Telling your religious loved ones that you are an atheist

One of the questions that came up at the Ask an Atheist forum was how to break the news that one has become an atheist to those religious people close to you, especially family members, whom you think might be upset.

I get this question quite a lot and usually counsel people that there is really little to be gained by gratuitously announcing to everyone within earshot that one is an atheist. So at the forum, I privately told one questioner who was worried about how his much-loved grandmother would react that there was no need to tell her. What’s the point? Even I, who have been aggressively making the case for atheism on this blog, only raise the issue in private when people ask me about it or the topic of religion comes up and I think the information is relevant.

Over the course of time, many of my relatives got to know of my atheism by word of mouth from those who have read my blog or talked to me. This was a source of surprise to them given my more-than-average religiosity before, and they would ask me about it and I would discuss it freely with them. Many of my extended family and friends found many of my arguments plausible and made them reconsider some of their own beliefs. It surprised me how many of them would then hesitantly admit to doubts about their own beliefs, things they had kept suppressed for a long time and not shared with fellow believers. Encountering a nonbeliever they knew personally seemed to provide them with a license to think about things they had hitherto suppressed out of a sense that such thoughts were inappropriate or even evil. Sad, isn’t it, that religion makes people fearful of even thoughts?

The one person with whom I did not discuss the issue at all was with my own mother. She was a firm believer in god. I knew her faith was important to her and I did not want to needlessly concern her about the future of my soul so I avoided the topic and she never raised it with me, although we were close and talked freely about almost everything else.

My mother was a very open-minded and tolerant person who believed that religion called on people to be good to others, not to judge their worthiness for heaven. My silence about my atheism was not due to fears that she would be angry or offended. I knew she would accept me whatever my beliefs. Because she lived in Sri Lanka and we met in person only occasionally and she did not use computers, I was confident that she did not know about my giving up on the faith she so valued even though I was a bit surprised that she never discussed my religious beliefs when we met. I thought that she died last year still thinking I was a Christian.

Hence it was a surprise when my sister (with whom my mother lived in Sri Lanka) told me last week that my mother had known about my atheism all along. Apparently my sister would print out the more interesting blog items, including the ones advocating atheism, and give them to her to read. I asked my sister what my mother’s reaction had been and she said that my mother simply said that my disbelief was probably caused by my scientific outlook and she could understand that, though her own faith was unshaken. My mother’s views about me as a person remained the same.

So while I was wrong about my mother’s state of ignorance about my beliefs, I was not wrong about the way she would react to the news. She probably did not raise the topic directly with me in order to prevent me from being embarrassed at denying to her face the things she believed in. That was just like her. I must say that I was pleased at my sister’s news. It was nice to have it confirmed that what I believed had no affect my mother’s feelings towards me.
I suspect that my story is not unusual. Close family members of most atheists will be just as accepting because for most people the emotional bonds that connect people to each other are far stronger than the ones that people try to have with a distant, unseen, unheard, unfelt, and uncaring god. It is just best for them to learn about one’s atheism indirectly or gradually, so that they get used to the idea at their own pace, rather than jarring them by making a grand announcement.

POST SCRIPT: Great poem

I am not a big fan of poetry of any kind, but this terrific nine-minute beat poem called Storm by Tim Minchin, about his encounter at a dinner party with someone who spouts the anti-science nonsense spawned by religion and other beliefs in the supernatural, is a must-listen. (Thanks to Chaz for the link. Language advisory.)

Holding god to a lower standard

If I fall in a public place, I know from past experience that the strangers around me will try and help me up and ask if I am ok. As far as I know, no law can compel someone to go to the aid of someone else in distress, especially if the action might put the rescuer at some risk. But so strong and universal is the impulse to help others in immediate danger that most people instinctively do it without thinking of the consequences.

There have been some well-publicized cases of people not coming to the aid of another person but such behavior is so unusual that it has merited study and the usual reason is that when there is a group of bystanders involved, as opposed to a single person, inaction often results from each person expecting someone else to take action. But the impulse to help was still there.

Suppose for example, a car was backing up and it was clear that that driver did not see a small child in its path. If a person were in a position to either alert the driver or pluck the child to safety. I am confident that everyone except a true sociopath would act to save the child.

If we saw someone in danger, while we may not be able to do anything practical other than calling for help from others better able to do so, all of us would think it inexcusable to do absolutely nothing, to go on our way as if the plight of the person were none of our concern. Although no legal penalties would attach to such inaction, the social disapproval would be immense. And this disapproval would be much greater if we could have done something at little risk or cost to us.

Unfortunately in our litigious society, some of the targets of such altruistic assistance have sometimes sued the people trying to help them if their good intentions resulted in inadvertent harm, and it has become necessary to pass Good Samaritan laws to protect health care workers and other rescuers from such reprisals, provided the rescuer uses reasonable and prudent measures. Such laws have thus removed another reason for inaction.

It would not help for the offending unhelpful person to give as an excuse that the death of the child due to the backing up car was pre-ordained and meant to serve some greater good, and that he did not want to mess with this cosmic plan. No one would buy his argument, even if he were to quote the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius who said, “Does aught befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the Universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web.” While appeals to some inscrutable cosmic purpose are often invoked in a time of tragedy, the tragedies are rarely asserted to be good things in themselves, and claiming so risks the ire of the person who is suffering the loss.

This raises an interesting contrast. If a person should suffer an untimely death, some say it is all part of god’s plan, and that is accepted as a good reason. But at the same time we say that if a human being can prevent a death but fails to do so, then that person is committing an evil. It is not a defense for that person to argue that there was a higher purpose for not acting.

So whenever tragedy strikes, while we would not approve of the inaction of someone who could have helped another because he thought he was acting according to some grand cosmic plan, religious people are only too willing to accept that excuse when the agent of inaction is god.

The reason is that while religious people can accept that people are not good, they start out with the assumption that god is good, even though there is no evidence to support that position. This requires them to hold god to a lower standard of goodness than they hold their fellow human beings.

In support of this double standard, religious apologists may argue that god is the only one who knows everything and thus is the only one who can truly invoke the ‘great web’ escape clause. Human beings are not privy to perfect knowledge and so must help others just to be on the safe side. But that argument, like all such excuses for god, will only persuade those who want to be persuaded. After all, the offending person can respond that if god had wanted him to help the person in danger, then he would have made him want to help. The fact that god did not induce that feeling in him means that god did not want him to help and so the whole tragedy must have been part of the great web.

But whether applied to a human or god, the ‘great web’ excuse is still silly, platitudinous, and fatalistic nonsense. The appropriate response to its use is that of Bertie Wooster in The Mating Season when Bertie was once again deep in a pickle and there seemed to be no way out and when Jeeves tries to console him by quoting Marcus Aurelius’s words to him. The agitated Bertie responds, “He said that did he? Well, you can tell him from me he’s an ass.”

POST SCRIPT: Jesus the racist

For those who are not familiar with the origin of the phrase ‘Good Samaritan’, it comes from a story Jesus told about our obligation to help others in distress, and that a ‘neighbor’ is anyone who comes to another’s aid (Luke 10: 29-37).

In the story, a man was robbed and beaten by assailants and left for dead by the side of the street. A priest and a Levite, both privileged members of society, come along but they do not stop to help the injured man and even cross to the other side of the street to avoid him. It was a person from the despised Samaritan community who, at considerable time and expense to himself, comes to the victim’s aid.

The BBC comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look puts Jesus’ telling of the Good Samaritan story in a somewhat different light.

Macs and the Devil

The second annual Ask an Atheist forum on February 5 was quite well attended. There were four of us on the panel answering questions. One question dealt with how it came to be that each of us did not believe in god’s existence, and the answers were pretty much the same, that although we had all been brought in religious families, we each realized at some point that it was silly to believe in something which violated all the laws of science and for which there was no evidence.

During my answer, I said that I was somewhat embarrassed that I had arrived at this realization so late in life (in my thirties) while my fellow panelists, two of whom were students, had figured this out while still in their teens. It still amazes me that I did not come to my realization sooner. After all, I had atheist friends in my teens and we argued about god and religion. But their arguments did not convince me then and that makes me wonder how I could have been so oblivious for so long.

I think I have discovered the answer. My atheism was caused by Mac computers.

I began disbelieving in the mid-1980s, around the same time that the Apple Macintosh computers were introduced. I remember the sense of excitement about using the first Macs when they came out in 1984 when Drexel University installed a lab of them and I had so much fun with them. I immediately realized that these were the computers I wanted to use, even though I did not get my own until 1989.

My realization that Macs were the true causes of my conversion to atheism was triggered by this page of the website of an outfit called Objective Ministries that clearly lays out the case of how Apple is the agent of Satan. Little did I know that I was being seduced by the revolutionary new ‘point and click’ operating system into giving up my god-fearing ways, whereas my young fellow panelists had grown up in the age of Macs and thus were indoctrinated much earlier in their lives.

So it is clear that the Macintosh line of computers is deliberately turning people to atheism. This raises an interesting question. If Macs are the tools of the Devil, is Steve Jobs the anti-Christ? Does that make Bill Gates the second coming of Jesus? The incomprehensibility of the old DOS operating system does remind one of religious doctrine. Is Armageddon already here, except that the fight is over market share for personal computers?

Actually, the Objective Ministries website linking Macs to the Devil is a parody but is so well done that initially I was fooled and thought it was real, yet another product of the paranoia of religious people seeing dark plots against religion in all kinds of unlikely places. Another page on this same site that also initially fooled me says that Objective Ministries is seeking to launch an expedition to find living pterosaurs in order to disprove the theory of evolution which says that humans and dinosaurs did not live contemporaneously. It was only when I started researching into who “Dr. Richard Paley” was and the “Fellowship University” where he supposedly taught something called “theobiology” that I discovered the truth.

That I was almost completely taken in by these hoaxes is because religious websites are often so weird and illogical in their message that it is hard to distinguish the real thing from a clever parody. The websites of the religious are so irrational as to make ripe targets for parodists and some are having a lot of fun doing so.

Not all seeming parodies are really so. The website of the Westboro Baptist Church is so over-the-top in its anti-gay bile that it seems like a parody. But the numbers of real people it gets out for its demonstrations seem to suggest that it is either real or has a huge numbers of performance artists working for it for a long time, which seems unlikely. Similarly the counting down to Armageddon of the Rapture Ready site is not known as a parody but its premise is so absurd that it would not surprise me if it was.
Conservapedia is not a parody (as far as I know) but its Wikipedia-modeled open editing platform has led to suspicions that many of the entries are by parodists actually mocking religion, while seeming to be earnest supporters of its 6,000 year old world view.

Although the cover of Objective Ministries has not been completely blown yet, there are some well-known parodies of religious websites that are fun even though, and perhaps because, you know they are parodies. Jesus’ General, Landover Baptist Church, Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are some examples.

But coming back to the issue of the link between atheism and computer preference, Objective Ministries may be on to something, when it asserts in jest that there is a correlation, even a weak one, between using a Mac and religious disbelief. One interesting study might be to see if Mac users are more likely to be unbelievers than Windows or Linux users. Maybe the Pew Research Center should add this question when it conducts its next survey of the religious beliefs of people.

POST SCRIPT: Cookie Monster does not quite get the library concept

Making excuses for god

One of the negative consequences of not pointing out the irrationality of religious beliefs out of a misplaced desire to not give offense is that it allows them to make absurd statements that in any other context would be greeted with incredulity. Over time, they may not even realize that they are saying things that are absurd.

Take for example, this news report about the plane that crashed into a house near Buffalo last week, tragically killing fifty people (sent to me by reader Lisa):

Two people escaped the destroyed house and neighboring homes went unscathed.

“It’s hard to make sense of it today but God hasn’t left us. Two of three people that were in the home that the plane landed on miraculously escaped. A couple people missed the flight and saved their lives,” New York Governor David Paterson told a news conference.

“So we just take what little we can and move forward.”

Because two people in the home fortunately escaped death and two others missed their flight, the governor of New York says that “God hasn’t left us”. God hasn’t left us? What does that even mean? That god was on vacation somewhere and rushed back to avert the tragedy but only got back in time to save a few people? That god is somewhat absent-minded and can’t keep track of everything and so overlooked the fact that a plane was crashing until the last minute? Or is so overwhelmed with things to do and could only spare the lives of a few people?

What explains the fact that the chief executive of New York, the most powerful elected official in the state, can freely make a statement that is not only absurd and meaningless on its face but also cruelly insensitive to the loved ones of those who died, implying that god had better things to do than save them? How can a person entrusted with dealing rationally with real problems affecting so many people make such a clearly meaningless and delusional statement without eliciting any protest whatsoever?

The reason is precisely because many people share Paterson’s delusion, and the rest have been conditioned to think that it is impolite to point out the absurdity of his statement (and the belief system that underlies it) because of the mistaken ‘respect for religion’ trope. You can speak utter tripe but as long as you put the word god somewhere in there in a positive or exculpatory light, you are safe from criticism. Even the people who were bereaved by the accident will refrain from pointing out that the logical implication of Paterson’s statement is that god wanted their own loved ones to die.

While I was irritated at the cruel insensitivity of Paterson’s remarks, I wondered if the bereaved people in such situations are also secretly outraged by such statements but are intimidated by the ‘respect for religion’ trope and thus remain silent, or if they too have been so brainwashed that they are willing to accept the weird idea that this kind of appalling tragedy is all part of a loving and benevolent god’s mysterious plan, and that god targeting their loved ones for an untimely death serves some noble purpose.

The reason that Paterson can cavalierly say these things is because such idiotic statements are never questioned since the delusion he suffers from is widespread. It is the kind of thing that is repeatedly said and we have come to think of as making sense. As author Robert M. Pirsig said, “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion.” (quoted in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 5)

The reason that most of us do not say out loud everything that pops into our heads is that we screen them first to see if they make sense. But because vacuous religious statements have not been criticized, over time the habit of screening them seems to have atrophied. Religious believers have been given the benefit of being allowed to say absurd things without any consequence. As a result, such statements multiply and become even more delusional over time, which is why religions have become towering edifices of irrational beliefs, houses of cards that have to be carefully shielded from the winds of skepticism. The fact that they have lasted so long is a testament to the triumph of religion as a propaganda system.

It would be good if more and more people do not accept the idea that pointing out delusional thinking is intolerant or impolite. Then we can keep blowing at those houses of cards, and eventually they will fall down.

POST SCRIPT: Fry and Laurie on different views of madness

Portrayals of the developing world

So Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture, Best Director, and a slew of other awards at the Academy Awards last night. I have not seen the film, but have been thinking recently about the way that the developing world is portrayed in western culture.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the much-hailed book Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. I had been hearing about this book and its anniversary for some time but did not read it until last month. It tells the story of one man but that story is merely the pillar to wrap other things around, mainly to describe the structure of life in a small Nigerian village as the British colonists, led by missionaries, start to make inroads into that country around the beginning of the twentieth century. Much of the book describes the traditional life and practices and religious beliefs of the villagers and what happens to their culture with the arrival of the colonialists and their new ways and religion.

I could see its appeal to some readers in the West. They would find interesting and amusing the superstitions of the villagers described in the book, with its many examples of how ‘primitive’ people believe the most absurd things about omens and the like. It would never strike such readers that their own religious beliefs are as absurd as those of the villagers. This is because they do not apply the same rigor to their own familiar and comfortable religious beliefs as they would to those that are unfamiliar to them.

I did not particularly care for the book. There is a genre of books that deal with the developing world that I am finding increasingly annoying. Another novel is The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton that deals with the efforts of a New Yorker to set up a mobile library using camels to take books to remote villages in Africa. The third is a non-fiction memoir Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin which described the heroic efforts of Mortenson to build schools in the remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

All these books tread the well-worn path of contrasting the affluent sectors of the developed world with the poverty-stricken life of the rural poor in the developing world, and thus may reinforce the misperception that the developing world is made up entirely of poor and illiterate and backward people. Although these books are well-meaning and sympathetic to the people they portray, they ignore the fact that although such deplorable conditions exist, the developing is also comprised of very modern cities and advanced technological societies.

It is not uncommon that such books and films about the developing world are praised in the developed world but are often disliked by those living in those countries. For example there have been protests in India over the film Slumdog Millionaire, because it apparently only shows the worst slums of Bombay and not its other highly modern sectors. As I said, I have not seen the film and am dependent on the reports of those who have, so stand to be corrected.

I remember the first time I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, hailed by critics as a masterpiece. I was appalled at the blatantly racist portrayals of Africans and could barely get through the book. Many years later, I re-read it. The shock and anger that the original reading had aroused in me had worn off and I could see and appreciate Conrad’s skill with words in creating the deepening sense of foreboding as Marlow goes deeper into the jungle in search of Kurtz.

Ironically, Chinua Achebe gave a talk criticizing the book and saying that Conrad’s novel, whatever its other merits, perpetuated African stereotypes. The talk attracted a lot of attention and Conrad’s many admirers leapt to his defense, saying that Conrad was a product of his times and merely reflecting the views then current and that his book was actually a critique of the evils of colonialism.

Maybe so, but the racism was still there and still bothered me even on the second reading.

POST SCRIPT: The need for green spaces

If I were given some of the stimulus money to spend, I would use it to create lots more green spaces in the poorest neighborhoods and in the inner cities. I would tear down abandoned building and build parks and playgrounds, and plant trees and bushes and grass all over so that the people who live in those areas would be able to enjoy the outdoors. I would also sponsor concerts, sports leagues, and other cultural public events for the communities.

Some may see such things as luxuries, to be done only after basic needs like food and shelter and health care are met. That is a strong argument. But I think giving people pleasant neighborhoods to live in as a sign of the respect that we have for them, that they too deserve the finer things in life, and is an important aspect of people’s sense of dignity.

And the two positions may not be as incompatible as they seem on the surface. Some studies indicate that creating green spaces reduces the health gap between people.

The ‘bad atheist’ strikes again

My post last week on religious faith versus scientific commitment to certainty generated some interesting comments that I started to respond to in the comments section but it got too long (my usual vice) and I decided to do a separate post on the topic.

In the comments, I was accused of wanting to ‘banish’ or ‘abolish’ religion and that this was intolerant, akin to those of Christian missionaries who went to Asia and Africa seeking to convert heathen and in doing so disparaged the indigenous beliefs of the people living there. My phrases “getting rid of religion is the goal” and “Religion, on the other hand, is purely a propaganda system and will only die if its weaknesses and its lack of any empirical basis are relentlessly pointed out” were quoted as examples of my lack of tolerance.

I must admit that I am puzzled by this accusation. Although I definitely have said that religion is more a force for evil than for good and that we would all be much better off without it, I have never advocated ‘banishing’ or ‘abolishing’ religion as those words imply using coercive measures. I am a strong advocate of the First Amendment, after all. But I am arguing that we should actively speak out about the vacuity of religious beliefs, just like we should argue against astrology, fortune telling, witchcraft, and all the other irrational belief systems that are used to exploit the gullible. I have argued that religious beliefs act as a kind of gateway drug to those other beliefs.

The charge of intolerance arises because religion has been quite successful in its attempt to stifle any discussion of its irrationality, in seeking to establish the idea that ‘tolerance’ for religion means not pointing out its flaws and campaigning against it, the way that this cartoon describes.

But all that tolerance requires is not persecuting people for their beliefs or forcing them to change. It does not, and should not, mean requiring the rest of us to act as if those beliefs made sense. People have the right to believe (and advocate for) any belief system they wish, however insane it may seem to the rest of us. They do not have the right to be shielded from critiques pointing out that their beliefs are crazy.

This accusation of intolerance also tends to be selective. Suppose I replaced religion in the offending quotes with (say) the word ‘racism’ (or sexism or homophobia) so that they read, “getting rid of racism is the goal” and “Racism, on the other hand, is purely a propaganda system and will only die if its weaknesses and its lack of any empirical basis are relentlessly pointed out”. Would these statements still be seen as intolerant? Similarly, if I said that we should have as a goal “getting rid of” the terrible religious beliefs of (say) the Taliban by relentless arguing against it and pointing out all its flaws, would that be seen as intolerant?

I think not. In fact, I would likely be praised. But what is the essential difference? The difference, as I see it, is that most people view racism and sexism and homophobia and the Talibanic version of Islam as bad things, but religion in general (at least the mainstream varieties) as a good thing. So the accusation of intolerance is not about the attitude or the words used but about the perceived merits of their target.

It was also pointed out that people like gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. were both inspired by their religion and that if an earlier campaign against religion had been successful, then they would not have been the people they were and we would have been worse off.

The idea that an entire system of beliefs should be maintained and even supported because a few admirable people hold them is a dubious argument. Should we refrain from criticizing fascism as an idea because of the inspiration its philosophy received from composer Richard Wagner? Or refrain from criticizing imperialism because it inspired some of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry?

The underlying premise of this argument is that if not for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Christian beliefs, he would not have fought the battles he fought and segregation in the USA would have continued forever. Ergo, Christianity is worthwhile. Similarly it is argued that Christianity gave rise to gospel music and if there had been no Christianity there would be no Mahalia Jackson. Ergo, Christianity is worthwhile. To bring these assumptions to the surface is to see how untenable they are.

So what if there were no gospel music? That would be unfortunate but music would still be there in its many varied forms. Suppose that we discovered a remote community that practiced child sacrifice and had produced a whole culture of beautiful music based on this practice, with their own equivalent of Mahalia Jackson. Would that require us to not criticize child sacrifice and call for its end?

I am perfectly willing to concede that if there had been no Christianity, maybe Mahalia Jackson or Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been the people they were. Or maybe they would have found inspiration from other sources, just like many other admirable people in history, because what they believed in or their natural gifts were too strong to be stifled. Most certainly there would have been other great fighters against racism and other great singers. To argue for the support and maintenance of a delusional belief system because those delusions produced a few exemplary people is not really an argument.

It all boils down to the fact that religious people want immunity from strong critiques of their beliefs, for atheists to adopt the policy that even if we think that religious beliefs make no sense, we mustn’t say so publicly. But ‘bad atheists’ like me, not deterred by being “ill-thought of and ill-spoken of” (in John Stuart Mill’s words), are simply not going along with that expectation.

POST SCRIPT: Psychic spoon bending

In this sketch by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry from their TV show, the Laurie character reacts in an aggrieved way when Fry points out some problems with his claims, not unlike the way that some religious people react when skeptics point out the problems with beliefs in god. Not having an answer based on evidence or reason, they resort to ‘taking offense’, in the hope that the natural desire of most people to avoid unpleasantness will cause them to refrain from pointing out the irrationality of religious beliefs.

The politics of food-9: Sustainable farming

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

For me, the most interesting part of the book (p. 190-237) was the section on sustainable farming, in particular what is known as ‘grass farming’. Grass farmers grow animals for meat, eggs, milk, and wool. But the whole system is designed as a food chain based on grass. It is a surprisingly precise process, starting with understanding the life cycle of grass.

Grass has a growth cycle like an S-shaped curve, starting slowly, then rising rapidly and then leveling out after about fourteen days, depending on the season and the weather. The farmer has to know how long it takes for grass to reach its optimum height and then he allows cows to graze on that grass. The 80 cattle on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia are allowed into a section of the pasture at the very top of the blaze of growth in that pasture. The cattle are allowed to take one bite but not allowed to take a second bite of the same pasture, in order to avoid overgrazing. This means that the amount of cows per unit area of pasture per day has to be strictly controlled. As soon as they have done their one-bite grazing, they are moved to the next paddock where the grass has also reached its optimum height and might be thigh-high. And so on.

To carry out this strategy, Salatin divides his pasture into several dozen paddocks of about one to five acres, depending on the season and the weather, since those things affect the rate of growth of grass.

As they graze, the cows spread and fertilize grass seed with their manure, and their hoof prints create little pockets of exposed soil for water to collect and germinate grass seeds. After the cattle leave, that section of pasture is then left alone for the grass to grow back and to enable worms and grubs to enrich the soil. The pasture is then visited by broiler chickens in 10’x12′, two-foot tall floorless pens, that are moved every day by 10 ft. This enables the chickens to feed on the grubs and other life forms that have fattened on the rich soil left behind by the cows. Chickens also get some corn, toasted soybeans and kelp along with the grass they eat. Chicken feed is the only important input for the farm that is brought in from outside and constitutes about 20% of the chicken’s diet.

The layer hens are also taken in a mobile henhouse called the Eggmobile housing 400 hens into a pasture three days after the cows have left, and they are let out into the pasture so that they can eat the fly larvae that have grown into grubs. These provide the chickens with protein. The chicken droppings fertilize and replenish the soil and help more grass growth.

Rabbits and turkeys and pigs are parts of similar cycles to ensure that nothing goes to waste.

So the whole process is a closed loop where the output/waste of one part of the cycle becomes the input for the next. This means that you cannot scale up one part alone. As Joel Salatin says:

In an ecological system like this everything’s connected to everything else, so you can’t change one thing without changing ten other things.

Take the issue of scale. I could sell a whole lot more chickens and eggs than I do. They’re my most profitable items, and the market is telling me to produce more of them. Operating under the industrial paradigm, I could boost production however much I wanted – just buy more chicks and more feed, crank up the machine. But in a biological system you can never do just one thing, and I couldn’t add many more chickens without messing up something else.

Here’s an example: This pasture can absorb four hundred units of nitrogen a year. That translates into four visits of the Eggmobile or two passes of a broiler pen. If I ran more Eggmobiles or broiler pens over it, the chickens would put down more nitrogen than the grass could metabolize. Whatever the grass couldn’t absorb would run off, and suddenly I have a pollution problem. (p. 213)

This is why farms like Salatin’s are incompatible with giant organic chains like Whole Foods. The chains want to be able to purchase large but varying quantities according to the needs of the national market. On Salatin’s farm, the needs of the environment determine the range and amount of food that he produces. Such farms end up catering to those members of the local community that care about how their food is produced.

The rise of farmer’s markets and the locavore/localvore movement (consisting of people who try to buy food produced in the local area) are signs that people are becoming more conscious of their food. Some parts of the country cannot practice year-round agriculture making it hard for people to be fully locavore, but doing as much as they can is a start.

POST SCRIPT: Please support Antiwar.com

One of the best news and analysis sites around is Antiwar.com. Started during Bill Clinton’s war in the Balkans, it has taken a consistent stand against the many wars that have been conducted, irrespective of the ideological labels attached to the protagonists. It has correctly identified the pro-war/pro-business single party nature of American politics and steadfastly opposed its war-like policies. Although the people behind the site are mostly libertarian-conservatives, as a result of its principled stand, the site has attracted support from people all over the political spectrum.

The site does not take advertising and depends on reader support. It is currently running a fund-raiser so please support it if you can.

The politics of food-8: The cost to animals and our health

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

In the previous post, it was pointed out that the reason that grain is fed to animals is that despite the energy inefficiency incurred, grain is cheap and animals fed on it gain weight about four times faster than they do if they are fed just grass. Every day, a corn fed steer converts 32 pounds of feed into four pounds of gain in the form of muscle, fat, and bone. (p. 80) Cows raised on grass take longer to reach slaughter mass (3 to 4 years) than cows raised on richer diets like corn (14-16 months). (p. 71).

But there is a big price that is paid for this faster growth. Corn-fed meat, although now touted by the advertising industry as some sort of high-quality, desirable product, is actually less healthy for us because it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than grass-fed animals. The recent studies warning of the dangers of eating beef are actually problems associated with corn-fed beef, not grass-fed beef.

Furthermore, cows are ruminants, which mean that they have evolved to be able to convert grass into protein via the rumens in their stomachs. Cows fed a diet of corn that they are not evolved to eat can get very sick in many ways and this has to be combated with antibiotics. (p. 78)

Pollan’s description of what happens to animals kept and fed this way is chilling:

A concentrated diet of corn can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acid stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn renders it acidic, causing a kind of bovine heartburn that in some cases can kill the animal, but usually just makes him sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw and scratch their bellies, and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, rumenitis, liver disease, and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to the full panoply of feedlot diseases – pneumonia, coccidiosis, enterotoxemia, feedlot polio.

Cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days, which might be as long as their systems can tolerate…[A]nother vet told me the diet would eventually “blow out their livers” and kill them. (p. 78)

It is to deal with these problems that most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed, a process that is speeding up the evolution of new drug-resistant bacteria. (p. 78)

The need to force feed animals food they are not evolved to eat in conditions that are not natural to them result in the creation of these so-called ‘feedlots’ or Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), and these are not pretty places.

Pollans describes driving to one such CAFO called Poky Feeders and how the overpowering stench of it hit him long before he reached the pen. A total of 37,000 cattle were housed in cattle pens each holding a hundred or so animals standing or lying around “in a graying mud that, it eventually dawns on you, isn’t mud at all.” (p. 66)

Pollan points out how odd it is that food, which is so important to us, is sold purely on the basis of price. There is no reason that much more information about the history of our food could not be given to us so that we could make decisions based on other criteria as well. It would not be hard for the bar codes on our food packages to give information on the conditions under which the food has been produced, to enable consumers to make choices based on ethical values as well.

Supermarkets in Denmark have experimented with adding a second bar code to packages of meat that when scanned at a kiosk in the store brings up on a monitor images of the farm where the meat was raised, as well as detailed information on the particular animal’s genetics, feed, medications, slaughter date, etc. (p. 244)

But this kind of increased information is being fought by governments and agribusinesses because if more people were aware of the conditions under which these animals were kept, they may rise up and demand improvements, even if they were not vegetarians or animal rights activists.

Most of the meat in our supermarket simply couldn’t withstand that degree of transparency; if the bar code on the typical package of pork chops summoned images of the CAFO it came from, and information on the pig’s diet and drug regiment, who could bring themselves to buy it? Our food system depends on consumers’ not knowing much about it beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner. Cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. And it’s a short way from not knowing who’s at the other end of your food chain to not caring – to the carelessness of both producers and consumers. Of course, the global economy couldn’t very well function without this wall of ignorance and the indifference it breeds. This is why the rules of world trade explicitly prohibit products from telling even the simplest stories – “dolphin safe,” “humanely slaughtered,” etc. – about how they were produced. (p. 244, 245)

ADM and Cargill keep their processing plants off-limits to outsiders, as do the big slaughterhouses. USDA regulations are designed for industrial food with its secretive closed facilities and actually hurt small farmers even though they are more transparent.

POST SCRIPT: Japan leading the way on cutting waste

Read how Japan is taking steps to reduce waste and the town of Kamikatsu has zero waste as its goal.

[The mayor of Kamikatsu] also says it was time to go against the tide of gauging wealth by the accumulation of more stuff. “We want to produce things that take into account what happens after it’s used. If it can’t be recycled in any way, then you can’t produce it.”

The town now has an 80-percent recycling rate, up from 55 percent 10 years ago. (The US national recycling rate is an average of about 34 percent, with some cities considerably higher.) The local hotel – where tourists arrive by the bus load to dip into baths fed by mountain hot springs – is heated with biomass burners, saving 7 million yen annually, or about $76,000, and reducing its CO2 emissions.

The politics of food-7: The energy equation

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

One of the disturbing things about the industrial food chain system is its extensive use of energy, in the form of fertilizer and for transport. But in addition, the use of agricultural crops as animal feed also results in heavy energy use.

When corn is fed to chicken or a cow, 90 % of its energy is lost to bones, feathers, or to staying alive, so by eating corn-fed animals rather than corn directly, we have a factor of ten loss in energy efficiency. There is a pretty standard rule of thumb that for each rung you go up the food chain, you lose a factor of ten in energy. So if you eat an animal or fish that has itself eaten another animal or fish that ate plant food, you have gone two steps up the chain from the original plant source of energy and thus only 1% of that plant’s energy comes to you. So, all other things being equal, getting one’s calories from plants is the most efficient, which is why environmentalists urge people to eat ‘low on the food chain’.

The reason that grain is fed to animals is that despite the energy inefficiency incurred, grain is cheap and animals gain weight about four times faster than they do if they are fed just grass. Every day, a corn fed steer converts 32 pounds of feed into four pounds of gain in the form of muscle, fat, and bone. (p. 80) Only half of that four pounds is in the form of edible meat. (p. 115) For chickens, two pounds of feed converts to one of meat.

But in addition, there is a lot of energy consumed in the food transportation system. For example, a one-pound box of pre-washed lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy. But “growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy.” (p. 167) “Only a fifth of the total energy used to feed us is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around.” (p. 183) This is part of the reason that the ‘locavore’ (or ‘localvore’) movement, that encourages people to eat food grown locally, is gaining ground as can be seen in this article by Selena Simmons-Duffin.

The use of fertilizers has, while increasing corn yield, had a negative impact on energy efficiency. Before the advent of chemical fertilizer, corn farms “produced more than two calories of food energy for every calorie of energy invested.” Now “it takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food.” (p. 46)

Furthermore, the use of corn to feed animals results in huge amounts of land being deforested just for this purpose, with negative impact on the contributions to greenhouse gases.

[I]f the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road . . . as much as a third of all greenhouse gases that human activity has added to the atmosphere can be attributed to the saw and the plow. (p. 198)

It is the availability of cheap energy that has enabled the extensive use of fertilizers and massive worldwide food transportation networks that can produce food at lower direct cost than that grown on sustainable farms locally, although the indirect costs to the environment and health is greater. But with the rise in oil prices, the balance may shift in favor of local sustainable farms.

POST SCRIPT: Israel and Palestine

Two good analyses of the current state of affairs in the Middle East by Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, who both rip through the official media narrative of the reasons for the appalling treatment by Israel of the Gazans in particular and the Palestinians in general, and get to the heart of the real reasons for that treatment. Well worth reading.

Religion as a gateway drug

In the February 2009 issue of Harper’s magazine, Mark Slouka wrote:

One out of every four of us believes we’ve been reincarnated; 44 percent of us believe in ghosts; 71 percent, in angels. Forty percent of us believe God created all things in their present form sometime during the last 10,000 years. Nearly the same number—not coincidentally, perhaps—are functionally illiterate. Twenty percent think the sun might revolve around the earth. When one of us writes a book explaining that our offspring are bored and disruptive in class because they have an indigo “vibrational aura” that means they are a gifted race sent to this planet to change our consciousness with the help of guides from a higher world, half a million of us rush to the bookstores to lay our money down.

Is the fact that so many people believe such rubbish necessarily so bad that we need to actively work against them? What harm do they do?

This kind of argument surfaces all the time from people who recognize that religion and belief in god has no empirical basis whatsoever and is thus irrational but that we should indulge them because they make people feel good and is harmless.

I think we would all agree that what people believe is in all cases a private affair that does not do any harm and thus should be free from harassment. Our society is full of people who believe all manner of bizarre and unsubstantiated things and we leave them alone to live their lives. Our psychiatric wards are only reserved for those who are delusional in ways that make them imminently dangerous to others and perhaps themselves, and a humane society takes such people into its care so that they cannot act on their beliefs.

What people say should also be protected. Words, by themselves, cannot harm anyone and thus there can be no justification for restricting speech by and for adults, except for obviously dangerous things like falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.

So belief in angels or ghosts or reincarnation or auras or god are, by themselves, harmless. But the fact that something is harmless by itself does not mean that we should passively allow it to exist and even flourish. An open manhole in the middle of a street is harmless by itself. It is not an aggressor. If someone should fall into it, one can still say that it was not the open hole that was at fault but the person for not paying attention to where they were walking. But that does not mean we should not take steps to prevent unsuspecting people from accidentally falling into it.

Religious beliefs are like the open manhole. It is not their existence that is the danger but that they can be the cause of harm. They make it easier for some people to believe the voices in their head that tells them that god is commanding them to do various things, or believe that god is speaking though specially chosen people (like the Pope or Pat Robertson or one of the Ayatollahs) and that thus their words carry extra weight.

The danger with religion is that it is at best like the so-called ‘gateway drugs’ that can lure unsuspecting people into using more harmful and highly addictive drugs. Once people, at a very early age, are made to think that it is perfectly rational that there is an invisible, omnipresent, all-powerful being who can read everyone’s mind simultaneously, talk to them with no on else hearing the voice, and take action in the world while evading all detection, then they have been primed to accept as plausible any and all beliefs, however bizarre, provided it is even vaguely compatible with their childhood indoctrination.

Angels, reincarnation, auras, and the like may be frowned on by Christian clergy and theologians but I suspect that most ordinary Christians think that they are within the broad framework of their beliefs. Notice that the official churches at most indulge in tut-tutting disapproval of these fringe beliefs and never go on a crusade to stamp them all out. How could they? Religious institutions know that there is little that separates them from what are commonly known as fringe beliefs: the spoon-benders, mind readers, psychics, faith healers, crystal-ball gazers, Tarot card readers, snake handlers, and the like. This is why they never aggressively campaign against them. What possible argument could they use that could not be turned against their own beliefs and reveal that their own dogmas are equally baseless?

During the last presidential campaign, many people had a lot of fun at the expense of Dennis Kucinich’s admission that he had seen what he thought was a UFO. What a wacky guy! But if they were religious believers, all you had to do was ask them why that was any weirder than believing in a god, and you likely found that they were initially surprised (because the thought had never occurred to them) and then quickly changed the subject as they realized the indefensible position they were in.

All irrational beliefs exist together in a Pandora’s Box. Open it even slightly with the intention of letting out only mainstream religious beliefs, and everything else also comes rushing out.

Since free and open thought and speech is a fundamental right and a good thing, this particular Pandora’s Box should not be shut. Thus we really have only two consistent options: the rational position that while we should not suppress beliefs, we should actively campaign against all unsubstantiated beliefs and superstitions, which would necessarily include those of mainstream religions; or allow any and all beliefs to be unchallenged, and thus allow the evil and harmful ones to have the same level of approval as that of mainstream religions.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart had a farewell interview with George W. Bush