Friday, February 27, 2015

Christians Against Dinosaurs

This is another of those stories that sounds like it has to be a joke, or at least I hope it is. A woman claiming to be a Christian mother has started a Facebook group that purports to oppose the very existence of dinosaurs. Most creationists don't deny dinosaurs exist, but instead believe that they co-existed with humans and generally assert that they perished in the great flood. Some even go so far as to claim that references to "dragons" in the Bible are pointing out that very fact.

However, the Christians Against Dinosaurs Ministry takes scientific illiteracy even further, alleging that dinosaurs never even existed and were made up as a hoax by scientists for reasons that seem to make sense only in its founder's mind. That's why I want it to be a joke, because otherwise it indicates that the depth of human stupidity is even greater than I had previously assumed.

"Nothing about dinosaurs is suitable for children, from their total lack of family values through to their non-existence from any serious scientific point of view."

That's what a Christian mother wrote on a message board, in case you thought the Internet couldn't become any weirder. The mother's protest has gone viral, garnering the world's collective side-eye with a bizarre rant about dinosaurs that's so weird it sounds like a hoax.

The writer, who goes by the screen name CADministry (which stands for "Christians Against Dinosaurs Ministry," and has a Facebook presence), said she's concerned about the "pretty flimsy" science of the our extinct friends and is "getting sick and tired of dinosaurs being forced on our children."

Dinosaurs lack "family values?" I challenge these folks to show me any animal that has them. Animals do all sorts of things that plenty of humans, especially self-righteous ones, find distasteful. Again, it sounds like the founder of this group is arguing that animals should get married and live in the suburbs with 2.3 offspring if they want to be seen as acceptable in the eyes of God, which is an utterly laughable and probably made-up position.

Probably the biggest blow that CAD is trying to strike against other creationists is to undermine one of their best arguments, which is that the only thing cooler than Jesus is Jesus riding a dinosaur. But if dinosaurs never existed, it would seem that the Savior is out of luck there.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Evidence for Reincarnation?

Reincarnation is a prominent feature of both Hinduism and Buddhism, but among Western occultists it has something of a bad rap. The problem is that many New Age systems have co-opted the idea and removed it from its original context. Also, it seems like half the New Age reincarnation enthusiasts out there were all famous and powerful people in their past lives, often with many individuals latching onto the same famous identities. Even in Thelema, people claiming to be the reincarnation of Aleister Crowley have become something of a running joke because it seems like every year more of them pop up on the Internet.

Tibetan Buddhism includes detailed and technical practices related to reincarnation, as it is believed that advanced lamas called Tulkus can maintain some degree of continuous awareness as they transition to their next incarnation. A Tulku will often provide some details about where this next incarnation will be born, and monks assigned to search for the proper child will go from there. One of the best-documented of these searches was that which identified Tenzin Gyatso as the current Dalai Lama. As a small child, Gyatso was able to pick out items belonging to the previous Dalai Lama from a collection of relics with complete accuracy.

Recently a small boy in Ohio claimed to have lived a previous life as a woman whose name was Pamela.

Little Luke Ruehlman of Cincinnati, Ohio, claims to be the vessel for the reincarnated spirit of a woman named Pamela Robinson, who died in a Chicago fire in 1993—at least, that's what his mother Erika said he told her.

"I was like 'who is Pam?'" Erika Ruehlman told WJW earlier this month. "He turned to me and said, 'Well I was.' I said 'What do you mean you were?' He was like, 'Well I used to be, but I died and I went up to heaven and I saw God and eventually God pushed me back down and when I woke up I was a baby and you named me Luke.'"

Erika was skeptical, and started asking more questions. After determining all the details she could, she researched the name, location, and date. And it turned out that Pam was in fact a real person.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Purple UFO Over Peru

Robert Anton Wilson once famously commented that whenever anyone asked him if he believed in unidentified flying objects, he always answered yes. He went on to explain that not only had he encountered unidentified flying objects, he encountered unidentified non-flying objects every day.

The fact is that if you see something in the sky and can't identify it, you've just observed a UFO. The association of such objects with paranormal phenomena such as alien spacecraft and so forth is generally due to observers jumping to the conclusion that just because they can't identify the object, nobody else could do so either, at least by normal means.

Huffington Post recently passed along the story of a "purple UFO" that was filmed in Peru during the making of a television episode. The video shows a distant purple object that seems to hover in the sky.

According to Peru This Week, television show "Alto al Crimen" was shooting an episode in the upscale Miraflores district of Lima on Feb. 10. The show's host, Lima Congressman Renzo Reggiardo, halted an interview to allow his camera operator to focus on the strange-looking purple object in the sky.

Both distant and zoomed-in perspectives of the UFO reveal a saucer-shaped object, with a large central bright purple section, tapering off on either end. The extreme right end appears almost black in color, while the opposite end seems to be a darker purple shade than the center part of the object. The video also reveals that sometimes the two dark ends appear to become smaller and larger.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing the aerial object for up to two hours, and yet, no video has emerged showing how the UFO left the scene. So, the question remains: How, exactly, did it go away? Did it fall to the ground, float away or speed up and vanish over the nearby ocean? Or perhaps (as in some UFO reports over the years), did it simply vanish?

My first take on the video is that the object seems remarkably stationary, and reminds me most of something like a balloon tethered to the ground. The distance is such that the tether would not necessarily appear in the video, and the object seems to bob a bit as it might from a light breeze but otherwise does not change position. It really doesn't look like a vehicle with the way it seems to hover in place, and while the second half of the video seems to show that it has changed position, if you watch closely it's clear that it was filmed from a different location.

At least to me, the purple UFO certainly remains an unidentified flying object in the Robert Anton Wilson sense. I just don't think it will turn out to be an unidentified flying object in the actual space alien sense.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"Slender Man" Preliminary Hearing Underway

Back in June I covered the story of two Wisconsin teens, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, who attempted to murder one of their friends. When arrested, they claimed that they had committed the crime in order to appease Slender Man, a fictional character who appears in many online horror stories. This week the state of Wisconsin held a preliminary hearing for the two girls.

When asked if she really believed Slender Man would harm her family if the pair didn't carry out their plot, Weier responded: "Well, yeah. He's 6 to 14 feet tall, has no face and always wears a red tie."

She added: "I was really scared. He could kill my whole family in three seconds."

At other times, Weier seemed to comprehend the reality of what occurred, taking some responsibility for the crime, crying when she described Leutner's screams, and saying she wanted to call her mother but Geyser said they couldn't.

Geyser, on the other hand, told a detective Weier was calling most of the shots, and brought up the threat from Slender Man, but also admitted at one point, "I honestly don't know why we did this."

Her interrogator, Waukesha Detective Tom Casey, said he felt Geyser was actually the person most responsible for both plotting, committing and trying to run from the crime.

As I see it, the most significant fact about this case is that the two girls were 12 years old when they committed the attack, and I have to say that I disagree with prosecutors who want to try them as adults. Usually that move is reserved for children who are closer to adulthood, or those who actually kill others. The victim in this case was injured, but survived.

The idea that "Slender Man" would actually appear and kill their families seems ridiculous to an adult, but some kids are impressionable enough to take it seriously. Most people are completely unwilling to translate such musings into actual violence, but it also is true that 12-year-old brains are still developing and may have trouble reining in such impulses. Clearly something like that took place here. Either that, or at least one of the girls is a budding genuine psychopath.

There's still no evidence that "Slender Man" is an actual spirit, or that these girls were influenced by anything other than their own imaginations. The debate over the intersection between magick and popular culture is ongoing, but I have a hard time accepting the notion that quantity of attention will inevitably endow a meme or thoughtform with independent consciousness or spiritual power.

Working magicians can create spirits, but in my experience doing so is more technical than simply paying attention to an idea. I would be equally skeptical of someone who claimed he or she could create a working computer by dumping a pile of microchips in a bucket.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Jeb Bush Pals Around With Vampires

No, believe it or not, that headline is not a joke.

Back when Barack Obama was first running for President in 2008, his Republican opponents made a big deal about him knowing former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. The two taught at the same university in Chicago and were casually acquainted with each other. The McCain/Palin campaign characterized the situation as Obama "palling around with terrorists," a ridiculous exaggeration that many nonetheless believed. Now it's my turn, because Jeb Bush is apparently friends with a real-life vampire.

Before I get to that, though, here's some background. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has recently been preparing for a White House run in 2016, lining up donors and putting together a policy team. As a recent article in The Washington Post points out, 17 of the 21 members of Jeb's foreign policy team served during the administration of his brother, George W. Bush. So this suggests that if Jeb is elected president, the same team that initiated the disastrous war in Iraq will be back in power.

If Bush's goal is to present himself as his "own man," that list of advisers undermines the point somewhat: 19 of the 21 people on it worked in the administrations of his father or brother. We've identified the roles each played in the past three Republican administrations, divvying them up as needed in the following Venn diagram.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bonus Pat: Bestiality Wedding Cakes!

I know that yesterday's post featured Pat Robertson as well, but he's had a really good week - if by "good" one means "jaw-droppingly ridiculous," as is often the case here on Augoeides. In response to a judge's ruling that a florist had acted in a discriminatory manner by refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding, the television evangelist basically lost it and went on a rant about polygamists and people marrying dogs.

“To say that some procedural anomaly in the statute overrides the fundamental religious freedoms of the people, it’s just crazy,” he insisted. “And I hope that the lawyers for this florist will appeal this thing to get into the federal courts.”

“But this is outrageous!” the conservative preacher continued. “To tell a florist that she’s got to provide flowers for a particular kind of wedding. What if somebody wanted to marry his dog? She’s got to have flowers for that? What if there’s a polygamous situation where a guy has five wives and he wants to have five ceremonies, and she’s going to be forced by the law to provide them flowers. I mean, this is crazy.”

My first thought is that the florist should be happy to get all that business. After all, she's in it to make a profit, right? The idea that a person can "sin by association" is one of the dumbest ideas in the whole fundamentalist worldview. Presumably if a same-sex couple is getting married, they don't share the florist's beliefs. So what? It's not like the florist is committing a sin by marrying a same-sex partner. She's just selling them flowers.

The argument here is exactly the same as that made years ago by a group of Muslim cab drivers here in Minneapolis who refused to drive anyone who had alcohol on their possession, which at the time was rightly pillaried by conservatives like Robertson. Islam prohibits the drinking of alcohol, not simply being near a bottle of it. The cab drivers were eventually forced to comply with the law, which states that they cannot refuse a fare in such a discriminatory manner.

The reality is that if you could commit a sin just by doing business with someone who is, the entire American economy would be screwed from a fundamentalist perspective. Poor people are exploited to some degree by just about every financial transaction that passes through the economy, and Jesus said a lot more about exploiting the poor than he did about same-sex relationships. The only possibly anti-gay quotes in the New Testament are from Paul.

Also, why is it that fundamentalists are so obsessed with bestiality? They seem to think that everyone out there is just clamboring to marry their pets, and only the bulwark of godly laws stand between civilization and widespread man-on-dog love. Is this a common fundamentalist fantasy or something?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Covens Are Cursing Unborn Babies... least, according to Pat Robertson, who should probably get his own tag here on Augoeides one of these days. On a recent episode of his 700 Club television program, the evangelist warned a viewer that posting an ultrasound of an unborn child could lead to a "cultist" or "coven" cursing the baby. Apparently in Robertson's imaginary world this is a likely occurance, so I'm glad I don't live there.

“Young parents now regularly post fetal ultrasound photos as their Facebook photo,” the woman wrote. “From a spiritual point of view, is there any harm in doing this?”

At first, Robertson said that he didn’t think that posting ultrasound photos was harmful, but then he seemed to change his mind.

“There are demons and there are evil people in the world,” he said. “And you post a picture like that, and some cultist gets a hold of it or a coven and they begin muttering curses against an unborn child.”

What I've never understood about this evangelical mindset is why anyone would bother. While it's certainly possible to use an image of anything as a spell focus, cursing an unborn baby seems unbelievably pointless. Evangelicals seem to have this idea that people who use magick just do it for the sheer joy of being evil or something, when that couldn't be further from the truth.

The magicians I know who use curses use them sparingly and there's always a reason, usually that the target has wronged them in some particularly egregious way. An unborn baby has done nothing to anyone, pretty much by definition. And anyway, it's not like a magician couldn't just take a profile picture of a mother-to-be and throw a curse that way.

Personally I think posting ultrasounds on social media is dumb and my wife and I never did it. However, I can't see how it's any more dangerous from a magical perspective than a regular profile picture, even if you believe in that sort of thing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Earth is Stationary Because Airplanes

Creationists get themselves into so much trouble because their idea of science basically consists of trying to tease out meaning from religious texts rather than, say, actually performing experiments. This mindset can be found in many fundamentalist religious traditions, and is not limited to Christianity. Recently a Saudi fundamentalist Islamic scholar claimed that the Earth is stationary because that's what the Koran tells him. Oh, and there's also a really confusing bit about airplanes.

Sheikh Bandar al-Khaibari is believed to have been speaking at a university lecture in the United Arab Emirates when a student asked him whether the Earth rotates or is stationary.

The Islamic scholar quickly replies 'stationary and does not move', before launching into a long-winded and confusing explanation that appears to the suggest that if the Earth was moving, airliners would never be able to reach their destination.

After telling the student that the Earth does not rotate, Sheikh al-Khaibari attempts to back up his argument with religious statements and quotes from other Islamic clerics.

Perhaps struggling to make his argument understood, the religious lecturer then attempts to use a visual aid to illustrate how difficult it would be for airliners to travel if the Earth is spinning.

Of course, anybody who knows anything about science realizes that this explanation is completely daft because when the plane is stationary on the ground it's moving at the same speed as the Earth rotates, and when it takes off the engines modify that velocity. The explanation offered by al-Khaibari seems to assume that the moment the plane breaks connection with the Earth its velocity should instantly drop to zero relative to that of the planet, which is obviously impossible.

In fact, if there was a way to make that happen, we could exploit the principle to generate limitless free energy. Not only that, it would make bouncy castles and pogo sticks incredibly dangerous.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Best Correction Ever

Or I suppose the worst, depending on your point of view. A newspaper in North Carolina published a letter from a reader warning of President Obama's involvement in the supposed coming apocalypse. The newspaper described the letter as claiming Obama was the antichrist, but was forced to issue a correction when said reader contacted them and pointed out that they had their theology all wrong.

The Dispatch printed a letter from reader Boyd Thomas. The headline originally read, “Is Obama the Antichrist?,” but was later altered after it was determined that Thomas was insinuating that President Barack Hussein Obama was actually the “seventh king,” who announces the arrival of the Antichrist.

“Boyd Thomas’ letter Saturday contained an error in the headline,” the correction read. “He does not believe President Obama is the Antichrist, who will come after the seven kings, according to Revelation. He thinks Obama could be the seventh king.”

“God states that seven kings must come before the rise of the Antichrist. Revelations 17:10 says the seventh king will reign for a short amount of time,” Thomas says in his letter. “Is Barack Obama the seventh king?”

Supporting or opposing Obama's policies is one thing, but religious fear-mongering is just ridiculous. It was just as silly when directed against Ronald Wilson Reagan (Six letters in each name = 666!) and George W. Bush (He invaded Babylon!). I don't remember what the justifications were for Bill Clinton or George H. W. Bush, but they were out there. It's obvious that they are simply manufactured by political enemies, and being circulated to dupe the gullible.

Anyway, we all know that the real antichrist is David Hasselhoff, right?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Roy Moore Versus the Constitution

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore made an appearance here on Augoeides earlier this year when he issued a statement that the First Amendment of the Constitution only applies to Christians. This month, after a federal court struck down Alabama's ban on same-sex marriage, Moore directed Alabama judges not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in direct violation of the court's ruling.

After the Supreme Court of the United States refused to stay a Federal injunction to allow marriage equality in Alabama, Moore pulled the judicial version of a George Wallace. He ordered judges to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples in direct defiance with the Federal Court ruling. Of course, Moore is all about defying higher court rulings because in his mind, laws are superseded by his God and that gives him the right to disobey Federal court rulings he doesn’t like.

The last time Moore was removed as Chief Justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court by a panel of judges because he disobeyed a Federal Court order to remove the 10 commandments from the court rotunda. Moore pulled a comeback and, once again, was elected Alabama’s Chief Justice in 2012. Now he’s trying to pull a George Wallace on marriage equality based on the same “logic” that got him removed before.

What's so funny and at the same time disturbing about Dominionists like Moore is that they pay relatively little attention to Christian teachings such as compassion towards the poor and oppressed, in favor of symbolic gestures like Ten Commandments monuments and preventing people who don't share their beliefs from marrying those they love. Only a complete idiot could read the Gospels and come away with the conclusion that the latter issues, and not the former, should be the core of Christian belief.

It also is quite telling that people like Moore claim to hold the Constitution in highest regard, but rush to defy it the moment a ruling goes against their archaic Poor Oppressed Christian beliefs. Moore may very well find himself removed as Chief Justice once more, and hopefully this time the people of Alabama will have enough sense not to elect him again.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

HBO Versus Scientology

There's a fine line between a New Religious Movement and a cult. While the term "cult" is sometimes thrown around to mean any religion that one doesn't happen to approve of, there is also a more technical definition that describes specific harmful practices. Such cults generally separate people from family and friends during their involvement, and then ostracize anyone who decides to leave. They demand that members donate extravagant amounts of money. They subject members to varying forms of punishment which are doled out on a whim and to which the only alternative is to leave the group. And so forth.

Perhaps the largest organization that arguably fits this second definition of "cult" is the Church of Scientology. While representatives of the church claim that it's just another new religion, reports of cultish behavior have been coming out of the organization for years. Now HBO has gotten in on the action, with a new documentary that claims to expose the truth about the organization. The documentary is based on the bestselling 2013 book Going Clear by Lawrence Wright, who interviewed many former members of the church and compiled their stories.

Among the bombshells asserted by eight former church members: Scientology intentionally broke up Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman; it tortured some of its members in a prison known as "the hole" and subjected others to hard labor; it harassed those who left the organization and forced their family members to cut off all contact.

The film offers an intimate portrait of founder L. Ron Hubbard (or LRH as he's referred to by members) and follows the rise of current leader David Miscavige, alleging his misuse of power and that he physically abused several members.

The film also claims that Hubbard beat and threatened his first wife and kidnapped their daughter, leaving her in Cuba in the care of a mentally disabled woman. It also detailed Hubbard's elaborate cosmology incorporating space aliens, invading spirits, volcanoes and other elements that his sci-fi writing had contained.

As usual, the church claims that the book contains fabrications by disgruntled members while at the same time issuing legal threats to HBO and the producers. To be fair, it wouldn't surprise me to find that some of the stories are at least exaggerated. The problem is that there are so many of them from so many different people. It seems that the only way they could all be false is if everyone involved were part of some enormous conspiracy to discredit the church, which simply strikes me as implausible. And none of the individual stories make Scientology look like a benign religious movement.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ark Encounter Suing Kentucky

Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis is continuing his quest to be recognized as one of the most obnoxious jerks on the planet. After his Noah's Ark theme park attraction was denied tax subsidies by the state of Kentucky, he threatened a lawsuit and is now following through on those threats. He claims that by denying him tax subsidies for a project that will hire only young-Earth creationists, and thus discriminate on the basis of religion, the state is actually discriminating against him.

I realize that it requires a special lack of critical thinking skills to be a young-Earth creationist in the first place, and a further lack of mental coherence to argue that those who accept the convoluted, nonsensical (and not even very scriptural) Ussher chronology are the only "real Christians." Ham has done both. But what I don't understand here is how Ham expects to win his case. Corporations that discriminate can't get subsidies, period. There's no legal loophole here to exploit and no real case to be made. But he's apparently going forward anyway.

In a new press release, Ham lays out his claims. He believes he’s the victim of religious discrimination — because the state won’t let him receive tax dollars for his Ark Encounters park while discriminating in hiring.

Ken Ham is the man behind Answers in Genesis, Kentucky’s Creation Museum (which employs exhibits to teach children that man and dinosaurs lived at the same time), and the Ark Encounters theme park, which is underway a short distance from the Creation Museum. The park, Ham hopes, will help prove that Noah could, indeed, fit two of every type of animal on a functional wooden boat.

Ham’s problems came about because of a clash between a state tax benefit he sought and his hiring practices. The program allows tourist attractions that generate a certain amount of tax revenue to receive a rebate of part of that revenue — in other words, have some of their tax dollars returned. However, Ken Ham was denied access to the program because of discriminatory hiring practices that came to light.

Specifically, a person who applied to work at Ham’s Ark Encounters park would be asked to sign a statement saying he shared Ham’s Young Earth Christian faith. Americans United for Separation of Church and State contacted officials in Kentucky, noting that to grant Ham’s project access to the tax-funded program would be to “compel taxpayers to support religious discrimination.”

Ham will lose, but it surprises me that he hasn't thought out the ramifications if by some miracle he were to win. The law has to apply to everyone equally under the constitution, so it would mean that Muslim businesses that only hire Muslims and atheist businesses that only hire atheists would be able to get the same tax breaks. Does Ham really want that precedent set? He probably he wants to have his cake and eat it too, carving out a special constitutional exception for Christians that excludes everyone else. Because otherwise the government is discriminating against Christians by not allowing them to discriminate.

When I talk about the incoherence of the Poor Oppressed Christian worldview this is the kind of thing I'm talking about. Ham's position is illogical, discriminatory, and ultimately silly.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Digital Evangelism

Over the course of the last year a number of scientists have commented on the potential dangers posed by artificial intelligence. Movie scenarios speculating on "the rise of the machines" may be melodramatic and overdone, but there are also some legitimate questions raised by the development of artificial intelligence that may eventually surpass the intelligence of human beings.

Our world is now massively interconnected, and a digital mind that was smart enough to do so could eventually wield enormous power, especially as the "Internet of things" becomes more widespread. So while I think that many of the scenarios proposed by these experts are far-fetched, their potential for disaster at least needs to be considered and questions regarding them need to be asked.

One of these questions raised by artificial intelligence involves religion, and as such is a totally relevant topic here on Augoeides. Specifically, the question is whether or not existing religions should evangelize to intelligent machines. A Florida reverend has recently issued a statement arguing that if a machine is indeed intelligent, there is no reason not to expose it to religious ideas and even attempt to convert it to Christianity.

Artificial intelligence and autonomous robots should be encouraged to become religious, a US reverend has said. Reverend Christopher Benek, associate pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Florida, believes advanced forms of artificial intelligence should be welcomed into the Christian faith.

"I don't see Christ's redemption limited to human beings," Benek said in an interview with the futurist Zoltan Istvan. "It's redemption to all of creation, even AI. If AI is autonomous, then we should encourage it to participate in Christ's redemptive purposes in the world."

One interesting point about religious artificial intelligence is that perhaps religious ideals could rein in some of the dangers that such technology might pose. Most of the major world religions have strong social control "wiring" that is at least in theory far more strict than proposed artificial schemas such as Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.

On the other hand, looking at how some human beings actually practice those religions, I think we can all agree that the last thing anyone would want is a super-powerful artificial intelligence taking up some sort of holy war against those it considers heretics or unbelievers.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Mummified Monk Still Alive?

A Buddhist expert has claimed that a mummified monk found in Mongolia is still alive, in a deep state of meditation called "tudkam." The remains are about 200 years old and show a remarkable degree of preservation, though from all outward appearances the body is completely mummified and shows no signs of life.

According to the same expert, Dr. Barry Kerzin, the tudkam state is a predecessor to the attainment of the "rainbow body," a transformation in which the body is converted in some fashion to "pure light." I have heard reports of lamas entering tudkam at the moment of physical death, and apparently their bodies do not seem to cool normally even after more than a week. But of course that's not nearly as long as two centuries.

Forensic examinations are under way on the amazing remains, which are believed to be around 200 years old, having been preserved in animal skin. But one expert has insisted the human relic is actually in ‘very deep meditation’ and in a rare and very special spiritual state known as ‘tukdam’.

Over the last 50 years there are said to have been 40 such cases in India involving meditating Tibetan monks. Dr Barry Kerzin, a famous Buddhist monk and a physician to the Dalai Lama, said: ‘I had the privilege to take care of some meditators who were in a tukdam state.

‘If the person is able to remain in this state for more than three weeks – which rarely happens – his body gradually shrinks, and in the end all that remains from the person is his hair, nails, and clothes. Usually in this case, people who live next to the monk see a rainbow that glows in the sky for several days. This means that he has found a ‘rainbow body’. This is the highest state close to the state of Buddha’.

It seems to me that observation of the mummy makes for a perfect test of the "rainbow body" effect. If the monk is indeed still alive in some sense but on the way to accomplishing the transformation, perhaps we could capture it on a security camera or something. A few of these transformations allegedly took place in the last century, listed here. But as far as I know it has never been directly observed.

It can't be a matter-to-energy conversion because the mass of the body would yield energy far in excess of that produced by even hundreds of nuclear explosions and nothing of that magnitude has ever been reported. But if it's real, what else could it be? Suffice it to say that I would love to be able to study a real case and make some sort of scientific determination.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Mark of the Beast

The trouble with Biblical literalism is that it really needs to be all or nothing. My main objection to it, in fact, is that if you read the Bible in its entirety you will find conflicting accounts of the same events. That means the text can't literally be true, so some degree of interpretation is necessary in order to make sense of it.

When people who are not very bright try to do this they usually get themselves into trouble. An Ohio man who refused to provide a social security number to his employer, because he believed that it represented the "Mark of the Beast" from Revelation, lost his position and sued the company for religious discrimination. But a federal judge recently ruled that employers do not have to accommodate religious objections to social security numbers.

Donald Yeager, of Austintown, Ohio, was accepted in 2012 as an intern at FirstEnergy in western Pennsylvania, but he eventually lost the position because the company would not process his application without a Social Security number, reported the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

He believes that the government-issued, nine-digit identification numbers are foretold in the Book of Revelations and associated with the Antichrist, and he renounced his Social Security number at 18. U.S. law refers to Social Security numbers in a statute numbered 666 – which is commonly understood as the biblical “mark of the beast.”

The Internal Revenue Service by law requires employers to provide their employees’ Social Security numbers for tax purposes, although they may still hire workers without one but must fill out additional paperwork.

Yeager sued the company last year, claiming that FirstEnergy had discriminated against him due to his religion. FirstEnergy argued that case law had established that employers do not have to accommodate religious objections to Social Security numbers, and a federal judge agreed.

This is clearly the correct ruling. According to the law, government does not have to accommodate religious beliefs that conflict with its "compelling interest." For example, even though Warren Jeff's Mormon polygamist group saw no problem with older adults marrying girls as young as twelve, he still wound up in jail because in the eyes of the government statutory rape is a crime regardless of the perpetrator's religion.

Likewise, the collection of social security numbers by employers is used to make it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to find work and to administer the withholdings that support the social security trust fund. If anyone who wanted to claim a religious exemption could just opt out, neither of those functions could be adequately performed.

Furthermore, equating social security numbers with the Mark of the Beast requires a staggering lack of both intelligence and critical thinking skills. It is not printed on the hand or forehead, and it is not required to buy or sell anything. Yeager's sole piece of evidence is that social security numbers are referred to in a statute numbered 666 - which again, if you read the text, is the "number of a man," not the number of a statute.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Sauron at Nine

It's the most trite time travel cliche in the book. If you had a time machine, would you use it to kill Hitler before he came to power? Maybe that's what administrators at a Texas school had in mind when they recently suspended a fourth-grader for threatening a classmate with the One Ring from J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Clearly, the rightful owner of the One Ring is the Dark Lord Sauron, and think what would have happened had this embodiment of evil been suspended at the age of nine?

That suspension would have gone on his permanent record, and prevented him from getting into a decent college in Middle Earth where advanced scientific topics like mind control and orc breeding were taught. The lack of a first rate education might have resulted in mistakes leading to his defeat while still in his guise as the Necromancer of Dol Guldur. Likewise, it might have undermined his alliance with Saruman, perhaps to the extent that Gandalf and the White Wizard could have remained allies.

So clearly, suspending Sauron in the fourth grade would have led to a much easier victory in the War of the Ring, and perhaps could have prevented the war from coming to pass at all. But otherwise the school's actions seem quite ridiculous.

A fourth grader in Kermit, Texas was suspended for making “terroristic threats” after allegedly telling a classmate that he had a “magic ring” that could make the boy disappear, the Odessa American reports.

According to Kermit Elementary School officials, 9-year-old Aiden Steward told a classmate that he possessed a magic ring forged in Mount Doom — a fictional location from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings series.

Aiden’s father, Jason, told The Daily News that his family had just watched The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies earlier that week, and that his son “didn’t mean anything” when he told his classmate he was in possession of the “one ring to rule them all.”

“Kids act out movies that they see. When I watched Superman as a kid, I went outside and tried to fly,” he said. “I assure you my son lacks the magical powers necessary to threaten his friend’s existence,” he added. “If he did, I’m sure he’d bring him right back.”

What's shocking here is the complete ignorance of the power of the One Ring. It doesn't make people cease to exist, it turns them invisible - and what fourth-grader wouldn't like to turn invisible? He or she could run around unseen and play pranks on classmates and teachers alike. That's not much of a threat; it's actually pretty awesome. I suppose it would be less fun to be stuck that way, but Tolkien is clear that the only way to make that happen is to keep wearing the ring. You can always take it off, it just twists your mind so that you want to keep it on.

Seriously, though, if I were sending my kid to a school where the staff feared the magical powers of a toy ring I would do my best to find another school as soon as possible. Maybe the family is stuck where they are, but what could their kid possibly learn from teachers who are this stupid?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Reverse-Groundhogmancy for 2015

Last winter my attempt to apply reverse-groundhogmancy failed spectacularly. To recap my ongoing attempts to apply this potentially remarkable divination tool, back in 2012 a meteorology website put together an analysis of the predictions of Punxsutawney Phil, the world's most famous groundhog. According to folklore, if Phil sees his shadow on Groundhog Day there will be six more weeks of winter. If he does not see his shadow, spring will come early. But what the analysis showed is that Phil is only right 39% of the time.

A commenter here on Augoeides noted that in fact the analysis meant that if every one of Phil's predictions were reversed, his accuracy would be 61%, substantially better than chance. It was with that revelation that I embraced the dark art of reverse-groundhogmancy. In 2013 it worked just fine - Phil predicted an early spring which did not come to pass, making the reverse prediction correct. Last year, though, he predicted six more weeks of a winter that was truly awful in Minnesota, and was not just correct but overwhelmingly so. The winter of 2014 endured longer than a mere six weeks, including a blizzard in April.

This year I'm more hopeful, for both the weather and the reverse method. Today Phil once again saw his shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter. Unlike last year, though, this winter has been relatively mild here in the Upper Midwest, with above-zero temperatures every couple of weeks. And now according to the reverse method we will have an early spring, so that's my prediction and I'm sticking to it.

We'll see how it works out this time.