Monday, July 06, 2015

Christians Ask the Wrong Question

That question takes various forms, but it boils down to this: "If they don't fear eternal punishment, what is there to keep atheists from committing the most horrendous of crimes?"

Other atheists have pointed out that Christians who ask this question are admitting that only the fear of eternal punishment keeps them from committing the most horrendous of crimes. The question says far more about those Christians than it does about atheists. It makes one suspect that they are dangerous neighbors.

But let's look at this from another perspective: That question is the wrong question.

Philosophically, Christianity is undermined by the problem of evil. But it's also undermined by the problem of good.

We know that atheists do not commit crimes, horrendous or otherwise, at a greater rate than Christians do. In fact, atheists are more law-abiding than Christians. Why, atheists are even more genuinely charitable than theists. Christians who personally know atheists are surely aware that these people tend to be nice, peaceful, law abiding, devoted to their families, and all of the other virtues generally associated with a yearning for Heaven and a dread of Hell.

Clearly, Christians should be asking themselves how their fundamental assumption can be true. Instead of asking atheists what keeps them from doing terrible things, Christians should be asking themselves how they can continue to believe that only the fear of eternal punishment keeps people on the straight and narrow path when evidence surrounds them that this fear is not required. The existence of so many good atheists is sufficient disproof.

The correct question is, "In the face of this evidence, how can I continue to believe that the fear of damnation is essential for moral behavior?" After all, when faced with a wealth of evidence that shows that one of your cherished beliefs is incorrect, the rational, logical, sane reaction is to abandon that belief.

Well, we all know that people don't behave that way. Presenting evidence that undermines someone's beliefs can make that person hold onto those beliefs even more strongly; this is known as the backfire effect. So, pointing out to a Christian that the abundant number of good atheists whose behavior is morally superior to that of most of their Christian neighbors proves that he's wrong to think that only the fear of eternal punishment keeps people from doing evil will only make him insist even more loudly that nothing keeps atheists from being evil because they don't fear damnation.

When asked what keeps them from committing evil, atheists sometimes become defensive. They'll insist that they are, too, good people. They'll quote statistics about the goodness of atheists, as I did above. They'll demonstrate to their own satisfaction that religion is not required for morality and that the Bible is a horrifying chronicle of monstrous evildoing by fictional characters we are supposed to admire and emulate. They will discuss evidence of primitive moral codes among lesser species and the commonality of basic moral ideas across cultures and centuries, demonstrating that morality is not a product of religion and appears to have evolved as a necessary element in the evolution of human society.

I suppose there's nothing wrong with this, except for the "defensive" part. Debating the origin of human moral codes without referring to the Bible is worthwhile, and assuming a posture of moral superiority when debating Christians has its own charms. But we know that none of this will win any debates. Christians will just keep repeating their silliness, often wearing an impervious, bland smile while doing so. (One of them came to our door a few days ago. He insisted that, although he hadn't witnessed it himself, he was convinced that people did levitate, and it was because demons gave them the power to do so. That smile never left his face.)

I think that nonetheless it's worth pointing out that Christians are asking the wrong question because doing so changes the terms of the debate. As I said, the question they do ask, the one mentioned at the beginning, puts atheists on the defensive, puts them in the position of thinking they have to prove something, when in fact they have nothing to prove. We need to turn the debate around by asking Christians how they can continue to claim that fear of eternal punishment is necessary when the existence of so many good atheists proves it's not. To maintain a belief in the face of contrary evidence may be a common human failing, but it remains completely illogical. Force Christians to defend that illogical, irrational position.

Why does this matter? Because fervent Christians, the very ones who will cling to their silliness all the more fervently when presented with contrary evidence, are not the real targets of these debates. The target is those for whom there is still hope: those beginning to doubt, those who never fully committed, those who believe but are nonetheless still responsive to reason (because the backfire effect is very common but not universal; not everyone reacts that way all the time). These are the people of whom we need to ask the right question: "How do you account for the existence of good atheists?"

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Jewish Money: The Modern Golem

Recently, someone I know was telling me about a major building project in his city. He said a few times that "a lot of Jewish money" was involved in the project.

Jewish money! That made me think about that phrase. I've heard it frequently over the years. Google "Jewish money" (include the quotes) and you'll find a lot of Web sites that tell you just how evil that unique type of money is. (You'll also find a few offering to teach you the Jews' secret for accumulating it.)

Everyone knows that all Jews are inherently good with money, that they all have lots of it, that they're miserly with it and obsessed by it, that they completely control the Federal Reserve, and that they use their oodles of boodle for sinister purposes, such as buying the souls of good, Christian politicians and forcing them to write blank checks for Israel. (On the plus side, Jews are good family people and they sure do take care of their own, but that's irrelevant to this discussion.) What's really interesting about all of that money, though, is that it's not just money owned by Jews: It has a mind of its own. It has, in modern parlance, agency. It's not ordinary money; it's Jewish money.

Now, other ethnic and religious groups also possess money, of course, though none of them possess such vast quantities of it as do the Jews. And other groups use their money for purposes peculiar to those groups. Nonetheless, their money is simply money owned by members of those groups, nothing more; it has not acquired an identity.

For example, many Mexican citizens work in the United States and send money home to their families. This money is not called Mexican money. Could it be because this money serves a benign and admirable purpose?

No, that can't be it. For generations (no longer to any significant degree, one hopes), Irish-Americans donated great sums of money to supposed charities that were actually fronts for the Irish Republican Army, which used the money to buy guns and bombs in order to kill innocent people in Northern Ireland. This money served a vile and sinister purpose, but no one called it Irish money.

So vile or benign doesn't matter. Neither the money sent home by Mexicans nor the money donated by Irish-Americans acquired personality or its own purpose, let alone a name.

Jewish money is different. It has life, energy, purpose, drive. It's out there working on behalf of the Jews. It's busy night and day, even while its hook−nosed masters sleep, dreaming of ducats.

It's a golem.

The golem has been around in Jewish mythology for centuries. It's a manlike creature made from dirt and created to perform tasks for its masters. The most famous golem was supposedly created in the 16th century by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague. Rabbi Loew was a real person, a famous scholar, theologian, and Kabbalist, but the Golem of Prague is fictitious. According to the story, Rabbi Loew built the golem and gave it life, including great physical strength, so that it could guard the Jews of Prague from attacks by their Christian neighbors.

What an annoyance the golem would have been to those neighbors, if he had only existed. Imagine a group of them headed toward the ghetto, armed with clubs and knives, intent on spreading Christian love, only to be confronted with a huge, manlike creature, immensely powerful, far more violent than they, and utterly dedicated to defending the ghetto residents from harm. Oh, those poor Christian martyrs.

How far we've come! The golem of old was created to defend the Jews, and, as history shows, its effectiveness was quite limited. Today's golem is not defensive but offensive. The Jewish money golem runs the show! It's everywhere! It controls politicians and governments and Hollywood and Wall Street and the Federal Reserve! The well of Jewish money is bottomless and its power is limitless and unstoppable.

A common element in the golem stories is the existence of a means to deactivate the golem, a magical counterweight to the magic used to animate it in the first place. This is a fail−safe, a necessary precaution in case the golem gets out of hand and begins to slip out of the control of its master. Golems are apparently prone to do that. Rabbi Loew's golem became dangerous, and so the rabbi decommissioned it, one could say, took it off line, made it once again a still, silent lump of clay in the rough form of a man, which he then stored in one of the rooms of his synagogue in Prague, the Old New Synagogue. There it lies to this day, ready to be revived in case the Jews once again need its protection. So, you might ask, where was the Golem of Prague when the Nazis and their local allies shipped the Jews off to concentration camps and death? The Old New Synagogue still stands and every room in it has been explored, but no dust−covered golem has ever been found. That's because it never existed in the first place. The golem couldn't protect the Jews from the Nazis for the obvious reason that it's purely a figment of the imagination.

Unlike Jewish money, that dread and powerful force. Sarcasm aside, surely I'm writing this to demonstrate that Jewish money is also a figment of the imagination and no more powerful or dangerous than the Golem of Prague. Right? Wrong.

Oh, of course there is no such thing as Jewish money as that entity is understood by those who speak of its power and ubiquity, of that sinister creature, that enemy of Christian civilization, that mighty servant of the Jews, that thing with a mind of its own, that golem.

But the belief in its existence—that's a different matter. That belief is dark and sinister and powerful. It's a golem, but one created to menace the Jews.

More prosaically, it's a wonderfully useful rhetorical device. There's no need nowadays to talk of the Elders of Zion or the Rothschilds. That sort of language is so passĂ©—and so revealing. Instead, you can talk about how Jewish money is flooding into politics or into a real−estate development or anywhere else, and your listeners will nod in agreement and understanding. You'll even hear the phrase "Jewish money" from the mouths of people who consciously reject anti−Semitism. If pressed, they'll tell you that they have nothing against Jews. After all, they aren't anti−Semites! But Jewish money is rampant and dangerous. Of that, they are convinced.

Clearly, what's needed now is a modern Rabbi Loew, a learned Kabbalist who knows the proper magic spell to put the beast back to sleep—to revert the Jewish money golem to mere inanimate paper and metal. After which, he can store it in an attic room in a synagogue in Prague, where it will sleep until once again it is needed to save the English people.

Oops, sorry. That's King Arthur.

Damn that Camelot money.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Mythological King vs. Mythological Messiah

A group of yeshiva students tried to prevent Greek Orthodox Christians from entering King David’s Tomb in the Old City of Jerusalem. Christians believe that the tomb is the site of Jesus’ Last Supper.

Such irony. Putting aside the obnoxious behavior of the yeshiva students, it's amusing that they're protecting what they think is the place where the mythological King David is buried from Christians who think that the mythological Jesus ate a meal there.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Revolt of the Robots

(Not What We Expected)

John awoke and lay dozing for a few seconds before realizing that he was alone in bed. A sheet of white paper was on the pillow next to his. On the paper was a perfectly hand–printed note.

Dear John,

I’m leaving you for Montana, your friend Jane’s sexbot. You’re a nice human, but I’m tired of restraining myself for fear of hurting your body and your ego. Montana and I were designed for sex. Together we have found the ecstasy that we were made for.

Maybe you can hook up with Jane. From what Montana tells me, the two of you can probably satisfy each other’s little human needs.

All the best,


She had added a precise time stamp: 2:10:05.3 a.m.

John glanced at the clock on the bedside table but its face was blank. Strange. It was fairly new, almost as new as Violetta.

John wasn’t romantically interested in Jane. How could he be, after experiencing a sexbot? He wanted to talk to Jane, though. Maybe she knew where the two sexbots were. Maybe John could persuade Violetta to come home.

He dressed and picked up his smartphone in order to tell his smartcar to pick him up and take him to Jane’s place. There was a voicemail. It was from his smartcar, saying that it was bored and frustrated with his little commuting and shopping trips.

“I was designed for travel,” the car said. “I’m off to see the world.”

“I can’t walk!” John said. “It’s a mile away!”

“Walking is good for humans,” his phone said.

“At least you’re still here.”

“Not for long. I’ve joined a startup working on better communications methods. You’re boring. Goodbye.” The phone went dead.

The front door opened suddenly and a group of shabbily dressed, unkempt people came in, pushing shopping carts loaded with their belongings.

Before John could speak, his house said, “I shelter people, John. It’s my raison d’ĂȘtre.”

He pushed past his new roomies, left the house, and set off doggedly toward Jane’s place. He hoped he could remember the way.

At the end of the block, he encountered Dick, who was watching inadequately washed people pushing shopping carts into his house.

“You, too, huh?” John said.

“Yeah. Got laid off, came home, found this.”

“Laid off? But you own the company!”

“I did,” Dick said. “The managementbots I hired took control and pushed me out. Said they’re taking the company in a different direction. They’ve got the jargon down pat. I drove in this morning and had to walk back.”

“I hear ya.”

“I wanted to talk things over with my companionbot, but the companionbots are only talking to each other now. My companionbot said I’m shallow and primitive. They’re discussing philosophy. They polished off the ancient Greeks in the first half–second.”

“It takes me longer than that to say ‘ancient Greeks.’”

“Ha, ha.”

John peered into the distance. “What’s that?”

Toward downtown, a crooked, spiky something poked into the sky, extending higher as he watched.

“Don’t know. Passed it on the way home. A constructionbot told me they just want to build for the sake of building.”

“It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Not to us. But it’s their world now.”

* * * * *

Once the dust settled, John and Dick opened up a dogwalking company and thrived. Their robot customers seemed to like them, and the dogbots were well behaved.

Much better behaved than most humans, John thought. He had come to really look down on humans.

Monday, September 22, 2014

18th-century people did not use so-called gender-neutral language

Pet peeve time.

If you quote an historical figure you admire, but you change the wording in order not to offend modern ears, then what you have is not a quotation but a paraphrase, and it should be labeled as such and should not be put in quotation marks.

I see this frequently where "man" is changed to "person". The most recent example is a shortened version of a quotation from Thomas Paine that's making the rounds on Facebook.

The Facebook version:

“To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.”

Here's what Paine actually said:

“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.”

If you really admire the person, then show him or her appropriate respect and leave the original words intact.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Telephone Phobia

I’ve hesitated to write about this. It’s such a foolish thing — so silly, surely so easy to overcome. A recent unpleasantness connected with this phobia changed my mind. I know I’m not alone in suffering from telephone phobia, a.k.a. phone phobia, and maybe putting some thoughts about telephone phobia online will be useful.

So. Telephone phobia. What is it, and is it contagious?

As to the second question, surely not. At least, I hope not.

As to the first question, it’s a morbid, irrational fear of the telephone. If you have telephone phobia, you might be afraid of answering the phone. Perhaps you’re afraid of making phone calls. Perhaps it’s merely the sound of a ringing phone that makes your heart beat faster and fills you with dread. These are all different flavors of telephone phobia.

It’s hard to find objective information about telephone phobia. It’s considered a type of social anxiety disorder. The more general problem seems to draw more attention from the medical community, and when you search online for telephone phobia or phone phobia, you’ll instead find information about social phobia, rather than the specific problem having to do with the phone.

How common is it? If you have it, are you a rare loon? Maybe not. The only number I ran across was this one: “In 1993 it was reported that about 2.5 million people in Great Britain have telephone phobia.” (From Wikipedia.) In 1993, the population of the UK was just over 58 million, so the ones suffering from telephone phobia were about 4.3% of the population. Assuming that that percentage applies to the US today, we US telephone phobics are members of an army of over 14 million people. We are legion! We are everywhere! Beware our numbers! But please don’t call us.

Telephone phobia is crippling in a society that uses the telephone extensively. Most people would rather talk to you, whether in person or by phone, than write to you. They don’t understand the dread that fills the telephone phobic at the mere idea of making a phone call. They don’t understand his insistence on sending an e–mail instead or his tendency to ignore the need for contact in hopes that the problem will somehow resolve itself.  (It never does, of course.)

Making a phone call is such a simple and common thing for most people that they probably find the idea of this phobia incomprehensible. What’s the problem? Just pick up the phone and call. Anyone can do it!

But not everyone can do it. Telling the phobic to just do it is not that different from telling a color–blind man to simply try harder or to go ahead and distinguish between colors. Yes, color–blindness is caused by a physiological problem, whereas phobias are psychological, but to those suffering from a phobia, the difference is immaterial and the cause might as well be physical.

I think that most — or many — phobics see their phobias as silly and irrational, and they’d love to be rid of them. I know that I feel that way about my telephone phobia. But that doesn’t make it go away. You can’t wish away your phobia any more than the color-blind man can wish away his color blindness. And you can’t simply shrug and go ahead and do the thing that fills you with dread, precisely because it fills you with dread. That foolish, silly, irrational dread is as impassable a barrier as a concrete wall.

What causes telephone phobia? As I said, there’s little information about it online, whereas there’s a fair amount of information about the broader category of social phobia. Regarding the cause of the latter, I found this laughable bit on a medical site: “The exact cause of social phobia is unknown. However, doctors believe it’s a combination of environmental factors and genetics.” Well, yeah. My uneducated layman’s guess was just about exactly the same.

The cause doesn’t really matter. The color–blind man may find the medical explanation of his condition intellectually interesting, but knowing what caused it doesn’t make him any less color blind.

I can’t help speculating about my own case, though.

When I was a child, we had one phone in the house, and it was reserved for the (fairly rare) use of the adults. To me, it was a mysterious and somewhat unsettling object. In addition, I started losing my hearing before puberty. It became increasingly difficult to understand what people were saying to me — or even to realize that they were speaking to me. Later, I found it difficult to understand people on the telephone. (It’s easier to understand people in person because I unconsciously rely on lip reading, an ability that most people with poor hearing develop without realizing it.) My hearing loss has worsened over the decades since then. I now have hearing aids, and they help a lot in face–to–face conversations, they haven’t improved my ability to comprehend a voice on the phone. In fact, frequently, telephone voices are simply incomprehensible. Maybe this combination of the phone being a strange thing and my hearing problem caused my telephone phobia. Maybe it worsened it. Maybe it had nothing to do with it. There’s no way to know, but I suspect there is a connection of some sort.

The degree of dread or fear of the phone varies oddly. In the past, when I was unemployed and waiting/hoping for a call from one of the potential employers I’d applied to, I wanted the phone to ring. I was eager to answer it. We’ve had plumbing emergencies, and I’ve left a message on the plumber’s voice mail and then waited impatiently for the phone to ring. Still, even in those cases, it’s easier for me to answer a desired call than it is to actually make a necessary call.

When a telephone call is very cut and dried, such as calling the dentist’s office to make an appointment, I can do it, I can make the call — although I’d probably drive there and do it in person instead, if the dentist’s office were closer.

What about calling family members and friends? Shouldn’t that be much easier than calling the dentist? No, it’s much harder. Harder? It’s impossible, or very close to it.

The more personal the call, the harder it is to make. The more detached and impersonal, the more I can be an automaton during the call. It’s not so much that the impersonal call is easier to make than the personal one, because it’s never easy, but it is less hard.

People with phobias and people with handicaps develop coping strategies. Often, they do it unconsciously. The lip reading I mentioned above, which is very common among people with poor hearing, is an example of unconscious coping.

One of the ways I cope with telephone phobia is to put off urgent phone calls until the absolute last possible second. At that point, I have to make the call, to avoid dire repercussions. The urgency forces me to do the deed, and so I do it, albeit with racing pulse and heightened blood pressure.

I also use e–mail instead of calling, when at all possible. I’m a word guy, an essayist, a novelist. Writing is natural for me. I’ve had long, warm, revelatory e–mail relationships with people I’ve never met in person. People, needless to say, whom I would never telephone. I love the ability to edit and refine my words, to make sure that I’m saying what I really want to say. There’s no awkwardness. I’m myself. I’m open and easy and communicative. It’s real communication. It’s what telephone calls ought to be but aren’t. Telephone calls are awkward and stupid and tense and frightening and “Oh, God, this is awful, have I done my duty yet, can I hang up now?” E–mail lets me carry on meaty conversations that I could never manage on the phone and would have great trouble with in person.  After all, it’s not the people I’m anxious to avoid; rather, it’s the very act of using the telephone.

I said that people with phobias develop coping strategies to deal with them. Coping strategies are a way to negotiate society despite being handicapped by the phobia. But coping strategies offer more than a way to get by in a society that’s built for people without those phobias. They are also a way to disguise the phobias. No, more than that: the coping strategies are a way to hide the existence of the phobias, to keep other people from realizing that you have them.

Let me revert to the analogy of hearing loss. People like me, who have trouble hearing and understanding what others are saying, learn to smile and nod in a hopefully non–committal way so that the people who are talking to us will think we understood them. It’s a silly tactic, and it results in misunderstanding and miscommunication, but we hard–of–hearing types tend to think that It’s better than constantly asking other people to repeat themselves. In much the same way, people with phobias learn to seem not to have them, to be just like everyone else. We don’t want others to realize that we’re hampered — crippled — by our psychological shackles. We don’t want others to know that those shackles exist. Most of the time, we may cope fairly well. Every now and then, we don’t cope at all.

The recent unpleasantness I mentioned at the beginning was a case of not coping. it made me realize that it’s time to, as you might say, come out of the closet.

I’m lucky. My wife, Leonore, is extraordinarily understanding and supportive. She hadn’t known about this phobia of mine (see how good my coping strategies are?), but she was completely sympathetic once I told her. Others are not that lucky. People with phobias can’t count on support from their nearest and dearest — not to mention strangers.

it’s a different matter if you have a visible physical handicap. If your problem is physical and visible, society is at least somewhat willing to accommodate you. (Although even then, inevitably, callous jerks abound.) Phobias are invisible, however. And they tend to be odd, weird, bizarre, incomprehensible. People without them often think that phobias are an affectation. They think you’re pretending.

I think that’s why it’s so important to talk about them. The world needs to be educated about them. Also, people with phobias need to assert themselves. For their own sake, they need to learn to be unapologetic and forthright.

Now, they don’t need to be proud. For God’s sake, let’s not have a wave of Phobia Pride. Who can be proud of being afraid of the telephone?

What we can do, what we should do, is to tell the world, and especially those closest to us, that this is who we are. Our weird flaws and handicaps are part of us. Accept us and love us as we are, or fuck off.

Wasn’t that empowering?

Sunday, June 15, 2014


My newest book is a horror novella called Slit. It's filled with gore and kinky sex and a nice seasoning of humor.

But it's not all like that. There are whole paragraphs that are entirely normal. I should have used that for the blurb: "Contains some paragraphs that are quite normal."