Friday, April 19, 2013

What does godless mean anyway?

A candidate for a Massachusetts Senate seat recently added “godless” to the adjectives “horrific” and “cowardly” to describe the bombings of the Boston Marathon. I find it unbelievable that he used this adjective deliberately to say anything about nontheistic Americans. People don’t think like that. But I think it is important to understand why godless might seem like an appropriate word to use. Word usage and implicit meaning develop over time for reasons that are frankly very difficult to track down, but here is the history I find relevant to this word used in this way.

We as a nation added “under god” and similar phrases as an anti-Soviet propaganda move some 60 years ago. It was a toxic bit of international tribalism that was supposed to help U.S. citizens know who was on whose side. An unfortunate aspect of this kind of propaganda is that it creates a dehumanizing us-vs-them dynamic. That is bad enough in war times against the enemy, but this little Cold War gem doesn't divide so clearly.

Many of the things that the soviets were known for remain the hallmark of evil in our politics. The traumatic effects of the Cold War have left our national psyche with a handful of "triggers" that have long since disconnected from their references.

No one seems to remember why socialism is bad or, if we're honest, what it is. But it has been coded as the bad opposite of capitalism for so long that within our public discourse capitalism is in the same category as apple pie, mom, baseball and Christianity; while socialism is lumped in with dictatorship, gulags, and Atheism.

Ever since the Cold War “godlessness” has been just another word for Un-American. And because the faithless (atheists, agnostics, humanists, etc.) are not widely known or acknowledged, using this old bit of cold war tribalism still makes sense in some people’s heads. David Niose has made the point that we need to use similar identity politics to those used by the Gay Rights Movement to make the rest of the country realize that being something other than a Christian is something that a lot of good, non-cowardly non-horrific already are. And I agree with him.

Come out of the closet, mention your beliefs once in a while. Let this country know that good people like yourselves are not theists. Let them see that it is possible and indeed common that good people think differently about the world. It will do them and us a world of good.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

On why we couldn't have been invited to the Boston Marathon interfaith service

This week a secular event in a very secular city was visited by a terrible human tragedy. And in response to this nationally significant event a service was coordinated; a service where the representatives of many different belief systems would be given the chance to speak to their own people and on behalf of their perspective. At this service the non-theistic perspective was not given voice. And I think it is our responsibility to fix what made this outcome inevitable.

It should be noted that the representatives of the secular perspective did every bit of outreach they could have to get us a seat at the table. I know personally several of the people who worked on this and there is no additional amount of leg work that could have made a difference. What we (as non-theists) needed was to have had different relationship with the country at large. And there are two things that I think we need in place for next time.

First we need to have a creed that outsiders can understand. I mean creed here like mission statement, not an object of faith. We need a few sentences that sound nice that can be “what we are about”. These few sentences would be public relations and not gospel. It would be important to get them right, to have them be something that we feel comfortable supporting, but not something that needed to be perfect. It would serve as the greeting card from atheism to the country; something to help us introducing ourselves to people who still just think that we are satanic communists.

Secondly we need representatives. We need people that our community has endorsed, who speak for us and to us in times of tragedy and celebration.  Again we can’t wait for the perfect person who everyone got along with about everything, but someone to say what many of us are thinking, so that we can feel that we are heard. These representatives would not be telling the world what we as individuals think, we the represented would not be obliged to agree with, believe, or follow what is said. But like having a politician you voted for speak, they would be our stand in for the public conversation.

Having such a public persona and publicly understood mission statement would have made our representation at the upcoming interfaith service possible.  Without establishing our public presence in a “day in day out” way, any time we want to be included is going to look like a shocking introduction that will make our inclusion about us “suddenly” being included. We need to be talked about as just another identity of Americans in an ongoing basis so that people get used to us being out and proud. And having a recognizable secular persona who isn’t known for confrontation would make that person’s inclusion in an interfaith service make sense. Someone needs to be out there talking about our community’s perspective in a way that gives us voice without making us look like bomb throwers. Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris are great and have done great things for the Atheist position, but I’m not sure they have done much good for the atheist community. We have enough debaters; I think we need a communicator.

So what I am suggesting here is that we start to put ourselves forward in a positive way. I am not saying that we forcibly retire Dawkins, or cease to criticize where criticism is necessary. Just that we also start to engage with the majority of our country, which is religious. Religions and religious people are here to stay, but so are we. And when tragedy strikes, it would help if we were already seen as the important part of the American fabric that we already are.

Josiah van Vliet
President Boston Atheists

Friday, April 12, 2013

April 12th: Yuri's Night!

On April 12th 1961 Yuri Gagarin was the first human to enter space aboard the Vostok I. We've been making round trips to space for Fifty Two Years! We may not have flying cars but we do, in fact, live in the future. And someone remind me to set up a party for next year.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

April 11th: Kurt Vonnegut Day

Kurt Vonnegut died today in 2007. I remember seeing this picture (drawn by Kurt) online that day at work and crying. He is one of the best, most affecting, and important writers of the last century. And in the pantheon that I am proposing, Kurt Vonnegut is the Paragon of looking at, and past, horror. 

His unique place in the world is to see what is truly terrible, to sit with it and draw its portrait and then make you laugh about it. He never drifts too far from what is bad or what is senseless. Or from what is beautiful and good. 

He is a particularly obvious secular saint, as former honorary president of the American Humanist Association.  And the story of his memorial speech for Isaac Asimov cannot be repeated often enough. 

“I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great, spectacularly prolific writer and scientist, Dr. Isaac Asimov in that essentially functionless capacity. At an A.H.A. memorial service for my predecessor I said, "Isaac is up in Heaven now." That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. It rolled them in the aisles. Mirth! Several minutes had to pass before something resembling solemnity could be restored.” - Kurt Vonnegut
He was, as all satirists are, a critic. And much of his power as a critic was his capacity to see the world as it was, no matter how painful, or beautiful, or ridiculous. 

"I do feel that evolution is being controlled by some sort of divine engineer. I can't help thinking that. And this engineer knows exactly what he or she is doing and why, and where evolution is headed. That’s why we’ve got giraffes and hippopotami and the clap." - Kurt Vonnegut on The Daily Show (13 September 2005)
He wrote about bravery in the face of reality. Of what we can't do, must do and can do. 

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers — joined in the serious business of keeping our food, shelter, clothing and loved ones from combining with oxygen. -Kurt Vonnegut God Bless You Mister Rosewater
But he is most important, and useful, to my mind as a source of great wisdom about how to cope with sadness. He was a very pessimistic man who had attempted suicide and spoke angrily about how cigarettes had failed to kill him. But he worked throughout his long life, much to our benefit, and left us with pieces of wisdom like this: 

"I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is." " - "Knowing What's Nice", an essay from In These Times (2003)

On this day in 2007 Kurt Vonnegut died of traumatic brain injury. 

So it goes. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

April 10th: Lagrange

Today Joseph-Louis Lagrange died in 1813, he was born on the 25th of January 1736. A famous French and Italian mathematician who is best known for his work on the three body problem that led to understanding of Lagrange points

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

April 9th: Battles

On this day, for three years running, three separate named battles had meaningful events in WWI. The battle of Verrdun, and Arras, and the Lys in 1916, 1917, and 1918 respectively. All told there were over 1 million causualties.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

April 8th: Superconductivity!

A new series of posts starts here. I'll be posting events important to atheists everyday hopefully with an attendant story or parable. Something interesting and thought provoking. Or at least a link to an interesting Wikipedia page.

Anyway, on April 8th, 1911 Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered that a Mercury wire submerged in liquid helium lost all resistance to electricity, which he called superconductivity. He went on to win the Nobel prize in 1913. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Why are we so interested in violence?

They are obsessed with "our base interests" because no animal could have survived without an obsessive interest in the four F's:

1) Feeding
2) Fighting
3) Fleeing
4) Mating

There is nothing wrong with you for finding these for subjects interesting. Any animal that doesn't find these 4 things of paramount interest is doomed. "The kids these days" are just interested in the four basics of special survival.

Enough with the moralizing, enough with the associative magic. We are interested in things that we like and things we don't like in large part due to what we should have been interested in as animals struggling for survival. Which ones of these interest should and should not be pursued is a different question but I'm sick to death of people openly wondering why children are so obsessed with violence.