Monday, July 27, 2009
Friday, July 24, 2009
I've talked about people who claim to have supernatural powers before... for some reason, many people simply can't accept reality for what it is. For them, super-human powers and ghostly spirits and predicting the future simply MUST be true. I don't really get it.
We are fragile humans... some people are stronger, or smarter, or taller, or more beautiful, but we all have physical limitations. No-one is immortal, no-one has super powers, and no, sorry, no-one can talk to dead people (but that's a topic for another post).
Still and all, people claim these abilities all the time... sometimes they are true charlatans looking to bilk credulous people out of their money, and sometimes they actually convince themselves that they do have these abilities. The latter group are less dishonest, but more dangerous because they truly believe it. A charlatan will know when he's gone too far before he's done any real harm... a true believer won't.
Most times, it's other people that are damaged as a result of the claims of these people... but sometimes, these kooks are so convinced of their own supernatural abilities that they will put themselves in harms way... usually to their own detriment.
That brings us to today's whackaloon, Dmitry Butakov, who believed that he had "super-powers"... specifically the ability to ingest poisonous liquids without being harmed. It seems that Dmitry's body did have a somewhat high tolerance for certain types of toxic liquids. For example, he once drank some dissolvent in front of reporters and survived. He decided to use his "super-powers" to gain fame and perhaps fortune.
You'll notice that I've been talking about Dmitri in the past-tense. You can probably guess why. After setting up a demonstration with reporters in which he drank about 10 oz. of anti-freeze, he gave a couple of interviews, then started to feel sick. He later died, predictably, of blood poisoning.
I'd wrap this up with a lesson about stupidly believing in super (or supernatural) powers, but if you didn't get that already, I'm not sure it would help you anyhow.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
What is it with religious right-wingers and burning books?
That's the demand being put forth by some right-wing-nuts in a small town in Wisconsin. It seems the local library had the nerve to put some books on the shelves of the public library. Books that dealt with some fairly controversial issues. Specifically books that talked at length and in detail about homosexuality.
These books were written about, and targeted for, young adults, and were correctly placed in the young adult section. You can find these books at most libraries across the country, and find them in the young adult section. You see... it's a library. A public library. Its responsibility is to offer reading material to the public community. It is not responsible for censoring the content of that material or restricting access to that material based on arbitrary moral decisions demanded by religious authority.
Unfortunately too many of the residents of West Bend, WI don't fully understand the First Amendment, nor do they fully grasp the slippery slope they are planting their moral flag upon. And if that's not bad enough, they can't be bothered to simply voice their opinions... no, in traditional christian fashion, they must resort to threats of violence and damage to public property. It's a long-standing religious tradition: "believe what I believe or I'll beat the shit out of you".
Interestingly, the two people who started this whole mess, Jim and Ginny Maziarka, while totally ridiculous for believing they have the right to impress their morality on the community at large, are not the most unreasonable. They disagreed with the content, and petitioned that it should be placed in the "adult" section and marked as "sexually explicit". While completely wrong in that assessment, the request is not inappropriate and they went about it the right way. They even asked the library, if nothing else, to offer books that affirm hetero-sexuality. This is also not an unreasonable request, assuming those books do not incite hatred and violence against the homosexual community (or ANY community for that matter). I'm always in favor of libraries offering as many varied opinions on a topic as possible.
Ginny Maziarka began blogging about the issue, and that brought the righteously batshit crazy out of the woodwork... and that's where things start to get surreal. People began calling for the jobs of the library board... one man stood up during a meeting on the subject and told the library director he should be tarred and feathered! Another man, Robert Braun, who is 74 and a professed staunch christian, actually filed a claim along with 4 other "elderly" men to have the book burned! In the 21st century we actually have adult men calling for book-burnings.
Anger, hatred, violence, and destruction. That's the christian response to that with which they do not agree. It has been that way for 2000 years and shows no signs of changing. And burning books is the absolute worst form of ignorance and censorship, and is generally an action reserved for only the most hate-filled, vile idiots among us. I've said this before, but this is why I have such a problem with religious accomodationists. Religion can't be happy to leave the rest of us alone... it insists itself... its self-serving morality and dogma, upon everyone else, and does so often violently.
Thankfully, we continue to educate people in this country... and the tide is beginning to turn. The elderly, hateful christian fundamentalists like Mr. Braun are slowly dying out... and more and more we are seeing people stand up for rational, intelligent action and behavior. For example, in this case we have Maria Hanrahan, who started her own blog in opposition to that of Ginny Maziarka, calling for free speech and parental responsibility for what their children read and learn about. Her quote is what I would expect from a rational, intelligent person:
"I'm against any other party telling me what's appropriate for my child and what isn't," said Hanrahan, 40, who also created a West Bend Parents for Free Speech group. "We don't mean to say these are appropriate for everyone, but we don't feel they should be set apart from other materials or restricted from the young-adult section."We need more of that type of intelligent discourse from our vocal citizens. Too often it's the angry, hate filled mob that have the loudest voice and brightest spotlight... It's good to see a shining light like Maria Hanrahan glowing in the darkness.
The good news: the library board voted to keep the controversial books right where they are. It was the only correct decision.
The bad news: in typical fashion, the city council voted not to renew the board members when their current terms expire. Which means the city could put new board members in place that could then decide to restrict access to the books or remove them altogether.
I hope they do, because thanks to people like Maria Hanrahan it looks like they'll have a legal fight on their hands... one that they shouldn't, and won't, win. Good for her. I said it a few posts earlier... it's about damn time we grew up as a society.
By the way, if any of you are interested, the two main books in question are The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and Baby be-bop by Francesca Lia Block. Neither has ever been classified as "adult" or "sexually explicit" by any official authority.
We need more comedians like this guy... rationalists are too often portrayed as being humorless and boring. This made me chuckle out loud. Enjoy, and please, send this any of your friends who are into "alternative medicine" and the like.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
The meat of this post is a few paragraphs below, but I wanted to share some thoughts first...
As many of you know or have already guessed, I am an atheist. Contrary to popular belief, I don't kill babies or eat puppies as a result. I simply have no reason, not a single shred of proof or evidence, for the existence of a god or gods. Gods of all sorts have come and gone throughout our history... some have faded away into myth, like the Greek and Roman gods of old, while some have maintained a foothold in modern society, like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. All religions, from ancient Egypt to Sumeria to Aztec Mexico, have the same basic goal: control. Religion is a means of controlling a society and its population. Religion initially springs from a need to put answers around natural phenomena that a culture is unable to explain through mundane explanation, and more often then not fail when human knowledge expands to a point where religious explanations are overturned in favor of empirical evidence.
This is perfectly displayed with the collapse of ancient Greek religion. Over time, it became obvious through observation and application of scientific method that a giant, immortal being was not throwing lightning down from the clouds, that the sun did not ride across the sky in a chariot.
At any rate, that desire to explain the unknown is quickly used by those who wish to wield power over a group of people. It's an easy thing to do, really. If you are a member of an early society, and you want to be in charge, simply assign mysterious and frightening phenomena to supernatural forces, and then claim that you speak to, and therefor FOR, those forces. If you are convincing enough, you will instill enough fear of this possibility into the society. Thus religion is born, and your community is now under the control of that religion. The problem of course arises when someone else from somewhere else comes along with different answers from a different supernatural being... and depending on how convincing that person is, you might have a problem on your hands (Christians call this missionary work, by the way).
I think that over the course of our development as humans we've needed that structure... that ability to assign something to the things we don't understand, in order to function and start crawling out of the caves and start living in organized, fruitful communities. Religion has embedded parables into our culture that teach some basic lessons of right and wrong, and convey the customs of the time. The biggest problem I have with chrsitianity now is that too often christians look to a literal interpretation of the bible, a book written 2000 years ago by barely literate goat-herders. The lessons were relevant to the culture and society of the time, but they do not translate well to today's culture. The bible is full of hateful racist and misogynistic verbiage that was far more commonplace and acceptable in the time and place it was written. It is the same with other religions, including islam. Unfortunately there are many cultures who still enforce a strict adherence to these writings, and women and minorities are still persecuted and oppressed as a result to this day.
I was raised an Irish catholic in a section of Boston that was, and still is, very religious. I was an alter boy for a time and was confirmed when I was about 12. However, I was also a fairly intelligent and very curious young man, and as a result of the very teachings I was given to become confirmed, I began to have serious questions and concerns about the writings in the bible. So I began to research some of this stuff, and actually read the bible for the very first time. I was amazed at how much I was expected to swallow. The more I learned, the more and more clear it became that the bible was no more factually correct than Aesop's fables. I think it's safe to say I was an atheist by the time I was 18.
But, being an atheist in the mid-80's in Boston was not something you could just proclaim. Even then, I wouldn't admit to being an atheist... to those who would ask I would simply say "I'm not sure what I believe" and leave it at that. I spent many years playing the role of the agnostic for fear of the stigma attached to atheists.
As I got older and more educated, my refusal to accept religious claims was only reinforced, and I began to read books about the atrocities committed in the name of religion (the crusades, the Inquisition, to name a couple) and I began to embrace my atheism even more. I had become an atheist because I was unable to accept the obvious problems with religious doctrine, but I've become a more outspoken atheist as I've gotten older because religion continues to make it impossible for me to do otherwise. I've come to feel that religion does far more harm than good, and continues to be nothing more than a means of control over a population. And outside of the abject inhumanity of fundamentalist islamic sects in the middle-east, there is no better example of this than the Roman Catholic Church of which I was once a member.
And there is no better example than the story of the 9-year-old Brazilian girl who was raped and became pregnant. This poor, innocent little girl was raped by her step-father and became pregnant... with twins. Carrying twins to term at her age would likely have killed the little girl, so her family and her doctor decided an abortion was the only safe, humane thing to do. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church doesn't understand the concept of humane action when it opposes its outdated dogma. The local bishop ex-communicated the doctor and her family for having an abortion. The little girl would have been ex-communicated too, but catholic doctrine does not allow for ex-communication of people under the age of 18. While this is absurd, of course, it is not all that surprising. The catholic church's position on abortion is that the blob of cells is far more important than a living, breathing 9-year-old. And you may think this is just something that happened because it's Brazil and they are more fanatical... well you'd be wrong. The Vatican has weighed in on this, and has defended the decision of the bishop. A vatican official was quoted as saying "This is not just theory. And you can't start backpedaling just because the real-life situation carries a certain human weight." Yup... you read that correctly. According to the vatican, strict adherence to doctrine is paramount, and exceptions can not be made under any circumstances.
Yes, ladies and gentleman... it is time to grow up as a society. These are not the governing morals we want to continue to be driven by. Religion is never content to be left alone and keep to itself... it insists itself upon society... it demands respect where it has not earned it, it expects to be treated with deference and be given special treatment... it pushes its beliefs into places that should remain secular. It will not leave well enough alone. It never has, it never will. I've read in many places recently that we need to "play nice" with religion in order to further the goals of secular society, that being the "angry, uppity atheist" only hurts the cause. That's code for "sit down and shut up", and to that I say, fuck no! I am angry because stories like the one above make me angry... and if they don't make you angry then there's something wrong with you, and you need to adjust your moral compass. I will continue to write in outrage and continue to push the message that it is time to cast off the shackles of religion and leave it behind along with the other fairy tales we've dismissed.
Defenders of religion claim that we need religion in order to maintain a proper morality. I've seen too many examples of "christian morality", like the one above. I'm not religious, but I have morals as strong as any christian... stronger, in my opinion, as I don't share, for example, a hatred of homosexuals or beliefs that cause me to say "praise jesus" when a relative is spared their life in an accident that also took the lives of other innocent women and children. Was Jesus not looking out for them? My daughter has never known religion in any formal way, and her morals are spot on... in fact even at her young age, she is far more giving, caring and empathetic than most of her peers that go to church every Sunday and bible school in the summer. And she doesn't need the fear of burning in eternal fire in order to know the difference between right and wrong and act appropriately. Funny that.
I was once afraid to admit that I was an atheist... but every day that I live and see how religion affects the world around me, I'm more and more proud of it. You should be too.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Well... I'm not altogether sure yet.
Reports out of Albany, NY today indicate that dissident senator Pedro Espada is poised to rejoin the democratic caucus and restore the 32 - 30 majority that existed prior to the insidious coup he orchestrated back in early June.
So... what dose this mean? Well, first of all it means that the senate will return to the state the electorate voted it as in the first place. Second, it means several bills that have been hung up in limbo while these petulant infants had their little standoff will finally get passed through the senate.
Should we, voters of the state of New York, be satisfied? Hell, no! Both democrats and republicans came off looking like boorish jerks, and I come away from this episode utterly exasperated at the state of the New York Senate. I said it before and I meant it... I think the only solution to fix this problem is to disband the senate completely and hold new elections. This whole fracas was a complete mockery of the state political system from the beginning, and after a month of chaos, embarrassment, and posturing from both sides, they essentially accomplished nothing...
Well, that's not altogether true. They did manage to put NY State up as the laughing stock of American State politics, and piss off the voting electorate in the process. And who knows, perhaps some real reform will come from this mess... but considering reform would have to pass the approval of the idiots who are responsible for this mess in the first place, I find it unlikely in the short term. But I'm hopeful that the real fallout of this incident will be felt at the polls during the next round of senatorial elections.
As for Pedro Espada, the loathsome, corrupt degenerate who started this whole mess... I really have to wonder what happened to cause him to flop back after all his ego-driven, line in the sand speeches over the last month. Although, knowing the man's track record so far, I'm sure there was something in it for him... I'll wager that we'll find out the dems offered him a deal to remain in power at the top of the senate in exchange for his return to the dem side of the aisle.
All that means is that the democrats are as willing to engage the services of a corrupt politician as the republicans are.
And what's sadder still? I will find myself not in the least bit surprised if Espada winds up winning a re-election.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
It's certainly a tumultuous time in our country... we are in the middle of a vast economic crisis, that is only showing the slowest signs of recovering. We have a damaged international reputation and a world of international strife centered mainly in a place on the other side of the world engaged in a struggle that few of us can even explain the reasons for being there...
We have a new president, a progressive that represents almost the exact opposite of the regime that dragged us into this abyss in the first place, and yet we have the party leadership of the defeated republicans, whose only real platform at this point seems to be unified objection too every initiative put forth by the current leadership. The idea of doing what's best for the country has been shelved in favor of personal gain and survival. The republican party is throwing stones from the bottom of the well they dug themselves into, instead of working together to find a way to climb back out, or even to take hold of the rope the president has tossed them time and time again.
They've forgotten the first rule when in a hole: stop digging.
This was made more apparent over this past weekend when republicans again took to the public squares for their now comically infamous "tea-parties". These things are such a bad idea that even most republicans know to stay the heck away from them (except for the staff of Fox (faux) news, who wouldn't know a bad idea if it slapped them in the ass... remember when news agencies at least gave the appearance of being politically neutral? Thanks Mr. Murdoch).
Most of the people at these rallies have no idea what they're actually protesting, except that they don't like that Barrack Hussein Obama fella and they want him to stop spendin' their money, gal-dangit! They also have no idea what the original tea-party stood for; they are at best ignorant, and at worst confusing losing with tyranny. Worst of all, no-one at any of these rallies has the most important aspect of a well thought out protest: a better idea. There's quite a bit of complaining about... well, they're not really exactly sure what... but very little in the way of actual solutions, beyond "stop spendin' our money!". Fiscal Conservative Andrew Sullivan put it best:
"These are not tea-parties. They are tea-tantrums. And the adolescent, unserious hysteria is a function not of a movement regrouping and refinding itself. It's a function of a movement's intellectual collapse and a party's fast-accelerating nervous breakdown."
And this dovetails into the other common event that took place over this 4th of July weekend: the display of fireworks. This is, of course, a time honored tradition across the country in both big city and rural small town. I happen to be a resident of the latter. Often times, these celebrations are held in conjunction with local picnics, where residents come together to share food, friendship, and community. It's a time for everyone, regardless of political affiliation or idealogical belief, to celebrate the very reason they have the ability to display those traits and qualities. It is a time for true patriotism, even for those who have forgotten the real meaning. And more often than not, they are supported financially with funds from the local government, however in rural areas this is often supplemented with contributions from locals.
I attended one of these local rural picnic days on Sunday. It was a beautiful summer day, and people from all around the surrounding area showed up, carrying with them food items to be shared freely with the rest of the community. It was a magnificent spread, complete with every type of picnic food you could ever imagine... there were no fewer than 11 trays of some type of macaroni salad. So I sat there on the picnic bench as the line for food wound around the pavilion, and I listened to the people talk. They spoke of layoffs and tough times, but also of hope for the future. There were Conservatives griping about the release of prisoners and Obama's stimulus plan and how their grandchildren would never be able to afford college because of it... all the while ignoring the man behind them who just started his new construction job repairing a local bridge, paid for of course by the Obama stimulus package. Did he at least appreciate where the money for his new job came from? Nope... he chimed right in, totally unaware that his good fortune was a direct result of the president's action.
And there were progressives and liberals... talking about community and how they hoped that someone would be able to figure out a national health plan, and how much they wanted to get our troops out of the middle east... while complaining still that the "change" they hoped for was slow in coming at the very least, and hopiing that the president would live up to his word.
But as the line-standers got their meals and sat together, they talked more about family, and local goings-on... the kids that had just graduated and summer activities that were just starting up. And they looked down at the beach where the children were playing in the water and laughing and screaming. And there was smiling... lots of smiling; the sort of physical display of pleasure that has become all too unfamiliar these days.
And at the end of the night we spread out and covered the hillside above the like a quilt, and we watched with oooohs and aaahs as the pyrotechnics exploded in the night sky in colors of blue and gold and red and yellow... kids blocked their ears and toddlers clapped and shrieked with glee. For that day... in that place, the world was... right.
And we, the people... we needed that. It was a perfect day to celebrate who we are, and it was done so in the most perfect way without anyone even realizing it or intending it. A community getting together and organizing a day of fellowship and celebration, as an act of patriotism... accepting people in from all communities to share in what they had to give, sitting and standing together to watch the sky light up... smiling... and hoping.
Yes... the community needed it, desperately... and having watched and been engaged in the celebration, I wondered to myself what it was worth. What price can you put on what was on display on that Sunday afternoon? I had a hard time doing it. The joy and peace of that event, the sense of community... these are all priceless. The fireworks are a tradition... people look forward to them and the rewards that come from the celebration far outweigh any cost... and so it saddens me to read that so many communities with short-sighted leadership were so easily able to justify cancelling similar celebrations in towns and cities all across America.
Now is not the time to throw out the baby with the bath-water, people. Read what I wrote above again and remember how important things like this are. In places like Providence, RI, Caseyville, MO and even Colorado Springs, CO, the people were deprived of the experience I just wrote about in an effort to "save money". Believe me, I understand the importance of saving money in this environment, but in doing so, it is the responsibility of our leaders to also consider the morale of the citizens. The loss of these important celebrations in such a trying time has a much larger effect than simply the bottom line.
This is America, and we need to celebrate that now more than ever.