Archive for April, 2008

Why an atheist cares about religion

April 30, 2008

Contrast the following two quotes:

“Why are you atheists so hung up about religion and God if you don’t believe in any of it? Let us be!”

“Why are you human righters so hung up about racism and slavery if you don’t believe it’s justified? Let us be!”

That might be a crude pairing, but it’s how I think of the subject. I am not saying there’s any equality between religious people and racists; I’m just saying that the way I’d answer both of the above quotes would essentially be the same.

Racism is just a lie, or rather a selfishly perpetuated guess gone wrong, but people that believe it can still do terrible damage. The solution I’d prefer would be calm discussion: if the racist would listen, he’d soon hear his prejudices are both silly and unjustified. He might not change his mind, but maybe he’d hesitate before doing something hasty.

Similarly, for me, religion: it’s a collection of fantasies, but it still has real-world effects because people, lots of people, believe in it. It is because of those effects that I, an atheist, care about religion. And one way of avoiding the undesirable effects of something is to calmly ask why those things are effected; that is, to ask why and what the religious believe, and whether they might be mistaken.

Or, to be shorter, my answer would be: “I indeed think you’re obsessing over a nonexistent and unjustified thing, but precisely because of that reason I’d want you to consider the things you do, to yourself and to others. If I am not mistaken, you are doing things for bad reasons, and that is not good.”

Sky changes colors

April 30, 2008

(Found a piece I wrote last fall, and also found a good picture of the view, though not one like those described.)

The room where I usually write has a large window so that when I raise my eyes up from the screen, I can see a double handful of trees — birches, firs and pines — and behind them a triangular patch of sky.

Some evenings, like this evening, I look up and see a sunset of great beauty. Trees trace delicate black patterns against the sky, and the sky rises up from the bottom point of the triangle, from whitish yellow to the color of honey to cloudy pink and magenta, then through grayish blue to a steely dome arching over me. It is momentary vision of loveliness, soon gone as I revolve away from the sun, but each evening it returns to me, different but yet same.

As I write these words the sky has changed again. Clouds shift, and now the bottom part of the sky is a clean pale blue, while above it clouds are illuminated in Martian red. Trees are but twisted black shapes framing this gorgeous sight, and the only sound is that of a few stray raindrops hitting the window, and my fingers trembling on the keyboard.

I do not reach for a camera, for I have not the skill to capture this view. I will not compose a poem, for I have no skill for it.

The moment passes and the sky darkens. If I wait long enough, all outside will be black, the sky an iota lighter than the tress because, somewhere in the distance, city lights shine upwards, cold and quiet.

I do not always notice such moments of beauty, but when I do, I wish they would last forever, and that I could let everyone see them. They don’t, and I can’t. I can only sigh and smile. Do I sound corny if I say I kinda like beauty?

Keep your eyes open and love the beauty around you.

Professors and dentists

April 30, 2008

I visited a dentist today. As usually, she was a charming person, but, quite aside from that, a peculiar thought struck me:

Visiting a dentist and visiting a professor are just the same.

In both cases you sit with your mouth hanging open, cowed and afraid.

Occasionally nuggets of wisdom are tossed in your direction, but you can’t get a word out in answer, not even when you feel you should. You just nod or shake your head and gargle something semi-intelligible.

All the time you can think only of torture (“This is worse than waterboarding!”), and you can almost feel your teeth rattling in their sockets. (Maybe you have different professors?)

And in the end, you leave, relieved and carrying a handful of papers that mean a dire commitment you avoid at your own peril. (While professors don’t charge for visiting then, they do give coursework or just plain work to do.)

And when you go, you feel vaguely restless and have a bad taste in your mouth; now and then you feel quite numb, too, and you promise yourself: I won’t come back before my next check-up, not even if it means working on this until my gums bleed.

Visiting a dentist and visiting a professor are just the same.

Cor, this must be what they call an epiphany.

One good rule

April 29, 2008

Here’s one guideline I’ve found that I think is good.

Do whatever you want (as long as that doesn’t infringe on the right of others to live by this same rule).

That isn’t a direct quote from some great thinker, but just a thought, no doubt unoriginal, of mine.

It’s not enough all by itself: One couldn’t easily disallow destruction of nature, or allow abortion* and other needful things without something more. It’s what I think is a good start, though. One good supplement would be “Doubt (this is an imperative)” — or, “don’t believe things true just because they happen to be comforting or commonly accepted or given from up on high. Be a doubting, skeptical, scientific, evidence-seeking, hypothesis-testing, merciless and impersonal dick.”

Er, those might not be the noblest of words but they work. And, please, don’t abbreviate this as “Be a dick”; that’s an entirely different concept.

My opinion is that people should be allowed to do (almost) anything they want.

And that “almost” means, for example, that you can shave off your eyebrows, but not those of someone else unless they want it. Err, with understanding of the consequences and consent, I mean. I’m not endorsing getting people drunk and shoved into tattoo parlors.

It means you can chop your dick off or do some other genital mischief, but you can’t do the same to others unless they with full understanding and consent want it. And since children are under the age of consent, you shouldn’t meddle with them, period.

It means you can even go against what we know of the world and say some sadistical sky-fairy exists, monitoring your every move and giving you garbled rules to obey, but, by the empty heavens, don’t push that on anyone else unless he or she, understanding and consenting, wants it.

* * *

* : Abortion? I don’t see how a fetus equals a human, or just how abortion equals murder. A fetus is an unfinished clump of cells, not precious even if it is a potential human being. (There are more eloquent defenders of the thought than me.) And if every potential human life is precious, isn’t then every period is a murder, every moment not spent rutting on the streets a moment wasted?

Mind you, I’ve nothing against people rutting on the streets. That would be fun once summer comes. (Not before then. Turnoffs: Permafrost.)

If Christianity rose today…

April 29, 2008

Christianity was born in an age that hadn’t enough Bureaucracy for it; thus (in part) the inevitable profusion of sects, divisions and churches.

If Christianity was to rise today, it would be One Church, Indivisible, from its beginning to its end — True Christianity™ from the Holy-DRM Bible of Jesus©; all characters and their distinctive likenesses copyrighted; unauthorized worshippers will be prosecuted to the cruel extent of the Law!

No parodies!

(If this seems unlikely, just consider Scientology.)

Cusswords for ya

April 28, 2008

Finnish is a good language for cursing, just like German is a good language for command and French for poetry. Or so I’ve heard, and surely these gross national stereotypes are correct since I’m a Finn, and Finns never lie, right?

Wasn’t that the worst lead paragraph ever?

My idea is this: You might want to learn a few expressions to shout for the time when your bicycle’s safety lock freezes, or for when your new car coughs out its engine block when you’re on an Autobahn and doing 140 km/h — good, solid expressions to keep you from strangling passers-by or panicking too much.

You might not want to learn too crude expressions, though — just words that feel good when screamed in full red-faced fury. Thus, I offer several Finnish words and phrases I feel would very well function as random exclamations of anger, frustration and homicidal mania.

Plus, they’ll offend no-one, and who knows, you might even befriend a befuddled Finn this way. (“Vhy on Oerth are jou shoutink about potatoes?”)

Aakkonen — letter, like A or B. If you need a longer scream, how about aapiskirja sisältää kaikki aakkoset, or “the ABC book contains all letters of the alphabet”.

Asianomainen — “the person concerned”, as in asianomainen oli umpihumalassa, “the person concerned was roaring drunk”.

Hääyöaie — wedding night undertaking; a goofy semi-jocular word coined to get as many consecutive vocals as possible; good for drawn-out howls.

Juures — a vegetable whose root is the edible part; for just any vegetable try vihannes. If that’s not angry enough, try appelsiini — which, despite logic and intuition, is an orange, not an apple. An apple is omena — and did I mention Finnish is a frustrating language?

Kallo — skull, and if it’s body parts you want, try voi perna ja munuaiset! or “Oh spleen and kidneys!” — remember, I never promised cusswords that would make any sense, or ones anyone has ever used. I just think these might work.

Peruna — potato; and if you want longer ones, try perunamuussi (potato mush), perunannostokone (potato harvesting machine), or ranskalaiset perunat (French fries).

Osastopäällikkö — department head; though if you want the academic dept-head you want to say laitoksen johtaja; for a dean say dekaani, and if you need a really strong epithet, scream rehtori (chancellor) and opetusministeri (minister of education).

Reunusripsieläin — spirotrichous animalcule… and, uh, I’m not so sure what this creepy-crawly is. It’s just a nice word. Uh, nice if you need a word of some heft to shout, blowing spittle and flecks of blood.

Ryöstökalastus — overfishing (I can’t think of any more clever commentary)

Sanakirjantoimittaja — lexicographer (still can’t)

Suolisto — bowels (nah-ah)

Taulukkolaskentaohjelma — spreadsheet software; and then tekstinkäsittelyohjelma is word processing software, and for the third essential computer expression, marsu juoksi koneen sisään ja kone räjähti, which is that eternal complaint “A guinea pig ran into the machine and the machine went up in flames”.

And, finally:

Epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydellänsäkään — I’m not sure what this monster means, but it’s a supposedly linguistically correct word whose meaning is along the lines of “not even with his/her negative of the condition of being not yet systematicized”; it doesn’t sound even that coherent in Finnish. (Oh, the wonder of agglutinating languages!)

Since these are supposed to be cusswords, I assure you that exact pronunciation is needless. It’s the emotion that counts. (And the hand-waving and jumping around like a rabid chimpanzee on speed. But mostly emotion.)

Remember, for all your cursing needs — Masks of Eris.

What do you want?

April 28, 2008

Why do I get these weird hits? WordPress lets me see what search strings led people to this blog, and sometimes I wonder.

Sometimes I can’t even guess, though I want to.

murderous exchange student

Sometimes I can’t guess, and I really don’t want to.

augustine women vessels excrement

This sounds like a terribly confused person:

you know you’re finnish

Maybe I should write a post, “You know you’re Finnish when…” — but what signs could there be? (Okay, alcoholism, asociality, manic love of sports… there are lots of common signs.)

Sometimes I feel the search string should have been written in shaking, trembling letters:

cannibals really eat people

And sometimes with a lot of question marks:

“in-utero baptisms”

(Incidentally, and unlike a lot of these hits, I know which post that hit on. Probably not what the searcher wanted, possibly something s/he needed.)

Sometimes the hits even are something I can provide:

what is discordianism

or

pictures finland

or even, if you want a deep philosophical explanation (just kidding),

problems with phd advisor.

Oh, and if this post’s title rung a bell, yep, I’m writing this between watching two episodes of Babylon 5, the finest TV series I know of. What do you want? (And with the image of a head on a pike, and Vir smiling and waggling his fingers, this post ends.)

Why funerals are thronged

April 25, 2008

A random tangential thought, brought up by the comments on Pharyngula about people worshipping a dug-up corpse.

I’ve often heard it said that people attend the funerals of politicians mostly to make sure the scoundrel in question won’t wiggle out of it at the last moment.

Christianity isn’t nice

April 25, 2008

Exceedingly extravagant posturing follows. Prepare for overlong sentences.

* * *

Even if I could hold a faith against all evidence, I still would not want to be a Christian.

I would not want to think that this world is what an all-powerful, all-loving creator would make. Such a creator shouldn’t make a world this hostile, and so stupendously overlarge, just to be a stage for the drama of mankind’s pain and indecision.

Such a creator, if all-powerful and all-good, should not want to stage this travesty of plagues, rapes, sects and sobs in the first place, either.

I would not want to think that an all-powerful, all-loving creator would convey his wishes to us by some subset of the immense snarl of Christianity’s conflicting, disagreeing sects, churches, writings and divisions.

I would not want to think that after so imperfectly transmitting us his words and commands, the said creator would lob some of us into eternal punishment for the limited evil we’ve committed while living, in part because of our ignorance or sheer necessity.

Similarly, I loathe the thought that some of us — the good ones, I’m told! — would happily live ever after in a carefully featureless Heaven, while knowing that others, fathers and sisters and daughters, were burning in a Hell.*

And finally, if one supposes we’d all be saved, gathered up to Heaven, then I would not like to sit at the feet of a creator that thought this brief life in this painful earthly existence was still somehow needful. Such a lord of images for “before” and “after” wouldn’t be worthy of worship.

I would not like to think that this life of ours is just an interlude, a worthless period of waiting between some vague conception and the endless vistas of Heaven and Hell. I would not like to see all the achievements of science and art and love as inferior things in an inferior world, to be swept away when some dreadful savior comes to burn all that he does not approve of.

I would not like to think that the creator would call us to be slaves unto him, to grovel and to eternally praise him, to worship him, unquestioning and uncritical, and that he would then tell us that after he had made us flawed and imperfect, not utterly destroying some of us because of that imperfection was an act of greatest mercy, and to be granted only if we licked his boots diligently enough.

I would not like to think that all our good deeds should be done because we were so ordered, so commanded, so told by a divine voice threatening us with endless torture if we dared to disagree with its dictates of what is good and what evil.

I would not want to think that the creator would choose to improve the lot of men by, after millennia of silence, appearing in a dusty backwater and simulating his death there, and then waiting for centuries as the slow news of his fallibly transmitted words were conveyed around the world.

Likewise, I’m convinced that an all-powerful being would not need to be nailed to a piece of wood, bleeding and crying, to save any souls. I do not appreciate the thought that it was all then just a show, just showing off for us, especially since that playacting creator knew in advance that his death wouldn’t stick, and neither would pain.

And if it was not all for show, then why? I like even less the ghost of an idea that the omnipresent creator would like watching his own simulated death, would enjoy feeling the tension in the centurion’s arm as he raised the hammer, and somehow consider feeling the nails and ripping flesh good.

If the sheer evil of a jealous, mad and all-powerful tyrant is to be exceeded, a sadomasochistic, jealous, mad and all-powerful tyrant will do nicely.

* * *

* : I do not even want to consider if anyone today believes in Aquinas’s delightful little idea: “That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned in hell.”

An eternity with such saints and the red-handed engineer of their Heaven would be worse than any pit of fire.

* * *

Apologies for the convoluted language above; I usually cannot get passionate without getting extravagant. It’s either this or a lot of foul language.

Jesus by Verhoeven

April 24, 2008

CNN tells that a chap called Paul Verhoeven, a M.Sc. in mathematics and physics and an occasional historian of religion, better known as a director of films, is publishing a book about Jesus — namely as Jesus as a son of a raped Mary and a Roman soldier.

If you are a believer, feel free to scream being hurt and going-to-hurt-someone now.

I don’t know who the father of Jesus was, and I don’t much care. There aren’t enough documents and remains to even clearly establish that there was a man called Jesus, rather than an invented focus for various folk tales.

The Gospels read like strung-together oral legends, made-up fulfillments of Old Testament “prophecies” (actually just random passages and old royal blessings), and later additions attempting to make the rival sects honoring this or that other disciple or follower look bad.

And no, references to Jesus in Christian histories written two centuries later don’t count. Neither do the equally distant pagan sources that are just telling what proto-Christians told them.

And then Josephus: a Jew, not a Christian, born a few years after the supposed death of Jesus, whose written works have a short reference to some unspecified man called Jesus; a reference that, as if by a scribal miracle, was two centuries later found in an expanded, adoring, Christ-praising form by a Christian church-father. Rather un-Jewish of the writer to gush so over a man that wasn’t his Messiah, rather curious that no Christian apologist noticed the gush-passage before, even when quoting from other parts of Josephus, don’t you think?

Nah, the history of early Christianity isn’t something I’ve studied beyond a bit of reading, so I’ll stop before I go beyond common knowledge and make a fool of myself. (Well, beyond the fool that hath said in his heart, there is no God.)

As the article says, “there is little evidence for the view that Jesus was illegitimate”, but there is little evidence for Jesus being anything else, either! It’s like saying that “there is little evidence that the moon landing hoax was organized specifically by Enron”; disputes over details are silly when the whole idea is a flux of wild guess and legend.

I’d like to hear more about Verhoeven’s book — and the film that’s supposed to follow — but I’m not emotionally involved. It’s just more historical fiction, just like the Gospels are.

(And while I’m linking to CNN above, there isn’t a thing Pharyngula misses.)