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Archive for May, 2013

It’s just over a year since I last put my face on the internet to make noises with it. No promises it won’t be that long till I get around to it again. I’ve got a wedding to plan, I’m far too busy to be messing around with stuff like this. It is still quite fun, though. For me at least.

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Here’s another reason why – as I’m still often asked – atheists spend so much time banging on about something they don’t believe in:

When your house gets destroyed by a natural disaster, some people seem to assume that you’ll want to express your gratitude to the supreme fascist that, as well as taking away everything you own, he didn’t also choose to murder you.

Great reporting there by Wolf Blitzer, whose own name sounds like one of the many honorifics a Norse god might have earned.

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Sometimes, as I read some new and unsurprisingly depressing political story, I can feel my own tendencies plunging ever further toward the anti-authoritarian left even as the words scroll slowly past my eyes.

I can be minding my own business, catching up on recent events in the worlds of politics and pop culture in my news feed, or watching the latest iteration of the ongoing gender politics nightmare explode across the atheoskeptosphere.

And then a North Carolina Senate Committee chairman perfectly encapsulates the inevitable feeling of superiority that festers in the ones with privilege and power, as well as the accompanying contempt for those lesser wretches who simply exist on a level of society barely worthy of recognition or respect. And he does so in a few neat, elegant phrases:

I AM THE SENATOR.

YOU ARE THE CITIZEN.

YOU NEED TO BE QUIET.

…aaaaaaaand anarchist.

But don’t blame this guy. His only crime is believing the hype.

Everything about the US political system which elevates people to these positions of authority reinforces the idea that members of elected office are better, more important, more powerful, more consequential, more right, than the unwashed masses from which they ostensibly arose.

And this system, frankly, is unacceptable.

It’s not worthy of us, because it gives us characters like Tommy Tucker, quoted above, who completely lose sight of any desire to serve the public good – charitably assuming that was something which once motivated him – in favour of telling the plebs to pipe down whenever a hint of representative democracy gets in the way of his career.

And it’s not worthy of Tommy Tucker, because he’s a human being like the rest of us, and he deserves better than to have his worst tendencies nurtured at the expense of his humanity, and to be turned into even more of a selfish, despotic, bureaucratic thug than he would have managed on his own.

Individuals like him are not the root problem. We’ve had centuries to find ways to populate our representative democracy with good people who won’t cock it up. If it was going to happen under a system remotely resembling what we have now, we’d have got there ages ago. We should be seriously looking for an alternative to this “if only the right party would win” thinking. Otherwise we’re just going to carry on repeating the same action and expecting different results. (Someone had a word for that, though I suspect it may not actually have been Einstein).

The system is not good enough. We can do better.

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Bah, I completely missed that it’s Everybody Draw Mohammed Day until Crispian’s reminder. It’s too late to do anything new about it now. Time for a repost:

You can go back and read what I thought about this three years ago, if you’re desperate for an opinion. It hasn’t shifted much since then.

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See, the thing is, religion isn’t all bad.

*FIRST PARAGRAPH CONTROVERSY KLAXON*

It’s not, though. But it’s still a long, long way from the best we can do.

The Skeptics with a K framed some ideas interestingly in a recent episode of the podcast. They were talking about the classically bullshit-ridden debate over whether religion or atheism has directly caused more historical death and suffering, and which is therefore “worse”.

The first thing to remember is that this is entirely disconnected from the question of whether God exists, or whether any religious ideas are reasonable to believe based on the available evidence.

But, even while there have certainly been religiously motivated murders numbering well into the millions, and also genocidal regimes led by atheists, I’m increasingly of the view that there’s nothing useful to be gained by trying to determine any sort of comparative body count.

As I think Mike pointed out on the show, the idea of atheism being responsible for murder seems ridiculous on its face; there’s no way to logically get from “there is no god” to “I should kill a bunch of people”, without adding a load of unrelated shit in the middle.

But then, theism doesn’t directly result in or endorse killing anyone either. There’s no more a logical way to get from “there is a god” to “I should kill a bunch of people”, without also adding a load of unrelated shit in the middle.

Unfortunately, adding a load of unrelated shit in the middle is precisely what religion tends to do. Hence “I believe in God” leads, blunderingly and meanderingly and by way of numerous distortions and corruptions, to the Crusades, the lynching of homosexuals, and all the rest.

And on the flipside, you have religious charities, and the unavoidable fact that belief in God, however mistaken, often engenders a kindness and desire to do good works in people of faith.

Atheists are always quick to point out various things when this is brought up – that historic religious institutions are in a much stronger position to provide infrastructure and funding for charitable organisation, that organised atheism hasn’t had centuries to establish a similar community that can embark on charitable projects, the name of the biggest lending community on Kiva, and so forth – all of which is quite correct. The idea we’re rushing to counter, in these cases, is the common claim that believing in God makes you a more compassionate, more generous, better person, than being an atheist. We’ve been told often enough that we all have no reason to be moral, and so that’s the bullshit we most easily react against.

But there are other things to be taken from the observed association between religion and charity. It’s not a condemnation of atheism to note that some forms of religion, as a system, are pretty good at arranging, organising, and motivating people to do good things, behave kindly and compassionately, and strive to alleviate suffering.

It’s also pretty good at helping people justify and rationalise the most grossly inhumane atrocities of which humanity is capable.

So it’s a mixed bag. Racist genocide and feeding the hungry are two things people are entirely capable of, with or without religion – but which religion often exacerbates and supports.

So, can’t we have one without the other?

It’s not that hard to conceive of a better system, which does more of the good things, and less of the bad. We could identify the parts of religion (or any other system) that are beneficial, separate out the ones that are harmful, and organise ourselves in a way that promotes and encourages charity without also helping people rationalise and justify tyranny and cruelty.

It should be possible. It doesn’t seem likely that, if you want everyone to be better at sheltering the homeless and not passing by on the other side when someone’s in need, you have no choice but to accept the corresponding tendency to lead armies against anyone else who’s basically trying to do the same thing as you but gives it a different name. We can surely have compassion without religiously inspired evil.

Atheism isn’t this system. (Though I suspect, and urge, that many people acting this way would be atheists.) Humanism might be it, or at least might be a few steps down the right path. It doesn’t need to be any more formal than that, nothing with an official hierarchy and rules and whatnot. Just a set of ideas, picked and chosen to help us do the best we can.

Skepticism and critical thinking are also positive things, and any belief systems we have in place should encourage and nurture these things. Religion often tends to be hostile to genuinely honest and open questioning of ideas – not always, but it throws up some serious roadblocks. So let’s see if we can’t do better.

The claim that religion is never any good for anything doesn’t hold up, but atheists shouldn’t feel they’re conceding anything important by abandoning it. Many people cling to their faith as a source of comfort and reassurance, in times of difficulty and pain. It does them some good, in a situation where simply removing it and replacing it with non-belief would not be better for them.

What’s important, though, is that religion is not the best we can do. Not by a long way. The comfort it provides comes only at the expense of a rational approach to the real world. It lets you feel better, but only by believing false things.

Can we improve on that? Can we come up with an approach which helps and supports and comforts people, and allows us to help and support and comfort each other, while remaining grounded in the real world, letting both compassion and rationality drive what we believe?

Christ, I hope so.

It’s unhelpful to focus too fixedly on whether “religion” or “atheism” is responsible for any of history’s great mass slaughters, because nothing’s that simple. But there are things to be learned about different approaches one can take to the world, and what kind of institutionalised behaviour these approaches tend to engender. Authoritarianism and inflexible thinking are strongly connected with cruelty and tyranny, and religion is by no means the best way we have of avoiding authoritarianism and inflexible thinking.

The demonstrable falseness of religious claims is ample reason to reject them; the regularity with which bigotry, hatred, and aggression are backed up by religious motivation should be ample to strongly compel us toward a more optimal system of organising ourselves to do good things.

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Today I bring you a different kind of grumpy intolerance, and also some poetry. I’ll probably be a prosaic hippy again later.

So Twitter is this place where people like being funny and making self-referential jokes about stuff. Other shit goes on too, but it’s the bit with all the parodies and creatively amusing pop culture references I’m interested in now.

In particular, there have been any number of accounts created in the name of fictional or historical characters, which emulate their style of speaking and writing. One of my favourite examples from days of English yore is Dr Samuel Johnson, and there are plenty more of that ilk.

And while much of this is great fun to follow and join in with, you can probably guess (even if you aren’t familiar with Sturgeon’s Law that predicts it) that a lot of these accounts are crap.

I don’t want to pick on Shakespeare Lyrics in particular – there are surely numerous worse offenders out there, and there’s nothing that offensive about some dismal “songs in archaic language” – but it’s had the ill fortune of irritating me with its unimaginativeness a couple of times now. Also, it has over 30,000 follows, and got over a thousand retweets for this:

We art never, ever, ever, becoming reunited

Seriously? That’s a sufficiently authentic Shakespearean adaptation of a Taylor Swift lyric to impress over a thousand of you?

I can’t find the tweet now that first bugged me a couple of months ago (I’m not entirely certain it was the same account), but it was a fairly similar cut-and-paste job of some olde worlde vocab into a couple of lines of Sir Mixalot. More or less off the top of my head, I tweeted an example of how it’s meant to be done:

“Rebecca, such a strumpet do I spy! / A hip-hop minstrel’s wench she doth resemble!”

“A curvèd rear’s most pleasing to mine eye / On this point, ’tis beyond me to dissemble.”

Now, I’m not going crazy, that’s pretty good, right? Assuming you know the song, that’s a recognisable paraphrasing of “I like big butts and I cannot lie”, and it’s in actual iambic pentameter, right? It’s not just me?

Anyway nobody noticed because I’m not a Twitter megastar and life moved on.

Today Kirsty goaded me by retweeting another effort from the same account:

Oh Mickey thou art indeterminately divine, thou art indeterminately divine thee explode my cerebellum, greetings Mickey, greetings Mickey.

Fucksakes.

Okay, first: scientists didn’t even begin to understand the cerebellum’s function until the 1800’s, so it’s unlikely Shakespeare would have mentioned it at all, let alone used it as a casual synonym for “mind”.

Secondly, there’s still nothing that scans. You’re just swapping in some high-falutin’ words with no context and expecting us to be impressed. And thousands of people are, depressingly. Currently 8,129 retweets on that one. Fucking hell. I should start myself one of these accounts.

But mostly, this kind of thing is exactly what would run through any mentally functional person’s mind within seconds of considering how to cross the memes of “contemporary songs people like quoting” and “Shakespeare talk”. “We art never, ever, ever becoming reunited” is what you do to make an anachronism of We Are Never Getting Back Together without even trying. Anyone could do it to that level.

So I had a proper go at turning some modern pop lyrics into very loosely Shakespearean-style poetry, in a way that not just anyone could do without applying some effort, not that they’d necessarily want to. If I truly cared about my art, I’d have stretched it out into a proper sonnet, but life is short.

Dear ladies unrestrained by marriage yet:
If romance be your driving aspiration,
And someday true love falls into your net
And makes you raise your arms in celebration,
Do not risk losing what you sought so long,
And ever tighter to it you must cling.
Draw inspiration from that old love song:
Thou shouldst ensnare their digit with a ring.

That’s how we play in MY house, bitches.

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Okay, forget everything in my last few posts. Turns out I was completely wrong, and some people are just shits who need a fucking slap.

Fuck. Off. You fucking. Fucks.

Yeah, I don’t care if you are nine. Eat shit.

See, I hope it’s obvious that I’m deliberately overplaying my actual fury, and that the brunt of the joke is meant to be my ridiculous rage, not anyone else’s ridiculous persecution complex. But I’m still not feeling good about this, because it really does piss me off. I haven’t been prompted to anger by anything truly appalling, like those girls who were kidnapped for years, or Sylvia Browne who lied about it, or the global arms trade, or Syria, or any of that. I’m just impotently frothing about other people pitifully whining. I’m pathetic. Please still pay attention to me.

Okay, reeling it in. It does take a certain level of dickitude to get especially angry at kids acting entitled and overly aggrieved at a world that’s so unfairly picking on them. I’m sure they’re not that much worse than I was, when I was that young and definitely had my bratty moments.

Although, they are quite a lot worse than I ever was. Definitely a lot worse.

JT Eberhard has explained just what’s wrong with this inanity, and managed to keep his “good person” hat on much more firmly than I did, without throwing it to the ground and jumping up and down on it while imagining it was some smugly privileged moaning wanker’s head. A quick sample:

“Why can’t I pray in school?”

You can. Test it. The next test you have, bow your head and say a prayer before the test (don’t do it during the time when everybody is supposed to be quiet, because that’s when all noise is prohibited, not just prayer). I guess you’ve won and don’t need to go on with the rest of the documentary. Congratulations! I know exactly how a victory like that can feel. This very morning I fought for my right to eat corn flakes for breakfast. The government trembled before my determination and relented.

It definitely wasn’t because I already had the right for which I was fighting.

“Why do I have to tolerate people cursing my god, but I’m not allowed to talk about god and my faith?”

You are allowed to talk about god and your faith. Go ahead and test it.

“In public school people are rude and disrespectful toward Christians.”

Really? What people? Perhaps you could email Jessica Ahlquist for sympathy. She got death threats from her classmates for asking her school to obey the law (a judge ruled that her school was, in fact, breaking the law). She was so bullied (by Christians) she had to have a police escort at her school. What slings and arrows must Christians endure?

And on, and on, making the same boring but apparently tiresomely necessary point over and over, because the dictatorial majority are utterly determined to insist that they’re the ones being bullied and oppressed by us for demanding our own fucking space.

I’m regressing here. I’d hoped I was getting better than this. I’m just being as honest as I can about my deep, instinctive feelings for this kind of bullshit. But even that’s a rationalisation for just blathering it out into a post that only covers the superficially obvious, rather than doing the difficult thing that I’ve been espousing, and finding a way to come at this which people on the other stupid fucking side might be able to engage with.

Instead of just being angry and attributing my emotions entirely to negative attributes in the outside world.

I’m not thrilled about any of this.

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