Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Can community develop around atheism?

Depends on your definition. If by "community", you mean an organized group or society, as the original Latin term communitas, then certainly it is possible. Atheist Nexus; Atheist Alliance International and American Atheists are three examples of such "communities".

If "community" brings to mind images of shared resources; common values and cultural elements; and social cohesion, then the question may be a bit trickier to answer. There is no question that many who self-identify as atheists have these sorts of relationships and interactions with one another.

The question is: are these interactions the result of shared "atheism" (defined as a lack of belief in a god or gods) or are they the result of shared positive beliefs that often accompany atheism (humanism; anti-theism; a commitment to reason, science, human rights, etc.)? Can a negative provide the impetus around which to form relationships? Or do they form as a result of the positive, shared ideas?

The idea has important implications for those wishing to forge closer ties between nontheists-rather than seeking to model an atheist community after an ethnic or religious group, with a core identity and belief set, it may be more practical (and effective) to conceive of a loose-knit coalition of communities built around key causes, values and ideas with strong interconnectedness.

These would be similar to a person's national identity in a modern pluralistic country where an individual's multiple roles and identities are infused by the concept of national identity, but not subject to it. The Internet itself also provides a useful model with high degrees of interconnectedness throughout the network while maintaining national and specialized networks within the overall structure. These networks meet specific needs while also serving as the Internet.

Thus nontheists can nurture community around science, justice, shared interests and any number of other elements while holding to a greater atheist identity. Greater, yet also more abstract with fewer shared cultural or intellectual elements. With this model, communities can develop and flourish with unique characteristics and trait, but the entire atheist population can benefit from the results.


How do you mend a broken heart?

Not a heart broken by romance, but by a son clinging to life in the NICU. I have a very good friend whose children have a child in the NICU and are trying to "faith" their way through the situation. Everything is "claim god", "trust god", "cling to his word", "walk by faith, not by sight" ad infinitum.

They are tired, overwrought, and listing from seeking caring at one moment to rejecting any such overture as "evidence of doubt" the next. Every time the doctors want to do something, the family has a prayer conference about it and does what god "leads" them to do.

The odds are that this sweet little boy is going to break their hearts and leave them, in spite of the tremendous efforts on the part of the medical and support staff and the love and caring shown by the family. They seem beyond helping at the moment, since to consider the possibility of loss is "doubting god", but I would like to support my friend without offering false hope or suggesting that I believe a "higher power" can fix the situation (he is also a believer, but a good deal more practical than the kids).

What would you do if you found yourself in this situation? How would you show concern and support while not betraying your personal beliefs?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Calgary microchip 'talks' to brain cells

The microchip actually "listens" to brain cells as you can read below:

CBC News - Technology & Science - Calgary microchip 'talks' to brain cells

So where do you see technology like this going? To help sufferers of disease? To tell police when someone is about to commit a criminal act (a whole new kind of supervised release)? To test for undesirable thought patterns in the populace (kinkiness*, anti-social thoughts**, wanting to vote against the Supreme Leader)?

How should the potential benefits of a technology be measured against possible abuses of the same technology?

*kinkiness is always acceptable here.

**I'm sure theocracies would line up to buy the "A" chip to root out unbelievers in their midst. (In Canada it would be the "Eh" chip).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Darkness, anyone?

My own little creation with the automotivator. Reflecting my current desire for sleep. ;)

hand clappin', finger snappin' and toe tappin'

My two posts that discussed the movie "Leap of Faith" got the soundtrack going back through my head, and after  a brief search on YouTube, I found the original version of one of the soundtrack songs:

(note the difference in the direction of Alex Bradford's vocal and piano harmonies from 2:05 to 3:05. also note that the clip gets "preachier" after 3:05 so some folks may want to bail at that part)

One of the big draws gospel music holds for me is the enthusiasm and creativity it draws out of performers and listeners. That said, since becoming a nontheist, I find myself cringing a bit more at some of the ideas and images that get slipped into people's minds with a catchy beat and good baseline.

For example:

(yes trivia buffs, it's the song that appeared in "Ghost")

Great piano runs, organ wails and harmonies sugarcoat a little ditty by Dorothy Love Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes about judgment, no possibility of forgiveness, the world being consumed in fire and the sinners with it. Not quite "Gentle jesus, meek and mild."

It conflicts me because some of the great gospel music talks about determination, perseverance, helping others and being so joyful that you have to sing and shout. Equally great gospel (from an aesthetic pov) dangles people over hell, creates a self-image of a dirty sinner and tells them to leave injustice unopposed and "give it to god".

I so wish a few nontheists would grab a Hammond B-3, a piano and the rest of a rhythm section and do some secular gospel-there should be lots to be excited about with the world, the universe, our better understanding of ourselves-the potential is there.

While not strictly done in gospel style nor done by a nontheist, here's someone whose taken the themes of holding on and overcoming while depending on each other and produced some great music:

Little Milton sang and growled about life and love-what sorts of things can we nontheists get so excited about that we clap, snap and tap?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Birds, bats drive fig evolution

CBC News - Technology & Science - Birds, bats drive fig evolution

Imagine your steak making sure it's cooked the way you like it or your ice cream sundae adding the toppings you like. It's that undercurrent of implied agency that makes stories like these popular reads-and often gives people a mistaken idea about natural selection.

That's why it was neat to read this article by CBC (Canada's public broadcaster) that for the most part avoids all of the agency-esque language and clearly shows that being tasty, combined with a reproduction method that relies on being consumed, results in "tasty traits" becoming the norm.

More stories and explanations like this that catch the interest (between a love for fig newtons and an interest in bats and birds, who can resist at least taking a peek at it?) and provide clear and correct explanations of how selection functions will help those reluctant to embrace evolution feel more comfortable to at least dip a toe in the gene pool.

Kudos to the CBC.

(For those wanting the actual study, start here)

Thank you, that means so much!

I shop for people year round. Work permits lots of opportunities to travel and I'm always keeping my eyes open when I'm in new places to find gifts to celebrate those special times in the lives of people I care about. Sometimes a bit of local art, the perfect book, or for that person whose emails have been filled with computer-related complaints, a RAM upgrade.

Whatever the gift, it almost always results in some variant of the phrase "it means so much". Music to the ears for those of us whose gift planning goes beyond a trip to Costco to pick whatever is cheap and available.

But it raises an interesting point: neither the art, the book nor the RAM were produced with the intention of being a gift from my friends or family, I didn't participate in their creation-how can they"mean" something to the recipient?

That's the secret believers and (some) philosophers don't want us to grasp-objects, actions, events, etc. can all be invested or infused with meaning after the fact. And for we humans, that meaning is just as "real" as any claimed "objective" or "ultimate" meaning that others attempt to assert on the basis of their belief system.

Believers who will assert repeatedly that "it's only the meaning that God gives that counts" don't seem to take the logical step of either a) claiming that the specific flowers in the bouquet they bring home were chosen by god from the dawn of time to celebrate that one particular event (raising the question as to why god couldn't have taken a bit of his flower choosing time to cure cancer or plant some more food for the starving) or b) acknowledge that the flowers have no "real" meaning and show up without them (see related material under "job had it easy").

Believers through their daily lives acknowledge that we finite, mortal humans can invest meaning in objects and actions.Let them try to explain the inconsistency of also claiming absolute, objective meaning for things. We nontheists can enjoy the seemingly magical act of transforming words, deeds and objects into conduits of meaning, simply through our own choice to invest them with meaning-meaning that can support our ethics, charitable inclinations, efforts to achieve justice and simply showing others that we care.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Steve Martin (part 2)

I just recieved a note from someone regarding my last entry, who pointed out that there's a great clip on YouTube that perfectly describes the dilemma often faced by skeptics when trying to disprove religious claims.

(props to Liam Neeson for a great portrayal of a skeptic)

How would you have convinced the crowd that the evangelist was a fraud? What would you have done differently?

Not exactly Steve Martin in Leap of Faith"...but

Recently I was travelling in the US and passed through Jeffersonville, Indiana a couple of times. The name kept nagging at my memory, but I couldn't figure out why. Sitting here tonight I realized that it was because of its association with William Marrion Branham (wikipedia here) and the pentecostal/christian offshoot that he started.
William Marion Branham

Having been at one time a researcher of obscure Pentecostal and Charismatic groups there was a time where this would have been the focus of my trip. Branham was one of the key members of the Healing revival of the 1950's and as such was a role model for such men as Oral Roberts, Moris Cerullo and Benny Hinn even if they may be somewhat reluctant to admit it today.

The whole idea of evangelists having a special "word" for people in the audience (such as we see Martin doing in Leap of Faith) was popularized by Branham (it was claimed an angel spoke to him) and many healings (and even a resurrection or two were credited to him.

Yet he is hardly known now-except by those involved with churches that recognize him as God's last great Messenger who will usher in the return of Christ to earth. Members believe that his every sermon and teacher were inspired by god and should be treated as such and that in spite of his death in 1965 his words must be followed to be one of the members of the true church that Christ is coming to save from this wicked world.

This in spite of the fact that his prophecy that the world would end by 1977 didn't happen (it has since been reinterpreted by those who keep the "faith" going, and at the same time make their living selling printed copies and audio recordings of Branham's sermons, along with relics of his ministry).

I believe it is likely that some healings can be credited to him, either through the placebo effect, or the power of suggestion, both of which have shown surprising degrees of effectiveness in clinical trials. His avoidance of scandal and Sam Walton-like lifestyle set him apart from many of the more extravagant and flamboyant evangelists who were the basis of Martin's character.

Nontheists can use Branham's ministry as a case study of what a group of believers is willing to accept after 15 years of exposure-from a good man who preaches and heals people to god's true messenger whose very words are inspired scripture. Worshiped by true believers broken away from their mainstream religion and waiting from everything to be set right and god to vindicate them.

Hmm, sounds a lot like the story of Jesus, doesn't it? Branham's ministry can give us insight into how a myth forms, how people rationalize failed prophecies and gaps in teaching and how people go on believing long after long after the myth should have died out (with a little help from those who profit from keeping it alive of course).

While I'm glad that my embracing a nontheist mindset means that I have more important things to do than research church history, it might be good for those seeking to clear the minds of typical christians to look at Branham in order to better understand why religion and its bizarre claims can so capture people's thinking-after all, there aren't any first century jews around to ask.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hundreds on Twitter criticize airline for breaking Tanner Bawn's wheelchair

A young boy who needs a special mobility chair is again able to move and participate in life thanks to the online community applying massive pressure to Air Canada, the airline who broke his chair.

While not specifically about a nontheist topic, this story caught my attention.It shows what a clearly communicated message and desired outcomes can accomplish. It also highlights once again how Air Canada is a terrible company whose business model seems to include bullying those it serves poorly in an attempt to get them to settle for inferior resolution of the problem. I've peronally seen them discriminate in providing accomodations and amenities topeople their poor service has left stranded, based primarily on how vulnerable those people seem to be at the moment and how little it appears they will settle for.

While a number of us protested this, it took the intervention of a Super Elite customer threatening to stop flying with them to motivate them to treat these people better and offer them suitable accommodations and amenities. When the airline staff tried to placate him afterwards by offering him even more perks, he told them to give them to the folks they had mistreated.

What is great about this is the fact that people didn't need to rally around a religion to do the right thing, nor they need to find any motive beyond helping another human in need-a lesson in how we as nontheists might be able to achieve justice for others, demonstrating our convinctions in action.

Friday, August 6, 2010

AC360 goes in circles with Hitchens

Woke up this morning to the news on PZ Myers blog that Christopher Hitchens had appeared on Anderson Cooper last night. After watching the interview, I can easily say I am even more impressed with Hitchens than after his Vanity Fair article (see here for my thoughts) and even less impressed with AC than I typically find myself.

After an interview consisting mostly of surprised blurts to Hitchens well thought out answers (such as Cooper's evident surprise at hearing Hitchens take responsibillity for the state of his health, unlike the typical "I have an excuse" CNN guest.) Cooper can barely stop squirming in his chair at the development of an excitement stiffie from asking Hitchens if he might, kinda, sorta, possibly ever make nice with god and the journalistic kudos it would bring if Hitchens took the bait.

Cooper-In a moment of doubt, isn't there... I dunno, I just find it fascinating that even when you're alone and you know no one else is watching that there might be a moment where you, you know, want to hedge your bets.

Hitchens replies:
Hitchens-If that comes it'll be when I'm very ill. When I'm half-demented, either by drugs or by pain, or I won't have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumor later on. Because these things happen and the faithful love to spread these rumors, you know on his death bed he finally well... I can't say that the entity that by then wouldn't be me wouldn't do such a pathetic thing, but I can tell you that not while I'm lucid. No, I can be quite sure of that.

So no prize for Cooper and an honest revelation by Hitchens that it could happen. He makes it clear that he doesn't want it to happen, but he demonstrates clearly that he understands the reality of dying with cancer. Pain, sickness, drugs can all make a person do something he or she swore they would never do.

At this point I must make a confession. I am not proud of this fact any more, although at one time I was extremely proud of it.

I helped both of my parents make deathbed acts of faith. My father, who had violated some moral standards that went clearly beyond religious polity saw the week before his death as a time to be cleansed and to make amends for those actions. The experience of "coming to Jesus" was very powerful for him and brought him peace, a greater sense of being loved and an impetus to clear up old unfinished business with friend and foe (I now recognize that he could experience these same feeling and drives without god being involved at all, and I only wish I had known that then to help himas I did, but without Jesus tagging along)

Likewise, my mother, who did come back to her childhood religion as she saw the end approaching, wanted to be "sure" that she was right with god (her siblings never knew of this as the idea that she found their faith lacking enough that she "topped up" would be a painful emotional blow to them).

She didn't experience the profound emotional changes of my father (she had less to make amends for) but did become much more peaceful and able to cope with her last painful hours as a result (I also realize now that she could have experienced this without god, but what's done is done)

I am glad that since then I have been able to bring support and comfort to three of my aunts and uncles who have since died (yes folks, I am a genetic time bomb-if someone suggests you bet on my becoming an octogenarian, I'd advise against it)without the invocation of any sort of deity.

So yes, in the heat of the moment, people do turn to religion. Christopher Hitchens may even do so, given enough drugs and enough pain. If that should happen to him or anyone, we can recognze it for what it is: a coping mechanism with generations of use ingrained in our thinking, a mechanism that has no ultimate meaning or reality, but rather simply a grown up version of a child's blanky for someone who's in need of some rest and comfort.

If we want people to move beyond that blanky we as nontheists need to show them ways to find peace, support and comfort based on the here and now, to make their own meaning of their experience and to be an example to others that it can be done, just as Hitchens is doing for us.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Proper Response to Prop 8?

When I first read about the Prop 8 decision over on Blag Hag I wasn't sure how I felt about it-reading the news articles that were listed gave the impression that the legal decision was very poorly reasoned-essentially that same sex marriage isn't *that* different from traditional marriage so it's ok. *rollseyes*

Then I discovered http://prop8trialtracker.com/ which not only had in-depth commentary on the decision, but also a link to the entire 100+ pages of the decision. Reading this (the analysis and some of the decision) was much more comforting. The legal decision clearly recognized that the pro Prop 8 side was arguing for a view of marriage as an institution "to promote naturally procreative sexual relationships and to channel them into stable, enduring unions for the sake of producing and raising the next generation" and that "the state’s interest in marriage is procreative".

In essence, the old catholic view that children are the reason for marriage and that by regulating marriage society and the state are issuing "parenting licenses" to ensure that children are taken care of and become good citizens. On the negative side, the ideas of "bastards" and "lving in sin" were society's way of discouraging freelance parenting.

Reliable contraception decoupled having sex from having children, and in doing so decoupled marriage from having children. Couples could have children or not, and marriage became more about their commitment to each other.

The ruling recognizes this fundamental shift in society and clearly states that marriage descrimination on the basis of gender doesn't work any more-since marriage isn't about having babies, it doesn't have to be restricted to couples who (normally in times past) could have babies. It is now available to all in committed relationships. Or as the judge put it:
"The evidence shows that the tradition of restricting an individual’s choice of spouse based on gender does not rationally further a state interest despite its “ancient lineage.” Instead,the evidence shows that the tradition of gender restrictions arose when spouses were legally required to adhere to specific gender roles. See FF 26-27. California has eliminated all legally mandated gender roles except the requirement that a marriage consist of one man and one woman. FF 32. Proposition 8 thus enshrines in the California Constitution a gender restriction that the evidence shows to be nothing more than an artifact of a foregone notion that men and women fulfill different roles in civic life."

This is the message that people need to hear about the decision, that society had changed and that institutions must now change with it.

At one time schooling meant segregation, until the courts ruled it meant integration.

At one time voting meant men only, until the vote was obtained for women.

At one time marriage meant a man and woman coming together to raise children, now it means something else.

While everyone else ceebrates, I still have two thoughts on my mind:
  1. Why still sex? Since the key reason for marriage is no longer to have children, why is sex still the defining characteristic? Lack of consummation is still grounds for annulment in many jurisdictions. Why should it be? Since the anti-Prop 8 side said it is about love and commitment, why can't people who love each other, but don't have a sexual relationship marry? Why should sex, gay or straight, be the ticket to public recognition? Why can't they have the same legal benefits and recognition of their committment to each other?
  2. Why still two? As the ruling above notes, the gender difference is no longer valid, given the new understanding of marriage, so why should the number of partners remain? Folks wishing to live in some sort of loving and committed plural relationship should be able to do so with public recognition.Arguments to the contrary are based on the same appeals to antiquity and fear and those of the pro-Prop 8 side.
For those of you who have fought for the repeal of Prop 8, enjoy your victory. Then get the word out about the key points of the decision-in the mean time, I'll be here, pondering my two questions and hoping change comes full circle.

To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

Vanity Fair has published online an article from its September 2010 issue Topic of Cancer by Christopher Hitchens, describing his life since he was diagnosed with cancer. Having lost a number of relatives due to cancer, including my parents, a number of his thoughts struck home:

  • the gradual dehumanization of the patient on the part of medical staff in the name of efficiency (taking vitals before speaking with you) or the loss of desire due to treatment to stay alive that played a key role in making you want to stay alive in the first place.
  • the new language, the unquestioned assumptions, the battle metaphors and the catchy slogans that are supposed to make dealing with cancer easier-I think most of it is to make things easier for the medical staff and the family of the patient (they don't)
  • the regrets (his to miss out on Kissinger and Ratzinger getting what he perceived as their just deserts my father's regret of not spending more tie with my sister or her children and my mother's wish that she hadn't said no to one last trip with her sister)
What does any of this have to do with nontheism?

Theists have a number of powerful ideas that they bring with them into a challenge like cancer (being a child of god, going to heaven, the suffering having an important purpose, etc) that enable them to reframe the experience and reduce some of its pain.

What does the nontheist bring with him or her? What "greater good" can be appealed to when spirits lag or fatigue overwhelms? One sees this in Hitchens' article-he provides readers with the record of a rationalist's thoughts during such a trial. To remove some of the mystery of suffering by describing it clearly, showing that one can still laugh, dream and keep contributing to the world. This idea of the world being one's memorial is a powerful one that can inspire great actions.

Many theists are offering prayers for Hitchens recovery and/or the saving of his soul. Some, likely out of a sense of compassion for him, and others possibly for the brownie points it would score for god if Hitchens "joined the other team". A god that would inflict cancer on a man to save him is a monster who bears more resemblance to the director of a gulag or an apparatchik in 1984 than any kind of loving parent.

So one hopes that no stories pop up about a "deathbed conversion", one almost hopes that Hitchen's llast days could be recorded to quash any such story. But if such a converision were to occur, it wouldn't change the reality that god does not exist, nor should it shake the nontheist's conviction that one can create meaning in the world through one's actions, and thus contribute to something greater than onesself. Hitchens is demonstrating that for us and we should be grateful to him.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

hanging up my shingle

After reading a number of great blogs by atheists, nontheists, humanists (add your own preferred term) I've decided to throw my hat into the ring and share my thoughts on coexisting with theists in the modern world.

What you may find different about my blog is the fact that I'm:
  • Canadian-fewer heinous creationist plots to expose (and more "u"s in words)
  • more libertarian  than many nontheists (no I don't have my own compound, thank you for asking)
  • a huge fan of classic 50"s gospel music (think Sam Cooke, not George Beverly Shea)
So give it a try, feel free to comment, and hopefully leave entertained and/or informed.