Manufacturing a martyr

One of the valuable lessons that the atheist community has learned in the last little while is that it is possible to provoke a controversy where one didn’t exist before. The formula is pretty simple – make some largely innocuous public statement about atheism, wait for the predictable overreaction from a group of religious folks who just can’t seem to help themselves, and then enjoy as people fall all over themselves to try to shut the atheists up without violating the law. Every time an atheist bus campaign or billboard goes up, we see the same cycle of provocation, backlash, and blowup. It is an extremely useful method of sparking conversation in circles that weren’t talking before.

Now, to be sure, there are often completely non-exploitative motives behind these campaigns as well. Considering the number of atheists out there in the wold who feel completely alone – as though they are a solitary island of sanity in a sea of faith. Letting them know that they more closely resemble an archipelago with other atheists is both comforting and liberating. There is value in bucking the status quo and forcing the majority to contend with the fact that not everyone shares their myths, and that not everyone thinks of their delusion as worthy of praise and deep, abiding respect. That being said, nobody is so strategy-blind as to think that there is no ulterior motive behind the pronouncement that belief is silly (despite occasional protestations to the contrary).

Well it turns out that we are not the only people capable of exploiting such human frailty: [Read more…]

Movie Friday: All About Vaccines

So last weekend you may recall that I was in Kelowna, acting as a guest moderator for a panel on vaccines, hosted by the Centre for Inquiry. I had a great time there, and the panel was very informative. It ran loooong though. I’m not sure what it is about having a PhD and/or MD that makes you unable to tell time, but most of the presentations went twice as long as allotted. However, if you were ever looking for authoritative information about vaccines, these videos provide a valuable resource.

The rest of them can be seen here.

I really enjoyed my time in Kelowna, and am looking forward to being invited there again. There’s also the possibility of being invited to the new branch in Nelson – CFI West Kootenays. Nelson is a beautiful place, and I’d love to visit sometime. Let me know how I did in the into and Q&A sections.

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First things first

One of the great truths about religion, at least contemporary religion in North America, is that it has largely shed the fundamentalism of its past and has evolved (perhaps a poor choice of words) into a much more tolerant and forward-thinking practice. Gone are the days of slavish adherence to obscure and backward dogmatic beliefs that were the hallmark of a time when such things were necessary to hold society together. Everyone knows that, aside from a few fringe groups, religious institutions are really more about building fellowship and fostering community service than anything else.

Of course, like all religious “truths”, that’s complete bullshit:

The Vatican has ordered a crackdown on a group of American nuns that it considers too radical. It says the group is undermining Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality and is promoting “feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith”. The Leadership Conference, which is based in Maryland, represents about 57,000 nuns and offers a wide range of services, from leadership training for women’s religious orders to advocacy on social justice issues.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the nuns’ organisation faced a “grave” doctrinal crisis. It said issues of “crucial importance” to the church, such as abortion and euthanasia, had been ignored. Vatican officials also castigated the group for making some public statements that “disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops”, who are the church’s “authentic teachers of faith and morals.” [Read more…]

God keeps our land glorious and… strange

Alternative title: God dammit, Canada!

A few weeks back I highlighted one of those quirky ‘statistical finding turned news story’ articles that showed how very secular Canada is (despite stupidly forgetting to analyse it from a racial perspective). I would never want anyone to get the impression that somehow religion doesn’t crop up in our public life. It absolutely does. It’s just that, usually, when it happens, it’s more bizarrely strange than anything else:

A case of what is being called possible demonic possession in Saskatoon has prompted local church officials to consider the need for an exorcist. CBC News spoke with a Catholic priest involved in the case, which arose in March, and agreed not to identify participants in order to protect their privacy. According to church officials, a priest was called to a Saskatoon home by a woman who said her uncle showed signs of being possessed by the devil. The woman believed a priest’s blessing could help the distraught man.

This. Actually. Happened. [Read more…]

Good for the goose, bad for the gander

So this morning we looked at the ways in which our judicial system is seemingly set up to disappoint those in greatest need of justice, particularly black people. Our racist biases (which, I believe, we are all subject to regardless of how “non-racist” we like to fancy ourselves) find the cracks in our institutional frameworks, causing disproportionate destruction to those groups against which we have the strongest antipathy. It is completely insignificant to protest that we don’t mean to be, or that we don’t feel racist – it’s the outcome by which we have to judge actions. The only time that intent matters is when we’re trying to figure out how to fix the problem – not in how we label it.

The first half of understanding this particular issue is recognition that the system itself has structural elements that, by assuming that everyone walks into the halls of justice as equals, perpetuates societal inequalities. The other side of the coin, as far as this argument goes, is that individual actors within the system make judgments that reveal internal discriminatory biases. When we make judgments about others, those judgments are informed by processes that are both conscious and unconscious. The issue, of course, is that while we can moderate the way our conscious mind works, we do not have the same level of control over, to put a fine point on it, the parts of our brains we don’t control.

Once again, this leads us into trouble: [Read more…]

Oh frabjous day!

Two kinda cool things happened recently.

First, remember that sex show in Abbottsford that got canceled a while back?

I mean really, I almost feel lazy writing about this story because it requires so little effort on my part. What could I possibly add to this story? Abbotsford was going to actually have some fun, until the religious folks caught wind of it, and like the proverbial dog in the manger, decided to uphold their reputation as the town from Footloose. Because, you know, drinking leads to touching, and touching leads to those funny feelings that the priest told me was the influence of Satan, possessing your wee-wee. And won’t somebody think of the children?

Yeah, I had a good time with that one. Well guess what – the show is back on! [Read more…]

Yesterday, tomorrow, today

The central thesis of my series on black history this year was focussed on the importance of understanding the whole truth of our history as a nation. This is not only relevant to Canada, mind you – it is universally true that understanding where we came from tells us how we got where we are. Furthermore, it gives us an indication of how we can move into the future intelligently, avoiding the same pitfalls that had waylaid us before. The reason why I thought black history was particularly useful for this task is that a) it has not been well-explored and is not well-understood, and b) it is a particularly egregiously bad slice of our history that we must learn to confront honestly if we are to glean anything from it.

That being said, Canada’s abysmal treatment of black people is far from the worst story we have to tell. For that, we have to turn to First Nations Canadians. The original settlers and inhabitants of the land were repeatedly exploited and conned into agreements that worked to their continual disadvantage. It is only recently that we have been willing to confront our national shame in anything other than an entirely token way, and many (myself included) would argue that we are still not doing enough to not simply make up for historical injustices, but to understand how we non-Aboriginal Canadians fit into their historical narrative.

Just as in the case of black history, learning the history of the Nation of Canada and the First Nations of Canada teaches us about ourselves, in ways that we may find uncomfortable but which are critical to moving forward: [Read more…]

Can you spell ‘shackles’? I knew you could…

I am not a teacher in the scholastic sense. While I aim to make this blog an instructive environment (for you as much as it is for me), what I do is a far cry from the responsibility that is given to actual teachers at actual schools. For one, I deal almost exclusively with adults, many of whom are in fact older than I am. Nobody is entrusting the minds of the future to my care. Second, I am not (nor do I pretend to be) an authority figure in the way a teacher is. I have no power over any of you. The most drastic way in which I could punish you is by refusing to blog, which would be far more damaging to me than it would be to even the most fervent Cromrade. Third, aside from the handful of you that I know personally (or interact with in any meaningful way outside the auspices of this website), I do not exert any influence over your personal life.

All this is by way of saying that teachers have an awesome level of responsibility. Many members of my family are teachers (as well as a number of my friends), and I know how tough their jobs are. In a brutal dictatorship ruled by the iron fist of Crommunist, teaching would be a well-salaried position that people compete hard to get into, and that attracts the best and most capable candidates. Because, and we have to be honest about this, not everyone is up to the challenge and profound duty that comes with being a teacher: [Read more…]

Parents lose ‘right’ to shield children from facts

One of the most irritating bromides I hear from parents (predominantly conservative parents, but not exclusively) is that they don’t want things taught in their children’s schools that contradict their (the parents’) beliefs. I suppose the fear is that teaching children that not everyone thinks identically will so confuse them that their poor little heads will a’splode. I’ve actually had one person try to tell me that kids who learn things that contradict what their parents believe have a higher rate of developmental problems – so therefore public schooling is harmful. It took me way too long to stop taking that guy seriously (that’s what I get for trying to read conservative writers for the sake of ‘balance’).

First of all, bringing up a kid who knows how to disagree with you is a good thing. Second, since the only way to ensure your kid doesn’t encounter any dissenting opinions is to raise hir in a bubble, cut off from the entire world – there’s a legal term for that. Third, raising a child to accept authority unquestioningly puts them at greater risk of being taken in by unscrupulous hucksters of all manner of ideas. Fourth, it severely handicaps their ability to make independent decisions if ze’s never been exposed to stuff that Mom or Dad didn’t warn hir about. Fifth, it retards their understanding of the world – there are a lot of ideas out there and it’s important to be exposed to lots of them.

There is perhaps no corner in which this attitude is more popular than among parents who wish to raise their children in a particular religious tradition. Maybe it is because they know how weak and vapid the arguments for faith are, or maybe it’s because they truly believe that little Ashley couldn’t possibly cope with the knowledge that different beliefs exist, but religious parents are infuriated by the idea of comparative religious instruction. They’re about to get a lot angrier: [Read more…]

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?

  [Read more…]