in which i feed a formspring troll

Ordinarily I advise against troll-feeling, as it tends to validate their existence and whatnot, but this one, I cannot resist:

So, let me get this straight… You are an atheist that chose god as your username? You atheists are obsessed with a God that you do not believe exists? Why? I will pray for you, God Bless.

OK, that’s not much of a troll, as trolls go, but still. My formspring answer was brief and dismissive, but the more I thought about it this afternoon, the more I realized I really want to answer that. Why would non-believers invest a good deal of time, effort, and energy into repeatedly dismissing something they profess not to believe? Well, it’s not the non-existent god that we obsess about, it’s the things that are done in his name, and the consequences he’s used as a shield against, and the repeated efforts by his followers to break down barriers between church and state. There are actually far too many reasons to list, but this is a good start:

  • Catholics. When we are confronted by a seemingly endless array of horrific tales of abuse, when we read things like this: ” Murphy would call them to his bedroom in the school, or visit them in their dorm beds late at night, masturbate them and leave. Sometimes he would go on to other boys. Often he would say nothing. Sometimes when the boys saw him molesting other boys in the dorm room, they would cover their heads with their blankets, hug themselves tightly and weep.”, we are motivated to speak out against the shield that religion offers these monsters.
  • Fundamentalist hate groups. It’s not like non-believers can, in good conscience, sit idly by while weapons-grade religious nuttery runs amok.
  • Texas. In addition to the group linked in the above item (under the word “groups”), we also have a situation with Texas rewriting history, and with its textbook purchasing power, influencing schools far beyond its borders. This is just not OK. There are far too many religions to let a small faction of one of them control our educational system.
  • Hypocrisy: Put simply, people who believe in literal interpretations of so-called holy books like the Bible and the Qu’ran are conditioned to accept all manner of egregious behavior in their leaders, and someone has to keep an eye on y’all. See Mojoey‘s Hypocrisy Watch map.

There are just so many excellent reasons to pay excruciatingly close attention to the bullshit that religions attempt to impose upon those who choose not to follow — I didn’t even get into the horrors of Sharia law or Ugandan human rights horrors, or any of myriad other very valid reasons why atheists have every reason to “obsess” on religion.

That being said, the 281 questions I’ve answered to date as god on formspring have included very, very few pompous religious nitwits offering to pray for me, and for that, I am glad.

Read More

and the geek shall inherit the earth

I don’t expect non-programmers to get much out of this list of the top ten things that annoy programmers, but if you’re into free thinking and science, you might like this bit — it’s the number one annoyance, “Your own code, six months later”

Ever look back at some of your old code and grimace in pain? How stupid you were! How could you, who know so much now, have written that? Burn it! Burn it with fire!

Well, good news. You’re not alone.

The truth is, the programming world is one that is constantly changing. What we regard as a best practice today can be obsolete tomorrow. It’s simply not possible to write perfect code because the standards upon which our code is judged is evolving every day. It’s tough to cope with the fact that your work, as beautiful as it may be now, is probably going to be ridiculed later. It’s frustrating because no matter how much research we do into the latest and greatest tools, designs, frameworks, and best practices, there’s always the sense that what we’re truly after is slightly out of reach. For me, this is the most annoying thing about being a programmer. The fragility of what we do is necessary to facilitate improvement, but I can’t help feeling like I’m one of those sand-painting monks.

Frustrating? Sure, sure. But then again, it is utterly delightful to be able to look back on yourself six months ago and think, what was I thinking? I know so much better now! Fixed, unchanging knowledge is one of the most devastating intellectual afflictions known to humankind. Do you really want to be absolutely sure of everything, and stay that way? What happens to your poor brain when all it can do is mull over the same things, over and over and over? It atrophies into so much grey jell-o, that’s what happens.

If you aren’t regularly stricken by how much more you know now than you did six months ago, what’s the point? If your life isn’t a constant series of epiphanies followed by epiphanies that make those prior epiphanies seem quaint and lame by comparison … well, why bother?

Eleven years or so ago, I got my hands on a computer that was connected to the internet for the first time. I had to know how this thing worked, so I began obsessively taking things apart and breaking them until they worked again. Six months later, in spite of the fact I was just a dangerous newbie with a copy of FrontPage and a lot of nerve, I had a job with the title of webmaster, and I never looked back. I have no formal education in this, of course, I can’t be taught, I can only learn, and not from people who are involved in the process of teaching, unless they are also involved in the process of being and doing — even then, I don’t learn from the instructions, I learn from the stuff the instructions are about. I take it apart, I beat on it incessantly (i am known at work for wearing out keyboards), and eventually, I understand. Then I go find something else I don’t know, and bang on it until I do.

Nothing will make you feel stupider on a regular basis than web programming, since no matter how much you know at any point, new stuff needing to be known makes it impossible to ever be complacent — but that feeling of stupid is actually the thing that makes you smarter.

Geek out on whatever knowledge makes your synapses zing, is my advice. The more you know how little you know, the more you are driven to learn.

Read More

the tyranny of lazy-mindedness

I cannot abide lazy-mindedness. This makes me a really, really lousy tech support person (or really good, depending on how you look at it.) I tend to answer questions by alluding vaguely to how such a thing might be figured out, rather than, you know, give an actual answer. Godlizard helps those who help themselves, in other words. If questions persist after I’ve suggested a number of avenues for figuring it out, I generally refer the asker to this, or possibly this, because the only reason I would know the answer would be from doing those things and figuring it out, so I can’t help but think you’d be better off if you also figured it out.

But figuring it out isn’t immediate, and it does not carry with it the same air of authority as knowledge that you receive from asking someone you consider an expert (whether they are or not). In order to believe something you are told without figuring at least some of it out yourself, you must invest a significant amount of mental energy in that belief in order to own the knowledge, thereby making it your own. The price of not engaging in any search for knowledge beyond accepting what you’re told can be quite high; lazy-mindedness doesn’t relieve you of the need to think, it just changes the nature of those thoughts from a search for rational answers to a search for rationalizations.

Humankind is by nature fiercely curious, and terribly impatient. In a discussion not too long ago, this argument in support of religion was put forth:

Throughout all history, through every age, as long as we know of, people have believed in something supernatural, and in almost every culture, tribe and group apart from in the West, people still do. They even claim to talk to their gods, their spirits and their deities. So I ask the question; may our “enlightened” scientific mentality prevent us from understanding something other people always have understood? A world without the people believing in the supernatural has never existed, so how is it possible to imagine one? You don’t know what it is!

My answer to that has to do with curiosity, and impatience. The variety of supernatural beliefs is as diverse as the cultures who embrace them, but the source is always the same: the desire to know why, and the need to know it right now. The intensity of this desire is, for the most part, unbearable. It drives the quest for knowledge, but it also drives the blind acceptance of answers presented as absolute, unassailable, and derived from a higher authority. It creates a willingness which religion was designed to exploit in order to satiate this curiosity and, in doing so, establish itself as that authority.

In order to achieve this blind acceptance, it is necessary to accept on principle that absolute knowledge is somehow a requirement, and that anything less is unacceptable. You hear this again and again in creationists’ arguments, the petulant (and ultimately impossible) demand that science provide definitive, complete answers that wrap everything up in a neat little package. Once an impossible standard like this has been accepted as a reasonable thing to demand, the only acceptable response must include a degree of certainty which is impossible. Once relieved of the burden of existing with in the realm of possibility, this opens up a limitless array of potential answers, each of which represents an end to exploration. Once an absolute solution is presented, one can safely stop wondering and do whatever it is one does when one stops wondering. One can, for instance, take up the hobby of interpreting everyday events as evidence of the correctness of one’s beliefs, which, in spite of the certainty with which they are presented, cause most people who accept them to engage in a constant search for reinforcement. I suppose this search is what takes the place of wonder; rather than trying to find answers to questions, one must search for questions to which their beliefs are at least one possible answer.

In the above-quoted discussion, another argument was presented which claimed that blind faith was not necessarily blind, since it often came out of life experiences that were identified as miracles:

Of course there might be a high probability that the miracle is just a trick, but shouldn’t he also be open to the possibility that it actually is from God? If a person actually takes his religion seriously he usually doesn’t do this in blind faith. Take the situation in Nepal for example where I work. Approximately 60% of those who become Christians choose this new belief because either they themselves or somebody close to them get healed (or so it is claimed).

When humans experience an improbable event or outcome of a situation, there is an overwhelming tendency to interpret it as a miracle, and call it evidence of the supernatural. This tendency tends to annoy me greatly, and by way of explanation I will offer this video, because it explains things so much better than I could:

Between 1914 and 1998, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences showed a marked decline in the percentage of members believed in a personal god, or in immortality. So, any time you cite the predominance of religion throughout ancient history, you need to consider that modern science has only had a small fraction of that time to dispel the primitive superstitions and myths. Looking at the progress of science in the past century, it’s obvious the pace of the advancement of knowledge is picking up, and among those who are paying the most attention to this, religous beliefs are becoming more and more rare.

    BELIEF IN PERSONAL GOD          1914   1933    1998
    Personal belief                 27.7    15       7.0
    Personal disbelief              52.7    68      72.2
    Doubt or agnosticism            20.9    17      20.8
    BELIEF IN IMMORTALITY           1914    1933    1998
    Personal belief                 35.2    18       7.9
    Personal disbelief              25.4    53      76.7
    Doubt or agnosticism            43.7    29      23.3

It’s about patience, and not being lazy-minded. It’s about not making irrational demands that an answer be provided right now, or that it must be absolutely 100% complete with no margin for error. But mostly, it’s about not being lazy-minded.

Read More

the tyranny of satan

I rarely listen to the radio anymore, my presets had disappeared, and I couldn’t remember which stations they were, so I was hitting the scan button. “… to escape the tyranny of satan” caught my attention, and I stopped. The commentators were discussing a mass exodus from a faith whose tenets included the belief that all disease and hardship came from satan, and that if you were sick or unfortunate, that you had done something to deserve it. Parishioners would have anxiety attacks whenever something went wrong, afraid to tell anyone for fear they’d be thought of as sinful. Conversely, they also believed that when their pastor had a heart attack at the pulpit and dropped dead right there, that satan had taken him because he was too good. Fortunately for these terrified souls, it’s apparently perfectly acceptable to decide one’s current faith is too stressful and seek out a congregation that interprets the same words from the same god in different ways, so, they did.

Up until this point, it wasn’t really clear that the men speaking were pro-religion at all — in fact it sounded like they were describing the reasons religion is just a really, really bad idea. But then the conversation turned to the glorious, unquestionable perfection of their kindler, gentler version of the almighty. For some reason (remember, these are the free-of-satan’s-tyranny folks), this alleged love was exemplified by none other than Job. They talked about how their sweet lord dished it out and good old Job took it, then chuckled ruefully about Job’s folly when he finally broke down and questioned why god had murdered his children, destroyed his home, and left him destitute. They smugly related how their awesome god put that arrogant so-and-so Job in his place, and how Job finally apologized for his inappropriate outburst of … utter normalcy. And they were completely in favor of all of this (except maybe the normal bit).

They went on — yes, I was still listening, gripped by a horrified fascination as they mused what a great (albeit unknowable) planner that their god was, which led them to the story of a three year old girl in their church who had died recently after three rounds of chemotherapy, and how the mother wrote a lovely tribute … I don’t know how to put this delicately … thanking her god for giving them three years with this child who lived in almost constant pain and medical torture, and for taking her home where she wouldn’t get poked anymore — at which point I may have snapped a little and yell/asked the radio why in the hell would she even think that? If his “gifts” include babies whose lives are so brutal that their short duration is actually a blessing, who’s to say it’s not just a giant poke-fest up there in the clouds?

Even though by this time I knew they were actually preaching *in favor* of religion, and that they were speaking from the perspective of a church where people from *worse* churches came for refuge, the whole show could just as easily been an atheist object lesson on the evils of religious nonsense. Only nonsense is too nice a word; yes, it made no sense, but there was a darker side of it, a deeper evil. The framers of the Judeo-Christian mythology created a system which terrorizes its victims with nothing more than the ordinary ordeals of life, and then cunningly twists it so the injured, the devastated, the bereaved are compelled to pen heartfelt thank-you notes for innocent children’s horrible deaths.

At some point I reached out and smacked the radio button to shut it up.

Read More