Read At Your Own Risk

You have been warned

Month: August, 2012

The Necessity of Snopes

Man, everyone on the Internet ought to know about  Not only would I get far less ridiculous e-mail if people were in the habit of fact-checking at Snopes, but a good familiarity with the items that come through Snopes will greatly help in determining whether a given item of “news” passes the sniff test.  (Hint: If the question is, “Did <Major Political Figure> say <some outrageous thing>?”, the answer is usually “No.”)

I can see, though, why people would resist developing that habit.  It would certainly cut down on the number of opportunities to feel righteous outrage.  And Snopes might end up serving as a gateway drug to, I dunno, the PolitiFact Truth-O-Meter or something.

Then there’s the Snopes On Snopes problem…


Why I Am an Atheist

PZ Myers has been running a series of submissions from readers in which they explain the origins of their atheism.

Why I am an atheist is easy: to the best of my observation, after a lifelong interest in and study of science, the universe behaves as though there are no supernatural entities or influences.  No gods, no demons, no angels, no fairies, no magic, no psychic powers.

How I got to be an atheist is slightly more involved.  I’ve been interested in scientific things since literally before I can remember.  When I was a year and a half old, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, and I’m told I was constantly repeating “Man in the Moon!  Man in the Moon!”  A few years later, I was all about dinosaurs, and aspired to become a paleontologist because I could envision no nobler career than digging up dinosaur bones.  Then, in sixth grade, an inspirational teacher rekindled my love of astronomy and space exploration, and I eventually earned my master’s degree in astrophysics.

I was baptized, as an infant, in a beautiful and famous Lutheran church in Namibia.  Through fifth grade, while living in New Jersey, my family did in fact attend church — a highly eclectic church, called EBUCC, the East Brunswick United Church of Christ.  The congregation had people with all manner of backgrounds; my dad called himself the “token heathen.”  I enjoyed Sunday School every week, but primarily for the prospect of seeing my best friend, who lived one town over and didn’t attend my school.  Also, EBUCC met in a wonderful old building with the world’s best climbing tree, a huge spruce with limbs like ladder rungs, out back.

But when my family moved to Colorado in the late 1970s, after a couple of half-hearted attempts, we gave up finding a church and stayed home on Sundays.  I didn’t miss it.  Even in junior high and high school, without really forming a conscious opinion around it, I found myself staying silent during the “under God” bit of the Pledge of Allegiance, or the “to God” bit of the Boy Scout oath.  I couldn’t even tell you why.  I suppose even then I was an atheist, and trying to be honest to myself.

Still, for a long time I didn’t use “the a-word,” calling myself things like “Christian sympathizer” or “semi-Taoist agnostic” or a litany of other adjectives.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started paying attention to the serious harm that religion does in the world (eclipsing, in my opinion, the many fine and selfless contributions of religious people), and embraced the term “atheist” — and now, I would count myself as an atheist… plus.

So What’s the Big Deal?

What are the Big Scary Topics over which I don’t want to pick fights on Facebook?

Well, naturally, the same topics we are advised to avoid in “polite” conversation: religion and politics.

Politically, I’m not too different from the majority of my friends and colleagues, since we live in the Denver/Boulder area — that oasis of liberalism in the conservative desert of Colorado.  But I don’t completely align with them, either, and would certainly not call myself a Democrat.  And I do have friends and relatives who skew strongly the other direction, and even some “friends” who are full-on right-wingers.  Still, I will occasionally let a mild political jibe through, and usually garner a bunch of “Like”s.

Religiously, though, I’m part of the small (but growing) minority of full-on atheists, and I’m on the wrong end of Christian privilege.  By which I mean I’m always encountering Facebook posts calling for prayer, or proclaiming a miracle, or citing a Bible verse, or explaining the will of God or Jesus, confidently (and correctly) expected to be generally viewed as worthy of approbation, or at the very worst as harmless.  Why, what kind of a jerk would object to a request for prayer for a sick relative?

Well, I don’t object to a prayer request, but I’d rather do something, y’know, useful.  If your Bible verse gives you guidance through the day, great, but it’s probably meaningless to me.  And miracles do not occur, so I’m pretty confident your “miracle” did not involve any contravention of the laws of physics.

This was brought into sharp relief recently with the tragic theater shooting in Aurora.  There were so many calls for prayer and “mercy on the souls” of the victims that I just shut myself off Facebook for the day.  And on my recent couple-week break from work, I also took a Facebook vacation to help my brain unwind.

The point being, if I were to respond honestly to all this religiosity on Facebook, I’d be viewed as insulting and alienating a lot of people — people whose very religiosity probably makes them look better than me, to the average American.  That doesn’t bother some folks, who are happy to engage on all manner of social media, but it’s not why I go to Facebook.  So I suppress my response… and get a little more bitter.

Well, I’m tired of being bitter.  Hence this blog.  If you don’t want to stray from “polite” conversation… head back to Facebook.  Here… Read At Your Own Risk.

What Has Gone Before

Not a great deal of what I have to say will be totally original.  There are many writers to whom I owe the clarification and crystallization of my philosophies, including Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain, Ed Brayton, Greta Christina, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Jason Rosenhouse, and many others.  I haven’t read any books by the Big Names, Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris, but chunks of their writing have reached me indirectly.  A number of blogs I follow have collected at the excellent FreeThoughtBlogs site; others are listed on my Links page.

I’m not afraid, though, to stand on the shoulders of giants and shake my tiny fist.

Read At Your Own Risk

Facebook is an interesting place.  I’ve been hanging out online, in one form or another, since about 1983, and Facebook is the first venue where all of my social groups — family, friends from school, friends from the Internet, friends from conventions, roller derby folks, you name it — intersect. So it’s great to hang out there and keep tabs on what folks are up to. And if I write something, it’ll get widely read; heck, I can be pretty certain my mom will read it.

But over the past couple of years, too often I’ve found myself reciting the mantra, “Don’t pick Facebook fights, don’t pick Facebook fights.” Because most people don’t seem to think twice about posting (or more often sharing) some sort of image or commentary that is just, well, wrong. Wrong factually, or wrong logically, or (in my opinion) wrong morally. If it’s wrong factually, I might comment to point them in the right direction, but I really don’t want to get engaged in deep debates on Facebook. To my mind, it’s a light and fluffy place where I post photos of my cat or the latest clever thing my kid just said.

But also over the past couple of years — maybe three or four — I’ve grown tired of the illogic, error, and sometimes outright lies that so many people are putting out there in the “marketplace of ideas.” Maybe it’s because I’m in my 40s, but I just have little patience for that stuff any more. And so I’ve started this blog.

This is where the gloves come off. It’s a place where I will be honest, and speak my mind. I’m telling you ahead of time, so if you don’t want your ideas challenged — about me, about the world, about what is real and true — you can keep your distance.

This is where I pick fights.

Read At Your Own Risk.

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