Book Review: God, No!

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Just what you'd expect from its author: outspoken, boisterous, crude, frequently vulgar, often hilarious. Unapologetically atheist, but more about Penn Jillette the person than about atheism per se.

God, No! is written by Penn Jillette, the louder half of Penn & Teller who's well-known for his skeptical and libertarian views. He's also known for being outspoken, boisterous, crude, and vulgar, and the book embodies all these traits in equal measure - although I have to say that it's often uproariously funny as well. Although many of the chapters have a strong atheist bent, I'd say it's less a book about atheism per se and more of a loose autobiography, comprising Penn's life, his professional career, and his views on family, show business, and whatever else he feels like writing about.

The book is divided into ten sections, each of which comprises several chapters roughly themed around one of Penn's proposals for a secular set of ten commandments (hmm, where have we heard something like that before?). Most of them I quite liked, such as "Do not put things or even ideas above other human beings." It's not hard to conclude that Penn's moral view is superior to the Bible's, though of course the same is true of pretty much anyone alive today who has a modicum of education and common sense.

So, let's start with the disclaimers: This one definitely isn't for the prudish or the easily offended. Aside from the ubiquitous swearing, some chapters were explicitly pornographic, especially the scuba-diving one and the one about Penn's visiting a gay bathhouse. (It's not what you think.) There was also quite a lot of nudity (mostly Penn's own, sometimes others'). Penn claims he's never drunk alcohol or tried any other kind of drugs, and given some of the exploits chronicled in this book, that would be hard to believe, except that he clearly isn't the kind of person to hold back any details about his personal life, however embarrassing. There was the aforementioned chapter about the bathhouse, as well as one about a hair dryer that's likely to have all his male readers cringing. (It's not what you think - or maybe it is...)

But mixed in with all that, there was a powerful and well-written atheist message. One of my favorite chapters was the one about Penn's friendship with three former Hasidic Jews - an amazing story about three different people who each had the courage to escape from one of the world's most oppressive and insular religious enclaves. One of them had as brilliant and poignant a deconversion story as I've ever read: he approached Penn after a show and explained that he was in the midst of leaving his religion. He wanted, of all things, to taste a bacon cheeseburger for the first time in his life, and he said it would be an honor if Penn would accompany him for the meal - and he did exactly that. This story could easily have been ridiculous (and okay, maybe it is, a little), but the way Penn writes it, it was unexpectedly moving. Seeing a man deliberately break a religiously-imposed taboo for the first time in his life, as a symbolic proof of his newly freed mind, is a powerful statement.

I do have to mention, as if you didn't already know, that Penn is a libertarian. He mentions both his libertarian views and skepticism about climate change, although he doesn't really explore either of them at length. The whole chapter about libertarianism is only three pages, and basically boils down to, "Even though I think funding cancer research is a good thing, it's still wrong to make me support it by paying taxes." (There's this thing called a social contract, which most libertarians seem to overlook.)

The chapter about climate change, likewise brief, is in the context of one of his talks at a convention. He says that he doesn't know enough to know if it's real, if it's dangerous, or if there's anything we can do to stop it. Fair enough, not everyone can be a climatologist; but if you really don't consider yourself qualified to render an opinion, then you should stay out of the debate altogether. If you say "I don't know" and use that as the basis for policy, then you have rendered an opinion whether you like it or not. And it's not a big leap to guess that the reason for Penn's refusing to render a verdict is that, if climate change is a real threat, preventing it would require collective action of a kind that his libertarian philosophy says is never necessary. Claiming to be perpetually unsure is one way to avoid this cognitive dissonance.

September 7, 2011, 5:42 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink15 comments
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Sex and Taboos in Orthodox Judaism

In the past, I've poked fun at the Catholic church for the logical contortions it goes through to get around the problems it creates for itself with its nonsensical decrees about sex. But the Catholics are far from the only sect that has laughably ridiculous rules about sex, nor are they the only sect that goes to absurd ends to get around the problems those rules create. So, today I'm going to write about a particularly hilarious example which, like the last one, I first heard about from my lovely and talented wife.

The example I intend to discuss is a bizarre problem, specific to Orthodox Jews, called "halakhic infertility". It takes a little effort to explain what this is, but bear with me - I promise it's worth it.

According to Orthodox Jewish law (halakha, in Hebrew), women become niddah - that is to say, ritually unclean - at the onset of their menstrual period. (Because, you know, God is just absolutely disgusted by those bodily functions that he created.) An observant Jewish husband is prohibited from having sex with his wife while she's niddah. In fact, he's prohibited from touching her in any way, which even includes sitting on the same couch as her, passing a plate to her, or sleeping in the same bed with her.

After her menstrual bleeding has completely stopped, an Orthodox woman must wait seven full days before immersing herself in a mikveh, a ritual bath which removes the taint of uncleanliness. After that, she and her husband can touch each other again. But the problem is this: Some women have very regularly timed periods in which ovulation occurs early in the cycle, around the 12th day. Depending on how long the bleeding from her previous cycle lasts, if you add in the mandatory seven-day wait, it may be that the only time she's fertile is during the period of ritual uncleanliness when she's not permitted to have sex. Hence, "halakhic infertility" (see also). Basically, these families are inadvertently using the rhythm method!

As you can imagine, this dilemma is a source of considerable awkwardness and embarrassment to Orthodox clergy. Why don't they just change the rule and shorten the waiting period? Because of a belief in Orthodox Judaism that older rabbis, being closer in time to God's original revelation, always knew better than modern rabbis and can never be overruled. This also leads to other hilarity, like the belief that it's OK to eat a worm in your apple, despite the Torah ordinarily outlawing the consumption of crawling things, because ancient rabbis believed the worm was spontaneously generated inside the apple. The fact that we know more biology now than the people who originally made that rule doesn't matter at all.

So how do the Orthodox deal with this? These two articles from the website Jewish Women's Health discuss possible solutions. One solution that they suggest is for the woman to take clomiphene, a fertility drug, or other hormones that can delay ovulation. IVF is cited as another possibility. Of course, hormone therapy may increase the woman's risk of cancer, and IVF can be very expensive, but both these problems are viewed as trivial next to the consequences of disobeying the ruling of a religious authority who died hundreds or thousands of years ago.

If these seem a bit drastic, one more solution they propose is that women can bathe earlier than they think, depending on what does or doesn't count as bleeding. As the site suggests, "Some women are embarrassed to approach a rabbi with intimate questions about their staining" (gee, you think?) and therefore delay the mikveh longer than they have to. Another common piece of advice for women is to wear black underwear so they're less likely to notice a blood spot (why God doesn't consider this cheating, I have no idea). But the absolute height of theological genius comes in the form of the following sentence, which I swear I'm not making up: "Women may also be unaware that rabbis are able to rule leniently regarding certain shades of brown..."

Certain shades of brown. How does this work, inquiring minds want to know? Are there official color swatches that rabbis can use to compare and contrast when a woman brings in her stained underwear for inspection? If your rabbi has red-green color blindness and thinks a blood stain is just a green polka dot, is it OK to have sex then, even if the woman herself knows differently? (I wouldn't be surprised if some esteemed and elderly theologian has actually addressed that question, but frankly, I don't want to know, so I'm not going to Google it.)

More so than any other religion, Judaism has preserved intact the primitive taboos of the past. These rules were self-evidently invented by men who suffered from such a crippling fear of contamination, they felt it essential to go to these extreme lengths to avoid contact with even one microscopic particle of blood. All the later elaborations spring from this irrational terror, which many centuries later is still causing difficulty and misery for the families who think they're doing God's will by obeying it. Like all people with nonsensical beliefs, they'd be much better off if they were willing to discard these foolish rules and try living in the real world instead.

August 15, 2011, 5:47 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink29 comments
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On the Morality of: Circumcision

"And the Lord said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go. And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn.

And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision."

—Exodus 4:21-26, another wonderful and not at all baffling example of biblical morals

In the next election, San Francisco may vote on a referendum to ban circumcisions within the city limits. Predictably, some Jewish groups are calling this anti-Semitic. A little more puzzlingly, the National Association of Evangelicals is against the idea as well. (I suppose they believe that prophecy about the 144,000 converted Jewish evangelists can't come true if they aren't circumcised.)

In the past, I was noncommittal about circumcision because I'd read that it offers partial protection against the spread of some STIs, especially HIV. If that were true, then it could be justified on the ground of health benefits, just as we could defend a policy of preemptively removing every baby's appendix. But then I found out that the evidence for this claim is flimsy at best. One much-hyped study which claimed to find a dramatic protective effect from circumcision actually showed only a 2% absolute difference in transmission rates between the experimental and control groups.

That said, circumcision isn't nearly as harmful as female genital cutting, the express purpose of which is to prevent women from taking pleasure in sex. Still, the moral principle that opposes one works equally well against the other. Absent a medical reason, there's no justification for cutting off healthy, functional, innervated tissue from any baby, regardless of gender. No parent should have the right to surgically remove body parts from their child just to make their appearance comply with cultural or religious norms. (How does this weigh on the rare cases of babies born with vestigial tails? I'm still thinking about that.)

There's a simple and obvious solution which it seems San Francisco's Jewish community won't even consider: If circumcision is so important, why not just wait to have it done until boys are old enough to volunteer for it? Why is it so important to do it before a child can possibly give informed consent? I can't help but wonder if the real worry is that, if children of Jewish parents were allowed to make the decision for themselves, they wouldn't want it. There may well be some people who think that the only way to ensure the survival of this, frankly, primitive and barbaric custom is by doing it to children before they can object.

What is society's interest here? Consider this thought experiment: Imagine there was a religious sect that makes it their practice to chop off the little finger on the left hand of every boy that's born. When outsiders propose that finger-removal should be banned, they react vehemently, claiming it's a vital part of their cultural identity and a visible sign of God's covenant with them and their ancestors, and since you don't need that finger, it does no harm to the boys. Furthermore, they say, the procedure has health benefits: little fingers often get cut, bruised or broken, and by removing them, we significantly reduce the risk of that happening. They say that banning finger-removal would trample on their religious freedom and was obviously an unjust and racist persecution aimed specifically at them.

In this case, I'd hope it was obvious that society's interest in protecting the health and bodily integrity of all its citizens, including children, outweighs the right of parents to bring up their children as they see fit. I see no reason why we should reach any different conclusion just because the ritual in question is more familiar and affects a different body part.

Other posts in this series:

July 6, 2011, 5:46 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink65 comments
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Photo Sunday: Toledo

More pictures from my Spanish trip. Click the link below to see:

(more...)

June 19, 2011, 2:37 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

• Witchcraft is now a recognized profession in Romania, subjecting its practitioners to income tax. Witches who are unhappy about this are responding pretty much like you'd expect.

• A female activist in Israel faces prison time for praying at the Wailing Wall. The telling quote:

"The religious world in Israel has become more and more extreme," Mrs Hoffman said. "Much like in Islam, religiosity is now measured by the distances at which women are kept from society."

• A 10-year-old girl in Canada becomes the youngest amateur astronomer ever to discover a supernova. (If you want to help, did you know that astronomers are enlisting citizen volunteers to classify photos of galaxies?)

• Swami Nithyananda, a popular Hindu guru, admits that he paid a blackmailer 1.4 million pounds to not release a sex tape of him and an Indian actress.

• High-ranking ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis is writing a tell-all book.

• The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Milwaukee files for chapter 11 bankruptcy as a result of settlements for victims of pedophile priests. Too bad the whole organization isn't being liquidated and sold off to pay its creditors.

• The British Medical Journal concludes that Andrew Wakefield's paper linking vaccination to autism, which single-handedly gave rise to the anti-vaccination movement, was "an elaborate fraud" based on falsified data.

January 8, 2011, 12:12 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

If blogging was my full-time job, I'd probably have written a post about each of these stories! As it is, I leave you with some food for thought - and there's a virtual banquet this week:

• In the U.K., more and more decaying churches are being converted into homes - a fitting use for these still-beautiful buildings, in my opinion.

• According to a study in the journal Pediatrics, gay teens are more likely to be punished by schools and courts than their straight peers. One wonders if something similar holds true for young atheists; there are plenty of places in the country where I wouldn't doubt it in the slightest.

• And on that note, a mind-boggling story about former Confederate states celebrating secession - in one city, there will be a parade featuring "a mock swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy" - that's being cast as a celebration of "self-government" and "states' rights". In reality, what the Confederates were mainly fighting for was their right, often justified by religion, to buy and sell human beings as property. A hundred and fifty years later, it's astonishing that so many people still refuse to admit their ancestors were in the wrong.

Divorce rates are skyrocketing in Iran as Iranian women, increasingly assertive and educated despite living in a brutally patriarchal society, fight back against unwanted marriages and cruel husbands.

• Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks show how Ireland's government caved in to Vatican pressure to grant immunity to church officials suspected of complicity in child rape.

• A council of rabbis in a Lubavitcher Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn have issued a decree forbidding believers to speak to the police, even to report a crime, without the permission of the rabbis.

• In San Francisco, a DMV employee was suspended after he sent a letter threatening hellfire to a transgender woman who applied to have her sex changed on her driver's license. It appears that he shared her name and address with his church without asking permission. It also appears that this is not the first time this employee has done this. Stories like this need to be better publicized - when bigots cry for "freedom of conscience" clauses that would permit them to refuse to do their job on religious grounds, this is what they're really demanding the right to do.

December 11, 2010, 1:51 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink7 comments
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Theocrats on the March in Israel

Since I wrote recently about the evil mullahs of the Middle East who ferociously resist the slightest spark of progress, I think it's worth pointing out - in the name of fairness - that destructive, theocratic insanity can be found in every religion. Christopher Hitchens has written an excellent column this week in Slate to remind us of that.

The right-wing government that's currently in charge of Israel is continuing the policy of building homes for Jewish settlers on land seized by force from Palestinians. Understandably, the Palestinians have demanded a freeze on these settlements as a condition of resuming peace talks. But Benjamin Netanyahu's government has been intransigent - and much of the blame for that can be laid on one man, a right-wing rabbi named Ovadia Yosef, who's the de facto head of a crucial party in Netanyahu's coalition. Hitchens calls Yosef an "elderly Sephardic ayatollah", and from a look at his record, that assessment is spot-on.

Last month, Yosef proclaimed that the sole purpose for the existence of gentiles is to be servants for Jews (and I should note that by "Jews", Yosef doubtlessly doesn't mean all people who claim Jewish heritage, but only the minority who are ultra-Orthodox like himself). Before that, he was well-known for publicly wishing that God would send a plague to eradicate the Palestinians, showing himself to be a staunch supporter of the Hebrew Bible's policy of holy genocide. He's also attributed Hurricane Katrina to insufficient Torah study in New Orleans, said that Holocaust victims were reincarnated sinners whom God was punishing, and proclaimed that Orthodox conversion, and only Orthodox conversion, gifts the convert with the "Jewish gene".

And this is the person whose consent is a necessary element of the settlement freeze. This is the person whom all the peace negotiations and all the diplomatic efforts depend on - not a reasonable person of good will who wants to promote peace, but a religious maniac who openly doubts the humanity of everyone outside his narrow circle of dogma. It's enough to make me despair of hoping that it will ever stop.

If it weren't for all the innocent people caught on both sides of the conflict, I'd say that we should withdraw from this region entirely and let the fanatics fight it out forever - let their endless war continue until the last two fall with their hands around each other's throats, while the rest of humanity moves on. But even the most bloodthirsty, fanatical partisans on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides are still human beings, and should be capable of better than this. There must be a way, some way of persuasion, that will get them to put their spiral of grievance aside and get them all to see reason. I just wish that I could see what it was.

November 24, 2010, 6:54 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink21 comments
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A Brief and Amusing Encounter

Yesterday on my lunch hour, I was sitting outside the library, eating lunch and enjoying a rare day of warm weather, when I was approached by two young men in Orthodox Jewish garb.

"Hello, are you Jewish?" one of them greeted me.

"No," I said, as cheerfully as possible. "I'm an atheist."

Give them credit for one thing: they didn't flinch. "You can be Jewish and an atheist," he insisted, still smiling. "Judaism has nothing to do with what you believe."

Now, I acknowledge there's a certain sense in which this claim could be true. But it clearly wasn't the same sense being used by these two young men standing before me in Orthodox black garb, yarmulkes and peyot. If it was only the ethnic definition of Judaism they were interested in, it wouldn't be necessary to get people to do anything, and these two clearly had something more in mind. I could see the bait-and-switch coming a mile off, and I tried to forestall it. "I think Judaism has more to do with which ideas you accept," I demurred.

But the proselytizers clearly had a script they were determined to stick to. "What about your parents?" they asked. "Were they Jewish?" They asked a few questions about my family, until it emerged that my maternal grandmother was Jewish. (This is technically true, but only in the loosest sense: as I've written before, she was an entirely secular person. The extent of her Judaism was that she gave her grandchildren presents on Hanukkah.)

Naturally, the two proselytizers were very excited to discover this. "You're 100% Jewish!" they announced.

If this was supposed to produce a moment of epiphany in me (like in the Jack Chick comics where the protagonist announces, "But why didn't anyone ever tell me about Jesus?"), it didn't work. Actually, I found it presumptuous and arrogant: What gives you the right to just dismiss all the rest of my family's ancestry and culture? How dare you think you can define who and what I am without my participation?

I didn't have time to say that, though, because they were pressing on to the next part of their script. "We're trying to get all Jews to put on tefillin," he said. "Would you like to wear them?"

I gave them a very flat look. "No, I don't think so."

"Can I give you this pamphlet then?" he asked, pushing some literature into my hands. I glanced down at it, and as I expected, it was a newsletter published by the Chabad Lubavitch sect, extolling the limitless virtues of their deceased rabbi.

I probably didn't succeed at holding back a smirk. "Isn't this the guy you believe is the messiah?"

The two Lubavitchers suddenly looked very uncomfortable. For them, this was probably like a Scientologist being asked about Xenu. "Well, not exactly," the spokesman admitted. "There are some people who believe that, yes, but I'm not really... I don't know if..."

"I believe it!" the other one piped up, interrupting him. I guessed this was a matter of some awkwardness between them.

"And the fact that he's dead doesn't convince you otherwise?"

"No," the first one said, shaking his head. "It doesn't." Clearly, he had dropped any pretense that he wasn't also a messianic believer. They're probably told not to talk about this in public, but as I already knew, I assumed he saw no further point in trying to deceive me.

Since I wasn't going to convert to Orthodox Judaism on the spot, they sensed the conversation had run its course, and after shaking my hand, they walked away. In retrospect, I should have talked to them for longer. I was curious, for example, why they had been so eager for me to wear their ritual clothing, even knowing I didn't believe any of it. Was this some kind of Pascal's Wager, where they assumed faith would eventually follow practice? Or - more likely - did they believe that their deceased rabbi will only return once all the Jewish people in the world are obeying their commandments? If the latter, it would have been a treat to see how they'd have explained that to me.

But what I really should have done a better job nailing them on was the bait-and-switch underlying their whole strategy. They insisted that being Jewish was an ethnic identity and not a matter of belief, but at the same time, they were trying to convince people who were "Jewish" (by their tendentious definition) to adopt a whole array of practices derived solely from religious belief. It's the same kind of false equivalence used by all proselytizers everywhere, such as those who ask you if you want to be a good person and then define "good person" as one who worships their god in the prescribed manner. The next time I run into some of these people (and I'm sure I will - they're all over Manhattan), they're not going to get off so lightly.

November 13, 2010, 10:30 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink26 comments
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Civil War Denialism: A Further Response to "The Jewish Prophecy of Exile"

I didn't notice until recently that Narabelad, the apologist for Judaism whose claims I addressed in "The Jewish Prophecy of Exile", has written a further reply to me. In this post, I'll address it briefly.

First, let me note that my correspondent has evidently conceded that his list of things that would make him an atheist was impossible to satisfy and was offered in bad faith, because in his latest response, there's not a word about it. Clearly, he'd rather avoid the difficult question of how to falsify his own beliefs and instead focus on apologetic claims for the historical accuracy of the Torah. Most of this simply reiterates his previous letter without adding anything new, so I won't repeat myself responding to it - but there's a few points worth marveling at just for their sheer audacity, and for the level of historical distortion he's willing to resort to.

So Mr. Atheist contents that someone wrote predictions about an exile of the Israelite people based on the experience they had in the Babylonian Captivity. If that be the case then how do those same verses explain the Roman Exile, which started more than 400 years after the Babylonian Exile?

The obvious answer to this question is that history runs in patterns. Living at a crossroads of the ancient world, the Israelites were constantly under threat from powerful empires. And exiling a defeated enemy was a common tactic of war in that era, as is shown by the fact that it happened to them no fewer than three times. Most of the verses which my correspondent thinks are specific predictions of the Roman exile are really just generic prophecies of disaster which could apply to any major defeat. They say nothing specific about the identity of the enemy; they just predict that the Israelites' life would be arduous and painful living in exile under a conqueror. Obviously, this isn't a great leap of imagination.

Know that the Babylonian Captivity did not involve this kind of merciless cruelty against the cities that involved slaughter of the inhabitants, not to the extent that Rome inflicted. The Babylonians held Jerusalem in siege for 2 years but after the Israelites surrendered they were handled fairly amicably after that as the conquerors wanted them for their benefit.

Yes, those Babylonians were forgiving, merciful folk, all right. They were so merciful that they besieged Jerusalem until the food ran out and the inhabitants were starving to death [2 Kings 25:3; compare Deuteronomy 28:52-53]. Then, after they conquered Jerusalem and took King Zedekiah captive, they killed his sons in front of him, gouged his eyes out, sacked the temple, and burned the city to the ground [2 Kings 25:7-9]. The Bible specifically says that when Nebuchadnezzar conquered the city, he "slew their young men with the sword... and had no compassion upon young man or maiden, old man or him that stooped for age" [2 Chronicles 36:17]. The Israelites hated the Babylonians so much that they wrote revengeful psalms fantasizing about smashing the Babylonians' children against rocks, claiming that this would be a just retribution for the way they had treated them [Psalms 137:8-9]. This is what my correspondent labels "amicable" treatment.

Obviously, this gross absurdity is serving apologetic ends. Because my correspondent wants us to believe that the biblical prophecies of slavery and disaster applied only to the Roman conquest and not the earlier Babylonian conquest, he tries to rewrite history to make the Babylonians into kind and merciful rulers. That sort of tactic isn't new; but what is new, and incredible to boot, is that a religious Jew would try to vindicate his holy book by praising the most despised historical enemy of his people.

He next has some things to say about the Sinai event, when the Israelites supposedly saw and heard God manifest himself while they were camped at Mt. Sinai on the way out of Egypt. As I pointed out in my previous reply, there's no archaeological evidence for the Egyptian captivity, the Exodus, the wandering in the desert, or Joshua's conquest of Palestine. These events are pious mythology, most likely invented by the Israelite elite to give their people an origin story that would fill them with national pride and justify their plans for military expansionism. My correspondent apparently doesn't dispute the absence of archaeological evidence, but tries to argue for the myth in another way:

Are any of you going to disbelieve the American Civil War? Oh, there are a few books about it that were written at the time but it's possible that could have been mere campfire stories, folklore.... The thing that makes the US Civil War credible was not simply because of the books and surviving documents. Those documents are credible to us 140 years later because people that experienced it also passed down personal stories and vignettes of the Civil War event to their descendants....

If there were only documents and books about the Civil War, without family stories passed down the Civil War could be easily doubted as "folklore" or "myth".

You know, I wasn't even going to bother writing a further reply to this fellow - but then I saw this, something so magnificently ridiculous that I just had to get it down so I could marvel at the sheer idiocy of it. Yes, you read right: the reason we know that the Civil War happened isn't because of the vast amounts of archaeological evidence, soldiers' graves, letters written by soldiers, photographs, contemporary books and newspapers, Confederate legal documents, telegrams, presidential speeches and proclamations, and congressional laws and resolutions... but because some living people heard about it from oral folklore passed down through the generations.

This black-is-white, up-is-down inversion of reasoning is typical of religious apologists tying themselves in knots trying to defend the indefensible. No evidence? No problem! Just say that the actual physical remnants of history aren't as trustworthy as supernatural folktales invented by anonymous authors for patriotic purposes thousands of years ago. It just goes to show that when you start with an absurd conclusion and reason backwards to support it, you inevitably have to invent new absurdities to prop up the original absurd premise.

For example, you can go to Bullfinch’s Mythology and look through it and see if there’s even one myth that had an entire nation was said to have eye- or ear- witnessed a god or goddess perform some act and lived to tell about it. But I’ll save you the trouble, because I know someone who has already done that – gone through all 700+ pages – and found nothing done en masse with any god.

Oh, really? Nothing besides the Exodus account fits that description? Well, I don't claim to have read 700+ pages of Bulfinch, but I think I can offer a counterexample: the 1917 miracle of Fatima, where tens of thousands of Catholic faithful allegedly saw the sun change color and dance across the sky. It was even reported in newspapers. If en masse revelations are my correspondent's criterion for belief, then he should be Roman Catholic, not Jewish. It wouldn't even require him to give up belief in the Exodus miracle!

This reply, short as it is, more than adequately showcases the fallacious tactics that this person relies on and that are common to all apologetic traditions: vague, general statements passed off as amazing prophecies; apologetic rewriting of history; elevation of myths and tall tales over physical evidence; and the misplaced certainty that our miracles are unique among all religious traditions. There's nothing in it that should give even a moment's pause to an atheist who's familiar with mthods of critical thinking or comparative religion.

September 24, 2010, 5:38 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink16 comments
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Attention, Legal Scholars: Is This Constitutional?

In my recent post on creeping fundamentalism in Israel, I included a picture but didn't explain why. I wanted to talk about it some more, because it seems to me that what it depicts is a possible constitutional violation, and I was hoping I could get opinions from people better versed in constitutional law than I am.



This was taken in upstate New York, near where I used to live. The sign stands at the entrance to Kiryas Joel, a village founded by ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews in the 1970s. For years, the village has been clashing with the surrounding towns on one issue after another: KJ's rapid population growth and attempts to annex surrounding land; the high proportion of residents on welfare; their tendency to vote as a bloc; their refusal to put their children on a school bus if a woman is driving (yes, really), and worse. One case, in which the state effectively created a separate school district just for the village, went to the Supreme Court, which ruled against it.

And now, there's this sign. I saw it while I was visiting family a few weeks ago and took this photo with my phone.

So, my question is this: Is it constitutional to put a sign like this on public land? (I'm not positive whether the land under the sign is privately owned, but it's just off to the side of a public road - and it certainly appears to be speaking on behalf of the village itself.) Can any community really tell visitors how to dress or request that they "maintain gender separation in all public areas"?

Obviously, this ridiculous demand doesn't and couldn't have the force of law behind it. But is it legal even to ask? You'll notice that the sign makes this request "in keeping with our traditions and religious customs", which is basically an admission that there's no secular purpose for it, that it's being requested to placate the beliefs of a religious sect. How could a sign like that not transgress the separation of church and state?

September 13, 2010, 12:49 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink32 comments
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Winner of the 2009 3 Quarks Daily Science Writing Prize