Monday, April 30, 2012

From Minister To Atheist

by Don Wharton

Teresa MacBain was in the church for 44 years.  She served as the as pastor for her United Methodist church in Tallahassee, Florida.  The rejection, isolation and hate that she has received shows just how intensely many people still feel about the tribal bonds that they feel in their religion.

An NPR article can be read here.  A video of her emotional presentation to the American Atheist convention last month is below:

Why "New Atheism" Is Perfectly Compatible With Humanism

By Hos
This flyer, that was dropped at my door over the weekend, did not please me very much. It tells the story of a person, supposedly with cancer, who was "cured" using the "holy oil".
For anyone with a minimum familiarity with statistics, the quack claim is obvious. A sample size of 1? And no control group? Give me a break.
So there is a case of fraud going on in my backyard. Can I call the state authorities and tell them there is someone practicing medicine without a license? Or alert the media? The answer, as well all know it, is no.
The reason is that there is a class of fraud that does not get treated the same way as all other kinds of fraud. That is, fraud that is based on religion. If a snake oil salesman dropped a similar flyer at my door, I wouldn't hesitate to call someone. In this case, as it turns out, I can't.
Why? We will get to that in a minute.
Of course, fraudulent claims associated with religion are a dime a dozen. Even if you disregard the grotesque claims of Al Qaeda and Answers in Genesis, "mainline" Christianity and Islam are all about demonstrably false claims: "eternal salvation/damnation", "power of prayer", etc.
Claims of eternal anything, which are based on life after death, require a part of you that survives your death, what is referred to as soul. In order for such claims to be true, you need your mind to function independently of your brain: the so called concept of mind-body dualism. This claim is overwhelmingly rejected by neurscientists. Claims about life after death have been utterly debunked by skeptics. Faith healing hasn't fared much better. (Although I doubt this would in the least interest the distributors of the "holy oil".) It turns out that God, under controlled conditions, performs miserably.
When the fraud victims number in dozens, and the subject of fraud is something that could potentially be delivered, we put the culprits behind bars and warn potential future victims (see Madoff, Bernie). When the victims number in the millions, and what they were promised could, in principle, never have possibly been delivered and there is not a single known case that it ever was, (an in "eternal salvation"), we never dare say a word. (Even though I was never told where exactly this arbitrary line is drawn. Is it OK to criticize Salafism? FLDS? Scientology?) If we do, we will get called all sorts of names, including "shrill", "militant", etc. Worse, if (heaven forbid) we dare using the metaphor of war, even if we clarify that the only weapons to be used are logic and arguments, we will earn the wrath of our own fellow skeptics. With justifications like these: not all religions are extremist (but name me one that doesn't promise an afterlife/answers to prayers, or doesn't promote "faith" as a good thing), we should not alienate potential allies (as if making alliances means your have to agree on everything), people are less likely to accept reason if you attack their faith because that is part of their identity (as if there are no fence sitters who will see the folly of the faith once it is subjected to criticism), or we should not make the faithful dislike skeptics (as if there isn't a ton of evidence that they do just fine all by themselves, regardless of whether there are any "militant atheists" in the picture).
But that leaves one question. As Humanists, isn't it our responsibility to warn potential victims of the snake oil salesman hiding behind a cross? As long as "faith" is granted respect as a matter of course, those distributing flyers for "holy oil" will always get away with it and there is nothing anyone can do about that.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Mass Murderer and His Televangelist Buddy

Left, Charles Taylor, warlord and convicted criminal against humanity; right, well, you know who.

By Hos
The War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague has convicted the former warlord-turned-"democratically elected" president of the West African nation of Liberia, Charles Taylor, of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Taylor was on trial for his involvement in the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. The atrocities in that civil war included murders, rapes, amputations, and recruitment of children into the conflict. The war was largely financed by smuggling and illegal sales of conflict diamonds, in which, according to the verdict, Taylor played a crucial part. The events of the Sierra Leone civil war were dramatized in the 2006 motion picture "Blood Diamond", starring Leonardo Dicaprio.
What Taylor was NOT tried for was the atrocities he committed in his own country, Liberia. Since, before he became president in 1997, he was a warlord in the country's civil war, were atrocities matched those committed in Sierra Leone. Yet oddly enough, Taylor is as popular in Liberia today as he was when he was elected president. At the time, his unofficial campaign slogan was "You killed my ma, you killed my pa, I'll vote for you".
So why would people vote for someone who had killed their relatives, or root for him once he was found guilty of crimes against humanity? This is a complex question, but religious influence seems to be an important part of the answer. According to some Liberian supporters of Taylor, "He's the only God-fearing president we've got." Per some reports, Taylor officially declared Liberia a Christian nation, even though most Liberians are not Christians. At a three-day CBN[Christian Broadcasting Network]-sponsored "Liberia for Jesus" rally in February 2002, Taylor was the star attraction, lying prostrate on the red-carpeted stage of Samuel Doe Stadium in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and exhorting the crowd to come to Christ. "I cannot help you," he told his long-suffering people. "All help comes from God."
But ordinary Liberian are not the only ones knowing Taylor as a man of God. He has a pious, and powerful, friend here in the US. His name: Pat Robertson.
Here is what Robertson said in defense of Taylor, condemning the Bush administration's demands that he step down:
It is a disgrace that Robertson has never been officially investigated for his alleged role in conflicts in West Africa. I do not think the freedom loving people of the US should tolerate this travesty. Further, if Robertson lobbied US administration on behalf of a foreign government without going through the proper channels, he violated the federal law. Hopefully the conviction of Taylor should open the door to investigation of his most prominent associates, and few are higher up the ladder than Robertson.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Islamists' "Camel-centered" Worldview

Ayatollah Khomeini established a theocracy in iran where personal injury damages are calculated in camels. Figures often include decimal points.

By Hos

Over at Foreign Policy, Karim Sadjadpour has an excellent analysis on the love-hate relationship between an Islamic theocracy and sex.
According to Iran's constitution, the supreme leader has to be "an outstanding Islamic scholar". What that essentially means is that, in order for all branches of government to be accountable to you, you have to have spent many years studying "Islamic jurisprudence". The latter is a complex code of rules put together over the centuries, based on the Koran and the Hadith (the words and deeds of the prophet and saints).
This mumbo-jumbo deals to a great extent with issues concerning personal hygiene and sex. The level of obsession of clerics with the most private aspects of lives of the faithful is mind boggling. As is their imaginativeness with the weird scenarios their followers may need to deal with. The following is an excerpt right out of the writings of ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran: "If a person has intercourse with a cow, a sheep, or a camel, their urine and dung become impure and drinking their milk will be unlawful". Sadjadpour adds:

"Indeed, Khomeini's religious prescriptions are often the butt of jokes among Iran's post-revolutionary generations. "I've never even seen a camel in Tehran," prominent Iranian cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar told me, "let alone been tempted to have sex with one.""

But sex is not the only place in the ayatollah's writings where camels are in spotlight. When it comes to rules concerning compensating someone you have injured, the currency is the camel. Figures such as 2.5 (camels) are common.

The apologists are quick to point out (as you'll see in Sadjadpour's article) that "context" is everything and that Islam appeared first among desert-dwelling camel-herders, for whom all of the above would have been relevant. In doing so, they ignore another, more obvious context: Islam is no longer the faith of camel herders exclusively, neither has it been for many, many centuries. So why is it that even the most "outstanding" of the "scholars" are still camel-obsessed?

The answer is rather simple. Islam does not tolerate change. Many muslims brag that Islam is a "progressive" faith, that is, it has answers for new questions arising with changing times. Reality, however, tells us a very different story. Any Muslim who suggests that Islamic laws should change with time is likely to learn the hard way how "progressive" Islam really is. Just ask Taslima Nasreen, who was thrown out if her "moderate" Islamic country of Bangladesh for doing just that. Still, she lived to tell the tale; no such luck for Neda Agha Soltan. The latter was singled out for being shot during protests against election fraud in Iran in 2009, for being too attractive and failing heed the warning that this would get the attention of the sex-starved pro-regime militias, according to the account given by her mother.

The valued tradition of crushing any dissent against orthodoxy has deep roots in Islam. In fact, it goes back to the Koran itself, where "God" commands the prophet to wage war on the infidels and "hypocrites". The latter were Muslim converts suspected to be secretly holding on to their past polytheistic beliefs. This command and others like it have been used ever since by hardliners to brand all dissent as apostasy, hypocrisy, blasphemy etc, which then open the door to harassment and murder. To get a taste of that, take a look here.

I strongly suspect this is one of the most important reasons Islam hasn't had its own "Enlightenment".

There are those in the Western world whose knee jerk reaction to the words "camel" and "Islam" in the same sentence is to cry out "racism". The real racism, however, is to turn a blind eye to the suffering of millions of people under Islamists' rule, using the pretext of "respecting cultural differences". Their true crime is having been born in the wrong place.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"General" Myers Is Too Soft

Anwar al-Awlaki

By Hos
PZ Myers, atheist biologist and blogger, often is a controversial character. His harsh tone has at times earned him the title "General" Myers, a label I disagree with.

However, sticking with the military analogy but in a more literal sense, I thing it is possible to discern why, if anything, Myers is too soft when it comes to religiously motivated violence.
Specifically, I am talking about a post that he made about US drone strikes, comparing them them to suicide attacks by militant Islamists. More recently, he has been telling us that he is pleased with the impact the earlier post may have had.

But is this a valid comparison? Is it even fair to put the two on the same level?

Let us start by going over a few examples of who has been targeted by the drones, and what this strategy has achieved.

Perhaps the most high-profile and controversial of all drone actions in the recent years has been the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. The American born Awlaki, who had been living in Yemen for a number of years, was busy giving anti-American talks and encouraging acts of violence. He had been linked to a number of (successful or otherwise) terrorist attacks in the US. These included the attack at Fort Hood, the Christmas day bomb attack near Detroit, and the Parcel Bomb attack of 2010.
I happen to think that in an ideal world, Awlaki could be put on trial for treason and incitement of violence, and put behind bars for life in a super-max facility. Unfortunately, that was quite impossible. He was the resident of a tribal and lawless area, and it would likely never work out to capture him. It is unfortunate that Awlaki had to meet his end this way, but Awlaki's survival would in all likelihood cost more lives.

shoulder height portrait with a long black beard and black hair and head dress
Baitullah Mehsud

Benazir Bhutto

There has been a lot of anger at the drone strikes in Pakistan, mostly on the grounds of sovereignty. The reality, however, is that the militants who are targeted in the tribal northwestern Pakistan, while unquestionably a danger to the US, are a much bigger danger to Pakistan itself. Exhibit A here would be the militant Baitullah Mehsud. Mehsud was tied to the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, in mid-election campaign. While Mehsud denied this, again, as a powerful warlord in a tribal area, he was virtually immune to a thorough investigation. The premise that he was more of danger to his own people than to us seems to be indisputable.

But the achievements of the drone campaign cannot be measured solely in the militant suspects that they have killed. More importantly perhaps, they have scared a good number of them into urban zones, where they can be captured, with no need for drone strikes. Let's take a look at a few infamous examples.
Mullah Baradar
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, high ranking Taliban leader, was captured in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, in February 2010. It is highly unusual for such bigwigs of Taliban to show up in major cities. The Taliban are, by nature, cave dwellers. The appearance of these dangerous men in big cities is, in all likelihood, for fear of falling prey to the drones.

But Baradar was likely not the biggest fish seeking refuge in cities due to fear of drone attacks. That title probably should go to none other than Osama Bin Laden. He had been living in houses for about 9 years before he was killed. Again, for a person at ease mostly in caves and tents, there is little explanation for this, other than feeling unsafe in the mountains.

The objection raised by PZ and others, of course, is the civilian casualties caused by the strikes. Yes, civilians, women, and children are often killed in these attacks. It is true, and it is heart-wrenching. But does this make it fair to compare these strikes to suicide bombings?

I think there is a point that doesn't get enough attention here. The reason that there are civilian casualties is that the militants are using the civilians as human shields. I find it rather puzzling that those who preach eternal paradise and 72 virgins to young recruits do not seem to be in such a hurry to reach this paradise themselves. They use any measures at their disposition, including life in lawless areas and hiding behind civilians, to avoid capture and death. Why aren't they getting any of the blame when others die as a result of their actions?

Here is the reality. The goal of a suicide bomber is to cause the maximum number of civilian deaths. The goal of a drone strike is to kill its intended target, with as few civilians as possible. The reason for this is that, ultimately, a democratic institution like the US government has to give attention to public perception of its actions. Even anti-drone activists accuse the US government of trying to hide facts concerning civilian casualties, maintaining that finding out about them would turn the tide of public opinion in the US against them and likely put an end to the attacks. Terrorists are bound by no such considerations. Therefore, comparing the two with regards to issues of morality is totally misguided. PZ Myers is wrong on this point.

My own sense is that the drone campaign, with all its shortcomings, has been instrumental in keeping us all safer. The strikes are likely to continue despite all the political bickering and vociferous objections.

Charles Colson, 1931-2012

by Edd Doerr

By now you will have read the obituaries for Charles Colson, Nixon's "hatchet man", who died on April 21,  and about his conversion to evangelical Christianity shortly before his incarceration. While I cannot judge the man's sincerity, I have the opinion that his personality did not change much. As a disbarred lawyer he became a big shot in evangelical circles and a strong opponent of church-state separation, teaming up with like-minded fundamentalists and such ultraconservative Catholics as the late Lutheran minister turned Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things.

Several years ago the Washington Times sponsored a well-attended panel discussion on religious freedom issues in Washington. I was present. Among the eight panelists, four conservative and four liberal, were Colson and columnist and former Falwell minion Cal Thomas, whom I have debated and clobbered. (The late U of Richmond historian Bob Alley and I debated Thomas and Phyllis  Schlaffly at Converse College in SC.) Thomas has long had a nasty mean streak, but at the Wash Times affair Colson really outdid him. Colson hardly fit the image of a nice guy Christian gentleman.

The only other time that I saw Colson personally was in 1987 at Georgetown Hospital in Washington. I was there in a waiting room to visit  a friend who was there for cancer treatment. Colson was also there in the waiting room talking with another guy. What is interesting is that at that very time in the very same part of the hospital former C.I.A. director William Casey was dying. Was there a connection between Casey and Colson? I do not know.

Friday, April 20, 2012

"Borking America"

by Edd Doerr

Mitt Romney has appointed Robert Bork as co-chair of his campaign advisory committee on law, the Constitution and the judiciary. Pretty scary, huh! People for the American Way  has released Jamie Raskin's compact study, Borking America: What Robert Bork Will Mean for the Supreme Court and American Justice, which may be downloaded from their web site, Raskin is a Maryland state senator, a professor of constitutional law at American University, and a senior  fellow at People for the American Way.

Raskin's 11-page analysis of the significance of  Romney's close ties to Bork should  give all voters pause. Bork is not merely a failed Reagan Supreme Court appointee but a leading brain of the ultraconservative movement that now dominates the Republican Party. He is so far to the political right that he can properly be labelled an authoritarian fascist. You have to read Raskin's superb analysis. Bork is on the wrong side of every major civil liberties, civil rights, religious freedom, women's rights, and church-state separation issue.

When Reagan announced Bork's appointment in 1987 I was one of the first journalists to examine the trove of the writings that Bork turned over to the Senate Judiciary Committee. From there it was easy for me and Americans for Religious Liberty to enthusiastically join the successful campaign to defeat the Bork nomination. During that two months I guess I made at least 30 speeches and radio and TV talk show appearances. It was as easy as shooting ducks in a barrel. All I had to do was point out how Bork was on the wrong side of every issue dealing with constitutional liberties. As I had personally heard him lecture, it was simple to show that he was really a Jerry Falwell in striped pants.

Romney's proximity to Bork alone raises serious questions about Romney's fitness to sit in the Oval Office.

Secular Perspectives Page Views

by Don Wharton

We have just gone over 60,000 all time page views. The monthly record as of the end of 2011 was the 3,730 page views for December 2011. 2012 has shown a huge ramp up in our rate of viewing. We were over 5,000 page views in January and we are currently at a rate of over 8,000 page views per month.

Sarah Hippolitus just set a new record by getting 1,000 page views on a post in only five days. We have the go to blog for the secular community in the Washington DC region.

New authors with material to be posted can contact me by email -- blog [at] wash [dot] org.

We can give your material the audience that it deserves. WASH membership is not required. This is a shared community resource.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Wrong General?

The "perverse and cruel atheist" (according to conservapedia)
Marquis de Sade in prison, 18th century line engraving.
The recent post by Ms Sarah Hippolitus on the foul and "violent" language used by blogger and biologist PZ Myers drew quite a bit of attention and responses. Unsurprisingly, the responses from both sides were emotional, and some insults were traded.
I think diversity of opinion among non-believers is by no means unexpected. If anything, organizing atheists has been likened to "herding cats". It turns out that disagreements exist among contributors of Secular Perspectives (Mathew Goldstein, for example, expressed a mixed opinion in the comments). I certainly do not agree with PZ on everything, but on the whole I think his views have been to some extent misinterpreted.

The title of the post calls him "general" Myers, presumably because he encouraged people to "assault heaven and kill god". And we are told "If I were a religious person and read some intellectual leader in the atheist community saying how he wanted to "assault heaven and kill god," I'd be alarmed by, and pissed off at, those angry atheists trying to ruin my life, and be ever more susceptible to church warnings that the atheists are out to get me."

But I think we are not giving people of faith enough credit. After all, anyone who can read, might care to check his blog and view the "general's attack plan":
"So how do you kill an idea? How will we sack the city of faith?
By coming up with a better, more powerful idea. That’s the only way we can win."
(As an aside, this reminds me of the claim that "every" person of faith would find the idea of the Flying Spaghetti Monster offensive. Whereas in reality, I have seen plenty of them commenting the it is just hilarious and there is nothing offensive about it).
So Myers is not advocating violence, and anyone with a minimum of intellect will recognize that. Is his choice of language the best? Probably not. But then, "inappropriate use of metaphor" is all he is guilty of.
So do New Atheists make people of faith see all non-believers in a bad light?
I am a skeptic and I would like to see some evidence for this claim. The null hypothesis at this point is that New Atheists have had no impact on the public perception of atheism. (If anything they may have had the opposite effect but that is a matter for another post).
Here are some examples. If George H. W. Bush, 41st US president, said "I don't think atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots", was that Myers or Dawkins's fault? Mind you, he said that as the sitting US vice president in 1987.
Let's face it. There are few references to atheists in public consciousness prior to the New Atheists arriving on the scene, and those few were pejorative ones; godlessness was associated first and foremost with the red scare.
Here is another example. According to a recent study, atheists are trusted about as much as...rapists! Can anyone say with a straight face this is New Atheists' fault? In all likelihood many of those who said that would trust rapists more than atheists hadn't ever heard of Dawkins, the most famous of New Atheists. But here is a gem: if you want a long litany of alleged lack of morality attributed to atheists, most of it from decades and centuries past, look no further than here. I am sure they wouldn't be spreading lies about it if it weren't for the poor choice of language by Myers!
We are told that "what we secular people desperately need is a strong humanist movement, and we need it now, before it's too late -- before PZ's cavalry arrives, and creates a chasm so wide between the religious and atheists that we've entirely alienated ourselves, which is never a good move for a minority group". I'm afraid that ship sailed long ago. The chasm was created long before PZ was born. If the military metaphor is apt, the "generals" were those who enriched themselves by telling the masses that disbelief is illogical, immoral, and leads to eternal damnation.

We are advised, "The very first thing you must always do with an intellectual “opponent” is find some common ground. That’s just basic psychology. Always start a debate with a point you both agree on. The point of all this is to reason with the religious effectively, right?" Well, to a point. With some there is no reasoning; Young Earth Creationists being a good example. It is not like it hasn't been tried; some of those who did just that ended up compromising their principles. Negotiating is good, but going overboard to the point of forgetting why you started negotiating is not so good.
Now time for some perspective. There are millions (billions?) of good Christians and Muslims who believe anyone who doesn't share their doctrinal creed will roast in hell for ever and ever. In other words, if Myers uses metaphorical language of "killing god" and presumably that alienates people, what about all of those people who believe in eternal torture? How is it that the Muslims and Christians together make up more than half of the world population? Wasn't anyone deterred by the such intolerant claims? Myers may be called intolerant, but he is less so than anyone who believe in a literal hell.
Lastly, it is said, "You'd better find some common ground with who you are angry with, if you ever hope to see the change you want." Well, here are some counter-examples. John Brown never sought common ground with those he was angry with, and yet he not only achieved what he believed in (albeit posthumously), he is remembered as a hero. Neither did Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose book, The Woman's Bible, is reviled by some believers to this day (just look at the comments left on Amazon site). This, even though she was as instrumental in the universal suffrage movement as her negotiating-type sister-in-arms, Susan B Anthony. If there is one thing to learn from the story of these two women, it is that the Stantons of the world that strengthen the hand of the Anthonys of the world at negotiation.
I would like to ask both Myers's critiques and his defenders to tone down the language and look more closely at the context. After all, we cannot possibly hope to have a constructive dialog with those who disagree with us on almost everything, if we cannot do among ourselves.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Earthquakes and the National Debt: What Do They Have in Common?

From Hos
Via Ed Brayton

Religious nutjobs all around the world have the bizarre habit of attributing everything they don't like to... sex. A notable example being Boobquake, when a number of ladies with an unmatched sense of humor poked fun at the notorious cleric Kazem Sedighi of Iran, who somehow tied "dressing immodestly" to earthquakes. (No word on whether the 2011 earthquake in Japan was the ladies' fault).

But he is not alone. Just now, we are learning that "the promotion and practice of sex outside of marriage is doing more to increase the national debt more than any other single factor".

And I keep thinking the debt might have had something to do with tax breaks for the top one percent, runaway Pentagon expenses, or aging population. How could I have been so naive.

It is just amazing how two men of God, from different cultures and different parts of the world, have almost identical delusions.

As Voltaire said, if "God didn't exist, we would would be necessary to invent him".
For the laughs, perhaps?

Monday, April 16, 2012

NELSI-4, the Fourth Annual National Symposium on Neuroscience

by Don Wharton
My Friend Stuart Jordan is the President of the Institute for Science and Human Values.  ISHV and the Potomac Institute co-sponsored NELSI-4, the Fourth Annual National Symposium on Neuroscience, Ethics, Legal and Social Issues, on March 16, 2012.  I enjoyed this symposium immensely.  There is an on-line video of all presentations.  It is over six hours long but you can choose where in the video timeline you wish to view it.  A list of the speakers is included below.

Featured speakers include:
Gregory Berns PhD
Emory University
"Neural Mechanisms of Values"
William Casebeer PhD
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
"Will, Narrative and Personal Responsibility"
Patricia Churchland PhD
University of California San Diego
"What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality"
James Giordano PhD
Center for Neurotechnology Studies, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies
University of New Mexico
University of Oxford

Symposium Chair
"Neuroethics as Meta-ethics: Avoiding Icarus' Folly"

Eric Racine PhD
Neuroethics Research Unit , Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal (IRCM)
"Neuroimaging and the Values of Neuroscience"

John Shook PhD
University of Buffalo
"The New Ethics of Neuroethics"

and a special introduction by
Paul Kurtz, PhD
Institute for Science and Human Values

Sansho the Bailiff - Japanese Film with a Humanist Message

By Gary Berg-Cross
Kenji Mizoguchi's "Sansho the Bailiff (Sanshô dayû)- made in1954)" was shown at the National Gallery East as part of ‘Japan Spring on the Mall’ as well as for the film Washington, D.C. International Film Festival (Filmfest DC). I went to see it on the recommendation , you might say, of Roger Ebert and Orson Wells. They see it as one of the best of all Japanese films. In part such critics & artists are attracted to Mizoguchi's quietly elegant cinematic style with vividly framed black and white images that linger in the mind. Ebert simple says that Mizoguchi films let you “not simply watch a narrative, but feel it and experience it as well.”

Reviewers also like that Mizoguchi closely observes early compositional rules of the cinema. The Sansho character travels in space and time and screen movements to left in a frame suggests backward in time, while those to the right, go forward in time. Upward movement is hopeful, while downward is ominous. Like sinister music, the movie’s charters stop their upper left movement and travel to the lower right of the frame. We know they are descending into a dismal and dark future. It is great to have this cinematic quality, but these only add to the rich storyline that opens like a cherry blossom - a humanistic retelling of a venerated Japanese folk tale.
The tale is set dimly in the 11th century Heian period during Japan’s medieval feudalism, making it unlike most Japanese historical dramas involving later samurai knights and their honor code. The story starts with a provincial governor, Lord Taira, defending his peasants, on principle. from being unfairly conscripted into the army. When the peasants protest he refuses to punish them. His compassion brings us a temporary halt to injustice. but he is quickly overruled by a general. As a result he and his family are punished with separate exiles. On the verge of being exiled and separated from his family Taira speaks to his very young son Zushio about guiding principles:
” I wonder if you'll become a stubborn man like me. You may be too young to understand, but hear me out anyway. Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness.”
The story jumps ahead six years and we see the wife and children walking on their way to re-join the father. Zushio, the son, and daughter Anju talk proudly of their father and are told a simplified version of his father’s principle of compassion, translated into English as:
Without mercy, man is not a human being."
But ideals and virtues like mercy are seen infrequently in this Dickensian world with waves of misery and harshness. The mother and children are captured by slave traders and separately sold into slavery as they journey. The mother is transported to an island and sold to a brothel as a courtesan. The young son and daughter are taken in the opposite direction and sold to Sansho the bailiff. He oversees and runs for profit a “private” manor under the corrupt crony protection to a distant part of government called Udaijin or Minister of the right. But the 1% elite baliffs and ministers provide not justice here. They are profiteers from slavery and conditions for slaves are deplorable, without fairness or justice from the rulers, who haven’t a glimmer of compassion. But some of the slaves have compassion and are upset that children as young as them are “bought and sold, treated like animals, and nobody questions it.” In this grim world the children have little hope and are given advice to bide their time and grow into adults if they ever want to escape back to their parents. But there is virtue among the slaves who keep a sense of humanity and evoke the basic good in others around them. One overseer named Taro gives his disappointed view of things:
“I found that humans have little sympathy for things that don't directly concern them. They're ruthless. Unless those hearts can be changed, the world you dream of cannot come true. If you wish to live honestly with your conscience, keep close to the Buddha.”
Here Buddhism like the virtues of Lord Taira and the peasants represents ancient and traditional strengths that endure temporary change. The films first image glides ancient stones deeply embedded and rooted in the ground. These megalithic monuments push ever so clearly up out of the dirt that the slave compound has deposited. They seem to symbolize the resilient solidity of ancient traditions, and the possibility of cultural continuity.
The story changes suddenly when a new slave girl arrive from Sado. Zushio’s sister Anju hears the girls singing a song with her and Zushio’s names in it. Their mother has used an ancient means of song to reach them. She has created a memetic song that travels to then with a simple message, "Isn't life torture?" At great cost the children effect an escape with Anju insisting that Zushio save a dying women as part of his escape to Kyoto to get help and justice from the officials. On his father’s good name he gets some conditional help and a position of some power, but is advised again to be practical and wait. His response and its outcome is one of those pleasure-pain points in a meaningful story.
At the story’s conclusion we have traveled to Sano Island for a grim recapitulation of "Isn't life torture?" These last images are of a beach landscape recently devastated by a tsunami – one of several we are told. We are left with the image of people stoically sweeping up what remains after cycles of violence. Virtue has not saved them, but the people in the center of the frame with a chance to move left and forward.

Sansho the Bailiff is available on Netflicks.

A Travesty You Are Paying For

By Hos
This horrid tale of violence, corruption, and censorship is downright surreal. What is worse, it is only the tip of the iceberg.
The European Union commissioned a movie called "Justice" on the situation of women in Afghanistan, by producer Clementine Malpas. Oddly enough, the EU itself has now banned it. The above video is part of that documentary, plus some commentary. It is in Dutch, with Farsi captions (plus the interview with Malpas in English). So I could decipher most of it.
The subject of the movie is women guilty of "moral" crimes. These include rape victims, fugitives from abusive relationships, and those falling in love without the approval of their male relatives. According to UN figures, over half of women imprisoned in Afghanistan are behind bars for such "crimes". According to the producer, in some prisons outside Kabul, number are up to 80% of prisoners if not more.
Gulnaz, 19, is an Afghan woman and rape victim. She was jailed (along with her attacker) for having the temerity to denounce him.
Apparently this is not legal, even in Afghanistan. But according to the producer of the documentary, the judge and prosecutor had their palms greased, by the family of the rapist.
She became pregnant as a result of the rape, and gave birth in jail. The Afghan head of state, Hamid Karzai, apparently "pardoned" her after she agreed to marry the attacker, and they were both freed.
Recent legislation in Afghanistan has required respect for women's right, but that is only on paper. Recently a woman and her daughter were stoned to death, closed to a governor's office.
The excuse for banning the movie is that it may "endanger the women in prison". But that is funny. According to the interview at least, the women themselves were fine with the screening of the documentary.
For Gulnaz, the release of the documentary is beside the point. She has to marry her rapist. But the rapist's family hate her for denouncing him, and have vowed to kill her, and her daughter.
The producer will not speak on why her movie is banned, and says she is bound by contract.
But it is not hard to speculate on EU's real motives. After all, most EU nations are members of NATO as well, and in fact they are the ones shoring up the corrupt and vile regime in Afghanistan.
And so are we.

WaPo and Consistency

by Edd Doerr

Below is the comment that I posted in the Washington Post on line on 4/16/12 ----

Today (April 16) the Post rightly blasts a new Tennessee law that "seems designed to encourage teachers who would introduce pseudo-scientific criticisms inspired by religion or ideology into descriptions of the current state of evolution or climate science." Yet on April 11 the Post editorialized in favor of tax support, through school vouchers, of private schools many of which teach kids "pseudo-science . . . inspired by religion or ideology" with regard to "evolution or climate science." Does the right hand at the Post know what the left hand is writing? Is it possible to entertain contradictory viewpoints before breakfast is finished? Can someone please explain this?

Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Teen Pregnancy Rates

By Hos
And the gold goes to...Mississippi. It is not the only place where Mississippi is number one: it happens to be the most religious state in the nation, as well. Of note, out of the ten states with highest rates of teen pregnancy, seven are pious southern states, whereas out of the 5 states with lowest teen pregnancy rates, four are in the relatively secular New England.
Minnesota, the state where I once lived, it rather low on the list, even though that is where the movie Juno, dealing with the issue of teen pregnancy, was set. The movie was partially set in St Cloud, the devout catholic city where I lived, and according to the Wikipedia entry of the city, is referred to in the movie as "East Jesus Nowhere". Based on my experience I thought I was an appropriate location for the movie.
Once again, we learn that abstinence only sex education doesn't seem to be the panacea it is often trumpeted to be; in fact, the one thing states with high rates of teen pregnancy may have in common could be lack of a comprehensive sex education plan.
Speaking of abstinence only, if it is so useful that millions of tax-payer money have already been spent on it, why can't we use it for some other vexing problems like smoking and obesity?

WaPo, Chavous, Vouchers . . . . Bovine Excrement

by Edd Doerr

An April 11 Washington Post editorial, "Voucher politics", extolled the DC school voucher plan imposed by George W. Bush and the Repubs nearly a decade ago, seemingly unaware that the DC vouchers are paid for by taxes on all US taxpayers, that the chief beneficiaries are pervasively sectarian private schools in DC, that tens of millions of US voters have rejected vouchers or their analogs in 26 statewide referenda from coast to coast by an average margin of 2 to 1, that the 2011 Gallup education poll showed opposition to vouchers nationally at 65% to 34%, and that DC voters defeated a voucher plan in 1981 by 89% to 11%. Why has the Post reversed the sound positions it took on this issue editorially on 6/21/69 and 3/3/71 (editorials cited in my book Great Quotations on Religious Freedom, Prometheus Books, 2002)?

On April 14 the Post printed a "Local Opinions" piece by hack politician Kevin Chavous attacking DC mayor Gray and President Obama for not supporting DC school vouchers. Chavous had the incredible, unhinged chutzpah to say that "all over this country, progressive, forward-looking public officials" are supporting vouchers. Yeah, "progressive, forward-looking" politicians like ultra-right-wing Republican governors and legislators like Wisconsin's Scott Walker, Indiana's Mitch Daniels, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, the GOP governors and legislators of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and the likes of Newt Gingrich and John Boehner. No progressives that I know of are in favor of school vouchers.

Briefly, vouchers violate our federal and state constitutional principle of separation of church and state, violate every citizen's religious freedom, fragment our student population along religious and other lines, threaten to destroy democratic public education, render the teaching profession less attractive, adversely affect the education of kids, undercut science teaching and women's rights, increase educational costs, and serve the political interests of religious fundamentalists.

The Post is unlikely to alter its mistaken position on school vouchers unless it is bombarded with letters and emails.

General Myers and His Endless War on Error

by Sarah Hippolitus

I usually avoid reading PZ Myers' work, as I don't care for the guy's point of view on atheism, but Sunday morning I thought what the hell, let's see what PZ's plan is to, as he puts it, "assault heaven and kill god." (Also James Croft of Harvard Humanists posted it, so I thought I better check this out -- there’s got to be something juicy here!) I've got to say his essay, Sunday Sacrilege: Sacking the City of God, pushed a hot button in me, well, more like ten. He's assaulting and killing something, but it's not the religious person's idea of heaven or god -- it's the atheist's chance of living in a religion-free world -- possibly even living safely in a world with religion -- as well as our social and political acceptance as a minority demographic. (And right after the Reason Rally! Pity.)

The first thing to note is the vitriolic language he uses, which is deliberate. Many (not all) of his loyal readers are angry atheists, and they need to be incited with regular feedings of fresh red meat. If I were a religious person and read some intellectual leader in the atheist community saying how he wanted to "assault heaven and kill god," I'd be alarmed by, and pissed off at, those angry atheists trying to ruin my life, and be ever more susceptible to church warnings that the atheists are out to get me.

In Chris Mooney's must-read essay, The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science, published in May 2011, he explains the crucial concept of "motivated reasoning," which is a scientifically-supported fact (it's science, PZ!) that explains why telling people they are wrong, when they have an emotional investment in being right, makes them cling harder to their beliefs. He quotes political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan, "We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself."

Mooney is careful to point out "that's not to suggest that we aren't also motivated to perceive the world accurately -- we are. Or that we never change our minds -- we do. It's just that we have other important goals besides accuracy -- including identity affirmation and protecting one's sense of self -- and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say they should."

This isn't hard to understand -- just think about fighting with your loved one. Tell them they are wrong, and you trigger their defense mechanisms, and it's as if they actually can't hear what you are saying, because at our core we are prideful, emotional beings. We take pride in our intelligence, and we are emotionally invested in many of our beliefs, most of all the belief that we are smart and have true beliefs! Also, studies show that when someone is insecure about their belief, and you try to spew facts at them, you'll get a big resistance, the same result as when they are convinced they are right. Why? The more emotional someone is about something, the less power any contrary facts have over them.

Mooney describes how when challenged, we may think we are reasoning, but we are actually rationalizing. He offers an analogy provided by psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, who also does great work on motivated reasoning: we think we are acting like scientists (reasoning), but we are actually acting like lawyers (rationalizing), trying to find evidence that supports our case.

Let's get back to PZ's plan to "kill god and assault heaven.” With that word choice, PZ knows he is being threatening, and not only does he not care, he likes it. PZ says:

I cannot blame them [god-believers] for being fearful; we are galloping towards the central ideas of their identity, and we aim to tear down their walls and replace their obsolete myths with change and something more vital.

Can't you just picture PZ and a cavalry of angry atheists riding through a battle field of Ancient Rome in full armor, carrying swords elegantly engraved with the word "science,” so they can literally attack their religious enemies?

He then asks the reader, "How will we sack the city of faith?"

Whoa, PZ! Now we are "sacking" communities of religious people? Theists everywhere: lock your doors! PZ and his cavalry are galloping to a city near you!

Regarding religion and god, he says he’s got the "idea-killer.” Sure he could have said "remedy,” "antidote,” "solution,” but those are positive words, and this is PZ, and he's such a badass.

Intentionally using militant language to keep his angry atheist fan base riled up, PZ says, "Science is our god-killer." Now on the one hand, he is right. The more science teaches us about how the natural world works, the more god gets written out of the story, or put another way, the more god loses credit as a natural explanation replaces a "god-explanation." What I take issue with is PZ’s claim that "science" is the answer by itself. Note that PZ is not talking about social sciences -- he is talking about physical/natural sciences. I say this because he incorporates nothing from psychology, sociology, or neuroscience into his viewpoint. Religious people hold on to god for the sake of their values, many of which secular folks share, and values can’t be fully derived from science, social or natural. The social sciences, which PZ has the least interest in, actually has the most power to “kill god” because they explain how civil societies are nurtured, and what values are most conducive to human flourishing, but PZ isn’t interested.

Look, I am a rational gal. I love science, especially psychology and neuroscience, which PZ seems to know little about. Science transformed our world for the better -- undeniable. Ignoring good science is tragic, and brings negative consequences for all. He seems to want to sell us a story that science is not only reality's best friend, but can be yours as well, as if science has a personal side.

Science bridges differences: I can find common ground with American scientists, Canadian scientists, Mexican scientists, Chinese scientists, Iranian scientists, Australian scientists. Maybe you aren’t a scientist, strictly speaking, but you’ve read the latest book by Dawkins or Hawking, or you love David Attenborough’s TV shows, or you’re a bird watcher or like weekend hiking in the Mountains. You are my people! We are one, united in an appreciation of the natural world!

Science bridges differences? I'm not a hippie, but I thought what bridges differences is love. Caring? Compassion? Humanism? Science theoretically can bridge differences in opinion if presented in a way that it can be received by another (as Mooney and Haidt are saying), but it doesn't bridge personal differences, not by itself. Science can't prescribe that we ought to be patient, loving, and forgiving towards each other, or that we ought to value science, by the way. Science can't tell us that friendship, care, and human rights, and science itself, are valuable.

(I'd like the reader to note PZ's vast network of community -- scientists from any country!)

The next section of PZ's blog is about the power of science to help us discover our world, which of course most people are quite aware of, yes, even the religious. He offers the elementary claim that science tells us what reality is, not what we want it to be (duh).

You know, I kinda wish peach pits actually cured cancer, but I think it’s more important to do the experiments and measure the results and see if they really do…because if they don’t, I think it would be a good idea for people to move on to more effective treatments.

Yes! That's why PZ can want science to kill religion and god all he wants, but the reality is that it only dismantles specific religious tenets -- theologians are waiting in the wings, paper and pen handy, ready to rewrite the religious tenets to keep up with scientific discoveries. The theologians can relax about one thing: science can never impact the idea of god by itself because that idea is designed to avoid science altogether -- it's called supernatural for a reason -- science on its own can never touch it. No matter what science reveals that is inconsistent with religious beliefs, theologians can always just rework them to make doctrine fit science's findings. They always have, and we have to wait and see if they'll ever give up this project. They might, but it won't be science that puts a stop to it -- it will be an alternative secular humanist community that demonstrates morality, love, compassion, tolerance, etc. PZ does surprise me when he touts community as a value near the end of his essay -- but don't get excited, it's for atheists only, and they must love science.

Not only are religious people not invited into PZ’s exclusive community for ideological reasons, but it’s also personal:

Now wait, there might be some people saying (not anyone here, of course) that that’s no fair. Maybe you’re a liberal Christian, and I’m picking on the extremists (although, when we’re talking about roughly half the United States being evolution-denying, drill-baby-drill, apocalypse-loving christians, it’s more accurate to say I’m describing a representative sample). Perhaps you’re a moderate, you support good science, education, and the environment, you just love Jesus or Mohammed, too.

I’m sorry, but I don’t like you. I’ll concede that you are doing less direct harm, and I will thank you for your support of shared causes, and I’ll also happily work alongside you in those causes, but I also think you are still doing indirect harm to foundational principles of a rational society.

"I'm sorry, but I don't like you."? Then, two thoughts later he says "I'll happily work alongside you. . ." Such insincere dribble -- I've got news for PZ: THEY DON'T WANT TO WORK ALONGSIDE YOU. Fun psychology fact: When you call that which people most sincerely and emotionally believe in stupid, they don't like it. (E.g., when he writes, “You believe in some outrageous bullshit.”) PZ just doesn't respect the social sciences like he does the "hard or physical sciences,” and it's a real shame.

As I alluded to already, PZ concludes with a list of values for atheists: truth, autonomy, and community. It's a sad little list of three because he says, “We’re a diverse group, and we never agree on everything.” Frankly, I think his list is so superficial and short because he's afraid to piss off any one of his atheist readers by providing anything substantial or specific. He says:

I have to be very careful to keep my description of values general, and be clear that I’m not dictating them to you, but describing what I see emerging as a consensus, because otherwise I’ll be pilloried by my own kind. We’re a pitiless bunch.

What a good reason to not state what you really value -- because your “own kind” (are you a different species from the religious person?) as you call it might censure you. How cowardly. And what kind of people are you hanging out with that would censure you for what you truly believe? Doesn’t sound like a friendly bunch I’d want to associate with.

Moreover, if he did list more values, we’d find that many of them would also be shared by religious people (the horror). That acknowledgement of consensus detracts from his project of demonizing the religious as morons. Yes, religious and secular people share common values: honesty, respect, forgiveness, patience, compassion, etc. They do so for the simple fact that we are all people. This fact actually supports the atheist's case that you don't need god to be good because religious or not, you'll have many of the same values (because we are all human beings with the same basic emotional needs.) So instead, leaving substantial values aside for fear of being “pilloried” for listing the “wrong ones” he settles on truth, autonomy, and community. Apparently “truth” is only an atheistic value. PZ asks, “Don’t Christians say they value truth, too? Unfortunately, they say it, but they don’t practice it.”

I’m not even a Christian, and I’m offended by this. He is not only accusing them of being stupid, but for being willfully so -- that’s quite the unfair overgeneralization.

His second value for atheists is autonomy. He says, “What that means, though, is that many atheists are nonconformists, boat-rockers, weirdos, and outcasts. And we like it that way. We are not sheep.”

Wait a minute. I may be a non-conformist, a boat-rocker, and a weirdo -- and I’m fine with those traits. But I don’t want to be an outcast. What kind of person “likes it that way”? That remark is so telling -- he “wants” us to be a separate group. So on the one hand he talks like he wants the religious to see the light of reason, and come join our atheist club, but how can he sincerely mean it if he flat out says that he likes being an outcast? If religion eventually goes away, he won’t be an outcast anymore -- so what does he actually want?

I'm glad “community” made his list of values, albeit last -- it came as a surprise after his stated pleasure with being an outcast. Of course, the reader should have already sniffed out that by "community" he means a tight in-group of religion-bashing friends of science. Paragraphs later he opens up his club to other oppressed minorities, feminists, and LGBT, as long as they are atheists and love science. Then he makes a very strange move when he announces:

Our ranks are swelling with fierce independent women who are changing us, making us stronger and louder, and standing up for their causes and making all of us fight for women’s rights, reproductive freedom, and equality of opportunity. This is atheism, too.

So now progressive political and social agendas equates to atheism? Where is he coming up with this stuff? He then says that if you are gay and want equal rights, you are an atheist: "Are you LGBT, wanting equality and social justice? You are atheism." Are all LGBT people really atheists?? I didn’t realize.

Is PZ unaware that many liberal Christians have long fought on such social justice issues too? What is this bizarre, historically-unsupported conflation of atheism with humanism/progressivism? So is it that real atheists have to agree with these social issues (although I will grant real humanists do, but that’s not his claim), and genuine LGBT and feminists have to be atheists too? Lack of belief in god does not get you anywhere but godless. You need humanism to give you a progressive stance on any political or social issue. (No, I don’t think anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage folks are real humanists.)

He says, "If you are a human being with real world concerns, who wants to change the world, who wants to contribute in a unique way that encourages those diverse views, then you should be one of us."

So get on the atheist bandwagon already! We’ve got it all figured out!

Let's move on to what PZ has to say about the value of community, even though he's already banished plenty of people from his. He acknowledges how "We are a social species, and we thrive in communities," but he just wants one community, one of atheists. Christians, Jews, and Muslims: he doesn't like you, remember? You live in that evil "city of faith." (But still, give him a call, and he'll happily work with you on some project or another, so he says. . . yet I thought he despised "interfaith" work. He’s given Chris Stedman of Harvard Humanists plenty of heat for his interfaith work.)

I think he really shows his charm (and by charm I mean creepiness) in which he sounds like an old testament prophet calling for the destruction of his peoples’ enemies:

I have a different metaphor for us, my brothers and sisters in atheism. We are not sheep; there are no shepherds here. I look out from this stage and I see 4000 pairs of hunter’s eyes, 4000 hunter’s minds, 4000 pairs of hunter’s hands. I see the primeval primate hunting band grown large and strong. I see us so confident in our strength that we laugh at our enemies. I see a people thinking and planning, fierce and focused, learning and building new tools to conquer new worlds.

You are not sheep. You, my brothers and sisters in atheism, are a fierce, coordinated hunting pack — men and women working together, and those other bastards have cause to fear us. So let’s do it: make them tremble as we demolish the city of god.

Look at this violent language, my goodness. We are wolves/hunters, going after bastards/sheep. Oh my. He wants religious people to TREMBLE now?? That's a battle cry if I ever heard one. What is the matter with this guy?! Well, he's a bully, and he gets off on it. Say things like we want to demolish the city of god, and see how far that gets atheists with political and social acceptance. Ah, but remember he doesn’t care about acceptance; in fact he doesn’t want it. PZ says:

Yesterday I was listening to our Christian protesters outside, and I thought, “Huh. So that’s what you get when you give a sheep a microphone, amplified bleating.” There they were, calling on everyone to deny the richness of human experience and join the flock in the narrow boring confines of the sheep pen, so mindless they didn’t even realize they were calling to the wolves.

Are we back in the state of nature? Wolves going after sheep. . . what kind of sick war is this? And why is it that science must cause war? Must the tribe with science on their side destroy the rest? We should all be worried about the psychology of warlike mentality.

Science is powerful and wonderful, but it is also cold and inhuman. I admire PZ's sincere passion for science, but don't let him sell you this idea that science club is the antidote to religion and god, as if science ought to completely fulfill everyone on some basic emotional level. It's one thing to tout science as the superior route to reality, which it is; it is quite another to say it's a cure-all for god. Something that is non-emotional (science) cannot kill something that is emotional (god).

Science isn't going to love you, make you feel purposeful or strong, make you feel connected to others, or give you hope when you are scared and feeling alone. I submit that without loving relationships and strong secular humanist communities and values, science cannot be the cure-all “god-killer.” Only simultaneously scientifically minded and humanist-minded secular communities can do it. The solution to religion and god is, and always has been, secular morality or secular humanism, which includes a naturalistic worldview and the supremacy of scientific method.

Secular humanist communities have to be more than just atheists convening to talk about why they are so much smarter and rational about religion and god (yes, we are right, religion is made up and god is a fantasy, and hooray for us). It’s fun to be right about it and all, but the glory wears off at some point, and you are left needing something that nurtures you because atheism doesn’t do that. Science doesn’t either.

Atheism has become a movement, and I’m proud to be a participant, but this is not enough. What we secular people desperately need is a strong humanist movement, and we need it now, before it's too late -- before PZ's cavalry arrives, and creates a chasm so wide between the religious and atheists that we've entirely alienated ourselves, which is never a good move for a minority group.

I've heard all the rationalizations for PZ style atheism -- "we're loud and proud and if the religious don't like to face reality, that's their problem." Actually, it is our problem because we don't want to lose separation of church and state (we are well on our way). And what isn’t helping are atheist messages about “killing god” and “assaulting heaven” and making the religious people "tremble" as the wolves eat their bloody sheep corpses, or whatever sick and twisted war fantasy PZ is into. In PZ's hands, the values fostered by science are the values of hateful war.

I don't want to be part of a hated minority. I want political and social acceptance, or at least civil toleration.

PZ is right to bring up communities, but the one he is offering is not appealing to the religious, and the problem is he knows that, and that's the point. But until we offer a community that unifies, that truly crosses secular and religious boundaries by focusing on a long list (more than 3) of shared humanist values, we are perpetually stuck with a zero-sum game with atheists on one side of the fence and the religious on the other. PZ knows this, and sadly that's how he wants it. All the same, minorities tend to not win at zero-sum games. Ah, but to be a real atheist we must not compromise, so we are told by the new atheists. I'm not saying we should keep quiet about our atheist beliefs -- I am an “out-atheist.” The new atheists like to try to trick us with false dichotomy that if we aren't confrontational then we are weak, or traitors to the cause.

Ah, but there is a middle ground. When a Christian asks you why you are an atheist, tell them. Hell, be the one to bring up your atheism first, but explain it in a non-threatening way (though it is difficult, and I struggle with it). Still, that is the only way that they may actually hear your reasoning. And don’t forget you are talking to someone who, like you, is both emotional and rational, and since they have emotional needs for god, you better speak to those first. The very first thing you must always do with an intellectual “opponent” is find some common ground. That’s just basic psychology. Always start a debate with a point you both agree on. The point of all this is to reason with the religious effectively, right? Well if you love science as much as PZ, you’ll want to reason in ways that the social sciences have demonstrated to be most effective.

I'm more hopeful than to believe that we are in an endless war on error. When a general recruits you for his army, be sure to question his strategy for winning first.

PZ asks for understanding that many atheists are angry. Religion makes me angry too, for the record. But I've learned that anger doesn't get you very far. Your opposition is still human. You'd better find some common ground with who you are angry with, if you ever hope to see the change you want.