Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Christopher Hitchens has added his cultivated and abrasive voice to the appeal for reason over fantasy. Although I have not read the whole book yet, I have read excerpts posted on the christopher hitchens web site, as well as an excerpt from the New York Times.

I expecially liked this paragraph (which I have split up for reading ease) from chapter one:

"Past and present religious atrocities have occurred not because we are evil, but because it is a fact of nature that the human species is, biologically, only partly rational. Evolution has meant that our prefrontal lobes are too small, our adrenal glands are too big, and our reproductive organs apparently designed by committee; a recipe which, alone or in combination, is very certain to lead to some unhappiness and disorder.

But still, what a difference when one lays aside the strenuous believers and takes up the no less arduous work of a Darwin, say, or a Hawking or a Crick. These men are more enlightening when they are wrong, or when they display their inevitable biases, than any falsely modest person of faith who is vainly trying to square the circle and to explain how he, a mere creature of the Creator, can possibly know what that Creator intends.

Not all can be agreed on matters of aesthetics, but we secular humanists and atheists and agnostics do not wish to deprive humanity of its wonders or consolations. Not in the least. If you will devote a little time to studying the staggering photographs taken by the Hubble telescope, you will be scrutinizing things that are far more awesome and mysterious and beautiful-and more chaotic and overwhelming and forbidding-than any creation or "end of days" story.

If you read Hawking on the "event horizon," that theoretical lip of the "black hole" over which one could in theory plunge and see the past and the future (except that one would, regrettably and by definition, not have enough "time"), I shall be surprised if you can still go on gaping at Moses and his unimpressive "burning bush."

If you examine the beauty and symmetry of the double helix, and then go on to have your own genome sequence fully analyzed, you will be at once impressed that such a near-perfect phenomenon is at the core of your being, and reassured (I hope) that you have so much in common with other tribes of the human species-"race" having gone, along with "creation" into the ashcan-and further fascinated to learn how much you are a part of the animal kingdom as well.

Now at last you can be properly humble in the face of your maker, which turns out not to be a "who," but a process of mutation with rather more random elements than our vanity might wish.

This is more than enough mystery and marvel for any mammal to be getting along with: the most educated person in the world now has to admit-I shall not say confess-that he or she knows less and less but at least knows less and less about more and more. . . ."

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Don't miss the online debate (Beliefnet) between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan.

I particularly liked this excerpt from Sam Harris' post1.2. (I have edited this into shorter paragraphs)

"First, on my frustration with religious moderates, to which you alluded: It is true that your colleagues in the religious middle have taught me to appreciate the candor and the one-note coherence of religious fanatics. I have found that whenever someone like me or Richard Dawkins criticizes Christians for believing in the imminent return of Christ, or Muslims for believing in martyrdom, religious moderates claim that we have caricatured Christianity and Islam, taken "extremists" to be representative of these "great" faiths, or otherwise overlooked a shimmering ocean of nuance.

" We are invariably told that a mature understanding of the historical and literary contexts of scripture renders faith perfectly compatible with reason, and our attack upon religion is, therefore, "simplistic," "dogmatic," or even "fundamentalist." As a frequent target of such profundities, I can attest that they generally come moistened to a sickening pablum by great sighs of condescension. Present company excluded.

"But there are several problems with such a defense of moderate religion. First, many moderates assume that religious "extremism" is rare and therefore not all that consequential. Happily, you are not in this camp, but I would venture that you are in a minority among religious moderates.

"As you and I both know, religious extremism is not rare, and it is hugely consequential. Forty-four percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years. This idea is extreme in almost every sense-extremely silly, extremely dangerous, extremely worthy of denigration-but it is not extreme in the sense of being rare.

" The problem, as I see it, is that moderates don't tend to know what it is like to be truly convinced that death is an illusion and that an eternity of happiness awaits the faithful beyond the grave. They have, as you say, "integrated doubt" into their faith. Another way of putting it is that they have less faith-and for good reason. The result, however, is that your fellow moderates tend to doubt that anybody ever really is motivated to sacrifice his life, or the lives of others, on the basis his heartfelt religious beliefs.

"Moderate doubt-which I agree is an improvement over fundamentalist certitude in most respects-often blinds its host to the reality and consequences of full-tilt religious lunacy. Such blindness is now particularly unhelpful, given the hideous collision with Islamic certainty that is unfolding all around us.

"Second, many religious moderates imagine, as you do, that there is some clear line of separation between extremist and moderate religion. But there isn't. Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur'an is not a moderate. Read scripture more closely and you do not find reasons for religious moderation; you find reasons to live like a proper religious maniac-to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc.

"Of course, one can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love one's neighbor and turn the other cheek, but the truth is, the pickings are pretty slim, and the more fully one grants credence to these books, the more fully one will be committed to the view that infidels, heretics, and apostates are destined to be ground up in God's loving machinery of justice. "


Our daughter Marie asked for a little teen quiz for Easter to help distribute goodies as quiz rewards (I think I have that right).

The result is posted here as a modest contribution to the human race and intelligent discussion.


1. we are living in an "inter-glacial period": these last about how long typically?

ans: about 10 - 20 thousand years

2. most of the time the planet experiences "ice age conditions" in which glaciers cover large areas of the high latitude regions. How long do ice ages last typically?

ans: about 100 thousand years

3. Roughly how long ago was the last "interglacial period" in which the planet warmed up?

ans: about 125 thousand years ago

4. At the end of each "ice age" (ie at the beginning of each inter-glacial period) there is a major global warming. Roughly how long ago was this last major global warming?

ans: about 15 thousand years ago

5. What are the most important atmospheric greenhouse gases( besides water vapor) , and what are their chemical formulas?

ans: 1.carbon dioxide C O2, 2. methane C H4, 3. nitrogen dioxide N O2

6. What do these chemical formulas mean?

ans. C O2 = molecule consisting of one carbon atom bound to two oxygen atoms
C H4 1 carbon + 4 hydrogen
N O2 1 nitrogen + 2 oxygen

7. Roughly how long will carbon dioxide stay up in the atmosphere once injected?

ans: roughly 100 years

8. If planet earth had no atmosphere which produced a greenhouse effect, how much colder would the earth surface be on average?

ans: roughly 54 fahrenheit degrees colder than now.

9. What is the freezing temperature of fresh water (in degrees fahrenheit) ?

ans: 32 degrees F

10. As the global average temperature rises (global warming) at what latitude does the average temperature rise fastest?

ans: at the high latitudes near the N and S poles.


1. If the quantity (3 times some number ) plus 2 is equal to 8, what is the number?

ans: 2

2. What is 0.615 rounded to the nearest tenth?

ans: 0.6

3. Express the quantity ( 5/12 - 3/8 ) as a fraction in the simpest form.

ans: 1/24

4. If the tax on $27 is $1.62, what is the percentage tax rate?

ans: 6 percent


1. When did the U.S. revolutionary war happen?

ans: 1775 - 1783

2. When did the U.S. Civil War happen?

ans 1861 - 1865

3. When did World War II happen?

ans: 1939 - 1945


1. What percentage of human DNA is identical to chimpanzee DNA?

ans: 98.4%

2. what is the rough age of our universe?

ans: about 14 billion years

3. what is the rough age of our sun?

ans: about 4 billion years

4. what is the rough age of planet earth?

ans: about 4 billion years

5. when did life originate on earth?

ans: about 3 billion years ago

6. when did the dinosaurs become extinct?

ans: about 65 million years ago

7. when did our ancestors become distinct from the ancestors of chimps and gorillas?

ans: about 6 to 10 million years ago

8. where did the shared ancestors of humans, chimps, and gorillas live?

ans: in Africa

9. what would our ancestors have been classified as when they became a distinct species?

ans: another species of ape

10. when did our ancestors begin habitually walking on their hind legs?

ans: about 4 million years ago

11. when did our ancestors begin using stone tools?

ans: about 2.5 million years ago

12: when did some of our ancestors look enough like us that that are now called homo sapiens?

ans: about 500 thousand years ago

13. How many ice ages have homo sapiens lived through:

ans: about five

(here we leave the realm of simple numbers ... )

14. what is meant by "Cro-Magnon"?

ans: this refers to anatomically modern people (looking like us) . named after a cave in France where their bones were first identified, but later found in France and Spain generally, living during the Late Ice Age ( about 40 thousand years ago), and using many more sophisticated tools, especially for hunting large animals.

15. would a Cro-Magnon have been able to learn to fly a jet aircraft?

ans: yes

16. why did it take so long for humans to learn how to fly?

ans: required first the invention of domestication of plants and animals, invention of writing and mathematics and calculus, understanding of chemistry and physics - all this took a long time building on the achievements of the previous generations.

Sunday, November 05, 2006


Congratulations to Sam Harris for his little gem: "A Letter to a Christian Nation".

Our bookclub appreciated his groundbreaking "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason". A few days later we showed some of our bookclub members the hour tape of Harris presenting his ideas (while being taped by CSPAN) at a liberal Jewish synagogue in Irvine, California ( home to U.C. Irvine).

Now appears a slim book summarizing the huge amount of letters he received, with the most vitriolic coming from the most pious! Go figure!

Harris begins:

“Thousands of people have written to tell me that I am wrong not to believe in God. The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While we may want to ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that such hatred draws considerable support from the Bible. How do I know this? The most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse.”

And I liked the following mini-review appearing on website:

“Reading Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation was like sitting ring side, cheering the champion, yelling ‘Yes!’ at every jab. For those of us who feel depressed by this country’s ever increasing unification of church and state, and the ever decreasing support for the sciences that deliver knowledge and reduce ignorance, this little book is a welcome hit of adrenalin.”
–Marc Hauser, Harvard College Professor, author of Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Sense of Right and Wrong

Go, Harris, Go!!