I wrote a bit ago about the Indiana Atheist Bus Campaign‘s efforts to get an ad on a bus here in Bloomington.  The message on the ad: “You can be good without God”.  As I stated previously, I really like this message… it’s positive, it’s not insulting, not even condescending, a great example of the kinds of things I look for to say “I’m proud of what I believe, but I’m not trying to crack on people who believe differently.”

Much to my surprise (and, I think, many others’), Bloomington Transit rejected the ad, citing their ad policy which says that they may reject any ad they feel is ‘too controversial’.  Controversial?  It’s not like what the same campaign is now running in Chicago: “In the beginning, Man created God“.  Now THAT’s controversial… that’s getting in someone’s face and asking for a fight.  To disagree with “You can be good without God” is to assert that every non-Believer, now and throughout time (say, Marie Curie), is/was not good.  Now, I mean, maybe you just don’t believe that anyone can really be good, and in a purist sense, I wouldn’t argue with that.  I’m sure everyone who’s ever lived has done something unsavory.  But, somehow I don’t think that’s the “controversy” here.

Anyway, the ACLU filed suit in support of the campaign, and apparently Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan didn’t want the City’s legal department defending the case, so it was eventually dropped, and it looks like the ads will be showing up soon on a bus near me.  Cool.

Ok, so then yesterday I learn about a similar drama playing out in Des Moines, Iowa.  The Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers ran an ad on buses with this message: “Don’t believe in God?  You are not alone.”  Wow, now that’s really unoffensive.  I mean, that’s basically just saying “not everyone believes in God”, although admittedly with an added connotation of “it’s ok, and let’s support each other.”  I guess it’s that hint of “it’s ok” that led to an “overwhelming” number of complaints about the ads, which the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) cited when they took down the ads!  There’s already talk that the ads may be coming back, although aparently DART “has asked the atheist group to submit a new advertisement for consideration”.

So, the question is: how uncontroversial can you get?  What could the group possibly think of that’s LESS controversial than what was already running?  I honestly have trouble thinking of anything that might be more palatable to the presumptive complainers.  Maybe: “According to many passages in the Bible, non-Believers are all going to Hell.  But we still live in a country that allows us to speak freely and to peaceably assemble.  So, if you don’t believe in God, consider visiting”.  Any other ideas?

I got curious about how the whole Radiohead thing had played out when I heard mention of it on NPR’s Morning Edition this morning. Turns out the band is not presently releasing statistics about it. An independent market research company called comScore, though, released this report on how the downloads have played out. They say that 1.2 million people visited the site, a “significant percentage of visitors ultimately downloading the album” (how’s that for market data?). They were willing to be much more precise with the percentages than the totals, though, saying that about 38% of the people who downloaded the album paid something (40% of US downloaders), and the average voluntary payment was $6 ($8.05 for US downloaders).

Anyway, Radiohead released this statement in response:

“In response to purely speculative figures announced in the press regarding the number of downloads and the price paid for the album, the group’s representatives would like to remind people that… it is impossible for outside organisations to have accurate figures on sales.

However, they can confirm that the figures quoted by the company comScore Inc are wholly inaccurate and in no way reflect definitive market intelligence or, indeed, the true success of the project.”

If by “accurate” they mean “exactly correct”, then I agree. However, comScore is being quite open about their methodology and their approach seems sound to me. Good statisticians can be surprisingly accurate, and the band’s unwillingness to publish the statistics themselves don’t inspire me with confidence that comScore is “wholly inaccurate”. Just how far off does one need to be to count as “wholly inaccurate”, anyway? So, needless to say, I don’t know, but if I had to bet, I’d bet that comScore’s data are not far off the mark (I’ll say +- 5%).

Wired’s blog post on the matter seems to miss the “significant percentage of visitors” part of comScore’s report and thus estimates with faulty reasoning that the band netted $2.7 million from the stunt. Without knowing just what this “significant percentage” is, even approximately, then I do think it’s fair to say that estimates of the total are “purely speculative”. However, I’ll go out on a limb and bet that the band netted over $1 million in the first month of the ordeal. I’ll also stand by my previous prediction that over the course of their experiment they will serve up over a million downloads and gross 2-5 million dollars. That, of course, was and is wild speculation. But comScores numbers are similar. A small but very well-known group of people have access to the real answers, and I challenge them to go public with them. But, they know everyone wants to know, and I suspect they like the attention of keeping the secret. It’s certainly their right to do so, but I think it’s kind of lame.

On, K wrote a very personal piece about her attitudes on
. This inspired a wave of comments on the blog, and a wave of
thoughts in my own head. Like mph, I decided that it wouldn’t be
right to fill so much space (disk space?) on their blog with all I
wanted to say, so here it goes.


I don’t think it’s too much to say that I was thrilled by how many comments I got on my post last month about atheism. I replied to some of your comments in the comments section, so if you haven’t done so, some of you might want to check that out. But, after I’d done that, Dan submitted his comments.
Dan’s comments got me thinking, as they often do. I decided that rather than post another comment back there (which likely few people would see) I’d post my response here (giving me more justification for being verbose).

Dan said:

First, this is great if there weren’t a political aspect to the religious/atheist conflict. As long as political decisions are being based on the moral value set defined by a specific interpretation of religion, the debate is not just philosophical or even one of trying to convert. It affects people’s lives legally.

Right, this is an interesting observation. Most atheists seem to spend most of their advocacy energy on shoring up the separation of church and state. I’m all for that. I wouldn’t want to live in the jurisdiction of a government that promoted atheism any more than I’d want one to live in one that promoted any other religion. It’s at the level of civil society that I am having the quandry.

On another front, why is there need to convert people to atheism? If people want to believe whatever they want, fine. If a set of dogma becomes too unbelievable or the message of the existence of a god fails to resonate, then a person may develop his or her own atheist understanding of the world. In the mean time, what good would it do to confront people who have other beliefs? I think it would only act to strengthen those beliefs in opposition.

Right, I actually don’t have that much interest in converting people. If at some point in the future the percentage of people who were atheists was the same but the cultural acceptance of atheism had grown and the separation of church and state was strong, I’d be perfectly pleased.

Here’s a story for comparison: several years ago I was invited to the home of a woman who was very proud of her Jewish heritage. She wore in some manner (I believe it was a necklace, but I cannot really recall) a Star of David, and somehow the symbol came up in conversation, and she proclaimed with a sense of proud defiance that she wore it as a statement to everyone that “We are here”. Ok, I can’t swear that that was the quote, but whatever she said had the sense of trying to keep people from ignoring the fact that Judaism exists.

While I definitely support her freedom of religion and association, I also remember being taken aback by her comment, since I doubt she hardly ever meets anyone who doesn’t know that Judaism exists. But, on the other hand, the reason that people DO know that Judaism exists is because of people like her proudly proclaim their Judaism. Figures I’m seeing on the site, which are living on wikipedia (with far less contraversy than one might expect) suggest that there are ten times as many Atheists in the world as there are Jews. And that’s without including agnostics and “non-religious” people in the mix.
So, thinking about this, I feel like part of what I’m looking for is a simple way to say “I’m proud of my atheism” in a way that makes some people say “I love living in a diverse nation that prides itself on freedom of religion” and makes no one think anything worse than “well, there’s another poor soul that’s going to hell”. What I’m suggesting about the confrontational sound of the term “atheism”, though, is that some people would read such a message as “who are you to tell me that my religion is wrong?”

And, I don’t think I’m alone in this. Check out this section of the page:

In most countries only a tiny number of people (zero to a fraction of 1 percent) will answer “atheism” or “atheist” when asked an open-ended question about what their religious preference. A slightly larger number of people will answer “yes” if asked pointedly if they are an atheist. A slightly larger number than that will answer “no” when asked if they believe in any type of God, deities, or Higher Power. A slightly larger number answer “no” when asked simply if they “believe in God” (omitting wording indicating more nebulous, less anthropomorphic conceptions of divinity). Finally, a larger number of people answer “none” or “non-religious” when asked asked an open-ended queston about what their religious preference is. Although figures vary for each country, average numbers indicate that roughly half of the people who self-identify as “nonreligious” also answer “yes” when asked if they believe in God or a Higher Power.

Hopefully when the copy of The Cambridge Companion to Atheism that I just ordered arrives, I’ll find out more about these “slightly larger numbers”. But, the story certainly suggests that there are a lot of people who actively disbelieve in God who don’t want to associate with the term “atheist”. I’m more interested in getting those people to rally behind a term than I am interested in convincing Believers that they are wrong. Why can’t we be atheist and proud, happy, and peaceful? I do suspect some of it is because people hear in the term “atheist” something contrary.

And, it’s not just the term. Most public displays of atheism that I see (T-shirts, bumper stickers, etc.) focus more on mocking religion than they do on celebrating religious beliefs. Amidst all of the writing of the “new Atheists”, the most exciting publication I’ve seen with a clearly atheistic slant recently was this Pop-Up book that Beth showed me. It doesn’t talk at all about God existing or not, it just talks about the current scientific perspective on how life and the universe came about. It’s awesome. Parents, check it out.

Thinking as I type, I’m reminded of how much of this debate focuses on evolution right now. I think it would benefit atheism for science to be more upfront about its levels of confidence about things. The reason evolution should be taught to children is because the evidence for it is overwhelming and it has near-universal acceptance by all people who devote their lives to the study of biology. However, when we talk about evolution in these terms, we’re talking really about the ideas of heredity, mutation, and selection. Everything from animal breeding to children looking like their parents to genetically modified foods presents so much evidence that heredity and selection work as evoltionary theory describe that I can’t even understand how anyone could disbelieve it now. That being said, that mutation is purely random would be difficult to prove.  And the further into the past one goes, the iffier the ground is that evolution stands upon. To me it is perfectly reasonable to think that a God could have introduced selective forces that would have encouraged The Decent of Man [sic]. It’s even reasonable to me to consider that a God took some early humanoid and made it the first animal to have a soul (I’ve met Mormons who believe just this). To go much further back, the standard evolutionary explanation of the beginning of life (y’know, promordial soup ‘n’at) strikes me as basically an educated guess, and if anyone can think of a falsifiable experiment that would lend evidence one way or another to that theory, I’d like to hear it. If nothing else, consider the idea that a God could have created conditions where a primordial soup would occur and maybe even added a magic spark to the mix to make life happen. I suspect that this idea is consistent with the entire theory of evolution. It might also be consistent with the theory of intelligent design.

My point is that atheism is an active belief system. It’s more than just not believing in other belief systems. It’s a challenging proposition, and one will never grow to understand it without deep study and reflection. However, through understanding it, many of us find it a way to what many believers-in-God call “spiritual peace.” It offers answers to many of life’s most perplexing and disturbing problems. And it provides a foundation for strong moral and ethical systems. All of these are things that people seek from religion. But it isn’t widely regarded as a religion in this sense. I’m much more motivated to promote this understanding of it than I am in converting people to it. But I’m still seeking ways to do that.

Those of you who read (and maybe even enjoyed) my post on the resolution of human perception, please join me in thanking Michael and Michael for bringing this New York Times Article to my attention. David Pogue agrees with me, there’s a limit to how much resolution we can perceive, and by his argument, the maximum resolution for common purposes is even smaller than I expected… And he even ran experiments to back it up! So… wow. Not surprisingly, he’s less philophical about the implications to the relations between humans and machines, and more just about how to be a smart shopper. But hey, I’m in to that, too. :) What’s just a little weird is that he also alludes to that 640K comment falsely attributed to Bill Gates… Hmmm…

Michael has a photography magazine in one of his bathrooms that’s about a year old and is touting on its cover the latest-greatest camera, which is a 16.2 Mega-Pixel model. It was thought provoking to see that there, a year old, and wonder, “wow, what resolution are they up to now?”

And then I thought “y’know, I don’t think I need more than the ~7 Mega Pixels I’m getting now.”


Cassaundra has been sending me occasional emails updating me on the status of the deliberations of a pack of angry atheists. Led by such notables as Richard Dawkins, these folks are “sick and tired” of being tolerant of religious people and are out there daring to call Believers stupid, and far worse, in public appearances and in their books, which I gather are climbing the Best Sellers Lists.

This has been fanning the flames of my own personal brooding about this issue of being an atheist in a society where the main-stream is religious. The thing is, I hate proselytizing. I don’t care what the sect, whether I think you’re right or wrong, I hate it all. And when atheists start proselytizing, they are at least as obnoxious about it as any other religious group (or maybe I’m just more sensitive to it, since I would like to associate them… whatever, it’s bad).

Well, while driving to Urbana, I heard a piece on NPR’s All Things Considered about this band of (as NPR called them) “New Atheists” and their fundamentalist rants. I feel like the issue is going main-stream, I feel some compunction to … define my position a bit more, to ally myself but also distance myself from these “New Atheists”. So, the blog, of course, is as public as I easily get, and here goes.

A couple of years ago, when NPR started its version of This I Believe, I thought a lot about submitting something to them and even drafted something. It was an interesting process. I wrote a bit about what I consider to be my religious beliefs (which I refer to (endearingly, and mostly to myself) as Post-modern Mathematical Atheism), but I knew I wouldn’t get into much of the details of my religion. I mean, how can you sum something like that in 350-500 words? Plus, they (wisely) don’t want religious rants on that program. So, I just wrote about a sense of the main themes. But, what I quickly found myself veering towards was the fact that, more than the beliefs themselves, what was really compelling to me was that I have the freedom to believe what I want to, to think about the ideas, to discuss them with others as I see appropriate and helpful to my “spiritual journey”, and to challenge my own ideas and reevaluate them as I see fit. In short, my freedom to determine my own religious beliefs feels more dear to me than the beliefs themselves, even though the beliefs were what I felt more interested in writing about when I started the exercise.

Now, I do not believe that one actually comes to such beliefs by onesself. If I’m remembering correctly, I even typed into the draft, “there may not be a single original idea in what I believe”. I hear ideas from all sorts of beliefs from all sorts of people, and I don’t for a moment think that if I lived in another place/time or had different experiences that I would believe exactly what I do. But, nonetheless, I get to take all of that input and my own thoughts and come to the conclusions that seem correct to me. And anyone who tries to muscle their way into my head is bound to offend me, even if I agree with some or all of what they are saying.

So, my preferred style of religious debate is for people to speak and/or write about their beliefs, without being accusing or intrusive, and to allow others to listen or ignore them as they see fit. And thusly, I think, have most atheists presented their beliefs (take Bertrand Russell, for instance… or even Daniel Dennett for a more contemporary example).

Well, I think this is what people like Dawkins are sick and tired of. Or, more accurately, they are sick and tired of atheists feeling like this is the only appropriate approach. Because there is a small but (alas) unavoidable percentage of Believers actively engage in rhetoric and activities specifically designed to convert people, they think that atheists need to fight back. It’s basically the same thing as negative campaigning in political elections… People don’t like it, but if one side is doing it, the other side almost has to or they will surely get trounced.

And, of course, atheists have been getting trounced for a long time. The NPR story reported that only 1% of Americans identify themselves as atheists. That seems low to me based on other figures I’ve heard, but whatever the case, Evengelical Christians are huge in comparison, growing fast in number, and (at least many of their most vocal members) have no compunction about saying nasty things about atheists.

So why shouldn’t atheists say nasty things about evangelicals? They’re certainly justified in doing so. But, I still don’t like it. But this is what I can’t come to terms with. I don’t feel like I should have to be quiet at let the Christians control the debate. But I don’t feel like getting into a mudslinging contest with them either. So, what do people like me do?

Do we stand on street corners and start preaching about materialism? I don’t think this would help, everyone I’ve ever seen do anything like that was a wacko.

Do we organize a bit and start going door-to-door with smiles on our faces and nice clothes on our bodies, and hand out brochures about joyful and ethical living without gods? Although I think it could be fun, doesn’t everyone hate those people’s intrusions? I guess not, because it must work with some of them. I don’t know. I know the best thing I’ve ever said about such an uninvited visitor is that they left quickly and politely.
Do we raise a little money and start putting up billboards that go just a bit beyond the secular humanist messages that we already see? Something like “Live Ethically and Enjoy Life… you don’t need any god to do that.” I can only imagine the uproar such messages would cause among the Faithful, and it’s kind of fun to think about. But billboards are also pretty annoying, even if far less intrusive that people going door-to-door.

Of course, something that should be done if Atheism wants to get more credit as a religion is to congregate. There are efforts in this regard. The wonderfully named Center For Inquiry has an Indiana “Community” which gets together regularly for debunking sessions. And as many Unitarian Universalist friends have told me, atheists are welcome to their services, and many happily attend. The biggest problem with this is that people like me don’t really want to congregate like this. I’d rather spend my time elsewhere, in general… although I probably would go to the CFI sessions more often if they weren’t so far away from my home.

But I think the first step might be to redefine the mission a bit. There’s a problem with “atheism” as a term, because it defines itself as a negation of something else. I think this matters. I think Believers naturally and immediately take assertions of atheistic beliefs as an afront, because rather than sounding like “I believe in *this*” it sounds like “I don’t believe in *that*, or anything like it!” So, just professing the belief sounds like something of an attack. I think I should start using the term “materialist” more often, because it doesn’t suffer from this trait, even if to my ear it actually sounds *more* anti-religions (“not only do I not believe in your god or anyone else’s, I don’t believe in your soul or your spirit or any thing else that is supernatural”). And really, all of this focus on “belief” is probably misguided for me, too, because really it’s that I’m *disinclined* to believe in things, especially just because they seem like beautiful ideas or because someone else tells me that they are true. I believe in things that can be deomnstrated, the rest I just wonder about. This is why some people like me latch onto the word “skeptic”. It makes sense, but I don’t think it has religious legs, so to speak.

Whatever the case, the message that I would want to send to Evangelical Christians is not “we’re right and you’re not only wrong but also stupid” as seems to be coming from the New Atheists. Of course, again, since they are responding to a message from the Christians of “we’re right and you’re not only wrong but evil, and you should be put to death and start your eternal burn in Hell”, I can’t say I don’t understand the temptation to respond with such vigor. But, I didn’t like that kind of name calling on the elementary school playground, and I still don’t like it today. So, I’d rather send a message like “Look, you think I’m going to burn in Hell when I die. I think you’re consciousness is simply going to cease when you die. We each think the other is wrong. But we don’t have to agree, we can just live peacefully and talk about our beliefs civilly and let everyone else come to his or her own conclusions.” Of course many — probably the vast majority — of Christians in the United States already accept that message. But there’s obviously a vocal element that do not accept it, and I suppose that it’s natural and probably even good that some atheists are willing to get nasty in response to the nastiness. But, I myself have no interest in joining them. Let there be Peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.

I heard this story on NPR yesterday and found it really thought provoking. To use their blurb:

The Polonium Restaurant in Sheffield, England, has had slow business since it opened less than two-years ago. Then, British investigators found traces of polonium in former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. The news sent customers flocking to the restaurant.

One would not think that an association with a poison would be good for business at a food establishment. But apparently, at least in this case, it is. In fact, it was only after polonium became widely known as a poison that business picked up.

So, what gives? Are there that many people with morbid senses of humor in England? Or is it actually only members of the press that are eating there, because they are covering the story of how popular it suddenly became? My guess is that it’s just an instance of the name being in people’s heads, and therefore making it more likely that people will choose it… a case of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. If that’s the case, it’s a very striking example of that phenomenon…

Any other opinions?

A week or two ago, Priscilla and I were chatting about continents. I was telling her the story of participating in a “get to know you”-type game at a party, where I was to tell one truth and one falsehood about myself. I was on the spot, but pretty quickly came up with a good truth that sounded like a falsehood, but was having trouble coming up with a lie that might be true. Quite lamely (in my opinion), I eventually said “I’ve been on three separate continents in my life.” (I’ve actually never left North America, except for Hawaii).

Anyway, she started counting the continents she’d been on, and I was surprised to hear her list “America” as one. I’m mildly ashamed to admit now that I mocked her about this at the time, laughing at the idea that she might consider North and South America to be the same continent. I felt very proud of my recollection since childhood that there are seven continents: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica.

It didn’t take long in our conversation, though, before I realized that I – uh – didn’t have much ground to stand upon. Sue, Beth, and other geology-educated people with whom I’d discussed things like this talk a lot about “plates” and stuff, but I’m not sure how much geologists even believe in continents anymore. And, certainly, I’ve pretty much given up thinking that there’s any geological reason to consider Europe and Asia separate continents. And, as these thoughts were going through my head, Pri was telling me that in Brazil they are taught that North and South America are the same continent. Hmmm…

Well, she later sent me two links to Wikipedia pages, one in Portuguese and one in English. Sure enough, it seems that there is not global consensus on this matter. The English page offers a list of different models of the number of continents that are taught world-wide. It claims that the “geographic community” prefers the six continent model that considers Eurasia to be one continent.

I don’t really have any knowledge that would make me feel comfortable even having an opinion on this subject. (Actually, I do take issue with the Portuguese page’s inclusion of “Artico” as a continent. I don’t think there’s any land there, and whatever we call a continent, I think it should involve land.) However, it does highlight two deeply held beliefs of mine:

  1. What’s real is the world, when we describe it we are just trying to model it with words and concepts.
  2. No matter how simply something was taught to us, it might not true. There might not even be any consensus on the matter. Or, the expert consensus might be contrary to what we learned.

So, don’t be quick to make fun of someone who learned something different than you did. And… question everything.

(Kynthia told me that she once gave an impromptu speech with “question everything” as the subject. Maybe even the title. In any event, it might be one of the extremely rare phrases that would fit on a bumper sticker that I’d be willing to wear on my car.)

could have been a real messPeople complain a lot about their bad luck, I like to pause and appreciate good luck when I experience it.

I walked into the kitchen to finish cleaning up after lunch, and I bumped the compost container that was sitting on the ledge. This was basically because I decided to wrap my Afghan around me as I walked around the house. It got caught on the container and pulled it onto the floor as I walked past. So, it happened behind me. I had a guess as to what had happened, and I was afraid to look.

But, look! The container landed right-side-up, and what could have been a disgusting mess is instead just a slice of an apple and the end of a stalk of broccoli (not pictured) that presumably bounced out when the thing hit the floor.

Of course, I’ve now spent more time creating this blog entry about it than I would have spent cleaning it up if it HAD made a mess, but think of how much happier I am writing in my blog than cleaning up compost off of the kitchen floor…

Of course, I still have to go do the clean up I was trying to do in the first place…

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