Time for Serious Outreach into Islam?

Here’s a story from the United Kingdom’s online news site Mail Online, the heated subtext of which is “OMG MUSLIMS!!!”

One country, two religions and three very telling pictures: The empty pews at churches just yards from an overcrowded mosque

It’s a story in pictures, with a small amount of text:

What they show are three acts of worship performed in the East End of London within a few hundred yards of each other at the end of last month.

Two of the photos show Sunday morning services in the churches of St George-in-the-East on Cannon Street Road, and St Mary’s on Cable Street.

The third shows worshippers gathered for Friday midday prayers outside the nearby mosque on the Brune Street Estate in Spitalfields.

The difference in numbers could hardly be more dramatic. At St George’s, some 12 people have congregated to celebrate Holy Communion.

When the church was built in the early 18th century, it was designed to seat 1,230.

Numbers are similar at St Mary’s, opened in October 1849. Then, it could boast a congregation of 1,000. Today, as shown in the picture, the worshippers total just 20.

While the two churches are nearly empty, the Brune Street Estate mosque has a different problem — overcrowding.

The mosque itself is little more than a small room rented in a  community centre, and it can hold only 100.

However, on Fridays, those numbers swell to three to four times the room’s capacity, so the worshippers spill out onto the street, where they take up around the same amount of space as the size of the near-empty St Mary’s down the road.

 The overheated punchline:

What these pictures suggest is that, on current trends, Christianity in this country is becoming a religion of the past, and Islam is one of the future.

Yes! Christianity is becoming a thing of the past! But ooh, scary Islam is the one of the future.

Maybe, maybe not. Not a big fan of Islam here, definitely don’t think it’s a good thing. But … the people caught up in it are just people. And people’s minds can be changed.

The newfound visibility of atheism alone, as one of the many choices young people will be presented with, can make a difference. But making an actual effort to outreach into the community of young Muslims — that could make a BIG difference.

Seems to me we need to do a lot more atheist proselytizing.



Finding the Real Villain in [Churches Hate Gay Boy Scouts]

Thinking about this story, Some Churches Say They’ll Cut Ties to Boy Scouts Following Its Lifting Ban on Gay Scouts, a first reaction might lead you to lambaste the people who’d do such a thing.

“If the Boy Scouts are going to support gays, we’re not going to support the Boy Scouts.” Of course they have every right to say that, to act that way, but it’s not a decent reaction, not a reaction that recognizes equality and fairness. You’d be prone to blame the people who’d do such a thing.

On the other hand, they’re not acting, they’re REacting. There’s something in their heads that causes them to do so. And it’s THAT, the thing that drives their behavior, their actions and thoughts, that’s the real villain.

Our real enemy is religion itself, the poisonous-fantasy-group-think that drives the actions of the people who do these things.

Yes, we have to fight these social justice battles in the arena of human flesh, human acts. The wars of civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, atheist rights, face real human adversaries who — with muscle and words and acts — work to oppose our goals and values.

But the real enemy, the enemy that serves as the foundation of all this strife, is not strictly people. The real enemy is ideas.

That realization is making me rethink Daniel Fincke’s Civility Pledge.  (I was never opposed to it, but I wanted to think about it at length before committing.)


Followup 1:

Interesting. Google “civility pledge” and you get a variety of hits, including this one from Chris Clarke:

The Desert Tortoises With Boltcutters Civility Pledge

We’re all still working on it.


Followup 2:

Lest we forget, the Boy Scout Oath says:

On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.

That second line is interesting, isn’t it? In this quintessentially American organization, God comes before country.





Wikipedia Does Days: May 26

Didn’t like history in school. Did. Not. It was just this droning recitation of dates and wars and such, people I didn’t give a hoot about doing obscure things to each other while wearing weird clothes and armor and stuff.

I don’t know why it never got across to me that it was all real — real people doing real things. Probably it was all the fault of my teachers. Yeah, that must be it! Anyway, I dutifully memorized the dates and the events, and fired them back on tests, and did pretty good, despite having no feeling for the material.

It was only in about 1986 or so that I first understood the realness, that there had been actual people back there in the past, living whole lives and doing interesting, history-making things. People like me, and unlike me, but people. People you could walk right up to and talk to, if you lived back then.

Now I’m interested in it, but don’t really have time to study it. Probably why I found this little Wikipedia feature interesting: Every calendar date has its own unique history, and the Gods of Wiki have gathered them on their characteristic pages.

For instance, on today, May 26, I think it’s obscurely cool that in the year …

47 BC – Julius Caesar visits Tarsus on his way to Pontus, where he meets enthusiastic support, but where, according to Cicero, Cassius is planning to kill him at this point.

I think I recall some sort of play about this. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it didn’t turn out well for Caesar.

1328 – William of Ockham, Franciscan Minister-General Michael of Cesena and two other Franciscan leaders secretly leave Avignon, fearing a death sentence from Pope John XXII.

While shaving the next day, William was heard to shout “Honey, have you seen my razor? I believe it to have been stolen by Gypsies, or possibly spirited away by elves! Maybe even rendered invisible by witches!” to which his wife replied, “It’s wherever you left it! Really, William, select the hypotheses with the fewest assumptions!”

1830 – The Indian Removal Act is passed by the U.S. Congress; it is signed into law by President Andrew Jackson two days later.

Proof that our modern Congress has no monopoly on a-holishness, nor has the White House.

1897 – Dracula, a novel by Irish author Bram Stoker is published.

To think we have a guy from the 1800s to thank for the Twilight series! Wow!

1908 – At Masjed Soleyman in southwest Persia, the first major commercial oil strike in the Middle East is made. The rights to the resource are quickly acquired by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.

Hey, whatever happened to Persia, anyway? Someone said those damned Iranians moved in and took it over. Probably wanted to get control of our oil.

1938 – In the United States, the House Un-American Activities Committee begins its first session.

They really saved us from those Un-Americans! And finally, striking a blow for cartographic justice, in

1998 – The Supreme Court of the United States rules that Ellis Island, the historic gateway for millions of immigrants, is mainly in the state of New Jersey, not New York.

Additionally, these people where born on this day in history:

1264 – Prince Koreyasu, Japanese shogun (d. 1326)
1478 – Pope Clement VII (d. 1534)
1886 – Al Jolson, American singer, comedian, and actor (d. 1950)
1907 – John Wayne, American actor (d. 1979)
1912 – Jay Silverheels, Canadian actor (d. 1980)
1913 – Peter Cushing, English actor (d. 1994)
1920 – Peggy Lee, American singer-songwriter and actress (d. 2002)
1922 – Troy Smith, American businessman, founded Sonic Drive-In (d. 2009)
1923 – James Arness, American actor (d. 2011)
1926 – Miles Davis, American trumpeter, bandleader, and composer (Miles Davis Quintet) (d. 1991)
1928 – Jack Kevorkian, American pathologist (d. 2011)
1941 – Reg Bundy, English drag queen performer, dancer, and actor (d. 2003)
1945 – Garry Peterson, Canadian drummer (The Guess Who and Bachman–Turner Overdrive)
1948 – Stevie Nicks, American singer-songwriter and musician (Fleetwood Mac)
1949 – Ward Cunningham, American computer programmer, developed the first wiki
1949 – Pam Grier, American actress
1949 – Hank Williams Jr., American singer-songwriter and musician
1951 – Sally Ride, American astronaut (d. 2012)
1954 – Danny Rolling, American serial killer (d. 2006)
1962 – Bobcat Goldthwait, American actor
1964 – Lenny Kravitz, American singer-songwriter, musician, producer, and actor
1966 – Helena Bonham Carter, English actress
1972 – Kylie Ireland, American porn actress, director, producer, publicist, and radio host

And these people died:

604 – Augustine of Canterbury, Benedictine monk, 1st Archbishop of Canterbury
735 – Bede, English historian and theologian (b. 673)
1647 – Alse Young, American woman executed for witchcraft (b. 1600)
1651 – Jeane Gardiner, English woman executed for witchcraft
1703 – Samuel Pepys, English naval administrator and civil servant (b. 1633)
1904 – Georges Gilles de la Tourette, French neurologist (b. 1857)
1933 – Jimmie Rodgers, American singer-songwriter and guitarist (b. 1897)
1943 – Edsel Ford, American businessman (b. 1893)
1976 – Martin Heidegger, German philosopher (b. 1889)
2005 – Eddie Albert, American actor (b. 1906)
2008 – Sydney Pollack, American actor, director, producer, and screenwriter (b. 1934)
2010 – Art Linkletter, Canadian-American radio and television host (b. 1912)
2012 – Rudy Eugene, American criminal and cannibal (b. 1981)

Browsing elsewhere on the calendar, I’ve discovered I share a birthday, Sept. 6, with:

1766 – John Dalton, English chemist and physicist (d. 1844)
1860 – Jane Addams, American social worker, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1935)
1879 – Max Schreck, German actor (d. 1936)
1937 – Sergio Aragonés, Spanish illustrator and writer
1937 – Jo Anne Worley, American actress
1947 – Jane Curtin, American actress
1958 – Buster Bloodvessel, English singer-songwriter (Bad Manners)
1958 – Jeff Foxworthy, American comedian, actor, and author
1963 – Mark Chesnutt, American singer-songwriter and guitarist
1967 – Macy Gray, American singer-songwriter, producer, and actress
1974 – Justin Whalin, American actor
2006 – Prince Hisahito of Akishino

And yes, I leaned heavily on my meager, U.S.-centric knowledge of historical figures and geography. Go to the page, or check the link-map at the bottom to find all those famous figures and events from your tiny native nation such as Tunisia, Tierra del Fuego, Australia, Brazil, or some of those other obscure, minor countries.


Helping A Tornado Survivor, Atheist-Style

There’s a rather amazing story coming out of the Oklahoma tornado-aftermath.

Moore, Oklahoma, resident and mother Rebecca Vitsmun, being interviewed by  CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, responded to a spray of goddy rhetoric:

Blitzer: “Well, you’re blessed, Brian your husband is blessed, Anders is blessed. […] I guess you gotta thank the Lord, huh? Do you thank the Lord, for that split-second decision (to leave her home and get to safety)?”

Vitsmun: “I uh, I am actually an atheist.”

Amid general good feelings at finding a spectacular role model, a bright, cheerful woman standing amid the destruction of her town and her home, Doug Stanhope of Atheists Unite has created an Indiegogo fund-raiser.

What We Need & What You Get

We don’t know the exact cost of putting a family back together when you don’t even have a toothbrush anymore so we randomly chose 50,000 dollars as a goal. And that’s probably low-ball.

The Impact

The impact of getting Rebecca and her family properly housed by the atheist community will do far more good than sitting in bars or chat rooms mocking people of faith. Like religion, free-thinking will be more easily spread through compassion and decency.

Here’s the amazing part:

As of Friday 24th May we have cleared the initial $50,000 target. In truth, we had no idea how generous and giving our community would prove to be. We reached our goal within 17 hours of starting.  An Indiegogo deadline cannot be changed once it has been set. So this campaign will continue until July 22 2013. At that point the financial cogs will turn and the moneys raised will be delivered to Rebecca Vitsmun. There is no reason for us to stop raising funds. The median cost of a home in Moore, OK is $125, 250, and that was back when they had homes. More importantly, the more money we raise the better the example we set.

At the moment I write this, the campaign has raised $80, 232.


Annnd … there’s this from Glenn Beck:  ‘Forces of spiritual darkness’ at CNN plotted Blitzer’s atheist gaffe


Beta Culture: Bridges and War and All Things Daft

I know there are people who don’t like driving across long, high bridges. I’m one of them, I guess, but my job requires me to gird my loins and cross the huge, 3-mile-long, almost-60-year-old  Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River near New York City twice a day.

The collapse of the Interstate 5 highway bridge in Mount Vernon, Wash., on Thursday, brought that roaring to mind over the past few days.

On days when traffic is slow and you’re standing still on the Tappan Zee — like yesterday evening during rush hour, with the roadway packed with the multitude fleeing the City for the Memorial Day holiday weekend — you can feel the thing flex and rumble under you. Not a day passes that I don’t think about what it would be like to fall 150 feet into the deep river, with deadly beams collapsing all around me.

Wikipedia says the Tappan Zee “was constructed during material shortages during the Korean War and designed to last only 50 years.” The really freaky thing about the Tappan Zee is that the roadway sometimes develops holes THROUGH WHICH YOU CAN SEE THE RIVER BELOW. They even have a name for the holes: punch-throughs. Sheee-it. Maintenance and repair crews work on the thing pretty much 24/7, but the beams overhead are covered with rust.

Wikipedia again (bold emphasis mine):

In 2009, the Tappan Zee Bridge was featured on The History Channel “The Crumbling of America” showing the infrastructure crisis in the United States. Many factors contribute to the precarious infrastructure of the bridge, which has been called “one of the most decrepit and potentially dangerous bridges” in the US. Engineering assessments have determined that “everything from steel corrosion to earthquakes to maritime accidents could cause major, perhaps catastrophic, damage to the span,” prompting one of the top aides in the New York state governor’s office to refer to the Tappan Zee as the “hold-your-breath bridge.” A 2009 state report noted that the bridge was not built with a plan that was “conducive to long-term durability” and that the Tappan Zee’s engineers designed it to be “nonredundant,” meaning that one “critical fracture could make the bridge fail completely because its supports couldn’t transfer the structure’s load to other supports.”

You catch all that? THE GOVERNMENT KNOWS IT’S DANGEROUS.  They haven’t fixed it. Just as so many bridges and overpasses in the U.S. haven’t been fixed.

But meanwhile, the United States spent close to a trillion dollars in destroying civilization in Iraq, at the orders of that brainless, gutless little shit George W. Bush. While our own infrastructure here at home was known to be crumbling, corporations that make weapons and military goods toddled off home with enough gold to make a pharaoh look like a filthy street beggar.

War has a price. Aside from the thousands of needless deaths of American’s young men and women, there’s the actual cost of war, and it is dramatically non-trivial. Estimates of the cost of the Vietnam War range from $150 billion to $584 billion. The cost of the combined Iraq-Afghanistan wars is upwards of $1.5 trillion. (Here’s a PDF with more on the cost of wars.)

Kids, if we’re counting the things we could’ve had if we hadn’t spent the  money on recent wars, that’s a FUCK of a lot of new bridges. High-speed rail routes and trains. Schools and teachers. Libraries. Parks and playgrounds. Hell, we could have thrown in free college educations for a million young Americans. So much, much more.

The reasons for this are way-hell more complicated than anything I can winkle out, but down at the most basic level, it seems to me it’s a failing of intellect, of the understanding of facts, of the desire to know true things and live in the real world. It’s the poison cranked every day out of a vast well of fantasy, wishful thinking and studied ignorance — plus the by-no-means-minor  willingness to be commanded, even owned — bequeathed to us by our thousands of years of religion.

None of this is anything we can afford for very much longer.

Nothing will stop it except sane, conscious effort.

By, you know, SOMEONE.



The Religion of Bears

One of my pet peeves has to do with bears. You know — covered with hair, four big paws, occasionally shows up around human habitation and causes people to freak out?

It’s not the bears themselves, it’s the general reaction to them, the body of beliefs associated with them, that bugs me so much.

I lived in a little mountain town in California for 22 years, and there were usually a good dozen or so resident ursids cruising around, usually at night but sometimes in broad daylight.

I had one that came through my yard every night, a big boy I called “Mr. Bear,” probably the largest black bear I’ve ever seen. He would amble past my front door, sometimes as close as 8 feet away, and some nights I would open the door to say hello to him. He’d look over at me but continue his patient plodding and disappear into the night.

Not once in those 22 years did anyone get so much as a scratch from a bear. I never heard of a dog or a cat getting killed or injured. There was, on rare occasions, small amounts of property damage.

Yet INEVITABLY, when you say anything at all about bears, someone will chime in with “Yeah, but they’re wild animals. They’ll kill you if you’re not careful.”

The old-timey magazine covers certainly agreed. Every cover-bear might as well have carried the caption, “Killing machine with fur.”

Yet my experience — with black bears — is that they’re safer than your neighbor’s dog. No, I wouldn’t walk up to a bear and try to pet it. But I also don’t walk up to a Dachshund and try to pet it … not without asking the owner first if the little thing is apt to bite.

In my view, beliefs about the deadly danger of bears constitutes a pocket religion, a “faith” that requires no evidence, spreads automatically and enthusiastically (get city people talking about bears sometime), and usually has little or nothing behind it other than the desire to hear, or tell, an impressive story.

Wikipedia lists Fatal Bear Attacks in North America, dividing them into Black Bear, Grizzly and Polar Bear categories, and including captive (zoo, animal park and circus) bears. If you’re looking for some statistical conclusion about the hazard posed by black bears, I hardly think it’s fair to include captive bears in the mix, considering how unnatural their situations often are. And certainly Grizzlies and Polar Bears are not the same animal.

Yes, black bears are dangerous.  But again, they’re safer than your neighbor’s dog. For the past 3 years, the number of people killed by dogs in the U.S. has hovered between 30 to 35. Already in 2013, there have been 14. In raw numbers, pit bulls and rottweilers are more deadly than bears. (In the year 2000 a baby was killed by a jealous Pomeranian!) And of course this statistic doesn’t include the thousands upon thousands of non-fatal bites and maulings.

Sure, dogs are more common in our lives than bears, and therefore more likely to be involved in fatal accidents. But all the more reason not to spread scary bear stories, isn’t it? You have to really work at it to get into bear country. And once there, the Forest Service or local guides will clue you in to the real dangers, if any.


Unless, of course, we’re talking about Australian Drop Bears.


News stories, often written by wildlife-ignorant writers, help spread the faith, but here’s a nice surprise from today, a not-too-unbalanced bear story at ABCNews.com: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Loved this quote:

 There are ways to live with the bear population that is both safe for us and safe for them. Perhaps it could even evolve into a mutually beneficial relationship.

Am I The Only One Who’s Noticed?

Why do you never see Pope Francis and actor Jonathan Pryce in the same room together?

I swear, it’s like the Catholic Church isn’t even trying anymore.

(Well, they look a bit alike to ME.)