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Archive for August, 2008

Carnival of the Godless #99 is up, over at OzAtheist‘s place. Lots of good stuff there from the heathen blogosphere, including one piece of my own – apparently the entry conditions were really pretty lax this time around, because I felt like an intellectual midget up against some of the other entries catalogued here. Go read.

Also, as of tomorrow, there’ll be a law in place in Britain “allowing faith schools… to discriminate on religious grounds when hiring headteachers and support staff”. Schools that receive funding from the state will be entitled to require that people working there must belong to a particular religion.

Wow. That sounds like a really bad idea. The main worry seems to be that children of different religions are going to end up being increasingly segregated, which, no kidding. “Parents should be able to choose the type of education and ethos they want for their children,” says someone whose official title is apparently “Children’s minister”. If you apply that sentence to any other factor than religion, doesn’t it sound like the most abhorrent idea imaginable? What if people want to make sure their kids aren’t learning anywhere run by fags or coloureds? Are we going to accommodate that, too?

The idea is for school staff to be in a position to offer “pastoral support” to children, but I don’t see how specifically religious support – beyond the kind of basic care and help and advice and positive reinforcement that we should expect all schools to give to all children in their charge – is something that’s anywhere within the government’s remit to be spending taxpayer money on.

I went to a couple of private religious schools, solely because they seemed like places I’d get a really good education, which I guess I did. The religion part of those times was fairly boring, even while I was more or less going along with the whole Jesus idea, but never particularly emphatic or zealous. My impression of religion in schools in England has always been that it’s fairly muted and half-hearted, much like religion in England generally, at least compared to the US. We learned about evolution in my biology classes, and discussed the book of Genesis as scientifically inaccurate and literally untrue metaphor in Religious Studies, in these private Christian schools. It’s only in retrospect that I’ve come to appreciate that as anything to be grateful for.

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I honestly don’t want this blog to get too predominantly political, and it’s clear that the wide reach of my ignorance on the subject will stop me from getting too carried away on that, but some of this is kinda pertinent at the moment.

Stuff about Sarah Palin is starting to turn up, for instance, like the claim she made in her acceptance speech that she “championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress”, with particular reference to a bridge that was hoped to be built in her state of Alaska. What she actually said at the time indicates that federal funding for the bridge was only turned down when they couldn’t get enough money to get the job done. It’s getting more and more impractical to misrepresent, gloss over, or re-imagine your past actions and statements without getting called on it these days.

Melissa Rogers has a comprehensive list of quotes from Joe Biden‘s past about religion’s role in public life and church-state issues. He’s a Catholic, but seems to have a good idea of what separation of Church and State actually means. He’s opposed the teaching of intelligent design in science classes, and based on everything that’s here it seems like he could be trusted not to let religion play an inappropriately prominent role in government. (Hat-tip to Ed Brayton.) A similar list for Sarah Palin is still being updated, but so far she’s doing little to endear herself to me, at any rate.

And, quite excitingly, Barack Obama has answered the “top 14 science questions facing America”, as selected by ScienceDebate2008 and the thousands of people who submitted questions. It’s a pretty thorough set of answers, I haven’t been through the whole lot carefully yet and certainly don’t have the political nous to analyse it convincingly, but it looks pretty good to me. There’s a fair bit of just general, positive-sounding talk, the sort of thing in which I don’t pretend I can really tell the pandering apart from the genuinely good intentions, before he’s had a chance to show how he’s going to act – John McCain’s stated his intention to provide answers as well, and I imagine he’ll also be coming out fairly strongly pro-science to this particular audience.

But there are some encouraging specifics. Obama has been part of the “Enhancing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education Act of 2008”, which sounds like a good thing, and his support of stem cell research implies an appreciation of science over morality based on religious ideology. Which would be a nice change.

So, yeah. I’ll be watching out for comments on this from anyone more intelligent than me, but so far, Barack is still my man. (Another ScienceBlogs hat-tip for this one.)

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Presidential hopeful John McCain has announced that Sarah Palin, the current Governor of Alaska, will be his vice presidential candidate in the upcoming election. I’ve no idea what Republicans are thinking about this, but the buzz I’m getting from the parts of the blogosphere around which I linger is that not much about her is surprising, and it’s all piling on to the reasons why the Republican Party really doesn’t deserve the chance to keep screwing things up for another four years.

Obama picked Joe Biden as his running mate recently too, which I don’t think I blogged about properly. Not that I have much to say about Biden either, having barely heard of the guy, but the general response seems to be more or less one of “eh, makes sense”.

One thing getting commented on about Palin is that she seems to be, if not a creationist herself, then someone who doesn’t fully understand evolution and science and is willing to pander to that crowd. (The whole “teach the controversy” idea is something I should write about later.) Eh, I don’t know. There are crazier and scarier ideas being suggested by other Republicans out there (and no doubt a few Democrats too), and I guess I don’t want to be too much of a single-issue non-voter. I doubt this decision really sways many people.

Hat-tips to PZ and the denialism blog, both of whom have rather more on this than me.

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Been fairly occupied with other things today (partly writing a book, partly watching one of my favourite Buffy episodes), so just have a few bits and pieces to half-heartedly report on.

I’ve also been scribbling more thoughts on this ongoing dialogue of sorts with Eric, my wacky Christian buddy. You can catch up with that in the comments a few posts down from here, or on his blog, but as a bonus DVD extra, here’s a quick thought that didn’t make it into that discussion, after I rewrote the whole piece in a somewhat different direction.

Eric said:

I also agree that we should not be subject to a tyrannical god. However, to suggest that an omnipotent god, no matter his disposition, actually OWES us something, it [sic] to have a view or [sic] humanity a bit higher than our actual position in this universe.

Which sounds unusual, coming from someone who – unless my Christian theology is severely out of wack – believes that the universe was created solely in order for us to live in it. That would seem to set our position pretty high. You could stroll into the Total Perspective Vortex with that attitude and walk out with your sanity, no sweat.

But even leaving that slight glibness aside, I disagree with the entire premise here. If a being who is all-powerful, who knows what’s going on down here, and who loves us unconditionally, has created the world and all the rules by which it runs, and created us and put us here, then yes, he has a responsibility to us, he owes it to us not to neglect us and allow needless suffering.

If, instead of creating the world as he did, he’d simply made Hell and then conjured a few souls into existence solely to throw them into the fire and watch them burn for eternity, would that be just? Would he not owe his creations a little more respect, compassion, and basic decency than that? As it happens, God is not that sadistic, but we’re still apparently bound by his contract and his rules which we never had a chance not to agree to. We’re human beings, you don’t get to walk all over us just because you’re bigger and more powerful. We deserve better. Has Spiderman taught you nothing about what traditionally comes with great power?

So, there’s that.

In exciting maths news (not an oxymoron, so shush), the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search may have found a new Mersenne prime number – that is, a number into which no smaller number will divide exactly, and which takes the form 2n – 1, for some whole number n. If it checks out, it will be more than 12 million digits in length, far longer than the previous record-holder, which was just under 10 million digits long.

I get excited about these things. I’ll be following this story closely and providing regular updates.

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It’s a grand day indeed. I have been painfully inducted into the hallowed realm of The Atheist Blogroll, kept by Mojoey over at Deep Thoughts. Once I’ve recovered enough from the hazing rituals to be able to sit down again, I’ll hopefully be in a position to attract a wider audience of tens, dozens, perhaps even – dare I dream – scores of new visitors.

You should go check out the whole list – there’s a link in the sidebar, though only the one static image, as I don’t think WordPress can cope with doing anything complicated like using some PHP code to actually display the blogroll, unless I was hosting the blog myself. But it’s an interesting bunch of bedfellows I seem to have acquired – the first one I happened to browse at random was Christian Pwnage, which took me instantly to this image, which, although not really very Christian, was entertaining in that depressing sort of way that Fox News does so well.

In other news, I want this book that Hemant the Friendly Atheist found. I’m sure it’d make for some lovely bedtime reading. (Dubiously SFW, not that I imagine I’m on many people’s lists of useful distractions when they’re supposed to be working.)

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This is an excellent article about the teaching of evolution, and following one teacher in Florida in particular, as he tries to work out how best to handle the creationists in his biology class. It’s an inspiring reminder that some real education can sometimes take place in schools, if you’re lucky, and this guy sounds like the kind of teacher that some kids are lucky to have one class with in a lifetime. One interesting point among many, which seems to demonstrate something which could be pointed out to some religious kids, without it being a personal attack:

“But there is scientific proof that there is a God,” he said. “Over in Turkey there’s a piece of wood from Noah’s ark that came out of a glacier.”

Mr. Campbell chose his words carefully.

“If I could prove, tomorrow, that that chunk of wood is not from the ark, is not even 500 years old and not even from the right kind of tree — would that damage your religious faith at all?”

Bryce thought for a moment.

“No,” he said.

Very often the religious want it both ways. Any evidence that can be read as supporting their dogma is leapt upon and raised high as scientific validation, but science is simultaneously condemned and vilified as being unable or unsuitable to address the question. Does the evidence actually matter to your belief, or not?

Hat-tip to Coturnix, who also has a much more detailed analysis of the subject matter.

In other news, can Sweden really not go a single month without something making me want to bitchslap the entire country over the internet? This time, the symbol of a hand pointing upwards, towards the button you’re meant to push next to a pedestrian crossing, is apparently a hidden religious message. “We want to show that there is only one way to reach God and that is up and through Jesus,” the CEO of the company behind the signals apparently said. Well, I can see the ‘Up’ part, but… it’s a small logo of a hand pointing towards a button. The guy who designed it for the company says that’s all it is. What the hell?

Some guy called Tom Willis appears to be a serious fucktard. I mean, seriously, this guy must have really liked the taste of crazy pills and just kept on munching. One of the highlights: “Since evolutionists are liars and most do not really believe evolution we could employ truth serum or water-boarding to obtain confessions of evolution rejection.” You know, I’ll bet good money that this guy was among the crowd screaming for PZ Myers‘ head on a stick when he mistreated a cracker that one time. But threats of violence, torture, and exile to Mars (you really have to read this) against anyone who accepts a majority scientific consensus, well that’s just good sense.

And apparently it’s about time we had an atheist Prime Minister over here. There’d be a lot of plus points, as outlined in this article, though I know very little myself about David Miliband’s actual politics – he’s not a sufficiently influential figure to have reached The Daily Show’s news-desks, and Have I Got News For You is between series at present, so it’s a surprise I’ve even heard of the guy – and that’s probably something important enough to be worth looking into before voting for him. Still, it’s nice to live in a country where something like an absence of religious faith isn’t a trait that stands out or gets noticed much among prominent public figures. Nick Clegg, another atheist, is the leader of one of the country’s three major political parties, though probably has less of a shot at ever actually ending up running the place.

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Ceci n’est pas un blog

I’m taking the day off blogging today. Because I can. What are you gonna do about it? Huh?

Back tomorrow.

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So, the three-part channel 4 series Make Me A Christian has just finished airing. There were some likeable people there on both sides of the aisle, but in the end, I think pretty much all of them got it wrong.

The concept of the show is that a bunch of non-Christians live the Christian lifestyle, and try to conduct themselves according to the teachings of Jesus, for three weeks, under the guidance of four clerics of varying degrees of sympathy, hard-nosed intolerance, and hotness. Some of the volunteers were more open to the idea than others, and some had lifestyles supposedly very much at odds with the Christian faith, or at least with these four people’s idea of it.

For instance, there was Laura, the slightly muscular gay chick (I don’t know what it is with me and somewhat-but-not-too butch girls-loving-girls, but rawr), who had a whole bedroom wall’s worth of pr0n confiscated at the start of the experiment, as well as The Big Book Of Lesbian Horse Stories. Most of her journey involved being lectured at about her sexuality, and not getting any good answers to her questions about how she’s supposed to love a god who hates what she is. She was amazingly tolerant throughout the attempted education of her sin, which included being taken to a fairground to experience the atmosphere of being around families and children. Because, she probably doesn’t get to see many straight people, being so sequestered away in her own gay lifestyle as she is. And what with how gay people are totally different and don’t love each other like straight people. And of course she was entirely convinced by this, and decided at that moment that she would choose not to be sexually or romantically attracted to her long-term girlfriend any more.

Or not. She also visited an ex-gay preacher, and learns that all he needed was for some helpful Christians to point out to him that gayness is a sin, and all the desire for hot sweaty man-love vanished, just like that. Eventually, she found someplace called the London Metropolitan Church, on her own time, which is much more accepting of alternative lifestyles and more genuinely focused on Jesus’ message of love. But, of course, they were “in error”, and twisting the message of the scriptures. In the end, she was never really convinced that she could be both a lesbian and a Christian, but hers was the approach that most impressed me, and she seemed to get more out of it than most of the others.

There was also Faye, a lap-dancing witch, who’s addicted to buying shoes. “Her lifestyle is on a trajectory to hell,” it is declared, I think more in reference to the witchery than the footwear. She finds it all a bit much, and buggers off to visit her boyfriend for a few days. When she comes back, she gets a lecture about pre-marital sex. It’s observed that she’s a “broken lady” and this is actually a “really good place to meet the Lord Jesus”. Does that strike anyone else as really sinister? Yes, God loves us all, but especially the emotionally vulnerable.

Her story didn’t seem to go anywhere, I don’t think we heard from her at all in the final week, but I was annoyed that they were quite so rubbish in dealing with her. There were clearly some things she could have done with learning, and this would have been a great opportunity for that. She had some definite identity and esteem issues, and maybe it’s not a great idea to rely on sex entirely to feel better about yourself, but am I out of order thinking that if she’s in a serious and loving relationship, and she wants to go to her bloke for some snuggles, then sex might be part of a really positive and healthy rejuvenation for her? The shopping addiction seemed to be a big thing for her too, and I bet Alvin Hall could’ve done wonders for the girl.

Kevin was a real party lad, somewhere in his twenties. Claims to have slept with 150 or so women, and never been faithful to his girlfriends. He said he wanted to become a “different person”, but I don’t think his heart was ever really in it. He wanted to assuage some of the mild guilt associated with being a total slut, but not badly enough to give up promiscuous sex. He practises safe sex “maybe 3 times out of 10”, and is somewhat flummoxed and amazed when the show’s evangelical preacher makes the unquestionably sensible suggestion that he get tested for STDs. He was so evidently stuck in his childish attitude to sex: he claimed to understand that there are risks attached to what he’s doing, but I don’t think he really grasped that this was something real, that might affect him. He was made too embarrassed and uncomfortable by all the grown-up discussion, even to bring in a urine sample to see whether he had chlamydia. It brought to mind the innocence/ignorance distinction on my sex post again.

There was clearly so much he could really have benefited from learning, and he could’ve got something out of this, but all the beneficial stuff was couched in such unnecessary Jesus-y rambling that I’m not surprised he was put off by a lot of it. There was less actual education about condoms and the risks of unprotected sex, than blather about how sex “wasn’t meant to be a recreation”. He was told that he’s not respecting these women he’s sleeping with, and that he should “love your neighbour as yourself” (though I thought the fact that he was “loving” them as he “loved” himself was exactly the problem). It all undermined the good stuff he could’ve been learning; he didn’t change much, and was actually using the “I’m a Christian, I can’t have sex out of wedlock” line as a quite effective seduction technique.

In the end, he was still a drunken slut, but allegedly did come clean to his girlfriend about how unfaithful he’d been. We only have his word that it did happen off-camera, but if he was lying, the prime-time documentary has probably made the point moot by now. Maybe at least he can be an honest slut in the future.

Martin was the burly tattooed biker, who hated his strict Christian school upbringing, and pulled out most of his teeth with pliers long ago, because they hurt and he was scared of the dentist. Yikes. He took the most aggressive and contrary stance to the whole thing, and only sometimes made an idiot of himself. He had some valid criticisms, like that nobody was making any attempt to explain “why this book is true”, but he also objected to the Bibles even being handed out with suggestions that they all study them, and refused to even go into a church to start with, on the grounds that it had “fuck all to do with learning about Jesus”.

And this brings me, at long last, to the main point that struck me about this show. Most of the participants really weren’t taking what I would consider the most useful approach. The show is called Make Me A Christian. They all knew that when they signed up, and all presumably wanted to try living the Christian lifestyle, learning more about this Jesus guy, and whatever else the preachers wanted to show them. So why did they keep opting out of stuff, just because it was nonsense, or not their sort of thing, or didn’t appeal to them or suit them for whatever reason? Obviously it’s not something you want to do, that’s why you’re not a Christian, but isn’t that the entire point of the programme?

Look, (I wanted to say to the participants over the course of the last three weeks), you’re not going to achieve anything by just getting into yet another pointless argument. You’ve been given a real opportunity here, to let these representatives of this religion make the argument for it as best they can, to show you what they consider the strongest possible case that can be made for the way of life they espouse, to see the most convincing and persuasive reasons they can put together that anyone should listen to them. And you should help them as much as you can, go along with every suggestion, listen to every sermon, attend every event, abstain, sing, pray, utterly immerse yourselves in the way of life being advocated.

Because then you are in the most sound position imaginable from which to call them out. You could say that you did everything in your power to assist their efforts, and look at what you got out of it.

If anyone could really have got through it all and said that, it would have been great. Because honestly, the cases put forward by the Biblemunchers were completely empty.

They helped some other participants, a married couple and their children, with partially useful advice about maybe turning off the TVs once in a while and having some family time together, talking to each other over a meal, maybe – which I think helped them somewhat, but Supernanny would have done a much more thorough job, and had her priorities much better organised.

They visited an abortion clinic, to see where the magic happens. This is hardly an important cornerstone of Biblical wisdom, just a hot-button issue, and one in which it’s easy to forego reasoned debate for emotional reactionary…ness, as was evidenced here. Okay, so the termination of a foetus doesn’t make for a pretty sight, but if any of these people visited a sausage factory, I’d bet at least half of them would swear off eating meat ever again, and not because of any rational argument.

They got involved in some charity work, which the volunteers tended to find the most uplifting and worthwhile activity of the lot, but the connection between this genuinely good and important altruism and the relevance of the Bible was never really made. Any regime claiming to follow the teachings of Jesus should certainly include a good chunk of time spent feeding soup to homeless people, but there’s something to the fact that everyone was universally pleased to get involved in this anywhere, however seriously they were taking the idea of Christian faith. It’s not like generosity and kindness are a rarity outside of Christianity, or even outside of religion. These are just good things to do. The fact that Jesus is credited with some great ideas doesn’t make the zany stuff in the Bible any more credible.

They worked to separate themselves from “bad company”. Kevin spent some time hanging out with some “sober, young Christians”, rather than with his friends. Hmm, cutting previous ties, where does that come on the cult checklist? (To be fair, he just had quite a good night out bowling and not drinking as much as usual, and chatting to some girls in a less lascivious manner than he was used to.)

They went off on a jaunt to a crematorium, and asked the question “Is that the end of the story?”, and contemplated life after death. Because, obviously you’re better equipped to take a rational look and make a genuine decision about such things in an emotionally charged environment, sitting right next to an actual dead guy, and watching them being cremated. And then seeing a boxful of bits of dead guy from yesterday, with lumps of bone and bits of ash all smooshed about. Everyone got quite emotional and shuddered a little seeing it, which was understandable, and some of them were maybe starting to hope that there could be something more worth looking forward to after death after all. But what the hell did you think happened to corpses, post mortem? It’s another purely emotive action intended to provoke only an irrational, emotional response. Death is scary, therefore praise Jesus.

And somebody’s mum got the all-clear from a cancer scare, after singing a hymn in a church that one time. So, Jesus definitely cured her. It’s called Post hoc ergo propter hoc – the one thing happened after the other, therefore the second thing was caused by the first thing. It’s science, people. Oh, wait…

And the preachers continued to express surprise and consternation when people didn’t fall into line and go along with any nonsense they were presented with, or didn’t immediately capitulate after a few days’ being moaned at for having a sex life out of wedlock.

Eugh.

The documentary was put together in a way that wasn’t actively proselytising, but wanted to leave us with a warm, fuzzy glow, and the comforting idea that maybe everyone learned something from this, and that there might be something good to this religion idea after all. And I think most of them did learn something worthwhile, and had some good experiences, and won’t regret their involvement. But this is probably because they’ve been hanging around with some caring, compassionate, nice people, doing things they wouldn’t normally do, having their horizons broadened, learning, involving themselves with some good charity work, and all this great stuff which has bugger all to do with Christianity. Not that the religion doesn’t include any of that stuff, but why would you have to be a Christian to do any of it? Why not do all that, get involved, do good stuff, be happy, but maintain the conviction that it’s all nonsense, and keep hanging out with your biker friends, or your lesbian lover, or the many dozens of women you want to bone on a nightly basis? Why not take what’s constructive and useful, learn from whatever sources you can, but abandon anything making rigidly and repressively dictatorial pronouncements, which has no authority to do so besides that of tradition?

Well. That’s what I thought.

Anyone else see the show? Maybe someone who’s mastered the art of brevity?

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I’m a blogger. I write stuff, a few sentences to a few dozen paragraphs a day, and get a couple of hundred visits in a good week. I’m a less significant social force than the talentless idiots I’m currently watching being laughed off The X Factor.

But this whole internet thing has been taking off recently, and some bloggers have the knowledge, the dedication, the intellect, and the influence to make the kind of difference that really matters.

All the science says that vaccinations protect people from illness, and prevent countless thousands of deaths. None of the science says that vaccinations have anything to do with causing autism. Phil Plait recommends visiting here, here, or browsing Orac’s blog here if you want more information on this. All good resources, and I hope he’s planning to make this kind of education one of the JREF‘s priorities.

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PZ‘s latest experiment in poll-crashing has swung the ‘No’ vote to the question “Do you believe God has intervened to revive patients that doctors ruled were hopeless cases?” from 37% to 82%, over at the East Iowa Gazette. A very similar CNN poll from just a few days ago was less succesfully Pharyngulised, and in the end 57% of surveyed adults agreed that “God’s intervention could save a family member even if physicians declared treatment would be futile”.

I don’t think there’s too much to be drawn from this, though. In fact, given how many people in the US believe far wackier things about God, I’m surprised it’s so low. But I don’t think this is an especially worrying statistic, or one that says anything particularly depressing about people’s views on doctors and medical science. The reassuringly grounded and pragmatic article on CBS News talks about some extreme cases that doctors have to deal with, where grieving relatives of people with no chance of survival still insist on acting like a miracle is all but inevitable, and makes the point that medical professionals should know how to handle a situation like that carefully, but without attempting to sugar-coat the facts.

But I would imagine that only in a small minority of cases does the idea that God will personally come and sort things out become obtrusive and unhelpful. I think a lot of the time, whatever a person’s faith, bereavement can be too much to rationally handle, and the concept of losing a loved one forever (which is what it may still viscerally feel like, even if you believe you’ll meet them again later) can be too difficult to face. It’s not hard to imagine an atheist parent in denial about the condition of their child, even if all the medical facts indicate that they’ll never wake up again. And it’s not hard to imagine someone with a strong belief in God being just as desperately hopeful for something impossible to happen, even without particularly expecting God to perform a miracle – they just want their daughter to be okay, somehow, anyhow, please.

I have a friend who’s a Christian Scientist. (You know who you are, so if you’re reading this, hello!) Part of her belief system involves using prayer as a substitute for conventional medicine. She won’t take aspirin if she has a headache, for instance, and will simply ask God for strength and to help her though it. But if she was ever in a major accident and needed serious medical treatment, her similarly religious father wouldn’t stop for red lights to get her to a hospital. And she wears glasses for her myopia, too. Because, you know, she’s a Christian, but she’s not daft.

I think this is one of those topics which is less divisive than it can look. Yes, there’s some cognitive dissonance at work to confuse things, but most humans spend most of their time being human. People don’t want their kids to die, so they look for hope anywhere, however irrational they end up being. Broadly speaking, people love their children, and treat each other well, because humans are social and compassionate animals, not because they’re told to by a book, however much they might proclaim their god to be the source of all morality.

If someone you love dies, I doubt anything could happen to make it any less terrible. If someone you love pulls through after you were scared you’d lost them, I doubt there’s anything that could make it seem any less miraculous.

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