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.