Thursday, October 8, 2009

Einstein on Judaism

From here:
The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. ... For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong ... have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything “chosen” about them.
Amen, brother.

Incidentally, that quote makes this video (shown to me recently by a frummie) seem even more stupid than it already did:

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Misleading Statistics

I keep seeing this commercial for Allstate auto insurance which really bugs me. In the commercial, the guy from "The Unit" says (as best I can remember, since I can't find the video online)
"Think Geico has the best prices? Then you're gonna find this really confusing: Drivers who switched from Geico to Allstate saved an average of $400. Confused?..."
(the number wasn't exactly $400, but it was around there)

The reason this bugs me is that the information given doesn't actually tell you which insurance company is cheaper. All it tells you is that the people who switched saved money. Well duh! Most people aren't going to switch if it's going to cost more to do so! For all we know, there may have been 10 people who switched from Geico to Allstate and saved an average of $400 (per year?) and 10 million people who switched from Allstate to Geico and saved $1000. The information given in the commercial doesn't preclude that scenario at all, but the makers of the commercial clearly want you to think that somehow the information does mean that you'd be better off switching to Allstate (maybe in fact you would be, but their statistic doesn't imply that).

I don't really care so much about truth in advertising, it just really bugs me when people try to confuse people with statistics that don't actually have any bearing on their claim.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

If you're gonna be sure, be right

Ignorance mixed with smug certitude is not a pretty thing.

I went to the local Chabad house this past Friday night (I may have grown to dislike religion, but I still love Shabbos food), and I happened to sit across from another student who I hadn't met before. We got talking about our respective studies (he's an English major), and when I mentioned that I am studying physics he said (paraphrasing), "I hate it that scientists think they are so much more objective than everybody else, especially when they believe in things like atoms, which there are no evidence for."

I went on to explain to him that in fact there is (and has been for a long time) overwhelming evidence for the atomic theory of matter, even including images of atoms on the surface of materials (in my department there are experimentalists who even manipulate one atom at a time using lasers).

How a college student (in a good university) could be so unaware of stuff they teach in high school chemistry is mind-boggling enough, but what really annoyed me was how obnoxious he was in his assertion. If you are going to be smug, at least make sure that you are correct! (Was that too smug of me? I was very polite to him in person.)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cosmos: The Musical

I saw this on Pharyngula and really liked it. Note that MC Hawking (the original one) makes a short appearance.

I saw Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" as a kid (my parents were BTs and let me watch such nureshkeit) and I think it's one of the things that first inspired me to become a scientist (that and "The Magic School Bus").

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Is Your Holy Book Racist?

In response to my previous post about giving health-care to illegal immigrants, the Jewish Philosopher (JP) in our midst left the following comment:
People naturally take care of their own; that's taken for granted. According to the Talmud "love your neighbor" means "love Jews".
I don't agree with JP very often, but here I shall agree with his statement, if not his implied intent. Yes, it seems people do have a natural inclination to favor those who are similar to them over those who are different. There was a cover story in Newsweek about that a couple of weeks ago, which mentioned the following experiment:

It takes remarkably little for children to develop in-group preferences. Vittrup's mentor at the University of Texas, Rebecca Bigler, ran an experiment in three preschool classrooms, where 4- and 5-year-olds were lined up and given T shirts. Half the kids were randomly given blue T shirts, half red. The children wore the shirts for three weeks. During that time, the teachers never mentioned their colors and never grouped the kids by shirt color.

The kids didn't segregate in their behavior. They played with each other freely at recess. But when asked which color team was better to belong to, or which team might win a race, they chose their own color. They believed they were smarter than the other color. "The Reds never showed hatred for Blues," Bigler observed. "It was more like, 'Blues are fine, but not as good as us.' " When Reds were asked how many Reds were nice, they'd answer, "All of us." Asked how many Blues were nice, they'd answer, "Some." Some of the Blues were mean, and some were dumb—but not the Reds.

So it would appear that JP is correct that there is a natural tendency to develop "in-group preferences." But we have two choices: we can either try to overcome this tendency, or we can succumb to it. Modern liberal morality demands that we should attempt to overcome this in-group preference and make a concerted effort to treat all people equally, while JP's Torah morality dictates that we succumb to this tendency and treat people in our group (Jews) different than those outside it. So which is more moral? Should we surrender to this natural tendency or try to overcome it? Personally, I think this is one tendency I would like us to fight against. It seems that once we succumb to this nature that it's a short step to outright racial discrimination.

(Although he didn't say so clearly in the comment, it would seem that JP is endorsing the Talmud's view that we should embrace our natural inclination towards in-group preferences. I don't think I'm being unfair in assuming this, considering the views about the origins of morality that JP has espoused in the past.)

Incidentally, I find it sort of telling that in chassidus shiur we were always hit over the head with the idea that we should fight against our natural tendencies, especially the "animalistic" sexual taivos, but fighting the natural tendency towards in-group preferences was never mentioned. In fact such preferences were encouraged ("You are the best of the best, hand chosen by the Rebbe RaShaB to be in his heiliker Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim.") As is often the case with religion: masturbation is tantamount to murder, but bigotry is just fine.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I'm Back / Health-care

Sorry (to nobody in particular) that I've neglected my blog. I've spent the summer working almost nonstop, but now that the school year is starting again I'm going to try to post somewhat regularly.

I guess the big news this summer (at least in the USA) has been the debate over health-care reform. I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the relevant issues; my general feeling is that I'd like the government to make sure that every citizen has health-care (a single payer system like they have in many European countries sounds good to me, but maybe there are other methods that would work better). It's not that I'm pro-socialism in general, in fact I think that capitalism provides people with the necessary incentives to go out and do the things they need to do so that we can have a functioning society, but I think we should try to at least make sure everyone has access to food, shelter, education, and health-care, if at all possible.

Anyway, I just wanted to point out one thing that bugged me about the response in the media to congressman Joe Wilson's outburst during the President's address to congress a couple of weeks ago. Wilson shouted "You lie" at the President's assertion that his proposed reforms would not apply to illegal aliens. Much of the media coverage that I saw pointed out that in fact there were no proposals to cover illegal aliens, and furthermore that Obama was simply stating what reforms he would support, so Wilson really was factually inaccurate in saying that the President was lying. It was also pointed out that Wilson was simply being inappropriate by yelling at the president during a speech to congress.

What I didn't see pointed out was the inappropriateness of Wilson's (and many of his countrymens') underlying anger that some poor brown people that sneaked in to the US so they could afford to feed their families might get health-care! Wilson was so angry that these people would actually get treated when they are sick (heaven forbid!) that he just lost it on the floor of the House. I mean, would it really be so bad that some non-Americans got free health-care? Does he want anyone without citizenship papers to be denied life-saving care? Remember, these are many of the same people who were more than willing to spend a trillion dollars to "liberate" the Iraqi people (and don't give me that national security bullshit - they still supported the war after it was clear that there were no WMD). I'd rather spend my tax money saving some non-citizen lives than spending it to send more people to die in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I realize that it would be political suicide for Obama to say that he wouldn't mind if some illegal aliens got health-care, but I just wanted to point out the lack of compassion and empathy that is needed to be so damn angry about the possibility that some non-citizens might get some free health-care.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Large Hardon

Here's a Daily Show clip about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). When the LHC turned on late last year, I noticed that most of the mainstream media stories on the LHC made sure to give "equal time" to the crazy kooks (redundant?) who think that the LHC is going to destroy the world. If someone didn't know better, they could get the impression from those stories that the kooks' version of reality was as legitimate as the scientists'. It's sort of sad that it takes a comedy show to get it right. I guess I've come to expect that the Daily Show is the best source for accurate reporting.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Large Hadron Collider
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisFirst 100 Days

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

In LRH we trust

In the comments of the last post, someone brought up the old line "freedom of religion, not freedom from religion." I've heard this saying tons of time, particularly with regard to the issue of having the words "In God we trust" on our money. It always seems like the people using this line think they are being inordinately clever.

Well, it just seems inordinately stupid to me.

What do people even mean when they use the "freedom of, not freedom from" line? I suppose they occasionally mean that in America we have the right to choose our religion, but not the right to choose to have no religion. Does that make sense to anyone? Do they really think government should force us to pick a faith?

I suppose that line is more commonly used to express the idea that we should not remove religious symbolism from the public sphere, as doing so would somehow force us to be "free from religion". As if removing "In God we Trust" from our money would suddenly force religious people to abandon their faith.

Well, the actual guarantee in the constitution is that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." Does removing "In God we trust" from our money prohibit the free exercise of religion? I think not. The fact that it doesn't say "In LRH we trust" on money does not restrict the right Scientologists to practice religion, and removing "In God we trust" wouldn't force Christians to stop believing in God.

It seems to me that "In God we trust" is in fact an endorsement of religion, since there are people who do not believe in "God" (atheists, Buddhists, pagans etc.) . Imagine how a religious Jew would feel if he saw the words "In Jesus we trust" every time he looked at his money. Or how a Christian would feel if it said "In Allah we trust". Nobody should be made to feel like they are not a "true" American because they don't believe in the particular deity endorsed on their currency.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Thou shalt not be a moron

I just saw this on Pharyngula, and just had to post it. It's part of the Oklahoma GOP platform:
4. While the objective study of philosophy and religion can be beneficial, public schools should not be endorsing any specific religion or philosophy. We believe that students and teachers should enjoy the right of free exercise of religion.

5. We support posting the Ten Commandments and our Nation's motto, "In God We Trust," in all public schools in recognition of our religious heritage. U.S. citizens. We support teaching the intent of our founding fathers, the original founding documents, and the difference between a democracy and a republic.
That's hilarious! We should not endorse any specific religion, but we should post the Ten Commandments in public schools!

Were they thinking that because the Ten Commandments are part of more than one religion that this doesn't qualify as an endorsement of a "specific" religion? More likely, they just weren't thinking.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A storm is coming!

I've been super busy with school lately, so I haven't really had time to post. I'll try to write something substantial in the near future (i.e. sometime between tomorrow and when the sun turns into a red giant). For now, I just thought I'd post this awesome Colbert clip about the ridiculous National Organization for Marriage commercial.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Colbert Coalition's Anti-Gay Marriage Ad
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorGay Marriage Commercial

Friday, April 17, 2009


I've been tagged by OTD to fill out this questionnaire, so here goes:

Q1. How would you define "atheism"?

I would define it as the lack of a belief in any gods or supernatural forces (whatever that means). Sometimes people make a distinction between my definition ("weak atheism") and the positive belief that there is no god ("strong atheism"). However, there do not seem to be very many strong atheists, so in common usage we can usually use the term "atheism" as meaning "weak atheism".

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

Yes. Orthodox Judaism (Lubavitch, specifically).

Q3. How would you describe "Intelligent Design", using only one word?


Q4. What scientific endeavor really excites you?

The search for Dark Matter and Dark Energy. We are pretty sure (from astronomical observations) that most of the "stuff" in the universe is not ordinary matter and energy, but we have no idea what that "stuff" is! (Actually we have a lot of ides, but we don't know if any of them are correct, yet).

Q5. If you could change one thing about the "atheist community", what would it be and why?

I would like it to be more vocal/visible. People shouldn't have to feel the need to be in the atheist closet. If civilization survives the problems we are currently facing, it will likely be because we abandon our ancient dogmas and superstitions. People will be more willing to do this when they realize there are a lot of good people out there who have the courage to be rational.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said "I'm joining the clergy", what would be your first response?

I would tell them to do so if it makes them happy, but I would encourage them not to indoctrinate their children into their chosen faith. Then I would try to convince them that they can feel fulfilled without faith, but I'd accept their decision either way.

Q7. What's your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

Most of the arguments are pretty silly. One I especially like refuting is Pascal's Wager, which basically says its smarter to believe in god because the price of false belief (nothing) is less than the price of false disbelief (hell). There are many ways to refute this, including to note that there are many possible and mutually exclusive gods to believe in, so which god should I pick?

Q8. What's your most "controversial" (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

I think I pretty much toe the party line. I think some atheists treat religion with too much undue respect, but that has been changing as of late.

Q9. Of the "Four Horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favorite, and why?

Can I pick a fifth Horseman? If so, PZ Myers is my favorite. He's just so chutzpadik. If not, I'll pick Dawkins, his arguments are usually organized more clearly than the others, IMO.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

My hypothetical kid who wants to join the clergy. If you mean a real person, then I'll pick the Pope.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Shafran hearts Madoff

PZ took time out of his busy schedule of mocking Christian kooks to mock a Jewish kook for a change. Apparently Rabbi Avi Shafran thinks that Bernie Madoff is more moral than Captain Sullenberger, because Sully did not publicly thank God for his successful river landing, while Bernie apologized for stealing billions of dollars (only after he was caught, of course). In the words of Sarah Palin, I kid you not.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Same-Sex Marriage Legal in Iowa

There was a big victory today in the struggle for gay rights. The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that Iowa's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional. I hope that their ruling sticks longer than California's did, and that more states follow suit soon.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Don't daven for me.

Last week I got a phone call from an old friend who went to high school and yeshiva with me. We had been good friends in school but had only talked a few times in the last few years. He was calling to ask me about my relationship status, as he wanted to set me up on a shidduch date. I informed him that I am no longer frum (apparently he had not heard that I "frei'd out," which was surprising to me, since everyone used to gossip about the "frei'aks" in our community), so it would probably not be a good idea for me to date a frum girl.

After my friend got over his initial shock that I went off the derech, the conversation inevitably turned to the reasons why I left. I often try to avoid this type of conversation when I meet frum folks, as they tend to turn unpleasant, but I used to be really close to this friend and I wanted to be truthful with him. I informed him that I am no longer a believer, and tried to explain why. I explained in length that there is no evidence that any gods exist, that there is no good reason to believe that the Torah is the word of God, and that many of the stories in the Torah are almost certainly false (e.g. the flood).

My friend answered back with a bunch of the usual frum arguments, he was particularly fond of the argument that multitudes of people witnessed the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and such a revelation could not possibly be faked (Kuzari). After I explained to him why I thought each of his arguments was invalid, he tried the old tactic of Jewish guilt. He told me that millions of Jews had died over the millenia because of their belief, and I was spitting on their graves with my denouncements. He then asked me if I would be able to swear on a Torah that I don't believe in God, and I answered that I could. After he heard that, he told me that he was very sad for me and that he would daven for my neshama. I told him that he really shouldn't worry about me, and that I hoped we could still be friends. He politely agreed, but I got the feeling that I may not hear from him again.

Maybe it would have been better not to have told him that I'm an atheist. Many frum people seem willing to accept that I became not frum, but they have more trouble accepting that someone could stop believing in God and the Torah. I guess they'd rather think I'm just some hedonist who couldn't handle the restrictions of Halacha. I don't really care if they think that, but I don't like feeling that I have to lie about who I am just to avoid unpleasant conversations.

Monday, March 30, 2009


I've been reading The End of Faith, by Sam Harris, and I thought I'd share this educational excerpt:
The fact that people are being prosecuted and imprisoned for using marijuana, while alcohol remains a staple commodity, is surely the reductio ad absurdum of any notion that our drug laws are designed to keep people from harming themselves or others. Alcohol is by any measure the more dangerous substance. It has no approved medical use, and its lethal dose is rather easily achieved. Its role in causing automobile accidents is beyond dispute. The manner in which alcohol relieves people of their inhibitions contributes to human violence, personal injury, unplanned pregnancy, and the spread of sexual disease. Alcohol is also well known to be addictive. When consumed in large quantities over many years, it can lead to devastating neurological impairments, to cirrhosis of the liver, and to death. In the United States alone, more than 100,000 people annually die from its use. It is also more toxic to developing fetus than any other drug of abuse. (Indeed, “crack babies” appear to have been really suffering from fetal-alcohol syndrome.) None of these charges can be leveled at marijuana. As a drug, marijuana is nearly unique in having several medical applications and no known lethal dosage. While adverse reactions to drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen account for an estimated 7,600 deaths (and 76,000 hospitalizations) each year in the United States alone, marijuana kills no one. Its role as a “gateway drug” now seems less plausible than ever (and it was never plausible). In fact, nearly everything human beings do – driving cars, flying planes, hitting golf balls – is more dangerous than smoking marijuana in the privacy of one’s own home. Anyone who would seriously attempt to argue that marijuana is worthy of prohibition because of the risk it poses to human beings will find that the powers of the human brain are simply insufficient for the job.
He goes on to explain how religion is responsible for this atrocious miscarriage of justice (and logic). Just another thing we can blame religion for.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


I saw this linked to on onionsoupmix. It's an article written by a religious YU student about his struggle with homosexuality. It's really sad and touching.

This is one of the worst evils that religion brings. This poor soul has been convinced that it's against the will of the magical sky father for him to love who he wants to love. And if he ever succumbs to his sexual desires he'll presumably feel guilty about betraying his faith.

Life is too short to waste on struggling to fulfill the whims of an imaginary being. It's hard enough to find love as it is, nobody should have to feel guilty about it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Could it be... Satan!?

(Sorry it's been a while, exam week you know. Not that anyone cares.)

Tonight, Nightline is airing a "debate" called "Does Satan exist?"

The people who are debating are a Christian pastor, the founder of "Hookers for Jesus," a former preacher, and Deepak Chopra. Deepak Chopra is a ridiculous self-help author, who regularly distorts science to advance his kooky theories. He famously claims that Quantum Theory supports the idea that people can cause physical changes in their physiology using their mind; Quantum theory says no such thing.

Couldn't they have found someone to represent reason/science? If you're gonna have Deepak Chopra argue for the correct side, there's not much hope that there will be much rationality in the debate. It's like getting the Pope to argue whether Vishnu exists. Maybe they just couldn't find a scientist who could keep a straight face when asked "Does Satan exist?" At least in the god debate there are arguments that seem sort of rational at first glance, even if they fail upon closer inspection. But how much can you really say about Satan? I guess I'll have to watch to find out. At least it should be a good laugh.

Edit: So I watched it, and Deepak Chopra wasn't as bad as I thought he would be. He had a few good moments talking about rationality, but he threw in plenty of his new-age woo. I still would have liked to see a scientist/rationalist there, I think someone like Hitchens could have done a much better job than Chopra. Anyway, it seemed like ABC was more interested in generating controversy than having a substantial debate, that's probably why the debate took place in a church where most of the crowd cheered every time the pastor proclaimed his ignorance, and why they brought the ex-hooker (who had a sad story, but obviously no debate experience).

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Magic Underpants

In the comments of a previous post someone wrote:
I say [this] as a modern orthodox Jew who believes in G-d: anyone who believes that "the Rebbe" is moshiach is a heretic.

Why? Partially because according to Rambam, the Moshiach can't die. But, it's also because this garbage is so stupid, intelligent people such as yourself rightfully reject it.
I have heard many similar arguments from frum people, saying that Chabad is not "true Judaism" but rather a messianic cult (see David Berger's book for example). But I don't actually want to talk about that here, mainly because as a non-believer, I don't really care what Halacha says. Rather I want to address the attitude conveyed in the last sentence quoted above. We have a frum person smart enough to recognize the absurdity of Mishichist beliefs, who is seemingly not able to see that many of his beliefs are no less absurd.

This is similar to the common occurrence of Christians and Jews mocking the beliefs of Mormons and Scientologists. They will make fun of magic underwear and the galactic overlord Xenu, while themselves believing that God hates pork and that there was a talking snake. There seems to be some kind of cognitive dissonance here. Why can't one group of religious people see that their beliefs are as ridiculous and unfounded as another group's beliefs? My first instinct is to say it is because people get used to their own weird beliefs since they grew up with them, but this does not account for BTs or converts.

Whatever the reason of this phenomenon, wake up! If "their" irrational beliefs are so weird why are "your" irrational beliefs any better? Why can't everyone see that belief in Allah, Jesus, or Hashem is just as ridiculous as belief in Xenu, Rael, or the FSM? If you were born in Salt Lake City instead of Borough Park, don't you think you'd believe in the Book of Mormon just as much as you now believe in the Torah?

Thursday, March 19, 2009


I guess I missed this Gallup poll a few weeks back. It seems that only 39% of Americans believe in evolution, which is less than I would have guessed. I know that frum people and evangelicals are generally creationists, but I thought that the average American Christian was a little more enlightened. Apparently I was wrong.

Although, I guess the poll can also be interpreted as, "Only 25% of Americans don't believe in evolution," which sounds much better.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy Simcha Patrick's Day

Remember, ad dilo yada.


Once a week in yeshiva, we would be shown a Rebbe video before davening. The videos, part of the "Living Torah" series, generally included a sicha (speech) by the Rebbe relating to the parsha of the week (the videos were taken years earlier, as I was in yeshiva after the Rebbe's passing.)

In one week's video, the Rebbe mistakenly confused "Asara B'Teves" (the 10th day of the month of Teves, which is a fast day in orthodox Judaism) with "Asara B'Shvat (the 10th day of the month of Shvat, which is the anniversary of the previous Rebbe's death). Any sane person would conclude that it was simply a slip of the tongue, certainly understandable for a man in his eighties. However, when asked by a bochur why the Rebbe made this mistake, the mashpiah (the rabbi in charge at the time) answered that it was impossible for the Rebbe to make a mistake, chas veshulem, and there must be a reason in the spiritual realms that we don't have access too, which caused the Rebbe to make the apparent error. If we were holier people, we would be able to see that the Rebbe's mistake is not really a mistake at all.

Infallible leader. Sounds like a cult to me.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Happy Pi Day!

Pi fun fact:

As you may have learned in high school geometry (unless you went to my yeshiva), pi is defined as a circle's circumference (the distance around) divided by its diameter (the distance across). It is approximately equal to 3.14 (that's why Pi Day is 3/14).

Now imagine a circular disk. If we measure its circumference and diameter, we find that their ratio is pi. What if we start to spin the disk (for example, a CD in a CD player)? According to Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, a moving object's length is shortened along its direction of motion as it moves (for example, if you throw a yard stick, its length becomes less than a yard while it is moving). Now, the outer edge of the disk is moving, thus its circumference is shortened. But the diameter remains unchanged, since it is not along the direction of motion. Thus the ratio of circumference to diameter is now less than pi!

What does this mean? It means that the geometry you learned in high school ("Euclidean Geometry") is not sufficient to describe relativistic motion. In fact, the spinning disk in free space is indistinguishable from a stationary disk in a gravitational field (that's Einstein's "equivalence principle") so this must mean that space under the influence of gravity is not describable by Euclidean geometry. In other words, space can be curved!

Yep kids, the universe is amazing, even without angels and witches.

Incidentally, I remember learning a gemara which said that the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter is 3 (I think it was talking about fitting the Torah into the holy ark). I guess you could say that the gemara was just being approximate (I think some meforshim say that), but I'd guess that Babylonian rabbis at the start of the dark ages just weren't math experts. Of course if you're a true believer then you'd say that the chazal knew everything there is to know, even though there is another gemara which says that the sun goes behind a curtain every night.

Edit: I've been informed that is today is merely American Pi Day. The British Pi Day does not occur until the 31st of April, which is never.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sex Ed

I'm not sure if this is much worse than "abstinence only"

Harvey Dent

When I was in yeshiva there was a song we would sometimes sing at farbrengens which went "If you're a misnagid your soul's gonna die."

I sometimes wonder what Chabad donors would think if they knew what most Lubavitchers really believe.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Yay America!

You've probably seen this already, but I'll mention it anyway. There's a new study out that shows that religion in America is shrinking:
Fifteen percent of respondents said they had no religion, an increase from 14.2 percent in 2001 and 8.2 percent in 1990, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.
Maybe there's hope for us yet! There is still a long way to go of course, I hope we can have an atheist in the White House again some day (Thomas Jefferson was an atheist, it seems. I guess we have regressed in this respect).

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Shmuley Lately

Here's a sort of funny video of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on Chelsea Lately. Lubavitchers seem to consider Rabbi Shmuley a sort of renegade for his unorthodox style of shlichus. I wonder if he was aware that Chelsea Lately is a comedy show; I once saw a video of him in a debate where he came across as a real moron.

Friday, March 6, 2009

My first time

I remember the first time I thought that the things I had been brought up to believe about God might not be true. When I was around 15 years old, I read an article about belief in Time or Newsweek. I was lucky enough that my parents were slightly more liberal than most Lubavitchers in our community, and had subscriptions to these secular magazines.

The article talked about how the first stage of belief is dogma. In particular, a child believes whatever his (or her) parents tell him to believe, just because they say so. I believed fully that the Torah was one hundred percent true, that the Orthodox Jewish way of life was the best one, that God listened to my every thought and was directly responsible for everything that happens in the world, and that all the myriad other things I was told were true. It had never occurred to me even for a second that any of those things might not be true.

But then I was introduced to the concept of dogma, that someone could believe something only because a person of authority told him to. This concept, as simple as it is, had never occurred to me before. I had never given a fleeting thought as to why I believed the things I did. For that one moment I realized that I didn't really have a good reason to think that my parents knew everything, and maybe some of their beliefs might be mistaken.

When I first had these heretical thoughts, I couldn't entertain them for more than a few moments before my frum upbringing would get the better of me. It must be the yetzer hara causing me to have these doubts, I thought. I'm a sinner, and I must daven to Hashem to remove these evil ideas from my head. It couldn't possibly be true that my beliefs were false, the Torah is perfect and true and if I couldn't see that, then it was a shortcoming of mine, not of the beliefs themselves.

Now, you might think that any rational person could realize that my beliefs were only the result of dogmatically accepting what my parents taught me, and that I had no reason to think they were actually a part of reality. So why did I think the problem was with myself rather than with the beliefs? Why did it always come back to “I must be a victim of the yetzer hara, and I need to daven harder”? Unfortunately, it seems this type of thinking inevitably comes with religion, by a sort of natural selection.

Imagine two rival religions. Religion A teaches that doubt is an evil symptom of a confused mind, while religion B allows doubt and questioning. Which religion do you think is going to survive longer?

It is in that sense that religious thought is like a parasite which prevents the mind from being able to follow the simple step of logic which should convince everyone to give up their dogmas.

Another way the Church loves kids

This is pretty fucked up, even for the Catholic Church, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised:
A 9-year-old girl who was carrying twins, and whose stepfather is suspected of raping her, underwent an abortion on Wednesday despite complaints from Brazil’s Roman Catholic Church. The stepfather has been jailed since last week, the police said. Abortion is illegal in Brazil, the country with the most Roman Catholics, but judges can make exceptions if the mother’s life is in danger or the fetus has no chance of survival. Fatima Maia, director of the public university hospital where the abortion was performed, said the pregnancy, which was in its 15th week, posed a serious risk to the girl, who weighs 80 pounds. But Marcio Miranda, a lawyer for the Archdiocese of Olinda and Recife in northeastern Brazil, said the girl should have carried the twins to term and had a Caesarean section. “It’s the law of God: Do not kill,” he said in comments reported by the newspaper O Globo.
So a 9 year old girl, who already suffered the horror of being raped, should be forced to elongate that assault by carrying her rapists offspring to term!? And at risk to her own life!?

Now I've heard people try to argue that the right to life of a mass of non-conscious tissue somehow trumps the right of a women to not have her body used as an incubator, but this is even wackier than that!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Are you there God? It's me, Mendy.

If God is omnipotent, then surely he can decide to make himself no longer exist, right? Maybe one day He decided that He doesn't want to exist anymore, but He'll allow the world to keep on existing in his absence. No more commandments, no more life-after-death, just this life in this world with no God. If God is omnipotent can't he do this?

How do we know God has not already disappeared?

In Hilchos Yesodai HaTorah, the Rambam writes (first chapter) "All things in creation are dependant upon the Creator for their continued existence..." So apparently God is not powerful enough to be able to make the world exist without Him existing. So much for omnipotence.

On a related note:

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

No more shabbos goy?

I just read an article in Newsweek which contained this lovely story:
In recent years the [Israeli city of Acre] had become a rare oasis of calm in the Holy Land, where Arabs and Jews lived relatively peacefully in close quarters. But all that changed last October, when a local Arab man drove his car into a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur. Tradition forbids driving on the Day of Atonement, and a mob of angry Jews chased the man down, pelting him with stones and shouting "Death to the Arabs!"
I've heard of radical religious Jews throwing stones at Jews who drive on shabbos before; do non-Jews have to be shomer shabbos now?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Dira Bitachtonim

I originally wrote this as a comment, but I thought I'd turn it into a post:

My teachers in yeshiva tried to convince me that chassidus (kabbalah based philosophy) explains the ultimate meaning of life and the universe. It pretty much boils down to this (ask a Lubavitcher if you don't believe me):
Q: Why do we and the universe exist?

A: God wanted to have a dwelling place in a lowly realm ("Nisaveh hakadosh baruch hu lihiyos lo dira bitachtonim"), so he created the world and put Jews in it so they can make the world ready for Him by doing mitzvos.

Q: Why did God want to do this?

A: It was a taivah (desire), and you can't question a taivah (i.e. desires are irrational, and that's that).
Now, I don't pretend to know the "meaning of it all" (maybe there isn't one), but I definitely don't find the above explanation to be satisfactory (for reasons obvious to the un-dogmatized). And anyway, it's all based on "revelation" (that's the definition of kabbalah) without evidence, so why should I believe it to be true?

I'd rather put my eggs in science's basket, and use reason and evidence to TRY to understand the universe. We may ultimately be unsuccessful, but I find no comfort in pretending to know things I don't.

Friday, February 27, 2009

MH"M part 2

Now that I think about is, that last post was sort of lame. I guess what I really think is that pretty much all religious leaders fall into the "asshole" category.

I guess what I want to convey is how my relationship to the Rebbe has evolved. First he was my unerring and all-knowing savior. Then he was just a good man and a really smart guy. Now he's just one of the myriad liars and swindlers that religion breeds, who helped spread an immoral and false philosophy that should have been extinguished by the enlightenment.

This post is sort of lame too. I need sleep.

Melech HaMoshiach

I recently had a conversation with one of my old friends from yeshiva about my religiosity. He remarked that even if I no longer believe in god, I must surely admit that the Rebbe was (is?) a great man.

Was the Rebbe a great man? I don't know.

He was responsible for the religious indoctrination of thousands of children; isn't that a bad thing? Does it make it any better if he truly believed it was the right thing to do? Is it evil to do an evil thing if you think it's the right thing to do?

You have to understand, that when I was growing up, we pretty much considered the Rebbe to be almost a god, perfect and infallible. My religion was all about the Rebbe: the Rebbe wants you to go on mivtzoim, the Rebbe loves you, etc... My parents and teachers talked about the Rebbe more than they talked about Hashem. So it's probably understandable that I started to harbor bad feelings towards the Rebbe once I began to realize that my religious beliefs were (probably) false. I thought that the Rebbe had lied to me about everything, so how could he be considered a good man? It's hard not to feel betrayed by someone who you idolized all you're life.

I guess I'm not really qualified to answer the question objectively, since my emotions are so deeply entangled in this matter.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


It's official! The Republicans are anti-science. First McCain mocked the Adler Planetarium ("3 million dollar overhead projector"), Palin mocked fruit-fly research (one of the most fruitful areas of biological research in the last 100 years, "I kid you not"), and now this from the "new face" of the Republican party:

"Something called volcano monitoring","Magnetic levitation." He is clearly trying to make science sound silly and stupid, as were McCain and Palin. Well, volcano monitoring is important, and magnetic levitation is a real technology (which uses superconductors to allow for more efficient locomotion). I don't know if they should be included in the stimulus package, but Jindal reveals his disrespect for science by mockingly dismissing them.

It seems the GOP is quite happy to be the party of the dark-ages.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


I remember reading somewhere (I think it may have been in Christopher Hitchens' book God is Not Great) that the word apikores, which is the Hebrew (Aramaic?) word for heretic and the name of this blog, comes from the name of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. I don't know much about ancient philosophers, but according to wikipedia:
[Epicurus] taught that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and bad, that death is the end of the body and the soul and should therefore not be feared, that the gods do not reward or punish humans, that the universe is infinite and eternal, and that events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space.
I guess then that it is indeed appropriate to call myself an apikores, since I think Epicurus was pretty much spot on, especially for someone who predated modern science.

In particular I generally base my morals on the idea that we should minimize suffering. For example, I'm pro-choice, since a fetus can't suffer before it develops a nervous system, and the mother will suffer if forced to incubate against her will. (The issue is more complicated if the fetus is further developed, but I'd rather let the mother and her doctors decide, since we don't usually allow the government to force person A to go out of their way to help person B, especially when person B might not even really be a person. vihamayvin yavin.) It should be noted however that our morals are products of a complicated combination of evolution and environment (i.e. the society we are raised in), but I thing the "do no harm" approach is a pretty good way to go. Maybe I'll elaborate on this some other time.

I obviously agree with Epicurus that there is no life after death, since there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. Of course I wish there was an afterlife; after all, who wants to stop existing? But wanting something to be true doesn't make it so. It seems best to assume that this is the only life we have, so we should try to make the most of it. (sorry about all the cliches)

Similarly, I obviously agree that the gods don't reward or punish us, since they probably don't exist. (I'll definitely have to elaborate on the existence of gods in a later post, but for now it should suffice to say "flying spaghetti monster")

I'm not sure if he's right about the universe being infinite and eternal. We're pretty sure the universe as we know it had a beginning, but it's still an open question if there is anything "outside" our view of the universe (if there is, then maybe that should be included in what we call the universe. Is that infinite and eternal? I don't know, and I'm pretty sure you don't know either). Finally, I guess Epicurus lucked out in believing in atoms, since there was no available evidence to him that atoms exist.

Pretty impressive for someone living more than 2000 years ago, if you ask me.


I remember this story told by one of my rabbeim in cheder:
While doing mivtzoim, a bocher asks a yid if he'd like to put on tefillin. The yid says, "No, thank you. I'm an atheist." To which the bocher replies, "The god that you don't believe in, I don't believe in either."
The moral of the story is that if the atheist had a better understanding of the TRUE God, then there would be no possible way he could be a non-believer. I guess the rabbi thought he was pretty clever in spinning this tale, and as a kid I thought it was pretty clever too.

Well, rebbe, I was given a top-rate education about the TRUE nature of God and His universe, and yet I no longer believe. Now your story just sounds childish, not clever at all. But it's easy to indoctrinate children. I just don't get how rational adults are convinced by this bullshit all the time.

Why do, when you can pray?

So the governor of South Carolina won't accept stimulus money for the people of his state, but he'll offer his prayers. Wow, thanks Mr. Governor.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Sean Penn

I usually think Sean Penn is an annoying sanctimonious blathering asshole, but I was impressed by his acceptance speech last night for the best-actor Oscar:
"I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect, and anticipate their great shame, and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support. We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone."
Many times, supporters of gay rights will tiptoe around the issue, because they don't want to "offend" the religious bigots. It's nice to hear someone say candidly in such a public situation that the gay-marriage issue is an equal rights issue, and not just a disagreement over the "definition" of marriage.

Penn makes a good point about the shame in our children's eyes. I think it's quite obvious that we will eventually allow gay marriage. No matter what your position, you would probably agree that we are moving in that direction. So would you rather be thought of by your descendants as the last generation of discriminators or the first generation of the enlightened?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hello World!

This is my first post on my first blog.

I've never felt that I'm a good writer, and I'm not sure that I have anything to say that anyone else is interested in, but I've nevertheless decided to start a blog.

I used to be a full-on Lubavitcher, and now I'm a full-on atheist.

Maybe someone will read my blog, maybe not.