Sunday, May 27, 2007

Evangelism in the USAF

This is in reference to the following article:
As a US Navy veteran I'd like to point out that the military is a particularly dangerous venue in which to allow this kind of unfettered evangelism.

There are obvious Constitutional difficulties inherent in having what is, if not the, certainly one of the most visible and respected parts of the US Executive becoming so obviously partial toward a particular religious congregation. It is also an arena which is directly on point as to why the Founding Fathers wanted to raise the Wall of Separation in the first place; you do not want all the serious firepower concentrated in the hands of a particular religious faction!

I would add that giving over all the big guns to an emotive, evangelizing and millenarian style of religion is a particularly dangerous idea; this isn't paranoia, history books contain many examples of states which have been overthrown by militaries in the thrall of such ideologies.

On a smaller level, spare a thought for individuals within the military who aren't of the dominant religion, as was my own situation while I was in.

As a military subject you are usually a captive audience; on board a ship, or in a barracks, there is no easy way to escape the proselytizing. I can't count the number of times on board ship when I was forced to sit through lengthy prayers and even full religious services, broadcast over the ship's loudspeakers into every corner.

Consider also that a military subject, by the nature of the profession, is often forced to live and work in continual close proximity with other members of his or her unit, under extremely stressful and unnatural conditions. Not only success in mission or career, but sometimes life itself is at stake, and dependent upon being able to develop and maintain close and trusting relationships. If a majority of the unit belongs to a particular faith, and is encouraged or simply allowed to push it onto the minority, it is difficult for a civilian to even imagine the overwhelming social pressures which can be brought to bear.

If impartiality of religion is not vigorously enforced as a principle of military life, eventually you will end up with a self-enforcing culture; only Christians will be able to effectively work in the unit, because the existing members won't trust or bond with a non-Christian. There's a reason why Iraqi police and military units aren't typically mixed Shia and Sunni; the analogous issue fails of becoming a problem for US forces by a much smaller margin than you might imagine. Take it from one who's been there.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Falwell's Funeral Focuses Freaks

I was glad to hear Falwell was dead, frankly, and give me no truck about an automatic respect for the dead unless you wrote a eulogy for Saddam Hussein. He may not have been an actual killer, but Jerry Falwell was the worst kind of theocratic hatemonger, constantly spewing out quotes whose inanity and incoherency were rivalled only by their invidiousness and ill-will.

The vortex of evil and stupidity surrounding his funeral show (in a completely non-supernatural way, I hasten to add) that what goes around comes around.

One of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University students was caught trying to bring home-made napalm bombs to his funeral. Let that sink in for a moment. Falwell's conservative boosters have been playing up how he founded this wonderful center of learning full of good Christian virtues, how he inspired young students to follow the ways of righteousness - and here's an example for you.

Don't think that the student in question wasn't a fan, either; his stated reason for bringing the ordnance was not to cremate the carcass, but to disrupt protests at the funeral. Again, absorb that a second; this acolyte, inculcated with the clear-thinking virtues of Liberty University, thought that the appropriate response to people waving banners and chanting slogans was to hurl napalm at the chanters - in order to prevent the disruption of the solemn event.

If you think the man's friends are weird, though, take a look at his enemies. Who was it that was planning to picket the funeral? If you were thinking it was "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way," think again. It was the Westboro Baptist Church, best known for their usual practice of picketing the funerals of US service members who died in the service of their country - their logic being that US soldiers deserve no honors, as the military representatives of a country which tolerates the existence of homosexuals.

Bizarre as it may seem, they were planning to picket Falwell's funeral, because, despite saying things like "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals," Jerry Falwell was too tolerant of gays.

I must confess, I haven't been able to quite wrap my head around that one myself.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

On magic mustard seeds

A dear friend sent me this cute little story:

The Mustard Seed

Once there was a woman whose only son had died. In her sorrow she went to ask a wise holy man is there a way to bring her son back to life. "Fetch me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow. We will use it to bring your son back to life." He said to her instead of sending her away or try reasoning with her.

At once she quickly set off looking for that elusive mustard seed. The first place she came to was is a huge mansion. Knocking on the door, she asked "I am looking for a house that has never known suffering. Is this the place? It is very important to me."

"You have come to the wrong place" they told her. They begin to pour out all the tragic things that have befallen upon them.

"Who is better to be able to help these poor unfortunate souls than I who has experience sadness and can understand them?" she thought. Therefore she stayed behind and consoled and comforted them before going to another house that has never known sorrow before.

However, wherever she goes, from huts to palaces, there is never one without tales of sadness and misfortunes. In time to come, she became so involved in listening to other people's sad stories that she forgot about her quest for that elusive mustard seed. By listening to other people, she had actually driven the grieving out of her life.

Author Unknown

Now this seems a heart-warming little tale of redemption through good works, and no doubt that's what appealed to my friend, who is a woman of good heart. Alas, I am a cynic and an overly analytical one at that, and my reaction was different:

"Stupid woman should have gone to a brand new housing estate and found a couple of newlyweds who'd just moved in. Sorrow is bound to come to any household in time, so the only solution is to find the brand-spanking-new home before the first tears fall. Since newlyweds always go bonkers on the spice rack, she'd have had the magic mustard seed in no time.

"Of course then she'd have found out that so-called holy men are usually liars, and their claims of being able to resurrect the dead are always bogus. Any wise man could have directed her into helping others, since her natural inclination obviously lay that way - why was the deceit necessary? Was it just so the "holy man" could maintain his reputation for being capable of summoning miracles?"

The source of the story, by the way, was properly cited by my friend. I refuse to do likewise because it links to a bunkum website offering the gullible and desperate help for "everything from the common cold to cancer" (yes, that's an actual quote) in return for $60 a DVD (there are nine in the set, and if you still seemed burdened with extra money you can take workshops). I'll be damned if they'll get any PageRank love from this blog, though.

It's an old formula: get a charismatic "holy man", mix the placebo effect with some obscurantist jargon, optionally throw in a claimed connection to Ancient Wisdom (tm), and above all avoid actual scientific study like the plague, and you too can make enormous profits off the desperation and misery of sick people.

The same basic technique has worked for freelance Hindu fakirs selling their urine as medicine, and for profitable shrines of the Catholics like Lourdes and Knock, and for various brands of faith healers for centuries. It now forms the entire backbone of cults like Christian Science and Scientology.

In the age of the InterWubs, it's just easier for the snake-oil salesmen to reach their market. It remains to be seen whether the countervailing abundance of information debunking these charlatans will override that effect. Sadly, I have my doubts; most people, and especially the poor desperate saps the charlatans prey on, prefer a comfortable lie to a hard truth.

Holy men are generally lying toads, or at best deluded, but their traditions can contain wisdom. Shorn of the untruth, there's wisdom in seeing that a compassionate attention to the living is both a palliative for the grief of losing your loved ones, and perhaps the best of all ways to honor their memory.

In the end, though, your dead remain dead, and a magic mustard seed is only a condiment. To say otherwise is a despicable and unworthy fable.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Why do people fall for stuff like this?

Fwd: FREE Laptops!...
The Ericsson Company is distributing free computer Lap-tops in an attempt to match Nokia that has already done so. Ericsson hopes to increase its popularity this way. For this reason, they are giving away the new WAP laptops. All you need to do to qualify is to send this mail to 8 people you know. Within 2 weeks, you will receive EricssonT18. But if you can send it to 20 people or more, you will receive Ericsson R320.

Make sure to send a copy to:

It's sad when people can't be bothered to do minimal research like typing a few keywords into Google; "Ericsson free laptop" would instantly pop up a slew of debunkings, showing amongst other things that those model numbers are for discontinued cell phones, not new laptops.

Truly, though, this shouldn't even require research. It's obviously baloney on the face of it. Ericsson is going to give away their laptops to try and "increase its popularity"? What's the point in becoming popular if you're going to go bankrupt in the process? Whatever the cost of a laptop, exchanging it for 8 or 20 email forwardings is unlikely to be the most efficient use of the advertising budget.

Nevertheless, this kind of pointless spam is likely to be immortal. The cost of forwarding it is low (one can just paste it into a 'Reply All' to one of those annoyingly pointless forwards clueless friends keep wasting everyone's time with), apparently much lower than the cost of a moment's critical thought. Trying to clue a critical mass of people into ignoring it is a task both Sisyphean and usually thankless; people will accuse you of being a killjoy when you point out how ridiculous it is.

I've found, though, that being persistent about exposing the logical flaws has resulted in most of the worst offenders leaving me out of the address field. The majority of those, in turn, still include me in the mailings which I don't find obnoxious; I still get the jokes, the viral videos, the cool slideshows, and the interesting articles. I like getting those things, both because they break up a dull day and simply because they're gifts from my friends, who are precious to me in more ways than they know.

It gives me hope that if I continue pointing out the absurdity of pregnant women claiming to be virgins, water turning into wine without benefit of grapes and fermentation, and dead people coming back to life, I'll be able to both keep the benefit of my religious friends and avoid their embarassing attempts to 'save' me. Who knows, maybe I'll even get one or two to do a little critical thinking and research.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Rooms that turned like pages
In a book of flashing colours,
Odd and comforting messages
Delivered by kindly walls,

A kitten in a box, so pretty,
And stone frog cobbles smiling
Somewhere in a crystal city,
A street full of moons

And she was dancing there,
I remember that clearly,
Laughing in the spinning air,
Eyes daring me to follow,

And so I did what I had to do,
Traded hours and cooked the coffee
For one warm moment in wonder,
Faded now. And so I’m late. Sorry.

B.T. Murtagh