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Atheist Perspective: “Happy Holidays”

December 30, 2014 Leave a comment

I usually do a couple of Christmas posts because it’s such a secularized holiday with religious origins. I agree, reluctantly, with conservatives that “Christ” is out of Christmas but that reluctance is based on my ambivalence to whether or not the holiday is celebrated at all. I could expound on how the only “War on Christmas” is the one that exists in the minds of people who desperately feel the need to pretend that they are being oppressed. However, it’s difficult to do so as I don’t understand that need. Christianity, the absolute dominant religion, is not under any kind of assault–the only difference now is that other people are gaining the same recognition that only Christians were getting in the past. That’s equality, not oppression.

On that same vein though is the perpetual complaint of the dreaded phrase “Happy Holidays.” The way the narrative is explained is that by some kind of order no one is allowed to offend the non-Christians by wishing “Merry Christmas” to people for roughly four weeks out of the year.

Twice I’ve heard this issue raised during this season. Once was during a short trip to the grocery store, one of the clerks was wearing a shirt that read, “I wish Merry Christmas.” The next was a story being told to me by someone who worked on Christmas day who proudly declaring that they wished “Merry Christmas” to every customer that was served. Somewhere around 100 or so people and he could tell that some of them got offended. This person was rather proud of this.

I’m not ragging on them for affirming their religious convictions. Sure, I wish those convictions didn’t exist in much the same way that I wish people didn’t think foodbabe was a person to consult concerning nutrition; but if they want to express their holiday wishes then so be it. The problem is that the glee by which the second person really wanted to have offended someone and the sparkle in their voice when they claimed “they could tell some of them were offended.”

The problem that I see is that I know of no person, no non-believer, un-believer, free thinker, or denier that has ever told me that they have been offended by the half hearted, overworked, underpaid, sales clerk that wished them “Merry Christmas.” I know people that have complained about overzealous street preachers, relatives, and the like that simply won’t let it go. I know of those same people that complain when one religious display is prohibited on publicly owned land while another group’s display is permitted. I’ve worked corporate sales seven different times during the holiday season (eight if you count the business that changed ownership during the month of December), and at no point was I ever told or directed to not say “Merry Christmas.” It’s just not a thing that has ever happened.

The feeling I get is that these people want to offend someone by saying “Merry Christmas.” They think that my hold on my point of view is so tenuous that the mere utterance of a phrase will shake my worldview. It won’t any more than a Muslim saying “Allahu Ackbar” should magically convert a Christian. It’s the rebound effect, the desire not that I will convert but that I will say something back. That I will attempt to get into it, and even then they probably won’t try to argue back. Just nod politely back and then proceed to go and tell the story of their oppression. How they tried to be polite and nice, but this jerk, this you-know-the-type, got all offended and told me I was wrong

What they will always leave out, is how this is exactly what they wanted.

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Atheist Perspective: The Battle of “Five” Armies

December 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Magic isn’t real, neither are elves, dragons, orcs. Wizards are real, but they are charlatans…I’m only kidding. A movie is a movie and today we are going to review what is probably the final movie adapting the works of JRR Tolkien. I’ve learned not to review a movie until at least 24 hours after you’ve seen it. It lets you calm down from either disappointment or elation.

I bet in the combination of all three of these movies, there is a solid two hour movie lying like Glaurung in the halls of Nargothrond (I’ve read the other stuff too). One of the most bitter complaints about the series is that there was too much stuff added to the movies…on one hand I agree, the actual hobbit story is pretty straightforward. A bunch of people get together, journey to a mountain, slay a dragon, and then win a battle. Oh, along the way the title character finds a small gold ring. The other stuff, the added events fill in a couple gaps in the original story but for the most part they serve to link this series with the previous series. What happens more often than not is that the added scenes take away from the general story. They also confuse the overall storyline getting in the way of the pacing. For example, the entire subplot concerning the “Master” of Esgaroth, his Wormtongue-like assistant could have been axed entirely. It broke up the entire act concerning Bard, Laketown, and the slowed the end of the second movie way down. We don’t need Bard to be some kind of rebel, the only good man willing to stand up to the greedy despot.

On the other hand, the gap filling is nice. The scenes of Gandalf investigating Dol Guldur and the battle that took place within as the White Council (of which only Elrond wasn’t actually wearing white) drove out Sauron were well done. So I’m torn, on the one hand they are obvious padding while on the other, they are good scenes. Perhaps they should have just cut a three hour Hobbit movie, or generously, two two hour Hobbit movies. Then made a movie called “The White Council” or “The Necromancer of Dol Guldur.”

All of three of these movies suffer the same fate: they start really strong and then dwindle away until they have almost completely failed. The trilogy itself can be seen this way, part 1 is easily the best of the pictures. Desolation of Smaug is decent, and this movie feels thin. A lot of nothing happens here but for the most part it feels like it should. Thorin’s madness is well played but for some reason his jealousy over the Arkenstone isn’t as compelling as Smaug’s lust for the gold. Perhaps because the character itself doesn’t have much depth, and that’s a criticism of the source material as well. As he spirals further into his greed, the other Dwarves all recognize that he is losing his mind but then enable his madness. I get that he’s their king but they seem to all shrug their shoulders and cheer on his decision. It’s especially stark when he tells the men of Esgaroth that he’s reneging on his promise. On the one hand his companions are in disbelief and saddened that their king has done so, but then they cheer him on for that same decision.

This movie is primarily an action movie. From Legolas and Taureil’s journey to the North in Angmar which was a waste of time to the initial battle with Smaug the plot of the movie only provides the glue for the battle scenes to stick together. It’s too bad really, because the scenes where the people of Lake Town are trying to figure out what to do with themselves after the dragon had destroyed their homes were really well done. You get the sense of the despair those people felt as well as how Bard was willing to lead them if only for survival. Yet the scene has an unnatural push to it as they seem rushed to get to the city of Dale so they can set up the conflict between the Elves and Dwarves (which was apparently over a necklace that no one ever mentioned before), and the necklace is not the Nauglimir.

The battle scenes are spectacular but blurry. Jackson relies too much on CGI in this movie. It’s understandable that Christopher Lee might need some help, but the rest of the cast could probably fake a fight scene enough that we don’t need to turn them into poorly done marionettes. Dwarves aren’t supposed to be acrobatic and the elves aren’t supposed to be that acrobatic. I would like to have seen Dain Ironfoot a bit more, as well as Galadriel, and yes, call me traitor–but even Tauriel. Ultimately I cared about everything but the central story, which is troubling for the final movie in this trilogy. It’s a decent ending for an 8 hour saga based on a two hundred page children’s book, it’s too bad the studios that released it were under the dragon sickness as well. In thirty years, when they remake this, hopefully someone will have better sense and just make it one movie.

Final thoughts:

Chekov’s Gun: don’t spend a half hour in the second movie telling us about a wind lance to kill dragons and then NOT use it! There is no way that makeshift bow would even work.

False Advertisement: With the two orc armies and the weird bat things it’s really the Battle of Seven Armies.

There was literally no reason for Thorin to die. He stood on that ice for so long only so that Azog would kill him. In short, he committed suicide.

Galadriel rocks, that’s Cate Blanchett’s character from now until forever. Too bad they had to resort to making her need saving. It was a really well done beginning.

So…Trolls can operate in daylight? Pretty sure that the first movie established that they turn to stone. While we’re on this subject, shouldn’t Bilbo’s sword have turned blue at some point? It was forged by the Elves in Gondolin, yet it didn’t even darken. That’s Sting’s whole thing, and it could have been really useful on top of that mountain.

When Thranduil tells Legolas to find “Strider” at the end and then tells him that he has to earn his great secret, he already blew it when he explained that Strider was the son of Arathorn.

Peter Jackson needs to learn how to end a movie. It was as awkward for me watching Bilbo fix the portraits in Bag End as I’m sure it was for Martin Freeman waiting for a “cut” while he was doing it.

Atheist Perspective: Grading Woes

December 15, 2014 Leave a comment

I don’t like having religious arguments in my classes when I’m not teaching a religiously focused course. It’s not a form of atheist persecution as some would like to claim, it’s just that it doesn’t keep the class on subject. I know this confuses my students, but the reason is pragmatic and not ideological. It’s the same reason that forces me to push the Euthanasia/Abortion lectures in my Bio-Ethics course to the end of the semester: I really don’t want to spend the entire course talking about the subject. Frankly, I’m quite sick of hearing about them.

In preparing lectures I keep a balance between two sides of every subject that warrants it. When I teach Philosophy of Religion I spend two weeks on arguments for the existence of God and then spend two weeks on alternative explanations (because you can’t prove a negative) for religious beliefs. It usually turns out that the latter is less time but that’s only because Anselm’s argument takes an entire class and then dismantling the argument takes another class.

With the beginning and end of life subjects the arguments are the same. They take the form of religious arguments that repeat some form of violating god’s will. While I disagree with these arguments personally they have some validity. If you assume that the underlying assumptions are true you can build off those assumptions to make a cogent argument. Again, my problem isn’t that they are religious arguments it’s that they are bad arguments.

The anti-abortion papers are all endemic of this…usually. I’ve yet to see a quality argument come across my desk, not to say that they aren’t out there, but only that I haven’t seen them. The paper rests on the assumption that life begins at conception, and if it weren’t life now it would never become life in the future e.g. when the being is born. If we assume that this is the case, and that life doesn’t begin at a later point such as implantation, then we have a decent idea. However the assumption needs to be validated by more than fiat–which is why it almost always degenerates into a religiously motivated attack on the pro-choice side. I’ll note here that the pro-choice papers aren’t usually any better, it’s just that the issues I have with them are more varied.

I opened this posting by saying that I don’t like the religious arguments, and it’s because of the fiat. There’s no evidence that life begins at conception it’s just assumed as true. I would gladly give an A to a pro-life paper that spent the majority of its word count explaining why it is that life begins at conception, then the rest of the paper explaining why that life ought to be protected at the expense of the host body’s right to self-direction. That’s a quality argument, and instead I get the talking points of the Pro-life crowd. I don’t want talking points, I want an argument and the religious dogma for the two subjects do not offer them.

It’s a problem of having an isolated view point. It’s not problem coming into my class with a view that I disagree with it’s just that the student must be prepared to defend that viewpoint. The entire point of the course is to instruct the student how to make an ethical argument, but too often they aren’t prepared to make that argument and just rest on whatever preconceptions they have. Because the religious in this country are in a huge majority they often don’t have the need to really understand the things they believe since more often than not they aren’t going to have to defend them. I suppose it’s a principle of economy not to expend the energy if you don’t have to, but when you sit down in a Bio-Ethics class the student has to. The dogmatic mantras of “no abortion” and “no euthanasia” have to be supported by something other than sending 3000 words saying the same thing in different ways.

It would be easier to not bait the trap and ignore the subjects, but they are so important that they have to be covered. This semester I thought I would get lucky since the Buffalo snow storm didn’t allow me to cover the subjects, but still in my stack of papers there is at least one.

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Atheist’s Perspective: It’s That time of Year Again

December 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Twice every year I have to go through this. It’s grading time, when the snowflakes fall and the students have to turn in their final papers. Because of this I also lack the time for a proper update so I’m writing this. Why? Because the nature of blogging is that you have to have a regular schedule and this is a lame way of keeping it. I get that, but I’m still doing it. Like a person that goes to a church service out of habit but really has no interest in it. The only difference is that I’m completely aware that what I’m doing is only out of habit.

I’ll leave with this parting shot. Christians like to claim that there is a war on their religion, but they can’t point to a single state where it’s illegal for them to hold public office…unlike the laws they have passed in 7 states. Nice try.

Categories: Uncategorized

Atheist Perspective: Revisiting the Stalin argument–Red Team ish

December 1, 2014 Leave a comment

“Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.” Lucretius–DRN 101<meta http-equiv=”X-Frame-Options” content=”DENY” />//

“So potent was superstition in persuading to evil deeds.”

I posted this on my facebook Saturday night, a line by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, a line that Voltaire–that great enemy of religion believed would last until the final breaking of the world, for two reasons. The first being that I believe it to be true, we need only pay attention to the events in the middle east and around the world to see evidence the Lucretius was correct even though the religions causing so much strife now hadn’t even been invented yet. The second being that I had identified the statement by going through the Latin and comparing it to the English. I have little to no language skills, but being an ex-Catholic there is some Latin in my brain. To some it may seem like an easy thing to do, and I commend you if you have the ability but notice that the word “religio” is translated as “superstition.”

Very quickly I earned a response. The response asked me if I would agree that atheists have killed more people than theists, to which I of course would not agree. The commenter then brought up the tired example of Stalin and his 15 million high body count. The Stalin body count which I did not argue with, although I do wonder if that number counts the deaths in wartime against Germany which is a different thing than mass extermination, is often used as an example of the tu qouque fallacy. This is an informal fallacy of argumentation which translates loosely as “you’re another.” As if to say you are just as wrong as me. In this context it meant that Lucretius, in pointing out how religion can be used to compel people to misdeeds neglects to point out that atheism can be used for the same purpose. The commentator takes this fallacy one step further, by saying that Lucretius’ side is actually worse.

The theist in question is aware of the argument and brings up religious travesties by carefully cherry picking his examples limiting them to the Salem witch trials (about 12 deaths, all hanging and not actually in the village of Salem) and the Spanish Inquisition (an unexpected 10,000). He ignores every other example in order to keep the number down, he could have easily included the Crusades. It’s impossible to really know how many people died in them due to the wanton slaughter of civilian populations by both sides–especially during the sack of Jersualem by the Christian side in the first, and only successful Crusade, and it probably still wouldn’t have approached the 15 million number. I’ve mentioned the “Stalin Rebuttal” before, a few years ago to be exact, but it bears revisiting for a couple of reasons.

The first is the obvious: Stalin may have been an atheist but that’s not why he sent so many people to their doom. He didn’t kill in the name of atheism, he killed in the name of Stalinist Russia. He executed swathes of people he viewed to be a threat to his own power, he repeatedly executed military officials when they became too popular much to the detriment of keeping his own territories safe from external threat. If he was truly killing because of his atheism, it’s unlikely that he would have allowed the Russian orthodox church to continue existing. The way the theists portray us, you would think that any organized religion would be the first thing to go, but Stalin allowed the church to go on.

Secondly, as another responder pointed out, it really doesn’t matter. It’s not as if the correct way of looking at the world is based on who has the lower body count. It would put the Raeliens up top since I can find no evidence of them having killed anyone because of their beliefs. The standard cannot be about body count. By the responders own admission he’s got a losing record. Lucretius wasn’t commenting about Christianity (the religion of the first responder), he couldn’t have it is literally impossible as he died about 55 years before Jesus was said to have been born. Lucretius was concerned with all religions, so the collective body count of all religions has to be weighed against the count of atheism. If a religion is based around peace, love, and brotherhood; it shouldn’t matter whether or not atheists have killed people in the name of atheism, what should matter is whether or not the messenger of peace if bringing down the sword. Your message is incorrect when it is self contradictory.

Thirdly, and finally is that I missed the red herring. I can’t speak of whether or not the responder did this intentionally or if it was a mere bi-product of using a cliched argument. Whenever Stalin is mentioned the argument quickly goes toward infamous examples of the deeds of madmen. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Hirohito, etc. What atheists need to remember when confronted with this argument is to first not conceded the point that those Russians died because Stalin’s atheism made him do it, that simply is a false statement; but also not to neglect contemporary and past histories. Religious theism has done its share of harm far beyond the Crusades, the Islamic conquests of Africa, the Japanese invasions of the 1930s, etc. You have to also count the convert or be enslaved mentality of European explorers of the Americas, the legitimization of slavery in the American colonies, the brutal civil wars within religions (Sunni/Shia, Protestant/Catholic, Christian/Christian violence during the later Crusades, etc.). Further Lucretius’ point is not just purposeful killing. Any child that ever died because treatment was ignored in favor of a hopeful wish that the gods would intervene and heal them, such as Christian scientists, religiously vaccine refusal (Polio in the Asian sub-continent, HPV in the American South). Any person that refuses their child treatment is going against their natural duty to their child because of religious superstition; while historically this has been stigmatization of people with diseases because they viewed them as immoral (AIDS in the 70s and 80s, and Syphilis for 5 centuries before that were both viewed as punishment for wanton sexual behavior), the labeling of entire groups of people as “unclean” so that they were below contempt and unworthy of help. These are all examples of what Lucretius was writing about. Exorcisms and force conversions to cure homosexuals were all done in the name of religious taboo. Evil deeds are not just about the bodies but about the lives.