Let me begin with a few questions about religion - for readers in Western countries. It's not reasonable (or safe) to put such questions to my loyal fans in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia or other clan-based cultures. Most folks in these lands live under belief systems more typical of the seventh, not the twenty-first century. The questions are contemporary in nature. Ready?Here they are:
* Should you refrain from talking about religion in general?
* Is it offensive to ask pointed questions about religious beliefs?
* Should some religions be exempt from scrutiny?
* Are religious faiths generally benign, peaceful, constructive, good for people, reasonable enough and only a problem when misinterpreted or distorted by misguided followers?
In order to control the suspense, I'll confess right off that I believe the appropriate answer to all of these questions is, "Definitely not."
What do you think?
In many parts of the world, it's not OK to talk freely about religion, especially if you are not an adherent of the religion being discussed. This is an unfortunate tradition, custom or norm - and dysfunctional in the modern world. In many countries, such as those listed, it's not OK to ask sharp-edged questions about religious beliefs. This, too, is unfortunate in a time of tensions between true believers of different faiths - and true believers (i.e., fanatics) and those they consider infidels. The latter include all of us disposed to secular, Enlightenment values based on science and reason, not revelation.
Would you or should you mate with a devout follower of a religion? It depends. It depends on lots of things, including how devout? Also, if you consider yourself in one of the three religious categories in the title line, nothing could be more natural but to mate with such a person - if he or she is a member of your religion. I grew up in a Catholic clan. In the 40's and 50's, to marry someone in another category was verboten, sinful, wicked and depraved - unless the other person was willing to convert, as my father did. The penalty for Catholics who married a non-Catholic or someone unwilling to convert to the "one true religion" was "ex-communication." If you believed in the tenets of Catholicism at the time, this was a spiritual death sentence - no heaven for you, Buster or Sister, so most Catholics mated with other Catholics. The Muslims and most Protestant sects had similar customs, perhaps a bit less severe. I'm sure there were exceptions - I doubt if the Unitarians cared much about who mated with whom. (No wonder I later flirted with Unitarianism.)
Getting back to the "Would you mate..." matter, I made up a few additional queries for your consideration. These statements, paradoxically enough, do not refer to beliefs central to any of the three religions mentioned in the title. They refer to key beliefs of another popular religion. See if you can guess what that religion might be. (No, I'm not going to mention it.)
Anyway, here's the idea. Consider the nature of the truly weird notions unique to one religion and ask yourself if you would be willing to mate with someone who believed such things. I mean, all these beliefs seem quite bizarre to me, plus being contrary to known laws of nature, truly preposterous and not supported by any kind of empirical evidence.
But, maybe you are a loving person who believes anyone should be free to believe whatever he or she wants to believe - a paragon of tolerance. Well, that's nice - I believe that, too, but the question is about the wisdom of mating with such a person.
OK, enough already. Here are the statements of belief. I'm not making this up - this is part of a big-time religion's belief system.
1. You have a soul. When you die, your soul is recycled into a newborn. How this happens or whether it means no more new souls are being produced is not explained or known, except maybe to the founder, J.R. Rubadub (not his real name) - and he died long ago without leaving word which newborn his soul was taking over.
2. Top dogs in the religion can pick the birth parents for the body and mind that the soul will inhabit in the next life.
3. If you rise to the higher levels in this particular religion's hierarchy, you will be expected to engage in public service after you die - for a billion years. (At least that's the pledge you will take - maybe you will decide you have done enough after about a few million successive lives.)
4. You won't be able to recall who you were or what happened to you when your soul was in the last body after you die, and your soul moves on to another, but you might suffer painful and traumatic images or psychic scars from the previous life. (This brings to mind the words of the Jewish Buddha: "There is no escaping karma. In a previous life, you never called, you never wrote, you never visited. And whose fault was that?")
5. You can mitigate or even eliminate these troubles from past lives by working with trained church leaders who, for a fee, will do checkups and, in time, give you the all-clear sign.
6. Doing the right things according to church leaders will lead to great powers over the natural world. (The details about such powers are not addressed in church doctrine.)
7. You must learn and use certain terms defined in a unique way in this religion. (Such usage, however, might lead those not of the faith to suspect that you might be mental.)
8. You can believe any of this or not and still hang out in good standing in the church, provided you embrace the methods and practices of the religion. (This seems contradictory, as the former seems to be the same as the latter but then, what do I know?)
Could you deal with a mate who believed such things? If so, I'm guessing you can get along with just about anybody. Congratulations, I think.
The eight statements about one particular religion's belief system probably sound quite bizarre to anyone not acculturated in that particular faith-system from childhood. However, if you believe the tenets of any religion, including those dominant in the world today, be aware that others outside that tradition probably find your sacred truths rather weird, as well. Personally, I doubt that there would be any religions if followers were not immersed in the faiths during the formative years. Once the brain has developed independent thinking capacities and a reasoning faculty, improbably claims would be a hard sell.
Now if I could just get myself elected "Benevolent Grand Tsar Of The Cosmos For Critical Thinking," I would make it a requirement that no child be led to believe the myths of any one religion. Children would learn about religions in general, along with science and the scientific method. All children would be helped to think freely and logically about faith claims - and allowed to choose a religion, if so inclined, after they reached an age of reason. I'm not sure what age that ought to be - probably about the time they become eligible to vote, to drink alcohol, be drafted into an army or gain admitance to an x-rated movie.
Like anyone with an e-mail account, I get a lot of junk. The worst junkmails are not the obvious urban legends, not the ads for Viagra or penis extenders (not needed, thank you very much), not the goofy "opportunities" to share millions with kindly Nigerians (am I too skeptical, or what?) or the dozens of other spam pleadings that arrive daily. No, the most annoying are the sappy forwards from acquaintances. These often carry a personal note and are designed to inspire, teach a moral or warn against impure thoughts. Not long ago, I got one urging me not to indulge in reliance upon reason to the neglect of faith.
Even friends who should know better, that is, friends with an education who are aware of my independent secular mindset who have busy lives of some consequence occasionally forward one or more of the above-noted types of posts.
Just yesterday, I got one that was entitled something like, Just when you thought I wasn't looking. This phrase was the beginning of a dozen or so sentences that described virtuous behaviors that were observed by a child, and thus taught a positive moral lesson.
I made the mistake of reading the forwarded post. When I finished, I could not resist the temptation to advise my friend who sent it along what I thought of it. I hit the "reply all" button in order that everyone else who got it would see one recipient's response. Here is my message:
I am not usually disposed to waste my time reading a swarmy mass mailing with simplistic, feel good sentiments, as I did on this occasion. It contained suggestions for many kind actions, and that was benign and harmless, if a bit self-evident. I had to wonder, though, and resist the temptation to ask my friend: Don't most people you know already behave in these sensible, ethical ways?
However, a few actions that I found objectionable were included in the list. The latter include:
* The prayer bit - teaching a child (by your example) to believe he/she has an imaginary friend who intervenes in human affairs based on imprecations or begging by one name or another. (Doesn't this imply the all-knowing, all wise, all-everything wizard knows what's best?) Since there is zero evidence for such a preposterous notion, I suggested it would be better to model self-reliance?
(This commentary relates to the statement: When you thought I wasn't looking I heard you say a prayer, and I knew that there is a God I could always talk to, and I learned to trust in Him.)
* The suggestion at the end of the message urging recipients to forward this to and thereby annoy everyone on our lists. I asked my friend if he was assuming that everyone on his list would consent to all the ideas on this sappy message? If not, did he really expect that such a message would persuade anyone to shape up and fly right?
(This is a reference to the capitalized and bold remark, in large type, that I AM SENDING THIS TO ALL OF THE PEOPLE I KNOW WHO DO SO MUCH FOR OTHERS, BUT THINK THAT NO ONE EVER SEES.
LITTLE EYES SEE A LOT.)
But, the worst was yet to come:
How will you touch the life of someone today? Just by sending this to someone else, you will probably make them (sic) at least think about their (sic) influence on others. Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly. Leave the rest to God.
Huh? Yike! Sounds like an invitation to adopt a mindless catatonic state.
I wrote a cordial note to my friend, asking that he please give me a pass on these "inspirational notes."
My father encouraged me, at least when I was very young, to get along by going along. His notion for being successful was "don't make waves." It probably served him well, given the closed and rather tight-knit culture of which he was a part.
Today, we have raving lunatics all around us, and it is important that those who disagree to their irrational or harmful messages act boldly by taking exception to what otherwise might seem matters of general consensus, when they are decidedly not. I urge you not to go along with prevailing norms that you view as dysfunctional, irrational or harmful. Don't permit the holy rollers and fanatics to assume that you agree with them, when you don't.
So, even if you think nobody is looking or no one cares, express your views. We still have freedom of speech in America. Let's make the most of it, and do our part, however modest, to keep freedom alive.
Studies have shown that a pill (soon be available) mimics the effects of regular exercise. Yes, that what studies have shown. Well, one study. Recently, the Salk Institute released a research report describing performance gains exhibited by sedentary mice. The study showed that impressive gains in treadmill tests were attributed not to aerobic exercise, weight lifting, stretching, yoga, Pilates, coaching or mentoring, but to a new drug. Yes, by taking this performance-enhancing drug, sedentary mice were able to perform in a manner that suggested they were fit as rodent fiddles.
The implication, of course, is that couch potato humans might soon be able to take a pill containing this potent ingredient and gain the same benefits that we associate with vigorous exercise. We all know or believe that the health benefits of exercise, at least to this point in time, have been available only the old-fashioned way - that is, earned from the tribulations of vigorous workouts. Now the hope is that increases in performance capacity, such as those exhibited by mice on the new wonder drug, might be available to humans. All a person, even a sedentary one, need do is pop a fitness pill with the right ingredient.
Is this serious science or science fiction? Is it real or hype? Did the mice really perform heroically on those treadmills, or were these trials done with smoke and mirrors?
I don't know. However, I think skepticism is called for. Later, if it turns out that this is the beginning of a new era where everyone can be fit AND sedentary, I'll enthusiastically embrace the new reality.
"Non Sequitur is the name of Wiley Miller's wry cartoon look at the absurdities of everyday life. The August 2, 2008 cartoon, which first appeared four years ago (Wiley's on vacation at present) contains this dialogue:
Q. What's the secret to success as a TV pundit?
A. The studies have shown ploy.
Q. Uh, What's that?
A. Just say, Studies have shown first, then all of your talking points go unquestioned, no matter how stupid they are. The trick, of course, is saying it without giggling.
Q. Um... What happened to critical thinking?
A. Studies have shown that's for losers.
When TV pundits reported on what the most recent studies have shown ploy, my reaction was this: If you think a pill is going to make you fit and provide the health benefits of vigorous daily exercise anytime soon, say within the next century, you need emergency surgery - so that a brain can be inserted into your head. You can't possibly have one if you think a fitness pill is going to make you fit.
Anyone who missed this story must have been under the Arctic ice cap. The tale was everywhere: pundits on all news shows went wild over it. Essentially, a drug called Aicar (who comes up with these names?) was shown to increase mouse performance by 44 percent in a single month of illegal doping. (If it's not illegal for mice to take such pills, it ought to be. It's not fair to the mice that train hard and use only natural methods to perform at their best.) The drug seems to mimic a by-product of energy metabolism. It signals the cell that energy has been burned - which is tantamount in cell speak of saying, send more.
If this were not enough for the sedentary hopefuls, the media pundits said studies have shown another drug tested even better - enabling the treadmill rodent superstars to gain a 75 percent increase in endurance - but in this case, the mice had to do a little exercise as well as swallow the pill. Maybe the non-exercise oriented humans hearing this will conclude that a 44 percent performance increase will do nicely, thank you very much.
Before you begin a Google search for the location of the nearest Aicar dealer, consider that unfortunate law of nature called unintended consequences. Another term for this phenomenon is side effects.
If you start getting your workout from a pill instead of a swimming pool, treadmill or other methods of doing work with your body beyond swallowing, consider the unforeseen costs that might be incurred. Besides sudden death from heart stoppage, recall the consequences of thalidomide a few decades back. Performance boosts could come at a price.
Red wine also activates pathways to improved performance. In red wine, the key ingredient that does this is resveratrol. A couple years ago, studies showed that mice were able to run twice as far as usual on a treadmill under the influence of resveratrol before waving the white flag of surrender (i.e., collapsing).
Resveratrol, Aicar and all the other quick fix, magic bullets are not going to replace exercise as the healthy way to become and stay fit and live well. For that, you need a vigorous daily exercise regimen - and a good sense of humor.
If I might paraphrase Richard Nixon, let me say this: I am not a Luddite. I am not opposed to technological progress or change. Who would object to making fitness available to all at half the price, or for nothing (energy expended) at all, for that matter? Not I. Bring on the Brave New World - I too would welcome more performance for less the effort.
But, don't overlook Wiley's advice - there has to be more to the promise than the headline studies have shown. Curb your enthusiasm - at least for the present. If you already exercise vigorously, keep it going and if not, give daily workouts some consideration.
The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is my favorite activist organization. It has three divisions or areas of focus set up to deal with:
1) fringe science and extraordinary claims,
2) medical and mental health issues and
3) matters of religion, ethics and society.
Anyone who enjoys a secular wellness outlook with a quality of life orientation (as opposed to just medical risk reduction) will welcome the work of CFI''s three divisions. Among other objectives, CFI seeks to maintain the traditional separation of church and state in this country, a task made difficult during the past seven and a half Bush years. CFI terms these times a period of "unconstitutional encroachments of right-wing, fundamentalist religious beliefs allied with conservative political ideology. Recently, CFI accused the Administration of trying to change the rules of Federal programs in a manner that would undermine women''s access to health care. The new government interpretations would allow medical personnel to refuse services based on personal religious beliefs.
This, of course, has to be seen as outrageous and offensive. It certainly should be opposed by any American who favors a secular Republic wherein taxpayers are not required to support religious institutions.
Ask your representative or otherwise do what you can to forestall the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from redefining "abortion procedure" to include normal forms of contraception. Do not sit idly while the Bush Administration sets regulations that allow health care providers to withhold information and care options from patients not supportive of the care-givers religious beliefs.
It's hard to believe the theocrats in this failed Administration are trying to do such things. Yet, there is the evidence right before us - even as the Bush regime nears an end, Republican extremists continue to foist religious doctrinal zealotry on the nation.
Consider calling Secretary Michael Leavitt of the Department of Health and Human Services at 202-690-7000 and/or Christina Pearson, HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (202-690-7850) - at least you can leave a message. I doubt Mr. Leavitt or even Ms. Pearson will take your call - unless you say it's Jesus on the line. Then, well, you never know - they might be loony enough to think it's true.
There are many threats to liberty right here at home. These threats exist despite centuries of democracy, a constitution with a treasured bill of rights and all manner of additional legal safeguards. In some ways, it seems a distraction from the challenges before us in this country to become concerned about and involved in seeking to prevent human rights abuses in distant, strange lands with very different cultures This is particularly so in a country like Afghanistan, where freedom, human rights, democracy, civil safeguards and basic justice have no foothold. Who would expect human rights to be respected in a fanatically Muslim country of backward, warring tribes, a place from which sprang the horror of the Taliban? I would not - would you?
Yet, American taxpayers have been supporting all these rights and safeguards for Afghans since we invaded that country after 911. We invaded to destroy the religious barbarians who, among other offenses beyond the pale, were believed to be harboring Osama bin Laden and other lunatic jihadists. We had to deal with our enemies in that country who viewed us all as infidels to be destroyed.
As part of our response, we not only fought against and removed the Taliban but also leaned on the natives to adopt an Afghan constitution that incorporated American-style freedoms, safeguards for basic liberties and adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Alas, getting the people of Afghanastan to incorporate such rights and freedoms into their value systems steeped in religious fanaticism has not been easy - and probably never was a realistic goal.
Which leads to mention of the case of Sayed Pervez Kambakhsh, a 23-year-old journalism student sentenced to death a few months ago for the victimless crime of blasphemy! I'm not making this up.
It seems the poor fellow insulted Islam. Hard to believe but there it is. What a country. Mr. Kambakhsh's insult leading to the charge of blasphemy was downloading material offensive to certain religious clerics. The material apparently contained statements that the Qur'an and the Prophet Muhammad oppressed women. Duh. Good thing that kind of offense is not a capital crime in this country. The unfortunate infidel Kambakhsh was taken to an Islamic court, charged with a litany of crimes (e.g., un-Islamic speech and activity, socialism, rebelliousness and improper instigation of religious debate) and found guilty - of blasphemy. The punishment? Death.
Human rights groups in this country, including the Center for Inquiry, are trying to save Mr. Kambakhsh from the imposition of the sentence. They are appealing to the country's leaders to honor the Afghanistan constitution. That is, the document we more or less imposed on this theocratic society. The Afghan constitution makes freedom of expression inviolable and guarantees every Afghan the right to express thoughts through speech, writing, illustrations as well as other means.
Well, that's all well and good, but the religious authorities don't take such secular affirmations very seriously. Nor do they care much for the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though the country has signed on to that, as well.
Efforts are underway to get signatures on a petition for mercy for Mr. Kambakhsh. The petitions will be sent to the nation's president, Hamid Karzai. The Free Inquiry petition notes that the accused was tried without legal representation by a private Islamic court, and was accused of doing only what any promising student should do - independently seeking information, and stimulating discussion among classmates. If Afghanistan is to be a free, open society, it cannot allow religious orthodoxy to trump free inquiry among its citizens, and it certainly cannot impose deadly penalties on those who dare speak out. Such charges are an affront not only to the basic political and legal structure of Afghanistan, but to the freedom and dignity of its citizens as well.
The president is then urged to condemn this injustice and to secure the immediate and unconditional release of Mr. Kambakhsh. Well, I signed the petition at the Center for Inquiry website and I urge you to do the same. Maybe such expressions of concern and good will can save this particular victim of religious intolerance. However, I suspect that, given the mindset that infests the Islamic world, the prospects for this student and others who take Western-imposed documents of freedom and human rights too seriously are very bleak.
The case of Mr. Kambakhsh and the power of religion in so much of the rest of the world is all the more reason to celebrate our own freedom this coming weekend during the Independence Day festivities and every day thereafter - and do all we can to vote out of office Republican zealots who themselves would make blasphemy a criminal offense, though probably not a capital one. But then, if Bush had another term, you never know.