Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Requirements of Atheism

I am amazed at the different ways that people look at atheism. Some people will actually spend a great deal of time arguing that atheism doesn't mean anything other than not believing in a god, God, or gods; yet they will spend their time doing it on an atheist website. If atheism doesn't actually mean anything to them, I can't quite understand why they are spending any time going over atheist materials and spending time with other atheists. If atheism were of no more consequence than the color of the small intestines, I wouldn't expect to see them at atheist sites any more than I would expect to see them browsing the medical sites endlessly researching information on internal organs. On the other hand, atheism does mean something to me. It is worth thinking about and debating. It is the raw material to build a movement on top of. Atheism touches almost every part of my life and should be treated as the far reaching idea that it is.
I think it's probably important to express some of my initial positions here. I will grant that atheism, by itself, doesn't actually carry any more meaning than believing or disbelieving in automobiles. It is nothing more than an idea that we use to try to interpret reality more accurately. But like any interpretation of reality, what matters is what happens when we try to use that information to navigate our way through the real world.
Imagine for a moment that you don't believe in the existence of cars. That lack of belief will have a dramatic effect on how you go about your daily life. While you might not understand what roads are for, you wouldn't have any inherent problem with just walking across them without paying any attention to objects that might be intersecting your path. There are, after all, no such thing as cars. I realize that some people will think this is nothing more than hyperbolic rhetoric and that it is an example of a false equivalence fallacy. I can assure you that isn't my intention. All I hope to do with this example is demonstrate that ideas have a real effect on us and our interaction with the world. Ideas are the raw materials of our actions. It is ideas that drive our interactions with the world.
When I talk about atheism being the raw materials to build a movement, I mean that atheism in and of itself might not have any particular meaning other than not believing in gods, but the consequences of that realization are life changing. If we were brought up in a church, then all the things we learned about the functioning of reality are changed. No longer can we just assume that when bad things happen that they are a part of God's plan. When something bad happens to us, we can no longer fit it into the context of a god trying to tell us something. Our faith isn't being tested, and no one is sending cryptic messages. There are no gods to help us, or harm us, or interact with us or anyone else. But what does that have to do with our interactions with reality?
If we don't want to live at the mercy of an uncaring universe, then we have an obligation to help our fellow humans in exchange for their help when we need it. When women make less money than men for no reason other than ingrained religious beliefs, then we have an obligation to stand by their side and help them. When members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community are treated as inferior for no other reason than who they are, we have an obligation try to assist them. When people require assistive technology to manage their interactions with the world, we should see that they have access to that technology. And these examples are only a few of many such examples of the consequences of atheism.
While I think we should advocate for all people that are disadvantaged by life, I don't think it is practical. But if we don't have the time, energy, or knowledge to advocate for everyone, the least we can do is not actively try to hinder them in trying to correct the wrongs that they suffer. And if you don't have the decency to not add misery to people that are already suffering from the cruelties of life, then you have just become a problem that needs courageous people to stand against.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Clearing the Cache

I save links that I want to write about. I save far more links that I could ever possibly write about even if I spent all my time in front of my computer typing. What happens to these links when they get too old? I have to do something with them. For those that are time sensitive or which became stale to me, I usually delete them without fanfare. But there are certain links that still have to power to hold my interest and move me even after they are no longer news. These are the links that collect in the bottom of my link collection. They are too good to throw away. I have decided to post them to my blog partly for archival purposes, and partly to share the things that I found interesting. In no certain order, here we go.
The Atlantic has a piece on the Stonewall uprising entitled An Amazing 1969 Account of the Stonewall Uprising.

The above, while a true evaluation of the situation does not explain why the raid on the Stonewall caused such a strong reaction. Why the Stonewall, and not the Sewer or the Snake Pit? The answer lies, we believe, in the unique nature of the Stonewall. This club was more than a dance bar, more than just a gay gathering place. It catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering.

The "drags" and the "queens", two groups which would find a chilly reception or a barred door at most of the other gay bars and clubs, formed the "regulars" at the Stonewall. To a large extent, the club was for them.... Apart from the Goldbug and the One Two Three, "drags" and "queens" had no place but the Stonewall....

We all know that rape and sexual assault are horrible (or we should). Regardless of how traumatic it is, there is one sure thing to make it worse: treating the victim like a criminal. Salon has the following piece titled Report: DC police treatment of sexual assault victims "traumatizing".

Susan D., a survivor of sexual assault who reported the incident to police in 2011, told HRW, “Reporting to the police was far more traumatizing than the rape itself.” Her sentiments were echoed in a 2009 complaint form sent to the Office of Police Complaints, which read, ““I think that filing the report was just as traumatic as the crime, if not more…. Is it common place for the police to put blame on the sexual assault victims and then completely ignore them?”

The Gallop Organization finds some nice results in a recent poll. Majority of Americans Still Support Roe v. Wade Decision.

PRINCETON, NJ -- Forty years after the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Roe v. Wade, significantly more Americans want the landmark abortion decision kept in place rather than overturned, 53% to 29%. Another 18% have no opinion, the highest level of uncertainty Gallup has recorded on this question in trends dating to 1989.

The group is battling legislation that it says is intended to intimidate women. The latest flashpoint is a provision requiring patients get counseling from crisis pregnancy centers that oppose abortions and try to discourage them.

And maybe most interestingly, The Huffington Post has some history and a firsthand account of the significance of Roe vs Wade titled simply Roe at 40!

Before turning to Roe, some history is in order. At the time the Constitution was adopted, the prevailing view was that human life did not exist until quickening (when the mother first feels movement), which typically occurs at around eighteen weeks, or roughly halfway through a pregnancy. American courts, following the English common law, consistently held that abortion before quickening was not a crime. Let me say that again: At the time the Constitution was adopted, abortion in the first eighteen weekss of a woman's pregancy was lawful.

Abortion rates soared in the mid-nineteenth century, as Americans left the land for industrial jobs. The large families vital to farming became burdens in crowded cities. Abortifacients were widely available from mail-order firms and pharmacists, and newspapers regularly ran ads for products and persons to "cure" pregnancy or "restore menses." Social scientists estimate that twenty percent of all pregnancies in this era were terminated by abortion.

Another interesting result from The Gallop Organization is the finding that Americans Back Obama's Proposals to Address Gun Violence. And they back them even more if they don't realize that they are siding with President Obama.

These results are from a Gallup survey conducted Jan. 19-20. The question does not tell respondents that all nine proposals come from Obama's recently released plan to reduce gun violence; however, the wordings used to describe them intentionally follow the White House's "Now Is the Time" plan descriptions.
Although Democrats show more support than Republicans for each proposal, majorities of both partisan groups favor seven of the nine proposals. That includes nearly universal support among Republicans and Democrats for requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales. A majority of Republicans also favor a ban on armor-piercing bullets and increasing penalties for straw purchasers, as well as the various school security, police funding, and mental health funding proposals tested.

The Boy Scouts of America teach young men how to build fires, pitch tents, weave camping chairs, and "be prepared"—unless your son happens to be gay. But the Boy Scouts long-standing policy of banning "open or avowed homosexuals" is starting to cost it some major financial backers: In the last six months, companies including UPS, United Way, the Merck Company Foundation and the Intel Foundation have announced they will drop or postpone funding for the Boy Scouts. Verizon Communications could be next: Over 70,000 people have signed a petition asking the corporation to stop funding the Scouts over their discriminatory policies.

And finally, an article from the New York Times about the changing of the generational guard in the LGBT community. Generation LGBTQIA.

If the gay-rights movement today seems to revolve around same-sex marriage, this generation is seeking something more radical: an upending of gender roles beyond the binary of male/female. The core question isn’t whom they love, but who they are -- that is, identity as distinct from sexual orientation.

But what to call this movement? Whereas “gay and lesbian” was once used to lump together various sexual minorities -- and more recently “L.G.B.T.” to include bisexual and transgender -- the new vanguard wants a broader, more inclusive abbreviation. “Youth today do not define themselves on the spectrum of L.G.B.T.,” said Shane Windmeyer, a founder of Campus Pride, a national student advocacy group based in Charlotte, N.C.

Part of the solution has been to add more letters, and in recent years the post-post-post-gay-rights banner has gotten significantly longer, some might say unwieldy. The emerging rubric is “L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.,” which stands for different things, depending on whom you ask.

Happy reading,

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Likely Republican Strategy on the Debt Ceiling Debate

Like many political wonks, I have been watching with anticipation to see how the Republicans would handle the debt ceiling. Their strategy has to change over what it had been in the past. They can't keep being the "party of no" and gain any support with the public. As long as they are perceived to be against President Obama instead of for anything, they are loosing popularity among the very people necessary to bring them into power or maintain power in the House.

They seem to be settling on an idea of delaying and refocusing the debate instead of simply being the "party of no". They managed, with the help of the Democrats, to pass a bill allowing the debt ceiling to be raised with little or no fuss. The bill didn't please all the Republicans, and it didn't please even half of the Democrats, but there was enough support to get it through the house and allow the conversation to move onto something else.

Politico reports:
This debt ceiling bill garnered widespread support from conservatives, but there were still skeptics, and Democratic support was needed to pass the measure. In all, 199 Republicans and 86 Democrats voted for the bill; 33 Republicans and 111 Democrats voted no.
 So about 87% of Republicans and about 44% or Democrats were willing to vote yes on this particular bill. While that isn't exactly a united Republican front, it is good enough to move the conversation back a few months. With the debt ceiling off the table, the Republicans are free to do what they do best without looking like obstructionists: fight the President and Democrats on spending.

Yet they have gained something without really risking anything. They don't have to try to hold the debt ceiling hostage, they will revisit it in a few months. When they revisit it, that will soak up time and give them another chance to try to get the public on their side. And even if they never are able to get the public on their side, they still gain ground by taking up valuable time on the House floor raising the debt limit over and over again on a short term basis only. By spending all their time only passing temporary measures, they successfully block other legislation by not having time to do anything else while at the same time keeping the conversation where they want it to be.

In my opinion, this is a very smart move by the Republicans. I'll be interested to see how it turns out, and what the Democratic response to it might be.

Is It Wrong to Believe?

As an atheist I don't believe in god, God, or gods. It isn't that I don't want to believe in them, it's that I can't find anything that would make me believe. It isn't a choice for me. I can no longer believe in any gods than I could begin believing in Hogwarts. But is belief bad in and of itself? I don't think so. Each of us carries a series of beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. Many of those beliefs will turn out to be wrong. As we get older, some of the things that we took for granted will fall by the wayside as we learn and grow. What matters is how we react to our own beliefs and the beliefs of others in the mean time.
There seems to be two primary differences in the atheist community. One belief states that religion is wrong because it teaches people to believe things without any proof whatsoever. Since believing things without proof is incompatible with knowledge, religion is a bad thing for simply existing. The other belief that runs through the atheist community is that belief isn't a bad thing in and of itself, it is more a matter of how you deal with it. This view holds that we all believe things that are wrong from time to time, but if they aren't hurting anyone, then it is okay to hold these beliefs until such a time as we can eliminate them from our minds.
I was reminded of these differences in beliefs when I came across an blog post of one skeptic rebutting the ideas of another skeptic. Rebecca Watson wrote:
Shermer states that 41% of Democrats believe god created man as-is within the previous 1,000 years [EDIT: I mean 10,000, not that that's much better] and 19% doubt global warming. The creationism question comes from a recent Gallup poll of 1,000 people, and the global warming figure comes from this 2011 poll that also found that only 36% of Democrats doubted evolution. But let’s say that yes, a large minority of Democrats don’t believe in evolution and a smaller minority doesn’t believe in climate change.

Does this equal a “liberal war on science”? Hardly. A lot of people believing something inaccurate does not mean there’s a war – a war requires action, and conservatives are the people who are performing the actions: namely, introducing and sponsoring antievolution bills. While I’m sure that some Democrat must have introduced an antievolution bill, my Google skills have failed to turn one up. Bill after bill in state after state, conservative Republicans are the ones who are attempting to legislate their religious beliefs.
And I think she is exactly right. Believing something inaccurate doesn't mean that you are at war, and it doesn't mean that you are doing anything negative to society. At most you are hurting yourself, but that is a different post. I can see no reason to try to change someone's beliefs simply because they believe something different than I believe. The main reason I see for confronting religion is because of the actions they do in the name of their religion.
Do you want to pray in public? Fantastic! I fully support your right to pray. Do you want to force me, my friends, or my children to pray in public? I will oppose you with every legal means I have at my disposal. Do you want to pray in school? No problem. You can pray all you want. You can pray before school, during school, and after school. You can sit at your desk and pray instead of working or taking a test. You can ride the bus to school and pray constantly until you take the bus back home. What you can't do is use the power of the state to try to force other people to practice your belief system. If you try, I will oppose you to the best of my ability. The same is true for marriage. I will argue against religious people trying to impose their values on other couples.
Religion and religious beliefs aren't bad in and of themselves. What makes religious beliefs bad is the same thing that makes any belief bad; trying to impose it on other people against their will.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Freedom Writers - 2007

I just finished watching the movie Freedom Writers. I thought it would be a good movie, but it was better than I though it would be. It is based on a true story, and shows the effect one person can have on the lives of others.

Here is a link to the trailer.

If you like drama that can inspire you and make you feel better about the human condition, this is the movie for you.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Taking Sides on Banning Assault Weapons

So where are the lines being drawn on the attempt to stop gun violence? One place is with the attempt to reintroduce the ban on assault weapons. President Obama wants to reintroduce the ban on assault weapons that was first implemented under President Clinton. There was at least one fatal flaw in the ban on assault weapons instituted under President Clinton: gun manufacturers could easily make minor changes to the weapons, call them something else, and continue selling them on the open market. By allowing this practice, the ban on assault weapons was essentially rendered meaningless. Now, President Obama hopes to not only reintroduce the ban on assault weapons, but strengthen it.
The Guardian reports:
Calling for the reinstatement of the federal ban, that was allowed to lapse in 2004, Barack Obama made clear that he would not tolerate the same tactics that permitted the makers of assault rifles to wriggle around the restrictions. A White House paper setting out the proposed changes made the challenge to gun makers explicit.
The 1994-2004 ban, it said, "was an important step, but manufacturers were able to circumvent the prohibition with cosmetic modifications to their weapons. Congress must reinstate and strengthen the prohibition on assault weapons."
But there in lies the rub. Not only do the diehard gun owners want unrestricted access to assault weapons, congress must actually act to keep assault weapons out of the hands of dangerous people. And the House of Representatives in the hands of Republicans has been nothing more than a sinkhole where good ideas go to die.
As long as there are so many people in congress who view any gun legislation as a direct assault on them and an indirect assault on the constitution, then I have my doubts whether any meaningful change will occur.

Obama Recommends Solution to Gun Violence: Congress Reacts

President Obama announced his plans for dealing with gun violence in the United States. Some of his proposals can be acted upon unilaterally, and some require the approval of congress. With the Republicans in control of the House and Democrats in control of the Senate, the debates could get interesting. But first, what exactly did the President Recommend? Think Progress has a good summary of the proposals put forth by President Obama, including, but not limited to, the following:
  • Making background checks universal.
  • Banning assault weapons.
  • Capping magazine clip capacity at 10 bullets.
  • Purging armor-piercing bullets.
So what do the legislators of my illustrious state think of these proposals? Jim Inhofe had this to say:
“The text of the Constitution clearly confers upon an individual the right to bear arms – and not just for the purposes of hunting as many liberals will claim. Our Founders believed that the people’s right to own guns was an important check on the powers of the government and ‘necessary to the security of a free State.’ I couldn’t agree more and I stand firm in my support of this right.”
That's right. Jim Inhofe thinks that it is important to have firearms just in case you have to fight off the United States Army or the National Guard. Everyone but those pesky liberals know that the only thing keeping our elected officials (like him, for instance) from destroying us is the power of the weapons that we possess.
And what exactly does Tom Coburn think of the Presidents plan?
“However, as we debate these measures, we first must ensure our constitutional rights and individual liberties, including the Second Amendment right to bear arms, are protected. Instead of repeating the failed policies of the past, Congress should work on thoughtful and constitutional ways to prevent unspeakable tragedies like this from happening again. The fact that almost every public mass shooting tragedy occurs in a place where guns are prohibited shows that restricting Second Amendment rights tends to disarm everyone but the assailant.

“Secondly, we must acknowledge that with rights come responsibilities. Gun owners must exercise personal responsibility and do everything in their power to prevent firearms and ammunition from falling into the wrong hands.

“Finally, policymakers in Washington should remember that the legislative process is downstream from culture. The laws we make in Washington have less impact than the movies and video games that are shaping the hearts and minds of the next generation. Special interest groups from across the spectrum – from Hollywood to the NRA – all have a responsibility to defend a culture of life and liberty. Still, Congress shouldn’t take our cues from these groups. As elected officials, we should be beholden solely to the Constitution. Our job as it relates to interest groups is not to take instructions from them, but to give direction to them through our constitutional authority to legislate,” Dr. Coburn said.
This is a little bit better. At least Tom Coburn doesn't seem to be fighting the evil government in his mind quite the same way that Jim Inhofe is, but he still comes across as too limited in his thinking. He doesn't seem to acknowledge that there are nuances to all our rights. Gun ownership isn't an absolute right, and we need to find the best compromise on gun ownership that will allow us to be as safe as we can be while still allowing as much freedom as possible. Giving all that up for a domination of the strongest person with the most guns isn't the best solution.

Is it even possible to work with people like this? Some, yes. Is it possible to work with people like this enough to actually get anything accomplished? Only time will tell, but judging by the past, it doesn't look good.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Republican I Can Support

Being the lone bleeding-heart liberal in a family of conservatives turned tea partyers, I am often ask just what kind of Republican I could support. That isn't an easy question in this day and age. The more I see of the Republican party in the congress, the more I am appalled to find myself on the same side with any of them. They often seem to be nothing more than petulant, immature children content on screaming "NO!" regardless of the proposal before them. It seems, however, that President Obama has found at least one Republican that I can agree with as well: Chuck Hagel. It isn't that I agree with everything Mr. Hagel stands for, it's just that he seems to be principled and nuanced in his reasoning instead of an ideologue.

Of course the thing that initially brought Mr. Hagel to my attention was his views on gay rights. Specifically, when his name was floated as a potential nominee for Defense secretary. Since he had made some anti-gay remarks in 1998, I couldn't help but wonder whether he still carried the same feelings regarding the LGBT community. He has since apologized, according to the Washington Post article, saying:
My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive. They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of open service and committed to LGBT military families.
Granted, we can all wonder whether he is sincere, but I see no reason to disbelieve him at this time. One of the things we ask people to do every day is to change their opinion about us. We ask them to see the LGBT community as human beings with the full range of human capabilities and feelings. I have to believe that it is not only possible, but probable that people can and will change their minds about us. If it weren't possible then there wouldn't be more than a handful of people that we could count as our allies outside of the community itself.

As for the other things that Mr. Hagel has done and stood for over his career, I find myself on the opposite side of him on most of them, but his positions are well reasoned enough for me to believe that he is a man capable of fulfilling the role of Defense secretary. Would I vote for him as an elected official? Probably not. We seem to be too far removed on many of his stances but I'm not having to make that decision on whether to vote for him to represent me. All I have do is accept that President Obama thinks he is the right man for the job. And as far as his service record is concerned, he seems to be sufficiently qualified.