28 February, 2007

Mobile blogging test

Cute pet pic...I couldn't resist!

That's Loki on the left and Riley on the right...

Two "blogthings" and link...

A couple of funny quiz-type "blogthings" I found:

Your Dominant Intelligence is Linguistic Intelligence

You are excellent with words and language. You explain yourself well.
An elegant speaker, you can converse well with anyone on the fly.
You are also good at remembering information and convicing someone of your point of view.
A master of creative phrasing and unique words, you enjoy expanding your vocabulary.

You would make a fantastic poet, journalist, writer, teacher, lawyer, politician, or translator.

Wow. So very, very true...it's like they know me. Just like those people who do the horoscopes...

Your Linguistic Profile:
55% General American English
25% Dixie
15% Yankee
0% Midwestern
0% Upper Midwestern

I suppose that's about right. I was born and raised in the South, but with some stints in Yankee-land during my formative years...hence my lack of the characteristic drawl.

Y'all can find more for your blogs or MySpace pages at Blogthings.

16 February, 2007

Funny O' The Day Twofer

T-Shirt Designs for sale at Goats.com:

Sectarian prayers at Winston-Salem City Council meetings

As reported in the Winston-Salem Journal in November of 2006, the NC chapter of the ACLU wrote a letter to the Winston-Salem city council requesting that they discontinue the practice of opening each council session with sectarian prayers. As indicated in the article (and some subsequent letters to the journal) the request was met with both understanding and disdain. City and County attorneys both agreed that the prayers were inappropriate, but some Council members and citizens do not. Interestingly, comments from some Council members indicate both an ignorance of the law and an inability to separate their private and public rights and duties:
"When a person is praying sincerely from their heart, they need to be able to pray sincerely to God," [Council member Jocelyn] Johnson said. "As far as I'm concerned, even if we have to have a court tell us we have to stop, I think we should continue. I think it's my right to pray - without offending anyone."
Obviously Ms. Johnson is correct inasmuch as her right to pray is concerned. However, her right to pray does not extend to a right to force others to listen to her prayer, nor does it extend to the right to have the state fund a venue for those prayers. It's also troubling to hear an elected official advocate violating the law; a law she has ostensibly taken an oath to uphold.

Another council member, Gloria Whisenhunt, remarked:
"I don't see us banning prayer, and I don't see us asking ministers to change the way they pray. I don't think we're bothering anyone, quite frankly,"
Setting aside for a moment that "bothering anyone" isn't the issue in matters of constitutionality, it was Winston residents that contacted the NC-ACLU about this situation, so obviously someone is being bothered. What Ms. Whisenhunt likely meant was "I don't think we're bothering anyone who matters." The disdain for the feelings and opinions of people with whom she disagrees, not to mention their civil rights, is clearly evident.

That disdain, not to mention ignorance of the law, is evident in another statement in the article, this time by Yadkin County commissioner D. C. Swaim:
"I have a problem with a minority of people in this country determining these things for the majority," he said. "This argument has been going on for 200 years, and I don't suppose it's going to end anytime soon."
Mr. Swaim is apparently unaware that the principles underlying our Constitution have nothing whatever to do with "majority rule". The Constitution explicitly protects the fundamental rights of all U.S. Citizens, even against the tyranny of the majority.

Okay, that was November, 2006. Fast-forward to February, 2007. The council has so far failed to take any action and now I learn (from an email action alert) that Americans United for the Separation of Church & State has sent an additional letter to the Forsyth City Council also requesting that they cease this illegal and discriminatory practice. Given what was in the alert, it's possible that the NC-CLU and AU will take the matter to court if the council fails to take action.

As far as I'm concerned, I think the idea of a prayer or invocation to open any kind of public meeting is an utter waste of time; time that could be much better spent discussing the issues with which our representatives were elected to deal. We don't pay our councilmen/women, commissioners, representatives, and senators to spend their time exhorting assistance from the supernatural nor should we be overly keen on electing men & women who believe themselves incapable of solving the very real problems facing our society without Jesus (or Thor, or Zeus, or Siva, etc) whispering in their ear.

That said, however, I don't see anything in the Constitution that could be read as positively prohibiting such practices. Although James Madison famously spoke against Congressional Chaplains, the idea of prayers or invocations at the opening of public meetings isn't definitively banned by the First Amendment. I think that prayers are acceptable as long as the body makes every effort to be as inclusive as possible and allows the floor to be open to anyone who wishes to deliver an invocation, regardless of faith or lack thereof. In practice, however, invocations are given by invited guests with the invitations going almost invariably to Christian ministers. Whether or not that's actually the case here remains to be seen.

09 February, 2007

The Problem of Pain - I

Not so very long ago, I witnessed one of nature's many little horrors and it gave me cause to reflect on the problems that pain and suffering can present for theists who postulate the existence of an all-good, all-powerful god.

While walking the dogs in the late afternoon, I noticed a stray cat in the backyard. Of course, the dogs did as well, but this particular cat has been hanging around the neighborhood lately, so they didn't immediately take much notice. However, as we walked around the backyard and got closer, both they and I noticed that the cat appeared to be very interested in something on the ground directly in front of it. As we drew closer, I saw that the cat had apparently caught and was eating a small rabbit. Ah well..."nature red in tooth and claw", right?

Then I noticed that the rabbit was still alive. *shudder*

It comes rather close to being one of the most horrible things I've ever personally seen. And it made me wonder: where is the lesson in this?

Theistic responses to the problem of pain focus on attempting to answer this question: why would God allow such ostensibly gratuitous suffering? What purpose could it possibly serve? Human-caused suffering is a moral issue and often answered by the so-called "freewill defense", wherein the gift of free will is said to come at a price: the ability to choose evil as a necessary by-product (ignore for a moment the very real possibility that the ability to choose evil and the actual choice of evil are two separate and not necessarily intersecting realities...perhaps I'll reflect on that in another post). At any rate, the "freewill defense" isn't applicable here as the present example is one of natural evil and thus not a moral issue.

Theistic responses to natural, seemingly gratuitous evil generally take one of two approaches: theodicies or so-called "skeptical theism", each of which I'll touch on, below.

Theodicies are attempts to construct rationales or justificatory schema for the occurences of natural evil. In so doing, they attempt to show that the gratuitous aspect of such evils is merely appearance and that God does indeed have specific reasons for allowing or condoning such occurrences. The term apparently originated with Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz whose "best of all possible worlds" theodicy was lampooned by Voltaire in "Candide". Although Leibniz' theodicy could actually be seen as a "formalized" form of the skeptical theism approach, in that he argues that every evil action in the world has a corresponding good associated with it without actually specifying those specific goods, it is generally regarded as the first theodicy. There is a reasonably good discussion of theodicies available at Wikipedia.

The "skeptical theist" approach is predicated upon the ineffable nature of God & His "grand design" and uses the necessarily incomplete nature of human knowledge to argue that just because a particular evil seems gratuitous, God may in fact have a reason for permitting it, albeit one beyond human ken.

While there is certainly some room for overlap between these two approaches, generally it is the case that theodicies will employ a specific rationale while the skeptical theist will eschew specificity. In other words, the proponent of a theodicy will argue, "God has a perfectly good reason for permitting such horrendous evils and here it is" whereas the skeptical theist will maintain, "God has a perfectly good reason for permitting such horrendous evils, but we are unable to discern it due to our epistemic state. Rest assured, however, it is there."

There are numerous problems with both approaches, some subtle, some not so. My point in al of this is not really to explore these issues, but to explain why I believe that in principle all such theistic attempts to dispositively answer evidential arguments of this type are doomed. This post has served as the preliminary to that explication, which should follow in a day or two...

Funny O' The Day

03 February, 2007

Funny O' The Day

Me, Biblical Scholar....(not!)

How well do you "know" the Bible?

You know the Bible 93%!

Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

Ultimate Bible Quiz
Create MySpace Quizzes

Who knew?!?

HT: Pharyngula

01 February, 2007

Molly Ivins, 1944-2007

Political humorist/newspaper columnist Molly Ivins died yesterday after a lengthy fight with breast cancer. Although I often found much to disagree with in her personal political views, she was almost unparalleled in her ability to hone in on the foibles of the self-righteous & self-justifying (like those in the current administration whom she aptly labeled "Bushies") and skewer them in delightfully scathing prose.

A particularly beautiful example (from the linked obit in the NY Times):
After Patrick J. Buchanan, as a conservative candidate for president, declared at the 1992 Republican National Convention that America was engaged in a cultural war, she said his speech “probably sounded better in the original German.”
She wielded words like a scalpel, slicing away nonsense and exposing the bare bones of demagoguery and foolishness. Of her own style she noted (ibid),
"There are two kinds of humor,” she told People magazine. One was the kind “that makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity,” she said. “The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule. That’s what I do.”
In today's world we tend to shy away from ridicule as a critical tool, but in my humble opinion some notions are worthy of no greater (or lesser!) treatment; specially in the political arena where the promotion of stupid or ridiculous ideas by politicians often masks deep cynicism and an utter contempt of their constituents. Such behavior needs exposure and in this venue, Ivins will be sorely missed.