrate the praises of Allah, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth, (With the thought): "Our Lord! not for naught Hast Thou created (all) this! Glory to Thee! Give us salvation from the penalty of the Fire.
I guess I spoke too soon.  By "men of understanding", it means men who blindly praise God, and contemplate his creation without giving it much actual thought.  Actual thought would require questioning why God would make all life on Earth appear to have evolved over billions of years, making humans an accident of natural selection, or why he would create an entire universe for the sake of a single planet on the outskirts of an unremarkable galaxy.

The sura concludes with one more reminder about unbelievers:
196. Let not the strutting about of the Unbelievers through the land deceive thee:
197. Little is it for enjoyment: Their ultimate abode is Hell: what an evil bed (To lie on)!
And what will happen to the true believers:
198. On the other hand, for those who fear their Lord, are Gardens, with rivers flowing beneath; therein are they to dwell (for ever),- a gift from the presence of Allah. and that which is in the presence of Allah is the best (bliss) for the righteous.
199. And there are, certainly, among the People of the Book, those who believe in Allah, in the revelation to you, and in the revelation to them, bowing in humility to Allah. They will not sell the Signs of Allah for a miserable gain! For them is a reward with their Lord, and Allah is swift in account.
200. O ye who believe! Persevere in patience and constancy; vie in such perseverance; strengthen each other; and fear Allah. that ye may prosper.

Thanks goodness that sura is over, though I suspect I'll hear more about the punishments awaiting unbelievers in the coming ones.   Given the 200 verses, I have to say that nothing really new came of reading all of it.  A few things about Jesus and Mary were mentioned, but the rest was a rehash of stuff from the first two suras, about being charitable and kind, and more about People of the Book and unbelievers.  I'm hoping the fourth sura is more interesting.  Luckily I get to wade into it slowly; only the first 23 verses are part of this sura.

Chapter 4:  An-Nisaa (The Women)

This sura is named The Women, because many of its verses deal with the rights of women and information about family life, according to M. Asad.  This should be interesting.  If course given that the Qur'an was written in the 7th century, I don't expect it to be especially propitious toward women by today's standards.  Then again, most Muslims, I would suspect, want me to consider this book relevant today.  Given they believe the Qur'an to be inspired by God, I would expect it to reflect that. Let's see.

The sura starts with some bad science:
1. O mankind! reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, His mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women;- reverence Allah, through whom ye demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (That bore you): for Allah ever watches over you.
We know humans did not pop into existence from a single person.  We evolved through gradual change and natural selection.  Suggesting there was a single person created by God from which all other people came makes no sense given the evidence we have.  Not a good start.
2. To orphans restore their property (When they reach their age), nor substitute (your) worthless things for (their) good ones; and devour not their substance (by mixing it up) with your own. For this is indeed a great sin.
OK, this is good advice.  Treat orphans with respect.  I'm good with this.
3. If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.
I'm not sure if this is advising men to marry orphan women if they can't handle not taking their stuff.  Either way, it's pretty disturbing.  You're allowed up to four wives.  I've heard that before.  In fact, I've heard people defend Islam by saying the religion only permits up to four wives (how modern!).  And if you can't handle that, then marry a captive that you own, so you don't do injustice to someone else.
4. And give the women (on marriage) their dower as a free gift; but if they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, Take it and enjoy it with right good cheer. 
Dowry's a bit old-fashioned, but at least the women are supposed to keep it for themselves.  That's good, I guess.
5. To those weak of understanding Make not over your property, which Allah hath made a means of support for you, but feed and clothe them therewith, and speak to them words of kindness and justice. 
Take care of those who are unable to fend for themselves.  I can get behind this as well.

Verses 6-13 describe how to deal with the property of orphans and divide the property of deceased relatives.  While for the most part its not that interesting, it's worth noting that in most cases men are given greater shares than women.  However, given that at this time men would have been almost always the head of their household, it makes some sense that they would receive a larger share.  By today's standards it would not be tolerated, but again, this was the 7th century (of course this also doesn't say much for God; you'd think he would be a bit more forward-thinking in a book that supposed to be his final revelation.)  Verse 14 simply states that the punishment for not following these rules is, what else, torture by Fire in Hell.
15. If any of your women are guilty of lewdness, Take the evidence of four (Reliable) witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they testify, confine them to houses until death do claim them, or Allah ordain for them some (other) way. 
16. If two men among you are guilty of lewdness, punish them both. If they repent and amend, Leave them alone; for Allah is Oft-returning, Most Merciful.
So it appears that men are capable of repenting while women are not, given the same offense.  It's one thing to give men and women different amounts of property, but to punish one more severely for the same crime is inexcusable for anyone, especially for a supreme being.
17. Allah accept the repentance of those who do evil in ignorance and repent soon afterwards; to them will Allah turn in mercy: For Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom.
Unless you're a woman, apparently.
18. Of no effect is the repentance of those who continue to do evil, until death faces one of them, and he says, "Now have I repented indeed;" nor of those who die rejecting Faith: for them have We prepared a punishment most grievous.
One good thing about verse 18 is that it basically makes deathbed conversions a moot point, unlike Christianity, where we hear about atheists converting just before death.  In fact, I agree with this verse (or I would if it were probable that the Qur'an were correct).  The whole "born-again" nonsense is incredibly obnoxious to me.  As an example, I've heard of born-agains who, before accepting Christ, were sexually promiscuous, and after being born again, they became "virgins" again.

Now I don't have a problem with their past sexual behavior (assuming they were at least somewhat responsible about it), nor do I have a problem with them deciding they no longer what to act that way.  What's obnoxious is when these people are often sanctimonious about it, as if they have some morally superior position.  They inflict guilt on others with their hypocrisy, and many are not willing to question them because of their religious "justification."
19. O ye who believe! Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should ye treat them with harshness, that ye may Take away part of the dower ye have given them,-except where they have been guilty of open lewdness; on the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If ye take a dislike to them it may be that ye dislike a thing, and Allah brings about through it a great deal of good. 
20. But if ye decide to take one wife in place of another, even if ye had given the latter a whole treasure for dower, Take not the least bit of it back: Would ye take it by slander and manifest wrong? 
21. And how could ye take it when ye have gone in unto each other, and they have Taken from you a solemn covenant?
Verse 19-21 are mostly good with me.  Treat women kindly and don't take their dower if you decide to divorce them.  The claim is made here that you should treat women on a "footing of... equity," suggesting that women are equal to men.  That may be the case in some ways (by applying the golden rule to both men and women the same, for example), but just by writing this sura we can see that men and women are not equal in all senses.

The Juz' closes with prohibitions on marrying women in your close family:
22. And marry not women whom your fathers married,- except what is past: It was shameful and odious,- an abominable custom indeed. 
23. Prohibited to you (For marriage) are:- Your mothers, daughters, sisters; father's sisters, Mother's sisters; brother's daughters, sister's daughters; foster-mothers (Who gave you suck), foster-sisters; your wives' mothers; your step-daughters under your guardianship, born of your wives to whom ye have gone in,- no prohibition if ye have not gone in;- (Those who have been) wives of your sons proceeding from your loins; and two sisters in wedlock at one and the same time, except for what is past; for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful;-
So thus far, the fourth sura doesn't contain anything much different from the Bible.   Women are generally treated as property in both cases:  men make decisions about who to marry and divorce, women have some say, but not much.  This isn't surprising, unless you expect the Qur'an to be a moral paragon.  Perhaps the rest of this chapter will contain more progressive views, but so far I doubt it.  The next Juz' (#5) contains most of the rest of this sura, so we'll see.