This is going to be a busy week. (And I’m not talking about work – although that, too, will be busy.) When I was back in Brookline last week, I picked out all of the books that I wanted to ship to Seattle (about 250 of them). They should be arriving around the middle of the week, so in order to make space to arrange them, I went to IKEA yesterday and ordered a couple of shelf units. They are due to be delivered on Monday. And then the new HDTV that I ordered should get here on Tuesday, so tomorrow I’m going to call Millennium Digital and get them to upgrade my set-top box to an HD+DVR unit. Somewhere in all of this I need to pick up a couple of HDMI cables. (Can someone explain why Monster and Belkin think they can charge $100+ for a cable that I can buy for under $20 elsewhere?)


I just upgraded this blog to WordPress 2.0.6. If you notice anything (unintentionally) odd, please let me know. (But try shift-reload first, in case you’ve just got a stale cache.)

Eskow's challenge

R. J. Eskow has generated some attention with his “15 questions” challenge to the group that he describes as “militant atheists”. P.Z. and others have pointed out that this is a fairly blatant strawman argument; for example:

Apparently, we’ve been blaming every problem in the universe on religion and religion alone, and we need to eradicate faith in order to inaugurate our new world order of peace, prosperity, and reason.

Obviously Eskow can’t actually point at any atheist who makes such a wild claim, but he’s not going to let that get in the way of a good blogfight. Anyway, let’s run through his questions (abbreviated for space):

  1. Where [sic] the wars so often cited by militants (the Crusades, etc.) primarily religious in nature, or did their root causes stem from other factors such as economics, nationalism, and territorial expansion?
    All wars are complicated, multicausal phenomena. However if we flip the question around, and ask (e.g.) “Would the Crusades have occurred without the presence of religious forces?”, the answer is almost certainly “no”. Consider the role of the papacy (and the basis of its political power), or the role of religion in motivating the enthusiastic participation of the hoi polloi. It seems clear that in many wars religion has been a necessary – if not sufficient – cause.
  2. Historically, has terrorism been driven primarily by religion – or by other forces?
    Historically, terrorism has simply represented an extreme form of asymmetric conflict, and has occurred in many settings not all of which are defined by religion. It is clear, however, that in many such conflicts religious beliefs have been invoked as a way of dehumanizing the victims of terrorism, or to justify actions which clearly conflict with widespread notions of just action. (One can also see various examples of religiously-inspired “terrorism” in which the “religion card” was first played by the established power against which terrorism is directed.)
  3. Does the historical experience of nontheistic countries challenge the notion that religion is a major factor in causing internal oppression or external military conflict?
    I don’t believe that we have enough experience of “nontheistic countries” (whatever is meant by this) to provide a useful sample. Are we talking about established religions, the religiosity of the populace, the invocation of religious arguments by political elites, or what?
  4. What is the extent of religion’s role in creating individual discontent and unhappiness through ostracism, sexual repression, prejudice, etc. in various world cultures?
    A lot depends on how such issues are viewed – and debated, if at all – within different cultures. Are the dominant arguments based on institutional authority and tradition, or on individual rights and reason?
  5. Is Islam the origin for genital mutiliation, stoning of adulterous wives, and other abusive practices?
    See my previous comment. Religion is the force which elevates institutional (usually patriarchal) authority over individual freedom. When religious leaders are not given privileged roles, arguments from tradition are greatly weakened.
  6. Would the elimination of religion alone eliminate these harmful practices, or would additional actions need to take place?
    It is necessary but not sufficient. There are, unfortunately, several examples of non-religious societies that do not respect human rights. However I don’t believe that there are any examples of strongly religious societies which truly respect human rights. (And to forestall the obvious response, I am using religion here to refer only to belief systems dominated by supernatural elements – gods, souls, rebirth, life after death, and so forth.)
  7. If so, how can such practices be stopped most quickly and effectively – by campaigning to eliminate all religion, or by using moderate religion as a countermeasure against extremism?
    It’s unclear how effective “moderate religion” can be in this respect. Take an institution that many would regard as an obvious example: the Church of England. In spite of their mild-mannered approach, and their support of various progressive causes, the Archbishop of Canterbury is unwilling to condemn the virulent homophobia and hate-speech of African bishops. Apparently unity is more important than principle. And moderate Christian groups still publically revere the entire text of the Bible, including the language which glorifies rape, genocide, and bigotry, and which forms the basis of much of the fundamentalist Christian agenda. Until moderate Christians are willing to follow Thomas Jefferson and rip out of their Bibles those texts which are an affront to the presumed Christian ideals of peace, charity, love and mercy, I don’t believe that they will be much help.
  8. Can the positive influence of religion – in reducing conflict, bringing personal fulfillment, building communities, etc. – be quantified and measured against the negatives?
    I don’t think any of this can be quantified. It’s interesting to see if one could identify incidents of such “positive influences” which are uniquely derived from religion, rather than a natural humanistic empathy for our fellows. I think it’s too soon to attempt a broader statistically-based analysis, though. Secular humanism is too recent a broad social phenomenon to disentagle the various motivations, both personal and institutional.
  9. Do the social problems caused by religion stem from personal religious belief, from organized religious activity, or both?
  10. Is all religious activity harmful, or just the fundamentalist variety (which one research project estimates involves roughly one-fifth of all religious populations)?
    Counting noses is less important than counting active noses. The trouble with non-fundamentalist religious activity is that is is functionally indistinguishable from secularism in many ways – except one: it generally refuses to differentiate itself from the fundamentalist variety. Dennett is exactly right here: for many people, “belief in belief” is the most important thing. So while fundamentalist religion is more obviously harmful, it is sustained and supported by non-fundamentalists.
  11. Is it true, as some atheists argue that Buddhism’s more peaceful doctrine propagates less violence and war than monotheistic religions with violent sacred texts?
    I don’t know. Not enough samples.
  12. Does ‘moderate religion’ enable fundamentalism to continue? (That’s another core militant assumption – also unproven.) Or, does it draw adherents away from fundamentalism and thereby weaken its negative effects?
    What kind of proof do you want? (Always mistrust people who drag the notion of proof into this kind of argument.) I think that the best evidence comes from the studies of the various fundamentalist religious groups, whether authored by members or (more often) ex-members. I certainly think that the evidence is fairly clear. (And no, it’s not an assumption – what a stupid smear.)
  13. What’s the best way to advocate for needed changes – through aggressive attacks on religion or milder persuasion?
    Eskow makes it sound as if some vast atheistic conspiracy is trying to put together the most effective program for change – an Atheist Party Manifesto. That’s nonsense. When I read the various writers on this topic, what I see are individuals expressing their personal views. The approaches range from the angry and frustrated (Dawkins’ The God Delusion) to the academically quizzical (Dennett’s Breaking The Spell) to the quietly insistent (Robert Price’s excellent The Reason Driven Life) to a fully worked-out worldview (Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God).
    There’s no “one way” (or even a “best way” of changing the world, except for this: for people to simply share what they think with others, and explain why. The remarkable sales of Dawkins’ and Sam Harris’s books clearly show that people are interested in this subject. That’s the best we can hope for – to get people thinking. (And even if you disagre with Dawkins, you’ve got to admit that he’s got a lot of people talking.)
  14. Do the internal dynamics of religious communities suggest that extremism and fundamentalism are the primary source of religion’s negative effects – or do these effects come from something fundamental about religious belief itself?
    I’m not sure I understand the question, but it seems to repeat earlier points. Skipped.
  15. Would the eradication of religion lead to increased trauma, and/or decreased mental and physical health? If so, how should we prepare to address that problem as we work to eradicate religion?
    As in, “what are we going to use to replace people’s comforting delusions?” I think there are plenty of alternative sources of delusion….

The History Boys

Most of the population of Seattle seems to have been glued to their TVs for some (American) football game or other; I decided to go to see The History Boys. It was wonderful. Yes, of course it was produced and directed like a play rather than a film: when you’ve got one of the best contemporary plays to work with, why not? It was smart, intelligent, poignant, funny… and you’d better be ready to drag your dimly-remembered school French out of the furthest recesses of your brain, because there are no subtitles!
Three wonderful English films in succession: “The Queen”, “Casino Royale”, and now “The History Boys”. I think my next two films will be “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Venus”


Inspired by Josh, I took the superhero quiz. I think the decisive questions were the ones about thongs and push-up bras….
Your results:
You are Spider-Man

Iron Man
Green Lantern
The Flash
Wonder Woman
You are intelligent, witty,
a bit geeky and have great
power and responsibility.

Click here to take the “Which Superhero are you?” quiz…

Majority 'back selective schools'

As a relatively successful product of the old, selective system of British secondary schooling, I used to toe the Labour party line on the virtues of comprehensive education. I wised up after I arrived in the USA. After seeing the practical results (including the mess that US public education has become), I can’t say I’m surprised to read that “More than three-quarters of people believe bright children would do better if taught separately, a poll suggests.” I don’t think anyone – even the most devout social democrats – ever believed that this idea was false; the difference is that now people seem willing to admit that bright kids ought to have the opportunity to do better. Elitist? Maybe so – but meritocracy certainly seems preferable to plutocracy….

This time last year

This time last year, I had a sidebar feature on my blog that displayed the articles from a year before, so in addition to speculating about major snowstorms that weren’t I was able to look back to New Year 2005. Revisiting my blogging from December 2005 and January 2006, I see that much of it involves travel – to SeeBeyond in LA, to STK in Colorado, to various places in India and the Czech Republic.
Over the last few days, I re-read a lot of those pieces, and then spent a while wondering whether – and how! – to summarize 2006. So many changes, after so long (too long?!) in one groove. New role. New job. New company. New city. New lifestyle. New timezone. New friends. Flexing new muscles (metaphorically and physically).
And loss. Sure. But less than expected. One interesting thought: as we were clearing out 700+ books (in preparation for selling the house), I came across a volume of English landscape photography, given to me by my colleagues at CMC in Hemel Hempstead in 1981 when I left to relocate to the USA (“just for a few years!”). Inside there was a card with 40 or 50 names from the dim, distant past. I don’t think I stayed in contact with any of them after I moved. Compare that with today: I regularly exchange email with people all over the world that I’ve known for years. I’ve reconnected with people I knew 30 or 40 years ago. And so even though life is naturally episodic, the episodes are perhaps less disconnected than they were in years gone by. (Or maybe it’s just age, or indolence, or the pace of life: my mother’s generation seems relatively adept at maintaining webs of friendship spreading across space and time.)
Regrets? Any impulse to point fingers? Well, yes, but not strongly, because I’m so much happier in my new groove, and if it were not for the incompetence of a few Sun executives (now mostly ex-Sun) I’d probably still be there. So perhaps I should thank XXX for fscking things so royally, and YYY for not firing his sorry ass until it was too late. (I guess I feel about the StorageTek acquisition a bit like many people feel about the invasion of Iraq: I’d never have supported it if I’d known how badly the administration would screw it up.)
Anyway, I’m now working for a (potential) customer for the kinds of products that Sun offers. I have to say that it’s… breathtaking to realize the irrelevance of many of the things that seemed important when I was at Sun. Ah, well. It’s also good to recognize the many valuable lessons I learned there that I can apply my new role, and to thank the wise men and women from whom I learned them. (Some are still at Sun, but most have also moved on.)
Enough of this rambling: I have work to do. One challenge I face: what to do with all my CDs. It’s a curious practical and ethical dilemma. I have hundreds of CDs that I’ve ripped into iTunes, and I never need to touch the physical CDs again. But they’re bulky to store, with jewel cases, booklets, and various kinds of fancy packaging. What should I do? I can’t give them away or sell them; I’m a strong believer in not stealing from artists. Physically destroying them feels wrong in so many ways. I wish there were some really efficient way to store just the CDs themselves (perhaps on spindles, like the way they sell blank CD-Rs). And of course I don’t have time to deal with any of this; I’ll be heading back to Seattle tomorrow.
‘Tis a puzzlement….

Random 10

I haven’t done a Random 10 for quite a while, so here’s the first of the New Year. iTunes delivered a fairly conventional list this time, including several that are hard not to sing along with. (Specifically, those by Janis, Bruce, Kirsty, Paula, and Love.)

  • “Life of Surprises” by Prefab Sprout (from A Life of Surprises) [How apposite for the last 12 months of my life!]
  • “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” by Paula Cole (from This Fire)
  • “Trip And Glide” by Love & Rockets (from Hot Trip To Heaven)
  • “Gather Round” by Love (from Out There)
  • “Me And Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin (from 18 Essential Songs)
  • “We Never Change” by Coldplay (from Parachutes)
  • “Dancing In The Dark” by Bruce Springsteen (from Greatest Hits)
  • “Mean Mr. Mustard” by The Beatles (from Abbey Road)
  • “You Don’t Even Know Me” by Al Stewart (from Orange)
  • “He’s On The Beach” by Kirsty MacColl (from Galore)