Thursday, October 25, 2007

Barack Obama Is Way Smarter Than You

Okay, so I'm sure everyone knows the deal. Obama was all "I need to make sure Hillary doesn't win the black heartland vote so I'm gonna go on a gospel tour" and then someone was all "Wait a minute Obama, isn't that guy Reverend McClurkin that you're touring with a giant homophobe who has said fucked up things about gay people?" and then a bunch of people were all "Obama we are appalled and we demand that you kick this guy off your gospel tour immediately" and then Obama was all "I'm not gonna do that but what I will do is add an openly gay minister to the same tour so that everyone's views are fairly represented" and a bunch of gay rights people were all "Noooooo that's not goooood enough, you have betrayed us and WE ARE NOT VOTING FOR YOU!" and then Dan Savage was all "I am feeling reactive today."

Ok, people, here's the deal. There are a lot of fucking people in this country that do not agree with us (that would be you, me, and Barack Obama) that gay rights are important and should be upheld. There are a lot of fucking people in this country that think that being gay is just plain wrong. Is it fucked up to think that? Yes, in my opinion it is. So I think that we can all agree that the most important thing that we can work towards is getting the people who are intolerant of homosexuality to become increasingly tolerant of homosexuality, so that, ultimately, these people will support gay rights. Homophobic people do not need to be defeated--they need to be educated.

Let's quickly run through an alternate scenario. Let's say Obama did kick McClurkin off the gospel tour. Now imagine all the people who are fans of McClurkin and likely not huge fans of homosexuality. They'd be all "Hey, how come McClurkin's not on the tour anymore? I really like that guy." And then someone would be all "Because the gay rights people demanded that he be kicked off."

Pop quiz: which response do you think would be most prevalent?

A: "Well gee, I've never really cared much for homosexuality seeing as how my religion condemns it and all...but now that gay rights advocates have ruined my gospel tour I think that maybe I will be more open-minded in the future."

or

B: "FUCK those gay people! (Only we mean that figuratively because we are not into sex with gay people, and also not at all because we do not say the F-word.)"

Here's a clue for those that desperately need it: Bringing together McClurkin fans and fans of the gay minister in the same crowd to watch an inspiriting gospel show that is tolerant not only of different lifestyles but also of different beliefs about those lifestyles is perhaps the single most progressive thing that a politician or public figure could have done in that situation to advance the gay rights movement in America today. It reeks of sheer, unadulterated brilliance. In fact, I think that this whole debacle is a fucking blessing--and the only reason it turned out that way is because Barack Obama is smart enough to know that when you take sides with one constituency, everyone loses.

I am not going to try to say it better than the letter released today by Obama's campaign from 16 supporters in both the African American and LGBT communities:

"We believe that Barack Obama is constructing a tent big enough for LGBT Americans who know that their sexual orientation is an innate and treasured part of their being, and for African American ministers and citizens who believe that their religion prevents them from fully embracing their gay brothers and sisters. And if we are to confront our shared challenges we have to join together, build on common ground, and engage in a civil dialogue even when we disagree.

We also ask Senator Obama’s critics to consider the alternatives. Would we prefer a candidate who ignores the realities in the African American community and cuts off millions of Blacks who believe things offensive to many Americans? Or a panderer who tells African Americans what they want to hear, at the expense of our gay brothers and sisters? Or would we rather stand with Barack Obama, who speaks truth in love to both sides, pulling no punches but foreclosing no opportunities to engage?"

If You Think Science is Bullshit, I Will Rip You To Shreds: Installment 1 (with more to come no doubt)


This morning I was linked to a graphic design blog, where this graphic design blogger was noting the overlap between science and graphic design, and the importance of recognizing that science does overlap into the humanities. A good call to arms.

Now, the thing that got me all self-righteous and heated up was a comment someone left on this posting. The comment is a perfect example of someone who gets the functioning and importance of science all wrong. Let's go bit by bit, to extract every ounce of misunderstanding from this nincompoop.

(WARNING: MEAN-SPIRITED WRITING ALERT)

"Why do designers need to apply their skills to this arena? What signals out science for preferential treatment? Why not politics, psychoanlysis, art? When did science become the mandate of all that is true and worthy?"

Why don't designers apply their skills to art? Really? Why don't designers (and here I believe the writer is using the word designers to mean in particular graphic designers), and apply their skills in visual communication toward a medium that is primarily visual communication? Why don't scientists apply their skills to science while we're at it. Brilliant observation.

"When did science become the mandate of all that is true and worthy?"

Um . . . because Science (capital S Science), as a mode of thinking, is the only system of knowing reality that works, BY DEFINITION. Maybe we could try having a world with politics but without science. Great idea. Maybe this chode works for the Bush administration.

Onward (and please note, the spelling mistakes here the author's):

"The DNA code of which you noted is an intersting discovery, but we should be wary of laying down our critical faculties in awe of such revelations. All knowledge is created within the sphere of social values and thus requires constant assesment of its intent and purpose. Immediately we can see that this information has dramatically shifted the perception we have of ourselves, our expectations and limitations. Our value is increasingly judged on this inherited set of bio-chemical data. In a scene reminiscent of the most horrific book burnings, our socio-historical narratives fade ever faster in the glorification of numerical order. We have been reduced to code. The ramifications on our social realm have yet to fully play out, but already we can see the discussion turn towards categorising, segregation, and elimination."

I agree that all knowledge is GAINED (not created) within a sphere of social values and therefore can fall into the ideologies of the society. But good Science, the only Science that deserves the title is the Science that stands the test of time.

"Our value is increasingly judged on this inherited set of bio-chemical data."

Wow. See now I'm starting to think this writer is just some junior high liberal. We're all numbers, man. It's like, we're just chemicals and there's no such thing as love. Strawberry fields. Nothing is real.

"We have been reduced to code."

I'll reduce you.

I have a real conflict with actually wanting to argue with this person. On one hand I feel some of these postulations are so ill-formed that they don't deserve comment, but on the other these are real thoughts and feelings. So, why is discovering DNA reducing us to code? It explains how life works, but where in there does that reduce us? You would maybe rather us not discover DNA and continue to think we are made of bile, blood, mucus, earth, wind, and fire?

"Indeed a much more profound insight on the decoding of the human genome is the fact that the information itself has been incarcerated in intellectual isolation. This information that builds our physicality has been stolen from us all and turned into a profit potential for a few. We have been infiltrated, examined, calculated and summarised in the good name of science and understanding only to be hoodwinked by the concerns of another. In short our beings have been propertised."

No one wants to buy your DNA. Sorry junior high liberal. Again though, yes, the decoding of the genome is a scary idea, in that can someone copyright your DNA? If anything malicious is done it's not Science doing it. It's people.

"How can designers work against such imposed immaturity? By taking part in the arena which determines all others, namely the political. Not the bounded ham acting of party politics, but the politics of relations between justice and truth-both private and public, local and global. We should therefore ask how and why science, creativity, and thinking in general, are being driven in such directions. What is the motivation? Who is it that is benefiting? Who amongst us is being forgotten, who has been lost? Who decides this is a price worth paying? Why do we accept so much and question so little? Why do we wish to find comfort rather than resistance? When did we lose our sense of the social, the common, and the shared, to become the docile, domestic, easy to manage statistical objects so beloved of commerce?"

Shut up. Go read Marx, listen to your Bob Marley and smoke a bowl.

"Why do we accept so much and question so little?"

What are those guys called in the white lab coats who question things for a living? Like, they spend all day long questioning things . . . and like, trying to find answers, and even once they've found answers they keep questioning those too? Fuck. I wish I could remember.


"These are some of the crucial concerns for us today, all of which demand the retrieval of our politicised identities, over and above the concerns of any scientific ones."

What is a scientific identity? Does he mean REALITY? As in, the proven fact that we are animals made of DNA and proteins?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Drugs.



This was sent to me by my friend Shane, who said "i don't know if this is genius or retarded...like if the makers of teletubbies did a daytime soap about three subversive lesbians and something about a lakehouse."

I've watched it twice and, like...it's weird because it reminds me of total garbage, but in actuality I think it may be completely amazing. The thing that impresses me the most about it is that while watching it, it's impossible to form a complete thought. I'm serious. Try.

Also, it gave Roy a flashback. Just a warning.

A Belief in Evolution without a Higher Power leads to Genocide, and other tidbits about the 'Expelled' Movie

"He said he also believed the theory of evolution leads to racism and ultimately genocide, an idea common among creationist thinkers. If it were up to him, he said, the film would be called ''From Darwin to Hitler.''"

This is a quote from Ben Stein from a New York Times article about his new movie
EXPELLED: NO INTELLIGENCE ALLOWED

(That is the real fucking title of this movie. Grown adults who want to make a documentary about censorship in the scientific community want the subtitle to be 'No Intelligence Allowed.')



Also, here is the THREE PAGE article in the New York Times investigating how this production company misled scientists like Dawkins to be interviewed for the doc, without their knowing its ideological objectives.

I got in a heated discussion with my friend Mike a few weeks ago when I sent him this quote from Ben Stein. I personally disagree with Stein's comment, but Mike saw some truth in it. I think that the dialogue that it opens up is an interesting one, in that it seems that a lot of people do think that if you believe solely in a scientific explanation of evolution and life, that it will lead you to concepts like social Darwinism. These misunderstandings I feel need to be addressed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ben Stein on Bill O'Reilly (that's all you have to say)

...
Derekh: that would be a weird society
Shannon: forget that
Shannon: we've got bigger problems
9:55 PM
Derekh: hahaha
Derekh: like what?
Derekh: global warming?
Shannon:

Shannon: like the two biggest douches on the planet together in one room
Derekh: OH YES
Derekh: WATCHING
Shannon: i think that planet earth is about to melt
Derekh: oh my god
Derekh: lighting striking a puddle
Shannon: I KNOW
Shannon: fuck
Shannon: i will wait for you to finish before i launch
10:00 PM
Derekh: wow
Derekh: ben stein
Derekh: total idiot
Derekh: who knew?
Shannon: holy fucking shit right?
Shannon: omg
Shannon: how are these people claiming the first amendment??
Derekh: these people just don't understand the issue at all
Shannon: HOW DID THAT HAPPEN
Derekh: i know, that's a brilliant tactic
Derekh: actually
Shannon: it boggles the mind
Derekh: total red herring
Shannon: AAAAGH
Shannon: i love how bill oreilly said
Shannon: "they (xtopher hitchens and bill maher, et al) would say you don't have the right to talk about a higher power"
Shannon: and stein like
Shannon: i mean it's a wiffle ball
Shannon: goes into first amendment from there
Shannon: like
Shannon: WTF
Derekh: yeah, really insane
Shannon: would bill maher EVER SAY
Shannon: you don't have the right
Shannon: to do anything?
Shannon: NO
Derekh: of course not
Shannon: he would literally NEVER SAY THAT
Shannon: jesus
Derekh: it's all this assumed passive aggressive bullshit
Derekh: dan dennett even says
Derekh: religion should be taught in schools
Shannon: in religion class
Shannon: lol
Derekh: which of course these guys won't bring that up
Derekh: exactly!
Shannon: hahaha
Derekh: in a religion class
Derekh: but NO
Derekh: a religion class is like too limiting
Shannon: i just think it's amazing that they're framing this as a first amendment issue when it's clearly an educator competence issue
Derekh: for these people
Shannon: people are losign their jobs because they are NOT teachign science
Shannon: in SCIENCE CLASS
Shannon: wtf
Derekh: i can't wait to see this movie
Shannon: it woudl be like firing a teacher who told her kids that like unicorns were real
Derekh: i mean, i just don't know
Shannon: and then saying "ooooh first amendment, she can say wahtever she wants"
Derekh: totally
Derekh: exactly
Shannon: well yes she can but taht doesn't mean i can't fire her fucking ass
Shannon: jesus
Derekh: what doodoo heads
Shannon: god i hope i can pirate this fucking movie off the internet
Shannon: i really don't want to give these fucks my money
Derekh: yeah, me neither
Derekh: you will be able too
Derekh: to
Shannon: lol
Shannon: ok ok ok
Shannon: *breathing*
Derekh: relax

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Evil plan alert

Check out this article about how a team of scientists from the University of Florida and the Museum of Natural History in Berlin have discovered that amber resin from trees in swamps may have trapped and preserved a bunch of prehistoric insects and swamp critters.

A direct quote (my italics):

"Studying organisms that were trapped for millions of years in amber may help scientists to recreate prehistoric water ecosystems and learn how these life forms changed over time, [paleo-botanist David Dilcher] said. While no one is claiming that the entombed bugs will be brought back to life through genetic splicing, the discovery may give clues about the evolution of microorganisms, he said."

This assurance is a bit out of place, as nowhere in the article is there any suggestion that anyone would want to bring prehistoric bugs back to life. Is this a poorly-contextualized Jurassic Park reference, or an accidental slip that reveals the secret evil plans of a team of evil evildoers posing as scientists?

We're just going to try to find some bugs is all. Nobody's saying we're going to create a super race of face-eating zombie insects. We're just, you know, studying evolution...definitely NOT for the purpose of genetically splicing these bugs into a new and terrifying species that will take over the world. Muahahaha. I mean, ahem.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Aren't we amazing

About five years ago I caught one of my coworkers gazing out the window and when I asked him what he was staring at he pointed at an airplane flying overhead and said "don't you think that it's amazing that man designed his own wings and learned to fly?" (I'm serious, that's actually what he said. He was kind of a nerd.)

"No," I said.

I wasn't trying to be a jerk. I just don't think it's all that amazing. Or rather, it's not the kind of thing that amazes me.

I think that we as a human race tend to have a very expansive view of what is incredible or amazing. We glorify technology and fantasize about building space ships and colonies on other planets and like a robot police force made out of nanomachines...it's weird but I don't really get excited about that. I remember when I was a kid I liked Star Wars as much as the next person but the thing that really would enrapture me was hearing about how in the deep deep ocean there were organisms that we haven't even found yet, there are a ton of ancient life forms right under our noses and we don't even know that they exist or what they could possibly be like. I guess I tend to have a more concentrated view--to me the coolest thing is not how far you can go or what you can build but how deeply you can see into something that's always been there, something that we might not even find to be particularly interesting.

So all of that is just a long-winded way of explaining why this video gave me a total Science Erection.

This is a super-awesome animation of what goes on inside a cell. Like, one of the billion trillion or whatever cells that you have in your body right now. I mean I know we all learned about this stuff in school but this video is just nuts--it's like there's a whole fucking universe in there, and it's cooler than any universe I've ever seen in any science fiction film. I've posted the music video version because it's kind of cool and beautiful, but if you'd rather watch the full-length educational version (watch out, it'll make you feel stupid) then you can watch it here.



Created by XVIVO science animation studio (how cool would that job be)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

How do the machines know what Tasty Wheat tasted like?

Like a lot of people, I am pretty obsessed with consciousness. Ever since I was like 20 years old and I used to get high and stay up all night drawing (completely inaccurate) schematics of how the human brain must process information and emotion, it's been very easy for me to accidentally slip into this fantasy world of trying to "figure it out," with no formal training or expertise whatsoever.

So in the Pinker + Goldstein interview I posted, Steven Pinker reminded me of David Chalmers' work. Pinker said:

"I'm also sympathetic to Chalmers' view. It might not be the actual stuff of the brain that makes us conscious so much as it is the information processing. I don't think Chalmers' view would give much support to a traditional religious view about the existence of a soul. He says that consciousness resides in information. So a computer could be conscious and a thermostat could have a teensy bit of consciousness as well. Still, the information content requires some kind of physical medium to support the distinctions that make up the information. And the Cartesian idea that there are two kinds of stuff in the universe -- mind and matter -- doesn't find a comfortable home in current views of consciousness, even those of Chalmers."

Which is as good a synopsis of Chalmers' work as I think you'll ever get.

Anyway, I was thinking about that all night and for most of yesterday. I was thinking about how yes, obviously there is no one material place in the brain where consciousness "lives" (a concept illustrated beautifully in Dan Dennett's book Consciousness Explained, which I never finished reading but still recommend), but it is rather an emergent phenomenon. I was thinking about how consciousness is really the interaction of the mind and the body, because as we know from Candace Pert's work (which I'm not sure is mainstream yet, but is definitely groundbreaking and should be fucking paid attention to), "emotions" are not all in your head. They take place in your body at the molecular level, as neurotransmitters and hormones (like seratonin and testosterone) are not acting simply in the brain but being dispatched to all parts of the body (which is why when you feel that happy love feeling, your heart gets warm--happy juice is binding to receptors on the cells in your heart).

It's interesting to think of drives and desires from this perspective. Think of your body as a machine. So you've got the evolution juices--oxytocin, seratonin, dopamine, adrenaline, testosterone, endorphins, all the other ones...the ones that are designed to keep you alive and breeding. And then you've got a body that's designed to receive those juices to achieve particular states, and then a brain that's designed to document information about what situations lead to what states, and strategize about which states are desirable and which states are to be avoided. So when you consider Chalmers' "information" to include the concept of drives and desire that your body/mind feels, as well as memories and conceptualizations that your brain tissue is storing, then that's a pretty explosive theory of consciousness. It makes you think well no wonder people feel like they have a soul--there is information pouring out of every cell in your body and organizing itself into a coherent strategy for existence--and part of that strategy btw is that your brain tells you a narrative about the whole thing.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Obviously none of this makes any sense here as I'm babbling about it, but it made sense in my head. I have terrible habit of reading just tiny bits of people's work and then sloppily ripping off their theories (I like to entertain the illusion that I can figure all this stuff out for myself). ANYWAY, after thinking about this stuff for the better part of a day I went on TED and, for some relief, decided to watch a talk on robots. Well THERE IS NO RELIEF, because these fucking robots are conscious. Or, approaching consciousness. By introducing desire (through reward mechanisms) into robot design, this Hod Lipson guy and whoever he works with has created robots that learn and evolve. It's fucking cool and also terrifying in that potential-Matrix-style-apocalypse sort of way. Watch--it's only 6 minutes.

Hod Lipson: Robots that are "self-aware"

Monday, October 15, 2007

This Is It

The interview I have been waiting for. The interview that is so amazing, I would never have even dared to hope that it would actually happen. The interview full of questions and answers so perfect, I will have the entire thing fucking memorized into my DNA because after I have read it seven billion times I will burn it and inject the ashes into my bloodstream. Like, seriously, when I saw it I almost fainted.

It's Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein on their relationship, the mind, religion, and what it's like to be awesome.

I totally believe in true love right now. I will find my Steven Pinker and we will have a billion and five amazing brilliant genius babies, and it's gonna be fuckin sweet.

Seriously, if you only read one interview for the rest of your life, read this fucking interview. Please please please please please.

Women's Studies

Yesterday I ran across this study about ovulation and strippers. (Excuse me, I believe the scientific term is lap dancers.) This study is actually really interesting: they compared the ovulation cycles and tip earnings of 18 lap dancers and found that ovulating women made about $70/hour, compared to $50 per hour for non-ovulating women and $35 for bloated cranky menstruating women. The study claims to be "the first direct economic evidence for the existence of estrus in contemporary human females." (Kinda lofty for a paper-clipped stack of 18 questionnaires turned in to an anonymous drop box).

I don't know exactly how well-researched this field of study is, but there is sort of an already established debate out there about why, in the process of human evolution, estrus was dumped in favor of menstruation. The main behavioral difference between the two is that estrus females are generally only interested in sex while they are fertile (you know, like cats in heat), whereas human females that ovulate are down to bang out whenever. There are all sorts of hypotheses about why this evolved, most of which annoy me. Regardless, there are a lot of implications in there for things like monogamous behavior, societal power distribution, etc.

What bothers me about this is that the paper claims that this economic evidence suggests that men can detect when a woman is ovulating and will thus be more attracted to her (or at least spend more money to see her in a sexual context). This may very well be true, but it feels pretty limited in its perspective. Stripping is a performance art, and while I've never been a stripper I think that any woman who is in touch with her body would agree that you feel a lot sexier--both actively and receptively--when you're ovulating. Some would say downright horny. So wouldn't that play a factor? I mean you've got all kinds of baby-making shit going on up in your uterus, you'd think you'd be a little bit more enthusiastic about waving your vajay around. I don't think it matters whether the women are actually attracted to their patrons--it's a state-of-mind thing. I bet if they did a study about how often single women masturbate they'd find that that increases with ovulation, too. This is of course not an official hypothesis, but I am a single woman, so I think you can count that as data.

The study's authors didn't not think of this, they just found it irrelevant. They say that because previous studies have never resulted in lap dancers' reporting that they noticed menstrual cycle effects on tip earnings, that it is more likely that it is their "attractiveness" to men rather than their own increase in sexual receptivity and proceptivity (i.e. horniness) that plays a role. I don't get this logic at all--just because you don't notice your influence on something doesn't mean that the influence doesn't exist. They also say that the female's increase in sexual receptivity might lead to a bias toward certain men with good genes, but that it was "unclear how this bias would lead to greater tip earnings." To me this also sounds like bullshit--stripping is not the same as choosing a mate. Just because something (ovulatory horniness) evolved in one context (the evolutionary context in which it would be advantageous choose a mate with good genes) doesn't mean that it will play out the same way (only being directed toward potential mates with good genes) in a completely different context (a strip club, where not to disappoint you or anything but the strippers are not there to find men to mate with).

I do agree with the study's general point that whether or not a woman is ovulating plays a role in the chemistry between two members of the opposite sex. The thing that bothers me--about this study and about previous studies that this data challenges--is when people try to form these discrete cause-and-effect hypotheses about complex phenomena by discarding those aspects of the phenomena that they could not find a way to measure. Obviously things like how horny a woman feels and how attractive a man finds her do not lend themselves to causal explanations as they are blurred by lines of feedback. To me, conclusions like that will always be pretty useless and easily challenged by different interpretations of what is essentially the same observation.

The Catholic League denouces 'The Golden Compass' Movie, to which you may say 'Big F'in Surprise' . . .


. . . but you know, it's just the beginning of the joy that will be the epic culture clash that hits America when the movie is released. If you're not familiar with 'The Golden Compass' or the trilogy from which it is the first, here's what The Catholic League of extraordinary gentlemen have to say about both:

"The trilogy, His Dark Materials, was written to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism. The target audience is children and adolescents. Each book becomes progressively more aggressive in its denigration of Christianity and promotion of atheism: The Subtle Knife is more provocative than The Golden Compass and The Amber Spyglass is the most in-your-face assault on Christian sensibilities of the three volumes."

Read the rest here. 'The Golden Compass' movie comes out this winter.

The thing is, the Catholic league is exactly accurate in their assessment of the goal of the books. It's not like Harry Potter, where godless themes can be perhaps subtly alluded to (Time Magazine article 'Who Dies in Harry Potter? God.'). In His Dark Materials we aren't even talking about godless themes woven into the literal world of the book. The world of the books is anti-god.

As long as we're on Philip Pullman's books, let's check out what kind of man writes atheist fantasy books for kids. British men. Obviously.



Pullman is right in step with other British atheist smarty-pantses like Dick Dawkins and Chris Hitchens, in that he's kind of a prick. Here are some great quotes from Pullman's website:

Q: What inspires you?

A: Three things. (1) Money. I do this for a living. If I don't write well, I won't earn enough money to pay the bills. (2) The desire to make some sort of mark on the world - to make my name known. To leave something behind that will last a little longer than I do. (3) The sheer pleasure of craftsmanship: the endlessly absorbing delight of making things - in my case, stories - and of gradually learning more about how they work, and how to make them better.

Q: Who do you write for - children or adults?

A: Myself. No-one else. If the story I write turns out to be the sort of thing that children enjoy reading, then well and good. But I don't write for children: I write books that children read. Some clever adults read them too.

Money is his inspiration, as is his desire to make his mark on the world, and he only writes for himself!?

Ayn Rand would love Philip Pullman.

Friday, October 12, 2007

I once didn't believe in evolution either, and the misconceptions about the 'March of Progress' gives clues as to why


A great little article from ID Magazine about the famous 'March of Progress' image, and why it misrepresents what evolution actually is. Even the title is misleading; 'March of Progress' implies that evolution has some kind of end-result in mind, when in reality the only end result is to not die, and anything that doesn't die the most successful is the only progressive thing there is. Taking that into consideration, an earthworm is just as progressively equal to a human being considering we're both all alive today. By this same token, we could argue that earthworms are more successful than Homo Erectus, or any other proto Homo Sapien.

The article also has some amazing pictures, a few of which I've posted here.

Poop on Sam Harris

A Response to Sam Harris' Talk at the Atheist Alliance

This so-called atheist movement is pushing me further and further into the fringes of society. I used to call myself an atheist, thinking that the term “atheist” referred to a simple lack of belief in a higher power. I used to comfort myself on lonely godless nights by telling myself that there were other wonderful and caring atheists out there, waiting for me to join their joyous, science-loving brethren. But then I was forced into a shocking realization: to be an atheist, you have to be a total fucking asshole.

Or that is what Sam Harris and his legions would have the world believe.

I think that we godless folk can all admit that we have succumb to the temptation of mocking the religions of the world, even at times making unfair generalizations about the devout themselves. Religious beliefs are unscientific and illogical, which makes them an easy target. But so are most human ideals—think of true love or world peace. Our beloved science tells us that religious belief is a byproduct of evolution—a natural phenomenon among human beings. Are we really so foolish as to believe that we can magically (to use the word that Harris so snottily wields on the faithful) undo a natural phenomenon by arguing with people and calling them stupid?

Frankly, I find it appalling that a group of such undeniably brilliant men and women as those at the forefront of the burgeoning atheist movement have devoted so much time, thought and energy to an effort that amounts to little more than militant cheerleading. While there is a real and valid need to create a society that values inquiry and the free exchange of ideas, those working to do so do not seem privy to the commonly held wisdom that the best possible way to firmly entrench a person in their opinions—however illogical they may be—is to attack and insult them.

The justification for this attack on decent people is endlessly fueled by Harris’ assertion that religion is a fundamentally destructive force that is responsible for violence, torture, war and countless other atrocities. Well, I am going to point-blank disagree with that. The most destructive force in society—in all societies—is polarization. The polarization and exploitation of the ideology of the masses has been the true underlying phenomenon driving every war, every violent crusade, every transgression that we can point our finger at and shout “religion”—and many that we can’t. Because religion exists pervasively throughout human societies, it is often exploited. But there is a difference between something’s source and its vehicle—and it is an important difference.

I doubt that this is any revelation to Harris. I propose that the reason why Harris is able to find such penetrating insights into the effects of the exploitation of religion is that he himself is an exploiter. He is using the tremendous power of human ideology to further his own interests and his own notoriety, all while exacerbating the conflict that he claims to be trying to fix. If Harris wins his war we will not have a reconciled society, but rather a larger and more vicious divide than ever before. Don’t believe me? Look at how many commenters were eager to jump up and commend Harris for comparing religious belief to racism (specifically, lynching). Faced with rhetoric like that, those reasonable and tolerant religious people who have not yet declared us their enemies are surely running out of good reasons not to.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sam Harris Sucks

A Response to Sam Harris' Talk at the Atheist Alliance

I don’t understand Harris’s greater motivation for wasting so much time philosophizing about what would be an appropriate thing for Atheists to call themselves. If his goal is to minimize the individuals who believe in a God then I can’t imagine a much more ostracizing act than his continual belittlement of their most important values. I understand that his need to criticize as acidly as he does is because so many are too polite to critique one’s own value system, but Harris’s problem isn’t what he’s saying, but how he’s saying it. His choice of language when speaking about religion is so laced with negative rhetoric and ideological slants it’s comical someone like him would consider himself an objective and scientific thinker. His arguments are clearly focused toward the disgust of the caricatures of the religious that he’s built up in his mind. He is attacking a people, and not an idea.

Harris’s proposal to have all atheists not refer to themselves by any title is outrageously self-centered and na├»ve. Every minority group has always been labeled from the outside more so than the inside. It has nothing to do with the spreading of rational thinking, but seems to just be another way Harris can feel that it is him versus the world.

Harris needs to give up his scapegoating of Islamic terrorism as a violent mindset propagated only by the ethos of the religion. This is a perfect case of chicken and egg thinking: are the poor and oppressed people of the Middle East militant primarily because they believe in Islam (making Islam the cause of this immorality)? Or does a specific homegrown militant version of Islam thrive in the Middle East because the people are poor and oppressed, those conditions themselves being the cause for the immorality and Islam itself being a red herring result?

I am embarrassed to have someone like Harris representing such a smart and generally open group of people. In a time where we need to bridge the gaps that separate people, and increase our understanding of one another, Harris does nothing but aggravate already tender lesions.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

One of the most powerful brain systems on Earth...


I Love this quote from Helen Fisher (attached as an audio file to get the full effect), and if you like it, check out the whole podcast, via those crazy TED Conference peeps.