Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Disbelief By Any Other Name

Saturday, December 29th, 2012

I have frequently heard this argument from atheists:

Ricky Gervais argues that “there shouldn’t be a word for atheism: it shouldn’t exist, it’s ridiculous. If people didn’t keep making up supernatural deities, I wouldn’t have to deny they exist.”

While I understand that point of view, it crosses me as, frankly, condescending. What Gervais is trying to do is define atheism as the default human condition with theism as the anomaly. Really, when you dig into it, it’s another attempt to define atheism as normal and rational while theism is seen as some kind of mental defect. It’s relate to the idea, frequently sideswiped by Dawkins, that people are born atheists and don’t become religious until someone imposes religion upon them.

But that “mental defect”, depending on whom you listen to, affects 90-98% of the population. Theism and supernatural beliefs have been around, as far as we can tell, since homo sapiens began to wonder where the world came from. And we don’t have to buy into some ridiculous behaviorist psychology nonsense to explain it. In my opinion, religion fits just as naturally with the way we evolved to think as the scientific method does. Human beings are born asking questions. And if we don’t have adequate information, we will invent it (you should hear my daughter’s theories about where babies come from). In science, that’s called a hypothesis. In religion, it’s called faith. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the instinct that drives scientific enquiry comes from the same fount that produces religion: a desperate aching need to explain the world around us.

However much someone may wish it otherwise, atheism is not the default human condition; theism is. However much someone may wish it otherwise, atheists are not anywhere close to even a significant minority among the human population. And, seen in that light, “why should I call myself anything” comes across as trying to pretend that human beings are something other than what the are: semi-rational animals who don’t like an unanswered or unanswerable question.

Texas Linkorama

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012
  • The idea of building gondolas in Austin strikes me as a really dumb. Gondols are slow and would take up lots of space for the number of passengers they transport. Texans aren’t big on mass transit to begin with (the light rail system is likely to be a flop). And what do you need a gondola for in a city that is really flat? This crosses me as a solution in search of a problem. And if it doesn’t have high ridership, it’s bad for the environment. And expensive.
  • Down with homework!
  • I always suspected that the high I got off parenting was an evolutionary thing. I find these things intriguing and fascinating. Much of what we feel in life: compassion, empathy, love, tenderness is the result of millions of years of evolution making us into creatures that look for the species rather than ourselves.
  • A really good post on the Jefferson slave thing. Also, highly recommended on the subject: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Actually, TNC is just recommended, full stop.
  • One day, parenting authorities will get it through thick skulls like that fun physical activities are good for children even when they involve a low amount of risk.
  • Ah, peak oil. These days, the biggest energy concern is that we won’t run out of fossil fuels and that global warming will be worse than feared.
  • A fascinating story from NPR about how our image of Jesus has changed with social norms.
  • While it strikes me that global helium supplies are a legitimate concern, the idea that our technical needs in 50 years will be the same as they are now crosses me as silly. Think about the chemicals that were important 50 years ago. Are we in the grips of a global lead shortage?
  • Wednesday Linkorama

    Wednesday, October 17th, 2012
  • Distracted parenting is a problem, obviously. But, despite the horrible tragedies described, it’s not clear how big a problem it is. Mobile devices free parents up to do more things with kids and to supervise them more. I will let on, however, that they can occupy your attention. I was at a park when a kid broke his arm and didn’t notice immediately because of my phone. Don’t know if it would have been different with my kid.
  • I’m really looking forward to reading Nate Silver’s book.
  • Statues at the bottom of the sea. Amazing. And heart-breaking, when you think of what they represent.
  • I think this author has a good point that the Star Wars universe is likely illiterate. However, I think it’s less a conscious “where is modernism driving us” thing than a reflection of Star Wars being built on medieval narratives and cliches.
  • An interesting take on one of the more panned documentaries of the year. It does seem that people have a problem accepting that being anti-Big Education is not the same as being anti-education. Or even anti-teacher.
  • This story made my day. This is religion at its finest.
  • Whatever the political fallout of Benghazi, the story of the attack is an amazing one.
  • This is NOT the way to fight global warming. And they say all the greed and abuse is on the skeptic side.
  • Emory Apologizes

    Monday, October 15th, 2012

    Growing up in Atlanta, I was, of course, exposed to some degree of anti-semitism. A cross was once burned on the lawn of my synagogue. I was frequently approached by people who wanted to save me. A friend of mine went to a school in rural Georgia and was beaten up frequently and harassed endlessly just for being Jewish.

    The astonishing thing, however, was that this was a gentle breeze compared to what Atlanta had been like just decades before. Most of what I encountered was polite ignorance: people who wondered where we made sacrifices; a Boy Scout troop that had never had a Jew before, classmates who wondered why I was out of school so often in the fall. I never faced the kind of threats and mistreatment that, say, my grandparents did. The Dead Shall Rise is an excellent chronicle of the Leo Frank case, which was a watershed event and not a good one. Not only did an anti-semitic crowd lynch a likely innocent Leo Frank, the despair this produced in the Jewish Community could be felt seven decades later. My grandparents, who were in Atlanta when Frank was murdered, refused to talk about it; refused to talk about any of the treatment they’d endured.

    And, as an academic, I’ve never encountered anything close to what my parents’ generation experienced. This week, Emory University apologized for some of the awful things that went on in their School of Dentistry in the 1950′s. Emory was the worst bastion of academic anti-Semitism but they were not alone. Every doctor of my dad’s generation encountered it: quotas on Jews, professors who would tell them Jews were unsuited to medicine, patients would refuse to see Jewish doctors. It was pervasive.

    I’m glad to see — six decades after the fact — Emory acknowledging this. And I am personally pleased because one of the dentists recognized — Perry Brickman — is a friend of my father’s and my uncle’s, pulled my father’s wisdom teeth and mine and is an all-around good doctor and a good man. To see him vindicated after all this time is wonderful and a reminder that things can change for the better.

    Update: Related — maybe it’s a generational thing, but I’ve never held to the Wagner thing. Wagner was anti-semitic; Hitler liked Wagner; both have been dead for a very long time. Neither invented anti-Semitism. And I do not judge art by the behavior of its maker or the vileness of its admirers.

    Gold Coast Linkorama

    Monday, February 13th, 2012
  • A fascinating look at the ultra-orthodox hasidic sects springing up. I think there would be a lot more panic about this if they followed a different faith.
  • Only in Right-Wing World: a new study comes out with the best constraints yet on glacial melting. And it’s spun as being a huge blow against global warming theory because the melting is less than predicted.
  • Science fiction has ever imagined a universe as incredible as the real thing.
  • Oops. ESPN has some explaining to do.
  • Personally, I seriously doubt that concussions are going to end football. The article is full of weak arguments and assumptions. But I do think the issue of concussions and neurological damage is going to get bigger.
  • Weekend Linkorama

    Saturday, September 17th, 2011
  • Neuroscience of child-raising? I knew that stuff was bullshit.
  • This may be the most … unique … commercial I’ve seen.
  • These two videos dissecting action scenes are simply awesome. I love the language of film.
  • Stories like this drive me to despair of humanity.
  • When the Rapture Fails

    Monday, May 23rd, 2011

    Cross-Posted

    Well, the rapture failed to happen and we all had a good laugh. There’s been some pushback against the laughter and some calls for mutual understanding and so forth. But while it’s true that it’s not nice to laugh at the misfortunes and humiliation of others, I think it’s a reasonable substitute for what we might otherwise feel: unadulterated rage.

    Why? Consider this article from the NYT:

    With their doomsday T-shirts, placards and leaflets, followers — often clutching Bibles — are typically viewed as harmless proselytizers from outside mainstream religion. But their convictions have frequently created the most tension within their own families, particularly with relatives whose main concern about the weekend is whether it will rain.

    Kino Douglas, 31, a self-described agnostic, said it was hard to be with his sister Stacey, 33, who “doesn’t want to talk about anything else.”

    While Ms. Haddad Carson has quit her job, her husband still works as an engineer for the federal Energy Department. But the children worry that there may not be enough money for college. They also have typical teenage angst — embarrassing parents — only amplified.

    “People look at my family and think I’m like that,” said Joseph, their 14-year-old, as his parents walked through the street fair on Ninth Avenue, giving out Bibles. “I keep my friends as far away from them as possible.”

    The NYT (and other stories) talk about children pressured to spread the word, about family members not talking to each other, about college savings being burned. If these are the people who will talk to the Times, you can imagine how much worse it is out there for families who won’t. Growing up in the Bible Belt, I’ve seen friends wounded in the battle between True Believer parents and Heathen children. It’s only made worse when the end of the world is at stake. Imagine all the small children — 10 or under — who’ve been hearing about this for months. As a kid, I sometimes had nightmares about a nuclear war. Can you imagine what it’s like when your grandmother is talking about the End Times every damned day?

    That’s not to mention the clearly mentally ill people this tipped over the edge, like the woman who tried to kill herself and murder her daughters to avoid the tribulations. Or those who ruined themselves financially:

    Keith Bauer, a 38-year-old tractor-trailer driver from Westminster, Md., took last week off from work, packed his wife, young son and a relative in their SUV and crossed the country.

    If it was his last week on Earth, he wanted to see parts of it he’d always heard about but missed, such as the Grand Canyon. With maxed-out credit cards and a growing mountain of bills, he said, the rapture would have been a relief.

    Others had risked a lot more on Camping’s prediction, quitting jobs, abandoning relationships, volunteering months of their time to spread the word. Matt Tuter, the longtime producer of Camping’s radio and television call-in show, said Saturday that he expected there to be “a lot of angry people” as reality proved Camping wrong.

    Another man blew $140,000 of his own savings spreading the good word.

    Now we might be happy to say, “Hey, these gullible idiots got what they deserved”. After all, we’d never follow a doomsday cult and ruin our lives. Only, as — of all places — Cracked pointed out:

    Studies show cult members are just as intelligent, if not more so, than the general public. And around 95 percent of cult members are perfectly sane (when they join up, anyway), with no history at all of real psychological problems. They’re not stupid, and they’re not crazy.

    As social animals we are hard-wired to want to belong to a group. It’s a need as basic and real as hunger or sex. When we get cut off from our group–say we lose a job, or move to a new city, or break up with our girlfriend–we go a little crazy. Cults are very, very good at finding people in that exact moment of weakness, and saying exactly the right things. Those pamphlets that sound so corny and transparent to you, read like a glorious breath of fresh air to somebody caught in one of those rough spots.

    So sure, when we’re in our normal, stable state of affairs we like to imagine ourselves coolly shooting down all of the charismatic cult leader’s stupid-ass claims with the power of pure critical thinking. But remember that the next time you’re drunk dialing your ex-girlfriend in the middle of the night, or stalking her new boyfriend, sneaking into the parking lot where he works and pooping on the hood of his car.

    It’s no accident that televangelists target lonely seniors or that weirdo cults target young people in the early and difficult phases of their careers. In times of stress — and if you hadn’t noticed, our times are pretty stressful even for those of us with families, jobs and houses — there’s comfort in hearing that it all makes sense; that it’s all part of a plan.

    So when I laugh a the rapturists, it’s because it’s the only thing keeping me from punching Harold Camping and his fellows in the face. At best, they are charismatic lunatics who got people to act stupidly. At worst, they’re cynical charlatans who got decent but vulnerable people to turn their lives upside down.

    So no, I’m not prepared to be understanding about this. And I’m not prepared to be understanding about the next End of the World panic — this one coming mostly from the non-religious — about 2012. You can bet that the above stories will be repeated all over again in about 2 years.

    Post-Submission Linkorama

    Saturday, May 21st, 2011

    Non-political links:

  • Some round-up of May 21 humor. Best tweets, God’s computer, the weather forecast and, of course, the housing market.
  • France’s national disgrace.
  • Man, I do like me some Sir Charles.
  • It’s OK to be Takei. Brilliant. The best thing you can do with bigots is to make them look foolish.
  • Lenore Skenazy with two more stories to reminds us that we live in a sane society.
  • Political links:

  • This is why HUD should be cancelled. It’s not because building homes is a bad thing; it’s because our government can barely do anything competently.
  • I like Huntsman. I just don’t think this is his time.
  • Weekend Linkorama

    Sunday, May 8th, 2011

    Non-political links:

  • And now … low salt diets are bad for you.
  • I found this article, from Vanity Fair about the Playboy Clubs of the 60′s oddly fascinating, and not just because of my generalized interest in the opposite gender. Doubtless the clubs were bad bad things. They certainly wouldn’t function today — they’d get justifiably eaten by sexual harassment laws. But the 60′s and 70′s were interesting times in terms of sex. Mad Men, to my understanding, mines that particular retro-chic vein very well. The article also reminds me of the near-innocence in the early days of commercialized sex that has been lost as it has become ubiquitous. Hef, at least in the early days, was great at up-marketing porn. The magazine had legitimately great articles (for which they paid a fortune to writers). Early pictorials were far more tasteful and coy than today and the clubs, from the description, played to that aesthetic. Plus, how cool would it have been to see Aretha Franklin give only her second public performance?
  • On the flip side of that, Cracked dissects one of the most disturbing romance/sex writers out there. Egad.
  • And just to round out a gender-conscious linkorama: this comes from the Fanatics Come in All Faiths file. Hillary Clinton has been photoshopped out of a White House picture.
  • Political Links:

  • Egad. Sugar interests vs. corn interests. Who to cheer for?
  • Of the many things our government could be worrying about, why is raw milk even on the list?
  • A touching note on forgiving bin Laden from a 9/11 survivor.
  • Half of Detroit can’t read. The city is spending $13,000 per pupil on their schooling system. Can we maybe admit that money isn’t the limiting factor here?