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Archive for February, 2010

Biblical Literacy: “I Thought I Would Go With That”

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 02/09/2010

Yet again, somewhere in the United States, a band of ignorant theocrats are trying to pull a fast one on slow children. This time, they’re in — where else? — Kentucky.

I didn’t even have to open my daily rag today to find the following headline, because it was on the goddamned front page, above the fold:
Bill would let schools teach Bible literacy

The three Democrats who are proposing this momentous educational reform do, of course, go through the motions to appease the few Kentuckians who have actually read the First Amendment. The sponsors claim that their class would

teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture.

Contemporary? Usually, these kinds of god-pushers make a vague, passing reference to the totality of Western Civilization, and how it’s impossible to understand history and literature without having some familiarity with the bible. That argument probably holds some water, because our culture is swimming in Christian references.

But here in Kentucky, even that lie isn’t necessary. When asked about — as the Lexington Herald-Leader so tendenciously put it — potential “criticism from those who would favor the teaching of other religious texts, such as the Quran,” the bill’s primary sponsor, state senator David Boswell, said:

Since the Bible has played such a big role in our literature, I thought I would go with that.

His response makes it sound as if Boswell, with the innocent aim of expanding our students’ vistas, sat down and made a fair-minded list of literary pros and cons, with columns headed “the Bible,” “the Quran,” and maybe even “the Vedas,” and “The Mahayana Canon.” Eventually, to his complete surprise, he exclaimed, “Well, would you look at this? Christianity wins!” But, of course, that’s wholly shit.

So is it even remotely possible to have a religion-neutral class on bible literacy? O me of little faith; I doubt it. Not here in Kentucky, anyway, where the bible-thumping is loud enough to drown out all other thought.

But at a bare minimum, public schools should be forced to adhere to the following rules for such courses:

  • God must always be referred to as “the god character in this section.”
  • No events in the bible may be taught as fact or truth.
  • A teacher of the course must not, either explicitly or implicitly, endorse the content of any biblical passage.
  • Morally abhorrent sections of the bible must be liberally included in the course.
  • For every passage of the bible covered, the teacher must relate it to either an important historical event or literary work to which the verses act as a reference.
  • The teacher must point out parallels to biblical stories in other works of mythological literature, as well as in folklore and fairy tales.
  • The teacher must refer to the “unknown author” (small “a”) of each book or passage studied, and analyze the writing critically in the same way that other texts would be treated.
  • For all quotes, incidents, and story fragments discussed or assigned, the teacher must use a textbook or other reference work, not his or her own personal copy of the bible. The volume used must not have been issued by a publisher specializing in religious materials nor by the theological arm of an allegedly religion-neutral publisher.
  • For comparative literary purposes, the teacher must point out obvious discrepancies between biblical accounts (i.e., the two conflicting versions of the creation of humans, the differing lists of Jesus’s genealogy).
  • No teacher of the course may wear any religious item of clothing or jewelry, or emblazon any public or personal object (including his or her car) with a phrase in praise of any deity.
  • No teacher of the course may attend any outside religious services at which a student in the class might make an appearance.
  • No teacher of the course may refer to his or her own religious beliefs, either directly or indirectly. Nor may the teacher allow classroom discussion in which students talk about their own religious beliefs.

While I’m on the subject, I’d also like to address the age-old mantra that the bible should be taught as great literature. Yes, there are some beautiful passages and interesting turns of phrase in various books, and any cultured person should recognize them. But students should be reminded repeatedly that the bible is a centuries-spanning anthology of books, each of which has been translated, perhaps inaccurately or misleadingly, from ancient languages.

And a lot of the bible is just inartistic crap. Could anyone read the dry-as-the-desert rulebooks Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and not be bored out of his or her mind? The first book of Chronicles is loaded with yawn-inducing lists. Dull minor prophets like Obadiah and Haggai? Who would even look at them today if they were collected in any other volume? The Gospel of Mark is mediocre writing at best. And some of those epistles, like Titus and Philemon, are on a par with junk-mail solicitations.

I’d normally be the last person to criticize school systems for trying to teach ineducable louts about important cultural achievements. I recognize that the bible is certainly one of those. Clearly, though, it’s by no means the only one. Nor is it the most important, unless you already come to the table with a predigested notion that every word was inspired by you-know-who. Lots of the bible is tiresome and/or repugnant — badly written, morally reprehensible, logically muddled, unhistorical hogwash. If our goal is to civilize our kids, we need to expose them to Greek philosophers, Shakespeare’s plays, Beethoven’s symphonies, Rembrandt’s paintings, and the actual texts of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. They may be shocked to learn that the latter contains a little something forbidding the government from establishing religion.

If the bill-sponsoring god-pushers from Kentucky were completely honest — which they’re not — they’d also be making a fuss that public school students are taught next to nothing about Greek/Roman mythology, world drama, classical music, fine art, and the history of science. Shouldn’t those subjects be mandated in the public schools as well?

So why are they worried specifically about biblical literacy? Anyone who spends even a small amount of time reading the drivel in newspapers and magazines, in best-selling novels and current biographies, and — yeah — on most blogs, anyone who cares at all about the written word, knows that many Americans are inept at communicating or understanding ideas in any form longer than a twit’s tweet. What we really need to teach students in this country is just plain old unadorned literacy.

Posted in Books & Bookshops, First Amendment, Freedom from Faith | 12 Comments »

A Petition I Won’t Sign — and Why

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 02/08/2010

Sometimes, even alleged freethinkers can be sooooo dense.

I received an email from the American Humanist Association asking me to sign a petition addressed to President Obama. What the petitition requests is that he proclaim February 12, 2010 as Darwin Day. The desired proclamation would contain the following words:

I call on all Americans to recognize the importance of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection, to endeavor to preserve scientific discovery and human curiosity as bedrocks of American society, and to commemorate this day with appropriate events and activities.

That’s a great sentiment, and it would be excellent for an American president to express it. Not on February 12, however.

February 12, 1809 was noteworthy not only for the birth of Charles Darwin, but for the birth of Abraham Lincoln, as well. Lincoln, as even the most militant of atheists would acknowledge, may well have been the most important president in American history.

When I was growing up, we in the North celebrated Lincoln’s birthday in a pretty big way. Americans in the South? Not so much.

The battle between the Northern and Southern worldviews is still reflected in our politics today. The ignorance of religionists is a major factor in the ballot boxes of the “red” states, among which are most of those in the South.

Because of Lincoln’s pre-eminence in American history, quotes both pro- and anti-Christian have been attributed to him. It’s difficult to know which are authentic, and which the work of writers with a specific philosophical axe to grind.  But although it’s debatable whether or not Lincoln was an atheist – I’d say: most probably not – he seems to have had little use for oh-so-pious Christian zealotry:

My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.

I am approached … by religious men who are certain they represent the Divine Will. … If God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected to my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me.”

Both [North and South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.

It is an established maxim and moral that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false is guilty of falsehood, and the accidental truth of the assertion does not justify or excuse him.

Darwin was a brilliant thinker and, as such, is revered by many of us in the skeptical community. We should definitely mount a campaign that President Obama proclaim the importance of his life and work. But perhaps we should urge the White House to designate November 24, 2010 as Darwin Day. That would correspond with the traditional anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. (“Traditional” because the book actually may have been published about three weeks earlier.) November 24th would be a very nice juxtaposition to the next day, the pseudo-religious feast of Thanksgiving.

(And, yes, paradoxically enough for the argument I’m making here, Thanksgiving was proclaimed as a one-time national holiday in 1863 by … President Lincoln. Before he  announced that specific day as a time of prayer throughout the entire Union, various yearly Thanksgivings had been celebrated — primarily in the Northern states — on different dates.  The unifying war measure was urged upon Lincoln by, along with many others, the elderly editor Sarah Josepha Hale, writer of such major works as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”)

Whether or not Lincoln believed in a supernatural entity, and, if so, what kind of deity he recognized, is unknown. He certainly was able to use the simplistic American version of “God” to achieve his own political ends. As I’ve said, I suspect that Lincoln was not an atheist. But our friend Darwin never claimed to be an atheist, either. If we want an honest-to-no-god Atheist Day of Joy, we should look to other persons or events for commemoration.

However, what should be significant to American freethinkers about Lincoln is his symbolic position as a leader in the fight to civilize our country, a fight which we’re still waging in 2010. Those atheists who focus their battle against ignorance only in the arena of science vs. superstition sometimes give short shrift to the value of literature, of history, of political philosophy, of culture in general. In those areas, Lincoln should be held up as an exemplar, a champion of reason.

We faithfreeists have few enough heroes to celebrate. Why lump two of our greatest into the same 24-hour period, merely because of a coincidence of birthdate? Since when have we become astrologers? Let’s not be so overeager that we turn stupid.

February 12th should continue to be, as it has been for many years, reserved for Lincoln.

Posted in Freedom from Faith, Holidays, Random Rants | 21 Comments »

Pun Formation

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 02/06/2010

Tomorrow is unique in that it’s both Charles Dickens’s 198th birthday and the XLIVth Super Bowl.  It’s a little-known fact that my favorite novelist was, himself, an ardent fan of the NFL. Dickens seems to have begun a number of works about America’s most important pseudo-religious holiday, although he fumbled before they reached completion. Nevertheless, here are some excerpts:

first sentence from A Super Bowl Carol
Bronko Nagurski was dead, to begin with.

from A Tale of Two Super Bowl Cities
It was the best of bowls, it was the worst of bowls, it was the age of defense, it was the age of offense, it was the epoch of sportscars, it was the epoch of gumbo, it was the season of motor oil, it was the season of seasonings, it was the spring of Brees, it was the winter of Manning, we had everything riding on the Saints, we had all our money on the Colts.

from David Copperbowl
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my office pool, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, the final tallies must show. To begin my story with the beginning of my bet, I record that I selected the dreaded 9-2 on the 100-square sheet. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

from Oliver Twit
The evening arrived; the fans took their places around the football-field-sized TV. The host, in his cook’s uniform, stationed himself at the wings table; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him, at the chili tureen, at the chips-and-dips trays, and at the deli spread. The beer was served out; and a long toast was said by those rooting for each team. The game commenced; the nuts and pretzels disappeared; the fans whispered each other; and winked at Oliver; while his neighbors nudged him. Loser that his team was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the couch; and advancing to the host, empty plate in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

“Please, sir, I want some more nachos.”

from Great Expectorations
In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen or shall ever see.

She was dressed in rich materials — satins, and lace, and silks — all of purple, yellow, and white. Her shoes were oddly matched, one with purple buckles, the other with yellow. And she had long yellow braids depending from the top of her head, but her hair was white. Her face was painted so that the right side was a jaundiced yellow, and the left, a bruised purple. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had a horned helmet before her on the dressing table, and with her headpiece some flowers, and a Prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.

“Look at me,” said Miss Vikishfan. “You are not afraid of a woman whose team was robbed, are you boy?”

last sentence from A Super Bowl Carol
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, Go pass Us Every One!

I, myself, don’t care much for football. But I’ll probably grab a few handfuls of Little Doritos at halftime, and listen to The Old Who-riosity Slop.

Posted in Books & Bookshops, Seriously Silly | 7 Comments »

Great Moments in Stupidity #1

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 02/04/2010

Since my last post dealt with modern-day legislative idiocy in Kentucky, I feel it’s only fair to acknowledge that governmental  numskullery is limited neither to the present day nor to the Bluegrass State.  Tomorrow, February 5, is a significant date in the history of Representatives Gone Wild. Here’s why:

In 1896, through a set of bogus calculations, a Hoosier “mathematician” named Edwin J. Goodwin arrived at an “aha!” moment. Working in the appropriately named town of “Solitude,” he discovered how to square the circle, a problem that had been unsuccessfully attacked for millennia by far greater minds than his. But with the confidence only possible to a crank, Goodwin was sure that his results would be useful to real estate speculators, political wheeler-dealers, and various hustlers of all kinds. Of course, being a true get-up-and-go American, he  planned to sell his “invention” to everyone who would pay for it. But, first, he needed some official recognition.

So the “genius” copyrighted his work, and then made a money-making suggestion to his state representative. How about if Goodwin granted Indiana the right to use his formulas for free, in exchange for a share in the royalties that were sure to come ringing in from around the globe?

Thus it was that Democratic Representative Taylor Record submitted

a bill for an act introducing a new mathematical truth and offered as a contribution to education to be used only by the State of Indiana free of cost by paying any royalties whatever on the same, provided it is accepted and adopted by the official action of the Legislature of 1897.

Apparently, none of the elected representatives realized that a mathematical “truth” could be protected neither by copyright nor patent – nor, for that matter, by any other governmental action.

On February 5, 1897, that bill was resoundingly passed in the Indiana House of Representatives by a vote of 67 – 0.  Although the document didn’t spell out its truth in so many words, it essentially established a new, improved value for one of the most important ratios in mathematics. From thenceforward, at least in the state of Indiana, pi would equal 3.2.

On the advice of a real mathematician from Purdue, however, several Indiana senators contrived to have the upper house’s vote on the bill postponed indefinitely. When the year was over (all 365 days of it – even in Fort Wayne, Kokomo, and Muncie), the bill was dead.

Still: Happy (Almost) Anniversary, Indiana Pi Bill! Please make mine coconut custard.

Posted in Idiots, It's History | 25 Comments »

In Gobbledygook We Trust

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 02/02/2010

So I opened my local rag this morning, and found a short paragraph on this minor story: “In God We Trust plate advances.” It turns out that the license slogan was approved in the Kentucky House of Representatives by a vote of 93-1. (The lone dissenter was a brave Louisville Democrat named Mary Lou Marzian.)

Obviously, if the license were produced on the recommendation of legislators, acting in their legislative capacity, it would violate both the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 5 of the Kentucky Constitution. And I’m told by some new atheist friends that this is not the House’s first attempt to advocate moving violations of the Establishment Clause.

However, in this post I’m not going to discuss the legal issues. I’ll leave that conversation to folks who have been formally educated in the subtleties and nuances of Constitutional Law. (I’m referring, of course, to TV pundits.)

Instead, because I’m new here and haven’t yet fathomed the Kentucky mentality, I’m going to pose a few simple questions to those who support the official enshrinement of the above-mentioned motto. I’d appreciate some answers, since I find it hard to understand exactly what the license plate is intended to mean.

1. If you actually do trust in a god, why do you need to emblazon that fact on your license plate? I trust my wife, but I don’t feel compelled to cart that message all over town. Does your god require you to make public affirmations of your trust in him/her/it? Shouldn’t your license say:
In God We Trust (Did You Read That, Lord?)

And then how does your god decide whether your trust is sincere or just something you tow around as a way to amass eternal brownie points? Shouldn’t your license say:
We Swear to God in God We Trust
Or perhaps:
In God We Trust (The People in this Vehicle Really Mean It!)

2. Is there a difference between trusting “in” your god and just plain trusting your god. If not, why don’t you suggest the more straightforward:
We Trust God
If there is a difference, how about:
In God We Trust, although we Don’t Necessarily Actually Trust Him/Her/It

3. If someone were to add a picture of, say, Thor or Bacchus, would that be OK? If so, the plate ought to make that clear:
In All Gods We Trust
On the other hand, if there is some specific god or gods you folks have in mind, the license should broadcast:
In Our Own Specific God (or Gods) We Trust

4. What, exactly, do you mean by “trust.” Do you mean that you’ll never have any accidents, or flat tires, or dings because your god is going to prevent them from happening? If so, shouldn’t you just come out and say it:
In God We Trust to Keep This Automobile Out of Accidents, and Supported by Good Tires, and Free of Dings
Or does your “trust” mean something else? For example, might the license read:
In God We Trust to Make Sure Our Kids Aren’t Grotesquely Ugly
Or how about:
In God We Trust to Cure Grandma’s Hemorrhoids

5. Who is this “we” that’s doing the trusting? Surely it’s not every single person in Kentucky. So can I opt out? Can I insist that the words on the license plate reflect my position:
In God We – Except Larry Wallberg – Trust
If the “we” is not all the people of Kentucky, why wouldn’t you change the words to state the truth:
In God We (Who Trust in God) Trust

Thanks (in advance) for your responses.

Posted in Driving in Lexington, First Amendment, Freedom from Faith, New to Kentucky | 18 Comments »