Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The events of 9/11 forced Ayaan Hirsi Ali to examine her beliefs; in May 2002 she realized that she was atheist (Infidel, chap. 14, Leaving God) and that in practice she had left God years ago.  If one assumes, with Hirsi Ali, that the goals of religion are "to be a better and more generous person", then the motivation toward atheism comes from the realization that the methods of religion are not suited to promoting this worthwhile goal. 

There has been some disagreement on the origins of what has come to be called New Atheism, the greater visibility of atheism in popular culture and the media with notable authors such as Dawkins and Hitchens, that began around 2004.  Richard Norman is quoted by Caspar Melville, of the New Humanist, as saying that the impulse began with 9/11.  Melville's article, which seems to have arisen out of Melville's own inability to discern any positive direction from new atheism, has been criticized by several bloggers.  This point in particular was dissected by Aratina.  After reading Hirsi Ali, I'd like to weigh in as well with an entry of my own. 

Did it begin with 9/11?  Undoubtably 9/11 had a very polarizing effect.  For some authors such as Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris, it was a clarion call to defend reason and a confirmation of their own stance on religion (though many other authors needed no such confirmation at all).  The question can put another way: Without 9/11, would new atheism exist?  I think that it would, because 9/11 is not an isolated example of the negative impact religion has had on society.  If one were to cull all references to 9/11 from the books and other works of the new atheists and their supporters, you would only have removed a very small fraction of the material.  Unfortunately, the grievances against religion are far more numerous than a single event in 2001.  (Is it worth mentioning that the destruction of the twin towers of the world trade center in New York was foreshadowed by the destruction of the twin Buddha statues at Bamiyan?)  Additionally, each of the authors built upon the success and awareness raised by the others.  As the books came out in relatively quick succession they were able to ride the same wave, pushed a little higher by the publication of each book. 

I would miss an important aspect of new atheism if I didn't mention that it is defined not just by the popularity of the recent authors, but notably that a significant portion of these authors place emphasis on a scientific perspective, where the question of God is treated as a testable hypothesis (that fails), and demonstrating the importance of evolutionary thought in better at explaining the origin and nature of humans.  In this regard, Norman is right in that it does appear to address Christian fundamentalism, which denies science preferring instead a literal interpretation of the Bible.  The first Age of Enlightenment was built upon the realization that evidence and the methods of science could lead to a surer foundation for knowledge and progress, so it is encouraging to see these tools employed by the new atheists in the service of reason again.  Another point is that new atheism wouldn't even exist as we know it without the online community of nonbelievers that has come together and flourished as organically as the Internet itself (see Aratina's post for a more full description of this aspect).

As I mentioned much earlier, I denied my religious belief in May of 2001.  For myself and many former believers, it was a significant decision not made lightly, and I recorded the date and exact reasoning that led to it.  This was obviously four months before September 2001, so I had no knowledge of what would happen later that year.  It is interesting to note for myself, that my infidelity with religion predates Hirsi Ali's, which became famous several years ago after the publication of her book, Infidel.  I do not know anyone whose views became atheist after 9/11 that wouldn't have come to this conclusion of their own accord without any additional impulse from that tragic event.  Incidentally, reading Hirsi Ali has been a pleasure, she is capable of conveying a wide range of emotion- an epilogue to her most recent book Nomad is titled “Letter to my unborn daughter” and it is very moving.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I have a 20 gallon aquarium with low light loving bushy plants, driftwood, and active rosy barbs and Buenos Aires tetras.  I had considered putting other fish into the mix, but these small colorful, active, pugnacious (they say, semi-aggressive), archetypal, little fish are very fun to watch.  I also have a 10 gallon tank with a wakin goldfish and a Shubunkin goldfish, “rescued” from the feeder fish tank at the petshop.  I had a wakin goldfish in the past (as well as rosy barbs).  Both tanks are at a nice equilibrium right now, but if I find another wakin goldfish for less than a dime and a nickel, the temptation to buy may be too great. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Christopher Hitchens

After reading Dawkins, I was eager to scan a few more books from popular new atheist literature.  I had borrowed from the library a copy of Christopher Hitchens' The Portable Atheist, and God is Not Great.  My joy at reading these inspiring works is mixed with the sad realization that they aren't being more widely read and discussed.  History may well record these authors as positioned near the beginning of a new enlightenment, emerging as it does from unprecedented levels of ignorance in contemporary society.  I only read Hitchens' introduction to The Portable Atheist and a few of the authors included in this compilation, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali (whose face is piercingly beautiful and whose words gave me goose bumps).  In God is Not Great I read just five chapters (I really should read the rest of the book sometime).  Now, whereas Dawkins shines forth in his writing through his intimate knowledge of science, Hitchens is clearly a writer par excellence capable of painting images on the canvas of the mind.  His face as seen in photographs often appears to carry a dour expression, but like Dawkins, his writing reveals a much more charitable personality than you'd otherwise expect. 

Hitchens explains that the term atheist is very useful, if only because we are emerging from a social past in which theism has been used to control all aspects of life.  (The Portable Atheist, xx)  Perhaps no author makes the actual extent to which this control went more clear than Sam Harris in The End of Faith.  His descriptions of the atrocities are worse than anything I can imagine.  The positive view of atheism, to which I wholeheartedly subscribe, is well explained by Hichens:  “...atheists have always argued that this world is all that we have, and that our duty is to one another to make the very most and best of it.”  (PA, xvi)

Delving into the nuances of the atheist stance, Hitchens writes:  “And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers.  Our belief is not a belief.  Our principles are not a faith.  We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason.  We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”  (GNG, p.5)

I think one underlying fear held by religious people (correct me if I am wrong religious people out there!) is that all atheists would be happy to eliminate religion and relegate it to the dustbin of history.  But near the beginning of each of Hitchens' books that I read, he is careful to present his views on this:  “...religion is so much a part of our human or animal nature that it is actually ineradicable.  This, for what it may be worth, is my own view.” (PA, xxiii)  “Religious faith is, precisely because we are still evolving creatures, ineradicable.  It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.  For this reason I would not prohibit it even if I thought I could.” (GNG, 12)  Indeed, why prohibit what comes naturally?  Leaving religion should be an informed personal decision, just as entering it should be.  Hitchens' also addresses a concern much more relevant to me, and probably many religious folk as well, that without belief life loses its “awareness of the numinous or the transcendent”.  But by squarely looking at the facts of existence- that we are merely animals with organs that will fail all too early within our short lifespans- I take comfort.  The facts allow me a rational basis for effective action.  False notions will do nothing for me.  “There can be no serious ethical position based on denial or a refusal to look the facts squarely in the face.”  (PA, xxii)  Two excellent books by Hitchens, highly recommended (if only for the content which I reviewed).

Monday, October 25, 2010

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins, and the new atheists in general, have a reputation for nastiness.  Having read Dawkins' book “The God Delusion”, I say such a reputation couldn't be more ill deserved.  Before reading the book, the title sounds antagonistic, but after finishing the book, it only sounds like a well reasoned and entirely appropriate conclusion.  Even after the first few pages I had to revise the mental image I had of the man, he is much more kind and took a more balanced approach to his subject than I had anticipated!  Of note, I found the sections on the origins of morality (page 219 gives an interesting example of Arabian babblers, little brown birds that compete for costly and dangerous roles) and the inspiration of nature (page 362) to be particularly interesting.  I also enjoyed the frequent references to primary sources in science, literature, and religion.  There is a lot to recommend reading this book.

It is not the only, nor probably the best, reason for a person to leave their religion, but Dawkins summarized the very basic reason why I left religion (page 282):
Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief.  The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not the end product of a process of reasoning.  The book is true, and if the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book.
Despite my honest belief, I came to realize that I valued reasoning over axioms.  It is simply the more responsible approach.  And when that reasoning does not lead to one's professed axioms, deconversion is virtually inevitable.  These are my own words from early 2001 (note the similarity to those of Dawkins' above):
There is nothing wrong with believing a doctrine, the will to believe requires no justification, but if a doctrine is considered inviolable against the inquisitive nature, the very thing that suggested its possibility in the first place, then any further possibilities that are suggested will have to either accord with it or be rejected, although it may be more appropriate to question the primacy of the doctrine itself.
Dawkins makes reference on several occasions to an idea that Dennett put forth: belief in belief.  For some time after I wrote that, and even now, though I do not believe as I did before, I do at times believe in some form of belief.  It isn't that I dislike belief, so much as that I earnestly value reasoning.  (And as it is wont to do, reasoning often stands at odds with cherished beliefs.)  Anyone one who feels the same will find a kindred spirit in this book.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

John Lennon

If John Lennon were still alive he would've been 70 yesterday; he died in 1980 when he was 40 years old. I watched The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which seemed as good a way as any to celebrate his birth. The radio station played “Nowhere Man”, a song Lennon wrote about himself, and no review of his life would be complete without mentioning the song “Imagine”. Lennon believed in peaceful revolution and advocated for human rights, especially where he saw their abuse. It's all there in his song, here's the message, paraphrased: Imagine no religion, no countries, nothing to kill or die for; no possessions, greed or hunger. Imagine sharing all the world, living for today, in peace. I wonder what Lennon would've said had he lived? His song is probably the most widely recognized in the world, a dream countless people still aspire to.

But Lennon's life was not a fairy tale.  He didn't really know his parents.  He seems to have been very abusive of people close to him in his earlier years.  His affair with Yoko Ono (who herself faced hardship in early life) led to leaving his first wife and son, whose existence was kept secret to protect his career.  While with Ono she and John became burned out from drugs, quacks, emotional breakdowns and media attention.  His relationship with Ono was inconstant: she had relationships with gigolos, and at her suggestion he had an affair with their personal assistant May Pang for several years.  Mark Chapman, who shot him in 1980, was obsessed by Salinger's book The Catcher in the Rye.  Salinger himself was interested in a litany of spiritual, medical, and nutritional belief systems.  All told, it makes for a pretty messy story.  But out of all this there was produced moments of beauty, and many people found inspiration. 

Monday, October 4, 2010


So you want a comfortable bike to take you around town nimbly balanced on two wheels?  Forget recumbents.  Omafiets, Dutch for "grandmother's bike" are the gold standard for comfort.  According to Mark Sanders, bicycle designer, a bolt upright riding posture is better than one leaning over to reach the handlebars.  Though not news to me, his accompanying photo was interesting because one of my big aspirations is to go on a cross country road trip by bike.  (And even if that never happens, I am still taking a lot of local bike trips.)  In his article Sanders was only considering upright bikes, but omafiets seem to come out on top even against recumbents.  The best recumbents I have ridden (and only recently does that statement carry any weight- see my report on Angletech) are the short wheel base "stick recumbents".  These bikes, like the Challenge Mistral or the Bacchetta Giro, are beautiful.  But while comfortable for short rides, exercising while in a very recumbent position can lead to minor numbness in one's feet, and to keep a relatively low seat height these bikes have 20 inch front wheels.  An omafiets has large 28 inch wheels that better smooth out irregularities in rough terrain.  But so can "crank forward" bikes, particularly those made by RANS.  However after reading about omafiets, RANS crank forward bikes seem to be a more expensive solution to a problem that doesn't exist, or if it does it is only because omafiets aren't widely enough known by or available to American riders.  Everything about omafiets are utilitarian, and they don't have more gears than you really need. 

I am about as far away from the Netherlands as one can get, so what are my options?  Probably the easiest thing I could do is try to assemble my own omafiets from different parts, beginning with the right size and shape of frame, handlebars, seat and wheels.  (According to some people, omafiets are similar to cruiser/comfort/leisure bikes, but there are often differences in frame geometry.)  I can also stay abreast of information from Velovision, prodigious bloggers like The Lazy Randonneur, and read Peter Eland's book "Practical Bike Buyer's Guide".  So will an omafiets make a good cross country bike?  I think so, they can easily be fitted with front and rear racks for carrying gear, so it looks like a good fit all around!  I wonder how many miles in the saddle I can log in one year?  BTW, if you look at other countries besides the Netherlands where bikes are a primary form of transportation you see the same general form.  For example, Japanese "mamachari" bikes are similar if not identical to many omafiets.

If you want to delve any further into the minutiae of Dutch bikes, there are also "opafiets" (grandpa bikes), the picture above is a bike of this variety.  At the linked page is an image showing the shape of the handlebars, an important feature of any oma or opafiets.

Friday, October 1, 2010

La Mettrie

"L'homme machine" or "Man the Machine" was written in 1748 by Julien Offray de La Mettrie.  It is described as an important contribution to the development of the Age of Enlightenment, but leaving its historical context aside for the moment, it contains many interesting ideas which I will try to summarize.

La Mettrie, a physician, allows only the use of facts and observations derived through experimentation to describe the human body.  From this approach he concludes that it is a machine, though admittedly a very complex machine that is initially impossible to get a clear idea of, and therefore to define.  It is only the arrangement of our parts that distinguishes one person from another, or a person from an animal, plant, or anything else.  Observation leads La Mettrie to conclude that animals think, are intelligent, and feel repentance and shame just as humans.  A materialistic explanation can even be extended to illuminate the causes of criminal acts.  Indeed, all things have materialistic explanations for La Mettrie.  Our abilities as well as our limitations can be ascribed to our material organization; it is our ignorance of them that has led us to use alternative explanations (usually supernatural).  For La Mettrie, we exist simply to exist, but if there is a reason, then nature made us for pleasure first and to be happy, and secondarily to be educated (though he suggests that like Gould's classic article about the Spandrels of San Marco, our ability to learn may have only been accidental.)

There is one quote by La Mettrie that I cannot improve on by summarization, so I will include it's translation (full pdf paper):
There is nothing contradictory about
(1) being a machine and (2) being able to feel, to think and to tell right from wrong like telling blue from yellow; that is,
(1) being a mere animal and (2) being born with intelligence and a sure instinct for morality,
any more than there is about
•being an ape or a parrot and •being able to give oneself pleasure.
. . . .Who would ever have guessed in advance that a drop of liquid ejaculated in mating would give rise to such divine pleasure? or that there would be born from it a little creature who would be able one day, given certain laws, to enjoy the same delights? Thought incompatible with organised matter? That is so far from right, I believe, that thought seems to be a property of matter, like electricity, power to move, impenetrability, extension, etc. 
In case this translation isn't clear, to La Mattrie, thought is not incompatible with organized matter, rather it is a property of it! Even 262 years later, we haven't solved that riddle yet.  But imagine if we really acted as though we were aware that we are the purely physical machines he describes us as.  What if we understood that we and all other things differ only in minor differences of organization, without any substantial differences at all.  Small changes in organization can lead to large changes in appearance and behavior.  Wouldn't we then be more sympathetic to our fellow men and creatures?  La Mattrie certainly thought so:  
Those haughty, vain, self-praising beings who are marked off by their pride more than by the label ‘men’ —are basically only animals and upright-crawling machines....
If only men would always show [as animals] the same gratitude for kindness and the same respect for humanity! Then we wouldn’t have to fear being met with ingratitude, or to fear these wars that are the scourge of the human race and the real hangmen of the law of nature.