Saturday, January 21, 2006

Clearing out my head.

So I've been pondering a few posts over the past few days, and finally decided to just get a skeleton of them out of my head and onto here before they pass on by.

First off let's touch on the recent audiotape release supposedly by Bin Laden himself.

This tape supposedly noted 2 topics. One was the notice of intent to attack within the United States if the battle was kept up. The second was the offer of a long-term honorable truce.

A little more detail into these; first Bin Laden noted that it was obvious that the majority of US citizens no longer wanted us to fight Muslims on Muslim soil, and did not want Muslims fighting us on our soil. Due to this, and the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan have been devastated by war, Bin Laden offered a long-term truce to end the conflict and remove our troops from Muslims lands so that they may rebuild their countries.

Now, for a few years the battlefront had been taken into Afghanistan and then Iraq, and became a gravitational point where fighters came to defend Muslim lands and gain fighting experience against the Americans etc. They have done this long enough and are now planning on one of two courses of action... either we refuse their offer of a truce and proceed headlong into our ever escalating bloodbath, with the inevitable and foretold outcome of further "terror" attacks within the US. OR... we take the offer of truce and have at least a chance of ending this bloody conflict.

Mind you, it was obvious that the Republicans and other ignorant ilk of theirs would refuse the offer of truce without even considering it, thereby damning us to further bloodshed with the only possible outcome being thousands more lives lost, an escalation in the violence and further "terrorist" recruitment as well as further attacks within the US. Which of course have the side effect of creating a greater environment of fear in which the ignorant populace gladly gives up it's basic freedoms and liberties to fight a threat created, maintained and bolstered by the willful stupidity, if not downright malice, of the current government. They have a multitude of reasons to continue this "war", and very little motivation to actually end it.

To shed a little more light on this situation, I've run across a few things in the past few days that might enlighten you as to the foe we face. (and I give due credit to Michael Shermer and Scientific American, from which many of the following figures are taken. As well as Thomas Joiner, Marc Sageman and others.)

These are not ignorant people per se... they are not depressed or suicidal. They are not lower class people living in squalor who see no other way out...

75% of all known Al Queda members come from the middle or upper class. 90% come from caring, intact families. 63% had attended college (in contrast to the normal 5% to 6% rate for third world countries). 73% were married and the vast majority had children. 75% were professionals and semi-professionals. Engineers, architects and civil engineers, mostly scientists. "Very few humanities are represented, and quite surprisingly very few had any background in religion."

This information comes from Michael Shermer's Skeptic column in this month's (January 2006) issue of Scientific American entitled Murdercide.

It goes on to list the social and psychological factors that influence these people to act in the manner in which they do. Things that I already understand, but which I feel the vast majority of Americans have simply no idea about.

This lack of understanding... this ignorance... of a foreign culture and it's religion etc... have led to the deplorable state we now find ourselves in... believing we're fighting ignorant goat raping towel heads that don't know any better and hate us for our freedom and have nothing better to live for... so to get away from their mud huts and caves, they choose to take some of us along with them when they finally kill themselves.

This is a far far cry from the reality of the situation.
"You should be very proud of me. It's an honor, and you will see the results, and everybody will be happy... whatever you do, head high, with a goal, never be without [a] goal, always have a goal in front of you and always think, 'what for.'"
-- Final letter to his wife by Ziad Jarrah, Spetember 11 terrorist who crashed Flight 93 into a Pennsylvania field.
Another thing I've noticed is the media calling these people "radical" Islamists. We should take note of this... these people are fundamentalists. They are following the letter of the law... the word of the Qu'ran. I see the media shying away from calling them fundamentalists... which is precisely what they are... in order to avoid shedding any light on the dangers of fundamentalist religious beliefs and on religion itself. It's a slippery slope they dare not tread near.

We are a nation primarily of Christians who claim to believe in the absolute infallibility of our God... and in his word written in the holy Bible. Yet when God himself states unequivocally that we are to kill anyone who tries to sway us from our beliefs, and to murder homosexuals and witches and any number of other people who simply differ in belief from ourselves... we fail to give any credence to these statements... we pick and choose what we want to believe. We ignore the unsavory... we are in essence disobeying God and calling him fallible. We are stating that his commands are not correct or absolute... that we need not follow his commandments... that our faith in God, against God's own words... is optional and arbitrary.

Are you starting to get the picture?

We have right here in America our own "radical" Christians... our own fundamentalists who believe they have a God given right to murder abortion clinic doctors... or black people, or homosexuals... because they believe the bible tells them that God commands it or condones it. Which it does.

We have these people who through their upbringing and social dynamics have come to believe in a fictional paradigm of reality that reinforces the idea that they are 100% right in their beliefs and their actions, in spite of even overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

So we have this other religion which has been taught to these people from birth, and a society which reinforces the idea that to die in the just cause of fighting the infidels and driving them from your lands is the greatest achievement you could possibly make in this life or the next... and one for which you will be forever remembered as a hero, and spend eternity as a prince in paradise with 72 virgins etc... with your picture and name and story plastered on giant billboards telling of your heroism in your home town etc... this core belief that you are achieving greatness and fulfilling your life, and ensuring a godlike eternity in the afterlife etc... protecting your nation, your family, your religion...

Our stubborn refusal to accept the reality of the situation... our pervasive and breathtaking ignorance and stupidity... is just fueling the fire... creating the very environment in which these people can fulfill the greatest cause of their life... and they are flocking to the chance in ever greater numbers.

Suicide attacks in 2000: 43
In 2004: 163
In 2005: roughly one a day

Percent of all suicide bombings
since 1968 that have occurred
after September 11th:

It is quite obvious to see that the situation has only gotten increasingly worse as time has passed in the last few years since 9/11 as we've driven hard into the middle east in our ignorant bullheaded quest for revenge against a people who we understood very little about. A people who had attacked us in retaliation for very real wrongs that we have committed directly against them and indirectly committed by backing their greatest enemy... the latter being fundamentally a matter of religion.

As Richard Dawkins said... "There are would-be murderers all around the world who want to kill you and me... and themselves... because they're motivated by what they think is the highest ideal. Of course politics are important... Iraq, Palestine, even social deprivation in Bradford. But as we wake up to this huge challenge to our civilized values, don't let's forget the Elephant in the room... an Elephant called Religion."

This brings me, in closing, to another matter.

I've been talking to Russell, my younger coworker, on and off for a couple months now I think... mainly about religion... and he said something very interesting to me about it yesterday. He said that he'd been doing a lot of thinking, and the more he thought, the more he really understood... the more it was all starting to make sense... and that he didn't like it.

He said he was debating asking me not to talk to him about it anymore.

He saw just how real what I was saying was... and the truth made him uncomfortable... and it made him feel like it would be bad for him because he didn't want to know the truth if it meant having to stand up for it. If it meant not being able to feel a part of the group. If it meant having to know someone is wrong and try to hold your tongue... he was afraid of tasting of the sweet nectar of truth and not being able to stop drinking... and to invest the time in research and knowledge and further spiral into a place where he was no longer a happy part of the flock because he saw reality for what it really was.

He had started to catch himself when he went to pray... looking at what he was doing, listening to what he was saying... and it was dawning on him like a sledgehammer what reality actually was.

I think he's reached a point where there's no going back... and the cognitive dissonance and the fear of not belonging... the fear of the unknown... are all weighing heavy on his mind. But I believe he's smart enough that knowing as much as he does... and having already had many of the right questions on his mind, but having just been too afraid to ask them or face the reality of them... he was already toeing the line... and I think I simply nudged him over it.

I think most people don't want to know the truth... they don't want the burden of understanding... perhaps knowledge implies accountability... responsibility...

People don't want to see the reality of the consequences for their beliefs. They don't want to face the uncomfortable truth.

Deep down, most people don't want to know... and I've pushed many of them far enough to get them to admit it. They know the truth, but they don't want to admit it... they don't want to accept it... so that even while they do know the truth, they keep insisting to themselves that the fantasy is real... they take comfort in lying to themselves perpetually and living in a borderline state of fantasy and reality where they only have to face just so much reality from day to day to be able to survive... and beyond that they find solace in their fantasy. "I don't want to believe that my ancestors were monkeys. I don't want to believe that there's no heaven when I die." Even when I've had people admit that they know the truth... they still insist on holding onto the lies, and admit it. They don't want to let go of the comfort those lies provide.

The world makes a lot more sense when you actually start facing the truth. It's not always nice, but it's reality.

So I think that in the end... if people really stopped and looked at the reality of the situation we're in... and understood the cultural, sociological, psychological and religious ramifications of our current predicament... they would see the way out. They would understand the causes and effects.

But we won't do that because to do so would require us to admit the fundamental flaws and errs in our own beliefs. And better to kill our neighbor than face that uncomfortable reality ourselves.

Pity the man who steals another man's dreams.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The sea of faith and violence.

I ran across this on a Sudanese mailing list earlier... all credit goes to the original author of course. I just wanted to share a very interesting article.
"Sam Harris launches a sustained nuclear assault. A bold and exhilarating thesis. The End of Faith is a brave, pugilistic attempt to demolish the walls that currently insulate religious people from criticism. The End of Faith is badly needed..."

Friday, February 11, 2005

The sea of faith and violence
By Johann Hari

A holy alliance of the religious right and the multicultural left has erected a taboo at the heart of our culture. At a crucial moment in the history of fanaticism, they have ring-fenced the edifice of religion from criticism. True, they permit condemnation of the manias of religious literalists - from Osama Bin laden to the Jewish Settlers to Jerry Falwell - but they ensure this happens within tight parameters.

Fanatics must be damned for "perverting" or "distorting" the "otherwise peaceful" religions they follow. Anybody like Richard Dawkins who points out that, on the contrary, these extremists are simply obeying the clear commands of their respective religious texts is damned as "offensive" or "an Ayatollah of atheism."

Sam Harris - a Californian neuroscientist - does not just attack this taboo. He launches a sustained nuclear assault on it. He argues that there has never been a more important time for a campaigning, aggressive atheism - for a simple reason. Before long, technological advances will make weaponry of mass destruction fairly easily available to any group of private individuals. If this technology combines with a religious group that believes death is actually better than life - whether it is the evangelical Christians who pine for the Rapture or jihadists who brag about how much they love death - then it is, at the very least, hard to see a happy outcome. So Harris argues, "Given the power of our technology, we have simply lost the right to our myths and to our mythic identities." So now is the time for to dismantle the religious idea that human action can be justified with reference to afterlives, mystical realms and magical Gods - before those ideas are turned once again on humanity. "Words like 'God' or 'Allah' must go the way of 'Apollo' and 'Baal', or they will unmake our world."

It's a bold and oddly exhilarating thesis, and for the first 50 pages Harris runs with it. He believes the core problem with religion resides in the nature of faith as a way of understanding the world. Faith is - by definition - a process that bypasses any need for evidence; it is a psychological mechanism based solely on personal instinct. After briefly noting the bloody paths this has led humanity along - such as the Spanish Inquisition - he notes dryly, "If history reveals any categorical truth, it is that an insufficient taste for evidence regularly brings out the worst in us."

Human reason can only ever reveal partial truths, because our perspectives are partial and nobody knows everything. But faith cannot reveal anything about our world at all. This can be seen in the difference in effectiveness between scientific medicine - based on a process of testing reality - and faith-based medicine, based on guesswork and delusion.

Yet a strange partition has emerged between how we think about religion and how we think about every other aspect of our lives. Harris puts this well when he notes, "Tell a devout Christian his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yoghurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anybody else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever." We would not accept 'faith' as a reason to convict somebody in a trial, or to go to war, or even to pick out which kind of pizza we order. So why do we accept so calmly that most of our fellow human beings use it as their rationale for life itself? It sounds simple to suggest that we must subject our spiritual beliefs to the same criterion as everything else - but such a demand requires us to remake the world.

For this reason, Harris declares, "It is imperative that we begin speaking plainly about the absurdity of most of our religious beliefs." As the great American atheist H.L. Mencken showed, the best way to discredit religion is often to simply quote from its central texts, or to summarise them in straightforward language. So he notes the Catholic belief that "Jesus Christ - who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily to the heavens - can now be eaten in the form of a cracker." Or - given that 46% of Americans take a literalist view of creation - that "the big bang [took place] 2500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer."

Harris' quotations from religious texts can be startling. In Deuteronomy 13:7-11, God declares that, "if your son or daughter" or "your most intimate friend" even suggests worshipping other Gods, "You must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death. You must stone him." Thus, Harris explains, "A literal reading of the New Testament not only permits but require heretics to be put to death." Nor are followers of the Old Testament let off the hook: Jesus Christ demanded that his believers fulfil every "jot" and "tittle" of the Old Testament.

Just as bad, in Koran 9:73, it says, "make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home: an evil fate." This is just one of five whole pages of quotations directly from the Koran demanding war on unbelievers. True, there is one (much-quoted) line in the Koran that tells believers, "Do not destroy yourselves" - but it comes in the middle of fire-breathing calls to war against "the friends of Satan".

At this point, many people would respond to Harris: Only religious extremists take these passages seriously. Surely the solution is to encourage religious moderation? Harris believes this is a profound mistake, arguing, "The very ideal of religious tolerance - born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God - is one of the principles forces driving us towards the abyss." He believes it is religious moderates who are keeping the whole edifice of religion from crumbling, because they protect the core religious ideas of faith and 'respect' for a person's beliefs from criticism. They even give them a friendly sheen, and encourage the sceptical to conclude that faith isn't so bad after all.

Religious moderates are only moderate if they choose to ignore great slabs of their own holy texts. Few Christians today would seek to stone adulterers or execute gay people - but that's no thanks to religion. "The only reason anyone is 'moderate' in matters of faith these days is if he has assimilated some of [non-religious] fruits of the last two-thousand years. The doors leading out of spiritual literalism do not open from the inside," Harris explains. Indeed, if we accept religious moderation as an acceptable status quo, we end up in a trap. "The problem that religious moderation poses for us all is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism" he explains. "We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivalled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don't like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us."

Thus Harris comes to the core problem we atheists have when looking at the religious moderates. The hard truth is that, whatever theological contortions well-meaning moderates put themselves through, religious extremists are simply straightforwardly obeying the commands of God as laid out in the Bible, Koran and Torah. "This is the problem for 'moderation' in religion: it has nothing underwriting it other than the unacknowledged neglect of the letter of divine law," Harris notes. He later says, "Religious moderation is a product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance." That's why atheism is the only full answer to religious fundamentalism.

But 'The End of Faith' then takes a strange and disturbing turn. Harris says starkly, "We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so." Really? Who is this 'we'? In the context of the chapter, he is clearly talking not about atheists but about the United States. But surely this is the country he has already identified as pickled in superstition, a nation where more people believe in the Virgin Birth than Darwinism? Why are 'we' automatically on the side of an evangelical Christian President against (in his formulation) even the most moderate of Muslims?

Harris' answer is patchy, and draws on some pretty dubious hard-right sources - Alan Dershowitz, Bernard Lewis, and Samuel Huntington, for example. He crosses a line here from condemning all religions for their gross delusions to claiming that Islam is a uniquely poisonous and evil system. "Islam is undeniably a religion of conquestÉ more than any other religion human beings have devised, [it] has all the makings of a thorough-going cult of death," he writes.

It is at this point that a crucial flaw in Harris' argument becomes clear. Although he does not state it explicitly, part of him clearly believes that religious moderates are as bad as fanatics; that there is little real difference, and even the most democratic and moderate of believers is "capable of anything". Militant atheist though I am, I can't follow him into this bog.

The world is not currently experiencing a war between Islam and non-Muslims. No; what we are currently witnessing is a war within Islam between Muslim fanatics and Muslim moderates that is sometimes spilling across into the non-Muslim world. Bin Laden attacked America not because he wants to conquer the United States, but because he wants to topple the US-backed regimes that he sees as being in the corrupt, moderate Islamic camp. Since Harris does not really believe that religious moderation exists, he cannot see this. He clearly regards all believing Muslims as essentially insane and prone to suicide-murder - whereas I would say that the fanatics are insane and the moderates are merely horribly misguided.

Harris argues for a one-stage intellectual war to replace Islam with atheism. I believe this is both wildly impractical and a recipe for failure. Defining every single Muslim as a de facto al-Quaida supporter is not a recipe for the erosion of faith but for its inflammation. No; I believe we (meaning all the potential victims of jihadism, both in Muslim countries and in the West) must embark on a two-stage battle. The first step is to replace fanatical Islam with moderate Islam. This would, in itself, be a massive achievement, and it is currently a distant goal. The second step - and this is the work of centuries - is to persuade moderate Muslims of the case for atheism. Harris disregards moderate Islam as an essential intermediary stage because he cannot see how moderate religion would be any better. This has lead him to write a chapter on Islam that is itself quite crazed, and even veers into bizarre speculation about circumstances in which a nuclear first strike would be acceptable against jihadists with a nuclear weapon.

And then the book takes another strange turn. Having savaged the idea of religion for over a hundred pages, Harris suddenly announces that he wants to craft an atheist brand of "spirituality". He praises "the great philosopher mystics of the East" including the Buddha - and says that "spiritual experience is clearly a natural propensity of the human mind." At this point - as somebody who feels no hunger for a 'spiritual' dimension to my life at all - I began to choke. Didn't the Buddha peddle notions just as absurd as the Christianity Harris has mocked? Didn't he say that we have lived before as insects, and may live again as goats? Where is Harris' tide of scorn now?

Harris tries to define this atheist spirituality as consisting of moments of "loss of self", explaining, "This experience of characterized by a sudden loss of subject/object perception: the continuum of experience remains, but one no longer feels that there is a knower standing apart from the known. Thoughts may arise, but the feeling that one is the thinker of those thoughts has vanished." There is a clear overlap with Eastern practices like meditation.

He tries to argue that this can be explored rationally and without falling back on faith, explaining, "The history of human spirituality is the history of our attempts to explore and modify the deliverances of consciousness through methods like fasting, chanting, sensory deprivation, prayer, meditation, and the use of psychotropic plants. There is no question that experiments of this sort can be conducted in a rational manner."

And yes, it is true that we can rationally investigate how people feel when, say, they don't eat for thirty days. But Harris then makes an unacceptable leap - one might call it a leap of faith - to argue that these altered mental states reveal something substantive about the nature of the universe, rather than simply revealing something about the set of chemical processes that occur in a body deprived of food. He says these "mystical" experiences "reveal a far deeper connection between ourselves and the universe than is suggested by the ordinary confines of our subjectivity" - but where is the evidence for this? Isn't he committing precisely the irrational leaps he condemned earlier? Where is the critique of the layers of superstition and irrationality that coat Eastern religions just as surely as their Western cousins?

Harris plainly does not accept something I see as a basic tenet of contemporary atheism: that we live in a purely material world, and all human action must be justified within these terms. He flirts with the idea that we can connect with non-material realms (at one point, he eccentrically claims there is evidence for "psychic phenomena") - which hardly seems to be a rational atheist case.

So ultimately, this provocative, occasionally brilliant book did not persuade me. True, he has some great lines; my favourite his description of faith as "what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse." But the book is wildly uneven, and veers off into entertaining but irrelevant discussion about pacifism, 'collateral damage' and the follies of drug prohibition. I agree with him on all three, but they are quite a long way from any discussion of faith, and this is only a short book. Once he begins to digress from already-long digressions, you wonder if he is padding the book.

There are also some sloppy errors: he claims that "millions" of Iraqi Shiites chose to "flagellate themselves" until "blood poured from their scalps and backs" as soon as they were liberated. In fact, this is the behaviour of a small slice of the Iraqi Shia not numbering more than the tens of thousands. He later condemns the Catholic Church for failing to excommunicate "a single senior Nazi, not even Adolf Hitler" - but how could they excommunicate people who had never been part of their church? It's like condemning the Labour Party for not throwing any Nazis off their membership lists.

But for all its flaws, we need more pugilist attempts to demolish the walls that currently insulate religious people from criticism. 'The End of Faith' is badly needed in a twenty-first century America where the religious right is swelling once more and even feeding off the rise of Islamic fanaticism in the Middle East. It is also urgent reading in Britain, where we are about to pass a grotesque law banning "incitement to religious hatred". Every MP considering voting for this legislation should be slapped with the question Harris ask at the heart of this book: "When will we realise that the concessions we have made to faith in our political discourse prevent us from even speaking about, much less uprooting, the most prolific source of violence in our history?"
One thought I had during this was of the critical thinkers ability to separate the good from the bad in such content. Just because we agree with part of what someone says, doesn't require us to give the rest of it equal credence.

"Take the best, fuck the rest. Integrate and start over."

For instance, the excuse of morality in the bible as a justification for brainwashing children... aside from the fact that the bible is full of extreme acts of depravity, violence, cruelty, sexism, racism, genocide, condoned rape, infanticide etc. The list goes on and on.

I also watched the second part of Richard Dawkin's "The Root of All Evil", entitled "The Virus of Faith". Also very good. It was actually in researching some of the things he said therein that I ran across the above article.

More on this later. That's enough for now.

50 Milliseconds is all it takes.

Web users judge sites in the blink of an eye.

Potential readers can make snap decisions in just 50 milliseconds.

This makes me wonder... how do you judge the design of this blog? What impression does that initial 50 milliseconds give you?

That aside, this is something I've generally known about website design for a long time... I just wasn't aware of how incredibly brief a span of time was needed to make that judgement. :-P

I used to have to explain to people that the first impression about their website meant a lot more than their actual content, as most people would look and go "this is unprofessional" and instantly be biased against anything on the site etc. It would engender a lack of trust in the vendor, a lack of trust in the product or information etc.

Another awesome point that was made was how confirmation bias (or cognitive bias, as they call it in the article... which sounds like the dynamic duo of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias to me) effects the users judgement. That bias takes that first 50 millisecond judgement and bends their entire experience from that point on to confirm their initial reaction. If that first reaction was "wow, this is awesome!", they'll be subconsciously influenced to try to prove themselves right. If that first reaction was "this is crap.", they're probably just going to surf elsewhere... or at least be much more skeptical of the quality of any content on that site etc.

I know I've covered confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance on here before... and how they relate to people's unwillingness to admit when they're wrong and critically assess their religious beliefs, even in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary after the fact. That bias strongly influences the person to want to prove themselves right... to admit that they're wrong is terribly uncomfortable. It's just a matter of evolutionary psychology. The physiology of how we're wired... not much we can do about it but learn to understand it's function and keep our eye out for it when possible. This is why scientists try to set up double-blind tests etc... to remove any possibility of their own confirmation bias affecting the test results.

Fun stuff. :-D

You should really read all the links on this page... they give you a great insight into the ways your own mind works and how that functionality came about... awesome stuff.

Monday, January 16, 2006

It's about time someone had the balls to stand up.

Gore: Resist Bush's 'excessive power grab'.
Former vice president calls for probe into warrantless wiretaps

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Vice President Al Gore called on Congress and the public to resist what he called "a gross and excessive power grab" by the Bush administration amid the war on terrorism, declaring that "our Constitution is at risk."
Unfortunately the fact that it's Gore is going to let the Republicans use the excuse that it's just sour grapes on Gore's part. Fortunately even many of the Republican party are backing what he says because of how insanely out of control the Bush administration has gotten.

A good read and a taste of reality in these times of spin, double-speak and breathtaking delusion.

A sense of scale.

Where is the centre of the universe?

Having read that article I was left with a sense of the scale of just how much we not only do not know about the universe around us, but how much we simply have no way of knowing... for instance, even if we could see to the edge of the universe, even if there is an edge... the fact is that light had a limiting speed... and can only travel just so far in a given amount of time. If the universe is infinite, or bigger than the distance light from the edge could travel to us in the intervening 10 or 20 billion years... we simply would not be able to see it. The farther we looked, the further back into time we would be looking, as the light would have taken longer and longer to reach our eyes.

Which brings me to another thought I've often had... that if we could travel instantly hundreds of millions of light years from earth, and with a telescope so powerful as to be able to clearly view the surface of earth down to a millimeter scale... we would clearly be able to watch and study the dinosaurs.

The point of all this being that as I read the article... I was left with a daunting feeling of just how little we understand... and how miraculous and simply mindbending it all seems... it makes it a little easier to understand how man would continue to have to come up with explanations for the unknown such as the gods and godesses that litter our history. Even with the countless advancements and discoveries that we've made over the centuries, we are still left with a knowledge of our universe infinitesimally miniscule in comparison with the sheer scale of the universe as we even know it.

Why make up men in the clouds when there are such daunting mysteries to be explained here in the real physical world around us? I am stunned by the grandeur of the universe... and my dream is that one day our descendants might be able to travel to other galaxies... to discover and communicate with other life forms... to answer some of the greatest mysteries we know... and the only way our progeny will be able to accomplish those things, is with the work of their forefathers... us.

And so, as I wish that my forefathers had pressed forward and not been held back by such things as the Catholic Church and the Christians burning the libraries of Alexandria to ensure the ignorance of the masses to preserve a belief system built thereupon... things that lead me to despair sometimes on thinking where humanity might be otherwise.... I hope to at least give future generations the best chance I can by working towards a few more stepping stones in my lifetime and promoting the mindset of a people who want to bring us into the future and all the wonders that it holds, and not chain us to a superstitious and ignorant past.


After writing that, I tried to edit a comment above that touched on what started this whole line of study, but it started growing beyond the scope of my original posts intention, so I'm relegating it to a footnote.

This all came about after a discussion I had with my boss the other day where he insisted that galaxies are formed by big clumps of matter spinning so fast that they throw off pieces and create the spiral shape of galaxies... and that the universe's expansion is slowing down and will eventually collapse back in upon itself, and being only about 4 billion years old (which is actually a little younger than even the earth itself), will only last about 8 billion years total, which the universe is already much older than, and both dates which his own religion contradicts, and for which contradiction the only explanation the bible has leads to a final contradiction that shoots the very foundation of Christianity all to hell... Ideas I had to disagree with him on, based on the studying I had done, but which left me wanting to study more.

To touch more on that chain of contradictions... there are a number of fundamentalist christians known at the Young Earthers etc... who have reached their own idea of the age of the earth by adding up the ages of all the people listed in the bible since the creation story... believing the universe to have been created in 7 days by god, and Adam, the first man, being created during those 7 days. They come up with a number somewhere around 10,000 years rather than the several billion science has come up with by much more reliable means, with actual hard evidence and independant confirmation etc etc. The contradiction lies in the fact that he believes science over religion in this instance... and the only explanation for this contradiction deals with undermining the very belief that Adam and Eve were the first man and woman... by taking a more literal interpretation of the creation stories and accepting the parts where "man" was created before Adam and Eve were created... and that these people were the people that Adam and Eve's children went out to and married and had children with after they were kicked out of the garden of Eden, thus avoiding all humankind on earth being the result of incest.

Sometimes I have to laugh at how far we go to pick apart fiction. ;-)

Anyway... another line of thought that came out of this was the difference between religious belief and scientific belief... and how someone might think that there isn't much difference in coming up with the explanations that science has versus the explanations given by religion. And it only took me a moment to answer that question for myself...

Science is based upon the constant revision of explanation based on critical thinking, skeptical study and testing, and independant confirmation leading to predictable results based on laws and theories... things which have to be testably disprovable. When these are shown to correctly predict actual events and physical behaviors in the world around us, they are given provisional credibility as fact until a possibly more refined explanation can be given etc.

Religion on the other hand is based upon stories told by a bunch of people thousands of years ago... and gain credence only by being "old". They are not revised, at least not in many many centuries, and cannot be proven. As a matter of fact, many portions of them are routinely disproven by science, moreso every day in the intervening centuries since they were written... in which time we have discovered things like the dinosaurs, and the truth about the Earth revolving around the Sun, and what the sun in fact is... and that it is in fact the same as stars... and how plants survive, and how animals procreate... and how even our own bodies actually function... and that the earth is round and why the sky looks as it does in the day and night and what clouds are and what lies beneath our feet... all things which are described completely wrong in the bible... because they simply didn't know any better. And while a portion of humanity has used it's brain and questioned the world around itself and answered many of those questions and revised and moved forward our understanding of the universe around us, leading to medical breakthroughs, space travel and countless other advancements... religion has been a constant nemesis to the advancement of humankind... fervently working to destroy the work of those men of intellect... a mission born of the desire to protect an outdated, primitive and superstitious belief which can only survive in the absence of knowledge and understanding.

Friday, January 13, 2006

What are you doing here citizens? Your papers, please.

I belong to a mailing list/group that's actually Conservative/Republican, but I really agree with almost everything written on there. The Kirsten Anderson Fan Club on Yahoo of all places. But anyway... the following was posted on there by raven14002003 under the same title I've used for this post.

Hopefully I don't get in trouble for reposting a Fox News report. :-/
Taft signs "show us your papers" bill.
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Ohio Republican Gov. Bob Taft on Wednesday signed a bill into law passed by the state legislature with barely a word of dissent. Supporters of the state's security measure, which takes effect in 90 days, say it's a tool the state can use in fighting terrorism.

"Like everyone else, after Sept. 11, I became a lot more concerned about our safety and security," said state Sen. Jeff Jacobson, sponsor of the bill, which also instructs local law enforcement to lend assistance when able to federal authorities carrying out provisions of the Patriot Act.

"We felt very strongly that we needed to have laws in Ohio to out our state on the frontline of fighting terrorism," Jacobson said.

But dissent is building over authority given to police officers, who can now ask, "What's your name?" as a tool to fight terrorism. Failure to identify oneself could land an individual in jail.

Critics call the measure the Ohio Patriot Act. The law also requires those applying for state driver's licenses to sign a form that they haven't supported terrorist organizations.

The American Civil Liberties Union opposed the measure because of the new powers it gives to police.

"[It] takes us back to the days of Sen. McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities with demands that people confess their sins," said Jeffrey Gamso, a spokesman for the ACLU.

But supporters such as police agencies say the new law will be useful without abusing civil rights.

"I think there's enough checks and balances and enough guidelines have been set up by the courts that we will follow," said Michael Weinman, legal liaison for the Columbus, Ohio, police department.

The final version of the bill passed the state Senate with only two 'no' votes.

"People are very afraid to vote against any bill of this nature," said Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University. "They have to stand for re-election and no one wants to be perceived as soft on terrorism."

Others agree that the measure will come up in the upcoming election.

"This doesn't have a little to do with the upcoming election. It has everything to do with the upcoming election," said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

My humor for the morning. :-)

This got a good laugh out of me this morning, so I thought I'd share.

I was reading a thread about a new dwarf galaxy being discovered so close to the Milky Way (our galaxy), that we hadn't seen it before. "Couldn't see the galaxy for the stars" so to speak.

Anyway... here was the following exchange:
Re:Dwarf galaxy (Score:5, Informative)
by techno-vampire (666512) on Wednesday January 11, @09:37PM (#14451049)

It's a "dwarf galaxy" and yet so big we couldn't see it before?

That's right. It's a dwarf galaxy because its actual size is small (compared to other galaxies) but its apparent size is 5,000 times that of the Full Moon because it's so close, as galaxies go.

In case that's not enough to explain it to you, consider that the Moon is much smaller than Jupiter, but appears to be larger because it's much nearer.
Hmm (Score:5, Funny)
by BitterAndDrunk (799378) on Wednesday January 11, @10:55PM (#14451420)

"In case that's not enough to explain it to you, consider that the Moon is much smaller than Jupiter, but appears to be larger because it's much nearer."

Sounds an awful lot like witchcraft, if you ask me. I think we should burn you and the moon, just to be sure.


Anyway... おはよ ございます! Back to work.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Life ♥

The following post is a bulletin that I posted on MySpace in response to another bulletin I received, which is included in the copy of it I'm posting below.

In response to the following bulletin, I'd like to offer a counter bulletin for those that feel differently.

I would like to know who really believes in God on myspace. There is no bribe of a miracle or anything like that. If you truly believe in God, then repost this and title the bulletin as "God". If you don't believe in God, then just ignore this...thanks. In the book of Matthew, Jesus says..."If you deny me before man, I will deny you before my Father in Heaven."

I don't believe in God, I don't believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of god or the Christ etc. I don't believe in Heaven. I don't believe that morality or love are dependant upon a belief in one particular brand of superstition's particular holy book etc.

I believe in humankinds acension as an animal and in his or her innate ability to love, hate, fear, create and think freely, born of an aeons old system of gradual improvement through survival of the fittest, where the most successful variations in any system of chemical, molecule, cell etc will be more likely to carry on or reproduce and thereby ensure future generations and further improvements of it's characteristics. I believe in humankinds ability to choose it's own destiny and not be subservient to age old superstitions or the latest "god" in a history full of many gods who have come and gone... a testament to their nature as fictitious characters along humankind's road to greater knowledge and understanding of the universe around us.

"We are all atheists about most of the gods mankind has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."
           -- Richard Dawkins

I believe in not being afraid to stand up and state that I'm not another sheep in the flock. That I'm not afraid to say that the Emperor has no clothes. I believe in pushing the progress of mankind forward and doing away with the ancient superstitions and traditions that weigh down our progress and wet our history with the blood of millions who have died defending the idea that their particular fantasy was the one true religion... or as was more often the case, died because they simply didn't agree with someone else about the validity of that other person's beliefs, and were killed for it.

I believe in the Gradual Illumination of the Mind as put forward by Darwin... that we should focus on learning and advancing science and understanding the world around us... so that we might hasten forward the inexorable march of man in spite of the best efforts of religions, superstitions and traditions holding us back with ignorance, bigotry and intolerance. Dangerous beliefs that rely on a detachment from rational thought and understanding to maintain their suspension of disbelief. And which not only cower in fear of the revelation of truth borne out by the facts as presented through scientific study, but seek to actively supress all such knowledge in order to preserve a belief system fueled by ignorance.

I invite anyone to feel free to repost this bulletin with their personal beliefs. I invite dissent and disagreement... I invite discussion and thought. Knowledge is the key to greater understanding of our fellow man and woman... of first understanding the differences between our cultures and beliefs, but then in hopefully finally shedding the trappings of those ancient superstitions and irrational fears and traditions and moving forward into an era of vastly greater understanding of both who we are and the universe we live in.

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away".
           -- Philip K. Dick

There are far greater wonders to behold in the universe around us once we move beyond the childlike fairytale of a loving father figure that lives in a castle in the clouds who created the universe in 7 days, man from mud and woman from his rib. When you stop being afraid to ask the questions "if the universe requires a creator, then why doesn't the creator require a creator?" or "why do we continue to believe a millenia old collection of stories by scores of different authors with different personal and political agendas, even when it flies in the face of not only massive amounts of scientific fact and evidence compiled in the intervening centuries, and when it is in fact riddled with self-contradictions, mass genocide and moral depravity?". and really look for the answers, and to be able to step past the superstitions and into the reality of the provable and disprovable, predictable and understandable world of science and reality. no more are you going to have bad luck from walking under a ladder or seeing a black cat or breaking a mirror than you are going to be struck down by an imaginary man in the sky if you were to raise your middle finger to the heavens and say "fuck you imaginary god. I'm done being a servant to a figment of my imagination."

trust me... I've done it many times... and I haven't worried about any lightning bolts yet. but I can sure tell you it's been refreshing to see the world so much more clearly. when you stop being a servant to your own imagination.

Life is truly such a wondrous thing that it is a heinous insult to Life itself and to ourselves to believe in such a primitive fairytale explanation and not seek with the fullest limits of our mental abilities to understand the vast wonders of the REALITY around us.

I for one don't need a figment of my imagination to cloud my understanding... and I hope that anyone out there who still does... might take awhile to consider the facts... to consider the possibilities. to ask the questions. and to not be afraid of the answers.

Some updates to my last post.

I was reading over the article I linked to at the top of my last post... and at the very end of it was an important point.
Having a sense of one's place in the world is important to everyone but has particular significance for minorities and peoples under political, economic or military pressure. Individuals may even accept Dawkins' atheistic and scientific deconstruction of the myths they have grown up with but still defend and nurture the matrix of institutions, practices and relationships which make them who they are.
I think that is a terribly important point to note. It even reminds me of my friend Mike who doesn't necessarily believe in god etc.. but still stands strongly behind his Jewish heritage, including the religious aspects of it, because of the mesh it weaves in his life. Or other friends of mine who don't really consider themselves true believers, but who still go to church and still for all intents and purposes walk the walk of religion. Afraid to fully let go... or to no longer belong to the group... or to face the scorn of their peers or upset their families... in their hearts and minds they don't really believe, but afraid of the consequences of openly stating that they no longer believe or belong to "the group".

I think that it's possibly the major part of the problem actually... it's not so much that people couldn't rationally understand the facts... it's very hard not to... it's the point when those facts clash with the most fundamental parts of who someone is... what they've based their lives on, beliefs on, their whole social system, peer group, comfort level etc... it's that point where the reality runs smack dab into their sense of who they are that the alarms go off and the acceptance turns to a kind of frantic denial as a means of self-preservation.

It's not just a matter of admitting you've made a mistake... it generally entails a huge shift in the very nature of who we are. I can understand it, having gone from essentially one end of the spectrum to the polar opposite end over the course of around a decade. And I can remember the transitions... not only getting past the ingrained taboos, bigotry and ignorance... but also of the social aspects of it... as one of the members of the Freethinkers group in Colorado said in the video... you take a very real risk of losing your job, apartment etc... for simply stating that you are an atheist. It has become such a social taboo to openly state that you are an atheist... not that you might just be a little out of touch with your religion... or be of an alternate religion... but that you flat out find religion as a whole to be a ridiculous and primitive superstitious concept and don't believe in it at all. Saying you're an Atheist seems just as bad as saying you're a Satanist in most circles. People look at you like they're slightly shocked... like you've just stated that you're a Nazi... or that you have sex with Animals etc.

I can personally attest to how dangerous it is to state your personal beliefs in the workplace. I can't tell you how often I hear or see religious saying and symbols etc... but if I were to wear something that said I was an atheist... it would cause an outrage. If I openly state my beliefs, I get looked down on and looked at with a bit of mistrust... all based on ignorance... from such concepts as being taught that anyone who doesn't believe is out to destroy you... or that all morality comes from the bible, and therefor if you're not a believer, you must be devoid of morals etc.

Or how about work e-mails that say "god bless" at the end etc... what if you were to write "hail Satan" at the end of your e-mail... or if you were to write and politely say that you'd rather they not mention their religious beliefs in their correspondences with you... or the next time someone says they're going to pray for someone, and you ask what they think that will accomplish? And then you proceed to explain to them how prayer is demonstrably almost worthless... and I don't say completely worthless, because the psychological act of giving up the stress of something, even to a figment of your imagination, does ease the strain on the human body and improve health... however, so would sitting in a dark room with some candles and gentle music doing some relaxing breathing and mental relaxation type 'meditation'. There's no supernatural power affecting your health there. Just human physiology. You start pointing that stuff out and you're going to get yourself in hot water.

This is the kind of stuff Dawkins is talking about... even if you know better, the vast majority of people play along because they're afraid of the consequences of standing out. Of contradicting someone...

Nobody wants to be the first to tell the Emperor he has no clothes on.

But getting back a little more to where I started... I've dealt with this before and blogged about it... about my parents for instance... even if they could rationally accept the facts involving the nature of religion... once they started touching on the psychological aspects... the cognitive dissonance would get to be too much and they would shut off. They can't risk losing their entire social life, their work with the teen and adult Christian retreats, their idea that they'll get to see my sister in heaven again someday... they've based their entire sense of selves and found this "answer" for the unknowns that made them feel good. Do you think they're easily going to face the scorn of all their friends and most of their families... after YEARS of building these relationships... and face the prospect that their daughter is just fertilizer and they'll never see her again... and that there's not castle in the clouds for them to go be with her when they die... just nothing... a dreamless sleep you never wake up from... just pulling the plug... lights out. Having to rethink EVERYTHING they thought they knew before... facing the fact that they've probably hurt many people in their lives based on those beliefs that at the core were flawed...

I think you get the idea. I've dealt with that distrust and shunning... even a bit of hatred actually... I've dealt with being called a failure as a son because I wasn't a good christian... I've been told by my parents that I was possessed by the devil because I didn't agree with their beliefs. I've felt the absolute fear of sinning based totally on myths that my parents drilled into my head... I wept almost as hard the night I lost my virginity as I did when I saw my sister killed. I feared for my very soul... that I was going to hell... I was up for hours bawling my eyes out praying to god and jesus to forgive me. I felt the fear of some unknown punishment the first time I started reading even the introduction to the Satanic Bible. I hadn't even gotten to the actual book yet and already I felt this almost overwhelming fear... because of how ingrained it had become into my psyche that it was taboo. I had been raised such that reading that book was going to damn me straight to hell... that the kind of stuff that was in there was EVIL.

It's funny when you grow up and start learning about the world, you realize that there is no such thing as "good" and "evil". There simply isn't. You might think Osama bin Laden is evil... but to millions of people he is a hero. And for justifiable and understandable reasons. To label anything as simply "good" or "evil", as I've said before, shows either ignorance or purposeful dishonesty.

Anyway... I'm wandering all over with this post... stream of consciousness. I need to go to bed as it's way past my bedtime. I was supposed to be asleep 3 hours ago.

That should be a little food for thought anyway... for what it's worth.

Until next time... おやすみ なさい.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Oh Dawkins, how I love thee!

I just watched "Dawkins - The Root of All Evil"... !!!!!!!!!!!!!


40 seconds into it I had to pause it because I was more gleeful than a kid in a candy store. The following is the statement I heard within those first 40 seconds:
"There are would-be murderers all around the world who want to kill you and me... and themselves... because they're motivated by what they think is the highest ideal. Of course politics are important... Iraq, Palestine, even social deprivation in Bradford. But as we wake up to this huge challenge to our civilized values, don't let's forget the Elephant in the room... an Elephant called Religion."
And it just got SO MUCH BETTER from there. He went on about how the mentality behind religious belief, of essentially all religions, leads to a kind of separation from rational thought and leads to a kind of black and white view of reality where you are right and anyone who believes otherwise is wrong... no shades of grey. And how that kind of mentality has lead to most of the greatest bloodshed in the world.

He covered evolution, creationism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, the scientific method, the meaning of skeptical thinking etc... it was like hearing everything I think, but put more concisely by an Oxford professor (which he is).

It was all just incredible... brilliant... leading right up to the closing line:
"We are all atheists about most of the gods mankind has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."

Monday, January 09, 2006

Create an e-annoyance, go to jail.

Annoying someone via the Internet is now a federal crime.

Make sure to read the whole article... and note how it was slipped through the government, and the changes between the original and final wordings... and how drastic of a change it was etc.

I could have a life sentence by now with all the annoying I've done. :-/ Although at least I'm generally pretty open about who I am... so I might be safe.