Let’s stop teaching philosophy of religion in secular colleges

Philosophers have reproved me because, as a mere biologist, I have no right to criticize the teaching of philosophy of religion in colleges, nor to call for its end.  But I reject the idea that biologists have no standing to give such an opinion, just as I reject the notion that philosophers can’t pass judgement on whether some areas of science are unproductive. All that matters is that opinions must be informed and supported with arguments. And I think I know enough about the philosophy of religion, and about how it’s taught in some colleges, to pass at least a reasonably informed judgment on the value of the discipline—which is almost nil. It’s almost nil because while it can inform us about the influence of scripture and how it was invented (a useful endeavor), it also promulgates religion and prepares students for the ministry.

I think that teaching different philosophies of religion in secular schools is fine—so long as it’s in courses on comparative religion. And some Biblical scholarship is also useful for it’s a form of historical reconstruction of a document that is taken seriously.  So, too, are courses in the Bible as literature, in the same way that we should have courses in Shakespeare as literature, or in any influential form of literature (or forms that deserve to be more influential).

But too often courses in the philosophy of religion turn into courses on religious apologetics: teaching Biblical exegesis as if the Bible were true. So, secular schools like Duke and Harvard (and my own school) have “divinity schools.” Those schools teach, in part, theology.  I don’t see that as a valid subject for a secular school, since it’s the study of a nonexistent entity and what he/she/it wants us to do. Comparative theology is fine, but do we need whole schools of this stuff at secular universities?

Here are a few courses from the prestigious Harvard Divinity School (to be sure, this school has a lot more diversity, in terms of courses on different faiths, than other divinity schools):

Intimacy with God: Jewish Conceptions of Communion, Mystical Union and the Holy Spirit

Introduction to Islamic Mysticism: The Sufi Tradition

Greek Exegesis of John

Religion, Gender, and Culture Colloquium: Feminist Theory and Theology

Clinical Chaplaincy: Interfaith Caregiving Skills and Practice

United Methodist Polity

Meaning Making – Thinking Theologically about Ministry Experience: Seminar

Catholicism Faces Modernity: Classics of Twentieth Century Roman Catholicism

Advanced Spiritual Counseling: Taking Care of Others, Taking Care of Self: Seminar

Pentecostal Polity Note the description: The history, principles and practice of Pentecostal believers. To understand the nature and functioning of Pentecostal denominations. To prepare Pentecostal students for ordination. The course will include liturgy, worship, and theology of the Pentecostal faith. The focus primarily will be on the major Pentecostal denominations and the charismatic flavor of other major denominations.

Mystical Theology

United Church of Christ Polity: The history, polity, and practice of the United Church of Christ. Issues addressed throughout include ecclesiology, mission, professional ethics, the ordination process, justice, as well as contemporary principles and patterns of the UCC. Students seeking ordination are urged to take this course during their middler year, but all are welcome

Communication Skills for Spanish Ministry

Unitarian Universalist Religious Education: Seminar. This course is designed to equip future ministers with the knowledge, skills, resourcefulness, and self-awareness needed to form the faith of Unitarian Universalists in the 21st century.

Introduction to Christian Preaching: This course introduces students to the theology and the practice of preaching within the Christian tradition. Special attention will be paid to developing a theological understanding of both the preacher and the preached word, and students will be expected to prepare and deliver several sermons during the course of the term.

This is only a small sample. A sudden pain in my lower mesentery prevented me from going further down the list. It’s long.

But you get the point: many of these courses are designed to prepare students to learn and preach the Word of God, while others involve minute exegesis of fiction in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated for any other influential work of fiction. There are dozens and dozens of these courses. I think many are superfluous, for they’re helping students spread delusions.

But if you reject my standing to say this, listen instead to John Loftus, who used to be an evangelical Christian preacher, but gave up the faith. Loftus is now not only writing about his “deconversion,” but also offering thoughtful critiques of Christianity. I particularly like his book Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (only about $13 on Amazon), which is far more than just a deconversion tale: it’s also an incisive critique of Christian apologetics. His anthology edited with Dan Barker, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, is also very good, and contains a chapter on Loftus’s well-known “Outsider Test for Faith”  (OTF), a rational program for examining why one should prefer one’s own religion over others (hint: you should reject them all). You can find a bunch of John’s online writings about the OTF here.

But I digress. Loftus has a new piece at his site, Debunking Christianity, with the no-nonsense title, “I’m calling for an end to the philosophy of religion as a discipline in secular universities.” (Note also that the next day he had a back-and-forth about this with Biblical scholar Jaco Gericke).

Loftus’s essay is a response to a book by philosopher Graham Oppy defending philosophy of religion, Reinventing Philosophy of Religion: An Opinionated Introduction, as well as a YouTube video interiew Oppy did about the topic/ I haven’t read the book, but I have watched the (or rather listened) to the video, where Oppy criticizes Peter Boghossian and my own views against teaching this discipline. Loftus’s criticisms of Oppy are on the mark:

Oppy tells us: “Philosophy of religion as a discipline, I would think, probably doesn’t date much earlier than the second World War.” This historical lesson is significant, I think, for we did without it for centuries and we can do without it again. Later Oppy offers his criticism, saying, “Most of the people who have done philosophy of religion have been theists.” So it stands to reason “it has had an extremely narrow focus…It hasn’t really been the philosophy of religion but rather Christianity with a very great emphasis on theism,” and even apologetics/Christian theology. Okay then, as it stands today the philosophy of religion is dominated by Christian theists who discuss concepts and arguments germane to Christianity, and even defending it. Given what he said, the philosophy of religion needs reinvented if it is to survive. The unaddressed question is why we should have a discipline in any secular university where theism, or Christian theism, Christian theology or Christian apologetics is privileged and considered to the exclusion of all other religions or apologetics? It shouldn’t. If this is the state of affairs then the only reasonable response is to call for the end of that discipline. NOW!

Oppy calls for the broadening of the discipline to other religions. My response is similar to that of Loftus: there are thousands of religions, past and present, all with different “philosophies” (i.e., philosophies). Which ones should we study? And given that all the tenets of these religions are dubious, and their evidence for gods nonexistent, do we need entire departments to handle this stuff? Loftus responds:

To reinvent the philosophy of religion Oppy argues, “it must address questions that apply to the phenomena of religion in general.” That’s it. He argues the philosophy of religion should also discuss Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist views and religious concepts. By extension I would think, it should also discuss the views of other religions, all of them (although there is quite the discussion about what even makes a religion a religion). Oppy’s proposal would therefore include all of the dead religions too. Why not? Why assume that a dead religion, or a dead god, is no longer worthy to be discussed? Why not discuss Zoroastrianism, or Canaanite religions? Does the death of a religion mean it must not be a true one? I see no reason to think so. And who decides which religion is worthy of discussing?

. . . In any case, if the philosophy of religion was reinvented as Oppy suggests, then what we would end up with is a Religious Studies discipline and classes focusing on comparative religion, or the varieties of religious experience, where religious are compared/contrasted/considered and the secular counter-part is offered as a critique of them all. But we already have these kinds of classes.

Indeed we do.  What we don’t need are entire Divinity Schools or Schools of Theology in secular universities. This privileges an entire discipline based on a human endeavor that itself rests on dubious and unsubstantiated claims. Further, they concentrate largely (but not exclusively) on active Abrahamic religions. There are few, if any, courses on atheism in divinity schools, but they should be at least as prominent as courses in religious apologetics. That is distasteful in a country that officially favors no religion in particular. If we are to have such schools, let us then have Ethical Schools, or Schools of Moral Thinking, or The School of Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy. But all of these can simply be subsumed in departments of philosophy or history.

Indeed, why not have a School of Pseudoscience, which teaches courses on creationism and its arguments, ESP and its arguments, homeopathy and its arguments, and so on? Or how about a school that one can justify far better:  The School of the History and Philosophy of Science? There are programs in this area, but usually those courses—courses that deal with reality instead of fiction—are subsumed in philosophy departments.  And that’s fine.

I recognize that there’s room for a difference of opinion here: religion, of course, was and is an important feature of human history and thought. My own take, though is that as religion wanes, it’s time to stop privileging it by devoting entire departments of secular universities to studying religion not only as a phenomenon, but by presenting religious apologetics and giving religious training to students. Remember, many students get degrees from these schools as a step toward becoming Christian or Jewish clerics. In that way the schools are preparing students to spread or buttress lies. And in that way divinity schools differ from medical schools or schools of sociology or economics.  If we are to teach apologetics to students, let us leave that to the seminaries and religious colleges.

Finally, Loftus gives some excerpts from Hector Avalos’s book, The End of Biblical Studies, Avalos is a Professor of Religious studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Iowa State University. He is also a former Pentecostal preacher (I’m not sure if he’s still a believer) and a well-known opponent of creationism. In his book, Avalos calls for Biblical studies to become a vehicle for ending the  hegemony of the Bible. One quote from Avalos: “The sole purpose of biblical studies, under this option, would be to help people move toward a postscriptural society.” That’s the option that Avalos prefers.

If you want to see how divinity schools in secular universities buttress Abrahamic religion, read an article from the university newspaper of a secular school, The Chronicle from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina: “Duke Divinity School says it can answer what science cannot.” Read about how the Divinity school claims to enhance secular education. Some excerpts:

At a university constantly praised for its scientific advancements, the Duke Divinity School enhances secular education with an alternate but compatible perspective.

“Honestly, there aren’t a whole lot of other places in the academic world that teach us to ask, ‘Is this good?’” said Brandon Walsh, a master of divinity candidate.

Yes there are; they’re called philosophy departments.

Students in the Divinity graduate programs come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but all of them come to seek further study in the field of faith. Each come having accepted the fundamentals of their Christian faith—just as a mathematics graduate student accepts the concept of numbers, or a medical student accepts chemistry, [Dean Richard Hays] said.

Some people might consider these assumptions illogical because they are accepted on blind faith, leading them to believe that a divinity school does not belong in a modern university, said Brian Myers, a master of divinity candidate studying to become a pastor in the United Methodist Church. He noted, however, that there are flaws with this argument.

“There is no field at Duke that doesn’t take on presuppositions,” Myers said. “I don’t think the argument should be about the crazy claims that the Christian Church makes because we all have crazy presuppositions.”

Note this, which implicitly equates theology with science because both are based on presuppositions. But science is based on hypotheses that are confirmed, while theology is indeed based on blind faith and wish-thinking that is not even confirmable:

. . . Some people might consider these assumptions illogical because they are accepted on blind faith, leading them to believe that a divinity school does not belong in a modern university, said Brian Myers, a master of divinity candidate studying to become a pastor in the United Methodist Church. He noted, however, that there are flaws with this argument.“There is no field at Duke that doesn’t take on presuppositions,” Myers said. “I don’t think the argument should be about the crazy claims that the Christian Church makes because we all have crazy presuppositions.”
If this is enhancing a secular education, rather than degrading rationality, that’s news to me.
. . . When Myers entered Virginia Tech as a freshman, he was an atheist who saw himself becoming a doctor or lawyer. When he graduated cum laude, Myers chose to go to divinity school because of the transformation that he saw in people’s lives when they accepted God.Myers added that contrary to secular assumptions about Christians, he believes in scientific theories like the big bang and evolution, and they do not cloud his faith in the teachings of Jesus.

“I agree with every scientific theory out there,” Myers said. “Nothing can prove or disprove God. That is a faith decision, not a logical decision.”

. . . “Science seeks to describe empirical phenomena in a material world,” Hays said. “It describes how things work. Science cannot answer questions about why it exists or for what purposes or how it came to be. Those are the questions that theology tries to address.”

Tries to address, and does address, but never answers! 

. . . The liberal arts education spans many approaches to understanding the world, and the field of religion offers an integral part of a complete humanities education at a university that also pursues science, math and technology, Hays said.

These different areas of knowledge can work together effectively. Currently, there are faculty collaborations between Divinity and Duke School of Medicine scholars as well as a dual degree program between the School of Law and the Divinity School.

The study of what it means to be human is at the heart of humanities studies, and that is where religion plays a role, said Carnes, who wants to become a theology professor.

“Humanities in general have something to do with what it means to be a human in a way that math and science can’t fully address,” she said.

. . . Hays said when students critically examine the teachings of the Bible in context to modern social movements, it allows for ethical and moral development.

Really? A kind of ethical and moral development that a secular ethics class can’t teach? Do they read the Old Testament? If so, who tells them what “morality” should be rejected?

“The questions that we ask ourselves are not simple, but we believe above all else that all humans are loved equally by God, no matter previous sexual experience,” Hays said. “What that means is that this is a community where we hope to have respectful, serious conversations about what sorts of sexual practices and concerns God would want us to have.”

Oy vey!  Really? The Divinity School helps the students figure out the ways that God wants the students to have sex? How do they decide? Do the Catholic students and Jewish students and Muslim students (if there are any) achieve comity on this vexing question? Does God want the students to use condoms? Does He think that homosexuality is a “grave disorder,” as Catholics believe? What are God’s views on extramarital sex? I’d love to sit in on one of those “serious conversations”!

This shows clearly that the Duke Divinity School is an arm of the university that helps proselytize Abrahamic religion by teaching Biblical apologetics. What we need is what Avalos wants: a “postscriptural society.” I like that phrase.








Readers’ wildlife photographs

We have three birds today, and from two readers.

The first is a female black-chinned hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri) in its true colors, photographed by reader Stephen Barnard in Idaho. His earlier photograph of the same species taken at sunset, which I put right below it, shows the difference in color produced by the light.


Female black-chinned hummingbird

Same species and sex, but at sunset.

This morning Stephen then sent a photo of the male of the species. The sexual dimorphism is clear, especially in head color:

Male black chinned

Reader Diana MacPherson sent another bird:

Here’s a picture of a juvenile Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula). I have never seen so many baby birds here of so many different species. The long winter seemed not to affect them.
At first I thought it was a female Oriole but it is far too orange. Minutes before, a male had been at the same place but I wasn’t quick enough with my camera. I suspect that was the dad.

Here is a group of  juvenile Baltimore Orioles from another site:


Tuesday: Hili dialogue

Hili: I’ll just wash and then we can sit down to dinner.
A: But you were eating just a moment ago.
Hili: I can eat again with you and keep you company.
In Polish:
Hili: Umyję się i możemy siadać do obiadu.
Ja: Przecież przed chwilą jadłaś.
Hili: Z wami zjem dla towarzystwa.

Monday: Dobrzyn

These pictures are mostly from today; our visitors have gone and we’ve settled into the routine of working, sleeping, and nomming. The apple trees are heavily laden, but nobody wants them, for we are too glutted with cherries.


The cherry harvest also finished this afternoon, and I wandered through the orchard, desperate to see if there were enough cherries left to produce a pie.  I think there are, but it will take a while to find them all. Only a few cherries cling to the trees, and most trees have no cherries at all:


Cyrus the d*g has a habit of, as reader Diana MacPherson calls it, “looming” over Hili, staring fixedly at her from only a foot or two away. I’ve seen him do it for nearly half an hour at a time, and though Hili doesn’t seem to mind it, it sure freaks me out.  Malgorzata and Andrzej interpret it as an expression of Cyrus’s adoration of the cat, but of course who knows what goes through the d*g’s mind. Perhaps it’s, “I’d sure like to nom this, but I know I’m not allowed to.”

Here’s a video clip of Cyrus looming:

It is hot here (well, at least by European standards), and Hili snoozes the day away on top of these wicker shelves on the veranda. Her perch is over six feet high, but she gets up there by jumping first on the small cupboard to the left.

Find Hili

When she’s outside, she keeps herself well out of the sun. A quiz: can you spot the cat?

Find Hili

Hint: look for the white fur.

Here she is!

Find Hili2

Our crib in Dobrzyn:


Two of the three people who live upstairs: Gosia (an English teacher in the local school) and her daughter Hania. One of Hania’s fish died this morning, and she came downstairs disconsolate, holding the dead fish in a bowl (it was very sad, and I didn’t get a picture). They buried it in the garden.


Dinner: a delicious spinach and cheese quiche, served with fresh tomatoes and washed down, of course, by a cold Zubr:


Finally, a scary cat face!

Spaz face


Kentucky about to give tax breaks to Ark Park

. . . and tax breaks for this execrable exhibit, which presents the Ark as fact, are the same as taxpayers’ funding of the park. A new alert from the Freedom from Religion Foundation says this:

The Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority is expected to give approval tomorrow (Tuesday, July 29) of major tax incentives for a proposed $172.5 million Noah’s Ark theme park in Grant County.

Ark Encounter is a project of Answers in Genesis, which describes itself as an “apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ,” and which created the Creation Museum in Boone County about 40 miles away. The museum’s founder, Ken Ham, famously debated Bill Nye earlier this year. “God has burdened AiG to rebuild a full-size Noah’s Ark,” Ham wrote on his website.

The plan calls for a 510-foot wooden ark , reportedly to cost $24.5 million alone, as part of the 800-acre Ark Encounter park to open partially constructed in summer 2016. As of February, the group had only raised $14.4 million. The park is also to include a “pre-flood themed area,” live animal shows and a “Tower of Babel” featuring a theatre and “first-century village.”

A Kentucky program allows eligible tourism attractions a 25% rebate on sales tax collected for such items as admission tickets, food, souvenirs, etc., over a ten-year period. The rebate might total as much as $18.25 million.

If the tourism board votes yes Tuesday, as expected, final approval would be sought within two months. The state first granted preliminary approval in 2011 for up to $43.1 million in sales tax rebates over 10 years, with Gov. Steve Beshear’s very open blessings. Answers in Genesis withdrew the appication after funding delays and has had to reapply.

Public help has already included a $62 million municipal bond offered from the city of Williamstown, where the park is to be located. Bloomberg News reported that tourist attractions have defaulted on such bonds as Williamstown offered, with the added risk of legal challenges based on the state/church entanglement.

This of course means the State of Kentucky is not only in the religion business, but is forcing its citizens to subsidize telling lies to children.

If you’d like to protest, the FFRF has contact information (I’ve corrected their email link, which is the easiest way to protest). You will, of course, be most effective if you’re a resident of Kentucky, but if you have two minutes to write a short email, it might be worthwhile.

Office of the Secretary
24th Floor, Capital Plaza Tower
500 Mero Street
Frankfort, Kentucky 40601
(502) 564-4270


Catholicism and theistic evolution

Below is part of a short post called “What does the Catholic Church teach about evolution,” appearing on The Catholic Difference, produced by the Parish of St. James in Hopewell, Virginia—very close to where I went to school in Williamsburg. This is pretty much official Catholic doctrine as I understand it. The emphasis in the second paragraph is mine.

Doesn’t the theory of evolution go against the biblical account of creation?
This question can be answered only if we understand clearly what the Bible actually says about creation. A careful reading of the account in the Book of Genesis indicates clearly that the so-called “six day” account of the creation is a poetic description of the origin of the world, which makes two points very clear: first, that everything in the universe was created by God and that, therefore, contrary to what some other religions teach, nothing in creation is to be worshipped as though it were a god or a part of God. The story of the creation in the Book of Genesis in the Bible is not, and was never meant to be, a scientific document giving the scientific details of how the universe came into being and how it has developed since its origins.

The view prevailing among most theologians today is that there is no conflict between the evolution model of the origin and development of life and the truths presented in the Book of Genesis. It still remains true that the origin of every human soul is a new act of creation by God and creator. (That is why the evolution model cannot explain completely the leap from highly developed animal form to the fully conscious, thinking, feeling and deciding human person.)

A few points:

1.  They use the old canard that Genesis wasn’t meant to be a “scientific document giving scientific details.” I wish they’d just be explicit and say “Genesis wasn’t meant to be taken as literal truth: it’s an allegory.” That goes for the whole Bible, which is often excused by theologians as “not a textbook of science.” But if the Bible is an allegory (i.e., an extended metaphor), are there any parts of it that are true? Tell us, Catholics, which ones? And how do you know?

And if it’s “very clear” that Genesis is mere poetry and not fact, why do roughly half of Americans feel otherwise? Where does it say in Genesis: “WARNING: The following book is allegory, and is not intended as a representation of fact. DO NOT CONSTRUE IT OTHERWISE.”? It’s curious that Church fathers such as Aquinas and Augustine, who were presumably very careful readers of Genesis, did construe much of it as fact!

2. The Catholic Church certainly does not see all of Genesis as an allegory. Church doctrine is still that all modern humans descend from Adam and Eve, the sole ancestors of humanity. Science tells us that that is wrong: that the bottleneck of the Homo sapiens lineage was around twelve thousand people, not two (Adam and Eve) or eight (Noah and his extended family).  Now how Adam and Eve continue to relate to Original Sin is something for Catholic fabulists to decide. If the Church maintains, as they still do, that Adam and Eve were the only two ancestors of humanity, then they are in clear conflict with science. If they agree that Adam and Eve were made-up metaphors, then either Jesus died for that metaphor or Catholics must confect a new story about where “original sin” came from. This is a severe problem for Catholicism.

3. Before genetics definitively ruled out Adam and Eve, the one big conflict between Catholicism and evolution was the Church’s insistence that somewhere in the lineage leading to modern Homo sapiens, a soul was inserted by God. Not only that, but each new human being involves God creating a new soul.

Of course what a soul consists of isn’t defined explicitly, but its insertion is a violation of naturalistic evolution. A soul is obviously something that distinguishes us from all other species, and is presumably something connected to the possibility of an afterlife.  But the statement above implies that it’s also something deeply connected with the human ability to be “conscious” and to “think,” “feel,” and “decide.”

Well, some animals can do all that, but they don’t have souls.  And all of those mentations can be explained by evolution, for we see them in our soul-less relatives.  No, I thought a soul was something more than that.  To Alvin Plantinga, the human trait that cannot be explained by evolution is the “sensus dvinitatis,” the ability to apprehend truth that leads us to perceive and worship God.  Plantinga argues, falsely, that humans’ ability to perceive truth is something that also couldn’t have evolved, though I don’t think he’d see the sensus as a soul. I won’t go into detail about how our ability to perceive truth (and our inability to perceive many truths) can be explained by natural selection, with no God needed. I’ve done that here, and I do that in my book.

It’s time for Catholics to tell us precisely what they mean by “soul,” and how they know that our species has it but other creatures don’t.  Maybe they’ve done this, but I’m not about to go digging into the theological literature again. All I know is that they haven’t specified exactly when God put it into the human lineage.

4. Please, religionists, if you do accept evolution, stop calling it a “model”! That is a term that creationists used when opposing the “creation model” with the “evolution model.” Call evolution either a “theory” or a “fact.” It’s far from just a model.

Sam Harris on the Israel/Palestine conflict

If there are two hot-button topics in the liberal atheist community, they would be Sam Harris and Israel. For reasons I have yet to fathom, Sam evokes an extraordinary amount of rancor among atheists. I’m not sure why, but sometimes I think that some Harris-haters resent his goal of making them think about hard questions. (Really, is it that hateful to ask people to think about whether torture or ethnic profiling might be justified?). Too, he and the late Christopher Hitchens were the biggest atheist critics of Islam, and for reasons that are not as obscure (a double standard applied to non-Westerners), liberals tend to give Muslims a pass that they wouldn’t give to, say, Catholics or Jews.

I don’t always agree with Sam—I take issue with his stand on guns and on the existence of objective morality, for instance—but he’s always thoughtful, eloquent, and amiable. He doesn’t condescend to or sneer at anyone, and you can hardly call him strident. His book The End of Faith is the founding document of New Atheism, closely followed by Letter to a Christian Nation. Even if you disagree with everything he’s written since then (and I much admire his small books Lying and Free Will), you must admit that he brought nonbelief back to the table as a viable (and publicly discussed) option.

Nevertheless, his latest piece, “Why don’t I criticize Israel?” (available on his site as both a 15-minute talk and a written transcript) will surely provoke outrage.  I thought long and hard about deciding whether to even mention it, because though it will surely produce comments, they are not necessarily the kind of comments I like to hear. But in the end I thought it was useful to inspire discussion, in the hope (perhaps vain hope) that discussion might be enlightening. Several readers, who emailed me about this piece, thought so, too—or maybe they just want to see fireworks! So I urge you to go to his site and either listen to or read Sam’s take.

If you comment, I expect civility, and I expect you to know your facts. Do not, for instance, call Israel an “apartheid state,” for that is not only grossly untrue, but denigrates the real apartheid that South Africa experienced. (Arab citizens of Israel are not segregated or denied voting rights, for instance, as were South African blacks. They have precisely the same rights as non-Arab citizens, except they do not have to serve in the Israeli Army, though they can volunteer to do so.) I also expect readers to have either listened to or read Sam’s whole piece, and to discuss the views in that piece. This is not a place to simply rant about Israel and/or Palestine.  Address Sam’s contentions, or other people’s. There is plenty there to fuel a discussion.

And what I’d really like to hear is whether readers have a workable solution to the conflict.  After long pondering, I don’t think there is any. Three times the Palestinians have been offered a peace deal, and three times they’ve either turned it down or ignored it. One or another of those deals included the two-state solution, the demolishing of  the vast majority of settlements on the West Bank (with the retention of a few settlements compensated by giving Palestine Israeli land), the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine (in one rejected deal), and so on.  It is now clear that Palestine will sanction only a solution that will destroy Israel—by insisting on the “right of return” that would flood Israel with Palestinians and turn it into an Arab state. If your “solution” involves getting rid of Israel, say so explicitly.

My take, which you’ll know if you’re a regular, is that the sworn intention of Palestine as a nation is to destroy Israel as a nation.This is no secret, nor is it a matter of dispute. If you doubt it, I strongly urge you to read the Hamas Charter, which is precisely as Sam has characterized it: it not only mandates the destruction of Israel, but refers to the old forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which anti-Semites formulated as a tool for destroying Jews. Here are three excerpts from that charter:

For Zionist scheming has no end, and after Palestine they will covet expansion from the Nile to the Euphrates. Only when they have completed digesting the area on which they will have laid their hand, they will look forward to more expansion, etc. Their scheme has been laid out in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and their present [conduct] is the best proof of what is said there.

. . . This is the Charter of the Islamic Resistance (Hamas) which will reveal its face, unveil its identity, state its position, clarify its purpose, discuss its hopes, call for support to its cause and reinforcement, and for joining its ranks. For our struggle against the Jews is extremely wide-ranging and grave, so much so that it will need all the loyal efforts we can wield, to be followed by further steps and reinforced by successive battalions from the multifarious Arab and Islamic world, until the enemies are defeated and Allah’s victory prevails. Thus we shall perceive them approaching in the horizon, and this will be known before long: “Allah has decreed: Lo! I very shall conquer, I and my messenger, lo! Allah is strong, almighty.”

. . .  The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said:The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him! This will not apply to the Gharqad, which is a Jewish tree (cited by Bukhari and Muslim).

It amazes me that people prefer to ignore this, or pretend it isn’t there.  Do you think that Hamas isn’t serious about their own charter? And remember that the Palestinian Authority is now allied with Hamas.

The main disagreement I have with Sam is, perhaps, a semantic one. He first says this:

I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state. I think it is obscene, irrational and unjustifiable to have a state organized around a religion.

But then says this:

Though I just said that I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state, the justification for such a state is rather easy to find. We need look no further than the fact that the rest of the world has shown itself eager to murder the Jews at almost every opportunity. So, if there were going to be a state organized around protecting members of a single religion, it certainly should be a Jewish state. Now, friends of Israel might consider this a rather tepid defense, but it’s the strongest one I’ve got. I think the idea of a religious state is ultimately untenable.

I agree with Sam that a state based on religion itself is hard to justify. But although Israel is a “Jewish” state, it is a culturally Jewish state, although it encompasses Jews from atheists to Orthodox (about 50% of the “Jews” in Israel consider themselves “secular,” and between 15% and 37% see themselves as atheists). The country is, then, much less religious than the U.S. and any Muslim nation. The Israeli constitution guarantees religious freedom for all, including nonbelievers. It is not a theocracy in the sense that Iran, or even Saudi Arabia, is. This confusion, I think, explains the ambiguity in Sam’s piece.  The “justification” was not to establish a religious state, but to give people of Jewish “culture” a refuge from the pogroms that occurred throughout Europe and the Middle East. (Although I’m an atheist, I would have been rounded up and sent to the camps during the Holocaust.) What I am saying is that I think Israel has a right to exist in more or less its present form (without, of course, the war), and that a solution that makes it an Arab state is untenable and unjustifiable.

I won’t go on, except to say that Sam points out the moral disparity between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and I largely agree with him. One excerpt:

So, it seems to me, that you have to side with Israel here. You have one side which if it really could accomplish its aims would simply live peacefully with its neighbors, and you have another side which is seeking to implement a seventh century theocracy in the Holy Land. There’s no peace to be found between those incompatible ideas.  That doesn’t mean you can’t condemn specific actions on the part of the Israelis. And, of course, acknowledging the moral disparity between Israel and her enemies doesn’t give us any solution to the problem of Israel’s existence in the Middle East. [Note: I was not suggesting that Israel’s actions are above criticism or that their recent incursion into Gaza was necessarily justified. Nor was I saying that the status quo, wherein the Palestinians remain stateless, should be maintained. By “siding with Israel,” I am simply recognizing that they are not the primary aggressors in this conflict. They are, rather, responding to aggression—and at a terrible cost.]

Sam’s final statement is quite eloquent, and addresses the aims you’ve already seen in the Hamas charter. The extreme exponents of Islam, as seen in Hamas and even more radical groups, want nothing more than the imposition of their faith on the entire world, and the total extirpation of the Jews. That is why you can see in the Arab media, even in state-sponsored newspapers and television shows, caricatures and hatred of Jews as vile as you could have seen in Der Stürmer in Nazi Germany. For some reason liberal supporters of Palestine ignore the kind of bigotry they’d attack vociferously if it came from America (or Israel), or allude to it only briefly before they go on to demonize Israel (which of course does not publish state-sponsored ethnic hatred). That is why you hear from the Arab world, as Sam notes, both denial of the Nazi Holocaust as well as a call for a new Holocaust. How can one side with people like that?

Sam’s final words:

What do groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda and even Hamas want? They want to impose their religious views on the rest of humanity. They want stifle every freedom that decent, educated, secular people care about. This is not a trivial difference. And yet judging from the level of condemnation that Israel now receives, you would think the difference ran the other way.

This kind of confusion puts all of us in danger. This is the great story of our time. For the rest of our lives, and the lives of our children, we are going to be confronted by people who don’t want to live peacefully in a secular, pluralistic world, because they are desperate to get to Paradise, and they are willing to destroy the very possibility of human happiness along the way. The truth is, we are all living in Israel. It’s just that some of us haven’t realized it yet.

If you think that groups like Hamas will be satisfied with a peace that gives them their own state but leaves the state of Israel still in existence, you’re fooling yourself. Palestinians have rejected that several times. And if you think that such groups will be happy even if they wipe out Israel, and then will have no further quarrel with the West, then you’re also fooling yourself.  Finally, if you think that all the anti-Western and anti-Israeli rage from Arabs is inspired by Western oppression and has nothing to do with the tenets of Islam, you’re fooling yourself most of all.

Readers’ wildlife photos

You may or may not know that Steve Pinker is an avid photographer (where does he get the time?), and he’s proffered some of his photos for display on this site. They come in five categories: primates, reptiles, cats, birds, and herbivorous mammals. I’ll show one of each, but there are several in each category, so expect more in the future.

These are all photos he took on a recent trip to Uganda, and include his captions (I’ve added the links):

Colubus satanas aka black and white colobus:

black & white colobus staring down from tree-L

Agama atricollis: Blue-headed tree agama:

blue-headed tree agama staring at photographer-L

Leopard (Panthera pardus) descending from tree:

leopard descending from tree-L

Profile of a giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) against the Nile:

profile of giraffe against Nile-L

Merops oreobates (Cinnamon-chested bee-eater):

cinnamon-chested bee-eater Ndali-L

All of Steve’s photos from Uganda are here, and his complete gallery, meticulously catalogued, is here. He promises to send pictures from Tasmania, where I think he is now.

Monday: Hili dialogue

A tired boy is kissed by a tired cat:

Jerry: I like you immensely.
Hili: The same here.


In Polish:

Jerry: Ogromnie cię lubię.
Hili: Ja ciebie też.


But of course I suspect she likes me only for the noms. . .

The best job in the world

Juhi Agrawal has a number of posts of her interactions with large cats while she was working at The Cheetah Experience, a rescue, breeding, and rehabilitation center in Bleomfontein in South Africa.  Just the other day we saw her being pounced on by Parda, a black leopard who was much taken with her. Here she is having an experience I’d give my eyeteeth for: having a baby leopard sleep on her chest:

and another, with an adult cheetah:

This is clearly the best job in the world.

There are other videos at her site, and I’ll undoubtedly post some of them later.



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