Archive for February, 2012

Religion: Good for the individual. Bad for the world. An opinion.

| February 25, 2012 | 10 Replies
Religion: Good for the individual. Bad for the world. An opinion.

I don’t think it can be denied that religion provides much good to the individual. Those who suffer from addictions, the effects of abuse and loss of loved ones are strengthened and comforted by the religions of the world.

Many are comforted by the knowledge that there is more to life than what we see. That helps them deal with the daily trails and tribulations that can all too often discourage us.

I don’t dispute that.

Religions also provide a framework of community that helps people come together to help each other. One need only look to your local churches to find food banks, clothing drives and other altruistic community activities that benefit your less fortunate neighbors.

This also is hard to ignore or speak ill of.

However, when multiplied by millions or billions of people, certain tenants of religion which are built into the doctrine can become toxic.

An analogy…

In the late 80s computer technology in the investment industry had given some brokers an edge over their competition. Complicated algorithms would determine the best time to buy and sell stocks. However, as more and more firms got the software the computer systems began to synchronize and it eventually led to wild fluctuations in the market bringing on an automated sell off and the crash of October 19, 1987. See this article for more…

It wasn’t the only reason for the crash and it’s an imperfect analogy, but I think it illustrates my point that small advantages for a few can add up to large problems for many.

It’s the same with religion. When multiplied by millions you inevitably get conflict between religions and even sub-cults of various religions because of the very nature of elements within the doctrine. These elements are inherent in any successful religion.

Here are what I think are the top 5 elements of dogmatic religion that, when multiplied, have created conflict in the world. I don’t think I need to provide examples of the kinds of conflicts these elements have created. We are sadly all too familiar with them.

1. The “one true” religion. – This assertion is necessary for religion in order for it to create a cohesive community. Believers must believe that they have found the best possible faith among the many that exist in order for them to commit completely to it. However, when expanded to the world at large it also tends to pit the religion against all others.

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Bill Maher discusses the issues of the day

| February 25, 2012 | Reply
Bill Maher discusses the issues of the day

In his recent performance, Bill Maher discusses “CrazyStupidPolitics.” Lots of laughs combined with uncensored sharp social commentary. His advice to Barack Obama starting about 57 min. mark is a terrific wrap-up.

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Photo madness

| February 24, 2012 | 7 Replies
Photo madness

I work in a big office building in downtown St. Louis. In the lobby of this big building, security guards bark at anyone who tries to take a photo. It happened in my presence once, when a co-worker was taking my photo. She and I were told that the reason for the ban on photos was “homeland security.” Later that same day (it was almost Christmas), I asked the guard whether people would be allowed to take a photo the huge Christmas tree in the lobby, and he said, “No. It is against the rules.”

I see one of the security guards at the lobby desk almost every night. I need to sign out most nights because I tend to work late. The soft-spoken guard knows me quite well, by name and by face, because I’ve signed out hundreds of times while he has watched me sign out. This security guard recently told me that he has now been ordered to make sure that everyone who leaves the building after working hours shows him a photo ID. Therefore, this man, who has seen me sign out hundreds of times is now asking me for my photo ID every time I sign out. I reminded him that he knows me, and he agreed, but these are the rules. My photo ID actually looks a lot less like me than I do, because my driver’s license photo of me does not have a beard, and I DO have a beard. Nonetheless, this security guard makes me pull out my drivers’ license every night as though he has never met me. He stares at it for 2 seconds, and then he nods. A few times this month, I’ve tried to just sign out without showing my photo ID, but he always says, “Excuse me. I need to see your photo ID before you may leave.” For the past few nights, for fun, I’ve asked him whether he needs to see my license. He says “Yes, that is the rule.” At least he hasn’t uttered that he needs to see my ID because of “homeland security.”

One more story about photos. Today I spent some time at the St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Office looking at real estate records. A somewhat grumpy female clerk told me that copies were $3 for the first page of a document and $1 for each additional page. Thus, a 3-page document costs $5, which is outrageous gouging. After getting some expensive copies of relatively recent documents, I moved over to the micro-fiche machine and started looking at some real estate records from 70 years ago. Rather than asking for copies, I decided to instead take out my camera and take photos of the screen (without a flash, and without any noise). This system was working out great, I thought, and I took ten photos of documents. Right after that tenth photo, I heard that clerk call out to me (you could hear her voice bellow across the room):

“You are not allowed to take photographs of the documents!”

I turned around with a smile and asked, “Why am I not allowed to take photos of the documents?”

She paused, then said: “You are not allowed to take photographs of the documents!”

I guess she didn’t want to say “Because I’m an automaton, and my boss told me to say this sort of bullshit because when you take photos you are no allowing us to gouge you for photocopies.”

As I write this article, I am safe in my own home. Here at home, no one asks me for my photo ID. No one yells at me for taking photos of Christmas trees or documents. No one tells me that I can’t do something because of “homeland security.”

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Festivities, Faith, but not Stupidity

| February 24, 2012 | Reply

At the end of a social event on the weekend before Mardi Gras, a casual friend asked a surprising question. I was bedecked with beads, primarily in purple and gold. This Catholic friend comes up and says something like, “Why are you all dressed up for the Christian holiday? Don’t you believe that anyone who believes in God is stupid?”

Dumbfounded. It took me a moment to parse this and compose a reply. As we were all heading out the door, I didn’t have time to fully answer all the implied misconceptions. So I said something on the order of, “I don’t think that; I know many smart people who are faithful.”

Let me first detail a minor misconception. Sociologically, rituals are important. Mardi Gras (literally Fat Tuesday, also Shrove Tuesday) was adopted by Christians from the earlier Carnival, and Saturnalia before that. It is a long standing late winter festival ending the season of harvest plenty in the days when food preservation was limited, and entering the lean period of rationing until the spring produce appeared (greens, lambs, milk, etc). And festivities are fun, whatever the nominal purpose. The Holy Roman church had so successfully rebranded all the pagan festivals that most Christians are unaware of the deeper not-Jesus purpose behind them, even as they embrace all the pre-Christian trappings.

But the big issue is the perception that I, an an atheist, think that Christians (the majority faith at present time and place) are stupid. Many converted Atheists do vehemently decry their former faith and deride its practitioners, as do Dawkins and Hitchens. My parents converted from religious to irreligious, and so I was raised without a particular god and with their lower expectations of people of faith. But that didn’t stick.

I grew up as a closeted atheist. On Sunday mornings I was dragged to a secular Sunday School where I had to wear jacket and tie from the age of 5. It didn’t fool my church going peers. I opted for the less hated liberal-Jew label that try to explain that all invisible friends seemed equally improbable to me. I endured various epithets in public schools hurled at non-Christians by the God fearing. But as I grew older and my peers become more reasonable, I started talking to them about such things.

I was actually less surprised to find people of deep faith at my fairly-high-standards college than I was to find sports fans. One of my closest college friends was a Young Earth, Born Again sort. I admit that I would sometimes light his fuse in a room full of geology or astronomy types, just to see to what heights his rationalizations could wax. (Anyone else visualizing Ceiling wax?)

I have also been reading arguments from both sides of the God conjecture since puberty. The problem is not whether one side is smarter, but which is the set of assumptions on which their sense of reality rests. Either cause and effect are real and the universe is knowable through a continuing and contentious process of observation, documentation, and modeling (science), or else the continually meddling god of Christianity is possible, as was declared by ancient authority. The majority of the American founders were Deists who believed that if there was a creator God, he did not meddle in the day-to-day affairs of men. I can accept that God, but still don’t believe in it. Cosmologists and astronomers are pushing his creative acts farther and farther to the margins.

So although I acknowledge the high correlation between less-learned people and deep faith, I do not assume that having faith implies that people are stupid.

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How to protect your electronic data at the border

| February 23, 2012 | Reply
How to protect your electronic data at the border

Electronic Frontier Foundation has a detailed article advising you of your (lack of) rights when you enter and leave the United States (this applies to citizens and non-citizens). Here is some basic advice, but check out the article for lots of good advice regarding encryption, use of clouds, backups and other advice, much of it useful even when you are not traveling:

Border agents have a great deal of discretion to perform searches and make determinations of admissibility at the border. Keep in mind that any traveler, regardless of citizenship status or behavior, can be temporarily detained by border agents for more detailed questioning, a physical search of possessions, or a more extensive physical search. Refusal to cooperate with searches, answer questions, or turn over passwords to let agents access or decrypt data may cause lengthy questioning, seizure of devices for further examination, or, in extreme circumstance, prevent admission to the country. For this reason, it may be best to protect your data in ways that don’t require you to have awkward confrontations with border agents at all.

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Who’s the best warmonger?

| February 23, 2012 | Reply
Who’s the best warmonger?

Robert Scheer reports on the most recent GOP debate:

Here we go again. With the economy showing faint signs of life and their positions on the social issues alienating most moderates, the leading Republican candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, have returned to the elixir of warmongering to once again sway the gullible masses. The race to the bottom has been set by Newt Gingrich, the most desperate of the lot, who on Tuesday charged that “The president wants to unilaterally weaken the United States,” because his administration has dared question the wisdom of Israel attacking Iran and proposes a slight reduction in the bloated defense budget.

Let the good times roll with a beefed-up military budget justified by plans to invade yet another Muslim country. As Paul warned during the South Carolina primary debate as his presidential rivals threatened war with Iran: “I’m afraid what’s going on right now is similar to the war propaganda that went on against Iraq.”

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Encourage aggressive journalism only overseas?

| February 23, 2012 | 1 Reply
Encourage aggressive journalism only overseas?

Reporter Jake Tapper to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney:

There just seems to be disconnect here. You want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don’t want it in the United States.

The context: The Obama Administration, which has praised aggressive reporting on regimes elsewhere in the world, has brought six prosecutions against CIA whistle-blowers using the Espionage Act to censor information about CIA torture.

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Atheist editor of high school newspaper denied right to publish article

| February 23, 2012 | 7 Replies
Atheist editor of high school newspaper denied right to publish article

Krystal Myers is a student at Lenoir City High School (in Tennessee), which has a predominantly Christian student body. She is also the editor of her public high school newspaper. She also happens to be an atheist. KnoxNews reports on a recent incident:

In a recent editorial that Myers, 18, intended for the Lenoir City High School newspaper entitled “No Rights: The Life of an Atheist,” she questioned her treatment by the majority.

The article criticized the school for promoting prayer at school events, including school board meetings. Why was Krystal denied the right to publish her article?

Schools Director Wayne Miller said it was the decision of the school authorities not to allow publication of Myers’ editorial because of the potential for disruption in the school.

I’d like to know more about the article. If Kristal happens to read this post, I hope she’ll contact me. I would certainly consider publishing her article here at DI, if she’s interested.

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End the use of long-term solitary confinement in Illinois!

| February 22, 2012 | 3 Replies
End the use of long-term solitary confinement in Illinois!

Hey all. I haven’t been posting since last summer, mostly because I’ve been drowning in graduate school duties. One of these duties has been interning at Chicago’s Cook County Jail. There, I sit in on group therapy sessions for inmates with drug-related offenses. I’ve been consistently touched by the philosophical and psychological depth of these men, their gentleness and the span of their regrets. These are men who will sit down and opine for hours on topics you wouldn’t expect low-SES drug dealers and addicts to have much knowledge of: gender identity is a big topic, for example (these guys live firsthand the consequences of masculinity). And when it comes to living with shame or regret, these guys are almost the best resource you can find.

The only place where you can find more affecting people, I think, is at prisons. I’ve been volunteering for a Chicago-based group called Tamms Year Ten, which advocates for prisoners housed in long-term solitary confinement. I write and read inmates’ letters, respond to their requests for photos and magazines, and read their countless reports of abuse– from medical staff, from Corrections Officers, from mail room staff, and from the state itself.

Let’s be clear on what “long-term” solitary confinement means. These men at Tamms are housed alone for 23-hours a day, with zero human contact, for decades. Some have been locked up alone for 23-28 years.

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