Wednesday, February 18, 2015

On Violence Without Religion

In my Charlie Hebdo response entry, I posed the rhetorical question about the relative rate of violent retribution by people of a religious stripe and people for whom the axe on the grindstone is devoid of religion. Although that piece was mainly pointed at the standard arguments about Muslims who commit violence -- as the context was one involving Islamic terrorism -- the point itself is easily universalized to all religions that have a history of atrocities... Which is pretty much all of them that have been around for any considerable length of time.  Sure, the Raelians and the Baha'i have no such history to speak of, but they also haven't been around that long compared to the likes of the Abrahamic faiths.

In any case, almost like clockwork, the attack at UNC in which 3 Muslims were killed by an atheist. The official statement indicates that this act of violence was over a matter of a parking dispute.  Of course, while it is true that murders in this country have happened over even more trivial things, I find it far more likely that the parking dispute was little more than the last straw.  I and the whole of the atheist community can condemn this all we want -- and of course, we do -- but I also feel like it provides little value to do so.  No more than it is meaningful for Muslims to come out and condemn the Charlie Hebdo attacks.  It's a perfectly nice thing to hear, and I'm sure we all care about this sort of thing in the sense of assurance that not every Muslim is Anjem Choudary nor every Christian is Fred Phelps, but anyone can say words.  It doesn't really change what happened.  Rather, what I would like to address is the cultural backdrop behind these sorts of events, as I feel this sort of discussion is more meaningful in exploring what could prevent future occurrences of such an outcome.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Je suis Charlie, que tout le monde devrait

Greetings, readers!  It's been a while since I've posted on the blog, and there's really little more to it than being insanely busy working long hours through the would-be holidays and all.  It's more than a little bit annoying that CES happens pretty much the first working week of January (after the New Year's holidays and all).  Well, it was like this last year as well, and this year, the crunch was not quite as bad, but there was a lot more shown from my department this time.  Anyway, during all this, there was the attack on Charlie Hebdo after a supposedly insulting-to-Muslims cartoon appeared, and there's already plenty out there about the attack itself.  What I wanted to get on was the so-called "liberal" reaction.

We generally expect the atheist community to have a problem with the attacks, but the flavor of multiculturalism that imbues the so-called liberal viewpoint comes out with every condemnation of violence hedged and qualified.  "Freedom of speech is incredibly important but..."  "Violence is inexcusable but..."  If there's a "but" in that sentence, it means that you're willing to make exceptions for that principle, and that already puts you on a spiral of wrongness.  All the "but"s regarding the Charlie Hebdo attack basically lead down this view that insulting religion is inherently wrong, and therefore, Charlie Hebdo brought it on themselves.  One article on Time suggested that anything that could be construed as an insult to Muslims automatically means you're not a bastion of free speech.  The Daily Beast said that being deliberately provocative isn't really part of free speech.  Really?  Then what is?  The worst part is that this is also a sentiment coming from the right wing religious nutbars (in a thinly veiled effort to intimate that they, too, should be shielded from all criticism).  If you're a self-described social liberal, and you find yourself agreeing with Bill Donohue, there's a chink in your armor somewhere.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

How Much Context Matters

Recently, I walked in in the middle of a conversation about microwave cooking, and as soon as I walked through the door, the first words I heard were "microwave food is not good, right?"  That sort of question has a few meanings, but the most common meaning I am used to hearing about is just about how food cooked in a microwave generally doesn't taste as good as other modes of cooking.  To this, I agreed, as I generally find this to be the case as well.  Then it went off on some tangent about "killing everything" and how that supposedly doesn't happen with regular stovetop cooking...  and so I replied that that only happens after you reach a certain temperature (presuming that he was talking about killing microbes).  After some shouting where I couldn't quite follow what people were saying because it was too many people talking at once, I figured we were still talking about taste, so I made the point about being unable to achieve certain effects like searing the outsides of foods, applying dry heat, etc...  and then I got a question about radiation going into the food.  Well, that's technically how a microwave is supposed to work, so that is ostensibly true, but not much of a meaningful question in the context.  It wasn't until much later that I was informed that the discussion was about the safety of microwave cooking, and so I found myself unwittingly agreeing with people who held an absurdly misguided and factually dead wrong position.

A lesson in just how much context makes a difference, and how far off the mark one can go if they make presumptions about what that context is.  It is within context that meaning is derived, and getting that context wrong can really destroy your sense of what people mean at times.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Beyond Logic Lies... NOTHING

I briefly mentioned in my diatribe on astrology that I could dedicate an entire blog post to one particular argument.  Specifically, the argument that certain delusional beliefs are "beyond logic."  While it came up in the context of astrology and tarot card readings, I'm pretty sure we've all heard this dodge with respect to things like "spirit science" and most certainly theistic belief.  It's a convenient little cop-out for people who feel that the burden of proof is a yoke too heavy to wear.  Rather than actually try to back up their beliefs or pretend there is any substance to them, it is easier to proclaim by fiat that the rules of rational discourse don't apply to them.  It's also particularly amusing that they don't just say that logic and reason aren't applicable, but that they're "beyond" logic...  as if to imply that being reasonable and applying some measure of sensibility is beneath one who believes in bullshit.  While the example that I'm referencing was brought up in regards to astrology, it's just as common in nearly every nonsensical belief.  New age, "spirit science", religion, alt-med woo-woo, and anything that carries the hallmark of Deepak Chopra.

You've probably heard it in several extraordinarily patronizing forms.  "You can't begin to understand XXXXX with logic."  "YYYY is above the limits of mere human reasoning."  "There's more to life than evidence and logic and all that."  "You're too dependent on your science and facts."  "There are things about the universe we cannot begin to understand with our limited reasoning."  And so on and on...  and on...  and on.  You might even occasionally see the roundabout form of "for those who believe, all things are possible" -- which is essentially saying that whatever they're selling works beautifully so long as you're gullible.  It's especially funny to see how they try to make it sound as if it's the rational thinker who has the problem, and not them.  Is there really such a thing as "beyond" logic?  Well, perhaps... if you want to spit on the very idea of true and false.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Stars Have no F@$ks to Give

Recently, I was invited to take part in a discussion on the validity of astrology.  Specifically, this was a Desi audience, so the particular brand of stellar stupidity that people leaned towards is so-called Vedic astrology.  I say "so-called" because the oldest sources for it are two collections of texts called the Vedanga Jyothisha and the Brihat Parashara Horashastra (both ca. 700-600 BCE), which at best indicates that this might have been part of the original Vedanta when it was still an oral tradition or at least draws off of something taught therein.  No real indication that the Vedas actually contained it until people appeared to start combining texts together a few centuries later.  Even then, it was largely treated as an "auxiliary discipline" of learning often treated as valuable, but not crucial for an individual unless they sought an ascetic lifestyle.  The term "Vedic Astrology" seems to be a more recent term coined during the early 1980s with the influx of Indian woo-woo self-help and Ayurvedic wishful thinking from the likes of Deepak Chopra.

As if it wasn't obvious from the mention of that second text, I happen to share my name (Parashar) with the person credited with authoring one of those two (and generally considered the more comprehensive) foundational texts.  Apparently, some people still believe that because I'm apparently named after this person, I would also be a believer in the cosmological claptrap that is astrology.  Because...  the name makes the man...?  That would imply that the guy I knew at my previous job named Scott Peterson must have murdered his wife and the guy I know in my current job who happens to be named Andrew Wakefield must be anti-vaccine...  except that neither of those things are true.  Apologies to Scott and Andrew for "outing" them as people who actually love their families and believe in actual medical facts.  Well, that aside, the vast majority of Desis are believers, and that's largely attributable to how deeply entrenched it is in the culture.  It isn't merely some newspaper entertainment page, but a core component of religion that births a bedrock industry that is viewed as being every bit as fundamental as electricity and water.  In India, people aren't just talking horoscopes to pick up girls in a night club; corporate entities are having astrologers guide them; doctors refrain from providing care when the stars aren't right; a handful of courts and several rural panchayats (village governing chiefs) will not recognize marriages between people of incompatible birth horoscopes...  this is no minor amusement for entertainment purposes -- people view horoscopes as a roadmap for life.  In that light, I was somewhat eager to get into this discussion and seek out and demolish everything anybody had to offer to support this mark of shame unto the subcontinent.

A little too eager, it seems, as the pre-event commentary drove enough people to play the victim to drive the organizer to cancel.  The truth hurts -- and therefore, people who reject truth as a matter of course are somehow automatically justified in hurling insults, while those who call a spade a spade are the hurtful ones.  Sound familiar?

I kind of expected some people to raise points about the history of astrology and how it is, at its most basic level, an early precursor to modern astronomy.  People developed methods of calculating and predicting the apparent motion of celestial bodies through the sky and that set the stage for the real science of astronomy to follow.  This much is true, and at best, it makes astrology a significant idea in the history of science not that that makes it science.  Nonetheless, this argument never really showed up, so I was kind of surprised by that.  Maybe people wanted to save that for the actual event.