Category Archives: Christianity

Unity in Diversity

250px-Burghers_michael_saintpolycarp

Polycarp of Smyrna

Former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, or LBP – not to be confused with U.S. President LBJ, dominant Japanese political party the LDP, or women’s wardrobe staple the LBD – once obscurely remarked that Canada needed to maintain a “unity in diversity”. (I’d’ve written “famously remarked”, but let’s be realistic, it wasn’t at all famous or notable… :) )

The phrase came to mind in early April, after the Liberal Party won a majority in the Quebec provincial election, the Parti Quebecois suffering a substantive-enough defeat that we probably won’t have to worry about the separatist movement for another decade or two. And hopefully we soon reach the point where the overwhelming majority of Quebecers perceive their culture as being inextricably woven into the Canadian fabric.

That’s right, I started making mental notes for this, five full months ago! Long enough for an even bigger separatist movement in Scotland, to suffer a much lesser, much more recent defeat…

It’s pretty cool to think that the colonies of two rival imperial powers (Britain and France) decided to work together, building bridges between their cultures. Even if they did manage to forget the contributions of the First Nations along the way. :) And Canada’s even young enough that we can identify many of the key individuals who helped make it happen: people like Louis LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, John A. MacDonald and George-Etienne Cartier, one out of four of whom is famous enough for most Canadians to know their name. :)

It’s all the more impressive, considering that politics is second only to religion in its ability to divide otherwise like-minded people. And that got me wondering, if the live-and-let’s-live-together creation of Canada is a silver medal, what would be the gold?

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How Trinity Western University (unintentionally) promotes divorce

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Trinity Western University has been in the news recently, as law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia voted to not recognize lawyers trained at the religious university’s soon-to-open law school. These two law societies – like your blogger and the vast majority of Canadians – recoiled in horror at the university’s community covenant (“covenant” is just a fancy way of saying “contract”) clause forbidding students from having sex outside straight marriage.

While discriminatory and immoral, TWU’s policy is not illegal. If I understand correctly, several years ago the Canadian Supreme Court agreed with the BC Civil Liberties Union that, as a private university which does not receive government funding or subsidies, TWU’s right to a discriminatory code of conduct trumps attendees’ right to sexual equality. (After all, people can choose not to attend that university.) Part of the ruling apparently included the statement that the Court found no evidence that TWU’s 21st-century-BC sexual ethics actually affect the behaviour of their 21st-century-AD graduates, once they enter the “real” world. Which is comforting, and de-fangs some of my concerns.

So, while I find its policy abhorrent, legal precedent tells me TWU must be allowed to have their own law school. On the flip side, the ruling also means that an atheist group could found the “Richard Dawkins Law School” with a community covenant forbidding students from engaging in religious practise, as long as they don’t take public funding either. (In a terrible case of “do unto others…” Dawkins has argued that religion is a form of mental illness, in the exact same way religious fundamentalists have argued that homosexuality is. While the guy’s a scientific genius, he’s as religiously illiterate as the people he rails against.)

As a semi-related aside, the Moral Majority movement started when the US Federal Government threatened to withdraw tax-exempt status from Bob Jones University, a religious college which forbade interracial dating. Until the year 2000. Which was forty-five years after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. As recounted by the Episcopal (Anglican) priest Randall Balmer, the Moral Majority’s founders quickly realized that – this being the 1970’s, not the 1870’s – no one would fund a group committed to keeping black boys away from white girls. So they made abortion their central issue.

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The losers of Superbowl XLVIII will be…

Francis facepalm

Religious moderates.

Here’s my reasoning.

After the game, someone on the winning team, exulting ecstatically, will say “God was on our side” or words to that effect. It’s as sure as a post-touchdown two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter, if the team is still down by a pair.

This will lead humorists and atheists alike to mock the athlete’s egocentric theology, along the lines of the great “God-Man on the Gridiron” cartoon from a few years back. Which will inspire angry rebuttals from offended fundamentalists.

Religious moderates are the collateral damage in this snake-vs-mongoose battle, bitten by both sides.

I’ve read aggressive atheists argue that religious moderates “give cover” for fundamentalists, by making religion seem respectable. The faulty reasoning is that if the only religious people around were crazed fundamentalists, no one would ever be converted to religion, and humanity would break the chains of irrational superstition forever. I find great humour in such atheists’ irrational belief that we could one day cure ourselves of our own irrationality. :)

I’ve also listened to religious fundamentalists classify religious moderates as pseudo-apostates, who have fallen away from the authentic faith the fundamentalists (naturally) perpetuate. The flawed logic here sees moderate religious views are seen as a kind of “gateway drug” to the godless secular atheism, the rise of which has led to, uh, the lowest crime rates in the U.S. in fifty years. This misplaced ethos is aptly captured by the misplaced priorities of God-Man’s sidekick Fan-Boy in this cartoon here.

The book Freakonomics popularized the incorrect idea that crime rates in the U.S. dropped because abortion was legalized. (Given the machinations of Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan et al, one would be forgiven for thinking we’re living in a golden age for white-collar crime.)

The strong factor actually seems to have been reduction in kids’ lead exposure. Another economist found that in each of nine countries he studied, violent crime rates fell off a cliff, about twenty years after their respective governments phased lead out of gasoline. But his publications weren’t best-sellers. :)

Basically, religious moderates get fragged by both sides.

Back, briefly, to the Super Bowl

Though I’m an atheist, I’m sincerely glad so many football players are religious.

Statistics and psychological studies show that religious people are more generous than heathen like me. And the religious are particularly generous towards fellow worshipers, and others in their faith-defined “in-group”.

As an atheist, I value this factoid. It’s dangerous to think one is morally superior to one’s occasional opponents. So in a sense, I want to believe that some of the people who disagree with me, live with more upright selflessness – whether it’s a fact or fiction, the idea itself should keep me from developing a caustic arrogance about myself or my “side”.

Considering how much head trauma an NFL player will suffer in his career, after he retires and the symptoms start to show, he’s almost certainly going to need help. A lot of help. Possibly, very expensive help. For years and years afterwards.

As such, if I want the best for an NFL player when he retires, I would want him to be part of a large, supportive faith community. (I would also them to have access to single-payer universal healthcare, to prevent medical complications from bankrupting them or any other American, but hey, that’s just my Canadian perspective.)

Sadly, all light casts shadows

Unfortunately, when it comes to religious fundamentalists, there’s a downside to their generosity – while they’re more generous to members of their in-group, they tend to be more hostile to members of out-groups. (As the authors of this paper explain, religious fundamentalism combines the benefits of religious pro-sociality with the defects of authoritarian intolerance.)

In our day and era, gays are a favourite scapegoat of so many Christians who must otherwise be well-meaning people. This despite the fact that the centurion’s servant whom Jesus healed, was probably the soldier’s teenage gay lover, and He seemed fine with that. (Actually, all this really proves is that liberals can proof-text the Bible to argue what they want, as skilfully as conservatives.)

Still on the NFL, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was released from the team after the 2012 season, several months after he expressed his support of gay rights and same-sex marriage. While his stats were middle-of-the-pack, he claims to’ve gotten pushback from some members of the coaching and management who were particularly opposed to his opposition to, uh, bigotry.

[update: from this ESPN report, it looks like Kluwe may have been a bottom-dweller in some stats important to the Vikings, and as such, he may be less of a martyr than a mediocrity whose time was up. Keeping in mind that being a mediocre NFL punter is still someone in the top 30 or so at that position in the world. I edited the last sentence of the following paragraph to reflect this.]

To their credit, the Vikings have launched a formal investigation. And it’s entirely possible that the Vikings thought they could get a better punter for less money. Sadly, given the religious views of some members of the Viking staff and management, there’ll always be the question of whether faith-based reasons may have partially influenced the decision to cut Kluwe.

I’m hopeful that by the time Leo grows up, things will change and there’ll be comfortably out athletes. No doubt there will still be other social prejudices still to overcome – I may be an atheist, but I’m hardly a utopian.

And Warren Moon

To end with on football, I remember when I first found out that CFL and NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon had a tough time becoming a quarterback in the 1970’s, because of an apparent social inertia in football culture that blacks didn’t become quarterbacks.

University football teams would convert high school prospects to other positions. This wasn’t only a football thing either; there was a strong anti-European sentiment in the NHL, until pioneers like Borje Salming proved that Europeans were just as good – and just as tough – as North Americans. (Hockey’s last remaining Europhobe can be found on Hockey Night in Canada’s Coach’s Corner…)

When Moon finally got to be a starting quarterback, he led his college team to the Rose Bowl, and was the game’s MVP. And he still didn’t get drafted. So he played in the CFL, where he was part of an Edmonton Eskimos team which won five straight championships. Then, finally, the NFL came calling.

The thing that shocked me the most was that the NFL’s antipathy to black quarterbacks – and the NHL’s reluctance to give Europeans a shot, for that matter – was recent enough that it I was alive for the back end of it!

I do hope that, as a society, our definition of “in-groups” keeps growing, so that one day Leo can tell his own kids that, as frustrating as the day’s social issues may seem, he too was alive at the back end of this long-standing social inertia, which swiftly, satisfyingly dissipated, soon thereafter.

(As for why I chose the Pope, that’s another post. While they’re hardly religious progressives, the Catholic Church’s acceptance of the reality of evolution, and its almost two-thousand-year-old tradition of interpreting parts of the Bible allegorically instead of insisting it’s all factually accurate, mean that by my amateur classification, they go in the “moderate” pile. Moderates whose hierarchy has shielded countless pedophiles from the law for decades, yes… but moderates none the less.)

November EV (and FCV) musings

It’s been a busy month — busy enough that though one in seven Canadians crossed the border for Black Friday, I wasn’t one of them. (Like a further one in three Canadians, I did my shopping online. Bought me some books — and by books, I mean books so nerdy Aya will despair for Leo’s future social skills.  ;)  )

Seriously, more Canadians expected to participate in Black Friday, than voted in the last federal election. This is how dark ages begin!!  ;)

On the EV side, I wrote a few pieces for GreenCarReports, though I wasn’t able to write something on BMW’s i3, which made me rethink fuel cell vehicles.

Basically, the i3 is an electric car with a 30-horsepower (25 kW) motorcycle engine strapped to it, to provide a bit more range.

If someone were to design a fuel cell car with a big enough battery to soak up all the relevant incentives, and strap on a 25 kW fuel cell stack for extra range, I wonder if that would be a way to drive FCV adoption?

You’d save money because the stack would be a lot smaller, and you could use one hydrogen fuel tank instead of two. (Since the super-high-pressure fuel tank is about the only component that isn’t used in other fuel cell applications, I’m guessing it’s a cost barrier.) Better still, the stack wouldn’t have to last nearly as long (maybe 2000 hours instead of 5000 hours) because it’d only be in use part of the time, which allows it to become cheaper still. (Adding durability costs money.)

The fact that you’d run 50%+ of the time on electricity would also circumvent the hydrogen infrastructure issue. If there are only a handful of hydrogen stations in town, and you know you’d have to refuel every couple weeks, you might be reluctant to buy a fuel cell car because of the inconvenience.

But if you mainly run off electricity, you might only need to refuel your hydrogen tank every couple months — and taking an occasional detour to refuel six times a year, probably isn’t that big of a deal for most people. That’s once per season, and maybe the dealership tops you up when you go in for your twice-yearly checkup.

So, in a word, I think a fuel-cell based i3 type vehicle (mainly electric, but using the fuel cell as a range extender) would accelerate adoption. As it turns out, the French postal service is investigating just such a fuel cell “range extender” solution.

Ah, it’s nice to be able to muse about these things, now that I’m not in danger of spilling any confidential info. Heck, I can even poke around patent records in exactly the way I was discouraged from doing!  ;)

As for my GreenCarReports contributions:

– I had a chance to practise my French a bit (and practise using Google Translate a lot more) when summarizing how the Quebec government really raised the bar in support of electric vehicles. Nice what you can achieve with minority governments who’re rather desperate to stay in power. ;)

– I did a boilerplate Canadian sales stats piece, and a more interesting one on WWF Canada’s take on the country’s electric vehicle progress.

– I also had a chance to write up some nifty apps — one from a cool Waterloo company — which can help people save money on gas, and/or choose more fuel efficient cars. Next time any of you buy a new car, ask if the dealership has the MyCarma dongle!

Note: they didn’t pay me to say that, but on the subject of getting paid, the Paypal transaction for my articles ran into the… double digits. Yep, there’re a lot more zeroes in engineering paycheques…  :)

Lastly, I saw my first reference to Fox News’ annual post-Thanksgiving “War on Christmas” coverage the other day, so put together a little post explaining how the first people to write Christmas as Xmas were, well, medieval Christians. And they did so because in Greek, Christ is spelled with an “X” (it provides the “Ch” sound). If anything, the use of Xmas points that faith’s faithful back to those first Greek-speaking communities who heard the Christian gospel preached — and I would imagine that would be a positive, not a negative thing. *

It all reminds me of a time in the mists of fuel cell years past, when I asked a colleague to give me a refresher on a particular piece of equipment. He was strangely reluctant, so I popped back to my desk and printed up the work instructions — only to find that I’d actually written them, years before.  :)

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* amusingly enough, abbreviations are actually a key tool for establishing that, while it took about 350 years for Christians to agree on what books went into the New Testament, the eventual winners of the battle-royal between Christian sects pretty much used the same edition after about 150 AD. (The ecumentically curious can go here for further reading.)

The person who composed this edition used a very particular set of abbreviations for key words — God, Jesus, etc. — which were faithfully copied in pretty much every orthodox text thereafter. These abbreviations don’t appear in the scraps of heretical texts we’ve found, so we know those texts belonged to different groups of worshippers.

Sadly, we only have scraps of those texts, because soon after the canon was officially settled, disapproved writings were put to use as kindling, as they so often are. And while that represents a literary / philosophical / theological loss, as an engineer who really loves curating and standardizing documentation sets, a very, very small part of me kind of knows where those book-burners were coming from…  ;)

Putting the “X” back in Xmas

Xtians began using “Xmas” 500 years ago, since in Greek, X is the “Ch” in Christ

Around the holidays, some people (not to name names or anything) urge modern society to put the “Christ” back in Christmas. There’s much to criticize about the hollow vacuousness of consumer culture, after all. Most of us can buy into the idea of better treasuring time with family and friends; and who’d oppose charity and compassion for the less-fortunate? (Well, apart from that strangest of philosophical tribes, the Objectivists, that is…)

Heck, the leftists among us might even be open to the Christian idea of a 100% marginal tax rate, on assets — that whole “tithing” thing is so Old Testament ;) – which is backed up by the fact that Jesus’ early followers were basically communists! (Admittedly, it’s easy to give up private property rights when you think the world’s about to end…)

Unfortunately, some misguided folks want to put the “Christ” back in Christmas, because they think “Xmas” is a part of some sort of secular war on Christmas. If there’s any upside to this, it’s that secular humanists are the new scapegoats of Christian demagogues. After nineteen hundred years, the Jews finally, finally catch a break! Hallelujah!  :)

In Greek, “Christ” is spelled with an X

This is all very strange, since it was Christians who started using “Xmas” in the first place. Five hundred years ago. And followers of the faith used X (and/or Xp) as an abbreviation for Christ, an additional twelve hundred years before that.

They did so because the Greek word for Christ — Χριστος — starts with the Greek letter chi, which happens to look like an “X”. And Greek is the language in which the first Christian scriptures were written, and in which the faith was first widely proselytized. (To be rigorously accurate, some portions – the Lord’s Prayer and various figures of speech – seem to’ve originally been Aramaic.)

So the real question is why these commentators would want to take the “X” out of Xmas; for today’s Christians, its presence would visually affirm a continuity with the Greek-speaking communities where Jesus’ gospel was first preached, two thousand years ago, and where the religion’s scriptures were written. How cool is that?

Orthopraxy vs. orthodoxy

I do wonder of why Buddhists, Hindus and others just don’t seem to get as worked up about these kinds of things. And my impression could just be because I’m less familiar with demagogues from those traditions.

Still, I get the sense that in eastern traditions, anger and outrage are regarded as unhelpful, if not outright harmful. For all the crimes of the Chinese government against Tibetans in the past half-century, exiled Tibetan Buddhist monks don’t seem to have an “anger button”; they tend to express their distress and condemnation in astonishingly measured tones.

One difference between the major western Abrahamic faiths and the big eastern Dharmic faiths, is that the latter tend to be orthopraxies – they emphasize correct practice – while the western ones tend to be orthodoxies, emphasizing correct belief. I can’t help thinking that may have something to do with it.

If one has adopted a set of spiritual beliefs – an orthodoxy – there’s always the risk that new scientific knowledge could undermine them. Learning that the universe is billions and not thousands of years old could cause a fight-or-flight response in some people, leading to the bellicose annoyance and self-righteous indignation so commonly heard in the words of some conservative religious leaders. Especially if they think such beliefs are all that separate us from the nightmare of Hobbesian anarchy – an unending war of all against all.

But if one has adopted a set of spiritual practices – an orthopraxy – then scientific findings which invalidate their rationale and justification, might be inconsequential. If one is becalmed by meditation, and it seems to serve one’s community, so what if the universe is fourteen billion instead of one hundred and fifty five trillion years old?

Even so, there’s no doubt there are Buddhist and Hindu demagogues, just waiting for the chance to corrode the public discourse in their own home countries, as religious conservatives have done over here. ;)

It’s probably safest to say that we in the West have simply been lucky enough not to have heard of them, because a Fox News-type empire hasn’t given their televangelism and/or megatemples a worldwide media platform. Yet.

The Innovator’s Dilemma, Toyota edition

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This car — yes, this car — has impeded Toyota’s electric efforts

My post on how The Innovator’s Dilemma explains why Toyota lags in electric vehicles — and how Kleiber’s Law explains there’s nothing for them to worry about (yet), is now up on GreenCarReports.

While the Tesla stats were cooler to have dug up, and will probably enjoy a broader readership, this particular piece was more gratifying to write; the Innovator’s Dilemma is a fairly well-known concept in business circles, but there’s a tendency to incorrectly think that all industries get changed and disrupted quickly. To adapt from yesterday’s screed, the world of software changes a lot more quickly than the world of stuff.

And Kleiber’s Law probably (partially) explains why.

The GCR article had to be edited down, and some of the rejected detritus included this little comparison of hybrid and EV adoption rates below. Think of it as rounding out the “complete and unabridged” version of the article.

Note: I thought electric vehicles would have roughly the same adoption rate as early hybrids, figuring that greater sales due to a broader product selection from various manufacturers, would be offset by lower sales due to the higher sticker price. Boy, was I wrong. :)

Though I might claim that gov’t rebates “distorted the market” (in a very positive way, mind you) I’m not so egotistical as to be unable to admit to mistakes, so I’ll file that for future learnings… after taking this quick religious diversion. :)

A quick religious diversion

On the topic of “complete and unabridged” versions, people who peruse the Christian scriptures (the “New Testament”) will notice that the Gospel of Mark is a lot shorter than the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke. This is most likely due to the fact that back in the day, there were two standard scroll lengths: a short one, and a long one. Kind of like how we have letter paper (8.5″ x 11″) and legal paper (8.5″ x 14″) today.

Mark, chronologically the first of the three to be written, was written on a short scroll, and Matthew and Luke wrote on the longer ones.

A more interesting case is that of the book, Acts of the Apostles, commonly credited to Luke — whose name almost certainly wasn’t Luke, because people tended to assign famous works, to more famous people. The same tends to happen in our modern era — for instance, this British revocation of the American Declaration of Independence  is commonly attributed to John Cleese, though he didn’t write it.

Acts exists in two commonly-circulated versions, one about 10% longer than the other. While this is less impressive “genetic variation” than one finds in other texts — the Buddhist Dhammapada has more variants, possibly because it was translated into multiple languages early on, before anyone with overarching authority tried to establish a “canonical” version, as happened in Christianity. There, someone identified by scholars as “The Ecclesiastical Redactor” (possibly Polycarp of Smyrna) created a standard edition fairly early on. There are many reasons for hypothesizing this, not the least of which is that essentially all manuscripts available to us share the same abbreviations of key terms (from memory, Theos is abbreviated Ts and Iesous is abbreviated Is).

All of which is a phenomenally long-winded, trivia-filled way of saying that the text appended below would form the “10% longer” version of my GreenCarReports article.  It originally was included before the paragraph “The Innovator’s Dilemma – why Toyota’s tepid on electrics”.

Hybrid history and the plug-in path

Plug-in electric vehicle enthusiasts have exchanged many a high-five over the fact that in the United States and probably elsewhere, plug-in adoption rates have thus far surpassed hybrid adoption rates. Here again, context is valuable.

In the first four years of hybrid availability in the United States (2000-2003) oil was cheap, and consumers could choose between three hybrid vehicles — two small (the Prius and the Civic Hybrid) and one even smaller (the Insight). These were sold by Toyota and Honda, who shared about 17 percent of the automotive market between them.

In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that electric vehicles are being adopted faster, given the greater awareness of our environmental challenges, higher oil prices improving the cost/benefit equation, government incentives, and — perhaps most crucially of all — widespread automaker participation.  

By the four-year anniversary of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt’s December 2010 retail debut, ten carmakers will offering production plug-in electrics stateside: BMW, Daimler (Smart), Ford, GM, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Tesla, Toyota and VW.  (Fiat is excluded from the preceding list, as the 500e is a compliance car available only in California.)

These automakers control about 75 percent of the US auto market, and by December 2014 their product offerings will range all the way from subcompact commuter cars to SUV‘s. To adapt Alfred Sloan’s old phrase, there’s now a plug-in “for every purse and purpose”. Fierce competition has already resulted in lower prices, which will only accelerate sales volume, which will itself improve economies of scale.

Lana Wachowski, Joe Simpson and our evolving social mores

The recent release of Cloud Atlas, piqued my interest in writing some thoughts about sexual identity.  As has been fairly well publicized leading to the movie’s opening, Lana Wachowski (born Larry) underwent a gender transition (“sex change”) a few years ago; and from all accounts, seems the happier for it.

The even-more-recent allegations that Joe Simpson (Jessica and Ashlee Simpson’s father) came out to his family as gay, mean I’m going to scratch that itch, even if it might mean this blog gets permanently filtered for “sexual content”.

So, first off, congratulations to these two for being able to affirm their identities; one hopes that they didn’t endure too much suffering before taking a big leap of faith and entrusting in their friends’ and family’s acceptance and love.  And if anyone didn’t accept them for acknowledging who they happened to have been all along, well, jeers to those folks.

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Animals’ sexual diversity has been exhaustively documented, and it’s no surprise that humans are like our distant kin.  To summarize in a sentence, one’s equipment comes at conception (depending on whether one has a Y-chromosome), but one’s inclinations come several weeks later, as hormones shape foetal development.

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If I remember correctly from years-ago readings in mythology, the pride community (homosexuals, transgender folks, and the like) dominate the religious ranks in some so-called “primitive” religious traditions: they are the shamans, the witch doctors, the priests, and so forth.   These societies have belief structures that these holy people are special, because most people are “only male” or “only female”, but the gods gave the holy people both male and female powers.  We might see these social mores as positive, and affirming of the diversity of the human experience.

This tendency may not be unique to “primitive” religious traditions, either.  If you were  gay in medieval Europe and didn’t want to fake your way through a lifelong marriage, there was only one place you could go to avoid suspicion: the clergy.  (I’m including monasteries and convents in this category.)  So overrepresentation of the pride community may not just be a feature of “primitive” religions.  Mind you, while primitive shamans celebrated their god-given identities, their counterparts in world religions would have suffered deep and unhealthy repression — and would probably have adopted a militantly homophobic tone, to throw suspicion off themselves!

Our own era is littered with cases of such “gay homophobes” so uncomfortable with themselves, that they verbally attacked their non-straight peers, perhaps to avoid being detected themselves (e.g. see here).  One of the most notorious was George W. Bush loyalist Ken Mehlman, who, naturally, opposed same-sex marriage until he came out.  He’s widely believed to have helped or masterminded a plan to jam the phone lines of a Democratic Party get-out-the-vote operation in 2002, to prevent them from reaching New Hampshire voters, enabling the Republican candidate (John “Colin Powell only endorsed Obama because he’s black” Sununu) to win a narrow victory.

[Addendum: as noted in the comments, Mehlman is now proving quite an ally for gender equality now, perhaps making up for lost time.  And for this, he should be commended at least as energetically as he should be criticized for his past transgressions against his community.  As much as I’d like to think I’d’ve done things more uprightly than him if I’d been in his place, I’m not in his place — and it’s dangerous to let oneself get seduced into a sense of self-righteousness.]

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If religious homophobia is perpetuated by troubled gay authorities who are trying to cover up their own sexuality, we might wonder whether this was a feature of the original religious teachings, or whether this was a later addition.

A famous later-addition many people will be familiar with, is the notion of Original Sin, which doesn’t appear in the Christian scriptures, was first conceived by Iraeneus in the 2nd century, was finally popularized by St. Augustine about four centuries after Jesus’ death, and finally confirmed as Christian doctrine in the year 529.  Sorry, make that Western Christian doctrine.  While it may be a central tenet to Catholics and Protestants, the idea is as alien to Eastern Orthodox Christians as it is to Jews, and as it would have been to the first few centuries of Christian converts.

So, let’s go down the rabbit-hole, shall we?

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Muslims in America and other hidden ethnic histories

Yves at Naked Capitalism cross-posted a wonderful Alternet piece by Lynn Parramore, eviscerating the idea that Islam is new or alien to America.  In truth, the Muslim faith has had a long (if lightly-populated) history in the United States.  Islam arrived in America so early, the Puritans hadn’t even burnt their first witch!!

While the 1620 voyage of The Mayflower is deeply mythologized in the American psyche, the 1630 arrival of devout Muslim Anthony Janszoon van Salee in the New Netherlands, gets a lot less attention.  Which is a pity, because he seems to’ve been a business magnate — he had the foresight to buy Manhattan real estate back when it was cheap!  (It seems he once owned the land on which Wall Street was built.)  On top of that, he winds up being an ancestor of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men of all time.  Why is this Horatio Alger-style “self-made man” not already an American legend??

(For those of you keeping track, van Salee arrived a short ten years after The Mayflower.  According to Wiki, New England executed its first “witch” seventeen years later, in 1647.  And the Salem witch trials occurred in 1692/1693.)

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It’s deplorable that a fringe of American society wants to pretend the country is / should be Christian, on the flimsy and faulty premise that it was founded as such.  While the first pioneers in the 1600’s may have been passionately religious, by the late 1700’s the colonies were led by men whose intellect helped shape the Age of Enlightenment: or, as it was also known, the Age of Reason.  For many of them, the philosophy of choice was Deism — the atheism of its day, attacked by the righteous cacophony of religious conservatives.

One example is Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense may have done more than any other document to galvanize the independence movement.  He was ostracized later in life for his scathing criticism of Christianity, his funeral attended by a mere six people.  The more potent case is Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, who created his own Gospel — commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible” — by literally cutting-and-pasting the four gospels of the New Testament into one combined, miracle-free, Resurrection-less narrative.  (Definitely not the behaviour of the faithfully devout, or one considering the text holy.)  To quote from the Wiki article:

[It] begins with an account of Jesus’s birth without references to angels (at that time), genealogy, or prophecy. Miracles, references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus’ resurrection are also absent from his collection.

With “Christians” like that, who needs atheists?

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Holding a mirror to country and community reveals hidden ethnic histories of our own — and not just of the Aboriginal peoples, who have suffered seemingly-interminable injustices over the centuries.  In my home province of British Columbia, Vancouver and the surrounding suburbs has seen an influx of east Asians in recent decades.  (My wife among them.)

As of the 2006 census, 45% of residents in the suburb of Richmond claimed Chinese heritage.  Given that the Chinese population grew by 20% in the five years from 2001 to 2006, it’s possible that as I write this (2012) Chinese-Canadians are the majority in Richmond.  Delving further, we see that “visible minorities” in Richmond have a formidable 2/3 majority!  Which makes for some exceptional cuisine.  :)

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Doubting “doubting” Thomas

(written March 17; uploaded Aug 9)

Dang, I missed being able to send this out on 3:16 — wouldn’t that’ve been topical! Oh well, St. Patrick’s Day it is, then…

I should also note that I’ll be using the conventions of modern scholarship.*

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I’ll be picking up a physical copy of the latest National Geographic, as its cover story “The Journey of the Apostles” has a great bit on “doubting” Thomas, whom tradition has it (and scholarship largely accepts, based on the balance of evidence) travelled to Jewish colonies in India, to proselytize there.

Sadly, when Portugese imperialists got to India around 1600 and discovered a heretical Christian sect with their own holy texts, they kinda had all the bad books burned. Which means that we may never know the literature the relatively-isolated Thomas Christians passed down from generation to generation. (Happily for them, Thomas Christians are still around in India, which hit on the idea of freedom of religion about two thousand years before America’s Founding Fathers made a big deal of it.) A hint of what might have been, comes from the “Jesus Sutras“, a set of Chinese-language Christian scriptures discovered recently in China, dating to roughly 1000 years ago.

Wildly heretical by most Christian standards, they poetically convey the transformative experience the faith has brought so many, over the years. If nothing else, they show the challenges of transposing subtle theological ideas across languages and cultures — something to keep in mind, when we consider that Christianity in Western Europe was a Gentile religion shaped by Latin-language liturgy based on manuscripts translated from Greek, about a Jewish founding community which spoke Aramaic! Suddenly the idea of the Buddha, a skinny Indian, being represented as a portly Chinese fellow, doesn’t seem so farfetched now, hmm? ;)

Now, I have sympathy for Thomas — so much so that Thomas was one of the few “normal” names I pitched for our son, early on — in part because I think he got a bad break with the whole “doubting” Thomas thing.

In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) the Big Three apostles are Peter, James and John. (And Mary, but that’s a different note, maybe for International Women’s Day or something.) While Jesus gives extra attention to the Big Three/Four, and Judas gets his big moment near the end, Thomas and the rest largely put in cameo appearances.

The Gospel of John is very different, coming from a different Christian community in a different area, with different priorities. And one of those priorities was sticking it to Thomas at every turn (hence the doubting-Thomas episode, among others). The Biblically curious only had one side of the story to go on, until a copy of The Gospel of Thomas was unearthed in Egypt about sixty years ago. Thought to’ve been written in a community near John’s community. And taking a few jabs at John’s beliefs about the Christ. Turn the other cheek, indeed…!  (This is the primary source for the preceding paragraph.)

So we now have the religious literature of two feuding, neighbouring faith communities, one of which came to overwhelmingly overshadow the other. To use a TV cartoon analogy, John is to Springfield as Thomas is to Shelbyville.

For many scholars, the Thomas Gospel is fascinating because parts of it may predate the Gospels. Among other things, it points to James the Just as the arbitrer of disagreements; he died in the early 60’s AD, while non-fundamentalist scholars tend to date the canonical Gospels to the period of roughly 70 to 100 AD. A healthy-but-not-overwhelming majority of scholars argue that Thomas came later, because other portions hint at the worldview of later-developing Gnostic Christianity. In a sense, it’s a case of whether scholars feel the glass is more half-full (parts of it seem early!) or half-empty (other parts seem late!).

As someone without a horse in the race, but with a chronic fondness for the underdog, I’m partial to the idea that there was an early Christian community espousing at least some of the ideas in the Gospel of Thomas, who didn’t get along with the community where the Gospel of John was written. Which would explain why both sides’ literature contains subtle digs against the other. It wouldn’t be the only case of this happening.

The unflattering depiction of Peter in the Gospel of Mark leads some scholars to think the author of Mark wasn’t a fan. Nor was John, who describes the “Beloved Disciple” in more flattering terms. (Tradition has it that the “Beloved Discipline” is John himself; convenient, eh? :) ) And nor was Thomas. But the fact that all three are uncharitable towards Peter, more or less proves he was an important figure in the early Christian communities. After all, if he was unimportant, why bother? In the same way, the Gospel of John’s criticism of the apostle Thomas suggests that there already existed a community identifying itself with that apostle, which had the “wrong” ideas about Jesus. Since Thomas doesn’t feature much in the other canonical Gospels, that community may have been pretty marginal. Perhaps because it didn’t yet exist…?  ;)

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It should be emphasized that none of these human foibles diminish in any way the life-changing experience of faith these early Christians were trying to convey in the words and deeds and miracles they recorded. While we live in a scientific era with a strict binary division between fiction and non-fiction, this was not the case when so much of the world’s profoundest religious literature was written. So it’s unfortunate that we moderns tend to get tied down in questions of factual accuracy, when the point of such scriptures is to point to timeless truths, not event-specific ones. A good modern analogy might be the US Declaration of Independence, which says that “all men are created equal”. This is technically untrue — we’re all different in our DNA, socioeconomic background, and so forth — and also overlooks half of humanity, but we accept it based on the deeper truth it points to. So it was for our forebears, and their guiding documents, in an earlier age.

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* funnily enough, one of the conventions is to refer to the authors of the various Gospels as Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, despite the fact that these almost certainly weren’t the authors’ names. And though Matthew gets pole position in the New Testament, Mark was written first (then used as a quasi-template by both Matthew and Luke) hence the order I’m using here…

On Theft and Punishment

(originally written May 5, uploaded July 29)

Wal-Mart executives were recently accused of bribing foreign officials, a serious offence under US law. Fortunately for them, if history is any guide (and in a justice system which highly values past precedent, it so often is, isn’t it?) no one will go to jail. By and large, white-collar crime goes lightly punished, one of many possible reasons being that wealthy people in deep-pocketed organizations can muster all-star legal lineups in their defense. Perhaps we could call this the “law of the jingle”. ;)

In yet another example of how the world is different for the 99%, punishments for “blue-collar” crime tend to pick up the slack. More troublingly for our “equal before the law” ethos, many soon-to-be-prisoners are represented by overworked court-appointed lawyers, who can’t devote as much time to cases as privately-hired counterparts. One wonders how different things would be if we all shared public defenders, the way we share public healthcare…!

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As they do in so many fields, our southern cousins seem to lead the way in judicial asymmetry. In an infamous case several years ago, a repeat offender tried twice to steal videotapes from Kmart — nine movies worth about $150. (Compare this to the expansive music and video collections your, ahem, cousin acquired through file-sharing.) These being his third and fourth offences, and California having a “three strikes” law, the thief got two consecutive twenty-five year prison sentences: a half-century in the slammer. While he had committed other offences in the past, this brings to mind how in Les Miserables, Jean Valjean was jailed five years for stealing a loaf of bread!

Bearing in mind that it costs California about $50,000 to incarcerate someone for a year, one could say the state is “investing” $2.5 million to keep this fellow behind bars. Riffing on the economic theory that people always act in their self-interest, it would seem the criminal justice system thinks it would be even more expensive for society to leave him on the streets.

On the other end of the spectrum, executives at brokerage firm MF Global recently stole $1.6 billion from customer accounts, most of it in the “chaos” of the final days as the company went under. Because as you know, when it gets busy, banks only balance their books to the nearest billion. ;) (“Your honour, we were moving that money into so many different offshore tax-haven shell company accounts we honestly lost track of what went where. And what with all the shredding… wait, you’re not buying it?”) Unfortunately, since sentencing probably won’t happen for a few years, we’ll have to turn to older examples for comparative purposes.

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About ten years ago, two top executives at Tyco stole $600 million from the company, eventually earning sentences of up to 25 years each. Pulling out ye olde calculator app, each Tyco exec got a maximum of 25 years for $300 million, or roughly one day’s jail time per $33,000. Grading on the curve for the failed Kmart thief, he would’ve gotten six and a half minutes, a bit less than the time it takes to sing “Hey Jude”.

Scaling the other way, each Tyco exec successfully stole two million times as much as the Kmart felon tried to, so in a parallel universe they both would’ve gotten one hundred million years in prison. By comparison, the dinosaurs only lasted a hundred and sixty. Forget watching paint dry, they could’ve watched oil form! (And if they had, no doubt they’d shake their heads at our tar sands extraction, muttering “what are they thinking? That junk needs to cook another million years at least!”)

It would be unfair to blame the justice system for these iniquities, because the root of the problem is probably more fundamental to our human nature. (Similarly, blaming religion for all the terrible things done in its name overlooks the fact that we’re really, really good at finding excuses to kill each other.) Many societies distinguish between higher-esteemed and lower-esteemed communities — you may recall from school that in feudal Europe, the aristocracy were called the nobles, and the serfs, villains. Nowadays we have respectable businessmen and impoverished ethnic minorities. And sentencing sure seems to depend on whether the accused is subconsciously classified as “one of us” or “The Other”.

We can see hints of this in the difficulties of the earliest Christians in the city of Rome. Europe having been the “home base” of Christianity for so long, it’s easy to forget that the first Christians arrived there from the East. Community leaders were darker-skinned folks, probably impoverished and illiterate, who didn’t speak Latin (though some might’ve known Greek). They had newfangled ideas that irritated the more respectable members of their own synagogues, like worshipping a man who’d been executed as a common criminal. And they were rumoured to’ve been cannibals.* They were such a perfect “Other” that Nero simply could not have found a better scapegoat for the Great Fire of Rome, if he’d told his people to try. Heck, it wouldn’t be surprising if he did…!

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It’s also plausible that the thought of retail theft (purse-snatchings, stick-ups) triggers a fight-or-flight response in us, and accordingly, demands for harsh punishment. In contrast, wholesale thefts (diddling the business books and similar corruptions) tend to be banal actions involving computers — hardly adrenaline-pumping stuff. This may also help explain why they’re treated less severely, despite involving much larger sums. A recent example of the latter is the “robo-signing” scandal in the US, where banks have been shown to’ve foreclosed on thousands of homes they did not in fact have title to, then tried to falsify documents after the fact, and now seem poised to escape with fines representing a small fraction of their winnings.

This explanation unfortunately turns into the logical pretzel that if a society punishes (theft of $100 + threat of violence) more severely than (theft of $1,000,000’s), when you balance the equations, the courts treat one threat of violence as the equivalent of millions of dollars. Which just seems odd; it almost comes across as incentive for wannabe white-collar crooks.

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No doubt all these issues have been addressed with careful nuance and subtlety in the Conservative Canadian government’s recently-passed crime bill. It is an omnibus bill, after all. ;) It’s also encouraging that they’ve shown such restraint with their opponents, instead of caricaturing them as “hijacking radicals”. That would be a subtle attempt to link environmentalists with the 9/11 terrorists; to their credit, thus far they’ve kept “hijacking” and “radical” in separate sentences. ;)

To offer other credit where it’s due, much of the above was influenced by The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, a book I read at university. After getting mugged. While I was pretty much a cookie-cutter law-and-order type beforehand, it raised some formidable questions about why we choose to focus most of our crime-fighting on the bottom of the pyramid, instead of the top. (Admittedly, having the Avengers do a forensic audit of Conrad Black’s dealings, would make for a Very. Boring. Movie.)

The book’s now in its ninth edition, which means that even if the book it’s wrong, it’s pervasively wrong — not unlike today’s standard economic models. ;) The bottom line is that, because of it and other tomes, I’m one of the few people who ever got less conservative on crime, after being a victim of it! How’s that for unexpected? :)

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* some Christian traditions hold that the communion bread and wine literally becomes Jesus’ body and blood when it is consumed; others treat this metaphorically. If even one Christian proselytizer were to explain this to a local Roman without proper context, you could see how claims of cannibalism would arise…