Sky Cake

Sep. 1st, 2009 02:36 pm
"No! I did not spend my life not raping and killing people, only to get to the magical sky city and find out that the sky-cookies and sky-pie and sky-baklava people get to share my sky-cake!"

I'd like all of you to at least skim this, even if your past experiences with me suggest you aren't going to agree with it. I think on this one, you just might.

This holiday season I heard "don't lose sight" a lot. An interesting phrase. I've been mulling it over for a month. It's common in discussions of values. I think that a lot of talk of "theism" and "atheism" is a blind alley. I am an atheist, no doubt about it. But I just don't think the nonexistence of the supernatural is the point of anything I really have been trying to get across. While I am not saying my actual point of view on atheism vs. theism has changed, I think that whole discussion is too often part of the problem. The problem is philosophy that loses eye contact.

Atheists can count the angels dancing on the head of a pin just as badly as theists can. You see where, when secularists are upset that a "higher" or "deeper" person is losing sight of the tangible reality of human relationships, we can easily get distracted onto attacking the "higher" and "deeper". But what's important is not that people are looking "higher" or "deeper", it's that they're neglecting what's right in front of their eyes. Don't lose sight of visible things. So far as I know, there isn't a philosophical "ism" name for that position.

I consider that walking by sight, not by faith, but hey, that's just me. Being more in touch with tangible human relationships than with heavenly abstractions is what I'm all about. We call that "atheism" or "secularism" or a dozen different versions of that, but you might not, and that's fine. Besides, that word is a distraction. What matters is that I make choices that those around me can live with, and that you make choices that I can live with. Agreement on the reasons for doing so are less important to a life well-lived.

A focus on abstractions is just a smokescreen to keep from having to engage the empathy part of your brain and really talk to the people in your life. This is why so many of the teachers and students I remember from fundamentalist Christianity were so emotionally stunted and clumsy in relating to people. Philosophy that loses eye-contact is an avoidance technique. The best way to switch off your empathy is to focus on ivory-tower abstractions and lose sight of human relationships. Look at every atrocity committed by any philosophical branch. Religious people point at the secular ones, non-religious people point at the religious ones, but notice the one thing they all have in common. It's "the state", "god", "society", rather than the suffering of their victims. Even Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber were into pretentious manifestos.

How does it come about that someone softens up toward homosexuals? One of their loved ones comes out of the closet and they're not just an abstraction. How does it come about that a person can become cruel and destructive toward others, for a metaphysical position? Philosophy that loses eye contact. How do you become an abortion protester who hasn't even thought through what will happen if they get their way? Philosophy that loses eye contact. Some of them squeeze their eyes closed to recite their philosophies to themselves over and over in prayer. This alienates them from the reality in front of their eyes, and all too often, they lose sight as hard as they can. It happens in politics too.

My emphasis ought not to be on the metaphysics of the supernatural plane, or millions of years ago. When a religious person in a conflict tries to resolve it using such abstractions, I'll just say "Look me in the eyes. If I want to talk to God, I know where to find him-- I want to know what you think. This is an issue of discomfort between me, and you. You are trying to move it off of that discomfort, but it won't really resolve it. You are responsible for your position, not God. If I'm wrong, I accept responsibility for that. If you're wrong, no one is to blame but you."

Repeat "you" and "me" as often as necessary. Maintain their eye contact on you, if necessary using your index and middle finger in a V shape positioned in the eye-line. Bring them down to the visceral, human level of having to use actual conflict-resolution skills. To take responsibility for their own position. To say, "It's not about God; it's about a problem you and I have with each other's behaviors. It can only be resolved on that level."
I mentioned this essay on The Sci Phi Show and said that I'd put it back at the top of the site when the episode aired so the listeners could see the illustration, so here it is.

Imagine if transportation was defined as a device that uses horses or sails-- automobile drivers would be accused of denying the existence of transportation.

We're genetically programmed to see an Alpha Male in our primate pack as the source of truth and moral law. This explains the difficulty I have in communicating alternative models of truth and moral law to bible believers. It's not that they reject the model I present, it's that they literally don't know what I'm saying. It's a mental block. We take away the concept of the Alpha Male Monkey in the sky, and they think we've declared truth and morality to be nonexistent, because to them, "right" is defined as: "whatever the Alpha Male Monkey says." By definition. I put the discussion behind this link ...with drawings. ) Morality doesn't look like this:

It looks like this:
Read more... )

The manger scene in front of the civic activity center near R's new apartment.

The sign reads "THIS DISPLAY DOES NOT REPRESENT ANY ONE RELIGION." That is counterfactual but I'll give them an "A" for effort. The photos were taken last week; when I drove past this morning, the sign had been torn down.

Every Christmas Eve and Easter I get paid to operate a video camera for the services of the church I used to work for. As I sat listening to the sermon titled "Yes Sam Harris, There Is A God", in between moments of slack-jawed astonishment that any pastor would make a favorable comparison between Santa and one of the most intellectually sophisticated ideas in human history, it also occurred to me to wonder: "If we secularists are really all that intolerant, how would he explain my presence here?"

I'll tell you how I explain it. Friendship. It's not some forced artificial obedience to an ideal of tolerance, it's sincere friendship with the pastors, staff, and members, pure and simple. I was no less chummy with the organist just because he thinks I shouldn't like technology so much, no less nervous around the cute girl just because she thought R should have treated her medical problems with prayer, no less friendly with her dad just because he agrees with Jerry Falwell about 9/11 being a punishment from God, because one learns that ideology is best left on soapboxes and set aside otherwise. With doctrinaire standards, none of us could have any friends. Better yet, I like to think of my life as a web-comic starring a cast of eccentric and opinionated goofballs like myself. That makes everybody seem lovable and their quirks enrich my experience. If that's not toleration I don't know what is.

Sam Harris might agree. He's one of my personal heroes, and I don't think the pastor's unflattering interpretation of "Letter To A Christian Nation" was more accurate than Harris' unflattering interpretation of the Christian bible. Harris, and Dawkins, and Dennett, are remarkably civil and even gentle. It's difficult to recognize that, because faith has had sacred cow priviledges for so long that any opposition is seen as ugly.

I recognize good people. I've learned that the virtue or monstrousness of someone's opinions seldom has any correlation to the virtue or monstrousness of their behavior, so we must be judged by actions. Given a set of extremely different drivers who approach your broken-down car on the highway, one driver who is a racist pig, another who is an atheist, another who is devoutly religious, and so forth, the odds of which one will pull over to help you is pretty much even. Sweet and kind people can mouth the most awful atrocities while on a soapbox but not go through with them when they witness real people in real pain; the other side of that coin is that sociopaths can be very gifted at faking what you want to hear.

That goes to show that Matthew 12:34 is another place Jesus of Nazareth was wrong, by the way. On that note, if I ever write a book of the type Harris, Dawkins and Dennet have written, one advantage I have that they lack is a knowledge of theology.

Happy Holidays, everybody. And no, there is no formulation of well-wishes that would offend me, so don't worry about it.
nemorathwald: (Matt 4)
Carl Sagan died ten years ago today. An extended excerpt from the epilogue to Billions and Billions, written by his wife Ann Druyan, was posted to the web, and five or six years ago I read it while wandering in the collapsed shell of a faith that didn't work for me. Sagan's good death influenced my development for the better as much as did his good life. I wonder if that is why so many people are memorializing this anniversary as much as that of his birth?

To the bible-believer, the death of any humanist is a repudiation of what he or she stood for. Many a time I've heard it said of the death of one who was publicly irreligious that he or she "knows better now." Fear is a powerful influence on the ability to think clearly. I've often been asked "what if you're wrong? You would spend eternity in hell." This argument-by-threat is equivalent to a prosecution attorney telling a jury "There is no good reason to suppose the defendant is guilty of murder, but what if he is? He would sneak into your houses and kill your families. So you'd better convict him." The vivid imagery of hell actually makes that tactic work.

It's possible, as Sagan demonstrated on his deathbed, to be an atheist in a foxhole; to see the biblical mythology the same way that a bible-believing Christian would dismiss a threat from Allah or Hare Krishna; to not be cowed by the groundless fears of folklore. As Sagan famously said, "I don't want to believe, I want to know." This confidence makes it possible to do as he did, and stare one's own obliteration in the face with a level of coping skill few achieve even in adulthood. As Eric Hoffer wrote, "Faith, enthusiasm, and passionate intensity in general are substitutes for the self-confidence born of experience and the possession of skill." Sagan exemplified this distinction. Once I began to realize what it was like to go out and experience for one's self instead of taking someone's word for it-- to research and find out rather than to postulate convictions-- faith seemed a paltry stop-gap measure for knowledge, if not a symptom of downright insecurity.

Thank you, Carl Sagan. I wish I had not missed out on your life.

This has been part of the Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon. brought my attention to responses in the letters column of the New York Times (quoted below the cut), by the three atheists most prominently cited in the resurgence of outspoken atheism-- Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. They plead for the simplicity and gentleness of their positions, against the reputations they are acquiring from those who have only heard about them from their detractors. Those who take the time to actually read their books find out that far from over-reaching, cruelty, or arrogance, they gently point out obvious ennobling and enriching insights which it has been impolite to mention.

In a free society, most secularists are far more interested in ending the immunity which religious faith is granted than we are interested in the hopeless folly of attempting to end faith itself. Unfortunately, it seems that faith reacts badly to challenges to its sacred-cow status, resulting in the mischaracterizations of the New Atheists.

A frequent objection is made that Harris, Dawkins and Dennett mischaracterize religion. Exactly what religious adherents are those objectors looking at? It doesn't matter that the top 1% most sophisticated religious people are not as bad as all that. They aren't the 99% who are making problems for us. There is a No True Scotsman fallacy at work here.
Argument: "Religious faith isn't a problem."
Reply: "I'd be wealthy if I had a nickel for every example of family, friends and local leaders in the past couple of months making an appeal to credibility, where no attempt in the slightest has been made to establish that credibility, and any such attempt would be considered disloyal. They call that 'faith'."
Rebuttal: "Well, no true religious faith is a problem." The remaining rebuttal consists of the flavor-of-the-month redefinition of religion and faith to have nothing to do with the tactic we encounter in our lives from about 325 million users of the English word "faith".

Few of those who call the New Atheists "mean" notice the focus on beautiful, ennobling, enriching, and motivational answers offered by secular world views to traditionally religious questions ... even for traditionally religious purposes such as understanding your brain and genes well enough to seek how to be happy and find meaning! This New York Times article about a conference of scientists dealing with religious objections to their findings is typical in that it focuses on how many of them were combative, but in this social climate the article is remarkable that it notices their positive alternative offering at all.
Read more... )
Just write your letter and it will be hand-delivered immediately following the exodus of the pure from the Earth. But you must be thinking to yourself, "How can the letters be delivered after the Rapture?" The answer is simple. The creators of this site are Atheists. That's right, we don't believe in God. How else would we be able to deliver your correspondence after the Rapture?

Yes, I went to the order form, and it appears that they are seriously taking money for this through Paypal. Actually delivering the letters would cost a lot of the money (if any) they're earning from this service. As funny and farcical as this site is, they need to set aside enough of their earnings (if any) in highly liquid safe slow-growth investments sufficient that they would be able to carry through on their promise, despite the certainty that they will not have to carry through on it.

If I promise to mail customers an umbrella in the event of worldwide inundation by flying pigs, and have no plan in place to gain the means to purchase said umbrellas, that means I do not intend to do it even if it happens. That would be fraud. The fact that we will never see the aforementioned porcine blitzkrieg would not make the earnings any less fraudulent.

But if they truly have a workable plan in place for the impossible, they are acting in good faith based on the beliefs of those who are losing out through this transaction and sincerely wish to do so. Casinos are no worse. For this, I toast the Post-Rapture Post.
The phrase "the Alpha Male Monkey" may be the most useful new explanatory tool I've encountered in years. [ profile] paranthropus gave it to me in a recent LJ post about primate group psychology. It was an inspirational and motivational insight into the evolutionary biology of my psychology which has kept me up at night thinking of the implications. I wrote about it in this subsequent LJ post, but it occurred to me that this is valuable for explaining myself to bible-believing Christians.

We're genetically programmed to see an Alpha Male in our primate pack as the source of truth and moral law. This explains the difficulty I have in communicating alternative models of truth and moral law to bible believers. It's not that they reject the model I present, it's that they literally don't know what I'm saying. It's a mental block. We take away the concept of the Alpha Male Monkey in the sky, and they think we've declared truth and morality to be nonexistent, because to them, "right" is defined as: "whatever the Alpha Male Monkey says." By definition. I put the discussion behind this link ...with drawings. ) Morality doesn't look like this:

It looks like this:
Read more... )
I may write a book someday about my experiences with experiments with Un-churches. One of the chapters would concern Universism. For those who don't know, Universism is a "religion" like Unitarian Universalism except that instead of embracing all religious heritages, it rejects all of them in favor of "faith in reason, inspiration in nature, and hope in progress". The emphasis was "on the attitude and spirit in which you address religious questions, and the tools you use to do so, rather than focusing on any conclusions that you may arrive at". Those tools were personal experience and reason. Flaky new-agers did not find a very welcome home among us, despite their attraction to the idea of experimental religion, because they didn't enjoy our disapproval of blind faith, prophets, and gurus.

The movement gained worldwide attention, hosted live internet chats with John Horgan, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, and many appearances in radio, television and newspapers. Universist YouTube videos still circulate.

Today I found out how that chapter of the book ends. Many of you met Universism's founder, Ford Vox, when he visited me last year and accompanied me to the weekly gathering of fans at Tio's in Ann Arbor. He has replaced the Universism website with a retraction of the desire to present an opposing force to faith. Much of what he says is true and valuable, but no reason to back down. Read more... )
nemorathwald: (I'm losin' it)
The village of Hell, Michigan threw a party yesterday because the date was 06/06/06. My friends and I visited, and found it to be strangely worthwhile.

It's a large clearing in a forest. I had to drive all over Hell's half acre to get there. The road to Hell is hemmed in on both sides with trees, and on 6/6/6, it was also lined with cars on either side for a couple of miles. The townsfolk clearly were insufficiently prepared; they did not expect tens of thousands of people to break Hell wide open. They had good intentions-- but they paved the road to Hell with asphalt.

The three buildings were the general store, the "Screams" ice cream shop where Hell freezes over, and the Dam Site Inn. Behind this restaurant I visited a river with a dam across it. This town is where Hell Creek is dammed.

It's said that "wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be that go in thereby," but that was not the case. Other than the scattering of homes, the only three buildings in Hell had lines stretching out in which one could wait for an hour, more reminiscent of the line for Peter's pearly gates. Hell is long lines.

There were a lot of signs to stick your head through and take pictures with; hearses painted with macabre and beautiful illustrations; a bell with a huge wooden gong; souveneirs for $6.66; people wearing elaborate monster costumes and handbaskets; and a singing, guitar-strumming vampire from whom we bought CDs. And yet despite the quick depletion of everything to see in Hell, and almost nothing to do, the occupants of Hell had no fury like a woman scorned. Instead there were smiles everywhere. It was the typical fairgoing crowd, made up of hundreds of curiosity seekers from most walks of life, plus massive quantities of bikers and several extremely visible police. I expected to say "never was there a more wretched hive of scum and villiany" but ... no. Not so much.

I arrived too late to see the main attraction, which was a street preacher. He warned the revelers of impending catastrophe and offered salvation, until the bikers blew an enormous cloud of tire-smoke on him. (Image from the Detroit Free Press is here.) And the street preachers walked away; that means on 6/6/6 the bikers made the lame to walk. But they were still lame.

I'm kind of upset that I missed it because that's really what 6/6/6 in Hell Michigan is all about. We were there to celebrate that man's insane mythology just like we celebrate a TV show or a comic book. These tales would not have come down to us through the centuries without people who took them seriously. He was like that lady I met at a Star Trek convention who said that one day, after she fell down the stairs and hit her head, she started picking up transmissions from the Pliades constellation, and forgot 200 words of Klingon vocabulary.

The original author of the book of Revelation in the New Testament of the Christian Bible didn't take 6-6-6 seriously, and might be amused by the Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia of those who do. The attributes of the Beast, such as this number, were a set of euphemisms he used to represent Emperor Nero, who was persecuting Christians at the time. He couldn't come out and name the things he was talking about because he would get in trouble, so the entire book is full of satirical symbolism. Our own editorial cartoons will probably make no sense 2000 years from now, but I hope they don't become the source of a superstition.

Images behind this link. )
nemorathwald: (Matt 4)
And so concludes another discussion, this time with someone who says he is "completely objective now as faer [sic] as is humanly possible". According to him, the way to become objective is to stop hardening your heart against Christ, and instead harden your heart against anything other than Christ. I particularly love how he prefaces a statement by saying "LOGIC:" Isn't that cute?

On the one hand he is proud of his higher education and expects me to take his word for it because of this; and on the other hand he simultaneously considers universities to be in the business of deceiving people. He is really impressed with pseudoscientist Creationists who have not published any papers through peer-reviewed journals. In those rare moments where he stops telling me what my motives are and attempts to put together an argument, this is the main thrust. He eventually concludes our exchange with a frustrated series of insults couched in love and friendship. He specifically denies that I got to him, but obviously I did. Poor guy.

Not trusting e-mail alone to keep my records, I am archiving it here even though it will be of limited interest to you. I am also removing the name of my correspondent.
Read more... )
nemorathwald: (Matt 4)
Followers of Christ did not get the label "Christian" until several decades after Christ. The term was coined by non-Christians in Asia Minor as a derisive term, meaning "little Christ ones." In a stroke of genius, the followers of Christ adopted the term as their name and it came to mean something good. I saw a similar opportunity in a newspaper editorial by Orson Scott Card. Mr. Card refers to the non-Heartland derisively as "Smartland." Don't you love that name? America's Smartland. Let's start using it. In fact, let's think of ways to spread it as a meme. I think I'll make a banner for people to post on their sites and blogs. Perhaps it will feature an image of Mr. Card with a word balloon saying, "This site a proud resident of America's Smartland."

The problem is that there is seriously a non-Smartland in America. Sane, responsible Christians and religious people who are members of Smartland are much better than American Christians and religious people who are not. This is often used as an excuse to not try to reach out to insane and irresponsible forms of religion in non-Smartland, and cut off one of its major weapons by proving God doesn't exist. For instance, Marshall Brain, who runs, recently put out a gentle and incisive online book that intends to help with that goal, and John Scalzi (an agnostic) wrote a blog post to lambaste it as a waste of time because we're hurting the feelings of Brother Guy Consolmagno and other religious residents of Smartland. Never mind that the book is not aimed at religous residents of Smartland. We are taking weapons out of the hands of those who abuse them. That's what matters.

John is correct when he says there is just as much of a problem with 20th-century secular dictators as there had been with the Inquisition, Crusades, and witch trials of earlier centuries. But nobody who thinks faith-based cultures are more virtuous and socially stable than secular cultures knows about the comparison with Sweden.

Sweden is the most atheistic country per-capita in the world, and yet somehow not only don't they descend into genocide, they have better rates on just about everything than do highly religious nations. More to the point, according to this article (which reports a systematic study that found current global statistics the exact opposite of religious assumptions), this and countless other recent comprehensive studies show dramatically that the less religious a nation is, the more virtuously its citizens act. The article says, Read more... )
At one time or another I've faced down most of the arguments listed on this site: Over 300 Proofs of God's Existence collected from discussions with religious people on the Internet Infidels forums. It just keeps getting funnier and funnier.

(1) See this bonfire?
(2) Therefore, God exists.
Read more... )
You might enjoy the discussion I am having with a young Christian lady on my entry about Terry Schiavo's death. I certainly am. Unfortunately, it seems that that entry upset her.

Edited to add:
This is as good a time as any to mention a strange remark Bill Putt made the other day. "Matt," he said, "for an atheist, you're the best Christian I have ever known." Naturally I was surprised by this. He says I kept the good teachings and discarded the bad ones. What a nice thing to say, I guess! If Jesus had been born 2000 years later than he was, I'll bet he'd be an atheist.
nemorathwald: (Matt 4)
You know I am not having a very good day when I tell a Republican Party Organizer on PCCboard the following: "If I see even one judge or their families get hurt with the contact info you're distributing, I'm taking your words straight to the authorities to make sure you get put behind bars where you belong."

This is because he said, "we identify liberal judges. We publish their pictures online along with their contact information. When they make bad rulings, we call them at the office, at home, fax them, email them and let folks know who their family members are as well. ... Federal and state judges do not want to be the next abortion doctors. Nobody wants to walk around with a target on their back."

When taken to task by other fundamentalist Christians for being a low-rent South American dictator, he replied: "Don't act so self righteous. We're at war for the heart and soul of this nation and its very survival depends on restoring Godly rule to our country. Unless you are willing to get down and dirty, you won't win, and we must win for our childrens' sakes. Ronald Reagan said it best, "When you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat.""

Elsewhere on the many mouth-foaming and ranting threads on that site about the Schaivo case, I said this to a reporter (also a graduate of PCC) covering Pinellas Park right now:
"It may interest you to know how these events [you are covering, such as demonstrations and riots and signs saying we deserve for God to shed our blood] are being perceived by the blue states. I have met almost no one who cares whether Terry Schiavo lives or dies. By this I mean your opponents are not angered by the thought of her body continuing to live.
However, we are angered and scared by the conservative protesters, pundits and preachers who we see on the news and on talk shows. We are not disturbed that they want Terry's body to keep on chugging away, but we are disturbed by their reasons and arguments.
There is a lot of talk about the Red States (or as they are now known, the Vegetative States) as an enemy nation like the Islamist theocracies, because of the perfect equivalence of what we hear out of the mouths of the fanatical and gullible mobs that fill their mosques and churches and spill out into their streets."

This is why the feuds among some of my friends are so unimportant and I take no part. Feuding power struggles or cat fights in a science-fiction fan club reveal an amazing lack of perspective about what is worth getting mad over. I want to tell them, "How can you call this person an enemy just because of your personality conflict? Have you listened to the theocrats lately? You don't know what an enemy is."
An audio file of Friday's Russ and Dee radio show is now online at:
Having listened to the show again, personally, I think I hit it out of the ballpark.
My call-in begins about a third of the way through the file and ends about half-way through. I'd like to extract that section into a separate audio file for the convenience of my friends, but I don't know how and I don't have the web space.
nemorathwald: (Matt 4)
This morning two of my friends from Alabama in the Universism movement were guests on the Russ and Dee Show. After some Alabama listeners were discussing on Universism's "Faithless Community" chat room what they heard on the show, I called in and spent almost a half hour on the line with the host, my two friends, and a guest theologian. The Universists on the chat room were ecstatic about how I came off on the radio and responded to the theologian. I think it's been recorded and maybe I can eventually get it as a download for you.
The Universist Movement will host the famed Professor Richard Dawkins for a live guest discussion at The Faithless Community on Sunday March 20th at 4PM Eastern (9PM GMT).

Richard Dawkins' first book, The Selfish Gene (1976), in which he invented the concept of "memes," became an immediate international bestseller and was translated into all the major languages. Its sequel, The Extended Phenotype, followed in 1982. His other bestsellers include River Out of Eden (1995), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), and Unweaving the Rainbow (1998). Dawkins won both the Royal Society of Literature Award and the Los Angeles Times Literary Prize in 1987 for The Blind Watchmaker. The television film of the book, shown in the 'Horizon' series, won the Sci-Tech Prize for the Best Science Program of 1987. He has also won the 1989 Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London and the 1990 Royal Society Michael Faraday Award for the furtherance of the public understanding of science. In 1994 he won the Nakayama Prize for Human Science and in 1995 was awarded an Honorary D.Litt. by the University of St Andrews. Humanist of the Year Award 1996. Since 1996 has been Vice President of the British Humanist Association. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997. Winner of the 1997 (Fifth) International Cosmos Prize in Commemoration of Expo' 90. Recently he spearheaded an effort to introduce the word "bright" into the English language as an atheist analogue to the word "gay." Wired published an excellent biographical article on Dawkins in 1995 (read).
You scored as atheism. You are... an atheist, though you probably already knew this. Also, you probably have several people praying daily for your soul.




















Which religion is the right one for you? (new version)
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