Sikh student allowed to bring dagger to public school as a gesture toward religious tolerance

According to custom, members of the Sikh religion wear the “five Ks,” which, according to Wikipediaare the following:

  • Kesh: Uncut hair, usually tied and wrapped in a Dastar [JAC: A form of turban].
  • Kanga: A wooden comb, usually worn under a Dastar
  • Katchera: Cotton undergarments, historically appropriate in battle due to increased mobility when compared to a dhoti. Worn by both sexes, the katchera is a symbol of chastity. [JAC: Sikh's like Mormons, have magic underwear]
  • Kara: An iron bracelet, a weapon and a symbol of eternity
  • Kirpan: An iron dagger in different sizes. In the UK Sikhs can wear a small dagger, but in the Punjab they might wear a traditional curved sword from one to three feet in length.

I have seen kirpans (and three of the other four K’s) in India, and kirpans can be formidable weapons. Here’s a typical one:


Now, according to KING5 (the NBC news channel in western Washington State, a Sikh student at Aubern’s (Washington) Guildo Rey Elementary School (such schools teach children from ages 6-12) is to be allowed to carry a kirpan with him to school, despite the fact that the school has a zero-tolerance policy for weapons.

It is not a toy knife, but a real one. As KING reports, one school worker says this is unconscionable, and I agree:

One school volunteer named Shelby, who asked her last name not be used, said respecting religion goes too far if it compromises student safety.

“There’s no way I’d go back until the knife was gone,” she said.

Shelby does not volunteer at Gildo Rey.

“They can’t take that thing into the airport. TSA would be all over it. Why is a school any different?” she asked.

Indeed, and this is being toted by a small child.  True, other Sikhs have carried knives in public schools before, and there’s yet been no stabbing, but zero tolerance is zero tolerance, and that should hold for all, regardless of faith. When public safety clashes with religious freedom, the former should win.

But listen to the school superintendent try to weasel out of this one:

“The knife can’t come out. It can’t be shown around. It needs to be underneath their clothing,” said Auburn Assistant Superintendent of Schools Ryan Foster. “That allows them to express their religion without jeopardizing anyone’s feeling of safety. If there are any problems, we will take it to the family, but we don’t expect any.”

Well, at least one person’s feeling of safety has been jeopardized! And the instruction that the knife must be concealed is bogus, as they wouldn’t allow a secular student to carry a hidden knife.  And what if there was a religion that mandated the carrying of guns? Would that be okay too among 6-12 year-olds, so long as the gun was kept hidden and couldn’t be “shown around”?

Once again religion gets unwarranted privileges. Sikhs get to carry weapons in schools; members of other faiths can’t. The school district should enforce its regulation for everyone.

This isn’t the first time Sikh sentiments have clashed with public safety. In Davis California, a Sikh student was outraged after he was refused a bus ride because he wouldn’t remove his kirpan. Here’s his knife, a pretty scary dagger:

Screen shot 2014-10-25 at 11.23.51 AM

A similar incident happened when a theater denied entry to an armed Sikh in Yuba City, California.

What makes this especially galling to nonbelievers (besides the failure of the government to treat people equitably) is that this dagger is being carried in the name of false beliefs. Regardless, even if, as some Sikhs maintain, “we are a peace-loving people,” those daggers can be taken and used by other people, too.

There should be no compromise of public safety to propitiate religious sentiments. If Sikh’s must carry a kirpan in school, let it be a tiny symbolic kirpan made of wood, like the one I bought in the Sikh temple in New Delhi some years ago. I don’t think anybody specifies that the kirpan has to be a Crocodile Dundee-type sticker!

Caturday felid: Bulgarian street moggies

I present for your delectation a selection of The Street Cats of Bulgaria. Which one would you take home? (I have numbered them for convenience):

1. The first cat I saw in Bulgaria—a tuxedo cat sunning itself on a ledge:


2.  An appleheaded ginger tom sunning itself in the street:


3. This cat, in Tarnovo, looked part Siamese:


4. A black kitten resting on a car. My post on Tarnovo yesterday shows me picking it up and giving it fusses:


5. Now this is a real fluffmeister:


6. A Tarnovo tuxedo sunning itself:


7. This guy was peeking over a curb. You can also see him with a pal in photo #8:


8. The Peeker with a friend; they’re waiting at a spot where they know they’ll be fed (see last photo):


9. This female was shy and I couldn’t get a good photo, but her markings were lovely (taken in Plovdiv):=


10. Moggie carefully picking its way over a stone bridge in Tarnovo:


11. A Plovdiv tabby asking for food at a restaurant (and of course I gave it some):


12. Another tuxedo cat (there are plenty of these). I recently read that every one of the cat mummies from ancient Egypt—and there are thousands of them—were tabbies. That must reflect their ancestry in the tabby-marked European wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica). Other colors were probably developed later through artificial selection.


13. A wary black cat with lovely golden eyes:


14. Another restaurant tabby in Plovdiv, who also got food (I made sure that every cat, regardless of their shyness or boldness, got roughly equal amounts of food):


15. Yet another restaurant cat, a fluffy one:


16. Ginger cat, Plovdiv:


Finally, there are people who make sure that at least some of street cats are fed. This lady in Tarnovo distributed dry kibble to the local moggies.


Finally, I’ve already posted these adorable kittens, so you can’t choose one of them:


Kittens 1

Dinner last night

Last night I was told I’d be taken to a “BBQ” restaurant (i.e., one that serves grilled meats; these bear no resemblance to American BBQ but are delicious in their own right). Sure enough, I was, and the food was tasty and COPIOUS.

First, with a Bulgarian beer, the appetizers. They included eggplant in what tasted like a sesame sauce, a Bulgarian salad with cheese, a fried version of cheese, and, at upper left, an eggplant spread to eat on bread or on its own.


Then, a dish listed on the menu as “THE MOUNTAIN OF MEAT”. It’s an accurate description: there was skewered chicken, steak, pork, lamb meatballs, sauages, other viands, and liver (which I eschewed). The meat was grilled and much of it was imbued with nice spices. Three of us consumed most of this dish. Plates of fried potatoes (like french fries, but in the form of thick, flat discs) were constantly replenished.

The red sauce is like Bulgarian catsup, but not as sweet as that we find in the U.S. It’s made from tomatoes, red peppers, and spices. There’s also a kind of cole slaw on the side.


Finally, dessert was an apple “cookie cake” and a spectacular dish that resembled a creme brulée, but which had the caramelized crust on all sides. I don’t know how they do that, but it was scrumptious. Anyone who has the ability to make this should; it’s one of the finest desserts I’ve ever had, like a burnt-sugar shell completely enclosing a creamy filling.



Oy, was I full!

Saturday: Hili dialogue

Today’s my last day in Sofia, with a bit of catch-up work, a bit of sightseeing, and then dinner with my friends who have promised to let me film and photograph their cat, Toncho, eating cucumber. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is huffy about the outcome of the New Yorker cat-versus-dog debate. I let Hili down!

A: Did you read about the outcome of the debate in New York on the virtues of dogs and cats? The dog lovers won.
Hili: Do not talk to me about it.
In Polish:
Ja: Czytałaś o wynikach tej debaty w Nowym Jorku na temat zalet psów i kotów? Wygrali miłośnicy psów.
Hili: Nie mów mi o tym.

Young people today… Help them appreciate the Marx Brothers

by Matthew Cobb

I have just finished teaching to the second year Animal Diversity course here at the University of Manchester – I cover the invertebrates. I closed with 10 minutes on my favourite flies, some of which we have featured here with stupendous photos by Stephen Marshall. One of them is the Groucho fly (aka the hedgehog fly):


A Hedgehog fly, aka Adejeania – a Peruvian caterpillar parasitoid. Also known as the “Groucho fly”. The “cigar” is a pair of enlarged palps, probably used to detect prey. (c) Stephen Marshall

I realised that I would have to explain *why* it’s called the Groucho fly, as most of the students would never have heard of Groucho Marx. This turned out to be true – fewer than 10% of them knew the moustachioed one. So as part of their general education, I will put an extract of one of the Marx brothers films onto the internal website associated with the course.

But which one? I’ve come up with four brief extracts, from Horse Feathers, Duck Soup (x 2) and A Night at the Opera. Readers – please pitch in with your favourite scene, one that would inspire a 21 year old to go and delve about in the land of black and white…

EDIT: It has just occurred to me that some of our readers – in particular the younger ones, or those from non-Anglophone countries – may not have a very clear idea about Groucho’s talents, either. (My colleague Reinmar Hager, who is German, had never seen a Marx Brothers film.) If this applies to you, please chip in below and let us know if you thought the clips were funny…

Tarnovo: sights, noms, cats, and other splendors

We left Tarnovo two days ago, but I’ve yet to catch up on reporting my travels (these posts take a bit of time, you know).  But here are some holiday snaps in Tarnovo and surrounding areas.

Our first order of business once we parked the car (some distance from our pension) was to have lunch. While we were waiting, Lubo snapped a selfie of himself, me, and Vassy. This was with a camera, not a cellphone, so Lubo’s clearly experienced with selfies! You can see that Tarnovo, about 2.5 hours from Sofia by car (the country isn’t large), is built on hills:


Now for the menu, the traditional shropska salad to begin (tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers covered with grated local cheese). The quality of the vegetables is very high in this country: the cucumbers are solid, crunchy, and tasty, and the tomatoes very ripe:

Shropska Salad

And what they call “meatballs,” though they’re usually flat rather than spherical. These, made of pork and veal, were grilled and served with fries covered with cheese:

Meatballs with fries

The castle “Tsarvets” in the distance, the capital of Bulgaria from the late 12th to the late 14th century, was finally successfully besieged by the Ottomans.  The fortifications, ideally situated on a hill over a river, had a drawbridge and extensive walls along the cliffs:


Castle 2

The old town below the castle: a very colorful and peaceful place. I suppose it gets touristy in summer, but in October, when the weather was beautiful (tee shirts sufficed), it was wonderful:.


The castle is bedecked with signs like these, which vastly amused Vassy, who said, “What the hell? You’re not allowed to do tai chi on the walls?”

Danger 1

So of course I made them enact two of the dangerous actions:

Danger 2

The world’s most scenic outhouse on the slopes above the river. What a lovely place to excrete!


Below the castle and across the river is a small and colorful part of town where Lubo used to live as a child. The houses are splendid:

Old Town Houses

and are amply decorated with greenery. Many, such as the owners of this place, grow grapes on the windows, and you can see the ripe bunches hanging below:

Old town houses decorations

According to the sign above the number “26,”, this is an “exemplary home,” although you couldn’t tell it from the outside:

Old town exemplary home

We headed up the hills above the castle, where the dictator of Bulgaria under the Communists had his summer residence. It’s a large and sumptuous place with a fantastic view, and a helicopter pad. (It’s now a fancy hotel.)

The view from the palace: ranges of mountains separate Tarnovo from Sofia, which itself lies in a valley. You can spot the castle to the left of center and down a bit.

Castle from dictator's house

Lunchtime! We repaired to a restaurant, picked at random from those in Dictator Town (I can’t remember its name). The quality of the food we had shows that the average standard for a restaurant meal in Bulgaria is very high.

First, soups: yogurt-and-cucumber soup (with ground nuts) for Vassy and tripe soup for Lubo. He loves the stuff, but I couldn’t stand to take even a single bite:

Second lunch soup 1

Second lunch soup 2

Two kinds of flatbread: garlic bread and cheese-covered bread (you may have guessed by now that many dishes in Bulgaria are sprinkled with the shredded national cheese: there are but two national cheeses, white and orange);

Second lunch garlic bread

Second lunch cheese bread

Main dishes included a sausage and pepper casserole with a dollop of yogurt (it’s put on nearly everything in Bulgaria),

second lunch casserole

A delicious dish of yogurt mixed with fried eggs and other stuff,

Second lunch yogurg and eggs

And what is called “mishmosh,” a Bulgarian scrambled egg dish that is infinitely better than regular scrambled eggs:

Second lunch mishmash

Several local street cats besieged us during the meal, and of course I was a soft touch and fed them a lot (they are always hungry). There were so many that someone at the next table took our picture:

Second lunch cats

Two of the local felids: a lovely tabby and what must be related to a Turkish Van cat, a white-haired guy with one blue eye and one green (‘odd-eyed’). He’d obviously been scrapping:

econd lunch cats tabby

Second lunchs cats van cat

Time for walkies. We strolled through the shopping streets, where things are sold to tourists and others. Here, for instance, are a few Bulgarian specialties: old-timey shoes, the local pottery, and handmade silver filigree jewelry:

zz shoes

xxBulgarian pottery

xx bulgarian filigree

A custom in Bulgaria is to paste someone’s memorial notice on the door of the house where they lived. The pastings go up at regular and specified intervals post mortem, so a door can have half a dozen notices about a single person. Here’s a typical example, though I can’t read it.

xxDeath noticz

Coffee time, where Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece converge. This quaint place had Greek (or Turkish or Bulgarian) coffee, boiled in brikis, the small copper vessels I’m used to from Greece. The coffee is boiled over very hot sand, and you specify how sweet you want it:


It’s served, as is traditional in Greece, with a spoonful of rose-petal jam immersed in a glass of cold water. You’re supposed to eat the jam and drink the water with your coffee.. We also had a local meringue and a fudge-like substance:

Coffee sweeets

Other things we saw while wandering the town included a bunch of street cats. Look at this little cutie!


And a black kitten I got to hold. Most of the street cats are skittish and won’t allow themselves to be petted, but a few, like this one, like to get fusses, and this one even purred. (I need a damn cat!):

Street kitten

A bunch of pastries for sale, including the ubiquitous and tasty banitsa (layers of filo dough filled with Bulgarian white cheese). One of these and a bottle of boza, a thick, sweetened grayish-brown drink made from wheat, will pretty much fill you up for hours.  The banitsas are at lower left, and one of them fills the pan from left to right. They’re huge!


We passed an old Eastern-European made car (I can’t remember where it was from, but I’m sure some readers will know the model). Vassy and Lubo got excited by these, as they apparently predominated in Bulgaria in their youth, but are now rare and have been replaced by Western cars (Lubo has an Audi with automatic transmission). I posed next to it; Vassy told me that they were made of cardboard but I’m pretty sure she was joking:


And a solipsistic end to this post: a selfie through a window, avec chat:

Selfie JAC



A creationist claims that Denmark is in moral chaos because it lacks “wholesome religion” to stave off “toxic religion” (aka Islam)

Ten days ago, the Intelligent Design promoter V. J. Torley wrote an essay at the ID site Uncommon Descent claiming that all was not well in Denmark. His piece, “Is something rotten in the state of Denmark?,” was written to refute my own claim that, despite being a largely atheistic and almost totally secular country, Denmark (Torley forgot that I always add Sweden here), is a highly moral, well-functioning society, proving that you don’t need God to be good.

My conclusions were based largely the work of sociologist Phil Zuckerman (see here, here, and here, for example), who surveyed Sweden and Denmark for their religiosity, and other work by people like Greg Paul showing that Sweden and Denmark are, using a basket of sociological indices, highly successful societies.  This is a general conclusion of other workers as well; in fact, among first-world countries (and I suspect across the world as well), the degree of religiosity of a nation is negatively associated with its well being: the more religious the country, the less “successful” it is as a society.  My own explanation is that religiosity arises from poor social conditions, as when the state won’t give you medical care or take care of you when you’re old.

But let’s leave my speculations aside. One response of the religious when faced with these facts is to claim that countries like Denmark and Sweden are showing residual religiosity—a societal well being derived from their historically Christian past, which gave rise to present-day morality, even among atheists.. That’s all well and good, but fails to explain the correlation mentioned above—for, if anything, residual religiosity should erod with time, and so one would not expect the least religious countries to still be the ones that are better off.

The other response, that of  V. J. Torley, is to assert that countries like Denmark and Sweden aren’t that well off after all.  His entire post can be summed up by his quote:

Perhaps Coyne might be interested to read an eye-opening article by Carol Brown over at American Thinkeron what is happening in Denmark. Ms. Brown paints a terrifying portrait of a society which is falling apart under the influence of religiously motivated violence. Crime in Denmark has exploded, and street gangs “have taken over large parts of Danish towns and cities”. There are numerous “no go” zones where even the police are afraid to venture. Is this Coyne’s idea of a successful secular society?

Some morals to be drawn from Brown’s article:

1. Not all forms of religion are good; some are toxic.

2. Nature abhors a vacuum. Secularism is powerless to drive out toxic forms of religion.

3. The only proven way to drive out toxic forms of religion, and keep them out, is with wholesome forms of religion.

You can guess what’s going on here. Brown’s piece describes a rise in crime in Denmark due to an incursion of Muslim immigrants, causing violence, the rise of thuggish Muslim street gangs and, Brown claims, a complete dissolution of Danish society.  If ever a piece was Islamophobic, and I hate using that term, it’s Brown’s (and by default, Torley’s). Just read Brown’s piece to see the kind of scare-mongering it paints, and the general bias against Muslims. The implication is that Muslims can never be peacefully integrated into Western society, and so must either be expelled or prohibited from immigrating.

And really, are Christianity and Catholicism the things we need to stave off Islam? Are they more “wholesome” than secular societies? And how does it work, exactly? How does “wholesome” religion stave off “toxic” religion? Does the pervasiveness of, say, Catholicism, make Muslims less violent? And why is atheism impotent to do this?

All that Torley’s article proves is that Islam appears to create more problems in a single European country than do other faiths. It does not demonstrate that countries with no faith are “less wholesome” than religious ones. In fact, the higher well0-being of countries like Denmark and Sweden (and most of northern Europe, which is also largely atheistic) before Muslim immigration refutes Torley’s implication that “wholesome” religion is good for a country.

In the present state of the world, Islam is, I agree, a more toxic faith than many others, perhaps the most toxic faith. But that doesn’t mean that its excesses can be defanged by some kind of bigoted prohibition of Muslim immigration or, God forbid, the forcible conversion of Muslims into Christians (would Torley like some kind of reverse ISIS?). The solution is simply to enforce civil law and Enlightenment values, and to insist that Muslims cannot practice dysfunctional social behaviors in a Western society. It’s worked in the U.S., after all. Sadly, rather than trying to integrate Muslims into their culture, Denmark may be capitulating to their religious demands, scared that what happened with the publication of the anti-Muslim Danish cartoons will happen again. This, I suspect—and not atheism—is what’s behind the rise in violent crime in Denmark.

But the notion that atheistic states are falling apart is bogus. Statistics show that while violent crimes have indeed risen in the last 7 years in Denmark, the total crime rate has stayed about the same there. (Violent crimes, by the way have also risen in one other place: Luxembourg, a state far more religious than Denmark!) And in Sweden, another place where atheism should be unable to stave off Islamic violence, both violent and nonviolent crimes have stayed pretty level. In fact, throughout Europe, crime rates are either staying level or falling.

Biochemist Larry Moran mentioned Torley’s claims four days ago on his website Sandwalkand a number of commenters (and Moran himself) testified to the moral health of Denmark.  Now these are impressions, but the only evidence for the moral disintegration of Denmark is the unique rise in violent crime in that nation compared to other European states.  Yet if atheism simply fails to stave off Islamic violence, violent crime should be rising all over the nonbelieving states of northern Europe: in places like Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and France (which has a higher proportion of atheists than Denmark). All of these places have experienced an increase in their Muslim population, but crime isn’t rising.

Torley is wrong. If the increase in violent crime in Denmark reflects Muslim immigration, I doubt that means that only wholesome religion can prevent that crime. I ssupect instead that the Danes are simply less insistent on the integration of Muslims into their society. Unfortunately, I can’t speak to (or support) that hypothesis. All I know is that Torley is basing his promotion of “wholesome” religions (presumably Christianity) on a single statistic, a statistic that fails to support his thesis when you look to other atheistic countries beyond Denmark.

So here’s my prediction: if Greg Paul redid his 2008 survey showing that the less religious countries in Europe were better off (using his 25 indices of societal health), he would get the same results today.

Three amazing photos by Melvyn Yeo

by Matthew Cobb

We’ve featured the arthropod macro photos of Singapore-based photographer Melvyn Yeo before. You can browse his amazing DeviantArt page. Here are two doozies I just stumbled across. The first is of a mantidfly. These are weird neuropterans that look like a cross between a mantis and a fly (they aren’t). This one has an amazing ‘neck’ and doubles up with some Batesian mimicry – it looks like a wasp. It’s only about 1 cm long…

The second is just a boring grasshopper. But what camouflage!

The third is a tiny (= 0.5 cm) Amblypigid or ‘whip scorpion’ (NOT a scorpion OR a spider, though related to both). In all Amblypigids the first pair of legs has been transformed into sensors – but these are utterly bizarre.

Click to see them in all their glory!


Readers’ wildlife photos

We have four photos today provided by three readers.

The first is a black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia) from reader Stephen Barnard in Idaho, which came with this note:

These birds are common, but intelligent and of a suspicious nature on the farm. I find them hard to photograph. In town they’re bold, even harassing my B*rder C*llie.


Reader Jay Lonner sends two photos he took while diving:

Attached please find photos of a Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and a Caribbean reef shark (Carcharhinus perezi) that I took on a recent trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands. These images were taken off the small island of French Key. Hawksbill turtles are critically endangered, and as an avid diver this is only the second one that I have seen in the wild.

Hawkisbill TCI 102014

The Caribbean reef shark is locally common, but I like the lighting on this shot. Also note the structure distal to the pelvic fin, which I suspect is a remora but could be a clasper.

Shark TCI 102014

From reader jsp, a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) taken on October 23 near Winfield, Missouri. Why did the fox cross the road?


Friday: Hili dialogue

I’ve returned to Sofia from Plovdiv, a lovely city. I have another day and a half here before I fly out on Sunday (at 6:40 a.m. with an 8-hour layover in Munich). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is looking in vain for the Door to Sunshine:

A: What are you thinking about?
Hili: Whether to take an umbrella.

In Polish:
Ja: Nad czym się zastanawiasz?
Hili: Czy brać parasol.



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