Monday, October 30, 2006

For my friend

The charge of child abuse is one that requires answer, regardless of the source, and regardless of the veracity of the charge. If someone defends themself vigorously against a charge, their defense should not be used against them as if that proves their guilt.

Richard Dawkins makes the charge that religious education of minors is tantamount to child abuse. There are people who seem to sort of agree with this charge. However, the equation of religious education of minors with child abuse is supported neither by tradition or by science.

Since Richard Dawkins is supposed to promote science (his day job, so to speak), it's important to highlight when he's on the wrong side of scientific research. Since religious practice - any practice - requires an introduction, an education, and exposure to some sort of community, a child raised in a religious tradition can more easily adopt whatever tradition he or she desires when he or she is an adult. This includes things like Ashtanga yoga, humanism, traditional mainline protestantism, catholicism, zen buddhism, paganism, and so on.

Since the value of religion in an individual's life can be categorically shown through scientific study, the failure to teach some sort of religion to a child is more abusive than teaching it.

Something that Richard Dawkins' reviewers point out, more competently than I could, are the places where he diverges from the evidence, and makes claims that simply can't be supported, or are contradicted by historical record.

When pushed for some evidence of the evil of religion, one often hears "crusades, 9/11, inquisition, galileo".

No one is claiming the crusades, or 9/11, or the spanish inquisition were entirely positive events. However, these events have powerful and complex historical contexts that cannot be simplified down to "thoroughly evil things that religion caused".

For a historical perspective on the crusades that states it better than I can:

In regards to 9/11, suicide bombings have a necessary condition which is secular, not religious. Religion is not a necessary factor in the incidence of suicide bombings. The stated goal of Al Quaeda is to evict western occupation and undue influence in the middle east. The targets of 9/11 were political (pentagon, white house) and economic (trade towers). If the point of the attacks was religious, then the national cathedral, the main jewish temple in DC, or Vatican City itself would have been the better set of targets.

These targets are easier to hit than the Pentagon or the White House, which have FAA zones that trigger a military response. (In the case of 9/11, this was botched, as NORAD was still set up for invading Soviet jet fighters.)

The choice of targets by Al Quaeda in Spain was deliberately picked to effect political change. The blasts right before the election swung the state to the socialists, and the withdrawal of Spanish Troops happened just as Al Quaeda desired. Al Quaeda planned this in advance, and documents to that effect have been recovered and are available on the web. Religion is not the fulcrum of contention with Spain. Separating the US from her allies in the military occupation of the Middle East most definitely is. After Spain is peeled away, then other targets would be hit (the London bombings, which did not immediately result in the UK pulling out). After the US is separated from enough allies, then targets in the US mainland would be hit again, until the US left the Middle East.

The portrayal of the 9/11 hijackers as "crazed" or "fanatical" people acting out of religious extremism is convenient for the Bush Administration, and many people buy into this for any number of reasons. However, the hijackers were not crazed lunatics. They acted smartly and strategically out of (primarily) political motives, with religion being used to recruit and retain them in the organization. Depictions of suicide bombers in the US often emphasize a religious motive, however the large majority of suicide bombings are carried out for secular reasons, most often by secular groups. The necessary condition for a suicide bomb is not religious, but is rather the occupation of a land by an outside entity with a superior military force. If this sounds familiar, then good - it should. This fits to a T our presence in the Middle East. We should not have been surprised by 9/11, nor should it be blamed on religion.

Our policies in the Middle East - and the fact that Israel is considered to be an occupier with the US as it's main and often only ally - set us up for attacks such as 9/11.

Here is some scholarship in this area from a place you visit:


Here's the view from some revolutionary socialist scholars.


From the third link, the summary:

"Suicide bombing as a tactic is used by various groups in diverse circumstances, but usually as a highly efficient means of combatting a perceived transgressor in nationalist terms. Religion and other ideological apparati do help facilitate self-murder and the murder of others, but as a motivational cause they seem to be inadequate on their own. Similarly, organisations provide cash and opportunity for carrying out such attacks, but not the desire. The variety of motivating factors seem to be overdetermined in the case of the London bombings by a rejection not of what the West is, but what it does. If the West's actions were just, this would simply be a stark Manichean case of good versus evil. Instead, what we appear to have is injustice generating recruits for unjust actions."

Would the absence of religion fix this?

From the 9/11 commission report:

"Many Americans have wondered,“Why do ‘they’ hate us?” Some also ask, "What can we do to stop these attacks?” Bin Ladin and al Qaeda have given answers to both these questions.To the first, they say that America had attacked Islam; America is responsible for all conflicts involving Muslims. Thus Americans are blamed when Israelis fight with Palestinians, when Russians fight with Chechens, when Indians fight with Kashmiri Muslims, and when the Philippine government fights ethnic Muslims in its southern islands. America is also held responsible for the governments of Muslim countries, derided by al Qaeda as “your agents.”

Bin Ladin has stated flatly,“Our fight against these governments is not separate from our fight against you.” These charges found a ready audience among millions of Arabs and Muslims angry at the United States because of issues ranging from Iraq to Palestine to America’s support for their countries’ repressive rulers. Bin Ladin’s grievance with the United States may have started in reaction to specific U.S. policies but it quickly became far deeper. To the second question, what America could do, al Qaeda’s answer was that America should abandon the Middle East, convert to Islam, and end the immorality and godlessness of its society and culture: “It is saddening to tell you that you are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind.” If the United States did not comply, it would be at war with the Islamic nation, a nation that al Qaeda’s leaders said “desires death more than you desire life.”

1) Get out of the Middle East
2) Convert
3) Clean up your act

I think we can see what the foundational issue is here, and it's not the demand to convert. My feeling is that's thrown in to anger Americans, who don't like being told what to do, and therefore help Al Quaeda become the "arsonist rescuer" after America invades Iraq. By "arsonist rescuer" I mean the type of person that sets a fire to help quench it, and is therefore elected "town hero". This strategy is working pretty well so far, with US forces in Iraq regularly described as infidels, invaders, occupiers, and the source of Iraqi misery.

The historical context is of course of great value here. From the 9/11 commission report:

"After gaining independence from Western powers following World War II, the Arab Middle East followed an arc from initial pride and optimism to today’s mix of indifference, cynicism, and despair. In several countries, a dynastic state already existed or was quickly established under a paramount tribal family.

Monarchies in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Jordan still survive today. Those in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen were eventually overthrown by secular nationalist revolutionaries. The secular regimes promised a glowing future, often tied to sweeping ideologies (such as those promoted by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab Socialism or the Ba’ath Party of Syria and Iraq) that called for a single, secular Arab state. However, what emerged were almost invariably autocratic regimes that were usually unwilling to tolerate any opposition—even in countries, such as Egypt, that had a parliamentary tradition. Over time, their policies—repression, rewards, emigration, and the displacement of popular anger onto scapegoats (generally foreign)—were shaped by the desire to cling to power.

The bankruptcy of secular, autocratic nationalism was evident across the Muslim world by the late 1970s. At the same time, these regimes had closed off nearly all paths for peaceful opposition, forcing their critics to choose silence, exile, or violent opposition. Iran’s 1979 revolution swept a Shia theocracy into power. Its success encouraged Sunni fundamentalists elsewhere. In the 1980s, awash in sudden oil wealth, Saudi Arabia competed with Shia Iran to promote its Sunni fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism. The Saudi government,always conscious of its duties as the custodian of Islam’s holiest places, joined with wealthy Arabs from the Kingdom and other states bordering the Persian Gulf in donating money to build mosques and religious schools that could preach and teach their interpretation of Islamic doctrine. In this competition for legitimacy, secular regimes had no alternative to offer. Instead, in a number of cases their rulers sought to buy off local Islamist movements by ceding control of many social and educational issues. Emboldened rather than satisfied, the Islamists continued to push for power—a trend especially clear in Egypt. Confronted with a violent Islamist movement that killed President Anwar Sadat in 1981, the Egyptian government combined harsh repression of Islamic militants with harassment of moderate Islamic scholars and authors, driving many into exile. In Pakistan, a military regime sought to justify its seizure of power by a pious public stance and an embrace of unprecedented Islamist influence on education and society. These experiments in political Islam faltered during the 1990s: the Iranian revolution lost momentum, prestige, and public support, and Pakistan’s rulers found that most of its population had little enthusiasm for fundamentalist Islam. Islamist revival movements gained followers across the Muslim world, but failed to secure political power except in Iran and Sudan. In Algeria, where in 1991 Islamists seemed almost certain to win power through the ballot box, the military preempted their victory, triggering a brutal civil war that continues today. Opponents of today’s rulers have few, if any, ways to participate in the existing political system.They are thus a ready audience for calls to Muslims to purify their society, reject unwelcome modernization, and adhere strictly to the Sharia."

Since secular government corruption is named as the source of the Islamist angst in this as well as other studies, wouldn't it be at least as logical to assign the same amount of blame to secularism as to religion, when assigning blame for 9/11?

Galileo is a very interesting case. The simplistic story of "the church repressed science!" is inaccurate.

To me, it boils down to two friends in a pissing contest, where one had more power and could threaten the other. Both men (Galileo and his former strong supporter, the pope) had huge egos, and both blew their chances to work things out and advance science.

The use of the inquisition here is of course deplorable.

In fact, it's as deplorable to the daily use in California (as well as all the other states) of threats of anal rape in jail when interrogating male suspects under arrest, in order to "gain cooperation". How is showing someone a rack, and implying that it will used, any different than the completely tolerated tactic of threatening men (and women) with the horrible things that "might happen to them" in jail? The brutality of a secular jail situation is no different from the brutality of the inquisition.

One of the interesting facts about the inquisition is that the most famous, the Spanish Inquisition, was operated under secular authority.

The most important question in context of the assertion that everyone would be better off without religion is simple. In the absense of religion, are nation-states at peace? The answer, as far as it can be seen since you can't run an experiment where you delete religion from society and repeat human evolution, is either no or uknowable.

The absence of religion - the banishment, or repression, or replacement of it, does not prevent atrocity, warfare, or the failure of states. In fact, the absence of religion seems to create fertile ground for a lot of all three.

In the absense of religion, are individual people happier? The answer is no. With repeatable scientific evidence pointing to a strong positive correlation between individual health, happiness as measured on standard psych eval tests, increased lifespan, and increased marriage longevity, the benefits cloud the issue of the claim of religion as a net negative.

Since religions produce people that volunteer more, donate more money, and support secular causes to a degree significantly higher than secular people do, the absence of religion would probably result in fewer service organizations, and less good done in the world.

Religion thrives under and deserves critique, but as a product of human evolution, it's not inherentely evil, nor are we better off without it.

Assigning value to a product of evolution smacks of teleological thinking - sort of like assigning a value to white vs. black in the case of the Peppered Moth. If I did that, I'd be laughed right out of the lab, so to speak.

By the way,

I don't like it when stick figures of religion are hatefully portrayed by people that don't address historical context, or verifiable facts.

I expect that anyone would defend any of their beliefs, at any time they feel they are either mischaracterized, attacked, or subverted. This is true of politics, religion, and sex especially.

Which leads me back to the original point. Accusations of child abuse are serious, not funny, and have to be defended. If you told a Wiccan that you honestly believed her practice of Wicca, and her intent to teach her children about it, was tantamount to child abuse, I can imagine that she would not be amused in the slightest.

The tactic of:

Ann: "You're a poo-poo head!"
Bob: "No I'm not."
Ann: "Only a poo-poo head would disagree, so you are obviously a poo-poo head."

actually has a name in debate theory, although, I can't remember what it is. If it doesn't seem familiar, here's another more pertinant version:

Richard: "Religion is off limit for debate. Religion is so terrible, that we'd be better off without it. Idiots, child-abusers, etc."
Charlie: "I'm not a child abuser, and religion has positive social value. Here, let me show you."
Richard: "See? Your reaction means I'm right. Religion is evil!"

The only acceptable outcome to Richard is for religious people to roll over, repent, and become positivists. Repent or die, anyone? The acceptable outcome for Charlie is to be portrayed fairly, which includes warts and failures, but doesn't totalize religion as evil. The second one is more reasonable, and more healthy, no? The first one is quite judgemental, and flies in the face of human evolution, scientific evidence, and the historical record.

Finally, the evidence quandary. "Show me evidence for God!"

I'm not an adherent of fluffy white cloud theology, so I can't really defend it. I've said before, I can't speak to issues of faith the way other people might. I can give my take on it, which only seems to invite ridicule, so I generally don't offer it.

My god is the god of Epicurus, Occam, Descartes, and Einstein. She is not the white-haired guy on the roof of the sistine chapel. I posit a perfect being, and model my life accordingly. Why do I need to provide evidence for belief in an ideal being? This is a 2500 year old question that was solved by the Greeks. Epicurus, my hero, both posed and solved the "problem of evil" and provided a solid framework for me. With additions from Sartre, and some enlargements from physics, biology, and chemistry, I'm at ease being "a believer", despite being a "loose canon". Get it? Canon? Cannon?

I can't add any more to their writings (Epicurus, Occam, Descarte, Sarte, Einstein). Any further explanation that I could offer would only dilute theirs. I might be a decent writer, but they are masterful.

I develop values through a religiously-based intellectual activity, and have come up with six. I decide how to spend my time, and what actions to take, based on this chain of reasoning that is initiated and nurtured by consistent meditation upon my idea of god in the form of prayer and good works. Since I take Matthew chapter six seriously,

I don't discuss the "good works" that I do. Nor do I reveal the good works of others that I personally witness. I keep my mouth shut not because I think it will help with some sort of afterlife, since I don't believe in one, but because bragging about it ruins it for me. Since I see others following this philosophy, and since I can do math, it would take a colossal amount of evil - far more than exists in the historical record - to counterbalance the good done in the name of religion.

Until E.O. Wilson's vision of a replacement for religion happens, then I am a religious person (happily catholic, with six or seven other traditions seriously investigated), and I refuse to be unfairly characterized by Richard Dawkins.

If you think I throw a fit over religion, try accusing me of not "really" being bisexual, or bisexuality being "a myth". I save my best screeds for sex.

Ham Radio CQWW Contest

This past weekend was the CQ DX Contest.

The objective of an amateur radio contest is for amateurs around the
world to contact other amateurs in as many zones and countries as possible. A zone is like a really big version of a zip code. It can be part of a country, or an area of several countries. It's part of the on-air exchange, and simply makes the contest a bit easier to work.

In the nomenclature of ham radio, you "work a contest", even though it's just for fun. The advantages of working contests are improvement of your communication skills as well as testing the quality of your equipment. If your station works well in a contest, it will probably work well in an emergency.

It's also a great chance to see exactly what your antenna coverage is like - whether or not you have a good antenna pattern, which directly affects how well you are received worldwide.

All bands, 1.8 through 28 MHz, are used for this particular contest.

I worked the contest only briefly throughout the weekend, but I logged stations in Hawaii, Canada, Japan, and South America during the times I was on the air. The experience of participating in a contest is completely worth the time and effort. You don't have to have your own station to participate, but you do need to be a licensed amateur radio operator. This is a very easy license to get.

I operated on the 20 meter band (14MHz). Tuning up and down the band I heard a ton of stations calling for contacts. The cadence and rhythm of the voices makes your heart quicken. It's like standing on the floor of the stock exchange, listening for someone to make or take a bid. When a rare station comes on the air and calls for contacts (calls "CQ") then many people answer. This is called a pile-up, because the voices pile up on top of each other. Again, this is similar to a hot stock being offered at a great price by a floor agent at an exchange. Everyone starts yellling.

The ability to pick out calls from the din, to process them quickly, and then move on to the next person, is something developed over time. It takes listening skills, cognitive skills, and stamina. The contest is long. It starts at 0000 hours GMT Saturday and ends 2400 hours GMT Sunday. So, all day Saturday and all day Sunday. This is 48 hours of operating, I reckon. I don't really know if there is a required break, like in some contests. I have to admit to not reading the rules beforehand.

When you contact another station in a contest, the point is to get an "exchange." This is a bit of information that may be your state, or your section, or zone, or grid square locator, or something like that. Some contests have silly/fun exchanges, and some have more serious, detailed exchanges. It varies quite a bit from contest to contest, but all contests require the correct exchange of some sort of information.

For the CQWW contest, you have to get the call sign of the person you're talking to correct, and you have to get their CQ zone. This is submitted to the contest sponsor in the form of a log. Each contact is worth some amount of points. There are ways to increase your score, called "multipliers", that vary from contest to contest. For example, if you contact every zone, or every state, or every province of a country, then you get a boost. This can make a big difference if you are competitive in the contests. There are strategies and tactics to contesting. It's considered a sport, and to be really good at it requires dedication and practice. However, it doesn't take much to turn a neophyte entry-level ham radio operator into a full-fledged participant.

One of the best ways to get involved is to participate in a multi-operator station. This is where several people man a station in shifts, or together, and make contacts. The more experienced people teach you the ropes and give advice, and you don't have to buy a bunch of equipment or put up a big antenna.

I didn't "call CQ" during the contest - which means finding and defending a frequency, where you transmit something like "CQ Contest CQ Contest Whiskey Five November Yankee Victor" over and over again, until people respond, whereupon you do your exchange. I used the "search and pounce" tactic, which means dialing around and answering people doing the hard work. Sleep in, still win.

In order to win, you really have to do both. And, you have to know when the various bands are open - not all frequencies are usable at all times - and you have to know when to take a break so you aren't drooling on your microphone at 3:12 am.

Here's a typical exchange for me:

They: "CQ contest CQ contest 4M5R"
Me: "W5NYV"
They: "W5NYV 59 33"
Me: "Roger, 59 03"
They: "QSL, QRZ?"

CQ means calling all stations.
QSL means "confirm contact"
QRZ means "who (else) is calling me?"

Sometimes you have to go back and forth to confirm an exchange, because there may be a lot of static or you may be a weak station. Then it goes something like this:

They: "CQ contest CQ contest 4M5R"
Me: "W5NYV"
They: "Whiskey Five, again?"
Me: "Whiskey Five November Yankee Victor"
They: "Whiskey Five November Yankee Delta?"
Me: "Whiskey Five November Yankee Victor"
They: "W5NYV 59 33"
Me: "Roger, 59 03"
They: "13?"
Me: "03, 03, 03"
They: "QSL, QRZ?"

The exchange is quick. When there is a pileup, or when band conditions are good, you make contacts as quick as you can talk or as quick as you can log. Making a contact is one thing, but successfully logging it is another.

There are a ton of software tools that help with contests. Actually talking into a microphone for hours and hours will kill your voice. It's acceptable to record the parts that you are going to say over and over again, and transmit those with a keypress of the software interfaced to your radio.

Logging programs help by allowing you to type things in. If you are a multi-operator station, a second person can be assigned the logging duties.

For the contest, I used pencil and paper to log, and a push-to-talk microphone. Since I didn't work very long at any one time, it worked out fine.

One of the things that I thought about over the weekend, while working the contest, was how much Amy would have liked watching this whole process. She wasn't really interested in ham radio, but she was interested in ham radio operators, and I know she would have been really impressed with the whole effort, and how much focus and concentration it took.

I remember when I let her hold my violin. She never really played any musical instruments, but she played a bard on EQ. One of the characters that she fictionalized played the violin, and I thought it might be fun for her to see how incredibly lightweight a violin is, and what it looks like in your hands. She was really taken with how fragile it seemed - something that could make such a sound should be heavy, like an electric guitar. Violins almost feel like they're made from balsa wood. I had her draw the bow to see what it felt like, and she laughed when it made the most horrible sound ever in the history of strings.

I think she would have been equally engaged at the antics of the contest. She would have loved eavesdropping on the "big gun" stations as they chewed through their pile-ups like communications juggernauts - spitting out the syllables in staccato.

Contests, like any competition, can be addictive. For some people, it's their main interest in ham radio. I'm just a dilletante. I will probably never rank very high in the standings, but the sheer fun of working people from around the world in a competitive atmosphere is totally worth the time. Hearing your callsign from a faraway station is such a thrill. I'm looking forward to the next contest, in November.