Apr 272020

The other day, I ran across a question on Quora asking why Einstein didn’t support his country, Germany, during the Second World War. Thinking about this question reminded me of an old Star Trek episode and one of the root concepts (or, at least, my reading of it) of the Abrahamic family of religions.

In answering the question, I pointed out the difference between supporting a country vs. supporting a regime. I argued that Einstein, though not even a citizen of Germany at the time (he gave up German citizenship after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, and became a naturalized US citizen in 1940), did, in fact, support his country of birth, precisely by the act of following his conscience and opposing the despotic, murderous Nazi regime.

And that takes me to the Star Trek episode Bread and Circuses from 1968. In this episode, the USS Enterprise encounters a planet governed by a regime not unlike the Roman Empire, but with 20th century technology, broadcasting gladiatorial matches by analog television. In due course, the crew of the Enterprise gets into trouble and link up with a group of rebellious Sun-worshippers. When at the end of the episode, after the conflict is resolved and the good guys prevail as usual, Spock expresses surprise over the fact that such a primitive religion could have survived on this planet into its modern era, Uhura corrects him by clarifying that they were, in fact, worshippers of the son of God. In other words, this planet’s version of early Christianity arrived two thousand years later than on the Earth.

Christianity borrows its creation mythology from Judaism, including the notion of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge, the fruit of which let Adam and Eve understand the difference between good and evil. In my reading, this is what it really means when the Bible proclaims that humans are created in God’s image: that just like God, humans are free agents with a conscience, capable of acting independently, not robots blindly executing a predetermined divine script. They even have the capacity to act against God’s will.

Think about this, just what a revolutionary, what a deeply subversive concept this really is even today, never mind ancient times. The Book of Genesis is probably about 3,000 years old if not older. Egypt, in its third intermediate period, was ruled by pharaohs, seen as intermediaries between gods and ordinary people, whose words must be obeyed. Whether or not the Egyptian captivity happened (there do appear to be reasons to doubt), it’s no wonder Egypt’s rulers didn’t look kindly upon these pesky Jews and their subversive religion that claimed that it is more important to listen to your conscience than to blindly follow the orders of your divine ruler.

Despots can claim whatever they want: They can claim to represent the state, they can even claim to be the earthly representative of a divine power, like the pharaohs of old, but you have something over which they have no power: your conscience, which allows you to defy the will of any ruler, even God’s will, just as Adam and Eve have done back in the Garden of Eden.

And this is precisely what Einstein did when he lent his support, for instance, to Leo Szilard’s letter to Roosevelt that arguably launched the Manhattan project: Instead of slavishly following a despot claiming to represent the country of his birth, he listened to his conscience.

 Posted by at 7:07 pm
Jun 182019

So on the one hand… here I am, praising Canada for being true to its values, only to learn yesterday that Quebec’s provincial legislature approved a ban on “religious symbols”. Not once in my life did I worry when I was being served by a person wearing a kippa, a cross, a turban or a headscarf that nature that they might discriminate against me. Should I have been? Perhaps naively, I always felt privileged to live in a society in which persons wearing kippas, crosses, turbans or headscarves were welcome, even into positions of authority. But now I am worried that a person whose religion demands wearing a kippa, a cross, a turban or a headscarf will not be allowed to serve me anymore. And that’s even before I look at the more hypocritical aspects of the bill.

But then, I learn that south of the border, social justice warriors scored another “victory”: at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, they managed to get the name of silent era film star Lillian Gish stripped from the university’s Gish Film Theater because a student union protested on account of her role in the rather racist 1915 silent classic Birth of a Nation.

I fundamentally disagree with the idea of judging the past by the standards of the present. I dare hope that our societies are becoming better over time, and thus our standards are higher, but it is grossly unfair to the memory of those from generations ago when they are judged by standards that did not even exist at the time. But putting all that aside… isn’t it obvious that such acts of cultural intolerance (committed, ironically, in the name of tolerance) are just oil on the fire? That those who are behind the rise of xenophobia, nationalism, racism and intolerance will see such acts as proof that their grievances of valid, that it is truly they (and by “they”, I mean mostly middle-aged or older white men) who are being prosecuted here?

Are these truly the only choices out there? Xenophobic nationalism and Islamophobia vs. social justice militants? Where have all the sane people gone? Please come back wherever you are and help put an end to this madness.

 Posted by at 5:44 pm
Jan 062019

I almost forgot: a couple of months ago, I was interviewed over the telephone by a journalist who wanted to know my thoughts about one of my favorite moments in manned space exploration: The Apollo 8 “Genesis” moment, the reading of the opening verses of the Old Testament, on Christmas Day, 1968, by the astronauts of Apollo 8 as their spacecraft emerged from behind the Moon.

Today, something reminded me of this interview and I did a quick search. Lo and behold, there it is: My words, printed in The Boston Globe on December 23, 2018:

“It was a beautiful moment, and Genesis is part of our Western cultural heritage,” said Viktor Toth, an atheist and a senior research fellow at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, who played the lead role in the investigation of the Pioneer Anomaly, the mysterious acceleration of the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts in deep space. “This was an awe-inspiring thing: Human beings for the first time cut off from the Earth, and then they reemerged and saw the Earth again. The message was entirely appropriate.”

Though shortened, this pretty accurately reflects what I actually said during that roughly 10-minute conversation with the journalist.

 Posted by at 10:12 pm
Dec 242018

A quote from 50 years ago is the most appropriate one tonight, considering that our world is just as troubled as the world of 1968:

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.

 Posted by at 5:25 pm
Dec 242017

It’s the same, each and every Christmas. As Christmas Eve approaches, I remember that famous moment from 49 years ago. The astronauts of Apollo 8 just orbited the Moon. It was Christmastime. These three men were a thousand times farther from the Earth than any human being in history. It was an awe-inspiring moment. Once radio contact with the distant Earth was re-established, the three astronauts took turns reading the first ten verses of Genesis. Frank Borman then closed the broadcast with words that, in my mind, remain the most appropriate words for this evening: “good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.

 Posted by at 7:49 pm
Dec 242016

Once again, I feel compelled to use the same image and same words that I have been using for many years, to wish all my family, all my friends, indeed everyone on the good Earth a very merry Christmas: the words of the astronauts of Apollo 8.

I know, I know, it’s the same thing every year. But there really aren’t any better words. Just imagine: three human beings, for the first time in human history, far from the Earth, in orbit around another celestial body. And back on Earth, one of the most troubled years in recent history: 1968. So on Christmas Eve, with about a billion people listening—a full one quarter of the Earth’s population at the time—they greeted us Earthlings with the opening passages from the Book of Genesis, the common creation mythology of several major religions.

And then Frank Borman ended the broadcast with words that are as appropriate today as we are heading towards more troubled times as they were back then: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

 Posted by at 9:10 am
Aug 152016

The New York Times Magazine published an extraordinary report about the recent history of the Middle East.

Civilians fleeing Basra, 2003 - The New York Times

Civilians fleeing Basra, 2003 – The New York Times

Titled Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart, it presents a comprehensive review of the recent history of Arab lands, ranging from the heyday of secular despots in the 1970s, through America’s ill-fated war in Iraq in 2003, to the present-day civil war in Syria, the fight against ISIS, the ongoing disintegration of Libya. It offers insight through the personal stories of some select characters, including a Kurdish doctor, a day laborer turned ISIS executioner, or a civil rights matriarch.

It is a very long report, filling an entire issue of the magazine. I just read it. It was well worth the time.

The one thing this report failed to offer is a ray of hope. Something that would stop the endless cycle of violence.

 Posted by at 4:09 pm
Jun 022016

This morning, Quora surprised me with this:

Say what?

I have written a grand total of three Quora answers related to the Quran (or Koran, which is the spelling I prefer). Two of these were just quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian saint who advised Christians not to confuse the Book of Genesis with science; the third was about a poll from a few years back that showed that in the United States, atheists/agnostics know more about religion than religious folk from any denomination.

As to string theory, I try to avoid the topic because I don’t know enough about it. Still, 15 of my answers on related topics (particle physics, cosmology) were apparently also categorized under the String Theory label.

But I fail to see how my contributions make me an expert on either Islam or String Theory.

 Posted by at 11:18 am
Apr 082016

I just finished reading an online-only novel, Armageddon, part of The Salvation Wars series, originally planned as a trilogy by author Stuart Slade.

The premise: God gave up on the Earth, and let it be known that from now on, it all belongs to Satan. However… Earthlings fight back. And pity the poor demon with his pitchfork when he is confronted with machine gun bullets, cluster bombs, incendiary bombs or Sarin gas, brought about by an impersonal modern military machine that is designed to destroy and annihilate its enemy… and then they haven’t even seen the worst of it yet.

And just as I was finishing the book, I came across this GIF meme: a machine, crucifying Christ at a rate of about one crucifixion per second. And suddenly, I started to feel really sorry for Hell’s demons.

OK, I may be the stupid atheist here, but I find this short clip more than creepy. It speaks volumes about the human race, about what we became and where we are heading, and none of it is nice.

 Posted by at 1:22 am
Dec 242015

It has become a habit of mine. On Christmas Eve Day, I like to offer my best wishes to all my friends, members of my extended family, and indeed to all good people on this Earth with the words of the first three human beings in history who left our planet and entered orbit around another celestial body: The astronauts of Apollo 8, who accomplished their historic mission at the end of one of the most tumultuous years since World War 2, 1968.

And as they emerged from the dark side of the Moon and reestablished radio contact with the Earth, they greeted their fellow humans by quoting from the Book of Genesis. They then finished their broadcast with these unforgettable words: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm
Nov 292015

Everyone, meet the early 5th century saint, Christian theologian and philosopher, Augustine of Hippo. This is the oldest surviving portrait of him:

Why am I so impressed by Augustine? Well, some 1600 years ago he gave the perfect answer to anyone attempting to read science into holy texts. In his opus, The Literal Interpretations of Genesis, Augustine wrote:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about [science] and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics […] The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and […] the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

Of course, you could replace the word Christian with, say, Muslim and [Holy] Scripture with [Holy] Koran, and the meaning remains exactly the same.

As a curious footnote, when I checked my blog to see if I might have written about Augustine before (I haven’t) I noticed that the only other occurrence of “Augustine” here is in the context of the US space program, which was reformulated under the Obama administration in response to the recommendations by the Augustine Commission. Even more curious is that there were two Augustine Commissions, set up 20 years apart, chaired by the same Norman Augustine, former CEO of Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin. Nothing to do with St. Augustine, of course.

 Posted by at 9:52 am
Oct 022015

Today, I left the “Atheist” group on Google+.


Not really sure why I joined the group in the first place. I do not believe in supernatural friends. It is not the wrath of a make-believe entity that makes me refrain from doing evil. I am not necessarily happy about, but I am comfortable with the thought of a finite lifespan, followed by the same oblivion that also preceded my existence. I grieve for lost loved ones but I do not feel compelled to imagine that they are somewhere in a “better place”.

That said, while I reserve the right to mock religion (even as I feel it is my duty to defend, risking life and limb for if necessary, the rights of others to believe!) I certainly do not go out of my way to offend the faithful.

Nor do I need peer support to maintain my convictions. My conclusions concerning the existence of deities are a result of a great deal of thought and I feel secure in my views without the need to have them affirmed by others.

And I most certainly do not need to equate specific religions with the worst stereotypes, nor do I feel compelled to call religious people “religitards”, “fucktards” or other, even more obscene epithets that are used routinely in the aforementioned Google+ group.

Indeed, reading some of the conversations there I was suddenly reminded of a dystopian vision of the future that once was shown in the South Park cartoon series: centuries from now, a devastating world war being waged between the Unified Atheist League and the United Atheist Alliance… (who are then both attacked by the Allied Atheist Alliance of sentient sea otters.)

 Posted by at 8:54 pm
Sep 272015

There is an unforgettable line in one of my favorite movies, Cloud Atlas: “You have to do whatever it is you can’t not do.” Or another quote from the same movie, same character: “Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes… over and over.”

I am reminded of these lines regularly these days as I feel compelled to respond to the occasional (but sadly, ever more frequent) hateful, xenophobic memes, videos or articles shared by friends or family online, mainly on Facebook. Shares that perpetuate the message that the current (truly unprecedented) wave of immigrants in Europe represents an existential threat to European civilization; that the migrants themselves are frauds, uncultured, unruly, uncivilized subhumans. Untermenschen.

No, my dear friends and family members, it is not my intent to insult anybody but when I am confronted with such propaganda, I just cannot stay silent anymore. I will not be a silent accomplice. I can’t not speak up. I do not wish to anger you, but these thoughts must be challenged.

These propaganda pieces are becoming ever more sophisticated. Whether they ridicule the immigrants’ religion (let them it pork cracklings!) or their mysery and exhaustion (they are dirty! They leave trash everywhere!) the basic message remains the same: these people are somehow lesser human beings, who should be feared, despised and shunned but better yet, turned back to wherever they came from.

The memes and videos are reminiscent of the Nazi-era propaganda masterpiece, Der Ewige Jude, a full-length “documentary” movie from 1940 that similarly dehumanized Jews, presenting them as a threat to Western civilization. The message must have had some traction: after all, it was enlightened Western nations who turned away ships carrying Jewish refugees, ultimately sending them back into the arms of the Nazis.

I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, no matter how carefully I craft my words. But I cannot stay silent. I hope I am not losing any friends, but if it happens, happens: I reached the point where staying silent is no longer an option.

Another friend (one I haven’t lost yet!) told me a while back that unless I am ready to welcome refugees into my own house, I should keep my mouth shut. Well… nope. That’s like saying that back in the 1930s, the only Germans who earned the right to speak up against the regime were the ones who were sheltering Jews. This is an obviously phoney argument. I will not keep my mouth shut.

Yet another friend suggested that this is all the Hungarian government’s fault, that their propaganda is indeed far-reaching if it can jeopardize friendships on another continent. If only… but no, xenophobia and hate propaganda are not a uniquely Hungarian thing. Long before the present migrant crisis, I was already engaging in lengthy arguments, e.g., with American friends who told me that any apparent racism I see is the blacks’ own doing, they’re the ones who perpetuate racial conflict for whatever nefarious reasons. Or that Islamophobia is justified as Muslims would oppress us with Sharia law if only they were given the chance. Needless to say, I could not possibly agree.

Go ahead, think what you want. Conclude if you wish that I am just being naive, blinded by political correctness or confused by drinking too much from the jar of liberal kool-aid. That is your prerogative. Still… I can’t not speak up.

Again, forgive me. I am not trying to be a contrarian. It is not confrontation that I seek. It is my conscience that compels me to react: some thoughts just cannot go unchallenged, even if I have no real hope of achieving anything.

 Posted by at 11:55 pm
Aug 082015

So here is what some devout Muslims do in the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful, if you happen to hold and make public views with which they disagree: They hack you to death. All in the name of compassion and mercy, I am sure.

The latest victim of Islamic extremism is Niloy Neel, an atheist blogger from Bangladesh, who was hacked to death by a machete-wielding gang yesterday.

And Neel is not the first victim of this religion-inspired violence: He is the fourth victim this year, the fourth person killed for speaking out in favor of secularism, women’s rights, LGBT rights. No perpetrator has been charged yet in these murders, which indicates possible complicity on behalf of the authorities.

But my question is… why kill him? Did someone convince you that you will get 77 virgins in heaven or whatever if you did this? Is your faith (or is it your sexual identity?) really this unsecure that you must eliminate dissenting voices through murder? Or are you simply murderous thugs who use whatever excuse you can find to get your “fix”?

 Posted by at 9:18 am
Jan 222015

I am so done with tribalism. So frigging done.

In recent days, weeks, months, I had many arguments with friends and acquaintances.

Some assured me that they did not have a racist bone in their body, but that this or that minority (typically characterized by a darker skin color) is nonetheless inherently evil and should be dealt with accordingly.

Others were doing their darnedest best to convince me why their religion is less f**ked up than other people’s religion (the other religion being, usually but not exclusively, Islam.)

And repeatedly, they argued that the solution to war is more war; that the solution to violence is more violence; and that the answer to hate is more hate.

Is this really the second decade of the 21st century? Nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, have we still learned nothing from history?

Sometimes, I am ashamed to be a member of the species that calls itself homo sapiens. I wonder if I should perhaps just give up and stick exclusively to cats when I pick my future friends.

 Posted by at 11:54 pm
Jan 182015

Tonight I came across yet another cartoon questioning what some see as Western hypocrisy, manifested in our response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre vs. the lack of a strong response to the massacre of civilians by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

But it’s not hypocrisy. Part of it is pragmatism, part of it is something much worse.

The pragmatism part is this: When people kill each other in gruesome ways in a far-off country, we feel sorry, we sympathize, but that’s it. It does not threaten us, does not threaten our values, and other than (perhaps) donating to our favorite charity, we don’t really want much to be done about it either, as we don’t like either body bags coming home with soldiers inside, or paying taxes for expensive toys to be dropped on other people’s heads on another continent (and if we did that, we’d be blamed anyway.)

In contrast, when people from a foreign country, or people acting on behalf of a foreign power come to a Western city and go on to commit a politically motivated act of murderous terrorism, it is a direct attack on us. Our lives and our values. So yes, we respond en masse. We don’t expect people in India, China, or for that matter, Nigeria to carry signs with “je suis Charlie”, because it’s not their problem; it’s ours.

But there is another problem. Both those praising and those questioning the response to Charlie Hebdo often speak of the “world”. But what is this “world” of which they speak? A few million people marched on the streets of Western Europe, with a population of some 400 million. New organizations in North America, broadcasting to another 400 million people or so, made a big deal of this event. But… 800 million people is not the world. It’s barely more than 10% of the world.

Was there any media outrage over Charlie Hebdo in China? Any large protests for the freedom of the press in India? Or any mass demonstrations elsewhere in Asia (population: 4.4 billion)? What about Africa (population, 1.1 billion)?

Not that I’d expect them to be outraged. The attack clearly was not targeting them: it was targeting the West, and one of the West’s core values. Of course we are upset. But “we” are not the world. We are only a small part of it, and just because we have bigger guns and louder media outlets does not change this fact. All who are critical (or, for that matter, supportive) of the Charlie Hebdo reaction are well advised to keep this in mind.

 Posted by at 10:44 pm
Jan 182015

I am listening to Fareed Zakaria’s interview with former CIA director Leon Panetta.

I just heard Panetta utter the sentence, “But we also have to work with the moderate Arab countries as well. Countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, others that maintain a good intelligence, Egypt.”

WTF? Saudi Arabia? Moderate? Are we talking about the same murderous thugs who think that beheading a woman on a public street is legitimate “justice”? The same Saudi Arabia that already carried out 10 executions in 2015?

And don’t even get me started on el-Sisi’s thinly veiled military dictatorship, which has kept Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy in jail for the crime of, well, being a journalist, as an example of “moderation”…

 Posted by at 10:30 am
Jan 152015

I have enormous respect for the current pope, Pope Francis. This does not mean that I don’t disagree with him from time to time.

Reportedly, Pope Francis said that although free speech is an important right, there are limits: “Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person.”

I am certainly not into mocking other people’s religion gratuitously. What’s the point? To prove that I am ever so smart that I don’t believe in their imaginary friends? To make them feel bad?

However, I absolutely claim the right to mock. Just as I am willing to risk life and limb, if it ever comes to that, to defend other people’s right to their faith, I demand the right to ridicule said faith. And I expect nothing less from my more religious friends: they can mock my lack of faith all they want, but they should be willing to risk life and limb, if it comes to that, to defend my right to mock them. These are the core values of our Western liberal democracies, and there is no room for compromise, not even in the name of tolerance or political correctness.

In any case… if your faith is strong, pure and genuine, surely some crass attempts to mock it will be ineffectual. Just as my genuine respect for Pope Francis is not diminished by the digital art of Italian artist Cristina Guggeri.

And just in case anyone thinks Guggeri was after Pope Francis in particular, that is not the case: she is an equal opportunity offender, she also portrayed Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, among others, on the can.

 Posted by at 9:46 am