Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Persecuting Christians

It never ceases to amaze me that Christians can maintain a sense of persecution in modern-day America, but many of them do.

Not in some faraway republic in the Middle East or Africa, mind you, where actual persecution of their faith might actually be taking place, but here in the United States, where there are more churches than you can shake a pair of crossed sticks at, where all their major religious festivals are legal holidays, where their God is regularly invoked when convening government councils and at every election stump speech, and even on the money.

The form this persecution takes is that Christianity is not given a favored position above all other faiths; we don't allow them to pray in schools, or teach their theology in science classes, or have chunks of their scripture carved into granite monuments on federal grounds.

The fact that other faiths aren't allowed to do those things either is beside the point as far as these guys are concerned. Because they have been in the majority in the United States for so long, and because they have long had such a strong political constituency, Christians have a sense of entitlement as profound as it is mistaken. To them, it is ridiculous that a Buddhist or Hindu should open Congress with a prayer; I agree, but they fail to see that a Christian prayer is just as inappropriate, despite the latter having gotten away with it for so long.

Yes, I said "gotten away with it" and that's exactly what I meant. It is simply wrong, and indeed unConstitutional, that people of other faiths, and no faith, are forcible proselytized by Christians under the auspices of what is supposed to be a secular government.

A good example of persecuting Christians is here; evangelical Christians in the USAF, feeling secure by virtue of being in the majority, mistreated harassed and threatened an atheist for no other reason than his nondeistic beliefs and his wish to set up a support group for himself and others of similar beliefs.

I'd be really interested in hearing from any Christians who want to support this kind of behaviour.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Age Of The Answer

Yes, I've reached the Age of the Answer - 42!

For those who haven't the faintest idea what that means, there's two parts to it. One - the rather more banal part is that today is my 42nd birthday. Yay! (I guess... ;) No, seriously, I'm fine with that, and have had a really pleasant day. No big party, but I have treated myself nicely and been treated nicely by the people I love, and am now winding down with my boy.

Why the Answer, though? Well, that's a lot more amusing. If you haven't read Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" series, you are really missing out; they are some of the funniest books out there, and Adams also manages to slip in some deep observations as part of the humor. The story of the Answer is one such.


A group of hyperintelligent pan-dimensional beings decide that they're fed up with all the bickering about the meaning of it all, so they construct a computer called Deep Thought to tell them the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. Deep Thought is so brilliant that when it is accidentally switched on early, even without any data banks hooked up it begins with "I think therefore I am" and gets as far as deducing the existence of income tax and rice pudding before anyone manages to switch it off again.

(Note the cute philosophical point Adams has slipped in here; Descartes made a brilliant observation about the subjective nature of the human experience when he noted that the mere fact of being able to think proves to an individual that he she or it exists - but how can one go from there to proving that anything else exists? All the rest of it, income tax and rice pudding included, could be the ravings of a disordered mind. It may seem unlikely, and no doubt is, but such a theory cannot ultimately be proved incorrect.)

When the day of the Great On-Turning finally arrives, Deep Thought asks the programmers to state why they have created it, the second greatest computer in all time and space (even though it transparently already knows why). They ask for the Answer to Life the Universe and Everything, but they're a bit perplexed at the self-description since they were pretty sure they'd built the greatest. Before they can get to the bottom of it, though, they're interrupted by two professional philosophers, who object to the idea on the grounds that a definitive Answer would put them out of business! They demand rigidly defined and precisely demarcated areas of doubt and uncertainty in preference to absolute certainty.

(Doesn't this sound exactly like the whittering of any number of modern-day theologians, amateur and professional, who object so strongly to the temerity of those who would examine questions of religion with the tools of science and critical thinking? It's all very fine for making the technology and the medecine, but to critically examine religious ideas is just not on.)

Deep Thought informs them that, while its circuits are now irrevocably committed to finding the Answer, it's going to have to think about it for a bit - seven and a half million years to be exact! In the meantime they can make fortunes for themselves by speculating on what form the Answer will ultimately take. The philosophers are duly impressed - "Now that's what I call thinking! Why don't we ever think of things like that?" "Dunno, reckon our brains must be too highly trained."

(Adams is slyly pointing out that ultimate Answers don't necessarily have much to do with the business of living from day to day, and that we don't really think in spans at all appropriate to the Universe at large; seven and a half million years is an eyeblink to the Universe, but to us it's a span of time we can't really concieve of, far too long for any reasonable project.)

As well as being hyperintelligent, these particular pan-dimensional beings are able to maintain focus on a project. Seven and a half million years later they are ready and waiting. Deep thought confirms that it does have the Answer, that it is simple, and that it will indeed give it to them. But it warns them, "You're not going to like it." The answer, as you've doubtless figured out, is 42. Deep Thought points out that they've never really known what the Question was, and that's why the Answer doesn't make much sense to them. Naturally they ask it if it can tell them what the Question is, but Deep Thought says no, that's too tricky even for it!

(Daniel Dennet is very fond of pointing out that most of philosophy is a matter of finding good questions, rather than definitive answers. That's why his focus is less on whether gods exist, and more on why we humans are generally so enamored of the notion that they do.)

However, Deep Thought is able and willing to help them build an even bigger and better computer to calculate the Question. This computer will be so large and complex it will resemble a planet, and they themselves will go onto it and help guide its program. This new computer is named by Deep Thought: the Earth! "What a dull name." Sadly, after running for four and a half billion years, the Earth is destroyed five minutes before it is due to output the Question, to make room for a hyperspatial bypass just as a new type of ship makes hyperspatial bypasses obsolete.

(Even if the world has a purpose, there's no guarantee that it's a good one, or that it will be fulfilled; stupidity, randomness and chaos are forces too, and may be as strong as intelligence, purpose and order, whether we like the idea or not.)

As it happens, one Earthman, Arthur Dent, does escape the catastrophe (by hitching a ride on the prototype of the aforementioned new type of ship) with the Question embedded in his brain. After many adventures in time and space, he does figure a way to output the Question, which turns out to be "What do you get when you multiply six by nine?" As Arthur comments, "I always thought there was something fundamentally wrong with the Universe."

Actually, the process was messed up from the beginning, as the program was corrupted by the accidental inclusion of the most useless types of human beings into the program - the Neanderthals, it turns out, are not our ancestors; we are descended from hairdressers and telephone sanitizers. The rest of humanity, incidentally, was wiped out by a disease contracted by a dirty telephone.

(So who's really useless, after all?)


Well, perhaps I am, and perhaps not; certainly I'm unlikely ever to know the Question. I've reached the Answer, though, and I'm finishing out this day a pretty contented guy! :)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Your Smile

Here where we lie my smile kisses
night's damp palm, darkly intimate
as fungus and mold in
the incestuous lichen. Here
beneath the ginkgo, a dusty smut
of spores furs the sullen air,
all full of rancid butter smell.
Your wood is blank and unwelcoming
save where lumpy finger-thick
roots twine pallidly and
pierce the grain, exhaling and exuding
secrets from the black, moist soil
for me to grub and chew and swallow,
like truffles, or like love. Scratch me
a little splintered hole, dear,
and let me see your smile.
B.T. Murtagh

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Pat Condell responds to Osama

If you're not familiar with Pat Condell's videos, they're well worth watching. You can see a bunch of them here.

On the uses of monogamy

On the Facebook group 'Government + Religion = Disaster' Nigel Austin posed the question: "Why do many insist on monogamy in a serious relationship if it is against the long term survival of our species?"

Interesting question! I'm going to take a stab at a reply, and I'll be cross-posting it to Quarkscrew (http://quarkscrew.blogspot.com).

The long term survival of the species is not relevant because genetic selection doesn't normally operate on that scale. An expressed trait will be selected for if it benefits the spread of the gene via an individual's reproductive success, even at the expense of the group. An expressed trait which benefits a kinship group may be selected for if its presence aids the kin who are also likely to carry the gene. Genetic advantage or disadvantage to the species as a whole is built up from local choices, if it is built at all; there is no Genetic Planning Central Office to enforce wise policies at species level.

We humans are unique on this planet in having a very effective secondary information channel, though; as well as our genes we have our memes.

As with genes, the successful meme is one which propagates and survives, and monogamy has been quite successful. This is at least partially due to its association with the memeplexes (-plexi?) of the dominant monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (Islam permits but discourages multiple wives). It's probably worth examining how monogamy fits into them, and whether and how the monogamy meme works with them to perpetuate itself and them.

One of the dominant themes of the big three monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) is domination by male authority. (This is also true of the big remaining polytheism, but I'll leave out a deeper analysis of the similarities and differences in the hope that someone more expert on Hinduism will take on that task.) While Judaic tribal identity has until recent times been transmitted matrilinearly, oddly enough, property rights and other legal authorities have traditionally always been held and passed through the males.

That being the case, it is of paramount importance that paternity be unquestioned, if power and property are to be passed father to son. This is obviously simplified if the reproductive capacity of any given woman is officially owned by a given man, and to a lesser extent if his is in turn owned by her (this is especially important at the higher ends of social pyramids; bastards who can't inherit their kingdoms often opt to conquer them instead).

A slew of reinforcing factors come into play once the pattern is established. Women who generally lack property or power are isolated and infantilised, increasing their need for a male protector, and an entire commerce builds up around dowry systems. Once the inheritance of power and property are dependent upon recognized official marriage ceremonies, the groups controlling marriages gain ever stronger societal influence as a result. Families and clans which manage their marriages well develop prosperous networks; those which are slapdash, less well.

What kinship groups are to genes, societies are to memes. Male-dominated authoritarian societies have had distinct advantages over rival societies up until very recent times, mostly because they are much apter to develop effective warrior classes and organized armies. Add to that the unifying effect of recognized, recorded familial marriage relationships binding powerful families together and you get strongly unified cultures with common values, inherent organization, and aggressive tendencies. That has been a powerful formula for success, historically, for many societies... albeit perhaps not for the species as a whole.

That's an attempt at an explanation as to why monogamy may have become such an integral meme in historic Western and near-to-middle Eastern societies. Are all these reasons still completely valid in their 21st Century counterparts? I would say no, not completely, and I would expect the meme's influence to decline further given the trends of societal change.

For starters, most of the former intrinsic value of monogamous marriage was intimately bound up in inheritance issues which no longer exist. Women now own property in their own right as a matter of course; inheritance of property is typically more and more egalitarian, rather than passing father to son; paternity can be established with certainty; militaries are professional enterprises, not clan-based; strictly family businesses are rarer with nuclear families because of the variety of roles a modern business needs filled, and so on. The simplification of default inheritances (probate) and familial rights (spousal hospital access and the like) is also no longer as necessary due to computerized record keeping.

Indeed, it can easily be argued that if the primary purposes of marriage are to care for children and conserve common assets, then polygamous marriages have a number of advantages - it is very difficult for children of such group marriages to be entirely orphaned, for example, and it may be easier to set up a family-based business. Marriages of this type, with multiple wives and husbands, work well in some cultures (e.g. the long-barge marriages in Borneo).

I would anticipate that serial monogamy will remain the dominant form of long-term relationship and marriage for generations to come; it still does have advantages (such as simplicity!) and of course societies have inertia, and there's a long train of inertia behind monogamy.

Nevertheless, I already see the beginnings of acceptance that there can be other patterns that work for individual relationships, and I anticipate an increasing amount of experimentation and change in 21st century norms. As for those countries which are currently stuck in norms from much earlier centuries (you know the ones I mean)... well, just as genetic variety benefits kinship groups, I believe that those memetic monocultures will eventually be outcompeted.

Monday, September 10, 2007

QuarkScrew is now on the Atheist Blogroll

There on the right, a little way down, you will see the Atheist Blogroll. This is a service provided by mojoey of Deep Thoughts which lists over 350 blogs with an atheistic or agnostic bent. Quarkscrew is now one of that noble herd of cats!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Sharing the Virus

I heard today that a friend of a friend (which doesn't make a friend, apparently, but he's not my enemy) is dying of AIDS and refusing medical treatment because he considers his condition a judgment of God for his 'sins' - the sins in question being engaging in homosexual sex. Well, fair enough... assuming that he isn't using public funds for his medical expenses, it isn't any business of mine how he chooses to die.

He's choosing to punish himself, and what is freedom if not the ability to do what you want with your own life? It isn't like he's one of those bitter people who felt the universe owed them some consideration, and got bitter seeing simple bad luck as injustice, and chose to share the virus. No, this is a guy who wouldn't hurt a fly, I'm told, a gentle unassuming and inoffensive guy, as sweet a Hell-bound sin-infested reprobate as you'd ever wish to meet.

I can't help but see it as deeply saddening, though, that our mutual friend - a very good-hearted woman in most ways - was in absolute agreement that he deserved to die in agony, and only hoped that the horrors of his demise from this life would mitigate the tortures he was slated for in the next life they both believe he is headed for.

Not avoid them, mind; they're both convinced that an eternity in Hell is what he will get, and what he deserves for wanting sexual congress with other men (actually having such congress is apparently just icing on the diabolical cake). Never mind that he didn't choose to have those desires, and fought them (somewhat unsuccessfully, obviously) his whole life - he deserves to die, in torment, and continue in torment after he dies, for the desires he never wanted and fought against. Innate conditions are sufficient justification for Hell.

I'm told by my friend (I don't know the dying man in question) that God isn't responsible for those innate desires of his. That's impossible, apparently; they're evil desires, and God is infinitely good, and evil cannot come from good. God didn't create evil, only the preconditions which created evil (viz. free will), so it isn't His fault, any more than the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory were responsible for the deaths of the women who worked in that firetrap.

God did choose that the kind of unrequested evil desires her friend has (which are apparently Adam's fault, or maybe Eve's - Sin in general is inheritable, though not everyone is unlucky enough to inherit sins of inappropriate sexual desire) should be unavoidably punished by eternal torture, though. God chose what was sin and what wasn't, we're told.

We're TOLD. Via priests, and via their chosen scriptures, we're TOLD this and other things. We're told all kinds of things by all kinds of people, of course; politicians and lawyers tell us what the laws of human society should be, scientists tell us how the world is and try to figure out why. The differences are stark, though; human laws ultimately govern only through collective human consent, and any scientific theory must bow before the brute facts.

If, like my friend and my friend's friend, we accept Christianity at face value, there is no such limitation on it. Our human choice is limited to a one binary fork: obey God in every arbitrary particular and you may spend eternity praising Him, or fail to do so and spend eternity being tortured. Best hope you've grokked His desires correctly, or else... well, it's a binary fork.

That's the rub, of course; if you accept that premise, then you either believe you know what God wants you and everyone else to do, or you don't (in theory). If you don't, then you are limited to using your human reason to figure out what is good and what is evil, just like atheists do. In practice, of course, theists always claim to know what God wants, in broad at least, and often in stunning detail. The big theisms nowadays all have written scriptures, and if you interpret them correctly (professional help is seldom hard to come by) they'll tell you what to do.

In the case of my friend's friend, of course, his scriptures tell him that the desires of his body are sinful, even though he's filled with hatred of those aspects of his self. Depending on which priest or preacher within Christianity he heeds, he has little or no hope of avoiding eternal torture; some sects say he might get lucky and die in a state of grace, i.e. immediately after confessing he's felt an unwelcome desire and before he feels another, while others say he's simply predestined to Hell and no two ways about it.

The thought that he's going to suffer eternally hurts my friend's friend, as you'd imagine, far more than does the actual disease he's going to die from - in no small part because of the mental virus of his religion, which prevents him from seeking proper medical care.

I'd certainly condemn him if he deliberately spread the HIV virus, and thereby risked the suffering and death of others. He isn't doing that; he is, however, actively spreading the mind virus of religion which is exacerbating the physical virus and, by his own account, causing him far more suffering in this life (without even offering him much if any hope in the putative next) than that physical virus will. So is his friend, also my friend, from whom I heard his story.

Should I approve? I think not. Down with disease - physical or mental.