Yes, I know, it’s been quiet around here lately

It’s not as if there hasn’t been anything going on worth blogging about. (There’s been quite a bit, actually.) But my schedule has just been too work-intensive for me to get into the zone here, as it were. Anyway, I have quite a few blog topics chewing at the inside of my skull trying to get out. So I imagine throughout the next week I’ll post a good number of new entries to take up some of the slack.

Follow-up on game theory topic

If you enjoyed yesterday’s show on game theory and want to know more, I have a few items to recommend.

As I mentioned on the show, the movie A Beautiful Mind stars Russell Crowe as John Nash, a mathematician who won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the field of game theory. The movie itself only superficially covers Nash’s ideas, but it might be more interesting to watch once you understand what he was working on.

William Poundstone’s book, Prisoner’s Dilemma, alternates between in-depth discussions of game theory, and a biography of mathematician John von Neumann. Although I didn’t get to explain this point on the show, game theory was developed partly as a way of discussing global politics in the face of potential nuclear war. This book focuses largely on that application.

I first encountered the prisoner’s dilemma years ago while reading Metamagical Themas by Douglas Hofstadter. The book is a collection of Scientific American columns and does not focus primarily on game theory. However, Hofstadter is a brilliant and wildly entertaining author who makes technical subjects very accessible. The chapters on game theory, which occur toward the end of the book, are introduced with a very interesting fictional story about a small town which is threatened by a demon who has a bizarre fetish for receiving postcards. Sending large numbers of postcards is the only way to protect the town from eventual destruction. Instead of a flurry of writing, the townspeople wind up making a lot of excuses for their apathy. You can read an excerpt of this story here at Google Books.

Football fan shows rival a little Christian love

If there’s anything I think is nearly as asinine as religion, it’s sports fanaticism. What exactly is interesting about watching a bunch of guys throwing a ball around a field and nearly paralyzing each other for life over it escapes me completely. Still, hey, to each his own. But when one’s devotion to this senseless bit of time-wastage leads to violent psychosis, I think it’s time to question these fans’ sanity itself.

Seems a dude wearing a Texas T-shirt walked into an Oklahoma bar. The University of Texas and University of Oklahoma have been bitter football rivals since forever, and apparently this matters to some people. Anyway, this Oklahoma fan didn’t take too kindly to the offending T-shirt, and grabbed the dude by the gonads with such force he nearly castrated him.

Whiskey…Tango…Foxtrot?

Well, clearly, with such antisocial, violent tendencies, as least we can rest assured the attacker wasn’t a Christian, right? I mean, we all know they have the morals thing down and all us wicked nonbelievers don’t. So to perpetrate such an immoral (not to mention plain weird) deed, this man must have been some uncontrollable godless atheist who just didn’t see any reason not to hurt anyone if there’s not a God around to punish him for it. I mean, that’s how they tell us it works, right?

Oh, hang on, wait a sec…

Allan Michael Beckett, a 53-year-old church deacon, federal auditor and former Army combat veteran, has pleaded not guilty.

Gawrsh. Now I’m confused. I’m sure some apologist will come along any second now and clear all this up for me…

Ah, that’s better! The guy was just drunk, and he’s not a True Christian™ anyway.

Hottest. Atheist. Ever.

She won’t answer questions about her sexual preferences, but too-cool-for-the-room actress Jodie Foster doesn’t hesitate a nanosecond to use the A-word in her latest interview. Though she admits she “loves religions and their rituals,” being an atheist is nothing she needs to hide. Part of the fearlessness that’s made her such a great performer, I’d say. (And smart enough to choose not to do Hannibal. Blech.)

PS: I do confess to a bit of gender bias in the headline, so I leave it up to Traci and our female (or gay male, for that matter) readers to choose the male H.A.E. I won last year so I’m out of the running, sorry.

Big ol’ godless rally this weekend in Austin

And it’s typical that I won’t be in town to partake. Ah well. For the rest of you, American Atheists is sponsoring a Church-State Separation Rally to be held on the south steps of the state capitol building in downtown Austin, this Saturday, September 8, from noon till 3. Here’s the salient info from the press release, with thanks to Joe Zamecki for being the driving force behind this.

The 2007 Texas State-Church Separation Rally will take place this coming Saturday, Sept. 8, 2007 on the South steps of the State Capitol building in Austin, TX.

Joe Zamecki, Texas State Director for American Atheists, said that the event is being held to build awareness of the First Amendment separation between government and religion, and the civil rights of non-religious people. Mr. Zamecki added that the Rally is also to show support for David Wallace Croft and his family of Carrollton, TX, who have recently challenged the recitation of the state “pledge” and a requirement that students be required to observe a “moment of silence” in public school classrooms.

“These are the sorts of state laws and practices that are all too common in Texas, and undermine our freedom from religion,” said Mr. Zamecki.

“Our state legislature and Attorney General need to understand that not all Texans are fundamentalist Christians, and that freedom of conscience is important to everyone,” Zamecki added. “Our state government needs to realize that we are a diverse citizenry, and should stop pushing religion on the citizens.”

The State-Church Separation Rally will include speakers representing a number of Atheist, Freethought, Secular Humanist and pro-separation groups. They include Nicholas Paschall of University of Texas SA Secular Student Alliance; Meghan Regis, Atheist Agenda; Dick Hogan, American Atheists; Derek Jones, PathofReason.com; Texas civil rights activist Marsha Corriera, and others. Mr. Dean Croft will also speak, and there will be a voter registration table.

Sadly, we Texans live in such a religion-addicted state — our tool of a Christian Right governor just appointed a pig-ignorant creationist stooge to head up the State Board of Education, fer cripes sake — that I fear we may be subject to a lot of shove-it-down-your-throat religious legislation, slickly marketed to seem pro-diversity and pro-tolerance, for some time to come. But with the increased public profile of atheism in general these days, at least rallies like these help get the message across that not every patriotic citizen thinks one should have to acknowledge sky-gods as par for the course. Also, fearful and closeted unbelievers are sometimes prompted to come out from hiding once they realize they’re not as alone as they thought.

Surely one of my fine team members here will attend and post a report with photos. (Sorry…did I break anyone’s toes when I dropped that hint? Heh heh…)

Taoism

Show #516 on Sunday, September 2, was a response to two items of viewer mail that the TV list received. Jeremy wrote initially to say he is a “religious atheist,” which he described as adhering to a secularized Taoism (pronounced Daoism). Within one week’s time another piece of mail came through addressing the issue of “where do atheists get meaning” in life?

In addition to these two letters, we have received numerous contacts from people asking “Why do you only always focus on Christianity?” Although Matt has addressed this in the past, I felt that a show exploring secular Taoism might be relevant on multiple fronts, and so chose that as the topic for #516.

The form of Taoism that is most prevalent, and with which most of us are familiar, is attributed to Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu may or may not have ever actually lived. But the text he is said to have written goes back about 2,500 years. The name “Lao Tzu” actually means “Old Man,” and it is doubtful that anyone named Lao Tzu authored the major Taoist work, Tao te Ching.

The Tao te Ching is a small collection of poetic Chinese sayings meant to describe the Tao and its operation. The title means literally, “The Book (Ching) of the application of (te) The Way (Tao).” And Tao, literally, means “The Way.” If you read the book, you will not find any list of “dos” and “don’ts.” There are no laws to memorize, and no condemnation or threats. The passages all sound something like this (#43):

The softest thing in the universeOvercomes the hardest thing in the universe.That without substance can enter where there is no room.Hence I know the value of non-action.

“Tao” does not mean “The Way” in the sense that we think of it in Christian models. It isn’t a way to achieve salvation. In fact, Taoists don’t believe in salvation. They wouldn’t understand what they need to be saved from—because they don’t interpret life, death or the natural world to be particularly problematic or flawed. They consider it to be simply, “the way” it is. In fact, “the way” it is, is what “The Way” (Tao) normally seems to represent. A reed is flexible—that is “The Way” (or Tao) of the reed.

Because the verses are so amorphous and malleable, they are interpreted in a number of ways by different people. However, this is not considered a problem for the Taoist—who believes that following his own Tao will quite naturally differ greatly from someone else following hers. It does not represent a single path for all of mankind—but a way of looking at life that will help each individual find the path that is right for him or her. It isn’t a mode of enlightenment or special knowledge. It is an affirmation that if one is willing to examine his/her life and motives, he/she can come to an understanding of what direction is best for himself.

Taoism prefers accommodation, flexibility, and seemless integration. The example I used on the program was one of Green Architecture. To build my house on a landscape means to impose myself upon that landscape. A Taoist would do his/her best to utilize the landscape in the most efficient way to support the house, while at the same time taking the environment into consideration as he/she plans his/her house.

Taoism is not concerned with universal origins and makes no claims about how the cosmos were constructed or when they began. Taoism only notes that the cosmos exist and appear to operate under observable laws, which are best used to one’s advantage rather than resisted. A counterweight would be an excellent example. When one has to lift a heavy object, one must oppose the natural force of gravity; but by applying a counterweight, we can actually use gravity to work for us, rather than struggling against it. With a counterweight, gravity can “lift” a heavy object for us.

Duality is another factor in Taoism. We understand that concepts like good necessarily indicate “not good” (or “evil” if you prefer to call it that). But duality goes beyond opposites. In Taoism, it is not so much a statement of X and -X, as it is X and nonX. In other words, there is no “opposite” to Tracie. But there is much that is “not Tracie.” So, the universe is divided, in the Taoist view, by what is Tracie and what is “not Tracie.” Likewise, the universe divides, dualistically, in any number of similar ways with regard to any “thing” you care to define.

I wrapped the show describing some personal views about Taoism from professed Taoists. And I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to get as many personal views as possible, to get an idea of how flexible this philosophy actually is. One can only really speak generally of it, as even the Tao te Ching not only fails to—but outright refuses to—define what Taoism is. According to the book, it is “nameless”—personally discerned—and cannot be accurately defined or described. Some have made the leap to call it “god.” But there is no direct indication that Lao Tzu was describing anything other than natural forces and pragmatic observations.

For further reading, I would actually recommend obtaining a copy of the Tao te Ching—perhaps at a local library (for free). The book is brief and, if you like poetry, actually somewhat relaxing to read. An annotated version with some historic reference would be preferable to a cold read if you are entirely unfamiliar with Eastern philosophy or have never read any similar texts. As timeless as it may seem to me, I have to admit that with any text, context is also important with the Tao te Ching.

D. James Kennedy surprised to remain underground

Megachurch pastor and smarmy radio creationist D. James Kennedy died today at the ripe old age of 76.

Wait, wasn’t D. James Kennedy in jail? No wait, that was Kent Hovind. Um, so is he the guy with the gay prostitute meth scandal? No, that was that Haggard guy. Let me see, Kennedy, Kennedy. Why does that ring a bell?

Oh yes, now I remember! D. James Kennedy is the one who helped Roy Moore move his giant two-and-a-half ton granite monument of the ten commandments into the courthouse in the middle of the night. Then he took video of the whole incident and sold copies in order to help pay for Moore’s legal defense.

Well anyway, I guess that’s one less con man to keep track of.