There’s more to Mary than not having sex


Five reasons the mother of Jesus is a bigger deal than protestants like me typically acknowledge

I am not alone amongst protestants in finding the Catholic veneration of Mary occasionally over the top and sometimes rather odd. However, they are right to highlight her as a pivotal figure.

1.The Bible mentions her loads

There are a dozen reference to her in the Gospel of Luke alone. She also appears in all the other Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters and perhaps even Revelation.

2. She is probably the source for chunks of the gospel

The Nativity story is a pretty central part of the festive season. But have you ever wondered where it comes from?

The obvious answer is the Bible or to be more exact the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. But how did it get in there? The authors (or purported authors) could not have witnessed any of it because the Disciples do not enter the picture until decades after Jesus’ birth. Nor obviously could Jesus himself having been a baby at the time be the ultimate source. And Joseph’s final appearance in the Bible is finding a six-year old messiah in the temple from –  his later absence suggests that he had died by the time of Jesus’ ministry.  That makes the most likely source Mary. Indeed, it is a given that some parts of the nativity must have been reported by Mary: there was no other person to recount her ante-natal visit from Gabriel!

3. she’s the only person to have witnessed the full span of Jesus’ life

She gave birth to him, she wept at his crucifixion and prayed with the disciples after his accession.

4. She is part of a tradition of significant Christian women

Now, it is not uncommon to hear the exclusion of women from positions of authority within the church justified by pointing out that the apostles were all men. What this ignores is that the Bible provides examples of women leading and preaching. In this context it is significant that Mary should have been not only the mother of Jesus but probably also the originator of some of the most evocative sections of the Bible.

5. She’s the only women mentioned by name in the Qur’an

She’s revered by Muslims as well as Christians and is actually mentioned in the Qur’an more than the Bible. The 19th chapter of the Qur’an is named after her.

What does free speech actually mean?


Is free speech just about the law or does it also need to protect people from social pressure?

Until this week I was – along with just about everybody else in the UK – blissfully unaware of the existence of Duck Dynasty. It’s a reality TV show about a clan that made its millions selling accessories for duck hunters.

What has brought this program from the obscurity of American Cable TV are some unfortunate remarks by the patriarch of the family. Not only did he compare Shintoism to Fascism and imply that Jim Crow wasn’t all that bad. He also said this:

Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. … Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right … We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus — whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?”

And even more weirdly this:

It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.

In the context of an America in which everything must apparently become a partisan issue: left and right have come to different views. For example, Republican Senator Ted Cruz wrote on Facebook:

The reason that so many Americans love Duck Dynasty is because it represents the America usually ignored or mocked by liberal elites: a family that loves and cares for each other, believes in God, and speaks openly about their faith.

If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over the treatment of Phil Robertson. Phil expressed his personal views and his own religious faith; for that, he was suspended from his job. In a free society, anyone is free to disagree with him–but the mainstream media should not behave as the thought police censoring the views with which they disagree.

Liberals have responded by pointing out that Mr Robertson’s first amendment rights have not actually been breached. The liberal website Think Progress wrote that:

These outraged messages have largely defended Robertson’s anti-gay comments as an expression of his religious beliefs without acknowledging his remarks that African Americans were better off without full civil rights. On that point, they have been notably silent. Moreover, nothing about this situation has anything to do with “free speech.”

Robertson is a free man. He has not been arrested for his beliefs. He could continue to say whatever he’d like and, given the current media frenzy, it would probably be quickly published in many other places. Robertson could even take to his own website and publish whatever he wants to say, and individuals could share it through social media the world over. His freedom of speech has been in no way encumbered.

A&E, as a company, enjoys constitutional protections as well, and is under no obligation to provide a platform for messages it disagrees with. The network’s statement suspending Robertson from filming was telling in this regard: “His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community.” A&E is not Robertson’s employer, lest it be forgotten that the show Duck Dynasty is about his actual business, Duck Commander, which produces duck calls and other related (and not-so-related) products.

What actually is taking place is that conservatives are taking umbrage because a fellow conservative’s beliefs are being publicly criticized. This happens all the time. When Chick-fil-A head Dan Cathy, whose company gives millions of dollars annually to anti-gay groups, said that homosexuality is “twisted up kind of stuff” that is “inviting God’s judgment,” LGBT groups called for awareness-raising and boycotts while conservatives rushed to show their “appreciation.” The exact opposite happened when companies like Starbucks and General Mills announced their support for marriage equality: LGBT groups offered praise, while anti-gay groups vowed to dump their products.

Surprisingly I actually have some sympathy for the right-wing perspective on this one. No less a liberal luminary than J.S Mill worried not only about formal censorship but also the “despotism of custom.” He worried that social pressures could silence dissenting opinions in the same way as laws. That might not concern us unduly when it’s the bigoted ramblings of Mr Robertson being silenced. However, decades back someone expressing the opposite opinions would have been driven out of public life. Society can be in error and the pressure it exerts can be a problem. However, we must also remember that freedom of speech covers the freedom to criticise and the freedom of association cover the freedom to disassociate from someone we find disagreeable.

So in A&E’s position would I have done? I am won over by Andrew Sullivan’s position that:

Robertson is a character in a reality show. He’s not a spokesman for A&E any more than some soul-sucking social x-ray from the Real Housewives series is a spokeswoman for Bravo. Is he being fired for being out of character? Nah. He’s being fired for staying in character – a character A&E have nurtured and promoted and benefited from. Turning around and demanding a Duck Dynasty star suddenly become the equivalent of a Rachel Maddow guest is preposterous and unfair.

Saturday suggestions: Homeland, Ronnie Biggs and an honest trailer for the Hobbit

Some of my favourite articles, posts and videos from the past week

The Holes in “Homeland” by Richard A. Falkenrath

The terrorists in Homeland are a lethal bunch. Their ringleader, Abu Nazir, has tentacles that span the globe. He has long-term sleeper agents and bomb-makers inside the United States. He can simultaneously brainwash two marines and choreograph their parallel operations against the United States from across the ocean. He can elude America’s global dragnet, and then suddenly appear inside the Beltway. On short notice, he can summon helicopters from the sky and dispatch a squad of highly trained gunmen with body armor and automatic weapons. He even has a henchman who can, with the right serial number, hack into a man’s pacemaker and trigger a lethal heart attack.

The truth is that terrorists like this are purely the stuff of fiction. There is indeed a real threat of terrorism in the United States, but the country has never faced a terrorist even remotely as competent and powerful as Abu Nazir. And that is a good thing, because such a foe could easily inflict civilian casualties far in excess of the nearly 3,000 who died on September 11, 2001. There would be simply too many vulnerabilities for him to exploit.

And yet what makes Abu Nazir stand out the most is not his power but his sanity and his purity. Carrie, Brody, and the rest of the protagonists in Homeland are all flawed, frantic, messy people. In contrast, Abu Nazir is well groomed, devout, articulate, calmly focused, and purposeful. The juxtaposition is not subtle.

Late in the second season, Abu Nazir offers a gripping description of his motives, forcefully making a case for the moral superiority of his cause and the moral equivalence of his tactics. The best response that a captive, wild-eyed Carrie can come up with is, “We have nothing in common. You’re a terrorist.” As if the word alone carries the day.

Fortunately, in the real world, the bad guys are less powerful and more reprobate than Abu Nazir — and the good guys have better arguments than Carrie.

Death of a robber by Bagehot (the Economist)

 When, in 2009, he applied for parole on compassionate grounds, the then home secretary Jack Straw refused his application on the reasonable grounds that he had shown not a shred of remorse for his crime. He was released in 2011 only after it was argued that he was dying.

Fittingly, he managed to postpone that fate a bit, but he was in pitiful condition. When he appeared at the funeral of Bruce Reynolds, the organiser of the train heist, he was doddery and unable to speak. He still managed to flick a “V-sign” at the watching press photographers.

He was to the end unrepentant. Communicating by alphabet board, in July, shortly before the 50th anniversary of the Great Train Robbery, he said: “If you want to ask me if I have any regrets about being one of the Great Train Robbers, the answer is no.”

“I will go further. I am proud to have been one of them. I was there that August night and that is what counts. I am one of the few witnesses—living or dead—to what was the crime of the century.”

He will not be greatly missed.

Honest Trailers – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Is the Big Bang Theory sexist?


The contrast between Amy and Penny has always bothered me but I couldn’t work out if that was me over-analysing things.

would probably argue that there is something in my unease. She’s branded Sheldon’s love interest Amy Farrah Fowlet as one of the 10 most sexist characters on TV:

The conceptualization of Amy’s character could have been awesome. I love the presence of female characters with a science background who can hold their own. As  noted by Michelle Haimoff in 2012, Amy is accomplished but undatable “while Penny, the hot waitress, is the one the male characters lust after.” The science geek stereotype is old. So is the she’s-hot-so-she-must-be-dumb stereotype. And what’s with not giving Penny a last name? Isn’t her character worthy of a full identity?

The lovely thing about creating television is that you can make people whomever you want them to be without real world consequences. Scripts don’t need to follow any rules. It’s pretty lazy to apply gender biases and stereotypes to fictional spaces if those biases and stereotypes aren’t providing alternatives to the status quo. I promise, it is possible to write female characters who have experiences that aren’t based in misogyny.

A medical case for teetotalism

Alcohol is icky – so much so that not drinking at all seems like the best idea.

Professor David Nutt – the man sacked as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for relying on statistics not sensationalism – argues that the safest approach to alcohol is to avoid it altogether:

The myth of a safe level of drinking is a powerful claim. It is one that many health professionals appear to believe in and that the alcohol industry uses to defend its strategy of making the drug readily available at low prices. However, the claim is wrong and the supporting evidence flawed.

There is no safe dose of alcohol for these reasons:

• Alcohol is a toxin that kills cells such as microorganisms, which is why we use it to preserve food and sterilise skin, needles etc. Alcohol kills humans too. A dose only four times as high as the amount that would make blood levels exceed drink-driving limits in the UK can kill. The toxicity of alcohol is worsened because in order for it to be cleared from the body it has to be metabolised to acetaldehyde, an even more toxic substance. Any food or drink contaminated with the amount of acetaldehyde that a unit of alcohol produces would be immediately banned as having an unacceptable health risk.

• Although most people do not become addicted to alcohol on their first drink, a small proportion do. As a clinical psychiatrist who has worked with alcoholics for more than 30 years, I have seen many people who have experienced a strong liking of alcohol from their very first exposure and then gone on to become addicted to it. We cannot at present predict who these people will be, so any exposure to alcohol runs the risk of producing addiction in some users.

• The supposed cardiovascular benefits of a low level of alcohol intake in some middle-aged men cannot be taken as proof that alcohol is beneficial. To do that one would need a randomised trial where part of this group drink no alcohol, others drink in small amounts and others more heavily. Until this experiment has been done we don’t have proof that alcohol has health benefits. A recent example of where an epidemiological association was found not to be true when tested properly was hormone replacement therapy. Population observations suggested that HRT was beneficial for post-menopausal women, but when controlled trials were conducted it was found to cause more harm than good.

• For all other diseases associated with alcohol there is no evidence of any benefit of low alcohol intake – the risks of accidents, cancer, ulcers etc rise inexorably with intake.

99% of Danish Jews survived the Holocaust


King Christian X of Denmark. Who warned that if the Nazis made Danish Jews wear yellow stars, then he would wear one too

According to the historian Martin Gilbert almost 8 out of 10 Jews in Nazi occupied Europe perished during World War II. This makes the survival of the Jews of Denmark all the more remarkable.

This is not to say the Nazis didn’t try to kill them. In 1943, Eichmann ordered that the Jews of Copenhagen be deported to extermination camps. However, active and passive resistance from both the Danish government and population made this impossible to carry out:

When the Germans arrived to begin the deportations, Jews had already been warned—in their synagogues—and they simply vanished into the countryside, heading for the coast to seek a crossing to neutral Sweden. There was little or no Jewish communal organization and no Danish underground to help them. What ensued was a chaotic family-by-family flight, made possible simply because ordinary members of Danish society feigned ignorance when Germans questioned them, while sheltering families in seaside villages, hotels, and country cottages. Danish police on the coast warned hiding families when the Gestapo came to call, and signaled all-clear so that boats bearing Danish Jews could slip away to Sweden. The fishermen who took the Danish Jews across the Baltic demanded huge sums for the crossing, but managed to get their frightened fellow citizens to safety. When the Gestapo did seize Jewish families hiding in the church of the small fishing village of Gilleleje, the people were so outraged that they banded together to assist others to flee. One villager even confronted the local Gestapo officer, shining a flashlight in his face and exclaiming: “The poor Jews!” When the German replied, “It is written in the Bible that this shall be their fate,” the villager unforgettably replied: “But it is not written that it has to happen in Gilleleje.”

Not every Jew was able to flee – those in old people’s homes were captured. And the Gestapo found some runaways. However, these victims amounted to less than 1% of Danish Jews.

Such resistance to the Holocaust was almost unprecedented in Europe and requires an explanation:

Why did the Danes behave so differently from most other societies and populations in occupied Europe? For a start, they were the only nation where escape to a safe neutral country lay across a narrow strait of water. Moreover, they were not subject to exterminatory pressure themselves. They were not directly occupied, and their leadership structures from the monarch down to the local mayors were not ripped apart. The newspapers in Copenhagen were free enough to report the deportations and thus to assist any Jews still not in the know to flee. The relatively free circulation of information also made it impossible for non-Jewish Danes to claim, as so many Germans did, that “of this we had no knowledge.” Most of all, Denmark was a small, homogeneous society, with a stable democracy, a monarchy that commanded respect, and a shared national hostility to the Germans. Denmark offers some confirmation of Rousseau’s observation that virtue is most easily fostered in small republics.

One could draw a simple moral from this story. By resisting the Nazis, the Danes saved thousands of Jewish lives and had other Europeans done the same many more could have been saved. But actually it contains a tragic dilemma.Denmark was able to resist the Holocaust because it co-operated with the Reich in pursuit of it’s strategic interests. That headed off a German occupation and allowed the Danes to keep a democratic government that was prepared to protect its Jewish population. It raises the disturbing question of whether dealing with a a regime as abhorrent as Nazi Germany might actually sometimes be justified.

Source: One Country Saved Its Jews. Were They Just Better People? The surprising truth about Denmark in the Holocaust by Michael Ignatieff 

Are night owls particuarly prone to depression?

PsyBlog reports a new study suggests it might:

In the new research on 59 participants, those who were confirmed night owls (preferring late to bed and late to rise) had lower integrity of the white matter in various areas of the brain (Rosenberg et al., 2014).

Lower integrity in these areas has been linked to depression and cognitive instability.

This research doesn’t tell us what the relationship is, but the authors guess that it may be related to ‘social jet-lag’.

Social jet-lag comes about because night owls are forced to live–as most of us are–like early risers. Work, school and other institutions mostly require early rising, which, for night owls, causes problems.

As night owls find it difficult to get to sleep early, they tend to carry large amounts of sleep debt. In other words, they’re exhausted all the time.