The Absurdity of “#Atheismplus”

A friend of mine linked to a growing “controversy” within the atheist “movement” on his Facebook page, specifically to something new called “Atheism+.” When I first saw it, I thought about blogging about it, but then ignored it. Now, though, it appears that the Atheism+ crud has really angered a whole bunch of people and caused a great deal of discord:

In the passionate world of American atheism, the venom usually directed at believers has now been turned against the wrong kind of atheists.

The cause of this freethinking furore? A new movement called Atheism+. According to its website, “Atheism+ is a safe space for people to discuss how religion affects everyone and to apply skepticism and critical thinking to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, GLBT issues, politics, poverty, and crime.”

A+ was born when Freethought blogger Jen McCreight (the mind behind Boobquake) made a passionate call for a “third wave” of atheism, one that extends atheist activism into progressive politics and calls for a part of the movement to be one where women can exist free from the harassment that has plagued women publicly involved in the atheist movement.

The founders of Atheism+ say clearly that “divisiveness” is not their aim, but looking through the blogs and voluminous comments in the two weeks since A+ was mooted, trenches have been dug, beliefs stated, positions staked out and abuse thrown. A dissenting tweeter is “full of shit”, while, according to one supporter, daring to disagree with Atheism+’s definition of progressive issues and not picking their side makes you an “asshole and a douchebag”.

So just what the hell are these people going on about? All it seems is that one guy is trying to blend liberal progressivism with atheism, and create some new social movement. I’m bias against this because I’m a libertarian, but really, looking at it, it just seems absurd on its face.

PZ Myers, a professor biology at the University of Minnesota, who frequently blogs on topics relating to atheism, had some very interesting comments on his blog (well, one of them). It’s a wrap up of a “discussion” some people apparently had about this, and I think this one part sums up where I get very, very confused about all of this:

Im in that awkward position where i do agree with most of the values and dislike the misogynist idiots but see no value or reason to mix atheism and the other values. For me atheism just is the simple disbelief and my political values stand apart from it.

Now you see, that’s just stupid. There are lots of atheists who take this blinkered stance that atheism is just one specific idea about rejecting god-belief, and it has absolutely no philosophical foundation and should have no political or social consequences. And that’s nonsense. This commenter is deluding himself as thoroughly as any god-walloper.

If there is no god, if religion is a sham, that has significant consequences for how we should structure our society. You could argue over how we should shape our culture — a libertarian atheist would lean much more towards a Darwinian view, for instance, than I would — but to pretend that atheism is just an abstraction floating in the academic ether is silly.

No, PZ. To pretend it is anything else is silly.

I mean, as an atheist, I don’t believe in unicorns, or fairies, or burglars who sneak into my house via toilets. (I thought that as a kid, I really did.) Should lack of a belief in any of these things make us suddenly recognize massive implications for structuring our society? Er, no, not really.

Of course, there are implications for not having Christianity front and center. First of all, there would be far less churches, and a far weaker religious influence on our laws. There would probably also be slightly different interactions between men and women (after all, Christianity does relegate women to a decidedly secondary place.) But would it naturally follow that suddenly we’d all be cool with gay marriage and abortion? Err, no, not actually. In fact, I have met atheists who are uncomfortable with either of those topics. There are also many atheists who think feminism, in its modern form, is a crock, and might want to ban recreational drugs.

I’m not saying I’m agreeing with those above views. What I’m saying is that it is a monumental leap from a simple lack of belief in any god to certain political beliefs and “implications for the structure of our society.” It is a huge and in my mind completely unjustified jump, one bereft of any connections or reference points or clear logic. It’s one thing to be like Objectivism, where you have an entire metaphysical and epistemological philosophy going on there that leads you to atheism, but it’s quite another to go from “I don’t believe in god” to “my lack of belief in god requires me to believe A, B, and C.”

PZ Myers and another author, Greta Christine, try to explain this sort of jump, but I find it totally lacking. Greta points out that, since this is the only life we have, we have a “moral obligation to fix it.” Fair enough; I agree this is our only life, and we should improve it as much as we can, but that still doesn’t get the idea that, as PZ Myers puts it, we should have unlimited free healthcare and education.

In fact, if you want to be rational about it, embracing true-blue free markets is the best way to go. Seriously, pick up a copy of Johan Norberg’s In Defense of Global CapitalismSeriously, I dare you. You can get a Kindle copy for less than eight bucks. In just the first hundred pages, Johan goes through all the benefits that capitalism has brought the world. Global poverty has dramatically decreased. Education and literacy have increased dramatically. Women have especially benefitted from free markets, seeing their income soar and their rights broaden in nearly every country in the world. Is it perfect? No, of course not–and lately, corruption and cronyism have slowed the rate of progress–but it is a damned sight better than we were back in 1903. No one can argue that.

And that’s why I find Atheism+ to be absurd. You can be an atheist yet hold gazillions of different views on politics and society and economics. Contrary to popular belief, Christians are not all conservatives. There are many on the “religious left” as well (notably Catholics, at least until this year.) There are Christian socialists, as well as Christian libertarians and probably a handful of Christian fascists (oops, integralists. My bad.) They all believe in one god who sent his son to Earth who was to be killed and then raised again as a zombie, but they have dramatically different political beliefs. How can you then say that something that is merely a lack of belief in those tenets can lead you to specific ideological boxes?

I don’t get it.

Look, it’s fine to say that you’re creating your own social movement of godless people who believe in something. Fine. But the implication of many of these folks–particularly those like PZ, who automatically lumps libertarians in with “jerks”–is that you cannot be an atheist and yet not be of this mind on politics at the same time. That’s just bonkers, and absurd. And I thought atheism was all about reason and logic, because we don’t believe in superstition?

Atheism+ is an absurdity. And I wish people would stop.

Atheists making atheists look bad

Over the weekend, I saw a Tweet from Melissa Clouthier, who is an excellent source of news and goings on in the conservative Twittasphere. Some of her Tweets though, provoked me a little bit, because it touches on that topic of atheism that no theist really understands:

There are numerous myths and fallacies going on here.

First, there is the idea that atheism has a symbol. It really doesn’t. There are a bunch of different ideas–the atom, the Happy Human, the Invisible Pink Unicorn–but we really don’t have a symbol.

Second, there is the idea that going on the TV to defend your views is “awfully religiousy.” I wonder if Melissa would say the same thing about conservatives going on TV to defend tax cuts, or sports analysts defending their opinion of some idiot has done in whatever league they cover, or a business executive defending his company’s actions. “Awfully religiousy?” Hardly. Defending one’s views on TV is not the purview of the church.

Third, atheism just doesn’t have dogma. All atheism is is a lack of a belief in god. It is no different, really, from the Christian’s lack of belief in Osiris, or Zeus, or Optimus Prime. They’re atheists too, just not in one particular direction. Atheism has no rules for how to act, it has no rituals, it has no real ceremonies or doctrine. It has no dogma. There are totally non-spiritual secular humanists, there are bona fide spiritual atheists, there are folks who go join Ethical Culture, there are other religious humanists, and some people decide to join the Unitarian Universalist Church and have fun with crystals. There’s even Christian athiests. (They’ve always puzzled me too.)

Point is, there is no atheist dogma. Other than not believing in any deity (even saying that deities don’t exist is not technically required, though unlike most athiests I think the “positive vs. negative atheism” debate to be a distinction without a difference), there is nothing to follow to be an atheist.

But when I read Melissa’s link to Mediate, I could see why she was a bit…confused.

That’s because it’s yet another instance of atheist acting like fucking retards:

The president of an Atheist group appeared on Fox News Channel with Megyn Kelly on Friday to denounce the inclusion of the 9/11 cross in the memorial at Ground Zero to the exclusion of other, non-religious religious symbols.

American Atheists President David Silverman said that the cross at the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero is in a museum paid for by public funds and amounts to the endorsement of Christianity by the government.

Silverman outlined the many ways in which the 9/11 memorial was public. “And they have the gall to say that this is not a public event? Well, we differ,” said Silverman. He said that atheists suffered as much as anyone on 9/11 and they demand representation.

“But you did not have a symbol that was found in the wreckage of Ground Zero,” noted Kelly.

“That’s because there are no symbols of atheism,” said Silverman.

He said that a number of crosses were recovered from Ground Zero because the original World Trade Center was assembled from cross beams. “That does not give Christianity the right to usurp the rest of the nation and to have a memorial solely to itself in our national memorial,” said Silverman.

First of all, jackass, this is not a memorial “solely to itself.” It just so happens that the overwhelming number of Americans and victims of 9/11 were Christians. That’s just how it is.

Second, don’t you think it’s rather silly that, if we have no symbols for atheism, that we should then be calling for an atheist symbol to be placed there? Can you feel the cognitive dissonance…now?

Look, more than anyone I want to see America give up it’s old, superstitious, religious habit. That’s not going to happen, though, if atheists get out there and be antagonistic douchebags. This is like when athiests complain and stage protests over a nativity scene in a public park. Yes, I get the principle behind your argument, separation of church and state, but it doesn’t really apply. Those public spaces are fora for people to put out their ideas and beliefs, including Christianity. Instead of whining about it, maybe you should do some public education about atheism, or better yet, put up a booth for HumanLight.

There are legitimate things atheists should be pushing back on. When students are bullied and harrassed in school because they’re not religious, or expelled or otherwise punished for it, that’s something to push back on. When there’s an atheist family being harrassed or discriminated against, that’s legitimate. When government officials start writing laws based on religious doctrine, that’s legitimate.

But protesting the 9/11 memorial because they have some crosses there? Dude, that’s just douchebaggery. It seems to me that more and more athiests in America want to push back against the overwhelming Christian hordes by beating people over the head and trying to be attention whores. That’s the last thing atheists should be doing. I, for one, do not care what others believe, as long as they are not shoving their religion down my throat. And putting up crosses at a freaking memorial is not that.

But what really got me was this:

Kelly challenged Silverman’s assertion that many atheists were suffering from “dyspepsia” and “headaches” because of the cross. Silverman said that he had members who would testify in court that this was the case.

WHAT. THE. #*&%

Okay, raise your hands if you think that belongs in a Southern Baptist church, not an atheist organization. Uh-huh. Thought so.

This guy should not be taken seriously by any news outlet ever. American Atheists should sack him and find someone new; I realize they’ve been going through presidents fairly quickly since Ellen Johnson left back in 2008, but this Silverman guy sounds like a hustler who shouldn’t be in charge of what should be a respectable organization.

It should also be noted that American Atheists is not the equivalent of, say, the Catholic Church. The organizations closer to that are the American Humanist Association and the Ethical Culture movement, as well as a few others. American Atheists is strictly a “separation of church and state” organization. They have a political action commitee and focus on political issues. They leave “tending the flock” (so to speak) to other groups.

Which means, naturally, they want to stir as much crap up as possible. But really, going for the “the cross is giving us headaches” argument. Just give the theists more power over you, why don’t you. Make us look all like feeble little whining idiots, why don’t you. Make us all look bad, why don’t you.

You don’t speak for me, Silverman, and neither does your organization. Shut up. Also, this:

Political Religions Of The Left & Right

I swear to Jim Butcher that my next blog post on here will be about fiction I’m working on–honestly–but after the hullaballoo over Chris Hayes and the war dead, I could not help but think about how all of politics has basically devolved into religion, and how much it sickens me.

What the incident has shown me is that both sides of the American political sphere–the so-called “left” (AKA “liberals,” “progressives,” “pink socialist commies”) and the so-called “right” (AKA “conservatives,” “fundamentalist right-wing populists,” the “1%”)–are by this point nothing more than religions, with their own tenets, gods, and apostles (not to mention heretics and unforgivable sins.) They are, in a phrase, “political religions.” The guy who wrote the book on them (though I haven’t read it, unfortunately), Emilio Gentile, defined them as a:

“more or less developed system of beliefs, myths, rituals and symbols” that creates an “aura of sacredness around an entity belonging to the world and turns it into a cult or object of worship or devotion.”

Both sides of the political sphere today put down the government as essentially their core deity. Although they have other gods they more directly worship, the government–the state–is their Absolute, their Ultimate, the Neoplatonic Ideal to which they aspire. It is, quite frankly, sacred, and their give their devotion to it.

I’ve identified at least two political religions on both sides of the aisle off the top of my head. For the progressives, there are the churches of global warming/environmentalism; Keynesianism; and simple wealth redistribution. For the right, there is, well, an actual religion–fundamentalist Christianity–plus the veneration of the military, which sadly has infected even some of my more libertarian friends.

  • Global Warming/Environmentalism: This one is fun. Even if you get past the people who say that Brooklyn will be underwater by 2050 (which might not be entirely bad*), you find a great number who have done the impossible: they have placed their faith in science, or more accurately, scientists. Of course, science is not based on faith, and to do so is to reject science, but they have done it anyway. This is observed whenever you start really asking questions about how global warming is going to kill us all, and they begin contorting themselves into absurd positions in order to defend it, when the rational mind would have said “This is stupid” long ago and jettisoned it. A great example is when the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report saying that the glaciers in the Alps were melting. They based this evidence on…an unpublished paper by a grad student, who in turn based this on…some anecdotal quotes from hikers who said, “Yeah, the glaciers look a bit smaller than the last time we were through here.” Science, people. This is science.
  • Keynesianism: This one is even more fun, in a way, but more aggravating. Keynesianism, in a nutshell, is the idea that the government must “prime the pump” of the economy by injecting loads of money into it. Of course, this totally ignores the fact that the only place the government can get the money in the first place is from the economy itself, so it’s just taking money out of the right pocket and putting it into the left pocket (and there’s never any consideration of what happens when stimulus must, invariably, end.) This religion’s foremost prophet is Paul Krugman, who has repeatedly demonstrated that not only he is a fool, but he’s also quite ignorant of human life itself. Of course, Keynesians like to hide behind mountains of models that “prove” their theory correct, but in the end, they never seem to translate well to the real world, and are thus very similar to such works like the Bible and the Quran.
  • Wealth Redistribution: Similar and linked to Keynesianism above, the Triumphant and Occupying Church of the 99% wants more money to be taken from those who are wealthy and redistributed to the poor. It literally hates success and wealth and constantly engages in class warfare. Never mind that income inequality has not changed at all over the past twenty years. They will promptly ignore that, and just call for more taxes on the rich–even though they’re the guys who ultimately get everyone else in this country jobs. They will literally put their fingers in their ears and
  • Fundamentalist Christianity: The only political religion on this list which is based around an actual religion, the fundamentalist Christianity that conservatives mostly follow is not, I would argue, actually devoted to serving Christ and their fellow man. It is, instead, a play for power in the halls of government, a way to keep one set of cultural values superior to all others, by using the force of government to impose said values. When you ask people who want to force their anti-gay beliefs and pro-life stances upon others why don’t they follow the “Render unto Ceaser what is Ceaser’s” maxim, you get the same sort of contortions (or just outright “that doesn’t matter”) you get from environmentalists. You can’t criticize it; you’re just a heathen.
  • Military: This one came out in force over the weekend with the Chris Hayes’ controversy. It largely comes down to “You shall not criticize the military” and “You shall DEFINITELY not say ANYTHING on Memorial Day. Just. Shut. Up.” I’ve already gone over this in the past two posts, so I won’t spend all that much time on this particular entry, but only that it is extremely prevalent and is becoming more and more dangerous.

The reason all of these stances go beyond ideology and have become political religions is that ideologies can change, adapt, and evolve, and that people can do so via the power of reason. Religion, on the other hand, is against reason. It is entirely based on faith, which is “X is true and I believe it with all my heart and soul and if it turns out to be false I’ll end up like these guys.” The radical environmentalism and global warming believers don’t use reason to evaluate their statements, and the Keynesians have long ago discarded reason in order to stay in bed with their government overlords (a weakness that was well explained in Public Choice Theory.) Arguably, there was never any reason applied to either the Wealth Redistributionists or the fundamentalist Christians, and the lack of critical thinking towards the military has not yet overpowered reason entirely–as evidenced by the pushback, even from military veterans themselves, on the issue–but it is growing and has been accelerating in particular over the past decade.

Without reason, we can not advance, we can not develop. It was a lack of reason and slavish devotion to the Church and feudal lords that kept Western civilization mired in the Medieval period for so long (which, while good fodder for D&D campaigns, is not so good for real life.) The lack of reason that led to the Soviets and Communism in general led to hundreds of millions of deaths. And the lack of reason that is permeating the entire “discussion” over how to deal with the financial crisis, the recession, and the looming disintegration of the Eurozone is only promising more danger, more failures, and a harder fall in the future. On the other hand, using that giant brain of ours gave us fire, the wheel, electricity, democracy, free markets, the computer, the iPhone, space shuttles, abundant food supplies, and Pokemon. (Okay, bad example.)

This is why I’m both a libertarian and an atheist (and why I’m really, really irritated that so many atheists have basically swapped out Jesus with the state; they’re not “really” atheists, they just call their god Capitol Hill). It’s also why, for the first time in many years, I’m actually getting very worried about the direction of this country. Ultimately, while many terrible things have happened over the past decade or so, it always looked to me that eventually, libertarianism and the free market would win out. People see how things are failing miserably, give it a shot, and would revel in the new found freedom and prosperity. Our logic, in the end, would be inescapable and irrefutable, although it would take a long time to get there. But that only works if people are open to reason, and if they’re not–if they’re just following political religions, which they cannot disagree with or else they will be excommunicated, their lives destroyed–then we don’t really have much of a chance. You can’t reason with them. You can hope to convert, but that’s a long shot.

For the first time in a long time, I’m a pessimist.

2 More Great Posts on the @ChrisLHayes Kerfluffle

I wish I found these sooner, but they’re good and I want to share.

First, is Will Wilkinson from the Economist (or, at least, I’m told he’s running that blog now):

[Chris Hayes is] not wrong about that. Calling “hero” everyone killed in war, no matter the circumstances of their death, not only helps sustain the ethos of martial glory that keeps young men and women signing up to kill and die for the state, no matter the justice of the cause, but also saps the word of meaning, dishonouring the men and women of exceptional courage and valour actually worthy of the title. The cheapening of “hero” is a symptom of a culture desperate to evade serious moral self-reflection by covering itself in indiscriminate glory for undertaking wars of dubious value. A more confident culture would not react with such hostility to Mr Hayes’ admirable, though cautiously hedged, expression of discomfort with our truly discomfiting habit of numbing ourselves to the reality of often senseless sacrifice with posturing piety and too-easy posthumous praise.

Indeed, the adolescent vehemence of the reaction to Mr Hayes’ mild confession seems to me to underscore the idea that America has become so deranged by war that anyone who ventures to publicly question any element of America’s cultural politics of endless conflict will instantly mobilise indignant hordes who will bear down to silence him.

The other is from a blog I’ve never heard of called “Emptywheel”:

Chris Hayes touched on a critical and under appreciated point: there is far too much cheerleading for war propagated through obligatory honor of the souls the powers that be send to fight the wars. It does cloud and mask the reality of what is transpiring on the greater moral and humanitarian stage, and does so very much to the detriment of society and the relevant discussion. That is just a fact in my book.

By the same token, the older voices among us, even those of us who grew up with the mess that was Vietnam, still grew up in the halo years of WW II, with the remnants of WW I that preceded it. When I think of Memorial Day, it is under a mental framework cast in those terms, that was still the framework conveyed in the 60?s and, even if lesser, still in the 70?s and 80?s. Vietnam was the aberration, not the norm, for a very long time when considering war and “war heroes”.

And that was me, a kid who mercifully avoided the draft and never served. I think the feelings could, and may well be, even stronger among those who did serve or, like Olivier Knox, who have land and families free today because of the last devotion expended on the beaches of Normandy or Okinawa.

To an older generation, and the differently situated, Memorial Day exists to honor true heroes. American soldiers who died so that you, me, Chris Hayes and everyone else may all have the discussions we do. The fact they gave what they did allows that. And, yes, they ARE heroes.

It is indeed a complex dynamic. Could Chris Hayes have exercised a bit more rhetorical discretion; no question. And he would be wise to not paint it quite as much as he does so primarily in terms of Afghanistan and, presumably, if not mentioned, Iraq (leaving aside Yemen and our other, um, areas of interest/conflict); there is a much larger and older framework, as Hayes himself cogently noted in his lead in.

But move beyond the patina of insensitivity, and Chris Hayes was quite right. We need desperately to unhinge the valor of our troops from the moral squalor of our leaders. Memorial Day may be a touchy time to hear that, but it needs to be said.

Great reads. And well said, both of them.

Why I Agree With @ChrisLHayes

There’s been a lot of hullabaloo over the weekend about comments that liberal commentator Chris Hayes made on MSNBC regarding veterans, namely that he is “uncomfortable” calling them “heroes:”

If you want the text (which is what I’ve been using):

“Why do I feel so uncomfortable about the word hero?” Hayes said. “I feel uncomfortable about the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. Um, and, I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect memory of anyone that’s fallen, and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism, you know, hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers and things like that. But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that is problematic. But maybe I’m wrong about that.”

Read more:

If you read the link, there’s a lot of coverage of the predictable bashing Hayes has received from the conservative blogosphere. None of it is surprising. There is a lot of “you’re wrong.” There’s a lot of questioning of his gender (Ann Coulter says the Marines died to protect his right to menstruate, which just shows you how juvenile and unintelligent she is.)  We even get disgusting comments like this:

So an individual is now a “turd” for simply stating his discomfort?

I think, in a way, these guys have all proved Chris Hayes’ point. And that’s why I agree with him.

Although respect of our military and men and women in uniform have always been part of our culture, particularly over the past decade, it has gone from just respect to almost hero worship. The left has its political religions of enviromentalism and Keynesianism; the right has its religion of the military. Any anti-war argument gets shut down in the name of “patriotism” and “you’re disrespecting our troops.”

We see it all the time. Anyone who puts on a uniform is automatically labeled a “hero,” regardless of their actual moral character. Just by signing up and joining the military, one has put himself above his (civilian) peers, and in most cases, beyond reproach as well. Because they are “defending our liberties,” they are automatically awesome and mighty, and the only reason you can even voice your disagreement with having wars is because of the sacrifices that they’ve made.

Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway picks up on this part of Hayes’ comments:

Now, on some level I will admit that there is merit in the argument that the term “hero” is tossed around far too loosely these days. Going back to the Ancient Greeks and the Romans, after all, “hero” has long been a term that was applied sparingly. That’s why the United States awards special honors, ranging from commendations to the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and the Congressional Medal Of Honor, to those who have distinguished themselves by exceptional action in combat. So, to say that everyone who has died in service to their country, or even just served their country, is a “hero” in the Greek/Roman sense of the word is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. That is not, by any means, to denigrate the service and the sacrifice of anyone who has served. However, the word “hero” definitely used to mean something special and it has kind of been watered down over the years. After all, is the guy who scores the winning touchdown in the last minute of the Big Game really as much of a “hero”as the firefighter who just saved a child from a burning building? Perhaps we need new words to describe these things, but that’s a question for linguists.

And I think that, really, at the heart of it, this is really what Hayes is getting at. And I think rational people from across the ideological spectrum can agree that just putting on a uniform doesn’t make you a hero; it makes you a soldier, it makes you a vet (well, when you retire), but you must still earn the appellation “hero.”

Let’s think about it. Were the soldiers at My Lai “heroes?” Were they “defending their country”? What about the soldiers at Abu Gharib? And while we’re at it, how is the Iraqi War defending our freedoms and liberties, and not just rapacious, callous imperialism? I’m not sure how you can say the soldiers in Iraq are dying to protect our freedoms when Iraq was never a threat to said freedoms, and in fact, having our troops there is becoming more of a threat to said freedoms, both because it inflames sentiment against us, which leads to more terror threats, and which then translates into more things such as the Department of Homeland Security, the TSA, the NDAA, and so on and so forth.

Any life lost in these conflicts–these irrelevant, stupid wars that don’t do anything to protect the citizens back home–is a wasted life. Yet we continue to use language that effectively shuts down debate and lets these wasteful conflicts continue.

If we want to be truly respectful towards the dead, then we’d stop the wars and bring all our troops home, and stop using the troops as a political statement for more violence. We’d stop using them as a rhetorical technique to remain in denial over our actions. But no: we continue sending them off to their deaths in senseless conflicts, completely disrespectful to their individuality and humanity, seeing them only as units to be manuevered on a board. And if anyone tries to step up and say something, well, then, you’re not patriotic, and you’re not being respectful to the troops. Debate is shut down. You’re a horrible person. And the wars go on.

That’s why I agree with Chris Hayes.

(It should be noted that, at no point, I am denigrating veterans or intend to denigrate any veterans. They definitely deserve respect for putting the uniform; however, they are not superhumans, and do not need to be worshipped, as so many on the right are wont to do. That’s my argument.)

PS: You should really read the comments in the OTB post, particularly the one from Radley Balko and this other one from “Nick.” I think they’re both quite insightful, and actually do a better job of summing up my views than I do myself. (But then, if I just cited them, I wouldn’t have an opportunity to blog…now would I?)

Very belated update: Chris Hayes has apologized for his comments. Of course, there are a boat-load of individuals on the right who don’t accept his apology and call him a prick for saying the following (in my bolded emphasis):

On Sunday, in discussing the uses of the word “hero” to describe those members of the armed forces who have given their lives, I don’t think I lived up to the standards of rigor, respect and empathy for those affected by the issues we discuss that I’ve set for myself. I am deeply sorry for that.

As many have rightly pointed out, it’s very easy for me, a TV host, to opine about the people who fight our wars, having never dodged a bullet or guarded a post or walked a mile in their boots. Of course, that is true of the overwhelming majority of our nation’s citizens as a whole. One of the points made during Sunday’s show was just how removed most Americans are from the wars we fight, how small a percentage of our population is asked to shoulder the entire burden and how easy it becomes to never read the names of those who are wounded and fight and die, to not ask questions about the direction of our strategy in Afghanistan, and to assuage our own collective guilt about this disconnect with a pro-forma ritual that we observe briefly before returning to our barbecues.

But in seeking to discuss the civilian-military divide and the social distance between those who fight and those who don’t, I ended up reinforcing it, conforming to a stereotype of a removed pundit whose views are not anchored in the very real and very wrenching experience of this long decade of war. And for that I am truly sorry.

Somehow, that makes him a prick. I can’t see why; in fact, I think it makes him more human. But that just goes to show you how far irrationality permeates our modern culture.

Another Example Of The Folly of Blind Belief

A Year After the Non-Apocalypse: Where Are They Now? | Culture | Religion Dispatches.

The above is a fantastic essay on what happening to all of Harold Camping’s followers, how they were deceived and how many suffered enormous financial, social, and emotional damage from the belief that the world would end in May on 2011…and then didn’t.

I think this is a lesson for any large belief structures. This includes Communism, American conservatism, the Most Holy and Triumphant Church of Environmentalism, and any belief in big government. Rest assured, with the way things are going, their worlds are going to come tumbling down…and when they do, they’re going to be in just as bad a shape as Harold Camping’s misled followers.

And people wonder why I’m an ignostic.

Methodism: Some Good, Some Bad

As I wrote in one of my earliest blog posts (to which I never supplied the promised sequel), I was raised in the United Methodist Church. I never fully bought into it–even as a child, I considered myself an “agnostic Methodist” of sorts–but I do remember it quite fondly, particularly as it is far more moderate than many of the hardcore conservative evangelical denominations (such as the jerkface from North Carolina who advocated parents hit their kids if they start turning gay.)

I don’t see the Methodists in the news very often, so I was surprised when I saw Matt Yglesias tweet about them banning products made in the settlement territories in Palestine. From the New York Times:

The United Methodist Church, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, voted against two proposals on Wednesday to divest from companies that provide equipment used by Israel to enforce its control in the occupied territories.

The closely watched vote, at the church’s quadrennial convention in Tampa, Fla., came after months of intense lobbying by American Jews, Israelis and Palestinian Christians. After an afternoon of impassioned debate and several votes, the delegates overwhelmingly passed a more neutral resolution calling for “positive” investment to encourage economic development “in Palestine.”

However, the Methodists also passed a strongly worded resolution denouncing the Israeli occupation and the settlements, and calling for “all nations to prohibit the import of products made by companies in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.”

An international movement for “boycott, divestment and sanctions” has gained steam as the peace process in the Middle East has come to a virtual standstill, and allies of the Palestinians have argued that these strategies could pressure Israel to stop building settlements and return to the negotiating table.

I may not consider myself to be a Methodist, but by gosh by golly do I agree with the above sentiment. Let’s be honest about what’s going on in Palestine, here: Israel has turned the West Bank and the Gaza Strip into bantustans, depriving the Palestinians of water, food, electricity, and basically anything approaching a free market, all in the name of “security,” and now is moving into what little land they have and taking it. And they have the gall to wonder why they’re being rocketed? Really?

It doesn’t take a braniac to see that occupation leads to violence. Anyone would notice that. Kudos to the UMC for taking a stand, though personally, I think a boycott of goods made in the territories will do jack squat. This is just symbolism.

Unfortunately, the Church balanced out the good with some bad. Again, from the New York Times:

The United Methodist Church, at its convention in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, voted not to change long-contested wording in its book of laws and doctrines that calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The vote was 61 percent to 39 percent against the change to the church’s “Book of Discipline,” indicating little change to the deadlock on an issue the church has been debating for the last four decades. The delegates also defeated a compromise amendment proposed by the advocates of equality for gay members, which said that Methodists can agree to disagree on homosexuality and still live together as a church.

Now, there are multiple considerations here. First off, it is certainly a religious tenet that homosexuality is bad. That’s their religion, and if that’s what they believe, they shouldn’t change it. But certainly they can still be accepting of those who are they way, instead of blatantly stating that their lifestyle is “incompatible.” (I mean, when we think about it, is Christian teaching is also incompatible with cheating on your wife, war, and misleading your flock? Does it mean you should be bothering people at funerals when they put their loved ones to rest? I have to wonder what else is “incompatible” with Christian teaching.)

But second, I always got the impression the United Methodist Church, while not “okay okay” with homosexuality, was “okay” with it, at least in the toleration sense. That’s why I’m a bit surprised to see this sort of language. I always figured they just didn’t mind all that much about it.

This is also why, although Christians currently make up 78% of the US population, that they will basically dwindle away to nothing. People just don’t see homosexuality as an evil any more, which makes you wonder about the whole social constructionism of religion. If a religion gives way to something else that jives more with society, does that mean the previous religion was never the true way, or that the true way has changed, or what?

But this is why I’m an atheist. I’m not going to let some “General Conference” tell me what is or isn’t okay to think. (Though, technically speaking, that means I’m a “freethinker,” not necessarily an atheist. Though if there’s an “Atheist General Conference,” I’d like to hear about it.)

Can Conservatives Lose Some Religion? (And Santorum, Too?)

Steven Chapman is one of my favorite syndicated columnists. He’s about as centrist as they come, and it’s really refreshing to find someone who is not married to a certain ideology, just to the truth. (Even if that ideology was libertarianism.)

He has a great column that I found on Reason‘s online edition, called “Rick Santorum’s Moral Delusions.” In it, he writes:

Santorum takes it for granted that religious belief, at least of the Christian variety, is a powerful force for moral behavior. That’s not apparent from looking at this country.

He thinks America has been on a downhill slide for many years, thanks to feminism, gay rights, pornography, and other vile intruders. But where is the evidence that the developments cited by Santorum are producing harmful side effects?

In the past couple of decades, most indicators of moral and social health have gotten better, not worse. Crime has plummeted. Teen pregnancy has declined by 39 percent. Abortion rates among adolescents are less than half what they were.

The incidence of divorce is down. As of 2007, 48 percent of high school students had engaged in sex, compared to 54 percent in 1991. What “decaying culture” is he talking about?

This is something that just plum irritates the hell out of me. Of course, I’m an ignostic libertarian, so what do I know, but I do agree with conservatives on a great many things, mostly related to economic policy. Yet, they always seem to go back to social issues when arguing about economic policy, such as in one blog post where a major complaint of the Federal Reserve was that it ordered a local bank to take down some Christian posters. I mean, really? Of all the problems we face, that’s what you’re going to argue about?

Yes, what the Fed did in that case was bad. The government should be in the business of regulating religion. However, going straight to that as your crutch in an argument is nonsensical, and I think in the long run detrimental. I would be honestly surprised if, in 50 years, barring some absolutely inexplicable event, a majority of Americans would be Christian. A plurality? Possibly. A majority? Heck no.

Conservatives also seem to be missing out on a very important strain of conservatism. Heather MacDonald wrote about it on the Richard Dawkins’ Foundation website a few years ago:

Skeptical conservatives—one of the Right’s less celebrated subcultures—are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it. They ground their ideas in rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral argument. And the conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies.

Conservative atheists and agnostics support traditional American values. They believe in personal responsibility, self-reliance, and deferred gratification as the bedrock virtues of a prosperous society. They view marriage between a man and a woman as the surest way to raise stable, law-abiding children. They deplore the encroachments of the welfare state on matters best left to private effort.

Apart from the heterosexual marriage part, I agree with the above. And going off that skepticism, I would be very skeptical of what Santorum is peddling, especially since all the datapoints indicate that we are living in a far safer, far more enlightened, far better society than we were a century ago. Are there problems? Of course (though I would argue a lot of them stem from the War on Drugs, which is something that Santorum supports.)

Chapman continues going through the numbers:

America is a good place to judge the value of faith in promoting virtue. There is a great deal of variation among the 50 states in religious observance—and a great deal of variation in social ills. It turns out that religiosity does not translate into good behavior, and disregard for religion does not go hand-in-hand with vice. Quite the contrary.

Consider homicide, which is not only socially harmful but a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Mississippi has the highest rate of church attendance in America, according to a Gallup survey, with 63 percent of people saying they go to church “weekly or almost weekly.” But Mississippians are far more likely to be murdered than other Americans.

On the other hand, we have Vermont, where people are the most likely to skip church. Its murder rate is only about one-fourth as high as the rest of the country. New Hampshire, the second-least religious state, has the lowest murder rate.

These are no flukes. Of the 10 states with the most worshippers, all but one have higher than average homicide rates. Of the 11 states with the lowest church attendance, by contrast, 10 have low homicide rates.

Teen pregnancy also tends to follow a course precisely the opposite of what Santorum preaches. Almost every one of the most religious states suffers from more teen pregnancy than the norm—while the least religious ones enjoy less.

What impact does gay marriage have on how kids handle sex? Massachusetts, the first state to legalize it, has less teen pregnancy than the country as a whole. Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Vermont, which have also sanctioned same-sex unions, are also far better than average.

Does gay marriage undermine the health and stability of heterosexual marriage? Not so you can tell. Massachusetts has the nation’s lowest divorce rate. Iowa and Connecticut are also better than most. Vermont and New Hampshire are about average. In the Bible Belt, by contrast, marriages are generally more prone to break up.

Game, set, match.

This is the other place that truly upsets me: when Christians and social conservatives argue that their religion and their morality is somehow better. Actually, there are pretty good signs, as Chapman and other writers note, that Christian morality really isn’t any better, and in some cases, is actually worse. Granted, the document that is the foundation for Christianity was written some 2000 years ago, so it was a product of its time, but it promotes slavery, is demeaning to women, has a lot of what you might call pornographic smut in it, and is a very violent work. Again, that was how things were back then, so you have to cut it some slack, but Christianity’s moral code does come from that.

And what is this moral code? It boils down to essentially one word: obedience. Obedience to your father, obedience to your church, obedience to god, even when they are wrong or nonsensical. This has led to some disastrous consequences as noted above; having a hard or heavy hand does not result in good behavior, you have to let people explore a little bit. It’s kind of like an explosion or expansion, like, say, from champagne. Don’t bottle it up, give it room to expand, and it’s fairly peaceful, since the expansion wave is not bumping into anything. But put walls around it, try to channel it, contain it, and the resulting explosion will be violent and perhaps have dangerous consequences.

Yes, I have just made a metaphor comparing human beings to explosions. And yes, this is about Christians, not Muslims (though Islam has its own problems.)

Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic also has a great piece on Rick Santorum vis-a-vis same-sex marriage:

There are an estimated 131,729 same-sex married couples in the United States, a Census Bureau figure that would be significantly higher if not for the fact that the vast majority of jurisdictions still prohibit gays and lesbians from marrying. Still, more than a quarter of a million gay people are married to one another. And it’s worth explicitly pondering what that means.
For wedded gays and lesbians, it means more financial stability, more emotional stability, better access to health care, hospital visitation rights, and fewer legal burdens in the event of their partner’s death. It means a more formal investment in their relationship, and in many cases, vows uttered before family and friends to strengthen their union. It means emotional fulfillment, and the end of the feeling of being discriminated against by one’s own government, a valuable thing in itself.

And for the one-third of lesbians and one-fifth of gay men who are parents? For them, It means more stability for their children, plus an opportunity for their socialization into what a loving marriage looks like. For society as a whole, it means gay people share in the same method of family formation as their parents, their straight colleagues, and their heterosexual friends. It means that gay culture is more invested than it would otherwise be in the success of marriage as an institution and in the norm of long-term coupling.

Rick Santorum, of course, would like to end all of that by banning same-sex marriage.

Conservatives who are truly pro-family would recognize that this is absurd and stupid and counterproductive. They would recognize that these are anti-family policies. They might also, if they’re devoutly Christian, remember a special line: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) The conservative movement in America really needs to lose its religion.

That’s not to say they must all become atheists; on the contrary, I think trying to forcibly “convert” 78% of the American population would be a waste of time, and against basic principles. What it does say is that they should stop trying to force Christianity down everyone else’s throats: not only is it not pro-family, the evidence points to it not even accomplishing its goal. Certainly, the conservative focus on civil society, and not the state, as the foundation for principled living is sound (such ideas are greatly expanded upon in David Boaz’s work Libertarianism: A Primer, which I think is required reading if you want to be a libertarian), but following fundamentalist Christian beliefs does not necessarily get us there.

Conservatives just need to drop the religion from public policy if they want to get anywhere in the 21st century. If they keep nominating people like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who are both widely out of touch with the American people and totally inappropriate as leaders, then they deserve to be sidelined and ignored.

Hitchens, Wordcraft, and Religion

I have been somewhat remiss in not joining the communal lament over the departure of Christopher Hitchens. Part of that is due to technical difficulties with my computer; the Windows bloat finally overtook it, and I had to install Linux on it in a dual-boot configuration to regain my sanity, and then it overheated.

But another reason why I have not joined in is because I don’t really have a favorable impression of Christopher Hitchens. I don’t hate him, really, but I don’t fawn over him like others do either. There are some things I agree with him on, definitely: atheism, for one; not bowing and scraping towards religious terrorists, for another; and that modern US “liberalism” has all of its priorities wrong (though that may be me just projecting what I thought he was saying, rather than what he actually was saying.) There were other things I disagreed with him on, however: his demand that we nuke all the Muslims, his full-throated support of the War in Iraq (as a disclaimer, I supported it initially too, but realized my mistake and got over it), and, perhaps most relevant to this blog, his writing style.

Something I’ve noticed while reading all the blog posts about him is that everyone starts trying to write artsy. Heck, I’m noticed that even I am doing it, which bugs me. There’s something about Hitchens, something in his writing, that comes out and tries to infect every writer who writes about him. Quite frankly, I find it annoying. I understand that when you write about someone you admire who is also a writer, there is a tendency to write like them, to try to get closer to them. But Holy Keystrokes, Batman, the tendency to imitate Hitchens seems to be damn near overpowering.

For example, let’s read the works of one Jazz Shaw, who writes at the conservative blog “Hot Air.” Here’s one of his ordinary posts:

While Tuesdays are frequently hectic around here, I thought I’d check in and see how you were all doing following the end of the world. Oh… you didn’t hear that the world was ending? No, I’m not talking about the aircraft carrier size asteroid zooming past the planet. I refer to the far more explosive revelation which came across my desk this morning in which we found Erick Erickson essentially declaring the end to civilization.

No, Erick wasn’t donning purple sneakers and waiting for some sort of mother ship hiding being the aforementioned asteroid, but he was proclaiming Romney such a great risk to the conservative fabric of the universe that he might “walk back” his rejection of Jon Huntsman. Yes, this is the same Erick Erickson who, at one point, appeared ready to hold the hem of Rick Perry’s bridal train as he walked down the aisle. (While I invest considerable snark in this description, you should click through and read his analysis of the current crop of candidates, which includes a lot of insightful analysis mixed in with a combination of anger and despair.)

But before you rush out to support Jon Huntsman, are we possibly forgetting somebody? Is this the time for… dare I say… Roementum?

Let’s face it… we’re running out of names in the hat. And Buddy Roemer has been waiting patiently on the sidelines in a grossly underfunded campaign, just in case everyone else imploded. I’ll be the first to tell you that I’ve been needling people on the social media circuits about Buddy’s campaign, and not just because I was trying to get in on the ground floor in hopes of eventually being named the U.S. Ambassador to Key Largo. (Though I’m still open to the position if you win, Buddy.)

Pretty snarky, pretty funny. Comes off as quite casual and easygoing. No real highbrow stuff here, and I, for one, think that’s a good thing. But then, what about his post on Hitchens?

Hitchens wasn’t some overnight success, suddenly appearing after his famous moment of liberal apostasy when he embraced the invasion of Iraq. (A seminal moment which led to a mass upwelling of rage among his legions of followers, including yours truly.) He had always been there, frequently behind the scenes, stirring up trouble wherever he went. I often pictured Hitchens as the quintessential, revolutionary character in all of those movies we all remember. Whether it was Dead Poets Society or The Big Chill, there was always the one rebellious student, striding back and forth on the university library steps, gesticulating wildly and quoting centuries dead monks which nobody else had heard of yet, while a crouched group of future protesters and disaffected youths looked on in awe. Hitchens was that guy. He was always that guy.

I imagine him at the moment of his birth as being the baby who refused to squander his first breaths bawling and mewling after the doctor spanked him. He would have contained himself, storing up his energy until he developed sufficient motor skills to hold a pencil and write his first scathing review – probably a critique of his mother’s womb as a prenatal carrying device. (“All in all a creditable conveyance, though tending a bit toward the damp side and the lighting was simply abysmal.”)

Hitchens moved boldly across the world stage, wandering through places which would paralyze a more cautious man. While he found much to criticize, he still revealed a deep well of empathy in his writings for those who were left out in the cold by forces they could never hope to overcome themselves. In one of the many jewels among his collection of essays, I was particularly moved by the stark image he painted of North Korea following a trip there in the nineties. Titled, “Visit to a Small Planet,” (an ironic homage to the Jerry Lewis film of the same name) he crafted a meticulous, insult laden assault on the late Kim Il Sung and his hapless, seemingly inbred progeny.

See what I mean?

Now, you should not interpret what I’m saying that what people are doing is a “bad thing.” Writing style is largely a matter of taste. I, for one, did not really like the overly flowing writing style of Hitchens–see here for an example in the first paragraph–but that’s just me. Everyone else will have their own likes and dislikes, and that’s fine. I’m just rambling about what I personally feel, and personally, I feel that Hitchens was just not that great. (Though since he was published way more times than I have, maybe I’m just an uppity little whippersnapper.)

He was, however, greater than god, if you catch my drift.

I think Hitchens performed an immense service to humanity in his scathing criticisms of all forms of religion. Even though most people look to Dawkins as having started the “New Atheist” movement (if it can be called that), it was Hitchens that provided the, uh, atheist-equivalent of fire and brimstone to it. He was the passion, the “soul,” if you will. Even though his writing seemed tedious to me, there was so much energy behind it. It pushed the movement forward in ways I don’t think Dawkins or Harris could have. He made people think. He made them question their beliefs. And that, my friends, is the most important thing to do.

This is doubly important with regards to religion, whether it’s a theological belief in an invisible Sky Daddy who will punish us all, or a “secular religion” that puts a great deal of faith in government, environmentalism, or that not eating cows will save us from running out of water. (Some might lump in “free market fundamentalism” with those, but I think that idea is entirely feldercarb. Some elements of the Tea Party might fit, though.) Religions have caused untold amounts of pain and suffering in this world, from the first human lives wasted in sacrifices to nonexistent beings to the bloody Crusades and Inquisition which saw thousands of innocents slaughtered for nothing more but others wanting to prove their devotion to a particular scrap of dogma, to the missionary activities in the New World, Africa, and Asia which led to enslavement and involuntary assimilation (and thus, cultural destruction), to even the twin horrors of Fascism and Communism, which surely are tied for the title of “Most Evil Political Philosophy Ever,” and now to radical Islamic terrorists and consequently, overzealous national security types. It all comes down to the same thing: top-down authority promulgating narrow dogma that impresses upon one’s brain and takes away any thinking capacity.

Despite all the recent troubles–mostly SOPA and NDAA–I do think we are, in some ways, thinking more critically than before, and that’s largely thanks to people like Hitchens who forced us to. Perhaps, by the 22nd century, we’ll have thrown off the yoke of top-down dogma, and we can put the disastrous chapter of religion behind us.

Incidentally, one of my favorite pieces on religion is not written by Hitchens, but rather Bill Bainbridge, in his essay, “Religion for a Galactic Civilization 2.0.” It has many serious implications, and some cool ideas for where we could go, namely, making a religion that puts space exploration at its forefront. As a person who is generally opposed to religion, I don’t necessarily agree with Mr. Bainbridge, but it is a fascinating read. I don’t even know where to make a blockquote excerpt of it, because it’s good all around.

In conclusion, I think Hitchens was a good guy, but I think a lot of the praise he has received is a bit overboard, and in some cases borders on hero worship. But don’t let that stop you. That’s just my take.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones hits the proverbial nail on the head with a bazooka, which I know is a metaphor that doesn’t really work, but anyways

As a writer, he was all over the map. His prodigious memory was, indeed, prodigious, and he was capable of brilliance. And yet, quite aside from his subject material, I never much warmed to him. His writing contained provocation aplenty, but far too much of it, I thought, was tediously bloated, a few hundred words of dashed off substance wrapped around many more hundred words of tired reminiscences, random bile, and frustratingly circuitous filler. It certainly wasn’t unreadable, and sometimes it produced a charm of sorts, but mostly it neither persuaded nor even really entertained on any kind of sustained basis.

Exactly. It’s a lot of roundabout writing that goes here, there, and nowhere. It’s certainly big and verbose and sounds impressive, but when it comes down to it, it’s rather empty. Better to be simple and direct, rather than trying to “sound” intelligent or artsy. It’s okay when you’re writing fiction, but not when talking about US foreign policy. Then its just more work than you really want to do.

A Matter of Faith…and Reason: Part 1

In life, it is always important to reevaluate and question one’s beliefs. Without questioning, one does not change, and how awful would life be if one always stayed the same, stuck in stasis, never evolving? Why, if that happened on a more macro scale, we would still be speaking in grunts!

The other day, my colleagues questioned me on why I held certain political and spiritual beliefs. They aren’t unreasonable questions, although generally I prefer to hash out discussions such as these over blogs and the written word, as I’m not very good as an orator. So, in order to help new readers learn more about me and what they can expect, I’m going to embark on a brief journey on why I hold the theological tenets I do today, so you can learn a bit more about me and so we’re all on the same page.

I mean blog post.

Continue reading A Matter of Faith…and Reason: Part 1