Skepticism and faith: architecture vs. sculpture

In my younger days I was a voracious reader of fiction. Since then, a combination of school and work have more or less completely robbed me of the inclination to read anything that isn’t grounded in reality (don’t cry for me – I still find lots of ways to have fun), but once upon a time I could truly describe myself as ‘a reader’. One of my favourite series of fantasy novels was the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind. In retrospect, it’s a bit overwritten and the last three books were pretty terrible, but I loved it in my heyday.

The sixth book of that series, entitled Faith of the Fallen was my favourite. It’s simultaneously an exploration of the primacy of human dignity and the harsh criticism of the debasing effect that religion has on it. It’s also a not-so-thinly-veiled retelling of objectivism, but I tried not to let that get in the way of my enjoyment. Moral lessons aside, a great deal of it is about sculpting because, y’know… why not?

The book’s protagonist, an uber-wizard named Richard, gets kidnapped and, for reasons that are really not relevant to anything important outside the context of the story itself, is forced to be a sculptor whose job it is to make a statue that shows humanity from the point-of-view of their religion – debased and cowering in the face of the almighty. He, of course, creates a masterpiece glorifying the power of the will and the resilience of humanity. In so doing, he changes everyone’s mind about religion and starts a riot (because, y’know… why not?). You should be thinking “Howard Roark” right about now.

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Not to let the truth get in the way of a good story, but…

Twitter isn’t censoring #GodisnotGreat. Gizmodo explains:

Twitter uses an algorithm to determine what’s trending. It’s not human-edited. It famouslyvalues novelty over popularity. That makes it really really hard for trends to stay alive, as they essentially have to keep snowballing in order to keep trending. That’s why it’s called a trend!

A Twitter spokesperson verified that the company still does not censor trends. Even if the trend was really, really offensive (see the #ReasonsToBeatYourGirlfriend trending topic above) the company would not intervene.

So, while your theory is nice, Internet, it’s also wrong. You’re not being censored, you’re just dull.

Not that I don’t enjoy watching my fellow atheists lose their shit, but c’mon folks you’re making us look ridiculous and petty here.

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To those praying for Hitchens

Predictably, the shrieking hordes of self-satisfied ghouls have crawled out of the woodwork and, smirking, announced their great love for the departed Christopher with promises to “pray for him”. I cannot help but be reminded of the Black Knight sequence in Monty Python’s Grail, where despite having his arms and legs chopped off by an expert swordsman, the knight continues to taunt Arthur as the king walks away. Hitchens devoted a portion of his writing (not his entire career, as many falsely claim) to utterly eviscerating not only the efficacy of prayer claims, but the superstitious nonsense and appalling evil that underlies the god claim. To say that you are “praying” for him serves as little more than a bold announcement that, even if you had bothered to read his work, you were too thick to understand it.

A friend of mine wrote this in response:

“Begging mercy and forgiveness from a vindictive, vengeful and tyrannical God who also commands love and worship from his ‘children’ whom he “created sick and commands to be well” is precisely the kind of self-imposed torturous mental bondage from which Christopher Hitchens fought to free humanity.

He is not at peace, for he is not. He requires neither mercy nor forgiveness; such thoughts are for the living, and it is only the living who are comforted by blessings and wishes bestowed on the dead. Christopher Hitchens, the man, the mind, the embodied set of beliefs and desires and feelings and memories, has ceased to be. We are the better for having shared time with him, and (only) through us will his beliefs, desires, feelings, memories, and his works live on.”

As I inexpertly attempted to articulate in the paragraphs accompanying this morning’s video, Hitchens’ legacy is far greater than simply the sum of his writings. This is not to minimize his writings, incidentally, which are a sumptuous treat that can be tasted as much as they can be read. Hitchens was an expert swordsman with his words, flourishing with elaborate descriptions, parrying with excruciatingly-chosen diction, and thrusting with cutting vernacular straight through the heart of whatever woebegotten position was foolish enough to ignite his ire. But his words did not simply defeat his chosen opponents – they were a flag waved proudly above the din of pitched combat, calling forth new and eager legions of burgeoning soldiers of freethought to enter the fray.

Those who snidely crow their intention to “pray” for Hitchens are nothing more than myopic fools, claiming victory as the conquering general retires from the battlefield, but failing to notice the approaching horde of approaching warriors made stronger and bolder by the leadership of the recently absent. Christopher Hitchens’ death is lamentable, to be sure, but like Obi-wan Kenobi, he has become more powerful in death than theists can possibly imagine. I suggest you reserve those prayers for yourself – not that they’ll help, but they might make you feel better as your position gets torn to ribbons by the next wave of anti-theist polemicists.

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h/t Jesse Brydle for the moving words

Movie Friday: Hitchens on not staying home

I have made no secret of my great admiration for the writing of Christopher Hitchens. The man was, as far as I’m concerned, the heir to the throne of George Orwell – a man who took the English language and turned it from mere utilitarian utterances to a rapier, wielded with deadly beauty by a master. I learned last night that Mr. Hitchens died, succumbing at last to the esophageal cancer that took his voice, but never his spark.

I never got to meet Mr. Hitchens, but of course his writing spoke to me in ways that made me struggle furiously to achieve just one phrase, one sentence, one moment that could equal what he seemed to produce effortlessly pages at a time. I have just finished reading his memoir, and had to put it down several times because the language was so impressively drawn that I needed respite to take it in.

Written, Christopher Hitchens was an architect. Spoken, he was a concert pianist:

If ever there was a dark time in my ‘soul’ where I despaired of the effort of arguing against the things I hate, where I felt like just giving up and staying home, where the forces of good seem to be irredeemably flagging behind the forces of stupid, I can remember that Hitch faced down death with a sneer, and probably a few well-crafted rejoinders about the fashionableness of scythes.

Mr. Hitchens’ death does not make me sad, except insofar as he will never write again. He has carried the torch of English as a mastercraft for decades. There are thousands more like me ready to pick it up, light it anew, and march inexorably into the darkness he helped us put words to. [Read more…]

Born on third base

If you haven’t done so already, you should read this piece by Greg Laden, as well as this one by Greta Christina, by way of intro to this piece.

One of the foundational myths of conservatism, or even of libertarianism, is that the private sector will remain competitive by selecting the best of the best through market forces. Those who are the most skilled, the most resourceful, and the most industrious will be rewarded by the invisible hand of the market with high pay and bonuses, while those who would simply leech from the system are punished.

It’s a nice story. If only it were true:

Members of the 1% are clearly at an advantage when it comes to opportunity, and that advantage carries through when it comes to finding a job. While it’s common for people to find employment through family and friends, there’s a direct correlation between a father’s income and the likelihood his son will work for the same employer, according to a report last year in the Journal of Labor Economics (via Miles Corak, who co-wrote the paper). The researchers found that that among its subjects, around 40% of young Canadian men had been employed by an employer for whom their father worked. But for earners in the top percentile, that figure jumps to around nearly 70%.

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They took ‘ur jaaaeerrrbs!

An all-too common complaint about assertive anti-racism; that is, taking steps to correct for injustices borne of systemic racism – like affirmative action programs or race-based scholarships – is that it ends up putting white people at a disadvantage. After all, if there are two people going for the same spot, whether it be a job or a university admission slot, and one of them is a visible minority, affirmative action policies discriminate against someone whose only crime was being born white.

Everyone and her brother has a story of a cousin’s friend or aunt’s next-door neighbour who lost out on a job ze was qualified before because it instead went to a less-qualified person of colour (PoC). If we are trying to do away with racism, why is it that it’s okay for the system to be racist against whites? Aren’t we sacrificing the future of white people on the altar of correcting historical injustice? When do we stop over-correcting?

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Just one more…

I’m not sure what it is about religious belief that robs you of any sense of irony, but that phenomenon is fairly well-documented. Religious people seem to lack the God-given ability to self-examine and see yourself as others see you, which is problematic because most of the rest of us see you as sanctimonious jerks (which is, I suppose, a charge commonly leveled at atheists, so maybe that’s not fair of me to say. SEE HOW IT’S DONE, RELIGIOUS PEOPLE?)

What really doesn’t make sense, however, is the complete loss of a sense of historical perspective that seems to be associated with fervent religious belief. For some reason, they keep falling in the same hole over and over again:

Christian groups have condemned a provocative Spanish play about Jesus called Golgota Picnic (Golgotha Picnic), due to premiere in France. Street protests are planned when the play is performed in the southern city of Toulouse, before moving on to the capital Paris. While urging restraint, Toulouse’s Catholic archbishop said the play “fouled the faith of many believers”.

I mean, haven’t we already done this? Didn’t we do this like… 3 months ago? And wait… didn’t we do the exact same story only 4 months before that? I mean, I could keep writing this stuff again and again, but after a while it kind of gets boring making the same points. Censorship of blasphemy doesn’t create less blasphemy. If anything it makes it more attractive and popular. There are things that are actually worth getting upset about in your own organization. Log in your own eye, speck in others’. Art is supposed to be subversive. Blah blah blah. C’mon guys, get hip to it! [Read more…]

The weirdness runneth over

More censorship weirdness. This time it’s all funny, I promise:

It is not good to accept the person of the wicked, to overthrow the righteous in judgment. A fool’s lips enter into contention, and his mouth calleth for strokes. Sam’s Wholesale Club, a division of Wal-Mart, is doing the Lord’s work by removing a blasphemous book from its shelves, and sadly many reactionary Christians are responding with foolish lips calling for a boycott, not of the book, but of Sam’s Club!

The atheist at the center of the controversy, Brendan Smith, must be laughing all the way to the bank for duping conservatives into opposing a decision by Sam’s to stop selling his book. Why did they fall for the trap? Because Smith called his book “The Brick Bible”. It is a collection of distorted “stories” illustrated with LEGO bricks and characters. Though the book itself openly mocks God and the Bible over and over again, many naïve Christians are so ignorant of the Bible they don’t even see it and are buying the book for their children.

It’s generally poor form to write a blog post about someone else’s blog post about a news item, so I’ll just encourage you to trip on over to Caffeinated Thoughts and read the rest. I wish I could make this shit up, but once again the truth is stranger (and hilarious-er) than fiction.

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Okay, now drop what you’re doing and go read THIS

Maybe I should give up the blogging game and just re-direct everyone’s attention to what other, better writers are doing. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a brilliant writer on matters racial and historical gives us a different grasp on the same story as last night’s ridiculousness. In this piece, which is definitely worth reading in its entirety, he implores us to employ what he calls a “muscular empathy”:

This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this–You are not extraordinary. It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t and then ask “Why?”

A few years ago there was a murder on a Greyhound bus. A severely deranged man took a knife to the throat of one of his fellow passengers and severed the man’s head. The rest of the passengers fled and trapped the assailant inside the bus until police could arrive.

I cannot count the number of people who declared themselves to be the reincarnation of John Rambo, and the many ways in which they would have stepped in and stopped the murder rather than fleeing the grisly scene. To all of them I replied “unless you are specifically trained to run TOWARD someone with a knife, you would have done exactly what everyone else on that bus did – tried to save yourself.” The trick is not to simply assert that we are better people, and therefore racism is beneath us – it’s to train ourselves to run toward problems rather than away from them. It’s to reprogram the way we think about not only ourselves, but the situations that produced us.

It’s to build our empathy muscles.

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When censorship goes weird

Long-time Cromrades will know, given my unabashed free speech stance, that I am decidedly not a fan of censorship. While I recognize that individuals have a right to privacy, I also know that large institutions (be they private or, especially, public) must be held accountable. This means that more transparency is good, and that censorship is bad.

Censorship is especially bad when it is done by large institutions against individual people. Provided that communication does not immediate place lives in danger, or that the speech in question is not slanderous or fraudulent, there is no justifiable reason to censor unpopular speech. In fact, if recent events have shown us anything, it’s that the more attention you draw to something you do not wish seen, the more people look at it out of sheer morbid curiosity.

Often, censorship is disturbing. Occasionally, it is overblown and counterproductive. But sometimes… well sometimes it’s just weird:

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