Category Archives: religion

A Chanukah miracle

The following is completely true.

Chanukah begins later this week. Yesterday Andrea and I realized that we don’t know where our Chanukah menorah is. This has happened a few times over the years, and on a couple of those occasions we simply went and bought a new one. Sooner or later of course the old one always turned up, with the result that we now have a small collection of menorahs. We suspected that our menorahs were in a box in our recently rearranged storage space, but the prospects for getting there and searching through the boxes before Chanukah begins were nil. So we decided to task the kids with building one out of Lego or something.

That was in the afternoon. Soon after that conversation we all went out for dinner. When we returned, not yet having given the kids their menorah-making assignment, we discovered the doors of the kitchen pantry were open, and the contents of one shelf spilled out, as if someone had been rummaging through it in a hurry. But no one had. Standing upright on the floor, in the center of the spilled shelf contents, was our menorah.

For someone who doesn’t exist, God sure does want me to light Chanukah candles.

Greatest hits: Ground Zero mosque

A relative circulated to my extended family an e-mail chain letter linking to an anti-Ground-Zero-mosque YouTube video, so I wrote this reply:

A mosque at Ground Zero is a great idea, whether you’re an anti-Muslim bigot or not.

If you’re not a bigot, then nothing could be a more powerful affirmation of America’s acceptance of all races and creeds than to turn the other cheek and honor the peaceful adherents of that noble religion, millions of whom were victims of 9/11 in more profound, longer-lasting ways than almost anyone else.

If you are a bigot, what could be better than a great big juicy target, right at the scene of the crime, for all the Judeo-Christian zealots bent on Biblical-style justice?

Personally, I’m offended that they keep letting Catholic churches get built. That was the religion of Timothy McVeigh!

Today I am a man… for thirty years

Thirty-one years ago I was a very secular Jew, along with my family and a large proportion of Jewish families in New York City. We lit candles on Chanukah, we read the Haggadah at Passover, and we told each other happy new year in the middle of September, but that was about it as far as the religion went, and it suited me fine.

But then my friends started having bar mitzvahs and I got jealous. So some time in 1979 I informed my parents — who had left the decision up to me, and who thought they were getting off the hook without planning a bar mitzvah — that in fact I wanted to have one and that it had to be before the year was out. I didn’t want to be the only one of my friends whose bar mitzvah spilled over into the next decade!

To have a bar mitzvah I had to be able to read Hebrew, which meant going to Hebrew school, something that bar-mitzvah-bound kids began doing at age eight or nine; and here I was already pushing thirteen, the bar mitzvah age. Forest Hills Jewish Center, a conservative synagogue, wouldn’t take me, because I was too old. (A year later, Yoda would make the same complaint about training Luke Skywalker.) But Temple Sinai, a reform synagogue (now The Reform Temple of Forest Hills), did.

I was the biggest kid in the class but a motivated student. Within just a couple of months I was reading Hebrew fluently — which is to say, I learned the alphabet and the pronunciation, and so could make all the right sounds. Comprehension was something else altogether.

Rabbi Irvin Ungar set my bar mitzvah for the fifteenth of December — just made it! — and began my training. I started attending sabbath services each week to become familiar with the sequence of events and the liturgy. I learned how to chant my Torah portion (“Vayeshev”) and my haftarah. It was my first serious exposure to ritual and I took to it like a duck to water. Combined with Rabbi Ungar’s learned and gregarious mentoring style, and influenced by the involvement of my friend Chuck with his synagogue, I became a surprisingly observant Jew, to the delight of my parents (who, as noted above, were not themselves particularly observant).

While I was receiving religious instruction, my parents were busy planning the reception. They booked a ballroom at the Sheraton in Elmhurst and sent invitations to the extended family. I invited some of my new Hunter friends and a few from my elementary school days. A couple of months before the event, I stopped eating chocolate and fried food entirely, determined that this was the best way to ensure blemish-free skin on the big day. (And it worked!)

The party needed music, and my parents began looking into bands and DJ’s. One musician (with the memorable not-to-be-confused-with-the-auto-repair-chain name Lee Myles) offered to come to our house with a videotape of his band performing — and to bring along a videocassette player, which in 1979 almost no one had. I was beside myself with excitement at the prospect of seeing one of those contraptions in operation in my very own living room, and when he arrived, everything he said to my parents was just so much droning. It took forever before he finally stopped talking and hauled the enormous player out from its carrying case, along with its multifarious cables and adapters. That’s when I finally joined in the conversation, chattering away about the relative merits of coax connectors versus spade lugs, VHS versus Betamax, tuning via channel 2 versus channel 3, etc. In the end we got to see about thirty disappointing seconds of fuzzy video footage before all the equipment got disconnected and put away.

We didn’t hire Lee Myles.

Everything finally came together on this date thirty years ago.


That’s me in the white turtleneck. Also pictured: three future lawyers.

I conducted my parts of the Saturday-morning service so well that I was invited to become Temple Sinai’s first official “rabbi’s assistant,” a position I held for many weeks thereafter. I delivered an original speech about Judaism and becoming a man and so on that I remember not at all, but that was received (atypically for a bar mitzvah speech) attentively and with disbelief that I’d written it myself. And the reception, though mostly a blur, was memorable at least for the poster-sized cartoon wailing wall that my father drew and stood on an easel for my guests to sign (and that became a wall-art fixture at home for years); and for the moment that my friends took me aside and welcomed me to official manhood by literally showering me with foil-wrapped condoms (which were far more giggle-worthy then — and embarrassing to buy — than they are in this age of strident safe-sex awareness).

Some months later, Rabbi Ungar moved far, far away. His replacement, whatever his virtues might have been, was a zero in the motivating-young-people department. My scientific bent (and attendant religious skepticism) reasserted itself, the novelty of a Dixie cup of sweet wine each Saturday morning wore off, and my tenure as rabbi’s assistant, and my flirtation with a devout life, ended soon after.


Postscript. Helen Keller was one of my mom’s heroes, and The Miracle Worker, the story of Keller’s relationship with the blind teacher Annie Sullivan, was one of her favorite movies.

In trying to find a web link for Temple Sinai while writing this article, I ran across an article entitled, “Helen Keller: Citizen of Forest Hills.” It was the first I’d ever heard that my mom’s hero lived in the same neighborhood where (years later) she raised me; I’m not sure my mom ever knew. But more than that — the article reveals that Helen Keller’s Forest Hills house later became the very site of Temple Sinai!

What brings you here, 2007 edition

Here are some of the top queries from various search engines that resulted in hits on my blog during the past year or so, reproduced verbatim from my server logs. (Last year’s results are here.) Each related family of queries is listed with a main variant in bold and selected other variants, plus the percentage of query-hits represented by that family.

I was at first surprised to see that hits for “James Bond villains” outnumbers hits for “vampire lesbian girl scouts” (etc.) and “sex” (etc.) combined, but then realized: the percentages are a function both of the popularity of that search and of the ranking of my site in the search results. In other words, if you’re looking for anything about vampires or lesbians or sex I regret to say there are a lot of likelier websites for you to visit before mine.

James Bond villains; The Villains of bond; deformed bond villains; “james bond” +villains +clothes 10.2%
William H. Macy; william h macy photos; face de William H. Macy 5.0%
Vampire lesbian girl scouts; lesbian vampires; naked lesbians; lesbian girl scouts; naked girl scouts; kissing lesbian girls; zombie girl scouts; evil girlscouts; girl scout decorated cake 4.5%
Sex etc.; horsey style sex; lesbian masturbation; “sex positions illustrated”; vampire sex; lesbians having hot lesbian sex; lesbian sex soundeffect; “San Francisco Masturbate-a-thon”; squat girl masturbate -cock -man -boy -blow; dildo attached to wall; sex positions kitty style; attach dildo to floor; How to convince my lady staf for sex?; sex positions in alphanumeric; “park and ride” “sex positions illustrated” 3.2%
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Godfather; Godfather part II poster; Godfather Part 4: Fredo’s Revenge 1.8%
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Bob Glickstein; gee bobg; “bob glickstein” +yoga; bob glickstein andrea; bob glickstein imdb; growing up Glickstein 1.4%
Trophy; ugly trophy; dna trophy; bezos trophy 1.3%
Dog; how to draw dogs; “remington dog park”; dog pee drives away evil spirits; veterinary dogs and chocolate 1.3%
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Cigarettes/Camels/Still Life With Woodpecker; Joe Camel; tom robbins woodpecker; camel tom robbins 0.5%
Baron Munchausen; was baron munchausen an atheist 0.5%
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Computer; computers internet blog; “apple II home computer” 0.4%
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Carl Sagan; “carl sagan” +billions; cosmos carl sagan vangelis heaven hell; “circumference of the earth” carl sagan; eratosthenes carl sagan; Carl Sagan and Star Trek 0.4%
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The Incredibles; Life Lessons The Incredibles; incredibles analogy of family togetherness 0.3%
Legobiggest lego city ever made; Cool lego creations; LEGO WORLD RECORD FOR MILLENIUM FALCON 0.3%
Birthday invitation; neverland invitation 0.3%
Mill Valley Pediatrics; what new rule causes pediatrician to close office; dr. Harris pediatrics mill valley 0.3%
BDSM; BDSM and rodent; hellium balloons bdsm; bdsm “trembling with fear”; professional bdsm pittsburgh; bdsm vanity plates 0.3%
Richard S. Castellano 0.3%
Bugsy Malone/Scott Baio; coca cola jingle+you give a little love and all comes back to you 0.3%
Games magazine/Calculatrivia marathon; ken jennings calculatrivia; “games magazine” contest t-shirt 0.3%
Penis; Jonah Falcon penis; christmas penis drawing; penis peeing pictures; penis doodles; “draw a penis” 0.3%
Drawing/scribbling/doodling; kids scribbles 0.3%
Raiders of the Lost Ark; indiana jones medallion + raiders of the lost ark; indiana jones finds millenium falcon; indiana jones harrison ford sean connery 0.3%
I know it was you Fredo.; Johnny Ola Fredo; HOW DOES MICHAEL KNOW ABOUT FREDO; +”why” +michael +kill +fredo 0.3%
Federation Trading Post 0.2%
Funny epitaph; headstone humor; headstone for mom 0.2%
Batman; shark repellent spray; batman and the shark; batman robin “more toyetic” 0.2%
Handshadow; Hand-Shadow play 0.2%
Peter and the Starcatchers 0.2%
Watch neighbor undress; neighbor undress photo 0.2%
Lemon Ice King of Corona; queens ices 0.2%
Weight; weight graph; college freshman weight graph; jewish weight loss 0.2%
Marty Goldstein/Black Book; ‘marty goldstein’ ‘creative black book’; i remember going to the black book office zanetti 0.2%
Kinds of meat; meatballs three kinds of meat 0.2%
Fligth to Mars 0.2%
Supertanker; how much does a supertanker cost?; how many barrels of oil does a supertanker carry; how much money does a supertanker captain make; running costs for a supertanker; becoming a supertanker captain; supertankers are curved 0.2%
Jewish; jew obnoxious; jewish products; mormon jew; mountain jew; val kilmer sephardic jewish 0.2%
Cartelligent; Leigh Taylor, Cartelligent; cartelligent price for honda fit 0.2%
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Captain Morgan rum 0.2%
Gerald Zanetti 0.2%
Bush smile 0.2%
Salt Lake flats; nevada open salt lake 0.2%
Disney; disney+AND+fingerprint; disney park hopper fingerprint; thumper disney 0.2%
Koyaanisqatsi 0.2%
Katharine Hepburn 0.2%
Incremental backup; jungledisk incremental backups; s3 backup incremental mirror linux; simple linux incremental backups; infinite backup 0.2%
Rhymes with Bethany; bethany accident utah; something that rhymes with bethany; poem for bethany 0.1%
Sci-fi spaceships; cool Scifi Spaceships; most beautiful spaceships 0.1%
I Dream of Jeannie; healey irresistible to when i dream of jeannie episode; i dream of jeanie colorization 0.1%
Laundry; how to get quarters laundry; cold undissolved laundry soap; monopolize laundry machines; laundry pile 0.1%
Anakin/Padme; How much do Anakin’s talent, pride and ambitions affect his decisions to turn to ‘the dark side’? 0.1%
Making Mr. Right; malkovich “making mr right” 0.1%
Pop-culture grid; “the pop culture grid”+last concert you saw 0.1%
Adventurer’s Inn; toboggan adventurer’s inn 0.1%
Clemenza; young clemenza; who killed clemenza 0.1%
Glenne Headley 0.1%
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Nature of reality; 10 dimensions of reality; how to understand ten dimensional reality; three-dimensional pants 0.1%
Dunk tank; “spring carnival” dunk 0.1%
Misconstruction 0.1%
Sarah Jessica Parker; sarah jessica parker in square pegs 0.1%
Mr. Arrigo; Robert arrigo teacher 0.1%
Eli Attie 0.1%
Hog-calling time in Nebraska; What tune is hog calling time in nebraska sung to?; ORIGINS OF HOG CALLING; hog calling songs 0.1%
Eulogy for a friend 0.1%
Indiana University; indiana university hofstadter 0.1%
Cynthia Nixon; Cynthia Nixon manhattan project 0.1%
Pine Knoll Bungalow Colony; bungalow colonies in monticello 0.1%
Prison Break; prisoner 94941; michael scofield myer briggs; “prisoner number” scofield 0.1%
Winnemucca, NV; Winnemucca weekly pet friendly motels; reasons to love Winnemucca, NV 0.1%
Steve Volan 0.1%
P.S. 196; all teachers from p.s.196 0.1%
Knish Nosh; knish nosh health department 0.1%
Mucoshave 0.1%
Laser/Theodore Maiman; 1966 national geographic “the laser’s bright magic”; what kind of food does theodore maiman likes; did theodore maiman get alot of money for making the laser 0.1%
Jeff Bezos; BEZOS THE GREATEST 0.1%
Universal Hall Pass 0.1%

The beginning of wisdom

[This post is participating in Strange Culture’s Film + Faith Blog-a-thon. Warning: spoilers follow for the book and film Contact. Update 16 Dec: this post is also participating in Joel Schlosberg’s second annual Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-thon.]

I read Carl Sagan‘s novel, Contact, soon after it was published in the late 1980’s, and enjoyed it greatly. It’s the story of a radio astronomer, Ellie Arroway, who is the first person on Earth to detect, verify, and begin deciphering a genuine extraterrestrial message.

A considerable part of the story is devoted to the societal implications of Arroway’s discovery, especially among various religious communities. As it’s depicted in the book, Ellie must suffer various crackpots, blowhards, and garden-variety religious leaders (well-meaning but deluded) spouting their superstitious blather in her quest to secure the resources needed to finish decoding the alien transmission and build the Great Machine.

For the transmission includes, among other things, construction plans for a tremendous and tremendously complicated machine. At its center is a capsule that seats five intrepid adventurers. No one knows what will happen when the machine is switched on. Will the capsule launch into space? Travel through time? Pop into a different dimension? Or is it a weapon that will obliterate the Earth?

The trials involved in achieving the goal of building and activating the Machine are portrayed very much as the power of pure reason overcoming the fetters of fear and ignorance. In the end, Ellie and her fellow travelers are propelled across vast distances and have a surprising encounter with a superior but benevolent race. When they return days later, they discover that no time has elapsed on Earth, leaving a diehard core of doubters free to insist that nothing at all happened, even though there is compelling evidence to support the stories told by Ellie and the others. Science is the clear winner, religion the loser, and it’s pure wish fulfillment: what atheist hasn’t dreamed of winning one of those unwinnable arguments about faith and science against a true believer?

In Robert Zemeckis’ film version of Contact, things are subtly different. Ellie is as much an empiricist as in the book, but man-of-God Palmer Joss is much less easy to dismiss out of hand. His interplay with Ellie on the subject of faith leaves her uncharacteristically at a loss, unable to turn him aside by articulating the bedrock principles of skeptical inquiry.

When the time comes to try the Machine, crucially there is room in it for only one person, so that when Ellie returns from her amazing journey there is no one to corroborate her account. There is also a total absence of physical evidence to support her story. Ellie ends up passionately, desperately trying to persuade people to believe what she is certain is true but cannot prove. Palmer Joss sympathetically points out that this is precisely the situation in which persons of faith find themselves.

It’s a marvelous storytelling contrivance, and the dialogue and performances drive the point home economically and convincingly. But I left the theater conflicted. On the one hand, the film had excellent performances and astonishing visuals, it was exhilarating to see an intelligent, uncliched portrayal of science and scientists in a mainstream Hollywood movie, and it was in many respects faithful to the novel. Where changes were made, by and large they were to add some emotional depth that had been missing from Sagan’s plot- and technology-heavy writing. On the other hand, the rebalancing of science and religion changed what the story was fundamentally about! It offended me that Carl Sagan, recently deceased after a lifetime of science advocacy (today would have been his 73rd birthday, by the way), should have his fantasy about the triumph of humanism and reason watered down for a mass audience!

Over time, though, the film version grew on me and I recognized it as something greater than the source novel: an adventure in which reason triumphs and an exploration of the tangled interrelationship between belief and skepticism. Where I had been hoping to see religious moviegoers get schooled in the virtues of rational thought, instead I had received a lesson about the nuances and complexities of the human experience. The science-beats-religion version of the story had become, to me, overly simplistic. (Sorry, Carl.)

After all, even Mr. Spock admits, near the end of a long career working with humans, that “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”

The Swedish fish of brotherly love

I don’t believe in an immortal soul. But…

Recently, Jonah had his “graduation” from preschool. It was a fun ceremony with adorable singing from the graduates, diplomas, and a pot-luck party. Andrea and I attended, as did Jonah’s brother, Archer.

After the diplomas but before the pot-luck there were some games of skill for the graduates only. Archer had to sit it out along with all the other siblings, and he was OK with that.

Jonah won his first game — a mock fishing game, in which he “hooked” a candy Swedish fish. Rather than stuff the candy in his mouth and run to the next game on the “midway,” like all the other kids, he ran over to Archer on the sidelines and said, “Archer! I won a piece of candy!” Without further ado he tore his Swedish fish in half and gave one piece to his brother.

Whereupon I remarked to Andrea, “It’s irresistible at times like this to think that my mom is watching somewhere, and smiling.”

No place for common sense

Not that this is especially deserving of a reasoned rebuttal:

Peanut butter disproves evolution

…A (serious) Creationist clip showing how peanut butter disproves the theory of evolution…

The video explains that evolutionists claim that energy plus matter sometimes results in the creation of life. But since no one has ever found spontaneously-generated life in a jar of peanut butter, that means that matter plus energy from the sun couldn’t have caused life on Earth… Link

…but I just happened to have one handy in some old e-mail. An outspoken creationist friend of mine wrote:

there are over 200 million different species on this planet. Since each is (presumably) evolving differently and over time, it seems reasonable to expect that one, only one, just one tiny one, of these 200,000,000 species would have “sprouted wings” in the last 150 years

where I understood “sprouted wings” to mean “underwent a significant, observable evolutionary change.” That may be a common sense outlook, but this is no place for common sense. Common sense breaks down when dealing with fantastically large numbers and fantastically small odds. Here is how I replied:

Let’s say the earth is 4.5 billion years old, and it took all that time to produce 200 million existing species. (We’ll treat the many other species that have come and gone as statistical fluctuations.) That’s 0.044 species per year on average. Over 150 years you should then expect to see the emergence of 6.67 new species on average, which is .00000334% of the total number of species. Easy to miss.

Let’s do it another way: 0.044 species per year is 22.5 years per species — that is, we should expect a new species every 22.5 years. Assuming each of the existing 200 million species is equally likely to spawn that new species, each species must wait an average of 3.12 billion years to have a 50-50 chance of creating a successor.

(That’s

22.5×log1-1/2000000000.5

1-1/200000000 is 0.999999995, which are the odds of a species not spawning a new species in one year. 0.999999995×0.999999995 are the odds of not spawning a new species for two years in a row; 0.999999995×0.999999995×0.999999995 are the odds of not spawning a new species for three years in a row; and so on. How many times must you multiply 0.999999995 by itself to get to odds of 0.5? That’s what log1-1/2000000000.5 tells you.)

That’s by no means a rigorous analysis — it’s full of extremely coarse assumptions, among other things — but it should be at least accurate enough to convey the vastness of the timescales involved, the number of species, and the odds against having any particular evolutionary expectation met.

Or, as Darryl Zero said,

Now a few words on looking for things. When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad, because of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good, because of all the things in the world, you’re sure to find some of them.

Religion: another view

In previous blog posts I’ve been pretty down on religion. Well, on organized religion. Organized Western religion. But my actual outlook on the subject is more nuanced than I may have made it sound. Let me explain.

It infuriates me whenever someone tells me that religious faith is required in order to keep people moral. Apparently, if it weren’t for the fear of divine retribution, eternal damnation, etc., everyone would be a brute, stealing, raping, killing, and generally behaving badly. We would be in a Hobbesian state of nature. To keep society functioning, it is necessary for everyone to be ruled by fear. To be “God-fearing” is to be gentle and humble.

This is a very dim view of humanity — people can’t be good on their own? — and I’m happy to report that it’s as wrong as can be. In my experience, it’s the atheists and the agnostics who are by far the most moral and decent people: the most ready to lend a hand, the most reluctant to inflict harm, the most community-minded, the least selfish. They are guided not by fear for their immortal souls but by enlightened self-interest: sharing and caring buys you entrée to a culture that shares with and cares for you too. (Perhaps there’s a bit of San Francisco hippie utopianism in there as well.) For them, virtue may or may not be its own reward — it is for me — but at the very least it’s the currency with which a class of rewards can be purchased.

I submit that those who behave in a moral fashion for their own reasons instead of someone else’s are more moral. To such people, religion is probably irrelevant, especially if they’ve outgrown their simian need for a super-father-figure/tribal-leader/alpha-male.

What about everyone else? After all, it is lamentably true that not everyone behaves in a moral fashion on his or her own. Probably most people do not. For many of those, we see again and again on the local news (“if it bleeds, it leads”) how religion does not serve as an effective restraint on their darker lusts and passions, even in spite of occasional sincere belief in divine judgment.

Which leaves the remainder: those people who aren’t moral on their own but whose wrongdoing is effectively prevented by religious belief. They want to murder and steal and covet their neighbors’ wives and kick adorable defenseless puppies, but they don’t because God is watching.

Are there many or few such people? The Talmud says that to save one life is like saving the world. By that reasoning, if just one would-be victim’s life is spared by the inhibiting effects of religion on his or her would-be killer, then religious belief is a good thing. On the other hand, think of all the lives that runaway religious belief has cost over the centuries. In attempting to curtail one kind of evil, religion unleashes another kind. Which way does the scale tip? Does religion do more good than harm, or more harm than good?

Violent fanatics are the dark side of religious belief. Is it possible to have religion without creating fanatics? That would be the best of all possible worlds. I suspect, however, that, just like acting morally, acting fanatically is possible with or without religion to justify it.

…But without a religion to organize around, the damage they could do would be limited. Hmm, I guess I’m down on religion after all.

If Bush didn’t exist, would it be necessary to invent God?

The ghosts of thousands of American soldiers butchered in an inhuman slaughterhouse do not haunt the conscience of the man who blithely sent them there. He is untroubled by the cries emanating from a dying American city, ruined and neglected on his watch. The piteous pleas uttered by the multitudes marginalized by his policies — the poor, the ill, the not-well-connected — do not perturb him. And he is completely deaf to the wailing of those foreign families he has destroyed by the tens of thousands.

Will nothing wipe the smirk off this man’s face?

All men love justice,” and for most people other than those who have bought into Bush’s “sophistry […] by which he proves to himself that it is best to be done,” the possibility that he will not be made to answer for his crimes is frankly unbearable.

Hence the need to invent the concept of Hell. Though we have no evidence for it, we are compelled to believe in it; the world is sometimes simply too cruel to bear otherwise. Even I am occasionally reduced to muttering, upon losing some argument with a boorish authority figure or customer-service agent, “Well at least he’ll writhe in agony for eternity.” (Hell is passive-aggressive.)

There have always been evil men like Bush, and though some of them may escape judgment in this life, we satisfy ourselves that no one escapes judgment in the next. Thus too the need to invent God, the immortal, infallible, and pitiless judge, to mete out a better justice than we humans can manage. Finally, to balance Hell and cement our faith in the fundamental rightness of the universe, the concept of Heaven — the place “we” will finally go to be free of everything that has interfered with our enjoyment of this life, including “them,” the other people we have consigned to Hell.

Western religion is founded upon childish wish fulfillment. This is so transparent, it’s a wonder so many people fall for its promises. Given that they do, it’s no wonder so many people fall for Bush’s.

Atheism, the final frontier

The BBC has recognized outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins as their 2006 Person of the Year. That made me think of the original Star Trek.

When writing about the appeal of the original Star Trek it has become de rigeur to cite its optimistic vision for the future — in which war, racial strife, etc. have been overcome — especially since it appeared during the turbulence of the 1960’s. But I think the real answer is something deeper and more essential.

First, a digression. In The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the Baron, that lovable spinner of fantastical tall tales, is opposed by “The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson,” a literal-minded and distinctly unlovable bureaucrat who prizes order and rationality over the creative chaos of the Baron’s world. The film depicts rationality robbing the world of adventure and romance.

American pop culture has always been hard on men of reason, who usually come off as amoral, insensitive, clumsy, narrow-minded, unpoetic, socially inept, or downright mad. Dreamers, lovers, men of action — they are the heroes, and anyone employing logic is a mere detractor if not an out-and-out villain.

In the popular imagination, the intellect is suspect. Thinkers in general, and scientists in particular, are a haughty elite, the priests and guardians of an occult sect with its own impenetrable apocrypha and incomprehensible dialects. They set themselves up as authorities on various subjects and make pronouncements based on arcane knowledge that are never to be trusted, because there’s always a contradictory pronouncement just around the corner.

But in reality, what can be more democratic than science? It’s the ultimate leveler; anyone can be an authority. Science isn’t a particular collection of knowledge or a particular place or particular people. Science is a method, famously encapsulated by Richard Feynman as: “1. Make a guess. 2. See if you’re wrong.” Anyone who thinks according to these rules, and follows fearlessly where the reasoning leads, is a scientist.

If democracy is the founding principle of America, science and rationality are its true religion. They are the bedrock on which its political and industrial institutions are built, even at times when science seems temporarily discredited by the prevailing political fashions of the day.

Yet, even as science is central to the American experience, it gets short shrift in popular culture. Often marginalized, occasionally trashed, seldom if ever was it celebrated properly — until Star Trek. The accomplishment of Star Trek, and the true source of its enduring appeal, was its portrayal of a future in which rationality does not kill adventure and romance but creates them, satisfying the unmet need of Americans to see their society validated — or, as one like-minded fan commented recently,

It isn’t Star Trek’s “optimism” that made it great. It’s the idea that in the future the Carl Sagans of the universe will be in charge and successfully run society on the principles of secular humanism and science while the George Bush and Dick Cheneys of the universe are Klingons. Star Trek is about the promise of a new Enlightenment […]

As a champion of romantic rationality and a lifelong Star Trek fan I am encouraged by the selection of Dawkins as BBC’s Person of the Year. Atheism has always been the belief-that-dares-not-speak-its-name. Even at the height of the Age of Reason, Thomas Jefferson, whom we might recognize as an atheist, called himself a Deist. But this news about Dawkins, and other harbingers (here, here, and here), suggest that atheism is coming out of the closet in a big way, which can only happen in an environment favorable to rationality. Can it be that the recent wave of anti-intellectualism in the Western world finally crested, crashed on the jagged rocks of the reality-based community, and is now receding?

That would be good news for the back-to-its-roots Star Trek movie now in development.