Launch Day: Welcome!

If you’re new to FreeThought Blogs, welcome!

If you’re new to Blue Collar Atheist, or to my writing, a double welcome!

Probably I should tell you something about me.

The Blogging Part

I’ve been at it for a bit, both as a blog reader and writer. I won the second-ever  Molly Award at PZ Myers’ Pharyngula (actually I was one of two people that month) for blog commentary, and was called a “master of metaphor” — along with less flattering names — along the way.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I usually write long. Whatever subject comes up, I want to explore it completely and explain it carefully, and the brief quip doesn’t work for me. What that means is that you probably won’t see the 5-posts-a-day that some bloggers manage (cough*PZMyersEdBrayton*cough), but I hope you’ll find worth reading the ones I do write.

For some of my characteristic posts, try these:
Kitten, Cat or Tiger – Part 1
Kitten, Cat or Tiger – Part 2
Kitten, Cat or Tiger – Part 3
Kitten, Cat or Tiger – Part 4

The Blue Collar Part Continue reading “Launch Day: Welcome!”

180 Degrees: Pastor Mike

PZ has a post about Pastor Mike’s plan to create a database of “known” atheists, and a really disgusting plan it is.

That someone could come up with such a thing, and then broadcast it into the public sphere, shows a breathtaking unawareness both of history and of the consequences of one’s actions in the real world.

The idea is both incredibly ugly and yet so blithely inept in concept that I imagine we have nothing to fear from it. But we DO have to point out — yet again, to those unaware of history — that nothing of the sort can be permitted. And that even proposing it, however idly, shows a meanness of spirit viciously at odds with civil society. Continue reading “180 Degrees: Pastor Mike”

Post Irene … I Hope

Tree down on my street / Schenectady, NY

Ohmygod it was hell! Nine and a half hours without power. I had to write BY HAND! With a PENCIL! On PAPER!! And communicate with people with my VOICE!!!

We were practically a third world country there for a while.

Seriously: Hope everyone weathered the storm (or continues to weather it), wherever you are, or at least thinks/thought kind thoughts of us here on the East Coast.

The sum total of the damage at my house is a couple of large limbs down in the yard. I had a little bit of an adventure this morning when I went over to check on a friend at his plant nursery. I ended up holding down the end of a sheet-plastic greenhouse the wind was threatening to send off like a hot air balloon, while he frantically stapled and roped and weighted.

If you haven’t already seen this much-copied joke, here’s something from Facebook: Continue reading “Post Irene … I Hope”

The Perils of Irene

For days I’ve been watching the coverage of Hurricane Irene.

Right now I’m looking at a NASA image taken yesterday, clearly showing the storm snuggled up to the east coast of the U.S.

I think you have to make a conscious effort to step outside yourself occasionally, so you’ll know how lucky you are. In this case, I’m stepping outside by looking at this picture taken from 22,300 miles above the earth and transmitted to us by the NOAA GOES-13 satellite.

For those of you on other continents (or other coasts) who have been missing the breathless coverage of this incoming storm, we’re all in panic mode on the East Coast, with those of us in New York expecting to have the storm smash into us on Sunday. We’ve been buying plywood and tarps, collecting together survival supplies like water and food and flashlights, filling our tanks so we can flee westward, and staying glued to the TV from whence the breathless reporting springs. Continue reading “The Perils of Irene”

Kitten, Cat or Tiger — Part 4

[Start with Part 1, or go back to Part 2 or Part 3]KitCatTiger

Okay, if war’s not your thing, how about this:

Did you know there’s a safe and easy way to prevent teen pregnancy? A way to lower the number of abortions?

It’s just this: Provide sex education. Make condoms and contraceptives available. Give teens the facts and the tools to accomplish the early-life goal of not getting pregnant.

If you tell teens where babies come from, and let them know that unexpected mommyhood and daddyhood will put a serious crimp in all those wild, youthful plans for being a jet-setting supermodel, or a motorcycle-riding vagabond off to see America, and then tell them how to prevent babies until they’re consciously READY to be mommies and daddies, they will tend, statistically, to make a greater percentage of informed, wise decisions on potential pregnancy. And have fewer abortions.

Is that a no-brainer? Well, shit YEAH.

But among the rankest foes of abortion in the U.S., that faction of conservative Christians who also drive around with bumper stickers that read “It’s a Child, Not a Choice!” and “You Can’t Be Both Pro-Abortion and Catholic” you will find virtually zero in equally fervent favor of the three best techniques — condoms, contraceptives and sex education — for achieving that goal.


And if it’s not war and abortion, here’s religion itself:

Harold Camping, leader of Christian broadcast ministry Family Radio Worldwide, calculated not long back that the world would end on May 21, 2011.

What can I say? This guy is so looney tunes that Warner Brothers should sue him for copyright infringement. Some of his followers couldn’t be satisfied with a simple bumper sticker.

The point of all this is that there’s a level of crazy built into our culture, and it appears to spring directly from the fact that we’re TRAINED to be crazy. To think in an irrational manner, and believe unbelievable things.

This isn’t some cultural accident, or just simple holdover ignorance from the time when we were flea-scratching upright beasts.

This is organized. This is deliberate. There is, in our society, an established, streamlined, all-pervasive and aggressive-as-hell institution – actually a collection of institutions – hell-bent on spreading the crazy.

We live in a society that features a Crazy School.

And Crazy School doesn’t just teach its own curriculum, it works to un-teach everything else — to squash all questions, all doubts, all competitors for the public podium.

This one institution – and it has no rivals in this mission, not anywhere in earth culture – is religion.

Not religion the fluffy kitten. Not religion the friendly cat that just occasionally scratches.

But religion the tiger, with its historically obvious teeth and claws: Lies, intimidation, subjugation, suppression, terror, torture, murder and war.

A tiger that is still with us, and has, as its fierce main mission, to get us to believe things that are unprovable, unsupportable, undefendable … but that somehow MUST be believed, supported and defended.

To believe the unprovable, unsupportable, indefensible is somehow the greatest of virtues. To doubt it is the vilest and most horrible of sins — a mortal threat to our own immortal souls.

Teach THAT to a whole people, for all of their history, and you create not just craziness for the individual, but profound misery, vast pain and ugliness, for hapless generations.

But the weird sort of reverse-miracle attendant on the whole thing is that the craziness is almost completely invisible to the people being crushed under it.

As long as everybody stays crazy, as long as you kill or discredit anyone who begins to edge toward sanity, the crazy can stay clamped down for lifetime after lifetime. For hundreds of years, thousands of years.

And so it has.

Occasional bright sparks of sanity have given us science, technology, medicine, reason itself. But those sparks, like diamonds in mud, still exist in a matrix of crazy that pervades, opposes or perverts just about every advance toward greater sanity.

Such that the technological wonders gifted to us by the sanity-sparks of science — radio, TV, computers, the web — are used as tools to spread the crazy.

Such that we can build landmines to blow the legs off children, and sleep well at night.

Such that the freedom to NOT have children is opposed by powerful voices right now, today, at the highest levels of American government.

Such that every major disaster in the world is followed by instantly-televised religious voices both blaming the victims and using the human horror as a sales pitch to grow more religion, more craziness.

Such that there are large numbers of us who accept that the world is ending soon, and that this is a GOOD thing, much to be desired.

Such that there are world-scale problems — population, for instance — that cannot even be spoken of in a public forum, without being shouted down by a ready chorus of crazies. “Why do you hate babies?? Why do you want humans to become extinct??”

And such that the spreading and consuming of this deadly craziness is seen – by most of us, still – as the most staunchly and violently defended HUMAN RIGHT.

And THAT, excuse me, is just plain nuts.

Bloomberg: No Godders at 9/11 Service

If you ever feel, as an atheist or secularist, that we’re not making headway, and are maybe even losing ground against the forces of religion, remember this:

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced yesterday that the 10th anniversary memorial ceremony of the 9/11 terror attacks on the Twin Towers will include no clergy.

This is major. An event that has been used and abused by various religious hucksters for the past decade will deliberately disinclude — on its 10th Anniversary — the speakers and pitchmen for the gods.

The reasoning behind Mayor Bloomberg’s  decision is that there’s no way to include ALL segments of the religious community — to be fair to everybody and to refrain from making one group or another feel left out — and that is a fantastic argument for doing it this way. Continue reading “Bloomberg: No Godders at 9/11 Service”

Kitten, Cat or Tiger — Part 3

[Go back to Part 2 or Part 1]KitCatTiger

Let’s talk about another belief. Say that people believe this:

This is not real life. You only get to have real life after you die. And even then, it’s only good if you passed the big test in this fake, temporary life.

Part of the test is that you have to tell everybody about the real life that dead people get, and if anybody disagrees with you, considering that they’re not really alive anyway, it’s perfectly okay to torment or even “kill” them.

Real life, and this testing phase that precedes it, is ruled by this big, powerful guy who is more important than anybody or anything you know. Nothing is more important than him. He and the things he says — passed on by this big special book and the people who interpret it for us — are more important than your health, more important than the life and death of your kids, more important than the love of your life, more important than democracy and justice and freedom, more important than the entire earth and all that it contains.

In fact, in the really near future, the big powerful guy is going to destroy the entire earth and all that it contains, every last puppy and baby and symphony and sunset. And that’s a GOOD thing, because it will allow us and everybody we know to get on with our real lives, which are going to be much better than anything we have here.

Oh, and by the way, because you believe all this, you’re one of the Chosen Ones, and pretty much nothing you do to the bad, UnChosen ones is really all that bad.

Imagine that they believe this thing, both today and for the past thousand years, very, very VERY strongly.

Now imagine what sort of society they’d create.

It would be a crazy one, don’t you think? Completely bonkers.

It would have to be. I mean, if you really believed that nothing around you was real? And that being dead would be a GOOD thing? That you should go out and do anything and everything you could to convince others? And that it was all going to end soon, and hurrah for that?

And yet.

Here we are, living in wealth and luxury and contentment. The sun shines, the birds sing, we go to work each day and have dinner each night. It all seems so NORMAL.

Is the world really all that crazy? I have to be wrong about it, right?

We’ve got TV, the Internet, the power to fly across a continent in a few hours. We’ve got eyeglasses and cellphones and a car in every driveway. Books and libraries. Barbie and Buzz Lightyear and Happy Meals. Skiing and whitewater rafting and skateboard parks. Antibiotics and surgery.

What could possibly be wrong with our beautiful modern society?

But here’s the problem:

It is impossible to have a strongly held belief in your head and not have it affect your thoughts and actions in extremely powerful ways.

What evidence do I have that being broadly crazy has some effect on our beautiful, modern world? How about this:

Forty-seven U.S. companies have been involved in the manufacture of landmines. From 1969 to 1992, “we” exported more than 4 million mines, to at least 34 countries. Even years after regional wars are concluded, all those unrecovered landmines continue to cripple women and children, kill farmers – to the tune of 26,000 people annually – and even critically injure or kill wildlife such as elephants.

In Vietnam, 35 years after the end of the war, landmines are still killing about 100 people every year – about 60 of which, on average, are children. There are estimated to be 800,000 still-deadly landmines in the country, enough to kill or critically injure the entire population of San Francisco, CA, or Austin, TX.

To some of us, this will come across as old news. Why am I even writing about it? But the point is that the whole situation is crazy as hell.

American companies. American workers. Going to work each day to make landmines that would – how can I put this delicately? – BLOW THE FUCKING LEGS OFF CHILDREN.

And then sleeping well that night. (Companies in the continental United States supposedly stopped manufacturing landmines in 1997, but the U.S. still has the largest stockpile of the clever little things in the world. Plus, there’s probably nothing in law that prevents American companies from making nasty stuff overseas.)

Someone sat down and invented these things, knowing they would kill mostly civilian adults and children. And someone else, a lot of someone elses, right here in America, thought it was a dandy idea to make money off them. Following which, a lot of other someone elses put them in fields all over the world, without bothering to note where they were. And 300 million someone elses just sort of sat back and yawned.

When things like this seem distant to me, I try to translate them in my head into something more immediate, something nearer and realer, to see how I feel about it. So imagine that people came and put landmines on the side of a nearby hiking path, or in a cornfield, or even in a children’s playground.

And you know this little girl named Sarah, the neighbor’s daughter, who has just about the bluest eyes you ever saw, and who just won the third grade spelling bee, and wants to be a doctor when she grows up.

Except yesterday she stepped on the exact wrong spot in the playground, and was blown up by an American-made landmine. Today in the critical ward at the local hospital, she is missing both legs, one arm, and one eye.

Pretty disgusting that I should write about that, huh? I mean, what sort of person am I, putting this crap here so that you’d be forced to have that image in your head?

The point is that stuff like this really happens. To real people, real children. Every day. But it’s so crazy that we can barely force ourselves to visualize it. To know it.

[Part 4 coming tomorrow.]

Kitten, Cat or Tiger — Part 2

[Start at Part 1]KitCatTiger

If you believe a thing, it has some real effect on you.

I could win the Lottery. Hey, somebody has to, why not me?

That belief, a small-to-middling one as beliefs go, will cost a lot of people somewhere between $300 to $1800 in the coming year.  If your state or local taxes went up by $1,800 this year, would that bother you? Well, yeah. But a $5-a-day Lottery “player” would give that same amount, to the same institution to which he pays his taxes, and think nothing of it. Because he believes he’ll win a lot more. It’s not a tax, it’s more like an investment … in the wonderful (poorly-understood) world of probability.

If you believe a thing, it affects you …

… but if you believe a thing strongly, it affects you a lot. It could affect pretty much every aspect of your life.

I’m going to start a band and be rich and famous.

Hey, if you’re going to be rich and famous, why do you need high school? Or a college fund? Or the good will of your parents or peers? Better to spend that time and money practicing, and buying better instruments and amps. And to hell with anybody who stands in your way.

If you believe a thing, it affects you. If you believe a thing strongly, it affects you a lot. But if everybody believes a thing strongly …

… it creates an entire culture wrapped around that belief.

Something must be done about these treacherous, secretive, manipulative Jews.

The Germans of the 1930s didn’t just sit at home and be mildly, privately amused by this belief. No, they built an entire society on the idea. One of the side effects was that 12 million people were murdered, and another side effect was a war that directly or indirectly killed another 70 million.

People with dark skin are inferior to those of us with lighter skins.

The North Americans of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries didn’t just chat about this quaint belief over tea and biscuits. No, they built an entire society on the idea, one side effect of which was that almost 4 million of those people with dark skin – in the 1860 Census alone – were trapped in slavery.

And for some of them, it really did look like this: slave

But the interesting thing is, most people of the time, both in Germany and the U.S., thought those beliefs were normal, and more than normal. Not only did they see nothing bad about it, they thought it was right, even good.

Strong, widely-held beliefs affect everything, every part of the society in which they hold sway, and even lots of people outside it.

Here’s the Supreme Court — the Supreme Court! — weighing in on slavery in the 1857 “Dred Scott Decision”:

Any person descended from Africans, whether slave or free, is not a citizen of the United States …

Looking back on it, you have to ask “What the hell was wrong with those people? What were they thinking??”

What was wrong with them was just this: They were crazy as hell. But because just about everybody was crazy the same way, very few people noticed. Which made it even worse — for 4 million people, a literal nightmare.

The strongly-held and widespread belief about slaves in the U.S. wasn’t just a little bit bad, it was a nightmare.

Likewise, the strongly-held and widespread belief about Jews in Germany wasn’t just a little bit bad, it was a nightmare.

[Read more in Part 3, soon to come]

Kitten, Cat or Tiger — Part 1

[This is a repost of an earlier piece.]KitCatTiger

I’d like to propose three conceptual models for religion in society:

The Kitten

Religion is this harmless, pleasure-giving plus in each person’s life. It is sweet and good and loving, a fluffy little bundle of joy that could not possibly hurt anyone. Everyone who has it benefits from it, and everyone agrees that more people should have it. Society itself benefits from having it.

The Cat

Religion gives immense pleasure to the people who have it. However it does have claws and teeth, and does occasionally harm people when in a bad mood. The vast majority of people who have it benefit from it, but it remains fully capable of drawing blood. It is still a plus in most people’s lives, and though society should keep a wary eye out for the teeth and claws – it should still be a prominent part of society.

The Tiger

Religion is incredibly dangerous, a streamlined predator that menaces not only those who have it, but also those around them. It is only safe when caged – it doesn’t even have to be in a bad mood, it only has to be itself, and someone will get injured or killed. On the general principles of free will and self-determination, people should probably have the right to have it, but it should stay safely caged – private – at all times. Free will and self-determination are bedrock principles and good for society, but society overall would definitely be better off without having religion itself running around loose.


Of course we’re all aware that large numbers of people see religion as The Kitten. Religion is only positive, only loving, and it could not possibly hurt anybody.

As to religion as The Cat, it seems to me that the majority of agnostics, and probably even atheists, see it this way.

Yes, they would admit, there have been such unfortunate incidents as the Crusades, and the Inquisition. And sure, there are those idiot parents who, because of their faith, deny life-saving medical care to their children. And, yes, okay, there was that Jim Jones thing, and the Heaven’s Gate thing, and sure, Scientology is this nutty fringe culty thing that victimizes its hapless adherents.

But overall, religion gives people hope and solace and stuff like that. Besides, if nothing else, it keeps the dangerous idiots from rising up and killing us all. In the main, it’s just not all that dangerous, and has had little impact on history or the overall shape of society today.

As to religion as The Tiger, you’d actually have to work at it to make a convincing case. Because, hey, where’s the harm? I mean, seriously, here we are in a world of modern wonders – you know computers and jet planes, surgery and antibiotics, schools and libraries and democracy – and yet we still have religion. It doesn’t seem to have hurt us. Besides which, in this uncertain world, it does give people hope and comfort.

You’d probably guess I’m in this third camp. I see religion as The Tiger and nothing but The Tiger. I’m disturbed that more people don’t see it as I do, but I guess I’m not all that surprised.

Still, I’d like to make the case.

[And I’ll try to do that, starting in Part 2]

When the Earth Moves

The buzz of reportage associated with the soon-to-be-legendary Quake of ’11 here on the east coast includes more than one breathless story on damage to the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral, national treasures located in Washington, D.C.

I was in D.C. just last year, taking pictures of the Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and thoughts of the damage sparked instant pangs of dread. I’m sure many Americans felt the same way: What if it had actually fallen? It would be like losing the Twin Towers in New York all over again.

And yet … Continue reading “When the Earth Moves”