Sunday, May 22, 2011


Okay, everybody good? Whew. Dodged that one.

Well, in fairness, it wasn’t supposed to be the End of the World per se. According to Harold Camping and his followers, about 200 million people were supposed to have been saved, and the rest of us left to await the actual end of the world, which will occur in October. But there was supposed to have been a monumental earthquake. And 200 million people disappearing. And all manner of apocalyptic whatnot.

Okay. Avoid cliches, students. But sometimes they’re inevitable. This is shooting fish in a barrel. But there is a larger point that this minor, media-inflated incident raises. Predictions of apocalypse come and go. Many authorities in the field of Biblical Exegesis agree that Jesus himself was (historically) an apocalyptic preacher who (scripturally) predicted that the End would occur within the lifetime of his own followers. We could go on and on, covering a truly staggering number of failed predictions, from those made by some very noble Roman Christians trying to understand the catastrophes of the world around them in a pre-scientific age, to the seediest of money-grubbing American evangelicals such as the late Jerry Falwell, who in 1999 predicted that the Big Wrap Party would occur “within a decade” based upon his “reading” of recent events in the Middle East.

I’m an historian. Reflecting upon the past and attempting to rescue wisdom from it is the essence of what I do. Just yesterday, I bought new translations of Herodotus and Thucydides in preparation for an academic suicide mission I'm embarking on this fall, and last week I turned the last page on Karen Armstrong’s engaging The Bible: A Biography, part of the excellent “Books That Shook the World” series. But it’s one thing to search for meaning, guidance, and wisdom in old books (or very old bronze-age books).  It’s another to thing to organize one’s life around one particular reading of them. Camping, his followers, and people of their ilk live in a small, shriveled, self-centered, mean, miserly, intellectually constipated world.  In a world full of causes worthy of pursuing, they decided to devote their lives to preparing for an apocalypse that didn’t even happen.

It is now 12:02 AM in Apia, Samoa, which means it’s May 22nd everywhere, and not everybody is good. Yesterday, about 20,000 people starved to death. Some people console themselves by believing that they are in a “better place” now. Harold Camping and people like him believe they are in Hell, eternally to be punished unless they died in a (proper) state of grace. Am I mocking Camping and his ilk for their religious beliefs? To quote one of the great figures of American politics of the modern era, you betcha.  Me, I’m always willing to listen, at least for a while, to what people have to say. But there must be fairness in any such relationship. Proselytize, and I should be permitted to argue without fear. Threaten, and I will defend myself.  And if you tell me that I’m going to Hell, I get to tell you to precede me there. 

Update: May 24th:  Harold Camping has emerged unraptured. To his thousands of followers who quit their jobs and spent their life savings spreading his message, he offered the following: God has decided to do the rapture and the end-of-the-world thing in one fell swoop, October 21st. The remarkable thing is how many of his followers are standing by him. As always, the problem isn't the ability to absorb information. It's the ability to think.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Well, so far, so good.

As Measure of Doubt reported back in January, months before the Johnny-Come-Lately second-stringers at The New York Times and on CNN did, a small group of very vocal fundamentalists centered around an evangelical preacher named Harold Camping and his Family Radio Network are saying that today’s the day. Pack your things, ‘cause Jesus is Coming Back.

It’s currently 2:44 AM, May 22nd, on Christmas Island, which is the world’s farthest forward dry-land Time Zone. No Rapture has been reported there. They skated through the whole of May 21st with nary an Apocalypse in sight.

Well, it’s only 1:51 AM in Apia, Samoa. So if we’re taking Coordinated Universal Time into consideration (and what is this blasphemy of time being different in different places, anyway?) He has another 22 hours to show up.  Maybe we haven’t dodged that bullet yet. I’m drinking beer and running up the credit cards for the rest of the day, just in case.

I’ll check in tomorrow, when it is definitively May 22nd, 2011, everywhere, to see if y’all have come back. Or if I’ve been Left Behind.

In the meantime, consider the innovative business opportunities being pursued by the Damned.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Ne nuntium necare.

The Ontological Argument.  Famously associated with Anselm of Cantebury. The argument holds that the existence of God follows from the concept of God in language. It works like this: God is the most perfect thing that can be conceived of. But if He didn’t exist, He wouldn’t be perfect. So He exists.  Rejected by intellectuals ranging from Thomas Aquinas to Bertrand Russell (who admitted that he had a fifteen-minute flirtation with it in his youth.) Currently returning to fashion in a modified form, the argument basically contends that if you write a good enough job description, the ideal employee must exist.

The Cosmological Argument.  Holds that all things must have a first cause, and that the first cause of all things is God. Dates from antiquity, but is hoisted by its own petard, as the ancients well realized. Complicates rather than simplifies the problem, thus answering nothing. Why is there something instead of nothing? Because of the Creator. Why is there a Creator instead of no Creator? Let’s change the subject. Implies nothing about the correctness of any particular religion, let alone denomination. Implies almost nothing about the nature of any alleged creator or creators - neither omnipotence, nor omniscience, nor omnibenevolence, and certainly not gender. At best an argument for a highly conditional Deism.

Argument from Miracles. Holds that the existence of various miracles proves the existence of God. Four problems. First, evidence for the supernatural origins of miracles doesn't pass peer review, except where vested interests are involved. Second, even if the miracles had supernatural origins, this doesn’t imply any particular supernatural origin. Third, if God is the cause of all things, it makes no sense to make a big deal about miracles, which would be just another thing he caused. Four, for alleged “signs from God”,  the miracles are often extraordinarily unimpressive: bleeding statues, low-probability recoveries from illness, bell-shaped watermarks that look like Renaissance portraits of Christ or the Virgin. Statues wandering about churches, getting their pictures taken with parishioners; prayer regenerating amputated limbs; full-colour, 3-D talking images of the Virgin giving interviews on CNN. This would be impressive.

Argument from Design.  Similar to the Cosmological Argument, but focuses on the remarkable complexity of life as opposed to the curious existence of the cosmos itself. See Darwin, Charles.

Gender. The belief that God must be a man runs contrary to claims of omnipotence. 

Deism. The belief that God is essentially indistinguishable from the physical laws of the universe. The default position of most of America's Founding Fathers. They would not be elected two-and-a-half centuries later. 

The Mysterious. Can be appealed to in place of making embarrassing concessions such as, "You've got a point there."

Pascal’s Wager. Famous argument that contends it’s the best bet to believe in God. Maybe. But Pascal left the problem of which God to worship and how unresolved. Rather more critically, he failed to distinguish between the beneficence of belief and actually believing. Belief follows from persuasive evidence; Pascal’s Wager offers none.

Argument from Personal Faith. Simultaneously unconvincing but irrefutable. “I know in my heart that I’m right.” But every devout believer in every god in every society in the history of the world has said the same thing, including many today who are convinced that everyone else, including you, is going to Hell.

Agnosticism. A cancellationist position which holds that the evidence for and against the existence of God is about equal. Good for fence-sitters who don’t like to commit. Agnostics are often found attending United Church services "for the music" and like to recite tautological banalities such as, “Everything happens for a reason.” Intolerable people. 

Russell's Teacup.  Russell once argued that while he couldn't prove that a teacup is not orbiting a distant planet, that was insufficient reason to be agnostic about the issue. This is important.

Suburban Protestants and Cafeteria Catholics.  Polls show that something on the order of 90 or 95 percent of people believe in God. Polls also show that the great majority of ostensibly religious people have no idea why they believe and very little idea about what they’re supposed to believe. A recent poll found that the overwhelming majority of alleged Christians could not name the four canonical gospels. Curiously, such people often get a free pass from the devout on the grounds that, “At least they believe in something.” Non-believers whose atheism is a consequence of sincere, daily, and lifelong study don't stand a chance of getting elected to political office.

Oprah. The dominant religion of our era is a belief in an immensely gregarious God who wants us to be comfortably middle-class and soothingly middle-brow; a celestial Oprah who will one day welcome all of us onto her living room set in the sky and let us jump on the sofa for all eternity.

Impossibility Arguments. Highly sophisticated evolution of ancient arguments that explored the paradoxes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence and which conclude that God, like a square circle or an honest lawyer, is a logical impossibility. Fascinating, but they do not preclude the possibility of an extraordinarily powerful but less-than-perfect God. Human beings went from stone tools to the surface of the moon in 5,000 years.  Imagine a race 5 million years old. Or 5 billion. We build skyscrapers. Could they build universes?

Theological non-cognitivism. The position that all God-talk is cognitively meaningless. Stems from the impossibility arguments. Some theological non-cognitivists are therefore hard atheists; others contend that no discussion about the matter is possible until theists can arrive at a cognitively meaningful definition of what it is that we're supposed to be talking about.

Einstein, Albert.  At a public debate, I sat, jaw dropping, as an atheist and theist argued over whether or not Einstein was religious. Did they think that the existence or non-existence of God was somehow contingent on what Einstein believed? A particularly dangerous argument for Christians to make, because if Einstein was anything, he was a Jew. Similar arguments are deployed for a pantheon of historical giants, good and evil, from Plato to Jefferson to Hitler.  Historically interesting but, as a point of logic, utterly irrelevant in terms of the argument over the existence of God.

Atheism, hard. The position that there is no God. Generally held to be logically untenable, but adherents of impossibility arguments say otherwise.

Atheism, soft. The position that there is insufficient evidence to believe in God. An important distinction. 

Atheists. Very rare. A rigorous philosophical position: not something soft that one can fall into. Atheists are also not to be confused with secular liberals who are mad about organized religion.

New Atheists. A recent breed of aggressively irreligious nonbelievers who hold that a general critique of the beneficence of faith follows from their disbelief. But whatever else they may be, religions are social institutions of enormous importance and cannot uniformly and universally be deprecated for "poisoning everything."

Prayer.  Fortifying for millions, but removed from schools. The worst prayers are the begging kind: the belief that maybe this time God will intercede on your behalf. (“Please let my team win the Superbowl”, etc.) Convincing to some people because of an inability to separate correlation from causation.  “I prayed and somebody found Fluffy, who was lost for three days.” Wow. Now, about that Holocaust...

Praying. It is disrespectful for non-believers to lower their heads, as if in prayer, while others are praying. Listen attentively, instead: you might learn something. But do not disrespect the devout by pretending to be something you are not. In the 7th grade, a nasty old crone who was our substitute teacher for the day made the whole class re-do the Lord’s Prayer, saying the words. Even then I wondered, “What is the point?”  If the words meant nothing to us, did she think we would be fooling God?

Comparative Religion. Should be mandatory in schools. Until 1988, students in Ontario public schools rose diurnally for the immensely symbolic pairing of “Oh, Canada” and the Lord’s Prayer, understanding neither. Nor did most of their teachers, and discussion of religion was verboten anyway. Further proof that the real agenda of the Ministry of Education is to impose ignorance, and for obvious reasons. Educated people would abolish the Ministry of Education.

Darwin, Charles. A visionary genius who both demonstrated the fact of biological evolution’s existence and offered a theory – natural selection – to explain the mechanism by which it operates.  Also, and this is critically important, dead since 1882. He lacked a proper understanding of heredity and did not know about genes. Today, most competent undergraduates in biology know more about evolution than did either of its co-discoverers. School-boards in Texas and Kansas can deny the existence of biological evolution all they want, but what they think doesn’t really matter. Darwin gathered a few pebbles of evidence that subsequently have become mountains. “It’s only a theory,” they say. So is gravitation. They lose. Period.

Evolution, biological. Change in the inherited characteristics of populations over time. As factually established as anything can be science. Has implications for most creation myths and for the Argument from Design, but otherwise has no bearing on the argument over the existence of God.

Catholicism. A favourite target of liberals who are at once relativists but also moralizing crusaders. In other contexts, the same people gleefully will report you to a Human Rights Commission for criticizing a religion or religious group.

Argument from Beauty. Similar to the Argument from Design. Holds that such-and-such a cultural object is “too beautiful” to have been created by a species that emerged solely as a consequence of random mutation followed by non-random natural selection. Bad thinking for obvious reasons. “How do you explain Mozart?” they say. Okay, how do you explain Michael Bolton?

Doubt. Malcolm Muggeridge said that doubt is like a pillar at the center of faith, because no one who is sincere in his or her beliefs need fear argument and disputation about them.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


The problem with wine is that it breeds wine snobs. We are not wine snobs. We love wine. Rare is the night that a new bottle isn’t corked around Broad-Green Estate and a glass with any lunch worth having is customary, too. We are particular about what we like and what we don’t. A big yes to French syrah, a big no to Australian shiraz, even though they’re the same grape. We know the difference, sometimes on sight and smell alone, between major varietals (though Chardonnay, which can be manipulated into almost anything these days, often fools us.)  We reserve our right, in decent restaurants (hard to find in this city), to ask for small pours to sample; we solicit opinions from knowledgable waitstaff (harder still) but don’t always follow them. Amanda and I are also compiling a very substantial collection of futures to open after aging for a decade or two, and I maintain that, yes, there is something to all that nosing and swirling and decanting and tongue-smacking. But we are not wine snobs.  My wine-tasting vocabulary extends as far as such words as, “yummy”, although I confess that the scrupulous avoidance of wine-tasting terminology could be viewed as a form of pretension, too.  I also believe that it’s undeniably true, as the enormously likable and sensible Billy Munnelley says, that “we live in a golden age for wine” where there are a ton of great wines for under twenty dollars and a lot of good ones for under ten. Our everyday go-to pours are screw-top bottles from Italy, France, and, yes, Niagara, and they all come in under twenty bucks, positively a steal when one considers that the cost of psychotherapy ranges upwards of $150 an hour.

An aside for my American readers, who are probably thinking that twenty bucks is a lot to pay for a decent table wine. Indeed it is, at least in a civilized place such as, well, anywhere in the United States of America. Not so in Soviet Canuckistan, where government-owned provincial monopolies are the order of the day in all provinces except one.  The Liquor Control Board of Ontario is the biggest single buyer of wine in the world.  They have a good gig.  It works like this: Ontarians pay taxes to maintain a crown corporation that sells wine back to them at inflated prices. In other contexts this is known as a “protect racket.”

Now, concerning the matter of beer. The words “wine and beer” are often uttered together but the experience of consumption usually is very different.   Unfairly is beer denounced by wine drinkers as nitwit juice, mass produced in watery forms such as “Coors Light”, to be swilled one after another by fellers with big guts, who like football and eating nachos and hitting on the woman from the next trailer over when she’s visiting to watch the game on the big-screen they’re paying down over eleven years, while meanwhile their wives are in the same room, half-passed out on the sofa from too many vodka coolers at four o’clock in the afternoon while their gaggle of kids, all precisely eleven months apart, scream like monsters running from room to room shooting at each other with squirt guns loaded with bleach. This is unfair stereotype, as Coors Light is consumed by many hockey fans, too. 

Moreover, good beer also has its partisans and its snobs. I myself have just downed a rather engaging, bitter and spicy little lager from San Francisco. (Put this in the “Did you know?” file, readers: your noble author almost always consumes some sort of alcoholic beverage while blogging. Can you tell? Hint: the passive-aggression meter goes up depending on the time of night and number of beverages consumed.)

A few weeks ago, the commissars at the LCBO decided that it was in the public interest to remove from their shelves forthwith and forevermore a beer called Smashbomb Atomic India Pale Ale, produced by the cheeky Flying Monkeys brewery (formerly the Robert Simpson brewery). Their reason? Because the name of the beer might promote violence. Read that again, dear readers. It might promote violence. Two observations, if I may. First, of course it will promote violence. It’s alcohol. Second, it’s not the name that’s the problem. It’s the alcohol. From the window where I type, I watch every morning as a group of homeless and/or destitute men gather in front of the LCBO, waiting for it to open, so that they can rush in and buy the cheapest bottles of swill they can get their hands on, and the LCBO sells it to them quite obligingly. But I can’t buy an India Pale Ale because the LCBO is afraid I might go and go and build a nuclear weapon in my kitchen. Good Lord. What goes on in their tiny, tiny brains?

A few days later, I discovered that a local bar and grill that serves serviceable food pours Smashbomb Atomic on tap. It was a done deal. In a fit of rage against the machine, I had a pint at lunch and went back for another the day I wrote this. Take that, Liquor “Control” Board of Ontario! I am drinking the beer because you took it off the shelves. It’s good, incidentally. Positively terrific with fish and chips.

And did I give in to fits of violence? Did the name of the beer make we want to go out and smash or bomb somebody? Well, no. But, after lunch, I immediately went home and decided to turn against everything good and decent in Western civilization and violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a hobby project.

Oh, dear. Did I just get myself flagged by a number of security and intelligence services? Probably. Hey, guys: I was just kidding. It’s a joke. Let me make it up to you. Have a Coors Light on me.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


As an historian, I’m skeptical any time I hear someone say, “History shows us that...” or “one of the lessons of history is...”

History is a series of arguments about the past – it is not the past itself, and rarely does it offer us clear lessons.  Hindsight is not 20/20: if it were, we wouldn’t need historians. And when historians themselves do not agree about what the lessons of history are, how are we to know what lessons to derive from the past?  The problem seems insoluble.

I think that the lessons of history are of a more general kind. For instance, I believe that there is a remarkable uniformity to human behaviour over time, probably the result of our evolutionary endowment manifesting itself in a plurality of social circumstances. If there’s one general “lesson of history” to be learned in regards to tomorrow’s election, it’s this: when decent people surrender the political sphere, people who crave power will occupy it for them, and there are no shortage of hate-filled, venomous, cruel, crazy, stupid, and naive voters willing to hand it to them. Never, ever forget: Adolf Hitler was elected. How many times have you heard some pinhead begin an argument with a phrase such as, “Hitler went too far, but...”?

Decent people who actually think about complex issues are often paralyzed, by contrast, because they are so disillusioned by the infantile character of our political discourse. It is understandable that so many of them exercise their right to abstain.  But there is a difference between abstention, which is a considered position, and not voting because you couldn’t be bothered. 

From time-to-time, some of my more politically savvy students on the left tell me that voting is inconsequential. Do they really believe this? I always administer a simple test:  would they not protest, then, if voting rights were taken away or denied to certain groups, and we reverted to an era like the one depicted in the photo above?

Voting is, admittedly, only a small part of what it means to be politically active. But democracies function on participation, and voting is an important part of it. So, for any students who are reading (and I know that some of you are), consider your position, and then get out there and vote for the political party that is least likely to destroy our country in the next five years.