Sunday, July 26, 2009

Some Values

By way of Pandagon, I have learned that Rush Limbaugh has been invited to be one of the speakers at the 2009 Values Voters Summit, one of those get-togethers of right-wing cultural conservatives to complain about how liberals, feminists and atheists are undermining the country's moral foundation.

Personally, I find it rather interesting that such a gathering would seek to include a thrice divorced Viagra® fuelled tourist to the Dominican Republic to pontificate on matters of traditional family values. Of course, what matters to these people is not Rush's morals, or lack thereof, but of his ability to promote their ideological agenda. After all, everyone has values. But it is these right wing conservatives who seek to make matters of morality their personal monopoly.

Drops of Water In A Water Jar - Part 2 - How About Drops of Water In A Water Barrel?

A couple of of months ago, I purchased a rain water collection barrel made by Fiskars. However, because I lacked a special kind of drill bit needed for drilling a one inch hole in the side of the barrel, and I never seemed to find the time to get to the store to by it, it was only today that I finally got it set up.

While Long Island has thus far had more than its fair share of rain this summer, there have been a few years here and there where we have had lack of rainfall. So, the rain barrel will certainly come in handy for situations like that. However, my primary intention is to use it as my first source for water when I water my vegetable garden, which by the way, is coming along nicely. I hope to be able to start harvesting the lettuce, carrots and broccoli in August.

In order for the rain barrel to be useful though, I need it to start raining so that enough water accumulates inside to rise above the level of the spout. If the weather forecast is anything to go by, the storm we are supposed to get tonight should help make this a reality.

The only downside is that I had to place the barrel so that it stands several feet away from the house rather than standing alongside the wall. The barrel is connected to a gutter at the northeast corner in the back of the house, which, from an aesthetic standpoint, is not exactly ideal. Nevertheless, if all goes well, it should help to reduce somewhat our household's water use.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Conformity - The Foundation That Props Up The System

As I have mentioned before on this blog, my wife believes in god in the Christian sense of the word. She also knows that I am an atheist. Apart from having our children baptized (I was raised Catholic and she is still at least nominally one), I have been successful at keeping religion out of their lives. My kids know that I don't believe in god either. However, I also stress to them that they should never tell any of their friends or classmates who mention god to say things like "My daddy says there is no god" or to otherwise talk about the issue.

Yesterday morning though, for reasons I cannot recall, the subject of god came up as I was making ready to leave for work. My wife suddenly came over and started saying things to the kids like "It's better to believe in god then not to believe in god," to which I replied "Which one, honey?" She sort of dodged the question, but kept insisting to the kids "If someone asks you if you believe in god, you have to say yes. You have to conform or else everyone will make fun of you." And she repeated a number of times about the necessity of conformity.

Of course, it is no secret that an important factor in the staying power of religious belief, or at least organized religious belief such as Roman Catholicism, is the power of conformity. To not believe is considered strange, so one should profess belief, whatever one's doubts may be, for fear of being ostracized by the community at large.

I also suspect my wife's cultural background plays a part in her concerns. In her native Philippines, the vast majority of the people are Roman Catholic, except for the Muslim majority in the southern part of the country. And many Filipinos are staunchly Catholic, as I have seen not only from visiting the country on two occasions, but in visiting the homes of Filipino immigrants here in the United States. Most Filipino-Americans have at least one area in their homes set aside for displaying all sorts of Catholic paraphernalia, including images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus on the cross, candles with crosses or other religious imagery on them, and so forth. Coming from that cultural environment, my wife probably projects the pervasiveness of god belief onto American society as well. Of course, there are many parts of the United States where this holds true, but at least in my corner of suburban Long Island, I don't feel any personal pressure to conform to religious belief. I don't advertise my atheism, and nobody really seems to care what my beliefs are.

But back to my children, my goal is not so much to raise them to be atheists but rather to be religiously neutral. Rather than having a particular religious doctrine drilled into them, I would prefer that they be taught about different religious beliefs along with my own secular humanist outlook and make their own informed choices when they get older.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Of course I'm still going to burn in hell when I die!

This afternoon, I had another one of those moments where circumstance put me in the position of going out of my way to help a complete stranger. And of course, I couldn't help but go through with it.

Around 2:30, feeling a little sleepy-headed at my desk, I decided to go across the street to Cosi and get my usual iced mocha with soy. As I normally do, I went down to the concourse below street level and emerged on the other side, at 48th and 6th. As I was ascending the stairs to street level, I saw a woman on the sidewalk above look down and then call out to a group of people who had just walked by, "Excuse me, did one of you drop an ATM card!"

I emerged onto the sidewalk at that moment. One young African-American woman came over to take a look just as I reached down for it. I read off the name, which was clearly a Korean name, though I could not determine the gender, and the woman turned around and went back the way she was going, knowing that it was not hers.

It was a Citibank debit card with a toll free number on the back. I decided I would get my iced mocha and then call the number when I got back to my desk. Naturally, I botched the number at first, because Citibank, like so many other companies, uses letters instead of numbers (which is something that really fucking annoys me!), and I wrote down one of the numbers wrong. After realizing my error upon encountering numerous busy signals, I dialed the correct number and spoke to a customer service representative. I gave her my work and telephone number so that the cardholder could call me.

To my surprise, the cardholder must have gotten the message rather swiftly, as I received a call from an outside line around 4 p.m., with the voice of a heavily accented Korean lady on the other line. In addition to her accent, she must have been in a rather cavernous room, as there was a tremendous echo that made it difficult to understand her. She acknowledged the echo and told me that she would call me back. Several minutes later she called again, and we made arrangements to meet at the corner of 6th and 47th.

To wrap this story up, I met her at the appointed location and returned her ATM debit card to her. After the exchange of the usual pleasantries in situations like this, we went our separate ways.

So what are the lessons to be learned from this? First, ducking away from your desk to grab an iced coffee drink can become the catalyst for doing a good deed. Second, for religious people reading this who like to diss' on atheists, someday a total stranger will go out of his or her way to help you, and that stranger might turn out to be an atheist.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hiking The Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt Trail

This morning I finally had the opportunity to do something I have been meaning to do for quite some time, to hike a portion of Trail View State Park, which is itself part of the Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt Trail, which extends from Massapequa Lake near the South Shore, up to Cold Spring Harbor on the North Shore. (No jokes about Argentine mistresses, please!)

I accessed the trail from the parking lot on Jericho Turnpike and headed north. To my surprise, and pleasure, I had the hiking portion of the trail virtually to myself. To the left, about 50 feet, is a trail for bikers, and every now and then I would see one of them heading south on the trail. Early on in my walk, I encountered an elderly couple coming from the opposite direction, and then afterwards a younger guy jogging, also heading southwards.

The trail itself starts off deceptively easy. For about the first third to half a mile, the ground is mostly flat, with occasional rises and dips. But after half a mile or so, the terrain becomes noticeably more hilly. The trail itself is quite narrow, and at times, looking to either side, you can see houses or other buildings through breaks in the tree cover. In spite of it, the trail was rather quiet, broken only by the calls of the various birds who inhabit the park. A number of times I paused to listen to and watch the birds, including one very noisy gray catbird. I also spotted a couple of
Eastern Chipmunks, which are distinguishable from field mice by the stripes on their backs.

But by far, the most unusual thing I encountered on the trail was the remains of an automobile. The chassis was gone, and all that was left was the interior. Given that the part of the trail where it sits is rather secluded and hilly, I must confess I am baffled as to how it got there. The next time I hike the trail I will bring my camera with me and take a picture of it.

Being that this is suburban Long Island, it is impossible to completely avoid civilization while hiking the trail. After about three quarters of a mile, I emerged at the intersection of Syosset and Woodbury Road. You have to cross the road, looking both ways of course, and pick up the trail again on the other side. The beginning part of this section of the trail winds up a rise in the ground before becoming straight again. It was here that I stopped again, as this section of the trail seemed to be a gathering place for a multitude of birds of different species emitting their calls as they flitted about from one tree branch to another. There were cardinals, gray catbirds (who were rather ubiquitous in the park), robins, blue jays, and one or two others that I did not recognize.

After another quarter mile, I finally saw what had been the goal I set for myself, a section of the Long Island Rail Road's Huntington line. I was on a hill overlooking the tracks, and it was here that the trail became confusing, as it wasn't clear to me whether the bike trail and the foot trail came together. As I wound my way down the hill towards the track, I found myself walking on trails that had visible tire tracks. Fortunately though, no bikers came by at the moment, and I gradually descended down to a private gravel road called Whitney Lane. A section of the road continued underneath the rail road track, and led to the driveways of two houses that were themselves out of view. I thought to myself, "Now these are people who must really cherish their seclusion."

I crossed to the other side of Whitney Lane and followed a path that led right up to the rail road tracks. It was quiet and the tree cover mostly blocked out the backyards of the houses on either side. Standing there, I couldn't help but think of the movie Stand By Me.

Having reached my objective, I still found myself wanting to press on a little further. I walked back down to Whitney Road and went underneath the elevated portion of the track and turned left to where the trail picks up again. Almost immediately upon entering this part of the trail I found to my surprise a stand of bamboo. For a brief moment, I felt as though I was in some bamboo forest in China.

Passing through the bamboo stand, the trail then zigzagged its way up another steep hill. I decided I would make my way to the top of the hill and call it a day. Not only did I have a family obligation in the afternoon that I had to get back home and get ready for, my water supply was running low and I was beginning to feel fatigued.

When I made it back down to Whitney Road, I saw a man up ahead walking his dog, a large white poodle. The man was ahead of the dog, which had stopped to look at me and would not move. The man turned back to see why his dog wasn't moving and saw me. The dog became rather animated as I approached, so I let it sniff and lick my hand for a moment.

I then began the arduous journey back the way I had came. As this section was rather hilly, every walk uphill felt physically draining. I encountered another couple, probably in their fifties, heading in the direction from which I had come. I declared to them, "The trip back really knocks the wind out of you" or something like that, to which they chuckled in reply.

The walk back was like playing back the hike in reverse, only faster, as this time I was not pausing to listen to or observe my surroundings. I began to notice familiar landmarks from earlier, the derelict automobile, a fallen tree, an open area where there was little tree cover and one could feel the hot rays of the sun. Rather than drinking what was left of the water in my bottle, I instead liberally pressed the button to spray my face with mist. The ground eventually became level again and I could see the parking lot. All in all, I hiked about two and a half miles round trip in a little more than an hour and a half. It was an invigorating walk and I look forward to my next outing.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Dragonfly

While I was watering the garden the other day, I saw land on one of the plants the dragonfly you see above. Unless my memory fails me, I do believe it is the largest one I have ever seen. When it had settled down on the branch, I just knew I had to take a picture of it, so I ran inside and retrieved my camera to snap this shot. I then went around to the front of the house to try and get a picture of the dragonfly from behind, but as I got into position to take the picture, it suddenly took off.

Why Does Jesus Need a Military Jet Flyover?

Plenty has already been written in the atheist blogosphere (like here, for example) about the Pentagon's recent decision to break with a 42 year tradition and refuse a request by the God and Country festival in Idaho for a flyover by military jets.

However, reading about it reminded me of this scene from the generally abysmal Star Trek V.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Something From Nothing

Physicist Lawrence Krauss recently had an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) inspired by his participation in a panel discussion at the recent World Science Festival in New York City (and as an aside, I so wanted to be able to attend but was not able to) titled "Science, Faith and Religion."

Krauss refers to "J.B.S. Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and a founder of population genetics, [who] understood that science is by necessity an atheistic discipline. As Haldane so aptly described it, one cannot proceed with the process of scientific discovery if one assumes a "god, angel, or devil" will interfere with one's experiments. God is, of necessity, irrelevant in science."

Krauss goes on to conclude "while scientific rationality does not require atheism, it is by no means irrational to use it as the basis for arguing against the existence of God, and thus to conclude that claimed miracles like the virgin birth are incompatible with our scientific understanding of nature."

As can be expected, Krauss's op-ed provoked a number of spirited responses in the Letters to the Editor page in the July 3rd edition of the Journal. Again, a subscription to the online edition of the Journal is needed to see the letters in their entirety.

First up is Catholic bishop William Lori, who maintains that science cannot "without ethical limits and respectful conversation with other disciplines, including the humanities and theology, can eventually explain all there is to know about human life and the universe in which we live."

Maybe so, but how can theology explain anything about the universe in which we live? And whose theology? This conceit rests on the assumption that certain people have had insights about our universe personally communicated to them by its creator. For example, before Galileo first peered into the night sky with his telescope, in what way were his observations informed by Catholic theology? Galileo in no way expected to see moons orbiting Jupiter, rings around Saturn, or sun spots on our sun.

What I would concede, though I don't expect my fellow atheists to agree with me, is that theology can provide a framework by which we can choose to see ourselves in relation to the universe, as well as to each other and our environment. But such a framework would be necessarily subjective.

Next in the firing line is one David Cartwright of Lake Zurich, Illinois. Cartwright evidently was too obtuse to understand Krauss's reference to Haldane when he asks "Atheism provides no foundation whatsoever for science. On what basis can an atheist assume there should or will be order in the universe? And when he sees order, where does he think it came from? And on what basis can he even trust his reason?"

On what basis? How about observation or experimentation? I would ask, in a universe with an interventionist god, how can we trust anything? After all, if the god of the Bible exists, I can't rule out the possibility that when I wake up tomorrow, the moon will orbit the Earth in the opposite direction or that a volcano will emerge here on Long Island, where there is no history of vulcanism.

Next, Cartwright burps out "Further, the atheist has no explanation for where the world came from, yet science indicates it had a beginning." I am going to be charitable and assume that Cartwright meant the "universe" instead of the "world," because science does have an explanation for where our world came from. In short, small particles orbiting the sun billions of years ago collided with one another to form protoplanets which continued to grow as they accreted more materials. Contrast that with the Biblical account in Genesis, which claims that the Earth was created by God and plants grew upon it before the creation of the sun around which the Earth orbits.

As for the universe, I am constantly amazed that a theist thinks that an atheist's inability to explain the origin of the universe means that the theist wins by default. Rather, to me, the two sides can be summed up as "God did it" versus "We can't be certain at the moment, but it is a fascinating and important subject and we expect that continued study will reveal more and more clues to how it happened."

Cartwright then goes on to roll out the popular canard that "atheists, if honest, will admit they have no basis for objective morals, or the dignity and freedom of man." And as I keep saying in response to this allegation, religious believers have no objective basis for morality either. What they subscribe to is a set of subjective beliefs that have been wrapped up in the guise of divine command to give them the appearance of objectivity. After all, if atheism is to be blamed for the Holocaust, then Christianity must be to blame for the vicious pogroms against the Jews during the Crusades and at various regions and time periods in Europe. When you believe that someone who does not share your religious beliefs is an enemy of god and deserves to suffer for an eternity in the afterlife, then I fail to see how you can believe in that other person's right to dignity and freedom.

Following Cartwright is Martin Bednar of North Stonington, Connecticut. Like Carwright, Bednar asks "If the universe was not ultimately created by an almighty God, then where did it come from? Without an eternal omnipotent being, Mr. Krauss must conclude that the universe, ultimately, came from nothing." But why limit ourselves to one omnipotent being? Maybe there is an entire race of higher beings who collectively created our universe. However, even if one eternal and omnipotent being created everything, it does not necessarily follow that this being picked our little speck of a planet in the vast cosmos to promise a patch of land in the Middle East to a man named Abraham, and then a couple of thousand years later this deity decides to impregnant a virgin Jewish teenage girl in the Galilee.

Bednar laments that under atheism, "the truth would always be a moving target and always relative, defined only by the individual or by the society the individual lives in." Well, I already addressed that above in response to Cartwright. That is always going to happen, no matter what moral system one lives under, because humanity will never reach a state where everyone agrees on everything which will last in perpetuity from then on. There will always be conflict between those who feel the system does not give them a fair shake and those who want to deny others a fair shake, or deny that inequity even exists, because they feel it would violate their own privileged position. And while the Catholic Church's requirement for celibacy for priests is viewed as a matter of immutable doctrine, if the number of Catholic priests continued to shrink until it threatened the very existence of the Church itself, does anyone really doubt that a future pope would not find some theological hook upon which to hang the newly conferred right of priests to marry in order to increase the number or priests? If this does occur at some point in the future, would it be fair to say that doctrinal truth was adjusting to a change in social conditions?

Now we turn to Brett Alder of San Diego, California. Alder claims that "It is a religious notion that 'all men are created equal.'" No, Mr. Alder. It is a secular notion that we are all to be equal under the law. It is a religious notion that we are created equal in the eyes of a loving god, though of course that equality seems subject to modification. What one believes about whether god exists or what god wants seems to make some people more equal than others according to the doctrines of various religions. Evangelical Christians believe that I as an atheist deserve to burn in hell. Muslims believe that I as an atheist deserve to burn in hell. Evangelical Christians believe that Muslims deserve to burn in hell, and Muslims feel likewise about the Christians. All I can say is that they are both equally deluded.

Lastly, there is Professor Thomas Woolley of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Woolley claims that it "is this Western religious belief in a reasoned creator that laid the foundation and became the catalyst for the scientific revolution, ultimately leading to the crowning of the modern priesthood of scientists." I have seen this argument before, that Christianity was necessary for bringing about the scientific revolution. To be honest, I have not devoted a lot of time to trying to come up with a response to this argument. But let's pretend it's true. It still does not prove that the creator of the universe impregnated a virgin Jewish teenage girl in the Galilee who gave birth to a man who would perform miracles and rise from the dead. What it would suggest is that the intellectual climate in late medieval Christian Europe served as a scaffolding for erecting the edifice of scientific inquiry and advance. As with any building or structure that is constructed though, the scaffolding is eventually torn down and the structure still remains in place.

In parting, I wish to thank the gentlemen I quote above for giving me something to blog about.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Thorns In His Side

One of the blogs I visit frequently is Gordo's Appletree, the link to which appears to the right under my Brothers and Sisters in Disbelief blogroll. Like myself, Gordo is generally liberal in his political and social views, though his blog leans more towards political topics. One of the regular commenters at Appletree is a crusty conservative South Carolinian septaguenarian who goes by the moniker "Bedrocktruth." One of the things that Bedrock (I leave out the "truth" part on purpose!) constantly bewails is how liberals and atheists have destroyed the public expression of religious faith, particularly that of Christianity, in this country.

Anyway, I was looking through my copy of Secret and Sacred: The Diaries of James Henry Hammond, a Southern Slaveholder for information to respond to comments Bedrock made on one of Gordo's posts when I came across a little known incident in the history of the separation of church and state in the United States.

While almost everyone in America knows about Mark Sanford, the current governor of South Carolina and his propensity for "hiking the Appalachian Trail" in Buenos Aires (and didn't the bastard catch a lucky break with Michael Jackson's death diverting some of the media attention away from him?), Sanford is not the first controversial governor in that southern state that was first in secession.

James Henry Hammond was born in 1807 into a family of modest means in the best of times. But he evidently grew to become a handsome and dashing young man. He managed quite a coup for himself when he courted and married a plantation heiress in 1831. From there, Hammond became involved in politics and got elected to the House of Representatives. In Congress, he was an ardent defender of slavery, which he described as "the greatest of all the blessings which a kind Providence has bestowed upon our favored region." In the 1840's, he would be elected governor of South Carolina.

In his diary entry dated November 21, 1844, Hammond writes of the following incident:

I announced and set apart the 3rd day of October for Thanksgiving. In my Proclamation I invited the State to worship "God the Creator and His Son Jesus Christ the Redeemer of the World." The Jews of Charleston took great offence, announced themselves greatly displeased at being apparently excluded, and called on me for an explanation through the public papers and by private letter. I informally answered them through Col. Pinckney, Sec. of State, in Charleston that it was an oversight. But they wanted some public notice and apology. They refused to open their Synagogues and finally about the 5th inst. addressed me a long and impertinent Memorial and signed, I presume, by every Jew in Charleston, 110 names. I answered it pretty sharply, refused to make an apology, and defended my Proclamation. I hoped the matter would end there. But they called a meeting, had a report in reply to my letter, and published the whole in yesterday's Charleston papers. My letter badly printed, which I must have corrected up here. This will be a three days talk for the public. But it has drawn on me the everlasting and malignant hostility of the whole tribe of Jews, which is very unpleasant in many ways. Their Report declares that they wish to drop the matter, and so do I. Publicly it will end here, but privately they will be thorns in my side.

So, while people like Bedrock and other conservatives cling to a mythical American past where public expressions of Christianity were the norm until those awful atheists and ACLU people came along and wrecked everything in the 1960's, the episode described by Hammond in his diary shows that even as far back as 1844, in conservative South Carolina nonetheless, religious minorities protested against official government proclamations that favored Christianity to the exclusion of other religions.

The supreme irony in this though is that Hammond, like Mark Sanford, also had a propensity for "hiking the Appalachian Trail," which included making mistresses out of some of his African-American slave girls, as well as debauching several of his own nieces.

Now, though I am an atheist, I don't have any problem with people being Christians, nor do I object to public displays of religious faith. But I should think, and hope, that even many Christians would agree with me that politicians who wear Jesus Christ on their sleeves in public should be regarded with a great deal of skepticism.