Playing the Indian Card

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Mad Hermit Salinger

I'm starting to get irritated by the coverage of J.D. Salinger's death—or rather, his life, as described in his obituaries. Nobody seems to be able to accept his withdrawal from the world. One writer even insists he was “mentally ill,” as if that was an explanation instead of simply a pejorative. W.P. Kinsella claims archly that his attempt to avoid publicity was simply a ploy to get publicity. All speak of him as “eccentric,” and a “recluse.”

All I see is an intelligent man. He was, in his own words, “in the world but not of it.” Though Salinger was apparently not a Christian this is simply what all Christians are called to be. This, indeed, is the only sane option in life; everything else is madness. Holden Caulfield would have called it, the whole social game, "phoniness"; and this is exactly what Jesus called it: "hypocrisy" is simply the New Testament Greek equivalent. Having made enough from his first novel to live comfortably for the rest of his life, why should he have chased after more money? Why should he have sought more fame? Why not instead take the opportunity to spend the rest of his life writing, in its purest form—that being a form of prayer, a dialogue with God? Since God exists, nothing else matters nearly so much. Salinger made the wisest choice; I would have done the same.

Indeed, William James Sardis, the man with the highest IQ ever measured, did the same. The monastery is the same thing yet again—and our ancestors understood monks to be the happiest of men. Intelligent men do not seek money, beyond their basic needs, or fame, or the world's approval. This is the secret of happiness.

That people these days see this wisdom as “eccentric” or even “mentally ill” is the clearest evidence that the world is mad, madder than ever. Why would a sane man want any part of it?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Buddy Joins Seymour at Last

Today came down what just might be the most important news of the decade: J.D. Salinger is dead.

I do not mourn, though I loved the man. J.D. had no love for this world.

Yet as for the rest of us, we may now get to see what he has been writing for the last 60 years.

Given his talent, and the influence his first novel and a few collections of short stories generated, a sudden release of essentially his life corpus might change world culture. Catcher in the Rye did: along with Kerouac's On the Road, it kicked off the cultural revolution those of us who are still lucid remember as the Sixties.

Was he really writing, though not publishing, all those years? He always said he was; and those who were closest to him, though they never saw what he wrote, believed he was. He went to work every day at his desk. And I believe he must have been. Writers do not write for money, or for publication, or for fame. Writers write because they are compelled to write, as Jonah was compelled to prophesy. And what else would Salinger have been doing, all those years in isolation with, deliberately, nothing else to occupy his time? Of course he was writing; it's mad to imagine otherwise.

Will it be any good? His last published piece, for the New Yorker, is widely considered to be drek; by me as well. Many writers burn out, and never write anything especially good again. But I am minded of something WB Yeats once said: that every aspiring writer has a stark choice. They can either live the life of a writer, or they can actually write.

Salinger, surely, is the perfect example of someone who refused the life of a writer, who backed away from all that, in order to keep writing. If Yeats's views are correct, this probably preserved his relationship with his muse. Those writers who do burn out, I suspect, are either crowded in and loaded down with the necessities of making a good living and supporting a range of dependents—something Salinger was freed from—or are struck with writer's block from fear they can never again live up to their early reviews--something Salinger avoided by not publishing--or are too busy celebrating their fame or drinking themselves to death to concentrate on their craft--Salinger was a health fiend.

By not publishing, Salinger is more likely to have preserved the authenticity of his voice; as Gerard Manley Hopkins did. He may have been freed to say what he most needed to say, without needing to worry about the consequences, whether it would sell, or damage his reputation, or embarrass him, or be panned by the critics, or alienate friends, or unintentionally reveal something he did not intend. It was an interesting experiment, and it will be very interesting to see what it has produced.

Assuming his will allows for it all to be published after his death, my guess is that we are about to see something fantastic.

The iiiPad

Apple's Steve Jobs released the new iPad last night. My guess is that this may be a historic dud; partly because the PR buildup was so great. The iPad turned out to be nothing special. Even Jobs knew it--he stressed too many times how "phenomenal" it was.

Is there room for a device sized in between the laptop and the PDA? Only, I think, if it is an efficient tool for reading books—that's the only niche not served by either of those. Otherwise, being just a bit easier to carry around than a laptop is not going to convince many to go out and buy a third device. This is demonstrated, I think, by the commercial failure so far of both netbooks and tablet PCs.

As Jobs himself said, a successful middle entry must do somthing significantly better than either. And the iPad does not. It is just a very big iPod.

Its one opening was, I think, as an ereader. That is the niche, and Amazon's Kindle has been doing well with it. But despite Jobs' claims, I'm confident the iPad will not fly as an ereader: being backlit, it is just not going to be comfortable to read from for extended times, any more than a laptop is now. Serious readers are not going to buy it.

The one way to overtake Amazon, given their superb ability to offer content, is to offer a reflected light technology with colour—Kindle's eInk weak link. Only trouble is, that technology is not yet available. It is just possible, I suppose, that Jobs is releasing the iPad now with a plan to upgrade to a colour technology under development, but not ready yet. To be in a position to compete with Amazon in a year's time or so, he needs in the meantime to be building a respectable library of epublications to offer. Hard to do without some sort of reader for them; certainly hard to do while keeping the enterprise secret. So the current iPad might be no more than a stalking horse.

Yet even if something like this is the plan, I think it's risky; the ePad may get a bad rep by then, and become too un-cool to recover. Since cool is Apple's main selling point, this gets tough for them. And how sure can Jobs be that they will arrive at a decent colour display before Amazon, or some third player, does?

There's a decent chance the iPad could gain a rep reminiscent of the Edsel. Those with memories long enough will know it has happened to Apple before, and that Steve Jobs' marketing instincts are not infallible. Anyone else remember the Apple III?

If I were holding Apple stock, I'd sell.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

From an Advertisement for a Position Teaching Social Work

The University of Manitoba's current employment ad for new members of its faculty of Social Work includes this helpful observation:

“The Faculty of Social Work is proud of its continued efforts to broaden accessibility to social work education that addresses poverty, family violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism and other forms and sources of oppression.”

Translation: non-members of the far left need not apply.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Newspeak to English Dictionary

Confucius taught that the first task in creating good government is “the rectification of terms”—making sure words mean what they are supposed to mean. I think his point was the same point George Orwell made in his essay “Politics and the English Language” as well as in 1984: the meaning of words can be subverted for political ends.

They say in China that the first to get thrown in prison by any oppressive government are the poets and writers. They are a danger, because they understand language too well. But when it comes to ordinary people, it is easy enough, by manupulating language, to make the bad appear to be the good, to, as Plato said of the Sophists, make the weaker argument appear the stronger, and so get away with just about anything.

To change the meaning of a word, to deliberately use it where it does not fit, is to tell a lie. And in a sense, it is the lie that makes all other evil possible; for if we call a sin what it is, our conscience begins to hold us back. This is why the devil is called “the father of lies.”

To manipulate the meaning of common words is therefore, in and of itself, deeply evil; the proper use of language is, as Confucius said, a moral issue.
So we need someone to step forward and make the ways streight for the Lord. We need a systematic “Newspeak to English dictionary” to point out where a term has been subverted. I offer a few terms that should be included:

Liberal – this is supposed to mean a bedrock belief in individual liberties; a true liberal believes in free trade, small government, the right to work, and loose immigration policies. It has been perverted since the 1950s and the communist scare into a euphemism for Marxism, socialism, or social democracy. If you want to sell socialism, okay; but don't pretend it is liberalism. That would be gross fraud if a corporation did it: selling Pepsi, say, under a fake “Coca-Cola” label.

Social justice – the term was coined by a Jesuit scholar in the nineteenth century to refer to a belief in basic human dignity, the social contract, and the doctrine of human rights. It had nothing to do with the redistribution of wealth, but has been hijacked by Marxists, socialists, and social democrats to imply this. Whether it is justice to take money from Peter and give it to Paul, simply because Peter has more money than Paul, or because Paul is of a different race, is not self-evident.

Anti-racism – now means what the old term “racism” already covered: systematic discrimination for and against specific groups on the basis of their supposed ethnicity. Yet the prefix “anti-” is supposed to mean “against,” not “more, more; faster, faster!”

Affirmative action – in itself, the term is perfectly meaningless, a bit of nonsense worthy of Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland. But its vagueness usefully obscures something the proper name of which is less appealing: discrimination on the basis of sex, race, etc.

Gender – properly refers to the classification of nouns into more or less arbitrary groups grammatically. It is now used to replace the term “sex” in order to force into the very language the obvious lie that the sexual differences between man and women are arbitrary human inventions, not inborn.

Homophobia – a phobia is an irrational fear; this term tries to subvert debate with the nasty ad hominem that anyone who objects to homosexuality is insane. It is also illiterate. “Homo” does not mean “homosexuality.” “Homophobia” would make more sense as an irrational fear of living in Kansas.

Gay – “homosexual” was never a pejorative; it was a technical term. Seeking to replace it with another term with a universally favourable meaning is plainly dishonest, whatever you think of the morality of homosexual sex.

Progressive—properly means someone who believes in overall human progress, or at least human material progress, as in the old “Whig view of history.” It is now commonly used for the exact opposite: for those who believe the world is hurriedly heading for hell in a handcart, and those who oppose all material progress as “unsustainable.”

Invest—deceitful when used for government spending. A notable innovation by Bill Clinton. The term is fair if and only if there is a reasonable expectation that a given government expenditure will lead directly to higher government revenue in future. One might oppose government spending, but it is hard to oppose government “investment.”

Peace – everyone wants peace, which makes it dishonest to co-opt the term for a specific theory on how best to achieve it. Which is just what has been done, when people on the left refer to things like “Peace Studies.” These rarely speak favourably about collective security and the need for a strong military as a deterrent.

Abuse—a term far too useful for the Pharisees to leave alone; it can be trotted out to apply to anyone doing anything the speaker disagrees with. It started with “drug abuse,” already a nonsense term; went on to “wife abuse,” “child abuse,” “emotional abuse.” I have even heard of “financial abuse.” Call anything “abuse,” and you get to pass a law forcing people to conform. Call someone an “abuser,” and you have stripped them of all humanity.

Rape – has a good strong connotation, and so it is useful to exploit—to the point at which “all heterosexual sex is rape.” The term should be restricted to coitus achieved by physical force, and nothing else.

Working class – contemporary Marxists have twisted this concept and term to the point at which the “working class” is the professional, managerial class. Writers and artists even become “cultural workers.” Marx’s working class of manual labourers? They’re not working class; they're “rednecks,” or at best are designated “middle class.” By this sleight of hand, teachers, professors, and civil servants become a victim group oppressed by the manual labourers who must pay their salaries whether they like it or not.

Choice—As in “pro-choice,” and “a woman’s right to choose.” There is no such thing as a “right to choose,” to begin with. And here the term is deliberately vague to disguise the true referent: abortion. “Choice” means “abortion”: it is that simple. “A woman’s right to choose” = “A woman’s right to abort.”

Evolution—evolution is, properly, the belief that species evolve into different species over time. This is quite distinct from “Darwinism” or “Darwinian evolution”; it is false to claim that, if you reject Darwin, you reject evolution. Darwin's contribution was the idea that evolution is due to natural selection of random mutations in an ongoing struggle for survival.

Sexual predator – a predator is an animal that kills what it eats—a carnivore. There is simply no relationship to someone who seeks sex with children. But using the term, again, strips the person of all humanity and justifies any punishment.

All for now—a child has jumped in my lap. I could go on.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Avatar--Is It Just Me Who Smells Smoke in this Crowded Theatre?

On urgings by techie friends, I went to see Avatar in IMAX last night. It is on track, I understand, to break the all-time box office record; and has already come out on top in the Critics' Choice Awards.

I thought it was drek. Take away the FX, and all you have is Disney's Pocahontas, without the songs, stretched out to three hours. It was drek in detail: no character ever said anything that was not a cliche. Whole scenes seemed to be taken from other recent movies; the final battle between the hero and the evil colonel in a mechanical suit was taken direct from Iron Man. And plausible? I'm as willing as anyone to suspend disbelief, but how about a few thousand armed with wooden bows and arrows taking out a futuristic fleet of helicopter gunships? How did the Na'vi tribe survive with no children? How does a soul pass through something like a USB port?

I read there is now something of a mental health crisis among those who have recently seen Avatar, and cannot adjust to not living in the “utopian” world of the Na'vis.

This I can understand, in a way, but it also surprised me, because I saw the Na'vis' world, personally, as anything but utopian. Although it is certainly a romanticised and falsified view of hunter-gatherer existence, if that is what it is meant to represent, there are lots of ways in which the movie itself suggests it is not really a utopia at all. First, obviously, the name of this world is “Pandora.” Pandora, in Greek mythology, was created by the gods as a punishment for man, and the most obvious association for most with the name is “Pandora's Box”--from which comes all the evils of life. Colonel Quarich at the start of the movie describes Pandora as worse than hell. If the Na'vi commune happily with some of Pandora's animals, they are also clearly tasty prey to many others; Jake survives the dangerous initiation ritual, but one must assume that most Na'vi are torn to shreds by it on the cusp of adulthood. If they have survived that long. There seems to be a nice level of community solidarity, but one can also apparently be put to death at the tribal leader's whim.

Note that the Na'vi themselves have some of the traditional characteristics of devils: the long, hairless tail, the pointed ears, fangs, a vaguely goatlike nose. To them, the invading humans are the “sky people,” and the association of up with good and down with evil is a strong one in the human consciousness. They are also creatures of the night: Jake's avatar awakes as he goes to sleep in our world, and vice versa. Their god speaks to them not from the sky, but from under ground; their religion is purely materialist. The term “avatar” in turn implies that we humans are gods, from the perspective of the Na'vi.

The Na'vi culture and village is built around a huge tree. Go behind the obvious “tree-hugger” reference, and you see the tree in the centre of Eden. Yes, Eden is a praradise, but the tree in its centre is the forbidden source of all evil; and these Na'vi actually worship the tree. To make the reference clearer, Jake Sully actually is offered and bites into a very big, very juicy fruit at the beginning of the movie, just after he is first transformed into a Na'vi; and the fruit is offered him by a woman, Dr. Grace, who is in charge of the mission and who is primarily responsible for turning him into a Na'vi. Adam, meet Eve.

To be clear, given their appearance, the fact that they worship the tree, and that Jake bites the apple on first becoming a Na'vi, I think we are to take them as representing, not the first humans, but the tempting devils, of Eden. They do not crawl on their bellies, like snakes—but neither did the snake of Eden, until after the fall and God's curse. He might as well have looked like a Na'vi. In becoming Na'vis, Jake and Dr. Grace are Adam and Eve.

Taken together, the symbolic point of the movie seems to be to tell the Eden story from the devil's perspective. If we only accept that apple, the apple in this case being the lovely imaginary world of the movie itself, and chow down on it hard, we inherit the world of the Na'vi, with all its glow-in-the-dark glamour and freedom from the ugly rules of civilization, that keep us from following our instincts and doing just what we want. All women will then be beautiful, all men strong and brave. Nature will conform to our wishes. There will be no children weighing us down with responsibilities, and we will live forever, in the Great Mother, become as gods.

Sounds good to some, clearly. But, at the same time, the devil is constrained to a certain level of honesty. If you really see Pandora as a paradise, you are not paying very close attention.

I doubt James Cameron himself sees or intends any of this—I gather his own sympathies are with the Na'vi. He has said, "the Na'vi represent something that is our higher selves, or our aspirational selves, what we would like to think we are." But all inspiration is ultimately from God; the devil must speak truth in spite of himself.

Of course, the movie is also quite harsh on the “sky people” --the communion of saints and angels. They have “destroyed their home planet.” There is nothing green there. They are prepared to kill all the Na'vi for the sake of an incredibly valuable mineral called “unobtainium.” So they too, loo like materialists.

Except that “unobtainium,” traditionally, is the term used by engineers for any ideal substance they would like to have, but cannot get. A substance, in other words, that exists entirely as an idea, but not in the physical world. A pretty good metaphor, when speaking to complete materialists like the Na'vi, for the human soul. And God did indeed, along with his avenging angel Colonel Michael, launch war on the celestial Na'vi for the soul of mankind.

If the soul is indeed of more genuine, absolute value, than all the material pleasures and perils of Pandora, or of this world, then it is just and not selfish for Selfridge to dispossess the Na'vi to obtain it; even if he is not God and did not create it in the first place. If there are more sky people than the total population of Na'vi, clearly quite small, in line to benefit, Selfridge is again justified, by JS Mill's principle of the greatest good to the greatest number. There is a point at which the common good supercedes the right to private property; hence the government right to expropriation when circumstances warrant. Selfish Selfridge is actually not being selfish if this is the case; and it quite probably is, given the movie's own premises. Of course, the mysterious corporation ought to do everything it can to convince the Na'vi to move peacefully before they send in the bulldozers—but the movie demonstrates that Jake and Grace themselves are certain the Na'vi will never agree to a peaceful settlement, and that the corporation knows this. It's all in their video logs.

The movie does what it can to keep you seeing everything from the perspective of the Na'vi, but it does make the moral issue fairly plain. You side with the Na'vi, you are siding with the wrong, merely because they and their world are attractive and they have big soulful eyes.


There's one fried every minute.

Friday, January 15, 2010


The National Post recently editorialised that Neil Young is “unquestionably Canada's best songwriter.”

Sounds questionable. This brought a flurry of letters suggesting other candidates. What most became manifestr was the point that Canada is exceptionally strong in the field of the popular song. Granted, the US is the world centre; but the US has ten times Canada's population. I think, proportionately, Canada more than holds its own, even against the US, let alone other major centres. There is nowhere in this world where you can escape Anne Murray, Celine Dion, or Gordon Lightfoot playing softly in the elevator or on the local pa.

For my part, for whatever it's worth, perhaps a loonie, I would rather listen to a half-dozen Canadian songwriters than anyone else. To my ear, they are genuinely better than anyone, anywhere; though this may be largely because, being from my own culture, they share so many of my own assumptions, and seem to see the world as if through my eyes. But that being so, let nobody be so foolish as to say there is no mainstream Canadian culture.

My preferences are definitely folky, and rather old. I think Canadian music generally is more folky than most: than Europe, because we are classless; than the US, because we lack the black infusion. Our roots are more exclusively Celtic, though of course adding strands from elsewhere. And it is primarily Celtic music that has come to be known, in the English-speaking world, as “folk” music.

Here's my list of the best, theoretically in order:

Leonard Cohen. He is the best living poet in the English language; and his music has become almost as good over the years. He surpasses anyone anywhere.

Joni Mitchell. Both words and music are more sophisticated than almost anyone else is doing. She falls below Cohen, though, because her moral and intellectual vision is weaker, smaller, and less reliable.

Stan Rogers. Salt of the earth.

Ian Tyson. Nobody else evokes the Canadian landscape and climate as well.

Gordon Lightfoot. He's written a barrelfull of good songs, and some of them are exceptional. He has also written some songs that make me wince. He's inclined at times to reach for the nearest cliche.

Paul Anka. Not my taste, but brilliant. He seems to be personally responsible for the top five or six karaoke classics of all time. Responsible for the Johnny Carson theme song, Diana, My Way, She's a Lady.

Stompin' Tom Connors. You can mock him; there is no depth to any of it. But he's written a lot of good, rousing songs that do not wear out. I'd say he is in a way the most Canadian of all songwriters, combining our sense of humour and our childlikeness, the two most distinct Canadian cultural characteristics.

Bob Nolan. To my ears, the greatest “Western” composer ever. He wrote, among other songs, “Cool Water,” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”

Buffy Ste. Marie. She's written a few that are transcendent. Qu'Appelle Valley, Up Where We Belong, Until It's Time for You to Go, and some wonderful film scores.
Robbie Robertson. “The Weight”; “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”; “Up on Cripple Creek”; “Somewhere Down that Crazy River.”

Mac Beattie. Forgotten now, but a local hero to the Ottawa Valley, and he ought to be better known.

Neil Young doesn't even make my list, frankly. The same three notes repeated endlessly. You really have to be on drugs to get anything out of it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Who Shall Inherit the Earth?

Everyone keeps saying that Islam is the world's fastest-growing religion. It has become a truism. Apparently, though, the matter is not all that clear; and our view is probably distorted by an unusually fast growth rate for Islam in Europe specifically.

The world's fastest growing major world religion, proportionate to present size, actually seems to be Zoroastrianism. But Zoroastrianism is unlikely to become a major world player any time soon.

So you have to restrict Islam's claim to "among the four or so largest faiths," or something like that. But note too, that is only proportionate to present size. In absolute numbers, the world's fastest-growing religion is Christianity.

If current trends continue, Christianity will continue to increase its share of world population. Islam is growing too; the big losers are tribal religions and atheism. The world is growing more religious.

And here's another wrinkle: Islam's growth is almost all through the human reproductive process; in terms of conversions, Christianity is well ahead (though Zoroastrianism leads here too).

Can we assume Muslims will continue to far outbreed Christians indefinitely? It seems more likely that, as the Muslim world, currently a lot poorer than the Christian world, develops, Muslims will follow trends elsewhere and start having fewer children.

So the prospect of Islam inheriting the world does not seem to be all that likely, long term.

The REAL Men in Black

I've always thought this is where that comic book, and then movie, concept originally came from.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Friday, January 08, 2010

New Years' Predictions

If you look back at anyone's predictions from a year ago, they are more or less always all wrong. I wonder why we bother? We poor mortals really cannot foresee the future.

Still, the temptation is too great. Here are mine. My track record stinks. I actually think I have a good sense of what's coming; what is unpredictable is when. We'll see in a year's time.

1. Global warming is dead, dead as Jacob Marley, but nothing dramatic is likely to mark this fact—or rather, the dramatic event, Climategate, has already happened. The experts never publicly admit that they were wrong; it takes the next generation to point it out. Like global overpopulation before it, global warming will just slowly fade from the news and public consciousness. The earth will no doubt still be ending, but it will be something else now.

2. I've been predicting for years now that the Chinese government would fall; for seventeen years, to be precise. But what the heck, each year it gets more likely. I'm going to predict it again. China is a bubble; bubbles pop. Mass unrest is growing. The year of the tiger may be the year.

3. If China, then also North Korea. Also perhaps vice versa; not that the two regimes are interlinked, but they are i the same part of the world, and dominos are dominos.

4. Iran? Not so sure. It's been getting more coverage, but I suspect a certain amount of wishful thinking in the West. But if China and North Korea go-- then we have a situation like 1848, or 1989. Iran would probably go under in those circumstances.

5. However we feel about the regimes involved, this is necessarily bad news, short-term, for the world economy. Instability per se is never good for business. South Korea would be knocked back, I assume, by the humanitarian needs of a failed North Korea next door, though I also think that has been exaggerated. China would no longer be able to underwrite US Treasuries—but, on the other hand, the US might have a legitimate excuse to suspend payments until the dust cleared. If what I predict otherwise happens, though, we get more recession.

6. There is good reason to believe that, on the whole, Islamism is in decline. It will be knocked back further, sharply, if Iran's regime falls. This may well become apparent in the New Year, despite recent appearances in Detroit, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

Now for technology predictions:

7. A new story that may emerge in the next year is the decline of the traditional university—for multiple reasons, it's the sort of thing that's going to happen, and rather quickly, one of these years. First, we're not making young people any more. Second, the university has become hopelessly out of touch with the broader culture. Third, its quality has markedly declined through affirmative action and political appointments. Fourth, it has become proportionately far more expensive than it was. Fifth, it cannot react quickly enough for a rapidly changing world. Sixth, new technologies directly challenge its raison d'etre. A continuing recession will accelerate the trend. Universities in the rich world have so far masked problems by attracting large numbers of foreign students to fill seats. That may continue for a few years yet, but this is another bubble that's gotta pop. This may be the year. In fact, you can see it starting, at the less prestigious institutions, already. The option to study online is going to be very attractive. Long-term, the only realistic role for universities to play is certifying acheivements with challenge tests.

8. For similar reasons, the general move to homeschooling will also accelerate.

9. The traditional print newspaper will continue to decline rapidly, with print versions of magazines starting to disappear as quickly as newspapers. A magazine that serves its base well has nothing to fear—it will simply move online and continue to prosper, so long as it makes the move before someone else fills the online niche too well. But print versions? Nope. And the rules will be rather different: up-to-the-minute updates and deep archives, not weekly or monthly, all-new editions.

10. Ebooks are starting to boom; the superiority of the online distribution system is so obvious that it was an online bookstore, Amazon, that was the first big web retail success. Everyone will have an ereader and download books electronically. Bookstores are going to start popping out of business quickly. Publishers, on the other hand, are likely to do better than they were.

11. Do not, not, not, invest in the pulp and paper industry. Canada will soon be choking in all the forest cover—unless we can find a very efficient way to turn trees into biofuel.

12. Do invest in book publishing.

13. Do invest in Apple; they're currently best-positioned for the PDA revolution. Google also still looks strong. So does Amazon.

14. The desktop computer is starting to look quaint. Handheld devices are the wave. Everyone will soon need to have a PDA of some sort; or their cell phone will have evolved into one.

15. Speaking of PDAs: big term for the new year will be “augmented reality.” This is going to be bigger than the Internet is now.

16. There will be no big revival of the real estate market, not back to the glory days. Long-term trends are against it. Fewer young families, older folks downsizing, more telecommuting.

17. The West will continue to grow more conservative in outlook. Like everyone else, I expect the Tories to win the next election in Britain, and the Republicans to take the midterms in the US. This sort of thing, though, is self-limiting; left and right will always alternate. More importantly, the issues and the parties' stands on the issues will continue to shift the centre ground towards the right.

18. Nobody else seems to see this on the horizon, but another bubble that I think is ripe to burst is medicine. With the aging population everywhere in the rich world, it's just getting unsustainably expensive. And there is, as it happens, a cheap hi-tech alternative to the current standard practice. Seems to me it's a no-brainer that a good medical database can out-diagnose any human physician. Boom: there go all those doctors' gigantic salaries.

Sure, there'll still be a place for highly-skilled surgeons. It's called India.

Are any professions safe from outsourcing? Only, I think, those requiring very high-level verbal skills. Writing, editing, perhaps law. Ironically, from being the lowest-paid, these are liable to become the highest-paid professions, with less competition and, thanks to what is coming to be called "Information and Communications Technology," far greater demand than at present.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Christmas Celebrates Rape

Mary Daly has died. Her singular career, as outlined in the following essay (courtesy of a link by Kathy Shaidle), gives you some measure of how depraved the modern university, and indeed the modern _Catholic_ university, has become:

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

On the Evident Truth of Catholicism

Descartes made a good point in his Meditations. Actually, he made a few good points; but the one I'd lie to speak to today is his contention that, necessarily, God must have put the truth right out there in plain sight. It follows from the good point that God is good, which follows from the good point that God is perfect, which follows from the good point that Descartes did not create the world, which follows from the good point that Descartes exists, which follows from the good point that thoughts exist.

It follows from this good point that our human reason, used properly, is a reliable guide to the truth of things; and that our sense perceptions, when we see things “clearly and distinctly,” are reliable, and that our conscience, when it gives us a good strong kick in the butt or sense of revulsion, is a good, trustworthy guide to right and wrong.

It also more or less follows that the most readily apparent religious tradition is the best guide to God. And this becomes a good argument for the truth of Catholicism. Christianity is, after all, the world's largest religion, twice as big as the nearest competitor; and more than half of all Christians are Catholics.

Some might argue that the best religion is probably the most intellectually sophisticated, and, this being so, might only be apparent to a relatively small number of especially intelligent people. Therefore, merely going for the largest religion is wrong.

But this logic does not work. We must assume God is good. We also know that people are not primarily responsible for their own intellectual capacities. Therefore, God is not going to make the truth accessible only to the smartest people. It really has to be available to anyone prepared to seek sincerely, even the most stupid.

That's clear, isn't it? The Catholic Church is, indeed, the world's largest organization of any kind. Kind of hard to miss, when you’re out shopping for a religion.

It is also, and this is almost equally important, the most widely geographically distributed; so it is apparent to the largest number of people. It is either the majority religion or the largest single denomination everywhere in the Americas, in Australia, and through most of Europe. It dominates four of the world’s six continents; and is probably also now dominant, and growing quickly, in Africa.

That leaves only Asia in which Catholicism is not number one—i.e., the single most evident religion. But it is at least also present almost everywhere there—a majority faith in the Philippines, 15% of the population in South Korea, 7% in Vietnam, smaller proportions elsewhere. That’s Catholic, mind, not Christian; otherwise those figures would be higher.

Nobody else comes close. Islam is concentrated in a wide band across North Africa and Central Asia, and along the coastlines of the Indian Ocean: two continents, and a majority in neither. Buddhism is dominant only in a handful of countries in Southeast Asia—elsewhere, at best, it shares the stage with Communism, Shinto, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, and Shamanism.

Perhaps even more remarkably, this wide distribution of Christianity and Catholicism is not anything new; it is not an artefact of recent European empires. Christianity has always been the world’s most internationally dispersed religion. It spread through all the nations of the Roman Empire by the third century, becoming firmly rooted already in all three known continents, Africa, Europe, and Asia.
It has been dominant in Ethiopia since 330 AD. It has been in South India since the first century. The Nestorians spread as far as China, Korea, and Mongolia by the seventh century, and were common throughout the empire of Genghis Khan. Granted, they were not Catholics, but recent scholarship has decided that their theological beliefs were actually the same as Catholicism, and many “Nestorian” groups have latterly re-assimilated into the Roman church.

Catholicism is also notably widely dispersed within nations, in terms of class and location. Protestantism tends to be a faith predominantly of the urban middle class. Buddhism, as noted, almost always shares its demographics with other faiths: Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Hinduism. In India, less favoured classes have shown a tendency, when permitted to, to convert away from Hinduism en masse. Catholicism has usually appealed about equally to upper and lower classes, city and countryside, unlearned and intellectual.

Besides being the world’s largest human organization of any kind, Catholicism is also the world's oldest human organization. In this, it is downright uncanny. Ibn Khaldun, the great Arab historiographer, traced a definite pattern in all human institutions, suggesting their natural lifespan is no more than about three generations. When anything made by man lasts longer than that, it is notable, and begins to have a sacred feel to it. The British Empire lasted about 300 years before its sun set; the Roman Empire proper—the “Eternal City”--lasted 400 until it was sacked. The Olympics and the Nobel Prize are a little over 100. The UN is 60. But the Catholic Church has passed its two thousandth birthday, more or less, and is still counting—and still growing. It is a miracle in itself, and seems a direct fulfillment of Jesus's promise to St. Peter in the New Testament: “I name you Rock [i.e., Peter], and on this rock I will build my church. And the gates of hell [i.e., death] shall not prevail against it.”

Most religious denominations, by contrast, seem to follow Ibn Khaldun's life cycle fairly well: the first generation is on fire, the second generation gets comfortable, the third generation begins to lose interest. Hinduism has survived the longest, nominally, as a religion, but has no organization—and the beliefs of a “Hindu” today probably bear almost no relation to the beliefs of a typical “Hindu” two thousand years ago. Little more than the name has survived.

Among religions, by comparison, the Catholic Church is also unique in the clarity and consistency of its message—it is conspicuously “clear and distinct” in this sense as well. It is not all that easy to say what “Islam” believes—there is no central authority. The same is true of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Protestantism. But it is quite clear, on the whole, what the Catholic Church believes, and who has the authority to say so.

Moreover, incredibly, the specific teachings of the Catholic Church have not changed in its 2000 years of existence. One might say they have evolved, or been clarified, over time; but nothing maintained as true today conflicts with anything maintained as true at the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century AD. Compare that with any given “-ism” of the modern academy. Compare that with what physics or medicine believes today compared to two thousand years ago.

Another thing that strikes me as a bit uncanny is the popularity, as if instinctive, of essentially Christian artefacts well beyond the nominally Christian world. For example, everyone now, regardless of beliefs, and whether they realize it or not, uses the Christian calendar, and gives the year from the birth of Christ. No festival is as widely celebrated as Christmas—even in India, or China, or Japan. Some argue that it is no longer a Christian festival; and they point to the central figure these days being Santa Claus, not Jesus.

But that only proves it has become universal specifically in its Catholic form: Santa Claus may be unrecognizable to Protestants, but to Catholics he is clearly Sinter Klaus, Saint Nicholas of Myra, whose feast day launches the Advent season.

Similarly, even Protestants seem to love Carnival—or Mardi Gras, as it is sometimes called. There is something almost instinctive about it. Yet this is a specifically Catholic observance, marking the beginning of Lent.

Also originally specifically Christian, if not specifically Catholic, but now accepted as universal, are the doctrine of human rights, empirical science, and most of international law. The Red Cross Society, despite polite obfuscations, as the name suggests, is also a Christian (Calvinist) initiative; hence the Geneva Convention as well.

Another time-honoured way to determine the truth of a religion is in open debate. This, mind, is less persuasive, since it appeals only to those who are more intellectually inclined. But here too, I think, Christianity has shown itself the “clear and distinct” favourite. No other religion has done as well in conversions—i.e., by convincing people directly of its truth. Christianity and Catholicism in particular cut like a warm knife through butter across pagan Europe and the pagan Americas. It is still cutting like a warm knife through pagan Africa, with the number of adherents roughly doubling each generation. It proved capable of converting Buddhists en masse in Japan, Korea, and China, until deliberately and bloodily suppressed by the powers that be. There are also reasons to believe that, in the first and second centuries, an absolute majority of the Jews of that time converted to Christianity.

As in everything else, Islam is Catholicism’s closest rival here. However, Islam has far more often been spread through government sponsorship, as opposed to open debate on the merits of its beliefs; and its mandating of the death penalty for apostates means adherents are likely not to convert away out of fears for their life as much as purely on the merits of the arguments.

And, even with these advantages, Islam has not, on the whole, done as well at conversions as has Christianity and Catholicism. Islam is often asserted to be the fastest growing religion today, and that seems to be true, in percentage terms. However, this growth is primarily due to higher birth rates, not conversions. If we were to look only at adult conversions, Christianity and Catholicism are probably still growing faster; as they are in absolute terms by any measure. On current trends, they will continue to increase their percentage of world population at least through the year 2050.

If God is good, all major religions presumably contain the truths essential to salvation. But, if God is good, and he is, Catholicism is the place to get the complete goods.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Air Vatican - Just That Much Closer to Heaven

I have a business idea for the Catholic Church: it's time the Vatican, like most other sovereign states, had its own airline.

Here's the unique selling proposition: like communion, it would be for Catholics only. Flying becomes a sacrament. The airplane would be, officially, a church. In order to book a ticket or to board, you would have to show a valid baptismal certificate.

Why would anyone fly Air Vatican? Not just for the tasty wafers, the incense, or the fine Italian food. Given that it is restricted to Catholics, they could also be reasonably assured that there are no Muslims on board—meaning no hijackers, shoe bombs, or underwear bombs.

Of course, other airlines could theoretically do the same—simply ban all Muslims from their flights. But since they are not registered as religions, this would probably be illegal in many countries they hope to serve.

Would this be unfair to Muslims? I don't think so—are Catholics allowed in Mecca? For the vast majority of Muslims who are not terrorists, this arrangement is equally advantageous. Muslims would not lack flights or carriers: some of the best airlines in the world are Muslim owned. Muslims flying on all-Muslims flights would gain the same security advantages as non-Muslims on non-Muslim flights: no terrorist is going to blow them up in the name of Islam. And they could draw on a clientele as large as that of Air Vatican.

Those most likely to suffer would be secularists and Protestants from the smaller denominations. But the solution for the latter is fairly simple: ecumenicism. Not such a terrible consequence, even if unintended.

Would terrorists forge baptismal certificates in order to board? Let them—there could be additional protections available. Only non-halal meals served on board. Passengers must cross themselves, drink the communion wine, and say the Nicene Creed in a common mass before boarding. Any Islamist suicide bomber who passed these tests would fear dying in a state of sin.

Other religious groups could do the same, if there was a demand; in fact, any enterprising pastor could probably start this tomorrow, by chartering a flight and placing an ad.

Probably lots more money in it than Bingo.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

What is Religion?

Dear Abbot:

What is a religion? Is Buddhism a religion? Is Atheism?


Dear Perplexed:

Here are the most relevant definitions from the leading dictionaries:

Merriam-Webster: b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural

Oxford: 1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
American Heritage: 1. a: Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.

I think Buddhism is indeed a religion on this definition. Buddhism does believe in or assume the supernatural and supernatural beings, of many sorts: gods, asuras, gandharvas, souls in hell, souls in various Pure Lands or Buddha Heavens. This is true of all varieties of Buddhism, because these beings feature in the story of Gautama's own life. The real world as Buddhism knows it is not the physical world, but the mental world, and the mental world is itself “supernatural.” As far as I am concerned, the Dalai Lama to the contrary, Buddhism also believes specifically in a superhuman controlling power, Vairocana or Dharma-Kaya-Buddha, who is a creator god in all but precise terminology. All things exist in the mind—but not our mind, his mind. Saint Francis Xavier conveyed the concept of the Christian God in Japan by identifying him with Vairocana.

Not all branches of Buddhism feature Vairocana prominently, mind, though Tibetan Buddhism does. He is a figure in Mahayana Buddhism, but not in the Theravada tradition. But Theravada simply uses some other image to refer to the Creator God; usually the Hindu Brahma. I don't think I've ever been in a Buddhist temple that did not feature a shrine to the Creator God, and either at the core or highest point.

But Atheism fails on both counts: on not believing in a Creator God, and, in all the incarnations I have seen, in not believing in the supernatural itself. For all that I find either of those positions logically impossible. Hence, it is not a religion, by common dictionary definition.

Note too that religion is, literally, etymologically, a “binding”: Jews and Christians refer to it as a “covenant.” This means it is more than just a matter of being moral, being “good.” You have the extra obligations of someone who has signed a contract.

Atheists have not, and cannot, sign such a contract—for with whom would they sign it? Accordingly, they have no special obligations beyond those we all share as human beings.

Subscribing to a religion therefore implies that you are accepting certain specific obligations over and above those imposed by objective morality: ritual obligations, dietary restrictions, clothing requirements, a duty to proselytize, and so forth. Catholics must attend mass and receive the sacraments; Jews must be circumcised and stay kosher; Muslims must visit Mecca. It is, I think, this aspect of religion that laws ensuring religious freedom are needed to and meant to protect--”freedom of conscience,” that is, freedom to do what your conscience obliges you to do. There is an important caveat here: issues of objective morality, if asserted by the church as doctrine, remain “ritual” obligations if they are not accepted as morally necessary by the wider society; so that religious freedom, freedom of conscience, ought to prevent governments from compelling devout citizens in these matters. Examples are Quakers or Jehovah's Witnesses on conscription, Catholics on abortion, perhaps Presbyterians on gambling, and so forth.

None of this applies to atheists; their beliefs put them under no obligations whatsoever, other than those binding on all mankind. They therefore need and deserve no special consideration as a result of their views.


Dear Abbot:

You comment that "atheism...makes no special demands on their conscience." Yet some atheists seem to me more moral, more ethical, more obedient to some kind of a conscience that some self-professed Christians.


Dear Perplexed:

There is no prima facie reason why atheists should be any less moral than Christians, because objective morality is binding on all regardless of beliefs. But precisely because it is objective, it is not a matter of religion; it is not a special “binding” or “covenant,” not a special demand on their conscience. That has to do instead with matters like circumcision, attending mass regularly, fasting on Fridays, not eating pork, and so forth.

However, note that, if God exists, it is indeed a part of objective morality to seek to know and follow his will. Atheists had better therefore be fully sincere in their beliefs, or they are, indeed, objectively and demonstrably less moral than Christians. For the converse is not true: if Christians do not really 100% and always believe in God, but continue to act as if he existed, seeking to know and follow his will, they remain objectively morally correct. At worst, they are merely wasting their efforts; and in a noble way.

On these grounds, it is fair to say that “belief” is an intrinsically more moral position than atheism; and even that there is an objective moral obligation to “believe” in this sense.


Dear Abbot:

Does Satanism qualify as a religion? It has a distinct deity being worshipped; it has liturgies and rituals...


Dear Perplexed:

Very important point: no, Satanism is not a religion, and should not be allowed the same religious freedoms. While it believes in a spiritual realm, it believes that the physical realm and its demands are prior to the spiritual. This is the reverse of the religious view. It does not involve a binding of the self to any kind of obligation, but a binding of the spiritual to do the self's bidding. It is not a religion, but an anti-religion.

Since it imposes no obligations on the individual's conscience, it deserves and requires no legal recognition or accommodation, whatever one might think of it otherwise. There is no issue of “freedom of conscience.” There may, indeed, be a contract with the devil, but a contract the breaking of which would not be a moral issue, even in the eyes of the Satanist.


Dear Abbot:

Does animism qualify, with gods of the rocks, the wind, the storm, etc.?


Dear Perplexed:

I personally doubt that anyone outside the modern New Age really believes in “animism,” in the sense of thinking that all physical things have individual self-conscious spirits. I think that's simply a misconception.

I'd prefer the term “shamanism.” But I think we mean the same set of real practices and beliefs.

Does shamanism qualify as a religion? Good question. It is quite a different thing from the great universalist faiths. In Korea, where there are still many shamanists, they will insist that this is not a religion, “except perhaps to the shaman.” By that they mean, I think, expressly that it imposes no special moral obligations on its believers. It is distinct from religion as we understand it in exactly this way. If specific acts are required, they are done either out of fear or to achieve a specific desired goal, not as a matter of conscience.

In fact, it is a peculiar feature of shamanism that it often calls for acts of objective immorality: human sacrifice, cannibalism, self-mutilation, theft, and so forth. This makes it an obvious problem to extend full religious freedom to shamanists. But this is also unnecessary, as shamanism is not a matter of conscience.


Dear Abbot:

Does pantheism qualify? If it does, is David Suzuki a deeply religious man?


Dear Perplexed:

Pantheism certainly qualifies; pantheism is the common view in the East. But David Suzuki is not just a pantheist. He is a materialist; a pantheist includes the spiritual in his concept of the universe, and sees it as morally and ontologically surpassing the material appearance. Suzuki sees the material world itself as divine. The deification of the material world is not a religion. It's more a form of insanity.


Dear Abbot:

If religion is about belief in God, what sort of God? Isn't the concept of God very different in the East? The eastern religions tend to deify the individual.


Dear Perplexed:

That's not quite right. In fact, in missing the mark by a mite, it ends up as the opposite of the case. Buddhists, for example, believe in “anatta”--i.e., there is no such thing as the individual “self.” The “atman” of the Hindu, though the same word is used, is understood not as the individual, but the cosmic, soul or self.

It is not, therefore, the individual who is deified. The individual loses all individuality and is lost in the deity.

It is the West that is more “individualistic,” just as the West is more “materialistic.” East believes that the divine is everything and the individual nothing. West believes that the divine is more important, but the individual is also real, and immortal.


Dear Abbot:

OK, but can we say, at least, that Eastern creeds seek God within, while the Western religions
tend to find God without?


Dear Perplexed:

Not so for Christians as a whole, although it might be true for your own tradition. “The kingdom of heaven is within [albeit some translate this as 'among'] you.” Jesus is always knocking at the door of your heart. St. Theresa's “The Interior Castle.” The Catholic mystical tradition very much finds God within. So does the Evangelical tradition, when it speaks of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

But I think the fundamental problem is in using the terms “within” and “without,” because they are philosophically meaningless. I think you mean “spiritual” and “physical.” But the spiritual is not “within” the physical, any more than the physical is “within” the spiritual. Both East and West see God as spirit, but they differ on the reality of the physical world. Because the West believes in the physical world, it also believes that God is present in some sense there as well: a God who works through history.


Dear Abbot:

Does religion have qualities other than belief?


Dear Perplexed:

That's a very Protestant question: it assumes Luther's “sola fides.” For those of us who are not Lutherans in the broad sense, religion has lots of qualities other than belief. Ritual, ethics, art, philosophy, emotional attitudes, spiritual experiences, spiritual techniques. Buddhism even professes no need to believe in anything in particular.


Dear Abbot:

Could a religion exist independent of any belief at all?


Dear Perplexed:

Buddhism is the test case. It insists you do not have to believe you exist, or that anything else exists, or that the Buddha ever existed. All you have to do is try the techniques, upaya, for yourself and see what happens.

But, I would counter, doesn't this involve, at a minimum, a belief in cause and effect?

So I'd say, no, religion cannot exist independent of any beliefs at all.

But neither can man.


Saturday, January 02, 2010

On Politics and Religion: A Dialogue

Dear Abbot:

Is it fair game for a reporter to ask a politician about his religious beliefs?


Dear Presbyter:

No. It is not relevant, and it is not proper.

If a candidate chooses to run on his faith, as Jimmy Carter did, setting a modern trend in US politics, then it is a legitimate issue. Otherwise, it is a private matter, and encouraging people to vote on this basis is simply encouraging religious prejudice.

Of course, candidates have every right to run on their faith. And, of course, their faith will influence what they do in public life, and ought to. But we know enough if we know their public platform and their public record. We should not presume to know what they "really" think, because they are a Baptist or a Mormon or a Catholic. If this is not quite prejudice in itself, it at least gives free rein to any prejudices we might have.

This includes, to my mind, voting for a candidate because he nominally shares our religion. If this is not bigotry, it is at least naive.


Dear Abbot:

Well, thank God at least that this has not been a problem in Canada yet. We alternate between Roman Catholic and Protestant prime ministers.


Dear Presbyter:

I wish that were still true. It has, sadly, become a problem in Canada, though you are right that it never used to be. It began with attacks on Stockwell Day, when he was leader of the Alliance, because he was an Evangelical. Remember Warren Kinsella pulling out a Barney doll on TV and declaring "The Flintstones is not a documentary!"?

Now Stephen Harper is getting the same treatment. I quote a recent correspondent:

“If you believe that Jesus is coming (as opposed to the belief that Jesus is here, and comes again and again in every challenge and opportunity); if you believe the end of the world as 'predicted' in improperly interpreted Scriptures is nigh; if you yourself, and those you love are 'saved' and will end up in heaven, and everyone else has been warned over and over to say the formula of words and join the club; if you believe there are dire problems in the world, but want only to accept the wisdom in your own group - then it is easy to be apathetic about real change. The [only] important thing is getting people 'saved'. If you're the Prime Minister, you can't say that officially, but it leaks out...'"

This is the sort of thing found in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and it has recently become common political discourse in Canada. It is more than sad; it is shocking.

As to her claim that believing that Jesus is coming [again] is reason to vote against a candidate, note that this would disqualify all Christians from holding office-for that claim is in both the Apostles' and the Nicene creeds.

As to believing that the end of the world is nigh, believing that the world will come to an end is a logical necessity. I presume her problem is specifically with those who think it is immanent and predictable.

If so, her strongest case is not against Christians, who generally believe that "no one knows the day or the hour," but with advocates of the doctrines of global warming, nuclear winter, environmentalism, or human overpopulation. As one recent environmentalist correspondent claimed, "we are spitting ourselves out... of existence."

Indeed. Perhaps, then, only serious Christians should be allowed to hold public office?


Dear Abbot:

But still... in the U.S., presidents have typically come from a more limited spectrum of religious possibilities -- almost always white, Protestant, and moderately evangelical.

I'm old enough to remember that when John F. Kennedy ran for president, large numbers feared he would take his marching orders from the Vatican, not from the American people.

A particular brand of religion is so taken for granted in U.S. politics that hardly anyone expressed fears that George W. Bush might take his marching orders from Oral Roberts, Billy Sunday, or John of Patmos.


Dear Presbyter:

That's not so. A lot of people very openly expressed fear that George W. Bush was secretly "taking his marching orders from St. John of Patmos," in terms very much like those used by our correspondent regarding Stephen Harper.

The living religious prejudices in the US are also not quite what you say. Yes, there is probably a continuing prejudice against Catholics: although they are the single largest religious denomination in the USA, there has still not been a second Catholic president. And, though little noted, Joe Biden has the distinction of being the first Catholic US Vice-President.

But, next to Catholics, guess what religious group is most under-represented among US presidents?Baptists ( The largest Protestant denomination; yet it seems other Americans still do not find them socially acceptable. They wear their religiousity too much on their sleeve. Americans clearly do not prefer their presidents to be even "moderately evangelical," as the Baptists are. They prefer their presidents to have a religiosity that is emotionally lukewarm and light on dogma. Episcopalian, Methodist, Unitarian, Presbyterian.

This prejudice actually seems to be growing, not fading. When George Romney ran for the Presidency in 1968, his Mormonism was barely noticed, or mentioned. When his son Mitt ran last year, it was a central issue used openly against his candidacy.


Dear Abbot:

At least, I am quite sure that Americans are not yet ready to elect an openly Muslim president. Or an avowed atheist, for that matter.


Dear Presbyter:

Probably right about Muslims. Since there are so few Muslims in the US anyway, this does not seem to be a major concern.

There are historically respectable arguments for not extending religious tolerance to atheists: Locke and Rousseau made them. But I'm not sure an atheist would have much of a problem these days, so long as he stayed low-key about it. When Ed Broadbent was once asked for his religious affiliation, he said, "non-practicing Druid." Did that ever become an issue with anyone? We can all think of politicians who faced public opposition because they were Catholic, or Fundamentalist, or Mormon. Can you name anyone at all in recent times who actually ran into electoral trouble because he was atheist-not "godless communist," but just atheist?

Britain, at least, has had two publicly atheist prime ministers: Clement Attlee, James Callaghan. Did anyone care? But we're still waiting for a Catholic one...