September 2007

By Sam Harris in the Washington Post’s On Faith:

How to Believe in God
Six Easy Steps

1. First, you must want to believe in God.
2. Next, understand that believing in God in the absence of evidence is especially noble.
3. Then, realize that the human ability to believe in God in the absence of evidence might itself constitute evidence for the existence of God.
4. Now consider any need for further evidence (both in yourself and in others) to be a form of temptation, spiritually unhealthy, or a corruption of the intellect.
5. Refer to steps 2-4 as acts of “faith.”
6. Return to 2.

As should be clear, this is a kind of perpetual motion machine of wishful thinking—and it leads, of necessity, to reduced self-awareness and diminished contact with reality. But it is reputed to have many benefits, and once you get it up and running you will be in fine company. In fact, from the looks of it, you will never be lonely again.

Kevin Smith has a new film, Red State, coming out in 2008:

Plot Outline: A horror film in which a group of misfits encounter fundamentalism gone to the extreme in Middle America

Q&A on the upcoming film:


Question: Are you going to be adding elements of comedy, or is it going to be just serious and as you said, “fucked up.”?

Smith: There’s a few chuckles; about 2%. The other 98% is pretty fucking bleak and disturbing.

Question: Anything to compare it to on a bleakness scale?

Smith: “Requiem for a Dream” is a pretty bleak (but insanely well-made) flick. This is more bleak than that.



The Constitution says there shall be no religious test for political office, but there is. Bill has a word or two to say about that:

From Yahoo News:

 The defendant in a state senator’s lawsuit is accused of causing untold death and horror and threatening to cause more still. He can be sued in Douglas County, the legislator claims, because He’s everywhere.

State Sen. Ernie Chambers sued God last week. Angered by another lawsuit he considers frivolous, Chambers says he’s trying to make the point that anybody can file a lawsuit against anybody.

Reason magazine on Organic Farming:

A superb article in the Australian popular science magazine Cosmos debunks the organic food and farming craze. On claims that organic is more nutritious, the article notes:

A comprehensive review of some 400 scientific papers on the health impacts of organic foods, published by Faidon Magkos and colleagues in 2006 in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, concluded there was no evidence that eating organic food was healthier.

Even if it can’t be proved that eating organic is healthier, advocates claim it is nutritionally superior. Some studies, especially those reported by the organic farming advocate group, the British Soil Association, show that organic produce has a higher content of vitamin C, minerals and anti-oxidants such as flavonols, polyphenols, lycopene and resveratrol.

However, some of the compounds present at higher levels in organic food are actually natural pesticides. According to Bruce Ames, a variety of insect-resistant celery had to be taken off the U.S. market in the late 1980s because its psoralen levels were eight times higher than normal and caused a rash in people who handled it. There was a similar story with a naturally pest-resistant potato variety that ended up being acutely toxic because of its high levels of solanine and chaconine – natural toxins that block nerve transmission and cause cancer in rats. Organic farmers who rely on ‘naturally resistant’ plant varieties may also be producing plants with high levels of ‘natural’ toxins. And in this case, ‘natural’ is not likely to mean better. Think of Abraham Lincoln’s poor mother, who died after drinking the milk of a free-range cow that had grazed on a snakeroot plant.

Regardless of how it is grown, the nutritional content of fruit and vegetables is more likely to be affected by freshness or varietal differences. One study reported by Magkos tried to narrow things down by growing the same variety of plums in adjacent fields, with one using organic and the other conventional methods: the conventionally grown plums contained 38 per cent more of the potentially beneficial polyphenol compounds than the organically grown ones did.

What about claims for sustainability? With regard to preserving topsoil, no-till farming using genetically modified crops wins hands down. To wit:

An 11-year farming experiment by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland, compared crops grown three ways: conventional tillage, organic methods, or no-till. Compared to the conventional tilled plot, the organic plot was likely to hang on to 30 per cent more soil. But compared to the organic plot, the no-till plot hung on to 80 per cent more soil.

What about the alleged health dangers of synthetic pesticides?

If chemical pesticides are hazardous to health, then farm workers should be most affected. The results of a 13-year study of nearly 90,000 farmers and their families in Iowa and North Carolina — the Agricultural Health Study – suggests we really don’t have much to worry about. These people were exposed to higher doses of agricultural chemicals because of their proximity to spraying, and 65 per cent of them had personally spent more than 10 years applying pesticides. If any group of people were going to show a link between pesticide use and cancer, it would be them. They didn’t.

A preliminary report published in 2004 showed that, compared to the normal population, their rates of cancer were actually lower. And they did not show any increased rate of brain-damaging diseases like Parkinson’s. There was one exception: prostate cancer. This seemed to be linked to farmers using a particular fungicide called methyl bromide, which is now in the process of being phased out. According to James Felton, of the Biosciences Directorate of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, who also chairs the study, “The bottom line is the results are coming out surprisingly negative. It’s telling us that most of the chemicals we use today are not causing cancer or other disease.”

Health of the planet and protecting nature?

…many agricultural scientists estimate that if the world were to go completely organic, not only would the remaining forests have to be cleared to provide the organic manure needed for farming, the world’s current population would likely starve.


…the poor yield of organic farming means that food production would be a major problem. In Australia, for instance, organic farming yields 50 per cent or less per square kilometre because of pest problems and phosphate-depleted soils. (Phosphate is locked away in the ancient clays; conventional farmers help themselves to highly soluble chemically-made superphosphate. Organic farmers can’t use a chemical, so they use poorly soluble rock phosphate.)

One critical point to note is that conventional farming using genetically modified crops has been reducing its effects on the natural world over time using the findings of science. Since organic is an ideology, its ability use of scientific findings to reduce its impact on the natural world is heavily constrained.

Look folks, eat all the organic food you want. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that you’re doing something good for your health or for the health of the planet. You’re not.

Whole Cosmos article here.

Religulous Poster

Reposted from: Tiff ’07

Watching politics discussed on American television, one might conclude that left-wing views can only be expressed with a sense of humour and right-wing views without. Bill Maher’s politics defy easy categorization. But he has an unstoppable sense of humour that he wields against left and right alike. He’s done so in his stand-up routines, his shows past (Politically Incorrect) and present (Real Time with Bill Maher), and his best-selling book New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer. In an age when many comics thrive by playing dumb, Maher excels at being smart.

Now he’s embarking on his first featurelength documentary, a satirical look at religion. He has teamed up with another comic master, Larry Charles, the prolific television writer, producer and director whose credits include Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and who attended the 2006 Festival as the director of comedy mega-hit Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

In this special Mavericks presentation, Maher and Charles will take the stage to discuss religion, comedy and whatever else enters their heads – and they’ll share a teaser clip of Religulous, their work-in-progress. In the film, Maher travels to some of the world’s most popular religious destinations, from Jerusalem to the Vatican, questioning believers while being upfront about his own skepticism. Why is suffering so random? Why are so many religions down on homosexuality? What’s up with the virgin birth?

He talks to Hasidic scholars, Jesus impersonators, Jews for Jesus, Muslims, polygamists, Satanists, creationists, stoners, a Senator who believes in the Rapture, and even Rael – prophet of the Raelians – who it turns out is a big Bill Maher fan.

If this sounds offensive, you may crack a smile anyway. The laughs come both cheap and sophisticated. After all, the joking has a serious side when religion and politics mix. Maher at his most serious is still hilarious. If there is a hell, this will be the headline act.

Thom Powers

Where will the insanity end?

From ABC News:

Consider first a Baptist school in Texas whose description of a geometry course begins:

Students will examine the nature of God as they progress in their understanding of mathematics. Students will understand the absolute consistency of mathematical principles and know that God was the inventor of that consistency. They will see God’s nature revealed in the order and precision they review foundational concepts while being able to demonstrate geometric thinking and spatial reasoning. The study of the basics of geometry through making and testing conjectures regarding mathematical and real-world patterns will allow the students to understand the absolute consistency of God as seen in the geometric principles he created.