Descriptive Index of Entries

Here they are in chronological order, with their leads:

Three Ways of Looking at Being Jewish (27 December 2009)
My first version of the title of this post was “Three Ways of Looking at a Jew.” The parody held some charm for me (if you don't get the allusion, look here), but I chose to replace it with a title that better reflects the actual content to follow. The three aspects are: belonging to the Jewish people, practicing Judaism, and adhering to Jewish beliefs. Relations among the three are complicated.

On Being Skeptical (27 December 2009)
“Skepticism” can signify a tendency to doubt, a devotion to critical inquiry, or a certain popular movement advocating scientific and critical thinking against magical and pseudo-scientific thinking. There is something of all three in the writer of this weblog.

Hocus-Pocus about “Magical Thinking” (29 December 2009)
Unquestionably, human beings have a deep and inescapable predisposition to magical thinking; but to identify all instances in which we attribute to things a meaning that goes beyond what we can observe in them as “magical thinking” simply muddies the waters. Ritual actions can have a power that owes nothing to magical beliefs.

Why Are There So Few Non-Orthodox Jewish Blogs? (29 December 2009)
Why are there so few bloggers writing about Judaism and Jewishness from a perspective comparable to mine? Is it because too few non-Orthodox Jews care enough about Judaism to write about the topic, or is it because too few of them know enough about Judaism to do so?

IOU for Replies to Comments (4 January 2010)

Superstition and Jewish Observance (4 January 2010)
Whether a religious practice is superstitious depends on what its practitioners think that they are doing: one and the same practice may be sustained by different beliefs, some superstitious and some not. Some superstitions are more harmful than others, but superstition is in itself a harm to the mind.

Reply to Comment on Jewish Identity (6 January 2010)
There is more to belonging than just a sense of belonging: the entity to which you feel that you belong must really exist, and you must really be included in it. I belong to the Jewish people even though I do not accept Jewish beliefs, but only because of a practice that rests on those beliefs—which leaves me in an uneasy position.

Carl Sagan on Science and Skepticism (8 January 2010)
Carl Sagan’s work is a great reminder of the ethical aspect of skepticism: without the ability to distinguish between prejudice and “postjudice,” or between what is true and what feels good, we may “slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness.”

Pat Robertson, Propagandist for Atheism? (15 January 2010)
There have been many reports of what Robertson said about Haiti and many condemnations of it; what is missing from public discourse is an account of what exactly is outrageous about what he said.

Second Thoughts about What Pat Robertson Said (19 January 2010)
What is wrong with what Robertson said is what is wrong with a great deal of religious thinking. Explaining wherein the fault lies is not easy.

The Right-Wing Evangelical Libel against Haiti (24 January 2010)
The idea that the nation of Haiti was born of a pact with the devil, far from being Pat Robertson’s invention, is a libel widely circulated among right-wing Evangelical Christians. Like many people who reject critical rationality, they mistake repetition for confirmation and plausible detail for evidence.

Parallel-Earth Pat Robertson (25 January 2010)
[Another cartoon by Tom Tomorrow]

From Satanism Libel to Blood Libel: This Time, It’s Coming from Haitians (26 January 2010)
The right-wing evangelical defamation of Voodoo does not end with the misrepresentation of the Bois Caïman gathering as a Satanic pact: it includes the accusation of the ritual sacrifice of human beings, and the propagators of the libel include Haiti’s ambassador to the United States.

Dishonesty in Hertz’s Torah Commentary (16 March 2010)
Got a Torah passage that says something morally repugnant? No problem: just deny that it means what it says!

More Insights into the Ways of God (22 April 2010)
The bright side of natural disasters: they always bring us prophets!

You Have Been Spammed (26 April 2010)
Attempted intrusions into the “comments” section by abusive visitors have compelled me to introduce, to my regret, moderation of comments.

Funny Word, Funnier Concept (16 May 2010)
The word “Jew” is odd enough considered merely as a phonetic phenomenon; it gets even funnier when you try to figure out exactly what it means.

Three Kinds of Religious Beliefs (20 May 2010)
 Religious beliefs contain both natural and supernatural elements. The natural elements do more than the supernatural ones to make systems of religious belief rationally untenable in light of science.

 What Beliefs Are Jewish Beliefs? (21 May 2010)
Certainly some beliefs are Jewish beliefs; only it is difficult to say which ones. If the question is whether a belief is an Orthodox Jewish belief, the question can be easier to settle; but not always.

Martin Gardner, 1914–2010 (22 May 2010)
Author Martin Gardner died today, May 22, 2010, at the age of 95.

The Natural versus the Supernatural (25 May 2010)
Once you look into the meaning of “supernatural,” it becomes harder to sustain a distinction between “pure” and “mixed” supernatural beliefs. So I give up that distinction. Still, it is the natural rather than the supernatural beliefs that do most to bring religion into conflict with scientific knowledge.

The Prophets Are Silent (26 May 2010)
Self-fancied prophets, such as the Reverend Pat Robertson, have told us why God brought us the earthquake in Haiti, the volcanic eruption in Iceland, and other disasters; why have none been giving us the theological skinny on the big oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico?

Tom Tomorrow on the BP Oil Disaster (27 May 2010)
How political conservatism distorts thinking about dangers to the public and the environment.

Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion (30 May 2010)
According to Stephen Jay Gould, science and religion have separate domains of teaching authority, or “non-overlapping magisteria.” If so, then it is not evident that any major revealed religion has ever confined itself to its proper magisterium. But that does not mean that Gould is wrong.

More on Gould on Science and Religion (6 June 2010)
The criticisms that have been directed at Gould’s thesis of non-overlapping magisteria (for science, questions of how the natural world is; for religion, questions of ultimate meaning and value) can be reduced to one objection: Why should we believe that religion has any magisterium at all?

A Dilemma for NOMA (10 June 2010)
The diversity of religions presents a stubborn problem for Gould’s idea that religion has its own magisterium. The idea that the teaching authority of religion pertains to practices rather than beliefs shifts the problem slightly but ultimately does not solve it. On the other hand. . . .

Jewish Education in America: A Historical Note (24 June 2010)
Given the conditions of Jewish education in the United States, it is not surprising that so many children behave badly and learn little in Hebrew school. What is surprising is that this situation has existed for at least 140 years.

Judaism, Jewry, and Jews (19 September 2010)
The statement “Judaism is a people, not (just) a religion” seems like an important truth, but it is not even logically coherent. “Jewry is a people” is true and coherent, but banal. Here is how to capture both the truth and the importance without losing coherence.

Who Needs Science When You’ve Got the Bible? (10 November 2010)
And what hope is there for secular government when you’ve got Republicans?

Trivializing the Diaspora (27 January 2010)
A new social-networking Web site adopts a tasteless and sophomoric name.

How Many Forms of BS Can You Spot in This Utterance? (11 March 2011)
Newt Gingrich on his dark past: “There’s no question that at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard, and that things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”

A False Truism (13 March 2011)
The common saying “Everything happens for a reason” is neither true nor a truism, but a swindle in which the preposterous is peddled in the guise of the obvious.

A Rough Introduction to Critical Thinking (16 March 2011)
A clip from the video Dara Ó Briain Talks Funny, with a partial transcript.

Changing the Name of the Blog (16 March 2011)
From “Skeptical Jew” to “Skeptical Observations.”

More on That False Truism (24 March 2011)
How the saying “Everything happens for a reason” combines presumption with obtuseness.

Lewis Black on Creationism (1 April 2011)
Lewis Black explains why Christians get the “Old Testament” wrong. I explain how Black gets George W. Bush wrong—to some degree.

Tavris and Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Reading Notes (4 May 2011)
A book arguing for the power of the concept of cognitive dissonance to explain “why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts” lacks one thing: a defensible explanation of what cognitive dissonance is.

Reviving This Blog (7 April 2013)
Announcing the renewal of posting on this blog.

The Non-Consolation of Belief in an Afterlife (7 April 2013)
The original version of this entry was written ten months after the death of a close friend.

The Non-Consolations of Biology (8 April 2013)
A scientific theory that says nothing about the meaning, purpose, or value of human life is not for that reason a denial that there is any meaning, purpose, or value in human life.

Sane People with Insane Beliefs (14 April 2013)
 People who believe crazy things are not necessarily crazy; but neither are beliefs sane just because the people who hold them are so.

Terrorism Close to Home (16 April 2013)
A terrorist attack may bring forth responses that are ugly, stupid, crazy, or all three, in various measures. But the most common response is just what such acts aim at: terror.

Ancient Polytheism and the Concept of Evidence (2 August 2013)
Gary Gutting offers a double-layered agnosticism about the existence of the gods of ancient Greece: we are in no position to say with assurance that the ancient Greeks did not have good evidence for the existence of Zeus and company, he argues, and therefore, we are in no position to say with assurance that their gods did not exist. The first claim is mistaken, and it is mistaken because the facts that Gutting marshals to support his case have nothing to do with evidence at all.

Ancient Polytheism and the Concept of Evidence Reconsidered (More Briefly) (4 August 2013)
The issue of whether the ancient Greeks could have had good evidence of the existence of their gods comes down to the issue of whether a theistic explanation of their religious experiences can be a better explanation than any naturalistic one.

Is the Existence of God a Matter of Probabilities? (8 August 2013)
To treat the question whether God exists as a matter of probabilities seems to some people completely natural and to some utterly perverse. Believers and non-believers are found in both camps. I agree with Duncan Richter in finding such a way of thinking deeply wrongheaded, but I find his attempt to say what is wrong with it unsatisfactory. 

More on Thinking Probabilistically (12 August 2013)
We typically use the plural noun “probabilities” only when speaking of events that are potentially repeatable, like throws of a pair of dice. But the notion of probability has another aspect, namely the degree of strength of belief warranted by evidence. This seems to apply, at least potentially, to the question of divine existence. But one may doubt whether the “God” about which some reason probabilistically can be identified with the God worshiped and served in any actual religion.

And When I Know Precisely What Is Meant by “Magisterium” (21 August 2013)
Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria” has weaknesses enough when considered solely on the basis of his presentation of it. When one considers it in light of the original ecclesiastical meaning and use of the term “magisterium,” it appears positively grotesque.

Philosopher Defends B***s*** (30 September 2013)
Stephen Asma argues that, because philosophers have failed to formulate a criterion to distinguish science from pseudo-science, the claims of traditional Chinese medicine cannot be dismissed. But it turns out that all that he thinks important is whether the treatments are effective—a question that he thinks immune to critical examination because it is not the sort of thing about which professional philosophers can engage in a lot of sophisticated-sounding talk.