RSSCategory: Meaning of Life

What Most Sets of Commandments Get Wrong

December 11, 2011 | By | Reply More
What Most Sets of Commandments Get Wrong

I recently read Penn Jillette’s 10 Commandments for atheists, written as a response to a challenge by Glenn Beck. Most of Penn’s rules made good sense. But one went off the rails, I opine.

He included one found in most mistranslations of the Christian Ten: “Don’t Lie.” Penn explicitly adds the caveat: “(You know, unless you’re doing magic tricks and it’s part of your job. Does that make it OK for politicians, too?)”

But the premise is basically flawed. The original line in Exodus 20:16 (KJV) is Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. This is a very specific form of lie. Even too specific. Not only is it an injunction against perjury, but only against perjury against your landholding neighbor, as opposed to people from other places, or to property such as women and slaves.

Of course we all must lie on occasion. How else can we answer, “Isn’t she the most beautiful baby ever?” or “Honey, do I look puffy?” Would it be false testimony to confirm a harmless bias one on one?

Yet I suggest that the proper commandment should be, “Don’t bear false witness.” Period. Don’t testify to things of which you are not absolutely sure; that you have not personally experienced. Not in a public forum. Don’t repeat “what everybody knows” unless you preface it with an appropriate waffle, such as “I heard that someone else heard that…”

But this might make it difficult to testify to the all-embracing love of a demonstrably genocidal God. A Google image search of “Testify” gives mostly Christian imagery.

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The lack of a bad thing is a good thing . . .

November 29, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
The lack of a bad thing is a good thing . . .

Not that I’m feeling down in the dumps, but if I were, I have a method for pulling out of a bad mood. A couple years ago, I wrote a post titled, “I know that I am wealthy when I consider my lack of misfortune.” The general idea is that we should appreciate that the lack of misfortune is fortune.  The lack of a bad thing is a good thing.

It occurred to me today that we have easy access to vast checklists of misfortune, and that it can make one feel lucky, indeed, to consider all the ways in which one is not medically unlucky.  One example is the type of form you are handed when you go to a doctor for the first time, wherein you are asked whether you have any of the following conditions, followed by things such as cancer, heart attack, diabetes, abscessed tooth, Alzheimer’s, hepatitis, pancreatitus, and it goes on and on.   Though I do put a couple of check marks into the boxes, there are thousands of medical conditions that I don’t have, which makes me lucky indeed.

I’m lucky in other ways, because I don’t struggle with any known psychological conditions, and there are hundreds of these too.  For instance, I don’t suffer from bipolar disorder, hypochondriasis, kleptomania or any conditions on this long list. I am not required to take anti-depressants.  I’m happy to get out of bed each day.   I don’t hate my job, my neighbors or my city.  I’m even appreciative of my country, though things are out of balance.  I appreciate that there are ways to make things better regarding my country.

But I’m even luckier.   I don’t struggle to keep any addictions in check, and this list is also extensive, including such things as gambling, OCD, drugs, alcoholism, and coin collecting . . . coin collecting???? I appreciate that I don’t wake up with an urge to go to a casino or to get drunk.  Really and truly, and I’ve never had any such urges.

I’m also lucky that I’m not unemployed in this bad economy. And though it is 13-years old, my car is working well. And my roof is not leaking.   Hoodlums aren’t chasing me down the street at the moment.  I didn’t just get bit by a brown recluse spider.  No warmongering superpower is dropping bombs anywhere near my house.  The electrical service is working well, allowing me to use this computer.   My kids are not failing out of school.  My city is not bankrupt.  I am not currently a victim of identity theft.  The pipes in my house are not leaking.  No neighbors are blasting their stereos outside.  I don’t worry about hurricanes and earthquakes and tornadoes (though maybe I should worry about the latter two).   The lack of each of these bad things is truly a good thing for which I am thankful.

Bottom line is that whatever it is that any of us has to deal with, it could be a lot worse, and a quick review of long lists of disorders and dyfunctions shows us how much worse things could be.

Perhaps this post could be said to constitute some sort of skeptics prayer .. .

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Americans shop while families from Afghanistan bury their dead children

November 25, 2011 | By | 3 Replies More
Americans shop while families from Afghanistan bury their dead children

I’m not in a holiday mood at all. Weapons from my country keep killing adult and children civilians from Afghanistan and, based on America’s newspapers, almost no one from the United States gives a crap. In fact, we are repeatedly hearing politicians and wanna-be politicians blithely talk of starting a war with Iran.  Add to the Afghanistan carnage that at least 168 children have been killed by U.S. drones in the ongoing illegal war in Pakistan.

Now back to the dead civilians.  Quite often, my “leaders” claim that those who were killed were “insurgents,” though we must keep in mind that this term has a nefarious real-life meaning: anyone who is killed by an American weapon is a insurgent, and there is no American media present on the ground to dispute these sorts of government claims. Sometimes, we do admit that we have killed civilians, and the “solution” is to apologize to the mourning families, as though that means anything to the weeping families. As Glenn Greenwald points out, these American killings of children are not unusual and they thus are morally reprehensible. These killings by America keep occurring the midst of a ten year so-called war that is costing America $2 Billion per week. This is a grotesque amount of money to spend on an activity that has no feasible morally justifiable objective.

In the absence of any reasonably articulated objective, we are left with de facto objectives: We are indiscriminately killing children as part of our program to keep America’s defense factories humming and to give American politicians an excuse to claim that they are “defending the United States.”

You’ll find articles on Black Friday everywhere you look today.   If you are an American, you’ll find almost nothing about the blood that is on your hands because you are not working hard enough to voice your opposition to this so-called “war” in Afghanistan.  Your friends, family and politicians desperately need to hear more from you (and from me).

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Revisiting insignificance

November 24, 2011 | By | 6 Replies More
Revisiting insignificance

I agree with Jennifer Ouellette that it is healthy to periodically reconsider the extremely small place that human beings occupy in the context of the entire universe. She has collected several of my favorite videos and images in this post at Scientific American.

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Reddit thought experiment

November 21, 2011 | By | Reply More
Reddit thought experiment

Check out this post on Reddit: “What would you say to your 15 year old self if you could phone him/her up right now? -but you can only talk to them for a total of 15 seconds.”

Well worth a read. It got me thinking, but I haven’t come up with any worthy 15-second advice for my 15-year old self. Sure, I could advise on investment strategies, but that seems to demean the question. Nor would I want to deprive myself of unpleasant (or even dangerous) experiences that I know that I actually pulled through. To do so would be to deprive myself of significant learning experiences.

Perhaps I would tell myself: Many of your biggest regrets will occur because you forgot to be self-critical and when, instead, you followed the crowd.

This Reddit question reminded me of the following Nietzsche quote:

The greatest weight.– What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

–from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann transl.

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How Atheism Happens

November 14, 2011 | By | Reply More

There is a new series on the Pharyngula blog: Posts confessing “Why I Am An Atheist” gleaned from comments and responses. Some are well written, others not so much. But each is selected for showing a particular path into the light for people who have recovered from invisible friend addiction.

The most recent post, Why I am an atheist – Adam, shows how an upbringing under the Ken Ham school of Young Earth Creation and science denialism eventually led him to an understanding of the willful ignorance and dishonesty that pervades that culture. Once he began to question the “facts” that he was raised with, he quickly climbed up toward rationalism and lost his religion.

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Why does Santa Claus let so many African children starve to death?

October 29, 2011 | By | Reply More
Why does Santa Claus let so many African children starve to death?

Tomorrow is Halloween, the day when Americans agree that it’s OK to talk about death, evil spirits and depravity while eating lots of unhealthy food. These traditions seem normal to those of us who have done this October drill more than a few times, but Halloween must seem completely bonkers to outsiders.

I suspect that Halloween serves as a psychological safety valve, allowing us to air out our anxieties about our deepest fears. On Halloween, we talk about these horrible things (dismemberment and other forms of horror) together while laughing—there’s seemingly safety in numbers. And then we make sure that we avoid talking about these things for the remainder of the year. On days other than Halloween, we don’t like to be reminded of the fact that there are skeletons inside of our bodies and that we’re all on a treadmill leading to inevitable death, and that there is no evidence of any afterlife. These things freak us out because there is no cure, no fix, other than working hard to fabricate that everything is OK.  For most of the year, we follow the pattern predicted by Terror management Theory: we cover up the fact that we are mortal animals through the use of elaborate diversions and baubles, pretending that we are Gods with anuses.  I often attempt to do otherwise, and to share my thoughts freely, but I admit that my fear of inevitable death occasionally gets the better of me too. Thus, I do think I understand the need for something like Halloween in a society that heavily discourages free-thinking about disturbing topics. These topics are heavy to me too, though regularly delve into these topics rather than dousing myself in Halloween tradition or seeking comfort by joining a traditional religion. For most people, though, Halloween rituals seem to offer a bit of relief from this admittedly heavy existential anxiety.

Thanksgiving is coming around the corner, and we have ready-made myths to take care of our anxieties related to that holiday too.  Thanksgiving is the time for many Americans to unquestionably repeat the myth that benevolent Europeans were welcomed to American by the Native Americans: “Hello, white people. Make yourselves at home. Take our possessions and our land. Send us to reservations.” One little story about Europeans sharing a meal with Native Americans takes care of thousands of pages of inconvenient history. One little myth kicks in the confirmation bias and invites Americans to believe that they live on a moral oasis, and that it’s OK to strictly filter our history in order to think happy thoughts about how many of us came to be here. Pass the turkey, please.

What kind of myth would extend one’s belief in a moral oasis almost all the way to the new year? If you owned a magic sleigh and you were capable of creating and distributing toys and food all over the world, why would you ignore the children of Africa? The evidence suggests that Santa skips them year after year, even though many of them are dying of starvation and malaria.  Further, this tragedy is something that American children don’t discuss in the context of the Santa

myth. But if you’re magical then, damn it, what’s more important? More iPods for well-to-do American families (it seems like Santa gives well-to-do American families better gifts) or basic food, water and medicine to prevent African children from starving?  Maybe Santa doesn’t care about African children. Or maybe he doesn’t know about the existence of Africa because his Atlas is out of date.  Or maybe he avoids Africa there’s not much snow there. But, again, we don’t discuss the Africa problem with our children when we tell them about the magic and benevolence of Santa Claus, and we are silent because Africa is inconvenient to the Santa story.

The increasingly dominant prosperity Gospel churches preach that Jesus wants us to hit the stores hard on Black Friday because we deserve to have lots of stuff. Many Americans are attracted to churches that advise them that admission to heaven is through faith, and not good works. It’s OK with this Faith version of Jesus that we buy lots of consumer goods rather than saying no to ourselves and sending all of that gadget money to organizations that can truly feed starving African children and provide them with mosquito nets. Year after year, the Santa myth serves as a focus-mechanism of a precious human commodity—attention–that makes certain aspects of the world salient at the expense of downplaying others. That is the general mechanism of all myths. They are colored filters for reality.

In these modern times, our many comforting myths need some serious self-critical analysis, but that is unlikely, because their power is in their uncritical repetition. All of this immediately makes sense when we remind ourselves that we choose our myths—they don’t fall down from the sky.

[http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-santa-in-his-christmas-sled-or-sleigh-silhouette-image20920349 used with permission.  Map of Africa – creative commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Africa_(orthographic_projection).svg]

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The so-called Iranian terrorist plot

October 12, 2011 | By | 10 Replies More
The so-called Iranian terrorist plot

About a year ago, I was speaking to man whose son was serving in the U.S. military in Iraq. Without any provocation the man announced to me that we ought to simply drop a nuclear bomb on Iran and “take care of that problem once and for all.”   I was not surprised to hear such a blunt call for such widespread sterile violence. I’d heard talk like this before on AM talk radio, and I’ve heard it since. I’m well-aware that many of our conservative citizens and politicians are wired up in this Manichean/essentialist way, where all people residing in the Middle-East are suspect (or worse) and America is the greatest nation in the history of the entire galaxy, no matter that it refuses to take care of its own while burning $2 billion/week in Afghanistan. I’ve heard far too many people speak simplistically of burning millions of Iranians in a nuclear fire, all the while racking up such a proposed mass-murder with a shrug after labeling it “collateral damage.”   This is what it’s now like in the horror-carnival that much of America has become. For those of us who are able to pull our minds out of tribal mode even a bit are witness to hordes of blindered fellow citizens who have been turned intensely incurious by a mass media obsessed with conflict pornography and urged on by psychopathic politicians.

[More . . .]

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Senator Bernie Sanders proposes changes to America’s corrupt banking system

October 8, 2011 | By | Reply More

At Huffpo, Senator Bernie Sanders, who remains one of my heroes, points out that the secret bailout by the Federal Reserve makes the better-known bailout look tiny:

More than three years ago, Congress rewarded Wall Street with the biggest taxpayer bailout in the history of the world. Simultaneously but unknown to the American people at the time, the Federal Reserve provided an even larger bailout. The details of what the Fed did were kept secret until a provision in the Dodd-Frank Act that I sponsored required the Government Accountability Office to audit the Fed’s lending programs during the financial crisis.

As a result of this audit, the American people have learned that the Federal Reserve provided more than $16 trillion in low-interest loans to every major financial institution in this country, huge foreign banks, multi-national corporations, and some of the wealthiest people in the world.

In other words, when Wall Street was on the verge of collapse, the federal government acted boldly, aggressively, and with a fierce sense of urgency to save our financial system from collapse with no strings attached.

The huge backdoor bailout is a slap in the face to American taxpayers, especially since the big Wall Street banks are bigger than ever and because they are taking more risks than ever, presumably emboldened by the fact that they are “too big to fail,” and that the federal government will come bail them out yet again. Here’s what Bernie Sanders proposes to clean up this despicable situation:

1) Break up the big banks.
2) Cap credit card interest rates (“Today, more than a quarter of all credit card holders in this country are paying interest rates above 20 percent and as high as 59 percent.”)
3) Force the Federal Reserve to make low interest loans directly to small businesses.
4) Put an end to speculation that jacks up the price of petroleum products.
5) Demand that Wall Street invest in real businesses instead of “gambling on derivatives.”
6) “Establish a Wall Street speculation fee on credit default swaps, derivatives, stock options and futures. Both the economic crisis and the deficit crisis are a direct result of the greed and recklessness on Wall Street.” Sanders points out that there was such a fee (.2% tax on all sales and transfers of stock) from 1914 – 1966.

Sanders points out that getting these measures passed will be enormously difficult, given that these Wall Street banks spent $5 billion on lobbying over the past decade.  Which leads to another enormous need: to get money out of politics.

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