Making memes

When I was in college I was there to study graphic design. When I began to study, however, I realized I wanted nothing to do with the graphic design crowd (and my teacher and I mutually loathed each other) so I opted for “sculpture”, a loosely-defined major which basically included anything you could invent in three spatial dimensions. We sculpture majors looked down our noses at our ad-agency peers. “They aren’t real artists,” we’d scoff. “They just want to get a good job one day.” We still believed real artists lived in broken-down lofts without plumbing and ate ramen noodles for lunch and dinner (black coffee for breakfast, please). This, of course, made them artists.

Of course, I’m no longer eighteen. I have developed an – ahem – appreciation of other forms of creativity that don’t perforce involve splattered paint and vodka. One of them is the internet meme. Meme is an interesting word because most people who use it use it to mean ‘internet meme’, or photos with catchy slogans or witty quotes. Memes, of course, were coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene in 1976. They are a bit more complex than lolcats, but we can love them both.

I have recently taken to reworking some of my photos via cool apps that make it simple to do. Here’s one I like – made with Phonto – which uses a photo taken at the Museo della Tortura in Montepulciano, Tuscany to make a point I feel is worth stating. I’ll upload some of them here from time to time. I hope you enjoy them. Feel free to spread them.


A really good pain in the ass

I’m reading an excellent book on critical thinking by Christopher DiCarlo called How to Be a Really Good Pain in the Ass. I heard an interview with him on Freethought Radio (I’m sensing a trend), and I thought I’d check it out. I didn’t find too much stuff online about the book, so I’m posting this talk. It’s pretty long, but it presents the main questions he raises in his book: How do humans go about investigating truth claims? What’s the difference between natural and supernatural worldviews? It’s top-notch skepticism and enjoyable reading. Check it out.

Shelley Segal – “Saved”

I just heard this song on a Freethought Radio podcast from a few weeks ago (I’m behind on my listening) and liked it immediately. I even like the lyrics, which remind me so much of the debates I have with theists.

Money quote:

You think it’s any of your business / what goes on between my thighs?

I look forward to hearing the rest of Shelley’s “An Atheist Album.”

The words of an angry militant atheist

If you’re like me, every time you post a link to Pharyngula someone chimes in that P.Z. Myers is loud, obnoxious, aggressive, childish and – if I share his immature attitude – the discussion may as well come to a close before it even begins. Ah, yes, that horrible old curmudgeon PZ – isn’t he just the angriest person you’ve ever read?

Well, he also wrote this:

Science also has the power to transform our sense of identity. Some of us are no longer People of the Word, members of a special tribe bound together by the narratives and rules in quaint old books. We are instead the People of Reality: we are united by common knowledge, by a sense of universality, by our commitment to evidence. Personally, I find no sense of myself in the Judeo-Christian fairy tales I was brought up with–they are too narrow, too bigoted, too false. The words of my people are written in the strands of DNA I find in every cell of my body, and the story they tell is clear and inspiring. We are all products of the natural world; stars died to create the elements we are made of, and 4 billion years of churning life struggled and was born and died to shape us. We are close kin to every single human being on the planet, without exception — there is no tribe that is outside our family. And even deeper, we are related to every living thing on earth. You simply cannot get any more universal than the scientific story of life.

Well golly gee willikers, folks – he’s a poet, too.

The Facebook atheist

ImageI recently started a group called Atheists Assisi on Facebook, that notorious maker and breaker of contemporary friendships. The group — the first and only one to my knowledge — is devoted to forging a community of atheists in the Assisi area. As one member jokingly put it, “In the land of St. Francis are you sure they won’t burn us as heretics?”

Believe it or not, the first problems I encountered weren’t from vigilante Franciscan monks but from well-meaning expats like myself. When I posted a link to my page on a popular expat group on Facebook, I was considerate enough to tag it “for anyone who might be interested.”

Of course that didn’t stop a minor deluge of comments along the lines of, “Please refrain from preaching, moralizing or ridiculing others’ beliefs” and “I was brought up to respect other people’s beliefs” and “Talking about religion only destroys friendships.” At one point I was even compared to the Seventh Day Adventists.

Thankfully, a few had my back. My critics were reminded that I wasn’t proselytizing or poking fun at others’ beliefs. In fact, all I had done was post a link that contained the word “atheist.” Apparently, that was enough to start the machine gurgling and sputtering. You’d have thought I’d announced the successful cloning of Torquemada and the reconstitution of the Spanish Inquisition.

The idea lurking behind these disputes is that atheists — at least those of us who make a point of talking about it openly — are a kind of militant faction roughly comparable to Al Qaeda. We fanatically harangue passersby about their beliefs, insult them, beat them, spit on their prophets and leave them to suffer from internal bleeding before an oncoming rig — all the while laughing our heads off at their credulousness. We’re a callous bunch, aren’t we?

The truth is that most atheists, even the angriest and most militant, bear no resemblance to the caricature. Most of us are animated by a love of logical argument and a desire for evidence in support of claims. We love to talk, discuss, provoke but also listen and attempt to understand why others feel as they do. We don’t generally carry explosives. We don’t overpopulate prisons. A quote that represents our position might be, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

It’s a pity I feel the need to write a paragraph like the one above. It’s disheartening that atheists remain the target of hostility, not only from true believers but also from decent people who claim tolerance for everyone – except atheists.

In fact, the one piece of advice my critics had for me was, “Just shut the hell up. You’re ruining the party for the rest of us.” What we were discussing wasn’t religion or atheism, though. It was the right to discuss religion and atheism. I had been accused of parachuting my beliefs behind the wall erected to shield them from inquiry, a wall behind which they can never be questioned, ridiculed or challenged.

But what good are belief systems that go unquestioned? What good is it to carry beliefs in your head that never see the light of day? How do you even know you believe something if you’ve never inspected it sufficiently to see what it’s actually made of?

It seems to me about the worst decision one can make is to insulate cherished beliefs and make them inaccessible to inquiry. It also suggests that such beliefs can’t stand up to even superficial scrutiny. Hence the fear of discussing them openly and the desire to censor those who would.

This is a recipe for disaster. There’s no better way of weeding out bad ideas than letting them get some fresh air. I for one am content to let others question my most strongly-held beliefs for the following reasons:

  • If my beliefs can withstand logical inquiry then they are probably constructed on solid ground and therefore generally sound (ok to keep until further notice)

  • If my beliefs crumble at the first sign of resistance they are at best poorly developed and at worst worthless (best to get rid of these ASAP).

If you look at societies that ban free inquiry and doubt you’ll find them all to be oppressive if not downright totalitarian. Toleration of free speech and free thought is the essence of a free society. The paradox is that some use the right to try to shut up those whose speech they disagree with.

I’m not implying that’s what was being done in my Facebook episode. I don’t think there was an actual desire to tamper with my right to free speech. What I think happened was that a few people overreacted to a word they dislike, one that challenges their beliefs without their needing to put on armor or pick up a sword. They instead imagined the battle as it might have been: the besieged castle, the hot oil, and the fleeing king galloping through the woods naked.

And that was enough for them. Because the king is naked, and the only person who will remind you of that is the pesky little atheist on your Facebook page.

Assisi has atheists!

The light of reason breaking over Assisi

This is just a quick, informative post to let readers (and search engines) know that there is a new group on Facebook called Atei Assisi | Assisi Atheists. The idea behind it is to give atheists and other non-believers in the Assisi area – or Umbria, Italy and anywhere else they might live – some much-needed visibility.

Assisi, as most people know, is famous in all the world for one thing: St. Francis. A man who spoke to animals. A magician. And probably a charlatan (he was supposed to have stigmata – a red flag if ever there was one.)

It goes without saying that such a place probably has a bunch of frustrated atheists chomping at the bit. Plus, it doesn’t cost anything at all to “like” us. It’s free and always will be. So let’s show the theocrats we’re here to stay!

Justifiable anger

“Coming out is the single most effective political action a godless person can take.” – Greta Christina

I just bought Greta Christina’s new book, Why Are You Atheists So Angry: 99 Things That Piss Off the GodlessThe title sold me on it right away. The first chapter is called “Litany” and it’s just that: 99 reasons she’s angry (and why that anger is justified). The Kindle version is hyperlinked to all sorts of source material, making the book like an extended blog post – which is exactly how it began. (So, at least this time, I think maybe the Kindle version has an advantage over the paperback.)

Here’s the promo video she made. Now go read her book.


Religion (ain’t) for atheists

I’ve read a couple of favorable reviews of Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists. The book sounds absolutely horrible. Seeing as many atheists have had a pretty hard time getting away from religion in the first place, why would they want to backpeddle and inject their lives with religious-type rituals?

…his descriptions of certain rituals, including communion, meditation, the Day of Atonement, and mourning rituals, evoke powerful nostalgia.

Seriously? The Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) evokes in me the taste of bile. This isn’t a joke; I’ve spent more than one joyous day atoning for my sins on the bathroom floor, hunched over a toilet, barfing. The central part of the ritual is fasting, which I find not only abhorrent but unnatural. When I do it, I get sick. So I’m not about to fawn over De Botton’s “descriptions of certain rituals.”

My wife has similarly negative memories of the Catholic rituals she was forced to grow up with. In fact, I think that’s one of the most liberating things about becoming a freethinker – the fact that we’re no longer bound to observe arbitrary traditions. Sure, we all love getting shikker (drunk) with our close friends and family once or twice a year, but I don’t think most non-religious people yearn for ritual in their lives. At least not the way De Botton seems to think.

Here’s another gem from the same review:

“Real freedom does not mean being wholly left to one’s own devices; it should be compatible with being harnessed and guided.”

The reviewer clarifies:

This sounds wonderfully similar to Rabbi Avraham HaKohen Kook’s explanation of the Torah as freedom.

But the Torah isn’t about freedom, not by a long shot. This is exactly the opposite of what the Torah is about, which is obedience to a tribal Jewish law concocted from traditional fairy tales. This sounds disturbingly similar to Catholic prelates pontificating about how Jesus is freedom, and without Him we are slaves.

If this is freedom, I’ll take the slavery of freethought any day.

***BREAKING*** Millions of Italians are atheists!

Gosh, living in Italy is just too damn funny sometimes. I mean, where else can you meet people who say things like, “This is a Catholic country” and “Catholic traditions must be respected?” These are people, I might add, who get divorced and use birth control. 

They couldn’t pack more irony into a phrase if they tried. Of course, when they say “respected” they mean “submitted to without complaint.” After all, that’s what’s at the heart of the whole “Italy-is-a-Catholic-country” schtick. It means, If you don’t like our bigoted traditions, you can go home. As if everyone who disagreed with Catholic traditions were an immigrant (and immigrants, as we know, have no right to complain). Try pointing out that there are plenty of native Italians who disagree with having a de facto state religion and you just get blank stares. Incredibly, many Italians still think all other Italians are Catholic! Ha!

So sometimes, being the militant secularist that I am, I like to point out to them that

***BREAKING*** Millions of Italians are atheists! Others just don’t give a fuck about religion! Still others are Jews, Muslims or other despised religious minorities! You Catholics are not the only ones on this peninsula! Get it into your heads! There’s room for all of us!

This country is in serious need of hearing dissenting points of view.

An eviction notice

Is god evil?

Every time I go to the supermarket there’s an African man selling socks in the parking lot. It’s not always the same man, but he always has the same approach: “Hello, my friend…” after which he goes on to coax handouts through a combination of smiles, hand gestures and appeals to the goodness of god.

Sometimes I give him spare change. Once I gave him a banana, for which he seemed genuinely grateful. I’m sorry for his predicament (he’s likely a refugee from a war-torn land), but I try not to let myself become an easy target for people begging for money, either. Maybe this is a holdover from my New York days.

Recently we had a brief conversation. It went like this:

“Hello, my friend!”


“Ah, god is good, is he not?”

“No, he’s not. Maybe you should thank people who have helped you out, not god.”

“But doesn’t god help you, my friend?”

“He’s never done anything for me.”

“Why don’t you believe in god?” he asked, puzzled.

“Because he doesn’t exist!” I said gleefully. I made sure to smile, too, so he could be sure that he was speaking to a happy atheist. Then we got in the car and drove off.

Later, I asked my wife if I’d been too hard on the man. She replied that he came from Africa and had seen who knows what horrors before embarking for Europe. He may have lost his family and possessions along the way. He’d probably come from a country where life was hell, and seen things that would make us shudder. My little quip wasn’t going to cause a breakdown in him.

Fair enough. I wasn’t going for that, anyway. I was just expressing mild outrage at the idea of a person who depends upon the kindness of strangers but can’t thank them directly. Instead, he thanks “god” — the same all-powerful god, no doubt, who surveys his perpetually war-trashed African homeland with such an approving grin.

One of the things that most galls me about religious faith is its willingness to attribute the good stuff to an omnipotent, benevolent god while completely ignoring the bad stuff. If a godhead is omnipotent, then it’s responsible for everything — good, bad and ugly — that occurs under its auspices. But benevolence doesn’t account for evil, or even for splinters. So what’s up?

To quote Dan Barker, author of Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, “We may as well say that god is sshhffhgtyrh.” That is, senseless.

Now back to reality. Yesterday we had lunch at a restaurant in central Assisi. After a stunning finale of cannolo filled with chocolate mousse and candied kiwi fruit, we sauntered outside to find the car. The street was packed with people surrounded by their dogs, police and a group of priests. One man was dressed as a Templar.

“What’s happening?” I asked my wife. “Oh, they’re getting their dogs blessed.” “Their dogs?!” I snapped. “This is just too much.”

As we navigated the crowd to get to our car, I picked up on a few lines of the blessing. They were thanking god for all his great works, etc. I mumbled something incendiary. My wife elbowed me. I grunted. She sighed. We walked.

My wife and I had both had many dogs as pets while growing up. With one exception, not a single specimen of those docile animals died a natural death. Cars and poison wiped them all off the face of the Earth. I remember vividly the evening our dog Sasha was run over in the middle of a busy street about a mile from our house. It was in 1987, and I was twelve. She died of internal bleeding during the night. We never got another dog; losing them is too painful.

So excuse me if I can’t see the benevolence of a divine plan in all of this. (The same holds true, of course, for humans. A hundred may die in a plane crash, but the believer will thank god for a single survivor. It’s a twisted kind of logic.) I ask myself, “How can intelligent people let themselves think like this? Don’t they realize it either makes no sense, or else leads to a highly questionable moral stance?” I guess they train themselves not to think about it. They compartmentalize. This here, that there.

Reality is painful. Bad things happen to good people, and good things to bad people. Beloved pets die horribly beneath the weight of oncoming vehicles. Family members disappear from life before you get to say goodbye. Others wither away under pitiless diseases. Neither believer nor unbeliever is spared. In a sense, the only thing we know for sure is that we die.

Italian novelist Primo Levi, standing in the death-line at Auschwitz, felt it was petty to ask god to spare him if it meant sending another person to die in the ovens in his place. Such a request would be at the very least incoherent. Each time I reflect on that scene — one of near-absolute hopelessness and human evil — I smile at the courage of an honest intellect. A person may be degraded, stripped of property, livelihood and family, starved, turned into slave and then sent off to die in an oven. But still, that person will not cede to the intellectual crime of incoherence. He will not petition a personal god who would allow such a place as Auschwitz to exist.

God — the traditional, loving, bi-polar monstrosity of biblical imagination — can no longer afford the rent in our little world. I think it’s time we evicted him for good.