Hell Is a School, Apparently

By now, you’ve all seen this T-shirt, which began circulating approximately several years before 17 people were killed at Stoneman Douglas High School, in Florida:

T-shirt: "Dear God, why do you allow violence in schools?" "I'm not allowed in schools. -- God"

As many people have pointed out, the implication is that, against all theology, God—or at least the God of sanctimonious T-shirt wearers—is not omnipresent. That a simple legislative measure is sufficient to banish God from a place.

But if you point this out, or indeed dare to make fun of a religious idea, institution, or person in a public forum, you’ll see veiled threats of hell:

godly comments

I’ve found that Christians far prefer veiled threats over overt ones. I think they’re uncomfortable with their own beliefs, and prefer to skate around them. Or maybe what they believe deep down isn’t what they believe in public. At any rate, the usual response I get is that Hell, in the afterlife, is simply an absence of God.

So, it’s like a school, I guess.

I’ve attended public school, and I still go there, for special events. I’ve never seen a pitchfork or smelled a lake of molten sulfur (and if there were, I’m sure there’d be railings so you didn’t fall in accidentally).

But really, if The Bad Afterlife is like being in an American public school, then sure, I’ll take that. It sounds an awful lot like ordinary life right now.

Grand Juries: The System Is Biased

Four months ago, I was kindly invited by the county to sit on a grand jury. The whole thing turned out to be more interesting than I had expected, and while I’m not allowed to talk about deliberations or the internals of the process, to allow jurors to speak freely inside the courtroom, I wanted to share a few thoughts.
First of all, this is a grand jury. The kind you’re probably thinking of, the 12 Angry Men type of jury of your peers, is a petit jury. The grand jury looks at an indictment and decides whether there’s probable cause to go forward to trial. That is, the petit jury decides whether the defendant did what they’re accused of doing. The grand jury merely decides whether there’s something going on; whether it’s worth having a trial at all.

One of the first things that struck me is how biased the system is in favor of bringing a case to trial.

  1. To start with, the evidentiary bar is much lower: instead of “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “preponderance of the evidence”, which a petit jury uses, the grand jury merely looks for “probable cause”. Basically, was a crime committed, and is there reason to think that the defendant may have committed it? The bar is low, so it’s easy to pass. Basically, this just excludes cases where a cop arrests someone for looking funny.
  2. The cases are introduced by a state prosecutor, who also educates the grand jury in legal matters (e.g., explaining the difference between first and second degree assault), and are read by another state employee, such as a police detective. That is, the state presents the (alleged) facts of the case, the state provides legal guidance, and no one is there to speak for the accused. It’s a bit like when your car mechanic tells you that you need a new part, and is also the person who explains what that part does.
  3. Related to the above: the prosecutor decides which cases to bring before a grand jury, and when. This isn’t a bad thing, as it means that the prosecutor doesn’t push a case before it’s ready, but it does mean that by the time a case gets to a grand jury, it’s probably good to go.
  4. As I understand it, a petit jury has to render a unanimous verdict. That is, twelve out of twelve people have to agree. In a grand jury, on the other hand, twelve out of twenty-three people (at least, in this county) have to agree. That is, almost half of the jury could have reservations, and the case could still move forward.
  5. Not all errors are equally costly: there are two types of mistake a grand jury can make: it can accept a case with no merit, or it can reject a case that ought to go to trial. In the first case, someone walks who should have gone before a judge, and possibly sent to prison. In the second case, someone has to waste a few hours or days getting their case thrown out of court. The impact of the two types of error is not the same, and so there’s the temptation to play it safe and let iffy cases proceed.

To give you an idea of how biased the system is, the state prosecutor who conducted orientation said that grand juries do dismiss cases, maybe two or three times a year. A year. I estimate that over 2000 cases a year get presented to grand juries in that courthouse, so that’s a rejection rate of about 0.1%.

I’m not saying that the system is broken, or hopelessly unjust, or anything like that. Just that the way things are set up, if you can get a case before a grand jury, it’s a very safe bet that it’ll proceed (I was going to say “that it’ll make it to trial”, but then I realized that there are a lot of pitfalls between the grand jury and the trial.)

“It’s Getting Old” Isn’t A Rebuttal

One response that I see a lot on Twitter and elsewhere is some variation on “calling Trump supporters racist is getting old”. And maybe I’m growing stupid as I grow older, but it finally dawned on me what was bugging me about that.

I’ve been in plenty of discussions where one side or another used an argument that had been debunked long ago — I used to debate creationists on Usenet, after all. But this feels different. It’s “Oh God, here we go again”, but not in a “now I need to dig up the FAQ one more goddamn time” way.

“Calling me racist is old” is all about style, not substance. It doesn’t say “I’m not a racist”, it merely says “Stop using those words”. It’s not about hearing a false factoid that just won’t die; it’s about hearing a joke for the millionth time that wasn’t even that funny to begin with.

It’s the sort of thing you say when you’re trading insults or yo-mamma jokes with someone. It’s not serious. It doesn’t matter. Certainly neither you nor anyone you know or care about is in danger of losing their health insurance, or die from a back-alley abortion, or have ICE break into their home and ship them to a foreign country.

It is, in short, something said by those who have the luxury of caring only whether their team wins, not whether said win is going to have any real-world repercussions.

Does Christianity Offer the Best Basis for Science?

There’s an argument I’ve run across several times, that theism, and specifically Christianity, forms a much better basis for science than does atheism. Indeed, some people go so far as to claim that only Christianity provides a foundation for science. Matt Slick at CARM lays it out well (though Don Johnson Ministries makes a similar argument). After listing a number of influential scientists who were Christians, Slick writes:

To many Christians, the idea that God existed and brought the universe into existence meant that the universe could be understood because God was a God of order and his character would be reflected in creation (Rom. 1:20).  Instead of a Pantheon of gods who ran the universe in an unpredictable fashion, Christianity provided the monotheistic bedrock (Isaiah 43:10; 44:6,8; 45:5) upon which the scientific study of nature could be justified.  Many Christians expected to find the secrets that God had hidden in the universe and were confident in being able to discover them.  This is a critical philosophical foundation that is necessary if an emerging culture is to break the shackles of ignorance and superstition in order to discover what secrets exist in the world around them.

This emphasis on order seems odd, since one of the main features of Christianity is miracles, that is, violations of natural law. Without at least the resurrection of Jesus, there is no Christianity. Add to that the various miracles Jehovah, Jesus, and various and sundry saints are said to have performed, the common notion that God sometimes responds to prayer by performing additional miracles, and weekly transubstantiation in church, and you get a picture of reality in which any regularities, any laws of nature exist only so long as a malleable deity permits them to exist.

If scientists like Kepler and Newton saw the Christian God as fundamentally one of order rather than caprice, and drew inspiration for their scientific pursuits from that, fine. But that’s hardly the only type of Christianity out there. I doubt that theirs was even a majority view. But in a time and place where pretty much everyone was Christian (and where not being Christian often carried either social stigma or legal penalty), of course Christians are going to be the ones doing science.

It seems to me that Taoism is a much better match for Matt Slick’s description than Christianity. You could, I think, make a strong case for the notion that the Tao is natural law. There’s certainly the notion that you can either go with the Tao, or you can wear yourself out trying to go against it.

(Yes, this still leaves the question of why so many scientific discoveries came from Europe rather than China. But that’s an interesting question for another day. I suspect that the fact that Europeans wrote American history textbooks has something to do with it.)

I suppose it wouldn’t do to mention alchemy and algebra, whose prefix “al” betrays their Muslim origin. Or the fact that a large proportion of visible stars have Arabic names.

I also don’t see why it takes a whole religion or worldview to want to figure out what makes the world tick. Anyone can see that day follows night, summer follows spring, rocks always roll downhill, never up, and that oaks only come from acorns. Clearly there are some regularities, and these can be investigated. We’re curious creatures; figuring stuff out is fun.

There’s a related claim to the one that Christians founded all the sciences: that Christians founded all the major universities. I haven’t checked this, but I see no reason to doubt this claim.

This brings me to my final point: let’s grant, at least for the sake of argument, that Christians, motivated by their understanding of God as a lawmaker, got all of the sciences started; that most or all of the major universities were founded as institutions to learn how God set up the universe; that Christianity is the only religion — the only worldview — that could have kickstarted science this way, and that out of those beginnings grew science as we know it today… so what? Why keep religion around today?

A scaffolding is essential when beginning a new building. But after a certain point, it needs to go. I was on an all-milk diet for the first, crucial part of my life, and that helped make me into the person I am today. But that doesn’t mean that I should continue to drink milk as an adult; I especially shouldn’t be on an all-milk diet.

Whatever benefits religion may once have provided to science, these days it just gets in the way, from creationism to anti-gay “conversion therapy” to faith-based climate change denialism. It’s time to jettison it.

iOS 4 Degrades Photos

Like millions of other sheeple, today I upgraded to , graciously provided by our benevolent overlords at Apple.

One problem I noticed is that after the upgrade, when I tried setting the wallpaper, all of the pictures I had had turned into their thumbnails, i.e., they were small grainy pictures. I could blow them up to full-screen size, but of course they lost a lot of resolution and generally looked like crap.

The fix turned out to be pretty easy: in iTunes→your iPod→Photos, uncheck the box that says “Sync Photos from”, and apply to delete all photos. Then check the box again and reapply. Evidently the pictures are still stored on the desktop, in glorious full resolution and everything. This reuploads them to the iPod.