Mar 132013

There are two popes in Rome today: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.

And it is historical: Pope Francis is the first pope from outside of Europe (okay, technically Saint Peter was also from outside of Europe, but it’s not quite the same thing). He seems like a kind, charismatic person who reportedly lives in a lowly apartment, cooking his own meals. He took the name of St. Francis, which may indicate a desire to reform the Church. The first few seconds of his appearance on the papal balcony were seconds of silence. Last but not least, he is a Jesuit, whatever that implies.

Anyhow, the old joke I learned back in grade school (“How do popes greet each other?” The answer, of course, is that they don’t, since there is only one pope) no longer applies. It is very likely that Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will have many chances to say hello to each other.

 Posted by at 4:58 pm
Feb 272013

I’ve been reading a lot lately about Quebec’s recent language police fiasco, an overzealous Office québécois de la langue française cracking down on an Italian restaurant for its use of the non-French word “pasta” and other, similar terms on its menu. Of course I’ve been reading a lot about it lately; apparently, its news coverage exceeded by a factor of 60 (!) the coverage Quebec premier Pauline Marois received during her recent trip to drum up foreign investment in the province.

Yes, I could go on lamenting the superficiality of the news media these days, and I think I would be right. But I am thinking about Pastagate now for a different reason: I am wondering if I am the only one seeing strong parallels between a zealous police force guarding the integrity of a language and a zealous police force guarding the integrity of a religion.

At least officers of the language police do not come with canes.

 Posted by at 10:49 am
Jan 252013

I came across this image on a Facebook page dedicated to the former glory of the Soviet Union. It is titled “Russia and the USSR: similar, yet noticeably different.”

There is, unfortunately, far too much truth in what the image depicts. It does not make me wish for Soviet times to return, but it does make me wonder why so much good had to be thrown away along with the bad.

 Posted by at 3:31 pm
Dec 082012

One of my favorite photographs ever, in fact one that I even use on my Facebook timeline page as a background image, was taken by a certain Bill Anders when he was flying almost 400,000 km from the Earth. Anders was one of the first three members of our species who flew to another celestial body (albeit without landing on its surface; that came a bit later.)

Yesterday, I read a very interesting article about Anders, both his trip on board Apollo 8 and his life afterwards. The article also touched upon the topic of religion.

The message radioed back by the crew of Apollo 8 is probably the most memorable Christmas message ever uttered by humans. (Or maybe I am biased.) And yes, it starts with the words from Genesis, but I always viewed it the way it was presumably intended: as an expression of awe, not as religious propaganda.

The curious thing, as mentioned in the article, is that it was this trip around the Moon that changed the traditional Christian viewpoint of Anders about Earthlings created by a God in his own image.

“When I looked back and saw that tiny Earth, it snapped my world view,” Anders is quoted as saying. “Are we really that special? I don’t think so.”

Well, this pretty much sums up why I am an atheist. I’d like to believe that it’s not hubris; it’s humility.

 Posted by at 10:55 am
Nov 022012

I am reading some very interesting statistics. It is a survey of Muslims in the United States.

Wenzel strategies is a partisan public opinion firm associated with the US Republican Party. Nonetheless, while their ideology may be reflected in their choice of questions, I have no reason to believe that the statistical integrity of their survey is compromised. There may be some shenanigans not uncommon when partisan pollsters are involved (for instance, how did they select their respondents?) that may skew the results somewhat, but I don’t think they would alter the outcome dramatically. In other words, I don’t think this is islamophobe fodder.

The picture painted by the survey is complex. A small but not insignificant percentage of the respondents (almost all of whom are US citizens who are registered to vote) clearly have extremist views: for instance, 12% of the respondents think that those who criticize Islam or Mohammed should be put to death, with a further 9% unsure. On the other hand, defying stereotypes, only about 16% think that Israel has no right to exist, and only 7% think Sharia law should take precedence over the US constitution (with a further 20% unsure). And a surprising 30% think it’s okay for US citizens to evangelize Muslims, with a further 28% unsure.

In the data set, I don’t see much by way of significant differences among demographic groups. One exception is the support for the death penalty for those who offend Islam: younger responders were much more inclined to agree (19%) than the older generation. Similarly, younger responders were much less likely to support Israel’s right to exist (31% disagree with that right).

Overall, if the survey results are valid, they are troubling. While the majority tends to have moderate views, an alarming minority (and in some cases, even a majority) expressed views that are fundamentally incompatible with liberal Western principles. For instance, as many as 58% do not believe that the First Amendment of the US constitution should protect criticism of Islam or Mohammed. And the fact that younger Muslims tend to have more extremist views may mean nothing (younger people are generally more receptive to radical ideas) but may also indicate an alarming trend.

One conspicuously missing demographic question is the one about immigration status: how many of the respondents were born in the US, immigrated as children, or arrived as adults? Perhaps accompanied even by a breakdown by country or region of origin. That is because I would not be surprised at all if the more extremist views were held by recent immigrants from countries with strong tribal traditions. I wonder why these immigration questions were omitted from the survey.

Immigration status and partisan views notwithstanding, I find it deeply disturbing that, at least according to this one survey, as many as one in five young American Muslims think I should be put to death if I were to make my critical views on Islam or Mohammed public.

 Posted by at 3:53 pm
Sep 302012

There is, apparently, a call for a world-wide ban on anti-Islam “hate speech”: essentially, any speech that criticizes Islam or its prophet.

My immediate reaction was a flat out Cold War Soviet-style “Nyet”. Or simply to tell them to bugger off. Seriously bugger off.

But it was a friend of mine whose views on Islam are generally far less restrained who offered the most eloquent way to respond to these calls. It was a quotation supposedly from Voltaire:

“To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

 Posted by at 8:27 am
Sep 232012

Protesters at the US Consulate in Toronto yesterday demanded that American authorities do something about the infamous anti-Islam video, the Innocence of Muslims. They held up signs claiming that “free speech does not mean disrespecting any prophet”, among other things.

But, my friends, that is EXACTLY what free speech is. It is precisely the right to disrespect, even insult if I wish, God, Yahweh, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Ra, Moses, and every other living or imaginary prophet, deity, political or religious leader. Even using crude or obscene language and bad humor, if that happens to suit my fancy.

Do you want to know what hate speech is? Why, it’s easy: holding up (not to mention handing to 4-year olds to hold up) signs that demand the beheading of people as it happened the other day in Australia:

No, I am not ready to join the ranks of Islamophobes worried about the coming Caliphate, but I still categorically reject these Islamist attempts to limit the right to free speech in Western societies and the implied or, in this case, explicit threats. As an immigrant myself, I think I have the right to say something that might appear a tad more distasteful if uttered by persons born here in Canada: if you don’t like it here, you are free to leave.

Perhaps go to Pakistan. After all, that fine country’s Minister of Railways thinks that offering a $100,000 bounty for the head of the filmmaker is the right thing to do. How enlightened and civilized. I am sure people who think about free speech like these protesters do would fit right in.

 Posted by at 8:44 am
Sep 132012

So an American (or not; the identity, ethnicity and nationality of the filmmaker(s) are not entirely clear) filmmaker creates a rather amateurish production bearing the title, The Innocence of Muslims, screened originally to an audience of less than 10 when it was first shown in a theater earlier this summer. To say that the movie is obscure is an understatement… It doesn’t even appear to have an entry in the Internet Movie Database (though chances are this will change soon.)

So what’s the best way to defend the honor of your Prophet? Why, how about launching a world-wide publicity campaign for this film, attacking embassies and consulates, burning American flags, and generally making sure that every news media talks about the film and its availability on YouTube. The trailer has now been seen by more than 1.2 million people.

So, dear protesters, if your goal was to promote this hack job on your religion, give the filmmaker worldwide fame (and no doubt help him earn a few dollars in the process) and, incidentally, by murdering America’s ambassador to Libya, produce evidence that perhaps the movie’s point is not entirely to be dismissed, you succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. Mohammed must be proud.

 Posted by at 8:36 am
Sep 112012

At this moment, there are protesters ripping down US flags at the American embassy in Cairo, upset over some film (no idea which one, just repeating what I heard on CNN) that in their mind insults the prophet Mohammed (many Muslims like to add the phrase, “peace be upon him” to his name, but there is nothing peaceful about the name of a prophet in whose name suicide bombers kill innocents, even if most followers of Islam do not subscribe to such violence. No, I don’t think Christ represents peace either.)

I think it’s about high time we tell something to violent Islamists who believe it is alright to intimidate others who, in their view, offend their religion. You, Islamists, offend us. You offend one of our most sacred beliefs, our belief in the right to free speech and freedom of expression. And yes, if necessary, we are willing to resort to violence if that’s what it takes to protect these rights. And don’t think for one moment that our beliefs are less important to us than your beliefs are to you. So what shall it be? Shall we go on and murder each other in the name of our mutually incompatible beliefs? (Don’t forget, there is a good chance that we might win. Westerners have become rather good at this war business after two world wars and countless smaller ones, and we are armed to the teeth. We also invented industrialized murder, you know, Auschwitz and all that.) Or shall we just let each other be?

I suggest the latter. And if you believe that there is a veiled threat behind this suggestion, you might not be wrong.

So next time you hear about a film that you don’t like, here is an easy solution: don’t watch it. Then we can just happily leave each other alone.

 Posted by at 2:20 pm
Jul 172012

Imagine you come across a cult whose leaders, either through malice or ignorance, let their gullible followers consume raw sewage. You might not expect gratitude from the cult proper (fanatics are rarely rational) for revealing the truth, but you may expect society as a whole to applaud your actions.

Not when the cult is the Catholic Church and you are in India. Sanal Edamaruku, founder-president of Rationalist International, president of the Indian Rationalist Organization, was recently invited to investigate a weeping statue of Jesus. He found that the weeping was caused, in fact, by a nearby clogged drain and sewer water seeping through walls through capillary action.

You might think this gentleman should deserve some recognition for having saved possibly thousands of believers from the consequences of consuming sewage (they were licking and consuming Jesus’s “tears”).

No… the Catholic Church, in their infinite wisdom, chose to file a complaint instead under India’s penal code alleging that he hurt the religious sentiments of their community.

No wonder it took these superstitious clowns half a millennium to apologize for Galileo.

Hey, you pompous Pope person, perhaps it’s time to open your pie hole and say something on this matter, reining in your nutty followers? Surely you are not this nutty yourself?

And no, I don’t care one iota if anyone’s religious sentiments are hurt by my present tirade. You have a right (a right I am willing to stand up for) to believe whatever nutty fairy tales you want to believe in, but conversely, I have a right to ridicule your nutty beliefs. At least I have that right here in Canada.

 Posted by at 6:48 pm
Apr 102012

I was reading about a place called Göbekli Tepe today.

This is a place in southeastern Turkey. It is the site of an archeological excavation; they are exploring the ruins of an old temple.

The ruins of a really old temple. Really, really, really old.

How old? Well… when the first Egyptian pyramid was still on the drawing board, Göbekli Tepe was already some 6,000 years of age. Indeed, when Göbekli Tepe was built, the place where I now live, Ottawa, was still covered by the Champlain Sea. The oldest ruins at Göbekli Tepe are 11,500 years old, take or leave a few centuries.

That is an astonishing age for a major stone structure like this. Wikipedia tells me that it was built by hunter-gatherers, but I have a hard time accepting that hypothesis: Stone construction on this scale requires highly specialized skills not to mention the organization of the necessary labor force. Maybe I lack imagination but I just can’t see how hunter-gatherer tribes, even if they have permanent village settlements, would be able to accomplish something on this scale.

But if it wasn’t hunter-gatherers, who were they? What kind of civilization existed in that part of the world 11,500 years ago that we know nothing about?

 Posted by at 8:15 pm
Jan 082012

Neutrinos recently observed by CERN’s OPERA experiment may have been traveling faster than light. Or may have not. I have been discussing with physicists a number of possibilities: the role of statistics, errors in time or distance measurements, comparisons to SN 1987A, Cherenkov radiation, or the necessity for a Lorentz-violating theoretical framework.

Fortunately, there is one thing I did not need to discuss: How faster-than-light neutrinos relate to the Koran. Physics educators in Pakistan, such as Pervez Hoodbhoy writing for the Express Tribune, are not this lucky: they regularly face criticisms from fundamentalists, and if they choose to confront these head-on, they provoke ominous reader comments that call on all Muslims to “reject this evil experiment”.

Yet, there is a glimpse of hope: a Pakistani reader mentions Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, one of Sagan’s last books, and a superb one about rational thinking versus superstition. I don’t know how popular Sagan’s book is in Pakistan, but I am glad it’s not forgotten.

 Posted by at 5:29 pm
Dec 242011

In 1968, the crew of Apollo 8, for the first time in the history of humanity, disappeared behind another celestial body. When they re-emerged on the other side and saw the Earth rise over the lunar landscape, on much of the Earth it was Christmas Day.

And this is when they sent us Earthlings a Christmas message, which ended with the 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.”

You don’t need to be religious to find this moment awe-inspiring.

 Posted by at 9:14 am
Dec 212011

It almost sounds like some crude ethnic joke: how many rabbis fit into the basket of a cherry picker?

Lighting the nation's menorah in Washington

And the answer is, well, one fewer if you also include a photographer (who, presumably, is not himself a rabbi).

Happy Hannukah!

 Posted by at 8:19 am
Oct 072010

In an editorial today, the Ottawa Citizen praises the decision of Harper’s government to cancel a planned speech by a prominent imam.

To be clear, I think it is entirely appropriate to give the cold shoulder to an organization according to which Israelis over the age of 18 are fair game for killing. No argument there on my part.

But… the article goes on to discuss the practice of taqiyya, or “holy deception”, yet I think they’re guilty of a little bit of holy deception of their own, when they list the traits which they associate with Islamist extremism: denouncing Israeli policies as racist, or calling for the removal of Hezbollah and Hamas from the list of terrorist organizations.

Being a devoted atheist, I don’t think I qualify as an Islamist extremist, and having voted with my feet against the “workers’ paradise” I don’t think I qualify as a good left-wing extremist either. But… I tend to believe that some of the policies of Israel indeed qualify as racist, and I tend to believe that, in the interest of realpolitik if nothing else, legitimizing Hezbollah and Hamas may be the right thing to do.

Years ago, I argued that it should be possible to be critical of the actions of the government of Israel without being labeled an anti-Semite. The same way, it is wrong to denounce Muslim critics of the Israeli government as Islamist extremists. If we wish to live in a world that is free of Sharia law and of prohibitions against defaming a religion, we must realize that it also has to be a world in which one is free to denounce a government or be critical of an inflexible policy towards a popular political organization.

 Posted by at 10:27 am
Sep 092010

Just for the record, I may be a godless atheist but that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good idea to piss off a billion Muslims and, for no particular reason other than to offend them, burn their holy book.

Should this idiot of a pastor go ahead with his Koran burning, however, I would advise Muslims to shut up and move on. After all, “our” righteous idiots, acting in the name of Jesus, only burn the Koran in front of the world’s television cameras, whereas the Muslim world’s righteous idiots end up sawing heads off innocent screaming people, all in the name of Allah. I strongly disapprove of book burning, yet even so, I find the burning of some bound sheets of paper with printing on them a far less uncivilized form of protest than the use of a rusty knife to severe a person’s carotid artery, windpipe, vertebrae, and whatever other body parts there are that connect a human being’s head to his or her body.

If only I could make a similarly favorable comparison between the act of flying passenger planes into crowded buildings vs. bombing a country into submission (remember “shock and awe?”) using a well trained, highly disciplined, high-tech equipped, professional military.

 Posted by at 8:51 pm
May 232010

Recently I joined the Facebook group, “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!

No, I am not an intolerant SOB (at least I hope I am not) who thinks that Islam is the root cause of all evil. (I do consider religion in general to be the root cause of many evils, but in that sense, Islam is not in any way special.) No, I don’t think that Muslims “hate us and hate our freedoms”, to quote my least favorite US President. No, I don’t look suspiciously at people on the street just because they wear traditional Middle Eastern clothing.

On the contrary, I respect and cherish the freedom of religion: the right to believe (or not believe) in the deity or deities of your choice. This is a right that I would be willing to risk life and limb to defend. (Mind you, we’re all in real deep trouble if the world goes so badly haywire that a country like Canada suddenly needs the services of a 47-year old programmer in general infantry.)

But, as a devoted atheist, I also believe in another right: the right of freedom of speech, which includes my right to mock, insult, disrespect and belittle religion. Every religion, including Islam. I may not win any popularity contests by doing so, but I have the right to ridicule any adult who needs imaginary friends to feel happy and secure, or to live ethically.

Some people want to take this right away. Some people believe that their religious freedoms go beyond freedom of conscience, and grant them the authority to interfere with my rights, even using the threat of physical violence to intimidate us into submission.

Hell, no. I may not start drawing Mohammed cartoons right now, but if anyone thinks that they can deny me the right to do so, think again. (NB: The drawing above is not Mohammed. I have no idea what Mohammed looked like, and in any case, given my limited abilities as a graphic artist, I doubt I could produce a faithful rendering. No, it’s just some bearded guy with a turban carrying a flag with the crescent-Moon-and-star symbol.) My only hope is that the voices of those who assert their right to be free will not be drowned out by the voices of hatemongerers who use this Facebook group as yet another forum to express their fear and loathing of Islam and Muslims. The intent is not to promote hatred, but to end self-censorship.

 Posted by at 1:43 pm