Archive for January, 2010

Changing things up

January 15, 2010

I decided that the name for this blog was too formal, and implied a certain degree of proficiency that wasn’t intellectually honest by my standards.  So I’ve exported all the content to my new blog, Fueling the Fire.  With a more appropriate name will, ideally, come the necessary improvements (style and content alike).

So thanks for stopping by this domain for the time being, and continue to follow me at the new blog:


Fueling the Fire

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North American Imams speak out, but is it too little, too late?

January 11, 2010

The CBC reported last week that a group of Muslim imams issued a fatwa, a religious edict, against attacks on North America.

A group of Canadian and U.S. Islamic leaders on Friday issued a fatwa, or religious edict, declaring that an attack by extremists on the two countries would constitute an attack on the 10 million Muslims living in North America.

The fatwa is largely a response to the attack on December 25th when a Nigerian man attempted to detonate a bomb on an inbound US flight coming from the Netherlands.  The press article contains some statements that many have been waiting to hear for a long time:

“In our view, these attacks are evil, and Islam requires Muslims to stand up against this evil,” the imams said in their fatwa.

The imams said it is a duty of every Muslim in Canada and the U.S. to safeguard the two countries.

“They must expose any person, Muslim or non-Muslim, who would cause harm to fellow Canadians or Americans,” they said.

“It is religious obligation upon Muslims, based upon the Qur’anic teachings, that we have to be loyal to the country where we live,” said Soharwardy.

These statements represent a shift in liberal Islamic thinking.  Since September 11, 2001, there has been a long-standing tension between those who identified the attacking terrorists as religiously motivated and those who defended Islam as a religion of peace.  What many have been asking for has been that liberal Islamic leaders be more proactive in denouncing acts of terrorism, while said leaders have seemed hesitant to speak out against those of the same faith.

Still, there are some serious questions still on the table.  Is this fatwa anything more than a bit of hand-waving?  Given that the fatwa was issued by North American Imams (almost exclusively Canadian), will it be closely followed by the typically less moderate Muslims in the Middle East and Africa?  If this fatwa will be followed by Islamic followers of all nations, why did it take so long to be issued?

Even more disturbing to me is the reasoning behind the fatwa.

Calgary Imam Syed Soharwardy, founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, said attacks on Canadian or U.S. soil are essentially attacks on Muslims.

Perhaps I’m misreading between the lines, but that appears to me to suggest that the attacks are wrong because they’re against fellow Muslims.  This is not at all suprising to me (like many faiths, Islam has a special focus on in-group thinking and ethnocentrism), but it should be appalling to most with a conscience.  The reason the attacks are wrong is because they’re against innocent human beings.  It doesn’t matter whether there’s 0 or a billion Muslims living in North America; the attacks are every bit as unjust no matter the Muslim body count.

The trouble continues in Uganda

January 11, 2010

About a month ago, I reported the law suit against Leo Igwe for attempting to derail the practice of religiously-supported witch burning in Nigeria.  Unfortunately, Nigeria is not the only place that superstition and a belief in supernatural religious practice has led to the untimely demise of many seemingly innocent people.

Newstime Africa reports that a Ugandan government official has acknowledged that child sacrifices have been on the rise.  Where we normally see these sorts of extreme tactics negatively correlated with welfare, we see the opposite in this case: because the sacrifice of children is supposed to lead to greater financial success, those who are doing well personally are even more committed to sacrificing children as, by their view, they’re receiving confirming evidence.

Human sacrifice is on the increase in Uganda according to a government spokesman. This barbaric crime is directly linked to rising levels of development and prosperity, and an increasing belief that witchcraft can help people get rich quickly. Witch doctors claim they have clients who regularly capture children and bring their blood and body parts to be consumed by spirits. One witch doctor confessed for the first time to having murdered about 70 people, including his own son.

This continues the trend of limited critical thinking skills being demonstrated even at the highest levels of Ugandan society, following in the wake of proposed legislation to make being gay and HIV positive a crime worthy of the death penalty (legislation designed, in large part, by “The Family”, a US consortium of Christian politicians).

The atheists I can’t quite agree with (but would most certainly protect!)

January 4, 2010

When someone describes themselves as an atheist, they’re not telling you very much. It tells you nothing of their morality and nothing of their intellect.  Within atheism there are a lot of rifts because the term is so limited in scope.  Popular battles include: social liberalism vs classical liberalism (or libertarianism), whether or not religion is a net positive impact in the world, and whether deconverting the religious is best accomplished by a less confrontational standpoint (a la Michael Shermer or Paul Kurtz) or by a view that refuses to give any ground (a la Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, or PZ Myers).

There is one type of atheist, though, that I, and indeed most, atheists cannot agree with: the Raelians.  A Raelian is someone who believes, at a minimum, that life on Earth was created by uber-intelligent extra-terrestrials, known as the Elohim.  Typically Raelians have a strong commitment to cloning.   One example is that some believe that Jesus Christ was resurrected not by a divine and personal creator, but by the cloning power of the Elohim.  Further, the Elohim are recording our DNA and memories so that we could be cloned one day if necessary.

This is all developed from an attempt to corroborate more supernatural religious concepts with more materialist explanations.  Noah’s ark is really just a story about the DNA and cloning lab on a spaceship; the Garden of Eden was a lab on Earth; the “great flood” was the product of a nuclear explosion created by the Elohim; and all of history’s prophets were directed or contacted by the Elohim themselves.

Most importantly, for some, this answers the question of where life came from.  Let’s forget, for a moment, about whether or not there is any evidential basis for such arguments.  Sure, life on Earth came from aliens, but where did the aliens come from?  If the aliens were produced by a chance assemblage of chemicals and evolved slowly over time (which seems, to me, the most likely hypothesis for ANY alien life we would discover), why not just posit that this happened here on Earth without introducing fantastical ideas of ET scientists?  Some Raelians will argue that the universe is infinite, in both time and space, and thus asking where or when life began is an utterly non-sensical question: it just always was.  Unfortunately, modern cosmology doesn’t seem to confirm this opinion for the time being: it points to a specific moment at which time and space came to be.

Why is this of any relevancy to me?  Well, it’s not really, except that there are still countries so theologically warped that any atheist or apostate (one who has left the Islamic religion) deserves to be sentenced to death.  Such is the case of Negar Azizmoradi, the Iranian leader of the International Raelian Movement.  She fled Iran after publicly declaring herself an atheist, thus saving her life.  Unfortunately, she went to Turkey where she was arrested for having an improper passport.  Now the Turkish government is deciding whether or not she should be sent back to Iran; it seems Turkey has a history of declining those seeking asylum.  Unfortunately for Azizmoradi, being sent back to Iran would be a death sentence that no human being deserves, no matter their professed faith.

Though I disagree greatly with the validity of Raelianism, I cannot help but feel deeply for Azizmoradi, for whom the prospects do not look good.  What a shame that the “superior morality” of religion is paving the way for seemingly well-intentioned individuals to lose our only chance at life, love, and liberty.

The peril of power

January 4, 2010

2009 continued the trend of unhealthy obssession with celebrities and their personal lives, and ended with a public relations nightmare for perhaps the decade’s best athlete: Tiger Woods.  One night while sitting at the dinner table, my mom professed that she couldn’t understand why people with power and money have a hard time sticking to one person.

My opinion was the exact opposite.  I think it is completely clear why humans have a hard time being monoamorous (having only one lover).  We have a biological impulse to pass on our genes which becomes a huge drive once we’re physically capable of doing so.  I don’t think it’s something restricted to the rich and powerful, either; it’s just that the rich and powerful are usually in a unique position to attract others to them, and thus fulfill their desires for polyamory.

From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, it is very obvious why those who are the most well off might be the most polyamorous.  When we are picking out partners, we are subtley looking for a good genetic match.  We are biologically coded to look for certain factors that indicate a partner capable of: a) Producing good offspring, b) Providing and taking care of that offspring.  The affluent are in a unique position to handle these tasks, and are thus very appealing to us.

Now the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern  University has published some interesting research confirming that the most powerful have a certain inability to practice what they preach.

In all cases, those assigned to high-power roles showed significant moral hypocrisy by more strictly judging others for speeding, dodging taxes and keeping a stolen bike, while finding it more acceptable to engage in these behaviors themselves.Galinsky noted that moral hypocrisy has its greatest impact among people who are legitimately powerful. In contrast, a fifth experiment demonstrated that people who don’t feel personally entitled to their power are actually harder on themselves than they are on others, which is a phenomenon the researchers dubbed “hypercrisy.” The tendency to be harder on the self than on others also characterized the powerless in multiple studies.

This study confirms what seems to be patently clear in the public sphere, and we can be reasonably certain that this will continue to be an ongoing battle as social networking and the media continue to bring everyone’s private life into the public purview.

A brief (and rather pointless) journey in semantics

January 2, 2010

I follow Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy on Twitter (@BadAstronomer), and earlier he stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest regarding what, exactly, constitutes a decade.  This is a little ironic as I had just discussed this very issue a couple days prior with a friend.

The question being asked: when does a decade begin or end?  Though Phil has presented his own argument, I would like to make my own view clear.

First, we should define what a decade is.  A decade is a period of 10 years, in the same way that a century is a period of 100 years and a millenia is a period of 1000 years.  Some of the confusion arises from what we saw on January 1st, 2000.  Many were hailing the beginning of a new millenia, and the start of the 21st century.  The problem was that the 21st century didn’t actually start until January 1, 2001 because there was no year 0.  Similarly, some argued that “the new millenia” didn’t start until January 1, 2001.

I will help clarify this issue of decades by using the year 2000 as an example.  Since a millenia means only a period of 1000 years, it was actually reasonable to say that January 1, 2000 was the beginning of a new millenia, because there is nothing in the definition of a millenia that says when our starting point must begin.  A person may justly say that a new millenia had begun, so long as they acknowledged that the beginning of the last millenia in their context was January 1, 1000.

The question of whether it was the 21st century, though, is a more rigidly defined problem.  When we talk of whether it is the 21st century, the 11th century, or the 5th century, we are referring to how many centuries have occurred since the start of the common era (or, as the religious might call it, Anno Domini).  So given that there was no year 0, it could not possibly have been the 21st century since the start of the common era unless it was January 1, 2001 or later.

How does this relate to decades?  First, we have the more general view.  January 1, 2010 is indeed the beginning of a new decade, since nothing in the definition of decade necessarily implies that a decade begin on a year ending in 1, 2, 3, etc.  To make it more clear, we might say that it is the end of the 00’s decade, as we have colloquially referred to decades in terms of the number in the tens slot.  So December 31, 2009 was the end of a decade in the same way that December 31, 1969 was the end of a decade.

However, on the more particular view, one could not argue that January 1, 2010 is the beginning of the 201st decade; only January 1, 2011 could be, given that there was no year 0.

Personally, I think the short-hand of referring to periods as the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, or “Aughties” is not very fruitful.  It doesn’t save us any appreciable time, but does add ambiguity (since there have been 20 different decades of the 60’s thus far).  For clarity’s sake, I think one should be explicit in stating their starting point.  For example, there is more clarity in saying that December 31, 1999 was the end of the 90’s, since we have specifically stated what our starting date is.  I choose to scrap such nomenclature altogether and stick only to counting decades since the common era began (I would say, for example, that 2010 is the last year of the 200th decade), but alas I suppose I’m in the minority there.  I find referring to decades by the number in the tens slot to be a tad short-sighted, but I leave it to the reader to determine whether this is necessary short-hand given our extraordinarily short lifetime when compared against the scale of the universe.