Why I am not a good judge of novels

I serve on a committee to select the common book reading for Case Western Reserve University. This is a book that is sent out to all the new incoming students each year in the summer prior to their admission and forms the basis for some programs during their first year on campus. In 2008, for example, the book selected was The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, in honor of 2009 being the Year of Darwin, since it is the anniversary of the 200th year of his birth and the 150th year of the publication of On the Origin of Species. (Shameless plug: I have a book GOD v. DARWIN: The War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom coming out later this year to also commemorate the event.)
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Paul Newman, 1925-2008

I want to pay a long overdue tribute to Paul Newman, who was one of the truly great actors of our time. Although his good looks and acting talent alone could have secured his place purely as a romantic leading man, what made him special was the roles he chose, taking people who were flawed in some way, people whose moral compass did not quite point true north, and making them sympathetic.

He also did not seem full of himself, shying away from the celebrity culture that films spawn. Despite his success and fame, he did not seem (at least publicly) to suffer from excessive ego and was self-deprecating, always a good trait to have. He delighted in telling the story of how he once spoke to a group of school children and one of them raised his hand and said, “So what did you do before you went into the salad dressing business?”

Paul Newman’s films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting have given me hours of pleasure.

I cannot really pick a top favorite but surely Cool Hand Luke, which inserted into popular culture the line “What we got here is a failure to communicate”, must rank high on anyone’s list.

Here are two other back-to-back scenes from that film, featuring that other great character actor George Kennedy.

Although Newman’s politics was progressive (he was very proud of making it into Richard Nixon’s ‘enemies list’), his films were not overtly political. But that did not mean that they did not have political meaning, since they often dealt with an individual fighting the odds, finding deep reservoirs of inner strength, and not giving up.

Newman aged gracefully. As one observer put it, he did not seem to get older, just purer. Here is a scene from a later 1982 film The Verdict that is apropos for today’s political climate.

Paul Newman grew up in the suburb of Cleveland called Shaker Heights where I now live and went to the same high school as that my daughters attended. That is the full extent of my links to him but his death brings with it the kind of sadness that follows the loss of an old and good friend.

I spent some wonderful times with him.

POST SCRIPT: Spotting a hidden religious agenda

In this 28 February 2009 New Scientist article, Amanda Gefter lists the cues by which you can identify people who are pursuing a religious agenda while seeming to talk about science.

When religious people and atheists talk

Within the last few years I have observed and been involved in discussions with people representing various religious denominations. I have noticed that when people of different faiths meet and the topic of religion comes up, one of two scenarios unfold.

One the one hand, you may have the holding-hands-and-singing-kumbaya phenomenon. This ecumenical approach seeks to find commonalities in religions and to emphasize the things that all religions share, such as that in every major religion one can find some version of the Golden Rule, to act towards others as one would want them to act towards you, and so on. This group of people tends to suppress those things in their religious texts that highlight differences with, or preach intolerance of, other religions.

The other is the “My religion is better than yours” or “My religion is right, yours is wrong” approach, taken by those seeking to either convert the other person or by people pursuing a political agenda. Such people are so convinced of the rightness of their own religion that they are often completely ignorant of even the most basic tenets of other faiths, having just a caricatured view of only those parts that they think puts the other in a bad light. So, for example, the anti-Muslim bigots in America can often quote those parts of the Koran that seem to call for violent action against infidels while ignoring those parts that are more tolerant.

But while it is understandable why the former group has decided for political reasons not to compare the relative merits of their respective religions, what is interesting is that even in the latter case, they do not try to argue, on the basis of evidence, why one religion might be superior to another. One can see why. After all, how can you rationally argue that Judaism (to pick a religion at random) is better than Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or whatever? What possible data could you produce? They rarely use evidence because introducing the notion of evidence immediately shows the weakness of their own religion. Would it make any sense for a Christian and a Muslim and a Jew to argue about the merits of the evidence for Jesus rising from the dead compared with that for Mohammed to ride on a winged horse or for Joshua stopping the sun in its tracks? To do so risks making all of them skeptics because it would become immediately apparent that the claims of each religion are all absurd and unsupported.

Instead, the appeal for religious allegiance is almost always based on emotional or moral grounds, that one religion provides greater emotional satisfaction or rewards (material and spiritual) than the other or conforms more closely with current societal values. For example, it is hard to see a majority of Americans embracing orthodox Islam or Judaism, irrespective of the theological merits of those religions, simply because of their absurd and unconscionable restrictions on the role of women. Most women will simply not go along.

When religions try to convert people to another faith, it is almost always on the basis of some sort of emotional appeal. Fundamentalist Christian evangelists have a two-pronged strategy to making converts: first scare the daylights out of people by declaring them to be sinners destined for the fires of everlasting hell, and then promise them an escape from such torments if they accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior.

This is why it must be disconcerting for a religious person to have such discussions with an atheist. Atheists believe that god does not exist not because the idea of nonexistence is appealing or satisfies some emotional need, but simply because the idea of believing in something for which there is zero evidence strikes them as an absurd thing to do. To convince an atheist, you need to provide evidence for god, and this mode of persuasion is foreign to religious believers.

To bring the discussion back to a form they are familiar with, religious people try to assert that atheism is also a ‘belief’. They try to argue that since atheists cannot prove that god does not exist, then assuming so must make it a belief. This tactic puts them back into a more familiar discussion mode, since it is arguing for one belief versus another, and the argument can then be made on the basis of emotional appeals, by asking which belief is more satisfying.

This is, of course, a false argument. Believing in the nonexistence of an entity because of the lack of any evidence for it is not equivalent to believing in the existence of an entity despite the lack of evidence for it. The former is a rational belief while the latter is irrational.

This is not to say that emotions do not play any role. Human beings are emotional animals. But for anyone with a logical or scientific attitude towards life, holding rational beliefs is far more emotionally satisfying than clinging on to irrational ones.

The crucial difference in the emotional responses is this: Religious people believe in irrational things because it makes them feel good. Atheists feel good because they believe in rational things.

POST SCRIPT: Extra fluffy toilet paper, eco-destroyer

This article points out how America’s passion for the softest possible toilet paper is harming the environment because producing it requires destroying vast amounts of virgin forests to get that extra fluffiness. It causes “more environmental devastation than the country’s love of gas-guzzling cars, fast food or McMansions”.

Thanks to very aggressive promotion and marketing by companies like Kimberley-Clark, Americans are convinced that only the softest will do and so 98% of the toilet rolls sold in America are made from virgin forests, while in Europe and Latin America 40% is made from recycled products.

Our local Heinen’s supermarket has been stocking toilet paper and paper towels made from recycled paper for some time. I can report that they are perfectly acceptable.

Telling your religious loved ones that you are an atheist

One of the questions that came up at the Ask an Atheist forum was how to break the news that one has become an atheist to those religious people close to you, especially family members, whom you think might be upset.

I get this question quite a lot and usually counsel people that there is really little to be gained by gratuitously announcing to everyone within earshot that one is an atheist. So at the forum, I privately told one questioner who was worried about how his much-loved grandmother would react that there was no need to tell her. What’s the point? Even I, who have been aggressively making the case for atheism on this blog, only raise the issue in private when people ask me about it or the topic of religion comes up and I think the information is relevant.

Over the course of time, many of my relatives got to know of my atheism by word of mouth from those who have read my blog or talked to me. This was a source of surprise to them given my more-than-average religiosity before, and they would ask me about it and I would discuss it freely with them. Many of my extended family and friends found many of my arguments plausible and made them reconsider some of their own beliefs. It surprised me how many of them would then hesitantly admit to doubts about their own beliefs, things they had kept suppressed for a long time and not shared with fellow believers. Encountering a nonbeliever they knew personally seemed to provide them with a license to think about things they had hitherto suppressed out of a sense that such thoughts were inappropriate or even evil. Sad, isn’t it, that religion makes people fearful of even thoughts?

The one person with whom I did not discuss the issue at all was with my own mother. She was a firm believer in god. I knew her faith was important to her and I did not want to needlessly concern her about the future of my soul so I avoided the topic and she never raised it with me, although we were close and talked freely about almost everything else.

My mother was a very open-minded and tolerant person who believed that religion called on people to be good to others, not to judge their worthiness for heaven. My silence about my atheism was not due to fears that she would be angry or offended. I knew she would accept me whatever my beliefs. Because she lived in Sri Lanka and we met in person only occasionally and she did not use computers, I was confident that she did not know about my giving up on the faith she so valued even though I was a bit surprised that she never discussed my religious beliefs when we met. I thought that she died last year still thinking I was a Christian.

Hence it was a surprise when my sister (with whom my mother lived in Sri Lanka) told me last week that my mother had known about my atheism all along. Apparently my sister would print out the more interesting blog items, including the ones advocating atheism, and give them to her to read. I asked my sister what my mother’s reaction had been and she said that my mother simply said that my disbelief was probably caused by my scientific outlook and she could understand that, though her own faith was unshaken. My mother’s views about me as a person remained the same.

So while I was wrong about my mother’s state of ignorance about my beliefs, I was not wrong about the way she would react to the news. She probably did not raise the topic directly with me in order to prevent me from being embarrassed at denying to her face the things she believed in. That was just like her. I must say that I was pleased at my sister’s news. It was nice to have it confirmed that what I believed had no affect my mother’s feelings towards me.
I suspect that my story is not unusual. Close family members of most atheists will be just as accepting because for most people the emotional bonds that connect people to each other are far stronger than the ones that people try to have with a distant, unseen, unheard, unfelt, and uncaring god. It is just best for them to learn about one’s atheism indirectly or gradually, so that they get used to the idea at their own pace, rather than jarring them by making a grand announcement.

POST SCRIPT: Great poem

I am not a big fan of poetry of any kind, but this terrific nine-minute beat poem called Storm by Tim Minchin, about his encounter at a dinner party with someone who spouts the anti-science nonsense spawned by religion and other beliefs in the supernatural, is a must-listen. (Thanks to Chaz for the link. Language advisory.)

Holding god to a lower standard

If I fall in a public place, I know from past experience that the strangers around me will try and help me up and ask if I am ok. As far as I know, no law can compel someone to go to the aid of someone else in distress, especially if the action might put the rescuer at some risk. But so strong and universal is the impulse to help others in immediate danger that most people instinctively do it without thinking of the consequences.

There have been some well-publicized cases of people not coming to the aid of another person but such behavior is so unusual that it has merited study and the usual reason is that when there is a group of bystanders involved, as opposed to a single person, inaction often results from each person expecting someone else to take action. But the impulse to help was still there.

Suppose for example, a car was backing up and it was clear that that driver did not see a small child in its path. If a person were in a position to either alert the driver or pluck the child to safety. I am confident that everyone except a true sociopath would act to save the child.

If we saw someone in danger, while we may not be able to do anything practical other than calling for help from others better able to do so, all of us would think it inexcusable to do absolutely nothing, to go on our way as if the plight of the person were none of our concern. Although no legal penalties would attach to such inaction, the social disapproval would be immense. And this disapproval would be much greater if we could have done something at little risk or cost to us.

Unfortunately in our litigious society, some of the targets of such altruistic assistance have sometimes sued the people trying to help them if their good intentions resulted in inadvertent harm, and it has become necessary to pass Good Samaritan laws to protect health care workers and other rescuers from such reprisals, provided the rescuer uses reasonable and prudent measures. Such laws have thus removed another reason for inaction.

It would not help for the offending unhelpful person to give as an excuse that the death of the child due to the backing up car was pre-ordained and meant to serve some greater good, and that he did not want to mess with this cosmic plan. No one would buy his argument, even if he were to quote the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius who said, “Does aught befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the Universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web.” While appeals to some inscrutable cosmic purpose are often invoked in a time of tragedy, the tragedies are rarely asserted to be good things in themselves, and claiming so risks the ire of the person who is suffering the loss.

This raises an interesting contrast. If a person should suffer an untimely death, some say it is all part of god’s plan, and that is accepted as a good reason. But at the same time we say that if a human being can prevent a death but fails to do so, then that person is committing an evil. It is not a defense for that person to argue that there was a higher purpose for not acting.

So whenever tragedy strikes, while we would not approve of the inaction of someone who could have helped another because he thought he was acting according to some grand cosmic plan, religious people are only too willing to accept that excuse when the agent of inaction is god.

The reason is that while religious people can accept that people are not good, they start out with the assumption that god is good, even though there is no evidence to support that position. This requires them to hold god to a lower standard of goodness than they hold their fellow human beings.

In support of this double standard, religious apologists may argue that god is the only one who knows everything and thus is the only one who can truly invoke the ‘great web’ escape clause. Human beings are not privy to perfect knowledge and so must help others just to be on the safe side. But that argument, like all such excuses for god, will only persuade those who want to be persuaded. After all, the offending person can respond that if god had wanted him to help the person in danger, then he would have made him want to help. The fact that god did not induce that feeling in him means that god did not want him to help and so the whole tragedy must have been part of the great web.

But whether applied to a human or god, the ‘great web’ excuse is still silly, platitudinous, and fatalistic nonsense. The appropriate response to its use is that of Bertie Wooster in The Mating Season when Bertie was once again deep in a pickle and there seemed to be no way out and when Jeeves tries to console him by quoting Marcus Aurelius’s words to him. The agitated Bertie responds, “He said that did he? Well, you can tell him from me he’s an ass.”

POST SCRIPT: Jesus the racist

For those who are not familiar with the origin of the phrase ‘Good Samaritan’, it comes from a story Jesus told about our obligation to help others in distress, and that a ‘neighbor’ is anyone who comes to another’s aid (Luke 10: 29-37).

In the story, a man was robbed and beaten by assailants and left for dead by the side of the street. A priest and a Levite, both privileged members of society, come along but they do not stop to help the injured man and even cross to the other side of the street to avoid him. It was a person from the despised Samaritan community who, at considerable time and expense to himself, comes to the victim’s aid.

The BBC comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look puts Jesus’ telling of the Good Samaritan story in a somewhat different light.

Macs and the Devil

The second annual Ask an Atheist forum on February 5 was quite well attended. There were four of us on the panel answering questions. One question dealt with how it came to be that each of us did not believe in god’s existence, and the answers were pretty much the same, that although we had all been brought in religious families, we each realized at some point that it was silly to believe in something which violated all the laws of science and for which there was no evidence.

During my answer, I said that I was somewhat embarrassed that I had arrived at this realization so late in life (in my thirties) while my fellow panelists, two of whom were students, had figured this out while still in their teens. It still amazes me that I did not come to my realization sooner. After all, I had atheist friends in my teens and we argued about god and religion. But their arguments did not convince me then and that makes me wonder how I could have been so oblivious for so long.

I think I have discovered the answer. My atheism was caused by Mac computers.

I began disbelieving in the mid-1980s, around the same time that the Apple Macintosh computers were introduced. I remember the sense of excitement about using the first Macs when they came out in 1984 when Drexel University installed a lab of them and I had so much fun with them. I immediately realized that these were the computers I wanted to use, even though I did not get my own until 1989.

My realization that Macs were the true causes of my conversion to atheism was triggered by this page of the website of an outfit called Objective Ministries that clearly lays out the case of how Apple is the agent of Satan. Little did I know that I was being seduced by the revolutionary new ‘point and click’ operating system into giving up my god-fearing ways, whereas my young fellow panelists had grown up in the age of Macs and thus were indoctrinated much earlier in their lives.

So it is clear that the Macintosh line of computers is deliberately turning people to atheism. This raises an interesting question. If Macs are the tools of the Devil, is Steve Jobs the anti-Christ? Does that make Bill Gates the second coming of Jesus? The incomprehensibility of the old DOS operating system does remind one of religious doctrine. Is Armageddon already here, except that the fight is over market share for personal computers?

Actually, the Objective Ministries website linking Macs to the Devil is a parody but is so well done that initially I was fooled and thought it was real, yet another product of the paranoia of religious people seeing dark plots against religion in all kinds of unlikely places. Another page on this same site that also initially fooled me says that Objective Ministries is seeking to launch an expedition to find living pterosaurs in order to disprove the theory of evolution which says that humans and dinosaurs did not live contemporaneously. It was only when I started researching into who “Dr. Richard Paley” was and the “Fellowship University” where he supposedly taught something called “theobiology” that I discovered the truth.

That I was almost completely taken in by these hoaxes is because religious websites are often so weird and illogical in their message that it is hard to distinguish the real thing from a clever parody. The websites of the religious are so irrational as to make ripe targets for parodists and some are having a lot of fun doing so.

Not all seeming parodies are really so. The website of the Westboro Baptist Church is so over-the-top in its anti-gay bile that it seems like a parody. But the numbers of real people it gets out for its demonstrations seem to suggest that it is either real or has a huge numbers of performance artists working for it for a long time, which seems unlikely. Similarly the counting down to Armageddon of the Rapture Ready site is not known as a parody but its premise is so absurd that it would not surprise me if it was.
Conservapedia is not a parody (as far as I know) but its Wikipedia-modeled open editing platform has led to suspicions that many of the entries are by parodists actually mocking religion, while seeming to be earnest supporters of its 6,000 year old world view.

Although the cover of Objective Ministries has not been completely blown yet, there are some well-known parodies of religious websites that are fun even though, and perhaps because, you know they are parodies. Jesus’ General, Landover Baptist Church, Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are some examples.

But coming back to the issue of the link between atheism and computer preference, Objective Ministries may be on to something, when it asserts in jest that there is a correlation, even a weak one, between using a Mac and religious disbelief. One interesting study might be to see if Mac users are more likely to be unbelievers than Windows or Linux users. Maybe the Pew Research Center should add this question when it conducts its next survey of the religious beliefs of people.

POST SCRIPT: Cookie Monster does not quite get the library concept

Making excuses for god

One of the negative consequences of not pointing out the irrationality of religious beliefs out of a misplaced desire to not give offense is that it allows them to make absurd statements that in any other context would be greeted with incredulity. Over time, they may not even realize that they are saying things that are absurd.

Take for example, this news report about the plane that crashed into a house near Buffalo last week, tragically killing fifty people (sent to me by reader Lisa):

Two people escaped the destroyed house and neighboring homes went unscathed.

“It’s hard to make sense of it today but God hasn’t left us. Two of three people that were in the home that the plane landed on miraculously escaped. A couple people missed the flight and saved their lives,” New York Governor David Paterson told a news conference.

“So we just take what little we can and move forward.”

Because two people in the home fortunately escaped death and two others missed their flight, the governor of New York says that “God hasn’t left us”. God hasn’t left us? What does that even mean? That god was on vacation somewhere and rushed back to avert the tragedy but only got back in time to save a few people? That god is somewhat absent-minded and can’t keep track of everything and so overlooked the fact that a plane was crashing until the last minute? Or is so overwhelmed with things to do and could only spare the lives of a few people?

What explains the fact that the chief executive of New York, the most powerful elected official in the state, can freely make a statement that is not only absurd and meaningless on its face but also cruelly insensitive to the loved ones of those who died, implying that god had better things to do than save them? How can a person entrusted with dealing rationally with real problems affecting so many people make such a clearly meaningless and delusional statement without eliciting any protest whatsoever?

The reason is precisely because many people share Paterson’s delusion, and the rest have been conditioned to think that it is impolite to point out the absurdity of his statement (and the belief system that underlies it) because of the mistaken ‘respect for religion’ trope. You can speak utter tripe but as long as you put the word god somewhere in there in a positive or exculpatory light, you are safe from criticism. Even the people who were bereaved by the accident will refrain from pointing out that the logical implication of Paterson’s statement is that god wanted their own loved ones to die.

While I was irritated at the cruel insensitivity of Paterson’s remarks, I wondered if the bereaved people in such situations are also secretly outraged by such statements but are intimidated by the ‘respect for religion’ trope and thus remain silent, or if they too have been so brainwashed that they are willing to accept the weird idea that this kind of appalling tragedy is all part of a loving and benevolent god’s mysterious plan, and that god targeting their loved ones for an untimely death serves some noble purpose.

The reason that Paterson can cavalierly say these things is because such idiotic statements are never questioned since the delusion he suffers from is widespread. It is the kind of thing that is repeatedly said and we have come to think of as making sense. As author Robert M. Pirsig said, “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion.” (quoted in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 5)

The reason that most of us do not say out loud everything that pops into our heads is that we screen them first to see if they make sense. But because vacuous religious statements have not been criticized, over time the habit of screening them seems to have atrophied. Religious believers have been given the benefit of being allowed to say absurd things without any consequence. As a result, such statements multiply and become even more delusional over time, which is why religions have become towering edifices of irrational beliefs, houses of cards that have to be carefully shielded from the winds of skepticism. The fact that they have lasted so long is a testament to the triumph of religion as a propaganda system.

It would be good if more and more people do not accept the idea that pointing out delusional thinking is intolerant or impolite. Then we can keep blowing at those houses of cards, and eventually they will fall down.

POST SCRIPT: Fry and Laurie on different views of madness

Portrayals of the developing world

So Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture, Best Director, and a slew of other awards at the Academy Awards last night. I have not seen the film, but have been thinking recently about the way that the developing world is portrayed in western culture.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the much-hailed book Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. I had been hearing about this book and its anniversary for some time but did not read it until last month. It tells the story of one man but that story is merely the pillar to wrap other things around, mainly to describe the structure of life in a small Nigerian village as the British colonists, led by missionaries, start to make inroads into that country around the beginning of the twentieth century. Much of the book describes the traditional life and practices and religious beliefs of the villagers and what happens to their culture with the arrival of the colonialists and their new ways and religion.
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The ‘bad atheist’ strikes again

My post last week on religious faith versus scientific commitment to certainty generated some interesting comments that I started to respond to in the comments section but it got too long (my usual vice) and I decided to do a separate post on the topic.

In the comments, I was accused of wanting to ‘banish’ or ‘abolish’ religion and that this was intolerant, akin to those of Christian missionaries who went to Asia and Africa seeking to convert heathen and in doing so disparaged the indigenous beliefs of the people living there. My phrases “getting rid of religion is the goal” and “Religion, on the other hand, is purely a propaganda system and will only die if its weaknesses and its lack of any empirical basis are relentlessly pointed out” were quoted as examples of my lack of tolerance.
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The politics of food-9: Sustainable farming

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

For me, the most interesting part of the book (p. 190-237) was the section on sustainable farming, in particular what is known as ‘grass farming’. Grass farmers grow animals for meat, eggs, milk, and wool. But the whole system is designed as a food chain based on grass. It is a surprisingly precise process, starting with understanding the life cycle of grass.
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