Monday, July 30, 2007

Stand Up for Your Rights: Remain Seated

A story out of Exeter, England shows the difference between the courage of at least one British politician and our own collection of American wusses.

At a civic meeting — the American equivalent of which I assume to be a city council meeting — an Exeter councillor named Paul Pettinger refused to stand for a convocational prayer. The Lord Mayor, Hazel Slack, tightened up at this lack of “respect.” Whereupon the Conservative Party leader, Yolanda Henson, according to the Exeter Express & Echo, “said she would work for a new rule requiring anyone who does not want to stand at council meeting prayers to leave the chamber.” Here's Henson’s comment defending her theocratic reaction: “It doesn't matter what religion you are, the Lord Mayor is the representative in Exeter of the Queen.”

Pettinger, an atheist, was not allowed to state why he chose not to take part in the silliness; he was even told by the Lord Mayor that he’d have to leave the room right there and then if he continued to try to explain his position.

Here’s what Pettinger later told the newspaper:

I'm elected to do a job for my residents and the people of Exeter and faith has nothing to do with it. I am a secularist and believe in the complete separation of personal faith and state. I'm an atheist and don't wish to take part in Christian worship. It's highly inappropriate to put pressure on people to act in this way when there are people of so many faiths in this country.
Great Britain, I remind my fellow Americans, has no First Amendment, or even any equivalent prohibiting the establishment by government of religion. We do. And yet a Brit has the balls to stand up and say “screw this nonsense,” while our elected representatives, from the highest to the lowest, give religion unquestioning “respect,” in our townships, our cities, our counties, our states, and, indeed, in the halls of the federal Congress, itself— where it is expressly forbidden. Who among our governmental officials has ever dared to utter the opinion that convocational prayer is “highly inappropriate”? No one. Instead, they strive to outdo each other in speaking of their deep belief in god and in preaching (there’s no other honest word for standing in front of a religious congregation and electioneering) to the ignorati in churches, synagogues, and mosques. Not one voice rises up to say, in plain English, as Pettinger’s did: “I believe in the complete separation of personal faith and state.”

Some news reporter looking to make a name for him- or herself ought to ask the current pious crop of presidential contenders what they think of Pettinger’s words. But, of course, the U.S. media is just as craven before the power of Big Religion as the politicos are.

Anyway, the candidates would probably just answer that they’re representatives of the Queen. Or words to that effect.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


I believe I’ve invented a new art form: googl-oetry. Here's how you can be a big-time googl-oet, too. Simply use one of your traffic-trackers to find the phrases that people keyed into Google to arrive at your blog. (Purists like me will insist that your site show up within the first ten search returns, but that’s not absolutely necessary.) Then, use those phrases to create a verse that's both beautiful and profound — although perhaps unintelligible.

Anyway, here’s my untitled googl-oem. Each line of my work contains one searched-for phrase. I've added some end-of-line punctuation, but nothing else.

mother father please explain something to me
(it ain’t so good, the book):
how hornets give birth;
fart sounds and what they mean;
similar quotes between George W. Bush and Woodrow Wilson;
how to get a good bong hit;
directions for putting toilet paper on the roller.

tell me more about the devil, who is he?
catholic ron paul?
polish guy and catholic in a boat joke?
phone numbers to recorded preachers?
bitch phone number?
pastor melissa scott sex life?

you must remember this:
I’ve just seen your face,
Hilton on my tits —
fuck me, uncle.
pac man oh shit belt buckle!
musical: "thank you very much, that's the nicest thing that anyone's ..."

why do you want to control the humans, please explain.
my lever door is locked and I can’t open it from the outside.
my life might pass me by.

the balls in your court julie andrews!

Go ahead and try it. Feel free to leave your Googl-oems as comments, or link to them if you publish them on your own blog.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Nonbelieving Literati

As of a week and a half after its original posting, my latest puzzle has been solved by only two of you. So I hereby give honorable mention to (1) John P., the Spanish Inquisitor, whose brain I didn’t torture sufficiently to keep him from finding the correct answer; and (2) Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, who cheerfully came up with the solution.

Although I’m not going to publish that solution here — in case anyone wants to take the challenge belatedly — I will mention that a part of the puzzle led to the name: Gore Vidal.

And Gore Vidal, as he always does, got me thinking. Since he’s often wordy and long-winded (coming from me, those terms are not necessarily insults), my thinking followed suit. Here’s what I thought:

So many bloggers in the Atheosphere are science professionals, or at least heavily science-oriented. And that’s good. Although I’m not a scientist myself, I enjoy reading well-written books and articles — and posts — aimed at the educated layman. My personal library has an entire bookcase devoted to literary explications of science.

But scientists shouldn’t feel that they’ve cornered the market on nonbelief. There are plenty of us folks in the humanities who also have no faith in faith.

The list of great and near-great freethinking authors, for example, is a long one. It contains, among others, such non-scientists as: Ambrose Bierce, Pearl S. Buck, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft, H.L. Mencken, Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, the above-mentioned Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, and H.G. Wells.

I think it’s time we atheists draw some inspiration from literature as well as science.

Now, I’m one of those people who are gifted with incomplete retention, or, to put it another way, almost complete non-retention. When I read a novel, I tend to remember a few snippets of dialogue, some vivid mental pictures, a handful of the most eccentric characters, and the bare outlines of plot. When I say bare, that’s what I mean, naked all the way down to the skeleton. I forget most of the specific events, get the ones I do remember out of order, and sometimes “recall” incidents that would come as a complete surprise to the author.

My lack of better memory is a boon, though, because I can reread any book after about five years, and feel like it’s brand new. I’ve been known to pick up a mystery that I’ve read four or five times before and sit on the edge of my seat trying to figure out who the murderer is. And when I do find out, I wonder: “Was that who did it last time?” Ah, the blessings of premature old age.

Almost two decades ago, I first read Vidal’s Julian, a novel about the late Roman emperor who attempted to eradicate Christianity as a force in his empire. I remembered that I liked it a lot, and not much else. But since I deigned to mention the author’s name in my trivial puzzle, I decided that I owed it to myself to reread a book that made a huge impression on me in the 1980s.

Anyway, I’m about a third of the way through. After each reading session, I think, “This would be a great book for an atheist reading group.”

And so I’d like to propose such a group. My idea is that nine or ten of us — if we can get that many to commit — will read a book every month and a half or so. That’s a long enough time that even the slowest readers, or those with the least amount of time, can participate. We’ll take turns making book suggestions. The only stipulation will be that the book not be an atheist diatribe, best-selling or otherwise.

We’ll target a specific day on which to finish. On that date, or shortly thereafter, each of us will publish a post about the chosen book. (In fairness, those of us who finish reading early may write our posts, but not publish them online until everyone has had a chance to complete the reading.) The post will not be a review or a summary. It will be an essayistic ramble on what the book got us thinking about. Whether we liked the book or not, we’ll use it as an entry point to our own thoughts. If enough people are interested, perhaps we can even publish a Carnival of Nonbelieving Literati a week or so after each target date.

I’d like to propose Julian as our first book, and September 15th as our first target date.

What do you think?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hey, I'm Not Sticking it to the Pope Today

Every single day, my newsfeed sends me at least one or two articles featuring a whine by some religionist about the “militancy” of the “new” atheists. Today’s bellyache, a piece called "Secularism: Boring (Part I)," comes from Jacques Berlinerblau, “associate Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.” According to his attached bio, Berlinerblau has “written extensively in scholarly journals,” (NOTE: not “for,” which would be the preposition of choice by any English-speaker who wanted to distinguish himself from persons who merely jotted their maunderings in the margins). You’ll know if you’ve ever read a scholarly journal that the above is not necessarily an impressive credential.

In any case, Berlinerblau begins with this query:

Can an atheist or agnostic commentator discuss any aspect of religion for more than thirty seconds without referring to religious people as imbeciles, extremists, mental deficients, fascists, enemies of the common good, crypto-Nazis, conjure men, irrationalists, pedophiles, bearers of false consciousness, authoritarian despots, and so forth? Is that possible?
The short answer is: Yes, it’s possible. The longer answer is: Yes, it’s technically possible; we atheists will gladly eschew those terms when describing any theist to whom they don’t apply. Got a suggestion?

He then goes on to characterize the atheist writers of best-selling books as “the soccer hooligans of reasoned discourse.” You can almost hear the author rubbing his hands together at his single “clever” turn-of-phrase, and calling his friends to say, “Hey, listen to this!” The problem is: that’s not exactly a reasoned response to a stream of thought-provoking volumes. Instead, it’s the response of someone who is an imbecile, an extremist, mentally deficient, irrational, a bearer of false consciousness, and an authoritarian despot. Whether Berlinerblau is also a fascist, an enemy of the common good, a crypto-Nazi, a conjure man, or a pedophile is not clear.

Berlinerblau’s main complaint is that atheism’s current advocates lack “new ideas.” Well, of course they do. Atheists’ one and only unifying “idea” is that a belief in any supernatural beings is ridiculous because it can’t be founded on evidence. In addition, many of us see that religions inherently create artificial separations among peoples, and lead to wars and other atrocities. How evil of us to notice that! These are old notions that have gone unanswered — at least satisfactorily — by godpushers since way before the Christian era. They’re not new ideas; they’re old ideas whose time, we hope, has finally come.

Berlinerblau does make a valid point, however:

... contemporary nonbelief lacks any discernible political dynamism, not to mention power.
He’s right. That’s why all atheists should unite in the next election. We must refuse to vote for any political candidate — any! — who (1) doesn’t speak out actively and agressively for continued separation of church and state, (2) won’t clearly support the rights of millions of nonbelievers in America, and (3) panders to religious voters with implied promises of governmental favors. Much as it makes me wince to say this: we atheists have to vote as a bloc. If that means writing in “The Exterminator” on your ballot, sobeit. (If things come to that pass, I will publish my real name, so your losing vote counts.)

The associate professor goes on to say:

For the past decade or so, only the most snarling and extreme variants of atheist and agnostic thought have been featured in Book Review sections, Op-Ed pages, and magazines of opinion. Sticking it to the Pope, taking on Islam in its entirety, or ridiculing Bible-carrying Christians has become the admission ticket for those nonbelievers craving media attention.
It would be difficult to disagree with that assessment, were it not so maliciously misleading. Yes, in order to appear in The Washington Post or Newsweek Magazine — sponsors of the “On Faith” forum that published Berlinerblau’s article — an atheist must say something outrageous. Is that the atheists’ fault, or the media’s? Are Newsweek and The Washington Post seeking out non-sensationalist atheists to write columns for them? They wouldn't have to go far; the Atheosphere is filled with gentle non-souls, who make confrontation-free, humanistic arguments for godlessness. But those kinds of people wouldn't sell paper, or generate hits, on the scale to which "On Faith" aspires. So, instead, rabble-rousers like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are encouraged to shock the audience that clamors to be shocked.

Even amongst our controversy-hungry media, I think an atheist like Neil deGrasse Tyson, for instance, gets some well-deserved attention without “ridiculing Bible-carrying Christians.” As far as I know, “sticking it to the Pope” is not a feature of any writings by Daniel Dennett. “Taking on Islam in its entirety” is a powerful-sounding, but meaningless phrase, since atheists take on all religions in their entirety.

And if he were really hungry for non-extreme atheist writing, Berlinerblau could find plenty of it readily available. Even setting aside the "moderate" nonbelievers' blogs, why hasn't he read the hundreds of philosophy, science, humanist, literary, and skeptic magazines that treat all facets of freethought? Because that doesn't make good copy for his own snarl.

So let’s add “maliciously misleading” to Berlinerblau’s list of descriptive phrases.

The article finishes with a suggestion that we atheists indulge in self-criticism. (The italics are his.) I volunteer to start. I hereby criticize myself for spending far too much time reading drivel like Berlinerblau’s little essay (Part I of it, anway) . In future, I resolve no longer to take seriously the ravings of maliciously misleading imbeciles, extremists, or mental deficients, even those who have written extensively in scholarly journals.

Think of that as my first campaign promise.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Puzzling Atheists #2

Aren’t atheists allowed to celebrate their rationality and have fun? There’s so much seriousness around the Atheosphere these days that I decided to lighten things up with yet another puzzle.

Here’s the deal. Each of the following items contains the last name of a well-known freethinker. To find the appropriate name, all you have to do is figure out where to start and end, and read the letters in order, without skipping any letters. For example: If one of the names was (Jonathan) Miller, the appropriate sentence might read:

As crazy as it may seem, I’ll erupt in an atheistic rant every now and then.

Simple, right?

Well, maybe not. In each item, exactly one of the letters of the name has been replaced by a different letter.

If you write these new replacement letters in order from number 1 through number 10, you’ll find the second half of a laudatory sentence about atheists. You can discover the first half of the sentence — two five-letter words — by scrambling the initials of the first names of the people you find. The correct solution is the entire sentence.

If you need a hint, I’m listing the first names in alphabetical order in the first comment to this post. Here’s another hint: There are no repeat atheists from my previous puzzle.

  1. I’ll meet you on the Creation Museum picket line at ten. No rough stuff, though, OK?
  2. Any human can provide love that’s more meaningful than an imaginary god’s.
  3. The evangelical preacher’s wife wears frugal WalMart earrings around town, but expensive jewels on vacation.
  4. Everyone knows that America is Jesus’s favorite land (i.e., Republican theocrats think so).
  5. A godpusher like Ron Paul can run and run and run again for office, but I’ll never vote for him.
  6. Do churchgoing women really believe that some god gives a crap about their froufrou donned on Sunday mornings?
  7. I’ll go on a diet right after I finish eating this chocolate crucifix.
  8. The “Religious Literacy” advocate would not proselytize, he promised. I soon heard him leading the class in prayer, however.
  9. That radio talk-show host, a religious right-winger, sold her ignorant audience on the idea of voting only for social conservatives.
  10. Alas, I’m ostracized from running for most elective offices because I’m an atheist.

Do leave comments if you’d like, but please do not post your solution. Instead, email me with the answer when you get it. I’ll give an honorable mention to anyone who cracks this thing.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Uncle Jack Pays Me a Visit

I doubt that anyone has noticed, but I haven’t been spewing my godless propaganda here for almost two weeks. That’s because I’ve been in CompuCrazyLand.

To follow this story, you have to know a few facts on background:

  1. My PC laptop dates approximately back to the time when Ken Ham’s great-grandfather was romping in the field with velociraptors. It has always had insufficient RAM to run both Windows and a decent virus checker, so my security protection has been about as effective as prayer. A few years ago, part of the CD-ROM drive was called up in the rapture; I can write to disks, but I can’t read any that aren’t originals. To remedy this lack, I’ve told myself thousands of times to buy a thumb drive “the next time I’m in WalMart,” but in three years I’ve always managed to get sidetracked in the candy aisle. So whenever I’ve needed a saved backup document, I’ve gone to my wife’s computer, loaded my CD-ROM with the files I hadn’t updated for at least six months, and sent myself the thing as an email attachment.

  2. I’ve gone out of my way not to keep up with the latest products available in the electronomarket. My favorite personal computer ever was my little 8K Vector, one of the many hurriedly assembled Asian brands that were carried only by discount stores in which the sales force spent their lunch hours practicing English. The Vector ran a WordStar clone and a VisiCalc wannabe, and operated under a DOS-like system the sole purpose of which seemed to be the generation of unintelligible error messages. My proudest accomplishment was writing a BASIC program that prompted the user for his or her name and a number from 1 to 3,000. Let’s say your name was “Lou” and your number was 537. The screen then returned the message: “Ave Lou. Your number in Roman numerals is DXXXVII.”

  3. Unless I’m in a book store, I don’t have the patience to shop. My wife picked out our house, our car, every major appliance that we own, and most of my clothes. Which probably explains why I hate our house, our car, our major appliances, and most of my clothes (but not the 100 or so T-shirts with pockets, all of which I love, except for the lime green ones). My wife refuses to recommend a new computer for me because she’s angry about my continuing negativity toward the uncomfortable lounge chair she bought two years ago. I always tell people that it came from the Ugly Furniture Warehouse.
Anyway, on Thursday, June 28, my computer apparently got religion. First, it refused to allow me to surf the Atheosphere. In the cyber equivalent of multiple born-again epiphanies, the screen would freeze for three or four minutes, and then suddenly wipe itself clean only to be replaced by some program I hadn’t used since 1999. The rebaptized software would start itself, flicker on and off annoyingly for a while, accomplish absolutely nothing of value while preventing me from making any progress, and then crawl back into the Church of Storage whence it came. I diagnosed the problem: the machine was possessed by the ghost of an evangelical.

I decided the Internet was “down.” I don’t even know what I meant by that, but by way of a control test, I tried calling up my word processing program. It answered the summons pretty much the way my cats respond when I shout their names: with a blank stare.

Since I’m scrupulous about backing up my files, I had only about seven hundred work-related documents that were uncopied onto anything salvageable if my laptop crashed. I pleaded with my computer not to do anything rash until I returned from WalMart. For the first time ever, I took a reluctant detour around the sweets section and actually found myself with a spanking new 1-gig thumb drive in my hand. To be honest, I also grabbed a Snickers at the checkout counter.

When I got home, my machine belched and farted and limped slowly in random patterns. It had turned into my Uncle Jack. So my diagnosis that the machine had become a right-wing Christian fanatic was incorrect; instead, it was an orthodox Jew.

Uncle Jack took more than an hour to transfer my files. He might have been reading the Machine Code from left to right instead of from right to left. Maybe he had to make sure that every byte was kosher.

Having saved my files, I ran a System Restore to three days in the past. Running that procedure under slow-mo circumstances is like showing a crotchety old man his picture from twenty years ago. It doesn’t help anything; it just gets him pissed off. Yup, it was definitely Uncle Jack.

I analyzed my files to see if they were mostly contiguous, and discovered that over half of them were three states away. So I defragged, which sounds much more titillating than it is. This procedure, in stop-time, took approximately twelve hours. When it was finished, at eight-thirty the next morning, my files, even though they had little in common with one another, were as close as they could be without having sex. But they still couldn’t do anything useful. Now I had Uncle Jack and Aunt Helen.

I decided that a virus was the culprit. To prove it to myself, I returned to WalMart and purchased another Snickers and a serious but user-friendly virus checker, the kind that analyzes any invasive bugs, cleans out the alien spawn (or Uncle Jack, as the case may be), wipes the computer’s behind, and gives it a prescription — no questions asked — for recreational pharmaceuticals. After thirty-one hours, it had checked only about four thousand files, approximately one zillionth of the crap living in the guts of the machine. During that whole time, it found one suspicious cookie which turned out to be harmless. Meanwhile, I had managed to find a whole box of cookies, every one of which I ate. They’ll probably kill me eventually.

OK. I’ll abbreviate this part of the story. Packed up my computer and visited a compugeek friend who had a program to get rid of my hard drive’s virtual partition. Spent an hour searching for the disk, which we finally found buried among a collection of cat toys. Departitioned. Congratulated ourselves with some liquid refreshment. Reformatted. Congratulated ourselves again with a refill. Loaded my very old, bare-bones copy of Windows XP. Hit the booze for a third time. Couldn’t get my brand X wireless card to work at his house. Packed up my computer and wobbled home. Couldn’t get the card to work there either. Remembered I needed Service Pack 2 to make the damn thing go, but, of course, could not download anything from the Internet, since — duh! — my wireless card wasn’t working. Moved my computer into my wife’s cluttered office to hook it directly up to the modem and access Spent an hour clearing a path to the Modem. Connected. Hours passed. Finally, completely loaded the appropriate upgrade — as well as every other program Bill Gates chose to throw my way. Returned computer to my office and installed my new virus checker. Ran the obligatory full system scan. Found out that Windows Operating System, downloaded from Microsoft’s own site, was virus-free. Not enough evidence to class that as a miracle. Tried brand X wireless card again. Fuck me. Back to WalMart for a real brand and yet another Snickers. Came home and got connected. Drank a celebratory beer. Reinstalled software, including the programs I hadn’t used since 1999. Recreated dozens of folders. Transferred backed up files to their original places. Decided I didn’t like the organization and drew a mock-up of a filing cabinet. Hated the mock-up and threw it away. Created new folders at random. Transferred files, one-by-one, from old inefficient organization to new inefficient organization. Downloaded Firefox to use as my browser instead of Internet Explorer, mainly just to spite Bill Gates. Ran the full system scan again to see if Bill had taken revenge. Files were still OK. Drank a toast to them.

For half an hour things were going great. Then Uncle Jack returned.

He refused to do any work. I couldn’t understand why he was on strike, because it wasn’t Shabbos. But then I thought about Uncle Jack’s last years. He had kept the no-work Sabbath rules even when his memory had gone completely and he didn’t know what day it was. Aunt Helen used to circle each date on the calendar as it came up, but Uncle Jack would forget to look. For him, it was always Shabbos.

And then, suddenly, I realized how to fix Uncle Jack. He needed more memory.

Sensing a shopping opportunity, my wife went to work on Google. Soon, a couple of RAM chips were winging their way to me via FEDEX. The next day, I was up-and-running again, as you can see. My computer is once more a healthy atheist. And so am I.