An Israeli Jew rejects “Why Evolution is True”

September 16, 2023 • 12:00 pm

My book Why Evolution is True has been translated into 18 languages, and one of them was Hebrew. I was pleased about that because many Orthodox Jews are Biblical creationists and I wanted them to at least have a shot at learning about the evidence for evolution.

In fact, I know of at least two American Orthodox Jews who accepted evolution (but then left the faith and were expelled by their families!) after reading the English version of the book.  They both told me they had no regrets. (I met them both at Randi’s The Amazing Meeting some years ago.)

Now that a Hebrew version is out, one of my Israeli readers managed to get two copies of it (not easy to procure!) and sent me this tale this morning:

I showed your (Hebrew edition) book to an intelligent young Jewish man living opposite me – he looked about 17 – 18 years old.

He is a student and shortly going to college.

He claimed he was happy with the ‘truth’ that the earth is less than 6,000 years old, and why would he want to consider anything that would detract from his ‘happiness’?

I suggested the possibility that his truth might not be the truth, but he rejected that possibility out of hand. His truth was most definitely the true truth..!

I offered to lend him the book for a few days but he politely refused, saying he had much preparation for college.

There are a lot of orthodox Jews in my area, and I’m considering delivering an A4 leaflet, English on one side, Hebrew on the other, with a basic explanation of Big Bang, stars formation, nucleosynthesis, planet formation, life, us.

But now wonder if such an action will result in unhappiness……?

It seems such a shame that otherwise intelligent humans are so far removed from aspects of critical thinking in their lives…

p.s.  the young student even went as far as saying you are not a ‘real’ Jew for even publishing such a book…!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, friends and comrades, is why I am sad every time I see a child being brought up as an ultra-Orthodox Jew. Am I a “real” Jew?  I’ll let others decide on their own. I’m certainly not a “religious” Jew, but you know the old joke:

Q; What do you call a Jew who doesn’t believe in God?
A: A Jew.

And as for the truth making them unhappy, well, they can always reject it.

(Remind me to tell you the story about the edition in Arabic.)

NYT touts religion again: this time it’s Judaism

July 3, 2023 • 9:15 am

Every Sunday we get a paean to Christianity by Tish Harrison Warren, and yesterday we read Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe touting the advantages of Judaism—and of religion in general.  Wolpe isn’t as irritating as the  smarmy Warren, who provides only bromides. Wolpe seems like a nice and caring guy, and I’m sure he’s brought solace to many in his rabbinical duties. He’s also had his own tribulations: two surgeries for a brain tumor as well as lymphoma.  But can’t the NYT occasionally produce columns in praise of atheism and humanism? After all, there’s no good evidence for a God, and yet that viewpoint is resolutely ignored by the paper, which publishes piece after piece by people who think not only that there is a God, but a specific kind of God, like the Christian one (e.g., Warren).

According to Wikipedia, Wolpe is infamous among conservative Jews for questioning the historicity of the Old Testament:

On Passover 2001, Wolpe told his congregation that “the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.” Casting doubt on the historicity of the Exodus during the holiday that commemorates it brought condemnation from congregants and several rabbis (especially Orthodox Rabbis). The ensuing theological debate included whole issues of Jewish newspapers such as The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and editorials in The Jerusalem Post, as well as an article in the Los Angeles Times. Critics asserted that Wolpe was attacking Jewish oral history, the significance of Passover and even the First Commandment. Orthodox Rabbi Ari Hier wrote that “Rabbi Wolpe has chosen Aristotle over Maimonides, theories and scientific method over facts”. Wolpe, on the other hand, was defended by Reform Rabbi Steven Leder from the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who argued that “defending a rabbi in the 21st century for saying the Exodus story isn’t factual is like defending him for saying the earth isn’t flat. It’s neither new nor shocking to most of us that the earth is round or that the Torah isn’t a history book dictated to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.”

Wolpe asserted that he was arguing that the historicity of the events should not matter, since he believes faith is not determined by the same criteria as empirical truth. Wolpe argues that his views are based on the fact that no archeological digs have produced evidence of the Jews wandering the Sinai Desert for forty years, and that excavations in Israel consistently show settlement patterns at variance with the Biblical account of a sudden influx of Jews from Egypt.

In March 2010, Wolpe expounded on his views saying that it was possible that a small group of people left Egypt, came to Canaan, and influenced the native Canaanites with their traditions. This opinion is, in fact, shared by the majority of historians and biblical scholars. He added that the controversy of 2001 stemmed from the fact that Conservative Jewish congregations have been slow to accept and embrace biblical criticism. Conservative rabbis, on the other hand, are taught biblical criticism in rabbinical school.

It’s to Wolpe’s credit that he accepts the historical and archaeological evidence against the Exodus. As he says below, he thinks that religion isn’t really about “a set of beliefs to one assents.” He’s wrong, of course. Maybe that’s true for Wolpe, but why would there have been a controversy about the Exodus if some people didn’t adhere to the Old Testament claims? But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I’ll just add that you may know Wolpe from  his several debates about religion with Christopher Hitchens. Here’s one about the existence of God. (Note: it’s 90 minutes long.)

Click on the headline below to read, and you can find the piece archived here

This column seems to serve as Wolpe’s swan song: his retirement thoughts on the human condition and how it’s ameliorated by religion, which to him serves as a kind of social glue. (Wolpe’s statements are indented.)

For over a quarter century now, I have listened to people’s stories, sat by their bedsides as life slipped away, buried their parents, spouses and sometimes their children. Marriages have ended in my office, as have engagements.

I have watched families as they say cruel, cutting things to one another or, just as devastating, refuse to say anything at all. I have seen the iron claw of grief scrape out the insides of mourners, grip their windpipes, blind their eyes so that they cannot accept the mercy of people or of God.

After 26 years in the rabbinate, as I approach retirement, I have come to several realizations. All of us are wounded and broken in one way or another; those who do not recognize it in themselves or in others are more likely to cause damage than those who realize and try to rise through the brokenness.

This is what binds together a faith community. No religious tradition, certainly not my own, looks at an individual and says: “There. You are perfect.” It is humility and sadness and striving that raises us, doing good that proves the tractability of the world and its openness to improvement, and faith that allows us to continue through the shared valleys.

Well, I’ve never been a member of a “faith community,” even a Jewish one, but it seems to me that what binds a faith community together is a desire to belong to a tribe which whose members care for each other. That, plus the factors that make a tribe a tribe: shared beliefs.  Jews can never be members of a Christian faith community because they don’t think the Messiah ever came back. Nor can Muslims be members of either community because they think the Qur’an is the final and correct faith, and Muhammad is the prophet.  And that brings us to Wolpe’s misguided claim about religion not being about a “set of beliefs”:

I have had a privileged view of the human condition, and the essential place of religion on that hard road. Sometimes it seems, for those outside of faith communities, that religion is simply about a set of beliefs to which one assents. But I know that from the inside it is about relationships and shared vision. Where else do people sing together week after week? Where else does the past come alive to remind us how much has been learned before the sliver of time we are granted in this world?

Yes, religion is about the solace of being a member of a community. But, for most, it’s also about shared beliefs, something I discuss in Faith versus Fact.  Does a Christian community have any meaning if the members don’t accept the fact that Jesus came to earth as God/son of God, was crucified, and thereby gave us the possibility of eternal life?  Are Muslims not a community because they all accept the tenets of the Qur’an, dictated to Mohamed by an angel? In fact, Islam is not just a religion, but a way of life—a way of life based on shared beliefs about empirical circumstances. And so it goes for many religions: without accepting at least the existence of a divine being, most religions—and all Abrahamic religions—center largely on “a set of beliefs to one assents.”

Now as a heterodox rabbi Wolpe may indeed reject a conventional god. As he says in the debate below, he defines his god as something quite nebulous:

“God is the source of everything that exists, and God is someone, something, with whom a human being can have a relationship, and that you can live your life in alignment with a godly purpose. That any definition that is greater than that is in some ways to traduce God.”

But he has no right to pronounce on what religion is about for everyone else! And there’s ample evidence that he’s wrong.

In some ways, Wolpe’s claims are a final defense against the increasing secularization of America, which he mentions twice. Pushing back against that, he sees religion as, without question, a net good:

I know the percentage of those who not only call themselves religious but also find themselves in religious communities declines each year. The cost of this ebbing of social cohesion is multifaceted. At the most basic, it tears away at the social fabric. Many charities rely solely on religious institutions. People in churches and synagogues and mosques reliably contribute more to charities — religious and nonreligious — than their secular counterparts do. The disunity that plagues us in each political cycle is also partly because of a loss of shared moral purpose which people once found each week in the pews.

If lack of religion “tears away at the social fabric,” especially because religions promote charities, then you’d expect that atheistic countries would have a badly torn social fabric.  The evidence is against that—at least the evidence from Scandinavia, where government has simply taken over the care of sick people, old people, disabled people, and poor people. There is no lack of charity in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, or other countries. (And virtually every European country has government-provided health care.)

Of course Wolpe doesn’t mention the bad things that religion does—things that Hitchens eloquently mentions in the debate above. Why are Jews demonized by many in the U.S., something mentioned by Wolpe in this article? It’s because they’ve inherited the legacy of being “Christ killers.” Why do Muslims and Jews battle each other to the death? Religion. Why did Hindus and Muslims kill each other during India’s partition in 1947, and continue to do so today? Religion, of course.  Now you can say that without religion people would find other reasons to kill each other and form tribes. That may be true, but religion is perhaps the greatest cause of tribalism in the history of the world, and I’m pretty sure that, had it never arisen, the world would be a better place.

Wolpe paints the Old Testament, even if it be fictitious, as a source of solace:

I still believe the synagogue is a refuge for the bereaved and provides a road map for the seeker. I have been moved by how powerful the teachings of tradition prove to be in people’s lives, helping them sort out grievances from griefs, focusing on what matters, giving poignancy to celebrations. The stories of the Torah, read year after year, wear grooves in our souls, so that patterns of life that might escape us become clear. Sibling rivalries and their costs are clear in the story of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. The consequences of kindness emanate from the book of Ruth. We share unanswerable questions with Job and passion with the Song of Songs. The Torah acts as a spur and a salve.

But so do many other nonreligious works! If the Torah is more efficacious than these works, it’s because people believe those stories, something Wolpe says they don’t do. Otherwise, sibling rivalries, kindness, and questioning can be found in gazillions of nonreligious works of fiction and nonfiction. And, as reader Leo (who sent me this link) noted, “I guess he wants us to ignore the Bible stories about slavery, war, genocide, etc.”

In his last paragraph, Wolpe again claims that religion is a bulwark against creeping secularism and the social damage it apparently causes:

Religion may be on the decline in this country and in the West, but if you wish to see the full panoply of a human life, moments of ecstatic joy and deepest sorrow, the summit of hopes and the connections of community, they exist concentrated in one place: your local house of worship.

Well, they also exist concentrated in a better place: your local library.

Rabbi’s NYT op-ed misleadingly claims that Jews recognized six genders

March 21, 2023 • 10:15 am

Here we have another example of what I call the “reverse appeal to nature”, except that it’s a “reverse appeal to Judaism”. The former trope goes like this, “What my ideology says is good is what I must find in nature.” That is, if you’re a gender activist, you must argue that since there is no sexual binary in humans (a false assertion, of course), then there is no sexual binary in animals in general (another false assertion).

Here we have a subspecies of that bias evinced by a Jewish rabbi and gender activist, who claims that Judaism has long recognized a whole range of genders—six, to be exact.  This is also false, for the “genders” adduced by rabbi Elliot Kukla, a transgender man, are not socially enacted sex roles but what doctors call “disorders of sex development”( DSDs): very rare conditions when the development of sexual characteristics goes wrong (DSDs, despite Anne Fausto-Sterling’s claim, are not “new sexes”). These ancient Jewish categories do not correspond to the kind of genders people recognize today—and Rabbi Kukla admits it.  The fallacy here is imposing onto one’s historical religion what what sees as good today: the recognition and approbation of different genders. (Unlike biological sex, which comes in only two forms in humans, genders can be multifarious, as they are social roles or identities assumed by biological males or females.) Somehow the Rabbi thinks it gives succor to the social justice movement to show that Jews recognized people who were victims of sex-trait development gone awry.

The article identifies Kukla as “a rabbi who provides spiritual care to those who are grieving, dying, ill or disabled. He is working on a book about grief in a time of planetary crisis.” Wikipedia also notes that he’s “the first openly transgender person to be ordained by the Reform Jewish seminary Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.”

Read his op-ed by clicking on the screenshot below, or you can find an archived copy here for free.

There are two issues with Kukla’s article, both involving misleading data. The first one involves transgender people have higher rates of suicide due to oppression or misgendering. But none of the data he adduces shows that “oppression” of transgender people, or calling them by the wrong pronoun, actually causes their suicide.  Here are a couple of his statements:

Over the past few years there have been countless stories in the news of trans and nonbinary young people’s deaths by suicide. In San Diego, a 14-year-old, Kyler Prescott, died after being repeatedly misgendered by hospital staff members in the psychiatric unit that was supposed to be helping him. Leelah Alcorn, a 16-year-old transgender girl from Ohio, was rejected by her parents after coming out. In her online suicide note she wrote, “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was.”

More than half of young people in the United States who are transgender and nonbinary seriously considered suicide in the past year, according to a survey conducted by the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for L.G.B.T.Q. youth. This figure is staggering, but the Trevor Project’s data also points to what can help. The same 2022 survey found that trans and nonbinary youth who report having their pronouns respected by all or most of the people in their life attempted suicide at half the rate of those who didn’t. And a 2019 Trevor Project survey found that transgender and nonbinary young people who live with even one accepting adult were 40 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt in the previous year.

A 2021 study published by The Journal of Adolescent Health found that for people younger than 18, receiving gender-affirming hormone therapy was associated with nearly 40 percent lower odds of having had a suicide attempt in the previous year. It’s not being transgender or nonbinary that kills young people; it’s the shunning, lack of acceptance and transphobia they encounter in the struggle to be who they truly are.

Now it’s certainly true that some transgender people are driven to suicide by ill-treatment from others, but we have to realize that the incidence of mental illness and suicidality among transgender people is sky-high to begin with, and the desire to change genders may be one solution people see to their mental problems. If they’re told they’re in the wrong body, or that’s in the air, then they may feel that a mental illness that precedes transition can actually drive people to transition. It’s important to recognize that changing gender is often deeply associated with mental illness; it’s not the same kind of thing as changing jobs.

As one paper reports, “Data indicate that 82% of transgender individuals have considered killing themselves and 40% have attempted suicide, with suicidality highest among transgender youth.”  I am not claiming that being transgender is a form of mental illness, but that it may be a way that people resolve their mental illness. And in some cases it works: in general, transgender people report themselves happy that they transitioned. But note that in none of the cases above do they separate confounding variables of desire to transition from mental illness.

People who kill themselves after being misgendered, for example, may be those with more severe mental illness, and thus are more sensitive and more likely to take an extreme action after being misgendered.  As far as I know, the relationship between gender-affirming hormone therapy and suicide is controversial, as the most severely ill adolescents may not be given puberty blockers because they’re not deemed stable enough to medically transition yet. (Jesse Singal has bored in on the weakness of studies connecting well being and lowered suicide with “affirmative care”; you can see one of his discussions here.)

And as for the “people who live with even one accepting adult” committing suicide less often, the paper really show that the condition tested was NOT “living with one accepting adult”, but having one adult to whom you disclosed your trans status accepting it. From the cited paper:

Youth were first asked whether they had disclosed their sexual orientation to any of the following adults: parent, family member other than a parent or sibling, teacher or guidance counselor, and doctor or other healthcare provider. As a follow-up, youth were asked to what extent they were accepted by the adult(s) to whom they disclosed their sexual orientation. A variable was created that indicated whether youth felt accepted by one or more of the adults to whom they disclosed or did not feel accepted by any adult(s) to whom they disclosed. Past year suicide attempt was assessed with the question “During the past 12 months, did you actually attempt suicide?,” which was asked of youth who reported having seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months. A logistic regression model was utilized to predict past year suicide attempt based on the presence of an accepting adult while controlling for the impact of youth age, gender identity, and race/ethnicity.

Note that all of these are self-reports, so the data are based on whether the trans adolescent “felt accepted”, not “was accepted”. Nor is there anything about living with the accepting adult. The confounding variable here is the self report: even if trans youth are accepted, more severe mental illness may make them feel unaccepted and more severe mental illness may make them more suicidal. Alternatively, those youth who are stable enough to seek and get help might be less likely to attempt suicide because they have less severe mental illness.

I am not dismissing all this research out of hand, but pointing out three things. First, there are confounding variables when it comes to transgender youth that could make certain factors look like they cause suicide when they don’t (or are not as responsible for suicide as proper data would show). Second, the behaviors said to cause suicide may hide the real causes of suicide: mental illness, or may be correlated with the degree of such illness (like sensitivity to being misgendered).

Since the risk of suicidality is a big reason why gender-affirming activists urge parents and therapists to transition children as quickly as possible, it’s very important to figure out the reasons why transgender youth have such high suicide rates—especially the connection with mental illness independent of “affirming” medical care or misgendering.

Third, the rabbi ignores these confounding factors, though I’m not even sure why half of his article, which is pitched as about “six genders of Jews”, is really about suicide

On to the real topic. Did Judaism historically recognize six genders? The answer is, well, not really, for the “genders” were actually disorders of sexual development (DSDs): conditions wheb external genitalia or other secondary sex characteristic did not align with a person’s biological sex. (As always, I construe biological sex as whether someone has the equipment to produce large, immobile gametes [females] or small, mobile gametes [males)].) These ancient Jewish genders don’t at all correspond to the hundreds of genders that people use in modern society.

Rabbi Kukla tells us what those genders were:

In my own tradition, Judaism, our most sacred texts reflect a multiplicity of gender. This part of Judaism has mostly been obscured by the modern binary world until very recently.

There are four genders beyond male or female that appear in ancient Jewish holy texts hundreds of times. They are considered during discussions about childbirth, marriage, inheritance, holidays, ritual leadership and much more. We were always hiding in plain sight, but recently the research of Jewish studies scholars like Max Strassfeld has demonstrated how nonbinary gender is central to understanding Jewish law and literature as a whole.

When a child was born in the ancient Jewish world it could be designated as a boy, a girl, a “tumtum” (who is neither clearly male nor female), or an “androgynos” (who has both male and female characteristics) based on physical features. There are two more gender designations that form later in life. The “aylonit” is considered female at birth, but develops in an atypical direction. The “saris” is designated male at birth, but later becomes a eunuch.

There is not an exact equivalence between these ancient categories and modern gender identities. Some of these designations are based on biology, some on a person’s role in society. But they show us that people who are more than binary have always been recognized by my religion. We are not a fad.

When you look up these four other “genders,” you find that they’re disorders of sex development, and, contrary to the rabbis’s claim, are indeed all based on biology. You can, for example, see a list here that gives the same genders described by the rabbi:

  • “Zachar”, This term is derived from the word for memory and refers to the belief that the man carried the name and identity of the family. It is usually translated as “male” in English.
  • “Nekeivah”, This term is derived from the word for a crevice and probably refers to a vaginal opening. It is usually translated as “female” in English
  • “Ay’lonit”, is a female who does not develop at puberty and is infertile.
  • Saris“, is a male who does not develop at puberty and/or subsequently has their sexual organs removed. A saris can be “naturally” a saris (saris hamah), or become one through human intervention (saris adam).
  • Androgynos“, someone who has both male and female sexual characteristics. This would refer to certain intersex conditions, but in terms of gender in the modern day it is closest to androgyne or bigender.
  • Tumtum” A person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured.

The first two are “genders” that correspond to behaving according to your biological sex: man and woman. The other individuals, except for true hermaphrodites for gametic tissue, (perhaps “androgynos” would be one of those), are indeed male or female in the biological sense (e.g. “saris” is male, and “ay’lonit” is female). These may have been “genders” among Jews in the sense that if your sex was indeterminate, you would have to decide which, if any, sex role to play: male, female, or something else. But they are not genders in the modern sense, nor do they have anything to say about adopting sex roles when you don’t have a DSD.

But these conditions are rare: as I say in an upcoming co-authored paper:

Developmental variants are very rare, constituting only about one in 5600 people (0.018%), and also don’t represent “other sexes”. (We know of only two cases of true human hermaphrodites that were fertile, but one individual was fertile only as a male, and the other only as a female.)

There are certainly more than 1 in 5600 people today who claim they’re of a “non-male or non-female gender”: a Pew study shows that 5% of young American adults say their gender does not correspond to their biological sex. These individuals are nearly 300 times more common than the Jewish “genders” noted by Rabbi Kukla.

That’s pretty much all I have to say. These kinds of disorders would probably have been about as rare in ancient Jews as they are today, and so we can say with some confidence that the four DSD “genders” of Judaism do not at all correspond to modern genders that people assume. Even the good Rabbi himself admits that when he says:

There is not an exact equivalence between these ancient categories and modern gender identities.

And he misrepresents the genders, which are all based on biology, that is, on development going awry.

I needn’t say more except that some orthodox Jews have refuted Rabbi Kukla’s contention in a piece at the Jewish News Syndicate, but since they include Ben Shapiro, whose very name is often used to reject an argument, I’ll let you read them for yourself.

This crazy article is a prime esxample of a someone exaggerating or misrepresenting nearly all the data he adduces with the aim of showing people that the ancients accepted a diversity of genders.  He fails to show that those genders aren’t the same as modern genders, though that’s really his aim: to validate the latter by citing the former. He also fails to fairly assess the meaning of high suicidality in transgender youth.

I’ll add one more bit of confirmation bias from the rabbi:

In fact, Judaism sees us as so ancient that according to one fifth-century interpretation of the Bible, the very first human being, Adam, was actually an androgynos. This explains why Genesis says, “And God created humankind in the divine image, creating it in the image of God,” referring to Adam, the first person, with a singular pronoun. But then, the very same verse says: “creating them male and female.” (1:27). “Them,” in this ancient interpretation, also refers to Adam: a single person who is both male and female. In other words, in this reading of the creation story, the first human being is described with a singular “they” pronoun to express the multiplicity of their gender.

All I’ll say here that this is “according to one fifth-century representation of the Bible.”  Way to cherry-pick, Rabbi Kukla! What about all those other theologians who see Adam and Eve as separate people in the story: a man and a woman created by God?

h/t: Luana


The Jews who loved Christmas

December 22, 2022 • 11:15 am

People who wish me a “Happy Hanukkah” don’t realize that I never celebrated the Jewish holidays, the one exception being my mother lighting one candle per night on a menorah.  Otherwise, we celebrated Christmas like the goys: we had a Christmas tree, which my father called “The Hanukkah bush”, exchanged presents on Christmas morning, and had a big Christmas lunch, often featuring ham.

I don’t remember going to synagogue at all, though I did go to Hebrew school to learn the language for a bar mitzvah I never had. I flunked out of Hebrew school, and as a result was put into the all-girl class, whose instruction was less rigorous because you don’t need much Hebrew for a bat mitzvah. I was, at 12, ashamed to be in a class with all the girls, and simply left Hebrew school. That was my last connection with the faith, which I lost completely in 1967 (see here for the story, or go below the fold).

This is all a prelude to showing you two photos that my sister sent me yesterday. Apparently she and her family visited my parents’ graves (they’re in Arlington National Cemetery since my dad was a veteran), and found them decorated them for the holidays.

Her caption: “The Jews who loved Christmas!!” (She is also a heathen.):

:As they say in Yiddish
לעבעדיק ניטל

Click “read more” for my deconversion story

Continue reading “The Jews who loved Christmas”

I’ve broken up with Sarah Silverman over BDS

January 11, 2021 • 11:00 am

I am very sad today. What Jewish lad could not love Sarah Silverman? She’s Jewish, has that swarthy attractiveness that bores into our hearts, is proud of being an atheist Jew, has a smart and sassy mouth, and is a good liberal. And she’s funny. And it’s not just secular Jews like me who are smitten: I believe that Dan Dennett also has a case of Silvermanitis—he follows her on Twitter, and has even spoken to her.

Yes, some of her humor is edgy, and sometimes too edgy, to the point of being cringeworthy. But by and large her humor is thoughtful and absorbing. PLUS she did a great acting job in the so-so movie I Smile Back, playing a depressive alcoholic/drug addict. Her depression is real, too, and also appeals to those of us who have Black Dog tendencies. (Jews tend to be on the “half empty” side: who wouldn’t when we’ve been fleeing pogroms and anti-Semitism for two millennia?)

And so I loved The Divine Sarah—until yesterday, when I saw her 3-minute Instagram video (click on screenshot below) where she expresses support of BDS—a support totally ignorant of what BDS really stands for. In fact, she makes so many errors and misguided assertions here that the only real truth in her words is when she says, “I am talking out of my ass.”

Let’s “unpack” her claims.

First of all, the BDS movement isn’t just criticizing the Israeli government for the “occupation”; BDS wants an end to Israel as the country it is now. They do this by calling for a “right of return” of Palestinians who left Israel during the first war (often at the behest of Arab states!) and also for the return of all their descendants as well. That would turn into Israel into a majority-Palestinian state, and you know what that means. A bloodbath, for one thing. No, BDS is not fooling around when its advocates cry, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”

Many Israelis and Jews throughout the world have criticized the Israeli government; why do you think that Netanyahu is on thin ice? But BDS is not just calling for reform of the Israeli government; it’s calling for its elimination.  If Silverman doesn’t know that, then she’s butt-ignorant, and it pains me to say that.

Further, BDS doesn’t just want to boycott the government, it wants to boycott Israeli academics, who are seen as complicit with the government. People like me are not, for example, supposed to go to academic conferences in Israel. Screw that.

It goes even further: BDS calls for a boycott of Israeli artists, writers, singers, and so on—and I presume Israeli comedians like Silverman. That, again, is a boycott not of a government, but of Israelis themselves: Jews. You don’t have to think too hard to see the anti-Semitism inherent in BDS.

Silverman makes an oblique reference to Israel as practicing apartheid. That, too, is arrant nonsense. Arabs in Israel live with all the rights of citizens, including the right to be judges, sit in the Knesset, and so on. If there is truly an apartheid territory in that area, it’s Palestine, where Jews are not allowed to live and are vilified constantly by the government.  And the Palestinian government, either by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, is brutal, repressive, and unempathic towards its people. Gays and apostates are guilty of capital crimes; women are oppressed. There is no freedom of speech. Does Sarah know that? Certainly the American Far Left should, but they ignore it.

Silverman’s claim that the boycotts against South Africa (in which I participated!) were effective is a dubious claim. Grania used to tell me, and she lived in South Africa then, that it was the moral suasion, not the boycott, that finally ended apartheid. I’m not a historian, so I will just drop that here and move on.

As for the West Bank, one can make a valid claim that, under international law, Israelis have a right to that territory, which was occupied by Jordan until 1967. At that time, when Israel reclaimed it after the war, Israel still was willing to give up the West Bank to Palestinians in return for peace. The Palestinians refused. Now, however, it would be suicide to turn the West Bank over to the Palestinians, who would simply use it and its height to fire rockets at vital parts of Israel that are very close. And don’t forget that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza to placate world opinion, turning that area and its resources completely over to the Palestinians. That didn’t work, either: Hamas is using Gaza as a convenient platform to fire rockets into southern Israel and launch terror attacks.

At any rate, Silverman should know better than to spout this nonsense. She appears to know nothing about BDS or the history of Israel, and yet she makes videos like this. I could attribute her palaver to the possibility that she might be high, for she surely looks to be in a bit of other-consciousness, but I’ll take her words seriously. Sarah, if you want to discuss your claims, give me a call. 🙂

h/t: Eli

Another critic writes in touting the scientific rationality of Islam and decrying the moral failures of atheism

December 15, 2020 • 9:00 am

Since Yahoo! News reprinted my essay from The Conversation arguing that science and religion are incompatible, I’ve been getting lots of emails, nearly all from people who disagree with me. The accommodationists are, of course, religionists, and don’t like to hear that their faith puts them at odds with science. Many of them, like the reader below, also takes atheism to task. I’ve redacted this writer’s name because, unlike the Vatican Vice Astronomer, I don’t think the name is relevant.

This correspondent tries to make two points. First, Islam is not nearly as strongly at odds with science as is Christianity. Second, that religion gives us a moral framework but atheism doesn’t.  Both points are wrong, and I’ll respond to each separately.  The quotes the writer gives within his/her email are put in italics and quotation marks, for the “extra indent” feature isn’t working right now.

Read and weep:


Thank you for the article Yes, there is a war between science and religion. There are two reasons why I would argue that the article reflects atheism in denial of its own shortcomings. You write

“In the end, it’s irrational to decide what’s true in your daily life using empirical evidence, but then rely on wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions to judge the ‘truths’ undergirding your faith. This leads to a mind (no matter how scientifically renowned) at war with itself, producing the cognitive dissonance that prompts accommodationism. If you decide to have good reasons for holding any beliefs, then you must choose between faith and reason. And as facts become increasingly important for the welfare of our species and our planet, people should see faith for what it is: not a virtue but a defect.”

Here you are clearly extrapolating your own experiences with Christian apologists to followers of other religions: in particular Islam. I’d argue that Muslims have no need for “wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions” when forming a judgement about the reliability of their religion. It is common for atheists to  assume that the conflicts between the Bible and scientific evidence (e.g. the descriptions of the Flood, the Exodus or age of the earth) applies equally to the Quran. However, to my knowledge there has been no serious scholarly effort to support this assumption or more generally to show that the Quranic accounts and claims are in conflict with what we have learned through science.

For example, a reading of the Quranic account of the Flood would reveal that it occurred over a short period (a couple of days), the animals preserved were only those required to support a small human settlement and there is no mention of the whole earth being flooded. In regard to the Exodus, the Moses leads a small group of people into the desert, much less in number than the Pharaoh’s pursuing army, so one would not expect to find evidence of over 1 million people roaming the desert for 40 years. In addition, the Quran predicts the preservation of the Pharaoh’s body for future generations. Finally while there is no mention of the Earth’s age, there is a description of the creation of the universe which appears consistent with what we’ve been able to learn through science.

So I think its fair to say that atheists have a lot more work to do to make their case than many are prepared to acknowledge.

The email went on, but let me stop and respond:

As I pointed out in an email to this person, there is a growing literature on the incompatibility of science and Islam.  Here’s how I responded when the person asked for even one piece of literature pointing out an Islamic incompatibility between science and faith.

First, there’s Taner Edis’s book (click on screenshot):

Another book by Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy on the stifling of scientific thought and rationality by modern Islam (and how that contrasts with the faith’s more open attitude centuries ago). 


An article from Discover Magazine (click on screenshot:


A quote from the article:

“This tendency [of Muslim accommodationists] to use their knowledge of science to ‘prove’ that the religious interpretations of life are correct is really corrupting,” he tells me. Soltan, who got his doctorate at the University of Northern Illinois, works in a small office that’s pungent with tobacco smoke; journals and newspapers lie stacked on his desk and floor. “Their methodology is bad,” he says. Soltan explains that Islamic scientists start with a conclusion (the Koran says the body has 360 joints) and then work toward proving that conclusion. To reach the necessary answer they will, in this instance, count things that some orthopedists might not call a joint. “They’re sure about everything, about how the universe was created, who created it, and they just need to control nature rather than interpret it,” Soltan adds. “But the driving force behind any scientific pursuit is that the truth is still out there.”

“Researchers who don’t agree with Islamic thinking ‘avoid questions or research agendas’ that could put them in opposition to authorities — thus steering clear of intellectual debate. In other words, if you are a scientist who is not an Islamic extremist, you simply direct your work toward what is useful. Scientists who contradict the Koran ‘would have to keep a low profile.”’When pressed for examples, Soltan does not elaborate.”

I talk about this kind of Islamic confirmation bias in Faith Versus Fact. It’s pervasive and at once annoying and amusing.

I’ve personally encountered Qur’anic opposition to science—and especially evolution—many times, as has Richard Dawkins. It often comes in the form, as Pitock notes, of saying that the Qur’an is remarkably prescient about science, with its human creation myth coincident with the evolutionary scenario. If you think that’s true, just read about the Qur’anic account itself.  Page 105 of Faith versus Fact shows the desperate lengths that some Muslim scientists go to comport science with the Qur’an.

The resistance of Islam to evolution is not, of course, universal, even within Muslim countries. Surprisingly, Iran doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with evolution being taught in its schools, while Iraq, on the other hand, has always had problems teaching evolution, and has dropped it from secondary-school curricula. Turkey, increasingly becoming a theocracy, did the same thing a few years ago.

The problem comes because many Muslims are Qur’anic literalists. Here are two plots from a 2012 Pew Poll: the first on the proportion of people in (mostly African) Muslim-majority countries who think the Qur’an should be read literally, and then the proportion of people in different Muslim-majority countries who accept evolution. Note that countries like Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia were not surveyed.

Then my correspondent goes on about morality:

The second way in which the article highlights atheist denialism an shortcomings, is in failing to tackling the issue of morality. What are the consequences of a world where ‘moral judgements’ are mere ‘value judgements’ to be decided by each individual. Magnas Bradshaw’s From Humanism to Nihilism: The Eclipse of Secular Ethics (CMC Papers, No. 6) addresses this question. One the one hand we have the teachings of New Atheism, such as Richard Dawkins who writes “‘the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pointless indifference’.” and Francis Crick who is even more explicit, “you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules… ‘‘you’re nothing but a pack of neurons’’.”

On the other hand we have its practitioners, the rationalists, those who take this stuff seriously, such as Ted Bundy, trained lawyer and serial killer, who reasons thus

Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments’, that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself – what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself – that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring – the strength of character – to throw off its shackles…I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others’? Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me – after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self

Bundy’s reasoning is impeccable and based on the teachings of atheists. “Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than  any other animal?” or, “Why shouldn’t Trump tear down the institutions supporting U.S. democracy if he wants?”. Care to answer?

Yes, of course I could answer, but would this person listen? Not a snowball’s chance in hell! But wait! There’s more!

Atheism is leaving people with no guidance on how they should conduct themselves, and what they should expect from others. That’s the reality. And logically, that is what one would expect when people do not believe in a soul capable of oppressing itself through its oppression of others or even simply contemplating words of repentance and aspiration such as : “You that turn stones to gold.. change me.”(Rumi). If you want to claim that such notions are the result of “wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions” then first offer the scholarly work that demonstrates that the Quran is indeed incompatible with what we have learned through science, and hence unreliable.

Name redacted

Where to start here? First of all, neither Dawkins nor Crick would deny that there is a morality that can be derived from humanism; Dawkins, as well as his colleagues Dan Dennett and Anthony Grayling, have been quite explicit on this point.  Indeed, unless you’re one of the few “moral objectivists”, even religious morality must come from “value judgements.”  This is the crux of the Euthyphro argument: if you say that God is good, and wouldn’t give us bad moral guidance, you are assuming there are criteria for “good” and “bad” that are independent of God. (Theologians such as William Craig, who adhere to “divine command theory which stipulates that God is the sole determinant of good, are exceptions, and their morality isn’t so hot anyway. Craig doesn’t oppose the many genocides in the Old Testament, since God ordered them.) Even religious moral judgments, then, are almost always based on “value judgments”. But so what? Different judgments have different consequences for society. You can, for example, be a utilitarian, and base your morality on what acts will do the most good or cause the least harm. Other criteria lead to other moralities, but all of them are superior to the “morality” of the Catholic Church or Islam.

Further, there is a long history of writing and philosophy on secular ethics and morality, beginning with the Greeks, extending through Kant and Hume down to Rawls, Russell, and Grayling in modern times. It is not at all true that atheists haven’t grappled with the problem or morality. To use Ted Bundy as a secular arbiter of morality is simply ridiculous!

And, of course, humanistic morality is far superior to religious morality. The latter has given us things like dictates about genital cutting, the oppression of women and gays, the diktat to kill apostates and infidels, the terrorizing of children with thoughts of hell, the abnegation of modern medicine (Christian science and other faith-healing sects), the prohibition of divorce and regulations about how to have sex and when, and the propagandizing of innocent children, who get turned into little Amish people or Orthodox Jews, deprived of opportunity and education—all because of religious morality.

When I reread the email above, I realized that the writer hadn’t really investigated the rich tradition of secular ethics, and was also woefully—and perhaps willfully—ignorant of what many Muslims think about science. I’m not sure why, but I did write him/her a summary of what I’ve said above.

You should feel free yourself to address the writer’s remarks, and I’ll call that person’s attention to this thread tomorrow.

Lagniappe (h/t Peter N.):

Religion infects everyone

November 25, 2020 • 2:15 pm

If you click on the screenshot below from LiveLeak, or go to an article in the New York Post, you’ll see a pretty horrifying sight: an assemblage of thousands of unmasked and singing religionists celebrating during the pandemic in defiance of New York regulations:

What is it? An Orthodox Jewish wedding. The Post explains:

A Hasidic synagogue in Brooklyn planned the wedding of a chief rabbi’s grandson with such secrecy, it was able to host thousands of maskless celebrants without the city catching on.

Despite a surge in COVID-19 cases, guests crammed shoulder to shoulder inside the Yetev Lev temple in Williamsburg for the Nov. 8 nuptials — stomping, dancing and singing at the top of their lungs without a mask in sight, videos obtained by The Post show.

Organizers schemed to hide the wedding of Yoel Teitelbaum, grandson of Satmar Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, from “the ravenous press and government officials,” says a detailed account in the Yiddish newspaper Der Blatt, the publication of the Satmar sect.

“Due to the ongoing situation with government restrictions, preparations were made secretly and discreetly, so as not to draw attention from strangers,” the paper reported in its Nov. 13 edition.

. . .The synagogue’s stunning willingness to host a potential superspreader event underscores what critics call the Hasidic community’s ongoing disregard and outright defiance of efforts to control the deadly coronavirus, which has killed nearly 25,000 people in New York City.

Ironically, the synagogue’s own president, R’Mayer Zelig Rispler, who openly urged Brooklyn’s Orthodox community to abide by coronavirus safety measures, died of COVID-19 last month at age 70.

Note as well that there’s only one woman in the crowd: the bride. The rest of the women are either absent or watching from screened alcoves above. This is one of the ways the Orthodox turn their women into second-class citizens.

Singing loudly is a great way to spread the virus, especially if you’re jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with other maskless people. And those fur hats must be great traps for respiratory particles.  Let’s hope this doesn’t convert one wedding into a bunch of funerals.


Yet another case of a woman asked to move so she wouldn’t give cooties to Orthodox Jews

August 29, 2020 • 1:00 pm

I figured that this kind of report was over and done with, as surely airlines know that it’s gender discrimination to ask a passenger to move to accommodate a religiously-based request not to sit next to someone of the opposite sex. Yet, despite lawsuits won by women who complain about being forced to move, the incidents persist. And the situations invariably involve male ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish men, who consider themselves polluted and violating the dictates of Yahweh should they touch a woman.

The most famous incident even has its own Wikipedia page: the case of Renee Rabinowitz, an American-Israeli psychologist. Flying to Tel Aviv in business class in 2015, she was forced by the El Al flight attendants to change seats at the request of a Haredi male. She sued for discrimination, and won a settlement of 6500 shekels (about $1800) plus a promise from El Al that it would change its policy so it was nondiscriminatory.

Curiously, the Israeli Religious Action Center (IRAC), which helped Rabinowitz win her case, then tried to put ads in the Ben Gurion Airport informing women of their rights. The airport refused, which is really bad form, and a decision that makes little sense. I like the ads: here’s one that was proposed:

But I digress. Now there’s a new and similar case reported in the Guardian (click on screenshot below):

The details:

A British-Israeli woman is suing easyJet after the low-cost airline asked her to move seats on a flight from Tel Aviv to London following objections from ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who refused to sit next to a female passenger.

Melanie Wolfson, 38, is claiming 66,438 shekels (almost £15,000) compensation in a lawsuit filed on her behalf by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), which won a similar case in 2017 brought against El Al, the Israeli national carrier.

Wolfson, a professional fundraiser who moved to Israel 13 years ago and lives in Tel Aviv, is also asking that easyJet bans its cabin crew from asking women to switch seats because of their gender.

According to the lawsuit, Wolfson paid extra for an aisle seat on her flight last October. An ultra-Orthodox man and his son, who were sitting in the row when she arrived, asked Wolfson to switch seats with a man a few rows ahead.

Wolfson says she was “insulted and humiliated” by the request. “It was the first time in my adult life that I was discriminated against for being a woman,” she told Haaretz.

They offered her a free hot drink if she moved, but what the bloody hell is that? A free hot drink? What kind of pikers is this company?  But they shouldn’t have asked her at all. Instead, they should have made the men move. Other flight attendants told Wolfson that they often ask women to switch seats away from Haredi men. The sad thing is that some women, and Wolfson is one, are nice and agree to move, but that doesn’t obviate their right to sue.  Israeli law prohibits discrimination like this on the basis of sex and other issues.

This happened again two months later, but Wolfson, fed up, refused to move. Two other women did move to allow the Orthodox men to have their seats.

Yes, I’m a secular Jew, but I’m not going easy on this kind of religious misogyny no matter who practices it. I tweeted to easyJet (below), but I doubt I’ll get a response. You can also contact easyJet using a form found here, or use Messenger here to send them a quick message. Maybe if enough people object, they’ll stop this practice.

h/t; Ginger K.