Update Schedule

This blog regularly updates on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Second Husband of the Polyandrous Bride of the Quickies Before Work: Quickies After Work

First, simple.wikipedia.org has officially rocked my socks. My first three checks (LHC, Travelling Salesman Problem, Monty Hall Problem) were highly satisfying, but there's nothing yet on the Two Envelopes Problem (my first-ever wikipedia edit!) or the P=NP problem.

Second, these kids didn't pay attention in physics:
And finally, these chicks are bad-asses:

That's all for tonight. In the morning, I'll whine about my own bigotry!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bride of the Quickies Before Work

Remember, kids: lists are cool!
  • The Chariots of Iron guys talk a lot about Direct Relief International, pimping for it as the most efficient charity they've ever heard of. From the Wikipedia page: "Direct Relief International is one of two charities ranked by Forbes that has received a perfect fundraising efficiency score for five consecutive years and is ranked by the Chronicle of Philanthropy as California’s largest international nonprofit organization based on private support." That says it all, to me. I would add them to Ebonmuse's excellent short-list of charities most worthy of donation. Remember these guys as the holidays approach - I know that I will.
  • Due to popular demand (I have popular demand?!), I will be posting my deconversion from Objectivism. Saturday.
  • Norman Borlaug died like two weeks ago, and I totally missed it (I feel like such a shit!). If you don't know who he is, get thee to an educationery!
  • Tomorrow (9/30/2009) is International Blaspemy Day! I'm excited! Are you excited? Get excited! And do some blasphemy!
  • Bill Maher is on heroic probation. I know that the status of just who is and is not my hero is probably not news, hence the Quickie; but Maher made an excellent movie without so much as telling me that he might be into some kookery (at least Ben Stein has started wearing his crazy on his sleeve). I have yet to fact-check, but you can see for yourself in the meantime: Orac (of Respectful Insolence) has a handy list of links at the bottom of an informative post.
OK, off I goes.

101 Interesting Things, part twenty-three: Myostatin

Myostatin is one of the main reasons we're not all mesomorphic hulks: it says to the body, "Hey, you have enough muscle, now start saving up fat in case we're starving later!" Well, it actually doesn't say anything, but you get the idea. It's regulated pretty strictly by genes, and one locus in particular determines whether or not your body makes it at all. These particular alleles are co-dominant, but it so happens that those who are homozygous "for" myostatin are the most common, and so we shall call that "normal." When organisms are heterozygous, they tend to be more on the big & burly side than their kin. But every so often, we find an organism homozygous "for" not having myostatin.

When this happens to whippets, they're called "bully whippets," and they look like they're Photoshopped:
I promise you that this image has not been tampered with. Neither has this Belgian Blue:
Sport animals and livestock are sometimes bred for myostatin deficiency in order to be more adept at whatever it is that they do, whether running races or producing meat for human consumption. It carries complications with it, but so do all genes (some are just more complicating than others). So what happens when this sort of thing occurs in a human body?

Liam Hoekstra is what happens. He was first able to do the Iron Cross at five months old. He's been described as a "real-life Superman," but "real-life Captain America" is more like it (even though he's from Germany), considering the nature of their "powers" both cluster around embodying the peak of human capability. Everybody wants a piece of this kid, and it's actually making his family life pretty difficult. I'll say this once for clarity, and only once because it ought to be a non-issue: private citizens are entitled to private lives and being of scientific curiosity entitles no individual or organization to "a piece" of that person. At the same time, being of scientific curiosity is no fundamentally more or less newsworthy than being a good speller, or a good runner, or a good football player, or a good businessperson, so this definitely qualifies as news (but nobody gets to "do anything" with that news unless it's OK with young Liam and his family). Capisce? Great!

So I think that we can all agree that myostatin is interesting stuff, and it will be interesting to see if Mr. Hoekstra does anything else newsworthy in his life (besides being born with some particularly interesting genes).

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bullshit Pulpit: God gives a statement

Last Tuesday, God came down to Earth and delivered a statement to set the record straight on a few issues. Before speaking, the deity proved its divinity by levitating a woman several dozen feet into the air (and bringing her down safely), conjuring lights in various shapes from thin air at the request of various onlookers, and transmuting a cloth shirt into solid gold (mass spectrometry has confirmed that the shirt is indeed gold, and it has since been un-transmuted and returned to its owner). The entire text of the address follows:

"Good afternoon, everyone. Is this thing on? [God laughs] Yes, OK. Wow, this is going to be awkward. I just got back from vacation, and I see you folks have made a right mess of things. Well, you've done some things remarkably well - congratulations on the Human Genome Project, and good luck to you with the Large Hadron Collider - but there are some other things that haven't gone so well, and I believe it is my duty to tell you where you have gone astray.

"In the first place, I want to apologize for all the awful things that have been done in my name. Really, I am so very sorry, and I don't expect you to forgive me for all of them. But now I want to help set things right, so everyone needs to listen up.

"All holy books are wrong. I mean, most of them have some good stuff in them, but that's largely an accident, and you shouldn't really trust something just because it's in a holy book. You need other reasons besides that to believe something, and you don't even need the holy book to get started. Really, you can probably throw them all out tonight, and everything would be fine. All this religious confusion, I'm sorry to say, is a joke that I took too far. I tried starting up the One True Religion after teaching you speech, but whenever the folks I was working with started putting words in my mouth, I would just abandon them and move on to a different people who I thought might listen better. Eventually, I started telling people any crazy old nonsense that came to mind, since I figured you'd do whatever you felt like anyway - but then some of that nonsense got taken way too seriously, and I guess I have to take responsibility for that. I realize now that you people never listen - or, rather, nobody listens perfectly forever - and I should have been more patient with you all. My bad.

"Also, I don't really know how to say this, but I'm not perfect. Now, I know a bunch of you faithful folk are going to say, 'Oh, well if he's not perfect, then he can't be God,' but you need to listen to me right now: I'm not perfect and I never have been. I said that I was, back in the day, but I was a different sort of person back then. I've had some time to mature, I've gotten over my bad self, and I realize now that it was wrong of me to tell you that I was perfect, especially considering how seriously that's been taken and all the evil that's been done in my name ever since.

"I don't know everything, and I can't do just anything I want. Sure, I'm pretty powerful, but I don't even know how that power works. Kind of like the way that you can digest food with your stomach without knowing how all of that works, I'm just able to do some of this stuff, and I don't know what else to call it but magic. You guys actually know more now about the world than I ever did, in terms of how it works, so keep it up! For my part, I've been using my powers to go from world to world, uplifting life forms to make a galactic civilization one day. Keep it up with your science, leave no stone unturned, and maybe we can all work together in a great galactic federation some day.

"Also, I left Earth in what you now call the fourth century CE. I got fed up with feeling like nobody listened, and so I just left. I went to the Antennae Galaxies, I watched the Death Star Galaxy for a little while, I uplifted some life forms on other worlds to sentience and started better religions that made better societies, I did a whole bunch of things. I think this time away really helped me grow as a person, but I also realize now that it was wrong of me to up and leave you all without so much as saying goodbye. Totally my mistake.

"I cannot apologize enough for the things that I have screwed up in the past. I'm truly sorry, and I humbly ask your forgiveness for the childish ways I've behaved toward your ancestors. I thought you would have left all that nonsense behind you and moved on to a better way, but apparently I was wrong on that, too. At any rate, this is all past, and there are plenty of things that you folks are doing wrong right now, and we need to fix these right away before you all kill each other.

"Most importantly: you are all people. I can't stress that one enough: you're all people, you all have flaws, you all mess things up, but there's nothing more 'wrong' with any one of you than any other. You need to learn how to live with each other and accept each other, no matter how different you are, because you will always be different. If you take nothing else away from this speech here, then please at least understand that it is always, always, always wrong to think of another person as less than you, for any reason.

"There's a whole lot that follows from this, so I'm just going to list a few of those things. Gays should be allowed to marry - shame on you, California, for taking that away from them; and shame on you, Utah, for funding the effort. There have been other noteworthy examples of this evil discrimination - I'm looking at you, Alabama - but California was the biggest one. Marriage is not about children, it's not about man and woman, it's not about anything at all except the love between two or more people. Yes, 'or more.' You're all grown-ups, and if two married people want to bring a third person into their love, or a fourth or a fifth or a twentieth, there is nothing wrong with that. Just be aware that each person only has so much love to give, and it is very hard to divide that up among people in a fair manner. In a way, polyamory is love on 'hard mode,' insofar as it's much more difficult to do right, but it can be much more rewarding if you succeed at it - and way more frustrating when you fail.

"OK, that was the big one. What else... oh, right. Don't kill each other. Ever. It's always wrong. Even if you're defending yourself from someone, you should try to incapacitate your attacker, if possible. There's actually no Heaven or Hell, I don't know how you all came under that impression, but this life is all you have, and taking that away from someone is the worst thing you can do, because it stops them from living a better life and making good on all their mistakes.

"Don't oppress each other, either. Whenever you start saying that it's OK for one group of people to do something, but another group of people can't do that thing, that's when you know you've screwed up somewhere along the way. Don't keep women down, don't keep gays down, don't keep blacks down, don't keep anybody down. You're all people, and so you should all treat each other with dignity and respect.

"Next up, don't trick each other. Everybody tells little white lies now and again, and we shouldn't have to, but sometimes that just works out best. It's still bad, and you should feel bad about needing to do it, so that you don't do it unnecessarily. And even bigger lies, like ponzi schemes, or that thing with Enron a while ago, those are really, really bad. I don't think I need to elaborate further on this one.

"Don't hate each other. This one's the hardest, but the simple fact is that you're all different from each other, and that's OK. If your neighbor does something that you don't like, but nobody's getting hurt - and I mean 'might need medical attention' hurt - then it's probably not a problem. Remember that 'offense' is not the same thing as 'harm.' To actually harm someone, you need to endanger their physical wellbeing, or steal or wreck their stuff.

"And last on the list, don't be meddlesome. Nobody likes being meddled with, and nobody's entitled to meddle with anyone else's life. If you want to do drugs, or have crazy sex, or say naughty words, or play violence-themed games, that's all fine and good as long as you're not actually harming other people. And again, 'offense' is not 'harm.'

"I have to go soon, because I told some people I uplifted on another world that I would be returning, and it's going to take me a while to get there. And I'll come back for you folks, too, in a couple hundred years. Just make sure you stop believing that hogwash from the Bronze Age, and all the new hogwash based on that older hogwash, too. That should make it a lot easier for you people to work together, and then maybe once you've learned to live with each other, you can learn to live with the people from other planets, too.

"This brings me to my closing point, a note about the future and your place in it. You people are really messed up, and part of that is due to me, because I'm messed up. But you were my first people, so you'll always have a special place in my heart. This does not mean that you have a special place in reality, though, and make sure you remember this when you start dealing with other people from other planets. They don't all look like you, some of them aren't even close, but you can't be racist at all when you start dealing with other planets or you will ruin everything. You folks are special to yourselves, and a little bit special to me, but that doesn't really count for much. The other people I've worked with, they're special to me, too. I love them very much, and I will be very upset with you if you don't treat them with respect and dignity.

"Final remarks: stop listening to Fred Phelps. That guy's an idiot. So is Bill Donohue, and the Pope, for that matter. Ahmadinejad's an idiot, too, and so is that Bin Laden guy. So-called 'president' Mugabe, the guy who's ruining Zimbabwe, he's also an idiot and nobody should listen to him. In fact, if this were fourteen hundred years ago, I'd probably be smiting all those people right about now. But they're still people, so I won't. It's up to all of you to stop listening to those idiots and start teaching them about what it really means to be civilized: you accept other people despite their differences, and you work at getting along even when you can't get your way. That's really all there is to it.

"OK, I have to go now. I'll be back in a few hundred years, just don't kill each other in the meantime and maybe we can get things right this go-round. What do you say? Well, I guess I'll just warn the other people about you if things go sour, so don't screw up or you'll be left out of the galactic party. Capisce? All right, I'm gone."

With those last words, God disappeared inexplicably.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Poison for Your Brain: NSFW! NSFW! NSFW!


You have been warned. OK, so PZ Myers (of Pharyngula fame) went and yelled at some yahoo who says that sex with robots is always wrong. I read his stuff, it's future historical fiction and his closing arguments are pretty easy to rebut at every step of the way. It all boils down to this: even if sex is "for" procreation, orgasms are still fun and there's nothing wrong with having one by yourself from time to time, or with someone you just met, or with a robot. Really. Nothing that guy says counts for shit. What matters is the informed consent of all involved adults, and if that's absent, then it doesn't matter whether or not strangers, robots, or anything else is involved - it's wrong because the informed consent is missing, and the robots have nothing to do with it, The End.

Having done my philosophical duty, on to the stuff you're probably still reading for: robot porn! PZ said that nobody should tell this guy that we've got our sex robots already, but he only mentioned vibrators and dildoes (how could he forget about fleshlights?), which leads me to think that that's the limit of his awareness. In truth, we've got so much more! Let's take a tour, shall we?

First off, we've got the Sybian: it's basically a hump that a woman straddles with her thighs, which then hums away and diddles her to her heart's content. Or her vagina's. Whatever. All the parts are individually washable, and if anyone asks you can just say that it's medical equipment! Pretty cool, huh?

Next up, the Venus: or, as I like to call it, the Sybian for dudes. This is more or less a milking machine for your penis. The same sorts of things apply here as do to the Sybian (except this one would fit in a small suitcase), so I'll not repeat myself. Just know that there's some manner of equality in the sex toy industry, at least.

Now, wow, those are already some pretty cool sex robots. But it gets even better, if you can believe that! There's this whole website, fuckingmachines.com, part of the kink.com family of safe/sane/consensual freakery that's kind of leading the way in the porn world. These guys have some things you just wouldn't believe!

Before we get started, a matter of netiquette: I'm not sure whether linking to their images counts as leeching, or whether hosting their images could be seen as some manner of fuckery on my part. As far as I'm concerned, I don't think I'm leeching if I just link to their own domains (I'm not displaying the images, just telling you where you can find them), and I also think that the relatively tiny portion of their work I'm citing is covered under fair use for journalistic purposes. So I'm providing the links both ways (D=me, K=them), and if you feel particularly strongly one way or the other, you can behave as you see fit. And, of course, if I receive any official communication one way or the other from the wonderful folks at kink.com, I shall of course comply with their wishes regarding how they want me to give them free publicity.

That said, check these robots out!
  • First off, there are the hand-tool types of robots, the Drilldo (D/K) and the Fucksall (D/K). If these bother you, then you should probably quit right now (maybe you shouldn't even have started?).
  • Moving on up, there's the BunnyFucker (D/K) for those who like a little more robot in their robot porn.
  • For those who want a lot more robot in their robot porn, there's Fuckzilla (D/K). More for visuals than action, this one just looks fearsome.
  • Then there's the barely-even-humanoid category, such as the Lick-A-Chick (D/K), which is basically a bunch of tongues on a chainsaw.
  • Finally, we've got the not-even-remotely-humanoid category, which includes the Fucking Chair (D/K) and the Dominate Her (D/K). Good luck figuring out that last one.
OK, so why is any of this important? Why did I file this under Poison for Your Brain? Because the idea that any of this is "wrong" is poison for your brain. If you don't want to fuck machines, then don't. And if you don't want to play sports, then don't. But these folks do want to fuck machines, and each other, and they want to do it a whole lot more than most people probably would, and so they put on a show and employ themselves as entertainers for those who want to watch. Exactly like sports stars. They even get dental insurance and employer-matched 401k plans! No joke!

Society has not collapsed. The human race has not gone extinct. Men are not raping women, or vice versa for that matter, any more than they have before (and in fact a good deal less!). This is doing no harm whatsoever. And to the end that the good folks at kink.com are helping people get their rocks off by watching consenting adults engage in whatever the Hell behaviors they feel like doing, this does a lot of good in the world. What's more, kink.com has a significant portion of their enterprise devoted to educating people about how all this stuff works (granted, you'd have to do a bit of work to get any education out of it, but still!), which in my opinion helps liberate us sexually as a culture (one customer at a time!). And over the last few years, they've been adding more and more kinks to their repertoire, showing with increasing clarity that people come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, and helping them all indulge whatever it is that trips their triggers.

And this bozo says that they're causing moral harm to themselves and all of us for having a good time. Fuck him. Literally - I think this guy seriously needs to get laid, before he has a fucking aneurysm. If he doesn't get his balls drained, stat, then he's going to explode in a mess of blood, organs, and semen - hopefully in the middle of church - causing perverts like me to point and giggle at the soaked bystanders and say things like, "Now that's bukkake!" He's got things completely backwards, all because of what some fussy patriarchal savages in the Bronze Age managed to write down between raping, murdering, and pillaging she shit out of each other. I'm telling you, it's poison, and they'd be a whole lot happier if they just let their hair down and realized that there's no wrong way to stick it in the naughty place, as long as everyone involved is an informed, consenting adult. That's really and truly all there is to it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Poison for Your Brain: On the futility of censorship

Wow. I'm gonna need a second for this one.

OK, so I was listening to Chariots of Iron before work this morning, and I just heard this story from June (local news, ALA follow-up). Short version: some douchebags claim that being "exposed" to a book in the library has harmed them in a way that only a hundred and twenty grand can cure. These folks also want to be able to burn the library's copy of the book (because that will totally accomplish anything at all) and reorganize the library's classification system specifically to restrict access to young adult books by young adult readers.

That's right: when you're going through puberty and feel awkward and isolated and need to hear a sympathetic voice the most in your life, the very parents who won't explain all this stuff to you want to make sure that you can't even read about it, either.

This is so stupid, it hurts my brain. Really, I'm having brain pain thinking about what these yahoos have to be going through. Look, it's like this: even if the ideas they wanted to censor are "bad," censorship won't fix it. You know why? Because bad ideas are easy to come up with. You can't kill an idea. Even ideas like censorship and book-burning (you know, actually bad ideas) can't be killed because some cock-pouch with shit for brains will always be able to come up with these leotarded ideas all on his own. It ain't hard.

The only way you can fight against bad ideas is with better ideas. Period. But these people have no better ideas - more to the point, their ideas about censorship and book-burning are the bad ones - so the only thing they can think to do is to shut up the "source" of those ideas. Well, sorry, the source of homosexuality is the world, not the goddamned Devil. The source of sex is the world, not the goddamned Devil. The source of racism is the world, not the goddamned Devil. As a matter of fact, the source of all the people, events, and ideas from which these insular fuckwits want to "protect" their children is the world. So in effect, what these people want to do is shut up the world, shut out reality, and live in a...

...right. They want to live in a pretend fantasy world. Y'know, with angels and Jesus and fluffy-clouded Heaven. Duh. I forgot all about that part.

Fuckin' leotards.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Deconversion as Withdrawal: Just what is this God-smack stuff, anyway?

I've noticed that the term "God-smack" has been creeping into my lexicon, and I wanted to take the time to fully explain its meaning here. I mean it as a triple-entendre, if you can dig it: there is an ancient Greek meaning I wish to evoke, as well as an image of submission to the divine, and drug use to boot. I'll take these by points.

My Greek could be kindly described as next-to-nothing, and my knowledge of how properly to transliterate Greek words into English is even worse. But the word I am talking about is, I think, "θεομαζδα" (pronounced like "theomazda"). I lost my class notes where I wrote it down, so I can't even look up the Greek the professor wrote on the board. I'm worried that I might be remembering it wrong, or even might have been taught wrong in the first place, so anyone who can jump in and correct me on this is more than welcome to do so! (My Google-Fu is weak here.) Anyway, as it was taught to me, this word refers to both the glory and the terror of the divine; it is so incredible, so foreign, so intense, that it inspires both awe and dread, face-planting worship and butt-puckering terror. While the scientifically accurate account of this phenomenon shows that it is the same for praying nuns as it is for monks in the throes of satori, the clinical description takes the edge off the phenomenological wonder of it all. This is good, because we can see that it's actually all in our heads; but it is no less of an experience, for all that.

As I understand it, this emotion is allegedly experienced in the presence of the divine, but it is also experienced by the faithful in moments of great spiritual clarity. I know this because I have experienced it firsthand. When I began to lose my faith, I went to Christian discussion boards for guidance on the issues I was wrestling with. I remember asking just what it meant for humans to be made in God's image - it could not be a literal thing, for that would imply that God had a physical body, which was preposterous. But neither are we mentally or emotionally even close to God, so in what sense are we "in God's image?"

The best answer I received was that the image of God in humanity is like the reflection of the Moon in a lake: if the sky is clear and the water is calm, the Moon's image may clearly be seen reflected in the lake. But if the water is troubled or the clouds are thick, then the Moon cannot be seen so well. I contemplated this, and I saw at once how simple and clear it was, yet also how much confusion the idea has caused in its original formulation. I also experienced a brief reaffirmation of my faith, as I felt closer to God and felt that I could more clearly understand my place in the Universe. I didn't know how I had ever managed to have faith without this understanding, so clear was it to me in that shining moment! I felt at One with All, and it was absolutely wonderful.

But at the same time, I saw how much confusion humanity may fall under, for we do not all understand even so simple a principle as our symbolic relationship to God - and how many more things might be misunderstood in even worse ways? And I despaired at this new thought, and feared for the Hellfire that so many would endure unnecessarily, but for the want of such simple-yet-profound understanding. I saw, then, what it meant to be saved in a fallen world, to truly perceive just how much the world was stacked against us Christians (as I was at the time). The glory and the terror each filled me completely, and I could not process it all at once. I was well and truly out of my mind, stricken by the sheer intensity of the experience.

This is the first sense of God-smack: the glory and the terror of being exposed to the divine well beyond one's ability to understand it. You are smacked by the awesomeness that is your idea of God's greatness, magnified by key parts of your brain ceasing to tell you that there are lines between you and the world. The second sense is related to this feeling, and follows from it, and it may be summarized as submission to the divine will. No matter how great it feels to be theomazdacized, these brief flashes of insight are merely that: flashes of insight. We mortals cannot function while experiencing the glory and the terror, and must shut it out to act in the world.

But God has no such limitations, he is able to understand all that there is, in all of its details, all at once. He to whom All is One has no need to shut out the divine awareness to act in the world, and so he must perforce have clarity at times when I do not; and thus may I go astray. And so God gives me a little "smack," a corrective swat to get me back on the straight and narrow. I should be grateful for such things, of course; knowing God as I did, I trusted him implicitly, and a little supernatural spanking from time to time was much more expedient than digging through scripture and so on and so forth when I just went a little bit astray anyway. I welcomed it gladly, and submitted to it.

This is the second sense of God-smack: the submission to divine will that comes from acknowledging that I am a sinner, and God still needs to keep me in line, so I should be OK with that. When the time is available, God can explain to me until I am satisfied; but at times I may need to be dealt with as a rebellious child, tugged by the ear and dragged onward, kicking and screaming, just so everyone can get on with their day. Thanks, God. Sorry I got out of line. I shouldn't have made you do that to me.

I should clarify that I used to see that attitude as morally upright, and I now see it as sickness. This gives us a convenient segue to the drug-like sense of God-smack, the crippling addiction I felt consuming my soul. You see, I wanted to revel in the agony and ecstasy of the divine all the time; I took God's corrective measures against me as confirmation that he was personally shaping me into something better, and I got very attached to this aspect of the relationship. I couldn't imagine life without it. I was addicted to divinity, hooked on God-smack. The triple-threat of the glory and the terror, the D/s-like implicit trust and abject submission to Authority, and the drug-like habit I was forming, all teamed up and taught me what it meant to be "on fire for Jesus."

But then I made a new friend, and she more or less turned my world upside down. She was a stark-raving atheist, but a lot of what she said made undeniable and intuitive sense to me, and I couldn't shut out the idea that maybe sense was more important than feeling. It took a long time, but she explained things to me in a way that I had never considered before - while she was not the sole cause of my deconversion, she was certainly very much like a catalyst. And so I came to understand that if I was right, then everything was groovy - but if I was wrong, then that would mean I was crazy. Why? Because my intense spiritual experiences, the highs I got from the God-smack, only made sense if I was right in my supernatural suppositions. If I was right, then the God-smack was truly the best stuff ever; but if I was wrong, then I was just getting high off of plain old insanity.

I didn't want to be crazy. More importantly, I wanted to know that I was not crazy. If I was right, then I had all the confirmation I needed in my head - but if I was crazy, then of course I'd see that confirmation wherever I looked for it. I needed something like a second opinion, a different angle to attack the issue from. So I asked myself in earnest: if Christianity is false, then how could I know it? And I started looking for it, and as soon as I started, though I still "believed," the unquestioning faith had been lost. Buddy Skepticism came back to save me from the tight little circle I had reasoned around myself, and though I continued to carry it with me, I had already stepped outside of it and was a wishy-washy seeker.

This, to me, was the essence of my deconversion: the initial consideration that maybe this God-smack wasn't so great for me after all. That was the moment that I lost my faith, and the rest was denouement. I had a long way to go before I identified as an atheist, but there was a transitional period of study and questioning and doubt and generally agonizing over "big questions" (which, as it turns out, aren't quite so big as they seem), and it made for a rather smooth ride from "Evangelical Christian" to "Non-Denominational Christian," followed by "spiritual but not religious," and then finally, "stark-raving atheist." All of that was smooth; the abrupt part was wanting a real answer to that first question: if Christianity is false, then how could I know it?

Looking back, the pattern wasn't that much different than quitting cigarettes has been so far. One day I just set down the God-smack, and though I wrestled with it and overindulged in other things to compensate, it got easier and eventually I was OK. Similarly, the worst of the nic-fits are over, and now I'm just getting on with my life. I still want a cigarette from time to time, and I still think sometimes that it might be nice for a magical sky-daddy to actually exist. But then I realize that, no, I don't really want a cigarette; I have other, more important things going on than smoking right now. And no, of course I don't really want a magical sky-daddy to make all my dreams come true, because that would de-value life and a whole list of other things which just look different from the other side of my deconversion.

There was a pretty big problem, though. That friend of mine I mentioned? Her name was Ayn Rand. She got me into some big trouble, and ironically, it was a Protestant-turned-Catholic professor and a Catholic-turned-Protestant student in a logic class, of all things, that got me out of it (though not back into my God-smack habit). But that's a story for another day.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Poison for Your Brain: Pinch me, I must be dreaming!

Quick, everyone! Go check out this website before midnight! (Thanks, PZ!)

There's no time to debunk this! I have to cram in all the sinning I possibly can before... before... whenever it's supposed to happen, doesn't matter!

So, let's recap my day so far: I had a good night's sleep, I had a productive day at the office, one of my heroes added me to his blogroll (glee!), the roasted corn salsa I made yesterday turned out awesome, ODST drops tonight at midnight, I have tomorrow off, and all the Christians are getting raptured away, too?!

This is too good to be true. Literally. That last clause breaks, like, my entire conjunction! Still, just in case, I hope all the true believers have registered at Eternal Earth-Bound Pets. Y'know, for the pets' sake. That's just the responsible thing to do, if they truly believe and if they care about their pets in a post-Rapture world.

Quickie: Google's at it again:
I guess I can't really blame them for what amounts to "accepting free money." I mean, I'd do the same thing. I just wish these stupid advertising gimmicks didn't work.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Clarification Writ Large: On symbolic jackets and social justice

"But you see, Socrates, that the opinion of the many must be regarded, for what is now happening shows that they can do the greatest evil to anyone who has lost their good opinion."

"I only wish it were so, Crito; and that the many could do the greatest evil; for then they would also be able to do the greatest good - and what a fine thing this would be! But in reality they can do neither; for they cannot make a man either wise or foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance."
When I say that symbols are important, I do not mean in any objective or necessary sense. I simply mean that, as a contingent matter of our psychology, they affect our brain states in ways well beyond their effects upon the "external" world. Yes, this is a false distinction when you get right down to it, but "the differential effects of symbols upon brains vs. rocks" are obviously and significantly different than "the differential effects of hammers upon brains vs. rocks." And anyway, I'm not interested in arguing the illusion of the ego here, since "the phenomenology of brain-having as a private experience" is itself the source and relevant context of this issue. Please be assured that I fully understand I am using a language of convenience here. My goal is to paint a picture that shows the responsible and intelligent harnessing of symbolic emotional content as a noble act, worth every penny of the price paid in harrassment from the opposition and misunderstanding from the Great Many - a price, I shall argue, that we pay no matter what we do.

What makes a symbol be a symbol is that it represents more than it actually is - symbols are cognitive shorthand. In this way, all language, all art, all representative thought, is symbolic: the ideas in our heads of "things out in the world" are mere symbols of those things themselves, and are meant to represent the thing in itself, the inaccessible ding an sich which we cannot "truly understand in its entirety" for the trivially obvious reason that part of this entirety includes things like its exact real-time atomic composition or its true and complete memetic pedigree (depending on whether we're talking about physical or mental "objects" here), and any of a number of relatively useless facts that we unproblematically ignore when crafting our symbols. This gap is recursively inescapable: not only do I have to symbolize a duck for lack of complete understanding, I don't even completely understand the symbol itself as "my idea of a duck," and so I must also have a symbol for the symbol when I try to think of "my idea of a duck, as an idea itself." We do not fully understand our own brains, and so at least as a matter of present contingency, even our symbols can only be conceived of as symbols themselves.

What's more, all our symbols have a sense and a referent, a denotation and a connotation, the thing to which we wish the label to stick and the content of that label as we ourselves have made it. Though the referents can be the same from one person to another in a "good enough" sense for any day-to-day application we'd care to dream up, the sense is always a private thing, and though we may try to communicate this private thing to others (and achieve a great deal of success at times, as I hope to do here), there will always be a gap here, too. Always. This is the very same gap that causes us to need symbols in the first place. Telepathy is the only cure - double-promise.

As a final point of background before I get to the meat of my argument, these connotations are, to varying degrees, packed with emotional content. Symbols don't just have intellectual meaning, they have emotional meaning, too. All of them. "2+2=4," as a representation of a simple mathematical truth, satisfies and reassures me a little bit, but I also find it boring to contemplate for any significant length of time. Our brains keep a sloppy, informal tally of the emotions that have been experienced along with these symbols in the past, and when we are reminded of them (by thought, sight, sound, etc.), our brains dredge up these emotions to remind us of how the symbol has historically made us feel. Though we may deliberately quiet or ignore our emotions, they are always there, and the only sense in which they ever "turn off" is the sense in which our hearts "turn off" between beats - for all intents and purposes, our emotions are a constant running commentary on every aware moment of our lives, however subdued they may be at a given moment.

OK, so we're talking about this culture war that's going on between civilized persons on the one side, who say that unbelievers should enjoy the same freedoms & protections enjoyed by believers, and uncivilized persons on the other side, who say that unbelievers in some way or another are just doin it rong and need to fall in line or accept their place. Balls to that, says I! Insofar as this battle is not fought with literal swords/guns/etc., it is entirely a symbolic one, and we are casting our very best symbols out upon the battlefield like Pokemon and seeing which symbols have the biggest dicks (y'know, to wax symbolic). Wade's caution to avoid attaching our emotions to these symbols and eschew those symbols which hold our very specialest attachments strikes me as an empty one because he seems to be ignoring the context of the entire issue: we're not calmly and methodically arranging Platonic memetic constructs on Platonic cultural substrate here, we're pitting our values against one another in a tooth-and-nail battle for cultural dominance and hoping we come out on top.

I happen to think that we're right, that our methods of arriving at our conclusions are eminently more defensible, that our values are just plain better for any who live under them, and that we can win if only we keep at it. People being the rationalizing sort that they are, the opposition thinks the exact same thing - everyone does - but we take very different approaches to getting there. Point is, at some level, we're saying the same thing: "We are right; y'all are wrong; give us what we ask for and we can all get on with our lives." Being in the minority as we are, our voices can get drowned out at times; we need encouragement to stay in the fight, and this is frelling hard to come by in the public sphere. And so, to remind us of why we fight, of the values behind our efforts, of the bright and shiny future we'd like to see made reality, we create symbols to give us some of that positive reinforcement and encourage us to fight another day. Symbolically speaking, of course. This is a normal and healthy thing to do even when not in conflict, for the general purposes of maximizing utility (if we're feeling formal) and living a joyous life (if we're not) - and maintaining our emotional health is all the more important when it is threatened by derision, distrust, and oppression.

So far, this should all be uncontroversial: I am simply arguing for the intelligent and responsible use of symbols, despite the fact that they may be weaponized against us, and because they can do such a great good to us. Even Silver Garou agreed with me face-to-face that the intelligent and responsible use of symbols is not itself problematic, but his opinion at the time of our discussion was that the problem arises when the Great Many get a hold of these symbols and, well, they fuck 'em up a little - so we need to keep a wether eye to the future even when creating these symbols, on the grounds that the costs are somewhat foreseeable and we should try to minimize the bad consequences while maximizing the good ones. Even shorter: we should be choosy and try to gamble well on our memetic progeny. Fair enough at that! Everything cuts both ways: there is no such thing as an incorruptible good, and there is no such thing as an irredeemable evil (barring, of course, whatever it is that one may stipulate as the standard of good or evil - but that's merely defining your way to victory and not of argumentative interest here).

Symbols have a rather special role in human cultural interactions, though. As banners that may be rallied behind, they can be subverted, split in two, dissolved, forgotten, rediscovered, and perhaps most sinister of all, wielded as emotional cudgels to pressure otherwise normal folk into behaving against their own best interestes and most deeply held values. In a very important sense, symbols are the atoms of the qualia of mind-having: tapping into their power can do both great good, and great harm.

The historical record shows over and over and over again, in excruciating detail and with depressing regularity, how symbols have been weaponized and abused to all manner of evil ends. This is perhaps most obvious in the damn-near-begging-to-be-called-mitotic schisms that have plagued religious traditions: whenever a believing population gets too big to be ruled by a central authority, doctrinal disagreements over the proper use and interpretation of symbols have split the mass of believers in two. Some have led these splits for principled reasons, more have followed for considerably less mindful impulses, but the point is that this sort of zany hijinks is exactly what we want to avoid for our own movement as civilized unbelievers.

But it happens just the same.

To delve for a moment into cynicism, the unwashed masses are a capricious and unruly lot, and we intellectuals cannot ever hope to completely safeguard against their corrupting influence. As Greta Christina wrote in On the Amazingness of Atheists... And Why it's Doomed, our movement is doomed as a movement to descend into the plebeian masses where all other such movements have gone. We infidels, more than any other minority, owe our strength of conviction to the reason, curiosity, intellectual honesty, and willingness to go boldly where we are told even angels ought fear to tread. I'll not belabor the point, as Greta said it better than I can hope to, and if you won't take my word for it then you should see if you feel like taking hers.

The point, as applies to the current discussion, is that we intellectual unbelievers must remain, as philosophers, the conscience of our own movement while it lasts. The key, the sticking point, is knowing how long it lasts. When your average Joe on the street, when a high school dropout from Georgia, when an airheaded model in Perth, when a cowardly radio announcer in London, when a shrill racist in Oslo, when the unprincipled and incurious among us, when the ignorant masses we wish to rise above, when all these people with whom we disagree feel comfortable identifying themselves as the thing we have had to fight so hard to make OK in the public mind, that's when we know we've won. We don't need to eradicate the discrimination completely, we just have to make it OK to be a godless fucking heathen. The discrimination won't disappear overnight, but by the time the teeming hordes have diluted our "intellectual purity," we shall have gotten to the point where our tactics will be outdated and unnecessary to secure the future and social equality of non-theists. From that point, the rest is denouement. And while we're in the lead, it is enough to make sure that we ourselves take care to steward our symbols well; after our part is played, it well and truly does not matter what is done with them, for the rest is gravy and we can't control it anyhow.

There is, of course, always the possibility of a backslide, and we must remain on watch against this just as much as blacks, gays, women, etc. That's really all there is to it - we can't control the Great Many, as Plato knew when he wrote those words above. We can only react correctively to whatever hardships come our way - the rest we should calmly accept as the smoothest sailing we can get.

The killing irony is this: if you're upset that the movement will be infiltrated by "the masses," then the movement as it stands now has become your precious icon. You're getting worked up over "The Atheist Movement," as a symbol, being subverted. And this attitude will prove inimical to progress, as you delay our acceptance by insisting that it's not "for" the foolish, the uneducated, the irrational, and so on. You have forgotten that their numbers secure our equality, and the threat of their shrill, brutish, unthinking retaliation is our deterrent against future injustice. You have become like a cultural Singularitarian, hoping against all reason that we'll reach a critical tipping point and usher in a new age of reason, a new Enlightenment. And maybe our movement will do that - I would informally agree that it stands at least a somewhat better chance of doing so, though I would argue whether that's a chance worth doubling-down on - but do not forget the historical record. Do not forget that collective bargaining has not yet ushered in a Utopia for workers; do not forget that women's suffrage has not yet ended the poison of patriarchy; do not forget that the death of Hitler and the dissolution of the Nazi party has not yet spelled the end for anti-Semitism (or even Nazism in general); do not forget that the desegregation movement has not yet seen the end of the KKK; do not forget that the gay pride movement has a long way to go before we as a species recognize that healthy, happy, sexual love is not limited to one penis and one vagina; and do not do yourself the disservice of expecting that our success as a movement will achieve all of our goals any faster than any of the foregoing, or you will be sorely disappointed.

Please do not misunderstand my intent here: I love the atheiskeptihumanist movement (thank you, Chariots of Iron, for that endearingly clunky and invigoratingly accurate term), and I wish so dearly that we could achieve all our goals and turn the Earth into Secular Heaven. I wholly love and deeply cherish those ideas, I hold them as personal goals, and I recognize that we don't stand a snowball's chance in Hell (mainly because snowballs can't go to Hell, in turn mainly because Hell doesn't exist) of realizing our dreams without doing the hardest goddamned work we can. I am simply saying that we should not let our enthusiasm outstrip our wisdom, and more than atheists, more than skeptics, more than humanists, we should try to see ourselves as representatives of social conscience. Why do you fight for social justice for yourself? Because it's you, or because it's social justice? So why would you stop once you're off the chopping block?

The atheiskeptihumanist agenda is in point of fact behind those of employees, women, Jews, blacks, and "gays et cetera" right now, and we should leverage our full might towards catching up - but once we do, we should then shift our attention to putting out the next biggest fire, whether it's another of ours, or something else, or working all together (I think that would be best, but judging by how trannies got thrown "ENDA" the bus - say it out loud - I don't know if we can really get that kind of solidarity among workers, women, Jews, blacks, the GLBTQQ crowd, and unbelievers). We wear our label with pride right now, and it is our symbol, it is our icon, whether public or private. Like a jacket, it fits right now, and the matter of which jacket we wear or how many we have is a matter of taste and fashion alone (so long as we're all pulling at least vaguely in the same direction). And when our jackets cease to be special or unique, when we see posers wearing them ironically, when we see crowds wearing them unthinkingly, when we see the masses multiplying and varying them unnecessarily and irresponsibly, then we shall know the weather has changed and it shall be time for new jackets.

We'll wear those with pride, too. And I expect each and every one of us to bring to bear the full force of our intellectual and rhetorical might, to the end of popularizing and normalizing them until the normalizing's done, and then it's on to the next social crisis, and the next, and so on and so forth. Social justice is a moving target, and even that is a jacket of sorts, for which I should hope we can one day outgrow our need as well. The important part is that our emotional attachment to our jackets, our pride in wearing them, is exactly the thing which gives us the power to make them popular; the positive things we ascribe to our symbols, whatever they be, are the very things that spur us on to do the good work we do. If you don't need as many symbols as your neighbor, that's OK - and it's OK both ways - and if you see your neighbor getting bent out of shape over one of his symbols, then help him get over his bad self, by all means!

But I hope I've made it clear by now that I think it's kind of silly to say that we should eschew our symbols and their emotional connections just because they have potentially disastrous drawbacks. I mean, so do cars, and we still use them.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Arr, me hearties! It's International "Talk Like a Pirate" Day, yarr!

Avast, ahoy, an' shiver me timbers! Methinks I be the only one o' me mates who can sing this song. Yarr, 'tis a sad state of affairs, an' one I aim to correct:
Fifteen men on a dead man's chest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the Devil had done for the rest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
The mate was fixed by the bosun's pike
The bosun brained with a marlinspike
And cookie's throat was marked belike
It had been gripped by fingers ten
And there they lay, all good dead men
Like break o' day in a boozin' ken
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of the whole ship's list
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Dead and bedamned and the rest gone whist
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
The skipper lay with his nob in gore
Where the scullion's axe his cheek had shore
And the scullion he was stabbed times four
And there they lay, and the soggy skies
Dripped all day long into upstarin' eyes
At murk sunset and at foul sunrise
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of 'em stiff and stark
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Ten of the crew had the murder mark
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
'Twas a cutlass swipe or an ounce of lead
Or a yawin' hole in a battered head
And the scuppers glut with a rottin' red
And there they lay, aye, damn me eyes
All lookouts clapped on paradise
All souls bound just contrariwise
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of 'em good and true
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Every man-jack could'a sailed with old Pew
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
There was chest on chest full o' Spanish gold
With a ton of plate in the middle hold
And the cabins riot of loot untold
And there lay they that had took the plumb
With sightless glare and their lips struck dumb
While we shared all by the rule of thumb
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

More was seen through the sternlight screen
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Chartings no doubt where a woman had been
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
A flimsy shift on a bunker cot
With a thin dirk slit in the bosom spot
And the lace stiff dry in a purplish blot
Oh, was she wench, some shudderin' maid
That dared the knife and took the blade
By god, she was stuff for a plucky jade
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men on a dead man's chest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
We wrapped 'em all in a mainsail tight
With twice-ten turns of a hawser's bight
And we heaved 'em over and out of sight
With a Yo-Heave-Ho, and a Fare-Ye-Well
And a sudden plunge in the sullen swell
Ten fathoms deep on the road to Hell
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

D'arr, hyarr! Drink up, ye scurvy scallywags! An' just fer fun, a blast from me past:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Subtle, with Delicate Notes of Frustration: An open letter to those who think Atheist Activism is counterproductive

I've been thinking a lot lately about the fact that atheists are the most despised and distrusted minority in America. Mainly because it just feels weird to say that. Let me explain what I mean.

In general, the label of "unfaithful" has historically been used to tar a person's reputation and justify all manner of acts upon said person, from the slightly annoying (conversion attempts) to the truly despicable (torture & execution). In America, we don't really see this latter end of the spectrum very much - yeah, there was that one wacko who shotgunned his atheist roommate 'cuz he thought his roommate was the goddamned Devil, but the perpetrator was prosecuted as a criminal and received neither encouragement nor sanction from any state body (of which I am aware, at least). The hoopla and hootenanny from the Shelton family... I don't think that's intelligent enough to qualify as any kind of expression - but I kid, and here I am trying to be the Serious Big-Time Philosopher.

I tried comparing this to the suffering and persecution heaped upon other minorities in living memory, and I quickly realized that there is no comparison. Atheists get the occasional sneer, the once-in-a-while thoughtless statement of bigotry, a heaping helping of caricaturization from people I've never met, and of course a cultural undercurrent of distrust. If you ask me, this is nothing compared to lynchings, legalized beatings, Proposition 8, or the Holocaust (OMFGodwin!), to name just a few examples. Now, that's a very subjective matter, and I freely acknowledge that a great many individual atheists have been treated worse than a great many individuals of other minorities which were, in general, "more heavily discriminated against." This is for the simple fact that there is almost always more variation within groups than between groups.

What I'm trying to say here is, I recognize that maybe I've simply gotten lucky and perhaps not experienced my fair share of anti-atheist bigotry, and I can see how someone who has would perceive the situation differently than I do right now. Bearing that in mind, and in light of the social undercurrent running right against us, I don't think we have it all that bad. This is perhaps because of the fact that atheists can be truly invisible if we wish to be: nobody can read your mind (yet!), so you can hold whatever manner of private beliefs you like and none shall be the wiser to your imaginary thoughtcrimes.

Paradoxically, this could be seen as the greatest obstacle in our path. Individuals, faced with overwhelming opposition, can fake theism more convincingly than anyone could fake white, fake man, or fake straight. We infidels can blend in with the opposition, and that can make us scarier since we could be "lurking among them, woooo," and this exacerbates the problem. Stealth is easy, safe, and totally counterproductive. While the maxim that an unbeliever is an easier convert than a believer (because he doesn't have to be un-convinced of the "false god" first - like there's any other kind) paints us as argumentative targets, it at least frames our differences in a way that fosters discussion and socialization!

And so, because anti-atheist discrimination is typically so non-violent, and because atheists are so shrilly and embarrassingly painted as "bad guys" in the media for trying to claim some space in the marketplace of ideas (bus ads, anyone?), and because it's so much easier for us to remain individually silent than to organize collectively, and because tolerating intolerance is actually a genuinely important part of civilization, we take a lot of heat for being out, loud, and proud. Should we not turn the other cheek, live better than our oppressors even by their own standards, and be content with the freedom of our own minds? Surely it is better to endure what hardships one can, while not imposing hardships unnecessarily upon those less prepared for them.

But this, too, is vanity and vexation of spirit.

Why, yes, we could patiently endure the backlash from our bus ads, and apologize for inciting excitable children to embarrassing behaviors over words on a sign; and blacks could have patiently stayed at the back of the bus instead of fighting for their right to do as they please. Yes, we could patiently endure the backlash from voicing our opinions in public, and not incite the opposition to further annoying nonsense; and gays could patiently avoid holding hands or kissing in public, instead of doing as they please and fighting whoever tries to get in their way. For that matter, we could simply accept the necessity of pretending at faith if we wish to run for public office, or just stay out of the sickening mess that is American politics; and women could have scrupulously married only men with matching political views, and stayed out of the voting business. Any injustice may be met by turning the other cheek, in point of fact.

What I'm saying is that we shouldn't have to. Nobody should. While the discrimination we face tends to be less violent, easier to avoid, and just generally lower-key than that faced by other minorities, this does not excuse the discrimination. Nothing does. It well and truly does not matter how nice any set of water fountains is; either we're drinking from the same fountain or we're not, and that's what counts, The End.

So to those who advocate quiet tolerance of theistic bigotry, to those who say atheists should let theists go their way and not worry too much about being able to go ours, to those who think that the only good atheist is a self-effacing atheist, I say: You are not our friends. You may wish to be our friends, and that's wonderful, but you are acting like our enemies because you are telling us to lie down and submit, you are telling us to restrain our efforts for social change, you are telling us to use our greatest strengths directly against our most deeply held values. I say, to Hell with that, and shame on you for offering!

But wait - perhaps I am being a bit presumptuous for assuming that you, the General Reader, have thought out the implications of your exhortations as thoroughly as I have. Maybe you honestly didn't see it that way, and maybe we've been talking past each other. Well, I have to say that I am hurt that the above chain of reasoning is not intuitively obvious to you, but I do believe in exercising individual patience with other individuals in order to find common ground. After all, we're all people, and people fuck up & hurt each other from time to time. That sucks, but we have to live with it. How can we move gracefully forward from here, together?

Well, it's like this: we don't want to forcefully remove religion from people's heads, we don't want to take their gods away from them, we just want to have our own elbow room like everyone else. We are willing to let the believers continue to think and express whatever they like, provided they extend to us the exact same courtesy and in all the same ways. Right now, they do not. There is a social asymmetry, and that is the root of our complaint, that is where the bigotry is. It's subtler than many other forms of bigotry, and while that makes it easier to live with, it makes it all the more frustrating when we hear that we ought to live with it. I mean, I'd rather live with this than with Jim Crow laws for atheists, to be sure! But what I'm saying is that a free society and an unrestricted marketplace of ideas entails that neither of these injustices should be an option. We should not have to settle for this. And we don't want to, so we're not gonna.

So if you think that the morals of religion are better than those available to atheists, fine. Go on and disagree with us. If you think that the benefits of religion outweigh its costs, fine. Go on and disagree with us. If you think that religion enriches the human experience instead of warping and stunting it, fine. Go on and disagree with us. We can disagree on these things; it's OK, I promise. In fact, because I like you so much for even trying to give good advice, dear General Reader, I will even go so far as to double-promise. We can get along just fine without getting our way on these issues, no matter how long the disagreement goes, just as long as there is a social symmetry that allows us to breathe freely in an environment of vigorous debate and intense disagreement. We're really OK with this! But if we ourselves aren't also being afforded these very important courtesies, if we are being told to sit down and shut up, if we are told that who we are is just too much for some to tolerate and that's our bad, if we are told that we're better off pandering to the delusions of superiority that so often occur as a side effect of the God-smack, if we aren't also double-promised by the opposition that it's OK for us to disagree with them, then we're not getting along. And that's just not cool. And when you're not cool, then nobody's going to listen to what you want to say.

So help us get our two scoops of justice as swiftly and satisfyingly as possible, or get out of the way, or accept that we won't take anything you say seriously; because we aren't interested in entertaining the opinions of people who have neither constructive suggestions nor even passive support. Pro tip: telling us that it is counterproductive to be who we are and speak our minds openly and honestly is tantamount to telling us that openly and flagrantly defying injustice does not combat injustice. Or like saying that condoms exacerbate the spread of HIV. It's false, and it's so blatantly false that it's an insult.

Poison for Your Brain: Barnacle Man

Barnacle Man, Barnacle Man
Doin' the things a barnacle can:
Barnacle Man
That's a gross oversimplification, to be sure. But... look, I can't really do it justice. You should read it. The Good Doctor is eloquent in his scathing diatribe, and I should be so lucky as to inspire a tenth of the passion in my own readers as he inspired in me.

I will share a couple of choice comments, though. Barnacle Man wrote:
[Curious persons] take no heed of the warnings issued in Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus," Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," H.G. Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau" and Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (not to mention the myth of Pandora and the Incredible Hulk).
To this, semiprometheus responded with poignant rebuttals:
As a side note, Fish's fictional examples leave something to be desired:
Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein": The true "sin" was Frankenstein rejecting and abandoning his creature.
H.G. Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau": Despite what your English teacher told you, this is really a parable about God creating bestial but thinking beings, and oppressing them with a simplistic Law that denies their bestial nature.
Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde": The "serum" is merely a MacGuffin to explore a concept, that man has cruel and bestial urges restrained by reason and social pressure.
Pandora: Like the rest of the Prometheus myth, the real point of this story is that the gods are jerks.
Incredible Hulk: In canon, Bruce Banner's had his accident while trying to save a hapless youth who wandered into the test area. Also, the Hulk's real problem is anger management, not to mention an army of idiots who don't realize hurting him makes him stronger.
(I haven't read "Dr. Faustus", so I've no idea if Marlowe's text supports an interpretation aside from the superficial.)
And, of course, I got to chime in!
I find it tremendously ironic that Barnacle Man cites Marlowe's version of the Goethe play. You see, my last name is Faust, so I take this sort of thing kinda seriously (but I also realize that this is viciously arbitrary on my part). I own three copies of the Goethe play, and my favorite translation (Kaufmann's parallel) opens with:
I have, alas, studied philosophy
Jurisprudence and medicine, too
And worst of all, theology
With keen endeavor, through and through
And here I am, for all my lore
The wretched fool I was before.

I don't want to go on at too much length, but Goethe's play is complex and lends itself to layers and layers of interpretation. By stark contrast, it will suffice to say that Marlowe's play came to be presented as a comedic farce. It was a laughably unworthy abuse of the source material - much as our Barnacle Man poetically abuses the luxuries of his station to denounce the principles responsible for bringing him those luxuries.
This is a microcosm of how things are going over there. If this struck you as interesting in any way, then by all means, just go read it!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Symbolism Shmymbolism

Gary Larson is the man, and The Far Side rocks my socks. The thing you dismiss can end up crushing you, whether a symbol you eschewed or the threat of a symbol which you ignored. It all cuts both ways here.

The above is meant to set the tone: this is a silly-yet-serious issue. I was talking with my roommate about marking some of my shirts with a scarlet letter, because I'm becoming increasingly fond of the idea. You see, in Nathaniel "I waste no periods" Hawthorne's novel, Hester Prynne was forced to affix a red letter A to all of her clothing so that everyone would know she was an adultress. Over the course of the novel, Hester flouts the conventional morality of the time by integrating the badge of shame into her identity, making it a part of who she is and generally being OK with that. This drives certain persons up a goddamned wall, and for that, Nathaniel "Three sentences a page - I counted" Hawthorne gets points in my book.

As anyone likely to read this is probably already aware, the scarlet A has been hijacked - and I mean that in the best possible way - by Richard Dawkins for his Out campaign. I, for my part, am a collector of symbols: I grew up moving around and came to define myself by the stuff I have, and in order to avoid feelings of loss at losing parts of myself whenever I lost stuff, I would simply try to pick the most symbolically important things and I keep them all in one place. So, naturally, this is the kind of thing I would absolutely go ga-ga over: it's a subtle yet distinct thing I can do to publicly symbolize an important part of who I am. The A fits for atheism, adultery (the kind of Christianity I dropped regards premarital sex as adultery against one's future spouse), and apostasy; all things regarded as evil by the church, but which I see as badges of honor, not shame. (I just today added the scarlet A to my sidebar, too.)

Well, my roommate counseled me against such action, as it could be confused with this:
I call shenanigans! I mean, really? Really?! You're going to take the scarlet A in the same goddamned font and try to steal it from the atheists for your own bullshit apologies? Come on! That's just stupid. But whatever, it doesn't really matter, because symbols are ambiguous and may mean many things. It's really OK for the Big Red A (or BRA, for short) to mean "adultery," and "atheism," and "apologia," and apostasy, and ataraxia, and asceticism, and fucking anything else! In fact, the more BRAs there are, the more options people have, and the more people know about BRAs, the more they'll talk about them. This gets people rubbing elbows and communicating with the opposition, and communication smothers hate. So you can have your BRA, and I can have my BRA, and everyone can wear a BRA and things will be just great! And if some people want to burn their BRAs, they can go ahead; if others want to show off their BRAs, that's also just fine; and maybe even some will want to keep their BRAs out of sight, and this too is acceptable.

Enough of that. My roommate also pointed me to this post over on Friendly Atheist, and the closing gave me pause for thought:
I think we should avoid symbols and special objects that evoke our affection as much as we possibly can. Although we may like to think that we’re above all that, we can end up magicalizing them and forming irrational attachments to them.
Hmm. OK, first of all, I agree entirely with Wade that people "can become emotionally attached to the object itself as well as the concept it symbolizes." That's just plain correct, and he's also correct that we should watch out, for a whole host of reasons. This tendency can distract us from that which the symbol represents, it can be used to manipulate our emotions, and it can be confused with other symbols or have its meaning changed over time. Symbols are complicated stuff!

But should we avoid them? I respond with an emphatic Hell fuck no!

See, we're humans, and symbols are important to us. They just are. It's a fact of our psychology that we have to live with. Furthermore, language is symbols, and there's no getting away from that, The End. We do not comprehend things in their entirety, i.e. there is always a gap between "the idea of X in my head" and "X itself out in the world," and so we use symbols as a shortcut. Symbols serve as mental abbreviations, as cultural shorthand, as useful signifiers of complex concepts to which we may wish to refer with frequency but not at length. So in the first place, symbols are unavoidable.

But wait! Wade only said that we should avoid the ones that evoke our affections, lest we magicalize them. I still disagree wholeheartedly: while we should still be wary of symbols being weaponized against us, we should deliberately seek and create stirring symbols to instill with our own sense of meaning. As humans, we require positive reinforcement, and emotionally-charged symbols of the things we believe in can help with that. They also serve as banners for like-minded individuals to rally under in service to causes: associating a sense of community and working together with a simple symbol works both ways, as seeing the symbol later can bring up all of those positive connections. (EDIT: In light of conversation with Silver Garou in the comments and face-to-face, I wish to clarify that I think it's OK for small groups to do such rallying, but I do not think that there needs to be a symbol for all atheists to "get behind" - in other words, it's OK for as many people to "play football" as wish to do so; but that's different than saying "everyone should play football," which proposition I do not endorse.) And as the most distrusted and despised minority in America, I think that we atheists have considerable need of this sort of reinforcement.

We must still be wary of the magicalization, and be prepared to take a step back whenever our symbols cause us any sort of grief. That is the time to say, "Well, it's just a symbol," and review our priorities, and work on what really matters. In a way, this actually gives us an even greater advantage over other demographics: if we can cherish our symbols for their benefits, and inoculate ourselves against their abuses, then those who would seek to use our symbols as a weapon against us will simply be wasting their time. And the more time they waste on pointless bullshit, the less time they spend actually getting in our way. Furthermore, the less our symbols may be used against us, the more frustrated the opposition becomes - and so, without lifting a finger, we shall be allowing the opposition to demoralize itself. What more could we ask for?

So by all means, symbolize, symbolize, symbolize! We need our symbols just as much as any other homo sapiens, and when treated with the proper respect and precautions, we have much to gain and nothing to lose from them. Symbols only have the power we give them, after all, and selectively conferring this power upon them makes them all the more advantageous to us.

Oh, and by the way, I found a wonderful solution to my dilemma: many of my t-shirts have exactly one letter A on them. My new plan is to color them red. Simple, subtle, symbolic. The perfect win, in my book. Nathaniel "'Run-On Sentence' is my middle name" Hawthorne would have been proud - and I'd take his opinion rather seriously on this subject.

This post was featured in the 43rd Humanist Symposium.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Poison for Your Brain: Google Feeds the Crazies

Well, OK, maybe not. But today's Google doodle is on crop circles:
This reminds me of a dude who... well... look, I'm ashamed to say I know this guy:

Yeah. I don't like him, he's just been... around at some of the campus stuff I've attended. I see him all the time.

Listen, folks. It's like this: get a sheet of plywood and some rope, carry it vertically out into the field, steam the bases of the plants, and then you can make whatever kind of crop circle you like. They did it for Signs, and creative country bumpkins with too much time on their hands have apparently done it for years before. People even do this for money, apparently.

Bottom line: they don't mean anything. Tool-bag.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Call Ripley! Mormon calls it like he sees it, and winds up right.

TL;DR version: "Hey! Mormons! Look, honest people sometimes get weirded out when they find out some facts about our religion's history! If you want to talk to them, you need to understand this and take it into account."

Reverse-Engineering Religion, part three: We Are Building a Religion

Writing a holy text, even a joke one, can be a daunting task. I mean, not only does one have to deal with the theists, who may almost always challenge one on the basis that one is not taking religion seriously enough (perhaps for even presuming to write one); but one must also deal with the atheists who may almost always object that religion is being given too much deference (perhaps for even presuming that it deserves any attention at all). I aim to split the middle, and fall outside of both previously mentioned "almosts." I hope to accomplish this by designing a religion that is at least considered to be OK by all who hear of its premise. Here is my opener, that premise, for the holy text of the twenty-first century religion, and I'd like to know what... well... I'd like to know what everyone thinks of it, but I'll honestly be happy to find out what anyone thinks of it.
Above all else, understand these words: two commandments, and two alone, must you attempt forever to teach to all whom you meet, no matter how different, and no matter how long it may take. First, an appetite for unbridled reason and curiosity, that they might understand these words, and think upon them, and even question them loudly and without shame. For I tell you, if the many convince the few, then all shall have increased understanding; the few shall understand the many, and the many may witness the corrective power of right. And if the few convince the many, then all shall be done a valuable service; the many shall understand the few, and the few shall see the transformative power of right. And second, more simply, but equally as important: that which may be accomplished by working together is always greater than anything accomplished by working against any other.
I should note that perhaps the most fun aspect of writing a holy text is that I am afforded the luxury of picking and choosing what I will justify. It makes it easier to decide when to dive into the serious justifications for this or that; really, this is a point for humanism and a point against all moralities based upon divine fiat, for the simple reason that I can appeal to the things on which we merely agree on a direct basis, yet I may also justify rigorously (and even at great, plodding, unnecessary length) those things which I think need more thorough proof. Fun times!

So yeah, theists and atheist alike: what do you think of the above? Genuine truth, or silly bullshit? Honestly, if you think I've made a misstep, then please try to correct me because I am aiming for genuine moral truths here. I want to ape religion so goddamned well that nobody can tell without reading these blog posts, but do religion so goddamned well that it actually takes root in our culture. Be as critical as you can, even if you don't actually want to criticize; it shall only make me stronger, for I have the power of BALD ASSERTION! Woo!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Reverse-Engineering Religion, part two: Purposes and Mechanics

In general, my goal with this little project is to design a mind virus that captures the benefits religion confers upon people, while doing away with its most grievous harms. If you've heard Patton Oswalt's bit on Sky Cake, then the analogous goal is to build a Sky Cake that is genuinely better in every way. The challenge of building a better religion is that it must preserve the good that religion does for people and in the world, while at the same time staying consistent (or at least out of conflict) with non-religious accounts of ethics, astronomy, etc. In other words, the consequences of this reverse-engineered religion must come out good on a humanistic analysis, satisfying the moralities of atheists and sparing their intellects wherever possible, while at the same time satisfying the emotions and faiths of the believers.

Perhaps the greatest perceived benefit of religion is that it is able to help some people come to terms with their mortality. The best possible religion must retain this benefit; this may also be accomplished with reason alone, and atheists are living proof of this. However, the mechanism by which religion accomplishes the same feat is an emotional one, not a rational one; whatever the cause, reason just doesn't do it for believers. So the best of all possible religions must deliver an emotionally satisfying account of mortality which appeals to a naive sense of fairness (so that naive people will buy it), while at the same time actually conferring the rather unique tranquility that comes with knowing that one shall die and truly accepting that fact with a calm heart. Remember that I am not forsaking sophisticated and non-religious morality - appealing to the naive as well as the sophisticated is a challenge and a half, and I'm trying to take it all in one bite here.

A related benefit is the problem of evil: atheists deal with the problem of evil in the only way they can, i.e. with reason. Evil exists, and with no observable intelligence behind the Universe at large, we ourselves must be the ones to work against it at every step of the way with no outside help, unfair as that is. Again, while this is intellectually sound and, in my experience, tends to bring a modicum of steely resolve to one's life, it lacks the emotionally satisfying purposive account of evil's origin which believers seem to crave. If this is to be a better religion as a religion, then the emotional impulses that keep so many in the firm grip of faith simply must be satisfied. Remember, I'm playing for keeps here: religion's hooks are many, and dirty, and they strike deep. To succeed in this task, I will need to be even better at this game.

Another benefit of religion is social cohesion. While equanimity in the face of inevitable* death and evil is of great personal benefit, social cohesion is an even greater one, though it tends to go relatively unnoticed. The fact of the matter is that human beings always find a way to foster a sense of community; religion codifies this in tradition and shared beliefs, which gives it more long-term and far-reaching effects than memes such as, for example, Local Sports Team Rocks, or Tuesday Night Parties Are The Shit. Any religion may be believed by anyone, anywhere, at any time; and so the best of all possible religions must foster a greater sense of social cohesion than even this transcendent bond between believers. The best way I can think of to accomplish this is by strict moral injunctions to embrace outsiders - or in other words, to foster total social cohesion for its own sake, and not as a fringe benefit to members only. Exclusion must be demonized, and inclusion exalted, for this religion to stand out among its peers as a force for helping people get along even when they're not all getting their way.

These are the purposes towards which this experiment shall be bent: encouraging acceptance of mortality, providing an emotionally satisfying explanation of evil, and the fostering of universal social cohesion. These purposes shall be pursued as ends, and the means to them I shall describe below as the mechanics of this religion.

Concision. Religious texts in general tend to be long, boring, tortured, and self-contradictory. This thing I'm doing here, yeah, it's not gonna go like that. People simply have better things to do with their lives than hole up in a monastery and copy scripture, and a modern religion needs to take this into account. There will be a holy text, and it will be full of mythic storytelling and instructive parables and so on and so forth. But these principles, unlike those that developed orgainically from naturally occurring religions, have the advantage of a single author with an eye to consistency: me! Also, I can make sure that I'm not promoting outdated cultural mores, as so many religions do. My intention with the short holy text is to cut out the riff-raff of boring nonsense and backwardness that plague the literary meanderings of most (if not all, I don't know for sure) religions.

Clear Humanistic Moral Priorities. Any moral theory worth its salt will be consistent, coherent, and well-reasoned. Remember, however, that though this reverse-engineered religion is designed by reasoning processes, it is not designed to appeal to reason. Instead, the morals will be conveyed along emotional lines; it just so happens that all these emotionally-phrased moral codes will have solid rationale available. In other words, the reasoned path to this new religion's morality shall be clear and available, but it is a long one; so the shortcut of faith, which so many claim to use for their morals anyway, shall be made available to those who lack the time, intellect, or inclination to engage in such philosophically oriented pursuits. Hell, I'll even include some good solid rationale, and make this the more esoteric part of the holy text, bottom-lining it for the lay reader in clear and certain terms in the "mainstream" parts.

Peek-a-Boo God, or "God of the Gaps." Whatever the creative force behind reality as we know it, it has to hide in gaps. These gaps are continuously narrowing, so I'm thinking I'll have to posit a parallel universe which cannot be accessed by mere mortals, and can only be conceived of by "secret knowledge." The point is that this is supposed to be unfalsifiable, but not in conflict with scientific knowledge (whether currently available or forthcoming). This is still a tough row to hoe, as the gaps of science are a moving target - or rather, an ever-shrinking target, but shrinking in unpredictable ways. I basically have to predict where science shall tread, and take care to deliberately avoid crossing paths with it for as long as possible. I think that avoiding conflict with science is going to be the hardest part. This is why, in the spirit of the above (on morals), I shall also make explicit the below:

Deference to Science. In point of fact, the best way to learn about the world is to look at it. However, how we look at the world counts, and so our investigations will perforce be constrained by the ways we are able to look. If we humans, or even just one of us, received allegedly divine communications which were reliably borne out by reality - in other words, if miracles were promised and then unambiguously delivered - then this would be a perfectly acceptable means of looking at the world. However, to the best of our ability to determine whether or not this is actually the case, it appears not to be the way the world works. And so we must ply the world for its secrets with silky smooth science. It is important to understand this point, whatever we are investigating, and be sure to investigate the world in ways which involve testable, tentative ideas. This means that our reverse-engineered religion will have to be genuinely adaptable, while maintaining the appearance of claiming to have access to the One Truth of the Universe. Peek-a-Boo God helps walk this razor's edge of competing values - believing we have the One Truth of the Universe, and being willing to defer to science as needed - but there is no way to guarantee a permanent solution to this problem, as some ideas are simply not compatible with reality once we discover that bit of reality. And, science being the progressive up-and-comer that it is, we still have quite a bit to discover and we can't say for sure what metaphysical propositions will or won't (or even "can or can't") be ruled out by scientific investigation.

This, to me, is the most important point: I want to do my damnedest to avoid the asinine chicanery that is Creationism, Geocentrism, Flat Earthism, and so on and so forth. However, as a religious advocate in this highly specific case, I also want to overstep the bounds of legitimate science. My goal in accomplishing this tightrope walk, as mentioned above, must take the form of abject deference to science in all empirical matters, casting my supernatural claims as far from the realm of investigable phenomena as possible while still remaining intelligible to the general readership. In other words, atheists will remain unconvinced (and justly so, for we're right), but all the world should be able to see that this is a damn sight better than any extant religion on any sensible analysis.

* - Here I mean only that some death and some evil is inevitable; these problems can't be "solved forever" and we will be better off if we can accept what we truly cannot change while still changing all that we can. Tough line to walk, I know, I'm just saying that we should give it our best shot and be happy with that (unless we think we can do better, in which case that wasn't really our best shot, now was it?). In other words, we should try to be happy with as much good as it is in our power to do - no more, and no less.