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Entries for February 2009

February 27, 2009

Telling your religious loved ones that you are an atheist

One of the questions that came up at the Ask an Atheist forum was how to break the news that one has become an atheist to those religious people close to you, especially family members, whom you think might be upset.

I get this question quite a lot and usually counsel people that there is really little to be gained by gratuitously announcing to everyone within earshot that one is an atheist. So at the forum, I privately told one questioner who was worried about how his much-loved grandmother would react that there was no need to tell her. What's the point? Even I, who have been aggressively making the case for atheism on this blog, only raise the issue in private when people ask me about it or the topic of religion comes up and I think the information is relevant.

Over the course of time, many of my relatives got to know of my atheism by word of mouth from those who have read my blog or talked to me. This was a source of surprise to them given my more-than-average religiosity before, and they would ask me about it and I would discuss it freely with them. Many of my extended family and friends found many of my arguments plausible and made them reconsider some of their own beliefs. It surprised me how many of them would then hesitantly admit to doubts about their own beliefs, things they had kept suppressed for a long time and not shared with fellow believers. Encountering a nonbeliever they knew personally seemed to provide them with a license to think about things they had hitherto suppressed out of a sense that such thoughts were inappropriate or even evil. Sad, isn't it, that religion makes people fearful of even thoughts?

The one person with whom I did not discuss the issue at all was with my own mother. She was a firm believer in god. I knew her faith was important to her and I did not want to needlessly concern her about the future of my soul so I avoided the topic and she never raised it with me, although we were close and talked freely about almost everything else.

My mother was a very open-minded and tolerant person who believed that religion called on people to be good to others, not to judge their worthiness for heaven. My silence about my atheism was not due to fears that she would be angry or offended. I knew she would accept me whatever my beliefs. Because she lived in Sri Lanka and we met in person only occasionally and she did not use computers, I was confident that she did not know about my giving up on the faith she so valued even though I was a bit surprised that she never discussed my religious beliefs when we met. I thought that she died last year still thinking I was a Christian.

Hence it was a surprise when my sister (with whom my mother lived in Sri Lanka) told me last week that my mother had known about my atheism all along. Apparently my sister would print out the more interesting blog items, including the ones advocating atheism, and give them to her to read. I asked my sister what my mother's reaction had been and she said that my mother simply said that my disbelief was probably caused by my scientific outlook and she could understand that, though her own faith was unshaken. My mother's views about me as a person remained the same.

So while I was wrong about my mother's state of ignorance about my beliefs, I was not wrong about the way she would react to the news. She probably did not raise the topic directly with me in order to prevent me from being embarrassed at denying to her face the things she believed in. That was just like her. I must say that I was pleased at my sister's news. It was nice to have it confirmed that what I believed had no affect my mother's feelings towards me.

I suspect that my story is not unusual. Close family members of most atheists will be just as accepting because for most people the emotional bonds that connect people to each other are far stronger than the ones that people try to have with a distant, unseen, unheard, unfelt, and uncaring god. It is just best for them to learn about one's atheism indirectly or gradually, so that they get used to the idea at their own pace, rather than jarring them by making a grand announcement.

POST SCRIPT: Great poem

I am not a big fan of poetry of any kind, but this terrific nine-minute beat poem called Storm by Tim Minchin, about his encounter at a dinner party with someone who spouts the anti-science nonsense spawned by religion and other beliefs in the supernatural, is a must-listen. (Thanks to Chaz for the link. Language advisory.)

February 26, 2009

Holding god to a lower standard

If I fall in a public place, I know from past experience that the strangers around me will try and help me up and ask if I am ok. As far as I know, no law can compel someone to go to the aid of someone else in distress, especially if the action might put the rescuer at some risk. But so strong and universal is the impulse to help others in immediate danger that most people instinctively do it without thinking of the consequences.

There have been some well-publicized cases of people not coming to the aid of another person but such behavior is so unusual that it has merited study and the usual reason is that when there is a group of bystanders involved, as opposed to a single person, inaction often results from each person expecting someone else to take action. But the impulse to help was still there.

Suppose for example, a car was backing up and it was clear that that driver did not see a small child in its path. If a person were in a position to either alert the driver or pluck the child to safety. I am confident that everyone except a true sociopath would act to save the child.

If we saw someone in danger, while we may not be able to do anything practical other than calling for help from others better able to do so, all of us would think it inexcusable to do absolutely nothing, to go on our way as if the plight of the person were none of our concern. Although no legal penalties would attach to such inaction, the social disapproval would be immense. And this disapproval would be much greater if we could have done something at little risk or cost to us.

Unfortunately in our litigious society, some of the targets of such altruistic assistance have sometimes sued the people trying to help them if their good intentions resulted in inadvertent harm, and it has become necessary to pass Good Samaritan laws to protect health care workers and other rescuers from such reprisals, provided the rescuer uses reasonable and prudent measures. Such laws have thus removed another reason for inaction.

It would not help for the offending unhelpful person to give as an excuse that the death of the child due to the backing up car was pre-ordained and meant to serve some greater good, and that he did not want to mess with this cosmic plan. No one would buy his argument, even if he were to quote the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius who said, "Does aught befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the Universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web." While appeals to some inscrutable cosmic purpose are often invoked in a time of tragedy, the tragedies are rarely asserted to be good things in themselves, and claiming so risks the ire of the person who is suffering the loss.

This raises an interesting contrast. If a person should suffer an untimely death, some say it is all part of god's plan, and that is accepted as a good reason. But at the same time we say that if a human being can prevent a death but fails to do so, then that person is committing an evil. It is not a defense for that person to argue that there was a higher purpose for not acting.

So whenever tragedy strikes, while we would not approve of the inaction of someone who could have helped another because he thought he was acting according to some grand cosmic plan, religious people are only too willing to accept that excuse when the agent of inaction is god.

The reason is that while religious people can accept that people are not good, they start out with the assumption that god is good, even though there is no evidence to support that position. This requires them to hold god to a lower standard of goodness than they hold their fellow human beings.

In support of this double standard, religious apologists may argue that god is the only one who knows everything and thus is the only one who can truly invoke the 'great web' escape clause. Human beings are not privy to perfect knowledge and so must help others just to be on the safe side. But that argument, like all such excuses for god, will only persuade those who want to be persuaded. After all, the offending person can respond that if god had wanted him to help the person in danger, then he would have made him want to help. The fact that god did not induce that feeling in him means that god did not want him to help and so the whole tragedy must have been part of the great web.

But whether applied to a human or god, the 'great web' excuse is still silly, platitudinous, and fatalistic nonsense. The appropriate response to its use is that of Bertie Wooster in The Mating Season when Bertie was once again deep in a pickle and there seemed to be no way out and when Jeeves tries to console him by quoting Marcus Aurelius's words to him. The agitated Bertie responds, "He said that did he? Well, you can tell him from me he's an ass."

POST SCRIPT: Jesus the racist

For those who are not familiar with the origin of the phrase 'Good Samaritan', it comes from a story Jesus told about our obligation to help others in distress, and that a 'neighbor' is anyone who comes to another's aid (Luke 10: 29-37).

In the story, a man was robbed and beaten by assailants and left for dead by the side of the street. A priest and a Levite, both privileged members of society, come along but they do not stop to help the injured man and even cross to the other side of the street to avoid him. It was a person from the despised Samaritan community who, at considerable time and expense to himself, comes to the victim's aid.

The BBC comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look puts Jesus' telling of the Good Samaritan story in a somewhat different light.

February 25, 2009

Macs and the Devil

The second annual Ask an Atheist forum on February 5 was quite well attended. There were four of us on the panel answering questions. One question dealt with how it came to be that each of us did not believe in god's existence, and the answers were pretty much the same, that although we had all been brought in religious families, we each realized at some point that it was silly to believe in something which violated all the laws of science and for which there was no evidence.

During my answer, I said that I was somewhat embarrassed that I had arrived at this realization so late in life (in my thirties) while my fellow panelists, two of whom were students, had figured this out while still in their teens. It still amazes me that I did not come to my realization sooner. After all, I had atheist friends in my teens and we argued about god and religion. But their arguments did not convince me then and that makes me wonder how I could have been so oblivious for so long.

I think I have discovered the answer. My atheism was caused by Mac computers.

I began disbelieving in the mid-1980s, around the same time that the Apple Macintosh computers were introduced. I remember the sense of excitement about using the first Macs when they came out in 1984 when Drexel University installed a lab of them and I had so much fun with them. I immediately realized that these were the computers I wanted to use, even though I did not get my own until 1989.

My realization that Macs were the true causes of my conversion to atheism was triggered by this page of the website of an outfit called Objective Ministries that clearly lays out the case of how Apple is the agent of Satan. Little did I know that I was being seduced by the revolutionary new 'point and click' operating system into giving up my god-fearing ways, whereas my young fellow panelists had grown up in the age of Macs and thus were indoctrinated much earlier in their lives.

So it is clear that the Macintosh line of computers is deliberately turning people to atheism. This raises an interesting question. If Macs are the tools of the Devil, is Steve Jobs the anti-Christ? Does that make Bill Gates the second coming of Jesus? The incomprehensibility of the old DOS operating system does remind one of religious doctrine. Is Armageddon already here, except that the fight is over market share for personal computers?

Actually, the Objective Ministries website linking Macs to the Devil is a parody but is so well done that initially I was fooled and thought it was real, yet another product of the paranoia of religious people seeing dark plots against religion in all kinds of unlikely places. Another page on this same site that also initially fooled me says that Objective Ministries is seeking to launch an expedition to find living pterosaurs in order to disprove the theory of evolution which says that humans and dinosaurs did not live contemporaneously. It was only when I started researching into who "Dr. Richard Paley" was and the "Fellowship University" where he supposedly taught something called "theobiology" that I discovered the truth.

That I was almost completely taken in by these hoaxes is because religious websites are often so weird and illogical in their message that it is hard to distinguish the real thing from a clever parody. The websites of the religious are so irrational as to make ripe targets for parodists and some are having a lot of fun doing so.

Not all seeming parodies are really so. The website of the Westboro Baptist Church is so over-the-top in its anti-gay bile that it seems like a parody. But the numbers of real people it gets out for its demonstrations seem to suggest that it is either real or has a huge numbers of performance artists working for it for a long time, which seems unlikely. Similarly the counting down to Armageddon of the Rapture Ready site is not known as a parody but its premise is so absurd that it would not surprise me if it was.

Conservapedia is not a parody (as far as I know) but its Wikipedia-modeled open editing platform has led to suspicions that many of the entries are by parodists actually mocking religion, while seeming to be earnest supporters of its 6,000 year old world view.

Although the cover of Objective Ministries has not been completely blown yet, there are some well-known parodies of religious websites that are fun even though, and perhaps because, you know they are parodies. Jesus' General, Landover Baptist Church, Betty Bowers, America's Best Christian, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are some examples.

But coming back to the issue of the link between atheism and computer preference, Objective Ministries may be on to something, when it asserts in jest that there is a correlation, even a weak one, between using a Mac and religious disbelief. One interesting study might be to see if Mac users are more likely to be unbelievers than Windows or Linux users. Maybe the Pew Research Center should add this question when it conducts its next survey of the religious beliefs of people.

POST SCRIPT: Cookie Monster does not quite get the library concept


February 24, 2009

Making excuses for god

One of the negative consequences of not pointing out the irrationality of religious beliefs out of a misplaced desire to not give offense is that it allows them to make absurd statements that in any other context would be greeted with incredulity. Over time, they may not even realize that they are saying things that are absurd.

Take for example, this news report about the plane that crashed into a house near Buffalo last week, tragically killing fifty people (sent to me by reader Lisa):

Two people escaped the destroyed house and neighboring homes went unscathed.

"It's hard to make sense of it today but God hasn't left us. Two of three people that were in the home that the plane landed on miraculously escaped. A couple people missed the flight and saved their lives," New York Governor David Paterson told a news conference.

"So we just take what little we can and move forward."

Because two people in the home fortunately escaped death and two others missed their flight, the governor of New York says that "God hasn't left us". God hasn't left us? What does that even mean? That god was on vacation somewhere and rushed back to avert the tragedy but only got back in time to save a few people? That god is somewhat absent-minded and can't keep track of everything and so overlooked the fact that a plane was crashing until the last minute? Or is so overwhelmed with things to do and could only spare the lives of a few people?

What explains the fact that the chief executive of New York, the most powerful elected official in the state, can freely make a statement that is not only absurd and meaningless on its face but also cruelly insensitive to the loved ones of those who died, implying that god had better things to do than save them? How can a person entrusted with dealing rationally with real problems affecting so many people make such a clearly meaningless and delusional statement without eliciting any protest whatsoever?

The reason is precisely because many people share Paterson's delusion, and the rest have been conditioned to think that it is impolite to point out the absurdity of his statement (and the belief system that underlies it) because of the mistaken 'respect for religion' trope. You can speak utter tripe but as long as you put the word god somewhere in there in a positive or exculpatory light, you are safe from criticism. Even the people who were bereaved by the accident will refrain from pointing out that the logical implication of Paterson's statement is that god wanted their own loved ones to die.

While I was irritated at the cruel insensitivity of Paterson's remarks, I wondered if the bereaved people in such situations are also secretly outraged by such statements but are intimidated by the 'respect for religion' trope and thus remain silent, or if they too have been so brainwashed that they are willing to accept the weird idea that this kind of appalling tragedy is all part of a loving and benevolent god's mysterious plan, and that god targeting their loved ones for an untimely death serves some noble purpose.

The reason that Paterson can cavalierly say these things is because such idiotic statements are never questioned since the delusion he suffers from is widespread. It is the kind of thing that is repeatedly said and we have come to think of as making sense. As author Robert M. Pirsig said, "When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion." (quoted in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 5)

The reason that most of us do not say out loud everything that pops into our heads is that we screen them first to see if they make sense. But because vacuous religious statements have not been criticized, over time the habit of screening them seems to have atrophied. Religious believers have been given the benefit of being allowed to say absurd things without any consequence. As a result, such statements multiply and become even more delusional over time, which is why religions have become towering edifices of irrational beliefs, houses of cards that have to be carefully shielded from the winds of skepticism. The fact that they have lasted so long is a testament to the triumph of religion as a propaganda system.

It would be good if more and more people do not accept the idea that pointing out delusional thinking is intolerant or impolite. Then we can keep blowing at those houses of cards, and eventually they will fall down.

POST SCRIPT: Fry and Laurie on different views of madness


February 23, 2009

Portrayals of the developing world

So Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture, Best Director, and a slew of other awards at the Academy Awards last night. I have not seen the film, but have been thinking recently about the way that the developing world is portrayed in western culture.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the much-hailed book Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. I had been hearing about this book and its anniversary for some time but did not read it until last month. It tells the story of one man but that story is merely the pillar to wrap other things around, mainly to describe the structure of life in a small Nigerian village as the British colonists, led by missionaries, start to make inroads into that country around the beginning of the twentieth century. Much of the book describes the traditional life and practices and religious beliefs of the villagers and what happens to their culture with the arrival of the colonialists and their new ways and religion.

I could see its appeal to some readers in the West. They would find interesting and amusing the superstitions of the villagers described in the book, with its many examples of how 'primitive' people believe the most absurd things about omens and the like. It would never strike such readers that their own religious beliefs are as absurd as those of the villagers. This is because they do not apply the same rigor to their own familiar and comfortable religious beliefs as they would to those that are unfamiliar to them.

I did not particularly care for the book. There is a genre of books that deal with the developing world that I am finding increasingly annoying. Another novel is The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton that deals with the efforts of a New Yorker to set up a mobile library using camels to take books to remote villages in Africa. The third is a non-fiction memoir Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin which described the heroic efforts of Mortenson to build schools in the remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

All these books tread the well-worn path of contrasting the affluent sectors of the developed world with the poverty-stricken life of the rural poor in the developing world, and thus may reinforce the misperception that the developing world is made up entirely of poor and illiterate and backward people. Although these books are well-meaning and sympathetic to the people they portray, they ignore the fact that although such deplorable conditions exist, the developing is also comprised of very modern cities and advanced technological societies.

It is not uncommon that such books and films about the developing world are praised in the developed world but are often disliked by those living in those countries. For example there have been protests in India over the film Slumdog Millionaire, because it apparently only shows the worst slums of Bombay and not its other highly modern sectors. As I said, I have not seen the film and am dependent on the reports of those who have, so stand to be corrected.

I remember the first time I read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, hailed by critics as a masterpiece. I was appalled at the blatantly racist portrayals of Africans and could barely get through the book. Many years later, I re-read it. The shock and anger that the original reading had aroused in me had worn off and I could see and appreciate Conrad's skill with words in creating the deepening sense of foreboding as Marlow goes deeper into the jungle in search of Kurtz.

Ironically, Chinua Achebe gave a talk criticizing the book and saying that Conrad's novel, whatever its other merits, perpetuated African stereotypes. The talk attracted a lot of attention and Conrad's many admirers leapt to his defense, saying that Conrad was a product of his times and merely reflecting the views then current and that his book was actually a critique of the evils of colonialism.

Maybe so, but the racism was still there and still bothered me even on the second reading.

POST SCRIPT: The need for green spaces

If I were given some of the stimulus money to spend, I would use it to create lots more green spaces in the poorest neighborhoods and in the inner cities. I would tear down abandoned building and build parks and playgrounds, and plant trees and bushes and grass all over so that the people who live in those areas would be able to enjoy the outdoors. I would also sponsor concerts, sports leagues, and other cultural public events for the communities.

Some may see such things as luxuries, to be done only after basic needs like food and shelter and health care are met. That is a strong argument. But I think giving people pleasant neighborhoods to live in as a sign of the respect that we have for them, that they too deserve the finer things in life, and is an important aspect of people's sense of dignity.

And the two positions may not be as incompatible as they seem on the surface. Some studies indicate that creating green spaces reduces the health gap between people.

February 20, 2009

The 'bad atheist' strikes again

My post last week on religious faith versus scientific commitment to certainty generated some interesting comments that I started to respond to in the comments section but it got too long (my usual vice) and I decided to do a separate post on the topic.

In the comments, I was accused of wanting to 'banish' or 'abolish' religion and that this was intolerant, akin to those of Christian missionaries who went to Asia and Africa seeking to convert heathen and in doing so disparaged the indigenous beliefs of the people living there. My phrases "getting rid of religion is the goal" and "Religion, on the other hand, is purely a propaganda system and will only die if its weaknesses and its lack of any empirical basis are relentlessly pointed out" were quoted as examples of my lack of tolerance.

I must admit that I am puzzled by this accusation. Although I definitely have said that religion is more a force for evil than for good and that we would all be much better off without it, I have never advocated 'banishing' or 'abolishing' religion as those words imply using coercive measures. I am a strong advocate of the First Amendment, after all. But I am arguing that we should actively speak out about the vacuity of religious beliefs, just like we should argue against astrology, fortune telling, witchcraft, and all the other irrational belief systems that are used to exploit the gullible. I have argued that religious beliefs act as a kind of gateway drug to those other beliefs.

The charge of intolerance arises because religion has been quite successful in its attempt to stifle any discussion of its irrationality, in seeking to establish the idea that 'tolerance' for religion means not pointing out its flaws and campaigning against it, the way that this cartoon describes.

But all that tolerance requires is not persecuting people for their beliefs or forcing them to change. It does not, and should not, mean requiring the rest of us to act as if those beliefs made sense. People have the right to believe (and advocate for) any belief system they wish, however insane it may seem to the rest of us. They do not have the right to be shielded from critiques pointing out that their beliefs are crazy.

This accusation of intolerance also tends to be selective. Suppose I replaced religion in the offending quotes with (say) the word 'racism' (or sexism or homophobia) so that they read, "getting rid of racism is the goal" and "Racism, on the other hand, is purely a propaganda system and will only die if its weaknesses and its lack of any empirical basis are relentlessly pointed out". Would these statements still be seen as intolerant? Similarly, if I said that we should have as a goal "getting rid of" the terrible religious beliefs of (say) the Taliban by relentless arguing against it and pointing out all its flaws, would that be seen as intolerant?

I think not. In fact, I would likely be praised. But what is the essential difference? The difference, as I see it, is that most people view racism and sexism and homophobia and the Talibanic version of Islam as bad things, but religion in general (at least the mainstream varieties) as a good thing. So the accusation of intolerance is not about the attitude or the words used but about the perceived merits of their target.

It was also pointed out that people like gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. were both inspired by their religion and that if an earlier campaign against religion had been successful, then they would not have been the people they were and we would have been worse off.

The idea that an entire system of beliefs should be maintained and even supported because a few admirable people hold them is a dubious argument. Should we refrain from criticizing fascism as an idea because of the inspiration its philosophy received from composer Richard Wagner? Or refrain from criticizing imperialism because it inspired some of Rudyard Kipling's poetry?

The underlying premise of this argument is that if not for Martin Luther King Jr.'s Christian beliefs, he would not have fought the battles he fought and segregation in the USA would have continued forever. Ergo, Christianity is worthwhile. Similarly it is argued that Christianity gave rise to gospel music and if there had been no Christianity there would be no Mahalia Jackson. Ergo, Christianity is worthwhile. To bring these assumptions to the surface is to see how untenable they are.

So what if there were no gospel music? That would be unfortunate but music would still be there in its many varied forms. Suppose that we discovered a remote community that practiced child sacrifice and had produced a whole culture of beautiful music based on this practice, with their own equivalent of Mahalia Jackson. Would that require us to not criticize child sacrifice and call for its end?

I am perfectly willing to concede that if there had been no Christianity, maybe Mahalia Jackson or Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been the people they were. Or maybe they would have found inspiration from other sources, just like many other admirable people in history, because what they believed in or their natural gifts were too strong to be stifled. Most certainly there would have been other great fighters against racism and other great singers. To argue for the support and maintenance of a delusional belief system because those delusions produced a few exemplary people is not really an argument.

It all boils down to the fact that religious people want immunity from strong critiques of their beliefs, for atheists to adopt the policy that even if we think that religious beliefs make no sense, we mustn't say so publicly. But 'bad atheists' like me, not deterred by being "ill-thought of and ill-spoken of" (in John Stuart Mill's words), are simply not going along with that expectation.

POST SCRIPT: Psychic spoon bending

In this sketch by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry from their TV show, the Laurie character reacts in an aggrieved way when Fry points out some problems with his claims, not unlike the way that some religious people react when skeptics point out the problems with beliefs in god. Not having an answer based on evidence or reason, they resort to 'taking offense', in the hope that the natural desire of most people to avoid unpleasantness will cause them to refrain from pointing out the irrationality of religious beliefs.


February 19, 2009

The politics of food-9: Sustainable farming

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

For me, the most interesting part of the book (p. 190-237) was the section on sustainable farming, in particular what is known as 'grass farming'. Grass farmers grow animals for meat, eggs, milk, and wool. But the whole system is designed as a food chain based on grass. It is a surprisingly precise process, starting with understanding the life cycle of grass.

Grass has a growth cycle like an S-shaped curve, starting slowly, then rising rapidly and then leveling out after about fourteen days, depending on the season and the weather. The farmer has to know how long it takes for grass to reach its optimum height and then he allows cows to graze on that grass. The 80 cattle on Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia are allowed into a section of the pasture at the very top of the blaze of growth in that pasture. The cattle are allowed to take one bite but not allowed to take a second bite of the same pasture, in order to avoid overgrazing. This means that the amount of cows per unit area of pasture per day has to be strictly controlled. As soon as they have done their one-bite grazing, they are moved to the next paddock where the grass has also reached its optimum height and might be thigh-high. And so on.

To carry out this strategy, Salatin divides his pasture into several dozen paddocks of about one to five acres, depending on the season and the weather, since those things affect the rate of growth of grass.

As they graze, the cows spread and fertilize grass seed with their manure, and their hoof prints create little pockets of exposed soil for water to collect and germinate grass seeds. After the cattle leave, that section of pasture is then left alone for the grass to grow back and to enable worms and grubs to enrich the soil. The pasture is then visited by broiler chickens in 10'x12', two-foot tall floorless pens, that are moved every day by 10 ft. This enables the chickens to feed on the grubs and other life forms that have fattened on the rich soil left behind by the cows. Chickens also get some corn, toasted soybeans and kelp along with the grass they eat. Chicken feed is the only important input for the farm that is brought in from outside and constitutes about 20% of the chicken's diet.

The layer hens are also taken in a mobile henhouse called the Eggmobile housing 400 hens into a pasture three days after the cows have left, and they are let out into the pasture so that they can eat the fly larvae that have grown into grubs. These provide the chickens with protein. The chicken droppings fertilize and replenish the soil and help more grass growth.

Rabbits and turkeys and pigs are parts of similar cycles to ensure that nothing goes to waste.

So the whole process is a closed loop where the output/waste of one part of the cycle becomes the input for the next. This means that you cannot scale up one part alone. As Joel Salatin says:

In an ecological system like this everything's connected to everything else, so you can't change one thing without changing ten other things.

Take the issue of scale. I could sell a whole lot more chickens and eggs than I do. They're my most profitable items, and the market is telling me to produce more of them. Operating under the industrial paradigm, I could boost production however much I wanted – just buy more chicks and more feed, crank up the machine. But in a biological system you can never do just one thing, and I couldn't add many more chickens without messing up something else.

Here's an example: This pasture can absorb four hundred units of nitrogen a year. That translates into four visits of the Eggmobile or two passes of a broiler pen. If I ran more Eggmobiles or broiler pens over it, the chickens would put down more nitrogen than the grass could metabolize. Whatever the grass couldn't absorb would run off, and suddenly I have a pollution problem. (p. 213)

This is why farms like Salatin's are incompatible with giant organic chains like Whole Foods. The chains want to be able to purchase large but varying quantities according to the needs of the national market. On Salatin's farm, the needs of the environment determine the range and amount of food that he produces. Such farms end up catering to those members of the local community that care about how their food is produced.

The rise of farmer's markets and the locavore/localvore movement (consisting of people who try to buy food produced in the local area) are signs that people are becoming more conscious of their food. Some parts of the country cannot practice year-round agriculture making it hard for people to be fully locavore, but doing as much as they can is a start.

POST SCRIPT: Please support Antiwar.com

One of the best news and analysis sites around is Antiwar.com. Started during Bill Clinton's war in the Balkans, it has taken a consistent stand against the many wars that have been conducted, irrespective of the ideological labels attached to the protagonists. It has correctly identified the pro-war/pro-business single party nature of American politics and steadfastly opposed its war-like policies. Although the people behind the site are mostly libertarian-conservatives, as a result of its principled stand, the site has attracted support from people all over the political spectrum.

The site does not take advertising and depends on reader support. It is currently running a fund-raiser so please support it if you can.

February 18, 2009

The politics of food-8: The cost to animals and our health

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

In the previous post, it was pointed out that the reason that grain is fed to animals is that despite the energy inefficiency incurred, grain is cheap and animals fed on it gain weight about four times faster than they do if they are fed just grass. Every day, a corn fed steer converts 32 pounds of feed into four pounds of gain in the form of muscle, fat, and bone. (p. 80) Cows raised on grass take longer to reach slaughter mass (3 to 4 years) than cows raised on richer diets like corn (14-16 months). (p. 71).

But there is a big price that is paid for this faster growth. Corn-fed meat, although now touted by the advertising industry as some sort of high-quality, desirable product, is actually less healthy for us because it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than grass-fed animals. The recent studies warning of the dangers of eating beef are actually problems associated with corn-fed beef, not grass-fed beef.

Furthermore, cows are ruminants, which mean that they have evolved to be able to convert grass into protein via the rumens in their stomachs. Cows fed a diet of corn that they are not evolved to eat can get very sick in many ways and this has to be combated with antibiotics. (p. 78)

Pollan's description of what happens to animals kept and fed this way is chilling:

A concentrated diet of corn can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acid stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn renders it acidic, causing a kind of bovine heartburn that in some cases can kill the animal, but usually just makes him sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw and scratch their bellies, and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, rumenitis, liver disease, and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to the full panoply of feedlot diseases – pneumonia, coccidiosis, enterotoxemia, feedlot polio.

Cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days, which might be as long as their systems can tolerate…[A]nother vet told me the diet would eventually "blow out their livers" and kill them. (p. 78)

It is to deal with these problems that most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed, a process that is speeding up the evolution of new drug-resistant bacteria. (p. 78)

The need to force feed animals food they are not evolved to eat in conditions that are not natural to them result in the creation of these so-called 'feedlots' or Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), and these are not pretty places.

Pollans describes driving to one such CAFO called Poky Feeders and how the overpowering stench of it hit him long before he reached the pen. A total of 37,000 cattle were housed in cattle pens each holding a hundred or so animals standing or lying around "in a graying mud that, it eventually dawns on you, isn't mud at all." (p. 66)

Pollan points out how odd it is that food, which is so important to us, is sold purely on the basis of price. There is no reason that much more information about the history of our food could not be given to us so that we could make decisions based on other criteria as well. It would not be hard for the bar codes on our food packages to give information on the conditions under which the food has been produced, to enable consumers to make choices based on ethical values as well.

Supermarkets in Denmark have experimented with adding a second bar code to packages of meat that when scanned at a kiosk in the store brings up on a monitor images of the farm where the meat was raised, as well as detailed information on the particular animal's genetics, feed, medications, slaughter date, etc. (p. 244)

But this kind of increased information is being fought by governments and agribusinesses because if more people were aware of the conditions under which these animals were kept, they may rise up and demand improvements, even if they were not vegetarians or animal rights activists.

Most of the meat in our supermarket simply couldn't withstand that degree of transparency; if the bar code on the typical package of pork chops summoned images of the CAFO it came from, and information on the pig's diet and drug regiment, who could bring themselves to buy it? Our food system depends on consumers' not knowing much about it beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner. Cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. And it's a short way from not knowing who's at the other end of your food chain to not caring – to the carelessness of both producers and consumers. Of course, the global economy couldn't very well function without this wall of ignorance and the indifference it breeds. This is why the rules of world trade explicitly prohibit products from telling even the simplest stories – "dolphin safe," "humanely slaughtered," etc. – about how they were produced. (p. 244, 245)

ADM and Cargill keep their processing plants off-limits to outsiders, as do the big slaughterhouses. USDA regulations are designed for industrial food with its secretive closed facilities and actually hurt small farmers even though they are more transparent.

POST SCRIPT: Japan leading the way on cutting waste

Read how Japan is taking steps to reduce waste and the town of Kamikatsu has zero waste as its goal.

[The mayor of Kamikatsu] also says it was time to go against the tide of gauging wealth by the accumulation of more stuff. "We want to produce things that take into account what happens after it's used. If it can't be recycled in any way, then you can't produce it."

The town now has an 80-percent recycling rate, up from 55 percent 10 years ago. (The US national recycling rate is an average of about 34 percent, with some cities considerably higher.) The local hotel – where tourists arrive by the bus load to dip into baths fed by mountain hot springs – is heated with biomass burners, saving 7 million yen annually, or about $76,000, and reducing its CO2 emissions.

February 17, 2009

The politics of food-7: The energy equation

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One of the disturbing things about the industrial food chain system is its extensive use of energy, in the form of fertilizer and for transport. But in addition, the use of agricultural crops as animal feed also results in heavy energy use.

When corn is fed to chicken or a cow, 90 % of its energy is lost to bones, feathers, or to staying alive, so by eating corn-fed animals rather than corn directly, we have a factor of ten loss in energy efficiency. There is a pretty standard rule of thumb that for each rung you go up the food chain, you lose a factor of ten in energy. So if you eat an animal or fish that has itself eaten another animal or fish that ate plant food, you have gone two steps up the chain from the original plant source of energy and thus only 1% of that plant's energy comes to you. So, all other things being equal, getting one's calories from plants is the most efficient, which is why environmentalists urge people to eat 'low on the food chain'.

The reason that grain is fed to animals is that despite the energy inefficiency incurred, grain is cheap and animals gain weight about four times faster than they do if they are fed just grass. Every day, a corn fed steer converts 32 pounds of feed into four pounds of gain in the form of muscle, fat, and bone. (p. 80) Only half of that four pounds is in the form of edible meat. (p. 115) For chickens, two pounds of feed converts to one of meat.

But in addition, there is a lot of energy consumed in the food transportation system. For example, a one-pound box of pre-washed lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy. But "growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy." (p. 167) "Only a fifth of the total energy used to feed us is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around." (p. 183) This is part of the reason that the 'locavore' (or 'localvore') movement, that encourages people to eat food grown locally, is gaining ground as can be seen in this article by Selena Simmons-Duffin.

The use of fertilizers has, while increasing corn yield, had a negative impact on energy efficiency. Before the advent of chemical fertilizer, corn farms "produced more than two calories of food energy for every calorie of energy invested." Now "it takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food." (p. 46)

Furthermore, the use of corn to feed animals results in huge amounts of land being deforested just for this purpose, with negative impact on the contributions to greenhouse gases.

[I]f the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road . . . as much as a third of all greenhouse gases that human activity has added to the atmosphere can be attributed to the saw and the plow. (p. 198)

It is the availability of cheap energy that has enabled the extensive use of fertilizers and massive worldwide food transportation networks that can produce food at lower direct cost than that grown on sustainable farms locally, although the indirect costs to the environment and health is greater. But with the rise in oil prices, the balance may shift in favor of local sustainable farms.

POST SCRIPT: Israel and Palestine

Two good analyses of the current state of affairs in the Middle East by Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, who both rip through the official media narrative of the reasons for the appalling treatment by Israel of the Gazans in particular and the Palestinians in general, and get to the heart of the real reasons for that treatment. Well worth reading.

February 16, 2009

Religion as a gateway drug

In the February 2009 issue of Harper's magazine, Mark Slouka wrote:

One out of every four of us believes we've been reincarnated; 44 percent of us believe in ghosts; 71 percent, in angels. Forty percent of us believe God created all things in their present form sometime during the last 10,000 years. Nearly the same number—not coincidentally, perhaps—are functionally illiterate. Twenty percent think the sun might revolve around the earth. When one of us writes a book explaining that our offspring are bored and disruptive in class because they have an indigo "vibrational aura" that means they are a gifted race sent to this planet to change our consciousness with the help of guides from a higher world, half a million of us rush to the bookstores to lay our money down.

Is the fact that so many people believe such rubbish necessarily so bad that we need to actively work against them? What harm do they do?

This kind of argument surfaces all the time from people who recognize that religion and belief in god has no empirical basis whatsoever and is thus irrational but that we should indulge them because they make people feel good and is harmless.

I think we would all agree that what people believe is in all cases a private affair that does not do any harm and thus should be free from harassment. Our society is full of people who believe all manner of bizarre and unsubstantiated things and we leave them alone to live their lives. Our psychiatric wards are only reserved for those who are delusional in ways that make them imminently dangerous to others and perhaps themselves, and a humane society takes such people into its care so that they cannot act on their beliefs.

What people say should also be protected. Words, by themselves, cannot harm anyone and thus there can be no justification for restricting speech by and for adults, except for obviously dangerous things like falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.

So belief in angels or ghosts or reincarnation or auras or god are, by themselves, harmless. But the fact that something is harmless by itself does not mean that we should passively allow it to exist and even flourish. An open manhole in the middle of a street is harmless by itself. It is not an aggressor. If someone should fall into it, one can still say that it was not the open hole that was at fault but the person for not paying attention to where they were walking. But that does not mean we should not take steps to prevent unsuspecting people from accidentally falling into it.

Religious beliefs are like the open manhole. It is not their existence that is the danger but that they can be the cause of harm. They make it easier for some people to believe the voices in their head that tells them that god is commanding them to do various things, or believe that god is speaking though specially chosen people (like the Pope or Pat Robertson or one of the Ayatollahs) and that thus their words carry extra weight.

The danger with religion is that it is at best like the so-called 'gateway drugs' that can lure unsuspecting people into using more harmful and highly addictive drugs. Once people, at a very early age, are made to think that it is perfectly rational that there is an invisible, omnipresent, all-powerful being who can read everyone's mind simultaneously, talk to them with no on else hearing the voice, and take action in the world while evading all detection, then they have been primed to accept as plausible any and all beliefs, however bizarre, provided it is even vaguely compatible with their childhood indoctrination.

Angels, reincarnation, auras, and the like may be frowned on by Christian clergy and theologians but I suspect that most ordinary Christians think that they are within the broad framework of their beliefs. Notice that the official churches at most indulge in tut-tutting disapproval of these fringe beliefs and never go on a crusade to stamp them all out. How could they? Religious institutions know that there is little that separates them from what are commonly known as fringe beliefs: the spoon-benders, mind readers, psychics, faith healers, crystal-ball gazers, Tarot card readers, snake handlers, and the like. This is why they never aggressively campaign against them. What possible argument could they use that could not be turned against their own beliefs and reveal that their own dogmas are equally baseless?

During the last presidential campaign, many people had a lot of fun at the expense of Dennis Kucinich's admission that he had seen what he thought was a UFO. What a wacky guy! But if they were religious believers, all you had to do was ask them why that was any weirder than believing in a god, and you likely found that they were initially surprised (because the thought had never occurred to them) and then quickly changed the subject as they realized the indefensible position they were in.

All irrational beliefs exist together in a Pandora's Box. Open it even slightly with the intention of letting out only mainstream religious beliefs, and everything else also comes rushing out.

Since free and open thought and speech is a fundamental right and a good thing, this particular Pandora's Box should not be shut. Thus we really have only two consistent options: the rational position that while we should not suppress beliefs, we should actively campaign against all unsubstantiated beliefs and superstitions, which would necessarily include those of mainstream religions; or allow any and all beliefs to be unchallenged, and thus allow the evil and harmful ones to have the same level of approval as that of mainstream religions.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart had a farewell interview with George W. Bush

Will Ferrell as Bush w/Jon Stewart from Will Ferrell

February 13, 2009

Religious faith versus scientific commitment to certainty

All religions depend on a particular kind of faith, the belief in something in the absence of, and in fact counter to, credible evidence for its existence. Such an effort necessarily involves the suppression of doubt. When a person of one religion encounters someone from another, it is relatively easy to think that yours is the 'right' faith and the other person's is the 'wrong' one. The other person is not challenging the very act of faith, but just the details of your faith, and people in religiously plural societies are used to fending off such challenges.

This is why religious people often try to suggest that since atheists cannot prove that there is no god, believing that there is no god is as much an act of faith as believing in a god. They are trying to make it once again a contest of dueling faiths, comfortable terrain for religious people. Atheists should not fall for that rhetorical gambit.

When atheists use the words 'believe' and 'faith', they use them in the scientific sense of the word. Scientists realize that almost all knowledge is tentative and that one knows very few things for certain. But based on credible evidence and logical reasoning, one can arrive at firm conclusions about, and hence 'believe', many things, such as that the universe is billions of years old. Or one can have 'faith' in the laws of science that keep airplanes aloft.

The words faith and belief used in the scientific context merely represent an implicit acknowledgment of our lack of absolute certainty. Even though we cannot be 100% sure that the current laws of science are true, we have sufficient evidence to commit to certainty and thus have 'faith' (in the scientific sense) that they will not let us down. Otherwise we would be paralyzed, frozen into inaction, afraid to drive a car or step into a building or go by plane, fearful that everything would collapse around us.

This is in stark contrast to the way the same words are used by religious people. They not only have to have faith in the existence of things for which there is little or no evidence or reason, but even in spite of much evidence to the contrary, and defying reason.

As a consequence, the greatest challenge to faith is not a competing faith, but doubt. When persons of faith encounter an atheist, the calm assurance of the latter that god does not exists brings them face to face with their own suppressed doubts in a way that can be much more disconcerting than meeting an agnostic.

Philosopher David Hume said in his work On Miracles: "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish..." Astronomer Carl Sagan put it more succinctly: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

The claim that there exists an all-powerful, all-knowing entity that exists everywhere in space and time, can even read everyone's mind simultaneously, and yet is undetectable, is about as extraordinary a claim as one can imagine. Yet most people who believe in god do not have any evidence at all for this belief, let alone extraordinary evidence.

Believing in the existence of such a god requires faith in the religious sense, committing to certainty in spite of having no credible evidence or reason in support of that conclusion. Such a commitment is hard which is why religious people are always plagued by doubts. To try and overcome this problem, this deficiency is exalted into a noble virtue: the greater the lack of evidence or even reason for belief, the more the faith is lauded. This enables people suppress their ever-present doubts.

Believing that god does not exist requires faith in the scientific sense, committing to certainty based on overwhelming evidence and reason in support of that conclusion. Such a commitment is easy to make and we make such commitments all the time in our everyday life.

This is why religious people find atheists so disconcerting. Atheists are relaxed and confident about their commitment to disbelief in god in ways that religious people can never be about their own commitment to belief in god.

In Obama's inaugural speech he said that he wanted to "restore science to its rightful place." Applying scientific scrutiny and standards to all beliefs, including religious ones, might be a good place to start.

POST SCRIPT: Atheism on the move

The campaign to put ads on buses in London that said "There's probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy life" generated some publicity and spurred a similar campaign in Washington DC with a more muted message that said "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake." This also has generated some publicity.

These ads were relatively mild in their skeptical message but made me realize that it is not easy to come up with a simple slogan that expresses full-blown atheism in a pointed way that would also be eye-catching and thought-provoking and yet humorous. Any ideas, readers?

February 12, 2009

Darwin's religious legacy: Neutral or anti-god?

Today is the 200th birth anniversary of Charles Darwin, arguably the scientist whose work has had the greatest impact on human thought. This major anniversary comes at a time when religious groups, sensing the very real danger that his theory of evolution by natural selection poses to all religious beliefs, are trying to either discredit him or co-opt him.

We are all aware of the attacks from the groups seeking to discredit Darwin's theory, which range from the speaking-in-tongues snake-handlers to intelligent designers, all of whom seek to eliminate or at least undermine its teaching in schools. They argue that this theory is wrong in its essential elements and that god has repeatedly intervened in the workings of the world, especially when it comes to the creation of humans.

In order to combat those attempts, there have been attempts by those groups seeking to co-opt Darwin, the so-called 'moderate' religionists, to resurrect the 'peaceful coexistence' model in the science-religion wars, where religious supporters of evolution join up with scientists to combat the attempts of the anti-Darwinian religious groups to discredit evolution. Advocates of this approach argue for the existence of 'two worlds', the material world that is the domain of science, and a non-material spiritual world that is the domain of god and is outside the reach of science. In the peaceful coexistence model, these two worlds are non-overlapping and thus no conflict need arise between science and religion.

I have argued elsewhere (see here and here) that this model makes no sense whatsoever and leads to all manner of logical contradictions unless one defines the spiritual world in such a way that it has no influence whatsoever on the material world, making it totally redundant. In other words, the only way to salvage religion to make it compatible with a scientific worldview is to strip it of every single feature that we normally associate with religion, something that religious moderates are loathe to do.

But supporters of this untenable 'two worlds' view keep trying, and they are concerned that atheists like me have been using Darwin's theory to attack the very foundations of all religious beliefs, especially the idea that human beings have some special quality that can relate to god. We argue that each and every aspect of humanity, including morality, consciousness, and mind, is not immune to being explained by the natural selection process, and thus god is irrelevant in a Darwinian (and scientific) worldview.

But this is not a popular position to take politically, and has caused some concern to the 'moderate' religion group, since it rejects their claim to some special preserve for religion. A report by Martin Beckford in the February 9, 2009 issue of the The Telegraph (London) describes the latest appeal for the resurrection of peaceful coexistence, as expressed in a letter to the paper. The letter asserts that Darwin's theory is neutral with respect to its implications for belief in god and makes the standard appeal to this so-called middle ground, on the one hand asking evolution's skeptics to accept the validity of the theory, and on the other to atheists to not use the theory to argue against the existence of god.

The influential signatories of the letter include two Church of England bishops, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain and a member of the Evangelical Alliance, as well as Professor Lord Winston, the fertility pioneer, and Professor Sir Martin Evans, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

"We respectfully encourage those who reject evolution to weigh the now overwhelming evidence, hugely strengthened by recent advances in genetics, which testifies to the theory's validity."

"At the same time, we respectfully ask those contemporary Darwinians who seem intent on using Darwin's theory as a vehicle for promoting an anti-theistic agenda to desist from doing so as they are, albeit unintentionally, turning people away from the theory."

The letter writers go on to warn that "militant atheists are turning people away from evolution by using it as a weapon with which to attack religion."

Ross (one of the readers of this blog who sent me this link) thought that I would find it amusing because they are clearly targeting people like me who see Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection as devastating for religious beliefs and have had no hesitation in saying so.

So should I listen to this appeal and cease and desist in my efforts to use science as a weapon to undermine religion in order to not alienate the moderate religious supporters of evolution? Of course not.

The problem is that the people who take this peaceful coexistence position are mixing means and ends. The people who are signatories to the letter have as their goal to promote greater acceptance of the theory of evolution, and to do that they seek political alliances between 'moderate' religious people and scientists to combat the blatantly anti-science religious fundamentalists. So for them, popular acceptance of evolution is the goal, and peaceful coexistence between 'moderate' religious beliefs and science is the means to achieving that end. This requires them to downplay the negative implications of evolution for religion.

But for atheists like me, getting rid of religion is the goal and scientific theories (including evolution) are a means of achieving that goal. I think religion is fundamentally a bad thing. Evolution and other scientific arguments have definitely anti-religion, anti-god implications and we should not hesitate to emphasize those strong inferences. If this causes discomfort for religious believers, they will have to deal with it by finding arguments and evidence to refute it, not by asking us to not point it out. What the argument of the 'two worlds' advocates reveal is that religious moderates are like religious fundamentalists, willing to accept science only as long as it does not disturb their cherished dogma. They only differ in the dogmas they hold dear.

Does that mean I do not care about the public acceptance theory of evolution? Of course I care and will oppose all efforts to undermine its rightful place in science and science education. But I have confidence in the theory to withstand any and all religious onslaughts because it is a scientific theory, not a propaganda system like religion. Evolution will flourish or die on its scientific merits, because of the evidence and the coherence of its arguments, not because of any political strategy. Whatever the level of antipathy to it, the public and scientific communities cannot ignore it or suppress it, as if it were some system of thought that can be believed or rejected at will. It forms one of the foundations of modern science, an invaluable tool in humanity's progress.

The public may turn against it in the short run but they will have to concede defeat and accept it in the long run, just as they lost with their initial opposition to the theories of the round earth, the heliocentric system, the theory of relativity, and all the other times when religious people foolishly decided that what their ancient religious texts or priests or theologians said or what they 'felt in their hearts' was a more reliable guide to knowledge than data and evidence-based arguments.

Religion, on the other hand, is purely a propaganda system and will only die if its weaknesses and its lack of any empirical basis are relentlessly pointed out. Pretending to act as if 'moderate' religion makes sense, as the 'two worlds' model does, only strengthens all religion, both moderate and fundamentalist.

The age of peaceful coexistence between 'moderate' religion and science is over. No modern scientist can credibly argue for its continuation unless he or she is willfully suppressing the obvious contradictions that exist between science and religion.

POST SCRIPT: Meet Charles Darwin

As part of the Darwin year celebrations, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is hosting Floyd Sandford, a Darwin impersonator. The performance is on Saturday, February 14, 2009 from 3:30 – 4:45 p.m. followed by 30 minute discussion.

Admission to this performance (but not to the rest of the Museum) is free and open to the public but requires a ticket. Tickets may be reserved by calling (216) 231-1177 or by registering online.

Professor Sandford is an emeritus member of the Biology Department at Coe College. He performs a one-man show entitled "Darwin Remembers" and lectures on Darwin.


February 11, 2009

The social appeal of agnosticism

In yesterday's post I tried to understand what makes agnosticism different from atheism from agnosticism in any logical or observable way, and did not have much luck, but there were some very interesting responses in the comments.

I suspect that one reason that some nonbelievers find agnosticism appealing is that it is more socially acceptable in religious societies to say that one is an agnostic than that one is an atheist. Because the common (but erroneous view) view of the difference between an agnostic and an atheist is that the former does not know for sure if there is a god or not (or that it may be an unanswerable question) while the latter is sure that god does not exist, religious people may feel that agnostics are not directly contradicting to their own beliefs. They may even feel that they might be able to 'win' over agnostics to god since their minds are not made up.

As a result of this greater acceptance, those non-religious people who do not wish to ruffle feathers with their religion neighbors may prefer to adopt the label of agnostic. For some (like Elizabeth in yesterday's comments) calling oneself an agnostic may serve as a rest stop on the road to complete disbelief, a place to prepare oneself and one's religious friends and family for the reality that one has stopped believing.

Charles Darwin is a good example of this. A shy and retiring man, who sought to avoid controversy and personal conflicts, he preferred to call himself an agnostic instead of an atheist, although by the age of forty it was clear that he had lost all belief in god and religion and had very harsh words for both. As he said in his autobiography:

I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true: for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine. (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen, p. 246)

And yet, he shied away from calling himself an atheist. Edward Aveling, a professed atheist aware of Darwin's reluctance to adopt that label, recounted how at a dinner with Darwin, he tried to convince him "that the terms 'Agnostic' and 'Atheist' were practically equivalent – that an atheist is one who, without denying the existence of God, is without God, inasmuch as he is unconvinced of the existence of a Deity." (The autobiography of Charles Darwin and selected letters, edited by Francis Darwin, 1958, p. 60.)

Darwin's biographers pick up the story:

They lit cigarettes and Darwin, completely our of character, pitched in. 'Why do you call yourselves atheists?' In his dotage, forty years since his covert notebook days, he finally dragged the issue into the open. He preferred the word agnostic, he said. '"Agnostic" was but "Atheist" writ respectable,' Aveling replied, searching for common ground, 'and "Atheist" was only "Agnostic" writ aggressive.' But Darwin retorted, 'Why should you be so aggressive?' Is anything to be gained by forcing new ideas on people? Freethought is 'all very well' for the educated, but are ordinary people 'ripe for it'? Here spoke the comfortable squire, seeking not to disturb the social equilibrium. (Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist Adrian Desmond and James Moore, 1991, p. 657, my italics.)

I think that the italicized passage captures a lot of the truth. There is no question that saying one is an atheist triggers a more negative reaction than saying one is an agnostic. I suspect that many agnostics are like Darwin, effectively atheists but uneasy about the fact that atheism is perceived as being more aggressive in its opposition to religion than agnosticism, though logically and substantively there is little difference. Those, like Darwin, who do not wish to disturb the social equilibrium may find the label of agnostic more appealing.

POST SCRIPT: Oedipus, with vegetables

The story of Oedipus is one of the strangest in classical Greek mythology and literature but the essence of the story is presented nicely in this 8 minute movie, performed entirely by vegetables.

February 10, 2009

The puzzle of agnosticism

I must admit that I find agnosticism puzzling. For me, agnosticism is harder to understand than atheism or religious belief.

There is no doubt that religious people find agnosticism easier to deal with than atheism. You can see it in the way that those religious people who can get beyond the emotional reactions to atheism that I listed yesterday often argue that since one cannot prove that there is no god, one has to admit that one is unsure and that therefore one is 'really' an agnostic. They are right in their argument but wrong in their idea of what atheism and agnosticism involves.

All atheists will readily concede that there can be no proof of the non-existence of god because of the logical impossibility of proving such a negative. But having said that, we do live our lives assuming that there is no god and find that the world makes perfect sense and everything seems to work nicely. We are practically certain that there is no god just as we are certain that we can drive our cars without ever considering the possibility that a unicorn might suddenly run across the street or Santa Claus land in his sleigh right in our path, even though we are not 100% certain that unicorns and Santa Claus and flying reindeer don't exist either

What constitutes atheism should be easy to understand. What I find hard to understand is how the agnostic position differs from that of the atheist. Merriam-Webster defines an agnostic as "a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable."

An atheist would have no objection to that statement. As I have said before, there is no possible logical argument and no conceivable evidence that could ever establish the negative conclusion that there is no god. So agnosticism and atheism seem to me to be logically equivalent, at least as far as that particular dictionary definition goes.

Some agnostics may be seeking to create a distance between themselves and atheists because they suffer from the same kind of misunderstanding about atheism as religious people, thinking that atheists are absolutely sure that there is no god, and thus they may wish to separate themselves from those whom they perceive as possessing an unjustifiable and arrogant certainty.

Or perhaps the difference between atheism and agnosticism lies in the secondary definition of an agnostic as "one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god." (my italics)

It is true that while an atheist is not logically certain there is no god, he or she is functionally certain there is no god, living in a way that is consistent with the assumption of no god. They have no need to introduce the god hypothesis into their lives for any reason. Since atheists live as if there is no god, it is safe to say that atheists are committed to believing in the nonexistence of god.

So is that the difference? Is that why agnostics shun the word atheist and prefer the label of agnostic, because they are uncommitted on this question while atheists are committed? But what does being 'uncommitted' really mean? Is there a difference in the probabilities that atheists and agnostics assign to god's existence? Atheists assign the probability of god's existence to be infinitesimally close to zero. I doubt that the lack of commitment by agnostics to god's existence or non-existence means that they assign 50% probability to each option. Agnostics clearly think that god's non-existence is far more likely than his existence.

So are agnostics distinguished from atheists in that while they think that the probability of god's existence is very small, they give it a slightly higher value than the almost-but-effectively-zero value that atheists assign?

But that kind of difference is hard to quantify. One way to operationalize that vague notion and test the true beliefs of agnostics is to ask them if their lack of commitment to non-belief results in any observable behavioral differences when compared to that of atheists.

Atheists live as if they are sure that there is no god. Do agnostics behave in some way that is different from atheists as a result of being agnostic? Are agnostics nervous about being wrong about god's non-existence and only finding out after they are dead? Are they are hoping that their 'softer' agnosticism will result in god giving them a reduced punishment? Do they at least occasionally go to church/mosque/temple/synagogue or do other quasi-religious things? Are there some things they will not say or thoughts that they will not allow themselves to think because it is too risky, such as, for example, denying the Holy Spirit? After all, Jesus said: "Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Matthew 12:32)?

If the answer is 'no' to all these questions, then they are atheists irrespective of what they choose to call themselves because they are living their lives as if they are committed to the non-existence of god. If they say 'yes' to any one, then I think we need to define them as believers who have serious doubts. (One wag unkindly described agnostics as cowardly atheists.)

I suspect that there are many agnostics among the readers of this blog. I would be curious to learn what they think on this question.

POST SCRIPT: The Blasphemy Challenge

I am not sure what "speaks against the Holy Spirit" exactly means but whatever it is, I want to be on record as having thus spoken, like all those who have done so as part of the Blasphemy Challenge.

Pat Condell says that he is so busy denying the Holy Spirit that he has hardly any time for anything else.


February 09, 2009

Atheism going mainstream?

At one point in his inaugural address, Barack Obama started using familiar language in calling for national unity, saying "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus," but the ears of atheists everywhere perked up when he added at the end "and non-believers." Could this, along with the most recent Pew survey that indicates that the influence of religion in America is waning, be a sign that atheism is going mainstream?

The fact that neither Obama nor the Chief Justice was perturbed by the absence of a Bible when he repeated his presidential oath privately because of flubs in the original public ceremony (and no one on Obama's staff seemed bothered enough to go and hunt one down) lends credence to my belief that for many public figures, religion has played largely a ceremonial role, a façade for public consumption, rather than a true belief. It is like standing for the national anthem. How many people stand at home when the anthem is played at some televised event? As philosopher John Stuart Mill said in his 1873 autobiography, "The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments, of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue, are complete skeptics in religion."

These are welcome developments. Atheists in America are used to mostly being treated as invisible in the body politic, while in the realm of personal relations they have been at best objects of puzzlement and curiosity, at worst targets of hostility. The recent University of Minnesota study (Atheists As "Other": Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society, Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann, American Sociological Review; April 2006, vol. 71, 211-234) that found that Americans listed atheists as those "least likely to share their vision of American society" and disapproved of their children marrying them (atheists ranking below Muslims, recent immigrants, and homosexuals) came as no surprise to them.

The strong negative reaction to atheism is strange. After all, while atheism undoubtedly has implications for one's personal philosophy, it is not by itself strongly correlated with any particular philosophical framework or ideology. Atheists have no strong partisan affiliations based on commonly used labels. They are not obviously liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, and can be found on all sides of any non-religion based issue, whether it is social and economic policy, global warming, or war and peace. Atheists are all over the map.

And yet the reaction of many religious people to discovering an atheist in their midst varies widely over incredulity, pity, aversion, and unease, and it is instructive to look at the reasons why.

Incredulity comes from the fact that some form of belief in god or a supernatural power is so commonly and unthinkingly accepted as a given in American society, that to find someone who does not believe can be jolting, like meeting someone nowadays who believes that smoking is good for your health.

Pity for atheists arises from the feeling that without god, one cannot find any meaning in life, and so an atheist must be a despondent and depressed person, one step away from committing suicide. But talk with any atheist and you will find them just as full of the joy of life as anyone else. We atheists have found meaning in life. The only difference is that we have had to construct meaning for ourselves and have not adopted one of the off-the-shelf meanings provided by institutionalized religions.

Aversion towards atheists arises from the misconception that without belief in a god who sets the rules and punishes transgressors, people would have no reason to not do evil things. Such people believe that human beings have no internal moral compass but can only navigate by god's light. This leads to the feeling that atheists bear careful watching as otherwise they might indulge in all manner of criminality and perversions. But those who have studied the correlation of religion with morality find that the moral and ethical sensibilities of atheists do not differ significantly from those of religious people.

It is not hard to see why this must be so. The Bible, like the ancient text of any religion, is full of the most appalling acts ascribed to or approved by god, such as murder, slavery, rape, and genocide. In many cases, the Bible records that even when god was not directly committing these acts, he either viewed them as virtuous or commanded his followers to do them. That leads to the obvious inference that god considers those despicable acts to be good things.

This conclusion is, of course, embarrassing for modern sophisticated believers so an entire theological industry has been created to explain why such things are not to be used as exemplars of how god wants us to behave. Whether one considers such apologetics successful or not, the very fact that believers look for ways to explain away those 'acts of god' shows that people are applying a more fundamental and externally derived set of moral standards to discriminate between those acts and motives that are worthy of ascribing to god (and thus should be emulated) and those that are not.

The fact is that the general principles of morality have always existed independently of, and prior to, the codification of religious morality. Even within the framework of the Bible, people knew that murder was a bad thing (as we see in the story of Cain and Abel) even before the mythical story of Moses and the Ten Commandments where god chiseled that prohibition into the stone tablets. What religious texts did was to codify the moral standards of that time, as well as sometimes impose others ones that worked to the advantage of priests and rulers or advanced some political agenda.

The problem is, of course, is that different religious subgroups have arrived at different conclusions about what is moral and what is not, even though they are using the same religious texts. For some people, persecuting and killing infidels and apostates is a good thing, for others not so much, and both have reason to think that they are doing god's will. How can you conclusively show that the leaders of the Inquisition and the Taliban and Pat Robertson are not the most accurate discerners of god's believers, that the kind of vicious and hateful morality they espouse is not truly god's will?

We cannot and should not decide what is good and bad based on what god supposedly did or what religious books say. That way lies barbarism and war. We have to arrive at a consensus on what is good and bad using basic human values that we can agree on, such as justice and equality. This is not as hard as it may sound. After all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations and is an admirable statement about what rights any human being, living anywhere, is entitled to. It not based on any religion but on our common humanity and on an intuitive understanding of the conditions necessary for people to live in dignity. Although it is not legally binding on member states, it is a powerful way of holding nations accountable for the way they treat their people.

As a declaration of principles to live by and a guide to how societies should be structured, the UDHR, the product of human beings working together for the common good, is far superior in its morality to the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or any other religious text purportedly written by god.

POST SCRIPT: Marijuana and jury nullification

The excessive hand-wringing over Michael Phelps and his use of marijuana is illustrative of how absurd our 'war on drugs' mentality is. Most people view the use of marijuana for medicinal or even casual recreational purposes far less seriously than legislators and law enforcement officers do. Under federal law, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that it is considered to be highly addictive and has no medicinal value, and puts it alongside heroin and cocaine.

When ordinary people start to think that a law is absurd and unjust, then you have the potential for jury nullification, which may have been why jurors acquitted a user in a less high-profile case.

For previous posts on jury nullification, see here and here.

February 06, 2009

Changing people's minds

The post dealing with starting the Year of Reason resulted in a very lively discussion, generating nearly forty comments. I took part in the discussion far more actively than I usually do.

While I often respond to comments, especially if there is a request for specific information or a clarification, I tend not to get into repeated exchanges because I do not think they serve much purpose. It is naïve to think that one can change other people's minds immediately merely because one thinks one has a superior argument. So a commenter superlucky20 was right when he said that "if you come to message boards hoping to change the minds of other posters, prepare to be disappointed. It almost never happens."

So why did I get so involved in this particular post? One reason was because the discussion neatly exemplified a point I had made in an earlier post about where the burden of proof lies in any argument.

But another reason is that such discussions can have value in that they can plant the seeds of change that show fruit only much later. What I mean is that when one is confronted with an opposing idea, while one tends to immediately reject it consciously because of the discomfort it causes (especially if you suspect that your opponent is right), it can work subconsciously so that much later one finds one has changed one's mind and have forgotten where the initial impetus came from. I know that I have changed my own mind on many issues but would be hard pressed to point to a particular person or argument that was responsible for the change, though such an initial starting point for the process must surely exist.

So usually, after I have had my say in the post and perhaps clarified a point or answered a direct question in the comment section, I refrain from making any more comments, although I read every one written by others. Saying pretty much the same thing over and over again is usually a waste of time. This is my policy on web sites and in personal interactions.

Things are rarely so cut and dry, of course. Sometimes, as in that extended exchange, one gets into grey areas about what constitutes a counter example and whether seemingly blanket universal statements contain implicit caveats that limit their generality. For example, consider the universal statement that all human beings have two arms. Most people would confidently assert that this is true, using the same criteria to justify the statement that no dogs exist that can speak out of their rear end. But those who are old enough to remember the tragic cases of babies who were born with missing limbs because their mothers used the supposed pain-killing drug thalidomide during pregnancy (and I have personally seen those babies) will know that the statement that all humans have two arms is not strictly true, and that one has to add caveats. One can try to salvage the statement by saying that, under normal circumstances, human beings have two arms but then one gets into tricky questions of what constitutes 'normal'.

Sometimes simply making a blanket statement can itself produce a counter-example. In one post, I gave two universal statements whose presumption to truth can be assumed in the absence of counter-examples. One was from John Allen Paulos that there are no dogs that spoke English out of their rear ends and the other was that there does not exist a cow with seven legs. Lo and behold, a commenter pointed to a news item showing that such a cow had indeed been born. This disproved my universal statement about the cow and I would not be justified in making that claim in the future. But the statement about the talking dog is still valid.

One commenter said that using this kind of argument, the universal statement "there is no evidence that god does not exist" would be justified until there was counter-evidence to disprove it. He is right. But atheists don't challenge the validity of that statement. We all agree that we cannot disprove the existence of god, especially since believers in god reserve the right to ascribe any and all properties to god, including the ability to evade detection. There is no dispute there.

The problem is that religious believers use the agreement on that universal statement to then assert that god exists. But this is an existence statement, and then the burden of proof immediately shifts to them to provide evidence. As long as they refrain from making that inference and stick with the universal statement, then we are in agreement.

That is exactly how things should work and how we should treat arguments.

POST SCRIPT: Making dry data come alive

In this TED talk, Hans Rosling demonstrates two things: the widespread misconceptions about the developing world that many people have and also how to make data come alive.

February 05, 2009

Good atheist/bad atheist

As regular readers will have noted, I have kept hammering at the idea that the claim that god exists is an existence statement and that to assert the truth of an existence statement without credible evidence in support of it is irrational, and that the rational and scientific approach in the absence of any counter-evidence is to assume the truth of the universal statement that there is no god.

I have also said that if you ask believer why they believe in god (a question that is seldom posed to them) you are likely to get fairly incoherent answers, that basically can be grouped into three categories: Argument From Personal Incredulity, Argument From Wishful Thinking, and Argument From Vague Feelings.

In the course of these posts, I have tried to explore all facets of this argument and refined it over time as various objections have been raised to it. While there has been necessarily some repetition (mainly done in order to save readers the trouble of following links to older posts), I hope that each post has added something of value.

One commenter made the point that it is perhaps time for me to stop pushing the powerful argument, based on logic, that the universal statement that god does not exist is justified in the absence of evidence to the contrary. He said:

That fact that you continue to push this 'logical' question is very interesting. It seems that you've found a wedge to use against believers. You know they can't answer the question because of the nature of the subject matter yet you continue to ask the question.

A person who believes in god can not provide any substantive proof of god's existence because god (in their paradigm) is omnipresent.

So now that issue is resolved. There is no need to ask the question again.

There are many reasons that I will continue to push the question. For one, although the commenter may think the question is resolved, many believers still hold on to the idea that believing in god is rational and that they have good reasons for doing so even though when pressed, they cannot provide them. Secondly new readers come along for whom these arguments are unfamiliar and they may not be aware of the earlier posts. Third, my purpose is to assist other atheists respond better to the arguments of believers, and so sharpening and refining the arguments against belief helps them (at least I hope so).

I feel a sense of duty to spend time on this question because I am in a good position to do so. I have had a deeply religious background so that I understand the kind of thinking that religious people, especially Christians, have and the kinds of arguments they give in support of their beliefs. Furthermore, I have the luxury of time to read and think and write about these things and so hope that I can be of assistance to those who do not have that privilege.

Finally, religious believers have a whole industry devoted to pushing their beliefs day in and day out. They have hundreds of thousands of paid propagandists (aka priests, rabbis, imams, etc.) whose main job is to brainwash believers by endlessly repeating dogmas that make no sense but which repetition makes familiar and thus seemingly reasonable. Institutionalized religions have had thousands of years to refine their message, hiring people (aka theologians) to work full time to develop arguments in support of god and to combat disbelief.

The fact that after all the time and effort and money that have been devoted to this cause they have come up with nothing better than the three wishy-washy arguments I gave above should be a strong indication that there is nothing there. It reminds me of the Fr. Guido Sarducci comedy sketch where he says that the study of religion basically boils down to giving people the answer to two questions: "Where is god?" (Answer: God is everywhere) and "Why?" (Answer: Because he likes you). He adds that this is a perfect combination of Disney and Roman Catholic philosophy. Religious apologetics doesn't get much more sophisticated than that, though the language used does.

But that fact is hidden by the vast support structure that religion has created, with political and social leaders and the media all working to shield believers from the unpleasant truth that there is no god, by feeding them soothing stories. My local paper has a weekly column on religion, often by one of their sports columnists, featuring utterly content-free banalities, basically saying over and over, "Whatever happens, God loves you, so be good and don't worry." (I wonder if they would give space to a sports columnist who critiqued religion. I doubt it. As long as you spout conventional pieties, you do not have to establish your credentials. It is only when you challenge them that people demand evidence that you are authorized to speak on the topic.)

Part of the reason that religion has survived is that for a long time unbelievers have been hesitant to speak out openly. Although skeptics down the ages have exposed the weaknesses of the arguments for god many times, they have had to do so obliquely and circumspectly. In the early days unbelievers were actually persecuted and even put to death. As a result, there developed a social stigma attached to being an unbeliever that remained even after the more drastic penalties were removed, but this stigma was even more powerful than legal penalties in suppressing dissenting views.

As John Stuart Mill said in his On Liberty (1859, p. 38):

For a long time past, the chief mischief of the legal penalties is that they strengthen the social stigma. It is that stigma which is really effective, and so effective is it, that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England, than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur the risk of judicial punishment. In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread.

Until now, not having the kind of well-financed organized structure that religion has, skeptics have been unable to mount a concerted and sustained opposition to the spread of religious dogma. It is only recently that they have been able to counter the stigma of unbelief.

This is the result of two developments. The first is that scientific advances are increasingly exposing the vacuity and irrelevance of religious explanations for anything. Nonbelievers now have the power of science at their backs. The second is that with the advent of the internet, skeptics can now link up with each other and share ideas. They are thus rapidly improving the quality of the arguments against religion, and can now also reach vast numbers of people because they can bypass the pro-religious filters of the political and media establishments.

This new opportunity places an obligation on those (like me) who can speak out to speak out, to provide cover for those who still may face repercussions due to the stigma. Again, quoting Mill:

Those whose bread is already secured, and who desire no favor from men in power, or from bodies of men, or from the public, have nothing to fear from the open avowal of any opinions, but to be ill-thought of and ill-spoken of, and this it ought not to require a very heroic mould to enable them to bear.

I am one of the fortunate ones described by Mill who can speak out without repercussions, so it becomes my duty to advance the cause of atheism by exposing the weaknesses of religion. I have to concede that I do come across as somewhat hardnosed in my atheism, especially in the public sphere. This a deliberately chosen strategy on my part, to play the "bad atheist", one who does not let religion hide behind the usual smokescreens, and is thus seen as uncompromising. This allows the "good atheists", those who wear their atheism more gently, to seem much more reasonable and acceptable by comparison and thus makes it easier for them to reveal their beliefs in a society dominated by believers. Most people feel uncomfortable to be considered 'extreme' in the spectrum of beliefs. Having someone else take an even stronger stand puts them closer to the 'respectable' center.

Rather than being a hardship, I have to confess that playing the role of the bad atheist has been very rewarding. Apart from the exhilarating sense of freedom of thought that atheism brings with it, it has been gratifying to me to have people, strangers, write or come up to me and confess that they too are atheists, or at least serious doubters, and that my outspoken writings have given them confidence in themselves and their own ideas, that they are not weird or crazy or alone in thinking that belief in god makes no sense, and that there are others who have taken these ideas even further.

POST SCRIPT: Blacks and gays

Proposition 8 in California passed with a lot of support from the black community. On The Daily Show Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore discuss the causes of this homophobia.

February 04, 2009

No more Mr. Nice Physicist

In my recent post on the need to stop giving the 'benefit of clergy', I argued that we should not allow the notion of 'respect for religion' to be used as a shield to protect religious ideas from the scrutiny that any idea should deserve. For example, I suspect that some atheists, even when the topic of religion comes up, shy away from even saying that they are atheists out of a misplaced sense that this mere statement of fact might 'offend' the religious people around them. I know that I used to think this way, but not any longer.

As an example of how my attitude has changed, here is an incident that happened a couple of weeks ago. I am a subscriber to a listserv of physics teachers where the topics usually deal with how to teach physics better. Just before Christmas, one person sent the following message to everyone:

The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary.

My confession :

I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees, Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees.

It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, 'Merry Christmas' to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a crèche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship celebrities and we aren't allowed to worship God as we understand Him? I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from and where the America we knew went to.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it's not funny, it's intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham's daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her 'How could God let something like this happen?' (regarding Katrina). Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, 'I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?'

In light of recent events... terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (she was murdered, her body found a few years ago) complained she didn't want prayer in our schools, and we said OK. Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn't spank our children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr Spock's son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he's talking about. And we said OK.

Now we're asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don't know right from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with 'WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.'

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world's going to hell. Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. Funny how you can send 'jokes' through e-mail and they spread like wildfire but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing. Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing yet?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you're not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.

Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit. If not then just discard it... no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don't sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.

My Best Regards, Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein

I don't know if this purported statement from Stein was genuine or not but the forwarder clearly thought that this farrago of nonsense was meaningful enough to send to an entire listserv of physics teachers. Maybe he was prodded into doing so by the clever implication in the last three paragraphs that if he did not do so he was a coward, not having the courage of his beliefs.

There was a time when I would have kept my disagreement with such a message to myself, out of a misplaced sense of 'respect for religion', despite the fact that my silence lent credibility to such absurd ideas. The 'respect for religion' mantra says that even if I think the sentiments are absolute rubbish and even despicable, the sender probably sincerely believed in them, and his tender religious feelings should not be hurt or his beliefs shaken by my challenging them.

But I no longer agree with that stance. Since the sender had put his ideas out into the public sphere, I felt they were open for criticism and this is what I wrote to the entire listserv in response:

So let me see if I got the point of this message: God is ticked off at America because the founders inserted the Establishment Clause into the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution. He is so thin-skinned and touchy that he got mad about this and so is not lifting a finger to help all the poor and helpless (and even infants) who are killed and devastated by things like Katrina. And Ben Stein and Anne Graham know all his because God explains his actions by whispering his reasons only in their ears.

Sure makes sense to me!

Was my response harsh? Yes, but I think the message and the sender merited it. What particularly annoyed me was that he would not have dreamed of sending a message to a group of physics teachers advocating some crackpot physics theory for which he had no evidence or which made no logical sense. But he felt free to do so about some crackpot religious theory, presumably because he had got accustomed to those ideas being either actively supported or met with a respectful silence that he could interpret as tacit support, thus reinforcing his belief in the correctness of his ideas. I no longer let such things pass unchallenged.

It is not that I am always a curmudgeon. There are occasions when I think you should let things go, as when people are using religious ideas as a psychological crutch to cope with some personal difficulty. And if a person had said something similar in the private sphere, I would have framed my disagreement more gently. But when people (like the sender of the above message) use the public sphere for no other purpose than to advance their own religious views, the gloves come off.

POST SCRIPT: "Ask an Atheist" forum

CWRU's Case Center for Inquiry is holding an open forum where people can ask a panel of atheists any question they want. This is part of their effort to create a better understanding of atheism. I am the faculty advisor for the group and will be one of the four panel members.

When: Thursday, February 5, 2009 7-9 PM
Where: Strosacker Auditorium, CWRU campus

February 03, 2009

Not letting bygones be bygones

In two earlier posts (here and here), I spoke about some of the ways that political chameleons adjust their views when the environment changes so that they can continue to be in the corridors of power.

Another tactic of political chameleons is to try to get others to forget their role as cheerleaders of disastrous past wars by suggesting that it is a waste of time to re-examine the past, that we should not investigate those who led the country into an illegal and immoral war, and that we should not expose those who ordered the torture of detainees.

Glenn Greenwald points to the tactic of self-servingly suggesting, as the 'liberal' Princeton academic and Iraq-war advocate Anne-Marie Slaughter does, that we are wasting time by apportioning blame for the Iraq debacle and should instead focus on what should be done in the future.

This attempt at enforcing amnesia on the rest of us helps them to shake off their pro-war history. As Greenwald says:

This plea that we all just forget about the unpleasant past -- stop trying to figure out who was responsible for the Iraq War -- has become the principal self-defense weapon of the pro-war political establishment. That's their only hope for evading responsibility for what they've done.

But why would we, and why should we, just ignore the question of who spawned this disaster? In trying to determine what to do now, isn't it rather important to know whose judgment and knowledge can be trusted and whose should be considered worthless? From the perspective of their own-self interest, the demand by war advocates like Slaughter and McCain that everyone forget about what they said and did in the past is understandable -- it's natural to hope that one's own wretched and destructive conduct would be forgotten -- but for the country, doing that would be completely irrational.

In another post Greenwald recounts all the excuses now being trotted out by the Iraq war's ardent supporters and brings the focus right back to where it truly belongs, on the fundamental moral issue of the justness of the wars. The chameleons want to avoid discussing this question at all costs because on this issue they cannot escape blame. They want to shift the discussion to tactics and management.

More strikingly, not a single one of them appears to have learned the real lesson worth learning from the whole disaster: The U.S. should not -- and has no right to -- invade, bomb and occupy other nations that haven't attacked or even threatened to attack us. None of them say: "Wars that aren't directly in response to an actual or imminent attack shouldn't be commenced because doing so leads to the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions of human beings for no justifiable reason." Not even the most regretful war advocate seems to have reached that conclusion.

As long as the root premises of our endless war-fighting remain firmly in place, there will be many more Iraqs, "justified" by similar or only marginally different objectives. We need to invade to remove a Bad Government, or stop a civil religious or ethnic war, or prevent mistreatment by other ruling factions of their citizens, etc. etc. -- as though we possess the ability and are blessed with sufficiently magnanimous, selfless political leaders to accomplish any of those lofty goals with military invasions of other countries.

We have to be grateful for real analysts like Glenn Greenwald who holds all these chameleons accountable by keeping track of what they have said in the past. As he says:

Pretending to be a war opponent notwithstanding one's support for the war seems to be a trend today (though not only today). And it is amazing, though it should not be, how easily manipulated the media is by this tactic.

Attention: journalists and news producers: they have these new things now called "computers" that record what people say and write and keep all of that stored. So if someone claims to be a "war critic" or "war opponent," you can actually look and find out whether that is true.

Good advice as always from Greenwald, which is why his blog on Salon is a must read. But don't hold your breath that the mainstream media will take his advice. Remember that those journalists schmooze and socialize with the same people they are supposed to be covering. Holding them accountable for their past words and actions would result in the journalists (oh, the horror!) losing their 'access' to these people or (oh, the even greater horror!) not being invited to their parties.

The pro-war/pro-business one party state depends for its continuance on the ability to make people forget the past so that when the 'enemy' (i.e., whichever hapless country the war party decides should next be invaded) switches from Eastasia to Oceania, we can be made to believe that Oceania is an imminent danger to us or the world and that we have always been at war with it. In the incestuous world of politicians and media and analysts, all have a vested interest in maintaining their ability to rewrite history to suit their needs. Nowadays they do it in ways that exceeds George Orwell's wildest imaginings.

The defense against this is to remember the actual history and the roles that people played in it and hold them accountable.

POST SCRIPT: Sleazy Tom Daschle

Former Democratic Senate majority leader-turned-lobbyist Tom Daschle was nominated by Barack Obama to head the Department of Health and Human Services and be the administration point man for health care reform. Anyone who follows politics fairly closely knows that Daschle epitomizes the corruption of Congress and politics in America, switching smoothly between Congress and working for the very firms that lobby Congress. This article reveals the extent to which he is indebted to the health and drug industries.

As Matt Taibbi writes: "Out of all the bought-off Washington whores who could have been given this job, Daschle is the best one. His fake reform will go the farthest in its approximation of actual action than the fake reform of any other possible whore-candidate."

Glenn Greenwald also weighs in about how Daschle and his wife are neck-deep in the muck of the Washington lobbying culture.

His choice was an indication that Obama is planning to implement some bogus health care 'reform' package that would preserve the huge profits of the medical-health insurance-drug industries, while throwing some crumbs to the uninsured.

It is revealing of the world these people live in that Daschle's explanation as to why he did not report the taxable three-year long gift of a chauffeur-driven limousine was that he had got so used to having such a service that he did not realize it was unusual. He presumably thought that everyone was given a free limousine to be driven around.

But, as usual, the fuss over his taxes is being used to distract attention from the real problem, which is the corrupt and incestuous relationship between politicians and business. Daschle's choice is a good example of how the pro-war/pro-business one party state operates.

I hope his tax problem scuttles Daschle's nomination but I don't expect a much better replacement. Obama has revealed where he stands on health care reform and it is not good.

February 02, 2009

Relative and absolute loss

Change is difficult to deal with, especially if it is a change for the worse in one's financial status. Losing one's job and being forced to accept a lower paying one or having to lower one's lifestyle is not easy to accept, irrespective of what one's initial and final level of living was.

In the wake of the Bernie Madoff fraud, we hear of many people saying that they are 'financially ruined', that they have 'lost everything'. When looked at closely, though, some of those descriptions seem to be based on a relative rather than an absolute scale.

For example, take this article by someone named Alexandra Penney who was a Madoff victim and was so traumatized by the prospect of her loss that she did not leave her apartment for days. But when you read her piece, you realize that she lives in a nice New York apartment, has another studio for her work, a cottage in Florida, and employs a maid who comes in three times a week to, among other things, iron her 40 'classic white shirts' because she likes to wear a clean new one every day. Every year Penney travels to many exotic countries.

Penney will now have to give up some of these things, and she is so traumatized that she thinks of suicide.

I’ve lived a great and interesting life. I love beautiful things: high thread count sheets, old china, watches, jewelry, Hermes purses, and Louboutin shoes. I like expensive French milled soap, good wines, and white truffles. I have given extravagant gifts like diamond earrings. I traveled a lot. In this last year, I've been Laos, Cambodia, India, Russia, and Berlin for my first solo art show. Will I ever be able to explore exotic places again?

The article reeks with self-pity and in doing so betrays a certain lack of awareness and sensitivity of how it might be perceived by people for whom the words 'lost everything' or 'financial ruin' may mean becoming homeless or going hungry, and not the loss of a maid or a beach vacation home or trips to exotic locales.

In Penney's case, she seems devastated that she may have to give up her studio and her maid and that she has to learn how to take the subway in New York. (I had thought that all New Yorkers routinely took the subway but apparently there are some people for whom it is a totally foreign experience.) As the comments on her post indicate, she received some scorn from people who see her self-pity as signs of a self-absorbed and pampered life.

I do not doubt for a minute that Penney feels a genuine sense of loss and am not saying that she should not feel sorry for herself. Loss is loss and if, for example, it should turn out that some personal financial setback results in my being forced to give up my home and move into a small apartment in a cheaper location or have to carefully count pennies in order to meet the basic necessities of life, it would undoubtedly be difficult for me to adjust and I would feel as sorry for myself as Penney does.

But even in my loss I hope I would retain enough of a sense of proportion to realize that it is a relative loss and that, as long as I still had food and shelter, it is not ruin on any absolute scale. We need to always bear in mind that there are people who are in far worse straits than us and what to us may seem like an almost unbearable lowering of living standards may be luxury for them.

POST SCRIPT: Denis Leary remembers his own films

Leary is a really funny guy.

Denis Leary Remembers Denis Leary Movies - watch more funny videos