A Visit to St. Patrick's Cathedral

It was in late December of last year that I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City for the first time. It was a cold, wet evening, alternating between rain and flurries of snow, and a friend and I had gone downtown to see the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. But the cathedral was on the way, and we could not pass up the chance to see another Manhattan landmark. The change in the atmosphere was noticeable as soon… Read more

The Devil Cannot Abide Mockery

The recent fiasco over the cartoons of Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper shows that free speech is still very much under threat. Though this basic human right has long been guaranteed in the Western world, this controversy should remind us that there is still a large section of humanity among whom free speech is not just nonexistent, it is held in outright disdain. Sadly, the right to speak one’s mind without fear of repercussion is still the exception, not… Read more

How Big is the Library of Babel?

One of my favorite short-story authors is the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. Many of his stories deal with mind-expanding themes, including “Blue Tigers”, about a handful of stones that do not obey the rules of mathematics, “The Book of Sand”, about a book with an infinite number of pages, and “The Aleph”, a point in space that allows one to observe all other points simultaneously. However, Borges’ most iconic short story is the one called “The Library of Babel”,… Read more

A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

The United States of America is populated overwhelmingly by Christians. Poll after poll shows that between 75% and 85% of American citizens identify with some denomination of Christianity, and though this percentage has declined somewhat in recent years, it is still a great majority. It would be correct to say that the U.S. is, in fact if not in law, a Christian nation. However, there is reason to believe that this widespread commitment is neither as deep nor as substantial… Read more

Damned If You Do

Has anyone else ever noticed that, as far as theists are concerned, atheists just can’t win? Every single thing we do, or don’t do, is interpreted by believers in such a way as to give aid and comfort to their beliefs. Consider: When theists commit evil or criminal acts, it just goes to show that we’re all sinners and no one’s perfect, and an entire worldview should not be blamed for the actions of a few misguided individuals; but when… Read more

That Monstrous Regiment

(Note: This post was written for Blog Against Sexism Day.) One of the greatest enemies of the feminist movement is and has always been religion. Regardless of when or how this tendency originated, the monotheistic tradition that gave rise to Judaism, Christianity and Islam has historically stood in vehement opposition to the simple and obvious truth that women are human beings with the same rights, abilities and privileges as men. Consider, for example, the flagrant and revolting sexism in one… Read more

Pulling Back the Curtain

The previous post in the Observatory, “On Presuppositions”, discussed a few of the many ways in which bias has been shown to affect our decisions. When we expect or believe something to be true, we very often act as if it is true, and disregard contradictory evidence. Given these undeniable facts, what hope is left for us to know the truth? A cynical interpretation would be that science, the organized quest for truth, has ironically proven that science is hopeless,… Read more

Walled Gardens

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars has drawn my attention to a story I’ve been meaning to post about for some time: Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza and a wealthy far-right Catholic, is financing the construction of a new town in Florida to be named Ave Maria. Controversy has ensued because of reports that Monaghan intends the town to be a mini-theocracy, where pornography will be banned from cable TV, bookstores and newsstands, pharmacies will be… Read more

Theocracy Watch

There has been considerable buzz in the blogosphere lately about a bill pending in Missouri that would supposedly make Christianity the “state’s official religion”. When I first heard this news, suitably apocalyptic thoughts occurred to me, as I’m sure they did to many of you. Declaring an official state religion is the essence of theocracy, and from there it is only a very short step to banning other religions and outlawing dissent; and in the current climate of religious extremism,… Read more

Book Review: Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Daniel Dennett is one of my favorite philosophers. Few write with his clarity or liveliness, and the topics to which he turns his attention – evolution, religion, free will, the human mind – fall squarely within my area of interest. His explanations are often brilliantly clever, and his conclusions are ones I can usually agree with. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, his provocative thesis is that Charles Darwin’s idea of modification by natural selection, which he calls “the single best idea… Read more