Friday, May 31, 2002

The Men Who Knew Infinity - Part 2

(All excerpts from Robert Kanigel's fascinating 1991 book, The Man Who Knew Infinity - A Life of the Genius Ramanujan)

Srinivasa Ramanujan

Srinivasa Ramanujan was raised in Kumbakonam, a provincial town in Southern India. His mathematical talent was evident from childhood. As a member of the privileged Brahmin caste, he had the leisure, as a young man, to devote himself to whatever pure mathematics texts made their way to his isolated hometown.

So engrossed was Ramanujan in number theory that he neglected all other topics, thus failing to qualify for university entrance. He studied on, alone and self-taught. Without access to much mathematical literature, he independently re-discovered many difficult areas of number theory which, unbeknownst to him, had been discovered already.

Ramanujan was a devout Hindu, who grew up praying to stone deities; who for most of his life he took counsel from a family goddess, the goddess Namagiri of Namakkal, declaring it was she to whom his mathematical insights were owed.

After some local recognition and publication in Indian mathematical papers, Ramanujan sent samples of his theorems to four prominent English mathematicians. One failed to understand them. The next two ignored him - who was some obscure Indian clerk, to importune the cream of English academia? His fourth letter, in 1913, was to G H Hardy. Hardy did not ignore him.

Ramanujan was, if nothing else, a living, breathing reproach to the tripos system Hardy despised. Sheer intuitive brilliance coupled to long, hard hours on the slate made up for most of his educational lacking, and he was so devoted to mathematics he couldn't be bothered to study the other subjects he needed to earn a college degree. This 'poor and solitary Hindu pitting his brains against the accumulated wisdom of Eureoris' as Hardy called him, had rediscovered a century of mathematics and made new discoveries that would captivate mathematics for the next century. Is it any wonder Hardy was beguiled?

At the height of his own considerable reputation, Hardy recognized Ramanujan's gifts, brought him to England, schooled him in the mathematics he had missed, and brought him to the attention of an appreciative world.

"Srinivasa Ramanujan was a mathematician so great his name transcends jealousies, the one superlatively great mathematician whom India has produced in the last thousand years."

His leaps of intuition confound mathematicians even today, seven decades after his death. ..the brilliant, self-taught Indian mathematician whose work contains some of the most beautiful ideas in the history of science. His legacy has endured. His twenty-one major mathematical papers are still being plumbed for their secrets, and many of his ideas are used today in cosmology and computer science. His theorems are being applied in areas - polymer chemistry, computers, cancer research - scarcely imaginable during his lifetime.

Two more different mathematicians could scarcely be imagined. To Hardy, cold and clinical proof was the way to knowledge. For Ramanujan, mysticism and intuition ruled his work, and proof of his theorems was left to others - needless to say, they always were proved true. Their collaboration and friendship was nevertheless a "clash of cultures - Kumbakonam in Southern India vs Cambridge - between the pristine proofs of the Western mathematical tradition and the mysterious powers of intuition with which Ramanujan dazzled East and West alike."

In the west, all through the centuries, artists have sought to give expression to religious feeling, creating Bach fugues and Gothic cathedrals in thanks and tribute to their Gods. In South India today, such religious feeling hangs heavy in the air, and to discern a spiritual resonance in Ramanujan's mathematics seems more natural by far than it does in the secular West.

In the west, debate existed as to whether mathematical reality was made by mathematicians or, existing independently, was merely discovered by them. Ramanujan was in the latter group - for him, numbers and their mathematical relationships fairly threw off clues as to how the universe fit together. Each new theorem was one more piece of the Infinite unfathomed.

In how the mystical streak in Ramanujan sat side by side, apparently at perfect ease, with raw mathematical ability may testify to a peculiar flexibility of mind, a special receptivity to loose conceptual linkages and tenuous associations.

It was just Ramanujan's luck, then, to be thrown in with Hardy, whose insistence on rigor had sent him off almost single-handedly to reform English mathematics and to write his classic text on pure mathematics, who had told Bertrand Russell two years before that he would be happy to prove, really prove, anything: 'If I could prove by logic that you were going to die in 5 minutes, I should be sorry you were going to die, but my sorrow would be very much mitigated by pleasure in the proof."

Ramanujan, Intuition Incarnate, had run smack into Hardy, the Apostle of Proof.

Even among mathematicians not religiously minded, one finds evidence of at least respectful allusion to the dark terrain between faith and reason. G H Hardy, though, did not admit to such ambivalence - for him the whole spiritual world was just so much bunkum. He KNEW - this was HIS faith - that wherever Ramanujan's genus came from, there was something straightforward to explain it. Ramanujan's mathematics, he said, was the product of a reasoned working of a reasoning mind, and nothing more needed to be said.

Someone would later observe that 'Hardy's deep reverence for mathematics and for all things of the mind was precisely of the same kind as compels other people to the worship of God - the only enigma about Hardy was that this never seemed to occur to him.' And at least for public consumption, it never did. Had Ramanujan scoured the British Isles, he could have found no-one less sympathetic to his spiritual side, no one who, in this realm, could appreciate him less.

Faced with a man once described as 'an atheist evangelist', Ramanujan simply never revealed to him the richness and extent of his inner spiritual life.

Ramanujan's study at Cambridge and work with Hardy and other mathematicians resulted in a number of important publications and great honors - in 1918, he was elected to the Royal Society of London, and a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge. But his health was always delicate, and exacerbated by the English climate and the strictness of his diet. In 1920, after returning to India, he died of tuberculosis. He was only in his early thirties.

What might have been, had he lived longer?

G H Hardy died in 1947. As an old man, he still spoke glowingly of his time and friendship with Ramanujan. Hardy was a lifelong and public atheist. Yet when he died, one mourner spoke of his,

'profound conviction that the truths of mathematics described a bright and clear universe, exquisite and beautiful in its structure, in comparison with which the physical world was turbid and confused. It was this that made his friends... think that in his attitude to mathematics there was something which, being essentially spiritual, was near to religion."

The same, but more emphatically, goes for Ramanujan, who all his life believed in the Hindu gods and made the landscape of the Infinite, in realms both material and spiritual, his home. "An equation for me has no meaning', he once said, 'unless it expresses a thought of God.'

Wednesday, May 29, 2002

The Men Who Knew Infinity - Part 1

Science vs. Religion is hackneyed and done to death - creationism, evolution, God and subatomic physics, blah blah. Far more interesting are relationships between religion and mathematics, (and I don't mean these boggy Randian/Objectivist pseudo-mathematical arguments against the existence of God, either).

Bertrand Russell is probably the best known atheist mathematician. and even the people who email me to tell me that "I can logically disprove 'Why I Am Not A Christian' in my sleep, so there," cannot refute his mathematical ability. Entering the world mecca of mathematics - Trinity College, Cambridge University - in 1893, Russell, in the gruelling Mathematical Tripos (entrance test), qualified as the quaintly titled, 'Seventh Wrangler'.

The Mathematical Tripos was considered the most difficult mathematics test ever known. The ranks into which the successful candidates in the mathematical tripos were divided were called respectively wranglers, (after the ability to wrangle over points of logic), senior and junior optimes. The top student was designated 'Senior Wrangler' - the blue ribbon of Cambridge scholarship. To get among the top ten Wranglers was a noteworthy achievement. The student at the bottom of the examination list received a wooden spoon.

But the most compelling interweaving of mathematical ability and religious orientation involves not Russell, but two other Trinity College mathematicians of a few years later. The first was G.H. Hardy.

G.H. Hardy

Godfrey Harold Hardy entered Trinity College as 'Fourth Wrangler' in 1898. For many years he was England's premier mathematician, inspiring an entire school of mathematics. He gained and retains to this day world fame in the area of pure mathematics known as number theory.

Number theory seeks out the properties of, and patterns among numbers - remember prime numbers, Fibonacci numbers, Benoulli numbers? Don't run away scared - Hardy once said, "...most people are so frightened of the name of mathematics that they are ready, quite unaffectedly, to exaggerate their own mathematical stupidity."

Hardy was a confirmed atheist (why do we always say confirmed atheists?) since childhood, contemptuous of religion, as was his older sister. This was apparently a reaction to their mother's zealotry. His parents were devout worshippers, and the young Hardy, forced to attend church, would seek the prime factors of the hymn numbers.

He always played an amusing game of trying to fool God (which is also rather strange since he claimed all his life not to believe in God). For example, during a trip to Denmark he sent back a postcard claiming that he had proved the Riemann hypothesis. He reasoned that God would not allow the boat to sink on the return journey and give him the same fame that Fermat had achieved with his "last theorem".

Another example of his trying to fool God was when he went to cricket matches he would take what he called his "anti-God battery". This consisted of thick sweaters, an umbrella, mathematical papers to referee, student examination scripts etc. His theory was that God would think that he expected rain to come so that he could then get on with his work. Since Hardy thought that God would then have the sun shine all day to spite him, he would be able to enjoy the cricket in perfect sunshine.

Hardy thought incisively, wrote and spoke beautifully, and passed judgemental and acerbic opinions on everything. His eccentricity was all the more striking for the intellect behind it, although on a trip to America he impressed mathematician Alan Turing, himself homosexual, as, 'just another English intellectual homosexual atheist'.

Hardy was divinely quotable. From his 1940 book, A Mathematician's Apology:

"There is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds."

"A science is said to be useful of its development tends to accentuate the existing inequalities in the distribution of wealth, or more directly promotes the destruction of human life."

Like all good English intellectual homosexual atheists, Hardy was left of center. At one time a Trade Union representative, he objected to the lunacy of both world wars.

All his life, has was sympathetic to the underdog. Mary Cartwright ... recalled that, as a woman mathematician, "I was a depressed class' - and so enjoyed Hardy's favour. C P Snow wrote that Hardy prefrerred the downtrodden of all types "to the people whom he called the large bottommed: the desc was more psychological than physical... [They] were the confident, booming, imperialist, bourgeois English. The designation included most bishops, headmasters, judges. and politicians."
The Man Who Knew Infinity - Robert Kanigel

The 'Large Bottomed' - what a divine phrase. Don't some people come immediately to mind!

It might seem obvious, then, to regard the lack of belief in God shown by Bertrand Russell and GH Hardy as an understandable side-effect of the logical analysis skills required by mathematics, a subject founded on formal proofs. No so, and not so simple - mathematics has many faces. And in 1913, Hardy received a letter - from a very different kind of mathematician indeed.

To be continued ...

Tuesday, May 28, 2002


Not everyone is a Dalai Lama convert.

"Curious, even disturbing, is the way so many non-Buddhist Australians blur the lines between respect, reverence and worship in their attitudes toward the Dalai Lama. Critical reflection on the man and his message hardly seems to figure in their estimation of him. ...

The Dalai Lama seeks to excite the "innate spiritual nature" of people so that they might choose kindness and affection in their relations to others rather than anger, hatred or the temptation to exploit.

Christian church leaders promote the same message, but when they do they tend to be ignored or scorned, whereas the Dalai Lama is regarded as a welcome breath of fresh air.

This is partly because his approach is intuitive rather than discursive, inclusive rather than exclusive, gently encouraging rather than reproachful or overly instructive. With the Dalai Lama one seems to be getting the essence of religious insight without the froth and bubble of dogma and doctrine or the hard and fast rules of moral behaviour.

The trouble is that when religion is leeched in this fashion of too much content, all that is left is platitudes - or worse, banalities. ...

In fact many of the Dalai Lama's comments on international problems and their solutions - the sort of complex issues on which he is prepared to make generalised statements - tend towards the naivety of a primary school pupil at an end-of-year speech night. When children talk about the need for more caring and sharing in the world, adults smile knowingly - which is to say that we, unlike they, appreciate life's complexities. Ironically, when the Dalai Lama says the same thing, we call it wisdom and applaud."

I've said similar things, but I do detect sour grapes in this article. To be the religious affairs columnist for Sydney's major paper you'd need some formal theological background, which in these parts means Christian, and I think the author's preferences are showing.

When did you last hear anything other than banalities from any organised religion? Which faith ever does reflect critically on its leader and his message? (OK, some Catholics are at the moment, but that's due to very extenuating circumstances.)

Inclusive, non-reproachful, free of dogma. How many organized religions does this bring to mind? If that's what the people want, then its a free market.

* * * * *

One advantage of speaking in banalities is that you never put your foot in your mouth. George W. Bush, the most insular of recent Presidents, has just finished a trip to the former infidel land of the former Soviet Union, and is now in Berlin. Here's an excerpt from Maureen Dowd's trip report:

In Berlin, Mr. Bush's first stop on a trip full of fabulous cities he had never visited, he was asked by a snippy local peacenik reporter to "try to explain to the German people what your goals are when it comes to Iraq." The president huffed: "He's a dictator who gassed his own people."

It had to be the most powerful statement in postwar Germany, but the president seemed oblivious to its power. He had used the line before, but never in a country that had actually had a dictator who gassed his own people. Afterward, he told German lawmakers that the terrorists were like those who had "killed in the name of racial purity. . . . We are defending civilization itself."

* * * * *

Before September 11, it was generally accepted by most people outside the US that most ordinary folk within the US, as well as its President, had very little notion that other countries even existed.
"War is God's way of teaching Americans geography," as the old saying went.

But there's always been one group reaching out to countries and other faiths, and that's the scarily flaky US Christian Right. We know that the hard-line evangelists are supporting Israel, the Holy Land and site of the upcoming rapture and armageddon (see last Friday's post). But another rightest group, the white supremacists - and white supremacists are Christians, thank you, no iffy beliefs here - are aligning themselves with the Islamofacists, in a 'Nazi-Muslim Axis'. Banalities about being nice to each other never looked so good.

"What’s going on here? For decades, American extremists have lumped Arabs in with dark-skinned "mud people." In Europe, neo-Nazis have been implicated in countless xenophobic attacks on Arabs, Turks and other Muslims.

The peculiar bond between white nationalist groups and certain Muslim extremists derives in part from a shared set of enemies: Jews, the United States, race-mixing, ethnic diversity. It is also very much a function of the shared belief that they must shield their own peoples from the corrupting influence of foreign cultures. Both sets of groups also have a penchant for far-flung conspiracy theories that caricature Jewish power. ... the late 1930s The Grand Mufti, the preeminent religious figure among Palestinian Muslims, was the most notable Arab leader to seek an alliance with Nazi Germany.

Although he loathed Arabs (he once described them as "lacquered half- apes who ought to be whipped"), Hitler understood that he and the Mufti shared the same rivals - the British, the Jews and the Communists. They met in Berlin, where the Mufti lived in exile during the war. The Mufti agreed to help organise a special Muslim division of the Waffen SS. Powerful radio transmitters were put at the Mufti’s disposal so that his pro-Axis propaganda could be heard throughout the Arab world."

Read about it here, in the irresistably titled 'The Swastika and the Crescent'.

Monday, May 27, 2002

Out to pasture

Two old war-horses of the faith both returned home today, after hard campaigns in infidel lands.

The Dalai Lama left Sydney this morning, ending his 10 day tour of Australia. I don't know about Sydney but in Melbourne he reportedly stayed at the 5-star Marriott - it would appear he's no ascetic. The SMH reports:
"The immediate appeal of the Tibetan leader's uncomplicated recipe for happiness and inner peace says much about a Western culture which believes itself to be spiritually starved.

Yet His Holiness's core message - at least when tailored to his mass- market Western audiences - is decidedly secular, with truisms of tolerance, knowledge and compassion as its staple tenets."

Sounds lovely, sunshine, light and lotus blossoms all around. Tolerance, knowledge, and compassion! Am I the only person to see an odd irony in people requiring a major religious figure to point out to them the obvious - and treating it as a profound spiritual insight when he does?

The arrogant and ignorant notion that virtue is the exclusive preserve of the religious is as old as formal religion itself. This attitude seems to be lessening among the severely devout, so it is a pity indeed when the non-devout take it up. People know, themselves, what's needed and what's good to do. They shouldn't be intellectually cowed into requiring it to be validated by a spiritual leader, even one as seemingly benign as the Dalai Lama.

Bertrand Russell, in his 1927 essay, Why I am not A Christian, stated:

"A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage,"
beating the Dalai Lama to that particular insight by seventy-five years.

Russell was a rationalist and an atheist, yet had a fine grasp of morality:

"The first and greatest change that is required is to establish a morality of initiative, not a morality of submission, a morality of hope rather then fear, of things to be done rather than things to be left undone. It is not the whole duty of man to slip through the world so as to escape the wrath of God. The world is our world, and it rests with us to make it a heaven or a hell." 1916

"Moral codes which are irrational, and have no basis except in superstition, cannot long survive the habit of disinterested thinking. But if a moral code seems to promote human well being in this terrestial existance, it has no need of supernatural sanctions. Kindliness and intelligence are the chief sources of useful behaviour, and neither ir promoted by causing people to believe, against all reason, in a capricious and vindictive deity." 1944

"More and more people are becoming unable to accept traditional beliefs. If they think that, apart from these beliefs, there is no reason for kindly behaviour, the results may be needlessly unfortunate. This is why it is important to show no supernatural reasons are needed to make men kind and to prove that only through kindness can the human race achieve happiness." 1947

"Kindliness and tolerance only prevail in proportion as dogmatic belief decays." 1953

* * * * *

Pope John Paul has returned to the Vatican from a trip to several Eastern Orthodox countries. He is so ill it is distressing to see him, immobile and barely animate, like those statues of Fatima that get carted around everywhere.

But, Christ suffered, and the spirit is willing even if the flesh is weak, and the recent journey was motivated entirely by John Paul himself. As the NYT commented, (link requires registration), "These days, the pope is focused on the kinds of special projects embraced by former presidents or honorary chairmen of the board."

The elderly become far-sighted, and, ignoring the stinking mess in his own back yard, the Pope went forth to mend feelings, after the Great Schism in the mid-eleventh century between Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Churchs.

Unfortunately, this drive was not met by equal enthusiam from the Eastern Orthodox heirarchy. Who can really blame them? If you were a spiritual leader right now, would you want to unite your faith with a bunch of reactionary sexual disfunctionaries?

"Patriarch Maxim, leader of the Orthodox church in Bulgaria, echoing his counterparts in Georgia and Ukraine, did not bend to the pope's overtures. Maxim, 87, stiffly assured the pope that unity would come as soon as Christian truth was accepted by all as "preserved and proclaimed by the Orthodox Church."

Orthodox leaders did not raise the pedophilia scandals with the pope, but they, too, had read the newspapers. "We discussed it in our seminaries," Archimandrite Sioniy, rector of the Orthodox seminary in Sofia, said as he stood in the monastery awaiting the pope. "If Catholic priests could marry and have families, as we do, then perhaps the problem would not be so great.""

* * * * *

One danger of being 'spiritually starved' is that any old faith might rush in to fill the vacuum - even one profoundly at odds with your own self-worth. For example, women in the Sydney Anglican diocese have hit the stained glass ceiling. "Sydney is one of only a handful of Anglican dioceses in the country that ban the ordination of women as priests, following the general synod vote 10 years ago allowing the practice."

The Newcastle Anglican diocese, some mere 100 miles north of Sydney, does allows women priests. Talk about a Great Schism - what changes, when you drive across that cartographical boundary? Surely, ordination of women is either a theological abomination, or it isn't. You'd think that'd be fairly clear cut within the same church. Perhaps the Catholic way is not so bad - you only have one guy making the rules.

Sunday, May 26, 2002

Versions of Hell

    "For centuries, [suicide] would have been considered a mortal sin by Catholics. Early on, many believed suicide was a one-way ticket to Dante's version of hell, a sizzling sulfur pit where those who killed themselves writhed alongside other sinners in never-ending agony. For hundreds of years, funeral Masses and burials on consecrated ground were prohibited because of this.

    "But in 1983, church officials rewrote canon law, opening a door to forgiveness, both from God and the church."

    " least 16 Catholic priests, 12 in the United States, have killed themselves since 1986 amid allegations of child sexual abuse."

Perhaps they should have kept the old rules?

The suicide rate for victims of priestly abuse is unknown.

With more Catholic priest sex scandals breaking every week, a story needs an edge to stand out from the pack. Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland had a long-term consensual homosexual relationship with another adult, which would barely raise eyebrows in the church today, O Tempora, O Mores! He then made his big blunder, which was to pay his ex-paramour nearly half a million to keep quiet, out of, presumably, the poor box. The Archbishop singularly failed to get value for the Church's money, since the entire world is now gaping at this sordid episode.

What happened to the good old days, when you paid people hush money and they stayed hushed? The Church has the right to sue the Archbishop's ex-lover for breach of his confidentiality contract, but do they have the stomach for it?

With Archbishops, big money, and gay sex already in the plot, one would think it totally unnecessary and gratuitous to additionally introduce the Nazis into this story, but somebody has. The Cold War is over, but the Nazis live on - the villians we have to have - still popping up in our commentaries nearly 60 years after VE day.

    "Always remember Godwin's Law: In any argument about serious matters in controversy, someone will eventually invoke the name of Hitler or the Nazis. At this point, all useful content has gone out of the discussion and you might as well drop the subject. Godwin's law was invented to describe interactions on the Internet, but I've noticed it also holds true in real life."

More from our first story.
    "How can a priest be both an abuser and a nurturer? Psychologists call these seemingly dual personalities "splitting," according to A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk who has studied sexuality and priests for decades.

    "Sipe and others say that priests maintain their double lives much as German doctors accused of experimenting on humans during World War II.

    "Researchers discovered that the doctors developed a coping mechanism, flipping their personalities on and off like a light switch. At work, they were mad scientists. At home, they were doting fathers. There was no crossover.

    "Sipe said he often sees the same "splitting" among priests who abuse children. They can be among the most dedicated servants to God, he said. But when they choose to flip the switch, they are predators, manipulating children only to fulfill their sexual desires."

How gloomy all this...imagine being Catholic all the time. Unless there's any irresistable news, I think we need a Catholic-free week. I have some interesting stuff about Religion and Mathematics. Coming soon.

A Wonderful Life

We learnt yesterday that, "Dispensationalism is a predominant belief among fundamentalists". Creationism, of course, is the predominant belief among Christian fundamentalists, and one person uniquely qualified to comment on Creationism was the late Professor Stephen Jay Gould, reknown palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist. Professor Gould died last week, after battling lung cancer for many years.

    "Although always an adversary of Creationism, in later life he grew tired of the war of intellectual extermination being fought by extremists on both sides of the religion/science divide, and wisely urged forbearance."
From an otherwise rather catty obituary in the right-wing National Review Online.

Here's Professor Gould's political opinion of creationism, taken from an interview in 1996.

    "Creationism is still with us. Do you think it's a permanent feature of the landscape?

    "As long as there are millions of people who believe it and have lots of money. What's permanent, in geological terms? But as long as our society is organized this way, yeah, I think it is. Because it's not an intellectual issue. It's an interesting phenomenon of American socio- cultural history. As long as you have this enormous pluralism within Protestantism, as long as some of our traditional divisions like rich and poor, north and south, and rural and urban persist, you're going to get this hard-line fundamentalism. And it's never going to be majoritarian, though it might be locally, but it's gonna be at least locally potent."

"A Harvard professor since the age of 26, Gould attacked that classic image of the "march of evolution". His version of evolution was messier. It had jerks and spasms, went backward and forward, and sometimes fell over sideways.

In 1972, he and colleague Niles Eldredge offered a modification of traditional Darwinian theory, something they called "punctuated equilibria". The evolution of species wasn't always smooth and steady, they argued, but could occur in bursts shaped by historical chance.

Some people see the world as divinely created, and others perceive it as the result of an orderly natural process. But for Gould, this was a planet of accidents, of lucky breaks, of biological lotteries.

If you started the whole process over from scratch, he argued, you would wind up with something totally different."
Reuters, 25 May 02

In other words, "We [humans] are here because we are here, not because we have to be here."

In his own words:

"Humans are not the end result of predictable evolutionary progress, but rather a fortuitous cosmic afterthought, a tiny little twig on the enormously arborescent bush of life, which if replanted from seed, would almost surely not grow this twig again."

In addition to butting heads with both Creationalists and traditional Darwinists, Professor Gould was for good measure also a rationalist, a Marxist, and very much an individualist.

    "Stephen Jay Gould, who died on Monday, belonged to no particular scientific sect and founded none. Almost all his battles were fought on his own. But the happy elegance of his style and the bewildering range of his interests allowed him to recruit the sympathies of every benevolent, well-read humanist to his various causes. No wonder he was hated so. He was the scientist for the rest of us.

    He gave as good as he got in his long feud with the "Darwinian fundamentalists," as he called his opponents. This term, an inspired piece of polemical mudslinging, showed that what his own invective lacked in quantity, it made up in quality, since one of the defining characteristics of the sociobiologists he was attacking was their rather Victorian atheism, and their conviction that the worst sort of human being in the world was a fundamentalist Christian.

    It's hard to think of any scientist who has managed to combine Gould's professional excellence -- for you do not get to be a senior professor at Harvard by being an industrious windbag -- with his gifts as a popularizer. ...

    Perhaps the person he most resembled in this was Bertrand Russell, who also spent his professional life on subjects of arcane difficulty, increasingly isolated from the activities of his peers, and who earned his living with high-class journalism and popular histories. Russell, who won an unlikely Nobel prize for literature, was the better stylist (and the bigger fool, as reading his essays on current affairs makes clear today). But both men managed to make hard thought look easy and fun."

Well-informed passion - we need more of it.

Saturday, May 25, 2002


  • The Cold War is officially over. Yesterday, at the Kremlin, George Bush and Vladimir Putin signed an arms-reduction agreement. The US is going to buy Russian oil and ignore Russian human rights violations. Now, all we need is for US commentators to learn how to say NUCLEAR, not NUCULAR, and the free world will improve even more.

  • The notion that the US govt. could have 'connected the dots' and warned the complacent pre-Sept 11 world of the impending attacks really blasted the many US political blogs into a tizzy of partisan denial and accusation. When there was no more to write about whether President Bush could easily or could not possibly have done more, these great sages turned on each other, criticizing what so-and-so had writen about whether... boring, boring, boring.

    But they illustrate perfectly a wonderful description from the late Stephen Jay Gould (more about him later).
        ... "Punditry's fundamental error: the fatuous notion that a head-on rush at the biggest questions will automatically yield the deepest insights."

    While we're here, let's have a belated two cents worth. Certainly the major turf wars between the US intelligence agencies that are preventing them from leveraging each other's information have got to be dealt with. But be honest. Be very honest. If someone had gone into print on Sept 10, warning that crazy Arabs were going to attack the world's number one superpower, invade the world's richest city, topple a couple of the world's tallest buildings, then go and hide in a cave... you'd have written them off with the rest of the doomsday nutters.

  • I have not visited the US for some years now, but it seems to have changed markedly, according to the figures at least.
    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2002, 62 percent of Americans are either overweight or clinically obese.
    According to a Gallup Poll taken in March 2002, "46 percent of Americans describe themselves as 'born-again' or evangelical."
    That means that a minimum of 8 percent of Americans are both evangelical and overweight/obese.

    In other words: of any and every thirteen Americans, at least one is a fat Evangelical. Is this true? What's happening over there, guys?

Dispense with sense

Salon, which first alerted us to those peculiar Evangelical travellers, the Dispensationalists (see post of 15 May) has much more about them today in an article called Antichrist Politics, and very interesting it is, too. This is a Premium article, so you have to pay for it. If I tell you all to rush over to Salon and subscribe, I'm sure they won't mind if I print just a bit of it...

    "...for elements of the Christian right, pro-Israel fervor has ascended to the realm of the sacred. Christian leaders Ralph Reed and Gary Bauer both say that their support of Israel -- and Israeli expansionism - - is partly rooted in biblical injunction. Bauer says, "There are a variety of Old Testament scriptures in which God is saying to Abraham that the people of Israel will occupy all the land between the sea and the river," which he says means the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. "There's a belief that this is covenant land," he adds.

"Such views have concrete consequences -- as Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times, evangelical internationalism is a "broad new trend that is beginning to reshape American foreign policy." Many Jewish leaders have welcomed evangelical support on Israel. Yet despite feel-good talk of ecumenical alliances, conservative Christians aren't just acting as backup for their Jewish brothers and sisters. They have an agenda of their own. For now, it coincides with mainstream Jewish concerns. It won't always.

... "Yet despite its international influence, most people on America's godless coasts have never heard of dispensationalism. It's one of those words that reveals the yawning ideological gulf between red states and blue. To secular urbanites, it might seem like just another example of fringe American madness, something akin to UFO cults. But it's thoroughly mainstream -- far more so than agnosticism. Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament studies at the Dallas Theological Seminary, says that the most prevalent view among evangelicals is an unequivocal support for Israel, and that dispensationalism plays a large role in their conviction. And Gorenberg says, "Dispensationalism is a predominant belief among fundamentalists."

... "It matters that a lot of evangelicals are dispensationalists because a lot of Americans are evangelicals. According to a Gallup Poll taken in March, "46 percent of Americans describe themselves as 'born-again' or evangelical."

..."Yet if end-times prophesy can't completely account for the Christian right's embrace of Israel, it also can't be disentangled from it. As Gorenberg says, "There's a package deal going on here. The same people who hold this particular Christian theology are also conservatives in other ways. They tend to see the world as divided between good guys and bad guys and they tend to see force as the proper solution." They may speak in geopolitical terms, he says, "but they're influenced by a mythological view of the state of Israel."

... "Besides, even Republicans of the Christian right who don't believe we're on the cusp of the second coming have to appease the evangelicals in their constituency, and among those evangelicals, dispensationalism is as much a part of the culture as is "Star Wars." ...

..."...Christians certainly aren't the only ones with a messianic view of Israel. While secular or reform Jews -- that is, most Jews -- tend to see the need for a secure Jewish homeland as a political matter and are thus willing to negotiate its borders, Orthodox Jews share the evangelicals' conviction that Israel is covenant land. That's why when it comes to issues like settlements, Rabbi Eckstein says, deeply religious Jews have more in common with Christians than with the Jewish mainstream. Israel, says Eckstein, "is the Holy Land for both the religious Jew and for the evangelical Christian. It is a miracle, the ingathering of the exiles. It is God's redemption."

..."But the two versions of redemption [Evangelical and Orthodox Jewish] are starkly different. In the evangelical one, the Middle East is convulsed by unprecedented violence and most Jews die.

..."The vast majority of Jews desperately want to avoid a full-scale conflagration between Israel and the Arab world. Dispensationalists don't. In the dispensationalist narrative, Christians will be raptured to heaven before all the fighting between Jews and Muslims starts. Everyone left will face mass death and destruction. "Some people see some of the imagery in Revelations being caused by nuclear weapons," says Brodrick. Thus evangelical Christians' support for policies like the permanent takeover the West Bank and Gaza and even, in some cases, the expulsion of Palestinians into Jordan, should be understood in the context of a worldview in which world war is inevitable."
In the news today:
  • The Pope has just visited Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, population 7 million, has an entire 120 Catholics. (120, not 120 thousand or anything.) For the mass, in a sports stadium, they had to ship in rent-a-crowd local Muslims and foreign visitors. Statistically, out of 7 million people, you can almost certainly find 120 who believe in anything.
  • His Holiness is now in Bulgaria, where there are enough Catholics for someone to have even set up a snazzy site,, to cover the event. I love the Net, how else can an atheist in Sydney watch live video coverage of the Pope at the Sofia Hilton?
  • I know why he went there, too. Bulgaria must have seemed about as far as you can get from the US, where no less than an Archbishop has just toppled off his perch. The former Archbishop of Milwaukee has resigned, ostensibly because he has reached 75, but hurriedly too, because of the news that he had a long-term relationship with another man 20 years ago, then paid him US$450,000 of church funds to keep silent; which evidently did not work.
  • In a nice bit of niche marketing, the Bible Society in Australia has today released a Surfer's Bible (for real surfers, not Net surfers).

Thursday, May 23, 2002

If only...

Give control freaks an inch and they'll take a mile. Australian Prime Minister John Howard is currently visitng China grovelling for trade agreements. The timing's great since it allows him to simultaneously snub the Dalai Lama, who is currently visiting Australia (and what a pity we can't make it a permanent swap!).

But this isn't enough for China's Thought Police, who ventured to suggest that Australia should ban the Dalai Lama from visiting altogether:

    "Mr Howard was quick to the Dalai Lama's defence when questioned at the Chinese Communist Party school, about why governments like Australia allowed His Holiness to tout anti-China policies, under the cover of religion. In his most direct and forceful language on the topic so far, Mr Howard told the audience of Communist officials that just as Australia respected China's values and political system, so too should China respect those in Australia.

    "As evidence of the differences between the two countries, Mr Howard cited the 1950s referendum that allowed the Australian Communist Party to stay operational. That was despite the fact, Mr Howard said, that then and now people did not support the Communist party because most believed in a different ideology."

    "He said it was wholly consistent with Australian tradition to allow someone like the Dalai Lama to visit. "He comes as a spiritual leader and he comes as a person who does not offer any offence to the laws of Australia."

"It would not be consistent with the traditions of Australia to ban entry to such a person," he said in reply to a question after a speech to the Communist Party's Central Party school in Beijing. "Australia ... allows the free movement of people in and out irrespective of their political philosophies and their beliefs," he said."

What effrontery from these Communist officials, to presume to tell Australians who we should ban from entering our own country. How dare they? Who do they think they are? What year do they think this is?

China wouldn't dream of trying that on the UK or the US - if Australia wants to be regarded as a grown-up country then we have to make it clear that China can just keep its totalitarian snout out of our affairs, and full marks to Mr Howard for doing this. (As far as I can remember, the only person recently to be denied a visa to Australia on character grounds was professional nutcase and Holocaust-denier David Irving.)

China, of course, has always regarded any international comment on its own activities, such as running down its own citizens with tanks, as unwelcome and unwarranted interference in her domestic affairs. I think it's time the world did interfere big time in Chinese domestic affairs. If we are to be accused regardless of, 'touting anti-China policies, under the cover of religion,' then we might as well do it.

The Chinese persecute those of unapproved faiths and have banned all but the party-approved Christian churches. Try setting up an Our Lady of Fatima sect in Chongqing and see where it gets you. China has Communists, she has Atheists, and we know that Satanists can't be far behind. So, what more do all these evangelist do-gooders need, and where are they when we really need them?

How about - if an apparition of the Virgin Mary appears to some downtrodden plastic flower factory workers in, say, Taipei? Our Lady, as geopolitically astute as ever, commands that we consecrate the People's Republic of China to her Immaculate Heart. The Pope, grateful for any distraction from the gays and pedophiles, goes for it. The faithful and their hard currencies flock to the site. Blessings are beamed across the Taiwan Strait. Take that, party officials! Ah, if only. Come back Blue Army, all is forgiven...

Stranger than fiction

It's 1947. WWII is over; but Cold War tension is mounting as the West eyes the impending Soviet menace. The McCarthyist communist witch-hunts are almost upon America. Thirty years earlier, in the dying ebb of another world war, an apparition had predicted the spread of communist evil - and prescribed a way out of the danger.

There is yet another secret - revealed by the apparition and placed by its only witness in a sealed envelope, it cannot be revealed to the world until 1960. No time to wait! Now, with the ideological threat of Communism creeping closer by the day, the CIA secretly funds the establishment of a sect devoted to spreading the anti-communist faith. It also funds the construction of their faux-Orthodox faux-Byzantine chapel at the place of the apparition, to taunt and tempt the suppressed Soviet hordes.

But sect members believe that sinister forces are colluding to prevent the rescue of millions of innocents from their godless state. Who is behind this? and what can this third secret possibly be?

Fast forward several decades. The third secret is revealed as... a massive anti-climax. But is it really the real secret?

This is from real life, of course, not a Robert Ludlum novel. The sect is the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima, and the Byzantine Chapel was built at Fatima. Blue is the color of the Virgin Mary's mantle, and conveniently color-coded to oppose the Red Army.

Whatever the Red Army may be. If you check out the Blue Army's own latest magazine, it gives this history:

    "'We will be the Blue Army of Our Lady.' With those words, at St. Mary’s Church in Plainfield, New Jersey, Monsignor Harold V. Colgan founded the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima in October of 1947. Some say that our Founder declared: 'We will be the Blue Army of Our Lady against the Red Army.' Others recall that the sentence should end 'against the Red Army of Communism' or 'against the Red Army of Atheism' or against some other Red Army (see page 26). Regardless, the leader of the Red Army is known for sure: Satan ... "

Hey - Communists, Atheists, Satanists, we're all one and the same to these devout crusaders.

The CIA involvement is an neat angle. The French 'WHEN THE VIRGIN APPEARS' TV documentary, mentioned yesterday, was quite outright in stating that the CIA financed the startup of the Blue Army. Needless to say, there is no public record or reference to this to be found. It may just be an urban myth, thought it's credible, when you think of the Ostpolitik of those times - we'll never find out.

This was the era when, according to spy novels at least, both the US and the Soviets were secretly constructing exact replicas of Russian and American villages, the better to train undetectable deep cover agents. If you can do this, setting up a new sect from some of the most gullible faithful around would have been a snap. It may end up a bit woolly and out of control, but so do most of these bio-warefare experiments.

Like all Robert Ludlum novels, especially those also including the CIA, conspiracies abound. Almighty schisms have also appeared among the followers of Our Lady. Post Cold War, Gorbachev visited the Vatican, a status of Fatima visited Moscow, the score appears to be,
God: 1 Communist Atheist Satanists: 0
and the Blue Army, their enemy vanquished, are struggling for relevance, and, like Hollywood, to find a new Bad Guy.

But the surviving Fatiman conspiracy theorists leave their secular looney counterparts in the shade. Forget Zionist-World Bank world domination - these people have cover-ups, papal imposters, communist and/or Freemason infiltration of the Vatican, and secret deals between Nikita Kruschev and Pope John XXIII.

Such is their passion, they seem unfortunately incapable of writing clearly and concisely on any one of these grave threats. Still, it's all good fun, and stops them plotting the revolution.

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Something about Mary...

SBS TV - Australia's multi-ethnic and multi-lingual station, amidst the local commercial Americanized clones - just showed an interesting French documentary, WHEN THE VIRGIN APPEARS.

"In 1981, the Virgin Mary 'appeared' to six young Croats in the village of Medjugorje in Bosnia- Herzegovina, part of the former Yugoslavia. Whilst two successive bishops of Mostar denounced the apparitions as a fabrication, the local Franciscan order used them as a means of increasing their influence and combating godless communism. Since then, Medjugorje has become the biggest Marian pilgrimage destination in the world. The visions are not officially recognised by the Vatican, but they have the tacit support of the current Pope because in 1917, the Virgin is said to have appeared to three young shepherds in the Portuguese village of Fatima and to have predicted, among other things, the 1981 attempt on his life."

Apparitions of the Virgin Mary are often an embarassment to the formal Catholic Church, bringing to mind pagan idolatory rather than high-minded canonical theology. It won't do, of course, to remind a religion which worships the bones of saints, and dresses its Cardinals in red caps symbolizing blood, of pagan idolatory. Though you can see their point that the Marians do appear to have slightly lost the plot, forsaking the Holy Trinity to instead worship a Palestinian girl turned Virgin turned Goddess.

Fatima worship groups are huge, surprisingly so - particularly so - in the US, but you won't find much clear sense in their own writings. Instead, if you don't read anything else today, do, do read this article instead, Something About Mary. It's highly amusing, while full of the background and political history of the various Marian apparitions. Some excerpts:

     "This official (and little-remarked) distaste for Mary's devotees may stem from queasiness at being reminded of Catholicism's polytheistic, idol-worshipping undercurrents. More likely it's just snootiness. Mary worship is largely the province of poor people - non-English speakers, the people who put up plaster lawn shrines in the wilds of Long Island. ...

     "Even after it has approved a miracle, the Catholic Church insists on maintaining its primacy in interpreting what that miracle means. To do otherwise would be to leave the direction of the faith in the hands of children, or worse, women. ...

     "More to the point, if the Virgin Mary herself comes down from Heaven to deliver a message, shouldn't that take precedence over the word of any pope or cardinal?

Not according to the "worthy of belief" category the church has worked out for Mary revelations; under this system, Mary messages are classed as optional beliefs that have no effect on one's faith. But ... the Fatima Crusaders speak contemptuously of fellow Catholics - some of them even high Vatican officials! - who "make no secret" of the fact that they doubt the story of Fatima. If there is a heavenly message in all of this, it may be the reminder that Mary, like nuclear power, is a weapon that's easier to unleash than to control. "

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Holier than thou

Never let it be said that I only mention bad things about Catholics, so three cheers for Patrick O'Donoghue, Roman Catholic bishop of Lancaster, who announced recently that, "he plans to sell his £1m official home - with magnificent wine cellar but no wine - and spend much of the proceeds on relieving the problems of the poor. ...

     Bishop O'Donoghue described Bishop's House in Lancaster as a beautiful 16-room Victorian mansion. "But these are symbols of another era," he said. "I want to say to my people, and hopefully other people too, that the church is more than big houses which are status symbols from another era.

Bishop O'Donoghue is described as being a believer in "service not status". This puts him radically at odds with, for instance, his colleagues over the sea in Boston, where they may soon find themselves selling their church properties to fund compensation payments to sexual abuse victims.

Not everyone is 100% impressed. A Guardian writer comments,      "It all sounds a bit Christian for a bishop, you might think. Holders of episcopal office do not generally take quite so literally the injunction to "sell what you have and give to the poor." ... Clerical riches needed no apologia, and if one ever were demanded then you could always talk about reflecting the Glory of God.

    "Secular priests – that is those who are not members of monastic or other religious orders – don't take vows of poverty. Indeed there are those who argue that, given the testing sacrifice of celibacy, they need some compensations in the rest of their day-to-day life."

Sunday, May 19, 2002

Welcome to East Timor

Welcome to East Timor, the world's 192nd and newest country. In a couple of hours from now, history will be made, "when Annan, the UN Secretary-General, hands government to President-elect Xanana Gusmao and declares East Timor independent. Five minutes later the UN flag will be lowered and the red, black, white and yellow flag of East Timor raised on a 20-tonne cement pole. After three centuries of Portuguese colonial neglect, 24 years of Indonesian occupation and 2 years of UN administration, a new nation will be born."

Someone will rain on every parade, and in an old International Herald Tribune article (no longer online), one Philip Bowring complained that, "... Indonesia has been trying harder than most Catholic countries to avoid confessional politics. It is bad news for Christianity in Asia and secularism everywhere if East Timor is deemed to deserve independence because it is predominantly Catholic and Indonesia is mainly Muslim. The brutality of the Indonesian military (not only in East Timor) should not blind us to the benefits of large, multiethnic, multireligious states. Does the West really want to promote the Balkanization of Southeast Asia?"

Still, what's done is done. Thanks to its Portugese influence, 92% of East Timorese are Roman Catholic. "Our Lady of Fatima, or at least a statue of the Virgin Mary, has already arrived from Portugal and drawn thousands while carried in procession through villages and towns across the tiny territory. "From the North Pole to the South Pole, they are coming to see Our Lady of Fatima," one local said."

    "Jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 Bishop Carlos Belo is one of East Timor's symbols of peace and justice. ... Belo sees the Church as the conscience of the government in a relationship he describes as 'critical solidarity'."

Where there are real issues of military freedom, national identity and social justice, the church is at its most effective. Good luck and good wishes to Bishop Belo and his flock.

Gays in church, blah blah

As expected, the Rainbow Sash members in Sydney and Melbourne were denied communion during Penecostal mass today. The protestors did, however, hit it big in the media - TV crews stalked outside St Marys, a discomforted looking Archbishop Pell was mobbed by reporters. and the event made headline news on all the Australian free to air channels.

All in all, it was a good stoush and everyone got to vent a little. Archbishop Pell's sermon included such cliches as, "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve and important consequences follow from this,", and the Rainbow Sash spokesperson got to declaim on national TV about a bunch of celibate old men making rules for everybody else, blah blah.

It seems churlish, to point out to these intrepid people that the entire point of the Catholic Church is precisely to be such a place, where celibate old men can and do make the rules for everybody else. Anyone who believes that the CC should exist for the benefit of the worshippers probably still thinks that the government's job is to do the will of the people and a board of directors' job is to safeguard the shareholders. For all of God's great creations, liberal democracies were not among them.

The TV crews doorstopped the photogenic faithful leaving the church, and most of them said they thought that communion should be given to anyone who wants it, but one old man said something like, "Well, they should have their own church, if they want to do all that." Now, everybody regardless of queer affiliation has the right to worship where their beliefs lie, but it does say something for the doctrinal unity of Catholicism that Catholics of extremely diverse opinions still stay within the one albeit troubled church, whereas some of the other Christian denominations seem to form a different sect for every different thing they put on toast in the morning. I have no idea why - this is for theologians to explain, not me.

Suicide watch. Another US Catholic priest, multiple abuse claims over decades, diocesan officials knew for years, blah blah, the same sad story.

His Holinesses

I don't know what they're putting in the holy communion wine over in Germany, but according to a magazine poll, German Catholics hold the Dalai Lama (37%) to be wiser than the Pope (19%). This odd fact heralds the Dalai Lama's arrival in Australia this weekend. Australians are expected to flock to his rock-star-like appearances. I daresay if you were in some southern US state a visit from the Dalai Lama might be quite challenging, but Sydney in 2002 is so irreligious that the Dalai Lama is in some ways just another celebrity motivational speaker.

Some have commented unkindly on his "Dalai Lama, Superstar" image, but it's sour grapes - the other faiths would just love someone with the star status and street cred who can pull the crowds like His Holiness can.

Our Australian Prime Minister, whose ability to tailor his actions to meet the lowest moral common denominator is reknown, has refused to meet the Dalai Lama. Not because the voters mind - a lot of people are, rightly, a bit embarassed about it - but because the Chinese Government certainly would mind. Since Australia is currently after a lucrative natural gas contract with China, Mammon wins out over God.

The Chinese assume that since they act like totalitarian thought police in their own country, this mind control should extend to their trading partners, and thanks to Australia's morally bankrupt leaders, it does. If there is anything to this reincarnation and karma business, I trust they will come back as spineless slugs.

People are starting to insist that Pope John Paul II will not resign or stand down, which is a sign of sorts.

And succession murmurs have started - Honduran cardinal and papal hopeful Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga has stepped tactfullly into the limelight, suggesting that "a Latin-American Pope would give a huge impetus to a new evangelism, a new missionary surge for the church". He added that a Latin-American Pope could play an important role in "overcoming the north-south conflict and in the battle against poverty".

Today, just up the road at St Mary's Cathedral, the Rainbow Sash coalition of Lesbian and Gay Catholics will be performing their old party trick with Sydney Catholic Archbishop George Pell, by asking for holy communion.

   "It's about our rights as human beings, it's about issues such as sex education in Catholic schools where they refuse to teach the kids about safe sex, the fact that they teach that gays and lesbians are abnormal ... there's the scandals going on in America, there's a whole range of issues,"

He will almost certainly refuse them - as he has the ten previous times they've tried this stunt - whereupon they can take the opportunity to publicly castigate the church for its conservatism.

I don't know what the Australian figures are, but estimates put the percentage of gay clergy in the US at approaching fifty percent. So, in one of the funnier paradoxes regarding communion, a huge number of homosexuals have the right to give holy communion, while a small number of homosexuals are refused the right to be given it. The other funny thing is that you can murder your spouse, confess, receive absolution, and continue to receive communion. However, should you instead divorce your spouse and then remarry, you can no longer receive communion. God moves in mysterious ways, indeed.

Saturday, May 18, 2002

Early adopters

"Religion Finds Technology", in today's NYT, describes how churches are getting into technology, in a toys-for-the-boys kind of way.

    "Houses of worship all over the country are going high-tech in a variety of ways. From digital sound systems to PowerPoint sermon outlines to multiple remote cameras that send out streaming Webcasts, technology has found religion — or maybe it's the other way around. ...

    "Hymn lyrics are superimposed over live shots of the choir, and the pastor is in view on the screens no matter where one sits. ...

    Pastor John Rasz "uses a system of Sony presentation projectors at his service each week to display announcements and hymn lyrics, and shows an occasional clip from a Hollywood film like "Braveheart" to reinforce points in his sermon. "I love movies," he said. "If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video has to be worth a million." ...

    "The Rock, an interdenominational Christian church in Roseville, Calif., ... takes congregational interactivity to a new level. The church has a 330-seat sanctuary with a big-screen television and integrated keypads built into seat armrests. The buttons on the keypads allow members of the congregation to answer multiple-choice questions asked by the pastor during the service. ...

    "The answers, which often touch on delicate issues like emotional abuse or spending habits, are quickly compiled into percentages. (A recent question was "How many of you have ever attempted suicide?") The pastor takes the responses and adjusts his sermon on the spot, recounting stories about life experiences that address the congregation's concerns."

Wow, the Church as Karaoke or Game Show night. I suppose you could play bingo with the hymn numbers. Actually, I don't know why people go to church at all, when you can do it all online, from the comfort of your own browser.

  • You can get ordained. To become a minister of the Universal Life Church, just click on the 'Ordain me' button, and confirmation will arrive by email.
    You can also be ordained as a United Christian Faith Ministries minister, but they're tougher than the ULC - you need a userid and password. Can't have just anyone ordaining, you know.

  • You can confess. There are no-frills confession sites, where you type in your sin (or just an X, if you'd rather not)
    or more elaborate ones, where you select from a whole smorgasbord of sins. The problem with this approach is that while you are looking for your sin, you notice a whole load of other ones you may have committed, such as the General sin of 'excessive consumerism'. And it's sad when confession has to be accompanied by a disclaimer: "We make no claims as to the effectiveness of an online confession, rosary or anything else..." Ye of little faith, indeed.

  • Online blessings and prayers are everywhere, but online blessings specifically for horses? "Online blessings and prayers are for equestrians and equines needing prayer, positive affirmations, spiritual aid, inspirational quotes, or courage to face a challenging time."

  • Here's an online rosary, complete with moving beads. And here's Ask the Imam, 'the online fatwa resource'.

  • Then there's Beliefnet. Beliefnet has something for everyone, letting you sign up for daily emails on everything from Astrology to the Bible to religious jokes. We know some religious jokes, don't we, and they're working in the Boston Archdiocese. For the woman's mag quiz crowd, there are quizzes on What kind of Catholic/Jew/Muslim/Hindu are you? Orthodox Christian Icon Trivia Challenges, and even a Belief-o-matic, in case you don't know what religion you are.

    Actually, I didn't know - it told me I was a Unitarian Universalist, which appears to be the 'can"t figure this person out' faith. I was surprised not to be a Nontheist, but this is apparently because I believe in humanity's ability to improve the human condition. If you are 'spiritual but not religious', there's a quiz for you, too, to discover your spiritual type. All this, and from the same page, at least when I was there, you can 'learn how to decrease fat storage and increase lean muscle mass'! Faith and a flat stomach! That's really one-stop shopping...

Thursday, May 16, 2002

Clown Princes

    "In the most regal manner possible, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has skewered United States President George Bush as a man so ignorant about the Middle East - and specifically about the suffering of the Palestinians - that he needed several hours of personal tuition to bring him up to speed.

    When the prince visited the presidential ranch in Texas last month, the two men spent five hours together, far longer than expected. This was an indication - according to the White House spin machine - of how well they got on. But Prince Abdullah presents a different interpretation: the time was spent coaching the President in political realities.

    "He is the type of person who sleeps at 9.30pm after watching the domestic news," the prince told Okaz, a Saudi newspaper.

    "In the morning, he only reads a few lines about what is written on the Middle East and the world due to his huge responsibilities.""

Look, this is a bit rude of the Crown Prince. One can just imagine the highly informed and non-partisan advice that he would have offered the President - along the lines of, "Let's blast Israel off the face of the earth, and both drink oil together, my friend."

I think President Bush is entirely wise to "only read a few lines about what is written on the Middle East," every morning. Every day, new and numerous articles on the Middle East are published. the huge majority of them woefully biased, from the rabid anti-Muslim Israel-can-do-no-wrong stand of the Wall St Journal to the America-can-do-nothing-right rantings that infest many of the UK papers. I frequently wonder if real people are as interested in the Middle East as their newpaper editors appear to think they are. Someone said to me recently, "I'm seventy-five years old and for the last thirty years of my life, whenever I've turned on the news I've heard about Israel and the Palestinians, and I'm bloody sick of it."

There are other peoples in the world fighting intractable turf wars, and we don't hear much about them. There are other peoples in the world who are oppressed and dispossessed, and their representatives don't get five hours to whisper in the US President's ear. Why does the President kowtow to these benighted fools? Oil and money have twisted all logic:
  • US ally Saudi Arabia is funding, training and organizing the enemy side in the America's global War against Terrorism.
  • US ally Saudi Arabia is funding terrorist attacks against US ally Israel. Sometimes it's a bummer being the US.
  • US bases protect Saudi Arabian security but cannot be used for US security missions.
  • US ally Saudi Arabia produces 15 of the 19 Sept 11 hijackers
  • The Land of the Free and the Brave is publicly big buddies with the land that refuses Jews the right of residency, non-Muslims the right of worship, and women the right to be seen, and gays any rights at all.

It's more than the oil. Since Sept 11, most Americans are so fervently, patriotically, and genuinely behind their country's fight against evil, that with the right exhortations from the right people they might be willing and even eager to turn down the thermostats, downsize the SUV, walk to the mall occasionally, buy oil from the Russians, and invest a tiny fraction of their military budget into efficient renewable energy sources.

Then, they could tell the Saudis exactly where to put their oil, their depotism, their fundamentalism, their anti-Semitism, their duplicity, their terrorist cells, their hypocritical anti-Western cant, their payments to suicide bombers, and so on. Wouldn't that feel good! and I think individual Americans would feel good being able to personally contribute something more concrete to the battle than just flag-waving.

But Americans won't do it, because nobody will ask them, and nobody will ask them because there are just too many mutual interests in powerful places with too much invested in good relations with the Saudis - who are laughing at the US all the way to the bank, as you do to some rich, dumb kid who keeps throwing money at you while you treat him like shit.

I do wish President Bush had found the time to do just a little reading over the past few months. These articles are all old, but relevant:

  • Friends like these

        " "If the term 'Islamic fundamentalist' applies to any place in the world, it's Saudi Arabia," says Ali Abunimah, vice president of the Arab American Action Network. "The Taliban is rightly criticized for its horrendous social policies. But the silence on Saudi Arabia is inexcusable. The lack of political freedom there is stifling, yet Saudi Arabia gets a pass from the West."

        "Oil is the likely explanation for that free pass. America needs it, and the Saudis want to sell it.

        "Our way of life is dependent on them, and their way of life is dependent on us. It's a fantastic, symbiotic relationship," adds Bogle. "It subsumes other issues that arise. ... "

        "... Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, author and expert on Islamic extremism in Pakistan, writes that the problem is even more widespread: "If the U.S. wants to do something about radical Islam, it has to deal with Saudi Arabia. ... Saudi Arabia is the single most important cause and supporter of the general fanaticization of Islam."

        "Why hasn't America raised that red flag? Consider that last May Saudi Arabia announced its most lucrative Western investment deal in nearly three decades, a natural gas project by America's ExxonMobil oil company valued at $100 billion.

        Meanwhile, since 1989, Saudis have purchased $40 billion worth of military products from America."


        "All of this administration's admirable successes to date fall short of addressing the obvious source of fundamentalist terrorism, subversion and hatred: Saudi Arabia.

        "This is an oilman's administration, and long affiliation with energy affairs appears to have blinded an otherwise-superb strategic team to the abundant, well-documented evidence. Far from examining Saudi Arabia's deep and extensive complicity in supporting terror and undermining secular regimes throughout the Muslim world and beyond, the administration reflexively defends the Saudis. I do not believe the administration is intentionally dishonest--only that ties to the oil business and a half-century's assumptions prevent it from facing up to Saudi Arabia's support for, and funding of, the cruelest, most benighted and hate-filled version of one of the world's great religions."

  • An Oily Quagmire

        "For more than half a century, the US has been beholden to the dictatorships of the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, which controls more than a quarter of the world's known oil reserves. The Saudi patriarchate financed the Taliban, the madrassas that educated Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and (when convenient) Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

        "This connection was documented and declared long before the Taliban became America's villains of choice. But that link never dissuaded the US from seeking Saudi oil. George Bush I's ample business alliances with Saudi rulers have been remunerative for the Bush family and former Bush I officials James Baker and Frank Carlucci, but not terribly useful for protecting America from attacks by Saudi citizens with passports and box-cutters. ...

        "...Access to oil trumps democratic values and human rights at every turn. For half a century, purported realists in Washington have thought nothing of greasing the palms of Saudi princes in exchange for the favor of permitting us (and, to an even greater extent, the Japanese and the Europeans) to buy their oil."


Mixed news lately, from the world of Catholics:
  • Violent

    In Maryland, an abuse victim has shot the priest who allegedly molested him.

        "A man charged with gunning down a Roman Catholic priest had grown frustrated after being unable to get an apology from the priest, who he claimed fondled him over a three-year period, the man's mother said. Dontee Stokes, 26, shot the Rev. Maurice Blackwell after the priest refused to talk to him, police spokeswoman Ragina Averella said. Stokes was charged with attempted murder, gun violations and assault and was being held without bail.

        "The shooting — the latest development in the sexual abuse scandal that has roiled the Roman Catholic Church — drew pained reactions from church leaders, with Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler saying he was ``appalled'' by the violence. Stokes' mother, Tamara Stokes, accused the archdiocese of mishandling her son's molestation allegations.

        "``All he wanted was an apology due to what had happened,'' she said Tuesday night in front of her home as family and friends stood around her holding candles and praying for Dontee's release."

  • Sick

    Pedophile priest Rev. Paul Shanley, assessed nearly a decade ago as being "so personally damaged that his pathology is beyond repair.", reveals in a letter that he is himself a victim of priestly sexual abuse, from another priest in the Boston archdiocese:
        "I, too, had been sexually abused as a teen-ager, and later as a seminarian by a priest, a faculty member, a pastor and ironically by the predecessor of one of the two Cardinals who now debate my fate."

  • Sicker

    Not quite every underage sex partner of every Catholic priest was a victim - this one certainly didn't mind the attention,
    (And a warning, if you are a prudish religious person who has come here by mistake from Google, go away to a nice Christian site now and don't read on.)

        "The fact of the matter is, Catholic priests have given me some of the best blow jobs of my life....

    ... He sobbed and he shook and looked, there on his knees, like he was about to split into pieces. He, the priest, was vulnerable and ruined for that moment. And I, the 14- year-old, felt kind of thrilled and kind of like, what do you expect? You worship a naked man on a cross all day? This shit's bound to happen."

  • Poisonous

        "Vatican Radio's forest of antennas north of Rome could be causing leukaemia with the high levels of electromagnetic radiation they emit, a report conducted for a public prosecutor said on Thursday. The findings, released by the Green party, reopened controversy over the antennas that began 2 years ago, when reports showed an increased incidence of leukaemia in the nearby town of Cesano.

        "The antennas, some of which have a 600,000-watt capacity, caused a bitter diplomatic row in 2001, when former environment minister Willer Bordon threatened to cut off all electricity to the radio transmission centre. But last February an Italian court threw out charges against the Vatican, ruling the Vatican-owned site was outside the court's jurisdiction under a 1929 treaty.

        "[Green Party head] Bonelli announced that his party will begin to collect compensation requests from the inhabitants of Cesano."

    Good luck to them, but they'll need to get in line behind the child abuse litigants. If God is everywhere, why do we need Vatican Radio? The SMH, reporting the same story, continues:

        Bets are being taken on how the Pope and his cardinals will deal with this latest crisis. Will they:
    1. Deny the problem and sweep leaking electromagnetic radiation under the proverbial carpet?
    2. Hold an in-house inquiry, then refuse to release the findings on the grounds the antennas are an internal church matter?
    3. Offer several billion dollars in hush money to victims and move the antennas to another parish?

  • Tragic

    A NYT Magazine article sounds like the wildest fiction, but it's true. Two young brothers, growing up, are both abused by the same Catholic Priest. One becomes a passionate, anti-clergy-abuse crusader, determined to bring abusive priests to justice. His brother - you guessed it - becomes a Catholic Priest and child abuser. (Requires registration - do it, the NYT is free and worth registering with)

        "One night in early April, as the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church swept more and more priests into an unforgiving spotlight, David Clohessy stared at the telephone in his St. Louis home, wondering whether to warn one of the next priests in line. His stomach roiled. It would be easier, he reasoned, not to do it, and it would probably be best. But then he envisioned the priest in question rounding a corner the following morning without any knowledge that his name had hit the newspaper and facing a television camera he never saw coming. He imagined the man's humiliation. And he was not sure he could bear the thought of it.

        "For Clohessy, this was an astonishing thing. His sympathies had always gone toward the victims of such men, because he knew their devastation and rage, which were also his own. And he had forged those hard, cold feelings into a determination -- a quest -- to hold the church accountable for the actions of its servants. He stormed the barricades, time and again. He nurtured a national support group, now nearly 4,000 members strong, for those who had been molested by clergy members. He appeared on ''Oprah.'' Always his message was that the church must be treated like any institution that was causing such destruction, and that Catholic priests deserved no special protection, no special consideration.

        "On this night, however, Clohessy decided to ''violate my fundamental bottom line,'' as he puts it, and grant this one favor to this one priest. He left an urgent message for the man, who called back 10 minutes later, just before 11:30 p.m. Clohessy told him that the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., had identified him to The Boston Globe as one of a half-dozen priests who had drawn ''credible accusations'' of sexual abuse over the years. The Globe planned to publish the man's name, which was certain to end up in newspapers and on newscasts throughout Missouri.

        "''I know this is going to make your life really hard,'' Clohessy remembers saying, and he felt both awkward and sad, for so many reasons, including his witting and unwitting roles in this chain of events.

        "''Thanks for the heads-up,'' the priest said, flatly. The call ended in less than 10 minutes. It was as long a conversation as the two brothers, David and Kevin Clohessy, had shared in years. ... "

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Special Dispensation

The Jewish peoples have had the misfortune thoughout history... to attract more than their fair share of the world's raving nutcases, and worse. The Holocaust forever entwined the Jews and Nazis together in the public mind and decades later, the Nazis bob and weave throughout Zionist issues large and small.

Nobody has tried this tack for a while, but in his last written message in 1970, Bertrand Russell criticized the Israeli bombing of Egypt and responsibility for the Palestinian plight thus:

    "We are frequently told that we must sympathize with Israel because of the suffering of the Jews in Europe at the hands of the Nazis. I see in this suggestion no reason to perpetuate any suffering. What Israel is doing cannot be condoned, and to invoke the horrors of the past to justify those of the present is gross hypocrisy."
The Washington Post (2nd March 1970)

Things have mutated the 30-odd years since, and now, at US demonstrations against Israel's recent incursions into the West Bank, protestors carry signs saying ISRAEL=NAZI or SHARON=HITLER, to the dismay of the more thoughtful protestors:

    "We also need to rein in our rhetoric. It's not just incendiary to compare Israeli actions to those of Nazi Germany; it's inaccurate and unfair. The Nazis' extermination of millions of Jews and other "undesirables" -- systematic, bureaucratic, scientific -- is in many ways unparalleled in human history. The point is not to say Jews have suffered most, because that's a pointless debate: Many groups have a claim on the world's shame and sympathy. Yet calling Israeli atrocities Nazi-like demonstrates either a weak grasp of history or a calculated misuse of it. Certainly, like many governments, Israel has committed unjustifiable acts: occupation, massacre, torture and more. But calling someone a Nazi implies something further: that they are implementing a comprehensive plan to annihilate an entire class of people. That's why the accusation is so devastating, and untrue.

    "And while more Jews have rallied to the anti-occupation cause over the last month, I believe their numbers are dampened by distaste for banners that use an equal sign to connect the Star of David and the Nazi swastika, or proclaim that "Sharon is Hitler." Those banners, and the superficiality that inspires them, are calculated to offend, not communicate, and they hinder the movement for Palestinian rights."

From The shame of the pro-Palestinian left, Salon (Premium only). This is a calm and excellent article on both the problems with and the justification for the protests against Israeli military agression. It's tougher on the protestors than any of the ranting rightwing columnists, but fair and balanced also. I think that Salon are really doing a public disservice by restricting it - particularly with the predominance of rabid and uncriticial supporters of Israel in the US press.

We're not done with Nazis yet - nor are they done with us. At a rally outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, neo-Nazis and White Supremacists protested against the US support of Israel while waving Palestinian flags, to the horror of the Palestinians present, who were there to support Palestinian independence. Sometimes, the enemy of my enemy is definitely not my friend. But, if neo-Nazis support the Palestinian cause so much, I think it'd be just great if they'd all volunteer to go and be suicide bombers. Perhaps the Palestinians could entice them to suicide-bomber training camp, then accidently blow them all up.

Amidst mounting worldwide anti-Semitism - fuelled in part by Israel's own recent actions, but some people never need an excuse, either - Israel has found wide and unexpected support from an unexpected source - the US Christian Right. From other countries, the Christian Right are seen as a bit of a joke, and you will soon see why. First, we have to understand how pro-Israeli support is increasingly found right-of-center, because anti-semitism has moved left-of-center. (Right-wing! Left-wing! Christian Right! Christian Left! Liberal Catholics! Church Conservatives! Why do Americans need to label everything and everyone? Is it related to why they need to know the number of grams of fat in everything they eat?)

From Jews and the GOP, Salon Premium again:

    "Hardcore Christian conservatives were once the major force distancing Jews from the Republican Party. Suddenly, they're the chosen people's closest friends, on Israel at least. Thus while the political fallout from the Middle East stalemate is still unpredictable, Republicans are tantalized by the idea that right-wing support for Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon's hawkish policies will win Bush the lasting fealty of large number of American Jews. ...

    "... Though by and large Jews, as the quip goes, still earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans, small numbers of them have been drifting to the right for decades.

    "...Not long ago, as the ADL's [Anti-Defamation League] Foxman says, most visible anti-Semitism came from the right. It existed on the left as well, but "fascism and Nazism were the greater threat," he says. "There was a worldview of the right as being anti-Semitic." Now that the right has teamed up with Jews, while Palestinian liberation has become a cause célèbre in universities and in the global justice movement, the left is perceived as the new locus of Western anti-Semitism."

OK, we are getting to the interesting bit:

    " ...Jews, says pollster Mark Mellman, "remain very suspicious of [conservative Christians'] motives. They have nothing to do with support for Israel and everything to do with prophesies about the end of the world."

    "Mellman is referring to dispensationalism, an end-time eschatology that's prevalent on the evangelical right. ...

    "... Dispensationalists believe the return of Jews to Israel is a necessary precondition to the longed-for rapture. "Evangelicals who hold this belief have been very strong in supporting the Israeli expansion into the West Bank, because this is part of the promised land," says Peter Boyer, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Such thinking coincides with the views of the ruling Likud party -- which Sunday voted to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, making for a convenient alliance. Where these views diverge is over the Jews themselves, who dispensationalists believe must either eventually convert to Christianity or, well, go to hell."

Dispensationalism is just huge. What is it? Like many simple religious questions, it does not have a simple answer; the more to put us unbelievers down as just too dumb to understand.

According to one Dispensationalist site,
'In simple terms, Christians who do not believe the church is "Spiritual Israel" are dispensationalists.'

Duh? Well, how about:

    "Dispensationalists derive their name from their teaching that the entire program of God is divided into seven dispensations. Five of these have passed into history, we are living in the sixth, and the seventh dispensation will be an earthly reign of one thousand years (the millennium) following the rapture of the church."

OK, so this is the 'Christ is literally coming back to earth' crowd, thought they disagree as to when, and the passing of the millenium has left some of them looking a bit silly. Here, he will destroy his enemies, Satan will be bound for 1000 years, Believers who die and Old Testament saints will be raised, unbelievers will be cast onto hell, and the good guys will all live happily in heaven, you know how it goes.
Pentacostals, Baptists and many/most Protestant churches are dispensationalists, either small d or big D - you may be one without knowing it.

Beliefs aside, one of the wackiest things about Dispensationalism is its factionalism.
    ""Among dispensationalists, then, opinions differ widely as to when the church actually began. Consequently, we dispensationalists often distinguish ourselves from other dispensationalists, who hold to a different starting point for the church. The most common method for doing so is to label ourselves according to the chapter of the book of Acts in which we believe the modern church (the body of Christ) began:
  • Acts 2 Dispensationalists
  • Mid Acts Dispensationalists
  • Acts 28 Dispensationalists
  • Pauline Dispensationalists
  • Berean Dispensationalists

You won't learn anything coherent about Dispensationalism from their own writings, so try this.
Though one Dispensationalist, more level-headed than most, warns that "Dispensationalists should stay clear of promoting Israel in these times of inflamed passions"

All in all, Dispensationalism is too much for me. I wish I had the Catholics back...