Regarding Anecdotes

We’re storytellers all. We describe what happened to us on our trip. We tell about that wreck we were involved in. We wax nostalgic over our vacations. And when it comes to religion, well, everybody has a story about that, too. The story validates one’s belief, gives what seems to be a reasonable argument for the existence of a god or the truth of one’s beliefs.

But how valid are the stories? I’m not speaking only of the time you prayed for grandma and she came home from the hospital when everyone thought she was going to die. There are as many verifying vignettes as there are Carter’s Little Liver Pills. 

I may have already mentioned the fellow who assured me that he knew there was a god because God told him what was going to be the next song on the radio. There are those who are in mortal danger from a gunman and they pray and are spared. There are stories of praying for rain and then being deluged with torrential rains after a drought. Surely, these tales must all lead one to believe that there is a gracious God and he cares for each and every person on Earth.

So, where’s the flaw in anecdotes? Why are they not convincing to everyone as they are to those who tell them? Is it that perhaps the person recalling the events has framed them in ways that are particularly important to themselves? If I said that I had a cat that could clearly speak eleven words of English, would someone else not have been able to make out those clear words? Am I hearing what I want to hear?

In the event of knowing what song would be on the radio next there are many explanations that are more reasonable than a magisterial God taking the time to use its powers for such trivial purposes. Those unfamiliar with radio may not know about cueing – the radio host listening to the beginning of the next song while playing another, with the studio mike not all the way off so that a listener can subliminally pick up the sound. And modern stations usually play the same songs in the same order for a period of weeks, and it’s common to “hear” the next song when we’ve heard the songs in the same order before.

Grandma got better when you prayed? The real question that should be asked is if she would have gotten better if you hadn’t. How would you be able to determine that? Which is more likely – that granny just got better or that magic was done because of your incantation? 

The biggest problem with anecdotes is the irregular workings of the mind. We don’t remember things accurately. Accident witnesses will say that the same car was variably red, blue, or gray. Those stories we tell each other always sound better if we arrange them to be more interesting. It’s not that we’re intentionally being dishonest, but rather that we just put our stories together this way. Over time, the stories seem to get even better. 

And of course, correlation does not imply causation. Did the person in the apartment upstairs stop making noise because you pounded on the ceiling with a broom handle, or because they were finished making noise? Did granny get better because you prayed or because of the care she was getting?

Rain is a bit difficult to predict. Does praying or doing a rain dance help? And when someone claims that they prayed and torrential rain resulted, do you suppose that they checked the weather forecast before they prayed or perhaps they left it out of the story because they didn’t want to diminish the effect that they thought prayer should have?

Anecdotes are affirming, but by their nature they must not be too closely examined. Sometimes an anecdote will be impossible to discount because no easy explanation can be made, but anecdotes depend upon what the listener does not know. Perhaps the teller does not know, either.

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That Old Black Magic

It seems to me that the religious do not think of themselves as dealing in magic. And yet, magic is what religion is all about. There seems to be a false dichotomy that religion is religion and magic is magic. But Jesus, for example, has been portrayed by some as a magician.

And, after all, Jesus is quite famous for his magic tricks. Oddly, his tricks were nothing new to the superstitious world of that time. Changing water to wine was old hat, and Dionysian priests didn’t even need the water. Walking on water would have been an unusual act in those days for a human, but Poseidon or Neptune would have been adept at all things wet.

In Christian practices, magic is so commonplace that it’s taken as just another form of religious practice. Catholics are supposed to believe without question that the wafer and the wine are the actual body and blood of Jesus and only look as if they’re bread and wine. Christians may laugh at the idea of a thousand-pound horse with wings carrying Mohammed to heaven, and yet the myth is rife with characters who “ascended” into Heaven. I once knew a young fellow who we in those days referred to as a “macrobiotics nut,” who was convinced that a particular yogi had developed the ability to levitate. For the elect, gravity is just an illusion, apparently. 

The laying on of hands is yet another strange practice that can only be called magic. It is the belief that one can somehow cause healing by the proximity of the hands of a believer. When you think how this could be true, you must wonder why hands might serve as some kind of antennae or just what sort of force or power is transmitted from, well, somewhere to the body of the ill person. One might discriminate between the demon hypothesis of disease and the other sorts such as humors or the life force. 

To Catholics, it is a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday. Shouldn’t one ask themselves why a set period of time between doses makes a difference? Why does this set inoculation need to occur? There are a great many such rules in Catholicism and one can only guess that they arose as the result of a concerted effort to keep the sheep in line. Other Christian sects don’t always feel the need to be so obvious in their authoritarianism.

The very idea that the sacrifice of Jesus can save us from well-deserved punishment for either our own bad deeds or those of our ancestors is a confusing sort of sympathetic magic that obviously makes no sense to a non-believer and yet is the basis for the most important part of Christianity, that we do not deserve any eternal reward but because of one person’s suffering we will all have it if only we accept the gift. Even if one accepts that Jesus was truly a god why should his brief suffering be more important than the suffering of any other? There was plenty of suffering to go around in the Roman milieu.

The scapegoat paradigm is obvious sympathetic magic – that badness can be transferred from an entire village onto a goat which is then left to certain destruction in the desert – is not so different from poking pins in a doll to cause pain in another. Expanding that idea to a human-as-goat and putting all the sins of the world on him in a mind-boggling transfer of evil is, to the non-believer, like magicking all the high-rise buildings on Earth to a new location on Mars. First, one must believe that such things are even conceivable, then one must posit some sort of mechanism by which it can be done. Shades of Siegfried and Roy! The tiger disappeared! Hesto presto and ala kazam! Oh, ho, ho, it’s magic.

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Computer World

Before I start, everybody get your tinfoil hats on. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

I’ve been thinking about video games and I had a flash of insight. It’s not a new thing, lots of other people have proposed, if fictitiously, the same idea. Here it is: 

It is far more likely that the world we live in is generated as a computer game than that any of the religious beliefs are true.

If we look at religious claims, it should become obvious that they don’t hold up based on natural laws and archaeological data. For example: God created the earth and the heavens. The first thing you’d have to wonder is how did he do it? Well, if he designed it as a computer game it all makes sense. Is the earth six to ten thousand years old? Sure, why not? How could a god create a universe if time is part of the universe? How can you have an event without a time frame for reference?

In a computer game, the writers/programmers/gods start with a story board. They design the characters and the scenes and so on. If the game sells well and they make a sequel, they improve on it, flesh it out more, improve the graphics, and try to make a better story line. And do you start the story from the beginning? No! You begin at a specific point. The game is designed, so turn it on any time you like. The time inside the game is not the same as the time outside the game, so there’s another paradox resolved.

So . . . they start with a test. They make a landscape and a couple of primitive people. They add a couple of lights in the sky and a bunch of animals and plants. They set it in motion to see what will happen. To their great surprise, the virtual characters rapidly gain abilities in unexpected ways. This is not according to plan, so the game makers throw in more difficult challenges and mortality and disease. Much better – the characters don’t run out of control.

Years ago, I had a game called Sim Ant, a virtual ant farm. like our example, Sim Ant required supervision or who knows what would happen? Usually, the ants would just die out. They had to be provided with resources and it was necessary to watch them constantly. If you left the simulation running untended the poor little ants would just die out. No doubt a cruel person could find ways to torture and destroy them.

Back to our game. People are flourishing. One of them kills another. Dang! Making them mortal wasn’t supposed to mean they could kill each other! What a revolting development. Eventually, the little critters get really out of hand and aren’t doing anything they were expected to do. What a conundrum. I guess this one was a bust. Time for a reset. 

The video game ant farmer re-writes the game from scratch. S/he/it likes a couple of characters, so for the second game he posits a story of a great flood, keeps those couple of characters but puts in a lot of new ones. During development, the designer and the beta testers find flaws in the game, and being extremely lazy, they devise solutions that aren’t all that clever, but solve problems. Along comes a character who is set to be a leader but he gets killed in the simulation. No problem, he gets a free life and immortality! 

See? This all makes sense to anyone who has played video games because that’s exactly how video games work. But the stories passed around by religious groups don’t make sense given a rational world and a set of immutable laws. Does the Programmer interfere? How would we know? If he changes the game, would the characters know the game has been changed?

Maybe inside the game there really was a Moses and an Exodus and that only exists on one level. On another level there are memories but no artifacts of those events. You can do that in a video game, but you can’t do it in a reality. For all anyone knows, the video game began last Tuesday at 6:00 a.m. and we were created with all our memories and everything in our worlds as we see it now and nothing ever happened before that. Because that’s how video games work. 

Simulacron-3, written by Daniel Galoye (1964), proposes a group of computer simulation creators who find that they, too, are part of a simulation. The movie, The Thirteenth Floor, was based on that story. The purpose of the simulation was to discover marketing trends and so they had to make the people in the simulation as real as possible – a mirror of real life. Three known levels. But how many more are possible?

“Of course you are,
my bright little star . . . 

I’ve miles and miles of files
Pretty files of your forefather’s fruit
And now to suit our great computer
You’re magnetic ink!”   – the Moody Blues

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Atheism Even Less

Based on news from the war zone, Atheism+ is writhing like a bloodsucker covered in salt.

I’ll apologize in advance for this comment, but it occurred to me that feminists running an atheist movement is like a science study group run by evangelicals. No good can come of it.

I wonder when everyone will get tired of the back-and-forth and just go off and forget the whole thing ever happened.

When Matt Dillahunty fumbled his way into their forums anonymously he tore the veil off the scorpions’ nest. Still, he makes apologetics for them, complaining that they want him to apologize while still maintaining that Atheism+ is a good thing. He says that he dutifully exposed flaws in their system which were subsequently fixed while ignoring the obvious: he’s still being punished because of the flaws.

What’s a newbie poster on those forums to do if they make a mistake? Banning is the only option. No one can say, “Oh, you broke a rule and now that you’re aware of it don’t do it again.” Instead, just ban. Atheism+ is such a safe place that even its strongest supporters can’t get into it. They’re eating their own.

I was a bit uncomfortable when I began to see feminist talks at atheist conventions. It’s not that I don’t think women should have rights; it’s that feminism is a polarization with its own set of polemics. At first, I thought, well, it’s good that atheists are aware of such things,  that they’re being brought up, but the discomfort remains.

And what does this Atheism+ movement accomplish? What good do they do? Nothing. Nothing except to build a fence and put everyone outside it unless they swear fealty oaths and know the secret handshake. A+ is a totalitarian mindset where even the slightest variation on opinion is met with a zero tolerance and almost violent response. (Watching John the Other being approached by people with box cutters and threatening manner leads me to think that violence isn’t far beneath the surface.)

Once again I’ll ask: is Atheism+ divisive? Why even ask the question? The people who have fallen into this useless ideology become more shrill by the day and are being isolated from the larger community of atheists and they have become those who one shuns, sort of like backing away from a crazy person.

For those, like Matt Dillahunty, who think that Atheism+ is still a good idea, I have to ask just what is it that Atheism+ could ever accomplish that atheists in general could not? What was not being done before that is being done now? What successes have come from the movement?

Its greatest success is that a number of rising stars in the non-believing world are falling from the sky. It has become an us-vs.-them fiasco. The best outcome for everyone would be complete dissolution and a memory purge. Let’s all just pretend it never happened and go back to what we were doing.

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A Moment to Catch Up

Ah, summer. It’s bigger. What used to be the rainy season is now a one-day drizzle. And with the warm days and glorious sunshine I found myself excavating my back yard, one shovelful at a time and picking through the morass one pebble after another.

I know it seems like a futile pastime but I was enjoying myself. This Old House ain’t got nothin’ on me. Let me regress to an earlier time, when a young, expectant couple was looking for a place to live with no money for a down payment. I was so excited when I found this slightly-leaning two-storey abandoned shack on a large lot and the price was right.

Then one day, I discovered that part of the house had no foundation. In fact, there wasn’t even room to crawl under the floor joists. I dug a hole beneath the kitchen to drop a water heater into and found the back section propped by sticks, blocks, bricks, anything that was handy. It came to me that I at least needed to dig a three-foot deep foundation. And that escalated into a full-blown, nine-foot basement. The digging only took about ten years. A little here, a little there.

Meanwhile, my ever-busy city planners decided that I needed a better street and my ancient cottonwood trees were in the way, so they cut them down and left me with the firewood. Not terribly good firewood, mind you, but over twenty cords of it. I got that all chopped up and stacked and used it all up in one winter or so.

Since I was then at the edge of the city limits, I kept a burning pile for over twenty years to rid myself of old lumber, fence posts, and the constant mass of droppings from some clusters of elm trees.

As I dug the basement, the dirt had to go somewhere and it wound up in great piles out back. I devised a system of using my pickup as a dump truck and actually driving it on top of the piles to dump.

I found someone with a Bobcat skid loader and he was able to go down my ramp and finish the excavation and then he offered to level the yard. Sure, that sounded like a good idea. When he was finished, I asked him where the piles of concrete and so on had gone. Oh, he said, I just buried them. Now you won’t have to worry about hauling them.

Uh-oh.

Beneath the clay and sand I’d found nice gravel to set the foundation on and there were gravel runs that had to be dug out with the rest. The end result is that the back yard has so much gravel and river rock and concrete in it that nothing would grow. I tried tilling and was first met with some of the ash from the old burning pile that I thought I’d already hauled. The tiller sank up to its axle with a poofing noise and a groan from me. That was hauled off as “burning barrel” ashes and of course costs money to dump.

The next thing the tiller found was hundred-pound blocks of old foundation a couple of inches under the surface. I began a pile of those along with smaller bits. The further I got into the project the further it seemed that I had to go. Eventually, I was digging about eighteen inches deep to the original level of the ground, screeding out  big rocks and concrete with a standing screed made of old galvanized pipes and chicken wire, then re-screeding with a smaller screen which took out the remaining rocks and pebbles and broken glass and nails and fence staples and other debris and artifacts.

And who knew that twenty years after being buried, cottonwood bark would look just the same?

Yes, artifacts. Sometimes it all seems worth it just for those. This house has been here a long time and it’s impossible to tell what all went on back in the day. Was there perhaps another house on the property, or a carriage house? I’ve found bits of tack, horseshoes, things that appear to have been part of buggy frames, old auto parts, various bits of china, huge spikes and bolts and screws. Everyone who lived in this place must have contributed to the treasure trove that lurks beneath the surface.

And once in a while, something nifty turns up. I found a local dog tag, from a dog, from 1942. It’s brass and has held up very well. I found an aluminum Camay coupon about an inch and a half on a side that will get you three bars of Camay soap for fifteen cents instead of twenty five cents. Those were given out by the soap companies in the twenties and thirties. I recently found an Indian head penny from 1895.

What I haven’t found is the trove of gold coins or the lost diamond rings that I’m sure must be there somewhere. But I’m barely started. This bit of fun will surely go on for years.

Ah, winter. It’s coming, as Game of Thrones constantly reminds us. The seemingly everlasting summer seems to have come to an end and it’s occasionally rainy and very windy and the temperatures are finally dropping. Winter is coming and I’m going to have to put the project on hold. My back driveway sports lots of new gravel and there is a massive pile of old broken concrete and another huge pile of rocks the size of softballs. The days are shorter and I won’t be doing much more out there until next year so maybe the blogging can begin again in earnest.

And that’s how I spent my summer.

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Atheism Minus

It has become all the vogue in the atheist coffee klatsch. Atheism+ is where you should be if you’re a decent, upstanding non-believer, and let’s all leave those despicable, raping, slandering, bothersome atheists out in the cold with their weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

I’ve tried to understand what this new and saintly atheist movement might be about and I’m afraid I’ve come out of it underwhelmed. As I scan through Greta Christina’s post on the subject, I easily dismiss her points with simple responses in my mind. Linking from there to Jen McCreight’s blog, I find that the basis for the new “movement” apparently stems from fear of women that the evil atheist world is too violent for them to visit. So they want to create a safe haven where female atheists and their male supporters can rise above all the perfidy of the zombies at street level. The bad examples of atheism become dead to them.

Looking at the list of violators, we start with the 15-year-old girl on Reddit Atheism who posted a picture of herself proudly holding a Carl Sagan book who was then threatened with rape and death by the hordes of prepubescent troglodytes who sneaked onto their mom’s computer and reveled in the anonymity of the internet to spew their infantile jests and threats. Excuse me, ladies, but I find this to be a less than credible threat. Perhaps when their balls drop, these be-pimpled video game rejects will eventually learn to play with others but this is hardly an example of what happens to women in the atheist community. As long as these mini-perverts stay on Reddit, the world is safe.

The next example is a small bit regarding Rebecca Watson telling guys to not approach her in an elevator when they’re drunk, which then became the scandal of the atheist world. Well, sometimes it’s difficult to be a part of this sordid species that sometimes has to have their mind altered before they get up enough courage to proposition a woman, but there it is – certainly not a tempest in a teapot, but more like a drip of water on a hot stove.

I understand that there is a form of female response to unwanted male control called feminism. What I do not understand is why that should be the basis of founding a new movement within (or without) atheism. It is perfectly acceptable to not believe in gods and at the same time belong to the feminist movement.

I also understand that to give this movement more solidity there are other causes brought in to be embraced, such as the LGBT acceptance and defense. You know what? I don’t give a holy whoop in hell for the LGBT movement, any more than I’m interested in the Black experience because they are and were oppressed. I stand for any underdog and any woman and any tyranny against the mind of man (colloquial and inclusive!) and always have and always will, but I certainly do not need a safe place away from the atheist general community to hold those positions. 

Like Noel Plum, I care little whether some atheists want a safe haven or a metaphorical gated community to be free from their oppressors. But it should not become a line drawn in the sand in a playground where you rush to join your friends’ team. We are too few in numbers in this part of the world to be breaking off into sects. The very idea that we need to be divisive to be united into a purist version of an already amorphous movement is yet another silly venture into the world of the Brights. “Gentlemen,” said Ben Franklin, ” we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” 

As our numbers grow we are bound to see many bright ideas about how we should be aligning with one cause or another, or how we should adopt one or another stance. With luck, most of these brain farts will end on the dustbin of history before they have a chance to nip at our ankles. Once again I must bring out this quote:

“If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you oughtta go back home and crawl under your bed.
It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross,
but it’s not for the timid.”       – Q (Star Trek, the Next Generation)

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The Misguided Voters

There are political theories that the people are neither well-informed nor capable when it comes to running a country. And as those theories go, the masses have no place in running the country; that responsibility belongs with the elites.

When we think of democracy, we think of a political system in which everyone has a voice. And when we think of the United States, we usually think of democracy. It’s true that it’s a limited form of representative democracy, at least insofar as voting on the national level is concerned. And on the local level, I don’t think it would be untrue to say that politics devolves into something clique-ish or even a tyranny of the majority.

If we were to believe that given access to information the masses of people can make reasoned judgments and vote for the candidate that would be the most beneficial to that system, then it makes sense to believe that people who are fed particular types of information could be manipulated into voting poorly.

Looking back at the Bush years and the devastation to the planet and to the economy, it seems unlikely in the extreme that Bush was in any way beneficial to the political system, and given Obama’s continuation of Bush policies I’m baffled as how what we expected of him is so different from what we got. It’s as if the express is roaring down the tracks and Hell is looming ahead with no chance of slowing or switching to another route.

Putting aside the voter caging and voting machine manipulations there were still a lot of people who voted for Bush, twice. As completely unthinkable as this is, it illustrates exactly why you can never predict how the people will vote unless you are the ones doing the manipulating. We must of course realize that this series of events has some sort of plan behind it – that people are actually being manipulated into voting one way or the other. So what happened to those people who you could trust to examine the evidence and make sound voting decisions?

Let’s move to the present, with the advent of the new team of Romney and Ryan. It seems to me that they are the twin harbingers of dishonesty and fascism – a pair straight from Orwell’s Ministry of Truth whose role is that of corporate puppet rule. My fear is that even though they seem to be so unbelievably bad for our political system, for our country, that they may actually wind up at the head of it.

One thing that bothers me is that there is what seems to be a large faction of people with the idea that Obama has betrayed the trust of those who elected him by not being the leftist they thought he was. Those folks feel that he should be punished by not voting for him, and damn the consequences, and they fall into two groups, one that might vote for the other party and the other that might vote for a third-party candidate. As usual, the third party candidate doesn’t have a chance in a quadrillion of serious consideration and it takes one vote away from one candidate without giving it to the other.

There are some die-hard Obama followers who remember the Bush years (How soon we forget!) and remember that the express was travelling even faster then, and who will vote for him again. My point of view is that Obama is our only real hope for survival as a country. Yes, it’s that serious. Voting for the other team ensures that we throw more coal into the boiler and watch as the wheels fall off. The flow of money from the near-extinct middle class will increase and anything resembling a healthy economy will shrivel and wither.

Once upon a time there was a Republican Party. Although they were sometimes a bit tight with the purse strings when it came to public welfare, they built a fast-growing and stable economy with public works projects from dams to interstate highways. And they actually cared about the success of the economy. Now, these guys may have thought that power belongs in the hands of the elite, but they also thought that a strong middle class with opportunity for all was better than stealing all the money.

But the ideological bent of the current Republican Party has moved so far to the right that the only ideal is to make the very rich very much richer by stripping away all the money from everyone until they have it all. We’ve seen this so-called free market plan impoverish nations all over the world since it was unleashed by its believers and it is crippling not only the economy but any ability to maintain infrastructures. So services are decimated. Police, fire, welfare and health, roads and bridges. Cities sell their assets off to anyone who can afford them, foreign or domestic, and much of our nation is now owned or owed to foreigners as our debt climbs. The blindness of the free market approach is staggering.

As always, art reflects life, and The Hunger Games envisions a world where “districts” are fenced gulags peopled in poverty and Capital City is a fantasy land where the wealthy have power and glory. It’s the Eloi and the Morlocks in a never-ending battle of control and ignorance. Soylent Green is people, my friend.

So give the people a little hope. In a second term, Presidents are often more free to follow their own policies rather than the policies of their handlers because, after all, they can’t be re-elected for a third term and they no longer have to please contributors. Obama has not been the disaster that Bush was in many respects and given some freedom might do a little better for us while Romney is a dissembling train wreck of luxurious privilege who will pull the throttle to its full stop and damn the torpedoes straight into the valley of death will ride the three hundred million.

No matter what the polls say, no matter how much more sensible a second Obama administration may be, the fix is in. The will of the people may not be all that well thought nor well-guided. In a nation of believers credulousness is the order of the day and there is far too much of it. We need another FDR, but what we have is Obama, and we should do the best we can with him. We don’t need another Bush on the strings of the Koch brothers or another Project for the New American Century to invent more wars to deplete our treasure even further. My fear is that my country’s voters are being fed a pabulum by the media that is laced with heavy metals and poisons and they can’t get enough of it.

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