CFI Skeptics ‘welcome’ creationist Jonathan Sarfati, PhD

Once again thumbing my nose at the publishing guidelines for Canadian Atheist, I am cross-posting the summary I wrote on this event here. Readers should be aware that I was not present at any of the described events. What follows is my amalgamation of the impressions of a diverse group of skeptics working in different cities.

This past week, British Columbia was host to creationist lecturer Dr. Jonathan Sarfati, a PhD in chemistry who gave a series of lectures entitled “Evolution: The Greatest Hoax on Earth.” The title, while pithy enough on its own, is based on the title of the international bestselling book The Greatest Show on Earth by British biologist, professor and novelist Richard Dawkins.

Dr. Sarfati, founder of Creation Ministries International, asserts that evolution is a hoax based on his literal interpretation of the story of Genesis – in which God created the universe in 7 days about 10,000 years ago. One must admire the courage and temerity of a man who looks at pre-human fossils dated orders of magnitude older than that; rock formations dated billions of years old; and abundant cosmological evidence putting the age of the universe even older than the rocks; and says “nope, ten thousand – book says so.” Maybe ‘admire’ isn’t the right word…

What did we do?

Upon hearing that we would be paid a visit by such a luminary figure, British Columbia skeptics decided that if creationist propaganda was going to be spread around our fair province then audience members deserved to hear what the scientific evidence had to say. After all, forewarned is forearmed. Centre for Inquiry (CFI) Vancouver, in partnership with our colleagues at CFI Okanagan, the University of British Columbia (UBC) biology department, UBC Okanagan (UBCO), the UBC Freethinkers and the UBCO Skeptics contacted the venues where Sarfati was scheduled to speak – UBC’s Vancouver campus, The Pacific Academy in Surrey, and UBC’s Okanagan campus – and requested permission to set up an information table in the lobby.

The Pacific Academy, a privately owned venue attached to a Pentacostal Christian school (K-12) in Surrey, declined our request to set up a table. While we were understandably disappointed – especially given CFI’s past willingness to allow creationists to push their propaganda (usually in the form of “if there’s no God, how did all this stuff get here? Therefore, God.”) at our events – we recognized that private businesses have every right to hold whatever events they like. The Surrey event was attended by around 800 people of all ages.

We were able to prevail upon UBC to allow the presence of science within the morass of apologetics by reminding them of their obligation to present information that is consistent with the policies of the university. While creationism might be entertaining, evolution is a fact. We were lucky to be able to borrow on the heft and credibility of our colleagues within the UBC biology department.

The Vancouver lecture was not quite as well-attended, perhaps due to the fact that people in a university environment know a bit more about science than the general public. Many of the students we encountered there attended out of sheer curiosity – having heard about the evolution vs. creation “controversy” (only controversial to those within the creationist camp). They thanked us for being there to present the evidence, rather than… well, we’ll get to that later.

The UBC Okanagan lecture was again not quite as popular as the one held by the Pentecostal Church in Surrey. Our volunteers were present to provide some information to those who might not have a background in biology. Feeling a bit cheeky, some of us wore t-shirts that said “Creationism: a Philosophy of Ignorance”, referring to the argument from ignorance that Creationism is based on (“I don’t know how this works, therefore it must be God’s doing”). Our esteemed presenter wasn’t particularly pleased about that, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Overall, our presence was welcomed by audience members. We were careful not to force information on people, preferring instead to wait for curious parties to come to us. We were not there to sell anything or to force an agenda, merely to make information available and give people a chance to pre-empt some of the more egregious lies inherent to creationism.

What happened at the lecture?

While the bar for creationist lecturers isn’t set particularly high, either in terms of evidence or persuasive arguments, Dr. Sarfati did his utmost not to clear it. Instead of presenting evidence for the truth of creation (which would be impressive, because there isn’t any), he instead presented a series of shallow, recycled and easily- (and oft-) refuted arguments. Some of the highlights:

  • The second law of thermodynamics says that organization can’t increase in a closed system, therefore beneficial mutations cannot happen and evolution cannot occur. Never mind that the Earth is not a closed system, gets regular energy from the sun, and beneficial mutations have been observed to occur (a PhD in Chemistry really should know this)…
  • Science comes from Christianity (therefore… God?). Never mind that the Christian church repeatedly blocked scientific progress that was contrary to dogma, that science has explained many things that were supposedly divine “mysteries”, and that during the Dark Ages – when the church was at its height of power – it was the Muslim world that made the greatest contributions to science…
  • Noah’s flood explains everything, from the Grand Canyon to the divergence of species. Never mind the fact that contemporary floods don’t seem to have the magical properties of Noah’s flood, that building a ship capable of holding 2 of every animal in the world would require a level of technology we don’t even have today, and that there is no evidence anywhere of a flood that covered the entire world and then carefully planted specific types of animals only in certain places…
  • Fish float when they die, therefore they can’t fossilize, therefore fish fossils are evidence of being buried by mud slides from Noah’s flood. Never mind the fact that you do not need Noah’s flood to create mud slides that bury fish. It happens all the time. Never mind the fact that fish sink after their air bladders lose integrity, or that fish without bladders sink right away, or that fossil records are not the only – or even the strongest – evidence we have for evolution…
  • If you put a frog in a blender and turn it on, you’ll never see a live frog be reassembled. I’m not even sure if this one is worth taking on, and someone should probably call the SPCA.

After the lecture there was a Q&A session. Dr. Safarti wasn’t too pleased to see our volunteers in the first place (someone put a copy of Biology for Dummies on the podium – perhaps not polite, but certainly funny), and mentioned our insouciant t-shirts a few times in Kelowna. He became even more hostile when we pointed out some of the more egregious fallacies in his argument, interrupting the questioners, accusing us of trying to convert people to atheism (a big scary deal to Dr. Safarti), and assuring us that the answers were in one of his books, but he couldn’t answer it right now. The Vancouver event was attended predominantly by students and evolutionists, who did not respond well to these evasive tactics and cheered on those who took the creationist presenter to task for them.

Our reception was somewhat frostier in Kelowna, where the crowd was not quite as pro-science as in Vancouver. Our questions, rather than being met with tacit approval, were the cause of some consternation to the audience. One attendee, a professor of philosophy, attempted to demonstrate some of the logical problems with Sarfati’s arguments – an audience member threatened to put the professor in a head lock. Perhaps it goes without saying that we didn’t win any popularity contests there. Hopefully we got mentioned in a few church sermons the following Sunday.

Needless to say, Dr. Sarfati was not pleased to have people present who are aware of history, science, and basic logic. His hostility was not saved for skeptics either: he made many disparaging comments about atheists, Muslims, and made disparaging remarks about other Christians who believed in evolution. Perhaps being a jerk and a buffoon isn’t relevant to the fact that his presentation was frankly a big steamy pile of BS, but it certainly didn’t help his cause.

What did we learn?

The British Columbia branches of CFI are working on our “skeptivist” approach – bringing the tools of skepticism out into the open and engaging the public. We were lucky to have partners at UBC, as well as the support of the national branch of CFI. We were once again received positively by most of the audience at the event we attended – a reception we can at least partially attribute to being polite and non-pushy (being a good-looking group of ladies and gents probably didn’t hurt either).

People are understandably curious when someone tells them “the thing you’ve been taught is a hoax”. I’m sure that many of the attendees were either confirmed creationists for whom science is blasphemy, and more than a few were science-literate skeptics present at the lecture for a chuckle. Our mission was not and has not been, to convert the whole audience to one way of thinking; it was to present the actual evidence and allow people to make their own decisions. We are confident that after hearing “both sides” of the creation/evolution issue, reasonable people will choose the side with the evidence on its side over the one that relies on distortions and outright falsehoods to make its point.

Our information tables were visited predominantly by the people we were hoping to attract – science-weak university students who were there out of curiosity. They thanked us for being there, knowing that evolution is embraced by the scientific community but not being too sure about why. While skeptics and atheists are often accused of “preaching to the converted”, we were glad to have an opportunity to “preach” to those whose understanding of biology is less than full.

Dr. Sarfati is perhaps not the greatest challenge facing us in the creationist camp. While folks like Ken Ham at least have some kind of charisma, Dr. Sarfati has pictures of blended frogs and slander against non-believers. However, it is important to counter pseudoscience and fraud whenever it appears, particularly when it’s on our university campuses, no matter how unimpressive the speaker may be. We are happy to have been a part of this, and optimistic that we may have given people some things to think about.

Movie Friday: Spooooooky ghoooooosts!

Because it’s almost Hallowe’en, I thought I’d take a bit of a side-trip from my usual topics and talk about some good old-fashioned non-religious superstitious nonsense.

Yep, I’m talking about ghosts:

Part 2/6
Part 3/6
Part 4/6
Part 5/6
Part 6/6

Many of you probably don’t know Derren Brown. I say this because up until a couple months ago I’d never heard of him either. Maybe you’ve all heard of him and I’m just a nincompoop. Whatever the story, Derren is a British skeptic who has taken up the mantle of James Randi and who shows how so-called “supernatural” phenomena are actually (and without exception) easily explained as either cons, tricks, or other misinterpretation of natural phenomena. In this particular episode, he’s following around self-proclaimed “ghost busters” who claim to be able to detect and communicate with dead people.

Of course, the idea of ghosts presupposes that there is a soul that is distinct from the body, that this soul can take on semi-corporeal form after the body dies, and that this semi-corporeal form sticks around to move around pots and pans and fuck with recording devices. Throw some religious mumbo-jumbo into the mix and you’ve got a party. The “exorcist” priest in part 3 spells it right out:

“Sometimes he has people who can really do with a good psychiatrist; and then he’s got the people who have got the explainable happening inside their homes, and that’s when he calls me.”

Yep, when something happens that you can’t explain, don’t bother looking for evidence. Call a priest! He’ll give you all the “explanations” you could ever want. Pretty weird how Christian people are always possessed by Christian demons. Just once I want to see a Muslim demon, or a voodoo demon, or even a deist secular humanist demon. Oddly though, they all seem to be susceptible to prayers from the belief system of the “possessed” person. Also kind of weird that God just sits on his ass and doesn’t do anything to help the “possessed” until some chubby guy with a dubious relic and a bunch of rituals comes into the picture, then all of a sudden he’s your best pal, driving out all the demons.

The larger point to be drawn here is the same one I brought up yesterday, which is that when we let our imaginations run wild, and use arguments from ignorance to explain real-life phenomena we don’t fully understand, we end up believing absolutely absurd shit, like ghosts. Of course when we throw religion into the mix, we get people believing in ghosts and demons and evil spirits. It’s really not that challenging to explain, as long as we’re willing to set aside kid’s stories and look for evidence.

None of the people in these videos are particularly stupid, I’m sure, at least not relatively to the general population. However, when we adopt an attitude of “well maybe it’s true” rather than “well maybe it’s false”, we end up giving license to the most ridiculous ideas our brains can come up with. It is for this reason that it’s a good idea to be skeptical.

Then again, if we’re too skeptical, we might miss out on meeting Gozer:

Happy Hallowe’en!

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Priestly abuse not unique to RCC

I sat on this story for a while, because I was hoping to find something to connect it to. Unfortunately, nothing appeared in the past couple of weeks, so I present it here on its own:

An archbishop who has held positions in a number of Canadian communities has stepped down amid allegations of sexual abuse involving pre-teen boys. In a statement released on the website of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), church officials said Archbishop Seraphim Storheim, 66, of Ottawa is on a leave of absence as police in Canada investigate abuse claims.

In my last post about this ongoing priestly abuse, I said there were some important questions to ask. One of those is whether or not it is a uniquely Catholic phenomenon, this practice of abuse and subsequent coverup. This story suggests to me that there is nothing in Roman Catholic doctrine that leads priests to abuse children. Instead, it suggests to me that when human beings are given positions of power, power that is by its very nature uncontrollable with no checks or balances against abuse, and when those same people are given a mechanism to suppress any evidence of wrongdoing, they will commit atrocities. We see it in government scandals, we see it with corporate financial illegalities, and we see it with the churches.

Clohessy charged that church officials have known about the abuse claims for years but were slow to act. The recent announcement of the internal probe and vow of co-operation with police comes as a relief, he said. Clohessy added he hopes people with any information pick up the phone and share what they know with authorities. He admitted being disappointed that Storheim was allowed to take a leave of absence instead of being removed.

And just like in the Roman Catholic Church, the coverups and shifting around of abusive priests happened in this case. The hypocrisy of claiming the moral authority of Christianity, while at the same time committing shocking crimes against humanity is dumbfounding. Or at least it should be. Sadly, it seems to be the rule rather than the exception that those who claim superiority without evidence are the smallest, meanest, and most morally bankrupt among us.

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Some Hallowe’en crapitalism

So I realize it’s not actually Hallowe’en, but I don’t care.

I’ve explained before why it’s important to fight against belief in superstition – in order to co-operate with each other we need to use transparent and reality-based mechanisms. If we instead rely on dewy-eyed “respect” for each other’s ridiculous beliefs, we can end up doing damage to each other and ourselves. When the stakes are low, it’s entirely practical to ignore the more weird things that those around us think are true. Case in point: a close friend of mine believes in ghosts – while I think it’s weird to think that dead people have “spirits” that stick around and appear to random people, but cannot be detected except by the flawed human eye/brain, it’s really not worth it to try and change his mind. After all our friendship is not based on ghosts, and it’s only come up once in the hundreds of conversations we’ve had.

However, sometimes people believe in ridiculous shit and it absolutely does matter:

Eighty mainly elderly people recently jailed in Malawi for up to six years for practising witchcraft should be freed, campaigners say. George Thindwa from the Association of Secular Humanism told the BBC the convictions were illegal as there was no law against witchcraft. He said the problem was that many officials were “witchcraft believers”. The justice minister disputed the allegations, saying the justice system was “reputable”.

Regular long-time readers will remember Malawi from previous posts about religious vs. secular values, the stupidity of sodomy laws, and of course their ass-backwards stance on women’s rights and polygamy. Basically, I’m not a fan. Well now they’ve been caught putting people in jail for being witches.

And then of course, there’s the absolutely ridiculous claim from the justice minister that the system is “reputable”. Yes, it has a consistent reputation for being full of shit. That’s not the same as being reputable.

Justice Minister George Chaponda told the BBC that a person could only be found guilty of practising witchcraft if they confessed to being a witch. But our reporter says the records showed all the suspects had pleaded not guilty. “We are intervening in this matter because we are concerned we still have prisons in Malawi [with] people being accused of being witches,” Mr Thindwa told the BBC’s Network Africa programme. “The courts were wrong 100%, [and] the police, to actually accommodate cases.” Most of those recently sentenced were women usually accused by children of teaching them witchcraft.

I don’t think the people of Malawi are inherently evil, or inherently stupid. They are however held captive to inherently stupid and evil ideologies, by which measles vaccinations are tools of the devil, polygamy is the right of every woman to be protected by a man, and the accusation of a child carries the same weight (in fact more weight) as any sort of evidence. This is why I am completely unashamed to call out bullshit in as loud a voice as possible – to do otherwise would be to grant assent and respectability to all kinds of crazy half-cocked hypotheses, like the existence of witchcraft.

But luckily we live in the enlightened West, where we’ve outgrown such idiocy, right?

A self-described witch in Moose Jaw, Sask., says she’s outraged that religious groups have pressured a local museum to cancel a Halloween seance. The Western Development Museum had been planning to hold a fundraiser on Oct. 29 called Ghosts of the Past, at which, for a $30 entry fee, adult participants could learn about ouija boards and “attempt to make contact with the spirits.” The event was cancelled, however, following complaints from religious leaders and residents, some of whom expressed fears the seance would conjure up evil spirits.

Good grief. If you want to see some medieval stupidity writ large in public, look no further than your religious communities. Of course, these are the good, moderate Christians who are all about tolerance and acceptance. Not those crazy fundamentalists who believe in weirdo nonsense. It’s a good thing there aren’t any of those types of crazies around.

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More good news for free speech in Asia

…which is a title I find myself shocked to be writing.

I’m not so young that I don’t remember the Sri Lankan “civil war” under President Suharto. The entire region was destabilized by sectarian violence that was a combination of ethnic and religious conflicts crystallizing in violence. I am, however, far too young to remember (or to have been alive for) Suharto’s decision to ban books that were considered a “threat to public order.” This decision has recently been struck down by the courts, 50 years later:

Rights groups in Indonesia are hailing a decision by Indonesia’s constitutional court to strike down a controversial book banning law. During the regime of former president Suharto, it was regularly used to clamp down on books and publications that were deemed dangerous by the government.

This is an interesting development, not just because it’s good news for free speech, but because there is currently a fomenting dictatorship in Sri Lanka, one that will not take well the idea that it no longer can enforce a stranglehold on what ideas its people are allowed access to. Well, at least not as overtly:

Activists say the constitutional court’s decision is a step in the right direction, but warn the government still has the means to ban books if it wants to. They say that officials could use Indonesia’s anti-pornography law and a 1966 regulation banning communist material as a way to outlaw sensitive material.

It is stories like this that make me more comfortable with the stance I took yesterday on Bolivia’s racism law. Restrictions on free speech are too tempting and convenient for those in power to use whenever they wish to stifle legitimate criticism. Nobody likes being criticized, myself included. As much as I might proselytize about evaluating people separately from their ideas, or claim to like being proved wrong, those are ideal-case arguments.

The fact is that nobody likes to be told they’re wrong. It’s how we react to those statements that are important. Do we debate, allowing those who disagree to voice their criticisms? Do we react and adapt to those criticisms? Obviously it’s hard to do that right away, but can we at least accept that the other side has a point (if they actually do)? Or do we shut down those who disagree, and cripple anyone’s ability to even bring up ideas?

Governments are no different from people – petty, protectionist, irrational, emotional – the difference is that we can create societies that ensure that governments don’t have to be different from people. We don’t have to pretend as though power is wielded by starry-eyed altruists who always have our best interests in mind. We can pass good laws that put limits on power, or strike down bad laws that give too much. This is one of those cases, and it’s a surprising piece of good news from a country that I was sure was about to spiral into oblivion.

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Another interesting development in China

It’s a major understatement to say that I’m far from an expert on Chinese culture (Major Understatement *salute*). However, the bits and pieces I do know suggest to me that their is a tradition that gives far more credibility and respect to elders than we do here in North America. That is why I find this story so interesting:

A group of 23 Communist Party elders in China has written a letter calling for an end to the country’s restrictions on freedom of speech. The letter says freedom of expression is promised in the Chinese constitution but not allowed in practice. They want people to be able to freely express themselves on the internet and want more respect for journalists. The authors of the letter describe China’s current censorship system as a scandal and an embarrassment.

The BBC insinuates that the imprisonment and subsequent Nobel Peace Prize award to dissident author Liu Xiaobo might have had something to do with this development, but CBC has a different take on it:

Wang Yongcheng, a retired professor at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University who signed the letter, said it had been inspired by the recent arrest of a journalist who wrote about corruption in the resettlement of farmers for a dam project. “We want to spur action toward governing the country according to law,” Wang said in a telephone interview. “If the constitution is violated, the government will lack legitimacy. The people must assert and exercise their legitimate rights,” he said.

Coming on top of Liu’s Nobel Prize, the letter further spotlights China’s tight restrictions on freedom of speech and other civil rights, although Wang said the two events were not directly related. Work on the letter began several days before the prize was awarded, and drafters decided against including a reference to Liu out of concern the government would block its circulation.

Whatever the reason, this is a pretty significant event. This is no longer a group of dissident bloggers and journalists sniping from outside the government, this is a group of influential people from inside the political system itself. The government cannot afford to persecute and imprison these men, as doing so would be a shocking loss of face in the eyes of its people.

The other part I like is that far from being just a bitch session, the letter outlines 8 concrete steps to improve the climate of free speech:

  • Dismantle system where media organisations are all tied to higher authorities
  • Respect journalists, accept their social status
  • Revoke ban on cross-province supervision by public opinion
  • Abolish cyber-police; control Web administrators’ ability to delete/post items at will
  • Confirm citizens’ right to know crimes and mistakes committed by ruling party
  • Launch pilot projects to support citizen-owned media organisations
  • Allow media and publications from Hong Kong and Macau to be openly distributed
  • Change the mission of propaganda authorities, from preventing the leak of information to facilitating its accurate and timely spread

Much like my issues with vague apologies, criticisms that come without suggestions don’t carry much weight with me. Simply identifying a problem shouldn’t be confused with solving it. This letter however addresses real issues and areas for improvement. The ideas may not be new, but the people providing them is definitely an interesting step that is worth keeping an eye on.

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Bolivia doesn’t have a race problem

Okay, now I’m stretching the point a bit…

Bolivia actually has a long history of racial problems. Much of Central and South America is still reeling from Spanish colonial rule. With only a handful of exceptions, the economic and political power in these countries are held by people of Spanish descent. Bolivian President Evo Morales is one of those exceptions, and has an aggressive pro-aboriginal agenda. Some of you may know that I spent 3 weeks in Bolivia a few years ago, and even in my short time there I was aware of the serious racial divides; the lack of aboriginal language instruction except in remote areas, the simultaneous resentment/envy of light-skinned people (the hallmark of colonialization), the disparagement of black people. Bolivia has a long history and contemporary reality of racial struggle.

In his zeal to correct the racial bias against aboriginal Bolivians, President Morales has made what I think is a tragic misstep:

Several major newspapers in Bolivia have made a joint protest against a proposed anti-racism law which they say threatens press freedom. The law would give the government the power to shut down media outlets it finds guilty of racism. President Evo Morales says it will help reverse centuries of discrimination against Bolivia’s indigenous majority. [The papers] say articles which let the government punish journalists and fine or shut media that publish what it considers to be “racist and discriminatory ideas” could be misused to stifle political criticism.

It’s issues like this that give me the greatest amount of personal struggle. On the one hand, I abhor racism, and I know that preserving the status quo of systemic discrimination against a racial minority (a minority, incidentally, that is a statistical majority) will result in a deeper entrenchment of that kind of prejudice. Changing the dialogue and introducing anti-racist ideas to the population at large is the best way to make strides against racism. However, banning free speech is a mistake for so many reasons, not the least of which being that it can be abused to stifle legitimate anti-governmental speech.

This is the problem of living in a non-ideal world – our choices are not always between what is good and what is bad. Sometimes we have to choose between the greater of two ‘goods’. In this particular case, knowing that hate speech laws and government interference with press freedom are too tempting and too easy not to abuse, I am comfortable adding my voice to the opposition to the provisions. Even though I might like Evo Morales, laws do not apply only to one president, and are very rarely used only in the rosy, optimistic way that might be envisioned by those who create them. While optimism is a good thing, any law that only works properly if people are inherently good and moral is destined to fail.

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New Zealand doesn’t have a race problem

Those of you who are newcomers to this blog (I honestly have no idea how many new people there are from day to day, but the numbers are gradually getting larger so I can only assume…) won’t understand the context of the title of this post, or the 4 or 5 others in this series that precede it. A common trope in Canada (and yes, I actually do hear it) is that racism isn’t really a problem anymore. People seem to believe that racism is all stuff of history, but now we’ve progressed beyond that as a society. At least, in developed countries, members of visible minority groups don’t experience any racism. This is a transparent attempt to divest one’s self from any responsibility, since anyone who thinks they’ve experienced racism is clearly just overly sensitive and needs to “get over it.”

And so I’ve started throwing these stories up from time to time to keep poking my audience, reminding them (and myself) that racism is still alive and well, and won’t go away until we take concrete steps towards addressing it.

So today it’s New Zealand’s turn:

A television presenter in New Zealand has been suspended for suggesting on air that the country’s governor-general was not a proper New Zealander. Sir Anand Satyanand was born in New Zealand to Indo-Fijian parents. Presenter Paul Henry provoked a storm of criticism by asking the Prime Minister, John Key, whether the next governor-general would look and sound more like a New Zealander. “Is he even a New Zealander?” Henry asked. ”Are you going to choose a New Zealander who looks and sounds like a New Zealander this time?”

In case you missed the oh-so-subtle insinuation, a “real New Zealander” is a white person. Never mind, of course, the fact that white people are a recent addition to the human species in New Zealand, whereas someone who is Indo-Fijian has a much more legitimate claim to being “really” from there. Let’s ignore all of that. This is part of the centuries-old branding by white Europeans to define the “default” human being as white, whereas everyone else is some departure from that. The evils of “Darwinism” have shown us that, in fact, racial differences are less than 100,000 years old; and in some cases even more recent than that. Certainly since we have records of when the first white people landed on New Zealand and encountered people already present there, it should be ridiculous to even suggest that any white person is more  a “real New Zealander” than anyone else. But then again, these are logic-based arguments, whereas racism is based on prejudice and intentional ignorance of fact.

Oh yeah, please believe it doesn’t end there:

India has condemned “racist and bigoted” remarks by a New Zealand TV presenter who made fun of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit’s surname. TVNZ breakfast show host Paul Henry broke into laughter a number of times as he mispronounced the surname – which sounds closer to “Dixit” in English. Mr Henry’s comments were broadcast last week on the state-owned channel TVNZ, but took a few days to be noticed in India. In the footage, Mr Henry mispronounces Ms Dikshit’s surname several times – apparently deliberately. He added: “It’s so appropriate because she’s Indian… I’ve known about her for a while and I’ve been laughing ever since.”

If you were ever looking for an example of white privilege, here it is. This is a guy who is on state-sponsored radio making outrageous and hurtful comments about someone’s last name for a cheap laugh. And why does he get the cheap laugh? It’s not because the jokes are particularly well-constructed or insightful, it’s because he has an audience that buys into the background cultural racism that says that someone from another culture is wrong or weird; not by virtue of any harm they do, but because their language is different than English.

I’m completely comfortable calling out Iran’s terribly destructive cultural practices because they’re destructive. I’ll bag on China for shutting down free speech because it hurts people. And if Mr. Henry were making a coherent critique of India’s performance hosting the Commonwealth Games, I’d have no problem with him shitting on the Indian government. However, that’s not what this is. This is an asshole with a microphone playing to the never-spoken racist feelings of his fan base (who I’m sure would swear up and down that they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies).

But of course New Zealand doesn’t really have a race problem, right?

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The joy of the godless (parte the firste)

I was recently accused by a commenter of being the wrong kind of atheist:

There is a difference between the honest atheism of the nihilist, who believes there really is no God and acknowledges the implications of such, and the self-delusionary humanism of the New Atheist, who does not really mean what he says when he says ‘there is no God’ but instead believes ‘there is a God and I am he.’  And by that I mean that he thinks he is the highest form of life there is — the noblest and most dignified Being there is (which gives him the ability — no, it’s more than that — the right, to determine that ‘all humans have equal value.’)

Apparently I am deluding myself because I’m just not sad enough. In order to be an ‘honest atheist’, I have to be a nihilist, recognizing nothing but abject sorrow and emptiness within the meaningless void of a random, uncaring universe. Otherwise I am exalting myself to heights of self-aggrandizing hauteur, imagining myself to be the single highest life form in existence.

Calling this a straw man or a caricature would be lowballing the audacity of this ridiculous lie almost to the point of being completely inaccurate in my labeling. Nothing in that paragraph, however well it may be written, describes anything that comes anywhere close to my personal beliefs. It is an argument that is the intellectual equivalent of drawing a moustache and goofy glasses on the portrait of a political opponent (I already wear glasses and have facial hair, so perhaps a better comparison is needed).

However, mulling this over in my mind did yield some fertile personal exploration about how I arrived by my atheism, and why I am not an abject nihilist. I am, save for occasional bouts of depression when reading news articles or following politics, an incredibly happy person. Ludicrously happy, in fact. At this particular moment in my life I am employed at a job I love and find challenging, am living in the city of my choosing surrounded by interesting, supportive, and (let’s face it) attractive friends. I have personal, musical, and political projects that occupy my free hours, and there are many more things out there for me to learn and explore.

It was not always so for me, this type of fulfilled contentment. There was once a time when I was in the throes of deep existential conflict – when I struggled day and night with questions that underlay the whole of my self-identity. I read voraciously, trying to find how other thinkers had addressed these problems in the past. These sojourns into the philosophical literature occasionally yielded a few weeks or months of respite, but inevitably I would find myself foundering once again on a sea of doubt and confusion.

I was raised Roman Catholic, and beginning in my late childhood I began taking my religion very seriously. Coming from a far more liberal family than average, my religious beliefs were not scripture-based, but rather ran along lines of a code of decency, generosity, humility, and above all, forgiveness. When good things happened, I would immediately thank and praise God. When bad things happened, I comforted myself in the understanding that there was ultimate justice awaiting all people. I was happy to reconcile my scientific understanding of the universe with the bits of the Bible I had read, glossing over the parts that didn’t make sense. I was actually voted valedictorian of my confirmation class (like a Bar Mitzvah for Catholics), and asked to give a speech on our religious journey. I planned to become a priest and share my insights into the loving God with congregations of faithful believers.

But, as it says in First Corinthians:

When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.

I began to see that the religion I belonged to in no way reflected my own beliefs. Our youth group received newsletters from anti-choice organizations filled with lies and distortions of facts. When I wrote to them demanding that they show some accountability, my letters were dismissed and ignored. I began to struggle with the hypocrisy and vulgar pomposity of the Church; idolatry on full display, hate passed off as divinely justified, a seeming abdication of the custodianship of humanity that was preached from the pulpit. It seemed as though the idea of a loving, forgiving and just God was put to the lie by the hate, insolence and moral emptiness of those who claimed His favour.

So I began to read: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Daniel Quinn, Ayn Rand, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Dickens, Terry Goodkind… anything I could get my hands on. At one particularly desperate point I attempted to read though the Bible, hoping to wrest some insight from its pages – sadly, the Bible is just the oral history of a bronze age tribe set in florid language; not particularly helpful. Thinking that my constant crisis of faith was due to laziness on my part, I redoubled my commitment to the church – reading from the lectern at mass, teaching Sunday school, playing viola with the choir. My father was of little help during this period, giving me pat answers to complex questions and becoming upset that I would even ask (even though it was he who taught me to question authority, a lesson I’m sure he regrets imparting now). I would pray every day that God would grant me some kind of solution to my constant queries, or that He would at least help me by silencing the voice in my head that kept pointing out the gaping flaws in my patchwork theology.

No help from above was forthcoming. I entered a long and bitter period in which I clung to the ribbons of my faith like a vagrant clings to the rags on his back, snarling angrily at anyone who would question me from either side. Believers were simple-minded fools who hadn’t asked the important questions, whereas atheists were simply denying the manifest truth of the majesty of the universe and the wonders of faith.

I can say without hyperbole that those intervening years were some of the most miserable of my life. Most assuredly, being an eccentric, chubby, racially outlying teenager probably contributed more than its fair share to my unhappiness. However, even in my private moments of introspective reflection, I could not escape the constant nagging doubt – a doubt that was a gaping hole in my entire outlook on life.

So when people rhapsodize to me about the joys of religious life, and the great comfort they find in their loving relationship with YahwAlladdha, it’s hard for me not to hearken back to those years when I reached with all my mind, body and soul for some measure of that comfort and fell repeatedly on my face. The only time when I was free from the torment was during the brief windows of time in which I was able to slap a band-aid explanation or trite bit of theology over a serious question and ignore it for a while.

Of course now I am much happier, and am no longer plagued with such angst, but I am well over my post-length limit, so I will have to save that part for next Monday.

TL/DR: I have not always been an atheist, but my religious faith (when I had it) was a constant source of trouble and pain for me. Far from making me a nihilist, my atheism has made me far happier than I have ever been as a believer.

Special Feature: I speak at New Bright Lights

Welcome Pharyngulites and redditors! Please make sure to check out the preamble to this post before watching the videos.

Many of you are probably aware that I was invited to speak about race, racism and its relevance to the skeptical movement at the beginning of the month. The event was part of a lecture series under the name New Bright Lights (I’d provide a link, but there’s no homepage), in which speakers on a variety of topics are invited to discuss their subject of expertise.

I was a bit nervous to participate in this event, for a few reasons. I am not now, nor have I ever been, afraid to speak in public. However, I am not an expert with a strong academic background in issues of race. I am a relative newcomer, despite the fact that the issues have been of particular relevance to me my whole life. In addition, there is a lot of information that an audience needs to be equipped with before most of this content can be understood. Part of my reason for starting this blog was in response to repeated requests from friends for more clarification on issues they hadn’t discussed before for fear of being labeled as bigots.

I am glad that I decided to participate, however. It forced me to re-tool my blog content for a different method of delivery, and helped me clarify a few issues in my own mind about how my life as a skeptic is not divorced from my life as an anti-racist. Jason Harmer at New Bright Lights was gracious enough to fast-track the video production for me so that I could put it up for you. A few caevats before you watch though:

  1. I am reading from a script in order to avoid the usual “um” and “err” problem, and to keep the presentation timely, so that’s why I spend so much time looking down.
  2. I do have Powerpoint slides, which I am making available here. It’s probably easier to play the video in the background and watch the slide show, since I don’t do anything particularly entertaining besides stand there and talk. The audio should suffice.
  3. You’ll notice that the audio cuts out at various places during parts 1 and 2. This is not an issue of video quality – I have removed the names of people whose stories I told. None of the stories are offensive or make people look bad, but they are my friends and I respect their right to privacy – especially since I didn’t ask permission first.
  4. As I said in my post a couple weeks ago, I think I concentrated too much on issues of black and white people, largely missing the rich context of non-black/white conflict. Please do not interpret this as a trivialization of these issues, merely the fact that I am not nearly as familiar with them.

So without any further delay, here are the videos:

Feedback is, as always, appreciated.