Please, please people: stop using the naive dictionary meaning of words in place of context

I know I’m notorious for complaining about those goofy definitions of atheism (“it just means “not believing in god”, nothing more!”, the superficial mob will say) because the word has acquired much deeper resonances that we ignore at our peril, and has implications far greater than simple rejection of one assertion. But the other word that people love to abuse is “freethought”. The same superficial twits all think it means simply that you’re allowed to think whatever you want (which, it turns out, you can do even in a theocracy) and that it’s a kind of hedonism of the mind in which all things are permissible.

It’s not. It’s a word with a long history, a real meaning, and a greater substance than the poseurs know of. Alex Gabriel does a marvelous job scouring the ignoramuses on the meaning of freethought.

Objections to Freethought‘s place in our masthead are among the laziest, glibbest soundbites our critics have, but more than that display a failure to grasp even the term’s most basic history. Freethought is not ‘free thought’ or uninhibited inquiry – to think so boasts the same green literalism as thinking a Friends’ Meeting House is a shared beach hut or that Scotch pancakes contain Scotch  - though even if it were, it’s silly and inane to assume one’s critics are automatons or say loose collective viewpoints mean dictatorship. Freethought is a specified tradition, European in the main, whose constituents have by and large been countercultural, radical and leftist, everything Condell and cohorts viscerally despise.

I am so fed up with people who say that they understand the meaning of the word “free” and the meaning of the word “thought”, and therefore they understand everything they need to know about “freethought”. And these are often the same people who claim that their tradition is one of knowledge and learning and skepticism, yet they want to replace the complex world of knowledge with a kind of naive literalism.

Heh, “Colonial Colleges”

I like that title so much better than “Ivy League”. Here’s a brief and amusing history of American higher education that focuses almost entirely on those revered and over-rated East coast places (says the guy at a land grant college, a program which only gets a quick mention).

Other things that get only the most cursory but tantalizing mention: a tradition of rioting and dueling. I think, however, we can do without the tale of the student coming back to Princeton to beat up one of his teachers.

The most precious jewelry in the world

It’s not the Koh-I-Noor or the Empress Eugenie Brooch or whatever my wife is wearing right now, it’s this:


It’s a small, broken fossil shell, collected from a fossil outcrop and transported 110 kilometers to a hole in the ground in Italy. Close inspection reveals that before it was broken, there was a pattern of abrasion in one spot that suggests a hole had been drilled in it and a loop of sinew threaded through it. Although most of it has been worn away by time, bits of material in microscopic pits on its surface reveal that once, this shell had been painted with red ochre.

It doesn’t sound like much. But then, what makes it precious is the burden of antiquity it carries: it’s about 47,000 years old, and it was made by Neandertals.

A few Lower and Middle Paleolithic sites preserve exotic objects with no obvious functional role and striking visual appearance such as quartz crystals, fossils, shells, and natural objects mimicking human or animal shapes. These are interpreted as the first evidence for the ability to distinguish ordinary from exotic items, to create conscious cultural taxonomies, and/or to detect iconicity in the natural world. Some argue these sporadic finds would have prompted the mental bridge between referent and referrer thus igniting the creation of symbolic material cultures. Although this possibility cannot be discarded, three reasons may favor the interpretation of the Aspa marginata from Fumane as a pendant, i.e. an object conceived to be suspended for visual display body through threading or stringing. The attention put to uniformly cover the outer shell surface with good quality red pigment suggests that this action may have been performed to make the object suitable for visual display. The wear detected on the inner lip, made of overlapping groups of striations oriented perpendicular to the shell main axis, is consistent with a sustained friction produced by a cord rich in abrasive particles, such as sinew. The absence of pigment on the shell fracture is most consistent with this item being used as a pendant.

It’s art. Very, very old art, made by a people who are completely extinct today, from a culture of which we have almost no knowledge, just these lost scraps with all context lost. That also adds great value to the object, that it is such a tiny fragment of knowledge, that it reminds us of how little we actually know about these long-gone people. Tens of thousands of years from now, if anyone is going through our decayed rubbish heaps, they aren’t going to find the Mona Lisa, a well-preserved space shuttle, or sheet music from a Beethoven symphony — they’re going to find a broken plastic toy from a McDonald’s Happy Meal, or a nicely symmetrical fragment of a concrete traffic bollard, and I suspect it will be regarded as a great and rare treasure then, too.

I also just find it wonderful to contemplate — that over 40,000 years ago, our relatives found enough stability and security in their communities that they had time to express themselves, and that they naturally exercised their minds and hands to create art, and that they worked to adorn themselves.

Peresani M, Vanhaeren M, Quaggiotto E, Queffelec A, d’Errico F (2013) An Ochered Fossil Marine Shell From the Mousterian of Fumane Cave, Italy. PLoS ONE 8(7): e68572. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068572

Remembering the UpStairs Lounge

Over at The Friendly Atheist, Terry Firma points out that today is the 40th anniversary of one of the deadliest hate crimes in recent U.S. history: the deliberate arson of the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans.

Just before 8:00p, the doorbell rang insistently. To answer it, you had to unlock a steel door that opened onto a flight of stairs leading down to the ground floor. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen, expecting a taxi driver, asked his friend Luther Boggs to let the man in. Perhaps Boggs, after he pulled the door open, had just enough time to smell the Ronsonol lighter fluid that the attacker of the UpStairs Lounge had sprayed on the steps. In the next instant, he found himself in unimaginable pain as the fireball exploded, pushing upward and into the bar.
The ensuing 15 minutes were the most horrific that any of the 65 or so customers had ever endured — full of flames, smoke, panic, breaking glass, and screams.

It was a horrible murderous act, with 32 people dead, and Terry’s post is really hard to read. Not only for the description of the suffering (with a grotesque photo of the body of Metropolitan Community Church pastor Bill Larson, be warned) but also for the description of the reaction of locals after the event.

Tough reading, but do it anyway if you can. The victims at the UpStairs Lounge have been all but forgotten. They fucking well deserve better, and so do we.

Taking a hatchet to Hitchens

I saw with some trepidation an article by an atheist that rebukes the man: the title is “Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheism no favors“. I felt that trepidation because there really are very good reasons to criticize Hitchens: his politics were vile, he was a cheerleader for war, his ‘solutions’ for problems in the Middle East were little more than excuses for genocide. He had the capacity to be thoughtful and interesting and deep, but when it came to world politics, he was a madman waving a gun. Someone could write a strong, well-researched criticism of Hitchens that would actually have a lot of weight, and it could overshadow the fellow’s virtues (and, by the way, I think we should recognize that he was not a saint, and that like every one of us, he had his flaws).

But I shouldn’t have worried. The author, Curtis White, basically writes an apologia for religion, and goes after Hitchens for…not respecting faith enough. Seriously? Yeah, seriously. This guy is an atheist who thinks the great theological circle-jerk is a beautiful ballet.

As critics have observed since its publication, one enormous problem with Hitchens’s book is that it reduces religion to a series of criminal anecdotes. In the process, however, virtually all of the real history of religious thought, as well as historical and textual scholarship, is simply ignored as if it never existed. Not for Hitchens the rich cross-cultural fertilization of the Levant by Helenistic, Jewish, and Manichaean thought. Not for Hitchens the transformation of a Jewish heretic into a religion that Nietzsche called “Platonism for the masses.” Not for Hitchens the fascinating theological fissures in the New Testament between Jewish, Gnostic, and Pauline doctrines. Not for Hitchens the remarkable journey of the first Christian heresy, Arianism, spiritual origin of our own thoroughly liberal Unitarianism. (Newton was an Arian and anti-Trinitarian, which made his presence at Trinity College permanently awkward.) Not for Hitchens the sublime transformation of Christian thought into the cathartic spirituality of German Idealism/ Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. And, strangely, not for Hitchens the existential Christianity of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Karl Jaspers, Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, and, most recently, the religious turn of poststructural thought in Jacques Derrida and Slavoj Žižek. (All of these philosophers sought what Žižek calls Christianity’s “perverse core.”) And it’s certainly not that he didn’t have the opportunity to acknowledge these intellectual and spiritual traditions. At one point he calls the story of Abraham and Isaac “mad and gloomy,” a “frightful” and “vile” “delusion,” but sees no reason to mention Kierkegaard’s complex, poetic, and deeply felt philosophical retelling of the story in “Fear and Trembling”. In this way, Hitchens is often as much a textual literalist as the fundamentalists he criticizes.

I think I wrote about this before. It’s a red herring: when we ask for evidence of a god, the apologists point to a whole bunch of people wrangling at daunting length about the interpretation of holy writ and say, “See? There. They couldn’t possibly be arguing about nothing at all, now could they?” I wish this would sink in, that someone making an intricate paean to the ineffability of nothing is not evidence of anything other than the human brain’s immense capacity for masturbatory self-reference.

And then the screed continues this trend with the credulous claim that the Bible actually is a solid historical document, contra Hitchens.

This case has been well made by others, if mostly in places far more obscure than Hitchens’s privileged position on the New York Times best-seller list. For example, William J. Hamblin wrote a thorough and admirably restrained review (“The Most Misunderstood Book: Christopher Hitchens on the Bible”) in which he held Hitchens to account for historical howlers of this kind:

In discussing the exodus, Hitchens dogmatically asserts: “There was no flight from Egypt, no wandering in the desert . . . , and no dramatic conquest of the Promised Land. It was all, quite simply and very ineptly, made up at a much later date. No Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode either, even in passing. . . . All the Mosaic myths can be safely and easily discarded.” These narratives can be “easily discarded” by Hitchens only because he has failed to do even a superficial survey of the evidence in favor of the historicity of the biblical traditions. Might we suggest that Hitchens begin with Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt and Ancient Israel in Sinai? It should be noted that Hoffmeier’s books were not published by some small evangelical theological press but by Oxford University—hardly a bastion of regressive fundamentalist apologetics. Hitchens’s claim that “no Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode [of Moses and the Israelites] either, even in passing” is simply polemical balderdash.

Hamblin is thorough, patient, relentless, but also, it seems to me, a little perplexed and saddened by Hitchens’s naked dishonesty and, in all probability, by his own feeling of impotence. You can hardly blame him. Criticism of this character would have, and surely should have, revealed Hitchens’s book for what it is … if it hadn’t been published in The FARMS Review of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Hitchens need never have feared the dulling of his reputation for intellectual dash and brio from that source.

No, Hitchens was quite right. There is no archaeological evidence for the dramatic events of the Exodus. The stories of a vast and powerful rising Hebrew kingdom are all mythologizing and self-aggrandizement. I’m sure Hamblin was quite saddened by the criticism of the self-serving Biblical archaeological community. He probably wept when he read Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies.

I see no “historical howler” in Hitchen’s comment. The people who argue for the historicity of the Bible are religious apologists who read their interpretation of the faith into the historical record, who ignore evidence of the minor significance of the Jewish tribes of that era, and who constantly inflate trivial anecdotes into evidence of empires. It’s a discipline tainted by people who go into it solely to make excuses for their faith.

This is not to say that the Jewish people didn’t exist, or that they were never enslaved in Egypt, or that they never invaded Palestine — merely that the stories in the Bible are grossly exaggerated and untrustworthy.

White does make one justifiable argument, that Hitchens tended to sweep all Eastern religions into the same rubbish bin, and was rather too casual in lumping them all together. I think it’s valid to say Hitchens was not an expert on Eastern philosophy…but then the responsibility falls on his critics to explain exactly why we should grant an Eastern religion greater credence than something a two-year old babbles? And why then, isn’t the atheist author of this piece now adopting the superior ethical philosophy of ancient Tibetans?

And finally, White goes galloping off to attack secular reasons for moral behavior.

Hitchens’s second metaphysical claim has to do with conscience. He counters the claim that without religion we would have no ethics by saying that conscience is innate. He writes, “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.”

Well, as Hitchens likes to say, this is “piffle.” After all, what is a conscience? Does it light up on a brain scan when we think virtuous thoughts? And if it is innate (and just what exactly does it mean to be innate?) why was Crassus’s crucifixion of six thousand Spartacans lined up along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua in 71 BCE thought by the people of Rome to be an expression of Roman vertù and a very good reason to honor Crassus with a full triumphal procession back into the city? Are we to imagine that the citizens of Rome threw garlands in the path of the conquering hero against their better judgment? Are we to imagine that after the celebration the citizens were stung by conscience and were unable to sleep at night? Or did Crassus merely confirm for Rome that it was what it thought it was, a race of masters?

White does not understand at all. Humans are plastic, with some innate biases. If you raise a child with love and encourage them to love others, they will (well, usually — we’re also too complex to be programmed simplistically). If you raise them with hate, they grow up hating. If you bring them up believing that slaves are a less worthy other, they will feel no guilt if you murder them en masse. Romans were recipients of life-long propaganda about the virtue of Rome…just as Americans now are raised with a lifelong faith in the superiority of their way of life. And there are all kinds of indoctrination systems out there.

Religion is one. It’s not the only one, obviously. Religion is just something that raises people to unquestioningly accept the superiority of a system of beliefs — not just about ethics, but about the nature of the universe. And it’s a system that is demonstrably false. It’s also a useful tool for obedience that is often coopted by other beliefs — American exceptionalism, for instance, is also all tangled up in Christianity.

I have no religion, and after meeting many people who were sincere in their beliefs, I realized that I never did — as a child, I was going through the motions, but never believed in any deity, nor even felt fear or concern or love for one. I acquired that basic human decency not from religion, but from family and friends, being brought up in an almost totally religion-free home that regarded fairness and justice towards others as an important value.

And that’s what Hitchens meant: ethical behavior is independent of religion, which merely claims against all evidence to be the wellspring of human decency. He does not imply in any way that freedom from religion automatically gives you good values, but that the causes of those values precede the nonsense your church layers upon you. And further, when you look at what religion effectively teaches — deference to authority, gullibility, guilt and fear — it’s true, religion really does poison everything.

No honor in the American Civil War

The sesquicentennial of the battle of Gettysburg is coming up soon. Let’s not romanticize it; Tony Horwitz has written a great antidote.

On July 1st, 1863, Alfred Iverson ordered his brigade of North Carolinians across an open field. The soldiers marched in tight formation until Union riflemen suddenly rose from behind a stone wall and opened fire. Five hundred rebels fell dead or wounded "on a line as straight as a dress parade," Iverson reported. "They nobly fought and died without a man running to the rear. No greater gallantry and heroism has been displayed during this war."

That’s the officer’s view. The men in that tight formation had a different perspective.

Soldiers told a different story: of being "sprayed by the brains" of men shot in front of them, or hugging the ground and waving white kerchiefs. One survivor informed the mother of a comrade that her son was "shot between the Eye and ear" while huddled in a muddy swale. Of others in their ruined unit he wrote: "left arm was cut off, I think he will die… his left thigh hit and it was cut off." An artilleryman described one row of 79 North Carolinians executed by a single volley, their dead feet perfectly aligned. "Great God! When will this horrid war stop?" he wrote. The living rolled the dead into shallow trenches–hence the name "Iverson’s Pits," now a grassy expanse more visited by ghost-hunters than battlefield tourists.

The Civil War was not a romantic struggle between the forces of good and evil (both North and South were rather horribly racist), and it was a totally unnecessary war — it was a botched surgery to excise the ugly tumor of hypocrisy established at the founding of this country, and it didn’t do a very good job of that. We still have yahoos celebrating the Confederate flag and so-called Southern values that too often include ignorance and racism. The war may have ended outright slavery, but it didn’t end oppression and discrimination.

And we all lost. Three quarters of a million dead, a legacy of division, widespread racism, and the same battle lines are still drawn in our political parties. What a waste.

My father’s family was involved in that war, too. They were farmers in Iowa, and my several-times great grandfather served with Grant in the campaign that marched down the Mississippi and ended in the capture of New Orleans, where my ancestor was mustered out with an unidentified chronic illness (most likely malaria). And a few years later he lost his farm, and then began several generations of desultory familial peregrinations as migrant farm workers until they washed up on the shores of the Puget Sound, and could go no further. We were all wrecked by that stupid evil war.

A quick note

You must read today’s xkcd: The Pace of Modern Life. That’s all, gotta go.

I just had to pluck out one example.

The managers of sensational newspapers…do not try to educate their readers and make them better, but tend to create perverted tastes and develop vicious tendencies. The owners of these papers seem to have but one purpose, and that is to increase their circulation.

They do it for the blog hits.

Knowing a little history clarifies issues

We’ve had this long-simmering football controversy here in the upper midwest — a North Dakota football team named itself after an Indian tribe. They try to argue that it’s not racist and claim that it’s a respectful homage to the natives, but look at the history of such naming elsewhere: the Washington DC football team name is unabashedly racist.

This Washington football team was named by one of the most vehement racists in the history of American professional sports. When George Marshall bought the team in 1932, they were called the Boston Braves. He changed the name — to a slur, because he was a racist — and moved them to Washington. He made “Dixie” one of the team’s fight songs and refused to hire black players well into the 1960s. The NFL integrated in 1946 but Marshall’s team held out until the federal government actually forced them to field black players in 1963. The all-white Washington teams of the 1950s and 1960s were among the worst in the league, but segregation was more important to Marshall than winning football games. The NFL had actually already been raciallyintegrated until black players were suddenly banned in 1933. Interviews with owners suggest that Marshall was responsible for the ban.

This is the man who named the team and white supremacy and racism obviously informed his every decision. In his will he insisted that his foundation not spend any money on “any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.” It is extremely hard to believe that this man selected the name — specially changed the name from a less offensive term for American Indians to this term — to “honor” anyone, the usual argument used by the team’s modern defenders.

The current owner has vowed to never change the name, and is desperately working to build up some PR spin to cover his butt. So what does he do?

The Washington DC-area NFL franchise has commissioned veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz to conduct some focus groups to see how American football fans feel about the franchise’s name, which is a vile racial slur.

Oh, yeah. When you want to whitewash racism, you call the professionals: a Republican apparatchik. Everyone knows that.

If you read some of the linked articles, you’ll discover that one of the reasons the team refuses to change their name is that they did a poll…and found that Americans preferred that they keep their racist name, 9:1. Are we at all surprised? And is it any wonder that they’ve now hired a Republican pollster to skew the bias even more?