Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A call to arms

We started writing this blog some 72 posts ago. It has served as an outlet for our frustrations regarding religion, politics, and pretty much everything you see labeled over here to the right-------------->

We have always been aware that we are writing for an audience, but we never dreamed that the audience would grow as rapidly, or become as large, as it has. We have always imagined our posts as bottles thrown into the ocean, and hoped that one or two would find a home and be read by the nearest beach-combing passerby.

Well, it turns out that our hopes were fulfilled, and then some. We are being read on every continent of the world except for Antarctica. We have some weird pockets of fans in places like Latvia, and a small island nation north of England called 'Guernsey.' We love Guernsey, and we have had repeated reading from that island, even though there is only one road. Perhaps our favorite thing to say to those who ask about the blog is this: 100% retention in Guernsey!

We do not get a million hits a day, or even a thousand. We are, however, shocked on a daily basis by the realization that each one of our posts is read by more people than anything else Josh or I have ever written.
We also have a weekly live internet radio show, called REASON podcast, and are working hard on developing a website and building 'The Atheist Community of Buffalo and Western New York.' We have our fingers in a lot of pies...and we are running out of fingers.

Don't worry, we still have plenty to say, and will continue doing so as we rail from rooftops screaming our Atheist, Gay, Communist, and all around offensive agenda. We only wish that our posts could be more frequent...If only there were more hours in the day.

Or, if we had some help.

And so, we are now accepting applications from those who want to join us as an author. We are accepting applications from those who have something to say.

I guess first and foremost...there is no money. Trust me, we wish there were. If money does come along at some point, those who have stuck with us will certainly share in the wealth. But we didn't start this for money, we started this to share our words...and now we want you to share yours, as well.

If you've been reading our blog, then you are probably familiar with the sort of style we are looking for. Take a look at our posts, come up with any sort of topic that might interest those who fall under the moniker of 'Offensive Atheists,' and send us a sample.

If you do decide to throw your hat in the ring, then we only ask that you be reliable. Let us know what kind of commitment you'd be willing to make...be that a post a month, a post every other week, whatever you think you can handle.

So, go ahead, write something up, and email it to: REASON@wnyatheist.org
We will be accepting applications until January 27th, so have your submissions in by then.  Make sure to include your contact information, and how frequently you'd be willing to participate.

One thing that I have heard or read pretty much every day since Christopher Hitchens passed away is the following phrase: Thanks, Hitch, We'll take it from here! We are building something here, and we'd love to have your participation.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Sincerely,
Paul Wittmeyer & Joshua Billingsley
The Atheist Community of Buffalo and Western New York

Friday, December 16, 2011

Godspeed

As I am writing this, it's 12:21am, and I have just found out that Christopher Hitchens died tonight. I'm kinda devastated, and actually quite surprised at my reaction. He has been sick for a while, and I suppose that this is nothing more than then inevitable. I didn't know him, I've never met him...damn, I've never even been in the same building as him.

Also, on a fair number of points, I have always disagreed with him.

He was, however, always my hero. The first time I heard the name Christopher Hitchens, it was on an episode of Penn & Teller's 'Bullshit!' He was clearly drunk on what I assumed was either wine or scotch, and he was bitching about Mother Theresa...and he just didn't give a shit about what you thought.

I have since watched him debate opponent after opponent, and that same brash, condescending tone was present throughout, and I loved him for it. On points that I agreed with, I marveled at his ability to construct an argument. On points that I disagreed with...I marveled at his ability to construct an argument.

Hitchens is one of a number of people that I have tried to emulate in my life. Like him, or hate him, you have to admit that he was better than anyone in the world at doing what he did. I admire excellence in any form. William Lane Craig is a great debater, Dinesh D'sousa is a fantastic nut job, and Christopher Hitchens was the world's most correct asshole.

And I loved him for it.

I loved him for this:
          "And not scorning the three delightful children who result— who are everything to me and who are my   only chance of even a glimpse of a second life, let alone an immortal one, and I’ll tell you something: if I was told to sacrifice them to prove my devotion to God, if I was told to do what all monotheists are told to do and admire the man who said, “Yes, I’ll gut my kid to show my love of God,” I’d say, No, fuck you!"
Christopher Hitchens (April 13, 1949 – December 15, 2011)

You will be missed.
-Paul Wittmeyer

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Born this way

Born this way. Like that makes it better. People throw that around to suggest that you cannot blame the gays for being gay because it is beyond their will.

I call shenanigans!

That is the stupidest argument for protection that one could proffer. Why does it matter? What if one day I decided to have the sex with men? Do I have to claim I was not in control to avoid social punishments, ostracization, or even violence? Screw that!

I don't care how you were born. I don't care if it is genetic or inherent or innate. People have rights! That is not a complicated fucking notion. Human beings have human rights.

Consenting adults doing things with consenting adults is what freedom means. If my actions do not hurt others, my actions are acceptable. This line of arguing is akin to that which is used by the drug legalization crowd. There is a difference. One can construct an argument as to how drug use is bad for society in general. Addiction, work absenteeism, theft, assault, and the like. As much as the Christian Right would like to there is no clear chain showing homosexuality damages anyone; subject, or those in the periphery. There is no damage we can gather from the homosexual act or homosexual lifestyle (whatever that is).

Born this way? I give two craps. People doing what they want and not hurting others is good enough for me. I hope it is good enough for you too.

-Josh 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Lies and the lying liars who tell them

Lies and the lying liars who tell them

Why do we lie? We evolved to have this capacity. It may have been
beneficial or simply happenstance. Considering the tremendous
advantages it provides we would have to assume that it provided some
evolutionary benefit.

All humans lie. As children we learned that we could just say things
and people accepted them as true. After some time we also learn that
simply saying something is not sufficient to make it so. Even to the
listener. We learn that there is a time and a place to lie. We learn
that lies are hard to keep and they should be used sparingly.
Depending on skill we then tend to lie more or less often as adults.
The social stigma of being branded a liar also keeps lies in check.
In communication we use words and gestures and expressions and the
like. We also use empathy. Shaping the words, gestures and expressions
to make sure our audience gets the message. Empathy is one of the real
differences between higher and lower animals. Few non-humans have any
capacity for empathy. Basically it is predatory pack animals (like
wolves), generally smart animals (like dolphins and elephants), and,
of course, higher primates (like gorillas and chimps). None to the
extent that we humans express the trait though. Prairie dogs, for
instance, have a very advanced form of communication which has nouns
and verbs. Even with this and their very communal evolution, they have
displayed no traits showing empathy. Some would argue that only higher
primates have any capacity for empathy. Tests of this are hard and
unreliable.

Empathy is being aware of others as things like yourself and being
able to make decisions based upon that. Complex behavioral
predications and the like. I hate to call it this but it is being
aware that the other has a mind of their own.

The animal we know best can empathize (and therefore lie)is the chimp.
They deceive each other often. We have study after study to support
this. But they cannot speak. Words make lies so easy.
What makes a good liar? Well, there are physiological signs of lying
which we can detect. That is the idea of the lie detector at least.
Heart rate, perspiration, and the like. We also tend to speak
differently. Talk disproportionately too much or too little. We have
long pauses or no pauses at all. We look around a lot. Make too much
or too little eye contact. We fidget. We tend to make strange facial
expressions. It is because we are trying to act normal and never paid
enough attention to what we do when we are telling the truth. We get
it wrong. Like walking sober in front of your parents after a night of
drinking. “Act normal” is hard.

If you accept Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) you would look for
"Visual Accessing Cues". People look to the left when they lie.
Either straight left (Auditorily Constructed) or to the upper left
(Visually constructed). The idea is that you are looking to the
portion of the brain that produces constructed memories as opposed to
the right where recalled memories are drawn from. This is a load of
crap except that people do, statistically, look to the left or up and
left when they lie. The numbers are not great and no one checks this
against handedness.

A good liar is someone who does not do any of the above. Combined with
the intellect and empathy to say lies their audience would believe,
that makes a good liar.

One of the characteristics of Psychopaths (or sociopaths or Antisocial
personality disorder types or narcissistic personality disorder types
or whatever) is that they lie. They lie a lot. Problem they have is
their lies are superficial and not tailored to their audience. They
are rehearsed and not created. The Psycho fails at empathy. Their lies
are clumsy and two dimensional.
The reason many of us lie well is that we do it all the time. Every
day. There is the outright lie, the truth fudge, lie by omission,
oversimplification, declaration as fact that which we assume or think
we know without support.

Notice I did not include “white lies” in that little list. White lies
are just lies you want to avoid guilt about.
Think about the last time you told a story of any kind. You left out
information. You have to. If you did not you would take longer to tell
the story than it took for the events themselves. Words to describe
images, sounds, feelings. Lots of those were left out. You also shaped
that story for an effect. You read your audience and the circumstances
and shaped the story to fit. You lied. Sugar coat it if you like. If
it makes you feel better. You made a false representation of reality
for your own gains. Simple as that.

Now, why do people lie? I would argue that there are three reasons and
three alone. Weakness Shame and Laziness.
Lies to make yourself seem better are because you are not good enough.
That is weakness. Telling stories that put you in a good light and
avoiding those that put you in a bad light. Weakness. Avoiding
conflict by saying that the outfit does not make her look fat.
Weakness. Omitting your attraction to wearing women’s clothes. Shame.
Telling your woman that the nearly naked hottie nearby looks
scandalous and that her outfit is shocking. A little shame and a
little weakness.

Laziness I considered calling apathy. It is a social laziness which
borders on social negligence. This is the most acceptable in general.
Every time people ask you how you are doing they are lying and every
time you say fine you are lying. We all know it and have ceased to
even acknowledge the question or answer. We decided that those words
are unimportant. Don’t matter.

I have found the language of lies inherently dishonest. Little “white
lies” “stretching the truth” “shaping the story” and the like. These
are words we use to mask the fact that we are distorting reality for
our own gain.

If that is not a Lie I do not know what is.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving thanks

So, here I sit, the night before thanksgiving. The cultural zeitgeist would inform me that I supposed to be out, drinking and dancing until four in the morning, celebrating Democritus, and Hedone, Bacchus and Freyja, Pan and Ceres. Celebration, beauty, joy, wine, the harvet, the hunt...the joy, majesty, beauty, and wonder.

Instead I sit, with The Postal Service in my ears, contemplating which shirt to iron for tomorrow's inevitable family fun time meet and greet, where supposed loved ones kept a year at arm's length are embraced full throat for the annual end of November to the end of December re-affirmation of family unity.

And the thought of this next month's dance is what keeps me glued to this chair, instead of out with my fellow humans, reveling in revelry, Celebrating the harvest with joy and dancing and rivers of wine. This next month is what glues me to this chair...but this past year is what compels me to write these words.

Atheists tend to be suspicious of most holidays. The Greek, Roman, and Norse Gods that I reference above are, for better or worse, the true etymology of the celebration of the harvest. Make no mistake, it did not start with those Puritanical Puritans making all nicey nice with the indians and serving a turkey stuffed with wet bread, no. Thanksgiving is nothing more than a celebration of the fact that we are prepared to survive one more unimaginably brutal winter, that we have reserves in store, that we are ready. We give thanks to our full plate...our full plate, and the people who have helped to fill it. If this past year has taught me anything, then it is the same lesson that I have been slowly, ever so slowly, learning my entire life.

And, that lesson is that I am thankful for every stupid thing I have in my life. I am thankful for everyone I've met, and everyone who has influenced me.

I am thankful that I have a partner in my recent endeavors who has carried me more than I have carried him. Who has burned candles with me until three in the morning trying to figure out what we are doing, and the best way to accomplish our goals. A partner and friend who has taught me more then I have ever learned elsewhere.

I am thankful that I have a friend who has proven time and time again that he will always, always, always, be there for me as I try to be there for him. The sort of friend who flies 400 miles on 24 hours notice, loads all of my possessions in a truck, and carries me home when I am too weak to do so myself.

I am thankful that I have a friend who loves me with all of her heart, and whose faith in me extends so far as for her to put her career on the line in order to offer me an opportunity to better my life. A friend whose optimistic outlook on life is so contagious that I have had no choice but to conform to her joy.

I am thankful to have a friend who is the bravest person I know...the bravest person I truly believe I will ever know. A person who has stood in uniform and served on the front lines of Iraq with machine gun in hand, and now serves on a different front line defending the rights of all human beings as a trans-gendered person. Someone whose outlook on the world has effected mine more than could be explained.

I am thankful to have a friend who is an educator who wears cowboy hats and bolo ties in faculty school pictures. A person who, whenever I forget that we all should be smiling, laughing, joking, and dancing, never fails to remind me. A friend who has many of the attributes of the person who I aspire to be.

I am thankful to have a friend with an ivy league education who has chosen to pick up a shovel, and spend her days working one on one with special needs children, doing the work of saints while being an atheist. A person charged with a Sisyphean task who charges out every morning helping to better the society's forgotten. A person whose heart swells and bursts with mine.


My family is a sad, fractured state of affairs. It has been so since as long as I can recall. Tomorrow we will all eat turkey and avoid discussing where my sister might be spending her Thanksgiving. We will smile, shake hands, and likely someone will ask me how school is going. (I've been out of school for four years.) We will pretend that what we are is family.

My true family are those I have spoke of, above. My true family are those who have helped shape me. Those who I have learned from, and those I have taught.

I propose that we take this day of giving thanks, and contemplate who you would call with a flat tire at 3 a.m., who you would call asking for bail, who you would call when you were backed into a corner, when the chips were down. Contemplate who you would call when it all went south.

I propose you contemplate who those people are, and spend a minute remembering them in this season of giving thanks. I love every person listed above with all of my heart, and this is my letter to them.

-Paul Wittmeyer

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Cynics and other sons of bitches

Skepticism. It has been my experience that most people do not understand the idea of skepticism.

Skepticism is a way of thinking. It is a mode of behavior and a way to determine reality. Our determination of reality is what we use to make choices and determine action.

Skeptics question things. You say X, and I say why? You say Z and I ask how? Skepticism is something we practice any time we hear new information and any time we are exposed to opinions or hear news stories. A Skeptic simply actively practices this skill and hones it. Nothing more.

Critical Thinking is the snooty way to say skeptic. When given a fact we must look at it objectively. Well, as objectively as is possible. We all have biases. Big ones or little ones. We have all seen and heard things which we use to make thinking easier. We do, after all, have to make a crapload of determinations per day. Will the driver ahead of me swerve or go straight? What kind of person is walking up toward me? Are they threatening or docile? We make these split second determinations based upon heuristics. Heuristics are strategies using readily accessible, though loosely applicable information in the act of problem solving. This strategy has worked incredibly well for a few hundred thousand years. It has always been balanced off with what is called systematic thinking. This is a slower method of problem solving. It requires examination and deductive thinking. These two ways of thinking have allowed our species to reach the moon.

One acts like instinct and the other like logic. Those two systems have created a beautiful machine for reaching conclusions. These two systems have created human beings.

The world has changed in the last couple thousand years. I do not live my life in fear of mountain lions or bears. My ancestors lived in constant fear of theses kinds of horrors. These daily fears necessitate quality heuristic thinking. My ancestors needed keys, tools or mental markers that allowed them to make split second determinations in order to continue their genetic line. Evolution favored heuristic thinkers. Since we developed society we have been in a position to think and ruminate. Thinkers were as rewarded almost as much as reactors. Our history has been a battle between jocks and nerds (as John Hodgman of Daily Show fame has recently mentioned). We are all part Jock (Reactor) and part Nerd (Thinker). This is good. This worked well for most of human history.

Since about 1600, we have needed more contemplation and less gut reaction. We invented modern thinking. This is clear in the history of philosophy but became more and more necessary the better we got at science. Science is the ultimate in slow and deliberate thinking.

Skepticism is the regular every day expression of this kind of thinking. The skeptic examines facts as they are presented. Where did this come from? To where does this trend? Who benefits from this fact? Is there context? How is this fact supported? Lastly, is this believable? The last question is always about giving the fact (or argument) weight. Is this fact true? Probably not. But how untrue is it? Then you can give this weight.

A cynic is something different. A cynic may have begun looking for truth, like the skeptic. The cynic tried to see past the preconceptions which create poor instinctual deduction and see things objectively.

In their case they fell prey to the same small, Jock thinking. They found out that the world is full of lies and fraud. That is when the specter of heuristics comes back to haunt them. They see it all as lies and pointless crap. The cynic practiced skepticism for a while. Then, when it turned out to be hard they just stopped. They saw the world and all it's confusion and untruth and they decided that that was what the world was. They created a new system of heuristics. They created new markers and signs in their mind.

The cynic has seen so many movements fail that when a new movement arises they know, KNOW, that it will fail. Seeing people do stupid thing so many times, the cynic decided that people are just stupid and therefor there is no point teaching them.

They have developed new biases which are based upon the lies they had uncovered when they did skepticism.

I was thinking lately about peoples opinion of skeptics as cynics. This is not just a misunderstanding of what skepticism is, it is what some proclaimed skeptics are. Since my foray into the greater world of Skepticism I have met them, the Cynics. They infuriate me, "It will never work", "don't bother", "this is stupid." These are the things they say. They are nay sayers and haters. They try to put you down. They crush your dreams because they have the answers. They have become the autocratic authority that they started their journey to oppose.

Don't let them crush you or shit in your cheerios..............

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The status quo is only what you accept

I seem to be having conversation after conversation lately regarding 'Occupy Wall Street,' and most seem to have a common theme. Stop me if this sounds familiar to either your ears or your mouth:

I just don't see how this is going to accomplish anything.

They are all just kids who are going to give up and go home.

What do they want?

The most this will ever lead to is more empty campaign promises.

This isn't the way to do things.

These are rationed, reasonable concerns from those who have shared intelligent discourse with me. I am excluding the whacko nutjob internet comments of "Scott Olsen got what he deserved!"


I find the idea that there is nothing the OWS people can do to change the status quo to be absolutely absurd. Everything everyone does changes everything that there is every moment...and if you don't believe this, then you're not paying attention.

TO WIT:

Barack Obama took office in January of 2009 with a clear mandate from the country, and he decided to spend that political capital on healthcare reform. It's a story we've all heard, and one we have all spent years living with in frustration for one reason or another. I'm not going to that Barack Obama's 'yes we can' campaign slogan is the reflection of OWS, and blah blah blah... Please, keep reading.

Early on in his presidency, Obama met with the lobbyists who would be directly influencing the political process involving healthcare reform. One of those present was Karen Ignangi, chief lobbyist for the insurance agencies. At that meeting, Ms. Ignangi committed to healthcare reform, and in doing so committed the entire political entity which she represented. She committed to helping with reform in a very public way.

What was less public were her demands. The Insurance companies demanded that the public option was eliminated, and that everyone would be required to buy healthcare from the conglomerate that she represented. In addition, she demanded subsidies, tax breaks, and other provisions which would benefit the insurance companies at the expense of the consumer and the taxpayer. She had come out in public to support Obama...if her private demands were not met, she would get to walk away from the table and blame the administration for not accepting her help.

Concessions were made to Karen Ignangi because Obama had a greater problem: The Senate Finance Committee. This committee is concerned with taxation and finance, yes, but has even greater power over healthcare, as they are the governing body for Medicare/Medicaid. At a time when the primary question was how to pay for it all, the answer would come from this select committee.

And, the Chairman of this committee? Max Baucus, D-Montana. Max Baucus is a man whose campaign for Senate was funded by the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies to the tune of 2.51 million dollars. In Montana.

In Montana!

I could get a goat elected in Montana for 2.51 million dollars! (No offense to Mr. Baucus.)

So, as is congress, and as is the way, hearing were held by the senate finance committee. At the hearing that took place on May 5, 2009, 41 insurance company and pharmaceutical company lobbyists were asked to testify. NO other lobbying groups were asked to testify. In fact, many asked, and were specifically excluded. One of the groups excluded was 'The Physicians for a National Health Program.'

And, sitting at the table was our insurance company lobbyist friend from before: Karen Ignangi.

Here's where it gets good:

Five people were arrested for disrupting the proceedings by standing up and asking why their voices were not allowed to be heard. Five people threw their bodies on to the gears to try and garner attention to their cause.

One of the five was Margaret Flowers, M.D., head of the above referenced 'Physicians for a National Health Program.'

And, of course..this protest and these arrests had no effect. The hearing was suspended until the chamber could be cleared, and then resumed without interruption. Nothing changed, nothing was altered.

Of course, you have to look deeper than that.

You have to look at the subtle ripples about Max Baucus, the unknown senator from Montana, which were beginning to spring up in the Washington media. Baucus' campaign contributions didn't enter the public consciousness until after a few reporters began to question why this stupid little protest occurred. After a time, Baucus was painted as being biased towards the insurance and pharmaceutical giants. He was criticized for excluding these groups in favor of those like Karen Ignagni.

And this criticism resulted in the loss of political capital.

You have to look at what happened next...and what happened next was a goddamn circus of Tea Partiers, Death Panels, and Joe Wilson. Representative Joe Wilson, if you recall, is the one whose outburst of "You lie!" during the 2009 Presidential Address garnered him much negative publicity from the media.

Well, angry Joe Wilson gave Obama the boost he needed. The public was beginning to realize the level at which republicans were willing to attack him.

With Obama strenghtened, he was able to take advantage of the damage done to Max Baucus by those who protested the exclusion. The Obama administration was able to take the bill, HR 3950, out of committee without the approval of Max Baucus, Chairman of the Senate Finance Comitee, and place it directly under the purview of Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader. Baucus could have stopped this from occurring with a simple objection, but in doing so, it would have played directly into the public persona that was created of him laying in the pockets of Big Pharma and Big Insurance.

And once it was in the Senate Majority Leader's hands, all of Karen Ignagni's demands were cut from the bill. Gone were the huge kick backs to the Insurance companies.

And so, the bill was eventually passed, much to the chagrin of Max Baucus and Karen Ignagni. The bill passed without a safety net insuring the insurance companies would be able to reap and rip profits upon profits off of the tax payers and policy holders.

And it happened this way because five people stood up and protested what they perceived as an injustice.

Could it have happened another way? Of course. Here's the thing, though...this is the way it DID happen. It happened in these slow, small, subtle steps that most people didn't pay attention to.

Will Occupy Wall Street have an effect on anything? I submit that they already have. Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, has said that the Occupy Wall Street protest may kinda sorta, in some ways, sorta kinda maybe...have a point.

And if you don't think that is going to change anything, well then, you haven't been paying attention.

Change never occurs the way we expect it. We take our message, cork it in a bottle, and toss it to the seas. We hope our words align with others who feel as we do. Sometimes we are alone, screaming into the abyss, and sometimes our voices are in unison and break like thunder.

And Occupy Wall Street? Occupy Buffalo, Oakland, Austin, Portland, Occupy Everywhere? Remember this: Five people put into motion events which led to the benefit of humans in deference to the benefit of corporations. A small victory, to be sure, but they were five...we are millions.

Everything we do, everything we have ever done, matters.

-Paul Wittmeyer

Friday, October 28, 2011

Mussolini, Tea Party, and the violence on Scott Olsen

On October 29th, 1922 Benito Mussolini and his Blackshirts/National Fascist Party marched on Rome and assumed power in the Kingdom of Italy as the Prime Minister.

As we all remember the interwar years were tough on most countries. The rolling opulent capitalism of the twenties had broken the banks and world economies were in shambles. Those feeling the worst of it were, as always, the poor. The world had not really invented a middle class yet, so there was rich and poor. In the twenties while the US and Northern European Economies were still rolling in fake money, Italy was not doing so good.

In 1919 Mussolini formed the Italian Combat league which eventually became the National Fascist Party which put Mussolini into the Parliament in 1921.

The Fascists were both revolutionary and traditionalist. They were calling Italy to look back and reclaim their great and proud heritage. They attacked those who called for a class struggle or rights for the disenfranchised. They confused the issue with patriotism and anger.

During the same period as the Fascists were growing in power another group was gaining strength. The trade unionists of Italy were gaining strength and developing an anarcho-syndicalist brand of socialist ideology (A branch of Anarchism in the Labor movement promoting trade unions and cooperative economic systems).

The trade unionists were able to enact a general strike which began in an Alfa Romeo factory in Milan. A general strike is when nobody goes to work. EVERYBODY stays home. It is a tremendous sign of strength from the working class to the ruling power.

Mussolini's Blackshirts broke the strike using incredibly violent means. Attacking crowds of non-violent protesters and beating people. This is the creation of the concept of Fascism.

So, Scott Olson...... An Iraqi war veteran and member of Iraq War Veteran's for Peace, was peacefully protesting at Occupy Oakland in his Marine uniform. He was seriously injured when the police threw a flash bang grenade at his head. A flash bang is like a little grenade which produces more light and sound. It is a less lethal, disorienting weapon. Unless you are within six feet of it. Then it is just a fucking grenade. Imagine it was thrown at your head. He is in critical condition and will have brain surgery.

What does Scott Olsen and the Occupy movement have to do with Mussolini? We are at a cross roads. The Tea Party on one side calling for a traditionalist revolution and on the other we have the Occupy movement looking to have a more egalitarian distribution of opportunity.

I am not suggesting that the Tea Party is a bunch of Fascists (I really don't think so) or that the Occupy people are anarcho-syndicalists. I have been watching the news and noticed the date. I was reminded how history repeats its self and I am concerned about the state of the Union.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Unicorns on the planet Eris.

In 1930, a 23 year old uneducated farmer from Kansas was somehow given the task of searching for an object in the outer solar system that could adequately explain the perturbations in the orbital path of Uranus. After staring at pictures of dots for nearly a year, this young man discovered the object that was eventually named Pluto. The man's name was Clyde Tombaugh, and he was quite happy to discover something significant enough to garner a scholarship to college.

In the years that followed, the world seemed to develop a weird fascination with what we thought was our littlest brother. Everybody loves to root for the underdog. Everybody loves a Rudy. Further scientific inquiry revealed Pluto's three moons, one of which being so massive relative to Pluto that the pair rotated one another like binary stars. We discovered that Pluto's orbit was more elliptical, and more off-axis from the solar plane than any other planet. Everything was going well for Pluto. A bit of a freak, yes, but clearly the little kid who could. Our small, frail, frozen, cold and desolate lonely outpost of a planet.

It wasn't until 1992 that things got really complicated for Pluto. It was then that we discovered the Kuiper Belt, which is a field of rocks and space debris that stretches from Neptune to far beyond Pluto, and farther away from the sun than we could have even possibly imagined for something still spinning around it. Pluto's ground was shaky, existing in this swarm of rocks,  but we still felt comfortable calling it a planet.

Unfortunately for Pluto, it wasn't long before people started training telescopes on these new found rocks to see what there was to see. What we found were thousands and thousands of rocks of a size similar to Pluto. The bell rung for Pluto in 2005, with the discovery of the object Eris, a spherical hunk of rock about 1.2 times the size of Pluto. Maybe you'll recall slight murmurs about 'Planet X,' well this was it.

And yet Pluto was still standing as a planet. It turns out that no one had really established what the word 'planet' meant. The International Astronomer's Union sat down to figure out a workable definition that would answer the simple question: What is a planet?

And, they came up with several ideas. Hundreds, in fact. The problem with all of these ideas hoping to grow up as definitions was that no matter which way you went with it, you could never get to the number 9. How many planets are there? Well, all of the definitions only had one of two answers: eight, or a couple of thousand. There is no metric that connects Pluto in characteristics to the others planets that a thousand other objects in the Kuiper Belt did not have.The most damaging to Pluto's status was that it didn't clear its own orbit of debris. All of the other things that we call planets have a gravitational field sufficient to pull all the rocks, dust, and space junk down to the planet's surface. Pluto, on the other hand, was the only one of the planets to live in a messy neighborhood indeed.

And so It was decided. The scientific community went with the definition of eight, and Pluto was relegated to 'minor planet' status.

And people went fucking nuts.

New Mexico actually passed legislation saying that within the borders of the state, Pluto was still officially a planet. So did the town of Streater, Illinois...the birthplace of Clyde Tombaugh. People feel that Pluto has been taken away from them, and it is unjust, unright, and untrue. We shouting from the rooftops (or, maybe more accurately, mumbling in bars,) Pluto will always be a planet to me.

The thing is though, we couldn't make it work. We tried to keep Pluto as a planet, we really did. But to do so would be going against our understanding of celestial bodies. 'Pluto the Planet' is wishful thinking of the sort that ignores science, reason, and logic in order to make what you want to be true...true.

And, boy, we don't like to slaughter our sacred cows. When we are told we are wrong about things that we know in our heart to be true, the outcome is never pretty. We plug our ears and shut our eyes to the science, and stand with the idea 'Pluto is a Planet' on faith.

We went with 'Pluto is not a Planet' because the only other option was 'there are so many planets of so many different characteristic that the word planet is meaningless. To state this another way: It's "Russell's Teapot," and quite literally. Russell's Teapot, cited frequently by Richard Dawkins, posits that if one were to state that a teapot was orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars, you could not prove it wasn't. Well, not only is this true, but also, if Pluto is a planet, than so is the imaginary teapot..quite literally.

We define words, and refine definitions, in order to communicate meaning. If the word 'planet' encompasses every object that exists that is not the sun, then that word no longer holds any descriptive value. It's meaningless.


So, we defined 'planet,' and 'Pluto the Planet' fell out of existence. It makes me wonder what would happen with specific definitions of some other words.

Words like: Soul, God, Heaven, Hell, Faith, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omni-anything, Spirituality, Chi, Eternity, Transformative, Love, Holy, Engram, Evil, Luck, or...Sin.

-Paul Wittmeyer

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Atheist Gardening

In times of trouble, what do atheists do? How do we cope with stress and strife? There are times when we wish we could just cry to our mommy about how the world has done us wrong. As adults, we are not in a position to do that. Some of us could not, even if we wanted to.

I have always thought that God is a parent figure to adults. I do not mean that as an insult to those who can have that. I often wish I had a powerful parental figure that I could lean on. Even just for emotional support. I know that they are deluding themselves. I cannot imagine being comforted by silly stories and bronze age superstition. I wish I could.

Adults look to others for support. I sought a strong woman who could support me. I have tried to create a web, a network of people who can help me when I stumble. Real help. Not just a void that I can fling my misery into. Real, live, solid people that listen but that also can advise and even act.

I think that is the secret. We realists need real support. I find it funny that the support we atheists need is the one thing that the 'atheist community' is lacking. Religion provides support from the magic man in the sky but, more pragmatically, from the other people. That is where the real support comes from, the people.

I hate to word it this way, but, I am grateful for the people I have found. Grateful. To who? I really don't know. But I am. I am thankful and grateful and feel blessed. Yep, I said it. I feel that the world has screwed me in a lot of ways but I have been able to surround myself with those who can, and do, support me. Maybe blessed is the wrong word. There is really no better one. Lucky? It is really no different. I guess language is another symptom of the superstitionalism we are surrounded with.

This is a love letter to the people who support and help me. In Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, he uses a Greek word, Eudaimonia. This has been historically translated as 'happiness' or 'welfare'. Some have offered a different translation: flourishing. That is the translation that I like. I do not speak ancient Greek, but I like this translation.

Flourishing.

Aristotle talks about self cultivation. He advises we treat our lives like a garden. We need things. We need support from those around us. As a pragmatist Aristotle says we need money, but just enough to be comfortable. Once that is taken care of, we need people. Good, supportive people.

I would like to think the last couple of years have been a time to 'till my soil and buy fertilizer. I spent this time, divorce, anarchy, chaos and strife, breaking down my old paradigm. Destroy that which dragged me down. I have been preparing for the coming spring and the cornucopia of crops that my garden shall produce. I do not know what tomorrow brings but I am confident that with the seeds I possess and the soil I have chosen that my crop will be great.

Thank you to all the real, solid people who have supported me. I am an atheist and I have no invisible means of support. I have people. I have reality. I have tomorrow.

-Josh

Friday, September 23, 2011

Extraordinary Claims

The OPERA neutrino experiment from the underground San Grasso Laboratory has recently published a paper regarding the development and testing of a more accurate mechanism to detect the velocity of neutrinos.

If you heard about this, then you probably didn't hear it described in the above terms. You probably heard something to the effect of:

FASTER THAN LIGHT TRAVEL PROVEN BY DIRTY EUROPEANS!!!

OK, probably not the 'dirty Europeans' part. We love you Europe. You think we are nuts for believing in God and executing our citizens...we agree.

So, what's going on with this extraordinary claim? Well, scientists from the San Grasso Laboratory and CERN got some wacky results from the experiment they were running that, if accurate, represent a fundamental problem in our understanding of all matter, and all energy. To give the appropriate weight to this discovery: It makes E = MC^2 not true.

Over a distance of 730 Km (453.6 M,) Neutrino particles travelled, and arrived at a detector a whole 60 nanoseconds faster than they should have if they were travelling at the speed of light. That's 0.00000006 seconds.

This is not a large amount of time, as you can imagine. The OPERA team, however, calculated the possible error in their detection method to be 6.9 nanoseconds, a whole order of magnitude smaller.

They checked, double checked, triple checked, quadruple checked all of the data. They tested their equipment, and then retested it. They did every possible thing that they could think of to explain these anomalous results in a way that doesn't violate our fundamental understanding of physics.

And when they couldn't, they published a paper. They published a humble, and fact driven paper describing the experiment, the data collection, and the analysis. They opened their books to the physics community and the world at large, and said one very important thing: We don't think we are right. We don't think we are right, and we can't find where we went wrong. Somebody please look at this and tell us where we went wrong.

To quote the last paragraph of the conclusion section of that paper:
     Despite the large significance of the measurement reported here and the stability of the
     analysis, the potentially great impact of the result motivates the continuation of our studies in
     order to investigate possible still unknown systematic effects that could explain the observed
     anomaly. We deliberately do not attempt any theoretical or phenomenological interpretation of
     the results.


And so it remains to be seen what will come of these results. The OPERA team released findings that would result in an extraordinary claim, a claim that would represent a paradigm shift in our understanding of physics. The OPERA team are skeptical of their own results, as they should be.

In debates about the existence of God, a concept is frequently brought up by those arguing atheism. That concept is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. As far as extraordinary claims go, anything of the 'supernatural' variety would certainly fit the bill. The invisible man in the sky who created the earth in seven days 6,000 years ago? Well, that is quite extraordinary indeed. That is, if it were proven true, it would represent a paradigm shift in our understanding of the universe. A shift far greater than being 60 nanoseconds off on the speed of light.

When we ask for the extraordinary evidence to back up your extraordinary claim, what we are asking for is this. We are asking you to set aside your beliefs for just one moment, and allow for the possibility that you might be wrong. We ask for you to prove your case. We ask for you to address the statements of others, and to justify how your beliefs are accurate in light of the arguments presented to you. We ask for you to be honest.

We only ask for you to admit that you might be wrong.

-Paul Wittmeyer

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I killed Troy Davis

So, tonight a man will die. We killed him. All of us. In a democracy the state is a collection of all the voters. Tonight in Georgia we will kill Troy Davis. And he is probably innocent. He is almost 43 but will not reach his 43rd birthday.

Officer Mark MacPhail was working as a security guard at Burger King for extra money. Officer MacPhail saw a man being assaulted in a nearby parking lot and intervened. Officer MacPhail was killed. MacPhail was a former Army Ranger and father of two children. Troy Davis was convicted for the crime. There were eyewitnesses to the crime and two people claimed that Davis confessed to them that he did it. Nine witnesses in total. The gun was never recovered but there were bullet casings found nearby.

Seven of the nine have recanted their testimony and signed an affidavit to that effect. They said they were pressured by the police to implicate Davis. New witnesses implicate Sylvester Coles for the crime. The courts found the new evidence unpersuasive.

Amnesty International, The NAACP, Jimmy Carter, Al Sharpton, Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former FBI Director and Judge William S. Sessions called for a new trial or evidentiary hearing.

Sylvester Coles (who was later implicated in the crime)reported that Davis was seen with a .38 calibre pistol (calibre used in the shooting).

During the trial Coles testified that he had argued with the victom of the parking lot scuffle but that Davis had hit him. Coles also admitted to owning a .38 but that he had given it to another man earlier on the night of the shooting.

Troy Davis was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Tonight will be the fourth and final date for his execution. Courts have stopped it the three prior dates. Not this time though. Tonight he dies.

I have always had a problem with the death penalty. It seems to be a statement that government sovereignty includes our lives. The government has the right to kill its own citizens. They have the right to kill you or me. I cannot accept this. It is fucking barbaric! What purpose does this serve? Punishment? He is dead, he can't feel pain anymore. Revenge? Who gets satisfaction from a needle going into his arm? It is sterile of vengeance. It does not make the populace safer, he was already incarcerated.

We do it because it is the worst we can do. That is only because we decided that it is. We have all the power. We could stone him. We could cut off body parts and poke him with a stick. We could torture him. We think those are too much. But state sponsored murder is ok. We decided that is where we drew the line. All of us. We are all killing this man. I am killing him.

There are times that I wish there were a God who could bring divine punishment on all of us. Were fucking murderers. Apathetic to the murder we sponsor.

My family is pretty liberal. As a child my mother dragged me and my sister to anti-nuclear protests and save the whales and all kinds of crap. My sister, who died when I was nine, really had only one cause she felt deeply about. My sister Katie had this button "Why do we kill people who kill people to show people that killing people is wrong?" I still have that button. I think of her more from holding that button than looking at her picture.

I am a man of ideas and abstractions. These are the things which hit me deeply. That idea is my big sister. She died at 12. She would have given her life every year for all 12 years to prevent guilty men from being killed by the state. The killing of innocent men is just murder.

Rick Perry is one of the front runners in the Republican nomination for president. This is a man who killed 235 people. He took all of us with him. This is your Republican party. These people who hate so much that they kill. I wish I could blame the 'other party' but the democrats are almost as pro murder as republicans.

Only 12 states have no Death Penalty. Since 1976, 1,267 human beings have been killed by me. A democracy is not just rights but responsibility. I am responsible. You are responsible. We have murdered people in cages. We had them in fucking cages. And we killed them.

I mourn today. Were I a man who had faith I would pray to whatever God I accepted for mercy for my crimes. I would pray that my soul could be cleaned from this horror. If I were that God though, I would refuse. Apathy to horror in your name is horror committed by you.

Troy Davis refused to choose his last meal.

At six they offered him Ativan, an anti-anxiety drug.

It is now 6:25 pm. In thirty-five minutes he will die. It just started to rain. I can hear it. So loud. It cannot was away our sin. We are guilty of this act.

Tomorrow I will go to work, eat lunch, go to the gym, and spend a little time with my girlfriend. I will go on. I will go on as if nothing happened. I would like to say that I will stand up and shout NO! But we don't. We sit back and let the world spin. We watch things happen. We get better and go on. What are we supposed to do? New York does not use it's Death Penalty. Where is the fight? How do I vent this rage. Who do I focus my rage on?

I know this post was like the ranting of a madman. For that I am sorry. I would have hoped that I could create a coherent line of thought or a particular perspective or something of use. All I could do was think of my sister. How I had failed her and failed all those who reel from this thing we do. All the murderers who go free because they do not like to bring up the fact that they killed an innocent man.

Why am I writing? I am writing to get out the demons that are in me. I am writing to free myself of the guilt and the sadness and the rage that I feel. This impotent rage. I am writing because that is what I can do.

It is 6:43. I am gonna just stop writing. There is a terrible crime being committed tonight. I thought writing would release the bad that was inside. It just turned rage to sadness. Dark, cold, empty sadness.

-Joshua

Addition: The Supreme Court has stayed the Execution! A temporary stay to see if there should be a stay! Troy may not die after all!


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hazing

I think I may be pro-hazing. Weird to say but I have been giving this a lot of thought. Some hazing is just a lot of crap but the idea seems somewhat sound. You need to accomplish something. You need to be challenged and need to rise to meet the challenge.

I guess I am looking at the way we group people. Officially as in a club or more unofficially as in a friendship or circle of friends.

I was never in a fraternity or anything like that. I was in scholastic clubs at college but those require an interest in the subject as the hurdle to overcome. Same idea though. You need to be different from other people in a way. The Anthropology club will require you to be interested in Anthropology as a prerequisite.

A country club requires money. They are expensive and so they require that you be the kind of person who has worked to acquire the kind of income necessary to support membership at the club. Though, even with the money required they are still choosey about the kind of person they may allow in their club. To maintain the elitist thing.

Some of you out there may think elitism is a bad thing. It is not. There are many different metrics which we choose to grade people on. Some require good breeding others require lots of money or a high education at an Ivy League school or whatever. These people have seen what they think is important and they look for it. You do too. You look for a good sense of humor or similar interests or a pleasant conversation flow or whatever. You have a personal metric upon which you grade people. You are an elitist. In your category.

I like smarts. Not education but raw intelligence. I grew up going to an honor school and living in the ghetto. I come from a family of eccentric and weird geniuses who have always been the smartest person in whatever room they are in but never got the piece of paper.

The people I look up to can think. I appreciate a thinker. The things which impress me are internal consistency ingenuitive thought and creative problem solving. Oh, and if you are wondering why I used ingenuitive even though it is not really a word, go to hell!

I am an intellectual elitist. I grade people by their intellect. I will, when deciding to move a person into my closer sphere, sometimes test or haze people. There is a hazing required to enter the club of Josh. But if you look closely into your behavior you will see that you do the same. It is not always deliberate or obvious but we always test people. For the intimacy a real friendship provides you should. There is a lot of vulnerability there and you had better make sure that you can trust this person.

Look at the people you surround yourself with. They will reveal a lot about you. What do you prize? What do you seek? What do you desire? It may not be what you think.

Look to see what you chose people for. Do you want to fight or cooperate? Do you want to feel like a god or an equal? Do you want to look up to someone?

I have found that I choose people for a few 'ecological niches' in the garden of Josh. Some think I am great and others challenge me. Some do both and that is the best. There is something about your circle that makes you the person that you are. And that makes your circle what it is.

So, hazing.... this was a long walk to get back to this but I have been hazing my peeps recently and some have moved up and in. They are my elite circle. I think they they are elite.

As a member of a few atheist and skeptical groups and I have been looking to see how I am supposed to gauge people. How do I decide who to keep close and who to step away from. I guess I am going to have to move on to making plans on how to haze.

-Joshua

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Under Oath

In the long career of being me, I have done a number of different things in order to make a living. I have been everything from a high school chemistry teacher to a chef at a Middle Eastern restaurant, to a tour guide at 'The World's Largest Dry Cave.' Currently, and for quite some time now, I work in law.

I argue for a living. Surprised?

In the course of the duties of my employ, I have argued cases in what is referred to as 'Alternative Dispute Resolution,' or Arbitration. It's fake court. Typically, I'm the one with the paper in front of me, asking questions, and making arguments. Yesterday, however, was a bit different.

Because of a conversation I had three months ago regarding a particular file, I was going to be asked to testify. In order to do so, I was going to have to be sworn in. Not a problem, I can tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth...so help me God.

Now, I'm not going to rant here for pages and pages about how this is wrong, and bullshit, and arrgh. I am, however, going to share some of my thoughts surrounding this. First off, the oath doesn't REALLY mean anything. It is a ceremony done to remind people that there are greater than average consequences now if you do not tell the truth. I doubt that even the most dyed in the blood of Christ Christian Fundamentalist believes that God's wrath for perjury is swifter than the judicial branch of the United States Government. The oath is a blinking neon sign that there are dangers ahead.

But, and I don't know if everyone knows this about me, I am an atheist. My angry side does want to refuse to say it, which is my right. I could ask for a different oath, I could refuse to swear upon a bible, these are perfectly within my rights.

Of course, the Judge, who is Christian, my boss, who is Catholic, and opposing counsel, who is wearing a cross on a chain, might look at me in a light less favorably if I were to make a big deal over this 'stupid thing,' and would probably never understand my protestation under any terms other than me being an asshole.

It's harder to win cases when you piss the judge off. If I were to make this little protest, I would be doing a disservice to our client, which is tantamount to malpractice. No, the though had never entered my mind that I would not take the oath.

I did get a brief chuckle in my head over the fact that I might be perjuring myself by taking the oath, which essentially says 'I won't lie because I am afraid of God's wrath.'

Well, I'm not afraid of God's wrath, I'm afraid of losing the case.

We drive past church billboards, religion is thrust at us in life at every turn. We can't escape it, and, a lot of times, we can't even fight it. Sometimes I feel a bit like we are trying to scream the tide back. We are so hated, so despised. For the life of me, I can't understand why...I really can't.

I find solace in doing what I do. I write this blog, I do my podcast, I attend my meetings. I spend a lot of my time fighting back, and I'm happy to do it. It's a fight I believe in, because I believe in people.

Every once in a while, though, something reminds me of the depths to which we are hated. This hate does not make me angry. Go ahead and hate me, because I can take it. It's the hating of the people I love that makes me angry. Hurt the people I love, and you can rest assured that I am going to bring a gun to that knife fight.

But hate me? Well that doesn't make me angry, it just makes me sad.

-Paul Wittmeyer

postscript - Since I had argued in front of this judge about 200 times, she thought the oath was unnecessary. So, it never happened.

Monday, September 12, 2011

some questions

I have spent way too much time on the web reading "Questions for Theists" and "Questions for Atheists". Far too much time. I have fallen prey to the question bug. The problem I have is the questions all seem to be "gotcha" questions. I decided to come up with a list of questions that I really want answers to.

1) Do Indians go to Hell?

The native people who never had the option of experiencing the good word of your faith have a bit of a problem. I have heard some ideas that if they never had the option of hearing the good word they automatically get into heaven. That does make one wonder why people proselytize? Seems like screwing them over to save them from the screwing. If there are other explanations I would love to hear them. This hemisphere was without the word of God. Maybe God is just a prick but seems to me that an omnipotent being would have a contingency for being born in the Americas.

2) Is there anything you would not do if God commanded it?

Would you kill your own child? Would you slaughter towns full of people? Would you stone adulterers to death? These are all things done by the command of God in the Old Testament. Would you, as a western monotheist, do these sorts of things if commanded by God? If not, why not? How would you decide on the actions to follow?

This is a question which always bothers me in regards to biblical commands. People choose which ones to follow. They use common sense and personal morality. I wonder why they need the bible in the first place if they have common sense and individual morals. The question becomes more extreme were one to receive this command directly from God himself. If God says kill your child, do you?

3) How can one tell the difference between the actions of God and Satan?

If there is an event which defies physics and nature how can one tell if it is a miracle or dark magic? You could argue that it is the result, but God seems to do terrible things in the Bible. Are those boils are the result of black magic or the wrath of an angry God? How does one make that determination? I had a friend who said the tsunami of a few years ago spared the Masques because Allah caused the tsunami and was sending a sign. Michelle Bachman said something of the like recently. How do we know it was the Deity and not the demon? Just referring to the last question: how do you know God is God and not the Devil lying to you?

4) What would convince you that there is no God?

I often hear this for atheists, "What evidence would convince you that there is a GOD?" Well, I wonder if the question posed the other way bares any fruit. I am not suggesting that you have seen this evidence or that it is possible to see it, only some piece of information that, if true, would change your mind. If I met a big foot I would accept the big foot theory. If I were awakened from the Matrix and saw all the pods, I would accept that I had lived in the Matrix. Both of these seem silly to me but there is evidence which could change my mind. Is there any for you?

5) Define God.

What does that word mean? It is used so vaguely that it makes no sense to me. How about a solid definition which explains the concept. Maybe I am a theist. I do not know since I do not understand the concept. It could be my ignorance and I am willing to accept that. Educate me. Teach me what to look for. What are the parameters of God? The word is confusing to me.

I am not asking to prove a negative, as we all know there is some real difficulty in doing so. I am simply asking what would grant a preponderance of evidence.

These questions are not intended to trump or to catch people unprepared. I really want answers to these questions. Were I a theist I would hope these questions would be answered. I cannot imagine accepting a belief like God and not addressing these fairly pragmatic questions. None of these are intended to appeal to theologians or philosophers but to regular folks who accept a belief. The same sorts of questions could be applied to any proposition. In this case there are clearly things you (theist) know or understand that I (a-theist) do not. Explaining these to me and other atheists might go far in showing us the error of our ways.

-Joshua
Darwinseye


Throughout this post I have referred to only the Old Testament God since it is an area of some agreement among Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Old School Reasons

I was raised Catholic, and as far as I was aware, so was everyone I had ever met until I was 18 years old. Everyone, except of course, my father. My father's family were 'Protestant.' I say Protestant, and not Lutheran, or Baptist, or Westleyan, or Episcopalian, because to this very day, I have no idea which divisional tree branch of the Protestant Reformation my father's family ascribed to. We just never talked about it. My father is a bit of a man of science, and certainly not one to be contagious with his Christianity.

As far as I was taught, as far as I was aware, everyone was Catholic. It's just what you did. Being raised that way instilled in me the beliefs and arguments that I currently hear from those non-lapsed Catholics who care to talk about their beliefs on rare occasions.

Catholic Dogma is, I think, pretty well understood. Virgin Mary, Jesus, Trinity, Nuns and Priests, and the Pope's big hat. The actual 'beliefs' of actual Catholics are bit harder to wrap one's head around, and that's because I'm pretty sure that they don't have any.

Catholicism is a job. You go to church on Sunday, tithe away, send your kids to Catechism to learn the rules, and enjoy in the social aspects of a large group of people with similar beliefs playing bingo. Catholicism has long ago dropped the 'fire and brimstone' proselytizing in favor of a sedate 'Hosanna in the Highest." (Look it up.)

Questioning a Catholic on the tenets of their faith can be a frustrating endeavor. Questions about 'The Holy Trinity,' and how that could possibly make any sense are typically rebutted with "Religion has done more good in the world than harm." That's probably why you don't see any Catholic debaters going up against the likes of William Lane Craig, or even Christopher Hitchens.

For me, religion has been a constant annoyance. Church was boring, with long winding sermons only punctuated by "Let us proclaim the mystery of Faith." I think that chant, more than any other, defines the current state of American Catholicism. My questions on the logic of all of it were refuted one of two ways: You can't know God's plan, or, more honestly, "No one actually believes that."

And so, I went on my way, slowly evolving over time into the no-man's land of lapsed Catholicism. Religion didn't bother me because I didn't bother with it. The people on the television espousing stupidity were laughed at, and that's about as far as I went.

And then something happened. 19 people who had beliefs unfounded but unwavering hijacked 4 planes, crashing three of them into the monuments that represented for them the antithesis of what their religion told them was right.

Ten years later, I think I have finally realized how I came to be here writing this. It was a slow process. I didn't come out on September 12th, and state "I'm an Atheist, and you all are fucking nuts!!!" Instead, I spent a fair amount of time wondering how these things I had called "beliefs" were the same unproven, untestable claims that would lead people to do what they did.

We called them evil, we said that they hated our freedom...and then we consecrated a set of crossed I-beams left standing, and carved the word 'Jesus' into it.

In the past ten years, religion has become a more vocal aspect of the American Zeitgeist. From the Westboro Baptist Church to the Tea Party to Proposition 8 to Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. The American response to fanaticism has been fanaticism.

And we are getting worse. In the September 2011 Republican debate, former Governor John Huntsman argued, unsuccessfully, that we shouldn't turn our back on science. He was referring to the fact that Bachmann, Perry, and many others on that stage proclaim absolute certainty about creationism. And Huntsman is a goddamn Mormon!

Catholicism taught me that religion does more good in the world than harm, that no one really believes that stuff, or takes in seriously, that religion is simply a way for people to come together as a community. The decade after September 11th has taught me that religion fosters hate, divides, that science is to be ignored when the facts conflict with faith, and that people believe so strongly in these campfire tales of comfort that they are willing to die, that they are willing to kill.

Unfounded beliefs will always lead to fanaticism. When the position is indefensible, where will always be those who choose to defend their position with a fist.

And I can't believe that we don't see it. When I looked around with open eyes, and watched our culture heading down the road of insanity as we have so many many times before, I never once thought that I was alone in realizing where this goes.

Was I wrong?

-Paul Wittmeyer

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

To bow or not to bow...

I went to Easter dinner with a friend of mine a couple years ago. Both he and I are Atheists. Both out of the closet, as they say. When it came time to say the grace I bowed my head, closed my eyes and started wondering if they were gonna serve pork (I don't eat pork). People always have pork or lamb on Easter. I cracked open my eyes to peek out and there was my friend boldly not bowing. He was actively not bowing his head. Like he was trying to push it out there.

Here is my question, who was being disrespectful? He was going out of his way to make it clear that he was not praying. I, on the other hand, was trying to stay below the radar and just mimicking the behavior of those around me. I have done this all my life. At the age of eleven I gave a really nice prayer to a family of Christians because they said it was customary for a guest to do so. So I did.

I understand there are different dynamics for my friend and me as it is his family and there is baggage in any family. I still wonder about manners. Should we just go along to get along or do we upset the balance by acting defiant and different?

If you've read my paranoia post, you know that I like to stay hidden until I know how people are going to act. Get to know the landscape, so to speak. That probably causes me to miss a lot of really interesting situations. Perhaps there are two reserved atheists who do not say anything or act all heathen-y. Just standing next to each other acting polite and grumbling silently. How many of us do that?

How many of us are out of the closet but bow our head during a prayer? I do it to fit in as I was raised Unitarian (if anything) and they don't pray. I never prayed in my life. Not once. Never tried. It is too silly. But, when the group is doing it I bow that head and wait bored and annoyed. I do it out of a deep fear of being ostracized.

Problem I have is that it seems more disrespectful. I am feigning a faith that people have and revere. It seems like mockery. Like the times I got Communion. Apparently that is a big no-no. Is this the same?

When people go out of their way to show they are not praying they seem like jerks to me. Just defying to make a point. Everybody gets all weird and they don't say anything. I have never seen this spark a conversation or debate, just dirty looks. How does that help?

Of course the best option is to not bow your head and not seem that out of place. That is an option for many but seems really hard for some.

I think we need to all sign a petition saying we will not bow our heads and stick to it. If we can be confident that there are others doing it it will be a great way to find Atheists in crowds. Ask for a prayer. Look around and find your kindred spirits.

That is it!! I have figured where this rambling post is headed. I propose that we never bow our heads during any kind of prayer and ask for prayers to be said at every event of 10 people or more. Yes, I am suggesting that Atheists go out of their way to get prayers said at any event. City Council meetings, exercise classes, random bus rides, or fast food restaurants are all great places to try this out. Just make sure everyone hears you and knows this is in reference to their God. Keep those calls for prayer general, people. No Arabic or Yiddish words or speaking in tongues or sacrificing babies (Satanism is a religion) just general calls for prayer.

Y'see, when the Atheists do not bow their heads we will identify the silent majority. We will find the 18% nonreligious and we will bring them together into a Utopia of freethought and skepticism and...

Maybe I will just start with not bowing my head. Try it if you are a bower as well. When other heads are bowed, look around, you might not be as alone as you think.

-Josh

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Agreeing to disagree

 I'm a bit of an asshole.

At various times in my life, I have been arrogant, condescending, argumentative...annoying. A dear friend of mine once asked me why I have this compulsion to always be right. I didn't have an answer for her then. My answer now? Agreeing to disagree is immoral when the right answer leads to a better understanding of our world, and how to improve the lives of the humans contained therein.

When I was in graduate school, I had an argument with my lab mate, Tom, about which reagent would work best to accomplish the chemical reaction we were trying to do. This argument lasted 3 hours. It lasted so long for two reasons: number one, I was certain, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that I was right...as was my lab mate, and, two...we were too stupid to go grab the book off of the shelf that would tell us who was right.

Until finally, this occurred to us. I grabbed Carey and Sundberg off of the shelf, (a compendium familiar to anyone who has spent any time doing organic chemistry for a living...three of you, right?) flipped to the chapter containing the information we needed...and read it. And, it said:

I was wrong.

I turned to Tom and said, and I quote, "Shit...you are right."

My lab mate was stunned. Not over being right, as he was convinced of this all along. He was stunned because I immediately conceded. We spent a while after that looking up the points in both of our arguments, where I was right but came to a false conclusion, where he began with a false premise.

Tom did the reaction, it worked, and he got his product. Had he done it my way, the reaction would not have worked. The point?

There is objective truth, it is possible to know things. Tom and I could not simply 'agree to disagree.' There was a right answer for the question being asked. There are right answers for everything, absolutely every question ever asked has an answer...somewhere. And many of the questions being asked have answers that will directly affect the lives of those asking, their family, friends...all of humanity.

I am an atheist, in short, because the information presented to humanity by every single religious institution or 'personal experience' leads to a conclusion, based on the evidence, that we are really really afraid of dying and have been searching for a way to suppress that fear.

But that's not why I am an atheist 'activist.' In answering that question, one needs to look no further than "Jesus Camp." In this documentary about a Christian summer camp, you will meet a very young man in anguish and torment, crying his eyes out because he can't understand why he can't hear God. This boy is being tortured by his own mind, convinced by family and clergy that he needs to find Jesus or he will burn in the fires of damnation for all of eternity. This is an eight year old kid.

I fight religion because I cannot bear to tolerate this sanctioned torture. Not when there are questions to be asked, and answers out there to be searched for. Not when this boy, who is not alone, stands a chance of being mentally crippled by the abuse done to him, and may be limited in his capacity to be a useful and contributing member to society. Not when this boy stands a chance of going through life without ever being taught to question, and seek answers.

So long as we dwell in these dark age beliefs, we do not, as a civilization, get better. I have a compulsion to try to be right because I'm trying to improve, and that's all I can do. I have a compulsion to try and be right because I can imagine how much we will be capable of when we leave this demon haunted world behind.

-Paul Wittmeyer

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Persecution Complex?

I suffer from a tiny bit of paranoia. I am a little concerned that the masses will find out about me and burn me at the stake. Where does this come from? Why am I more concerned than most? It is a lot of things, from the way I was raised, to the reactions I get from people to a knowledge of history.

My Grandfather was a member of the American Communist Party. Yep, he was a Red. In the fifties. I am not sure how many of you out there know the depth of the Red Scare, but it was a vicious bit of Fascism by our government on it's own citizens. The FBI opened their mail and put it back in the wrong envelopes (Gas bill from aunt Florence or College transcripts from a bulk mailer etc.).

My grandfather, who taught at Cornell, was fired and the Dean gave him a job as a Janitor to keep my Grandfather around for conversations. My grandfather had a farm of 86 acres and built the rear half of the family farmhouse. He was a scholar and a hands on kind of intelligence.

My mother found out, years later, when she ran into an old elementary schoolmate that "government men" came to the school when the Cooks (my maternal family) were out and advised the children not to play with the Cooks because my grandfather would steal them away to Russia. Not only did my Grandfather not want to steal children to Russia but he felt that the Bolsheviks had bastardized the Communist ideals of egalitarianism, and equality.

My mother was involved in the anti war movement and a founding member of the Western New York Peace Center, she protested Nukes, whale killers, racist cops, and the like. Because of that my household had (on and off) been subject to the COINTELPRO program and it's successors of the seventies and eighties, where the government investigated leftist groups illegally(look it up).

This gave me the impression that they could turn on you and it would be all over. Paranoid? Well, a little. Keep in mind I am also a Jew and had great aunts and uncles who were fine upstanding citizens in the most culturally advanced nation on in Europe before the Nazis came to power. Then they were tortured and killed for their race. So, no, I do not think my concern is totally unreasonable.

I have always kept my mouth shut when I meet new people. Since I keep quiet and people like me I get to hear what they think. People always assume that people they like share their beliefs. So I got to hear a lot of insider stuff about "the blacks", "the Jews", liberals and, of course, atheists. A lot of people who wear their beliefs on their sleeve do not get the inside info. I got enough of it to scare the hell out of me. The disdain they have when talking about atheists is shocking and discomforting. Many of the most religious of people seem to get all Old Testament on atheism. It is like something out of that movie Hostel. They want to torture and kill us. Not just anonymously on a message board or a webpage, but in person to each other. I am not saying that all religious people are blood hungry monsters, I know quite a few who are not, perhaps a majority. But they all look the same. Walk into a room and it could be time for some tough questions and debate or fear of violence. Me, I am cautious.

I am not suggesting that we keep our beliefs secret and try to 'pass' but I am offering up some of my history to show people what can, has and may happen.

I have become a lot better at seeing people. I am a better judge of the inner demons people have than I used to be. This explains my recent very flagrant atheism. I have had few weird or unpleasant experiences with the religious in recent years. I do, though, still keep my mouth shut until I get a lay of the land and until I feel people will be more inclined to try and understand how I am misguided rather than suggest that it is the devil speaking through me.

-Josh
Darwinseye

Thursday, August 25, 2011

ALS and Dr. Chi

If you have read my earlier post, "My Scars remind me that the past is real," you would know that in 2007 my mother died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease).

ALS is a degenerative neuro-muscular disease which is terminal by all accounts. There is no cure and there is very little known about the disease. My mother came to terms with this but participated in a study of an experimental drug which might slow down the inevitable. Allow her to use her hands or legs a little longer. The thing she felt the study would be most beneficial for was to accumulate data on this terrible ailment. She felt that if she was gonna die she would do some good in the process.

She did the best intelligent thing she could do for herself and for anybody who followed her. She also spent some time visiting Europe before she died and tried to call my father (her estranged husband) to say good by. She looked at the evidence and did the most reasonable thing she could do. I applaud the rationality of that.

My mother had four brothers and one of them is into New Age pseudoscience and lives in NYC. During a visit to New York he scheduled her for an appointment with Doctor Chi. I am not making that name up. I have no idea what his qualifications ad "Doctor" are but he had a title. My mother was 63 at the time. Doctor Chi looked at her eyes, her tongue and her palms and diagnosed her as having evidence of :

High Blood Pressure
Heart Disease
Memory Loss
Acid Reflux
Arthritis
Cancer
general feminine problems

None of which she suffered from. He also failed to diagnose ALS or some neuro-muscular disease in general. What he did is called "fishing". If you look at that list you will see the statistically most likely candidates that a woman of her age would suffer from. If one of those had been right she might have forgotten the others and remembered that he knew what her illness was by looking at her. He then "prescribed" a regimen of 75 pills per day of "natural supplements" to be taken daily. All of which he sold. By coincidence, I assume.

When I heard about this I laughed and mocked but also felt a little disgusted. This guy was offering medical advice to people in the hopes of solving their medical problems. He was selling snake oil.

My mother declined to mega-dose vitamins and herbs. She took caffeine and ginseng and the drugs prescribed by her doctors. The first two to relieve the fatigue and the latter because it was the best medical advice available to her.

We will fast forward a couple months. My Uncle sent my mother a months supply of all these supplements. They were in bottles without names. Seriously. She did not take them. When he came to visit her the following month she told him she did not take them. He was annoyed because he felt these herbs could cure a disease that is supposedly incurable. He had also spent (we found out then) a thousand dollars on those unlabeled pills. $1,000.00!!!!!!!!!! Holy crap!

By this point my mother had the excuse that she could no longer swallow pills. Unfazed, my uncle took out what looked like a tiny fishnet bag. He proceeded to put the 75 pills in it and tied it to her ankle. He explained that the "energy signature" from the pills would permeate her body through the skin. Not kidding! I am really not!

I guess that is not that far fetched if one accept the principles of Homeopathy that things leave an "energy signature" in the water they are dissolved in even after the point that they have been diluted and re-diluted to the point that there is no trace of the substance in the solution. Just water with an "energy signature".

That is my story. If you have one like it please drop me a line. I would love to hear it.

-Josh

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Freewill (faith redux)

You can't know God's plan.

God has offered you a choice between eternal damnation, and everlasting peace. In order to reach salvation, one must accept God into his or her heart willingly, knowingly, and, freely.

Since God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, he already knows your choice. He built you as the programmed machine that will one day be confronted with this ultimate choice. In the tombs and books of the mind of the omniscient, your deeds, choices, and, decisions are laid out, plain as day, carved in stone, unerring, unmovable.

And you are free. You are free because of faith. You are free because God allows you to make this choice of your own accord. If God came down and lit the earth with glorious wonder, stood on top of Everest and let his light permeate the world, then our very will would be subjugated by the fact that, with absolute knowledge of the existence of God, we would choose our salvation not out of love, but out of fear of the clear reprisal that comes with disavowing your king.

So, the argument goes, you must have faith, because proof of God's existence would eliminate your ability to choose. Knowledge would pollute your choice.

I don't have a problem with this. I am a huge proponent of the 'double-blind' study. Experimenters do their best not to interfere, or allow their own biases to influence the outcome of the experiment. If there is an experiment being performed where rats are compelled to run a maze, and some of these rats have been given a new drug which may allow them to process visual-spatial data more acutely, and it is my job to monitor and record how the rats perform, it is clearly better that I don't know which rats have received the medication.

I understand this concept of 'knowledge modifying the result." That is not my problem at all. A God in your face, with his hand upon your shoulder pointing you in the direction of salvation would limit your ability to choose. I accept that.

I have a few questions:

1. If knowledge of the miraculous would limit our ability to choose, then why did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead?

2. If we cannot know God's plan, then why did he give us various instruction manuals in the form of the Bible, the Koran, the Torah?

3. If knowledge of the hereafter would limit our will, then why is the virgin Mary crying out of statues, and appearing in grilled cheese sandwiches?

4. If we are to be allowed freewill, then what is this supposed 'evidence?' By the argument, there should be no evidence whatsoever, as evidence would limit our will.

Faith is supposed to answer all of the questions we may have about God's plan. We are supposed to accept that we cannot know the mind of God, and that he has a plan for us.

And we have provided with texts that state that it is improper to eat shellfish, work on the sabbath, represent Mohammad in any fashion, take the lord's name in vain, lust after a women, worship 'false' idols, allow your enemies to live.

These texts are considered by many to be evidence of God's majesty.

So, the argument that God chooses not to reveal himself to us in order to allow for free will is a bit suspect. According to theists, there is plenty of evidence that God exists, and has affected the world. I suppose the part that we are supposed to take on faith is the part where the evidence is crappy.

If Jesus were to come to earth today, book a spot on 'Good Morning, America,' and raise a person from the dead, this would violate our free will in choosing to accept him as our personal savior...but if he raised Lazarus from the dead, and it was recorded in the Gospels, that does not.

And Romans 11:33-36 illustrates the point most clearly: God is too complicated for us to understand. We can't understand God's plan. but he, according to Romans 3:19, 6:23, and 9:19-21, he is going to hold us responsible anyway. God knows the future, according to Matthew 6:8, and has total, complete, and absolute control over all things per Collossians 1:16-17, Yet will punish us with eternal torment according to Matthew 5:22.

Just so I have this straight: God controls 100% of my actions and thoughts, knows the future, has an existence that is miles outside of our brain's ability to even understand, and will hold me accountable for my (or, since he has 100% control, HIS,) actions? Furthermore, he cannot offer substantive proof that he even exists, because that would make it too easy for us to accept him. He can, however, perform cheap carnival tricks, and we can read the stories of him turning water into wine, being frugal with fish, etc., so long as there is no corroborating evidence that might allow for verifiable proof of his existence which, again, would make it too easy.

And you laugh because you think that what the Scientologists believe is somehow more ridiculous.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Are theists less moral than Atheists

Are theists less moral than Atheists? This is not the way this question is usually worded but I think this is a reasonable question. So many atrocities have been done in the name of religion, God or the supernatural that it begs the question, "Are religious people bad people?"

I am often confronted with the question about where I get my morals. Without God, can't I just do whatever I want? Can't I rape, murder, extort, cheat or whatever? Well, yeah. If the Christian belief of free will is valid I can ask the same question. We can do whatever we are physically able. The real question should be "why do people chose not to terrible things?"

The Christian perspective: There is an all powerful, all knowing being who has mapped out what is good and what is bad (and the exceptions) and shall judge us for violating these rules. We are punished for our bad behavior at the end of our materal existence and the result will be eternal damnation or eternal paradise (unless you are a Catholic where there are incremental forms of punishment). We can avoid damnation even if our crimes are unspeakable if we are genuinely sorry and seek true repentance in the arms of Jesus. Theists do not commit terrible acts because they fear punishment by an all powerful deity.

The Atheist perspective: There are ways to behave and there are ways not to. Most are inherited but some are figured out by the individual. My upbringing gave me some general and some specific parameters to live by. I have tweaked those based upon experience and contemplation. I think this is the case for most Atheists. We are raised a certain way and figure out the rest. We use a lot of common sense and critical thinking. We do not commit terrible acts because that is a messed up thing to do. But we do it for us. Not to avoid punishment.

Thus far, this is a pretty standard argument. Atheists are better because we chose not to rape morally and theists do it out of fear of punishment. It provides us with any number of witty retorts to theists but I do not think it actually shows the real picture.

In debates I often ask why the Christian marters themselves for one one section of the Bible and ignores another. Wearing fabrics of different varieties and not stoning women who help their husbands in fights as the bible commands. Why they think swearing is sinful when it is not a sin in the Bible. The Lords name in vain seems to be so forgotten as a sin but shit is damnation worthy. How is this sort of thing justified? How do they decide which sections of the bible are really really serious and which parts are based upon the culture of the time? Slavery, owning ones wife, and Idolatry are just a couple of examples.

They use common sense and critical thinking. They read a passage and decide if it is applicable to life today. As a culture we have decided that slave owning is bad; therefor the bible does not really really condone it, while you may not like you really can suffer a witch to live. Things of the like. To make that determination they use the same tools we atheists and non-religious do. They use common sense and critical thinking.

Based upon the above I would argue that the Bible does little to aid them in their journey to morality. Seems they use the Bible to gain higher moral ground and look down on the rest of us for making the same decision without a prop. Why the prop makes you a better person I cannot say. Hundreds of years of PR perhaps.

Now we can finally get to the area where theists may be less moral than atheists; justified hate. If I hate the gays or the Jews or the Mormons or whoever I need to justify that with my personal standard. I have rules which work. "Do not burn people at the stake" I am stuck justifying any exceptions I may choose to make. I need to justify with logic, reason and create an argument that supports my exception.

Religious based morality can have any number of exceptions. There are plenty of them in the Bible. God says thou shall not kill except your son if you are Abraham or in a just war according to Tom Aquinuas or to save the holy land from the heathens or kill an abortion doctor. It is easy to make exceptions to the rules when you can believe that the creator of the rules wants you to.

In fact, any rule can be overruled by those who think God wants it overruled. Those of us who need to justify and hold internal consistency cannot do this. We are bound by rules we accept. We are the arbiters of our morality. We cannot claim that a higher authority has allowed us to commit horrible acts. We need to stick with those rules we have built for ourselves and hold the responsibility for all we do on our shoulders.

If I commit a murder, I do not have the option of saying it was God's will. I am stuck taking full responsibility for everything I do.

I am not saying that Atheists do not do terrible things. Just that they have chosen that path and cannot hide behind a higher morality. Stuck with the real world. And I am not saying that the Christian is more likely to commit terrible acts. Just that they have a nice divine shield to hide culpability behind.



Addendum:

This post has gotten away from me. I intended to compare some information I found on the internet. I have attached a couple of amusing webpages. One showing the religious affiliation of persons in prison and another talking about how atheists are more likely to swear in public. Which of these shows better what is and what is not a moral person.

http://holysmoke.org/icr-pri.htm
Federal Data of Prison population this is self reported data based upon prison entry forms.

http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/atheists_more_immoral.html
Self reported survey taken from http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/16-teensnext-gen/25-young-adults-and-liberals-struggle-with-morality
Survey talks about the difference between Evangelicals and Atheists in things like lying. Keep in mind this is self report so consider how many people may have lied about lying. Makes me smile.