Thursday, June 30, 2011

Rethinking My Position on Hate Crimes

I've long had mixed feelings about the concept of "hate" crimes ("assault, injury, and murder on the basis of certain personal characteristics"). When sentencing a criminal, does it really matter why their victim was harmed? Should someone who injured or killed another because of the victim's perceived membership in a group (ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc.) be punished more severely than someone who didn't know or care about such factors? I'm not an attorney (although I think I ought to get partial credit in law school for all the time I've spent watching "Law & Order" and its multiple spinoffs), so my understanding of the variables involved in sentencing is limited. I know that demonstrating motive can be an important part of convincing a jury that the accused is guilty, but I'm not convinced that motive should figure into punishment, unless perhaps an assailant claims that the crime wasn't premeditated, that s/he temporarily abandoned reason and lashed out in the heat of the moment.

Whoever slashed the tires on 51 floats scheduled to participate in the 42nd annual Chicago Pride Parade wasn't acting in the heat of the moment. According to Chuck Huser, the manager of the company that stored the floats in preparation for the parade, the perpetrator(s) "were probably here [in the company's warehouse] a long time to do so much damage." Since every float in the warehouse was damaged and the incident took place sometime between 8:30 PM Saturday and 5:00 AM Sunday, just hours before the parade was scheduled to start, it's reasonable to assume that the criminal(s) hoped to derail the event. Happily, they failed and the revelers prevailed. The float supplier managed to find and replace more than 100 tires in short order, all but three of the floats rolled out as planned, and the parade's organizers believe that this year's crowd was the largest ever.

Huser estimates that the damage cost his firm about $20,000, a significant amount, but one that seems relatively minor in comparison to the furor that would have resulted if the parade had been cancelled. Huser "firmly believe[s] it was a hate crime." This incident hasn't turned me into a full-fledged proponent of hate crime laws, but it's certainly got me thinking.

H/T to Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars

(Hey, Greta Christina just blogged about San Francisco's LGBT Pride Parade, and how "coming out" as an atheist is fundamentally different from coming out as gay. Highly recommended.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Passing the Plate for Brother Sam

If you've never seen Brother Sam Singleton, Atheist Evangelist, in action, you're missing out on a fine time. (If you're reading my blog, you're probably the skeptical sort who's not gonna take my word on this, so get yourself over to Sam's web site or his YouTube channel and see for yourself.)

Roger Scott Jackson (who created the fictional character and portrays him onstage) "examines the role of Christianity in America, how it governs the lives of believers and impacts the lives of non-believers." That's from the "PATRIARCHS AND PENISES Live Performance DVD" KickStarter page, where you can pledge financial support toward the creation of a DVD of one of Brother Sam's stage performances. The project will proceed only if $3,157 is pledged by Sunday Jul 10, 7:24pm EDT, so get yourself over there and donate what you can! If you pledge at least $25 (and the $3,157 goal is reached by July 10th), you'll get a copy of the DVD, but amounts as small as $1 are welcome, and "Brother Sam" is offering gifts at practically every donation level.

I wish I could afford to donate $500. I already have a copy of the "Patriarchs and Penises" paperback book—signed by Brother Sam himself at last year's Skepticon—but lifetime admission to all of Brother Sam's appearances and a pair of his trademark blue spectacles (can I get those with bifocals?) would be awesome.

H/T to JT Eberhard

Updated at 6:30 PM: I guess I ought to start checking my email before I publish posts; Brother Sam has already reached his goal with 11 days to go yet! I'm pretty sure he'll still take your money, though. Or go visit the Brother Sam Club (online store) and order yourself some goodies there. Goddamn.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hopping Mad

NBC affiliate KSL-TV has informed the network that it won't broadcast the drama series "The Playboy Club" that is scheduled to begin in September because "significant portions of [the station's] audience may find [it] objectionable." According to Joe Flint, entertainment blogger for the Los Angeles Times, KSL's refusal to broadcast network programming "isn't a huge deal" because NBC will probably find another station in the market that will air the show, and if not, "odds are episodes will end up on Hulu or some other website. In other words, people in Salt Lake who really want to see the show won't be denied."

I agree with Flint that technology provides solutions to this issue, but I think it should work in the other direction. Rather than letting KSL decide what its viewers should and should not be allowed to view, let the viewers choose what they want to see. From what I hear, "The Playboy Club" contains less "adult" content than a typical episode of NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (a police drama that features frank discussions of rape and other violence in pretty much every episode), and KSL seems to trust its viewers to change channels or turn off the TV if they object to that show. Parental control features are built into most TVs, cable and satellite receivers, and DVRs these days. Parents who are unable or unwilling to deal with configuring those appropriately could take the drastic step of just chucking television from their homes entirely.

Bill Baker, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, says "...KSL’s decision to stick with its values in the face of NBC’s disapproval is admirable and courageous. No matter how profitable it may be for some, I, for one, do not want to live in a world where local communities have no say in what they watch on television." "Local communities" don't watch television; individuals watch television, and most communities let individuals decide what they watch on television. KSL's community is special, though. It's in Salt Lake City, Utah—in fact, it appears to be the only NBC affiliate in the state—and its parent company Bonneville International is owned by the Church of The Latter-day Saints. KSL President and CEO Mark Willes says, "The Playboy brand is known internationally. Everyone is clear what it stands for." Yes, and those who don't like what it stands for can find something else to watch or do when the program runs.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Washing of the Water

Via NetFlix, I'm watching the documentary "Waiting for Armageddon." Not quite half an hour into it, some American tourists are being baptized in the Jordan River. One of the men, who doesn't appear to have been dunked yet, explains how he's looking forward to observing the coming "tribulation" from a front-row seat in heaven: "It'll be, I think, a lot of fun to watch. You know, not fun in the sense of knowing that people are dying without having received Christ as their savior, but at the same time, you know, seeing the prophecy fulfilled, seeing God's work come out."

Those who have already been baptized look pretty much the same coming out of the river as they did going in, except that their hair is wet and their voluminous white smocks, which look like oversized T-shirts, are just as clingy and transparent as wet T-shirts. (No worries, they're wearing bathing suits underneath, and although the crowd consists of both men and women of a variety of ages, the only dunkees on which the camera dwells are two of the younger and more attractive women.) Somehow I expected the newly-baptized to sparkle like the "Twilight" vampires, or at least look happier than they did before their immersion, but they don't. I suppose that most Americans who are baptized at the Jordan River have already been through the experience back in the States, so this would be a repeat performance, kind of like renewing your wedding vows. Perhaps it's a more solemn ceremony the second time around, or in a "sacred" place.

A local church's recent mass baptism in a water park's "wave pool" seems to have been a lot more jolly, at least for the people being baptized. Other customers were admitted to the park for a reduced fee but weren't clearly notified in advance that the church had rented out the pool, and were upset when they were ordered out of the water. One observer wondered if a water park "was the right place or not" for a baptism. Personally, I wish I'd been there; I think it would have been fascinating to see how to "efficiently" baptize 150 people. What would really have been fascinating would be a trippy baptism scene like the one in "The Last Temptation of Christ," but that's just asking too much of my fellow Oklahomans.

(The screencap does not include the three naked, head-banging women who appeared in the movie's baptism scene. If that's what you came here looking for, sorry!)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bringing Shame Upon Us All

Vandalism has been an ongoing topic in the freethought community since we "new" (or "Gnu") atheists started advertising our presence via billboards and banners on city buses. Even ads that make no attempt to demean anyone's beliefs and simply state facts like "Millions are good without God" have been vandalized. I don't know whether the vandals consider themselves Christians, but if they do, I'd actually be pleased on some level. On the other hand, I take no pleasure in the news that two Christian churches in Bend, Oregon were vandalized by someone who sprayed "Flying Spaghetti Monster" slogans and graphics on their buildings. The vandals have been caught, and seem to regard their work as a "near-harmless" prank for which they've paid by cleaning up other taggers' graffiti. They've rationalized their actions by saying that they used washable paint and just wanted to "make a point" and bring some "fun" to the city. Does that mean it's OK for someone to spray-paint a smiley face on my house using washable paint, because it's easy to clean off and might bring "some joy and fun" to my neighborhood?

Hemant Mehta at rightfully deplored the defacing of the buildings and requested donations to help the churches clean up the graffiti. A couple hundred of his readers responded and raised nearly $3,000. That doesn't surprise me at all. What does surprise me is the number of people who commented on his blog and elsewhere that they just couldn't donate money that would be used to support a church (to which Hemant replied, "You’d be giving money toward the clean-up costs and nothing more"). In the end, both churches whose buildings were defaced cleaned up the graffiti themselves and declined the money, so Hemant forwarded it to the Foundation Beyond Belief.†

If a church (or synagogue, or mosque, or Scientology center††) was damaged by a natural event such as severe weather (an "act of God"!), I wouldn't donate money or time to repair it, nor would I urge other freethinkers to do so (although I wouldn't criticize those who wanted to help). I wouldn't urge atheists to help clean up graffiti at Christian churches if they felt that wasn't the best use of their time or money; I don't think that we're all obligated to atone for the actions of a few freethinkers.††† But in the face of criminal acts, isn't declining to help the vandalized churches solely because they are churches kind of like Christians who act honorably...but only toward other Christians?

† Foundation Beyond Belief is "a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation created to focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists." I'm a contributing member and recommend it highly.

†† A Scientology center in Ocala, Florida that prominent Scientologist John Travolta helped open a few weeks ago had the letters "ANON" spray-painted on its windows, presumably as a reference to the group "Anonymous" that has targeted the Church of Scientology.

††† Or at least those who commit mayhem using phrases and symbols associated with freethought. I don't know whether the vandals consider themselves freethinkers or not.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Breaking From Blogging, Briefly

My personal life is pretty busy at the moment (mostly in a good way), so my posting schedule has gotten somewhat erratic. I hope to resume my regular Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday schedule next week. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hungering for Heritage

Have you heard the joke about the Irishman who asks a stranger whether he's a Catholic or a Protestant? "I'm an atheist," replies the stranger. "Ah," says the Irishman, "but what kind of atheist are you—Catholic or Protestant?"

It seemed a feeble joke to me the first time I heard it maybe 20 years ago, but since then I've come to understand that religion is more than just a set of beliefs about god(s), rules to live by, and hopes (or fears) about our existence beyond death. Religion is also about culture and customs. An excellent example of this can be found in Judaism, which places less emphasis on a "personal god" than does Christianity or Islam, and quite a bit of emphasis on ritual and tradition. And don't forget the food! I have no idea whether ex-Mormons crave dishes like Jell-O salad and "funeral potatoes" after they've left the fold; what little I know of Mormon cuisine suggests that it focuses more on frugality and practicality than taste. But I simply cannot imagine "cultural" or "secular" Jews turning up their noses at Jewish food no matter how little regard they have for Jewish theology.

Even atheists like me have been steeped in religious culture all our lives, so I think I understand what English writer and atheist Philip Pullman means when he describes himself as a "Church of England atheist." Pullman says that he "remember[s] the beautiful prayers from matins or evensong or the Communion service" in the voice of his grandfather, an Anglican clergyman. "We can't abandon these early memories, by which I mean both that it's impossible and that it would be wrong." How true. Eliminating all religious-based terms and practices from our lives would be nearly impossible, like trying to remove every chocolate chip from a chocolate chip cookie, and the result would be pretty boring.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Talking to Christians: Some Tips

I just watched an interesting video by a guy named Matt Slick. I hadn't previously heard of him, but he's got some excellent tips for atheists who are dealing with Christians, and his advice would work equally well with other believers, such as Muslims (or for that matter, for skeptics who are dealing with believers in "woo").

Here are excerpts of my transcription of Matt's video, which is titled "How to Talk to Christians":
Hi, my name is Matt Slick and welcome to the CARM Answer Desk. I want to discuss the issue of Christians and how they attack atheists and atheism. [snip] I'm gonna give you some pointers on how to deal with some Christians, OK? Atheists, listen to this. Look, we know that the Christians are constantly attacking atheism and attacking what we have to say. Well, I'm gonna tell you some basic, basic stuff that you can do to deal with them, all right?

Let's say for example a Christian makes an assertion. I'm gonna give an overly simplified one. You know, they'll say something like, "There is a god." OK, you know what? Instead of saying "Oh no there's not!" and then trying to prove it, I would say to them something like, "Well, how do you know that?" Ask questions! If they make an assertion, have them substantiate their assertion. Very, very simple. Have them establish what it is they're saying. [snip]

Remember this, don't try and just simply refute whatever they say whenever they say it. I'm known for saying this great comeback when a Christian says something to me. They'll say something like, "Well, atheists are really arrogant," and I'll say something like "So? What's the big deal about it? If you don't like us, OK, whatever." And the Christians, you know, what are they gonna do? [snip]

So, when a Christian is talking to you, ask those questions, and...seriously, [say] "Yeah, so, what's the big deal about it?" Get them to explain more. And the more they do that, then the more you're gonna find out that they're gonna have holes in their ideas and holes in their statements. It's not that difficult to do. [snip]

Now, I'd also say that what you need to do is admit—this is important, atheists!—admit when you don't have an answer. You know, if I were a Christian and I was talking to some atheist and this atheist was trying to snow me, and trying to give an answer for every single thing, and the answers are falling apart, I'm not gonna have any respect for that person. But I'd have a lot more respect for someone who said, "You know what, that's a good question. I'm not really sure; let me go research it for you and get back with you." That's not a problem, that's intellectually honest, and you know, I do that. You can do that, and you know what, even when Christians do that, I appreciate that when I'm talking to them, and I ask them a question, and they don't have an answer, and they say, "Well, you know what? That's a good question! I'll have to go back and research it." No problem at all. And then just follow up and do that.

So basically, dealing with Christians isn't that difficult. They're the ones who often make assertions. Ask them to demonstrate the validity of their assertions. Listen to what they're saying. Ask questions about what they're saying. See if their statements are logical, see if there's some problem inside the logic. For example, what if a Christian said, "There is a god, I know there is a god," you'd have to know all things to know if there is or is no god, so logically it's not possible. So by listening to what they say, you can hopefully learn a little bit about logic in their statements and see if their statements are valid or not. It's not that difficult; it's pretty easy. So basically, ask questions, listen, find out their presuppositions, admit if you don't have an answer, and learn to say "So?" a lot. See how it goes, and I think you might enjoy your discussions with Christians a lot more.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Storing Up Treasures Under the Earth

The University of Chicago has opened its new library, the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library (named for Morningstar CEO Joe Mansueto and his wife Rika, both UChicago graduates, who donated $25 million to the library expansion project). The Chicago Tribune says that "students seem to love" the new library's glass dome design "because it lets natural light pour inside, liberating them from the university’s dimly-lit reading rooms." The library probably looks best when it's sunny; it seems rather cold and sterile in the pics that Jerry Coyne took on a rainy day:

(Photos by Jerry Coyne of "Why Evolution Is True")

Anyway, the real marvel of the library is not its architecture but its system for storing and retrieving books. The university wanted to keep its media on-site but didn't like the idea of a huge new building that would have crowded existing structures, so books and periodicals are stored in a temperature-controlled underground vault that can hold as many as 3.5 million volumes. Inside the vault are thousands of bins that each hold roughly 100 books sorted by size rather than subject or author, in order to make the most efficient use of the space. When a library patron requests a book at the circulation desk, an automated retrieval system locates the bin containing the desired book, and delivers the whole bin to a human librarian† who retrieves the book and notifies the patron that it's ready to be picked up. The whole process is supposed to take less than 5 minutes.

The university produced a video demonstrating how the system works:

The Chicago Tribune's claims notwithstanding, this library wouldn't be my first choice for a satisfying reading experience, for the same reason that isn't my first choice for finding a good book when I don't have a specific work in mind. Sure, Amazon has good prices and a huge selection of books, but the "Look Inside!" feature (which is available for many, but not all, books) isn't nearly as interesting as scanning a physical shelf of books, comparing volume sizes and dust jacket designs, and flipping through pages to see if a sentence or paragraph jumps out at me.

Still, this new library is intended primarily for research, not casual reading, and I accept that the experience of reading has changed drastically over the centuries. Books have evolved from characters scratched on stone, to wax and clay tablets, to scrolls of papyrus and paper, to bound books, and now to ebooks. As much as I love the feel and smell of old books and the penciled notations of previous owners (or myself, in books I bought back in the days when I still underlined and annotated), a book's most precious quality is its ability to inform and transport us to places that we couldn't otherwise experience. So long as there are comfy chairs and mugs of tea at hand when I'm ready to be transported, I can deal with whatever container the ideas come in.

† When a job title such as "librarian" is prefaced with the word "human," I invariably think of Harlan Ellison's short story, "The Human Operators," which was also made into an episode of "The New Outer Limits." (The video is rated "TV-MA" and may not be appropriate for younger audiences.)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Choosing His Words Carelessly

Sir V. S. Naipaul, winner of the Nobel prize for literature and the Booker Prize (among other prestigious writing awards), says that women's writing styles are quite different from men's, and that he can "read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two...know whether it is by a woman or not." That could be a useful skill, especially for writing instructors and editors who care whether a composition was actually written by the person who claims to be its author. Unfortunately Naipaul went on to say that he considers all women writers to be "unequal" to him because of their "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world." "[A] not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too," he said.

Well of course a woman is not a "master" of a house. A woman would be the owner of her house, or the head of her house, or perhaps the "mistress" of her house if she's the type who refers to the room nearest the front door as "the parlor." For a writer, Naipaul is terribly careless with his vocabulary. I suppose he's going to claim next that "a woman is not a complete gentleman"!

Naipual doesn't seem to dislike women so long as they conform to roles he's comfortable with. Of his female publisher, he said, "[She] was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don't mean this in any unkind way."

This is an excellent example of why I generally prefer not to know too much about the private lives of artists whose work I admire. Sometimes background and personal details give you insight into the artist's thought processes and enhance your enjoyment of their work, but sometimes they make you think, "Why would I reward such a ninny by buying his books?" And when I refer to Naipaul as a ninny, I don't mean this in any unkind way.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Putting the Chicken Before the Egg

What is this object?

If you said "an egg," you're wrong. It's a baby chicken.

Seriously. It's a chicken, the moral equivalent of this:

That's Personhood USA's take on the matter, anyway. According to the group, "preborn children" "begin to exist immediately at first contact of the sperm with the oocyte [egg]" and are "created in the image of God."

So this:

was made in the image of this:

Berkas:Vishnu 2.jpg

Got it?

If the group achieves its goal of changing the legal definition of "personhood" to include fertilized eggs, any birth control method that interferes with the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus—including intrauterine devices (IUDs) and some birth control pills—would be outlawed.†  All abortions would be banned, even for rape victims. Rebecca Kiessling, who was conceived via rape and is a featured speaker on Personhood Mississippi's "Conceived in Rape" tour (you've got to wonder what kind of T-shirt they came up with for that tour), states, "A baby is not the worst thing that could ever happen to a rape victim—an abortion is."

While I can't speak from first-hand experience, my guess is that rape is a prime contender for "the worst thing that could ever happen to a rape victim."

† Medically, pregnancy is considered to begin when a fertilized egg "implants", or becomes attached to the uterine wall.