A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Role Models in the Modern Age

It's often observed that we don't have a lot of heroes to look up to any longer, not a lot of role models we can point to for behavior we can emulate. Part of this is human nature; there's no one who is perfect so there's always someone who disapproves of something you said or did. Another part, and I think it's a big one, is that communication has never been easier and there are cameras everywhere. Little mistakes get picked up and broadcast worldwide in proportion to the extent of your celebrity status. Hell, there's an entire subculture dedicated to celebrity gossip.

So there's no one I could point to and say "I want to be that person. That person is the epitome of a moral role model." But that doesn't mean there aren't people I can admire. Who would they be? Just off the top of my head, here are four of them.

First there's Stephen Hawking. Aside from his academic brilliance, he's a man who was stricken by a debilitating disease that horrifies any thoughtful, independent human being. He's physically incapable of doing anything for himself without significant human and technological assistance. But in spite of all that he's managed to make some of the most incredible contributions to human knowledge and understanding in a generation. He teaches, he writes books and he can do differential equations in his head that make my head spin. There's so much to admire about him, particularly his willingness to overcome obstacles that would crush others.

Then there's Greta Christina, a woman who has dedicated her life in the pursuit of social justice for atheists, women, homosexuals and other sexual "deviants" as well as other groups she's not a member of. She's deeply egalitarian in her pursuit of social justice and she's damned eloquent about it. There's a reason she gets cited in the /r/atheism FAQ on the topic of atheists and anger.

Matt Dillahunty is another individual I admire. He has a similar background to mine and helped found the Atheist Experience broadcasting out of Austin, TX. He has similar attitudes to Greta Christina but he focuses more on debate and examining religious apologetics. He's not a firebrand like Hitchens; his debate opponents don't tend to walk away feeling like they've been insulted, but he skillfully saws away at the foundations of their claims until all that's left is a pile of dust to be blown away.

I also admire Keith Olbermann, even though he hasn't done much of note lately. I remember back when he was still on broadcast television he demonstrated the difference between a journalist and a modern media talking head by publicly announcing he'd made a mistake and issuing a correction. That sort of journalistic integrity is rarely found, and is probably one reason why he's just reporting sports on ESPN these days. He's passionate about what he believes and fearless in his pursuit of the truth.

I suppose if I thought about it some more I could come up with more, but this will do for now.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Immorality of Divine Command Theory

The story of Abraham binding Isaac from Genesis was brought up as one of several examples why the god of Abraham, if real, is an evil god. Someone then replied to complain how this story shouldn't qualify because "the whole point of the fucking story was to differentiate the God of Abraham from other gods that required human sacrifices." This is the same logic that tells us Biblical slavery is okay because it wasn't as bad as other slavery, but it prompted me to examine the story a little closer.

  • We have a god who orders Abraham to sacrifice his son. No winky-face emoticons to indicate Poe's Law, just an outright command that Abraham has no reason to assume isn't sincere. This is okay because this is Yahweh, the source of all morality who therefore has the moral authority to order immoral actions and still have them be moral.
  • Abraham, rather than telling his god to shove it, dutifully obeys and goes through with the preparations, right up to the point where he's holding the knife over his beloved son's chest. He doesn't bargain the way he did for Sodom, a city synonymous with moral depravity. He doesn't say anything other than "okay." Remember that Isaac is supposed to be Abraham's beloved son by Sarah, the only child she was able to bear him long after she was supposed to be barren.
  • Isaac, once he learns that he is to be the sacrificial victim, doesn't utter a word of protest. According to the story he just meekly goes along with it the same as his father.
  • Only then does Yahweh say, "just kidding! Go kill that ram caught in the bushes instead." Why? Because it was a test to see if Abraham would obey.
  • And then we're told that the moral of this story is that obedience to authority is the greatest virtue and will be rewarded. This idea is so pernicious in human thinking it's listed as a formal fallacy in logic.
No, I think that the story of Abraham binding Isaac still qualifies to be on the list of Yahweh's dick moves.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What is a Christian Nation?

I still see this being brought up, so here are some reminders of why the US is not a Christian nation.
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, — and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
A nation's laws determine its character. If we were a Christian nation our laws would be based on Christian laws and claims, but we are not and we are prohibited from basing our laws on any religion. We are a secular nation with a population dominated by Christians. But a further point can be made in showing how our laws violate what the Bible requires of Christians. Credit goes to /u/Xenolan for compiling this list. It was so good I felt it should be mirrored here.
Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. (Amendment I)
Bible: I am the Lord thy God… Do not have any other gods before Me. (Exodus 20:2-3)
Constitution: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. (Amendment XIII, Section 1)
Bible: Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever. (Leviticus 25:44-46)
Constitution: We the people of the United States… do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (Preamble)
Bible: It is not in man that walketh to direct his steps. (Jeremiah 10:23)
Constitution: No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. (Article VI, section 3)
Bible: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. (Mark 16:16)
Constitution: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. (Amendment XV)
Bible: An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the LORD for ever. (Deuteronomy 23)
Constitution: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. (Amendment XIX)
Bible: Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. (1 Corinthians 14:34-36)
Any questions?

The Problem With Unions

In the news today, Obama has finally done something to help unions, only six years late. Naturally, I posted this to social media and almost immediately got the following response:
FUCK unions. It is the unions who protect people like the cops who shot Hans Arellano, James Boyd, Levar Jones, Brian Dennison, Timothy Mitchell, Oscar Grant... I could go on.
In these situations not all of these guys are saints. But in all of these situations the officers life was not in danger and they killed them anyway. A single life lost unnecessary is too many.
I have a problem with leveraging popular outrage against genuine civil rights violations to build a straw man argument against an unrelated issue. Police unions -- not even the unions that helped to protect the police officers guilty of crimes -- are representative of all unions. There's a much bigger picture to consider here.

Unions are designed to protect their members and serve their interests. Now, not all of their members deserve protection. If they screw up badly enough they should be fired and where appropriate brought up on criminal charges. Where a union protects a member from appropriate consequences we can rightly say that the union has gone too far. It doesn't serve the interests of the union or its members to shelter bad members from consequences.

The point of public service unions is to provide a buffer between politics and people just trying to do their jobs. Should a science teacher be fired because someone objects to their teaching the theory of evolution according to natural selection? Should a cop be fired because he arrested a powerful person for breaking the law? In an ideal world unions protect the innocent and surrender the guilty. But we don't live in an ideal world and we don't have all the information we need to create an ideal world. We do know what kind of world we create when we discourage unions: a world where income inequality becomes the standard, worker rights get trampled on and median wages stagnate or decline.

We don't have perfect solutions. Let's stop attacking the solutions we have because they're not perfect. Where we can identify problems, let's work to make them better, not get rid of them with nothing to replace them.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Path of Least Resistance

I'm always jealous when better people than I formulate a thought I'd been circling around for years. In this case it's Michael Sherlock's tweet sporting this image. I'm impressed by his succinct description of the consequences of non-skeptical thought.
Path of Least Resistance
Critical thinking and scientific skepticism are the filters required for producing rational statements of probable truth. Without these filters our brains will inevitably follow the path of least resistance and succumb to credulity, supernaturalism and all manner of magical thinking.
I'm unable to find a source for this on the web, leading me to believe that this is taken from Sherlock's new book. I don't yet have confirmation.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


Sacrilicious: adjective

: a description of something so sacrilegious that it's delicious to behold.

Portmanteau of sacrilege and delicious.

example: The Loophole by Garfunkel and Oates is positively sacrilicious!
What I want to know is this: why is this not a thing? Come on, Oxford! It's time to step up!

Friday, December 5, 2014

On The Outside Looking In

As an American who has lived outside the US, I can fully appreciate how insane our nation looks. Unfortunately, the reason it looks that way is because our nation is undeniably insane.

We were once on our way toward being a secular culture that didn't care too much to advertise our religious beliefs. Then the Cold War happened and suddenly we had to do everything in our power to differentiate ourselves from the godless Communists. We became a Christian nation, proclaiming it in our motto, on our money and through our political rhetoric.

Then it started to calm down again for a while until the late 70s brought the rise of Jerry Falwell and his poorly named "Moral Majority." Falwell midwifed a new era of religious fanaticism in the US, and we're riding out its death throes now.

We envy other Western nations so much, you have no idea. But our religious extremists are afraid of them and for good reason. They're irrelevant in those nations, and they're not going to let that happen in the US without a fight. So it behooves us to fight back since they're determined to do as much damage as possible before they go.