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.


We are wonderful

There is a recent story in the NYT about child sexual abuse in the Hasidic community of Brooklyn. It seems that when parents of abused children – who were abused in places like the mikveh, or ritual bath-house, and in religious schools – spoke out and went to the police, they were shunned by their own community.

Abuse victims and their families have been expelled from religious schools and synagogues, shunned by fellow ultra-Orthodox Jews and targeted for harassment intended to destroy their businesses. Some victims’ families have been offered money, ostensibly to help pay for therapy for the victims, but also to stop pursuing charges, victims and victims’ advocates said.

One quote in particular caught my eye. The mother of an abuse victim told the paper:

“There is no nice way of saying it,” Mrs. Engelman said. “Our community protects molesters. Other than that, we are wonderful.”

Other than that, we are wonderful. I wonder if her son agrees with her.


Target: reason

Wow, this theocratic call-to-arms by Baroness Warsi slipped right by me! She’s actually proud to be leading “the largest ministerial delegation from the United Kingdom to the Vatican” ever (that is, to a “country” which despises everything modern liberal democratic states hold dear in favor of totalitarian theocracy.) Her tactic is to pretend that religions are all friends with one another and that the big bad wolf is militant secularism. Sound familiar? Those pesky secularists, always poking fun at wholesome religious craziness!

Go ahead and read the piece. It’s funny if you don’t dwell on the fact that she’s a representative of the UK government who wants to mainline religion back into politics – just like the good ol’ days. And Warsi gets a bit nasty, too, when she asserts:

“[Secularism] demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.”

I wonder if Warsi has reflected on the fact that the Vatican – which she is so proud to visit – signed concordats with both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and supported every fascist regime in Europe throughout World War II (when they pragmatically thought the future of Europe would be fascist). No, I bet she hasn’t thought much about that one.

Warsi loopholes her way out of this, however. She reassures us secularists, “I am not calling for some kind of 21st century theocracy.” She’s just calling for more respect for religion. That’s reassuring. But why should religion get our respect without earning it?  That’s not clear from her article. She’s too caught up in her ridiculous revivalism.

via WEIT

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.

What’s wrong with religion

A friend and I have been discussing gnu atheism and various concomitant topics on a loooong Facebook thread recently. The following paragraphs have been lifted from one of my comments. I felt they were worth sharing here (others, of course, may feel differently.)


Religion, I think, is a bad thing. It is bad because it asks its adherents (and it claims adherents when they are too young to question it) to subscribe to fanciful, illogical and superstitious ideas which it calls “truth.” It invents a cosmic scenario which is divisive, and plays a high-stakes game with humanity. It teaches believers they possess absolute truth with absolute faith. It offers a poor substitute for ethics (e.g. the 10 commandments) and prizes obedience over skepticism. It is, in a word, illiberal.

Liberal religion is a fine thing on paper, and I agree most religious people ascribe to some gradation of liberal religion – the Unitarian Universalists and Humanistic Jews being two examples I admire. But essentially these are religions without beliefs, without god and without “religion.” The more seriously you take your bible or qur’an, the more illiberal you are likely to get in your beliefs and observance. The scriptures themselves are illiberal beyond belief; to take them seriously is a dangerous game (I know because I tried it). So what’s left when the illiberal aspects of religion are stripped away? Essentially nothing which anyone would recognize as “religion.”

Religion has the uncanny power to take a bunch of already-existing prejudices, biological factors and bad ideas and exacerbate them to the nth power. Religion has been the main obstacle to progress since humanity began thinking scientifically. It still is. It’s a bastion of anti-scientific thinking. It offers nothing of value that couldn’t be had elsewhere, and emphatically does not make humans behave better (as most religions would have it.) So why let this “major aspect of human culture” off the hook so easily? Atheists, secularists and freethinkers should demand that religion earn their respect; instead, it often appears that respect is a default position adopted out of the unwillingness to offend the sensibilities of religious friends and family (however liberal in their belief and practice). Religion doesn’t get a free pass. It’s been revoked. And it’s about time, too, I’d say.

Italy’s Ugliest Churches

I’m always tired of people yapping about how wonderful Italy is because it’s full of beautiful old churches. Well, it’s just as full of terribly ugly modern churches. The kind which make you shiver, the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Yugo. I posted some photos of one of them here. There is even a blog devoted to them: bruttechiese. Here are some others.

Santa is watching

Is there no escape?

My wife: “What are we going to tell Melissa about Santa?” Me: “Oh, I don’t know. How about nothing?”

This question is the latest in a string of “What are we going to tell…?” questions we’ve been patiently addressing for years, since before we even decided we wanted children. It’s a natural consequence of holding non-traditional views on a number of life-and-death issues.

I imagine many parents don’t worry about such things and just tell their kids what they were told by their parents. Propagating the Santa myth is effortless; it seeps in culturally (unless you live in a place like Iran). Fighting it, however, takes grit.

Why fight such a harmless tall-tale, anyway? What’s wrong with the jolly old mensch from the North Pole, who — in an improbable 24-hour arc — manages to deliver presents to all the good boys and girls the world over? Let’s look first at that tiny adjective, “good.”

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you’re awake

He knows if you’ve been bad or good

So be good for goodness sake!

Here we have an iconic portrait of Santa Claus as Big Brother: he’s always watching, waiting for you to slip up so he can vengefully mete out due punishment. Compare with Psalm 139:

It is you who know when I sit and rise,

you fathom my thoughts from afar.

I submit there is essentially no difference in these two verses, one a pious hymn penned over two millennia ago by an unknown hand, and the other a hit song written by Haven Gillespie in 1934. And they’re both downright creepy if you ask me (the Psalm ends with a declaration of “utter hatred” for the Lord’s enemies). Why would any sane parent want their children to live in fear of an omniscient being? We’ve decided not to teach our daughter to believe in such a god, so why substitute that with Santa’s Secular Thought Police?

Moving on, there’s the issue of lying to children. Is it moral? Bertrand Russell once wrote, “There is no excuse for deceiving children. When … they find their parents have lied, they lose confidence in them and feel justified in lying to them.” And lying it is. Every parent knows perfectly well that the Santa story is just that, a story, and all of them know it’s a matter of time before the kids figure it out for themselves.

That said, secular parenting author Dale McGowan writes, “Santa Claus … is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had.” McGowan sees Santa as a dry run for God. He argues in a spirited essay that if children are encouraged to apply logical thinking to the Santa story, maybe they can learn to apply it across the board. And once they realize it’s hooey, the balloons will begin bursting one by one in a triumph of skeptical inquiry.

I don’t recall the moment when I realized there was no Santa Claus. Maybe my parents never played it up much at home. For me Santa was that obese fellow in a red suit at Hunt Valley Mall surrounded by fake snow and bad lighting. The smell of glazed ham and cheese wheels from the nearby Hickory Farms store must’ve hinted at something artificial. Kids aren’t stupid — they know baloney when they smell it.

Then again, I understand the practical use of Santa — much like God — in frightening children into obedience. If you can get youngsters to believe that there is someone watching them while they sleep, reading their thoughts, taking extensive notes and evaluating their performance, then you have a pretty good chance of keeping them in line — for a while.

I also realize that children need to fantasize and develop a vibrant imagination. We are a story-telling species, after all. But I think there is a difference between giving them free reign to blur the line between fantasy and reality and actively promoting deception. I think Santa belongs to the latter category; and, say, Pinocchio to the former. (No parent ever tells their children that the boy with the long nose is going to come in the window once a year and bring them gifts, do they?)

My wife’s question remains, though: What are we going to tell Melissa? As a parent who’s also an incurable rationalist, both Russell and McGowan persuade me. But all those discussions over what to teach our daughter about the world (“We have to tell her something!”) are giving way to a broader principle: teaching her to think for herself. Do that, I argue, and the rest will take care of itself. Do that and we won’t have to lie to her. Do that and she’ll be better prepared for a future of hustlers and hucksters.

Parents can make use of the Santa myth either way. We can use it to pave the way for a life of credulity, or we can use it to turn our children into thoughtful, independent people capable of sniffing out a proverbial slice of baloney.

If we can’t ignore Santa, then we might as well own him.

From The American

The freedom of unbelief

Liberi di non credere
By Raffaele Carcano
Editori Internazionali Riuniti, 2011. 379 pages (in Italian)

The PD should be advocating a more secular agenda.

Raffaele Carcano, who heads the UAAR, Italy’s association of atheists, has written a vademecum on the current state of secularity in Italy. Here the reader will find no philosophical arguments for atheism, no attacks on religious belief or even a catalogue of indecent behavior by the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. Instead, Carcano guides the reader through the routine abuses of the rights of non-believing citizens: from the suppressed atheist bus campaign in Genoa to the Lautsi vs. Italy ruling that crucifixes in public classrooms are not in violation of freedom of conscience, the hand of the Vatican is never far from the puppet theater of Italian politics.

Secularism is on the rise, however. Non-affiliated Italians, according to a recent study cited, represent nearly 20 percent of the population and the number is growing. Compare that figure with the only two percent belonging to minority (non-Catholic) religions and you realize they represent a fair slice of the citizenry. Yet they have almost no voice or visibility. Moreover, their rights are trampled by such institutional perversions as the “8 per thousand” religious tax (income tax routed to the Church), Catholic religious teaching in public schools, and the ostentatious display of (exclusively) Catholic symbols in public spaces. Add to this the tendency of Italian media to pander to the Catholic Church and report every grunt and groan of its leaders uncritically.

Then comes the political class, to which the author devotes two full chapters, serving up an analysis of the near-total abandonment of secular causes to which few politicians — right or left — give more than lip service. In fact, the Democratic Party takes the brunt of the criticism for being practically the only center-left party in Europe that doesn’t lift a finger to advance a secular agenda. The only parliamentarian noted for her devotion to secular causes is Emma Bonino, who was shot from both sides during her 2010 campaign for the governorship of Lazio.

The Italian situation is contextualized throughout the book with reference to the European Union and the United States, even going back to ancient times (the first recorded book burning, according to Carcano, was of the “impious” Greek author Protagoras). The tone is sober, but not without the appropriate irony. The reader comes away with the impression that Italy is less a modern secular nation than a kind of milquetoast theocracy. Non-believers may no longer be tortured or burned for their impiety, true, but they are consciously marginalized and proselytized to by a cynical political class and their hubristic clerical bedfellows. Which, one might add, is nothing to be proud of in the 21st century.

From The American