I can’t say that ’07 was a particularly good year for me. I don’t think it was a great year for the world either. But there were a few bright spots and one of them was making the virtual acquaintance of many members of the Atheosphere.
Having lived most of my life open about my atheism but with very few people to share my thoughts on it, this has been a liberating experience and I want to thank everyone who has visited this blog or kindly responded to my comments at theirs.
A few have any become more than virtual acquaintances, having exchanged emails and, in some cases, phone conversations. I include you among my rather small group that I call "friends".
I look forward to exchanging ideas with all of you in the coming year, as well as with others we will meet. I know that our contributions to the ideal of living as free-thinkers, unrestrained by dogma and superstition are meager. But all we can do is carry on. It’s another year in paradise.
I think one way that we can make a larger impact on the world, while blogging, is to make our thoughts more personal. I have a tendency to intellectualize without bringing home the point of how it impacts me personally or the individual experiences I have had in my life that brings me to my philosophies. I struggle with this, and I've noticed I'm not the only one. I'm going to try to focus on this a bit more next year. There are things that I prefer not to talk about, but I think I can contribute more by doing so - and I'll probably be helping myself as well. I think most of us would agree that blogging is therapeutic, even if we never convince another person that belief in gods is a waste of ones life.
Hopefully 2008 will be see a tiny bit more enlightened world. Happy New Year and thanks to every one of you.
Saturday, December 29, 2007
I can’t say that ’07 was a particularly good year for me. I don’t think it was a great year for the world either. But there were a few bright spots and one of them was making the virtual acquaintance of many members of the Atheosphere.
posted - 12:38 PM
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
My niece (who is going to be rich) asked me recently where in the world I’d like to go for a vacation if I could just up and do it. Without hesitation I said – New Guinea. She was a bit baffled, never having even heard of it. After I explained it to her she shrugged and said, “OK, John. When I’m rich, I’m going to send you there!” What a great kid. That was Thursday. Friday, I saw this story on LiveScience.com and it just adds to my desire – and I think you’ll understand why.
posted - 5:58 PM
Sunday, December 23, 2007
I think almost everyone in the Atheosphere has now listed their "Top 20 Albums". Everyone but me. And I'm not going to be doing it here despite several tags. I've said about as much as I'm going to say in the comments at places like No More Hornets, Tales of an Ordinary Girl, The Apostates Chapel, etc.
One thing I did notice is that (I guess due to the age range in the Atheosphere) there were very few current artists listed. We do have a couple of younger members like Lynet over at Elliptica, but I don't think she has put up her list yet. I have to say that I think some current music is as good (from my twisted perspective) as the things we were listening to 10, 20, 30 and 40 years ago.
Here's someone you may be familiar with. I was not. When I saw this woman, the two things that came to mind for me were 1. Janis Joplin and 2. If I were back in my "clubbing days", I'd go see her!
The first clip is a regular music video and the second one from a concert. I think you'll really get the Joplin analogy from the second one. Her name is Amy Winehouse. And I like her.
posted - 12:21 PM
Friday, December 21, 2007
The first thought I had upon finishing the Sparrow (by Mary Doria Russell, and the latest reading by our group – The Non-Believing Literati) was an echo of a recent comment. I’m not sure who wrote it. I’m not sure what blog it was on. But it was, essentially, “why can’t there be some great atheist literature that starts and, especially, ends with the premise – the whole idea of God is absurd?”
Oh sure, there was great doubt about god in the Sparrow. But the nagging feeling I was left with is still – "oh yeah, there is a god. We just don’t comprehend It’s ways."
That is so deeply intellectually bankrupt. If the God of the Christians and the God of protagonist Emilio Sandoz is this far beyond our limited understanding, wouldn’t it be better to proceed with life minus the trappings of a god we can never hope to comprehend?
I thought I might have missed something, so I felt compelled to read the interview with Russell in the back of my copy of the book. What a surprise to find out that she used to be an atheist, had a kid, and resurrected belief – jumping from Christianity to Judaism!
I guess she at least brings a lot of science to her belief. She accepts evolution. She even seems to accept the evolution of consciousness (a leap that many other theists are unwilling to make). But, sadly for her, god still looms out there someplace. And that "someplace" can't even be too far away for Russell. She realized that the morals she needed to pass on to her offspring were morals that came from religion. Uh... no they aren't Mary! There is plenty of evolutionary evidence that "morals" were around before any god-like mythologies popped up.
All three of the books we have read so far, while essentially rejecting fundamentalist notions of religion, still can’t make the final short leap into reality. I sincerely hope the book I have chosen for our fourth reading can do that much for me. Is it really too much to ask?
For those who didn’t see my earlier post on the subject, the current reading for The Non-Believing Literati is The Plague, but Albert Camus. I’m not sure I’m looking forward to it. I learn from everything – it’s a matter of will. But I know I’d be learning a lot if I was reading deGrasse Tyson’s “Death by Black Hole; and Other Cosmic Quandaries”. It beckons lovingly…
posted - 5:41 PM
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Bloggingheads.tv had one of the best Science Saturdays I have seen this past week. I’d strongly recommend the entire 1 hour talk between science writer extraordinaire Carl Zimmer and University of Washington Professor Peter Ward, who has also authored some 15 books. His most recent has shot up on my "to read" list and is called Under a Green Sky. Ward is a paleontologist and has spent much of his career studying mass extinctions. He is a fascinating interview; articulate, knowledgeable and fully aware that his audience may not share his expertise.
I am also linking you to what I considered the most important part of the “diavlog” and I hope, if you don’t want to watch the entire hour, you’ll click on it and watch this shorter segment. If anyone does, please leave a comment about what you think. I’d love to discuss the issues he brings up.
You may think you know about past extinctions and what would be the probable cause of a future one, but some of the scientific understanding seems to be shifting. Just to tease you a bit – it’s not necessarily the “impact” or the “warming” that Ward thinks will directly cause the extinctions. He also gives some fascinating insights into the science wars that go on whenever a new hypothesis causes a re-examination of the orthodoxy.
posted - 2:30 PM
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
I've posted Pat before and I'm quite sure I'll post his videos in the future. Just the other day, I was looking for an interesting video to put up here (a sure sign that I have nothing much to say). I went to Pat Condell's page and started watching a few of the dozens there. They were all good. In fact, something he said got me thinking about something and before you know it I actually had an original thought to share with you.
A tip of my sombrero to Señor Exterminator who directed my attention to this particular video. It's quite topical, dealing with the upcoming U.S. Presidential Primary race and some assorted issues that we tend to talk about nearly every day here in the Atheosphere. Pat is a comedian, but I find myself more astonished at the clarity of his thinking and usually end up angrier than anything else. It's funny in a sad sort of way, because it's so spot-on true.
posted - 7:19 PM
Sunday, December 16, 2007
I’m amazed when Biblical and Koranic literalists blow themselves into a typhoon over the science of biology. Life, including Homo sapiens, is but a small part of our scientific understanding of the universe that clearly runs contrary to their beliefs. Why all the fuss from some trucker from Kansas who wants to teach his kids that cows were made exactly as they are right now, in such a way as to be nearly totally for the benefit of humans? Don’t they realize that there are many other problems with their myth? Science learns more and more (almost daily now), bringing a great amount of certitude as to how things came to be as we currently observe them.
For instance – “God created the earth”. Why obsess on whether man has chimpanzee as his closest living relative, when science is quite positive about how the Earth was “created”? Wouldn't that be a larger problem to confront? I suppose they could claim that science is just having some insights into how God created the Earth, but such acknowledgment would still put them in the uncomfortable position of having to deny the literality of their sacred texts.
We know that this particular “creation” is merely a work in progress. Is god still creating the Earth? The Hawaiian Islands continually pop up and grow larger. Iceland is being ripped apart. The Himalaya Mountain range is growing, California is splitting off from the North American continent, etc. The Earth has reshaped over and over and continues to do so. The livable atmosphere has varied greatly.
“In the beginning” there was nothing habitable on the planet at all. After it became habitable, it wouldn’t have immediately been survivable by humans and cows. Only microorganisms could have existed in the original habitable environment.
These are scientific facts. Shouldn’t these facts bother biblical literalists as much, or even more, than evolution? And yet they seem to act as if the only obstacle to a biblical understanding of the universe is this damn annoying idea that the atheistic Darwin came up with. It’s just one more of those strange anomalies in dealing with theists.
Amazing Earth Part 1
Amazing Earth Part 2
posted - 9:21 PM
Saturday, December 15, 2007
This story from today's Guardian Unlimited:
A business trust is looking at sites for a Christian showplace to challenge the theory of evolution
The latest salvo in creationism's increasingly ferocious battle with evolution is about to be fired in Lancashire. Not in a fiery sermon preached from the pulpit, but in the form of a giant Christian theme park that will champion the book of Genesis and make a multi-media case that God created the world in seven days.
The AH Trust, a charity set up last year by a group of businessmen alarmed by the direction in which they see society heading, has identified a number of potential sites in the north west of England to build the £3.5m Christian theme park. (More)
I actually have mixed feelings about this.
I'm really sick of the United States being the laughingstock of Western Democracies when it comes to religion. For many years nearly all of the European and Asian democracies have had a great time making fun of the "fundamentalist Yanks" and the absurdities of religious interference on public policy. It's kind of fun to see it happening to one of them - right in the home of Charles Darwin, no less.
But then, common sense overcomes me, and I realize that it is (and always has been) a battle of the community of reason worldwide. I've always had a problem with nationalism, racism, tribalism and sexism. I judge people by how they think and behave and set aside other differences that do nothing but create barriers between otherwise like-minded Homo sapiens. It's the same problem, shared by all rational thinkers.
posted - 7:50 PM
Friday, December 14, 2007
But, it is my month to pick a book for us to read. I was struggling over a couple of different books that I have read and enjoyed but finally decided to go with something completely new to me. I consulted a few secular book sites in search of the right thing. They had many good recommendations but the one I settled on was touted by several sites as an excellent book. I’ll leave that to our readers! As always, new members are welcome to join in and read along with the group (and ahead of me). Just contact The Exterminator if interested (or me and I’ll pass it along to him).
The next book for the Non-Believing Literati is The Plague, by Albert Camus. I will assume that posts on it can start appearing on January 31, 2008, unless The Exterminator has a different schedule in mind. Personally, I wouldn’t mind us doing one every 2 months. I’m probably the slowest reader in the group and 6 weeks is (obviously) a tight squeeze for me with the other reading I do. But I leave that to the boss.
posted - 11:03 PM
Thursday, December 13, 2007
The videos are broken up into 5 sessions, each two or three hours long. Here is the link to The Science Network’s page covering Beyond Belief 2007. Near the bottom of the page, you can go directly to which ever session you want to watch.
Among many other speakers, you will find Francisco Ayala, Sean M. Carroll, Pat & Paul Churchland, Daniel Dennett (missing from ’06 due to a heart attack), Sam Harris, Sir Harold Kroto, Rodolfo Llinas, PZ Myers, John Allen Paulos, Carolyn Porco, VS Ramashandran, Michael Shermer, Lee Silver, David Sloan Wilson and, once again, hosted by Roger Bingham (who was positively brilliant in last year’s conference). If you are not sure if this is your cup of tea, you might click here and get an explanation of what Beyond Belief 2007, Enlightenment 2.0 is all about. Knowing the general interests and intellectual capacities of most of the bloggers I associate with, I can say there is little doubt you will find some, or all, of this very interesting.
posted - 7:05 PM
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
200 million years ago, the super-continent Gondwana (Africa, South America, Australia and, crucially to this post, Antarctica) was teeming with ancient life including, naturally, the dinosaurs. That continent broke up over many millions of years into the four present continents. But this means, of course, that dinosaurs once roamed Antarctica. So did countless other creatures. Back then, it was not positioned at the far southern tip of the planet and it was quite warm.
It’s amazing now, when you look at aerial pictures of the rugged continent and hear stories of the hardy scientists (and others) that live months or years at a time in the harshest climate on Earth, to think of all of these animals roaming and making a good life of it. But survive, thrive and evolve they did.
But here’s what I think is the really exciting part of all of this. Our abilities to explore and extract from that continent grow exponentially along with the rapid increase in all of our technological ingenuity. In the coming decades, we can expect some absolutely astonishing discoveries coming from Antarctica.
In the mid-nineties, a team lead by William Hammer of Augustana College dug up some dinosaur fossils. Only recently have those fossils been thoroughly examined and described. It transpires that we have a brand new genus and species of dino! Here’s the story. There should be plenty more such finds in the years to come. Some of them might make this one seem positively minor.
I also wanted to point readers to this list that I recently came upon over at bloggingheads.tv on their Science Saturday “diavlog” between science writers George Johnson and John Horgan (two regulars). John Horgan was one of those responsible for compiling this particular list, called The Stevens Seventy Greatest Science Books.
From Horgan’s statement about the list:
We at the Center for Science Writings began compiling “The Stevens Greatest Science Books” in late 2005. Written primarily by scientists but also by philosophers, historians, journalists and other worthies, these books stand out for their subject matter, rhetorical style and impact on science and the rest of culture. Although our original goal was 100 books, we’re stopping at the “Stevens Seventy,” which has a mnemonic ring to it. Also, we worried that a larger list might seem boastful, like a list of “My 100 Closest Friends.”
I know I have more reading to do than I can handle, and I figure many of my friends do too. Still, I love good books about science so it’s nice to find resources like this one that I can look at and maybe occasionally add a book.
posted - 9:01 PM
posted - 10:18 AM
Sunday, December 09, 2007
British atheist Ricky Gervais used to be an ardent believer in evolution. But then he got the facts from the bible and shares them with us. Personally, I'd already read it. Still, the way he examines the arguments for Creationism, well... if you are anything like me, you'll give the theory another chance. This is very convincing.
posted - 5:50 PM
Friday, December 07, 2007
I'm so happy! I just received my first Reason's Greeting card this year!
The front of the card said: IF LIFE BEGINS AT CONCEPTION... then, inside: ...THEN WHY DO WE CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS IN DECEMBER?
The picture on the inside is the cutest little angel you've ever seen. It's a sperm with wings and a halo!
Much thanks (and Merry Christmas!) to my friend Spanish Inquisitor.
Olbermann lets loose with one of his immediately classic "Special Comments" that he does every couple of months. Along with accusing "W" of being a "bald faced liar" and saying that he has "no business being President", says this:
"We have either a president who is too dishonest to restrain himself from invoking World War III about Iran at least six weeks after he had to have known that the analogy would be fantastic, irresponsible hyperbole, or we have a president too transcendentally stupid not to have asked, at what appears to have been a series of opportunities to do so, whether the fairy tales he either created or was fed were still even remotely plausible."
I'm a little surprised that Phillychief didn't beat me to the punch on this story, "Fox & Friends launched a salvo in the War on Christmas Monday, attacking an atheist group's "tree of knowledge" erected in front of a Philadelphia courthouse alongside a creche and menorah, while ignoring a 32-foot tree dedicated to "commercial attraction" in the same public square."
Hmmm... weren't we just discussing this sort of a public display representing the atheist viewpoint recently?
By special request, from The Exterminator, two of the greatest Bob Marley songs ever -
Get Up, Stand Up
I Shot the Sheriff
Have a great weekend. I'll be desperately trying to catch up on my reading for the Non-Believing Literati. Our essays on Mary Doria Russell's "The Sparrow" (sidebar) are scheduled to be posted on, or about, December 15. This book was picked for us by Ordinary Girl. I have a feeling The Exterminator will be asking me to make the next pick, but we'll see in a week or so!
posted - 1:25 PM
Oh, stop panicking! I'm not going anywhere. At least not right now.
No, the title is in reference to an article I just read that I wanted to point out to you. It was written by BlackSun over at Black Sun Journal. As you might guess, the title of his post almost knocked me out of my chair - Getting Rid of the Middleman.
Fortunately he wasn't lobbying for my removal from the Athesosphere. The "middleman" in question goes by a different name - God. Here's some of what he says in the post:
"But religion has created an artificial need for divine love, divine compassion–which sounds all well and good, even transcendent, until we realize that it’s a backhanded compliment. If we acknowledge the need for divine love, for example, it’s inescapable that we therefore distrust human love. So when we invoke god in conversation, we are essentially devaluing ourselves and whoever we are talking to. Take for example these statements which are so ingrained in the language that even many atheists use them: “God knows.” “Oh my god.” “Goddammit.” And of course the ever-irritating “god bless you,” “god willing” and “With god all things are possible.”
"Let’s purge the language and our thought of these disempowering middleman phrases and concepts."
posted - 12:59 PM
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
Do you love the season, starting in mid December and culminating on the 25th (with some celebrations continuing on to New Year’s Day and some others even through January 6th)? As these days approach, perhaps your thoughts turn to family, friends, feasts and drinks (hopefully even alcoholic ones)! You may enjoy setting up a tree and decorating it (and everything else) in glorious red, green and white. Do you place a lovely wreath upon the entrance to your abode? Colorful lights are everywhere. Friends tack up mistletoe above a doorway. Carolers are out and about, singing songs while wishing all good cheer and peace. The Yule logs on fire warm the night. Gifts, both humble and extravagant, are exchanged with relatives, friends and even casual acquaintances. Have you told late night tales to toddlers about a jolly old elf who delivers toys and goodies around the world? Is that your idea of a wonderful Christmas?
It is wonderful. But it’s no more of a “Christian holiday” than Halloween is. Every single one of the above “Christian” traditions is ages old. In fact, they were with us many eons prior to the putative birth of Christ. All of these pagan traditions, drawing from a number of European and Middle Eastern societies, were shamelessly co-opted by the Catholic Church in the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire. The nativity scene and some new songs featuring the baby Jesus were worked directly in to the old celebrations. Even the suppositional date of his birth was mysteriously stipulated to be right at the same time as the pagan merrymaking.
Personally, I’m not selfish. The festivities of the season are lovely and even my fellows who are Christian are invited to participate. Just as long as they refrain from claiming they invented it. When they (inevitably) do, they should be politely informed of the facts. This should be done totally within the spirit of the season, of course.
Why, you may ask, would the church do anything like that? Christians represented the “one true god” and could just as easily have said his birth was in mid-March and came up with unique ways of celebrating it, without stealing pagan traditions. Well… no, they couldn’t have done that.
The problem is that the celebrations of Saturnalia and Winter Solstice were so incredibly popular that there was absolutely no way for Christian leadership to attenuate them. And you know the best thing to do when ya can’t beat ‘em. The Catholics determined to slap the unknown date of Christ’s birth right on top of the old pagan holidays and “order” everyone to keep the party rollin’. And roll on it has done, just as one might expect of such a great holiday. Even the “reformed” Christian churches, of more recent centuries, hasn’t put an end to the revelry.
And you have to give it to those pagans – they didn’t stop right after the first of the year and recommence liquidating “non-believers”. In large, they didn’t care much about other people’s gods. In fact, if the deities were any good, they’d include them with their own gods.
I don’t believe any more in the gods of the pagans than I do the god of the Christians, Jews, Muslims or anyone else. On the other hand, a good party is a good party. And one that is based on love, peace and brotherhood is as good as it gets. We just need to know that it all started long before Christ was born.
So when you see me on the streets and twitter “Merry Christmas!” you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to give you a beaming smile, grab your hand and shake it. Then I’ll bellow, “and a wonderful Winter Solstice to you”! And now, you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to. And when fretting that Christmas just doesn’t seem to mean what it once did, you’ll know – it never really meant what you assumed it did.
posted - 6:53 PM
Sunday, December 02, 2007
I started writing this as a comment to a post by The Exterminator over at No More Hornets. The post is “My friend ‘Fuck’: A Tribute”. Having seen it after it had already been up a day, I was mildly surprised that a post with that title would have only six comments! But I felt sure that Philly Chief would be one of them! And, had I given it a thought, I could have predicted his opening paragraph. What I could not have predicted is that all of the other comments were from females. There’s some vestigial sexism for you! I admit it.
I'm having a little different feeling about this than Exterminator. I'll tell you why and I'd like to hear what all of you think.
I seldom use the word "fuck" in writing. In hundreds of posts around the Atheosphere and on my own blog, I would be surprised if you could find it more than 3 or 4 times. I'll probably use it more during the course of this post than all other times combined. I use it more when talking, but even then it depends on the company.
And that brings me to my thought process on using it. First, I should admit, I grew up in a house where the word was never permissible under any circumstances. I obviously grew out of that, in much the same way as I grew out of god. But it would be silly for me to deny that there is quite possibly some residual hesitation because of that. Because I'm pretty self-aware I don't think it's a big factor. I've whispered, said, shouted, "FUCK" enough times in my 54 years as to convince me of this.
But I'm aware of the power of the word over others. So, in company that I either don't care if they are offended or know they won't be, I'll use it as frequently as called for. In other circumstances, including the Atheosphere, where I know my words will reach all kinds of sensibilities, I'm more restrained in the use of it.
Exterminator brings up Steven Pinker's latest book "The Stuff of Thought" and some of the things he says about "fuck". Pinker said a lot of interesting things about the word and “taboo words” in general. One of the points he makes that resonates strongly with my own desire for personal restraint is that taboo words are used many times to take control of the thoughts of others. What does he mean by this? Because of the ancient aspects of taboo language in the brain, when one hears a taboo word, they have no conscious choice available to ignore it. Ones attention is riveted on that word – enjoy it or hate it.
To me, that feels like a power play and I try not to make power plays on people if it isn’t absolutely necessary. When I’m speaking or writing to a wide audience, I don’t know who might be effected, but that very fact makes me more reserved. Pinker: “Thanks to the automatic nature of speech perception, a taboo word kidnaps our attention and forces us to consider its unpleasant connotations. That makes all of us vulnerable to a mental assault whenever we are in earshot of other speakers, as if we were strapped to a chair and could be given a punch or a shock at any time”. I don’t do things the way I do because of Pinker, but what Pinker says reflects the gut level feeling I already have. In fact, Pinker doesn't particularly advise restraint!
Pinker talks about another aspect of taboo words that relates to my own usage. One of the reasons for using curse words is the cathartic value of blowing off steam. In talking about brain mechanisms that may play a role in cathartic swearing, he says:
“One of them is an electrophysiological response that kicks in when people notice they have just made an error. It emanates from the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the limbic system involved in the monitoring of cognitive conflict. In public, cognitive neuroscientists call this response the Error-Related Negativity; in private they call it the Oh-Shit Wave”.
After describing the so-called “rage circuit”, a part of the brains of all mammals, he goes on to explain a hypothesis about cathartic swearing.
“A sudden pain or frustration engages the Rage circuit, which activates parts of the limbic brain connected with negative emotion. Among them are representations of concepts with a strong emotional charge and the words connected to them, particularly the versions in the right hemisphere, with its heavier involvement in unpleasant emotions. The surge of an impulse for defensive violence may also remove the safety catches on aggressive acts ordinarily held in place by the basal ganglia, since discretion is not the better part of valor during what could be the last five seconds of your life. In humans, these inhibited responses may include the uttering of taboo words. Recall that the Rage response in animals also includes a fearsome yelp. Perhaps the combination of a firing up of negative concepts and words, a release of inhibition on antisocial acts, and the urge to make a sudden sharp noise culminates in an obscenity rather than the traditional mammalian shriek. (Of course, when people experience severe pain, they show that our species has also retained the ability to holler and howl.) Cathartic swearing, then, would come from a cross-wiring of the mammalian Rage circuit with human concept and vocal routines.”
I can see the strong relation between this description and my own way of using “fuck” and other swear words. When speaking, I’m much more likely, in anger or pain, to blurt out one of them almost as an instinctive reaction. I still attempt, on a conscious level, to moderate the release of the words based on the people within earshot. Sometimes I’m successful with this, other times not! Certainly though, when writing I am in full control of my emotions. This is not to say that emotions don’t play a part in what I have to say. Clearly you could go back and point out posts to me in which I was obviously effected by emotions while writing. But I don’t blurt out. My thoughts are much more finely crafted in writing than in speech.
Most of us have heard the story about “fuck” being a thing from the Middle Ages where, in order to have sex, one needed the King’s approval. Fornication Under Consent of King was a placard to be affixed to the bedroom door, and later it was abbreviated as F.U.C.K. This is nothing more than urban legend for the roots of the word. It’s actually a derivative of a Northern European word for “thrust”. (Pinker, 2007)
posted - 9:17 AM