Blending in

I’ve been doing the tourist thing this morning, and I bought a hat. I thought it would make me look more like the natives.

Except that it’s warm and sunny, and Icelanders don’t look like madmen. Rats, foiled again.

Why I am an atheist – Giulia

I grew up in a small village in the country, and so I had the great fortune of being a kid surrounded by nature. I used to play outside everyday and catch frogs and insects – and soon I was completely fascinated by the animals and the plants that lived around me. I took interest in them aided by the lot of books my parents provided me with, and by watching all the documentaries by David Attenborough that aired on the Italian TV (my parents recorded them, so I was never deprived).

So as a child, I knew all about freshwater animals and could identify almost every bird I saw, and though now I’ve forgotten most of those notions – since I later took the Humanities path instead of a scientific one – I guess my self-taught natural history background has played a big part in my actual worldview. The concept of evolution is something I’ve been familiar with since I can remember, I never had trouble accepting it because it made perfectly sense to me, and the evidence for that was just outside the door.

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Bruce Schneier vs. Sam Harris

The debate on profiling has been going on, and is now published. I think Schneier has rather thoroughly demolished Harris’s arguments. Here’s his wrap-up, if you don’t want to read the whole thing.

The topic of this exchange, and the topic I’ve tried to stick to, is whether it makes sense to implement a two-tiered security system at airports, where "Muslims, or anyone who could conceivably be Muslim" get a higher tier of security and everyone else gets a lower tier. I have concluded that it does not, for the following reasons. One, the only benefit is efficiency. Two, the result is lower security because 1) not all Muslims can be identified by appearance, 2) screeners will make mistakes in implementing whatever profiling system you have in mind, and 3) not all terrorists are Muslim. Three, there are substantial monetary costs in implementing this system, in setting the system up, in administering it across all airports, and in paying for TSA screeners who can implement it. And four, there is an inefficiency in operating the system that isn’t there if screeners treat everyone the same way. Conclusion: airport profiling based on this ethnic and religious characteristic does not make sense.

And while you’ve objected to bits and pieces of this, the only argument you have made for this profiling system is that it’s common sense.

But here’s the real bottom line:

But perhaps most importantly, we should refuse to be terrorized. Terrorism isn’t really a crime against people or property; it’s a crime against our minds. If we are terrorized, then the terrorists win even if their plots fail. If we refuse to be terrorized, then the terrorists lose even if their plots succeed.

The terrorists have won their battles over the last ten years: they’ve got Americans pouring money into showy efforts at security, while convincing everyone to be in terror — when will we all wake up and realize that that’s exactly what terrorists want?


Every time I visit Australia, the inhabitants proudly tell me how every living thing on the continent wants to kill me in horrible, awful ways. Now that I’ve visited Iceland, I can just laugh at them and tell them I’ve visited a place where the earth rises up and tries to kill you in horrible, awful ways. Here’s the first Icelandic word I’ve learned.

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Still alive

Hey, gang! I haven’t forgotten the blog! I’m just in all these strange exciting places meeting strange new people and have been too busy to pay much attention to this internet thingie for a bit. I just left Germany — here I am with Taslima, Tanya Smith, and Rebecca Watson — and am now wandering about Iceland.

You’ll have to forgive me if I’m finding the real world a bit more fun than the blog for now. Don’t worry, I’ll be back in Morris next Monday, and everything will be reversed then.

Why I am an atheist – L.S.

I come from a Colombian Catholic middle class family. I was enrolled in a Franciscan school for girls when I was 4. All the women in my family had attended, were attending or would attend Colegio Alvernia. It was a family tradition.

At school, we weren’t allowed to go to mass until we were 7– the age of reason. In the meantime, they would teach us about the Bible and Saint Francis of Assisi’s life. I didn’t like the holy book very much because God asked people to sacrifice animals and children. The tales of the Bible were worse than the stories from Der Struwwelpeter that my parents used to read to me to dissuade me from being bad. However, St. Francis was cool and his awesomeness made up for all the crap in the Bible. He treated animals with respect and kindness and had super powers that I wanted— like talking to wolves and having birds do stuff for him.

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The AAI meeting in Cologne

Hey, I’m leaving Germany. I spent my morning and early afternoon hanging out with lovely smart people, as I’ve been doing all week — Taslima Nasreen, Michael Nugent, Rebecca Watson, Leo Igwe, and all the good attendees who’d come out to Köln for the AAI meeting. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon riding trains to get to the Düsseldorf airport (let me just say that civilized countries have rail networks painlessly linking their cities. Hint, hint, America). And now I’m waiting for my evening flight to Reflavik.

Now about the meeting…

It was a fine weekend, but there were a few awkwardnesses. There was no wireless at the venue (I was told it was broken and couldn’t be fixed in time), and access at the hotel was very flaky. You may have noticed that there was little new material here this weekend— and I also wasn’t able to live-blog or tweet what was going on. I just kind of relaxed and let the meeting flow over me, which was fine for me, but unfortunate that modern conferences use twitter to allow fast real-time reporting from an event, which helps build interest.

Another small problem: some of the talks were in German (I don’t object–it’s Germany!), but the language of the talks wasn’t clearly labeled. That meant that all the barbarous mono-lingual people fled the room at any hint the next speaker was native German. I think most of us experienced at least once the uncomfortable situation of finding ourselves in the auditorium with an enthusiastic speaker lecturing away in what was pure gobbledygook to ourselves — I imagine this is how a biologist would feel if he stumbled into a physics lecture– and trust me, no one would want to experience that twice.

It meant I missed what looked like very good talks, from their titles. It wouldn’t take much to fix it — I did attend one lecture by Prof. Bergmeier, in German, and he provided a handout with a rough translation of his text, organized by his slides. That’s all it took to make his talk comprehensible to us benighted foreigners. (He talked about how the medieval church was a huge drain on the resources of Europe, very interesting stuff. Note to meeting organizers: historians have a lot to contribute to atheist meetings. Invite more!)

The venue was just about perfect.  It was held in a nice European theater: the big auditorium, with good acoustics, was upstairs, and the ground floor was a restaurant/bar. You could start drinking beer at 9am (I didn’t) and you could get drinks any time. It was a lovely environment for schmoozing.

Stars of the show were: Taslima, who quietly described the indignities and difficulties she fought her way out of as a Bengali woman; Leo Igwe, who so passionately talked about African injustice (about the Catholic church, he shouted, “ANY SUPERNATURALLY-INFORMED ORGANIZATION IS PART OF THE PROBLEM!” Yes!); and Rebecca Watson, who really let her anger out at the assholes who make excuses for the abuse of women.

It’s been a great weekend. You shoulda been there. Or even any more local Freethought event. If you haven’t gone to one, know this: to be among a group of  happy enthusiastic rational people who reject supernatural events is a wonderfully invigorating experience. It is so weird to be sitting here now, feeling exhausted and jet-lagged, yet also feeling totally buzzed on a community-driven intellectual high. You have to try it — it’s like the best drug ever.

Why I am an atheist – Quinn

Hello. My name is Quinn, and I am an atheist.

I am also a (not very anonymous) recovering alcoholic, which makes the aforementioned atheism difficult to maintain in the face of fellow members of Alcoholics Anonymous. And it requires a fair amount of mental contortion and gymnastics if one intends to put into practice any of the principles on which most recovery programs are founded, while maintaining one’s non-belief.

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