My Sincerest Condolences (2017Oct23)


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Monday, October 23, 2017                                               2:13 PM

Condolences   (2017Oct23)

I want to express my heartfelt condolences to the United States of America. Losing so many of your treasured offspring, all at once, must cause unimaginable heartbreak.

Your Separation of Church and State—your eldest—the engine of your supremacy–finally succumbing to the vermin gnawing at her roots.

Your Democracy—between being sold out and being taken for granted—has unbarred the door to ignorance and division, becoming a front for autocracy.

Your Republican Party has devolved into a virtual cesspit—quite openly and publicly–and the fact that they still beat the Democrats proves that the Voters (though less than half of them have earned the right to describe themselves so—except as, perhaps, ‘abstentions’) have forgotten that ‘We the People’ implies some minimal amount of involvement.

Your Freedom of the Press has been imprisoned by media conglomerates—seeking only our attention, not our health—and the news has become a siren song, distracting us from the deadly rocks before us—to focus on an old man’s Twitter-feed.

And that same dirty old man has obliterated your most august Office of the Presidency—coating it with the slime of incompetence, disrespect, oafishness, and treason. His treason is multi-pronged—he attacks the Constitution because it won’t let him be a dictator—he attacks our ideals because he is a misogynist, racist, classist prig—he attacks our education because he doesn’t value knowledge as much as money—and he attacks our self-respect by telling blatant lies, right to our faces, daring us to do anything about it.

O America! You’ve heard bullshit before—it shouldn’t surprise you that the pig who claimed it wasn’t great, by saying he would make it great ‘again’, has leached out every drop of greatness garnered in your two-hundred-plus years of glory. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.

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Trump Is God (2017Feb11)


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Saturday, February 11, 2017                                             10:02 AM

Supporters of Trump show similarities to evangelicals—blind faith, blindness to the truth, and an eagerness to pick a fight with non-believers. And I think we can put some of the blame for our political chaos on our collective blind spot—religion. Do you have a religion? I do not. Many Americans have a religion which they are deeply invested in—and many Americans have absolutely no belief in the supernatural—horror-, or Christian- based.

America believes in religious freedom and the separation of church and state—which is good in that it protects Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists. The trouble resides in its protection of orthodox and extreme religious sects—anything short of public terrorist acts is permissible—including science-denial, misogyny, and racial discrimination—all features of certain, otherwise ‘legitimate’ religions.

Just as freedom of speech is sometimes misused—as when a neo-nazi’s public speaking goes unmolested—so, too, is freedom of religion misused to perpetuate ideas like those of Julius Evola (a hero of Steve Bannon’s) who was a little too radical for Mussolini, but is enjoying a resurgence due to Trump’s administration.

America made a great leap forward when it founded itself on the idea that religion was too iffy to form a basis for our laws or our government—where, hitherto, no government was without its state religion—a partner of the secular power structure, enforcing a deeper obedience than can be achieved by mere physical intimidation. Nonetheless, in separating the church from state, we only solved half the problem.

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Atheism’s numbers are growing—now that we have ‘magic’ in flight, in medicine, in digital electronics, etc., we have less interest in the non-responsive magic of angels and deities. Open study of archeology and variant scriptures such as the Dead Sea Scrolls have given us a clearer picture of the human side of religion—offering proof that, even if the original supernatural encounters had happened, the leaders of subsequent sects modified the original faiths to meet the exigencies of change and power.

Over the centuries, changes in society and culture caused changes in religion—and modern findings of this destroy the monolithic, unchanging image that religion likes to project. If God were real, neither he (nor she) nor his rules would ever change—which makes today’s religions either false, or sacrilegious, i.e. false unto themselves.

We also have a much smaller world now—the different religions across the globe are used to being insulated from each other. But now, especially in America, one can have a neighborhood containing members of every religion on earth—and while religious freedom protects each of those faiths, it can’t protect people from noticing that these other faithful are blindly true to something entirely unconnected to that which they are blindly true to. It may seem a small thing—but the old joke is true: everyone is an atheist about all religions except their own. It is only a small step from recognizing that everyone around you believes in hogwash, to recognizing that you are in the same boat.

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Aside from the competing magic of science and technology, and the pitfalls of ‘comparison shopping’ for religion, perhaps the most insidious threat to organized faith is our recognition of the hollowness of authority. Where we once looked to religious leaders and political leaders and respected journalists as authority figures, we rarely get through a month without one of these archetypes being indicted, exposed, or debunked. Today’s surge in atheism is just a symptom of a larger tendency to distrust those in power.

To me, the whole thing is an issue of being wishy-washy or not—you either accept the magical thinking of your faith or you don’t. You can’t have it both ways. If the afterlife exists, if souls exist, if God exists—then a lot of what we are doing is wrong—and we shouldn’t be doing it. I respect the Amish for their refusal to indulge in tech. I respect the Christian Scientists for their refusal to use modern medicine. If you’re going to believe in magic, don’t be half-assed about it. These religions with one foot out the door seem hypocritical to me.

But they are in the majority—and their dilution into something modern people won’t laugh at is a far greater retreat from faith than all the furor over abortion or evolution. Their own embarrassment is a far greater enemy of their faith than any argument we atheists can provide.

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I remember when, as a boy, the Catholic Church demoted all the saints that were too close to fairy tales—my own name-saint, Christopher, and other popular saints like St. Valentine, St. Patrick, and St. Nicklaus—were considered too apocryphal to be included in the Church’s saint’s-day calendar. They were not entirely disowned or erased, but their high visibility became an embarrassment to modern Catholics, and they were no longer to be part of our serious rites of worship. That may be where the seeds of my atheism were sown—don’t name me after the guy who supposedly carried the infant Christ across a torrential river (the Christ-bearer) and then turn around and tell me the guy might just be a fanciful legend after all. That’s no way to cement my faith.

Times change—and religions change with them. The fact that times change slowly—and that each generation is presented with a religion as if it were a static foundation—has kept this simple truth from becoming an obvious fact—until now, when change is swift and communication swifter. Religion has become pitifully threadbare in modern times—the idea that a man can have a special connection to the eternal is hard to maintain when that man gets busted for pedophilia, or when that man decides that suicide-bombers are his favorite converts.

We are stuck now between a rock and a hard place—the Muslim extremists would be perfect poster-boys for atheism, if we weren’t so dead-set on pretending that there is a significant difference between one Judeo-Christian-Muslim faith and another. People even go so far as to argue that Christianity has never indulged in murder or terrorism—a patent falsehood that only reveals a deep ignorance of history—and not very ancient history, either.

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To me, the most ugly, yet hilarious, paradox is that we, as a nation, are not ready to contemplate a presidential candidate who is an avowed atheist—yet we are completely unable to take a presidential candidate’s faith seriously. While ‘God will provide’ might make sense at home, it is beyond the pale when speaking of public policy. Reagan, Bush, et. al. were always at their most laughable when they reached back for their fundamentalist rationales to explain their decisions. And that’s overlooking the more basic paradox of one faith’s extremist becoming the leader of a multi-faith nation—or designating one faith as more quintessentially American than all the others.

Then there’s the darker issue—that, for many Americans, money is their God, and hypocritical playing on religious heartstrings is fair play, as long as there’s a profit to be made. Religion has been used as a prop for the powerful since the dawn of civilization—Karl Marx was very clear that he felt religion was used to keep the masses subject to state-determined morality. America is famous for having severed the direct link between power and faith—but such things have the ability to morph into other paradigms. We have recently seen many Americans embrace the return of faith as a political power-base—an ignorance that saddens any educated student of American history.

Religion fills a need. Even I, knowing that faith is an imaginary construct, still feel the lack of its warmth and security. My atheism has not made me feel happy or safe—I have simply had to accept that religion is false, and live with that. I even avoid promoting atheism, since I wouldn’t wish it on a happy believer. But when religion gets on its high horse, as if it were real, I am the first to rise in opposition. This defensive posture is a weak one—and the rise of atheism has spurred a sudden strength in the religious—but religion itself has weakened in its obsolescence.

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So now we have a new president who got himself elected mostly through demonizing violent extremists of a certain religion—and pretending to support the more popular Christian one. No one is blaming religion itself for any of these problems—most Americans react to Muslim extremism by redoubling their faith in Christianity—even though their differences are minor details. The insistence on blaming Muslims for terrorism is a backhanded way of avoiding religion as the true culprit. Extreme religion of any kind always puts faith above reality, worship above humanity—and there isn’t a one of them that hasn’t descended, in the end, into bloody violence.

So why this blind faith in Trump—why do facts simply bounce off the Trump supporters? My theory is that religion has become too embarrassing, but people still need something to believe in—and Trump fills the bill. Like a god, he offers easy answers, no explanations, and an unbounded self-regard. Further, he sees no obligation to jive with observable reality. If you are an evangelist, or have evangelist leanings, in a world that is slowly waking up from the dream of heaven and hell, Trump is a perfect substitute. Plus, he allows you to attack someone else’s religion without even having to stand up and declare yourself a member of your own.

History Repeats –or- Et Tu, Cooper? (2016Dec14)


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Wednesday, December 14, 2016                                               9:57 AM

History Repeats –or- Et Tu, Cooper?

During my reading of Joseph Henry’s biography, I’ve acquired a sudden interest in the history of New York State. As I researched the reference material, I ran across someone’s comment that there were scant histories of the state, which they found odd, considering its size and importance—and that would appear to remain the case. Amazon is strangely ungenerous when searched for the ‘history of New York State’ specifically.

The first book I came across was “New York” by James Fenimore Cooper. One passage stopped me in my tracks, right off:

“We are not disposed, however, to look for arguments to the debates and discussions of the Convention, in our view often a deceptive and dangerous method of construing a law, since the vote is very frequently given on even conflicting reasons. Different minds arrive at the same results by different processes; and it is no unusual thing for men to deny each other’s premises while they accept their conclusions. We shall look, therefore, solely to the compact itself, as the most certain mode of ascertaining what was done.”

[Cooper, James Fenimore. New York (Kindle Locations 190-193).  . Kindle Edition.]

I couln’t help thinking that nothing has changed in this regard—and that we are careless to overlook it. No matter what excuses or rationales are offered for a given legislation, all that truly matters is its effect. If poor people and prisoners can become ‘profit centers’ using the existing laws, then no amount of blather can forgive the fact that our laws promote a form of Capitalist slavery. If pro-business legislation gives power and security to businesses at the cost of fairness to the people, then such laws are unjust—and all the BS in the world isn’t going to change that.

Then I came to this part:

“A great deal that has been done among us of late, doubtless remains to be undone; but we are accustomed to changes of this nature, and they do not seem to be accompanied by the same danger here as elsewhere. The people have yet to discover that the seeming throes of liberty are nothing but the breath of their masters, the demagogues; and that at the very moment when they are made to appear to have the greatest influence on public affairs, they really exercise the least. Here, in our view, is the great danger to the country—which is governed, in fact, not by its people, as is pretended, but by factions that are themselves controlled most absolutely by the machinations of the designing. A hundred thousand electors, under the present system of caucuses and conventions, are just as much wielded by command as a hundred thousand soldiers in the field; and the wire-pullers behind the scenes can as securely anticipate the obedience of their agents, as the members of the bureaux in any cabinet in Europe can look with confidence to the compliance of their subordinates. Party is the most potent despot of the times. Its very irresponsibility gives it an energy and weight that overshadows the regular action of government. And thus it is, that we hear men, in their places in the national legislature, boasting of their allegiance to its interests and mandates, instead of referring their duties to the country.”

[Cooper, James Fenimore. New York (Kindle Locations 287-296).  . Kindle Edition.]

Déjà vu all over again, huh? Could our King Clown have won the late election if he had not, however contrivedly, attached himself to the Republican party? And how many Republicans, while eschewing Trump’s lack of ethics or character, were nonetheless still staunchly behind his candidacy, because he ‘stood’ for their party? The more things change, the more they stay the same, James old man.

Moreover, one of Trump’s endless empty promises was to abolish this partiality to party over public good, to ‘drain the swamp’—a problem he thoughtlessly claimed to be able to solve, in spite of the fact that Cooper saw its operation way back in the years leading to our Civil War, and attributed it, rightly, to human nature—which is something even Trump cannot ‘solve’.

I purchased two other references from Amazon: “Colonial New York: A History” by Michael Kammen, and “New York State: Peoples, Places, and Priorities: A Concise History with Sources” by Joanne Reitano. I’m looking forward to reading them, especially since I expect their prose to scan somewhat more lightly than that of James Fenimore’s.

There is nothing more exciting to a hopeful writer than to catch the scent of a hitherto-unexploited scenario, full of unfamiliar stories and strange new characters—and the history of the State of New York seems to offer just such a niche. With some notable exceptions, up to and including “Winter’s Tale” by Mark Helprin, I believe it was Cooper himself who last took advantage of the wealth of material inherent in our State’s story.

 

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Fan Mail?   (2016Dec14)

As an unabashed and vocal atheist on social media and elsewhere, I sometimes garner the special attention of evangelicals—I consider it a point of pride that I can sometimes bother them more than the average atheist does.

Ms. Sue B. of White River Junction, VT, out of an abundance of solicitude for my immortal soul, has sent me a letter—well, an envelope, at least. Inside was a typical Jehovah’s Witness flyer, with exhortations about how much God cares for me and how He can make me a better family man. I examined it closely, wondering why a stranger would send me anything by snail-mail (with a Christmas stamp, no less) and have nothing personal to say—and there was a handwritten note added to the inside of the flyer. It said ‘see Psalms 83:18’.

 

Psalms 83 (A Song or Psalm of Asaph.)

 

Keep not thou silence, O God: hold not thy peace, and be not still, O God.

For, lo, thine enemies make a tumult: and they that hate thee have lifted up the head.

They have taken crafty counsel against thy people, and consulted against thy hidden ones.

They have said, Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation; that the name of Israel may be no more in remembrance.

For they have consulted together with one consent: they are confederate against thee:

The tabernacles of Edom, and the Ishmaelites; of Moab, and the Hagarites;

Gebal, and Ammon, and Amalek; the Philistines with the inhabitants of Tyre;

Assur also is joined with them: they have holpen the children of Lot. Selah.

Do unto them as unto the Midianites; as to Sisera, as to Jabin, at the brook of Kishon:

Which perished at Endor: they became as dung for the earth.

Make their nobles like Oreb, and like Zeeb: yea, all their princes as Zebah, and as Zalmunna:

Who said, Let us take to ourselves the houses of God in possession.

O my God, make them like a wheel; as the stubble before the wind.

As the fire burneth a wood, and as the flame setteth the mountains on fire;

So persecute them with thy tempest, and make them afraid with thy storm.

Fill their faces with shame; that they may seek thy name, O Lord.

Let them be confounded and troubled for ever; yea, let them be put to shame, and perish:

That men may know that thou, whose name alone is Jehovah, art the most high over all the earth.

 

The eighteenth ‘verse’ is that last line: ‘That men may know…’ The entire Psalm appears to be an exhortation to God to punish the unbelievers, to make us ‘as the dung of the earth’, or as wood burning in a fire—to make us afraid with His storms and fill our faces with shame and let us perish, etc.

Now, I don’t mind so much—that’s an old Book from a rough-and-ready era of history—from religious freedom these folks did not know. But it does strike me as rather snotty—here’s Jehovah, who is supposed omniscient and omnipotent, and then here’s his people, all in his face, telling him what he should do and which of his ‘children’ He should be smiting left and right.

I suspect this Psalm was authored by ‘management’—it has the flavor of an inter-office memo advising the staff not to decorate their desktops with personal items, family photos or potted plants. You know the type—always enhancing their own authority by reminding everyone he or she speaks for the big boss.

I consider it one of the obvious pitfalls of religiosity—if one serves the all-powerful, then one must have power, n’est-ce pas? If religious zealotry makes a person a ‘cop for God’, that person can spend a lifetime regulating the behavior of others, without having to waste an uncomfortable moment examining themselves. It’s literally a cop-out, if you’ll pardon the pun.

But all evangelicals have that velvet-glove thing going on: God loves his itty-bitty childwen—but if you don’t love him back, well, don’t forget to duck, brother. Some parts of the Bible are patently childish, making it clear that it was written long before people had the self-awareness to hear the ‘whine’ in their supplications, or the ‘mine!’ in their fervor.

So, Sue B., whoever you may be, I appreciate your concern for my waywardness—and I don’t much mind the slap on the ass that lies behind it. But you and I aren’t going to get very far, condescending to each other’s apprehension of reality. I chuckle (fondly) at your blindness and you chuckle at mine—we’ll both be fine if we don’t confront each other with ultimatums—that’s where the trouble always starts.

It’s ironic, really—my atheism was born partly from an overabundance of enthusiasm for my childhood faith, Catholicism. I was willing to be a soldier of Christ—hell, I wanted to be a Kamikaze for Christ—and I soaked up every word, every idea that was taught me. But I was a logical little kid, and certain things began to sully my perfect reality. Nuns, for instance, would never miss a trick when delimiting our behavior in CCD classes—but their own behavior seemed to cut a few corners in the service of classroom law-and-order, even going so far as to contradict their own previous reasonings to suit a new scenario of rebuke.

My parents, also, were happy to have me indoctrinated into faith—but if I should criticize anything based on my CCD teachings, it was waved away like a pesky fly—apparently, only those in authority could cite the rules of Christian behavior. My life became the reverse of the Parable of the Talents—I was to ‘render unto the Church what was the Church’s’ and otherwise just shut up and do what I was told.

As the years passed, I learned all kinds of things about history, society and people—I accumulated a mountain of contradictions that disprove the seriousness of people of faith. But all that came later. My original fall from grace was the result of simple observation—grown-ups wanted me to take religion seriously, but they weren’t taking it very seriously, themselves.

It was a more-serious, year-round version of Santa Claus—aimed at kids, but scoffed at between grown-ups. And that condition remains—if you look at the way we live, it’s difficult to claim that most of us are ‘Christians’ in anything more than lip-service. We use Christianity when it suits us—and discard it just as quickly when the going gets tough.

I would gladly live my atheist existence away without once raising my voice against the faithful, but for one thing—I’m a little too OCD about the truth. Faith may be many things—hope, conscience, a dream, an anchor in the storm—but it is most definitely not the truth. Sane people don’t fight and die over the truth—they seek and find it, or they do not—but they don’t fight over it—that’s for opinions.

There is often conflation of argument and fighting (see my previous post on the art of argument) but argument is, in purest form, an investigation after truth—it only becomes a fight when it goes off the rails and becomes a debate, AKA ‘fighting with words’. The religious have the advantage in debate because language grew out of a religious society and inherits a bias towards it, down to the very vocabulary we use—much like misogyny, the assumption of faith is built-in to the fabric of our speech.

Thus, I am always willing to argue the question of God, but I stop short of debating it—uncovering universal truth is impossible enough with a friendly devil’s-advocate—to verbally spar over someone’s adherence to an ancient, easy solution is a complete waste of time.

Big Numbers   (2016Nov15)


Tuesday, November 15, 2016                                           3:24 PM

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It’s a large-number day! Jessica forwarded 50 new pictures of the family, mostly of princess-baby-granddaughter—and I am working as fast as I can to process them into a new video slide-show with piano music—my hands are stiff and numb from sitting here in the front room typing all day on this rainy, chilly November Tuesday.

Claire received her case of professional pastels—a big wooden chest containing three wooden removable drawers, each with rows of different-colored pastels. I assume it is meant for the studio—schlepping this thing around would give someone a hernia. I used to dream of getting such a set, back in my artsy days—but such panoply of choices would paralyze me—that’s probably why I mostly stayed with ink and paper. Claire will put them to good use, I’m sure—she’s not afraid of color. She’s even dipped a toe into oil-painting recently.

I was not left out—I received several pieces of pottery from Nancy Holmes-Doyle in the post today. One of them—a heartbreakingly gorgeous pinch-pot bowl—was shattered in transit. Just another reason to feel bad about missing the ceramics party, from which I could have carried them home unharmed—and gotten to visit with the Holmes-Doyles. It’s been too long—but every day it gets harder for me to get around. Still, we have two beautiful new mugs, two beautiful new candle-houses, a decorative platter, and a little spoon-rest in the shape of a hand—incredible stuff. I’ll try to photograph them all for this post—you really oughta see them.

 

 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016                                              9:52 AM

Can We Be Rude To God?   (2016Nov16)

Believing in God is not a neutral act—it is an offense against reason and a surrender of sanity. I don’t say that to be cruel—it is simply a fact. It’s even part of the rules—ask your preacher—if there were any practical proof of God, then there wouldn’t be any faith—or any need for faith. God says, “Believe in Me.”—He doesn’t say, “Look over here.

Recent ‘Questions’ posted on The Humanist website seem to be subtly asking, ‘How do Humanists make allowances for our group psychosis?’ In a way, they seem to be asking how far we’re willing to go with this Rational Thinking business—and whether or not we non-believers reach a point where we are willing to be rude about the differences.

And that is a valid question in a country founded on religious freedom. After all, it was our religious freedom that allowed us to eschew religion without being burned at the stake—it stands to reason that Christians would wonder if we’ve been given too much freedom—if perhaps it is they, or at least their faith, that will be victimized.

It is a thorny question. Obviously, I am an American, and Americans believe in freedom of religion—but freedom of religion doesn’t address an important issue: How much respect is shown for another’s beliefs? People who believe in something that no one else respects usually get put into mental institutions—it is only natural for believers to be concerned with the amount of respect they are given.

Yet how much respect can a non-believer have for the fanciful tales and notions of theists? Shorn of their ‘given’ legitimacy, the arcana of the major faiths become ludicrous—heaven, hell, angels, an old bearded guy in the sky, transubstantiation—these fantasies are no more acceptable than Greek or Norse mythological tales. As a rational man, I can’t possibly respect these ideas—yet, as a man, I can respect other people having other ideas.

If someone says to me, “I’ll pray for you.” I am capable of holding my tongue—there is little to be gained by insulting someone who has just expressed concern for my welfare. If, at a funeral, a child is being reassured that grandma will be happy in heaven—I’m not going to be the cretin who decides Grandma’s funeral is the place for discussing atheism. But I behave this way because of my respect for other people’s feelings, not my respect for their beliefs.

So please, Humanist-question-contributors, stop asking questions that are sneaky attempts to force us to show respect for your faiths. We don’t respect your faiths—we are unable to. It’s nothing personal—we are simply practicing freedom of religion by answering ‘no’ to all of the above. What we can and do respect are your feelings—if you want to believe in God, we will try not to laugh about it or argue against it.

But if you insist on believing in something that isn’t there, there are going to be conflicts of perception—women and gays are two good examples. The whole point of freedom of religion is to avoid the kind of bloodthirsty nonsense that’s playing out in the Middle East right now. Yet Religious Freedom can only do so much—there will always be disagreements between people of different faiths—and people without faith—the point is to try to live side-by-side, in spite of the disagreements. That’s the reason for separation of church and state—so that no one can make rules to enforce their beliefs, or to criminalize another’s.

But you are probably asking yourself—wouldn’t I, as an atheist, try to criminalize theism, given the chance? I would be tempted—there are many aspects of faith that seem little more than child-abuse or bigotry—indoctrination from infancy, or bias against women and gays—these things are wrong from my point of view. But then again, they were deeply religious people who came up with freedom of religion, and separation of church and state—and those principles kept us atheists from being declare outlaws, back when our lives could have been forfeit. Turning your own good ideas against you would be the height of ingratitude and incivility. I like to think I’m better than that.

So please, Humanist question-submitters, try to stick with questions asked out of curiosity and avoid questions that are little more than subtle digs at ‘the other’.

 

I keep hearing all this BS about how we have to come together now. Yes, he won the election—that doesn’t mean he stopped being a monster. Yes, your candidate won—that doesn’t make you right. I’d love to ‘come together’—but not with Nazis. You people come back to America—we’re waiting right here. Meantime, try not to turn this place into too much of a friggin nightmare.

I’m starting to think the only reason for Republicans is to turn out the Democrat vote, every other election.

—-0-

I’ve seen a lot of Trump-supporter memes, crowing over their victory all over the internet. Let me remind you of something. The Nazis attacked Britain—and the British invented a thinking machine—a computer—and Germany ended up as smoking rubble. The Japanese Empire attacked America—and Americans invented the ultimate killing machine—the nuclear bomb—which destroyed Japan to its very atoms. My point being that intelligent, imaginative, open-minded, decent people don’t like to waste time on belligerence and rancor—but it’s still a really bad idea to piss them off.

Good Morning    (2016Apr16)


Friday, April 15, 2016                                                5:03 PM

Doggerel

 

“Auugh!”, as Charlie Brown used to say

—Though I prefer the traditional “Grrr!”

“Doh!” sez Homer Simpson—though I like a solid “Damn!”

On Firefly they say “Fracking” when they might as well say “Darn”.

I say “Golly-Gosh” a lot, ‘cause I know it won’t do no harm.

But if I’m really in a huff a give a loud “Harrumph!”

Just so you’ll know I’m pretty close to losing all my shit.

‘Cause when I get to swearing there’s no telling when I’ll quit.

 

Saturday, April 16, 2016                                          12:24 PM

Good Morning

Lately I’ve been getting a busy signal from my brain—‘temporarily out of order’, ‘please wait—maintenance in progress’—whatever it is that makes my brain useless for anything except self-preservation. But today I’ve awoken with the feeling of fresh canvas—as if my brain is saying ‘yes, of course you can be creative—what are you waiting for?’

It’s kinda like when my hands are too shaky—I can’t play the piano, no matter how much I want to or how hard I try—but in a larger sense, in that my head is the ‘shaky’ part and if I push it, only garbage comes out. But as I say, today—fresh canvas, clear sailing, blue skies—however one puts it. And I don’t know where to start—should I just relish this feeling of power and potential for a while or should I jump right in and start doing?

Creativity cuts both ways—I can revel in sumptuous daydreams, just privately enjoying my own imagination—or I can attempt to hitch my Pegasus to some earthly activity—a poem, a drawing, an improv—which is a greater adventure, but has its pitfalls. My head is signaling that my creative juices are once again flowing—but I’ve yet to hear from the body, which decides every day on a different amount of gas in the tank.

Some days the body fairly screams for activity—pushing me out the door for a walk around the block, or doing a little spring cleaning on some especially dusty part of my work area. This is rare, though. Most days I’m lucky if I have the wherewithal to do some CD-ripping while I sit here typing. I complain about having to do this but truthfully I’m grateful for a little busy-work that falls within my competency—and I kinda dread the day when I’m done with the ripping. There’s something reassuring about having some simple job to do whenever I feel idle—feeling totally useless is one of the great drawbacks to disability. It can really eat away at your self-image.

Posting a poem, picture, or recording can be very satisfying—it feels like an accomplishment. Getting responses, in the form of likes, shares, or comments, really adds to that feeling—but sometimes the total lack of response can undo all that good feeling. Often, in desperation, I’ll ask Claire to look at my post and give me an opinion—she usually reassures me that I haven’t wasted my time. I have to be careful—I want attention—to a point—but not so much attention that I feel obliged to return that attention to others—I want to be admired without the hassle of admiring someone else’s stuff. I’m self-involved—what can I say?

Most people see a lack of energy as the inability to get sweaty doing hard work—it’s so much more than that. The brain uses energy—a chess player burns more calories than a weight-lifter. And that energy goes into learning, into appreciating what others do, and in doing your own stuff. Without energy, I learn less and am less interested in what others are doing—so when I do my own stuff, it’s claustrophobic—I’m trying to weave new patterns by rearranging old memes. Back in my healthy days, my creativity was a response to the torrent of new input of ideas, images, and concepts found in the world around me—now I’m trying to squeeze creativity out of a vacuum of house-bound, isolated idleness. The law of diminishing returns stands as a specter, always at my elbow.

I wouldn’t dwell on it—but there really is an exclusion that comes with age. I can’t hang out at a college student union or a local bar or any of the places that I remember enjoying—I’ve outgrown them—and even if I don’t accept that, the young people there will let me know in no uncertain terms just how out of place they consider an old geezer at their haunts. In a private setting, good manners usually prevent anyone from rubbing it in—but out in public, the elderly stand out. I think the sight of old people makes the young uncomfortable—we are proof that their fantasy will someday metamorphose into something like us—and with us out of sight, they are protected from that unpleasantness.

People fear death and wonder why—since it comes to everyone. But age is the real boogeyman—just as inevitable, sooner arrived at, and visibly uncomfortable—death is a mysterious and sudden end to everything, but age is a lingering torture of diminishments—activity, freedom, and comfort all shrinking with each year. Sure, it builds character like nobody’s business—but once your character has finished building itself, what then? Like T. S. Eliot says, we acquire a perfect understanding of our lives, just when it has gotten past time for that understanding to do us any good.

One’s children are a temptation—how easy it would be to try to attach myself to their lives, to make a surrogate life for myself by intruding in theirs—there’s no end of excuses I could make—my experience, my knowledge of the world and of people, a lifetime of skill and wisdom. But by doing that, I’ll only delay the time when they begin to think for themselves—by ‘helping’ them forward, I’d really be pushing them somewhere I never got to, for my own reasons—it just wouldn’t do.

No, age is the ultimate hard lesson—there’s nothing you can do but learn it—if you struggle against it, it just makes you look foolish.

 

Sunday, April 17, 2016                                            5:32 PM

Scarlatti

I just finished a very difficult piece by Scarlatti—something I’ve practiced for decades and today was the best stab at it I ever took—so when I finished, I stood up and said, “Where’s my thunderous applause? Why don’t I hear thunderous applause? Something’s gone terribly wrong if I’m not hearing thunderous applause—and I’m not hearing thunderous applause—heads will roll.” In this way I comfort myself for doing well in an empty room. And of course I didn’t have the camera on—but that’s a funny story.

 

I recorded a quick trifle in the front room, and brought the camera into the living room, where the baby grand is, but then decided not to set it up and turn it on. I told myself, “You know, if you turn the camera on, somewhere there’ll be a noise—and you’ll get upset that the recording is ruined—and it’ll be a whole thing—so just leave the camera off.” So I did. And, boy, did I call it—the world’s most annoying dishwasher timer went off about twenty times before it finally quit—but I was able to just keep playing—because no one else was listening and I didn’t give a damn about the timer myself. I love it when I’m right. But that’s when I was comfortable enough to play the Scarlatti, to a marked lack of thunderous applause. You win, you lose, I always say.

 

Murder on 34th Street

This brings me to “Miracle on 34th Street”—the bane of atheists everywhere. I just caught the last half of it—the modern, Mara Wilson version. I prefer the original, Natalie Wood version—but this 1994 version is even more devastating to atheists. The trouble with “Miracle on 34th Street” is that it addresses the biggest problem for atheists—what about the children?

The central theme is encapsulated in this quote from the film: “If you can’t accept anything on faith, then you’re doomed for a life dominated by doubt.”  Or, even worse, this one: “If this court finds that Mr. Kringle is not who he says he is, that there is no Santa, I ask the court to judge which is worse: A lie that draws a smile or a truth that draws a tear.”  We can use a ‘get tough’ policy when we are speaking to adults—but what about children?

We parents want to give our children something to believe in—nothing has caused me more doubt and worry than to raise our children without any religion—not because I believe in one of them, but because it is Santa Claus on steroids—something to believe in with a vengeance, as it were. I yearned to offer my children this imaginary comfort—and if I could have offered them the magic without all the poison it contains, I would have. Yet in the final analysis religion’s darkness outweighs the sparkle of fairy dust—I couldn’t indoctrinate my children into one of those shams and still look at myself in a mirror.

I was often tempted to lie to my children while they were growing up—some of the questions they asked made me sick to answer truthfully—because people can get very ugly—and the ugliest of them seem to gravitate towards the money and the power, thus shaping our society far more than the wishes of the vast majority ever enter into it. We live in a world where the unethical is often legal and the ethical is always bad business. To prepare our children to meet that world we have to warn them of some of the worst humanity has to offer—not that I laid it on that thickly, but even the barest outlines of society can be unpleasant to explain to innocents. This is especially true when you live to see a smile on their faces.

So, as pleasant as it might have been to spin them a yarn about angels and doves and pearly gates, I gave them the truth as I saw it. I don’t regret it. There are some nasty people out there who profess a strong faith in god—and if you ask them they’ll tell you all about him—some of them even talk to him. I’d have been damned if I was going to raise my kids to be prey for those types of crazies.

Inventing Religion   (2016Mar30)


Wednesday, March 30, 2016                                            7:36 PM

I’m sure some of you have older siblings and I don’t know, maybe yours was an angelic and helpful soul—but my older brothers enjoyed nothing better than to mess with me or my younger siblings. Every strange woman was a witch—every home with an overgrown lawn was haunted—every barking dog was a killer who had recently broken its chain and would probably do so again today.

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As children we find ourselves in a tight spot—we know that this information is almost certainly bogus—but we have no alternative sources of data. I knew my siblings were just trying to scare me—but maybe that lady really is a witch… Then we grow up and we look back on our surprising gullibility with amusement—as we listen to our older children tell our younger children the same spooky fairy tales and ghost stories.

Our parents might tell some whoppers too—Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy come to mind—but they take them back once we get to a certain age. Then our teachers teach us ‘history’ that we are meant to unlearn in maturity—Washington chopping down a cherry tree, etc. These simple memes help us put pins in the timeline of history that will be replaced later by the dry facts—so to call them lies would be exaggerating things a bit. Still, by the time family, friends and teachers are done with our childhoods, we end up with a great many voided checks of education—and an awareness that communication isn’t always about fact.

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Having learned that people will tell us virtually anything in an attempt to manipulate us, we nevertheless spend the rest of our lives with an unquestioning belief in our religions. The fact that different styles of religion popped up in various regions of the world—just like languages—doesn’t dissuade us from holding firm to our faiths. The fact that religious authorities are famous for corruption and venality doesn’t dissuade us from respecting their ranks, as a group. Even having historical records showing that our religions have been modified over time by consensus of these authorities—even that does not shake our resolution to view these religions as solid and unchanging.

Then we hear of cults where people are deluded into self-destruction or slavery—and here we draw the line. Apparently, a religion that asks you to murder someone or to kill yourself is asking too much—yet all religions tell you how to live your life. The more pleasant the delusion, the more popular the faith. The difficulty we face now with Islamic extremists is that these people are simply hewing to the old, pre-industrial standards of religion—‘kill the infidel’ has been part of their faith for centuries—only the overpowering influence of Western science and technology has brought these places into acquaintance with pluralism and secular societies—and these memes, being imports, are sometimes resented rather than embraced.

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We think of the global community as having been enlightened because they have cell-phones and fast-food outlets. We think of the Amish and tell ourselves that anyone with real old-timey religion will steer clear of technology—but that isn’t the case. Even in America we have evangelists who believe in a literal translation of the Bible—even to the point of denying fossil records and carbon-fourteen dating—but who nonetheless are perfectly comfortable using Twitter, microwaves, and Siri. In such cases, selective ignorance is required—they can study medicine, but must keep their distance from biology where it enters the realm of evolution—such as the transformation of viruses into new forms over time, or the presence of Neanderthal genes in an individual’s DNA sequence.

Plainly, everyone is open to new information, new tech, new gadgets—but new ideas are frightening and unwelcome. Information is our friend—until it isn’t—then we have to decide whether the new info is worth the loss of old assumptions. When cars are invented, the idea that we can travel a mile a minute is very welcome—when cars are found to emit toxic gasses, the idea that we have to change our cars, or stop using them altogether, is proportionately unwelcome. When close study convinced me that religion was a sham, the freedom from that delusion was quite welcome—the idea that the afterlife was, at the very least, far different, if it existed at all, was less welcome. No one is unhappier at a funeral than an atheist—we can’t even say all the comforting things that religious people find so believable.

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But religion is like language in another way—we are raised on one of them and we aren’t inclined to switch to another, just for the sake of unity. Of the things that separate us, in truth, I’d place money and language ahead of religion—after all, while I don’t have a shred of belief, it is still a common feature of most people in most places—and religions, being invented, have certain common denominators. While this is sometimes used by the religious as ‘proof’ that God is everywhere, to me it seems more a connection to human nature—we invent the religions we most want to believe in.

But the older style of religion is unabashedly divisive—fear and hatred of the outsider is enthusiastically embraced—as is punishment for any show of aberration among the faithful. Power-players, especially in the Middle East, have long used this predilection as a way of exerting military and political power—and such people have little regard for the chaos they sow. Ironically, the people that ally themselves with such fundamentalism are a greater source for evil than any simple atheist like myself could ever be.

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What is even stranger is that religions have historically been just that—evil and divisive—until the combination of the Reformation and King Henry VIII’s split with the church in Rome began the erosion of clerical power that ended with the founding of a country based on a forced separation of church and state. After that, religions, especially Christianity, began to be more domesticated and civilized until we have the almost completely secular America and Europe of today. That is strange because, by making themselves less intrusive, religions have made themselves harder to criticize—while, to an atheist, the delusions of lightly-held faiths and the delusions of radical extremists differ only by degree. We atheists are grateful that most of you don’t feel obliged to murder us in our sleep—but we still don’t understand why you keep ingesting the opium of the masses.

But Writing Isn’t Easy (2016Mar20)


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Sunday, March 20, 2016                                          10:12 PM

As with most days, I’ve had images fed into my head through the television all day, some of them entertainment, some news, some political—and I could recount them all for you, as if you hadn’t seen the same stuff—or, if you haven’t seen any of it, I could spare you the trouble—and let me tell you, some of it was troubling—so I won’t upset either of us by doing that. Then I could give you my opinion about it all, after carefully phrasing it so that I had some chance of being interesting or amusing—but there are people that do that for a living. Who am I to try to take the bread out of the mouths of professional pundits?

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Most of my political posts, especially the ones about current events, are my version of the ‘primal scream’—do you remember primal scream therapy? Do they still do that? I remember thinking—that’s a great idea—most people could use a good scream every now and then. But I’m not much for screaming, so I blog about things that upset me. The only trouble is—it usually just makes me more upset. Maybe that’s why you don’t hear much about primal scream therapy any more.

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I get confused, too. There’s so much—should I debate the logic of a thing, the legality of it, the constitutionality of it, the humanity of it, the practicality of it? Should I cite history? That’s always dangerous—most history doesn’t have a beginning or an end, so if you start talking about one thing, you’re bound to run up against other things that may hurt your argument more than help it. Should I argue the semantics of what’s been said? Should I argue the meaning implied by the words? Should I just call someone an idiot—or is there more to it, something that makes that someone merely ignorant or neurotic? If I write too stridently about the ‘right thing’ will I come off as too goody-two-shoes? And if I soft-peddle the ‘right thing’ will I be consigned to that ninth circle of hell reserved for the uncommitted?

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Then there’s my being an atheist—should I bring that up if I think the issue is influenced by religion—or should I avoid it because it’s such a heavy thing to bring to the party? Is it better to avoid the subject for being unpleasant—or will I feel better if I’m painfully honest at all times? As with anything that involves society, there’s a part of writing that assumes you’re writing to be read—if you’re not going to think about the reader, then why are you writing? On the other hand, why are you writing if you’re not going to say what you think? Both good questions—and the question isn’t simplified any by the fact that readers’ brains come in all shapes and sizes.

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I used to draw—it taught me something important. One person would look at a drawing and say they thought it great—then that person would look at another drawing and say it was a clunker. Then another person would give me the exact opposite opinions about the same two drawings. Proof positive—you can’t please everybody—there’s no such thing as good—there’s just what someone likes. Sometimes a lot of people will like the same thing—that’s just a coincidence—and there are still going to be people that don’t like a popular thing, anyway.

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Well, coincidence is the wrong word—it’s not a coincidence that people like Van Gogh’s paintings or Beethoven’s compositions—but there is something ineffable about ‘great’ art—no one can really say what makes it great. They can tell you why it’s impressive, why it’s well-designed or something—but not why the whole world wakes up one morning and declares a thing great. Still, not everybody likes Beethoven—even if it’s just because they haven’t much listened to his music—and if Ludwig can’t get a 100% approval rating, then neither can you.

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That’s why arts teachers are always harping on just pleasing yourself—you’re your own proof-of-concept—if you like what you write or draw or play, then you have at least one person in your audience. However many people might eventually agree with you is something you can’t really do much about.

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Still, when I write, I’m inviting someone to spend time on reading me—and I know that I have to capture someone’s interest if I expect the whole thing to be read. You shouldn’t work to please an audience—but your work must have consideration for an audience—a subtle point, but it still makes it all very confusing. Worse still is the question of autobiography—when is TMI TMI? When does a story of my past involving someone I know stop being reminiscence and cross the line into defamation and libel—of them, or myself? Conversely, how much investment can I expect from readers if I’m too shy about my shortcomings or mistakes to tell the real story? If I write about bending the law here and there, am I telling a good story or am I publishing a criminal confession? It’s looks easy—writing isn’t easy.

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