Big fight, little impact

My father, who is a retired social worker (and a phenomenal photographer) used to have this book on his bookshelf called “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (and it’s All Small Stuff)“. I never read it, but you can pretty much infer the contents from the title. There are real, honest-to-spaghetti-monster problems in our lives, and it’s really easy to get bogged down by minutia. Spending our mental and emotional energy clearing the little things off our mental desktops saps our will to fight the big stuff.

Racism is a serious problem. It is a huge and seemingly-intractable problem, because of how pervasive and historically-rooted it is. In the past century, we’ve taken monumental steps to reduce the harms that it has done. While we can all take some pride in that work, what we cannot afford to be is complacent. We’ve won several battles, but the war is not over.

And sadly, we keep letting ourselves get distracted by stupid stuff like this: [Read more…]

Who am I talking to?

So this morning I took a pretty strong stance, despite the pseudo-reversal of my previous stance, when it comes to reaching out to religious believers. While I had previously stated that I don’t see the value in breaking my neck to find language that won’t bruise the feelings of religious folks, I realize that this is simply because I don’t care, not because it isn’t a worthwhile thing to do. It comes down to that issue – do I care about reaching out to religious people?

The answer to that question, it turns out, is ‘no’. I personally do not care. Where the retraction comes in is that I am forced to recognize that simply because I do not care doesn’t mean that nobody else should. While I do think highly of my opinion, I am not so conceited that I would presume to dictate what is and isn’t a fair topic for discussion for every other atheist in the world. Some day, maybe. But not today.

What I will do today is explain, as best I can, why I don’t care. [Read more…]

Do we care? Reflections on tone, intent, and my audience

People who know me, know that I am an intractable grouch. I am highly intolerant of other people’s opinions, and staunchly refuse to listen to people who have a different perspective on issues than I do.

People who know me well know that this isn’t even close to being true. I am perfectly happy to listen to dissenting opinions – it’s how I learn. All I ask is that you give me a reason to accept your dissenting opinion. I am not in the habit of simply granting opinions credence simply because someone put them to words. If you have some kind of justification, some evidence, some sophisticated bit of reasoning, to back up your position – by all means share it with me.

This is a propos of something, I swear. A few days ago, in a vain attempt to start an oh-so-much-fun flame war between myself and Daniel Fincke, I said the following: [Read more…]

Hangin’ with Hitchens

I don’t have a lot of ‘favourites’ – I usually find such rankings to be overly reductive. I like many different kinds of things for different reasons, and any single one that I rank as #1 will be an inaccurate label. From the list of writers that I most admire and try to emulate, however, Christopher Hitchens sits among the upper echelon (so too, incidentally, does Greta Christina). He has a talent for wielding the English language the way an artist does a paintbrush – making the rendering of ideas into words beautiful and evocative far beyond mere semantics. He is the kind of writer who could use his words to so utterly excoriate you that you undergo an existential crisis, but to whom you would be grateful afterward for the experience. So, it was with great joy that I picked up my latest treasure from the framing store today:

I purchased this brilliant portrait from a San Francisco artist called Adrian Covert. Here is the description of the piece:

Hitchens is depicted making a point, while toasting his Johnny Walker Black & Perrier. He has what appears to be a halo behind his head, but that’s just superstition. His suit is designed using collage from the writings of Albert Einstein, Richard Dawkins, Salman Rushdie, David Hume, Mark Twain, and John Updike. The background is designed using collage from the King James Bible and the Holy Koran. For reasons both ethical and artistic, no books were harmed in the creation of this painting, or of these prints.

Hitch now proof-reads all my posts as I sit in my living room chair, looking over my shoulder and exhorting me to find ever-better ways of putting my thoughts into the language he loves so dear. Here’s a version without me in it:

“Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the 'transcendent' and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don't be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.” - Christopher Hitchens

h/t – Hemant Mehta, Friendly Atheist

‘Couv team… ASSEMBLE! (Oct 7th, 2011)

I just wanted to drop a couple of news items in front of your eyes for those of you who live in the Vancouver area. I’m going to try to do these at least once a week, because I think there are some people out there who are under the impression that Vancouver is not a hotbed of skepticism. IT IS, YOU FOOLS!


I’m sure most of you are aware of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that has been spreading quickly throughout the United States. There is a sympathy protest happening here in Vancouver, starting next Friday (October 14th). I am planning on taking the day off work to attend. I am part of the 99%, but as someone who is employed full-time with benefits and no student debt, I’m more like part of the 30%. This is something that affects us all, and the media is beginning to take it seriously. Now is not the time to slow down – it’s the time to get organized.

Interestingly, while some have been contrasting the Occupy movement with the Tea Party – calling it the “left” response to that other famous populist movement, Lee Fang provides an interesting perspective on why the Occupy movement is far more aligned with the original Boston Tea Party than this corporate rebranding of the Religious Right: [Read more…]

Movie Friday: Keep it Clean

For new readers: every Friday, in honour of it being the weekend, I put up a movie instead of a long post. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re serious, sometimes they’re weird. It’s whatever crosses my desk as I wander around the internet, and it’s all for you on a Friday!

As you may know, I am a musician in addition to being a scientist. I began playing violin when I was 6, began singing lessons at 8, picked up the guitar at 14, and have kind of been going strong ever since. My long stretches of 9-5 at a desk are punctuated by weekends full of rawking out. I like to call it my Clark Kent/Superman life – I even take my glasses off.

One of my favourite musicians of all time has to be Dave Grohl. The first time I heard In Your Honor, I nearly lost my mind. I played it on endless repeat, transfixed by the skill and care that clearly went into each song. Sometimes you hear a song that seems like it’s speaking directly to you – every cut on that album (and it’s a double album) did that for me. One By One was also top-notch, and Echoes, Patience, Silence, Grace is a goddamn masterpiece.

This, however, is my favourite thing he’s ever done:

Dave Grohl: epic troll.

I often hear people ask what the best way to deal with the Westboro Baptist Church is. Should we slash their tires? Should we beat them up? Should we counter-protest? Should we point out the errors in their theology? Should we stand up against their hate?

Folks like the loonies in the WBC are like Bobo dolls – no matter how hard you smack ’em, they keep coming back smiling. They are a machine that is fueled by controversy, and the more agitated we get, the more they think they’re winning.

The only sane response to an insane opponent is open, unashamed, joyful and unrestrained mockery. The WBC are a joke. They are self-parody, and the only strength they have is in the anger they can stir up in us. They should be mocked – not because it would piss them off, but because they’re silly! It’s a backwater basement church full of lunatics with weird signs and comically offensive messages. If you put Fred Phelps up on a stage opening for Don Rickles, he’d have the audience rolling in the aisles.

Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters have shown us the truth: once we realize how monumentally silly the Westboro Baptist Church is, all that remains is a bunch of sad, lonely people following a confused and deluded old man in his vain attempt to return to the 16th century.

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Colourism: the sweet juice of racism

One of my favourite authors of all time is a Canadian named Lawrence Hill. He, like me, is of mixed racial heritage. He, like me, struggled with crafting an identity in an era where ‘biracial’ or ‘mixed’ wasn’t really an option. I found his writing a major source of both inspiration and comfort in my teenage years where the race question loomed largest in my life (at least, compared to now). If you haven’t read any of his stuff, I highly recommend you put The Book of Negroes or Any Known Blood on your reading list.

In one of his books Black Berry, Sweet Juice, he riffs on an old racist adage: “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” The implication is that dark-skinned women are more sexually attractive. Hill wryly completes the rhyme: “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. But if you get too black, it ain’t no use”, aptly noting that life is much kinder to light-skinned black folks than dark-skinned ones. This is a fact that is well-known within the black community, as both an internal conflict and an external one: [Read more…]

I hate your god

Many new readers may not know that I am a guest author over at Canadian Atheist. This is a blogging collective of atheist authors of a wide variety of stances from across the country, offering perspective on news items and national developments. While I do most of my blogging here, I do represent the ‘extreme anti-theist’ position there whenever I find a story that so moves me. A story has crossed my desk that is so revolting that I felt it deserved as much contempt as I could express in my limited command of the English language, so I posted it over there:

I haven’t really believed in any theistic concept of a god for many years now. It took me a while to admit that I was ‘an atheist’, but I was one in fact long before I was one in name. It wasn’t until I rounded that corner that I began to really think of the implications of theistic belief. I fully participated in the ‘pick and choose’ attitude that I now find so galling in others – taking the bits of the articles of faith without fully thinking them through.

Now that the wool has been fully removed, however, I will not hesitate to lambaste believers in the same way I wish someone had lambasted me when I took the easy duck-out routes from having to deal with the full implications of the god I believed in. An all-powerful being that sees human suffering, suffering that it created itself, and does nothing to intervene – or does intervene but only in the most inconsequential ways – is a monster. To call your god “love” is a complete betrayal of everything virtuous and honest in that emotion. This grotesque perversion is on display no more obviously than in the headline of this story:

Go check it out and read the rest. The other bloggers on the site are also worth checking out, particularly if you’re interested in the happenings in Canada.

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Dressing the part

Since I began scrutinizing race and race issues closely, I’ve found myself returning repeatedly to my (admittedly cursory) knowledge of psychology. I have found the concepts that are described in the scientific literature to be incredibly apt in discussions of racism. Additionally, the often creative study designs used by psychological researchers are readily adaptable in the service of scrutinizing our inherent racial biases and heuristics. They allow us to control for, and reveal, cognitive processes that happen well below the level of our conscious awareness. While regulations against discriminatory hiring practices or forced integration of schools might be sufficient to address overt and obvious racism, the gaps we continue to see along racial lines in employment and education strongly suggest that these measures are insufficient. We must look deeper – to the root causes of racism.

I lay the blame firmly at the feet of our stupid mammal brains. We forge unwarranted connections between variables, weaving false causation from whole cloth. When we see women kept out of the boardrooms, for example, despite the line in our Human Resources policy manual that specifically says we won’t do that, our brains helpfully fill in the blanks for us – obviously women aren’t there because women aren’t supposed to be. I mean, once you remove the most obvious barrier, that’s the same as fixing things, right? If those lazy broads can’t even figure out how to walk in the door we so magnanimously opened for them, we can shift the blame right back to them, can’t we?

Of course we are starting to recognize that this isn’t true, and that these kinds of attitudes lurk well below the surface. This, unfortunately, means that we need to devise increasingly-sophisticated tools to find them. One group of researchers at Tufts University appear to be up to the task: [Read more…]

¿Ustedes tambien, Mexico?

In 18 months of blogging, I’ve only brought up abortion a handful of times (usually in service of a larger point). Today, for some reason, I’ve got two posts about it. Let’s hope there’s nothing Freudian about that…

I agree with Kavita Ramdas that empowering women is the key to making progress in society. I am sure this will garner me my fair share of dirty looks from a crowd of people who will see this as sexist against men – I am as immune to your looks as you are to rational argument. I join Christopher Hitchens in recognizing the cure for poverty as being “the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.” A key component of such emancipation is the presence and defense of rights to abortion. However uncomfortable one might be with the idea, terminating unwanted pregnancy is part and parcel with recognizing a woman’s right to be reproductively autonomous. When women have the power to do with their bodies as they choose, the world becomes a better place for all of us.

Mexico doesn’t seem to recognize this: [Read more…]