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kottke.org posts about religion

Carl Sagan’s tools for critical thinking and detecting bullshit

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2018

In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, astrophysicist Carl Sagan presented a partial list of “tools for skeptical thinking” which can be used to construct & understand reasoned arguments and reject fraudulent ones.

Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”

Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.

Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.

Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.

If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.

Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.

Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

I found this via Open Culture, which remarked on Sagan’s prescient remarks about people being “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true”.

Like many a science communicator after him, Sagan was very much concerned with the influence of superstitious religious beliefs. He also foresaw a time in the near future much like our own. Elsewhere in The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan writes of “America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time…. when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few.” The loss of control over media and education renders people “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true.”

This state involves, he says a “slide… back into superstition” of the religious variety and also a general “celebration of ignorance,” such that well-supported scientific theories carry the same weight or less than explanations made up on the spot by authorities whom people have lost the ability to “knowledgeably question.”

Yeeeeeeeep.

Update: After I posted this, a reader let me know that Michael Shermer has been accused by several women of sexually inappropriate & predatory behavior and rape at professional conferences. I personally believe women, and I further believe that if Shermer was actually serious about rationality and his ten rules for critical thinking listed above, he wouldn’t have pulled this shit in the first place (nor tried to hamfistedly explain it away). I’ve rewritten the post to remove the references to Shermer, which actually made it more succinct and put the focus fully on Sagan, which was my intention in the first place (the title remains unchanged). (via @dmetilli)

I and You: a short appreciation of Martin Buber’s ‘Ich und Du’

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 12, 2018

When I was in college, I was crazy about Martin Buber. Well, really, I was crazy about Friedrich Nietzsche, and I was dating an evangelical Christian, provisionally going to her church, so I needed a way to put the two together. Buber’s book Ich und Du (I and Thou) was it.

It’s tricky to translate, in one of those “here are some basic differences between English and German” ways. German has two pronouns for you; “du” is the informal one, “sie” the plural or formal. “Sie” is also a third-person pronoun. But “du” is the way you address God, so it winds up turning into “thou.” Still, there’s nothing all that archaic about “du”; you’d call your pets “du.” Kind of like how Freud’s “ich” and “es” become “ego” and “id,” but are really just “I” and “it.” It’s a weird bit of business.

Anyways, Aeon has a new essay on Buber’s I and Thou by a grad student, MM Owen, that’s making me think of picking up Buber again. Here’s his breakdown of the basic insight.

Human existence is fundamentally interpersonal. Human beings are not isolated, free-floating objects, but subjects existing in perpetual, multiple, shifting relationships with other people, the world, and ultimately God. Life is defined by these myriad interactions ­- by the push and pull of intersubjectivity. This conception ties to Buber’s belief in the primacy of the spoken word. One of his life’s great projects was the 37-year process of producing an idiosyncratic German translation of the Bible wherein, to do justice to its oral roots, the text was divided into ‘breath measures’. For Buber, the act of speech embodied the deep-set interrelatedness of human beings. In speech, as in life, no ‘I’ is an island.

I and Thou argues that within this elementally networked reality there are two basic modes of existence: the I-It, and the I-Thou. These two stances make up our basic ‘twofold attitude’. In the I-It mode, an ‘Ego’ approaches another as an object separate from itself. This type of engagement is driven by a sort of instrumentalism; the object is engaged primarily as something to be known or used, and its nature is always mediated through the subject’s own self-regard. From the I-It stance, we don’t engage with things in their entirety. Instead, we engage with a web of distinct and isolated qualities notable for how they are useful to us. Buber regarded this kind of self-centred outlook - typified, in his view, by proto-existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche - as a grave error.

By contrast, in the I-Thou relationship, rather than simply experiencing another, we encounter them. A subject encounters a fellow subject’s whole being, and that being is not filtered through our mediated consciousness, with its litter of preconceptions and projections. ‘No purpose intervenes,’ as Buber put it. The I-Thou stance has a purity and an intimacy, and is inherently reciprocal. In relation to others, he argued, we can step into an intersubjective space where two people coexist in (and co-contribute to) what he called the Between. In this Between lurks the vital, nourishing experience of human life, the real sacred stuff of existence. As he put it: ‘All real living is meeting.’

The First Lady of ISIS

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 06, 2017

This short documentary from The Atlantic features Tania Georgelas, who was in Syria with her husband (the highest-ranking American member of ISIS) until she began to fear for the safety of her children and her husband left her.

Just a few years ago, Tania Georgelas was living in Syria and married to John Georgelas, who would become the most influential American member of ISIS. Together, they traveled the globe, befriending jihadis and grooming their children to become “assassins.” But after ten years of living on the run, Tania began to fear for her family’s safety. That’s when she says her husband abandoned her “to become the next Osama bin Laden.”

What a fascinating situation. I had many complicated and conflicting feelings watching it. I imagine it might make some feel angry & disgusted and make others feel hopeful…and everything in-between.

Update: Abigail Pesta wrote a long piece for Texas Monthly about Georgelas (who now goes by the name “Tania Joya”).

To add to her anxiety, her husband began talking about wanting to move to Syria, where a civil war had begun. “He felt like he had to go and help Syria. It’s a Muslim’s duty to help your family. I felt for the Syrians. They are wonderful people, but I didn’t want to bring my boys to a war zone. They were children. It wasn’t their fight.” As her brawls with her husband escalated, he became physically abusive, and she wanted out. “It came to a point where I told him, ‘I don’t love you anymore.’ I felt suffocated. I would say, ‘One of us is going to need to die.’ He would say, ‘I could break your neck.’” One night, she put a pillow over his head in bed. He woke up and forced her off. “I didn’t really think I’d kill him,” she said. “It was more of a cry for help.”

(thx, jesse)

An explanation of the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2017

If you want to get up to speed about the growing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar involving the government’s long campaign against the Rohingya people, this 5-minute Vox video is a good place to start.

In what has quickly disintegrated into a humanitarian disaster of historic proportions, a staggering 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state to Bangladesh over the past three weeks alone. At least 240,000 of them are children.

The Rohingya are fleeing a campaign of indiscriminate violence by Myanmar’s military, whose tactics are being widely condemned as a form of ethnic cleansing.

Entire villages have been burned to the ground. Women have been raped. Rohingya refugees report that soldiers shot at them as they fled. Along the border with Bangladesh, there are reports that the military has laid land mines to ensure those fleeing won’t return. Though independent observers have no access to the region, the Myanmar government now says 175 villages in the region — 30 percent of all Rohingya villages — are empty.

1000 marathons to spiritual enlightenment

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2017

The monks of Mount Hiei in Japan perform a spiritual practice called Kaihōgyō in the form of a 1000-day pilgrimage that’s spread out over seven years. There’s secrecy around the practice so it’s difficult to know the precise details, but the gist is that each year, a monk undertaking the practice spends 100 days (or more!) walking 25 miles (or more!) in the middle of the night (because monks have their regular duties and chores to do during the day), stopping at more than 250 sites to recite prayers. That’s 25 miles each day, mind you.

And then there’s this, thrown in about 2/3rds of the way through, just for good measure:

After 700 days, the Kaihogyo practitioner faces what Mitsunaga calls an exam. He enters a hall and prays nonstop for nine days, without eating, drinking, sleeping or even lying down. It’s a near-death experience, the monk says.

“Put simply, you just have to give up everything and pray to the Immovable Wisdom King,” he says. “By doing this, he may recognize you and allow you to live for nine days.”

The practitioner interrupts his prayers every night to come to a small fountain and get an offering of water for Fudo Myo-o. Toward the end of the nine days, the practitioner is so weak, he must be supported by fellow monks.

Finally, his old self dies, at least figuratively, and he is reborn to help and lead all beings to enlightenment.

You can read more about at Wikipedia, The Guardian, and Nowness.

An appreciation and reevaluation of Contact, 20 years after its theatrical release

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2017

Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s book of the same name, is on its face a movie about science vs. religion. On the 20th anniversary of its release, Germain Lussier rewatched the film and came away with a different impression: director Robert Zemeckis wanted viewers to think about our relationship to media and technology.

Once Ellie and her team discover the signal from Vega, seemingly every scene in the film features a monitor or some kind of television-related paraphernalia. Whether that’s unpacking a TV to unveil the Olympic footage, people watching news reports on CNN, a terrorist videotaping himself, or multiple scenes in the screen-filled Mission Control, Contact is filled with monitors, forcing both the characters and the audience to watch them. Full scenes of the film are made up of fuzzy TV footage. There are numerous press conferences on TV. The selection of the Machine representative unfolds via the news. Ellie’s interactions with Hadden are almost entirely done over a monitor. Even in scenes where the camera is in a room with the characters, Zemeckis often films them watching TV, or simply puts TV monitors in the frame to constantly remind us they’re there.

But that’s not it. People video chat regularly, which was not common in 1997. The terrorist attack on the Machine is first discovered on a TV monitor and subsequently played out there too. Then, finally, what’s the smoking gun of Ellie’s whole trip at the end of the movie? Eighteen hours of video footage. I could go on and on with examples where Contact uses television and monitors, but once you start seeing the film’s obsession with video, it’s almost comical how often it’s used. Which poses the obvious question, “Why?”

In this light, the organized religion & organized science depicted in the film are just other forms of mediated experience, separate from the personal experience of seeing something with your own eyes.

Contact is one of my favorite movies — I watch it every 12-18 months or so — and this makes me appreciate it all the more. And I had forgotten how good the trailer was:

It’s dead simple: that amazingly resonant Vega signal sound over a series of quickly cut scenes that tells the story in miniature. Surely this belongs on best movie trailers lists as much as any of these.

Oh, and while I’m not generally a fan of reboots, I would love to see what Denis Villeneuve could do with Sagan’s story. I’m also not crazy about Jodie Foster — I find her less and less tolerable as Arroway with each viewing — so it would be cool to see another actress in the role. Arrival’s Amy Adams is almost too on the nose…how about Lupita Nyong’o, ?Emma Watson, Janelle Monáe, Brie Larson, or Emma Stone?

Atheism in the Arab world

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2017

Writing for New Humanist, Brian Whitaker writes about the rise of atheism in the Arab world. The differences between atheism in Christian societies and Arab ones include political considerations, how science is viewed, and how scripture is interpreted.

While there’s little doubt that an Islamic reformation would benefit the Middle East socially and politically, atheists cannot advocate this without sacrificing their principles. Progressive versions of Islam generally view the Qur’an in its historical context, arguing that rules which applied in the time of the Prophet can be reinterpreted today in the light of changing circumstances — but that involves accepting the Qur’an as the supreme scriptural authority.

The status of the Qur’an is a particularly important issue for both followers and opponents of Islam. Whereas Christians usually consider the Bible as divinely inspired but written by humans, the Qur’an is claimed to be the actual words of God, as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic).

The Goddesses of Venus

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2017

Goddesses Of Venus Map

Last year, Eleanor Lutz made a medieval-style map of Mars. As a follow-up, she’s made a topographical map of Venus. The features on Venus are named for female mythological figures & notable women and Lutz provides a small biography for each one on the map. Among those featured on the map are:

Anne Frank
Selu (Cherokee Corn Goddess)
Kali (Hindu Goddess, Mother of Death)
Virginia Woolf
Sedna (Eskimo Whose Fingers Became Seals and Whales)
Ubastet (Egyptian Cat Goddess)
Beatrix Potter
Edith Piaf

Here are the full lists of the craters, mountains, and coronae on Venus.

How Scientology works

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 06, 2017

Using PT Anderson’s 2012 film The Master as a jumping off point, Evan Puschak discusses how Scientology’s audit process works. You can take the Oxford Capacity Analysis test he mentions right here.

The land, the sea, and the heavens above

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2017

Argo.jpg

Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG has written a terrific riff on historian John R. Gillis’s new book The Human Shore: Seacoasts In History. After a phrase from Steve Mentz, it’s called “Fewer Gardens, More Shipwrecks”:

“Even today,” Gillis claims, “we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilization.” That is, 95 percent of human history spent migrating both over land and over water, including the use of early but sophisticated means of marine transportation that proved resistant to archaeological preservation. For every lost village or forgotten house, rediscovered beneath a quiet meadow, there are a thousand ancient shipwrecks we don’t even know we should be looking for…

We are more likely, Gillis and Mentz imply, to be the outcast descendants of sunken ships and abandoned expeditions than we are the landed heirs of well-tended garden plots.

Seen this way, even if only for the purpose of a thought experiment, human history becomes a story of the storm, the wreck, the crash—the distant island, the unseen reef, the undertow—not the farm or even the garden, which would come to resemble merely a temporary domestic twist in this much more ancient human engagement with the sea.

The Hebrew Bible famously begins human history with a garden, followed by agriculture, then a flood, then cities, then wandering in exodus — but that story’s probably completely inverted. (The fact that the story’s written in a script likely borrowed by seafaring merchants is a tell.)

Even after agricultural urban civilization settles in, there are continued raids from “sea peoples”, Vikings, Mongols, and the British Empire — wanderers over land and sea who periodically crash into the farmers’ cities and make them their own, through trade and/or plunder.

Robert Graves thought all Greek mythology (and maybe all mythologies) dramatized the conflict between new and old gods, particularly the matriarchal gods of agriculture with the patriarchal gods of the sky and sea. In all the stories, he thought, you could find a trace of the suppressed gods, a counter-narrative that was never completely erased.

Here, too, we get our opposing views of nature: the regular, settled rhythms of Hades and Demeter, and the inhuman danger of Zeus and Poseidon — Walden vs. Moby-Dick.

Maybe the most successful myths are the ones that reconcile the two strands, legitimizing the victorious shipwrecked wanderers by explaining that the gardens they conquered were always theirs to begin with — that they had brought civilization and enlightenment to the farmers, whose songs their children sung, without knowing where they had come from.

(Top image from D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths)

The Aberdeen Bestiary, a gorgeous medieval illuminated manuscript

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 17, 2016

Aberdeen Bestiary

Aberdeen Bestiary

Aberdeen Bestiary

A bestiary was a type of book popular in the Middle Ages, featuring descriptions of animals accompanied by moral lessons. The Aberdeen Bestiary is a particularly fine example of a 12th century bestiary.

The Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen University Library MS 24) is considered to be one of the best examples of its type due to its lavish and costly illuminations. The manuscript, written and illuminated in England around 1200, is of added interest since it contains notes, sketches and other evidence of the way it was designed and executed.

Thanks to the work of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where the book has been housed since the 1620s, a high-resolution copy of the book is available to browse online. The level of detail at full magnification is incredible. The text accompanying the top image of a panther is translated as:

There is an animal called the panther, multi-coloured, very beautiful and extremely gentle. Physiologus says of it, that it has only the dragon as an enemy. When it has fed and is full, it hides in its den and sleeps. After three days it awakes from its sleep and gives a great roar, and from its mouth comes a very sweet odour, as if it were a mixture of every perfume. When other animals hear its voice, they follow wherever it goes, because of the sweetness of its scent. Only the dragon, hearing its voice, is seized by fear and flees into the caves beneath the earth. There, unable to bear the scent, it grows numbed within itself and remains motionless, as if dead. Thus our Lord Jesus Christ, the true panther, descending from Heaven, snatched us from the power of the devil. And, through his incarnation, he united us to him as sons, taking everything, and ‘leading captivity captive, gave gifts to men’ (Ephesians, 4:8). The fact that the panther is a multi-coloured animal, signifies Christ, who is as Solomon said the wisdom of God the Father, an understanding spirit, a unique spirit, manifold, true, agreeable, fitting, compassionate, strong, steadfast, serene, all-powerful, all-seeing.

Jesus, the true panther. (via hyperallergic)

We’ve reached the end of white Christian America

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 25, 2016

America is no longer a majority white, Christian country.

At 45 percent of the population, white Christians are a shrinking demographic — and the backlash from many members of the group against the increasing diversification of America has been swift and bitter.

The narrator of the video, Robert P. Jones, wrote a book about this new reality called The End of White Christian America.

For most of our nation’s history, White Christian America (WCA) — the cultural and political edifice built primarily by white Protestant Christians — set the tone for our national policy and shaped American ideals. But especially since the 1990s, WCA has steadily lost influence, following declines within both its mainline and evangelical branches. Today, America is no longer demographically or culturally a majority white Christian nation.

Atheist Stephen Fry confronts God

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 24, 2016

Interviewed by Gay Byrne for a program called The Meaning of Life, Stephen Fry shared what he would say to God if Fry met him at the gates of heaven.

Bryne: Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him, her, or it?

Fry: I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say.

Byrne: And you think you are going to get in, like that?

Fry: But I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms. They are wrong.

An Honest Liar

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 08, 2016

A few days ago, I watched An Honest Liar, a documentary about the magician and charlatan-debunker The Amazing Randi. I had forgotten that in the 70s and 80s in America, belief in psychics like Uri Geller, faith healers like Peter Popoff, extraterrestrial abductions, and the like was not all that far from the mainstream. Such events and people were covered in newspapers, on the evening news, and featured on talk shows, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

The media is awash in pieces attempting to explain the success of the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Many are puzzled…how could this happen in America!? After watching Randi debunking hoaxes, I’m no longer surprised at Trump’s success. Maria Konnikova, author of a recent book on scams and cons, wrote about Trump and con artists for the New Yorker.

A line, thin but perceptible, divides even egregious liars from confidence men. People deceive one another for all sorts of reasons: they might lie to stay out of trouble, for example, or to make themselves seem more interesting, or to urge a business deal toward its consummation. David Maurer, a linguist turned historian of the con, said, “If confidence men operate outside the law, it must be remembered that they are not much further outside than many of our pillars of society who go under names less sinister.” Still, there is a meaningful difference between an ordinary liar and a con artist. A grifter takes advantage of a person’s confidence for his own specific ends — ends that are often unknowable to the victim and unrelated to the business at hand. He willfully deceives a mark into handing over his trust under false pretenses. He has a plan. What ultimately sets con artists apart is their intent. To figure out if someone is a con artist, one needs to ask two questions. First, is their deception knowing, malicious, and directed, ultimately, toward their own personal gain? Second, is the con a means to an end unrelated to the substance of the scheme itself?

She doesn’t express an opinion on whether Trump is a con artist — it’s difficult to tell without knowing his intent — but it’s clear that like Uri Geller and Peter Popoff, Trump is adept at making people believe what he is saying without a lot of hard evidence. Like The Amazing Randi said in the movie: “no matter how smart or well educated you are, you can be deceived.” Hopefully, like Geller, Popoff, and UFOs eventually did, the idea of Trump as a viable candidate for President will soon disappear back into the fringes of American discourse.

NY Times-style obituary of Jesus of Nazareth

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2016

Vanity Fair had Sam Roberts, an obituary writer from the NY Times, come up with an obit for Jesus, as it might have been written 2000 or so years ago.

His father was named Joseph, although references to him are scarce after Jesus’s birth. His mother was Miriam, or Mary, and because he was sometimes referred to as “Mary’s son,” questions had been raised about his paternity.

He is believed to have been the eldest of at least six siblings, including four brothers-James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon-and several sisters. He never married-unusual for a man of his age, but not surprising for a Jew with an apocalyptic vision.

The “about 33” in reference to his age is a nice touch.

The backstory of Spotlight

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2016

In the latest issue of Nextdraft, Dave Pell points to an episode of the Reveal podcast that goes behind the scenes of the investigation into the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal depicted in Spotlight.

Spotlight (one of the key contenders in the Oscar race) is an excellent movie that tells the story of an endangered species in American life: a well-funded, local, investigative reporting team. My friends at Reveal go behind the scenes to provide the backstory on how Boston Globe reporters broke the story of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, and provide a look into the latest developments in what is, sadly, an ongoing story.

Spotlight was one of my favorite 2015 movies.

Pastrami on Rye

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 18, 2015

Pastrami On Rye

Pastrami on Rye is a full-length history of the NYC Jewish deli, written by Judaism scholar Ted Merwin. From a review in The Economist:

Jewish delicatessens may now be known for knishes, latkes and pastrami sandwiches, but back in their heyday, during the 1920s and 1930s in the theatre district in New York, they also served beluga caviar, pâté de foie gras and Chateaubriand steak. Jewish classics were gussied up and defiled: chopped chicken liver was served with truffles. Treyf, like oysters and pork chops, was eaten with abandon alongside kosher delicacies.

That reminds me…a trip to Katz’s is looooooong overdue.

Saint Fred Rogers, the patron saint of neighborliness

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2015

Jonathan Merritt writes about Fred Rogers, ordained Presbyterian minister and beloved children’s TV show host who used his faith and TV to help millions of children.

Fred Rogers was an ordained minister, but he was no televangelist, and he never tried to impose his beliefs on anyone. Behind the cardigans, though, was a man of deep faith. Using puppets rather than a pulpit, he preached a message of inherent worth and unconditional lovability to young viewers, encouraging them to express their emotions with honesty. The effects were darn near supernatural.

I watched Mr. Rogers religiously growing up, pun intended. Actual church, with its focus on rites, belief in the supernatural, and my pastor’s insistence that the Earth was only 6000 years old, was never appealing to me, but Mr. Rogers’ unconditional, graceful, and humanistic brand of religion was just perfect. I heard him say this line at the end of his show hundreds of times:

You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.

It’s easy to roll your eyes, but when you’re six or eight years old, such a simple message from someone who obviously loves you can mean everything.

True religion

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2015

Tyler Cowen on Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson and our selective preference for some religious beliefs over others.

Loyal MR readers will know that I am myself a non-believer. But what I find strangest of all is not Ben Carson’s pyramids beliefs, but rather the notion that we should selectively pick on some religious claims rather than others. The notion that it is fine to believe something about a deity or deities, or a divine book, as long as you do not take that said belief very seriously and treat it only as a social affiliation or an ornamental badge of honor.

To the non-believer, the Scientologist’s belief in thetans and the vengeful sky god of Christianity are both equally implausible.

The Four Horsemen of Gentrification

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2015

From Zain Khalid at McSweeney’s, The Four Horsemen of Gentrification: Brine, Snark, Brunch, and Whole Foods. From the book of Millennials of the New Standard Greenpoint Bible, chapter 6, verse 1:

Then I saw when the Landlord broke one of the rent-controlled seals. I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Gentrify.” I looked, and behold, a green horse, and he who sat on it had a mason jar; and a fedora was his crown, and he went out pickling and to pickle.

Vertical panoramas of churches

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2015

Richard Silver Churches

Richard Silver Churches

From photographer Richard Silver, vertical panoramic photos of churches that emphasize their often incredible ceilings. (via ignant)

The retail churches of the cult of Apple

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 25, 2015

Apple Store Church

Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura took cultural historian Erica Robles-Anderson to the Soho Apple store. Robles-Anderson recently studied the use of technology in churches and Laskow wanted to know: are Apple stores the new temples?

“People have used technology for a long time to speak to the gods,” she says — to create collective experiences of the sublime.

These days, technology is more often talked about as a way to create personalized, individual experiences, but Robles-Anderson thinks that’s only part of the story. Communal ritual is always a part of technology: Early computers came into group spaces, like families and offices. (Mad Men understood this dynamic: the computer as an event weathered together.) Powerpoint presentations gather people to look at giant screens. Even using an iPhone to tune out the human beings around you requires being part of a larger group.

And Apple, more than any other technology company, has been able to access both these experiences, the individual and the collective. “They feel iconic, like an emblem of the personal,” says Robles-Anderson. “And yet it’s a cult. Right? It’s so obviously a cult.”

The architecture of the stores contributes to the sacred feeling of cult membership.

“The oversized doors are fantastic,” says Robles-Anderson. “There’s no reason for them.” They’re there only to communicate that this place is important. Also, they’re heavy, like church doors, to give purpose and portent to the entry into the space.

We walk inside. It’s light and bright, and immediately in front of us, a wide staircase of opaque glass sweeps up to the second floor.

This is an old, old trick. “It’s used in ziggurats, even,” Robles-Anderson says. “It creates a space that emphasizes your smallness when you walk in. You look at something far away, and that makes your body feel like you’re entering somewhere sacred or holy.”

Superstorm Francis descends on the US

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 24, 2015

It’s the Pope’s first time in America and we sent him straight to Congress. That doesn’t exactly seem like we’re putting our best foot forward. In his historic speech to a joint session of Congress, Pope Francis addressed climate change, capitalism, the death penalty and immigration. MoJo pulled out the ten most important lines from the speech.

“This Pope often operates through symbolism and gestures that convey his intentions in ways that words never could.” The New Yorker on Pope Francis and his little Fiat.

Oliver Sacks, human treasure, 1933-2015

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 31, 2015

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks was a champion of one of humankind’s most admirable qualities: Curiosity. The neurologist and writer died on Monday. He wrote beautifully about his impending death in a piece published a couple weeks ago:

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life…

Longform has a collection of links to some of Sacks’ most popular essays.

What is the meaning of life for an atheist?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 28, 2015

BuzzFeed’s Tom Chivers asked several atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe.

The way I find meaning is the way that most people find meaning, even religious ones, which is to get pleasure and significance from your job, from your loved ones, from your avocation, art, literature, music. People like me don’t worry about what it’s all about in a cosmic sense, because we know it isn’t about anything. It’s what we make of this transitory existence that matters.

These kinds of questions always make me think of Richard Feynman on beauty, science, and belief.

Nine dead in Charleston shooting

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2015

From the NY Times, Nine Are Killed in Charleston Church Shooting; Gunman Is Sought.

An intense manhunt was underway Thursday for a white gunman who opened fire on Wednesday night at a historic black church in this city’s downtown, killing nine people before fleeing.

The police chief, Greg Mullen, called the shooting a hate crime.

Chief Mullen said that law enforcement officials, including the F.B.I. and other federal agencies, were assisting in the investigation of a shooting that left six women and three men dead.

Chief Mullen said the gunman walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and attended the meeting for about an hour before open firing. Among the dead, according to reports, was the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator.

A timeline of human history, from 4004 BC to 1881

posted by Jason Kottke   May 11, 2015

From the David Rumsey Map Collection, a remarkable timeline/history of the world from 4004 BC to 1881 called Adams’ Synchronological Chart. This is just a small bit of it:

Adams Synchronological Chart

According to Rumsey’s site, the full timeline is more than 22 feet long. (via @john_overholt)

Update: A replica of this chart is available on Amazon in a few different iterations…I’m going to give this one a try. Apparently the charts are popular in Sunday schools and such because the timeline uses the Ussher chronology where the Earth is only 6000 years old.

The glass is already broken

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2015

“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

From Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein.

Teaching evolution to religious students

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 27, 2015

James Krupa teaches a mandatory biology class at the University of Kentucky and some students have a difficult time because Krupa refuses to shy away from evolution.

Rarely do I have a Kentucky student who learned about human evolution in high school biology. Those who did usually attended high schools in large urban centers like Louisville or Lexington. Given how easily it can provoke parents, the teaching of human evolution is a rarity in high school, so much so in Kentucky that it startled me when I first arrived.

The story of our evolutionary history captivates many of my students, while infuriating some. During one lecture, a student stood up in the back row and shouted the length of the auditorium that Darwin denounced evolution on his deathbed — a myth intentionally spread by creationists. The student then made it known that everything I was teaching was a lie and stomped out of the auditorium, slamming the door behind him. A few years later during the same lecture, another student also shouted out from the back row that I was lying. She said that no transitional fossil forms had ever been found — despite my having shared images of many transitional forms during the semester. Many of her fellow students were shocked by her combativeness, particularly when she stormed out, also slamming the door behind her. Most semesters, a significant number of students abruptly leave as soon as they realize the topic is human evolution.

I personally don’t understand the compatibility of evolutionary biology and Christianity Krupa emphasizes in his class, but I guess it helps to meet people halfway?

Behold ROBOPRIEST!

posted by Susannah Breslin   Mar 17, 2015

robopriest.jpg

I, for one, welcome our new ROBOPRIEST overlords. I found ROBOPRIEST on artist Josh Ellingson’s website. The robot costume-for-two was intended to perform wedding ceremonies and is the brainchild of Ellingson and Selene Luna, a 3’10” performance artist. It speaks in a robot voice, has flashing eyes, and the interior of its hatch is decorated with dirty pictures.

The idea of ROBOPRIEST started as a joke on Twitter between me and Selene Luna, an actress friend of mine in Los Angeles. We were trying to come up with funny ideas to collaborate on wedding services.The joke then turned into reality when Selene asked me to build ROBOPRIEST for her one woman show, “Sweating the Small Stuff” in San Francisco. The costume consisted mostly of cardboard and foam rubber with a skeleton of plastic hula hoops. The “eyes” are speakers equipped with voice-activated electro-luminescent wire. The audio for ROBOTPRIEST’s voice and various sound-effects were created by sound designer, Jim Coursey.

Its components include children’s toy claws, silver lame, ductwork, an iPod, and a harness that enables Luna to operate the costume from inside while riding piggyback on Ellingson.

Selene pilots ROBOPRIEST from a harness attached to my back. The harness is called The Piggyback Rider and is really just a backpack strap with a bar that runs along the bottom. This allowed Selene to comfortably stand on my back and easily hop off if needed. The top of ROBOPRIEST is equipped with a hatch from which Selene can address her minions. The inside of the hatch is decorated with a collage of nudie magazine clippings (NSFW), something that I thought appropriate for the insides of a repressed robot’s head at the time, although it may just have been all the hot-glue fumes getting to me.

Ellingson’s site has sound clips and a video of ROBOPRIEST announcing himself, and there are lots of photos on Flickr showing the build process.