I first met her in 1993, her first semester in college. She sat in the front row of my 270-person section of Cuttlefishology, and never missed a day. Over the next years, she took 4 other classes from me, including an independent study that produced what still is the best paper I have received in over 2 decades of teaching. Of course, she was one of those students you really don’t want to see graduate, because you are human, and will miss her. But she did graduate, and went on to do good work in the real world, and I never saw her again.

Except, I did! I ended up writing a letter of recommendation, years later, to help get her into the grad program in Cuttlefishology, and had her as a colleague, not a student, for another 4 years! I was quite flattered to be asked to be on her dissertation committee (yes, of course!) and flatter myself to think I actually contributed a bit to the process. It was nice to be there for the beginning and the end of this particular journey. Bookends, of a sort.

And as of today, there is another Ph.D. in the world, competing with me for jobs. And I couldn’t be happier, or prouder.

No verse. Just proud.

Public Cross Chucked In Duck Pond

A cross was seen
On the village green
As we’re nearing the Easter season
They’ve done it for years
As spring appears—
It’s a beautiful symbol, they reason—
Though they think it’s fine
There’s a civil line
They have taken a few steps beyond
And so, one man
Took the matter in hand
And he chucked the cross into a pond.

He admitted his act
As a matter of fact
And he said that he’d do it again
If the church put it back
That’s a form of attack
Treating non-Christian folk with disdain
If they put back the cross
He’ll just give it a toss
Till it’s floating again with the ducks
I’d suggest that they pray
On the matter, all day…
But the gentleman won’t give two fucks.

Here’s another link to another paper’s coverage, as well. Basically, an 82-yr-old former solicitor saw the cross erected in the village green, as it has been for years each Easter-time, and decided to remove the unwanted litter from public property. He chucked it into a nearby duck pond.

Reaction has been… mixed. The first story notes that “an angry parishioner and her husband” sent out an email to village residents, and that 82 yr old Alan Pickard replied, owning up to the act and stating outright that if the church replaced the cross, he would re-dunk it. Six others expressed objections to the cross’s placement on the green, while 21 reported it did not bother them. Some of the quotes are just delightful. From the second link:

“To fling it into the pond is an unacceptable, wanton act of violence. It’s tantamount to religious hatred in my book. It must have been quite heavy though, so it’s not bad going for an 82-year-old.”

Hey, respect given where it is earned.

“No Atheists In Retirement Homes”

So apparently Frank Newport (editor-in-chief of Gallup Poll, and recently author of God is alive and well: the future of religion in America) gave his book talk in Madison, NJ, and included a line he’s been using for some time: “There are no atheists in retirement homes.”

My mother-in-law is an atheist
In a southern retirement home
She reads Dawkins and Hitchens, and Dennett and Krauss,
And she sends me her thoughts on each tome
She’s a volunteer, there, with the hospice
So she sits with her friends when they die
Since she has no illusions she’ll see them in heaven
She just wants to tell them “goodbye”
She’s aware that her days must be numbered
And that death will arrive for her, too
I suspect, if she met with Frank Newport one day
That she’d happily tell him… fuck you!

Yeah, actually, every bit of this one is true. She sends me clippings from atheist articles in the news, was practically giddy when she heard about the Brights (I think she’s a card-carrying member), and read God Is Not Great before I did (actually, she sent me her copy when she finished).

On the other hand, she is a staunch Republican who favored prayer in public schools because Reagan did.

I think she has been an atheist for as long as I have known her. I’m not certain, though–I know that she has, in contrast to Newport’s expert opinion, become more vocal in her atheism over the years, in part because she no longer feels obliged to keep her opinions to herself. Once you have a certain number of decades under your belt, in her view, you have earned the right to speak your mind.

Newport insinuates that the fear of death–whether in nursing homes, or in the foxholes his quip borrows from–drives religious belief. I have to say, very few outside of particular professions are more familiar with death than my mother in law. She has been a hospice volunteer for decades now, becoming friends with people she knew were going to die. Many, many times she was the only one–not family, not clergy–to stay with them in their final hours. My mother in law has no illusions about mortality.

The wording of a poll has tremendous influence over the answers that are given (I’ve written before about a researcher who claimed that Americans were very accepting of atheists… but his research chose not to use the term “atheist” because so many people were put off by the very word); it seems clear that Newport has A) a chip on his shoulder and B) a book to sell, when it comes to counting atheist numbers.

I know it was only a rhetorical exaggeration, but a universal claim is disproven by even a single example. My mother in law’s existence is sufficient to prove Newport wrong. But I want more… I want the two of them in a cage match. Newport doesn’t stand a chance.

Positive Story On Atheism In Rwanda

I prayed to God to help me
But He didn’t lift a hand;
The bible holds the answers, though,
And now I understand:
I shouldn’t look to God for help
To save my son or daughter…
Cos God, if He exists at all
Is on the side of slaughter.

I think maybe I have simply read too many stories about atheists. I have come to expect that either the story will be about the global mistreatment of non-religious, or the stigma attached to atheism, or a story where atheists are clearly the baddies (do I need to link to one of those?)

And then, this. The story of a horrible genocide, of people faced with unimaginable events, asking God for help and finding none. Of looking around and concluding that no God exists to ask for help.

“He doesn’t exist. I decided to not waste time any longer. And if he exists, I don’t see any difference between him and genocidaires,” he says sternly. “He’s a God who ruthlessly murdered innocent babies, a God who proudly committed terrible massacres in the history of mankind.”

The article’s author refers to the stories in Exodus (12:29-30), not as a dusty ancient text, but in the here and now, in the stories of Rwanda:

To understand the verse well, this is what really happened: There was a funeral in every home in Egypt. Women were crying and every family was forced to bury its own dead because friends were also burying their innocent little ones. If you don’t understand it yet, think of what this tragedy would do if that large scale infanticide was committed in Rwanda – starting from your own family.

These Rwandan atheists don’t need to imagine. In the words of one:

“I read what happened in Ntarama, Bugesera. Killers were smashing babies on the walls in the house of God. Why couldn’t that omnipotent God cut off the hands of those genocidaires to rescue the babies who were innocently smiling at the killers? Why? I wouldn’t be surprised when someone reputed to kill infants chose to close his arms.”

And atheism is, both in their lives and in the article, a positive factor. It concludes (but please read the whole thing!):

Having a conversation with an atheist makes you realise how little you know about your own religion.

“You do not need religion to know what is wrong and what is right,” says Ndahiro. “In fact, what religious people do practice is not morality. I consider a moral action as that which is free from promises like a heaven or fear of hell.”

According to some atheists, people are using religion as an excuse after failing to find solutions to their problems. For instance, you should have seen many genocidaires asking for forgiveness saying they were tempted by the devil.

“If we believe that, then we have intentionally made our powerful minds weak,” says Musoni. “That’s what atheism is all about: Using our minds to the utmost to benefit from the fruits of the world.”

If You Don’t Agree With This, You’re An Idiot

It’s the modern world I live in,
And I use it when I can
I get all my information
From my common, fellow man
I won’t venture an opinion
Till I see what others think—
And I’ll read it all in pixels,
Cos I cannot wait for ink.
Yes, the internet is perfect
When you cannot wait for ink.

Now, some drama is expected
When you get your news online
Where a claim won’t go unchallenged
(And this happens by design)
A democracy of chaos,
Where the hoi polloi will roar—
When the comments are uncivil
I will listen all the more!
Yes, when comments are uncivil
This will bring them to the fore.

There is vitriol aplenty—
It’s a caustic, nasty mess!
Some may strive, perhaps, to educate,
Still others, to impress—
While yet others play a sort of game,
Where points are won or lost
Where truth and reputation are
A portion of the cost
Yes, respect for fact or person
Is a line that’s often crossed!

When the comments are uncivil
They are given much more weight
So the rude and boorish bastards
Hold more sway in the debate—
There’s no need to point to evidence
Or logic, you can tell—
When the comments thrive on rancor
All you have to do is yell.
Yes, the winner (on the internet)
Is he who best can yell.

In today’s New York Times, an editorial that speaks to the current state of news commentary on the interwebs. The editorial comments on a recent article in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, investigating the relative effect of civil vs uncivil commentary (regarding a nanotechnology issue) on participants’ opinions of nanotechnology’s risks vs benefits.

Ok… if you read the NYTimes article the results are “both surprising and disturbing”.

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

But, really… these were not big effects. The sample sizes were large, so significance could be found without really large effects. But… oh, well.

What is strange is that there is no mention in the NYT article of the religious interaction effect. From the paper itself:

Our findings also reveal a significant interaction between religiosity and incivility on risk perception. (beta=-.07;p< .05). Among those exposed to uncivil comments, those with high levels of religiosity were more likely to report higher levels of risk perception and those with low levels of religiosity were more likely to report lower levels of risk perception...

So, yeah… incivility contributes to polarization of positions. Perhaps especially with regard to religious issues. And incivility is a weapon, it appears. Not that it should be, but it is. Incivility and argument should be orthogonal… but it seems, empirically, they are not.

Civility matters, empirically, it seems. And truth matters. And people are more swayed by incivility than by truth, especially where religion is concerned. So… dickishness, on such comment threads, is actually an adaptive trait, contributing to one’s cause?

We are all so screwed.