Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Moral Case for Vegetarianism

I have stated before that any sensible stand on ethics will inevitably lead to vegetarianism if consistently followed.
The shortest and simplest version of the argument I can think of is this:

Premise a): There is an ethical responsibility to avoid inflicting unnecessary suffering.
Premise b): In a western society, survival is not dependent on the consumption of animal products.
Conclusion/Premise c): All suffering that arises from the consumption of animal products is unnecessary suffering.

Conclusion: There is an ethical responsibility to avoid consuming animal products.

So far, so good. But I've had this discussion often enough to know that few people will leave it at that. By now I have a pretty good clue what's coming, so let me pre-empt a few of the obligatory defenses for meat-consumption that people will come up with:


The Naturalist's Argument:

Humans have been eating meat for thousands of years. Eating meat is our nature.
Humans are omnivores. We're able to digest just about anything, and that means our diet is our choice. And where there is choice, ethics applies. Also, you might wanna look up 'appeal to nature' - You'll find that it's a logical fallacy.


The Localist's Argument:

Factory-Farming's bad, but eating locally grown meat can't be wrong. (In other words: "How about we're just really nice to our cows before we slaughter them?")
You'd still kill them. Shockingly, that still qualifies as an infliction of unnecessary suffering. Of course it's better than steak from factory-farms, but it's still suffering that is inflicted on conscious beings for no other reason than that you enjoy the taste.
I'd further like to point out that by the same line of reasoning, a parent can justify eating their kid, as long as they loved him and treated him well until they decided to end his life because 12-year-olds taste just so damn good.


The Argument from Tigers:

But other animals eat meat, too! You wouldn't judge a tiger for eating meat!
That's right: I do not judge a tiger for its diet, for the same reason I don't judge a rock for falling on somebody's head. The tiger has no say in the matter. The key word here is choice, because only where there is choice there is the responsibility to choose wisely. A tiger can't help itself. You, on the other hand, you decide whether to buy a factory-farmed steak or rather eat a vegetable stew instead. Your infliction of suffering is a choice, and thus you're responsible for making it.


The Hypothetical-Plant-Suffering Argument:

You know, plants react to their surroundings, too! Not to mention all the insects and other tiny animals that are killed in the process of harvesting all those plants. As long as your diet isn't free from suffering, how dare you judge me for eating the flesh of dead baby cows?
Let's just ignore for a moment that most plant's fabled reactions to their surroundings are purely mechanical and/or chemical in nature, not unlike a flower-pot displaying the "reaction" of falling down after being pushed over an edge. Even if the claim that plants suffer is taken at face value, it overlooks the very basic fact that animals, too, require food.
So for each and every unit of vegetarian diet I consume, a meat-eater's food has eaten several times that amount of vegetarian diet prior to its killing. In the end, basic maths destroys the argument.
Eating meat is just a terribly inefficient way to process a plant diet: A cow consumes 6kg of grain to produce single kilogram of meat. So whatever amounts of plant matter I consume and whatever amount of suffering is entailed in its production, it takes at least six times that amount to feed the animal which will eventually end up as a steak on your plate. It is also worth noting that I used the words "at least" because a 6:1 grain-to-meat-conversion ratio is the most careful estimate I could find. Other estimates, taking into account the energy consumed by the transport, animal sheltering and other intermediate steps in the production of meat, run as high as 23:1.
So in order to debunk the argument I do not even need to engage the highly ridiculous notion that plants, despite their lack of nervous systems, are capable of "suffering" in any meaningful sense of the term. The question is moot, because whatever suffering there is entailed in a veggie diet, any meat diet entails that amount multiplied by six, plus the suffering of the animal itself.
To put it another way: If your argument is that both of us consume living organisms, my answer is that I consume living organisms, while you consume living organisms who consume six times as many living organisms as I do.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Where I've Been and What Happens Next

As you may have noticed, I've been gone for a while. Quite a few things have happened since last I posted here with anything resembling regularity, most notably my graduation as a certified technician for bio-labs and my subsequent enrollment as a student of molecular biomedicine at the University of Bonn, Germany. My introductory courses have just started, and so far everything is looking awesome.

The past two years have been a time of near-constant challanges both personal and professional. Besides having made the decision to pursue a career in biotech and taking the first steps towards that goal, a series of events in my private life have caused me to reconsider not just my definition of friendship, but of interpersonal relations in general. It hasn't been easy, but I like to think that I've grown considerably throughout this episode. Anyway, I won't bore you with the details of my private life.

Among the abundance of changes and adjustments, one of the decisions I've made is to return to the blogosphere. I've been far from idle during my absense, collecting ideas and taking notes, so I'm hoping to ramp up my level of productivity compared to my last episode of active blogging. Further and more importantly, I'm planning to take my activism to the real world. The status of being a student brings with it some quite interesting opportunities in this regard, most noticably the option of founding a student group, which would entail not just rent-free rooms for meetings, but also extremely low-rent lecture halls for events as well as the option of receiving University funding for larger cultural and/or political projects. This is an extremely exciting prospect, provided I'll be able to find a total of four other Humanist students for the founding of the group.

So, that's my situation at the moment: Excited freshman settling into uni life, with many an unoccuppied hour in between lectures that I will hopefully spend not only learning, but writing as well.

Monday, June 11, 2012

"Pastor in Houston Publicly Comes Out as Atheist" - News Coverage Displays a Amazing Lack of Empathy

I just read the story about the Houston Pastor who publicly came out as an atheist. If you haven't yet, the link can be found here. The story doesn't provide his reasons - neither for losing his faith, nor for making this public - but of course they interview plenty of churchy people who are, of course, all shocked and disgusted. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. But around the 2:30 min. mark of the video they interview some Keith Jenkins, who is described as a "Former School of Theology President". And he gives us his opinion on those still-in-closet-atheists who still serve as Pastors:

"They need to move on. They don't need to stay within the church. And especially use their position to try to take others with them."

(emphasis mine)

I find this quite sickening, for what it reveals about the speaker. The moment these people were described as "atheists", they stopped being humans to him. They became evil things, dangers that every good christian needs to be protected against. His conclusion is clear: They need to leave the church. Now. He fails to make even the most basic connection, fails to see any implication of the situation at all. Somehow he jumped to his conclusion so quickly that he forgot that a pastor, every pastor, is somebody who has made a decision. He is somebody who based his entire life on his church. Clergy who lose their faith stand to lose it all: Not just their job (that part's for sure), but likely also both their friends and their family. Worse, they never learned anything that might be even remotely useful for a different job. What are you going to do with a degree in theology when no church will hire you? But this doesn't even enter good Keith's equation; it doesn't even cross his mind. To him, atheists are evil destructive elements, which need to be kept away from church. And of course the only reason an atheist might stay in the church at all is to "[ab]use his position to try and take others with him." For the sheer hell of it, supposedly. You know, simply because that's what we atheists do: Destroying other people's faith and eating babies.

I can think of no more obvious "no way out" scenario than a priest without faith. Such a person may pretty much write a book or go hungry - there is almost no imaginable employment. There is also an enormous loss of trust by friends and family who will all feel betrayed when he tells them that he's been living a lie for who knows how many years.
Again, the fact that they are literally no options for somebody faced with this scenario is glaringly obvious. But not to the likes of Keith Jenkins. He doesn't see the obvious - he only sees evil that needs to go away.

There are very few things in the world today that I find more scary than the fact that this kind of Person earns his money preaching "love thy neighbor" but is unable to see anything but evil when faced with personal tragedy.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why I Regret My Last Post

So, it turns out that the last story I commented on was complete and utter bullshit. I failed to do some basic fact-checking before I eagerly pointed my finger, and for that I'd like to apologize.

To those who don't know what I'm talking about: There was a talk about income equality at the latest TED conference, which wasn't posted to the TED homepage. And I hastily jumped the bandwagon, adding my voice to the public outcry at this oh-so-unfair censorship.
Luckily for all of us, TED-Curator Chris Anderson has written a blog post at TED setting the record straight regarding this story. I suggest that anybody who reads this head over there now and read what he has to say, even if you were already doubting the story, or hadn't even heard about the whole deal.

Because there is a lesson here.

A lesson about PR, about public opinion, about uninformed outrage and demonization, about being quick to accuse, and most of all, about the importance of basic fact-checking before forming an opinion on any topic of controversy.

The truth is that in this case, I seized on a cheap opportunity. For once I was among the early ones hearing about a story, and since I felt bad for neglecting the blog these past few months, I took the shot at writing a quick and effortless post that had the potential to harvest some traffic from google.

The upside is, I learned something today. I realized that even though I'd like to post more often, and even though I don't do that for there exist more pressing matters in my private life that need my undivided attention at the moment, lowering the quality of my posts is not the way I want to choose for mending this situation. The situation I'm in won't change for a few more weeks - perhaps even months. I'll graduate as a Technical Assistant for Biolabs in a few days, and from there it's off to finding a place at uni, hopefully studying Molecular Biomedicine; with all the adjustments that entails. Perhaps bridging the time in between with another internship. Who knows?

So I will keep neglecting this blog a little longer. As much as I love writing, and even though my head is full to the brim with posts I'd like to write, this can't be my priority right now.

But rest assured, I will be back. As soon as the changes are done and I have some routine and security, I shall start publishing my stuff regularly again. Until then, there will be little - but at least the quality of content will not suffer for it. And if that decision will cost me what few subscribers I have, then so be it.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"Too Hot for TED" Speech: The Benefits of Taxing the Rich

UPDATE: As it turns out, this story is a hoax fabricated for PR reasons. THIS will take you directly to the Statement from TED-Curator Chris Anderson regarding this story, which pretty much dismantles all accusations of censorship and sets the record straight.
THIS link will take you to my apology for failing to some basic fact-checking before I posted this. I stand corrected, and such a blunder shall not happen again.

If you haven't heard of TED, here's a short breakdown: The three letters stand for "Technology, Entertainment, Design", and name what started out as an annual conference in Palm Springs, dedicated to "Ideas Worth Spreading". They invite speakers from all kinds of fields, scientists, artists, philantropists - and give them twenty minutes to explain their most profound insights, epiphanies, and world-changing ideas. Each conference is uploaded, one talk per day, onto their homepage - free for the world to see.
All talks except one, that is. Most recently, Nick Hanauer gave a talk about income equality - and though TED is no stranger to highly controversial political ideas and uncomfortable truths, they deemed this particular talk "too controversial" to be released to the public. It is a strange move for them to make, especially since these are people who have so far understood how the internet works. And now they censor a talk, presumably knowing fully well that it will pop up all over the internet, on pages like the one you're reading now. I can think for two explanations for that, but before that, here's what you most likely came here for: The full text of the idea that was too hot even for TED.

It is astounding how significantly one idea can shape a society and
its policies. Consider this one.

If taxes on the rich go up, job creation will go down.

This idea is an article of faith for republicans and seldom challenged
by democrats and has shaped much of today's economic landscape.

But sometimes the ideas that we know to be true are dead wrong. For
thousands of years people were sure that earth was at the center of
the universe. It's not, and an astronomer who still believed that it
was, would do some lousy astronomy.

In the same way, a policy maker who believed that the rich and
businesses are "job creators" and therefore should not be taxed, would
make equally bad policy.

I have started or helped start, dozens of businesses and initially
hired lots of people. But if no one could have afforded to buy what we
had to sell, my businesses would all have failed and all those jobs
would have evaporated.

That's why I can say with confidence that rich people don't create
jobs, nor do businesses, large or small. What does lead to more
employment is a "circle of life" like feedback loop between customers
and businesses. And only consumers can set in motion this virtuous
cycle of increasing demand and hiring. In this sense, an ordinary
middle-class consumer is far more of a job creator than a capitalist
like me.

So when businesspeople take credit for creating jobs, it's a little
like squirrels taking credit for creating evolution. In fact, it's the
other way around.

Anyone who's ever run a business knows that hiring more people is a
capitalists course of last resort, something we do only when
increasing customer demand requires it. In this sense, calling
ourselves job creators isn't just inaccurate, it's disingenuous.

That's why our current policies are so upside down. When you have a
tax system in which most of the exemptions and the lowest rates
benefit the richest, all in the name of job creation, all that happens
is that the rich get richer.

Since 1980 the share of income for the richest Americans has more than
tripled while effective tax rates have declined by close to 50%.

If it were true that lower tax rates and more wealth for the wealthy
would lead to more job creation, then today we would be drowning in
jobs. And yet unemployment and under-employment is at record highs.

Another reason this idea is so wrong-headed is that there can never be
enough superrich Americans to power a great economy. The annual
earnings of people like me are hundreds, if not thousands, of times
greater than those of the median American, but we don't buy hundreds
or thousands of times more stuff. My family owns three cars, not
3,000. I buy a few pairs of pants and a few shirts a year, just like
most American men. Like everyone else, we go out to eat with friends
and family only occasionally.

I can't buy enough of anything to make up for the fact that millions
of unemployed and underemployed Americans can't buy any new clothes or
cars or enjoy any meals out. Or to make up for the decreasing
consumption of the vast majority of American families that are barely
squeaking by, buried by spiraling costs and trapped by stagnant or
declining wages.
Here's an incredible fact. If the typical American family still got
today the same share of income they earned in 1980, they would earn
about 25% more and have an astounding $13,000 more a year. Where would
the economy be if that were the case?

Significant privileges have come to capitalists like me for being
perceived as "job creators" at the center of the economic universe,
and the language and metaphors we use to defend the fairness of the
current social and economic arrangements is telling. For instance, it
is a small step from "job creator" to "The Creator". We did not
accidentally choose this language. It is only honest to admit that
calling oneself a "job creator" is both an assertion about how
economics works and the a claim on status and privileges.

The extraordinary differential between a 15% tax rate on capital
gains, dividends, and carried interest for capitalists, and the 35%
top marginal rate on work for ordinary Americans is a privilege that
is hard to justify without just a touch of deification

We've had it backward for the last 30 years. Rich businesspeople like
me don't create jobs. Rather they are a consequence of an eco-systemic
feedback loop animated by middle-class consumers, and when they
thrive, businesses grow and hire, and owners profit. That's why taxing
the rich to pay for investments that benefit all is a great deal for
both the middle class and the rich.

So here's an idea worth spreading.

In a capitalist economy, the true job creators are consumers, the
middle class. And taxing the rich to make investments that grow the
middle class, is the single smartest thing we can do for the middle
class, the poor and the rich.

Thank You.

What Nick Hanauer proposes here is essentially Socialism: Taking from those who have more than they need, in order to benefit society as a whole. Nothing shockingly new there. So why on earth did TED deceide not to publish this? What are they afraid of? As I said, I can think of two possible explainations:
a) They fear the reaction of their sponsors. TED has become very popular, and sponsoring TED has become a way for Companies to be perceived as future-oriented, innovative and even gain a connotation as being interested in the good of humankind.
So one possibility is that some very huge sponsors are throwing a tantrum and threatening to withdraw their support, and the TED organizers are caving in to that threat.
b) The other possibility is that this is a briliant PR move to get the idea out. As I said, so far these people have left the impression that they understood the internet. a bunch of tech-nerds working towards Utopia. They must have known that keeping this speech from their homepage, singling it out from all the highly controversial content as the one idea that is too controversial must generate a huge interest, and that the talk would spread through the entire web within the blink of an eye, reaching even people who have never heard of TED nor ever considered Socialism.

I cannot tell you how much I hope that the latter is the case.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

How to Fight Racism (You Can't Outlaw Stupidity)

So, they did it. The self-titled German "anti-fascists" (AntiFa) won what they think is a victory. In an digital call-to-arms, they organized an "online-flashmob", calling on people to visit the facebook page of the German Nationalist Party, NPD, and report it to facebook for containing hatespeech.

And just now the 8-ó-clock news reported that the page has been taken down.

Why am I not happy about this? A fascist site has been taken off the web. But for how long? A day? Perhaps even a week. How many potential readers do you think have been saved by this heroic action from joining the leagues of the neo-fascist movement? Let's be positive and estimate at least a dozen. Woohoo.

I assure you that at the NPD headquarters, the phone line is red hot right now, with calls from journalists asking for statements. I bet they've already half-finished the speech which they started writing the instant they heard about this "online-flashmob". And tomorrow there will be press conference - A young and attractive spokesperson will be given a chance to speak to the nation, styling himself and his like as Martyrs, feigning the victim who suffered an unspeakable injustice at the hands of the radical left. He will have the chance to portray the left as dangerous enemies to freedom of speech, even as enemies to all freedom.

The initiators of this debacle of course will see this spectacle as vindication, proof of how entirely justified they were in taking down the website, heroically robbing the NPD of one of their least valued channels of speech for an entirety of maybe two days. Truly, the White Rose would be so proud.

Fighting Racism Done Right

If you really want to do something against racism, support education. Join one of the many NGOs working for integration, teaching kids acceptance. Racism is a virus that children can easily be vaccinated against, simply by teching them the basic skills of critical thinking and showing them the virtues of cooperation. If you can bring children to celebrate diversity instead of fearing the unknown, you've won the battle. Curing diseases is done by eleminating the cause, not by treating the symptoms.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change

Most people who dispute that climate change is caused by humans will be able to cite some scientist who agrees with them, saying that the planet periodically warming up is normal, or that volcanoes are responsible for the changes in our atmosphere, or whatever other claims there are. It's easy enough to find a credible source for claims like this. But all that that means is that there are a lot of people with good résumés out there who are propagating a mistaken belief. What allows me as a climate-illiterate person to make such a bold statement without fear of being proven wrong is the simple understanding that in science, individual opinions don't mean squat. So some eminent climatologist said that humans aren't responsible? Well, he may be the Einstein of climatology for all anyone should care.

Because for truly reliable information on a subject matter as extensively researched as earth's climate, what you should be looking for are statements of large and independent scientific organizations of good reputation. In the case of climate change, that would be national or international bodies of geologists, climatologists, biologists, geophysical unions, stuff like that. Once you check out what they have to say, you will find out that there really isn't much of a debate:

An increasing body of observations gives a collective picture of a warming world and other changes in the climate system [...] There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.
- Climate Change 2001: Working Group I: The Scientific Basis, IPCC, January 2001.

That is just one of the many statements of prominent organizations. Even those statements should be checked against others of equal standing: That is the level on which we determine whether there is a consensus or an actual controversy. In the case of climate change, there is an overwhelming consensus. Not a single scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion. There is no controversy; just some big money trying to dispute the facts. Kinda like creationism, only without the weird rituals.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dear Judge: That's Not How Justice Works

A priest who threatened two gay men with hellfire has just been cleared from two charges of using threatening words or behaviour. According to BBC News, his defense lawyer said he was "merely reciting a passage in the bible".

What astonishes me about this story is the complete and utter ignorance of the judge, accepting the defense that a threat of violence ceases to be a threat of violence because it is a threat of violence read from the bible.
Please note that the wording of the charge is "using threatening words or behaviour". In this situation, that is an unambiguous given. It does not matter at all who the priest said would supposedly supply the torture. Yet surprisingly, the judge seems to think it does. In an astounding act of ignorance, he somehow managed to entangle the substance of the threat with whether or not the one uttering it was actually guilty of uttering it, and defended the religious priviledge to discriminate at will.
Fact of the matter is that the priest threatened the two men with torture if they didn't change their lifestyle according to his views. Legally it is completely besides the point what book the defendant read from. There are many ways of saying "do as I say or suffer horribly". I might say "Do as I say or I'll kill you", or perhaps "...or my brother will kill you". I might even say "...or that zebra-unicorn over there will kill you". It doesn't matter whether or not the threat is credible, or even remotely believable. What matters is whether it has been pronounced openly or not, and in all of the above cases I would be found guilty (or, in the last case, insane). But for some reason truly beyond me, there seems to be an unwritten free-pass to threaten anybody I chose, as long as I make sure to substitute "God" as the source of violence.

The sad fact remains that the priest in question threatened two men with being burned by fire if they didn't change their lifestyle according to his views, in clear words. And however supernatural or figurative that fire might be, I find it incredible that an elected judge can ignore that without having his decision challanged in any way.

The priest, of course, is now now more than happy to play the persecuted victim. "Something is wrong", he says, "[when] police arrest me, a Christian preacher who cares deeply for Jesus Christ and the people of Taunton". (Emphasis added according to how I imagine his whiney voice.) As you might already have guessed, he didn't fail to add:
"Christians like me are being harassed."

Friday, January 27, 2012

Atheist Churches: I've Been to One.

The proposal to build an 'Atheist Temple' in the center of London has roused more controversy among the atheist community than any other issue before. Richard Dawkins immediately respondet that the money could be better put to better use. PZ Myers has already sneered at the very thought of something like that some time ago.

Meanwhile in the town of Düsseldorf, Germany, a kind of church service for atheists already exists. And it thrives. The semi-regular series of events is entitled "Aufklärungsdienst"; a play on words: derived from the german word for religious mass, "Gottesdienst" (which literally translates to "god's service"), and "Aufklärung", the German name of the historic period of the Enlightenment. Since its conception in 2009 it's been a huge success. The Düsseldorfer Aufklärungsdienst (DA) aims to pick up where the Enlightenment of the 16th century left, eroding away the dominance of religion by offering a better alternative: Humanism.

We want to be a counterpart to religious service, but at the same time we don't want to be a dry gathering of intellectuals.
Nonreligious people account for over 45% of Düsseldorf's population, but the influence of the churches on public affairs is growing. With the Aufklärungsdienst, Ricarda Hinz and her co-thinkers want to offer a forum for those without religion, help them find an identity away from faith and superstition.

Most of the atheists who oppose the idea of churches of non-belief cringe at the idea of secular ritual. I'm not quite sure what the critics imagine such a ritual might look like - perhaps herds of people unthinkingly repeating statements like "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" in a slow chorus and with an air of solemnity (in which case I could actually understand their aversion) - but allow me to give you a more realistic impression of what it was like:

As the lights slowly dim, the band starts playing - an interpretation of John Lenon's Imagine. While the music plays, the event coordinators walk slowly down the aisle. Ricarda Hinz is leading, solemnly carrying the event's mascot on a velvet cussion. It's a golden plumber.

The plumber gets signed by the speaker and the musicians at the end of the evening, and then is sold for €100 or the highest bid. "The plumber is our saviour", explains Ricarda. "One hundred euro covers the room's rent for the evening, so the plumber has the power to release us from our financial burden."
This tongue-in-cheek-attitude is what sets the Aufklärungsdienst apart from all other secular events I've witnessed. It's not just intelectually stimulating, it's fun. There are no grave discussions of the seriousness of our societal situation, there is no frustration at the forlornness of the never-ending fight against ignorance and superstition, there is no dry lecture on the sociology of religion.

Instead there is information presented in an entertaining way, and perhaps more importantly a sense of community is offered to a group of people who often feel like outcasts in a society that is permeated with religion on every level.
The evenings are not fun and games devoid of intellectual content either; the main component is still of informational nature. Besides the main speaker, there may be secondary speakers or secular entertainers of various kinds (My personal highlight was a reading from the "rhyme bible", a revised and annotated lyrical version of the creation story). As I already mentioned, the entire thing is accompanied musically. The bands differ, but the first song they play is always 'Imagine'. Snacks are provided, and you get to stick around for a lively discussion afterwards.
Rather than just some scientist holding a boring lecture accompanied by nothing but his poor powerpoint-skills, the presentations are a collaboration of the speaker and various secular artists. Even a lecture on a topic as dry as church finances becomes exiting and even hilarious when it is illustrated by caricatures from a great cartoonist, such as local icon Jaques Tilly.
The Aufklärungsdienst has just more to offer than your average freethinker's pub meeting. The events are intelectually stimulating entertainment; they are information coupled with community-building; they serve as a hub for networking among freethinkers.

Finally, for rationality to compete with religion on the marketplace of ideas, to transform society towards a culture of compassion, tolerance and reason, it takes more than presenting ourselves as merely not them. To make an impact we need numbers, and temples and services to celebrate Humanism might be just the right thing to finally let the public know about all the riches our philosophy has to offer.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Gov takes down Megaupload, Hackers Retalliate

In an international crackdown, over 20 homes around the world were searched, and four people associated with were arrested in New Zealand. Only a few minutes later, several websites of government agencies as well as large the sites of some of the largest movie and music companies were taken down by hackers.

In response to today’s federal raid on the file sharing service Megaupload, hackers with the online collective Anonymous have broken the websites for the FBI, Department of Justice, Universal Music Group, RIAA, Motion Picture Association of America and Warner Music Group.

Read the full story here.


Did anyone else feel reminded of this?

Monday, January 16, 2012

On Prejudice & Tolerance (Smile)

Back in my gap-year, when I was travelling around Australia, I had an interesting encounter in the town of Broome. The Hostel I was staying at had a Bar downstairs, which was open to the public and frequently visited by the locals. I don't remember exactly how the conversation started, but one night I found myself talking to one of them. Even though the guy was friendly enough, he was kinda scary-looking: He weighed a good 120 kg and though he did have a proud belly, not much of those 120 kg was fat. He also had no hair and a bull neck, giving him a somewhat aggressive appearance. Most unsettling, though, was that he had apparently lost an eye. The odd thing was that while I was talking to him, I couldn't tell which of the two was the glass eye. So without me wanting to, my gaze kept flicking from one eye to the other, trying to figure out which one was looking back at me. Very distracting. It wasn't that his disability made me especially uncomfortable, it is just that I like to return people's gaze when they're talking to me, and looking a guy into an eye that is essentially not there is just like staring a non-disabled person at the ear when talking to them. It wasn't all that much of a big deal, I just felt it'd be more polite to return his gaze, rather than to stare at the side of his face incapable of returning mine.
At some point, we talked about Martial Arts. My visa was about to run out, and I mentioned that I considered going to Thailand next, to spend the rest of my time improving my kick-boxing skills - an idea that I had been toying with for some time. It turned out that he had done that in his twenties, and had brought back a wealth of stories from that experience that he didn't mind sharing. It was a very interesting conversation, but as I already said, his eye kept distracting me. At some point I interrupted him and simply asked him about it. I don't remember how exactly I phrased it, but I asked straight-forward, without much of a fuss, in a simple "sorry this keeps distracting me, would you mind just satisfying my curiosity so this is out of the way and we can move on?" -kind of way.
His reaction was somewhat unexpected: Not only did he not mind my question, he was positively delighted that I had asked. His face lit up, and before giving me an answer, he launched into a 10-minute-speech on how awesome it was that I had asked, how so many people were obviously confused but didn't "have the balls" to simply ask, and how great it would be if people were more open about their obvious insecurity instead of trying so desperately to pretend that the whole issue didn't exist.

Because physical disability is an issue. In this case, there was insecurity on my part, and I knew it showed. Asking a straight-forward question was the obvious way to deal with it, so I could focus on our conversation again. Which is exactly what we did. His eye wasn't mentioned again, I was more at ease, and although I usually am a rather nosy person, I didn't even ask how he'd lost it. Not because I didn't want to know or was afraid to ask, but simply because it didn't matter and our shared passion for Martial Arts was the more interesting topic at hand.

Pretending problems don't exist is something that never helps. And in cases where the Problem can be solved by asking one simple question in a polite manner, it is downright stupid not to do so. When you've never had any contact with disabled people before, your insecurity is perfectly normal and understandable, especially when you're faced with a particularly disfiguring disability. Trying to hide it does not work; nobody is that good an actor. What's more: Trying to hide it is dishonest. By trying to ignore the disability you imply that it is something that ought to be ignored, you're placing the whole issue under taboo, risking to trigger insecurity in the disabled person aswell. They will notice your insecurity anyhow, but what they won't know is whether your insecurity is rooted in disgust, pity, or simple lack of experience.
Simply acknowledging the issue and addressing it clears the table. Whatever they may think of your ignorance, they will at least know that your insecurity is not rooted in disgust or pity, plus you've demonstrated a genuine interest and willingness to be as understanding as possible.

In my (admittedly limited) personal experience this approach of a simple admission of ignorance plus demonstration of openness seldom (if ever) fails. The one thing you should make sure is to give the other a clear chance to say "I don't want to talk about it", in case you encounter somebody who, for whatever reason, really is touchy or just tired of the subject. Adding a simple preamble like "If you don't mind me asking..." should do the trick.

The same applies to other situations: It holds true for conversations with anybody who makes you feel insecure for whatever reason. Be it the disabled, gays, blacks, or the heavily tattooed. (Or Gingers. Gingers are scary.) It is not a shame to be discomforted by something you've never encountered before. Wariness of anything alien is evolutionary hard-wired into any living creature, for good reason. Being open-minded does not mean being perfectly free of prejudice - It means to recognize your own prejudice for what they are, and give anybody a genuine chance of proving them wrong. That is the very definition of our much-preached "tolerance" as it ought to be practiced.

Another thing I feel compelled to comment on: Staring. Most of us are told quite early in our lives that "it's rude to stare", which I don't think is true. I think what most people resent when being stared at is not the stare as such, but their own conception of what is going on in your head when you stare at them, the implications of that stare. Looking at a person isn't hurtful in itself - the implied pity or disgust such a look can convey however, is very much so.

So the next time you find yourself in a public place unable to turn your eyes away from a stranger's disfiguration, and that person suddenly moves to return your gaze, do not hurriedly look away.
Do not give them a look of pity, either.

Just smile.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Open Letter to Moderate Believers

It's a common argument in discussions about faith: The atheist will bring up the atrocities committed in the names of the various religions, be it the inquisition, various genocides, wars or the burning of heretics. The believer will then fire back with naming famous "atheist murderers": Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. The obvious flaw here is of course that religious atrocities are indeed committed "in the name of the Lord" or "for the glory of God", while Stalin committed his murders in the name of what he was fond of calling "scientific socialism", not in the name of reason, compassion and critical thinking.
Some believers have realized this and now subtly go about the other way, by saying "I don't lump you with atheists like Stalin and Mao, so don't lump me with other murderers simply because they believe in the same stuff as I do."
This has happened to me today when commenting on a christian blog; somebody telling me that lumping christians together with muslims would be as unfair as lumping all atheists together with said genocidal maniacs. That inspired me to pen a few words addressed at all religious moderates out there, who feel treated unfairly when being lumped together with "those extremists":

The funny thing about the term “atheism” is that it's a non-label. It’s negatively defined as “not being theist”. Unlike its counter part, "theist", it has little descriptive use. If you take a comparative look at me and Stalin, you will not find a single positive thing we share. Of course, we might both have hair that is not black, we might both not believe in astrology, we might both dislike horses and so on. But you won’t find much similarities that go beyond what we both not share with another.
When I look at christians and muslims though, I can easily find a lot of important and positive similarities. Just to name a few:
Both believe that there is a diety that cares about what humans do, especially about what humans do while naked. Both believe that there is a book that carries divine authority to some degree and that conveys the will of a god which, by definition, is universally true for all humankind. Both believe in an afterlife; Both believe that god can hear prayers, and a majority even believe that he answers them. Both believe in the concept of sin and atonement, and both believe in the existence of prophets with a direct link to the beyond.

And I could go on. The point is, the similarities that you can find between me and Stalin are none which are of any consequence for our respective behaviour. Our common non-belief does not lead to similar actions. The similarities I find between christians and muslims, however, do lead to similar behaviours, such as the suppression of women and the opposition to gay rights and abortions. I am aware that there are some very important differences between Christianity and Islam, and I do not deny that. However, for the point I am making those differences are irrelevant.

What is relevant is the belief in some sort of divine authority that is attributed to ancient texts that are barbaric, homophobic and patriarchical. There is a varying degree among believers as to how seriously these texts are taken, but all believers take them to be something more than fiction, and that is the key point.
So yes, I am justified in lumping together huge groups that are largely different for the sake of that argument, because they do share the relevant beliefs, and do exhibit the behaviour that I take offense at as a direct result of those beliefs.

You might well be a liberal person with modern, rational views – and still be religious. But the fact remains that the bible, among many other horrific things, does say that homosexuality is “an abomination” (Lev. 18:22 is perhaps the most famous of the many, many examples). And it doesn’t matter wether or not you personally view that as metaphoric or not relevant to your belief, because as long as the bible is viewed as having divine authority to some degree, any fundamentalist coming along will always have the power to revive the potential for barbaric hatred simply by saying “Look, you haven’t been paying attention. Right here, it says black on white that women mustn’t speak in church. That adultery is to be punished with death. That homosexuality is a sin. That sacrificing your son because you're hearing voices in your head is a good thing. This is the perfect word of our divine creator, and it says so right here.”

As much as those “interpretations” of scripture have become very, very rare in christianity today, they are still possible as long as the bible and the Qur'an are viewed as something more than just old books. As long as there are people like you proclaiming that some god, however liberal and modern in his views and demands, is real, it is you who invest fundamentalists with the power to revive the ancient potential for hatred that sleeps in those texts.

That is something that can never be said of my particular brand of atheism, Humanism. My views do not hold the potential to be abused in that way, they do not hold the potential to do anything but improve the human condition. They can be abolished at best, but they cannot be used or misconstrued to do evil. Yours can. Think about that.

My Tattooed Ode to Reason

I love tattoos. I plan to be covered head to toe at some point in the future, though I'm in no particular hurry to get there. Over the past few weeks, I've become aware of an increasing number of atheist-themed tattoos out there. A quick google search for "atheist tattoo" reveals most of them as rather unimaginative: Various versions of the letter "A" prevail, some more clever ones include pictures of the flying spaghetti monster or the invisible pink unicorn. In between there is the occasional tattoo depicting the desecration of various religious symbols - rather tasteless if you ask me. Also I find it kinda weird to go through such lengths to ostentatiously demonstrate the non-identification with a single particular idea. If I were to get a tattoo about each and every topic I strongly disagree with, I'd run out of skin by the end of the week.
Personally, I derive far greater enjoyment of more positive tattoo motives: All those nerdy scientists, for example, who choose to express their love for their respective fields by displays on their skin.

Of the ideologically motivated tattoos, one in particular caught my attention:
The CEO of the British Humanist Association got a tattoo of the Happy Human - the internationally recognized symbol for Humanism - tattooed on her upper arm as part of a fundraising effort. They aimed for 20.000 pounds, any sum beyond that goal would increase the size of the tattoo she got.
I like that a lot better than depictions of a broken cross in a garbage bin. I also like it better than the rather boring "Scarlet A"-logo. What I did not like about the story was the realization that, had I read that story when it was still news, I could have copied the fundraising-idea when I got my own Happy Human tattoo in June 2009:
I love the Happy Human logo. Happiness and People are all what Humanism is about, and the symbol captures that nicely while being a simple, adaptable, and beautiful form.

The other tattoo I'd like to show you is both a little more complex and a lot larger; The motive is an 18th century etching done by a spanish artist called Goya. It goes by the lovely title 'The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters'. Here it is, in all its considerable beauty:

The Original 'Sleep of Reason'The Tattooed Version
Above all, I chose this because I simply admire the picture. It's a masterpiece. I don't care much for what else I've seen of Goya's works, but this one has always resonated with me. The combination of the lyrical title with the rather dark motive I have always found fascinating, in particular the little details like how the cross-eyed staring of the ghostly animals conveys an atmosphere of insanity that is outright scary.

Another reason, of course, is the message. As I have written before, the simple absence of religion is not sufficient to really improve anything. "Good" requires more than just the absence of "bad". Goya nailed it (see what I did there?) when he wrote that the sleep of reason is what produces monsters. There are thousands of people out there who believe in god and live perfectly benign lives, not obstructing stem cell research, not shooting abortion doctors, nor trying to corrupt the science curriculum by demanding that biblical creation be taught in our kids' schools. Religion is merely a multiplying factor, not the danger itself. What we need is not so much less religion - it is more reason.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

What American Atheists Can Learn From Europe

In Europe, fundamentalism is rare. Not as rare as I’d like it to be, but still rare. Biblical literalists are laughed at. The fight against fundamentalism, one might argue, is already won over here.
Except that it isn’t. People are still irrational – they’ve largely turned from religion, but only to find pseudo-science and “spirituality”: horoscopes, homeopathy, traditional chinese medicine, weird forms of supposed "buddhism" tailored to the needs of those who are middle-aged, well-off and bored, and a wide selection of other new-age-hippie-shit. The majority of people here might be non-religious, but they're still far from being critical thinkers. Many still actively fight what they perceive as the "cold" naturalistic worldview, which they perceive as lacking in beauty and mystery.

Even though religion has largely been recognized as out-dated, people still need some values, some ideals to live their lives by. While religion slowly degenerates, it does seem to leave a gap. Religion has been (successfully) brought to its knees, but no viable alternative was presented to the people. Humanism has failed to step up and fill the void, failed to catch the attention of those who are looking for an alternative, who still seek ritual, celebration, community.

Our culture is distinctly influenced by the Enlightenment, but there is no formal acknowledgement of the values that are the basis of nearly all western constitutions and legal systems. Now that is a mistake that need not be repeated in the US – here we still have the chance. Fighting against religion is not enough, because people who stop being religious do not by default become reasonable - They just substitute one superstition for another. To win the fight, we do not only need to make people turn away from fundamentalism, but towards a culture of ethics, art and science - of compassion, tolerance and reason.