Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Juries Hate Bigots

It's an expensive Halloween for Pastor Fred Phelps and his church:

A grieving father won a nearly $11 million verdict Wednesday against a fundamentalist Kansas church that pickets military funerals out of a belief that the war in Iraq is a punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.
Let the pity-party for persecuted Christians begin!

God and the Equivocators

Here's a fair and important question, one often asked, and one often answered with evasions and equivocations:

Have Dawkins, Hitchens, and numerous other atheist thinkers grossly misrepresented Christianity? Can Christian believers justifiably claim that the religion they find written of by such thinkers is something other than the one they at least pay lip service to? No, and no, again. Must Dawkins and others undertake an arduous trawling through centuries of theological waffle in order to reject religious belief? Absolutely not.
To repeat the clear and unambiguous answer to that question: No, and No, again.

Strange Bedfellows

Building on a great piece of criticism by Ophelia Benson's Butterflies and Wheels:

It so happens that the politics of the moment involve a convenient alignment among atheists, newly emboldened by the "new atheist" publishing boom; neoconservative imperialists, whipping up a "war on terror" to advance longstanding ambitions to reconfigure the middle east; and American Christianists, ever eager to reduce politics to a clash of faiths and bring about a Biblical Armageddon. There is plenty of overlap between the latter two groups, but I think it is worthwhile to notice their differences in aim and emphasis.

Each of these groups holds 9/11 as a leading example of the foe they'd like to defeat, which is not to say each has advanced an equally truthful body of arguments. Atheists are right to see the 9/11 attacks as an illustration of the consequences of unquestioned religious fundamentalism. The neoconservative interpretation, that democratic government (selectively and externally imposed) can temper religious fanaticism, smacks of ahistoricism and magical thinking that very poorly conceals a grab for power and wealth. The Christianist interpretation, that 9/11 fits into a frequently-reprinted cryptic bronze age narrative, is sheer lunacy, but lunacy wedded to political and military power.

As distasteful as it is to see points of agreement with troglodytes like Ann Coulter, David Horowitz, and Norman Pohoretz, the secularist left has to swallow hard and do so -- thoughtfully, delicately, warily. The alternative is to diminish the threat of fundamentalist Islam, which would be foolish. Christopher Hitchens has, I think, failed this tightrope walk by first embracing and then continuing to defend the Iraq War, and this shows the degree of difficulty.

"No gods, no masters" does not make for easy politics -- delusional pitfalls lie on all sides. The cause of liberating humankind from religious fanaticism is worth the trouble, and, as with every liberatory movement before it, will have to take place in the real world, alongside occasionally flawed allies and occasionally attractive enemies.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Comcast Sucks Ass

They'll probably throttle my broadband connection for saying this, but I hate Comcast. They've up and decided to move MSNBC off the basic cable list, meaning it can only be received through a converter box. I don't want a converter box. I also don't want at least 2/3 of the useless channels on the basic cable package, any of which I'd gladly drop in favor of MSNBC if I had that option. But I don't, because Comcast likes to pretend that a la carte cable is impossible or or Stalinesque or carcinogenic or something.

For that matter, I barely even want MSNBC -- I just want it between 5pm and 6pm weekdays, when it is showing Countdown with Keith Olbermann, which is an informative and entertaining news program and an illustration of what a "liberal media" would look like if it existed. The rest of MSNBC's lineup seems to be footage taken inside prisons and Candid Camera-style ambushes of pederasts.

Grr.

Why God Stuff Matters

God stuff matters because it warps human morality by detaching it from considerations of human suffering and human happiness. Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things, but as Steven Weinberg has famously noted, "for good people to do evil things, it takes religion." Consider:

* Assorted Christianists and the Pope wants pharmacists to step in and refuse prescriptions in order to save blastocysts. Why? Because, for religious reasons, they consider it better to die than to have sex.

* The Bush Administration and various Christianists actively oppose the availability of a vaccine that stops a sexually-transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer. Why? Because, for religious reasons, they consider it better to die than to have sex.

* The Pope, the Bush Administration, and various Christianists oppose the availability of condoms, even in the face of the AIDS epidemic sweeping large swaths of Africa. Why? Because, on religious grounds, they consider it better to die than to have sex.

God stuff matters because, even or perhaps especially in matters of life and death, religion sanctions suffering and perverts morality.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Profiles in Prescience

Richard Dawkins certainly knows how to pick them: in his documentary "The Root of All Evil?" he profiled Pastor Ted Haggard many months before Haggard achieved international fame for whoring himself for meth.

Leave It There

The New Pornographers, "Challengers"

Intellectually Dishonest Hydra-Bashing

Intellectual honesty does not appear to be a hallmark of those who want to hurl criticisms at the the Dawkins-Harris-Hitchens-Dennett-Grayling-Onfray "new atheists" hydra, if this article by Theodore Dalrymple is any indication:

For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell.
Um, not really. If Dalrymple read the book, he did not do so very attentively at all. For Dennett, to provide a plausible biological explanation for belief in god is to provide an alternative to the presumptive explanation, the one he means to supplant, namely, that the widespread belief in god owes to the actual existence of god. The widespread -- sometimes asserted to be universal -- belief in a supreme power across time, culture, and distance is frequently offered as a proof that god exists. This proof is called, among other things, the "majority argument" or "the argument from common consent."

Dalrymple continues:
But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment?
It is by no means a necessary part of Dennett's argument that all human beliefs must be traced to biology: in very many cases, including the cited example of evolution, truth claims are accepted as true because evidence and a body of testable, falsifiable theory supports them.

Dalrymple is misrepresenting the clearly-stated nature of Dennett's project in Breaking the Spell: Dennett is not arguing that a plausible biological basis for god-belief proves the non-existence of god. That's not the spell he is trying to break. The spell he wishes to break is the taboo against treating religion and religious belief as somehow taboo, as somehow beyond and protected from ordinary philosophical, psychological, sociological, and biological scrutiny.

Dennett makes a convincing case for this project of demystification, but alas, the same cannot be said of those who snipe at him from an easy chair at the Manhattan Institute.

The Stink of Prayer

I've paused before posting on this in hopes that it was just a hypnogogic hallucination brought on by narcolepsy, but since the sense impressions it left have now lingered for a few days, I have concluded it actually happened. On Friday evening's MAX ride home, a man who, but for the absence of a knap-sack dangling from a stick, seemed to have walked directly out of the dictionary portrait of hobo -- sun-ripened face, grimy beard, gnarled and matted hair, a coat made of patches -- boarded the train and, despite several open seats, took a standing position within a couple of feet of me. His smell, combining urine, sweat, tobacco, and advanced tooth and gum decay, quickly became only the second most noticeable thing about him when he started a prayer ritual that involved genuflections in each of the four cardinal directions. At each point of the compass, he began with with a bit of muttering over hands in palms-up position, but then dropped to a pose somewhere between a yoga warrior one and a failed field sobriety test. Each time he rose to repeat the ritual, he came very close to falling to the floor, if not into someone's lap (say, mine).

By the time this was all under way, I checked over my shoulder and noted the train was too full to get up and relocate, so I just stayed put and tried to position my man-purse such that it would provide some kind of barrier if he fell on me. He never did, and even better, he went stumbling off the train sooner than I dreaded he might.

I hope he got what he was praying for, and I hope he was praying for a bath.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Hail Badminton!

Badly misinterpreting the video feed from the orbiting space shuttle carrying the "average-naut" Homer Simpson, news anchor and "Eye on Springfield" host Kent Brockman once breathlessly told the people of Springfield:

Ladies and gentlemen, er, we’ve just lost the picture, but, uh, what we’ve seen speaks for itself. The Corvair spacecraft has been taken over — ‘conquered’, if you will — by a master race of giant space ants. It’s difficult to tell from this vantage point whether they will consume the captive earth men or merely enslave them. One thing is for certain, there is no stopping them; the ants will soon be here. And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords. I’d like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to…toil in their underground sugar caves.
While I don't fear giant space ants, I think it's only a matter of time before we're all toiling in underground caves at the command of Chinese masters, and one upside to the impending Chinese takeover of civilization will be the elevation of badminton to the first rank of participatory and spectator sports. I know most of you are snickering at that, but badminton is a fantastic sport, and I, for one, welcome my Chinese overlords insofar as they enshrine it above junk like car racing and golf.

Watch this, and take heart knowing that badminton's modest space requirements are such that it can be played in underground caves.

It's Carnival Time!


Just in time for Halloween, Carnival of the Godless #78 has been loosed upon the internets, complete with a lively and entertaining write-up by its host, Greta Christina. She has also provided a "just plain links" edition for those of you who hate fun or lack broadband.

There are a number of very fine posts highlighted there and I'm flattered to say one of mine is on the list. Happy reading!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Meaning, Knowledge, & Literacy

Norm Geras makes an excellent observation that parallels the themes I've been hammering of late:

[I]f science could handle all the questions worth asking, there'd be no such thing as literature. Why has literature not contracted with the growth of scientific understanding? By its nature no scientific explanation of a set of human relationships will give you certain features of their lived interiority and all the meanings and the questions that they pose for those interested in them. [emphasis mine]
It is often suggested by atheists' detractors that atheism deprives life of meaning by blocking a traditional avenue in which to ask and answer enduring questions about the human condition. Science can tell how, when, and what, but not why.

Fair enough (for the sake of argument), but the move away from the Bible in the west corresponds to, and goes hand in hand with, a massive enlargement of literature and of a literate audience for it. It has not, then, been merely a matter of scientific advance chipping away at the edifice of Christianity -- heliocentrism threatening the Biblical notion of an earth-centered cosmos, Newtonian mechanics displacing the physically-causal god, geological science contradicting the Bible on the earth's age, evolution by natural selection contradicting the Biblical creation tale -- but a matter of the availability of better books.

The holy texts have plenty of answers, but they're unsatisfying if not obviously wrong. Modern people have moved beyond them as a source of knowledge and meaning.

God, Morality, Jesus and the Law

In a comment to my earlier post about the notion that morals can't exist without god, Sis B notes that

Jesus saved us from the "old ways" by dying for us and giving us some sort of direct connection with god, so that we didn't have to make sacrifices or follow all the millions of laws anymore. that was part of how jesus set us free.
I've certainly heard this from Christians, but the relationship between Jesus and Mosaic law is confusing at best. Echoing a passage in the Old Testament where god was very clear about his moral instructions (Deuteronomy 12:32, "See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it."), Jesus was pretty plainspoken about the matter (Matthew 5:17-20):
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Of course, starting with Paul, by means of hairsplitting, parsing, and mythmaking, these words were taken to mean something more along the lines of sola fide (that salvation comes from faith alone). These guys, one of a million web sites eager to answer questions about the Bible, cite Paul (Romans 10:4, Galatians 3:23-25, and Ephesians 2:15) more or less plausibly to that effect.

Maybe Jesus invalidated Old Testament laws, and maybe he didn't. In the context of the claim that god is necessary for morality, this creates a pick-your-poison situation for Christians: either he did abolish Old Testament law, in which case sola fide (or something very much like it) is true, and it follows from that doctrine that anything is permissable so long as we hold the right opinions about Jesus; or he didn't abolish Mosaic law, in which case god expects us to stone people to death for mowing the lawn on Sunday. Either way, the god of Christianity makes for a pretty shitty foundation of morals -- or rather an excellent foundation of shitty morals.

Jews and Muslims who still insist that god is the sole and ultimate foundation of morals are, presumably, chomping at the bit to kill their classmates, workmates, friends, and neighbors for all sorts of petty offenses against the almighty. People with genuine morals know better, even if it takes them slightly more effort to explain how they know than gesturing toward a book of fables.

Comments on Comments on Libertarianism

At the risk of getting hopelessly self-referential, I want to call attention to a couple of recent worthy commentaries on the topic of libertarianism: on Obscene Desserts, an interesting and even-handed set of observations of, among other things, the odd ways libertarians tend to come across in the world. It has always struck me that libertarianism, in its more common right-wingish form, is not only a political philosophy married very devotedly to a set of economic tenets, but a personal style. The shorthand (unfair) version: a libertarian is a subspecies of asshole I've met many times, one that isn't quite captured in the old line that a libertarian is a "Republican who wants to smoke pot." They also want very, very badly never to have to pay taxes, or in any other context to see any of their money go to someone else's benefit without their conscious direction. Every time someone dials 911, and every time that call is answered, a libertarian feels a bite taken out of his very soul.

I have read enough of Ayn Rand -- not much, that is to say, but I insist it is quite enough -- to feel confident in tracing this mish-mash of political economy and personal style to her writings: always cantankerously ready for argument, at times very well-reasoned but, on particular points, zealous beyond any attachment to reality. When listening to a libertarian rail on about the evils of government, I tend to step back and ask which parts of the argument would be exactly as compelling if offered against the idea of private insurance. The answer, typically, sooner or later, is that the argument is equally cogent applied to either case. Which is to say, not very cogent at all, if not outright batshit-crazy.

The characteristically libertarian hyper-awareness of Ponzi Schemes and Moral Hazards is not precisely wrong -- it can have a certain internal coherence -- but it can lend itself to radical misprioritizations and stupefying naivety. (This leads me to the second piece worth reading, China Mieville's recent piece on another broken libertarian utopia.) To pick an example: yes, if taxpayers bail out New Orleans, people will rebuild there again, below sea level, a mere wall away from Lake Pontchartrain. But should we really allow ourselves to pretend that the spot where the Mississippi River meets the ocean is not, in any conceivable configuration of human society on the North American continent, going to be commercially significant? I think it's fair and eminently sane to consider all the stakeholders in the existence of a New Orleans, and not to go overboard blanching over the method and timing of the payments. But I guess I haven't read Robert Nozick closely enough, or something. I am tempted rather to say I just haven't read him worshipfully enough, and there I plead guilty.

And don't even get me started on libertarian fantasizing about health care, which has now been swallowed, fins and all, by the Republican party. The problem is that health care "consumers" -- otherwise known as sick people -- are too abstracted from the costs of care, and so they don't haggle enough with doctors. The patient-doctor discussion over a chronic sleep disorder, emergent cancer, or failing kidneys does not, according to libertarian-GOP thinking, closely enough resemble the car-buying experience. If only it did, costs would ratchet down precipitously. Moreover, the mollycoddling nature of insurance (private or public, it makes absolutely no difference to the plausibility of the argument, such as it is) gives no incentive for "consumers" to avoid that chronic sleep disorder, emergent cancer, failing kidneys, car accident, or genetic endowment in the first place.

Grr.

Stereolab Saturday

While I'm slobbering over music I adore I can't neglect Stereolab, who won me to ardent fandom about 30 seconds into the song "Fuses" from Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, which I had purchased on a lark. They write fugues rather than mere songs -- layers of artfully interwoven melody over lyrics that gleefully bounce between chirpy chants and serious poetry. And of course I am deeply in love with lead singer Laetitia Sadier, whose superb solo work flies under the banner of Monade.

Here are three fine songs matched with three evocative visual appropriations.

"Fluorescences"



"Household Names"



"Whisper Pitch"



And here's "Fuses" as accompanied by Zondes, whatever the hell that is. It seems to be a dance troupe of some kind, but I'm afraid I don't follow dance troupes.

Thurston, Check

Thurston Moore's new solo album, Trees Outside the Academy (Amazon link), doesn't sound very much like Sonic Youth, but he is such an amazing creator of music that the comparison loses all interest after a few bars. Yes, there are a couple of indulgences -- Thurston at 13 making random noises into a tape recorder, Thurston at his current age making guitar noises into a tape recorder -- but they detract nothing. I can't put it more plainly than to say this album is very much worth having if you love music.

Here's a preview video for the album:



Here's a minimalist live performance of "The Shape Is In A Trance" -- mere songs don't deserve to be this compelling.

Friday, October 26, 2007

My Past Life as a Lame-Ass

Via Pharyngula, I've learned that the internets can now tell me about my "last earthly incarnation," and here it is:

I don't know how you feel about it, but you were male in your last earthly incarnation.You were born somewhere in the territory of modern North India around the year 775. Your profession was that of a writer, dramatist or organiser of rituals. Your brief psychological profile in your past life:
You had the mind of a scientist, always seeking new explanations. Your environment often misunderstood you, but respected your knowledge. The lesson that your last past life brought to your present incarnation:
Your lesson is to study, to practice and to use the wisdom that lies within the psychological sciences and in ancient manuscripts. With strong faith and hard work you will reach your real destiny in your present life. Do you remember now?
Oh, I definitely remember it, but this is more than a little flattering. In reality, I spent a lot of time fretting about the Ganges. I seemed to be the only person who cared that we drank the same water we crapped in. Sure, it was always in motion, but the people upstream were crapping in it too!

It's nice to know I bore myself across multiple incarnations.

Atheist? Atheist!

I have read and listened to a lot of discussion about Sam Harris's address, "The Problem with Atheism," (transcript here - video here) and I have come to the conclusion that atheism is a valid and useful term that, well, atheists should embrace rather than eschew. Below I'll quote key parts of his argument followed by my response.

I think that atheist is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology.
I think we do need it for the simple reason that while very few people take astrology seriously today, a great many take theism seriously, and atheism is a valid and useful label for those of us who want god believers to step back from that belief and its consequences. If belief in astrology was both widespread and harmful, we would need a word for someone who rejects astrology. Happily, that is not a battle that currently needs fighting.
[A]theism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.
I actually think anti-racism is a thing, one that can claim slow, grudging, but dramatic successes over the last two centuries. And likewise I think atheism is a thing, a label signifying people who notice there are no good reasons to believe in god. How atheists respond to this insight varies markedly -- some just resign themselves to the new arrangement of things and stop going to church, some write books or blogs, some balloon it into a full-bodied conception of life, the universe, and everything -- but beneath the diversity there is a small core of shared propositions that distinguish what deserves to be its own thing, and that thing is called atheism.

It's true that people attack atheism and atheists. But I think movements need to be wary of allowing their opponents to define them, and should note that running away from a word because its opponents use it as a pejorative validates the attack. They muster the yokels and chase the label with pitchforks, and Sam Harris suggests we oblige them by running away. No! I say we should stand our ground and reclaim the word as a perfectly acceptable term, even an honorific. It is, in fact, not a bad thing to be an atheist, and to whatever extent atheists can do so without risking undue social opprobrium, they should declare themselves. (I would not ask, nor would I expect, atheists to sacrifice their personal or professional relationships for the sake of a label. Leave martyrdom to the religious.)

I take this lesson from politics, where liberals have been playing a similar game with liberal for at least thirty years. Fire-breathing conservatives hurl the word like a curse, and liberals (who should know better) have taken to cowering as though deadly cooties ride the very sound waves bearing the utterance. How many times have you heard a figure like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Bill O'Reilly spit out the word liberal as though he was saying child molester? And how many times have you heard a politician -- invariably a Democrat -- say words like these in the course of a debate: "Oh gosh, I really don't think labels like liberal and conservative are helpful, when what's really important is ..." I find it incredibly easy to play that in my head in the voice of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and any number of lesser-known but equally failed candidates and campaigns. (Bill Clinton used the same line endlessly, but he's an exception that proves the rule, a special case that requires a longer tangent than I'm willing to take for present purposes.) How has such groveling verbal tip-toeing worked for the Democratic party since the Reagan era? We can expect it to work exactly as well for atheists who try to distance themselves from atheist -- their opponents will still use the label, and still use it as a bludgeon, only more successfully with the acquiescence, indeed the collaboration, of the atheist side.

Harris lists the many debating points and canards that must be so repeatedly countered in exchanges between believers and atheists -- that Pol Pot and Stalin were atheists, that atheism entails hopelessness, that atheism can't account for the complexity of the observed universe -- but I fail to see how ducking the word atheist makes these memes go away. Certain theists advance these poor arguments over and over because it's all they have that can claim a superficial cogency. Avoiding the word atheism in such encounters won't make them go away, and instead it would introduce a far more tiresome debating point (here the political analogy to liberal informs again): an exchange over whether the atheist in the debate is, indeed, an atheist. Imagine the first several minutes of a debate on the question of "Is Christianity good for the world?" -- the given topic of the recent debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D'Souza -- chewed up with accusations and denials of the a-word. The clock ticks away as real ideas have to wait for this pointless tedium to come to a stop. That, surely, is a debate a theist would love to have.

As does Sam Harris, I apply all of the above to other labels, such as freethinker, secularist, humanist, non-believer, doubter, agnostic, dissenter, and all the rest. I think words should always be used with political decorum, good taste, and rhetorical skill, but I see no good reason to disavow these labels.

Sorry, Sam. I adore your work, but I do so as a self-described atheist.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Rudy's Tribe

Sadly, Rudy Giuliani spoke for a lot of Americans when giving this answer to whether waterboarding is torture:

It depends on how it’s done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it.
That is the answer of tribalism and rank relativism, all the more appalling for its association with the segment of the population that prides itself on its "values."

Whatever its pretentions, Rudy's tribe is no better than the quality of its deeds. There's a reason they would shriek with outrage if that exact answer was given by Fidel Castro or Osama Bin Laden.

Update: Digby has posted an excellent discussion that confirms the obvious fact that waterboarding is waterboarding and torture is torture, whether done by the Spanish Inquisition, by the Khmer Rouge, or by today's United States. It is disgraceful that our deeds put us in that category.

He Opens His Mouth and Pearls Fall Out

Former Senator Rick Santorum appears to understand both Islam and Christianity better than most. Says he:

Islam, unlike Christianity, is an all-encompassing ideology,” said Santorum, a Penn State alumnus. “It is not just something you do on Sunday. ... We (as Americans) don’t get that.”
No doubt Penn State is proud of that mention. Prior to this frank admission that Christianity as practiced by Americans is just a hobby to kill a few hours on Sunday, Rick Santorum was best known for warning that the decriminalization of gay marriage would lead ineluctably to legally sanctioned man-dog marriages, man-cat marriages, man-dog-cat marriages, and, for all I know, a situation in which his fellow Republicans could seek anonymous gay sex somewhere other than airport restrooms.

NO to Immunity

In case you haven't been following the story, several large telecommunications companies assisted the Bush administration in conducting extra-judicial and illegal surveillance on American citizens, and Congress is considering legislation to grant these companies immunity from lawsuits. Not only will they get a 'get out of jail free' card, this will allow them to continue to hide the truth of what they've done, and what they've helped the Bush administration do. Bush supports this grant of immunity, of course.

Visit www.noretroactiveimmunity.com to sign the petition telling Congress not to grant this favor to these companies. If nothing else, consider the moral hazard this creates -- if this passes, what large company ever needs to fear participating in government lawlessness?

DailyKos has more background on the issue and the petition. This one is important -- an injury and an insult to the idea of accountability, and a leading indicator of whether this is going to continue to be a nation featuring equality under law.

Without God, all is permitted (and there are considerably fewer stonable offenses)

I am tired of faith-addled people asserting that without god there is no basis for morality. Without belief in an all-seeing god, the argument goes, tee-vee evangelists might whore themselves for drugs, Senators might solicit anonymous gay sex in airport restrooms, and priests might rape children! A thin line of faith separates us from these and even more unspeakable indecencies, and I can't disagree -- I don't want to live in a world in which these things happen but for the intervention of a caring deity.

This is an extremely common argument, one offered by Dinesh D'Souza in a recent debate with Christopher Hitchens, and one found all over the web, like, say, here and here.

As with so much else in the realm of pro-god twaddle, the argument sounds almost credible until you take it seriously. Attempting to treat god as the foundation of morals involves checking god's instructions as given in the Bible, and the ugliness becomes apparent after just a few pages in. Here is Exodus 35:2:

Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the LORD: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.
And here's Leviticus 24:16:
And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.
Even though these moral teachings come from a shared foundational text of all three leading brands of monotheism, scarcely anyone follows them, and the few who do, or wish to, are rightly called monsters and fanatics.

There's one thing obviously worse than having no god at the foundation of morals, and that's having the god of the Bible at the foundation of morals.

Civilized people have found a way to disregard these and many more of god's teachings, and that way did not come from god. Whatever the foundation of morals might be, it is not god, and thank god it isn't. So to speak.

Torturing Reality

Andrew Sullivan describes just one aspect of the ongoing war on reality with which this blog is preoccupied:

We may have entered a world, in other words, where the empirical reality of our national security is less important than the imaginationland that every torture regime will create. We may therefore be sacrificing our liberties for a phantasm created by brutality spawned by terror. We don't know for sure, of course. But that's what torture does: it creates a miasma of unknowing, about as dangerous a situation in wartime as one can imagine.
I have more comments to add on this but it will have to wait.

For the Short List: For the Bible Tells Me So



This looks like an excellent and timely documentary and I will certainly watch it. I will be most keenly interested in how the liberal/moderate people of faith handle the fact that, on the question of homosexuality, the Bible is rather unequivocally on the side of the haters. This trailer claims the homophobes have been misusing the Bible to sanction anti-gay animus, but I don't see how that is a misuse or a misread. The god of the Bible does hate gays, and expects his followers to kill them.

It's fair to point out that the same prickly god hates very many things that don't raise the ire of current-day believers, and from there to question the integrity of the faithful who follow some but not all of god's hateful instructions, but I have yet to see any reason to doubt that the god of the Bible hates gays. Maybe this film can broaden my understanding.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Hitchens v. D'Souza

Dinesh D'Souza and Christopher Hitchens recently debated over the existence of god and the virtues of Christianity: Hitchens was his usual tireless and engaging self, and D'Souza put up a decent fight for his faulty arguments, but by and large, the two talked past one another.

I was frustrated that Hitchens did not more directly address what I took to be D'Souza's central charge against atheism, one to which he returned again and again, namely, that Christianity makes difficult moral demands on its followers, and the recent spate of atheist activism represents nothing more than a wish to escape these moral demands. Atheists, in other words, just want to indulge life's pleasures without being troubled by the demands of Christian morality.

First, any religion can make the same argument on its behalf. Islam is difficult. Buddhism is difficult. Jainism is difficult. Judaism is difficult. The religion I just made up in which an all-powerful god demands that we abstain from eating chocolate and drink a gallon of stale vinegar after every orgasm is difficult. The difficulty of these faiths is not a reason to believe they're true, and this applies equally well to Christianity.

Second, Dinesh D'Souza should stop trying to read his opponents' minds and start addressing their arguments. Even if every prominent atheist writing and blogging today is secretly motivated by a desire for unlimited chocolate and orgasms, they're doing an excellent job of clouding this motivation behind very good arguments for why god-belief and other religious tenets are unsound and dangerous. D'Souza is making, at bottom, an ad hominem argument.

Third, the difficulty of Christianity -- the absurdity of its demands -- is the root of a positive and prudential argument against it. Right now, millions of people are engaged in acts of Christian obeisance that make no inherent sense and serve no tangible good but that subtract time and resources from the good they might be doing. Right now, someone is confessing to a slobbering priest about his lustful thoughts, and the priest is answering by telling the person to perform a ritual with some beads, and both are doing this instead of any of a thousand good deeds they might be doing instead. In a world wracked with pain and want, Christianity's wacky, counterintuitive, and trivial demands waste finite human resources and spend finite human goodwill, and that's tragic.

That's my take, but judge for yourself: here's a video of the full debate in Windows Media format, and here's a link to the video broken into bite-sized Youtube segments. Enjoy!

#1 on the Googles!

Picking up the latest thrilling meme from The Adventures in Ethics and Science Blog, I have found five items that return this precious, precious blog as the first google hit. Here is my slightly annotated list:

faith in honest doubt - Poor Tennyson -- I've pushed him to #6. What an ingrate I am.

"how Jesus rolls" - I am surprised there is not more quipping about the way Jesus rolls, but the Googles have spoken.

Portland Panopticon - No one else in Portland blogs with Foucault in mind the way I do. What a sad, sad commentary on me.

"brag about marathons" - Um. I have been chastened.

petty, sniveling, whiny - Another chastening. Who am I to doubt the Googles and the connections it draws?

future wingnut gay sex police interrogations - I owe so very much to Senator Larry Craig ... and don't we all?

Is Christianity a Religion of Peace?



It sounds that way if you read the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5). It doesn't sound that way if you read a few chapters further along, where you'll find Jesus saying in Matthew 10:34:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
How should thoughtful people make sense of this apparent contradiction? I suppose we could draw wisdom from Dinesh D'Souza's hidden realm beyond all experience, evidence, and reason and declare that the warlike passage is just figurative. Or, if the mood strikes, we could pull from the same orifice the conclusion that the peaceful exhortation from chapter 5 is the figurative one. So arbitrary!

The Bible is riddled with contradictions like this. The most charitable read of this situation is to declare the Bible a sort of Rorschach blot whose meaning is nothing more than the predilections of the reader. In that case, it's not clear what value the Bible is adding to the situation.

Perhaps it can serve roughly the same purpose as a Rorschach test it resembles: it can help expose and elucidate the pre-existing predilections of its readers. But with so many ambiguous books lying around, and so many methods of conducting psychological evaluations, it seems a little arbitrary (there's that word again) to justify keeping the Bible around for this reason.

It certainly can't regulate morality, in much the same way that a stop sign directly beneath a green light can't regulate traffic.

A more realistic read of the situation is to declare that the Bible is exactly as incoherent as any reasonable person would expect of a batch of loosely-connected fables written by middle eastern primitives. At times, they thought they heard god say "stop," and at times, they thought they heard god say "go," when in fact they just didn't know any better. By now, we have much better explanations for why people hear voices, and we tend to dismiss the authority of those voices -- politely when possible, loudly if necessary.

So is Christianity a religion of peace? It needs to be coherent before it can be for or against anything.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Squeeze

Via Pharyngula, here's a pretty amazing animation of childbirth.


Are Bach's cello suites really the soundtrack for these visuals? The contortions of the skull call for heavy metal -- The Ministry? Metallica?

Poem of the Day: "Marriage"

I find it interesting to follow the changes and hints of changes in this poem's subject -- the sea, the waves, he, she, the omniscient(?) narrator. Beyond that, I am struck by the efficiency of the observations -- how it strips away the clutter of life and sees into the heart of things. This is poetry!

Louise Glück, "Marriage"

All week they’ve been by the sea again
and the sound of the sea colors everything.
Blue sky fills the window.
But the only sound is the sound of the waves pounding the shore—
angry. Angry at something. Whatever it is
must be why he’s turned away. Angry, though he’d never hit her,
never say a word, probably.

So it’s up to her to get the answer some other way,
from the sea, maybe, or the gray clouds suddenly
rising above it. The smell of the sea is in the sheets,
the smell of sun and wind, the hotel smell, fresh and sweet
because they’re changed every day.

He never uses words. Words, for him, are for making arrangements,
for doing business. Never for anger, never for tenderness.

She strokes his back. She puts her face up against it,
even though it’s like putting your face against a wall.

And the silence between them is ancient: it says
these are the boundaries.

He isn’t sleeping, not even pretending to sleep.
His breathing’s not regular: he breathes in with reluctance;
he doesn’t want to commit himself to being alive.
And he breathes out fast, like a king banishing a servant.

Beneath the silence, the sound of the sea,
the sea’s violence spreading everywhere, not finished, not finished,
his breath driving the waves—

But she knows who she is and she knows what she wants.
As long as that’s true, something so natural can’t hurt her.

Don't Be Fooled by Pocket Change

At the time of the USA's founding, E Pluribus Unum was selected as the phrase to appear on the national seal.

The phrase "In God We Trust" first appeared on US currency in 1864, and was not made a national motto until 1956.

Theodicy? Here's Your Answer

Cast all your theodicy questions aside -- they were every bit as much a waste of time as you might have suspected. It turns out that god himself created evil, if Isaiah 45:7 is to be believed, and three rather well-known monotheistic faiths insist it is:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.
This is the way the King James Version phrases it; Dan Barker reports that the Hebrew words used here for create and evil are the same Hebrew words that appear in the early chapters of Genesis, as in creating the universe and putting a tree of the knowledge of good and evil in a garden, then absent-mindedly leaving a capering serpent to guard it.

Some Biblical translations use calamity or disaster in place of evil, presumably in hopes of imputing moral evil to human free will or Satan or whatever. Even if those words represent a better translation, we still have the god of the Old Testament owning up to natural evil -- hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, tornados, earthquakes, cancer, the scourge of Africanized bees, the piercing 'yap! yap! yap!' of the chihuahua, the way rabbits chew through phone cords, the real-life events that inspired the movie Orca, etc. -- so god is surely not exonerated.

And what about all the countless man-hours wasted over the centuries translating and retranslating these idiotic books, picking words to pick sides in theological disputes? Is that moral or natural evil? It's such a fine line.

It's been thirty years, and yet I still close my eyes and see that nasty whale bite off Bo Derek's leg, which was already in a cast. Shame on god.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Dinesh D'Souza & Other Unfalsifiable Asses

Here's the ever-quotable C++ program Dinesh D'Souza with some anti-atheist output:

Ours is a transient world that is dependent on a higher, timeless reality. That reality is of a completely different order from anything we know, it constitutes the only permanent reality there is, and it sustains our world and presents it to our senses.
But of course!

I take it on faith that this "higher, timeless" supernatural realm is a piece of partly-chewed mushroom lodged in the gums of a cosmically vast donkey that got lost after a mighty windstorm. The donkey has been nibbling at whatever seems edible as he tries to find his way back home. Somewhere along the way, to pass the time as much as anything else, the great donkey used his massive hoof to scribble how we mere mortals see as through a glass darkly.

I have absolutely no evidence for this, and I would be loath to explain it as though I even understand it -- that would be presumptuous, and "what philosophers like to call a category mistake." Much like the prose-generating algorithm Dinesh D'Souza, I know that the assertion of the masticated mushroom and the donkey belong to a "reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend." Saying more about it risks exposing that I don't know my limits and, worse, that I don't understand Kant.

So we should all shut the fuck up and pray to Jesus, or to the mushroom remnants, or to the donkey, or to something.

Sola Fide: All You Need to Know

There is a longstanding dispute among Christians about whether salvation comes from good deeds or from faith in Jesus, and the inerrant word of God is characteristically incoherent and self-contradictory on the question.

It is quite the little irony that the notion of sola fide, salvation by faith alone, should have received its fullest articulation in Germany by Martin Luther, since Germany also furnishes the ultimate "smell test" case for this doctrine: if sola fide is true, then every Nazi (up to and including Hitler himself) who died with faith in Jesus is now in heaven, while each of the six million or so Jews whom the Nazis killed, and who still had his/her doubts about Jesus at the moment of death, is now in hell.

I am not asserting that Hitler died with faith in Jesus; I have no idea what supernatural twaddle was rolling around in his head at the moment of his death. But if the sola fide faction of Christianity is true, then it is entirely possible that Hitler is now in heaven, because under these assumptions, his deeds count for nothing and the state of his beliefs about Jesus counts for everything. I will add that it beggars credulity to suppose that sola fide does not entail millions of Holocaust victims now burning in hell, since Jews are rather famous for their doubts about Jesus; and just as much it entails that at least some Nazis, surely even some high-ranking ones, are now resting happily in heaven since they died with the right thoughts about Jesus.

This is, of course, a monstrous doctrine, one that is so alien to morality that I have a hard time believing that people actually take it seriously. But it is one of the central distinctions between Catholicism and Protestantism, and millions fought and died over it and similar theological disputes. It continues to be a bedrock belief of many Christians, which is, to me, more than enough justification for dismissing Christianity as a dangerously immoral body of beliefs.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Goodbye Joe


I learned today that the man who married my grandmother when I was still a toddler, and who was never anything less than a grandfather to me, died yesterday.

Joe was a decent, kind, strong, and hard-working man with a delightfully wry sense of humor and a very keen mind beneath a self-presentation as a simple 'good old boy' -- truly an independent discoverer of the postmodern, although I won't be surprised if some Barthes or Baudrillard is found among his effects, alongside Cabela's catalogs and old TV Guides.

I will miss you always, Joe. You were truly one of the good ones, and this world is less without you.

Sonic Youth Sunday


This one combines the music of Sonic Youth with two other things I love: Playmobil figures and stop-action animation.


This is, apparently, the official video for "Reena," featuring concert footage and lots of Kim Gordon dancing. What I call the "chase scene" of this song, starting a little over two minutes in, blows me away every time I listen to it.


Here's a performance of "Sleepin' Around" that sounds like it would sound if they finally agreed to play in my basement -- and I mean that as a compliment. But where's Lee Ranaldo?


"The Diamond Sea" (short edition) as played on the Letterman show.


Here they play "Sunday" on the Letterman show and sound absolutely great (the video quality slips here and there but it's not their fault).


Here's a little more recent appearance on Letterman, this time playing "Incinerate."


"Bull in the Heather" live in Germany -- great performance, great audio, so-so video. This song made me a Sonic Youth fan. I saw them open for REM in 1994 and after 2-1/2 hours of live music, "Bull in the Heather" stuck in my head until I started collecting their albums, and really it has never left.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Atheist or Agnostic?

I have only recently switched from a self-description of agnostic to atheist, and while I think I have sound reasons for choosing the one over the other, I am not a zealot about it. Subject to the qualifications given below, I don't regard agnostics as too noncommittal or otherwise deficient, and I don't go into a self-soiling snit when I have to tick an 'atheist/agnostic' box on a form. Indeed, agnostic is a perfectly acceptable label for my outlook for some contexts of the question.

I call myself an agnostic in the context of explicitly epistemological querying: the limits of knowledge are such that it's impossible to be 100% certain of the non-existence of anything. Insofar as god discussions touch on this realm of inquiry, agnosticism fits, and I embrace it.

More often, though, the question of god's existence is a pragmatic question: what is to be done, what are the significant causes and effects in the world, how did it all begin, and so on. Here, even as I acknowledge the epistemological limits enough to shrink from pronouncements of 100% certainty, I live as though all my experiences, observations, and learning have reliably informed that there are no good reason for believing that god exists. Just as I don't turn every corner in suspended certainty of whether or not I will encounter a unicorn or the god Osiris, so I don't live in suspended certainty about Yahweh or Allah. Straightforward non-belief, or atheism, strikes me as the proper label for my beliefs about all of the above.

If it sounds odd to declare agnosticism on the question of leprechauns, why does it sound different on the question of god? I think this is a fruitful question.

Is agnosticism an epistemological hedge? I can see that, especially when the larger discussion concerns the finer philosophical distinctions. This is as good a time as any to reiterate what Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and countless other atheists have reiterated ad nauseum: atheists are not 100% certain that god does not exist. I have yet to encounter an atheist who claims 100% certainty that god does not exist, despite that straw man's frequent appearance in counter-atheist writings.

Is agnosticism a fear-based hedge? Is the agnostic label a way of staying on the 'good' side of Pascal's Wager? To that I would say: to each his own, of course -- again, agnosticism is a defensible position to take -- but for what it's worth, I say sapere aude, dare to be wise, dare to follow your wisdom and experience.

Arguably a 'Now I've Seen Everything' Moment

Black Sun Journal gives a philosophically libertarian argument for, of all things, taking global warming seriously:

Actually, it is the [anthropogenic global warming]-deniers who are the collectivists. They support allowing wealthy individuals and corporations to keep engaging in practices that essentially levy a heavy tax-burden on the rest of us. By depleting natural capital, the extractive robber-barons are externalizing their costs to other citizens and future generations. A true individualist libertarian would insist that everyone pay their fair share in the present-day rather than sloughing it off on their children, right?
Right. I am always edified and pleased to see libertarians take their own ideas seriously, and to make thorough and convincing arguments based on them; as with so many schools to which people tend to get emotionally attached, in my experience libertarian reasoning goes only so far before bad faith intrudes in the form of special pleading, magical thinking, or willful ignorance, and what began as principled argument turns out to be what it initially smelled like: an unprincipled encomium to selfishness and wealth. I continue to be wary of libertarianism, but I certainly appreciate Black Sun Journal and read it, so to speak, religiously.

Trivia and Why We're Drenched In It

If you care about the state of news media and its effects on the state of our politics, read Glenn Greenwald's column on the recent clowning by Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's woefully inept and purblind media analyst. In admirably few words, Greenwald vividly describes how it is that we hear so much incisive analysis of Hillary Clinton's cackle and so little of President Bush's radical eviscerations of the law. Here's a money quote on Howard Kurtz and the beltway reporters he represents:

... that [Senator Russ Feingold] actually believed that the President should not be able to break the law repeatedly with no consequences -- never occurred to them.

That realization can't occur to them. The idea that Feingold -- or Dodd -- actually believe in what they are saying and doing is something they're incapable of ever believing. Because these Beltway journalists are empty and self-absorbed and consumed with pettiness and believe in nothing, they assume that everyone else is as barren and vapid as they are -- so barren and vapid that they see no distinction between catty chatter about Edwards' haircuts and alerting Americans to how radical this government has become, except that the catty chatter is way more fun.
Gossip is fun and easy: it requires minimal research, context, or background; it gives plenty of opportunities for reporters to demonstrate their snarky wit; and it fits easily and effortlessly into an always-ongoing narrative in which politicians compete on personality and style. And, not coincidentally, it dovetails seamlessly with the right wing's phony and shallow emphasis on "character." The normalization of fascism follows from this as night follows day.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Dinesh D'Souza - God's Automated Sentinel


God must be so proud! The modestly sophisticated C++ book-generating program known to the world as Dinesh D'Souza has spat out a new a spirited defense of the One True Faith (occident edition), What's So Great About Christianity.

I picked up a copy in a book store earlier today and surprised even myself with how quickly I found a piece of shoddy reasoning: he cited a passage from Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation in which Harris notes that the abolitionists were on the losing side of a theological argument since the Bible regulates, but never proscribes, slavery. D'Souza neglects to cite any Biblical passage that disproves Harris's point about Christian theology, but proceeds to note the conflict between the idea that all Christians are brothers and the idea that brothers can make slaves of brothers, and proceeds to conclude that despite Christianity's (at least) seventeen centuries of tranquil coexistence with slavery, it deserves credit for abolishing it.

Neat!

This is a book I want to read, but that I definitely don't want to buy. I hope I can get my hands on a library copy soon.

People Who Can't Shut the Pie-Hole


Twice today, I lived the clam's part of the moment from this scene in which the clam desperately wants the man to shut up (do yourself the favor of watching the whole thing). During "lunch," I was trying to read, and then trying to catch a cat-nap in my not quite comfortable chair, but both were made impossible by the din of two women chattering over the decline in retail service. Talking past more than with one another, they bemoaned the loss of the bygone days when one could get expert assistance on a shoe or bra fitting, and one of them, the one closer to me and therefore louder, filled the brief intervals when she wasn't talking with vigorous shaking of her bottle of ice, water, and mystery powder.

And then on the ride home on MAX, I chanced to sit immediately in front of another chatterbox, this one delivering an unceasing, meandering, purposeless, and, of course, loud monologue into her cell phone. Since she never actually stopped talking for more than a second, it was clear that the unfortunate party on the other side of the call has long since realized his or her participation is merely ceremonial, requiring nothing more than the occasional monosyllable to signal the connection is still active.

More Torture

President Bush's repeated claim that "we don't torture" differs from Senator Larry Craig's claim that he is not gay in degree but not in kind: it is a falsehood born of the worst kind of tribalistic, self-serving moral blindness. The new appointee for Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, appears ready and willing to continue the deception and the barbarity it enables judging from his insulting word games in response to direct questions:

“Is waterboarding constitutional?” Mr. Mukasey was asked by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, in one of the sharpest exchanges.

“I don’t know what is involved in the technique,” Mr. Mukasey replied. “If waterboarding is torture, torture is not constitutional.”

Insofar as anyone actually steps forward to defend torture, it invariably involves the "ticking time bomb scenario," in which we are asked to imagine that we have a terrorist in custody who knows the location of a time bomb that will take many thousands or millions of innocent lives. Wouldn't it be right to torture the information out of the suspect under these circumstances?

Morality aside, the practical flaws are obvious: the information elicited would not be reliable. The scenario assumes staggering leaps across epistimological barriers rarely actually attempted or achieved on planet earth -- we know that the suspect knows something? Since when? How? Finally, the scenario is proffered in bad faith, since the actual policies under comment don't limit torture only to ticking-time-bomb cases.

I have a question about this scenario that I would like to see asked of every Presidential candidate: under this scenario, which of the following forms of torture would you permit the interrogator (check all that apply): Attach strong electrodes to sensitive body parts? Shove bamboo shoots into eyeballs and fingernails? Slice off fingers? Gouge out eyes? Place the suspect in a stone press? Sexually assault the suspect in maximally degrading ways? Sexually assault the suspect's children, wife, mother? Beat the suspect's loved ones? Shoot out knee-caps? Force the suspect to step into a rusty bear trap? Amputation of limbs by rusty saw?

I think it would be of genuine interest to know how candidates stand on that question.

It seems to me there is a rather easy answer to this "ticking time bomb scenario," one that has been suggested before. Why can't the President, under such exceptional circumstances, issue a pardon to protect the interrogator from legal retribution? This is precisely what the pardon power is for. In such a case, the President would responsibly review the facts, and determine that the interrogator was acting in good faith under the exigencies of a ticking time bomb scenario, and notwithstanding the fact that he broke laws prohibiting torture, he achieved a larger good. The President, not the agent acting in good faith, deserves to take the brunt of any political, legal, or moral doubts.

This should satisfy all sides, it seems to me: the US actually forbids and disavows torture, seeks its elimination worldwide, denounces it, and denies its legitimacy. And yet the fanciful "ticking time bomb scenarios" are covered.

Why isn't that the answer?

This is America! And I'm going to say it: 'Terrorism Does Not Frighten Me'

A bomb scare disrupted my commute home yesterday, and the experience confirmed my overall take on the so-called war on terror: that it is mostly bullshit, and trending to completely.

Even as this bomb threat was unfolding around me, coming in the form of a vaguely minatory voice-over from the MAX operator's intercom telling us that police had closed down parts of the MAX line, and that we would have to deboard the train in favor of shuttle buses that would take us on a wide arc around the supposed danger, I felt nothing approximating fear. I didn't have any monitors attached, but I am quite sure that my heart rate and brain wave patterns would have registered absolutely no distress.

Nor was this the first time. I recall the many changes in hue to the terrorism chameleon during Kerry v. Bush campaign in summer 2004. Those felt phony at the time, and I've seen nothing subsequently to cause me to re-think that original impression. But from watching the evening news and listening to the endless pronouncements from the floor of Congress and the campaign podiums, I gather I'm supposed to be wetting myself from fear of terrorism, but I'm just not, not even when it arrives in the form of a specific threat that local officials consider credible, not even when I'm carried to the very edge of it. I don't consider them credible, and still less do I consider the federal authorities, especially the self-styled Decider, credible on these matters. They're selling but I am not buying. If they're proven right in the form of a mushroom cloud over downtown America, then I am absolutely sure expressions of opinion like this one will be seized upon with much told-you-so glee, but I'm not holding my breath.

When it comes to this so-called war on terror, I believe in the reality of what I actually see: a costly quagmire in Iraq, vast sums of money changing hands, inexhaustible stores of rhetoric, endless invocations of dangers for which no credible evidence is produced, and a new political raison d'etre to replace the raison d'etre that vanished with the Red Menace. The span of time between 1989, when communism finally died, and September 2001, when a new "existential threat" appeared, was evidently a bleak time marked by much groping around in the dark. They tried the war on drugs (remember when Noriega was going to destroy Cincinnati if we didn't act fast?), and they tried the war on BJ's (Bill Clinton's sex drive came this close to unraveling this republic), and they tried a handful of other schemes and bogeymen, but nothing really felt right until terrorism came along. Now it's all certain entire political parties want to talk about -- well, that and homosexuality.

I don't feel it. I don't deny there are malicious extremists in the world, but I think terrorism is a tactic of only a fraction of them, and I think the war on terror enthusiasts give them too much credit and overestimate their powers. Vigilance against faith-based extremism is wise and necessary, but security consists in tending to actual threats in proportion to the evidence and the foreseeable consequences, not in harping on easily-grasped phantasms and dramatic hypotheticals.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

This is [Secular] America! And I'm going to say it: 'Merry Christmas!'

I'm an atheist but I observe Christmas without hesitation. It's a time of year when certain songs are played, certain movies and tee-vee specials are shown, certain foods are served, certain color schemes are favored, certain stories are repeated (public and private) -- and I like this. I enjoy the time off and the smell of Christmas trees, and within reasonable limits, I even enjoy gift shopping.

These days, I get to remember my youthful enthusiasm for Christmas through my son's eyes, and watch the experiences that will become his memories, and that makes it fun all over again.

My Christmas dislikes are both mild and unoriginal: I dislike the excess of consumerism, I resent seeing overt Christmas-themed advertising before Thanksgiving, I hate the stresses associated with mandatory family togetherness, and I tire of the fretting over retail sales numbers that get inserted into every news broadcast. Sometimes the mood I happen to be in is a poor fit for the overall tenor of the Christmas spirit, and sometimes this mood persists for days. And I have no use for eggnog or fruit cakes.

Whatever my small grudges about Christmas, they have nothing to do with religion. I freely say "Christmas" and "Merry Christmas," although I also shift between those and the supposedly ecumenical "holidays" and "happy holidays" according to whimsy. I don't dwell on the etymology, "Christ" + "mas," and I don't worry over whether I'm accidentally ingesting Jesus cooties by using the wrong words.

The true origins and history of the holiday barely enter my thinking, and don't strike me as particularly interesting. Whatever Christmas's origins, the combination of public and private meanings attached to it have developed according to no one's conscious plan, and will continue to do so. Christmas is what it is, and most of us like most of it, but we also choose what we love about it and what we put away. The Christians who want to "take it back" to some ideal, or box it in to some orthodoxy, are fooling themselves -- and they're boring the rest of us. And I can't think of any reason to let them spoil a perfectly good holiday, or even to speak of Christmas as though it is theirs to take back. It now belongs to everyone.

I think there's a lesson here for the Christianists, one that those of us in favor of keeping church separate from state have been pointing out from the start: you might succeed in forcing your symbols into the public square, and maybe even at taxpayer expense. But after they're in everyone's constant line of sight, you can't control what the symbols mean. You should be prepared for the meanings to take their own course, and you can expect not to like the results if you actually do care about the symbols. So be careful what you ask for.

And Merry Christmas.

Christmas Shall Never Surrender

Christianists and assorted wackos can now fight for their side in the War on Christmas by purchasing the Christmas Defense Kit from WorldNetDaily, the web's leading provider of batshit crazy right-wing nonsense.

The kit is actually just a few bumper stickers that turn a car's exterior into a cry of the rage and victimization decent people feel over the way Christmas has been waterboarded by secularism. The stickers offer these sharp words to the anti-Christmas crowd:

This is America! And I'm going to say it: 'Merry Christmas!'

It is STILL a wonderful life – Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas! An American Tradition
If your car isn't issuing a defiantly Churchillian vow to fight for Christmas on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills by next Thursday, the terrorists have already won and you hate the troops.

Poem of the Day: "The Laziest Son"

This is not usually the sort of poem that grabs me, and I would not describe myself as a Rumi fan, but having come across this poem on Harpers.org, and then having read Scott Horton's fine commentary on it, its relevance and depth is pretty unmistakeable. This is certainly not the first time that critical commentary has increased my interest in a creative work, which is one reason I appreciate book and film reviews. I think artists and critics need each other.

Rumi, "The Laziest Son"

A man on his deathbed left instructions
For dividing up his goods among his three sons.
He had devoted his entire spirit to those sons.
They stood like cypress trees around him,
Quiet and strong.
He told the town judge,
“Whichever of my sons is laziest,
Give him all the inheritance.”

Then he died, and the judge turned to the three,
“Each of you must give some account of your laziness,
so I can understand just how you are lazy.”

Mystics are experts in laziness. They rely on it,
Because they continuously see God working all around them. The harvest keeps coming in, yet they
Never even did the plowing!

“Come on. Say something about the ways you are lazy.”

Every spoken word is a covering for the inner self.
A little curtain-flick no wider than a slice
Of roast meat can reveal hundreds of exploding suns.
Even if what is being said is trivial and wrong,
The listener hears the source. One breeze comes
From across a garden. Another from across the ash-heap.
Think how different the voices of the fox
And the lion, and what they tell you!

Hearing someone is lifting the lid off the cooking pot.
You learn what’s for supper. Though some people
Can know just by the smell, a sweet stew
From a sour soup cooked with vinegar.

A man taps a clay pot before he buys it
To know by the sound if it has a crack.

The eldest of the three brothers told the judge,
“I can know a man by his voice,
and if he won’t speak,
I wait three days, and then I know him intuitively.”

The second brother, “I know him when he speaks,
And if he won’t talk, I strike up a conversation.”

“But what if he knows that trick?” asked the judge.

Which reminds me of the mother who tells her child
“When you’re walking through the graveyard at night
and you see a boogeyman, run at it,
and it will go away.”

“But what,” replies the child, “if the boogeyman’s
Mother has told it to do the same thing?
Boogeymen have mothers too.”

The second brother had no answer.

“I sit in front of him in silence,
And set up a ladder made of patience,
And if in his presence a language from beyond joy
And beyond grief begins to pour from my chest, I know that his soul is as deep and bright
As the star Canopus rising over Yemen.
And so when I start speaking a powerful right arm
Of words sweeping down, I know him from what I say,
And how I say it, because there’s a window open
Between us, mixing the night air of our beings.”

The youngest was, obviously,
The laziest. He won.

* * *
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

Or cultural system. I am not from the East
Or the West, not out of the ocean or up

From the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
Composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

Am not an entity in this world or the next,
Did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

Origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
Of the traceless. Neither body nor soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
Worlds as one and that one call to and know,

First, last, outer, inner, only that
Breath breathing human being.

There is a way between voice and presence
Where information flows.

In disciplined silence it opens,
With wandering talk it closes.

In Praise of Mostly Cloudy


This morning offered beautiful conditions for running, and by beautiful I mean chilly, rainy, and windy enough to clear the pathways of all the people with common sense. Only the very most devoted of us were out there, which is probably for the best since visibility was negligible and we needed a wide berth.

Oregon weather has returned. See that sunny day at about the fourth day out on the 10-day trend? That's not part of the actual forecast -- that's permanently embedded in this reusable graphic to give sun-loving people a sense of false hope. In fact there will be no sunny day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Why Are Atheists Angry?

Well, we're not necessarily angry, but we do have plenty of reason to be, as brilliantly laid out by Greta Christina on her blog. Oh this is good -- bookmark this one and return to it any time you wonder what's bugging those doggone atheists.

Senator Larry Craig: A=Not A

Senator Larry Craig, who is not gay and has never been gay, who "doesn't do those things" that some gay men do in public restrooms to solicit sex, who was just kidding or confused or a victim of the blogosphere when he issued a guilty plea to "those things," who intends to resign from the Senate by the end of September 2007, and so on, has added a new lie to the pile: "I don't use the Internet."

Craig clarified his non-use of the internet by adding "I e-mail with my Blackberry."

Well, OK. At least there's this: e-mailing with your Blackberry is to not using the internet what soliciting gay sex in an airport crapper is to not being gay, so it would be going too far to say that logic doesn't apply. A kind of logic is at work here.

Star Wars Lives!

George Lucas has announced that he is developing a TV series based on Star Wars storyline, one that will be set in a time well before the settings of the films. As a complete sucker for Star Wars, and the father of another, I will grant this a provisional benefit of the doubt and plan to tune in, but I issue the following caveats:

a. There shall be no Gunguns, or whatever the hell Jar Jar Binks was. Not one. Ever. I actually find it insulting to have to point that out, but it must be said.

b. The villains should speak. No more Darth Mauls light-sabering their way through unexpressed rage. Give them lines!

c. The villains should have names and titles that aren't stupid. No self-respecting empire ever calls itself an empire; they always claim they're on a democratizing, or at least a civilizing, mission. And they don't call their creed "the dark side" -- they call it "the way, the truth, and the light" or "the narrow path" or "the one true faith" or "the other white meat" or the like. Please, grant them a little sophistication. Even when a tyrant is starting a disastrous war based on lies or shooting an old man in the face he still insists on the purity of his intentions.

d. No Muppets. Ever.

e. Please tread carefully if you decide to use a youthful version of Yoda. First, observe rule (d) above. Second, don't feel as though everything he says or does needs to allude to the films. Let us see Yoda in the bloom of youth, using his powers to embarrass teachers, pull pranks on neighbors, and seduce female, um, whatever you call members of the Yoda species.

f. See (a) and (d). Repeat as necessary.

New Developments in Jesus

Was Jesus a white man? Or an olive-skinned man? Or a black man? These debates have raged for years.

Consumerism has a novel answer to throw into the mix: Jesus was made in China, but he spoke in English.

The Conservative I'd Vote For


Stephen Colbert is running for President, and I will vote for him. Twice! Twice in every state in which I am registered!

His 2006 monologue at the White House Correspondents Dinner was the best instance of political satire since ... Mark Twain? Jonathan Swift? Aristophanes? Forever? Dear god it was good. Here's my favorite of many favorites:

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!
Daily Kos has a link to the complete transcript, and it's probably all over Youtube. Brilliant.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A God Who Cuts Both Ways

Against a backdrop where elements of the US military are actively involved in using the chain of command to push Christianity, the predictable push-back has occurred: a soldier has gotten himself removed from combat duty by cherry-picking the wrong teachings of Jesus, namely, the ones in favor of loving rather than gunning down one's enemies.

I think loving one's enemies is suicidal, but hey, that's what the guy on the cross told his followers to do when they're not drinking his blood, eating his flesh, abusing the money-changers, and giving no thoughts to the morrow. Then, so the story continues, he proved his point by walking right back out of his burial cave and ascending to heaven.

Santa Claus entered the story much later, but I digress.

The USA v. "Old Europe": More Heresies


Here is very informative article by Dean Baker and Dean Schmitt about inequality, productivity, living standards and how the USA compares with European nations on these measures. The USA's approach -- minimal welfare state, endless obsession with reducing taxes, trickle-down nostrums, etc. -- looks great on paper (I gather) but doesn't actually produce better outcomes than its European counterpart. But of course, I refer to the world of actual reality in which human beings live and participate in economies, not to the world of economics textbooks and Cato Institute press releases, so take that for what it's worth.

The graph above (source) shows how per-hour productivity in France compares with per-hour productivity in the USA (the vertical axis represents French productivity as a percentage of US productivity). The French are doing pretty well, it would seem, despite their -- please gird yourself for this terrifying word -- socialist health care system in which people don't face bankruptcy for getting sick, don't have to weigh the risk of losing health insurance when changing jobs, and otherwise fail to live by Chicago School fables.

While I am already risking Mammon's wrath, I am choosing to revert to calling them "french fries" instead of "freedom fries." In for a penny, in for a pound.

The Trouble with Death Cults


Aside from the noxious notion that a person can be absolutely justified by holding a particular set of opinions, nothing more thoroughly indicts Christianity than the following, which appears on page 17 of The Kid's Guide to Understanding the End Times written by eschatology vendors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins:

The sad truth is that the worst days in world history are yet to come ... but if you understand prophecy, you don't have to worry. You have a place in God's plan ... Students of prophecy don't dread what's ahead because we know the One who holds the future.
In other words, don't worry or fret about the fate of the world; in fact, don't lift a finger except to page through Bible verses this book cherry-picks and interprets for you. The world and mankind are doomed, and hope lies solely in developing a "personal relationship" with a personage as contradictorily described in works conceived, transcribed, edited, translated and retranslated by bronze age primitives.

This is lazy fatalism dressed up as pious hope. As a lesson passed from adults to children, this is irresponsibility of the highest order. It is also a correct summary of Christianity: Jesus explicitly instructed his followers to give no thought to the morrow.

We should be glad that this is one of many backward teachings that countless people, including many who wanted to consider themselves devout followers of Jesus, have shrugged off in favor of common sense, rigorous learning, and every form of mental exertion inbetween. Every inch that humanity has advanced beyond the bronze age flows from the repudiation of this teaching -- from a desire to solve problems here and now, and with eyes firmly on the morrow, to solve problems to come, using the best available methods, tools, and ideas.

Monday, October 15, 2007

I Was Put Up To It


NerdTests.com says I'm a Kinda Dorky High Nerd.  What are you?  Click here!

I am powerless to resist web-based quizzes.

Of Death and Cults

Responding to a previous post, Domestically Challenged comments

Now, my innate drive to understand human nature is chomping at the bit to know why you call that specific institution a "Death Cult" ... the Catholic Church is more of a fabrication cult than one of death, at least in my mind...
First, I can't claim credit for being first to use this term to label the Catholic Church or Christianity in general. I don't have a proper attribution except to say it's a term of abuse I've seen and heard "floating around" the culture and I picked it up.

That said, I chose to pick it up because I think it fits. Christianity is the institutionalization of a tale in which god gets his son killed. "Death cult" strikes me as apt every time I walk into a church and see the big gleaming, dripping reproduction of the crucified Jesus at the focal point of the space, and the impression is deepened, indeed hammered in forcefully (so to speak), when I watch the film that is the overwhelming favorite of every Christian of every denomination, The Passion of the Christ. Brian Flemming's film The God Who Wasn't There gives a superb overview of the fetishization of pain and death that underlies the film's success among true believers.

Sure, Christianity proposes eternal life, but it also and equally proposes eternal death in hell, underscoring the idea of death several times and scrawling a long series of exclamation points.

This is not to say Christianity is the only death cult. It isn't. Islam has its murdering martyrs and a similar fixation on the death-and-then-some that it so enthusiastically foretells for non-believers.

Of course it goes deeper than all this: Nietzsche hated Christianity for essentially these reasons -- for the way it inverts values, torments the mind, and reviles the body. He had much to say about it, including this (which could apply just as well to Islam):
Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life's nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in "another" or "better" life.