Friday, May 23, 2008

McCain vs. Ellen on Gay Marriage

There's nothing he can say to her face to justify his position. I bet his children and grandchildren are going to be ashamed of this in the future, if they aren't already.

And yeah, Obama isn't a whole lot better on this issue, although he at least has the good sense to be humble when he's wrong.

Related: How Orthodoxy Causes Good Men to do Evil

Monday, May 19, 2008

Israel is an Anti-Israeli Appeaser least if you go by the American right's logic, which often uses two ridiculous assertions:

1) That positions held by a majority or plurality of Israelis themselves or even by the Israeli government can be "anti-Israel."
2) That talking to terrorist organizations is "appeasement."

It turns out that Israel is talking to Hamas (without preconditions) in what the head of Shin Bet calls "negotiations."

Obama, has of course, been pilloried by the American right and the minority Jewish right who claim to speak for the Jews and Israel for saying he would talk to various nations and/or terrorist organizations without preconditions.

Via Andrew Sullivan.

On a related note, you can watch Chris Matthews call out right-wing blowhard Kevin James for not having a clue what he's talking about regarding "appeasement."

Friday, May 16, 2008

Repost: Who Wrote the Bible?

This post was one of my favorites. The idea that Ezra the Scribe was likely the Redactor just blew my mind.

Reprinted in full:

You know how sometimes at the end of a movie there is a twist that suddenly changes your understanding of everything that happened before? Events which you previously thought you understood take on a whole new meaning. Think about the climax of The Sixth Sense, for example.

I had that experience when I realized who Ezra HaSofer ("the scribe") probably was. We were taught that he was called "the scribe" because, you know, he was a scribe. He copied Torahs; he even made a couple of small corrections, according to some of the sages.

What an understatement! He wasn't Ezra HaSofer; he was Ezra HaSOFER! He didn't correct a few errors; he basically compiled/wrote (redacted) what we now call the Torah!

In hindsight, everything makes sense. There were so many clues.

The Clues

First of all, a plain reading of Nechemiya (Nehemia) 8 implies that Ezra revealed a Torah which was at least partially new to the people:

1 all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spoke unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which HaShem had commanded to Israel.
2 And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.
3 And he read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women, and of those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the Law...
5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people--for he was above all the people--and when he opened it, all the people stood up.
6 And Ezra blessed HaShem, the great G-d. And all the people answered: 'Amen, Amen', with the lifting up of their hands; and they bowed their heads, and fell down before HaShem with their faces to the ground...
8 And they read in the book, in the Law of G-d, distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.
9 And Nehemiah, who was the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people: 'This day is holy unto HaShem your G-d; mourn not, nor weep.' For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law...
12 And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.
13 And on the second day were gathered together the heads of fathers' houses of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, unto Ezra the scribe, even to give attention to the words of the Law.
14 And they found written in the Law, how that HaShem had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month;
15 and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying: 'Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.'
16 So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of G-d, and in the broad place of the water gate, and in the broad place of the gate of Ephraim.
17 And all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.
18 Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he read in the book of the Law of G-d. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according unto the ordinance. (JPS)

They had never celebrated Sukkot (The Feast of Booths) in that country! ("Since the days of Joshua.") Apologists will tell you that the people had simply forgotten the Torah and Ezra was bringing it back to them. However, Richard Friedman points out that in Leviticus 23, the laws for Sukkot seem to be added on to the list of holidays. The list goes from verses 4-37 and ends, "These are the holidays of Hashem." Then, two verses later, it suddenly starts listing the laws of Sukkot. This makes sense in hindsight. Combined with evidence (Neh 8:17, above) that Sukkot wasn't celebrated until Ezra showed up with the Torah, it seems reasonable that Ezra added those verses to an earlier text when he redacted the Torah.

(Friedman brings many more arguments in support of Ezra being the redactor. For example, he points out that this is the first time in all of Tanakh that a finished copy of the Five Books appears. See Who Wrote the Bible for more.)

Second, there is evidence within the Torah that (at least) parts of it were written long after Moses' time:

So Moses the servant of HaShem died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of HaShem. And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab over against Beth-peor; and no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day. (Deuteronomy 6:34)

And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom HaShem knew face to face. (Deuteronomy 34:10)

These were the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before there was any king reigning over the descendants of Yisrael. (Gen. 36:1)

And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued as far as Dan. (Genesis 14:14)

As this article points out, "no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day" doesn't make sense if it was written during Moses' time; "And there hath not arisen a prophet since" has the same problem; "before there was any king reigning over the descendants of Yisrael" makes no sense before King Saul's reign; and "Dan" wasn't named "Dan" until long after Moses' death (Judges 18:29.)

The Jewish Tradition

Although obviously the Jewish tradition has Ezra making some minor edits at the most, there are some remnants of Ezra's real importance to the Torah. The Talmud, for example, compares him favorably with Moses himself.

In the Talmud, it says:

It has been taught: R. Jose said: Had Moses not preceded him, Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel. Of Moses it is written, And Moses went up unto God, and of Ezra it is written, He, Ezra, went up from Babylon. As the going up of the former refers to the [receiving of the] Law, so does the going up of the latter. Concerning Moses, it is stated: And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments; and concerning Ezra, it is stated: For Ezra had prepared his heart to expound the law of the Lord [his God] to do it and to teach Israel statutes and judgments. And even though the Torah was not given through him, its writing was changed through him, as it is written: And the writing of the letter was written in the Aramaic character and interpreted into the Aramaic [tongue]. And again it is written, And they could not read the writing nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof. Further, it is written: And he shall write the copy [mishneh] of this law, — in writing which was destined to be changed. --Sanhedrin (21b - 22a)

Other Sources of Evidence

There is also evidence from outside of the mainstream Jewish tradition that people believed Ezra wrote or redacted the Torah as early as the 1st century CE. Ezra 4 (otherwise known as 2 Esdras, which is "Ezra" in Latin) was written in the 1st or 2nd century. (Ezra 1 & 2 are Ezra and Nehemia.) Although it's not in the Jewish Tanakh or accepted by most Christians as scriptural, "the Ethiopian Orthodox and Russian Orthodox consider it canonical." (Wikipedia.)

Ezra 4 is a truly fascinating book. According to it, the original Torah was burned up in the fire that destroyed the first Temple. God appears in a bush and re-teaches the Torah to Ezra:

1: And it came to pass upon the third day, I sat under an oak, and, behold, there came a voice out of a bush over against me, and said, Esdras, Esdras.
2: And I said, Here am I, Lord And I stood up upon my feet.
3: Then said he unto me, In the bush I did manifestly reveal myself unto Moses, and talked with him, when my people served in Egypt...
19: Then answered I before thee, and said,
20: Behold, Lord, I will go, as thou hast commanded me, and reprove the people which are present: but they that shall be born afterward, who shall admonish them? thus the world is set in darkness, and they that dwell therein are without light.
21: For thy law is burnt, therefore no man knoweth the things that are done of thee, or the work that shall begin.
22: But if I have found grace before thee, send the Holy Ghost into me, and I shall write all that hath been done in the world since the beginning, which were written in thy law, that men may find thy path, and that they which will live in the latter days may live.
23: And he answered me, saying, Go thy way, gather the people together, and say unto them, that they seek thee not for forty days.
24: But look thou prepare thee many box trees, and take with thee Sarea, Dabria, Selemia, Ecanus, and Asiel, these five which are ready to write swiftly;
25: And come hither, and I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heart, which shall not be put out, till the things be performed which thou shalt begin to write.
26: And when thou hast done, some things shalt thou publish, and some things shalt thou shew secretly to the wise: to morrow this hour shalt thou begin to write.
27: Then went I forth, as he commanded, and gathered all the people together, and said,
28: Hear these words, O Israel.
29: Our fathers at the beginning were strangers in Egypt, from whence they were delivered:
30: And received the law of life, which they kept not, which ye also have transgressed after them.
31: Then was the land, even the land of Sion, parted among you by lot: but your fathers, and ye yourselves, have done unrighteousness, and have not kept the ways which the Highest commanded you.
32: And forasmuch as he is a righteous judge, he took from you in time the thing that he had given you.
33: And now are ye here, and your brethren among you.
34: Therefore if so be that ye will subdue your own understanding, and reform your hearts, ye shall be kept alive and after death ye shall obtain mercy.
35: For after death shall the judgment come, when we shall live again: and then shall the names of the righteous be manifest, and the works of the ungodly shall be declared.
36: Let no man therefore come unto me now, nor seek after me these forty days.
37: So I took the five men, as he commanded me, and we went into the field, and remained there.
38: And the next day, behold, a voice called me, saying, Esdras, open thy mouth, and drink that I give thee to drink.
39: Then opened I my mouth, and, behold, he reached me a full cup, which was full as it were with water, but the colour of it was like fire.
40: And I took it, and drank: and when I had drunk of it, my heart uttered understanding, and wisdom grew in my breast, for my spirit strengthened my memory:
41: And my mouth was opened, and shut no more.
42: The Highest gave understanding unto the five men, and they wrote the wonderful visions of the night that were told, which they knew not: and they sat forty days, and they wrote in the day, and at night they ate bread.
43: As for me. I spake in the day, and I held not my tongue by night.
44: In forty days they wrote two hundred and four books.

45: And it came to pass, when the forty days were filled, that the Highest spake, saying, The first that thou hast written publish openly, that the worthy and unworthy may read it:
46: But keep the seventy last, that thou mayest deliver them only to such as be wise among the people:
47: For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the stream of knowledge.
48: And I did so.

Now obviously I don't expect my Orthodox Jewish or fundamentalist Christian readers to just take Ezra 4's word for it. But it is an indication of an ancient tradition that Ezra (re-)wrote of the Torah.


None of this evidence is conclusive. It's impossible to say for sure whether Ezra was indeed the redactor, or whether there even was a single redactor. The Documentary Hypothesis argues that there were at least four distinct authors of the Five Books (J, E, P, and D) and that there was a fifth person who was the redactor.

To summarize, we know (1)that parts of the Torah seem to have been written long after Moses' death (2) that Ezra at least re-introduced the people to the Torah, including teaching them about Sukkot for apparently the first time; (3) that Ezra is known as "the scribe" and is compared favorably to Moses (!) by the Talmud; (4) that even in the mainstream Jewish tradition there is acceptance that Ezra at least made minor edits to the Torah; and (5) that there is an entire book from 2,000 years ago (albeit a few hundred years after Ezra's time) that claims Ezra wrote the current version of the Torah. It's enough for me to conclude that it is probable that Ezra was the redactor.

Nehemia 8
Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Friedman
4 Ezra or 2 Edras
Straight Dope Staff Report: Who wrote the Bible? (Part 2)
Torah Redactor, wikipedia.
The Multiple Authorship of the Books Attributed to Moses, William Harwood, Ph. D.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Common Causes of Deconversion

Kieran Bennett analyzed 117 Deconversion Stories at Positive Atheism and classified the reasons people claim they left Christianity. Note that these are not disproofs of religion or even necessarily good reasons, just individuals' reasons for leaving. The following words are mine but the numbers are his:

14.89% Stupid or incoherent answers by religious leaders to simple questions.
14.89% Science contradicted their religious dogma.
12.76% Contradictory dogma.
?% Exposure to atheism. [Kieran seems to have omitted the number here.]
10.63% Reading the Bible.
8.51% Hypocrisy of the Church.
8.51% Prayers went unanswered or person came to believe he was talking to self.
8.5% The existence of other religions.

My deconversion was a process and not an event, but I would probably point to stupid answers by religious leaders and to the conflict between science and the Torah as the primary causes of my leaving Orthodoxy.

The first major pang of doubt that I remember is when I asked the smartest rabbi I knew -- and one with substantial secular education at that -- what the firmament is. His answer? The stratosphere. But well before that, I had learned that rabbis could say things far stupider than that, and sometimes things that were racist or just plain offensive.

Then I started to notice a pattern. The "more Orthodox" the Rabbi, the less likely he was to, for example, believe in evolution or an ancient universe and the more likely he was to say things that are clueless and/or downright offensive. Clearly, "less Orthodox" was the right direction. But for all their efforts, the "less Orthodox" rabbis I knew and knew of coudn't come up with a coherent world view, just an uncomfortable compromise between Orthodoxy and reality, with a little fudging here and a little looking-the-other-way there. Every time I could tell they wanted to be factually correct or morally progressive but couldn't quite do it, it was because they were trying to stay within the bounds of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy itself was the barrier.

(Via Friendly Atheist.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Albert Einstein: Bible a Collection of Childish Stories

Maybe this will clear some things up for those confused by Einstein's unfortunate use of religious metaphor.

Albert Einstein, writing in 1954, dismissed Judaism and other religions as "an incarnation of the most childish superstitions," though he said he gladly belonged to the Jewish people and felt a deep affinity for the Jews' "mentality," excerpts published on Tuesday showed.

Einstein also said he saw nothing "chosen" about the Jews, and that they were no better than other peoples "although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power."

The renowned physicist, who died a little more than a year after writing the letter, also had tough words for God and the Bible, according to the text published by the British The Guardian daily.

"The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish," the letter was quoted as saying. "No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this."

The letter, written in German in January, 1954 to philosopher Eric Gutkind, is to be auctioned in London on Thursday, the paper said. Written in Einstein's hand, the letter, which has been in private hands for more than half a century, reportedly could sell for as much as 8,000 pounds sterling.

Turning to Judaism, Einstein wrote that "For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people.

"As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them."

Tip o' the hat to JP Perry.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Obama Does Not Have a Jewish Problem

The idea that Jews won't vote for Obama is one of those lies told over and over again by the media. Here is Gallup:

PRINCETON, NJ -- Barack Obama is faring better than might be expected [By who?? --JA] among Jewish voters, beating John McCain in Gallup Poll Daily general-election matchups and trailing Hillary Clinton only slightly in Jewish Democrats' preferences for the Democratic nomination.

This is according to an aggregate of Gallup Poll Daily tracking from April 1-30, including interviews with close to 800 Jewish voters, and nearly 600 Jewish Democratic voters.

Furthermore, Gallup Poll Daily tracking finds no recent decline in the percentage of Jewish Democrats favoring Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jewish Democrats continue to favor Clinton, but by only a slim margin over Obama -- 50% to 43% in April, compared with 51% to 41% in March.

In terms of the general election, Jewish voters nationwide are nearly as likely to say they would vote for Obama if he were the Democratic nominee running against the Republican McCain (61%), as to say they would vote for Clinton (66%).

Both the 61% and the 66% numbers seem low to me, considering the percentage of Jews who voted for Gore (79%) and Kerry (74%).

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Compartmentalization Observed in the Wild

At the Conservative Passover seder I attended this year, the woman next to me told me that she is a middle-school ancient history teacher. I asked her if that included Egypt, and she said, "Of course."

"Let me ask you something," I said. "Is there any evidence that the Jews were ever in Egypt, outside of Jewish sources?"

She smiled and said, "You know, I was talking to my Rabbi a few days ago about how the anthropological record compares to some of the events recorded in the Torah. Basically, we decided that faith is faith and anthropology is anthropology. But faith is still important."

(Previously on compartmentalization.)

A Meme: Beauty in the 20th Century

Blog-friend Mark had a good idea for a meme:

The 20th century gave us much that was not beautiful such as the Killing Fields, Auschwitz, Holodomor, Stalingrad, and that list continues much too far. However, every age has beauty to claim as its own. Doestoevsky claimed that “beauty would save the world.” In this vein it seems imperative that we remark and remember beauty that is in our midst.

This particular meme invites the partipants to name five things of transcendent beauty that were discovered or created in the last 100 years. Name them, explain why you find it beautiful and then instead of tagging N others to pass it along, if you read this and think beauty important … take it up!

Here goes. Note that these are "five things of transcendent beauty that were discovered or created in the last 100 years," not "the most beautiful five things created in the last 100 years."

1. Michael Jordan's Dunk

Jordan epitomized the combination of ferocity and beauty that represent sports at their most beautiful.

2. The Blue Marble

The definition of "transcendent." Just mind-blowing.

3. E = mc2

Terrible violence and incomprehensible power in such a little equation. I believe it may very well kill all of us. Today, incidentally, is the birthday of Robert Oppenheimer, who quoted the Bhagavad-Gita after the first nuclear explosion: "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

4. Imagine, John Lennon.

So haunting in the distance between reality and utopia.

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey

I surprised myself with this one. I don't even really like this movie, because it's so slow I can't stand to watch it. But film was by far the most important art form of the 20th century and I just can't say that any other movie is as beautiful.

Monday, April 21, 2008

From Creationists to Cdesign Proponentsists: The Fraud of "Intelligent Design"

A recent MetaFilter thread on Ben Stein's (allegedly) awful anti-evolution documentary Expelled, pointed me to a hilarious gotcha I'd previously missed relating to the landmark "Intelligent Design" court case Kitzmiller v. Dover:

For years, ID proponents have denied that ID is just a new label for creationism. Just google the Discovery Insitute website on the phrase “not creationism.”

It is now well-known that the first “intelligent design” book, Of Pandas and People, was originally a classic “two-model” creationism vs. evolution book named Creation Biology. (See a list of the Pandas drafts, with quotes, here.) As Barbara Forrest showed during her testimony, Pandas was reborn as an “intelligent design” textbook in 1987, mere months after the Supreme Court ruling against creation science in Edwards v. Aguillard came down.

But ID proponents were undeterred. Discovery Institute spokesperson Casey Luskin bravely retorted,

No ‘word-processor-conspiracy-theory’ from Forrest can change the fact that Pandas’ arguments were always distinct from those of traditional ‘creationism’.*


Well, courtesy of the sharp eyes of Dr. Barbara Forrest, we have now discovered the Missing Link between creationism and ID. Since these unpublished drafts of Of Pandas and People have been introduced as exhibits in the Kitzmiller case, they can at last be quoted...

In summary, we have:

Creation Biology (1983), p. 3-34:
“Evolutionists think the former is correct; creationists because of all the evidence discussed in this book, conclude the latter is correct.”

Biology and Creation (1986), p. 3-33:
“Evolutionists think the former is correct, creationists accept the latter view.”

Biology and Origins (1987), p. 3-38:
“Evolutionists think the former is correct, creationists accept the latter view.”

Of Pandas and People (1987, creationist version), p. 3-40:
“Evolutionists think the former is correct, creationists accept the latter view.”

Of Pandas and People (1987, “intelligent design” version), p. 3-41:
“Evolutionists think the former is correct, cdesign proponentsists accept the latter view.”

And the creationists say transitional fossils are never discovered…

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Religious Brainwashing

How to get a child to grow up believing that God wrote the Five Books of Moses:

Immerse him in Orthodox Judaism from day one. Spend thousands of dollars sending him to Orthodox schools. Insulate him from non-Jews and non-religious Jews. Shield him from any mention of the documentary hypothesis. Assure him that commentators like Rashi and Tosfos know more about the Torah than any secular Biblical scholar. Make him believe that Orthodoxy is dependent on certain beliefs and that if he leaves Orthodoxy, he loses his community. And maybe your love, as well. Expose him to speeches almost every day about the beauty and necessity of the Torah. Have him study the Talmud for years and insist that the Talmud's analysis of every verse as if it were dictated by God is not only true, but was also given to Moses at Sinai.

How to get a child to grow up believing that the Five Books were written by men:

Don't send him to an Orthodox school.

Any questions?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

After the Paradigm Shift

I wince when I hear the phrase "paradigm shift," because it's so tied into business buzzword BS, but it is an important concept. Those of us who have left Orthodoxy have experienced a major one -- our understanding of everything has been upended and we can never return to seeing things the same way as we once did.

DBS explains it well in his new post. Excerpt:

There is a very tangible change which happens some time after you have left religion and have had a chance to reacclimate to the world. At some point, you look back at the belief system which you left behind and feel a sense of shock at what you see.

This may really be the point of no return. Up until then, there is a sort of built in defensiveness in your thinking. You have all of your reasons – logical and moral, all worked out in your mind - as if you have to justify your choice to leave the Orthodox world. But at that moment, you suddenly grasp that the shoe belongs firmly on the other foot. You have the powerful feeling of seeing, for the first time, your old beliefs on equal footing with the claims of the other religious groups.

And, just as suddenly, your need to justify your ideas evaporates. “Am I really concerned about explaining why I don’t believe in this outrageous mythology?” “Am I really worried about proving that I’m still moral?” You feel, for the first time, that it would be just as absurd to have to justify why you are not a Mormon or Scientologies.

From this side of the shift, I cannot understand how smart, educated people continue to believe in Orthodox Judaism. I know that sounds arrogant, but it's true. I literally cannot understand it. I've come up with various hypotheses ranging from psychological mechanisms to the idea that a lot of them are just faking it, but I don't get it at the gut level as I once did.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Link Roundup

Abandoning Eden is thrilled to be moving in with her (non-Jewish) boyfriend, but doesn't know when, if, or how to tell her parents, who frankly sound pretty scary. She also has a post about protecting her parents from reality. Congrats and good luck, AE!

The Holy Hyrax has a fascinating post examining various ways that Arachim censored their version of the Venetian Haggaddah, originally printed in 1609. Bare arms and the man in the moon? Censored. Disturbing racial imagery? No problem.

Beyond BT has a typically mirror-world (to us skeptics) post about having the seder without extended family.

DovBear thinks the rabbis are right to be scared of blogs.

XGH is back and required reading, as always. Even DBS is back, albeit with only two posts so far.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Religion and the Monty Hall Problem

Hirhurim links to a simulator of the counterintuitive Monty Hall Problem (MHP.) Because he is Hirhurim, and not Kottke, I thought about how the MHP might apply to religion.

The MHP can be summed up as follows (via Wikipedia:)

Suppose you're on a game show and you're given the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. The car and the goats were placed randomly behind the doors before the show. The rules of the game show are as follows: After you have chosen a door, the door remains closed for the time being. The game show host, Monty Hall, who knows what is behind the doors, now has to open one of the two remaining doors, and the door he opens must have a goat behind it. If both remaining doors have goats behind them, he chooses one randomly. After Monty Hall opens a door with a goat, he will ask you to decide whether you want to stay with your first choice or to switch to the last remaining door. Imagine that you chose Door 1 and the host opens Door 3, which has a goat. He then asks you "Do you want to switch to Door Number 2?" Is it to your advantage to change your choice?

Most people's intuition tells them that it doesn't matter what they do -- both doors have a 50% chance of winning. If you do the math, though, (or run the simulator) it becomes clear that switching gives you a 66.7% of winning the car.

Here is the explanation: when you first pick a door, you have a 33.3% chance of identifying the correct door. But things change when the host has to open a door with a goat. If you have the correct door, which happens 33.3% of the time, he may choose either of the other doors. If you have the wrong one, 66.7% of the time, he has no choice and must pick the only remaining goat-door. In other words, 66.7% of the time, the door he does not pick contains the car.

So how does this apply to religion?

Well, when you are born, you are assigned a random category (a specific religion or atheism or agnosticism or nothing) based on your parents' religion*. This is akin to choosing one of the three doors, because your category was "chosen" out of all existing categories**. However, once you learn a little bit about the world and gain the ability to reason, it's relatively easy to have Monty Hall open some of the false doors -- i.e. you may safely eliminate categories which are clearly incoherent (to you) or simply extremely improbable, like Scientology, Mormonism, and various denominations that hold of Biblical literalism.

You now have a choice akin to the two doors. By the same logic as the MHP, then, and with the added assumption that your religion isn't necessarily more likely to be true than the others***, then your best bet is to switch once you reach the age of knowledge and reason.

Things get more complex if you attempt to rate the categories you can't eliminate according to probability (e.g. you might think Catholicism is twice as likely to be true as Islam, or that Presbyterianism is slightly more likely than Anglicanism) but the overall logic doesn't change. Unless you think you can safely eliminate all other categories or you believe you can fairly rate your own as exceedingly probable, the right move is to switch.

* Obviously, this is an oversimplification, for the sake of clarity.

** The assigned categories are weighted by numbers of adherents and birthrate, of course, but that doesn't necessarily change the underlying logic, since we don't know whether popular religions are more likely to be correct or not.

*** Understanding that people are biased towards (or sometimes against) their given religion should play into this. Also, if you can eliminate your own category, you clearly have to switch.

(See also Bad Religious Arguments: Pascal's Wager, in which I argue that if your primary concern is optimizing your afterlife, you should choose a relatively probable religion that has the worst hell for nonbelievers and the surest way into heaven for adherents.)

EDIT: It occurred to me to google "Monty Hall religion" right after I posted, and it turns out at least one other person had a similar idea.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Homophobes Aroused by Homoeroticism

From the Department of Unsurprising Findings.


The authors investigated the role of homosexual arousal in exclusively heterosexual men who admitted negative affect toward homosexual individuals. Participants consisted of a group of homophobic men (n = 35) and a group of nonhomophobic men (n = 29); they were assigned to groups on the basis of their scores on the Index of Homophobia (W. W. Hudson & W. A. Ricketts, 1980). The men were exposed to sexually explicit erotic stimuli consisting of heterosexual, male homosexual, and lesbian videotapes, and changes in penile circumference were monitored. They also completed an Aggression Questionnaire (A. H. Buss & M. Perry, 1992). Both groups exhibited increases in penile circumference to the heterosexual and female homosexual videos. Only the homophobic men showed an increase in penile erection to male homosexual stimuli. The groups did not differ in aggression. Homophobia is apparently associated with homosexual arousal that the homophobic individual is either unaware of or denies.

Shocking. Next thing you know, they'll be telling us that people who think homosexuality is a choice are more likely to have homosexual feelings.

(Disclaimers: small sample size. Also, the set of people willing to submit to an experiment that measures change in penile circumference can not be a representative sample! Although if you are skeptical, go replay that clip of Haggard preaching before he got outed. Or go listen to two minutes of Michael Savage, who has not been outed, ranting about gays.)

Via Ed Brayton.

Update: I was curious, so I googled the "Index of Homophobia:"

This questionnaire is designed to measure the way you feel about working or association with homosexuals. This is not a test, so there are no wrong answers. Answer each item as carefully and accurately as you can by placing a number beside each one as follows:

1 (Strongly Agree)
2 (Agree)
3 (Neutral)
4 (Disagree)
5 (Strongly Disagree)

____ 1.) I would feel comfortable working closely with a gay man.
____ 2.) I would enjoy attending social functions at which queer people were present.
____ 3.) I would feel uncomfortable if I learned that my neighbor was queer.
____ 4.) If a member of my sex made a sexual advance towards me, I would
feel angry.
____ 5.) I would feel comfortable knowing I was attractive to members of my gender.
____ 6.) I would feel uncomfortable being seen in a gay bar.
____ 7.) I would feel uncomfortable if a member of my sex made an advance
towards me.
____ 8.) I would be comfortable if I found myself attracted to a member of my sex.
____ 9.) I would feel disappointed if I learned that my child was queer.
____ 10.) I would feel nervous being in a group of queers.
____ 11.) I would feel comfortable knowing that my clergy person was queer.
____ 12.) I would be upset if I learned that my sibling was queer.
____ 13.) I would feel that I had failed as a parent if I learned that my child was gay.
____ 14.) If I saw two men holding hands in public, I would feel disgusted.
____ 15.) If a member of my gender made an advance towards me, I would be
____ 16.) I would feel comfortable if I learned that my daughter’s teacher was a
____ 17.) I would feel uncomfortable if I learned that my spouse or partner was
attracted to a member of his/her gender.
____ 18.) I would feel at ease talking with a queer at a party.
____ 19.) I would feel uncomfortable if I learned that my boss was queer.
____ 20.) It would not bother me to walk through a predominantly gay section of town
____ 21.) It would disturb me to find out that my doctor was queer.
____ 22.) I would feel comfortable if I learned that my best friend of my gender was
____ 23.) If a member of my gender made an advance towards me, I would feel
____ 24.) I would feel uncomfortable knowing that my son’s teacher was queer.
____ 25.) I would feel comfortable working closely with a lesbian.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Religion Improves Group Cooperation

Several econ blogs linked to this interesting piece in The Economist.


To test whether religion might have emerged as a way of improving group co-operation while reducing the need to keep an eye out for free-riders, Dr Sosis drew on a catalogue of 19th-century American communes published in 1988 by Yaacov Oved of Tel Aviv University. Dr Sosis picked 200 of these for his analysis; 88 were religious and 112 were secular. Dr Oved's data include the span of each commune's existence and Dr Sosis found that communes whose ideology was secular were up to four times as likely as religious ones to dissolve in any given year.

A follow-up study that Dr Sosis conducted in collaboration with Eric Bressler of McMaster University in Canada focused on 83 of these communes (30 religious, 53 secular) to see if the amount of time they survived correlated with the strictures and expectations they imposed on the behaviour of their members. The two researchers examined things like food consumption, attitudes to material possessions, rules about communication, rituals and taboos, and rules about marriage and sexual relationships.

As they expected, they found that the more constraints a religious commune placed on its members, the longer it lasted (one is still going, at the grand old age of 149). But the same did not hold true of secular communes, where the oldest was 40. Dr Sosis therefore concludes that ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain co-operation in a community—what is needed in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified.

Dr Sosis has also studied modern secular and religious kibbutzim in Israel. Because a kibbutz, by its nature, depends on group co-operation, the principal difference between the two is the use of religious ritual. Within religious communities, men are expected to pray three times daily in groups of at least ten, while women are not. It should, therefore, be possible to observe whether group rituals do improve co-operation, based on the behaviour of men and women.

To do so, Dr Sosis teamed up with Bradley Ruffle, an economist at Ben-Gurion University, in Israel. They devised a game to be played by two members of a kibbutz. This was a variant of what is known to economists as the common-pool-resource dilemma, which involves two people trying to divide a pot of money without knowing how much the other is asking for. In the version of the game devised by Dr Sosis and Dr Ruffle, each participant was told that there was an envelope with 100 shekels in it (between 1/6th and 1/8th of normal monthly income). Both players could request money from the envelope, but if the sum of their requests exceeded its contents, neither got any cash. If, however, their request equalled, or was less than, the 100 shekels, not only did they keep the money, but the amount left was increased by 50% and split between them.

Dr Sosis and Dr Ruffle picked the common-pool-resource dilemma because the communal lives of kibbutz members mean they often face similar dilemmas over things such as communal food, power and cars. The researchers' hypothesis was that in religious kibbutzim men would be better collaborators (and thus would take less) than women, while in secular kibbutzim men and women would take about the same. And that was exactly what happened.

It'd be interesting to look at intergroup cooperation -- I wonder if religious groups would be less cooperative with other groups than secular ones.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Predatory Lending: Why Conservative Economics Doesn't Work

It's immoral to let a sucker keep his money. --Canada Bill Jones

Latina's Loss in Va. Epitomizes Mortgage Crisis
Looking back, Glenda Ortiz can see she did everything wrong when she bought her house in 2005. In fact, to understand the housing crisis that has swept the country, one need only listen to the tale of the Ortiz family.

She looked at only one house and paid too much for it: $430,000 for a run-down, one-story duplex in Alexandria, triple what the house had sold for the year before, and $5,000 more than the asking price, according to real estate records.

She agreed to a high-interest loan that would cost her more than $3,000 a month, more than 70 percent of the $4,200 that she and her husband brought home monthly.

She signed papers in English that she didn't understand. One said she was married to a man she didn't know.

She placed her financial future in the hands of a woman she barely knew who sold cosmetics and jewelry door to door. She sought no one else's advice.

Her loan application sailed through an originator and was accepted by a mortgage company, both specializing in customers with "less than ideal" credit.

And so, in August 2005, Glenda Ortiz, a cook at a Best Western who lived in a cramped apartment in Arlington County, became a homeowner. By last March, the home was in foreclosure. The loan originator and mortgage company had gone out of business. And Ortiz was headed to court.

Now in conservative economics, this is all her fault. Mrs. Ortiz should have been more responsible. She deserves what she got. Now she'll know for the future.

But there are millions of people like Mrs. Ortiz -- people who maybe aren't really smart enough to understand what's going on in financial discussions, people who don't have a good support system to keep them out of trouble, people who are maybe pretty lousy at math, and may not even really understand English. Are we really going to say that it's okay for companies to give such people high-interest loans that they obviously cannot afford? (Her mortgage payments were more than 70% of their combined monthly income!)

"It's immoral to let a sucker keep his money." Is that America's motto now?

Loans need to be regulated. Just because you can find someone stupid enough or ignorant enough or even just irresponsible enough to fall for your predation doesn't mean that you have a right to prey on them.

A perfectly free market is an ugly one, "red in tooth and claw." This kind of predatory lending is just plain immoral, and it should be illegal, too.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Israel and Iraq: Cognitive Dissonance

There was recently an astounding poll of Palestinians which showed that 84% of them support the recent terrorist attack at a yeshiva in Israel. (Previously.) (The poll also found, although right-wing sources conveniently omit this, "66 percent favoring normalized relations with Israel if it returned all land won in 1967 and a Palestinian state was established.")

I've more or less given up hope on any significant improvement in Israel in the near future. Pretty much anything Israel does just makes the situation worse, and the Palestinians certainly aren't showing any signs of working towards peace.

This sounds a bit like what's going on in Iraq, doesn't it? (I'm speaking tactically/strategically, not morally.) But for some reason, with respect to Iraq, the American hawks get all starry-eyed and think that if we just stay a few more years, the Iraqi factions will suddenly renounce their violent and hateful ways and decide to live in peace and harmony, blossoming into a democracy that will transform the entire middle east. Suggest that relative peace is possible in Israel/Palestine via tough negotiations and an eventual two-state solution, and they'll laugh bitterly. Suggest that peace is possible in Iraq even without a multiple-state solution and they'll call you a genius. Something does not compute.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obama, Wright, and the Republican Debate: Double Standards Watch

Did you know that at this year's Republican Values Voters Debate, they had a choir sing a song, in front of all the candidates, that started like this:

Why should God bless America?
She’s forgotten he exists
And has turned her back
On everything that made her what she is

Why should God stand beside her
Through the night with the light from his hand?
God have mercy on America
Forgive her sin and heal our land

Watch the whole thing:

I didn't know that either. One wonders why the media loops Obama's pastor saying "We should say 'God damn America'" but never mentioned the above incident.

Can you imagine if, at a Democratic debate, they had sung a similar song, to the same tune, saying things like, "Why should God bless America when we let the poor go hungry?" Cable news would be wall-to-wall outrage.

"Why should God bless America? God have mercy on America/Forgive her sin and heal her land." No, no double standard at all.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Charles Murray on Obama's Speech

Charles Murray himself, co-author of The Bell Curve, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, hero to right-wing "race realists" like Steve Sailer and Half Sigma, had this to say about Obama's speech:

I read the various posts here on "The Corner," mostly pretty ho-hum or critical about Obama's speech. Then I figured I'd better read the text (I tried to find a video of it, but couldn't). I've just finished. Has any other major American politician ever made a speech on race that comes even close to this one? As far as I'm concerned, it is just plain flat out brilliant—rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America. It is so far above the standard we're used to from our pols.... But you know me. Starry-eyed Obama groupie.

Obama and Wright, Part 3: The Short Version

Some people were not convinced by my previous two posts. I thought it might be helpful to simplify.

Here are things I believe:

1. Obama does not believe the hateful and/or ignorant things Wright said.

2. The nuts on the religious left are not currently as dangerous as the nuts on the religious right, because they do not have and never have had the same degree of power and influence. If Obama is elected, there is approximately a zero percent chance that he will do anything hateful or crazy because Wright said so.

3. Although I strongly disagree with Wright, I understand where's he's coming from. (Remember, to understand is not to condone.) He grew up in a country where white America really was out to get him and people like him. There really was segregation. There really were lynchings and all kinds of discrimination. The federal government really did purposely let blacks die of infectious diseases when he was growing up. Obama appears to understand and recognize this as well, which is why he says he's willing to look past it. That makes sense to me.

I thought one of the most surprising and interesting parts of the speech was when Obama made a parallel to angry blue-collar white men, who have the same kind of legitimate anger that Wright has but also the same kind of incorrect direction of that anger. I wish the media had picked up more on that angle.

4. All that said, it's not a deal-breaker for me that Obama chose Wright and stuck with him all these years.

5. Regarding the charge that I have a double standard, I wouldn't disqualify McCain for his cozying up to the religious right, either. That doesn't mean I like it, of course, any more than I like the fact that Obama is super-religious. But I think McCain, like Obama, doesn't believe in the hateful things that the religious leaders in their lives say. (Here's McCain's "spiritual guide," for the record.)

For those who are angry with me or just disagree, please be precise. Do you think Obama agrees with those awful and stupid things Wright has said? Or do you think that Obama's willingness to look past them should disqualify him from the presidency? If so, why? And would you hold every candidate up to that standard, from McCain to Joseph Lieberman? And what's the worst thing your spiritual leader has ever said?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama and Wright, Part II: In His Own Words

Read the complete transcript or watch the video.


Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way

But the truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God's work here on Earth - by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.


Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety - the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions - the good and the bad - of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.