Grant Rants

Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

A royal baby? Who cares? Cosmos returns!!!

- July 22nd, 2013

carl-sagan

“The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

I have a rule when I am on vacation: no news writing. I do not write any news while on holidays because I use my time off to recharge. It is a rule which has, for the last two weeks, been beyond frustrating.
More scandals in the Catholic church (and to mention the hilariously moronic push by the Vatican to forgive sins if believers would just follow the pope’s Twitter page), the prime ministers official enemies list, and news that that pox upon humanity known as Glee is doing a two our special on the Beatles — Listen, you vile pestilence upon music, keep your hands off the Fab Four! You’ve already butchered KISS and AC/DC, leave the boys from Liverpool alone for frak’s sake!

But even as I fought the temptation to rant about these things and more, I was bombarded by news that Kate Whatsherface — the rich woman who married the British prince — is having her baby. It’s apparently a boy. Coverage of the birth of yet another privileged member of the impotent monarchy has become so nauseatingly wall-to-wall and given such a sense of importance that I’m expecting three Persians to show up at Buckingham Palace bearing gifts of gold, frankincense  and myrrh.

I cannot muster up even a little enthusiasm for the arrival of this child, who will one day occupy tabloid headlines and inherit a throne that is to Canadian politics what the appendix is to human anatomy.

And besides, there is way more exiting news than the spawn of a prince. Cosmos is back baby!

In 1980 the original Cosmos: a Personal Voyage was a 13 part TV series hosted by the late, great Carl Sagan. It was about history, discovery, science, astronomy and our place in an unthinkably vast universe. It was brilliant and for many people, myself included, an the perfect introduction the power and glory of science and reason and beautifully bizarre mysteries of the universe we inhabit. The series and its companion book left a deep imprint on my psyche.  From the moment I saw the first episode as a kid, I was hooked.

Since Cosmos aired, there has been talk of a sequel. But the show was not a quick knock off. It was an expansive series, using (at the time) state of the art special effects to add verve to Sagan’s commentary and lessons. It was as entertaining as it was educational and inspiring. Alas, Sagan passed away before any sequel could be made.

But the man many regard as Sagan’s successor as the public educator of science par excellence, Neil deGrasse Tyson is hosting the sequel titled “Cosmos: a space-time odyssey”. It is aSagan-Calrissian-Tyson-600x337lso 13 parts and will air next year. The trailer looks incredible. Tyson, who is basically what you get when you cross Carl Sagan with Lando Calrissian, is the prefect man for the job of filling Sagan’s shoes.

Interestingly, it is being aired on Fox in the United States, not exactly a television network known for broadcasting programing with intelligence. What this means, I think, is that the kind of wonder about the universe and science Sagan created in 1980 will reach the eyes and ears of those who normally might not watch a show about science.

Be prepared to feel gloriously small in a beautifully vast universe. No royal baby will ever be able to create that kind of wonder and light the fire of curiosity like Cosmos can:

Grant Rant postscript: The cowardice of moral relativism

- June 3rd, 2013

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

There are days when I fear for the fate of the species. Sometimes we just seem so dumb, that the stupid burns so hot,  there seems little hope.

Chief among the things that mystify me is the prevalence of moral relativism — the idea that everything is good in its own context. “Right” and “wrong” are not even debatable issues from this point of view because they do not really exist. In other words, while we in Canada might find something horrific, say executing people for the imaginary crime of blasphemy, but if some other country wants to do that well, who are we to criticize them? It’s their culture, leave them alone.

It is, insofar as I can tell, craven political ideology. A philosophy that will allow suffering to go on because it does not directly impact our own backyard. While this is most often applied to religion, used particularly by those who defend the brutal excesses of despotic Islamic regimes of the middle east, it also apparently can be applied when talking about how gay people are treated in Africa.

This week I published my regular Grant Rant column about a law recently passed by Nigeria,  a fellow British Commonwealth nation, that makes gay marriage punishable by 14 years in prison. Those helping the couple get married or even voicing support for the concept of gay marriage will get 10 years behind bars. Over in another African Commonwealth state, Uganda, homosexuality is punishable by death. In Uganda it is effectively legal to murder a person for the imaginary crime of being gay.

I posted  a poll with this column, asking if readers felt Canada should do more to defend the rights of gay people abroad. Canada already has an office dedicated to helping fight religious persecution oversees, so why not do the same for people who are being jailed or killed for being gay?

The response was, I am sorry to say, disheartening. At the time I write this, nearly 60% of respondents say no, Canada should leave well enough alone when it comes to gay people in Africa. True, this is not a scientific poll and the same size is ridiculously too small to draw any conclusions, but it is a frightening  nonetheless.

Worse, were some reader comments who jumped on the moral relativist bandwagon, suggesting that Canada has no business telling another nation to stop murdering innocent citizens.

Reader “truththorold” says:

Is this argument really any different than immigrants who come to Canada and want to rewrite our laws ? Facial coverings and daggers for example ? We believe what we believe and we live here and our laws reflect that. They can believe whatever they want and make laws accordingly. Majority rules in that regard. If people don’t like whats going on they should relocate, but not try to change wherever they arrive to suit them.

And consider this reply by way of a for instance, from a reader who goes under the handle “Tyresias“:

And of course our way is the right way and we should go over there and tell them that they are wrong and they should do things the way we do. Sounds kind of familiar – you know – the Muslim extremists and how they think everyone should be like them.

This is an argument that requires one to dismiss all ideas of freedom, equality, justice, human solidarity and compassion. What this person is saying is that if gay people are put to death in Uganda or jailed in Nigeria for being a homosexual, so be it. That is their way, and who are we to say it is wrong.

This poster goes on to explain that Nigeria may find some Canadian laws objectionable, so we have no right to tell them to what to do:

Then you go right over and tell their government how to run things. And be sure to being back their list of objectionable Canadian policies. Because I’m sure they are just as righteous as you are.

Another reader, “James McCollick” defends this point view by saying:

Typical arrogance. Just because you believe something is right that doesn’t make it so.

Consider carefully what is being said here: Who are we to say killing someone for their sexual orientation is wrong? The Ugandan way is just as moral and right as the Canadian one in it’s own context. Essentially, they are using moral relativism as an justification for murder. To say “murder is wrong” is the height of arrogance.

Still others go on to say that we should not criticize Nigeria for jailing gay people and suppressing free speech because Nigeria is actually better than Canada on some fronts. Even if that were true, which it is not, how does Nigeria doing well in one area mean that jailing a gay couple for 14 years is just?

Reader “Chip Meister” had this to say:

Do you really think Nigeria is going to take criticism from Canada???
Nigeria already outshines Canada in many other areas. Why should/would they listen to our voice???
Here are just a few points where Canada could take some lessons from Nigeria.
Their economy is RED-HOT!!!
Nigeria sends out more peacekeepers around the world than any other country in the world. They have more soldiers on peace keeping missions than the US, Canada and EU!!!
I am really surprised that you neglected to mention Nigeria’s record for freedom of press. Nigeria won the Free Press Africa Award last year. How many Canadian journalists would give up their life in attempting to get the truth out?
Perhaps it would be best for Canada to look inward first before criticizing people in a country that few Canadian’s have ever been or are even thinking of travelling [sic] to. Have you been to Nigeria???

So, because Nigeria has peace keepers, an active economy and some brave journalists, Canada should say nothing about the active and systematic repression of people who have done nothing other than be born a homosexual and wanting to live a happy life. It apparently has not occurred to this poster than if any of these brave reporters speak out in defense of gay marriage, they can be thrown in prison for a decade. Free speech is the heystone of a free press, and to suggest that Nigeria, a nation that crushes the very notion of free speech in order to step on the throats of those its government considers undesirable, is laughable at best.

Canada is not prefect. We make mistakes. We have our own messes to clean up. But we do not jail or kill people for marrying the person they love or for just being gay. That difference is not trivial. Our way is, by any honest moral or ethical standard, better.

What these commenters have in common is a refusal to consider the human cost of the laws of Uganda and Nigeria and other like nations. They apparently regard the putting to death or imprisonment of innocent people as a debatable point, one that can argued in the same way that one could debate the merits of a parliamentary democracy vs  a republican one, or an argument over who has the most effective j-walking regulations.

Such a view is shameful and cowardly. It is also hypocritical. I have no doubt that if Nigeria was rounding up Jews or Christians, or people with white skin, and imprisoning them for a decade or more, the outrage would be palpable. These are often the same people that will rail against the brutality of the Jihadist, but suggest we should say nothing about a Commonwealth government committing horrors.

“What’s good for us is good for us, and what is good for them is good for them,” rings hollow when what is “good for them” is a pile of bodies and destroyed lives.

Some of us have not learned from history it seems. Prior to start of World War Two, Jews fleeing Germany appealed for help from the West. But no one cared to believe or take seriously the stories of innocent people being rounded up into ghettos, or herded into death camps. The prevailing attitudes of the day, dripping with anti-semitic bigotry and a desire to avoid more war, was to simply pretend it wasn’t important, to ignore the human costs, and say “it’s not our business.”

It is our business. It is part of what being Canadian is about. It is part of what having a free society is about. Our convictions mean nothing if we say they only apply to ourselves, the rest of the world be damned. The murder or jailing of a person who has done no wrong and caused no harm is never moral. It is indefensible. And those who do defend it should to be ashamed of themselves.

Friday Hitchslap for Friday, Dec. 7, 2012

- December 7th, 2012

HITCHSLAP: The process of utterly obliterating an opponent’s entire (usually religious or political) argument, usually in one or more succinct or terse statements, orally or in writing; employed almost exclusively by Christopher Hitchens.

No long intro into this today. Just the Hitch doing what he did.

Some final thoughts on Savita Halappanavar

- November 21st, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

So this week’s Grant Rant was about Savita Halappanavar, a dentist in Ireland who died because while her pregnancy was killing her and the fetus could not be saved, she was denied a life saving abortion on the grounds that Ireland is a Catholic country and abortion is wrong.

The reaction from some readers, as I have briefly noted, decided to take some shots at me rather than talk about the issue. Which is fine. It comes with the job. But the issue itself is, in fact, what matters. A spectrum of responses  in the comments section to that column are worth taking a look at.

They all share one thing in common: they ignore the fact that a woman is dead and fall into two broad catagories: Abortion is always wrong and religion is never wrong. Here are two key ones worth exploring.

1) Abortions never save a mother’s life:

It seems pretty clear by the facts of the case that have been released thus far that had Halappanavar been granted the abortion, she would have survived. At least the odds of her survival would have risen dramatically. However, the religious pro-lifers make an argument that, medically speaking, no woman ever has been saved by an abortion. This is the argument put forward today in that silly publication, the Holy Post,  by Andrea Mrozek who claims that good medical care saves lives and as medical care improves maternal mortality goes down and therefore no abortion has saved any woman, ever, anyplace.

Yes, thank you, Andrea Mrozek for pointing out that with better medical care few people die. So what? It has less than nothing to do with the case here. It’s a giant smelly red herring. The kind the Knights of Ni will ask you cut down the tallest tree in the forest with. The sad truth is that there are some medical conditions like preeclampsia and tubal pregnancies which, in some circumstances can only be resolved by ending the pregnancy. It’s awful, it’s grim but that is the facts. Fortunately they are not the norm, but they do happen. When they do, you cannot save the fetus. The only option is to save the mother or they both die. QED. At the point, those who want to make the argument that an abortion is NEVER necessary to save a woman have chosen to jump down the rabbit hole of faith thinking rather than deal with reality. And then people die.

2)The non-religious cannot make moral choices, like wanting to save Halappanavar.

This tortured argument goes like this: Saying Halappanavar should have been saved is a moral choice, and since morals cannot be decided by science, the desire to save her is a kind of faith thinking. Therefore, there is no grounds to say she should saved unless one accepts the morals of a religion, in this case, Catholicism.

This is in effect, the old moral argument for god which claims we cannot know right from wrong without divine warrant.

I think the first place to start to answer this one is from Christopher Hitchens, who demolishes the argument better than I can. It’s worth viewing the full interview. But I will say this. We know that our evolved faculties, including our ethical and moral impulses, are innate in us. They are not perfect, but they are there and are powerful. As social creatures we would not be able to even form the smallest groups that function if they didn’t.  Choosing to guide one’s ethics by saying that that reducing or eliminating suffering is a worthy cause neither requires, nor is dependent upon, the guidance of an unseen hand. And science can indeed be a guide by providing us with a clearer view of reality. If morals and ethics can be seen, as they I think they can (and I tend to agree with Sam Harris on this point) about human well being, then science is a powerful tool to help us decide action.

What I have taken away from some of the visceral response to that column is that there is a spectrum of “pro-lifers” who hold human life very cheaply. The death of a woman is vastly less important to them that the often, I dare say, irrational defense of the mixture of theology and politics that lead to her demise. The faith is more important than life. Even though there was no saving the fetus in this case, no exception can be made, even though the consequence was obvious.

When belief in the supernatural trumps the hard facts on the ground, when they contribute the death of an innocent, something has gone very wrong. Those who defend this view, ought to be ashamed of themselves.

The unforgiving minute and sixty seconds’ worth of distance run

- October 26th, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

Came across this the other day, a video featuring Rudyard Kipling poem “If” which is one of my favorites of all time. Not much to say other than the poem, and the video, and all it represents gives me chills. Soak it in and tell me it doesn’t give you chills.

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

I get feedback: Atheists don’t give to charity edition, part 2

- October 22nd, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

So following up to part one of getting feedback on my latest Grant Rant, I did get emails from atheists who said, yes, organizing atheists is sometimes a challenge for charity and it’s an issue in the community, BUT it is happening.

By way of a for instance, take the B.C. Humanists which is raising money for cancer research and treatment. It’s good stuff. Check them out:

In a recent column [18 Oct 2012, Mere atheism isn't enough -- help your community] Grant LaFleche expressed a common frustration among atheist and Humanist organizations, that we keep getting beat at charity by the religious. Luckily, things are changing fast.

The Foundation Beyond Belief is a young American charity that is coordinating giving among non-believers. They have over 1200 donors and a network of over 2000 volunteers that are good without god.

Their current campaign has raised over $300,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Their goal is to raise $500,000, every dollar of which will be matched by The Stiefel Foundation. Here in Vancouver, members of the BC Humanist Association have raised over $3,500.

As the freethought community grows, it’s only a matter of time until we are able to match the capacity for giving that traditional religions have. Please join and support your local atheist or Humanist group today.

Ian Bushfield
Executive Director
BC Humanist Association
http://bchumanist.ca

 

I get feedback: Atheists don’t give to charity edition, part 1

- October 22nd, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

So last week I wrote a Grant Rant column, calling my fellow non-believers to the mat for not getting involved enough in community based charities that needed support, like Gillian’s Place here in St. Catharines.

I’ve received quite a bit of feedback from that column, both from atheists saying they are trying to organize to help their communities (which I will write about in part two) and from some religious quarters who think atheists don’t give because well, they don’t buy into the whole god thing.

The following is a tad long (my apologies in advance) but worth a full discussion. The first is an email from a reader (name removed for the time being) and my reply. Enjoy:

Dear Mr. Lafleche:
 
I read your column with interest, but wanted to challenge you concerning the disciple Thomas getting rapped on his knuckles by “his boss”.  For three years Jesus and his disciples travelled many miles together.  During that time He taught them many things, one of them was that He would be killed and rise again.  Thomas knew that, but his lack of faith made him doubt, even when the other disciples assured him that Jesus was alive.  Thomas along with the other diciples were being taught by the master Teacher that they would have to carry on once He went back to heaven.  It would be up to them to spread the good news that God had come into the world to redeem sinners.  Thomas doubted, and because he doubted Jesus had to be very stearn with him.  How was he going to fare if he couldn’t believe that His master was alive?  Christ had great plans for Thomas.  Tradition has it that he ended up going to India and dying for his faith, like most of the other apostles did.   This calling of Thomas by Christ was not for weaklings, but for those who through thick and thin believe that Christ is who He said He was.  Thomas, however, didn’t need much persuading once he saw his Lord again.  He didn’t berate Christ.  He just fell on his knees and said “My Lord and my God”, and he never looked.
 
The other part of your column was interesting too.  But I have one question for you.  If the atheist believes that there is no God and no Moral Lawgiver, what motivates him to look after his fellowman.  Do you really believe in the survival of the fittest, and does it really matter if we help our fellow humans or not?  In my way of thinking, if I have a Moral Lawgiver, outside of myself, who tells me that I should love my neighbour, as He loves me, then I am motivated to see my brothers  and sisters as equally loved and equally deserving of my help.  This may be why your atheist friends are not reaching out to the hurting and poor.

My reply:

Thank you for your email and accept my apology in advance for the perhaps ridiculous length of this reply. But the issues you raise are important and warranted a full reply on my part.
Firstly, I simply reject your view of that particular Bible story. At the end of the day, Thomas was being asked to believe the impossible, that a dead person was alive and kicking. Of all of the disciples, he appeared to be the only critical thinker and rationalist of the bunch, unwilling to accept at face value a story that insane, regardless of what he had been previously told. The very notion that a dead person is back among the living, zombies notwithstanding, is crazy. Any normal, thinking person would ask for actual evidence. The rebuke he suffers afterward – that one should believe without seeing, that you should NOT ask for evidence for extraordinary claims, that believing without evidence is a virtue, that rational critical thought is something to be shunned and cast aside in favour of fantasy – laid the ground work for lovely “traditions” like faith healing causing people to stop their cancer treatments (I’ve done stories on cases like this) the anti-science drivel of creationism and “intelligent” design, vaccine denial, outright falsehoods told to people about condoms, AIDS, and sexual health (particularly in the more illiterate parts of the world.)  In short, that one story is responsible for a entire Christian subculture that rejects evidence, exalts blind faith  and total obedience to authority as a virtue. These are not good things and Thomas really ought to be seen as a hero in that tale, having the strength of mind and character to ask what should have been asked by the rest of his buddies.

As for your other question, let me first say that if one requires a “law giver” to know that harming others is bad (and threatening punishment if you don’t obey) that actually says more about you than it does about anyone else. Ask yourself, if you had never ever read the Bible or heard about Jesus, you would then be running about stealing, raping, or killing people? Consider what it says about you if the answer to that question is “yes.”

To put this another way, seriously consider this question, first put forward by Plato: “Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?” If the first conclusion is true then the entire  argument for a “law giver” god is rendered inert. It would imply that god orders that which is intrinsically moral – and if that is so then what makes those standards moral has nothing to do with god. He merely recognizes their moral character. Therefore there is no extra-human source of morality, or if there is, it isn’t god. If the second is true, then morality is not objective at all as you’ve defined it. It is an extra human morality, but nothing about it superior to human reasons. The whims of human beings are replaced by the whims of a supernatural agency. Anything and everything god orders is moral by definition. That means that any horrible act can be justified simply by saying “god said so.”

Moving on, I should note the phrase “survival of the fittest” has no basis in science. Evolution is not about “fitness”: that was a phrase coined by 19th century social darwnists, which has nothing to do with biology. The difference is crucial and well known, outside of Christian evangelical circles, and isn’t even part of any serious scientific argument. Natural selection is best described as survival of the best adapted. Animals that can adapt to their environment and survive stand the best chance of passing on their genes. Genetic adaptations that allow improved survival – say the ability to climb better, or hide from predators – result in those adaptations being passed down to the next generation. Over time those adaptations accumulate until an entirely new species emerges. The Christian evangelical imagination of evolution meaning only the cruel and strong and vicious survive – and so therefore means that without their religion human beings would be nothing more than murderous, uncaring savages – is as far from the actual facts as pretending that a gold brick is actually the planet Jupiter. I mean, you can say it all you want, but that doesn’t make it true.

In the case of our own species, evolution took a fairly novel path, nearly unique to us and our closest genetic relatives, the great apes (particularly chimps). We lack claws, strength, feathers, fur, scales, the ability to run fast, the ability to swim or fly, see in the dark, etc etc etc. We evolved two particular traits, however, that are key. The first being a brain capable of abstract problem solving and the other being a social animal. Lacking the physical traits of other animals, we rely on our brains and social bonds to survive. Our moral and ethical instincts, at a very basic level are innate. The same as chimps. Chimps don’t have religion, but clearly have social behavior that includes ethical and moral concerns. They even keep the “bully boys” in order when they get out of line. This is all well documented in scientific work.

In short, if we actually acted as some Christians imagine evolution must require without a god, the species would have died out a long long time ago. I mean, do you really think the species would have gotten as far as the mythology of the Old Testament suggests prior to the 10 commandments without knowing that killing, stealing and otherwise harming your fellows won’t get you very far? Are we to really accept that people from other parts of the world, from cultures much older and richer than Jewish/Christian mythology, really didn’t know that caring for the weak and sick carried benefits? How on earth do you explain that the very concept of a doctor “doing no harm” and it was important to care for sick was cooked up centuries before the Christian era by Greeks who had no concept whatsoever of a supernatural “law giver” that told them how to be moral. The Greeks believed in gods, but accepted that moral and ethical impulses were innate in human beings (just as negative impulses are) and literally invented philosophy to investigate and build upon those impulses to understand how to build a just and kind society?

The Greeks had a lovely basic ethical idea that can be expressed as “Be careful whom you turn from your door.” It is famously the operating ethical system of Homer’s Odyssey. And it says that you help your fellow creatures in need because one day you might be the one who will survive on the charity of strangers. Human solidarity, as expressed in this fashion with no god required, gets us a very long way to creating a better society for everyone.

No, our moral and ethical instincts do not come from upon high. They are innate in us, a product of how we evolved. As as species we struggle to understand this. We invent and codify thousands of religions and philosophies to promote the best of those instincts and push aside the worst of them. Our instincts are not perfect, as we would expect from a jim crack process like evolution. Our cerebral cortex is too small. Our adrenal glands too large. We still carry, as Darwin put it, the lowly stamp of our origins. We try, each day, to be better if we can be. That is what it means to be human and requires no orders from upon high to figure out that running about and harming others is not a good thing. We have a word for people like that. We call them psychopaths, and we understand their brains do not work properly.

None of this, of course, has anything to do with why non-believer groups don’t often get involved in community based charity. That is an issue of focus, I think, and perhaps hubris. Many a skeptic and atheist group like to talk about the moral failings of religion. But because their focus is so firmly anchored to religious criticism, with their propensity to attack religion on moral and scientific grounds turning into a kind of feedback loop, they never have the courage of their convictions. The problem is not that atheists as individuals, or even in groups, do not act in an ethical or moral sense. It is just that often as formal groups, they don’t see charity as an important part of their mandate, whereas I argue that it should be.

Regards

Grant

 

Religion in schools: can open, worms everywhere

- September 24th, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

So still following up with the article I wrote about religion in school last week.

I had the opportunity to talk to the parent who is suing the Hamilton school board so he has the right to withdraw his children from lessons he deems are against his religious belief, particularly lessons that involve homosexuality.

Steve Tourloukis and I chatted for a while and he seems a decent and honest guy. I think he is totally wrong on this issue, but the conversation was very civil and, if nothing else, Steve isn’t out to convert the world or try and ruin public education.

He makes a good point, one that isn’t covered much in the press he is getting. The parents of other religions already get to remove their children from classes they find theologically offensive or are given a wide berth to avoid material that offenses their faith. Whether it’s Muslim girls not having to take gym class because shorts and a t-shirt violate their modesty rules, or JVS not having to listen to lessons that talk about Easter or Christmas, he says exceptions for the religious are already being made all over the school board. In fact, it’s in the board’s official documentation about religious accommodation. True, the board is careful to point out in this documentation, which can be found on the Hamilton-Wentworth school board’s website, that there are limits to religious accommodation and that it cannot do anything that violates provincial regulations.

Nonetheless, Steve believes what he is asking for is no different than what is already given to other parents for essentially the same reason.

While I think that he if he is successful in court it will have  deleterious impact on the education system to properly educate students, he does have a point. In many ways, Pandora’s Box has already been opened. The question now is not to further warp public education, but to find a way to close the box.

The stupid it burns: anti-vampireism and bald as a hair colour edition

- May 14th, 2012

Greetings heathens, zealots, web denizens, and the rest of you!

Ok, I have some ranty mojo brewing today and I’m in need of a target. Fortunately, the world is a big place with more stupid than it is possible to catalog, and it was easy enough to find one. Just up the highway in fact. In Toronto, that mythical center of the known universe.

Specifically, a column by rabbi Dow Marmur, who evidently doesn’t like us heathens very much.  The problem with we atheists, he says in a meandering column in the Toronto Star, is that we are pretty much like jihadists:

I’ve, therefore, consistently refused to engage in debates with atheists. They may consider me a cowardly man of little faith who’s afraid of exposing himself to the truth, but impartial observers will know that contemporary atheists are often even more fanatical than religious fundamentalists. Their zeal seems to know no bounds.

Interesting. Last time I checked, the most fanatical religious fundamentalists in North America try to have their dogmatic nonsense taught in science classes and are obsessed with telling women what they can do with their bodies, including a hilarious Republican bill that passed recently in Arizona that defined pregnancy as starting two weeks before conception. (no, that is not a punch line.) In even more extreme cases in North America, Europe, and of course, the middle east, the fundamentalist set is busy killing other people, often using that delightful method employed by the truly deluded, suicide bombing.

Atheists write books and blogs.thestupiditburns Oh, the horror, the horror.

Marmur points to Alian de Botton’s weird newish book Religion for Atheists, where in de Botton says he wants to build atheist temples, as some manner of evidence that atheism itself is becoming a religion (which is why we are worse than the worst religious fundamentalists….you know without the bombs and such) and in fact, heathens have “religion-envy.”

Ok, look, first de Botton strange book was greeted with disinterest by the atheist community, such as it even exists, and the most anyone could say about it was “uh, what?”

It’s true, there are atheists who seem to want to ape the group cohesion provided by most religions, but it’s an attitude I’ve always found puzzling. It’s why I don’t belong to any skeptic/atheist/humanist groups nor go to regular meetings. I don’t have any need to get together with people to talk about what I don’t believe in. I tend to, this rant notwithstanding, focus my commentary in his regard on attempts to breach the wall between church and state, or religious attempts to undermine basic freedoms like freedom of speech, or attempts to win converts by stealth (like the ongoing efforts of the Gideons to be given access to elementary public school children.) But sit around and talk about why I don’t believe in the existence of gods? Zzzzzz. Please. I’d almost rather watch Glee.

Marmur’s entire argument crumbles because it starts with a false premise. He treats atheism as though it’s a thing like Christianity or Scientology or Jedism something. The tacit assumption he makes is that atheism is a complete philosophical entity, with dogmas, and rules and holy books and, I would guess, priests or clerics or some sort that one obeys. And uses this argument as he defends the excesses and violence of religion:

Because religion is articulated and administered by human beings, it often falls short of its stated ideals — just like atheism.

Really? Really, Rabbi Marmur? And what ideals are those exactly? Where do I find them? Where, in the name of Zeus’ holy toga, do I find the “stated ideals” of atheism?

Look man, atheism is barely a thing at all. Not believing in a god or gods is all atheism is. Period. QED. End of frakkin’ story. The only reason we have a name for it at all is because historically everyone around us has been totally hell bent for leather on this whole god business.

I mean, even the name “atheism” is pretty stupid because it dignifies the thing that it denies. Look, I don’t believe in vampires or big foot either, right? But there is no need to run about calling myself am “anosferatuist,” or an “asasquatchist,” is there. The bottom line is that atheism is a religion like bald is a hair colour. The “ism” at the end makes it all sound fancy, I guess, but it isn’t.

I pretty well agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson on this front when he says “at the end of the day I’d rather not be any category at all.”

Even the so called “atheist community” is a disjointed lot that is only bound by the disbelief in the supernatural and generally shared respect for science, evidence and reason. There is also some broad agreements on the values of democracy, freedom of speech and the like. Beyond that, it is pretty well, to use the cliche, like herding cats. Disagreements abound. Yes, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, PZ Myers and a few others are the most public and well known of the so called “New Atheists” (which is only new by the authors refusal to shut up when told.) but they constantly disagree. Tyson and Dawkins’s disagree over how to talk about science and religion in popular culture. Myers recently took Harris to task over issues of racial profiling at airports. And I’ve lost track of how many non-believers were sharply critical of Hitchen’s views on the Iraq war.

But I am sure Marmur will tell us where in that mess there are the “ideals” of atheism. Or is that the sound of cricket’s chipping?

About the only thing that Marmur gets right is that religion allows people to form a community of believers and atheism doesn’t do this. Well, yes. So what? De Botton’s goofy book aside, how is that supposed to an argument against atheism, or put more correctly, for religion? Does it demonstrate the existence of a god? Because that is what it would take, son. That pesky thing call evidence sort of matters.

Ultimately, Marmur’s entire argument seems to boil down to the idea that religion makes you feel good, and atheism doesn’t. I suppose that could be right. Atheism provides no guidebook, no bromide of any sort. Attempts to make it do so are as foolish as attempting to grasp quicksilver. To me, not having that kind of crutch is freeing. Yes, life can be miserable. It can suck. It will, as Rocky says. “beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently  if you let it.”

Speaking only for myself, I would rather harden myself to deal with it than rely on help that isn’t there because it makes me feel good to believe there is. I would rather deal with life as it is, honestly, and be miserable than to cling to some manner of false hope. If atheism is a thing at all, it’s living life on your own terms, taking the awful and the good as they come.

In the inverse Law of Bill Donohue

- April 13th, 2012

There is a universal fact. Like gravity. Or the awesomeness of Mass Effect 3. (yes, yes some fanboys are having mental melt downs about the endings, but I figure they have been indoctrinated. If you don’t get that joke, go play the game! Seriously…go!)

Essentially, if Bill Donohue’s Catholic League in the United States hates something, it’s probably something worth checking out. His most recent explosion of hot hair is about the Three Stooges remake. There are lots of reasons to be offended by this remake. Remaking the Stooges is like remaking Casablanca. Sure you can do it, but there isn’t a single reason for it. The trailer for the thing looks Zeus awful and pretty well indicates the Stooges, classic though they were, were indeed products of their own time. I can easily think of a bazillion things I would rather do than see it. And yes, bazillion is a word.

However, this is not what upsets the always upset Bill Donohue, the grand pooba of the Catholic League. What upsets him is that a nun in the film appears in a bikini, aka the “nun-kini.” I guess Billy is upset because nuns cannot wear bikinis. It says so in the Bible or something, maybe. This the same guy who attacks films, books and other art if it offends his porcelain sensibilities in the slightest. This is the same guy who claimed that Hollywood was run by, and I quote: “secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It’s not a secret, OK? And I’m not afraid to say it.” (He said that in defense of the ghastly “Passion of the Christ” film.  So bikinis on film bad. Two hours of watching a guy get graphically tortured, that’s ok. Just sayin’)

Anyway, in keeping with the Inverse Law of Donohue, and although it will likely injure my brain, I’ll have to check out the movie.