Monday, March 13, 2006

March Mediocrity

     That's right - it's time for the second annual counter-cultural NIT bracket! Or, as I dubbed it last year, the "Pride Cup". Or lack thereof. My Yellow Jackets were an embarrassment to the ACC, to everyone who watched them go to the National Championship game in 2004, and to everyone who watched a game of theirs this year. They won't be playing again until this fall. However, the ACC seems to be slumping this year, and the NIT is very ACC heavy, with Maryland, Clemson, FSU, Wake Forest, Virginia, and Miami. And when you conside the SEC teams (Vandy, USC) and the other big name schools participating (St Joes, Penn St, Rutgers, MICHIGAN, Notre Dame, Temple, Louisville, Cincy, Stanford), playing pool with the NIT is betting on the teams you've watched all year.
     SO - this is an open invitation to all of you to join the NIT Pride Cup in its second year of glory. It is mostly for pride - after all, who'd going to bet $15 on an NIT bracket? Cost of entry is $1.50 per bracket. You can download a copy of the bracket HERE. Just fill it out and email it back to me. Or just email me your picks. (Not your pics, however. I don't care how cutesy-wootsy your dog is.)
     Scoring rules are simple: I'm copying ESPN's other bracket rules. 1 point for a correct pick in the opening round. 2 points for the First round, 4 for the Second round, 8 for the Quarterfinals, 12 for the Semis, and 16 if you somehow pick the NIT champion. To make things interesting, you get an extra half-point if you correctly pick an upset. (There are no upsets in the semis or finals). Tiebreaker will be the total number of correct games picked.
     So send in your picks and your $1.50 via PayPal to TheTruthBlog at no later than 5:00 PM tomorrow (March 14). First Place wins 60% of the net (after PayPal steals its share), Second place takes 25%, Third place takes 15%. Good luck!
P.S. Happy Purim! Hag Sameach

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Belief in Belief

     In the US Religion Wars (aka The Campaign to Distract Americans from Iraq), somebody, somewhere is attacking Christianity at any given moment. If a bunny is called the Garden Bunny, Christianity is being attacked. If someone sees a piece of a boob for a second & a half, Christianity is being attacked. If every American does not smile and profess ecstatic joy for Jesus's birth every December, Christianity is under attack. And not only Christianity, but Belief itself is in danger of crumbling.
     Which begs the question (at least for me), why do we care? I understand a lot of people have formed attachments to Christianity. But as far as belief itself, when did that become so important? And worse, why is belief so important for belief's sake? In Judaism, it is forbidden to eat pork. According to the laws of kashrut, Jews just can't do it. Even if you're a Jew who thinks pork is tasty, it's still against the rules. It would certainly help if you believed that God would punish you if you ate the pork. But it's not required. All that's required is that the pork doesn't enter your mouth (or any other orifice, for that matter).
     In Christianity, belief plays a more important role. According to the book of John, Jesus said, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." Of course, that belief was really meant to get people to accept him as a god. He didn't mean that believing in just anything was good.
     So why is belief itself celebrated? I once dated a Catholic girl whose father was very religious. He apparently approved of me because I was religiously active, albeit in a faith other than his own. Although I was certainly pleased and relieved at the time, I wonder why belief itself was more important than what I believed in. And why would it be wrong to derive your belief in God through reason and science and logic? Why would it be so bad to prove the existence of God through physical evidence?
     I read an article in Slate by Judith Shulevitz critiquing a book on religion by Daniel Dennett. Dennett invented a concept called "belief in belief". According to him (via Shulevitz), "people who believe in belief believe that civilization needs myths to live by, so we mustn't examine religious ones too closely." In other words, it is not God that holds our world together, it is our collective belief that does so. ("Myth" in this usage, refers to traditional supernatural stories, not necessarily a fictional tale.)
     For those of us whom the words "glorify God" never quite seem to make it to the top of our daily task list, this might seem like a laughable claim. Why would life fall apart if, say, there were incontrovertible evidence that Jesus had been a used chariot salesman who liked to partake in the local marijuana-oil? You would still love your family. You would still go to work so you could feed and house and clothe yourself and your family. You would still enjoy watching 4 Law and Order episodes a night on TNT and USA. After all, if God exists, surely He is not so childish and petty as to get mad about simple human failings.
     Dennett says that belief in belief is a "compromise formation" for those who attend church regularly but don't really internalize the strictures. I say these people make up the vast majority of American population. Last year, a major poll found that 45% of Americans attend religious services weekly, and nearly 66% pray daily. But when Dr. Phil asked America questions, 41% said they had cheated on someone and 68% said they had been cheated on!. Just today, the Catholic church in Ireland revealed that 102 priests are under suspicion of sexually or physically abusing children. Clearly there are people out there who are going through the motions of religion in public but don't follow the rules when they're in private.
     To me, their belief in belief is strong enough that they have a strong desire to retain religion, even as they ignore it. And while I feel that proponents of the Flying Spaghetti Monster make an excellent point about belief, they're preaching to two different choirs. On one hand, they're targeting people who already have their belief system set in stone, thank you very much. On the other hand, they're targeting people who have already discovered they don't need one.
     Of course Janet Jackson's tit isn't going to destroy Christianity. But it may help reveal the lack of real commitment many Christians (and members of other religions) have to their chosen faith. And that may help damage the pervasive idea that belief in religion is what keeps the world functioning. And that, of course, may convince the millions of people who pay lip-service to their religion to spend their time doing other things. And that is what could destroy Christianity. What is the solution? Well, it's only a problem if you believe your actual religion is going to fall apart, but the wisdom of Yoda comes to mind. "Do or do not. There is no try."
     Update: See Lindsay Beyerstein's take on Dennett's book.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


     According to the Washington Examiner, "President Bush now says his 2004 victory over Democratic Sen. John Kerry ... was inadvertently aided by al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden." Duh. Well, half-duh. I think it's pretty clear that a Bin Laden tape endorsing Kerry in October of 2004 caused Americans to vote for Bush. But to call it inadvertent?
     Americans like to think their villains are stupid and 100% corrupt. In 2001, when the wounds of 9/11 were still raw, Bill Maher was chased out of town for suggesting that contrary to what President Bush claimed, the terrorists who piloted planes into our buildings were not cowards. In our culture, liars are people who never tell the truth and evildoers are people who never do good things.
     But in the real world, Osama bin Laden is not stupid. And he understands politics. In the late 90's bin Laden declared war against the West. That was to be war between the Christian countries and the Islamic countries. And while almost nobody understood the real reason behind 9/11 (other than "they just want to kill as many of us as they can"), I think it's safe to assume he had one. In fact, he told us his reason - we just don't want to listen to him when he tells the truth. Which of course is because we assume that since he's evil, he never tells the truth.
     Bush has given bin Laden everything he wanted - a conflict between the West and Islam. And furthermore, the United States is isolated in the world, having alienated its allies. The Bushies claim that we're winning, because we've killed many high-ranking Al Qaida members. But in any war, you expect casualties (except Americans. We expect to incur none.). And bin Laden's cronies have paid the price. But his goal may still come true. And if it does, he will have won.
     So back to the election. If Bush has given bin Laden everything he wanted, of course bin Laden wanted Bush to be reelected. He didn't want Kerry to start making nice with Islamic Arabs. He didn't want Kerry to reestablish relations with the Europeans so they could provide a common front. And what would be the best way to get his man Bush back in office? Endorse the other guy. It's a classic Good Cop/Bad Cop routine. It doesn't work on everyone, since it can be easily recognized. But police often use it successfully on people who are scared and frightened.
     Osama bin Laden got George Bush elected, alright. But it wasn't inadvertent. It was just the 21st century version of the October Surprise.