How is religion like delicious yummy corn?

Disclaimer: the central metaphor of this post is scatological, so if you have a particularly weak stomach, might I suggest you watch this video instead.

There is a far-too-common meme that exists among a subset of the nonbelieving community that goes more or less like this:

Well of course religion has led people to do bad things. Nobody is denying that. And I certainly don’t believe there’s any truth to it, but some people believe sincerely and do good things. It’s therefore neither fair nor is it accurate to paint all expressions of religion with the same brush. Religion has inspired people to do great good, as well as great evil.

Perhaps one of the most celebrated of those holding this opinion is Chris Stedman, who has published an excerpt from his upcoming book ‘Faitheist’ at Salon: [Read more…]

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel BRAAAAAINS

So I will not be watching the foreign policy debate between President Obama and the Republican Windsock of Doom. Instead, I will be watching zombie movies and taking meticulous notes. An odd way for a politics junkie like myself to spend his evening, you might think. However, this movie watching is not simply idle recreation – it is instead an academic exercise as I prepare for the Eschaton 2012 conference, sponsored by CFI Ottawa:

Come to Ottawa for a weekend gathering of scientists, philosophers, authors, academics, skeptics, rationalists, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers, where you can see presentations and join discussions on science, skepticism, gender issues, theocracy vs secularism, godless ethics, parenting beyond belief. Featured speakers include blogger PZ Myers, author Ophelia Benson, philosopher Chris DiCarlo, science education activist Eugenie Scott, and many others. You can even participate in a live recording of Canada’s skeptical podcast “The Reality Check”.

Saturday evening we present our gala “Night at the Museum” (held at the Canadian Museum of Nature), which includes a reception, talk by PZ Myers, and late night special events, with exclusive access to the Fossil Gallery and Earth Gallery.

The price of $275 ($225 for CFI members) includes access to the Friday night plenary session, a choice of two daytime tracks on Saturday and Sunday, lunches and snacks, plus the Saturday evening gala. (A limited number of volunteer discounts are available – email for more information.)

There is a truly remarkable lineup scheduled to speak at the two-day skeptical extravaganza (bolded names are fellow FTBorg): [Read more…]

Episode 3: Where the Sidewalk ends

Xavier and I got together again and recorded another episode of our podcast. This week we talked about sexy sexy teenagers and flat Earthers on the internet. The video is below the fold.

Also below the fold is a plea for help with naming this damn thing. We don’t have a clue what to call it, so we’re throwing it open to the internet.

[Read more…]

Thinking in tune

Many of you probably know that I am a musician. Perhaps fewer of you know that guitar is my second instrument (third, if you count voice). I am actually probably better identified as a classically-trained viola player. In my relatively short career, I played 5 years in the Mississauga Youth Orchestra (3 years as viola section leader), 2 years with the University of Waterloo Symphony, and another 2 years with the Kingston Symphony. I was also a member of various string quartets through the years – one of our most notable achievements was playing at a dinner hosted by the Metro Toronto Chamber of Commerce and attended by the then-deputy premier of Ontario.

I wasn’t a particularly good player until I came under the tutelage of Mark Childs, a viola virtuoso who had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian and a wizard at teaching technique. To work with Mark was to re-learn the viola – he literally brought me back to the very beginning: learning to hold the bow, learning how to place my fingers on the fingerboard, learning to listen to notes, learning to make the right sound. It was an unbelievably frustrating process, coming as I was from nearly 8 years playing experience to return to a beginner level.

One of the most obvious differences between an instrument like a viola and an instrument like, say, a guitar, is the absence of frets on the fingerboard. While there are fretted viols, those mostly fell out of favour in the classical era, meaning that it is theoretically possible to produce any and all possible pitches within the span of an octave. Of course, you only want to produce one of twelve at any given time, meaning that anything other than the right note is the wrong note. Unlike a fretted instrument where as long as you stop the string somewhere between the frets you’ll hit the correct pitch, classical viols require your fingers to know where the correct position is within fractions of a milimeter. [Read more…]

Okay, I actually DON’T ‘get’ this one

I talked earlier about people who criticize those who don’t respond positively to cruel and dehumanizing humour as not ‘getting it’.

What’s the matter? You don’t think that this is funny? Why, just because it’s all based on the abuse of oppressed people? Because it’s cruel and deeply offensive? Because the jokes are built upon an edifice that manifests itself in deeply un-funny ways that result in the suffering and sometimes death of your fellow human beings?

My point was that people who don’t laugh at racist/misogynistic/ableist/whatever jokes don’t suffer from some deficit of humour. It’s not that we simply lack understanding of why an asshole would find it funny to humiliate or otherwise insult a class of people based on an unfair power structure – it’s that we understand the harm those kinds of jokes cause.

That being said, there are definitely some things I don’t ‘get’, and this ad from the GOP is one of them:  [Read more…]

Good thing we’re studying the important issues

We live, as we ever have, in a time of great uncertainty. Climate change is undeniable, but specific and plausible paths forward are seemingly beyond our grasp. We face an inscrutable economic future, with a whirlwind of contradicting ideas constantly blowing around us. Despite the progress we’ve made unlocking the mysteries of the cell and the double-helix, human health is still very much a crap-shoot. Genetic manipulation of food, once seeming to hold the promise for the cure to world hunger, has revealed itself to be far more complex than we could have imagined. In the face of these interminable unanswered questions, it’s hard to look at the scientific enterprise as something upon which we can consistently rely.

And yet, even with such epistemic despondency so justified, there are occasional bright spots where we can lean confidently upon the rigour that science provides us and make confident conclusions about the world. For it is science, that great illuminator, that has finally bestowed upon our poor race a great and fundamental certainty, answering once and for all one of the great questions that has plagued mankind, lo these many years: does getting an HPV vaccination turn your daughter into, like, a total slutbag? [Read more…]

Get it?

There was a conversation on a post of PZ’s about a guy who had to endure outrageously and heart-wrenchingly frequent racism at the hands of his bosses and co-workers, who responded to his complaints with condescension and dismissal (which, by the way, most victims of oppression have experienced many times before – it’s why we don’t always speak up about it). The discussion centred on how to know where ‘the line’ is for jokes and humour that involve race. None of us want to offend our friends, and knowing which topics and jokes are ‘okay’ is occasionally quite difficult. Often you don’t know where the line is until you’ve crossed it.

My usual policy is to remember that all jokes are inside jokes. Humour is based on a shared perspective on an issue – that both the speaker and the audience see a situation identically. Some comedians (e.g., Mitch Hedburg) are masters at drawing you into a story and then subtly adjusting the perspective, and the laugh comes from realizing that the situation under discussion, or the meaning of a word, is actually quite different than you thought. Others (Louie CK, Sarah Silverman) push boundaries of acceptable social norms based on the shared understanding that both audience and speaker understand those norms. Still others (Chris Rock) point out the absurdity of the norms themselves, holding them up for scrutiny and ridicule.

Humour, in whatever form, requires the audience to be able to share the perspective of the comedian, which in turn requires the comedian to be able to understand the audience. There are many who fail to be funny because they miss this important second step, resulting in awkward and sometimes hurtful situations*. We sometimes feel bad for those whose humour simply doesn’t work because of failed delivery, and cringe at those who try to be ‘edgy’ but instead fall back on ‘crude and mean-spirited’. [Read more…]

Making it count

One of the most frustrating aspects of being involved in a social justice movement is coming to grips with the sheer scope of the problem. Social inequalities are grounded, more often than not, in centuries of history and the evolutionary detritus of human cognition. We can point to a handful of successes like the American civil rights movement, but those were foughts that people literally bled and died for, and resulted in a system that almost immediately adapted to restore as much of the racist status quo as was legally permissible. The fact is that the fight for equality is gigantic, and it’s easy to feel as though one person can’t do much to move the massive edifice the dictates the roles of various groups in power dynamics.

Indeed, even if one wasn’t so overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the problem, it’s hard to conceive of what actionable solutions are available. The whole Occupy movement was heavily criticized for even trying to get together and spell out all of the problems. When solutions were offered (and they were offered), their very existence was denied or ignored because it fit into the more easily-digested narrative that we live in a world where people cannot solve big, diffuse problems. Certainly those who are sincerely interested in, say, seeing the end of racism can see few avenues toward true progress: the problem is inside people’s heads. How can we fix the ever-warping landscape of human psychology aside from waiting for the ‘racists’ to die off and hope that the next generation does a better job?

While I agree the task is daunting, there may be one specific lever we can exploit: [Read more…]

Guest post from Miss Sapphyre

This post is reprinted with permission from the personal blog of Miss Sapphyre – Interstitial Space.

“its not rape if thats your woman” – asshole on Twitter

 ^ This is what I sat down to when I opened up my internet box the other night when I got home from work. Some days I really REALLY hate the internet. This was one of those days. A few folks I follow on Twitter were calling out this guy for making the above statement. (As they should). It offends me to no end that people a.) believe this stuff and b.) say it in public. And even on the off-chance that this was somehow either trolling or a joke taken out of context (and I doubt it based on the guy’s profile and other tweets), it’s not funny. It is so BEYOND not funny.

It is rape. Even if she’s “your woman”.

It is rape. It absolutely is. I should know. It’s happened to me. Twice.

I’m not going to go into details. Don’t ask if I could have stopped it. Don’t ask me if I saw signs beforehand. Don’t ask me if I reported it. In fact, don’t ask anything. Just listen. [Read more…]