Who is watching?

Imagine you get a new neighbor. About the same time your neighbor moves in next door, fruit starts to disappear from your garden. Suspicious of your new neighbor you ask him if he knows anything about this. Your neighbor admits to stealing the fruit, then goes on to blame you for not keeping an eye on your garden. "How can you expect to not have your fruit stolen unless you watch your garden?", he states with a shrug.

A sentiment I have often heard from people of faith is "how can there be any morality without God?".

I would much rather have a neighbor that respects my property because it is wrong to steal rather than because he knows I am watching.

Likewise I think it says something about the lack of moral character when people think we need God to act morally.

If you believe God is needed for morality they you will never be a moral person. With or without God.

On religion.

I do not believe in God.

Unlike many, I have never bothered to self-apply any label to my lack of faith. Mostly because it has never been important to me to precisely communicate which flavor of non-faith I would sort under. If you like, you can call me an "atheist".

It is not like I had any choice in the matter.

At no time did I make a conscious decision not to believe in any deity or religion. When I was a kid I can remember reading historic accounts of the crusades, of the middle ages, and of wars being fought, apparently over beliefs, but even as a 12 year old child I assumed that these were just ulterior motives. That they were excuses for everything from xenophobia to the acquisition and retention of political power.

As a kid I did have an above average intelligence, but I did not, and I still do not, consider myself all that smart. I just have an appetite for knowledge, and then, as now, I spend a lot of time on my own just thinking.

By the time I was 15 I had read the bible cover to cover twice. I felt that since the bible plays such a central role in our culture, whether you believe in what it says or not, I ought to at least have read it.

The first time I read it must have been the summer I turned 14. It was not an enjoyable read, but I toughed it out and finished the whole thing.

The second time I read the entire bible was the year after. This time I took notes and it took me a few weeks longer to get through the whole text. I also borrowed a stack of books at the library. Mostly history books, books on middle eastern culture and some books on certain theological subjects (not all of which made much sense to me at the time).
I also spent some time reading criticisms of the bible as well as rebuttals of criticisms, though they were not as easy to come by in the 80s when all I had access to was the town library. (However the librarian (a devout christian) was indeed very helpful. Not only in getting books, but in discussing and explaining matters of theology and suggesting subjects for further study)

By the time I was done reading the bible the second time I felt a great sadness. A great sadness that one would consider a text largely shaped by centuries of politically motivated editing and shoddy translations, cultural and historical ignorance a holy text.

It made me sad that all those people would turn up for mass every sunday -- neither understanding the religion they believed in nor the circumstances that shaped it. The majority of them had most likely not read the whole bible or even significant parts of it. Much less tried to understand the historical contexts (plural) that shaped it. I can't say I felt very sorry for those who had not even bothered to read it: if you are willing to believe in the bible without having read it, well, then you are truly a moron -- I am sorry, but there really isn't any nice way to put it.

The people I felt truly sorry for were the people who having read it still were unable to see it for what it is. Or the people who didn't feel the need to understand the times and the cultures that created and shaped it and ask themselves important questions about how we should deal with the many problems with the text.

It may seem strange to christians that, at least intellectually, I saw the bible and christian faiths as two very separate things.

At the time I did not believe in God, but I was open to the possibility that there might be a higher power -- some form of consciousness outside ourselves. I, ironically enough, considered it unscientific to rule it out absolutely without proof one way or another.

For the most part I saw christian faith as just a manifestation of a belief in some consciousness outside our own. I must admit that I saw concrete religions as being a synthetic construct -- nice (and many not so nice) fairy tales to give abstract concepts some shape.

Concrete analogies for the unsophisticated mind, if you will.

The fact that the christian myths are so elaborate to the point where they have time and again sparked theological controversy I mostly put down to the fact that along the way the church got a bit carried away in the storytelling and ended up inventing too many conflicting and internally inconsistent narratives. I felt that whatever meaning might have been there at the beginning has been perverted by excessive elaboration, cultural and historical ignorance and misinterpretation.

And we need not go far back in our own recorded history to observe this. The mormons believe in a whole new set of fairy tales spun by known con-man Joseph Smith.

From I was 16 until George W. Bush came to power, I didn't really think much about religion. There were other, more important subjects to think about. It was only when Bush came to power it dawned on me what a terrible shadow religion was once again casting on our society. The 80s was an optimistic time. As a teenager I, rather naïvely assumed that we were progressing -- that we were shedding superstitions and striving for enlightenment. I remember watching "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan on TV and feeling a sense of optimism for the future.

When I see Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" today I am greatly saddened. We have regressed. We have allowed our society to be bullied by religion.

I generally have great respect for people's personal beliefs. People do not choose what they believe -- they just do. Anyone thinking that there is such a thing as a willful act of believing cannot possibly be sincere or take their own beliefs seriously. I don't argue with friends of mine who believe; not unless their beliefs lead to irreparable damage to themselves or society around them.

What people believe is their personal matter and the same idea or notion manifests itself differently in different people. Some people meditate, some pray, some go to a psychiatrist. How people keep their balance and maintain mental well-being is a matter of their personal preference.

But what frightens me is the tendency in later decades of once again coupling religion with politics and using it as a weapon to enlist the feeble of mind. I must say that I am particularly appalled by the way the conservatives have used religion to incite conflict and enlist hordes of feckless idiots to further their political agendas in the US. It saddens me greatly that what the founding fathers did to separate state and religion, knowing full well how easily religion can be abused, has been defiled by irresponsible, dishonest and, as recent history has shown, morally corrupt, and incompetent leaders.

I think it is about time we addressed religion again in the west before things are allowed to regress to a point where the mess will be too costly to mop up.


A couple of years ago I ran some numbers to compare income and tax levels in the US versus the scandinavian countries. Since the scandinavian countries top out most world-wide statistics on quality of life and because they have a public health care system.

What I found might surprise you.

In order to have roughly the same amount of buying power after taxes, insurance, living costs etc. Americans living in urban parts of the US need to make at least twice the amount of money scandinavians need.

Also note that this is "if all goes well". If you develop a health issue in the US, you are at the mercy of your insurance company and then the comparison breaks down completely. If you are very lucky you can get back to work and just have a slight increase in the cost of living due to higher premiums. If you are really unlucky you end up uninsurable and your health problem persists or returns and you find yourself in a downward spiral heading for poverty.

At which point you are screwed bigtime.

In scandinavia the state takes care of you. But if you want, you can still supplement what you are given by the state with a private option. You won't get any tax rebates, but then again, while the taxes might seem high, the total cost of living is a lot lower because you do not have to pay exorbitant insurance premiums.

Of course the quality of living in Scandinavia is vastly higher than in the US. Ask any US expat in either Norway, Sweden or Denmark.

Rule of law.

It wasn't like the criminal acts of the previous administration came as a huge surprise. What I find so astonishing is that now, in the face of hard evidence that the former president and vice president violated the constitution repeatedly, nothing seems to be happening to those responsible. Ultimately Mr Bush and Mr Cheney.

They provably undermined the constitution they took an oath to uphold and they will walk away from this without any due process or adequate punishment. Meanwhile, thousands of ordinary citizens will land in jail this year for relatively minor offenses -- adding to the already obscenely inflated prison population of the US.

The contrast is amazing. On one hand you can get away with multiple counts of high treason and murder and on the other hand you can get thrown in jail for a minor infraction.

The rule of law should mean that the law is applied equally. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

I think it is the responsibility of the current administration to bring George Bush and Dick Cheney to justice. I certainly understand the pragmatism of looking the other way -- it would be extremely unpleasant to put a former president in jail -- or worse. Unpleasant, but necessary.

By doing nothing means that the United States is a fake in every way. It is not a real democracy and it does not have a real constitution, it does not honor its agreements with other countries and its laws only apply selectively.

Obama, you have to make sure that the criminal acts of the previous administration are prosecuted. These crimes are too great for you to sweep them under the rug. Please see to it that you are not remembered as the president who let some of the worst criminals in the history of the United States off because you did not have what it takes to uphold the rule of law.

Keeping fear alive.

Nothing like keeping the population in a state of fear to make them more compliant.

Careful with those values.

If you want to gauge the decency and morality of people, keep a close eye on them when dealing with an enemy that has been totally and utterly defeated.

Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator and a despotic madman. There is no question about that. In the end he had his trial, was found guilty and had to pay the price. All fine with me.

What bothers me is that although it is really easy to judge Saddam as a criminal and a morally bankrupt person, I don't think that this should make it OK for "us" to act in an undignified manner. To effectively lower ourselves to the level of those we despise.

Today I stumbled across an article about the South Park creators being presented with an autographed picture of Saddam Hussein. Apparently, Saddam was forced to repeatedly watch an episode of South Park in which he is portrayed as the gay boyfriend of satan.

Yeah, I watched the episode and I enjoyed it. It was funny. But as much as I think Saddam was a brutal, murderous, criminal deserving of his ultimate fate, and as much as I found the episode funny, I found it very disturbing that it should be okay to torture the prisoner in this manner.

This is not how we treat our prisoners. We are supposed to be better than this. A lot better. This is the sort of nonsense that validates any hatred our enemies feel towards us.

For those who only care about "winning": this is the sort of base behavior that detracts from victory. The sort of behavior that brings us closer to those we despise for their uncivilized behavior and hollows out victories and reduces them moral embarassments. It is the sort of thing that detracts from the sacrifices made by serious people.

As much as I enjoy South Park: I think Matt and Trey should be be deeply ashamed of themselves for taking pleasure in someone else's suffering. They should be ashamed of expressing, not only consent, but a generous measure of joy in knowing that their work was used in this manner.

What sort of dickless, unprincipled weaklings take joy in the humiliation of a beaten enemy.

Careful what you believe in.

When watching this video question pops up in my mind: why is it that many religious people are so spineless when it comes to questioning the morality of what their canon preaches?

In some ways, christianity has a militant structure.  The most important principle is obedience. Not love, not doing unto others, not tolerance -- obedience. In fact,  the ten commandments start off by stating that you are not allowed to even think about following other gods.  (Which is a curious thing to say if you claim to be the only god in existence.  Then again, would you attribute any credibility to some guy with no sense of direction who claims to have spoken to God and would like to share some notes with you?  Perhaps a few thousand years ago)

You do as you are told.  Unquestioningly.  If God orders you to commit such unspeakable crimes as slitting your offspring's throat, you are supposed to comply.  And compliance is hailed as virtuous -- as the right thing to do.  

The inclusion of this story in the christian canon can only mean that a significant number of people (or a number of significant people) think this is illustrative of what being a good christian means.  It is disturbing to ponder that this sort of utter moral perversity is served up in churches with a straight face.  One has to wonder how ministers and priests manage to distance themselves from such vile and base atrocities.

Fortunately, since christianity cannot be trusted to provide a modicum of morality, we have secular values that represent at least a minimum of decency.  The difference between the militant dogmatism of the church and the military itself is that the military does not absolve you from your responsibility.  In the military you are responsible for your own actions and if you have reason to believe that your commanders are in the wrong, you are not only required to not follow orders, but you are obliged to remove your commanders from their duties.  By force if needed.

It is telling that in the secular world, one values morality and decency higher than in the christian world.

It is also telling that the new testament largely seems to be some sort of apology for the hard-line tyranny propagated by the old testament, yet no church of note seems to have seen it as much of a priority to purge the blood-thirsty, petty, unforgiving and morally objectionable god of the old testament from their canon.

What we have become.

Following the BART shooting, I've seen a lot of people ask why none of the civilian bystanders intervened. 

To me it would have been a big surprise if someone had intervened.

If there is one thing that we have been taught over the past 8 years, it is that you need to fear anyone in uniform.   If you so much as speak in a firm tone of voice to them, pointing out that they are in the wrong, you risk much unpleasantness -- from being physically subdued to, well, getting shot. The message that they can and will do as they please, has been so effectively driven home that the threshold for approaching them has become much higher.

By now, people also understand that there is a certain asymmetry to these situations.  If you put your hand on a police officer, there will be dire consequences.  If a police officer steps out of line and abuses his or her power, a proper disciplinary response of an appropriate magnitude generally does not seem to occur.

Not unless there is massive public outcry, serious injury, death or significant investment in legal muscle.

Injecting yourself into a tense situation with armed police would amount to stupidity on a scale where you are very actively competing for a Darwin Award.  This is more true now than it has been in a long time.   

And imagine what would have happened if the civilians on the train had managed some sort of concerted effort to stop what was happening.   It would most likely have resulted in a phenomenal number of deaths and it would only have made it easier for the police to justify shooting unarmed civilians.

And besides, why should the bystanders have intervened?  If you look at the videos: up until the moment when the shot was fired, nothing out of the ordinary was taking place.   Some men were being detained, albeit brutally so, but that is normal these days.  It is the norm accepted by society.  There was nothing, nothing, out of the ordinary about the situation. The bystanders had no way of knowing that one of the police officers was about to execute one of the men being detained.

The bystanders did not intervene exactly because we, as a society, do not want them to.  We accept that the police are held to a lower standard when it comes to being punished for their wrongdoing.  We accept that they are allowed to use excessive force.  We accept that if you do intervene, then force may be directed at you.  We accept that they are armed.  We accept that they can ruin our lives on a whim and terrorize us for no good reason.

We must have accepted all these things because we did have a choice.  It's a democracy.  It says so right there in the CIA world factbook -- it says that the US has a "strong democratic tradition".  If we didn't want this, we would have made sure we chose leaders who would address these issues.  But we didn't.

In this we are all bystanders and we all did nothing and we are all guilty of doing nothing.

Instruction manual for Life.

Religion and politics.

In the past months I have been reading up on various religious groups that are active within the US -- what they believe in, how membership in a particular religion affects their approach to life and the world around them etc.  My initial goal was to learn more about where politics and religion intersect and how one influences the other.

Trying to keep an objective mind when reading about prominent religions in the US isn't easy. Engaging in any sort of meaningful debate is even harder.  The world often views the middle east as the melting pot for aggressive manifestations of faith, but it is hard to ignore that there are often more frightening manifestations of the same in the US.

The types of religious directions I have been reading about almost always contain a very strong self-defense mechanism wherein even posing questions can be seen as a transgression.  It is hard to ask critical and important questions without being accused of hate speech -- which does look a bit odd since what you often end up being on the receiving end of is a mixture of hatred and fear being directed towards you should you attempt to engage in debate and ask difficult questions.

This, of course, does color what you read.  When trying to understand a debated topic, you need to ensure that you consume a balanced diet of writings from both sides.  

For instance, during the election I tried to follow news sources across the political spectrum to see if I was able to separate spin from fact. (Unfortunately, not all news sources are as easily available online).  It isn't always an easy thing to do -- especially when your own opinions seem to align with one side or the other.  We tend to trust those who confirm our biases and distrust sources propagating opposing views.   Of course, being aware of this and constantly asking yourself what your bias is helps, but it is easy to fool yourself.

Even worse, news media make a living entertaining us -- not necessarily informing us.  At the end of the day, revenue is what really matters.  News media aren't doing what they do out of kindness and concern for their fellow man. Their task is to dumb things down and present us with easily digestible tidbits of information that do not necessarily represent reality with any degree of accuracy.  Add to that political bias and political manipulation of the media, and you are faced with the task of dissecting what effectively becomes propaganda disguised as entertainment disguised as reporting.

I spent a lot of time trying to separate noise from signal, separating exaggerations and outright lies from truth, and to ensure that whenever I read about something I try to find what the opposing side has to say in the matter. And if possible, attempt to analyze my own bias, and how it affects my judgement of what I read.  

This is hard for politics.  

It is even harder for religion. 

I got a bit sidetracked from my original goal of reading up about the interactions between religion and politics as I spent more time trying to understand how, for instance, the mormon church works.  These were necessary detours.  But what I have read relevant to this topic is fairly scary.  There seems to be a great number of very unhealthy interactions between faith and the way leaders are chosen, empowered and enabled.  It would appear that any aspirations of the founding fathers to keep church and state separate have failed.

This amounts to a very fundamental failure of the US to uphold some of the core values on which it was founded. 

This not only constitutes a threat to democracy, but it also ends up being the enemy of religious freedom.