A thought experiment

Think of a road near where you live, work, or study. It should be a reasonably busy road, but not a highway, and if all such roads near you have well designed, separated cycling infrastructure you can stop the experiment right here. Got one? Good. Imagine yourself cycling along that road. Try to really immerse yourself in the experience, what it would feel like to pedal along that road, nothing between you and the traffic surging past, no barrier between you and the roar of engines.

Do you think it’s safe?

Now imagine yourself cycling along that same road, but all vehicles powered by an engine have lost the ability to go faster than 30km/h. So about twice as fast as a leisurely cycling pace, even pedal to the metal.

Do you think it’s safe? Safer than your previous scenario?

Next, imagine that same road, and you’re cycling along it. Feel the air on your face, but listen: silence. Imagine every car, van, truck, bus has disappeared. Nothing’s wrong, it’s just the way it is for this stretch of road, there are no engine-driven vehicles on it.

Do you think it’s safe? Safer than scenario one and two?

Maybe you’re an experienced cyclist, and nothing scares you. Try then to put your child, or an elderly parent in that same scenario: first as it is, then as it would be if all traffic moved at a maximum of 30km/h, then as it would be if no motorised traffic shared the road with the cyclist in your imagined scene.

Considering your judgement of the safety of a cyclist on a busy road in your environment with the only variable being motorised traffic, what do you think is really the biggest threat to cyclist safety? The perception that cycling is not safe on our roads is a major barrier to its uptake, meaning one of the most accessible ways to combat air pollution, congestion, diseases related to sedentary lifestyles and many more issues is being blocked by safety fears. And the threat to safety is motorised traffic.

I want you to consider one last scenario. Take yourself back again to that busy road you chose for this experiment, and again picture yourself (or a vulnerable loved one) cycling along this road. Traffic is at the levels you’d normally expect for that place, and all engines work as they do in reality. Picture one weird difference, though. Every single motorised vehicle is driven by a clone of you. They drive like you, think of other road users like you do, react the same way to stress such as congestion as you do. None of your clones are aware of the identity of the cyclist.

Is it safe?

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With “friends” like these…

You are Facebook friends with Jack. You’ve never met in the flesh, you connected because you had a mutual friend, or maybe you got talking in a group you both belonged to and discovered you had mutual interests. One day, you open Facebook and on your timeline it tells you Jack liked this:

I think blacks are awesome. I have one in my toolshed, next to my lawnmower.

If you’re anything like me, you would see that Jack liked a “joke” that is excruciatingly callous about the history of slavery, that expresses the view black people are not human, that celebrates and condones racism. I understand enough about white privilege to realise joking about such issues is like Marie Antoinette criticising starving masses from the isolation of her opulence. Clearly, our hypothetical Jack is ignorant and lacks enough higher brain function to feel empathy.

So when this morning I opened Facebook and saw a “friend” had liked this:

feminist_lesbian

…I unfriended him. I didn’t unfriend him because I think he’s a misogynyst, but because he is clearly either ignorant of the extent of the suffering, persecution, bias, violence and objectification women endure around the world every single day (with gay women experiencing even more intense suffering), or he is aware but lacking in the necessary higher brain function that would enable him to empathise enough to be repelled by a “joke” like that.

And if for a second you think: “Oh, but we’re laughing at the idiot who thinks that way, who can’t make a distinction between relationships and pornography, who doesn’t have a clue,” do me a favour and THINK HARDER. When we portray haters as clowns, we portray them as harmless. There are few more dangerous, enabling things we can do.

Creation Magazine: Giving young people career choices

This edition of  Creation Magazine has an editorial titled Giving Young People Career Choices. It starts by recounting the tale of a young boy who was crazy about dinosaurs, wanted to become a scientist to study dinosaurs properly, but was told by his church youth group leader that studying science would harm his Christian faith. The article continues:

It’s a common idea that science harms the Bible, but it’s the total opposite of the truth. In fact, science itself came from a biblical world view that teaches a divine Lawmaker…cultures without this world view could not develop real science. Most brances of modern science were founded by creationists.

Notice the clause there, “real science”. It’s preparing the ground for a no true Scotsman defence to anyone who may take issue with that statement.

Notice also another classic thing creationists do ALL THE TIME – they make a statement which is true on the face of it, but doesn’t mean what they imply. It’s totally true that most branches of science were founded by creationists, because the entire world was creationist until relatively recently in history. There is also the small matter of dissent with the creationist view at a time being a life-threatening point of view to hold. The quoted statement is like saying someone jumped off a pier and committed suicide when in actual fact someone else held a gun to their head and said: “Jump or get shot.” You’re not lying, but you’re certainly not telling the truth, either.

In particular, rather than causing harm, learning the truth about dinosaurs actually strengthens our Christian faith… Fortunately, a friend gave this young man books and DVDs that explained how he could understand dinosaurs from the history of the Bible.

You may find this statement astonishing, supportive of creationism, until you understand that “the truth about dinosaurs” means “our official point of view on dinosaurs”. That’s like the official newspaper of North Korea saying: “Rather than causing harm, learning the truth about Kim Jong Il’s wisdom and leadership ability actually strengthens our faith in him. Fortunately,  a colleague in the office of the Party gave a doubting young man books and DVDs that explained how he could understand the sublime genius of Our Glorious Leader’s foreign relations strategy.”

It gets better:

That was the experience of another young man who grew up on a diet of creation information, and thus understood how to look at the world from a biblical perspective…when young people know how to think biblically, they are free to follow their passion for science…

In other words, he was brainwashed from birth and was conditioned well enough to twist any new information he was exposed to, to fit into the creationist box. When young people are conditioned and trained to keep their thoughts within a predefined cage, you can let them go out into the world, knowing they’ll carry their prison with them in their minds.

This sentence, however, sums up the way creationism and other cults keep their followers brainwashed:

Many young people are drawn to science, and Creation magazine gives them solid ground to stand on, and a wall of protection.

That wall is not for protection.

‘Nuff said.

Creation Magazine again

We have received our second copy of Creation Magazine. There are two general observations to make from this, about being an atheist in general:

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever read about or met someone who moved from the Christian point of view to another, who did so on a whim. It’s almost always a huge thing, and in fact most people try their best to find a reason to NOT change. However, the majority of Christians will assume you just arbitrarily one day decided to stop believing in what’s been the foundation of your existence for as long as you can remember, and will offer you the cast-iron thing that will make you go “Oh, wow, I never thought of that. I guess I believe in the existence of gods  this particular god after all.” You will most likely have thoroughly studied and examined this cast-iron thing, and be able to list the reasons it doesn’t convince you in your sleep. That doesn’t matter, it will still be offered to you again and again.
  2. You will, especially when you yourself become more settled and relaxed in your new headspace, find there are Christians who should be held up as the poster people for Christianity, who live their faith and are confident in God’s control of even your godless life and feel no need to offer you pamphlets, books, magazines* or blog comments. I hold their convictions in high regard, even though I don’t share them. Those folks are the ones I hang out with, to whom I listen, including their inevitable spoken and unspoken – and most importantly, unforced – testimony of their faith.

Examining the whole magazine is pointless, as at heart it repeats issues and arguments I’ve looked at so many times I’ve lost count. Instead, I’ll write about the editorial only, as it highlights an interesting truth about how religions like this one work.

*That is not an allusion to this particular arrangement of receiving Creation magazine, which is a mutual agreement to examine information about an opposing point of view.

Atheism is not a choice

Picture this: your colleague is in a wheelchair. She broke her back years ago, and is completely paralyzed from the waist down. There are some nasty people who claim she is not paralyzed after all, she can walk. You scoff at this: haven’t you seen with your own eyes how helpless she is? Hasn’t she explicitly said she is totally incapable of moving a muscle from the waist down? Then you go for a run one day and come across your supposedly paralyzed colleague doing the same. You’re stunned, shocked to the core, question your senses. Convince yourself you were mistaken. But you see her running again, and again, and again. You come up close to her and talk to her, question her in hope that it’s a case of mistaken identity. This is definitely the same woman you work with every day, who goes around in a wheelchair claiming to be paralyzed. She can walk, in fact, she can run, and this is not a doppelganger.

Your belief that she can walk – is that a choice?

If you were to claim my belief no gods exist is a choice, you would be making the same kind of claim. Where choice comes in, is if you’re faced with evidence and choose to run away, to stick your fingers in your ears and go lalalalalalala instead of facing the truth and its implications. Choice also comes in where you choose how to interpret what you observe. This is a complicated and delicate aspect of choice, which deserves a thorough examination of its own. Suffice to say that there is a difference between taking a certain perspective and living in denial. In my case, I lived in denial for at least a year before finally accepting the truth.

Let’s hope Lou will one day turn around at just the right moment, and do the same.

Why things stay the same

So this happened:

Last September, I started a degree course at Dundalk Institute of Technology. It’s a great college, and I’m very happy here. But there’s always a but.

Part of the (mandatory) orientation included all of us being addressed by a Catholic priest. I left the room before he started speaking, I happened to have a legitimate excuse, but if I hadn’t, I’d still have left. It felt so, so wrong to have an address by a religious figure included in the orientation for a course at a secular college. But that’s just my own, private, personal feeling so I aimed to handle it discreetly, and I think I succeeded. I just want to keep my head down and get my degree, then move on.

Then boom, I got these emails from the priest. The first one was understandable, he had to let everyone know he was there if they wanted to confess something, right? But the second one was not okay. Nor was the third. By the time I received a fourth email (this at a rate of about one a month), I asked very politely that I please be taken off their mailing list. That was not possible. The priest, in this college, has blanket access to every single student email, he has licence to inject his religious invitations into your inbox if you study here, whether you like it or not. He couldn’t exclude me even if he wanted to.

I tried to block emails from his address. It was not at all an obvious process, and why should I have to be the one to have to actively resist this spam? Why is the onus not on the person actually sending this stuff? But hey, I just wanted to quietly and privately opt out of this, so I figured it out and changed email settings to make sure I at least didn’t have to see this ridiculous assumption of entitlement stuffed under my nose into my inbox every month.

What do you know, it didn’t work. So in January, I emailed the college president, explained as politely as I could why I had a problem with the current state of affairs, and got a great, understanding response. That is not sarcasm, my faith in humanity was restored. In February, I got another feckin’ email from the priest. And again in March. I replied and asked him to please stop spamming my email account.

Finally, an email from an administrator, offering for me to go to her office for her to help me set up my email to no longer receive these emails. They had changed back-end stuff since December, so now it was in fact an option to send such crap directly to the shredder. This doesn’t solve the fundamental problem that the college assumes by default you want to receive all the priest’s news every month, and that you have to jump through hoops to get it to stop. It doesn’t solve the problem that the RCC is given outrageous privilege in access to students who never asked for it. It doesn’t change my extreme discomfort that something that’s not exactly secret but also most certainly not public – my student number, which is part of my student email address – was given to the RCC’s servant. But by now I just wanted to get this over with and I was exhausted after a rough week. Just… whatever.

So finally I’m in the admin’s office, and I tell her I’m ragged but am going to try very hard not to swear. Just so’s you know, I don’t think this solves the problem. I mean, how can it be right to send religious emails to people through an academic communication channel? What the fuck?

POUNCE! I swore. Bad girl, to quote her, “watch yourself.” Fair enough. Because, I then realised, firstly I was wrong to swear, no matter how many months I’ve had to struggle to get the extremely simple request met to not be spammed, no matter how frustrated I was, no matter how outrageous the situation seemed to me. It was not on.

But also:

Reason One why things stay the same:

When you point out something that has always been done this way is wrong, you’d better make sure you’re perfect because The Powers That Be are going to nail you to the floor for every single flaw you show. I decided at that point to be courteous and under no circumstances to try to argue my point. Just to emphasise, I was wrong to swear, I don’t deny that, but the “watch yourself” was a reminder how the game is played. I just had to shut up and get the priest’s spam to be dealt with then leave.

So. When she said our student email is not an academic communication channel, I didn’t argue. This:

not_academic_comm_channel

…is not an academic communication channel. Which brings me to:

Reason Two why things stay the same:

When you dare to complain and they can’t fault your arguments, we’ll start getting extremely technical about definitions, for instance, to create, out of thin air, a way to invalidate your complaint. So God for instance may get redefined until they claim when they pray to Jesus to open a meeting, when you hear Jesus you should understand it to mean some vague deity which totally can include whatever you believe. Wink wink.

I saw the light. Of course, this email with the college logo and which has your student number and the college acronym as part of it, through which you get notifications about classes changing or being cancelled and when your assignment has been submitted successfully and through which you’re notified when an assignment has been marked and through which lecturers notify you of changes in deadlines, it’s not an academic communication channel, therefore presumably it’s okay for it to be used to circulate the RCC’s notifications and invitations and shit.

How could I not have understood that from the beginning.

Reason three why things stay the same:

Bad, bad me! The chaplaincy is a requirement for all academic institutions in Ireland. How can I ask anything to change that is required from on high?

So that was indeed new. Wow. The state actually requires SECULAR academic institutions in Ireland to have a chaplaincy for students*. But her next sentence blew me away:

“We can’t afford to pay for representatives of all faiths, so we pay the priest and he covers all religious needs.”

Okay. Right. So I’m not even going to begin to try to begin to START discussing everything that’s wrong with looking at religion that way. I mean, I’m an atheist, but I used to be an evangelical Christian and I can give you a written guarantee I would not EVER have turned to a Catholic priest for my religious needs. We viewed the RCC as a corrupted version of Christianity and the Pope was speculated to be the antichrist. I remember my mom being very progressive and controversial when she said, years ago: “You can find true Christians even in the Catholic church.” That statement blew me away back then. What a novel thought, that you’d find an actual real Christian in the RCC.

But yes, sure, great, I’m sure all students of all religious persuasions are just grand to have a one-size-fits-all priest. I wonder does he have a collection of signs in his drawer, and he pops one around his neck to just let whoever is with him know today he is an imam, tomorrow he is a guru, day after that he is a shaman.

And there I was fooled by that black outfit. Looks just like a Roman Catholic priest, but you learn something new every day. No doubt nobody would ever feel reluctant to go see him fearing he’d either deliberately or uncosciously steer them towards his particular religion. The RCC is after all not known for indoctrination.

So now we have to go back to that little sentence and have another small inner explosion. I’m sorry but WHAT THE FUCK is this time totally justified: the college has to PAY the priest???!!! I… let’s just move on before I sprain something.

Reason three, summarised, is that if you complain, you create problems for often already overburdened organisations who are just doing their utter best to comply with the demands made of them. This is usually true. You may not be a villain, you may just want to stop receiving spam, for instance, but you will end up feeling like a villain and chances are if you make more of a fuss you’ll look like one, too.

Reason four why things stay the same:

You may not need this service, but others do.”

How dare you object to 100% of students being subjected to an intrusion by a religious organisation through a non-academic communication channel mandatory for all students, with no opt-out possible unless you email the college president and eventually make an appointment with an admin to show you how to implement the instructions secured from the IT department? How dare you feel it’s not right for a representative of religion A to be paid and given an office on campus to minister to people from religions A through Z? You’re so selfish.

Things stay the same because if you dare complain, you always end up feeling like the sea couldn’t wash you clean.

Reason five things stay the same:

“Really?” said my husband when I told him about the one priest to rule them all, one priest to find them approach to ministry on campus. “Why don’t you make an appointment with him, tell him you’re a satanist and you need religious guidance. Ask him to have the Satanic Bible on hand, you really need an expert’s advice. Go on, I dare you.”

I laughed. “Nah.” Because I just don’t have the energy or time. Reason five things stay the same is because It’s Always Been Done This Way is like a huge blob of… let’s say jelly. If you try to push it, it doesn’t really resist, but it’s also not moved. You end up covered in it, exhausted, possibly ruined, and the jelly will be exactly where it was before you started.

Not for me, thanks. I just wanted to stop some spam.

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*A friend asked a legitimate question: really required? By the state? I realised it was an assumption, she didn’t specify who required it. So now I am puzzled and intrigued. I can find no explicit info online. It would be interesting to know. If I find out I’ll update this. 🙂

How not to evangelise to an atheist: Secularism is Atheism part one

If you haven’t yet, read this first, or you won’t understand what this is all about.

The title of the editorial is already problematic: Secularism is Atheism. From my perspective, that’s just silly at best, unintelligent at worst. Secular means not concerned with religion. Atheism means being convinced of the non-existence of gods. The writer uses an entire article, though, to justify the statement, but I’m afraid it doesn’t get better after the title. Continue reading