Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Let's Talk About It

I have been debating religious folks for more than 35 years now. In 1981, as a newly minted atheist, I stood on the statehouse steps in Boise as Jerry Falwell held a "Moral Majority" rally.

At one point, he was about three feet from me and shouted, "I'd rather dig a ditch then take a handout!"1

I glared at him and shouted back, "You do nothing but take handouts. How many hard working people send you money for nothing in return?"

His people stepped between us and made it clear.

Kid, you'd better back off.

Since that time, I've had debates in person and online. Some of them were a bit more structured while some of them were just free-for-all.

People ask me why I bother debating religion at all.

I have a few basic reasons.

There is an outside chance that I may expose my colleague2 to an idea or evidence that he or she has never encountered or considered before. I know the possibility is remote but you never know.

There is an outside change that I may be exposed to an idea or evidence that I've never encountered or considered before. If it's compelling, I might change my mind. Again, it's a remote possibility but it has been known to happen (although not anything that has changed my mind or gods or religion).

Sometimes, these debates have onlookers. If any of them are on the fence, I'm obligated to present my best arguments with reason, logic and evidence. There's a less remote possibility that I might convince them that my position is the more tenable and I might get them on my side of the fence.

But probably most important is to let my colleague know that his/her ideas won't go unchallenged. This is especially important in a world where religion and nationalism go hand in glove. Many would use religious justifications to rob people of basic liberties and, in some places, their lives. Even in our own country, we have people like Alex Jones calling for civil war because he and his kind aren't being allowed to turn the US into a theocracy overseen by middle-aged white men who have twisted their god and messiah into some bizarre wrathful monsters.

I have to be the person who stands up to these people and says, "No, that's not right!"

It's my obligation to my country.

It's my obligation to my world.

It's my obligation to myself.

No, sir. I won't back off.

1Even then, being in poverty and needing assistance was seen as some kind of character flaw.
2I don't see them as opponents. The moment I do, it's not a debate; it's a combat.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Searching for Meaning in the Shadow of the Moon

In our solar system, there are 8 planets.

Of these 8 planets, four of them are gas giants with no solid surfaces so no place to stand to make observations.

Of the four remaining planets, two of them have moons.

Of those two, only one has a moon of appreciable size.

You live on that planet.

In the early days of our planet, the moon was three times closer than it is today. So it looked three times larger. But the moon always appeared larger than the sun.

The moon is moving away from the Earth at a rate of about an inch per year. There will come a time when the moon will always look smaller than the sun.

It has now receded to a distance so it subtends an angle of about half a degree in the sky. The sun also subtends an angle of about half a degree.

You live in a rare time when the sun and the moon are almost the exact same angular size in the sky.

The moon isn't always the same distance from the Earth. Sometimes it looks slightly larger and other times it looks slightly smaller. Only when its at its closest, perigee, does it appear the same angular diameter as the sun, every 27.55454988 days

The path of its orbit isn't parallel with the path of the Earth's orbit around the sun so these two paths cross about twice per month or twice every 27.212221 days.

It aligns on the same side of the Earth as the sun on the day of the "New Moon," every 29.530588853 days.

About twice per year, all of these numbers line up so the moon casts a shadow on the Earth.

This is a solar eclipse.

Much of the time, the inner part of the shadow, the umbra, is cast into space and only the outer part of the shadow, the penumbra, falls on Earth. This is a partial solar eclipse. These are fairly common.

At other times, the umbra is cast on the Earth but, because we live on a planet that's covered more than 70% by oceans, it often falls on the ocean or in a remote, hard to reach place.

This year, the shadow of the moon will cross the entire continental United States.

The last time this happened was in 1918 and it won't happen again until 2045.

It's not a common event for any given location. Most "eclipse chasers" have to travel around the world to see a total eclipse of the sun.

For a good share of people living in the continental United States, it won't be such a journey.

Yes, there is a lot of hype going on about the so-called "Great American Eclipse."

We live in a world where there is so much nonsense that's celebrated that it's often difficult to get excited about events like this. People are talking about watching it on the Internet or ignoring it all together.

However, this isn't just a matter of the rarity of the event. It's also a celebration of humanity's ability to make predictions about this kind of thing. Astronomy is, arguably, the best predictive science known to man.

This eclipse is a celebration of that science.

In antiquity, people were able to predict eclipses with a fair degree of accuracy, often getting the date within a day or two or the path of the eclipse to within a few hundred miles.

Today, we can predict where the path will be within a matter of meters and predict the beginning, middle and end of totality for a given location within fractions of a second.

That's amazing.

That's worth celebrating.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Our Dysfunctional Family

Recently, I had a family member tell me that the US is supposed to be run like a business which is why we should let our businessman president run it.

Putting the president aside, there are a huge problems with this idea.

The US is not a business and shouldn't be run like one. This was a load of crap when the idea came into vogue nearly 40 years ago and it's still a load of crap.

Our country is more like a family. Granted, it's a noisy, argumentative, dysfunctional family but it's a family and needs to be run like one.

Like a family, we have many common origins. Some of us came into the family by birth, others joined in later and others were dragged in. But we're all together now and that's what's important.

Like a family, we have common ideals. Safety, security and hope for the future aren't just desires of a few.

Like a family, we need to adhere to a budget. We're not always going to agree on how we should spend the money. But it needs to be handled wisely and with the greatest good in mind.

Like a family, someone needs to step up to be the adult. His or her decisions won't always be popular. They won't always be right. But they need to be made for the common good of all family members, not just a few.

Like a family, we need to help one another especially when the chips are down. We help each other not because we're going to reap some benefit but because it's what families do.

Like a family, we need to come to the table and take stock of how lucky we are that we're all together and that nobody can tear us apart. We are, despite our differences, united and resolute.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Reading List

This weekend, I was a guest speaker at ReasonCon 3 in Hickory, NC. I had a great time and met some wonderful people.

I'd like to start by thanking the convention committee for inviting me to be a speaker. They gave this rookie the opportunity to play in the big leagues with some heavy hitters such as Aron Ra, Shelley Segal, Matt Dillahunty and Dr. Lawrence Krauss.

I'd also like to thank all the other speakers for being so friendly and gracious.

Most of all, I'd like to thank all the participants for making me feel like I deserved to be one of the speakers. Your reactions and your comments have made me feel really special.

Towards the end of the conference, I was asked if I'd put together a reading list on some of the topics I'd covered in my talk. I'm going to try to put them in categories and include others that have been very helpful. Wherever possible, if it's available on line, I'll try to post a link. I'm also going to include some websites. You might want to check back from time to time because I may occasionally update this list.

But there's one book that belongs in a category all its own. That's Mark Twain's "Letters from the Earth." Back when I realized I was an atheist in 1981, it was one of the two books on this list that was available. It was one of the most influential books I've ever read and helped me put my life and beliefs in perspective.

Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric

Evolutionary Theory

  • "On the Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin
  • "The Greatest Show on Earth" by Richard Dawkins
  • "Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction" by Eugenie C. Scott
  • "Your Inner Fish" by Neil Shubin
  • "Why Darwin Matters" by Michael Shermer
  • "Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters" by Donald R. Prothero

Atheism and Religion

  • "Letters from the Earth" by Mark Twain
  • "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins
  • "god is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchens
  • "Fighting God" by David Silverman

1Chapter 12, "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection" is what I call "the owner's manual for the human brain."

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Debate at 140 Characters

An interesting little fellow, Armando Santiago (Twitter identity @ArmingStJames), has decided to try to school me on the intricacies of the legal system and what constitutes evidence. He states that unless you actually witness someone being abused, they weren't really abused.1

This is, of course, utter crap.

He then asked if someone called me a pedophile, should he believe them?

That is, of course, utter crap. It's a loaded question. It would be like my asking if he still beat his wife.2

But if I'm accused of pedophilia, you shouldn't just dismiss the accuser even if you hate him/her or like me. It shouldn't matter if you have something to gain by either defending or prosecuting me. You should look at the evidence supporting the claim.

The same goes for any accusation.

For example, if a street vendor said that I'd stolen one of his pretzels then a tape was released in which I could be heard bragging that I could take a pretzel from any street vendor simply because I wanted one, that might lend a bit more credence to his claim. And, if you were the sort to investigate this kind of thing, you might want to dig a bit deeper.

You could look at my record (assuming I had one) regarding prior pretzel theft. You might see if someone caught me on camera. You might see if I have large crystals of kosher salt on my clothing. There would be evidence.

If other vendors came forth and said that they'd seen me stealing pretzels from their carts, these larger numbers of claimants would add credence to the first vendor's claim.

That wouldn't actually prove his claim but it would give any investigators adequate cause to to look further into the accusation.

Whenever someone makes a claim, it's only as valid as the evidence that supports it. Once the evidence is gathered, the witnesses questioned and all of it weighed carefully, then we can make a determination.

What Mr. Santiago is trying to do is say that Donald Trump's accusers weren't actually assaulted because nobody else saw it happen.

This is grasping at straws to justify support of Trump. He is outright dismissing the accusations brought forth by the claimants because they haven't produced any witnesses... yet.

Maybe Trump is completely innocent of the accusations being leveled against him. His own words are pretty damning. And large numbers of women are speaking out.3

There is enough here to warrant further and more thorough investigation, to be sure.

But just outright dismissal of the claimants' accusations is to bury one's head in the sand.

And we know where that leaves your butt.

1 Here's the link to his original tweet.
2 I don't know if he's married. I don't care. Frankly, the less I know about him, the better for the both of us.
3 And considering the onslaught of abuse they're receiving from Trump's supporters, it's no wonder they didn't speak out earlier.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Election 2016, Part 1

On Facebook, a friend asked me about the 2016 election and who I thought should (and shouldn't be) president. 

I've voted in every presidential election since I became eligible to vote at the end of 1977. I've voted for candidates. I've voted against candidates.

Now here we are in one of the most hotly contested elections in years. There are a great many who think that Bernie Sanders should have been the Democratic nominee. I'm not here to debate that.

Sanders is out. He ran a good race and raised a lot of important issues. But he isn't and won't be the nominee this year.

The third party candidates? Gary Johnson? Jill Stein? In my experience, these candidates serve only to muddy the waters and spoil the election for otherwise reasonable candidates. It was the Nader supporters who gave us George W. Bush. Oh, they can cry and whine about how the reason Bush was elected was because the Democrats didn't give them a candidate they could support but they couldn't see beyond their own egos long enough to see the writing on the wall.

So, realistically, we have a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

I cannot even fathom voting for Donald Trump and the extreme right-wing, religious zealotry of the Republican platform.

So here's what's at stake in this election.

Social Security
The Republicans have stated with no equivocation that they wish to privatize it or do away with it. 

With the former, they'd turn the money over to their cronies on Wall Street to use as they see fit. If the market is strong (which it seldom is under Republican administrations), we might fare well. But with market speculation being what it is, you can count on a lot of our seniors losing out with no safety net in place. And that's what social security was meant to be.

If our next president serves two terms, by the time that second term ends, I'll be of an age to start collecting from a system I've been paying into for over 40 years.

It's not the government's money. 

It's mine. It's a loan that comes due when I turn 65 and they'd damned well better be able to repay it.

Women's Reproductive Issues
I am not pro-abortion but I am pro-choice. And it's none of my business if a woman chooses to have an abortion. It's hers.

It's a woman's right to choose when and if she has children. 

The Republican solution is for her to either have children or not have sex. And they seem to think that her employer should be able to make that choice for her as well by not covering contraception as part of medical insurance coverage.

The Republicans have also worked to defund Planned Parenthood under the smoke screen that the government shouldn't fund abortions.

There hasn't been a government funded abortion performed at a Planned Parenthood facility in years. But there have been cancer and STD screenings, basic medical care, sex education (which the Republicans seem to hate) and contraception available at Planned Parenthood clinics which will all disappear if the Republicans get their way.

Climate Change and the Environment
Despite the number of trained climate scientists who are almost universally in agreement that human beings are having a detrimental effect on the Earth's climate, the Republicans stand steadfast in their denial of anthropogenic global warming.

We have already seen the first problems that are arising from climate change. Hurricane Katrina, droughts, bizarre weather patterns and the like are just the beginning of what could bring mankind to its knees. 

The Earth will recover. I've little doubt of that. Whether we're here to see it or not is another issue entirely.

Anti-Science Rhetoric
The band, Third Eye Blind, shouted, "Who believes in science?" in a performance at the Republican National Convention.

They were booed.

While there are some Democrats who are anti-science (or pro-pseudo science), it seems to be hand-in-glove for the Republicans. They treat science like it's the enemy.

Yet they want all the products of science while denying its teachings.

Another recipe for disaster.

Erosion of the Wall of Separation
In a letter to the Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson wrote about a "wall of separation" between the church and state.

Some Republicans have said that the wall of separation is a "communist invention."

They fail to realize that this wall protects the church as well as the state.

Historically, every time a government has gotten into the religion business, either its promotion or its suppression, things have gone poorly for the people. The best solution is a secular government that remains neutral in what should be a purely personal decision.

The Republicans would undo something so vital to the success of our country that the founding fathers saw fit to put it in the first amendment.

LGBTQ Rights
The Republicans have made it clear that they think they have a monopoly on the definition of marriage. That the definition doesn't include lesbians and gays. They think it's perfectly acceptable to legislate who we can and cannot love.

Part of their platform includes support for "restorative therapy" in order to "cure" people who are gay. In other words, they see it as a defect that needs to be corrected.

As for the rights of transgender individuals, we need look no further than North Carolina's House Bill 2 (the so-called "Bathroom Bill") that was designed to discriminate against transgendered individuals in the guise of protecting women and children. But we've all seen through that smoke screen for what it is. 

I could go on and on about why I can't support Trump or another Republican candidates. As long as the treatise above is, it's only the beginning of why the Republicans will never get my vote again. I didn't even touch the 1%, "trickle down" economics (which their own former president, George H. W. Bush, called "voodoo economics") and myriad other topics. And I haven't touched on the volatility, thin-skin or narcissism of their nominee. 

Maybe Hillary Clinton isn't the ideal candidate. But she's a damned good one who has come through a great deal and is still standing. So, yeah, she's getting my vote.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Reflections on the Reason Rally (2016)

Today is my day of recovery after a five-day trip to Washington, DC. The last full day spent there was at the second Reason Rally. Last night, as I was unwinding from the somewhat grueling drive home, I caught up on social media where I saw a great many pros and cons about the rally.
There were some definite highlights...
  • Meeting Shelly Segal, Lawrence Krauss, Aron Ra and others
  • Running into friends I haven't seen in years
  • Seeing Penn Jillette and others
For some reason, the attendance was much lower than anticipated and only about 1/3 of the first Reason Rally.Why?
I have some ideas that I'd like to share here.
While there is something romantic about holding this in front of the Lincoln Memorial around the reflection pool, it's not actually a great location if you want to get a large number of people together. That big water thing gets in the way. The only people who can actually get a decent view of the stage are the people who can afford the rather expensive VIP seats. This was actually the least of the problems, however.
The guest list was quite the smorgasbord of celebrities (at least one of whom had to cancel). And while seeing them is cool, is that really what the rally was about? When I think of a strong message of atheism, Johnny Depp's name isn't the first one that comes to mind.1 The Beatles cover band, The Fab Four, were good performers but was this really the place for their performance? Maybe at one of the after parties, instead.2
The message got diluted. Yes, it's supposed to be about logic and reason but the last one really focused on atheists and atheist activism. This one, while attempting to be inclusive, watered down the message. While women's rights, LGBTQ rights and good science are all worthwhile, they have their own rallies and their own conventions. The only really firebrand atheist presentation was made by David Silverman who admonished those folks who shy away from calling themselves atheists.
While attempting to be inclusive, a good number of people were excluded. The atheist movement has become severely divided between those who want it to be all about atheism and those who want it to be about atheism and more. This has caused a fracture in the movement that needs to be fixed.
(Hold tight whilst I climb upon my soapbox.)
There is room for all of us under this tent. What we have in common is far greater than our differences. And while we need to recognize and celebrate our differences, those are not what atheism is about. Again, hold your own rallies. Have your own conventions. Organize under those banners on your own. I welcome it. I encourage it. I salute it. But the atheism movement is exactly that: a movement by, of and for atheists... of all stripes.
There are plenty of people out there who would gladly see us disappear completely. Why, then, are we fighting amongst ourselves and doing their work for them?
At this time, like no time in the past, we must unify to demonstrate that we are a force to be reckoned with. We will not be cast aside. We will not be used as political leverage by fundamentalists who see us as an evil annoyance.
Together, we can be one of the largest voting blocs in the country... in the world... but only if we come together as one unified force.
And some of you really, really need to get over yourselves. It's not all about you.
I'll climb off my soapbox now.

1Don't get me wrong. I really like Johnny Depp. But what, if anything, has he done for the atheist movement?
2I was a bit surprised and disappointed by the after party I attended. Shelley Segal was the one bright spot. There was inadequate seating and one would think that with a $25 ticket price, there would at least be bottled water at less than $5 per bottle... and maybe some light snacks.