31 December 2014

A vague musing at year-end

One of the most engaging things about the internet is the incredible variety of people one encounters in odd corners of it.  Humans are so fascinatingly different in their interests and imaginings and talents.  And with the internet (and a certain amount of chutzpah) everyone can put themselves out there, each one adding more color and animation to the world.

On the other hand, I can't shake the feeling that some of my favorite internet people would be bewildered, or even appalled, by each other.

But ever-increasing diversity is the inexorable reality of the modern world, and the stance that only one way of life and one channel of desire can be legitimate is a relic of the dying era of religious and tribal conformity.

The real enemy is the mind-set that instinctively recoils from all that is not like itself.

I'm thankful for the existence of all of you.

30 December 2014

Iraq -- illusion and reality

The tide of war in Iraq has now clearly turned against ISIS.  The recent Kurdish victory at Sinjar is the most obvious demonstration of this, and there's more -- Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and the most important place held by ISIS, is now almost cut off, and it's now groups suspected of favoring ISIS, rather than those who fear it, who are looking for places to flee to.

It's easy enough to see why, too.  US and allied airstrikes have weakened ISIS, while training and other aid from Iran and the US have helped both the Kurds and the Iraqi army fight more effectively.  Despite the usual Republican hysterics, Obama's decision to use air power but no ground troops has been justified by events.  There are plenty of boots on the ground, but they're Kurdish and Arab.

An even more promising development is that at least some of the Sunni Arab tribes in western Iraq have turned against ISIS.  Iraq's Sunni minority have long felt alienated from the Shiite-dominated, US-backed government in Baghdad, enabling ISIS to position itself as the defender of Sunnism.  But now the group's brutality seems to have alienated even its natural constituents.  The Sunni Arab tribes, too, are asking for US help against ISIS.

Now, here's the problem:

The US is evidently proving reluctant to provide military aid to the Sunni Arabs as an independent force, as they now are.  It's been pressuring the Iraqi government to create a national guard which Sunni fighters could join and which the US would support -- that is, it wants to help the Sunnis only in a new role as part of an integrated Iraqi force.  And the Iraqi government has been dragging its feet on taking even this step.

What this tells me is that the US is still seriously hoping to reconstitute Iraq as a unified state after ISIS is defeated.  It doesn't want the Sunni Arabs to become a real independent force, because that would enable them to resist Baghdad's rule later on.

Trouble is, the Sunnis are strongly motivated to do so.  The Baghdad government's hostility to Sunnis is unlikely to fade; Iraq's Shiite majority carry too many memories of the ghastly abuses they suffered under Saddam Hussein's secular but Sunni-dominated regime.  The Sunnis know this.  No amount of exhortation or pressure from Washington will make more than cosmetic difference on this point.

As I've expressed before, Iraq never was a nation and is no longer a viable state.  The forces impelling its three main populations -- Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Arabs -- to go their separate ways are simply too powerful.  Further, Iraqis of all three groups are unlikely to tolerate being bossed around by the US when it's they, not we, who have been doing the actual fighting on the ground to defeat ISIS.  The US needs to recognize that reality and adapt its future policies accordingly, rather than trying to squeeze reality into unrealistic policies.

And for the Sunni Arabs, we are not the only game in town.  Exasperated with US reticence, they are now threatening to turn to Iran for aid.  This may seem surprising since Iran is a Shiite state, but the Sunnis also know that the Iranian regime is (a) a lot more pragmatic than the Iraqi one, and (b) likely to end up dominating Iraq when the war is over.  While they'd doubtless rather keep both Baghdad and Tehran out of their hair entirely, they do have something to gain by putting out feelers to Iran now.  And if the US won't help them against ISIS on the terms they want, what choice do they have?

Iran's presence in Iraq is already large and growing.  It's probably Iranian training and guidance which have allowed Iraq's army to turn around its former dismal performance against ISIS.  The motivations are easy to see, too.  Shiite southern Iraq includes the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbalâ -- a point of some interest to the Iranian theocracy -- and the bulk of Iraq's oil.  If southern Iraq ends up as an Iranian protectorate, Iran's power in the Middle East and beyond will be hugely strengthened.  If it can also extend its influence to the Kurdish and Sunni parts of Iraq, that's icing on the cake.

American media and pundits are most comfortable covering the Iraq conflict primarily in terms of policy debates in Washington, framed in the familiar terms of Democrat-vs-Republican arguments.  This feeds the delusion that it is American actions, not those of local forces, that primarily shape events in the Middle East.  It also means that most Americans are practically unaware of Iran's role in the situation, and are still hazy about the relationships between Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, the Iraqi government, ISIS, the Yezidis, and so on.  But it's those factors that are the critical ones.

The US still seems to think it can preserve a unified Iraqi state and prevent Iran from extending its influence.  We can't.  We need to accept the reality on the ground and adapt to it by building relationships with local players whose help, to put it bluntly, may prove useful in the future.  Supporting an independent Kurdish state, and helping the Sunni Arabs against ISIS on their own terms, would be a good start.

28 December 2014

Link round-up for 28 December 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson celebrates Christmas.

Don't get mad, get even.

Christmas lights? These are Christmas lights.

Right-wing headline of the year.

It's too bad they made him take this down (found via Mendip) -- it looks a lot more original and creative than routine nativity scenes.

Lady Atheist has a roundup of reviews of one of those godawful God movies.

A "Catholic warrior" wants to deny other religions the recognition Christianity claims for itself.

John Lennon is still freaking out the pearl-clutchers.

When somebody starts rhapsodizing about "faith", expect a deluge of horseshit.

The SPLC reviews the year in hate (found via Politics Plus).

They needed to handcuff a 4-year-old?

Green Eagle has another Wingnut Wrapup and a side order of total lunacy.

Need a job?  Don't mention religion.

The South moves to strengthen its power within the Republican party.

Talk about gays, but don't include them in the conversation.

Talk about women, but don't include them in the conversation.

A majority of the British, however slight, want out of the EU.

Berlin has changed.  Not everyone approves.

Achieving sexual liberation takes more than just rejecting religion.

ISIS's mass enslavement of Yezidi women is driving them to suicide.

Latest Erdoğan wingnuttery:  birth control is treason.  Unsurprisingly, he doesn't like the internet much.

Never forget, never forgive.

The world's biggest car company gets on the non-fossil-fuel bandwagon.

Oh yeah?  Well, you're a fat little racist. Have another internet blackout.

A well-preserved fossil fish shows us how highly evolved the eye had become even 300 million years ago.

On balance, it's been one of the best years ever.

[Image at top:  Christmas in Boston, found via Progressive Eruptions]

26 December 2014

The moral superiority of the atheist

This one simple graph shows that, on average, modern American unbelievers are far more moral people than modern American Christians:

This should put to rest, immediately and forever, the lie that people need a belief in God to be moral.  By margins around three-to-one, adherents of this country's major forms of Christianity support torture.  The majority of the non-religious reject it, even if that 40% or so in support is disturbingly high.

Is there some innate depravity in the Christian religion that guides its believers toward evil?  In the case of evils like homophobia and subordination of women, the Bible itself clearly answers yes; in the case of torture, I think it's a bit more complex than that.  The number of non-religious people in the US has exploded in the last decade or two, reflecting a large-scale repudiation of Christianity by former adherents.  Given the ugly and intolerant character of modern American Christianity, it's likely the most decent and humane who are leaving, while the most depraved and cruel remain devout.

The trend will escalate.  What kind of people will stick with a religion whose leaders -- faced with the revelation that the US government has been torturing people, some of them to death (and that many of the victims were innocent people arrested due to mistaken identity or other errors) -- continue to screech that it's allowing gay marriage that represents the worst moral stain on American society?  What kind of people will leave in disgust as so many others already have?

So it's not exactly that being a Christian makes you more likely to be evil.  It's that being evil, at least in contemporary America, makes you more likely to remain a Christian.  Nevertheless, that old claim that being Christian makes a person more moral is now totally obliterated.

I found the above graph via this posting by Andrew Sullivan, a prominent Catholic, self-declared conservative, and vociferous opponent of torture.  Sullivan wrestles with the implications, but ultimately resorts to the No True Scotsman fallacy.  He doesn't address the rejection of torture by the non-religious at all.

24 December 2014

Video of the day: sleigh or slay?

Santa catches the spirit that seems to animate some Americans these days.....

22 December 2014

The top ten events of 2014

In order of increasing importance:

10)  The Scottish vote to stay in the UK.  A vote for independence would have encouraged other secessionist movements throughout Europe, spreading pointless conflict and distraction across a region already struggling with the disaster of austerity.  Scotland's "no" was a vote for political sanity and much-needed stability.

9)  The Rosetta/Philae mission to comet 67P.  Landing a spacecraft on a relatively small object hundreds of millions of miles away demonstrated what human technology can do -- and helps debunk the meme that Europe is in some kind of "decline".

8)  Ebola.  A disease that was effortlessly swatted down in the US and Europe devastated three African countries, exemplifying how sub-Saharan Africa lags further and further behind the rest of the world.

7)  The US election in November.  The lowest-turnout US national election in 72 years allowed reactionaries to win widespread power.  They'll make the next two years pretty nasty, but their displays of lunacy will set the stage for a Democratic sweep in 2016.

6)  The resurgence of national consciousness in Britain and France.  I posted about this here, here, and here.  It's going to change the course of European history.  Stop name-calling and groping for American analogies that don't apply; you'll just block yourself from understanding what's really happening.

5)  Jihadism's atrocities provoking a Muslim backlash.  The rise of ISIS, the most brutal religious-extremist movement in the world today, has brought together the Kurds, Iran, the West, and moderate Arabs in the struggle to defeat it -- an informal alliance with far-reaching implications.  The Taliban's ghastly attack on the Peshawar school seems to have filled Pakistan with grim determination to crush them once and for all.  By providing a horrible object lesson of religious fanaticism in action, these atrocities may help push the broad masses of the Middle East toward secularism -- a trend the secularist election victory in Tunisia suggests may already be under way.

4)  Iran's opening to the world.  The nuclear-negotiation breakthrough is just one of President Rouhani's initiatives, as he struggles to liberalize state and society in the Middle East's most important country, and reconcile it with the West.

3)  Russia's attack on Ukraine and economic collapse under sanctions.  The turn of the world's second-greatest military power to naked territorial expansionism is terrifying -- but the sanctions the West has used to punish the Putin regime have been devastatingly effective.  If a country as mighty as Russia can be brought to its knees by non-military means, perhaps war really is becoming obsolete.

2)  Ongoing global warming.  2014 is on track to be the hottest year since scientific temperature recording began -- though next year will likely be even hotter, and so on and so on.

1)  Ongoing death by aging.  This year we lost another fifty million or so irreplaceable human individuals to the aging process.  We must solve this problem -- there is no higher priority.

21 December 2014

Link round-up for 21 December 2014

It's been a dismal month.  Have a cute sleepy duckling.

Here's a round-up of quirky menorahs (found via Mendip).

This is a real place -- Prohodna cave, Bulgaria (found via Snowstorm 13 (NSFW tumblr)).

Some Muslims have a sense of humor.

Why is Frozen so popular?  It hits all the right notes for girls.

The far right has heartwarming Christmas carols.

Wow, Bill O'Reilly really is a moron.

There's now an actual academic journal dedicated to the study of porn (NSFW gifs).  Let's hope they don't invite this idiot to contribute.

Apparently some airline pilots are complete assholes.

Students and activists plan opposition to the upcoming "Response Louisiana" hatefest.

Green Eagle has a photo history of this year's right-wing rallies.

The US now has less than a third as many nuns as in 1965 (found via Republic of Gilead).

The income gap between the rich and the middle in the US is larger than ever, with the top 0.1% doing best of all (found via Politics Plus).

Republicans in Oklahoma and Nebraska are being jerks again (found via Fair and Unbalanced).

Just came across this thoughtful essay on attitudes toward blasphemy.

Obama's been keeping busy this month -- not that he was slacking before.

Here's a true story of abortion without the clichés and nonsense.  This Missouri Republican prefers clichés and nonsense (found via Republic of Gilead).

Hillary flattens all comers, Democrat or Republican.

Cops in California get caught trying to frame a politician.  This Georgia judge is just as bad.

On the Keystone XL pipeline, here's a question and an answer.

If torture is acceptable.....

Zandar looks at Republican hysterics over Obama's Cuba initiative, and how their efforts to destroy the social safety net are a backdoor route to theocracy.

Andrew Hawkins speaks out.

North Carolina public schools become a channel for Koch propaganda.

Here's the case of Khaled el-Masri, an innocent man held and tortured by the CIA for four months.

A recent right-wing anti-Obama protest erupts into lynching fantasies.

Here's one more thug who won't threaten any more innocent people.  I see no case to be made that it would be better if the shop employee had been unarmed.

Beware of Christian love.

Got some more Christian love for you right here.

Matthew Fenner got some Christian love too (found via Republic of Gilead).

Gosh, you mean religious nuts actually have to obey the law like everyone else?

Behold the end result of fascist aggression, 1945 (found via GoodShit).

Check out Jakub Polomski's spectacular photos of Austria.

Poland, with its vivid historical memory, is very worried about Putin. Here's Putin's real position.

Greenpeace has royally screwed up and must help Peru get custody of the vandals.

100 foreign fighters who joined ISIS have been executed by ISIS for wanting to go home.

Some of the teachers at the Peshawar school were burned alive by the Taliban.  Photos from the attack hereReactions here, still coming thick and fast on Twitter.

Pakistani Muslims -- not Westerners -- protest furiously outside a mosque which has failed to condemn the Peshawar attack.

Here's a little reminder of what Japanese nationalists want you to forget.

North Koreans are getting The Interview, one way or another.

Here's a good round-up of what's happening in the Arctic and why.

The year's top science stories include some intriguing work on blood plasma and aging.

[Image at top:  The Taliban who carried out the Peshawar school attack pose in front of banners bearing the Islamic creed before setting out on their mission.]

Extra added linkWill this be the next torture revelation to hit the fan?  Holy shit.

18 December 2014

Gul Rahmân and Dick Cheney

I don't actually know who Gul Rahmân was, and neither do most Americans, which is unfortunate.  One salient fact about him is known, however -- he was not a terrorist.  Nevertheless, due to an error, he was apparently arrested on suspicion of being one.  He later died under torture in CIA custody.

Take a moment to let that sink in.  An innocent man died under torture, torture inflicted by Americans, as part of a program officially sanctioned by the American government at the time.

The horror of the situation goes beyond that, however.  Here is part of an interview with Dick Cheney, in which the case came up:

CHUCK TODD: Let me ask you, what do you say to Gul Rahman, what do you say to Sulaiman Abdula, what do you say to Khalid al-Masri? All three of these folks were detained, they had these interrogation techniques used on them. They eventually were found to be innocent. They were released, no apologies, nothing. What do we owe them?


CHUCK TODD: I mean, let me go to Gul Rahman. He was chained to the wall of his cell, doused with water, froze to death in C.I.A. custody. And it turned out it was a case of mistaken identity.

DICK CHENEY: -- right. But the problem I had is with the folks that we did release that end up back on the battlefield. Of the 600 and some people who were released out of Guantanamo, 30% roughly ended up back on the battlefield. Today we're very concerned about ISIS. Terrible new terrorist organization. It is headed by named Baghdadi. Baghdadi was in the custody of the U.S. military in Iraq in Camp Bucca. He was let go and now he's out leading the terror attack against the United States. I'm more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.

CHUCK TODD: 25% of the detainees though, 25% turned out to be innocent. They were released.

DICK CHENEY: Where are you going to draw the line, Chuck? How are --

CHUCK TODD: Well, I'm asking you.

DICK CHENEY: -- you going to know?

CHUCK TODD: Is that too high? You're okay with that margin for error?

DICK CHENEY: I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.

And there you have it.  Leave aside the consensus, among most who understand the issue, that torture almost never produces reliable or useful information.  Cheney has "no problem" with using torture even though a quarter of the victims were innocent, even though at least one innocent person (and I certainly don't believe he was the only one) died under torture.  This is a former Vice President of the United States, but the words coming out of his mouth sound better suited to Lenin or Himmler.

Cheney justifies the use of torture on the basis of the 9/11 attack, which was indeed a horrific atrocity.  The problem is that almost every regime we have ever condemned for using torture could advance a comparable argument.  North Vietnam, for example, lost a lot more than 3,000 innocent civilians to American bombing during the war in which it tortured John McCain.  There are certain lines which a civilized state doesn't cross, even under that kind of provocation.  Such standards are what distinguish us from a communist dictatorship or a fascist gangster-state.

Or used to.

McCain, the only Republican to really distinguish himself honorably in the wake of the torture report's release, understands this.  The many members of his party who continue to defend the program and attack its detractors do not.

And this means that I owe some people an apology.  In the past I've been very critical of bloggers who compared the Republican party to the Nazis.  I believed that they were weakening a strong case against the Republicans by making an absurdly overblown comparison.  Yes, there is much evil in the Republican party, but comparing them to the Nazis was going much too far, offensively so.

Those bloggers were right.  I was wrong.  Not that the Republicans are guilty of everything the Nazis were guilty of, of course, but if a politician of Cheney's stature can defend torture, even torture of the innocent, and if a broad range of political figures from the party can continue to support that position, then yes, they are straying onto the same ideological turf.

These people have no idea what they've done.  This program, and the continued defense of it by a major part of our political establishment, have done damage to our country's moral authority and global standing that can probably never be repaired.

A lot of ordinary Americans don't yet understand it either.  As commenter Tommykey observed in response to last weekend's link round-up:

Of course, my Facebook feed was filled with people posting pictures of the Twin Tower burning with captions like "Waterboarding is fine with me" or some variations of approval for torture juxtaposed with a picture of 9/11, as if that automatically justifies it.

And, of course, from Pakistan to Morocco there are probably millions of people reading the revelations of the torture report and thinking "Terrorist attacks on the United States are fine with me -- now."

16 December 2014

Pakistan's Beslan

In what looks to be the worst single act of religious violence in several years, Taliban terrorists have attacked a school in Peshawar in northern Pakistan.  Reports so far have 126 people killed, mostly children, and almost as many injured -- but those numbers are sure to rise, since these are just early reports, and fighting is still going on as the army struggles to regain control of the school from the Taliban.  The Guardian is live-blogging the story here.

The school is described as military-run, but most of the children attending are from the local civilian population.

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban organization, has claimed responsibility for the attack, but their story keeps changing.  At first they said it was retaliation for the killing of Taliban fighters by the Pakistani army, then that it was because the army had been targeting the families of Taliban.  They also now claim their fighters were ordered not to attack children at the school -- an absurd assertion, given the huge number of children they've killed and the fact that a school was chosen as the target in the first place.

I've long thought that in the battle for mass opinion in the Middle East (or anywhere else) between religion and secularism, the most powerful argument against religious extremism is -- religious extremism itself.  What academic debate about the true nature of Sharî'ah law could have a hundredth of the impact of actually seeing it in force under ISIS?  What armchair recital of the dangers of theocracy could be as convincing as a grinding, dreary third of a century under actual theocratic rule in Iran?  What declaration on the depravity of the Taliban could match seeing them deliberately target innocent children for murder -- something they have a long history of doing, with this latest attack being only the bloodiest and most horrifying example?  It's important to remember that, despite spectacular incidents like 9/11, the great majority of the people killed by Islamic extremists have been Middle Easterners -- killed for having the wrong religion, or belonging to the wrong sect of Islam, or violating some Muslim taboo or other, or simply being in the way when an attack was launched.

From the overthrow of Mosaddegh to the Iraq invasion to the resort to systematic torture now recently revealed, Western governments have bungled the fight for Middle Eastern public opinion with criminal incompetence.  What progress Western values have made there is due to the appeal of Western popular culture, the same popular culture that our home-grown Christian Right is always blasting as depraved and immoral.  Modernity and pluralism can appeal to people anywhere in the world.

And the Islamists have no alternative to offer but horror, blood, fear, and death, the vision they have displayed in the ghastly spectacle now unfolding in Peshawar -- tearing down everything progressive and humane and tolerant, until they bring a new Dark Age down over the ruins of the birthplace of civilization.

15 December 2014

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

Lost to us on this date three years ago

Your struggle continues until victory.

14 December 2014

Link round-up for 14 December 2014

What would happen if we launched a real war against Christmas (found via Mendip)?

Some American conservatives find something to like about ISIS.

Anti-suffragette propaganda posters reveal primitive attitudes of barely a century ago (found via Mendip).

It's a good thing we have Green Eagle to report on these mass right-wing revolutionary upheavals, otherwise we'd never notice them.

Should we just roll with it and replace the cops with ED-209?

Right-wingers seem kind of gloomy about the future.

Steve Jobs suffered from Stockholm syndrome.

If this is true, it's the best news I've heard in a long time.

Here's more on that Montana legislature dress code.

The US abortion rate is down, but not because of the anti-abortion movement.

Next month a passel of delusionals will gather in Louisiana to ask their imaginary friend to smite us.

Here's some history of the ideological roots of terrorism in the US, which will make your hair stand on end.

Ken Ham's stupid Noah's Ark project has bungled its chance for subsidies from the state of Kentucky.

If you haven't read McCain's great speech about the torture report, here's the whole thing.  Republic of Gilead has a round-up of other right-wing responses.

Never "doxx" (destroy the online anonymity of) your opponents, even if they're bigots (found via Snowstorm 13 (NSFW tumblr)).

This anti-gay billboard achieves epic fail (found via Republic of Gilead).

The US lags far behind other advanced countries in vacation time.

Where Islam is concerned, Salon promulgates a lot of rubbish.

Sorry, grabbers, gun rights have more public support than ever before.

Elizabeth Warren is leading the fight on the budget.

Marijuana is becoming legal in more and more places -- here are some tips on using it safely (found via TYWKIWDBI).  Oh, and please sign here.

E-mails among Florida Republicans reveal their deception and subversion on gerrymandering.

The exuberant blasphemers of Femen go after the Pope, Islam, and Sean Hannity.

Brits stage a sit-down protest against their conservative government's idiotic new porn rules.

Pope Francis has very reactionary views about women (found via a comment from Ahab).

Paul Krugman explains how the Greek economic crisis is driven by austerity and arrogance, and how the world has learned the wrong lessons from it (found via Frank Moraes, whose evaluation of Germany is right on target, so far as its leadership is concerned).

Greenpeace idiotically damages Peru's ancient Nazca lines during a protest, and faces well-deserved prosecution.

Atheists are being attacked and persecuted in Islamic countries, suggesting that we're becoming enough of a presence there to worry the religious nuts.

Dear Japanese nationalists: go fuck yourselves (heartily seconded).  More here.

Here's an animal that weighed seven times as much as a T-rex.

13 December 2014

Kaveh Mousavi on firebrand atheism

We've all seen the latest tactics for attacking "New Atheism" -- the uncompromising rejection of and attack upon religion exemplified by writers like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Hirsi Ali.  You're too extreme!  You offend people and hurt the cause!  "Moderate" religion is harmless and shouldn't be attacked!  Et cetera.  Iranian atheist blogger Kaveh Mousavi has written a must-read response to this kind of sniveling, one which puts into words a lot of my own reactions.

First off, as Mousavi's title emphasizes, effectiveness at "deconverting" religious people isn't the only criterion by which atheist argumentation should be judged.  There's also honesty.  If religion is truly evil -- which it is -- the honest thing to do is to say so plainly:

I think Abrahamic religions are a very poisonous influence, tyrannical systems that are inherently tyrannical, I think faith as defined by these ideologies is an evil thing, and I find moderate religious people’s arguments less convincing than any other argument I have come across. So when I’m talking about religion I have two choices: (1) Be firebrand (2) lie. I have always valued honesty more than being convincing.

Look at how our liberal allies argue on other issues where they are convinced of the evil involved, like racism.  They don't pull their punches for fear of offending racists.  They don't worry that racist beliefs are sometimes a "comfort" to the people who hold them (which they surely are, by the way).  They don't decide that "moderate" racism is harmless and go after only the extreme form.  No, having recognized an evil for what it is, they attack it in plain language and without cavil.

(The main critique I have of the liberal anti-racist polemic is that it tends to see racism everywhere, even where it's really a strain to claim it exists.  But I don't see any equivalent problem of New Atheists accusing people of being religious when they really aren't.)

There's also the point that a forthright and honest argument can be more effective than a mealy-mouthed, watered-down one.  Mousavi says he has deconverted quite a few fellow Iranians from Islam to atheism.  Perhaps people in a country like Iran, which has been tyrannized by a theocracy for a third of a century, are more primed by experience to embrace a total rejection of religion -- but in the US, too, it's noticeable that the really dramatic growth in numbers of non-religious people seems to have begun in the first decade of this century, when New Atheism started to spread its uncompromising message.  There is such a thing as moving the Overton window.

Another point Mousavi makes is that religion has a special, untouchable status not given to other types of ideology, and that we need to erode and break down that untouchability so that religion can be critiqued and debated just like any other set of ideas -- which is why the use of ridicule and mockery is so important, and why religionists especially object to it:

You can criticize religion, of course – just don’t trivialize it, or ridicule it, or treat it harshly.....A moderate Iranian Muslim had said “religion can be argued against in academies, but ridiculing it and dismissing it as a joke is unethical.” Why not? Comedians ridicule everything. People dismiss all ideas.

Firebrand atheism may or may not change people’s ideas, but it will slowly and gradually change the atmosphere, break the taboo of touching religion, and will bring religion down from its heavenly throne. Desecrate something enough and people will start to realize it isn’t that holy.

There's also the issue that a harsh and forceful response can be more effective at getting the bullies to back off:

Usually when religious people try to force their religion down my throat (which obviously doesn’t include rational debates which aim to convince me which I welcome from them) my reaction is not to try and convince them that they are wrong, my reaction is to demonstrate that they can shove their beliefs up their asses. So, to the person who has stopped me in the street preaching me, Islam forbids me from taking this girl’s hand in mine? That’s awesome! And Islam can go fuck itself! And you too!

Generally, I think setting up boundaries is a more worthy thing to do than changing minds.

This speaks to me more than anything. I am absolutely sick to death of being told to make nice with people who want to turn me into a second-class citizen in my own country, who have no hesitation in denouncing me as immoral and dangerous because I don't believe in their imaginary friend, and who support reams of laws designed to force me to conform to their random and idiotic taboo systems.  The belief system that drives this behavior is vicious and totalitarian, it has declared war on me, it deserves nothing but hatred and ridicule and counter-attack, and that's all it will ever get from me.

Finally, there's this:

Maybe I'm not addressing religious people at all. Maybe my audience is other atheists. Maybe I’m happy with that. Maybe I want to influence the atheist movement. Maybe I want to increase ex-Muslim presence in the atheist movement. Maybe I feel atheists need to hear an ex-Muslim version of things. Maybe I want atheists to stop saying particular things about Islam. Maybe I want atheists to support reformists and nuclear talks with Iran. Maybe I want other atheists to have a more accurate picture of Iran.

Religion -- Islam -- has hurt me a lot. And I've got a story to tell.....And I have my own opinions about religion. They may be wrong, but they’re genuine, well thought out, and reflective of who I am. And I deserve to be heard. I deserve to be a part of the debate.

Always remember this!  Not all atheists live in places like Boston or Portland where religion has become so watered down that we can delude ourselves that it's harmless.  I'm not surprised that nowadays some of the most forceful and clear-thinking atheists come from an Islamic background.  They've confronted religion without its veil, at its full bloodthirsty strength, reminding us, "Just because religion has grown weak in the West, never forget what it's really like when it has power, and never, ever allow it to regain power."

11 December 2014

Lady Atheist on rational responses to racism and police brutality

Fellow blogger Lady Atheist has written an essential post on the recent spate of police shootings epitomized by Ferguson.  If you're a liberal, I urge you to read it -- especially if you're convinced you already know the rights and wrongs of these cases and already know the correct way to respond to them.

I have some reservations about her analysis.  I'm convinced that racism often plays the biggest role in why some people get shot by the police and others don't.  There is a terrible problem which divides the country -- an institutionalized injustice, often deadly, against one-eighth of the American people.  We have to eradicate that.  The status quo is intolerable.  I've added a comment on her post which expresses these reservations in more detail.

But the liberal blogosphere's response to the crisis has often been flawed and simplistic, and Lady Atheist's post does the best job I've seen of elucidating that.  Read it with an open mind -- resist the urge to close off thought with labels and clichés.  We make our case best when we recognize the complexity of the situation, not when we dismiss facts and observations which don't fit the narrative.

09 December 2014

The religion of exclusion

The Christian Right has gone well beyond defending the "right" to refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding.  Via Progressive Eruptions comes word of a new law passed by Republicans in Michigan which establishes a "right" of a religious person to refuse to do practically anything for practically anyone their religion objects to, even if it's part of their job.  As the linked article describes it:

The broadly written Religious Freedom Restoration Act would allow, for example, an [emergency medical technician] to refuse emergency treatment to a gay person or a pharmacist to refuse to refill HIV medication, because God decreed gays and lesbians should be put to death.....the act is so broad it would let a Catholic high school refuse to hire a Muslim janitor, and a DMV clerk deny a new driver’s license to someone who is divorced.

As I've said before, the most striking thing about laws like this is that the Christian Right's core value, the essence of religious freedom in their view, the hill they've chosen to die on, is the right to exclude -- to refuse service to certain categories of people, to reject them, to stigmatize them, to cast them out.  This is how fundamentalist Christianity, the noisiest and most visible form of Christianity in the United States, is choosing to define and present itself.  This is the face they themselves are putting on their own religion.  It's not atheists like me defining Christianity as a religion whose core is bigotry.  It's Christians who are doing that.

Imagine if, instead, the Christian Right had taken up the case of Arnold Abbott, the 90-year-old man arrested in Florida last month for the crime of giving food to homeless people.  Imagine if they were busily and noisily passing "religious freedom acts" all over the country defending the right of people to help the poor if their conscience compels it.  What a different image that would project!  But they aren't doing that (in fact, a judge, not religious politicians, later stayed the law under which Abbott was arrested).  Instead, they're fighting like hell for the right of Christians to refuse to help people.

Is it any wonder that Americans in growing numbers are turning away from religion, especially younger people, when this is the face religion shows them?

Notice that it's not just discrimination against gays that's being defended -- it's discrimination against anyone who fails to conform to the entire Christian taboo system.  Even if you're not gay, are you divorced, or non-Christian, or using birth control, or having a relationship with someone without being married, or a member of a Christian sect which some other Christian sect strongly disapproves of?  If so (or if you're any of a dozen other things), the Christian Right thinks passing laws defending someone else's right to have nothing to do with you is the most important religious-freedom issue in the country right now.

Fundamentalists are already a shrinking minority in the US.  It's only their great influence within the Republican party that gives them as much power as they have.  The day will come when the tables turn against them.  On that day, remember these laws.

07 December 2014

Link round-up for 7 December 2014

Aleister Crowley is to be honored with a line of sauerkraut (found via Mendip).

Don't confuse me with facts!

Here's a post on religious extremism from a blog I just discovered, Dr. Seussilitis, which offers political and religious commentary in poetic form.

Target stores are promoting a book which advocates the torture, mutilation, and sadistic killing of women.

Montana's teabagger-dominated legislature imposes a dress code -- a strikingly stupid one.

Bless the instruments that defend the faith.

Some people get seriously upset at the very existence of anyone different from themselves.

Bill Maher reminds us that the Pope really is nuts.

Lady Atheist updates her list of non-theistic charities -- and has some info on a particularly nasty religious one.

It's not only the Catholic Church -- apparently the Jehovah's Witnesses also shield sexual predators.

A Texas pastor refuses a funeral to a member who didn't keep up her tithing -- while she was comatose.

Religion isn't just wrong in its beliefs, it's wrong in its methods of reaching them.

Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming favorite of Democrats for our party's 2016 Presidential nomination.

And they wonder why they are called haters.

The media are not helping us understand our domestic-terrorism problem.

Here's more police brutality, this time against a 15-year-old in Arizona.

Cool, Republicans are back to bitching each other again (see comments).

An archaeologically-valuable set of caverns in Indiana seems to have been partly commandeered by creationists (found via Lady Atheist).

Today's Republicans are different from the Democrats of 1988 -- they're dumber.

Here's how our country's drug policy became such a mess.

Lotsa luck trying to enforce this kind of bullshit in the internet age.

Apparently, sometime between 1367 and 1452, a queen decided to have a bit of fun on the side.

Norwegian tourism is getting a boost.

70 years after the fact, France gives recognition to a heroine spy (found via Mendip).

In Spain, a new party rises to fight for socialism.

Nice work, Putin -- Russia's currency is collapsing and recession is looming, while in occupied Crimea, opponents are being murdered and minorities persecuted.

Civilization is breaking down in the lands where it was born.

The Middle East needs feminism at every level.

The case of this Sierra Leonean family illustrates why Ebola is so hard to control.

Will we become locusts of the solar system?

The engraving on this shell looks pretty ordinary -- except that it's half a million years old.

As has happened with many disease germs, HIV is evolving into a less lethal form.

Antarctic glaciers are now melting three times faster than they were ten years ago.

05 December 2014

Quotes for the day

[Click on any image for a bigger version]

[Tyson image by Dead Logic]

02 December 2014

Identity and liberation

The human sense of identity and group affiliation is very important to us.  Humans will kill or die in a fight for "my own kind" against "the other".  But which of our countless traits and differences get privileged to define an identity can vary considerably based on all kinds of factors.

The best-known example of this is the shift from primarily-religious to primarily-national identity in the Western world over the last few centuries.  During the Dark Ages when European culture was dominated by fervent Christianity, religion determined identity -- "the other" was the Jew, the Muslim, and whatever pagans still survived, or were suspected to survive, in odd corners of the domain everyone called "Christendom".  Even within that domain, the bloodiest wars were waged not between nations but against "heretics" like the Albigenses or rival sects, such as the Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant Christianity.  Over time this shifted to a sense of ethnic / national identity based on common language, culture, and history (granted that these were often somewhat artificial, contrived by governments to justify existing or desired borders), and in recent centuries Europeans have fought as fiercely for la patrie or das Vaterland as their ancestors once fought for this or that True Church against unbelievers.

In the last few decades we've seen the emergence in the West of a quite novel form of group identity -- sexual orientation.  Gay people have become, and are now largely viewed as, a distinct community like an ethnic minority, with its own culture, flag, self-pride, and "national interests".  This concept would have struck anyone before the 20th century as extremely strange, but it's easy to see why it happened.  The early gay liberation movement faced a formidable task in a society where homosexuality was illegal, widely reviled, and condemned as sinful by the dominant religion.  And it emerged at a time when the black civil rights movement was beginning to make progress against the equally-daunting forces of entrenched and murderous racism.  It's only natural that the gay movement, consciously or not, modeled itself on another great struggle then under way.

With victory in sight, however, it's appropriate and likely necessary to take another look at our premises.  The re-purposing of homosexual orientation as the basis for a distinct group identity may have contributed to the startling success of gay liberation over the last couple of decades, but it's hard to see how anything analogous could work in coming phases of the struggle such as, say, decriminalization of marijuana or sex work.  We can't let ourselves get mentally locked into just one model of how to fight.

Indeed, the very concept of a quasi-ethnic gay identity would not exist outside the context of repression.  In the Classical civilizations, homosexuality in males was not a "sin" or even a particularly salient trait.  It was noticed that some men were attracted mainly to females, some mainly to males, and some equally to either, but none of these preferences was considered a marker of an identity or a deviation from a social norm -- and as far as I know, neither ancient Greek nor Persian nor Latin had a noun equivalent to "a homosexual" or "a gay person" in the sense that we use such terms today.  It was something you liked, not who you were.  Ethnic identity, on the other hand, was very strong even back then, as any overview of Greek attitudes about "barbarians" will illustrate.

One could argue that if our dominant religion damned left-handedness as a sin and had imposed vicious punishments on it for centuries, left-handed people would have banded together as a quasi-ethnic group to demand freedom from such oppression, complete with "lefty" pride, parades, and indignant insistence that they were "born that way", to the outrage of religionists who would parade "ex-lefties" who had achieved right-handedness through faith in the Messiah.  In that case our language would certainly have established a noun for a left-handed person, as I've been forced to re-purpose the word "lefty" in this paragraph in order to even describe what I'm talking about.  In our actual society where left-handedness is merely a trait of no moral significance, as homosexuality was in the Classical world, the concept of a left-handed identity would seem baffling and pointless.

For that matter, human sexual desire comes in a whole kaleidoscope of variations, of which one's preference in the gender of one's partners is only one aspect.  In our present society where everything becomes politicized and group identity is emphasized to an unhealthy degree, we're probably fortunate that most of these variations don't fit the group-identity model very well.  Other battles, other strategies.

I'm personally very conscious of this issue because my atheism is the most definitive part of who I am, and I generally feel like I have more in common with an atheist in a foreign country than with a highly-religious American like Pat Robertson, and yet I'm also very aware of how absurd the whole concept is.  Why is there even a word for "atheist", for a person who doesn't share a specific set of delusions?  We don't have a word for a person who doesn't believe in unicorns.

Only in the context of the immense power and repressive character of religious insanity does this concept make sense.  If unicorn believers had dominated Western society for centuries, torturing and killing anyone they believed the unicorns disapproved of, and fighting huge bloody wars with each other over slight differences of opinion about what unicorns' horns are made of, then rejection of the belief in unicorns would surely have emerged as a central part of the struggle for a better world, and there would be a word for people who didn't believe in them.

But we mustn't confuse strategies and necessary defensive measures with the goal.  It would be a terrible failure if, after the final overthrow of Christianity and conformist traditional values, we were left with a sort of Ottoman-style millet society which defined itself as a jigsaw puzzle of discrete communities (gay, black, Anglo, neo-pagan, etc.) with each individual categorized as merely a member of one or another such grouping.  The only real success will be a society where individuals are free to be themselves, with whatever combination of traits, desires, and quirks make each person who he or she is, but not defined or categorized by them.