11 July 2014

10 Answers from an Atheist

Jerry DeWitt is a former Pentecostal minister from Louisiana who began questioning his faith when he was in the pulpit. Yikes! As a PK (that's "preacher's kid," for the uninformed) of an evangelical pastor who had a church about an hour south from Jerry, I can to some degree appreciate that situation. Listening to Jerry speak, the cadence of his speech, he reminds me of my Dad. His book, Hope After Faith is on my "to read" list.

Over on Facebook today, Jerry DeWitt posted a link to a Today Christian article, "10 Questions for Every Atheist." I've never done one of these things, and thought it would be fun. So here goes, starting with the author's intro:
Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions… [sic]
That's the lovely thing about atheists and skeptics in general: we love questions. LOVE them. For some of us, myself included, it was asking questions in the first place that opened the door to realizing and embracing our non-belief. You got questions? Bring 'em on!
1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?
I answered this in some detail here, but the short version is, in my youth I studied the Bible and had a difficult time reconciling the inconsistencies I found. In college humanities and religion classes I found verification of what I had begun to suspect: the Bible is not the inerrant word of God, but the very fallible word of man. Men whose cultural and social realities were vastly different from my own. That was the start.
2.       What happens when we die?
The impact we've made on others, the daubs of paint we've left on the canvas of their lives continues on. I'm a writer, and I enjoy meeting my audience after a play. Every now and then someone will grasp my hand, look me in the eye, and thank me. Someone will give me sincere thanks, because I touched something deep inside them with my words. That lives on.

Family and friends who know me, who may have taken on one of my mannerisms without realizing it, they carry me forward. Long after my name and my face is forgotten, the ripples that extend outward from my tiny little drop in the ocean of life will continue, intermingling with the waves, becoming an everlasting part of the seamless volume.

That's pretty damn majestic, if you ask me.
3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!
If I'm wrong, and the capacity for reason and free will that I was given by a god has led me to doubt his/her/its very existence, I would hope he/she/it'd be okay with that. Otherwise, God is a giant bully forcing you to punch yourself in the head over and over while laughing and saying, "Why are you hitting yourself?" If that's the case, an eternity worshiping that sort of god would be Hell.

Besides, everything you thought you knew about Hell is wrong.
4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?
I think it's a combination of nature and nurture. Certain aspects of morality -- the Golden Rule, for instance -- stem from basic human empathy. That's cooked into our DNA. Empathy is a boon to survival, and our capacity for it is a result of natural selection. We're not alone, by the way. There are studies out there about how other animals exhibit what we would call "moral behavior." That's half of my answer, nature.

The nurture part is rooted in language and cultural memory. We know to do or not to do certain things because there is a long oral and written tradition of following certain mores. Religion is a big propagator of this sort of morality, but it is rooted in the experiential knowledge of our forebears, not some divine inspiration. For instance, some caveman family lost a child to a saber-toothed tiger, and told their other children, "ALWAYS LISTEN TO YOUR PARENTS," or somesuch. The advice gets passed down through the ages and becomes something like, "Honor thy father and thy mother." The knowledge is passed down through language, but it's still a form of nurture.

I think a better question would be, "Without God, from where would you get your morality?" But I'll get to that with the next question.
5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?
To paraphrase Penn Jillette, I murder and rape as many people as I want to, which is none. That's what my morality dictates. How about your belief in God? Are you free to murder and rape? Give Judges 21:10-24 a read. Or Numbers 31:7-18. As long as you have His blessing, it would appear so.
6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?
I've heard atheists answer this one before by talking about their family, friends, interests in life, etc. That's all true, and it's a great answer, but I can't help but think this is like a Star Trek enthusiast in full Klingon make-up and costume, asking a non-Trek fan, "How does your life have any meaning?" -- in perfect Klingon. Or a kid asking another kid, "How do you ride a bicycle without any training wheels?" 

In a way, I could say I define the meaning I have in life, but that's not wholly accurate. I have goals and aspirations and dreams. I also have friends and family. I also have demands on my time and my wallet. It all kind of churns together into this thing we call "Life." It's a tautology, but you're used to those, so here goes: Life has meaning because it's life.
7.       Where did the universe come from?
That's a great question, one that has inspired and motivated people since the dawn of time to create, explore, extrapolate, puzzle, fret, invent the arts, invent philosophy, invent mathematics, invent the sciences, and continue to press ever forward to find an answer. Following scientific developments (I recommend I Fucking Love Science) I think we're getting closer and closer to an answer every day. At the very least, we're chipping away at the unknown with wild abandon. It's an exciting time to be alive!

In all honesty I'd rather not know, and know that I don't know, than tie it all up in a neat little "God did it," and leave it at that. I'm fascinated by the unknown.
8.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?
I don't know what other people have experienced. My father-in-law claims to have seen a UFO land about 20 feet away. Maybe he did, probably he didn't. I like to hear him tell the story, even if I don't believe it actually happened. I've known people who claimed to have super spiritual powers, but I never witnessed anything other than self-fulfilling prophecies and the occasional coincidence.

In order to believe something, I require some level of evidence. That's all.
9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?
I haven't read any of them. Hitchens I've seen in interviews, and I really like his style.

Actually, I take it back: I have read a little Hitchens. He was a big supporter of the War on Terror and apologist for "enhanced interrogation." It's not torture, he maintained. He was willing to back up his claim, by being waterboarded:

Needless to say, he sang a different tune after this experience.

Why do I bring this up? Hitchens was willing to test his assertions, to be wrong, and to change his mind. The intellectual honesty that requires is staggering.
10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?
One of the wonderful things about how our minds work is our capacity for finding patterns. The problem is, we sometimes "find" patterns where they don't exist. Remember the "face" on Mars? A low-res photo from an early probe returned this image:

It's a face!

Many years later, a probe with a better camera returned this image:

Whoops, maybe not.

When we don't have all the answers, we invent them. Read Ovid's Metamorphoses as an example of what I'm talking about. Or remember your own childhood, and the monsters you feared in the dark, because you heard a noise or saw a shadow on the wall. Perhaps you'd call out, and a parent would explain the source of the noise or turn on the lights, exposing the source of the shadow. Until you knew the truth, you made up your own truth.

In Conclusion

I can't express how liberating it is to admit you just don't know, and to demand some level of evidence to support supernatural claims. No more mental gymnastics to justify the horrible stuff in the "good" book. A shift of focus away from "my" experience and "my" relationship with an imaginary god and towards actually helping other people.

But hey, to each his own. I know how scary it is to ask questions. It takes a force of will to really, truthfully evaluate what others have told you your entire life. I don't begrudge people their comfort, but I do get concerned when ignorance threatens my liberty.

27 December 2013

Pay it Forward

The banker reached into the folds of his gown, pulled out a single credit note. “But eat first — a full belly steadies the judgment. Do me the honor of accepting this as our welcome to the newcomer.”

His pride said no; his stomach said YES! Don took it and said, “Uh, thanks! That’s awfully kind of you. I’ll pay it back, first chance.”

“Instead, pay it forward to some other brother who needs it.”

 - Robert A. Heinlein, Between Planets

You cannot advocate personal responsibility and completely abdicate social responsibility.

Ayn Rand had it all backwards. Man is motivated by altruism. We're social animals. It just so happens that following our altruistic impulses improves conditions for all of us, thus giving the illusion of selfish motivation.

The error is in thinking that an expression of charity to a fellow human being is somehow anti-market. I'm coming around to the idea that altruism is the backbone of spontaneous order, voluntaryism, and perhaps the market itself.

13 October 2013

Project Corner: Snapper Rods

This is my little contribution to the ever present problem of "HOW THE HECK DO I PUT ARMRODS IN THIS DARN THING?!" My wife and I have been using this technique in Project Puppet puppets over the past few years, including puppets we've used in our burlesque lives (hence "Snapper Rods.")

It's not a perfect solution -- a perfect solution costs more. Instead, this is a relatively quick and easy solution that won't bust the bank. It is so quick and easy in fact, you will must likely figure it out when you read the materials list. Let's get started!


  • Unfinished wooden finials. At JoAnn's they call these "candle cups," they come four to a pack, and cost a couple of bucks. These accommodate a quarter-inch dowl rod.
  • A quarter-inch dowel rod. (Bet you didn't see that coming!)
  • Black hockey tape.
  • Paint. (Black spray paint and acrylic paint to match your puppet.)
  • Thread. (I recommend Silamide or some similar 2-ply waxed nylon thread. )

1. Dry fit the dowel rod into the finials. You may have to sand down the end of the dowel rod just a bit so it will fit well.

2. Paint the finials to match your puppet. You don't have to paint the entire thing, just the surface with the hole and over the ridge. I use double-sided tape to hold those little suckers in place while I paint them.

3. Take a seam ripper to the bottom of the puppet's hand, opposite the thumb. You want to open up a space just big enough to allow you to squeeze in the bottom of the finials. (I suppose you could just not sew this part when you make the arms.)

4. Pop in a finial on each hand!

5. Stitch that sucker in. Start on one side, get as close as you can to the finial, wrap the thread around the indented part, and continue the stitch on the other side. Make it tight. Try to turn the finial -- it shouldn't spin freely.

6. Cut the dowel rod down. They usually come 36" long, which is ridiculously long for a Project Puppet puppet. I usually cut one in half, making two reasonably long armrods. Your mileage may vary.

7. Spray paint your armrods black.

8. Wrap the handle end with hockey stick tape. Wrap about two and a half-three inches. I get all fancy and add a ridge by twisting a length of the tape, wrapping that around the stick, and covering it with more tape. It looks like this when I'm done:

9. Insert the armrod into the finial. Make sure you grasp the bulb end of the finial with one hand as you insert the dowel rod with your other hand. Ta-da! You're done.


You may note that the hand is a little floppy on the dowel rod. If you want to get super fancy, you could build a wire armature for the hand, tying the finial into it so that you have more control over the hand itself. I've experimented with this, but I haven't figured out the perfect (or "close enough") solution. If you figure something out, let me know!

27 September 2013

Frankenstein's Monster

After watching the Sam Seder/Stefan Molyneux PoliPop debate today (a year old, but new to me) I crossed the street for a cup of coffee from my favorite independently owned coffee shop, and reflected. After Sam leveled some charge at Stefan for implicitly supporting corporatism (or more specifically, corporate oligarchy) Stefan retorted that corporations are a creation of the state. No state, no corporations.

Like most libertarians, I tend to favor corporations over governments. It makes sense: I voluntarily interact with corporations. For instance, Wal-Mart provided new school clothes every year for this poor preacher's son, my wife and I worked through college at a Wal-Mart, and the Walton family was very good to the university (and theater program) we attended. I've seen the benefits a large corporation can provide first hand.

At the same time, I believe that where there is a concentration of power, there is the risk of abuse. I'm also aware of regulatory capture, the revolving door (or perhaps game of musical chairs?) of lobbyists and officials in DC, and, well, this:

We are NOT talking about Sam Walton's five and dime in Arkansas. We're talking about a monster made possible by the state.

As all of this was floating around in my cabeza, this story was floated on the Progressive Libertarianism Facebook page:
Rick is the Gandhi of receipt-check deniers. He writes in with a story of how he bought a 37 inch TV from Walmart and was able to successfully say no to the receipt checker blocking his way with his body. Rick did this by calmly and reasonably explaining his position to the assistant manager who showed up and by ignoring everyone around him who was trying to provoke him.
Good for Rick!

But not all libertarians see it that way. The debate around this story is fascinating.

My two cents:
Once the exchange has been made, it's the guy's property. The seller has no claim on it, and Rick is completely right to say so, regardless of state law. Also, corporations can be just as onerous as governments. We're more forgiving of corporate BS because our interaction with them is voluntary (well, just as "voluntary" as the market is "free.") This is an example of a corporation expressing sovereignty over an individual. Doesn't sound like Wal-Mart had much respect for the voluntary nature of the exchange!
Someone responded that while you're on their property, they have a right to make sure you're not stealing their merchandise. I responded:
Do they have the right to strip search me, too? Look, there are two "people" involved in this transaction. Rick, and the duly corporated "person" of Wal-Mart. Just because Rick wandered into Mr. Wal-Mart's yard to engage in voluntary exchange doesn't mean Mr. Wal-Mart owns Rick.
Self-ownership extends to property. Ergo, Mr. Wal-Mart can go stuff it.
I added further down on the chain:
This is very simple: Who violated the non-aggression principle here?
Defenders of  Wal-Mart are acting like buying a 37" flat screen from the retail giant is the same as bartering a book for deer jerky at Farnham's Freehold. The argument could be made that Wal-Mart and other large corporations are given an unfair advantage over the individual by the sate. 

It's an argument I'm beginning to make myself.

04 July 2013

Happy Independence Day

Today is the anniversary of an act of civil disobedience. A group of men, after arguing and thinking and writing and arguing some more came together to sign a document which begins:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

'Tis a libertarian holiday, if ever there was one. So why am I seeing a social media trend of my fellow liberty lovers choosing this day to caterwaul like Screamin' Meemies?

This is the one day a year when most Americans are receptive to the message of liberty. Our national brand of patriotism is not bound to a land mass, a bloodline, or a culture. The land is too vast, the people and their culture too diverse. No, our patriotism is to an ideal. Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. We may often miss the mark in our politics, but the ember of freedom nevertheless burns deep in our hearts. The ideal is unalienable.

Coming at our fellow Americans like angry wonks is not going to win any hearts or minds, especially on today.

Enjoy this day, liberty lovers. This is our day.

19 March 2013

More on Libertarian Patches

Daniel Bier sums it up nicely at The Skeptical Libertarian Blog:
Look, we get it: government shouldn’t be in the marriage business. But the government shouldn’t be in a lot of businesses (I have serious questions about whether government should be in the governing business). That does not excuse violating individuals’ fundamental rights while they’re at it. Advocating for equality before the law is not a “distraction” from the libertarian project–it is a core piece of it.
By all means, we must continue to work at getting the government out of our private lives.  In the meantime, we can't let injustice and inequality persist because the solution isn't doctrinaire libertarianism.

State recognition of same-sex marriage isn't a doctrinaire solution, but it is a "patch" that can correct a defect in the code while we continue to write the new OS (see also:  "Why I Voted for Gary Johnson.")