Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sexism among Atheists

The question of sexism is an open controversy among atheists. There are those who claim and cite examples of the kinds of sexism that they are exposed to within atheist communities and how it discourages female participation. There are those who claim that the complaints are overblown and that atheists are if anything more likely to oppose sexism as irrational. I've seen an argument that goes a little something like this: any idea ought to stand on its own merit without regard to gender and if atheist communities are mostly male that is the fault of women for not being more rational.

Look. I come down squarely on the side of those who complain that there is indeed sexism among atheists. No, it isn't everyone nor is it always overt nor is it as bad many religions, but it is present. I am male but that does not mean that I am immune from observing the kinds of behaviors that strike me as at best rude and all too often as hostile. Moreover, though I think I can parse the arguments that deny the magnitude of the problem, that does not mean that I agree with them, especially when they are themselves examples of the problem. See above.

Recently, a young woman posted on the Atheism forum at Reddit a picture of herself holding a book by Carl Sagan that she had received from her religious mother for Christmas. This ended up becoming a flash point for the ongoing controversy about the prevalence of sexism among atheists. A controversy I should note that has been boiling to some extent for much of this year.

Some feminist, atheist bloggers have expressed their disappointment in the atheists who posted sexist, demeaning things in response to that young woman's picture. They've cited this as yet another example of the kind of hostility women face that discourages involvement in the atheist community. This has sparked replies defending the community as a whole from the charge of sexism, arguing that the problem is contained in only a few bad apples. And the debate kicked off anew.

What I do not think those who are denying the severity of the sexism problem seem to understand is that whether it is a few bad, but vocal, apples causing the problem or not -- by giving them a pass on their behavior we are as a community giving tacit approval of their unwelcoming stance towards female involvement. This creates a feedback loop that reduces the gender diversity of our community, which in turn emboldens the sexists to think they can continue to get away with being hostile, which makes our community seem hostile to women even if the majority of us aren't, which keeps gender diversity low, and so on.

I happen to think that overt and hidden sexism are both an impediment to our community. I think that women have valuable contributions to make, not the least in a chance to promote self reflection regarding sexism and male privilege in ourselves and in our communities. Some of those who refuse to examine potential sexism or refuse see it in themselves are pushing back against women, but they do not represent my views on this matter. I would be happy to see that as active, female participation grows in our community that the sexists get pushed further to the margins as unwelcome social pariahs.

There is some karmic justice in that, given how they insist on treating women now. But as more and more young women like Lunam on Reddit get involved, our community will change, for the better in my opinion. So my advice to the old guard with misogynist tendencies is to be aware that the demographics are shifting. Things are going to be different than what you've grown accustomed to and you are going to have to adapt to remain relevant.

To young women who want to be more involved: I'm sorry that it can sometimes seem like too many atheists are sexist. It isn't fair but I do think it will change -- slowly. And a major driver in that change will be young people like you. So please hang in there. Your presence and contributions to the community are actually valued by most of us. As you and other young women get openly involved, we can all push the sexists further to the margins of our movement.

[edit:  As was pointed out by my perceptive wife, my use of "young women" could be construed as sexist in itself. I do mean women in general ought to be made more welcome, not just young women. Though what inspired this post was the treatment by atheists of a young (fifteen year old) woman and my last paragraph was meant to be read as though addressed to her and other young people.]

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

Last night, one of my favorite authors and speakers, Christopher Hitchens, died. 

He was a profoundly influential atheist and cultural commentator. I've lost count of how many eulogies for Christopher Hitchens I've read today. I've enjoyed most of them, especially the thoughtful ones that gave me pause to reflect on the flaws and triumphs of the man. Which I think is a fitting tribute to him, that even in death he inspires and challenges us to think critically, dammit. 

Rebecca Watson's article on him has been one of the better ones and includes some good links worth following.

Someday I will face my own death. I would like to have the courage and conviction of Mr. Hitchens. Though I know I'll lack his eloquence, I do hope I have wit and strength enough to send proselytizers who dare come to my death bed running in shame.

I'm glad that I was able to write to Mr. Hitchens, thank him for his work, and tell him that I appreciated him before he was gone. Mine was among thousands of letters that he received in the past year along with a series of touching tribute videos. He will be missed and the world is a less interesting place without him.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On Christmas

The idea that Christ is the true purpose of Christmas gets to be a theme around this time of year and that's fine if that is the central point of the holiday to you. However, that does not mean that the holiday is now and has only ever been about Christ. Nor does it mean that ignoring the various historical influences of a given holiday is automatically disrespectful or disingenuous.

History and forgotten religions are filled with Winter Solstice holidays and traditions. There are two ancient Roman holidays that predate Christianity by centuries. Saturnalia was celebrated in December and featured among other things gift giving and a break from school. Sol Invictus celebrated the virgin birth of the Sun god, Mithras, on December 25th. So popular were those two holidays that 4th Century Christians borrowed from them to create their own holiday, Christmas. It doesn't stop there. Ancient Celtic and Germanic cultures celebrated Winter Solstice holidays that featured mistletoe. It is from Norse mythology that we get the name Yule to describe the holiday, the Yule log, and ham as part of the traditional meal.

In fact we owe a lot of our holidays, dates, and names for things to ancient cultures, traditions, and religions. We rarely give those origins a second thought, let alone feel guilty about simultaneously ignoring those meanings while continuing to utilize the names and traditions.

Easter and its symbols are heavily influenced by an ancient Germanic holiday for the fertility goddess, Ēostre. January is named for the Roman god of doorways, Janus. February is named for the Roman holiday of purification. March is for Mars the Roman god of war. April is for the Greek goddess Aphrodite. May is for the Greek fertility goddess Maia. June is for the Roman Goddess Juno. Sunday is named for the Sun and Monday for the Moon, both were worshiped by many ancient cultures. Tuesday is for a Germanic god of war. Wednesday is the Norse god Odin's day. Thursday is the Norse god Thor's day. Friday is for a Germanic goddess. Saturday is named for the Roman god Saturn which brings us back around to Saturnalia and Christmas again.

Christmas is a wonderful holiday with a rich history of influences from past Winter Solstice holidays like Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, and Yule. A great many of us really enjoy the traditions, decorations, gift giving, and gatherings with family and friends. We love the holiday without need or want of the various religions that have shaped it, including Christianity.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Air Cannon, Year 3

This past Summer, some friends and I got together at my farm to once again play with the air cannon. We used a different, faster actuating valve to fire the cannon and definitely got more velocity out of the projectiles.

Todd shot some fun footage and compiled those clips with some from the high speed video cameras into a great video. I think he really captured the highlights of the day and the fun we were having shooting potatoes and lead cannon balls at water jugs, lines of fruit, an XBox, etc.


Year 1

Year 2

Thursday, November 10, 2011

NaNoWriMo 2011

This is actually my first attempt at National Novel Writing Month and I'm really enjoying it. Because it is a good artificial motivation to write fiction, but also because I'm really enjoying this story. It is based on a role playing game I organized with some friends a few years ago.

I've taken the characters they made for the game and condensed them into just three main characters for this story, mostly to make my job of author easier. I also made some various tweaks to their backgrounds to mesh them together as close friends with shared histories, but I do hope that enough of the original version of each shines through to be recognizable.

Rather than make a separate post for each section as I write it, I'm going to dump it all here. I'll continue to revise this as I go and add to it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The good ideas of Occupy Wall Street

Here is the list of demands by the Occupy Wall Street people. These don't appear to be the thoughts of an unorganized mob of mindless hippies to me. That list makes a lot of sense. I applaud their efforts to reform the intersection of money and government. Such reform is badly needed.


  1. CONGRESS PASS HR 1489 ("RETURN TO PRUDENT BANKING ACT" ). THIS REINSTATES MANY PROVISIONS OF THE GLASS-STEAGALL ACT.–Steagall_Act --- Wiki entry summary: The repeal of provisions of the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933 by the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act in 1999 effectively removed the separation that previously existed between investment banking which issued securities and commercial banks which accepted deposits. The deregulation also removed conflict of interest prohibitions between investment bankers serving as officers of commercial banks. Most economists believe this repeal directly contributed to the severity of the Financial crisis of 2007–2011 by allowing Wall Street investment banking firms to gamble with their depositors' money that was held in commercial banks owned or created by the investment firms. Here's detail on repeal in 1999 and how it happened:–Steagall_Act#Repeal
  2. USE CONGRESSIONAL AUTHORITY AND OVERSIGHT TO ENSURE APPROPRIATE FEDERAL AGENCIES FULLY INVESTIGATE AND PROSECUTE THE WALL STREET CRIMINALS who clearly broke the law and helped cause the 2008 financial crisis in the following notable cases: (insert list of the most clear cut criminal actions). There is a pretty broad consensus that there is a clear group of people who got away with millions / billions illegally and haven't been brought to justice. Boy would this be long overdue and cathartic for millions of Americans. It would also be a shot across the bow for the financial industry. If you watch the solidly researched and awared winning documentary film "Inside Job" that was narrated by Matt Damon (pretty brave Matt!) and do other research, it wouldn't take long to develop the list.
  3. CONGRESS ENACT LEGISLATION TO PROTECT OUR DEMOCRACY BY REVERSING THE EFFECTS OF THE CITIZENS UNITED SUPREME COURT DECISION which essentially said corporations can spend as much as they want on elections. The result is that corporations can pretty much buy elections. Corporations should be highly limited in ability to contribute to political campaigns no matter what the election and no matter what the form of media. This legislation should also RE-ESTABLISH THE PUBLIC AIRWAVES IN THE U.S. SO THAT POLITICAL CANDIDATES ARE GIVEN EQUAL TIME FOR FREE AT REASONABLE INTERVALS IN DAILY PROGRAMMING DURING CAMPAIGN SEASON. The same should extend to other media. 
  4. CONGRESS PASS THE BUFFETT RULE ON FAIR TAXATION SO THE RICH AND CORPORATIONS PAY THEIR FAIR SHARE & CLOSE CORPORATE TAX LOOP HOLES AND ENACT A PROHIBITION ON HIDING FUNDS OFF SHORE. No more GE paying zero or negative taxes. Pass the Buffet Rule on fair taxation so the rich pay their fair share. (If we have a really had a good negotiating position and have the place surrounded, we could actually dial up taxes on millionaires, billionaires and corporations even higher...back to what they once were in the 50's and 60's. 
  5. CONGRESS COMPLETELY REVAMP THE SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION and staff it at all levels with proven professionals who get the job done protecting the integrity of the marketplace so citizens and investors are both protected. This agency needs a large staff and needs to be well-funded. It's currently has a joke of a budget and is run by Wall St. insiders who often leave for high ticket cushy jobs with the corporations they were just regulating. Hmmm. 
  7.  CONGRESS PASSING "Revolving Door Legislation" LEGISLATION ELIMINATING THE ABILITY OF FORMER GOVERNMENT REGULATORS GOING TO WORK FOR CORPORATIONS THAT THEY ONCE REGULATED. So, you don't get to work at the FDA for five years playing softball with Pfizer and then go to work for Pfizer making $195,000 a year. While they're at it, Congress should pass specific and effective laws to enforce strict judicial standards of conduct in matters concerning conflicts of interest. So long as judges are culled from the ranks of corporate attorneys the 1% will retain control. 
  8. ELIMINATE "PERSONHOOD" LEGAL STATUS FOR CORPORATIONS. The film "The Corporation" has a great section on how corporations won "personhood status". . Fast-forward to 2:20. It'll blow your mind. The 14th amendment was supposed to give equal rights to African Americans. It said you "can't deprive a person of life, liberty or property without due process of law". Corporation lawyers wanted corporations to have more power so they basically said "corporations are people." Amazingly, between 1890 and 1910 there were 307 cases brought before the court under the 14th amendment. 288 of these brought by corporations and only 19 by African Americans. 600,000 people were killed to get rights for people and then judges applied those rights to capital and property while stripping them from people. It's time to set this straight.

* As of 10/10/11. That list is a work in progress and has been through several revisions as of the time of this writing.

Here is a short video of Alan Grayson on Real Time with Bill Maher talking about why the Occupy Wall Street people have legitimate complaints and cause to protest on behalf of almost all Americans.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Creationism at the Founding

Many of the Founders of our nation were probably creationists by today's standards.

Yes, creationism was a staple of education for many, many years before evolution by natural selection was proposed to the Linnaean Society in 1858 by Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin, who would publish On The Origin of Species the following year. Then it took several more years before the majority of biologists would accept the theory as one valid working model among several and another few decades before it became accepted as the best working scientific theory by biologists.

It is absurd to think that the founders of our nation would have been able to take into account scientific developments that would not happen for 80 years or more. So no, they did not forbid the teaching of what was to them the working model of biological understanding. We no longer have that excuse as the theory of evolution by natural selection has been accepted biological science for many decades.

So in deciding what can be taught legally in science classrooms in publicly funded schools, we can't look to the Founders to teach us science but we can follow their strict rule against government endorsement of religion. Which is what getting creationism out of science classrooms is about. Creationism is not an alternative scientific theory, not even in the eyes of the law, let alone among the overwhelming majority of biologists.

See the decision of the Federal court from the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial: "In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents."

The Bible has been and remains a profoundly important book. Christianity has been and is a profoundly important influence on our culture. It would be foolish to ignore those facts and raise children in this country to be ignorant of them. So I'm actually in favor of teaching the Bible as literature or as an important influence on history or in a comparative religion class. This is literature or social studies though, not science.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Not All Extremist

Despite living in a secular country with laws and founding principles that forbid theocracy, there is still a significant, well funded, very loud, and influential Christian movement that is actively working to bring their Christian theology into daily American life via local and national government. They achieve successes because they claim to represent Christianity as a whole and therefore a large majority of Americans. Although one might characterize these theocrats as being fringe elements of Christianity, that is not how they present themselves or solicit help from their fellow Christians.

Pointing out that these groups exist and are dangerous to the liberty of non-Christians is not an indictment of all Christianity. I am personally sorry if self professed mainstream Christians are offended by atheists like me discussing the activities of fundamentalist Christians without constantly emphasizing the distinction between the theocrats and them. Look, I get it, it sucks to be lumped in with those people and I am sorry to inadvertently imply a connection among you that you don't like. I imagine moderate Muslims can relate to that. But how are we supposed to know that religious moderates oppose the extremists unless they actually oppose them loudly and consistently. Otherwise it is not unreasonable to be concerned that the silence is perhaps tacit approval of the goals of the fundamentalists if not the tactics.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Better Budget Analogy

The budget, deficit, and credit problems of the United States are complex, being made up of many interconnected issues. In an attempt to break down the overall series of problems into more easily discussed topics, a lot of political writers have been indulging in analogies. A popular version has been to compare the American budget to a family's budget.

What they come up with goes a little something like this:

Imagine that you earn $50,000 per year, but that you spend $75,000 per year. How do you solve that problem to avoid building up so much debt that you go bankrupt? You cut your spending and live within your means. The government needs to cut spending and be responsible like you would with your personal budget.

That is a bad analogy. It serves to illustrate the conservative point of view very well, namely that the solution is to cut federal programs as much as possible. But as an analogy of the issues facing the United States government it is a failure because it does not account for the actual behavior of our government that lead to the crisis we now face. We have been cutting taxes while simultaneously increasing spending. We have voluntarily reduced the "income" of our theoretical family in the analogy.

Let me see if I can come up with a better analogy:

Imagine that life is treating your family very well. You make more than you spent so you decide to cut back on the hours you work and therefore reduce your income. Meanwhile your family expenses keep going up and you start renting two very expensive vacation homes. In short order, you are not earning enough money to pay for all of that and are borrowing money make up the difference. Your debt is climbing out of control. What should you do to fix it?

Firstly, get back to full time work. Maybe you should even pick up some extra hours at work to earn some extra income, at least until you can get your debt under control. Then cut any extra unnecessary expenses, like those vacation homes, so that you can maintain the family essentials like safe food, health care, clean water, housing, education for your kids, retirement savings, investment in the future, etc. No you might not be able to expand those essentials in this time of crisis, but you can preserve them if you go back to work.

Like my theoretical family, our government needs to earn more which means raising taxes. It means raising taxes a lot to wipe out the deficit and to get debt under control. This should be the very first order of business, just as returning to full time work and putting in extra hours would be in the family analogy. Then cut out the unnecessary, expensive, vacation homes; the ridiculous war mongering in the Middle East that we can not afford to sustain. Then cut other bits from the budget with an eye towards doing the least harm to the citizens of America, especially those who really need help like the children in the family analogy.

No, even my analogy isn't perfect. No analogy ever really is and in this case we are trying to draw comparisons between the budget of the United States to that of a family. Yeah, that is a quite a stretch. But at least my analogy takes into account the voluntary reduction of income that tax cuts represent and that makes it better than the conservative version.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Birtherism is not Rational

Whether or not the President was born in America has never been a matter of genuine controversy among reasonable people because the facts and documents do not cast doubt on the issue. That hasn't stopped "birther" conspiracies from popping up, but none of them are any better supported by the evidence than "moon landing" conspiracies and are a tool of the irrational or the obtuse.

The State of Hawaii releases to citizens a copy of their certificate of live birth which has been called a short form document. If you are a citizen of Hawaii and request a copy of your birth certificate, that is what they give you and that is all that is required by law to prove citizenship in the state, get a passport, run for office, etc. That is what the President provided way back in 2008 during his campaign for office.  In fact, the Obama campaign allowed reporters to examine his copy. Here are some pictures of it. Also, reporters researching this found that two newspapers in Honolulu ran birth announcements in August of 1961.

Not satisfied with any of that, birthers demanded to see the original document on file in Hawaii. The state of Hawaii does not release that document, but the director of Hawaii's Department of Health verified that it existed, that she had seen it, and that there was no doubt that then Senator Obama was born in Hawaii. Yet the conspiracy theory that the President was not a citizen continued, no matter how absurd it seemed.

More recently, the President asked for a special exemption of Hawaiian law so that a copy of the long form certificate of live birth that is kept by the Hawaiian Department of Health could be released. This was very unusual and would not have been done if not for the lunacy of birtherism in America. Which I am sad to say is still not gone, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the President is indeed a natural born US citizen.

I've embedded a lot of links to supporting information in this post. Please follow those links and read those documents. In some cases those web pages have embedded links of their own, so read those too. When I refer to the evidence of the President's citizenship being overwhelming, I'm not indulging in hyperbole.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Does The Universe Have Purpose?

I can ponder the tiny portion of the universe that I can perceive and find within it order. I can postulate that this order must have a purpose that applies to the whole universe imparting on it meaning. I can do these things from the prejudices and limitations of my mind thereby anthropomorphizing the universe, but I try not to.

The universe is. Within it are aspects that have or seem to have purpose. I think that I have purpose, even purposes that I have adopted, nurtured, and in some cases abandoned. But why should the universe as a whole share my motivations or what possible evidence would I have to assert that my motivations are somehow literally universal?

In short, no, I do not think that the universe has purpose in a human sense of the word.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mythbusting Organic Ag

Christie Wilcox has an excellent article over at Scientific American on the unfounded myths surrounding organic agriculture. This is not a comprehensive article on every scientific study that relates to the issue, but it summarizes the basic fallacies at work in how organic foods are marketed and some incorrect perceptions of how they are produced.

The first myth dealt with is that organic crops are grown without the use of pesticides. Pesticides that are derived from plants and fungi are used and often in higher concentrations than their non-organic competitors.
"What makes organic farming different, then? It’s not the use of pesticides, it’s the origin of the pesticides used. Organic pesticides are those that are derived from natural sources and processed lightly if at all before use. This is different than the current pesticides used by conventional agriculture, which are generally synthetic. It has been assumed for years that pesticides that occur naturally (in certain plants, for example) are somehow better for us and the environment than those that have been created by man. As more research is done into their toxicity, however, this simply isn’t true, either. Many natural pesticides have been found to be potential – or serious – health risks."

Next up is the myth that organic foods are healthier. They aren't. I've written about that before.
"They found absolutely no evidence for any differences in content of over 15 different nutrients including vitamin C, β-carotene, and calcium. There were some differences, though; conventional crops had higher nitrogen levels, while organic ones had higher phosphorus and acidity – none of which factor in much to nutritional quality. Further analysis of similar studies on livestock products like meat, dairy, and eggs also found few differences in nutritional content. Organic foods did, however, have higher levels of overall fats, particularly trans fats. So if anything, the organic livestock products were found to be worse for us (though, to be fair, barely)."

Then the idea that organic farming is inherently better for the environment. It isn't. Here is just one example from the article as to why:

"But the real reason organic farming isn’t more green than conventional is that while it might be better for local environments on the small scale, organic farms produce far less food per unit land than conventional ones. Organic farms produce around 80% that what the same size conventional farm produces (some studies place organic yields below 50% those of conventional farms!)."

Lastly the idea that any of us, consumer or producer, have to choose only one side or the other. I'm not an organic producer, but that doesn't mean that every organic practice is bad or that every outcome is hurtful. I've been beating the "Buy Local" drum for years and organic producers are very often our local producers.
"In my mind, the ideal future will merge conventional and organic methods, using GMOs and/or other new technologies to reduce pesticide use while increasing the bioavailability of soils, crop yield, nutritional quality and biodiversity in agricultural lands. New technology isn’t the enemy of organic farming; it should be its strongest ally."

Well said, Christie Wilcox.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Nice Guys Finish Last?

There is a cliché that nice guys finish last. This seems to be built on the premise that nice guys are doormats to other people and perhaps even attract people who will abuse their inclination to please. Although I can see how those conditions could be true, I do not think it has to be that way.

Nice doesn't have to mean passive or weak or prone to being taken advantage of. Nice can still be assertive and confident and willing to require fairness, because nice isn't merely agreeableness. It can instead mean to have sensitivity for another's desires while politely insisting on the same consideration.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Madman or Something Worse

Here is a thoughtful documentary by Peter Brietbart on the failings of Jesus as a moral teacher and therefore the harm that Christianity does. The central thesis can be condensed to "His moral contributions are not original and his original contributions are not moral." It is only about 16 minutes long and is definitely worth your time. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Secularization and Moral Progress

Occasionally I encounter Christians who insist that their religion is morally and ethically superior to other religions, particularly Islam. Although I will readily agree that Western societies are on balance better places to live than Islamic societies, I do not concede that this is owed to the influences of Christianity.

Murdering heretics is profoundly uncommon among modern Western Christians. However that is not because Christian doctrine doesn't allow it. It is owed to the secularization of those Western societies. A process of moral progress that has been (and still is) hard fought by Christian leaders at each step. Yet it has happened, dragging Christianity kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages and eventually into the 21st Century, while denying religions much political power.

Islam is a different case. Yes, we can find secular Muslims, but overwhelmingly Islam is intermingled at every level of those societies that are predominately Muslim. This lack of secular influences on politics and social expectations is preventing the advancement of most Muslim societies, leaving them mired in obsolete ethical systems, very much like Christian societies of medieval Europe. Pretending otherwise is drawing a poor distinction between religions that if taken to their fundamentalist extremes uncorrupted by secularism are little different from one another. Which is a danger of religion in my view. Even in moderate forms, its literalist and unethical roots lurk within the theology ready to be embraced by fundamentalists.

The process of secularizing Western societies is only a few hundred years old, starting slowly in the Renaissance and picking up steam in the Enlightenment. With a few noteworthy but brief confluences of time and place, the various ages of civilization before the Renaissance are largely indistinguishable from one another in a moral sense. Local or religious flavors of the same barbarity, cruelty, and tyranny that almost universally defined the wielding of power. Power that was so intertwined with religion that it is hard to separate where the church ended and the state began.

Or to put it another way, religions as we recognize them today, have had at least 3000 years in which to progress ethics to the betterment of humanity. Which they all failed to do, despite possessing enormous resources and influence. It wasn't until religion began to be intellectually and politically marginalized that the process of developing humane societies began to see any real progress. Which is not to say that social progress is anywhere near completion or that there have been no setbacks. But on balance, Western civilization has come further in the last 200 years than in the previous 3000.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Free speech, even for Jones

Pastor Terry Jones attempted another of his inane protests, this time in Dearborn, Michigan, where there is a sizable Muslim population. He got arrested for it. So now I find myself in the sickening position of defending that religious bigot.

I've been critical of Pastor Jones in this blog. For the record, I consider him to be an asshole. I hate the motivations he has for the things that he says and does in these protests. He is pretty much in a pissing contest with Muslims over who has the better imaginary friend. What an insufferable prick.

But he has the right to speak. He has a right to burn books he owns. He has a right to be offensive. He has those rights because free speech, especially unpopular speech, is protected. No one has to like a thing that ignorant fuck has to say. We can and should exercise our right to free speech to speak out against him. But I'm not comfortable with the government denying him his rights, even though he makes me angry.

A poor argument has been made that Pastor Jones will incite violence and murder if allowed to insult Muslims, which misapplies the blame. Does Jones promote harmony? No. But the incitement to violence that led to the murders of UN workers earlier this month was undertaken by imams in Afganistan who took advantage of Jones' idiocy to whip crowds into a murderous frenzy. I think Jones is foolishly playing with fire, but I'm not comfortable accusing him of inciting violence. At least not within the narrow confines of criminal incitement as a legal restriction on free speech. 

Ugh... I've in a way just defended the religious bigot Terry Jones. I feel dirty, but upholding the principle of free speech isn't about what feels good.

Monday, April 11, 2011

What if I'm wrong

By way of a thought experiment, what if I am wrong and the Christian god exists? What if I discover this in time to save myself from eternal damnation by worshipping this god?

If the Christian god exists and is more or less in alignment with Christian doctrines of salvation and damnation -- then this is a supremely malevolent being. Evil is too small and insignificant a term to fully grasp at the capricious sadism of a being that would use limitless power to make possible all the suffering in this world and not satisfied with that would go on to create unimaginable, eternal suffering as an afterlife for any who did not love him for it.

To conflate love with fear to such a degree that worshiping your tormentor becomes proper is submission to a form of slavery I can barely wrap my mind around and will never join so long as I possess a shred of decency or self respect.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

An Atheist on Judgement Day

An Atheist on Judgement Day
by Adrian Barnett

The line seemed to stretch back forever. Hundreds of millions of souls, waiting patiently for their turn before the throne. The date... Well, the day is Judgment Day, so you won't find it on any calendar. The queue of people winds its way down the mountain, through the valley and off into the far distance. Everybody in the queue can see the final destination at the mountain peak. A hundred miles away, they can see it perfectly clearly. And they wait, moving forward a couple of steps at a time. Towards God, and the Decision. 

At the head of the we find a young Christian, wearing an expression of awe and joy. Behind him, an atheist, looking slightly astonished, examining a leaf she has picked from a nearby bush, trying to decide if it is real or not. Heaven, she thinks, should be whiter, with more dry ice swirling about; not look like a Welsh hillside on a hot day.

The Christian steps forward for judgment.

"Hello Martin". God's voice is calm and gentle as He speaks.

"Erm.. Hello. Lord". Martin's voice is nervous, as a dozen emotions fight for room in his mind at once.

"This is it. This is where I decide what shall happen to you, Martin. In life, you were a Christian". It was a statement, not a question.

"I was, Lord. I still am. I have been all my life. I have dedicated myself to your service."

"Tell me, Martin. Why were you a Christian? Why did you believe in me?"

"Why? Well... Because you are God! I've always believed in you."

"That is not what I want to know. Why did you believe?"

"Because I knew it was true. You were always there for me. You helped me through the bad times. You answered my prayers. You gave me the strength and courage to get through life. I could feel your presence with me all the time."


"Pardon, Lord?"

"I said no, Martin. I have never helped you. You seemed to be doing perfectly alright by yourself. I heard your prayers, but never answered a single one. Your belief in me definitely helped you on occasion, but I have never intervened in your life. Certainly, you gave me credit for all the good times, but they were your own doing, not mine. You did not feel my presence, because it cannot be felt. The only actual proof you have that I exist at all is here and now. Again, tell me why you believed."

"I.. I had faith, Lord. Since I was a child I have been to church, prayed and sang every Sunday. My faith in you never wavered. Even when my mother died, I had faith that it was your will, that it was a blessing from you that she passed peacefully. I was raised to believe in you, and as I grew I read the Bible for myself, and learnt of your miracles, and all the saints and martyrs, and the good done in your name. I read the works of great philosophers and they merely strengthened my faith. I knew it was true. "

"No, Martin. Your mother died of natural causes, and she died peacefully because of the actions of the hospital. I watched and saw, but that is all. As for the rest - the saints, martyrs and philosophers had similar reasons for their belief in me, just as dictators and murderers have had. People have done great good and great harm in my name, and in the names of a thousand false gods. The Bible was written about me, not by me, and was written by people who had similar reasons as you for their belief, just as a thousand other Holy Books have been written about the false gods, or different versions of myself. I ask for the third and final time. Why did you believe in me?"

Martin looked shocked and ashen, but pulled himself together. His Lord was testing him, and he had lived his entire life for this moment.

"I believed because I could feel in my heart it was true. You sent your son to die for us, and I gladly accepted Him as my saviour. I.. I just knew it was true, and now that I see you, my faith has been vindicated. I no longer need to believe - I can see for myself the truth and majesty of my religion."

Quietly, God spoke again. "Martin, you have impressed me". He paused.

"But... not enough. You believe because you were taught to believe. You believe because you mistakenly attribute to me anything positive that has happened in your life, and discount anything negative. You believe because it is comforting to believe, and because you are frightened of the consequences of my not existing. You believe because... you believe. I'm sorry, Martin, but there is no place for you here."

God gestured briefly with his fingers, and Martin vanished. His shadow lingered where he had stood, fading rapidly to nothingness.

The atheist, somewhat shaken by what she had just seen, stepped forward.

"Hello Eve. I like that name."

"Ah. Hello, God. Thanks", said Eve, not entirely sure how to address a being she had, until now, considered fictional.

"Yes, you may call me God. Eve, in life you were an atheist. You doubted my existence, even objecting to the very concept". Again, a statement, not a question.

"Yes, I did. Clearly, I was mistaken."

"Clearly. Tell me, are you still an atheist?"

"I suppose not. I'm not a Christian, Jew or anything else. I guess I'd have to be called an involuntary theist. Ah ha ha", Eve laughed nervously, hoping the very real and solid-looking deity before her had a good sense of humour.

"Mmm... Tell me, Eve. Why did you not believe in me?". God's voice was kind and gentle once more.

"At one point I did. I was raised as a Christian, and often went to church, and prayed every night before bed. When I was feeling down I would read the Bible. The act of reading it seemed to comfort me, even though the words themselves didn't seem much help. I think, like Martin, I believed because I believed."

"And then you lost your faith? You decided I did not exist, and you knew better than those around you? You knew better than your pastor and family?" The voice was losing its kindly edge a little.

"That is one way of looking at it, yes. What I believed did not seem to fit with other things I knew. The Bible clearly could not be literally true, word for word. I knew from biology and paleontology that humans had evolved like all other life, and were not special creations. How life or the universe began, I still don't know, but could not just merely accept 'God did it' as an explanation. I learned about other religions, and how they all claimed a monopoly on truth, happiness and morality. I saw the good done in your name, but I also saw the oppression, genocide and wars. I saw that if people were in need, it was up to us to deal with it, not to rely on heavenly aid.". Eve felt a little braver, but was expecting the traditional thunderbolt any moment. The people behind her, now at the head of the queue, were slowly moving backwards, trying not to draw attention to themselves.

"Yet here you are, before your God, on the final Day of Judgment. Why should I allow you in - a heretic, a disbeliever, an infidel - when your predecessor, devout and faithful, full of love for me, was consigned to Oblivion? Tell me why. Justify your entry to my Paradise."

Eve straightened up, looking God in the face. "Why should you let me in? Because I am better person than you."

If Eve had looked round, she would have seen the entire line of souls, perfectly still and wide-eyed, staring at her in shock.

"What did you say?", enquired God. His voice, though barely audible, caused tremors in the mountain.

Surprised at still being alive, her mouth dry, Eve continued. "I said, because I am a better person. You have shown it yourself already. You told Martin that you watched as his mother became ill and died. You destroyed him for believing for no good reason, when his whole life had been shaped by that belief. Your preachers on Earth encourage unquestioning faith, yet you do not tell us whether that is what you want. You give people no rational basis for belief, and then when they make up their own that is not good enough for you. You listen to our prayers, yet do not answer, leaving people to rationalise events for themselves. People kill and slaughter over trivial differences in doctrine, and you look on. In the churches and temples raised in your glory, children are mentally and physically abused - in your so-called House! All over the world, throughout history, people have murdered each other for believing the wrong thing about God, for believing in the wrong God, or for not believing in any God. The poorest and most helpless people are relentlessly targeted, being told to give what little they have now, for the promise of eternal bliss later. When a person is at his lowest ebb, that is when the smiling missionaries appear, knowing that his life will probably get better naturally and they can give you the credit. In your name, the ends justify the means as long as souls are saved". Eve paused for breath, and continued.

"And you? All-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing? You just sit here and you watch it all... Any person in this line, had they your power, would show greater compassion and morality. You may be God, but you are far from Godliness."

God smiled. "Are you finished? Good. Eve, you have impressed me". He paused. Eve held her breath, shoulders tensing.

"You have impressed me a great deal. You may have believed in me for all the wrong reasons, but you disbelieved for the right reasons. You led a good life, and used the intelligence I give to everybody in the correct way. Even though you came to a conclusion about me that was hopelessly wrong, you came to it in a way that cannot be faulted. You may pass into paradise, Eve, with my blessing."

Eve did not step forward. Instead, she spoke once more. "No, I will not".

"No? You refuse Heaven? You defy my will?" The smile had left God's face again.

"Do you think I would want to spend one more minute, let alone eternity, in your company? You allow people to suffer, sometimes for their entire lives, for no purpose, and then judge them on their reaction. You hide yourself from the world and allow your creations to persecute each other over differing interpretations of the lack of evidence. You see all the pain and ignorance caused in your name, and just sit there as this queue grows daily? And then you have the audacity to punish good people for believing in you 'for the wrong reasons'?"

"Eve. Enough of this. The gates to Paradise are open to you. Be silent now, and enter."

"No. If it is a choice between oblivion and an eternity with a monster like you, I gladly choose oblivion. I ask only one thing, before you destroy me."

"And what is that?" asked God, getting impatient.

"That, if you can, you look me in the eyes as you do it."

Shortly afterwards, the next person in the queue stepped towards the top of the mountain, and Judgment.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

For those who hate government

This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the US department of energy. I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility.

After that, I turned on the TV to one of the FCC regulated channels to see what the national weather service of the national oceanographic and atmospheric administration determined the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the national aeronautics and space administration. I watched this while eating my breakfast of US department of agriculture inspected food and taking the drugs which have been determined as safe by the food and drug administration.

At the appropriate time as regulated by the US congress and kept accurate by the national institute of standards and technology and the US naval observatory, I get into my national highway traffic safety administration approved automobile and set out to work on the roads built by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the environmental protection agency, using legal tender issued by the federal reserve bank. On the way out the door I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the US postal service and drop the kids off at the public school.

Then, after spending the day not being maimed or killed at work thanks to the workplace regulations imposed by the department of labor and the occupational safety and health administration, I drive back to my house which has not burned down in my absence because of the state and local building codes and the fire marshall's inspection, and which has not been plundered of all its valuables thanks to the local police department.

I then log onto the internet which was developed by the defense advanced research projects administration and post on freerepublic and fox news forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because the government can't do anything right.

[I didn't write this and have been unable to find out who did. I'd love to attribute this to a source, but I guess it is just an anonymous gem of internet cleverness.]

Friday, April 8, 2011

Deciding what to believe

How do you decide what to believe? Do you use different standards of plausibility depending on the topic? Are your beliefs informed by evidence or by preference? Do you think that where you live has influenced what you find believable?

If you were born and raised in the United States, odds are that you were raised Christian. Depending on how religious your family was, you might have been taught that the bible was the infallible world of God. You were probably taught that Jesus really lived and performed miracles. However, your views on these things were almost certainly influenced by accident of birth. For example if you had been born in India instead, odds are that you would have been raised Hindu and believe in many gods.

Knowing that more than one religion exists and that the doctrines of these religions are not only in disagreement, but are often mutually exclusive, one is presumed to have chosen among them. But that isn't really the case is it? People tend to believe what they were raised to believe, with exceptions of course, but there is no mass exodus of American Christians becoming Hindus or vice versa. So why is that?

I submit to you that the primary reason is that people apply very different standards of proof and evidence when it comes accepting religious claims that they want to believe. The key here is in what they want to believe, since adherents to a given faith are perfectly able to apply critical thinking about the claims of other religions. Hence Christians are willing to dismiss the religious claims of Hindus as unsupported by evidence and Hindus are willing to return the favor.

Perhaps this line of thought is uncomfortable, so let me provide a working example that is completely fictitious.

I have a strong personal conviction that there are unicorns in my fields. No, I cannot produce one of these unicorns to be studied or provide any incontrovertible proof of their presence in my fields. Perhaps they don't want to be studied. They must have supernatural powers that allow them to hide very effectively from skeptics and leave no testable trace of their existence. One must have faith as I have faith in them. Besides, no one can prove that there aren't unicorns in my fields. Do you believe me?

If I had claimed that there were dirt clods in my fields, that would be consistent with past experience and it would be no strain on credulity to accept my claim as true at least provisionally. Instead, my claim was about a mythological creature of which no verifiable evidence has ever been found. Most reasonable people would not be so gullible as to believe me. They would understand that it is not up to them to disprove my unicorns. Instead it would be up to me to provide proof given how outlandish my claim was.

To an outsider, religious claims are of that outlandish sort. Even the religious see it that way about other religions. And yet when asked to provide proof of their own religion's claims, the response is more often than not to be offended at the rudeness of such a request.

"That which can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof." 
-Christopher Hitchens

"When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." 
-Stephen F Roberts

Tim Minchin's Storm

Tim has released the animated version of his poem, Storm.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

On Religion It Is

That idiotic, fundamentalist Christian preacher down in Florida who threatened to burn a Koran, Terry Jones, went through with it. When idiotic, fundamentalist Muslims in Afghanistan found out about it, they rioted. A mob of thousands formed, intent on finding an American to kill in retribution. Failing at that, they settled for killing foreigners working at the local United Nations office.

Burning a copy of the Muslim holy book as Terry Jones did was offensive to Muslims. It was disrespectful to Muslim traditions. It was likely to provoke a violent reaction among Muslims. Even a fundamentalist Christian bigot like Terry Jones should have shown more decency.

However, murdering people to take revenge for the burning of a book is not even close to being an acceptable reaction. Not even if they were murdering the people who actually burned the book. And most certainly not when they were murdering innocent people who had absolutely nothing to do with the burning of that book.

It is absurd that it ever crosses our minds that destroying a copy of a certain book is almost certainly going to get people elsewhere in the world killed. That it might spawn protests and strongly worded letters, I could understand that, but murder I simply cannot fathom.

Yet this is the power of religion in our world. It justifies fundamentalist Christian bigotry and foolishness. For fundamentalist Muslims it justifies the brutal murder of innocent people. A way of life that encourages the faithful to snuff out the life, hopes, and dreams of someone because someone else, half a world away, burned a book… this is a pathology of the mind that we would be better off without.

The idea for the text on this picture came from these advertisements.

"If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have paradise in a few years." -Bertrand Russell

Friday, April 1, 2011

Worried about GMO foods?

Please keep in mind that humans have been conducting genetic engineering via selective breeding for thousands of years. All of the food most people eat is a result of being heavily modified from its original, undomesticated form. Those breeding techniques have turned wild grasses into wheat, teosinte into corn, and invented the banana which is unlike the wild fruit it is based on. Those same techniques have made drastic changes in domestic animals too like turning wolves into chihuahuas. And in each of those examples many unwanted, unpredictable, weirdly recessive traits popped up that had detrimental effects that could not be bred out for untold generations if at all.

With modern genetic engineering the changes made to the target DNA are in a very specific place and add a single very specific gene. Scientists aren't also randomly adding thousands of other genes with unknown effects or unknown recessive traits at the same time, which is what traditional breeding does. That isn't to say that an unexpected characteristic never happens, it can, it does. If undesirable, it can be removed or just not added in another lineage or inserted in a different place on the DNA which might fix the problem -- the point is that geneticists are usually only effecting one small part of the organism's genome and it doesn't take thousands of generations to correct errors.

There are more than 6 billion people on Earth right now. That number could be as high as 10 billion in twenty years, maybe sooner. Suitable agricultural land has been decreasing and will probably continue to decrease from urban expansion and fresh water unavailability. Productivity must improve and GMO crops will be a major part of what makes that possible.

None of this means to be credulous about food. If the idea of GMO foods makes someone uneasy, I can sympathize with that. Really I can. That can be a good motivation to continue looking into things and promote deeper understanding. Perhaps good studies will find serious previously unknown problems or uncover a corporation brushing bad data under a rug. Well, let's look into things and if we can put together good empirical data that suggests change is required, then let's make the needed changes. Evidence based reason will serve us better than hyperbole or ideological hysteria.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Women are not livestock

A bill aimed at restricting abortion clinics in Illinois has recently been unanimously passed through committee in the Illinois General Assembly.  The bill was sponsored by Republican Representative Darlene Senger of Naperville and will require clinics that provide abortions to be regulated as surgical outpatient clinics.  

Many if not most such clinics would need to undergo extensive remodeling and purchase a lot of expensive additional equipment.  This is very obviously intended to cause the closing of clinics that cannot afford to meet these new regulations and to make abortions much more expensive in those clinics that remain open.  This would also serve to disproportionately effect clinics in poorer areas, that are already underserved in Illinois.

However, the part of this I find most disgraceful is that this human health, medical regulatory bill was not submitted to a legislative committee that commonly deals with such matters but was instead submitted to the Agriculture and Conservation Committee.  This bill was submitted and passed unanimously by a committee that works on legislation for livestock, hunting, and soil conservation -- not human medical health laws.

This bill had no Earthly business being considered in the Agriculture and Conservation Committee when there are more appropriate health specialized committees available.  I am ashamed of my state's Assembly for this stunt.  I am ashamed of that committee which I am connected to by virtue of being an Illinois farmer for passing that bill unanimously instead of refusing to consider it as inappropriate for their committee.  

What the hell is wrong with these people?  What the hell was Representative Senger thinking when she purposefully submitted this bill to the Agriculture and Conservation Committee instead of the Human Services or Health Care Licenses committee?  Can't any of them see how dehumanizing, disrespectful, inappropriate this is?  Women are not livestock.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Teach the controversy

Teach the controversy?

What do you mean by controversy? That evolution is controversial to some of the  public? Yes, clearly it is. That the theory of evolution is controversial among scientists who study it? No, it isn't. The general concept of evolution by natural selection is accepted science. 

Creationism versus evolution is no more a controversy in modern science than is alchemy versus chemistry or astrology versus astronomy. Scientifically these debates were settled long ago. 

There is no scientific controversy to teach.

[Images borrowed from:]