Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reason clouded by hate.

There are days I really dislike some of my fellow atheists.  This is one of those days.

During Skepticon (a convention I really wish I could go to one year), a Gelato store owner a block away posted this obviously offensive, mockworthy sign.
Skepticon is not welcomed to my Christian Business
This emphasizes my previous complaint about atheists being treated as vile, untrustworthy, generally-not-nice people, and when I first saw the blog post displaying the photo my immediate reaction was to laugh, discount the guy as a bigot, and move on with my day.  I gave it no more thought until I saw this (apparently) genuinely honest apology from said store owner.

To the World:

Hello, my name is Andy and I’m the owner of Gelato Mio, a gelato shop located in Springfield, Missouri. There has been quite a lot of buzz and discussion concerning a picture of the sign I briefly posted in my front window Saturday evening. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell my story and offer a heartfelt apology to your community. I messed up, plain and simple. This is NOT an excuse, but how it happened from my perspective.

I decided to welcome the convention downtown by offering the attendees 10% off their purchases at my store. A lot of the group from the convention were stopping by, being very polite and enjoying my Gelato. Saturday night started out as a great night. Once the store slowed down, I decided to walk down the street to learn more about the convention, fully thinking it was something involving UFOs (“skeptics”). What I saw instead was a man conducting a mock sermon, reading the bible and cursing it. Instead of saying “Amen”, the phrase was “god damn”. Being a Christian, and expecting flying saucers, I was not only totally surprised but totally offended. I took it very personally and quickly decided in the heat of the moment that I had to take matters into my own hands and let people know how I felt at that moment in time.

So, I went quickly back to my business, grabbed the first piece of paper I could find, wrote the note and taped it in my front window. This was an impulsive response, which I fully acknowledge was completely wrong and unacceptable. The sign was posted for about 10 minutes or so before I calmed down, came to my senses, and took it down. For what it’s worth, nobody was turned away. I strongly believe that everybody is entitled to their beliefs. I’m not apologizing for my beliefs, but rather for my inexcusable actions. I was wrong.
Guys, I really don’t know what else I can do to express my apologies. I’ve received dozens of calls and hundreds of emails since the incident, and have done my best to reply to each and every one and express my regret for what happened. For the thousands of you whom I’ve offended, I sincerely apologize. I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me. This is me as a human being sincerely apologizing for my actions.
To those of you who accept my apology, Thank You; it means a lot. To those of you who haven’t, I hope you will. I’m just a 28 year old small business owner who made a big mistake. I hope you see that I have not made any excuses, I’ve owned up to what I did, and I apologize.

For what it’s worth, an Atheist reached out to me to help me work through all of this and contact your community directly. I graciously accepted his offer.

I will give everyone who comes to my store this week 10% off as a token of my apology. Really, what’s more universal than ice cream?

Sincerely, Andy
Good for him.  Maybe it's clever PR trying to get past the stigma he placed on his shop, but it seems to me like the guy had a gut reaction, overreacted, and wanted to express his apologies for being a douchenozzle.  I think most reasonable people would take it at that, understanding that when we get offended, we tend not to think rationally.  This isn't a christian condition, so much as it's a human condition.  If someone attacks something you value, the first reaction is almost always to go on the defensive.  I know I have on more than one occasion, and I've seen it in my believer and nonbeliever friends.  This is part of my issue with the notion of the sacredness of anything.  If we allow ourselves to be offended by ill-treatment of objects, it clouds our judgement and keeps us from being logical about the issue.  He was affected by this ill logic due to the mistreatment of his sacred book, and overreacted.  The logical response was to understand, shrug it off, and move on with our lives.

PZ Myers doesn't agree:
There is an asymmetry here. GelatoGuy lives in one of the most religious countries on earth, in a particularly intensely religious part of that country, and in a moment of smug self-righteousness, felt he could openly discriminate against people who do not respect his beliefs. And now he thinks he can walk away, forgiven, and return to his blithe happy Christian pocket universe, just by saying a few words. And we, of course, will turn around and think he’s a nice , sincere, classy guy.

Meanwhile, we will still be regarded as the least trustworthy minority in the country; we still have to deal with the fact that we are excluded from the political discourse; we still have to walk into courtrooms with the ten commandments on display; we have to watch these nice, sincere, classy people elect gay hating bigots, anti-science know-nothings, and flaming misogynists to high office…but hey, they’ll apologize to our faces when they risk losing our business. And then go back to church to listen to their priests fulminate against the godless, go into the voting booth and vote against civil rights, go to their school board and piously try to ram their faith into our children’s faces.
I understand his rage.  Christianity as a whole has a very cushy position in America, and the kind of discrimination he displayed is fairly common in certain parts of the US.  Atheism as a movement is regarded poorly, and people think poorly about us.  Yet it seems that PZ and others have lumped all Christians into the same category: people in Jesus-bubbles who can't see atheists in any kind of positive light.  I understand that sentiment, too.  My own mother had the emotional reaction that she was a failure as a parent because I turned to atheism.  Eventually she came to understand and respect my decision, and we're past that point, but that gut reaction is a common problem that many believers share.  Becoming an atheist is like becoming a convicted criminal to many.  You've gone down a notch in the quality of your character by becoming one.

So yes, PZ is very much in the right to be offended, but the offense of the many does not justify disrespecting a single man who, while somewhat prejudiced against us, openly admitted that what he had done was wrong.  Whether he feels we're immorally bankrupt, he acknowledges that treating us like second-class citizens is inappropriate.  No one should discredit this man for being offended.  He has the right to be offended.  Hell, he should have been.  From what I understand, it was intended to be an offensive piece.  He made a really dumb, bigoted mistake, and owned up to it.  What's more awesome than that?

I really like "friendly atheist" Hermant Mehta's take on it:
No one’s letting Andy off the hook for being a bigot. He still disapproves of atheism. Who cares. The point is that he (now) knows that his act of discrimination was wrong. We ought to show some appreciation when someone admits they made a mistake, even if the person isn’t completely on our side of the big picture. The next step is to get him to realize why there’s nothing wrong with what was said at Skepticon in the first place, but that’s a separate battle.

What I don't like is what one of his commentors said:
I completely disagree that this makes everything okay. Say he heard that Pride Day was going on and thought it was some patriotic gathering; he instead saw gay couples kissing, and subsequently banned them from his establishment as a kneejerk panicked response? That would not be quickly forgiven, likely by many; why should this be treated any differently when the bigotry was just as real?
I see a couple of key differences here.  The first is that gay couples kissing is not designed nor intended to offend, just as skeptical people sitting down and talking about the flaws of religion or generally making logical arguments are not designed to offend.  The second is that yes, I think the example she gave here should be treated with the same level of forgiveness.  People can be dumb and bigoted, and cutting them off doesn't give them the exposure to get past those prejudices and move past a place of ignorance and into a place of knowledge.  PZ may think people should be confronted with full-frontal atheism from the get-go...

Perhaps, on the schedule, we could print little chili peppers next to the titles of the talks? No peppers means it will praise Jesus, five peppers means the content will send any Christian listeners straight to hell?

I find this whole idea far more offensive than what GelatoGuy did — it is atheists and skeptics rushing to self-censor themselves, to mark some of their ideas as publicly shameful, and to acquiesce to ignorant public opinion. I’m not going to support that kind of behavior at all: sure, welcome the public, including delicate Christians like GelatoGuy, to the event, but don’t coddle them. This is who we are. Be proud.

...and I can appreciate that sentiment.  Yet it's not offensive to suggest that he first listen to a milder voice of atheism.  People view atheists as belligerent, condescending assholes, and the best way to break a prejudice like that is to show someone an example of an atheist who isn't a belligerent, condescending asshole.  We can be proud of who we are yet also be reasonable people, starting with little baby-steps and moving onto the great leaps of grokking our ideas.  I became an atheist because of reasonable people who didn't push me, followed by belligerent assholes who challenged me.  I think there's plenty of room for the dicks of the atheist community just as there's room for the "accomodationists," and for PZ to think that being accomodating and friendly is worthy of rage is deeply offensive and, dare I say it, foolish.

There's got to be a middle ground somewhere.  There's room enough in this movement for the obnoxious and the soft-spoken, for the belligerent and the peaceful, for the offensive and the accomodating.  Yet even the most obnoxious shouldn't look at a man's apology as a reason to condemn him.  Give him a bloody chance to grow from this experience and realize that being an atheist doesn't make us immoral, indecent, or evil.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Here we go again.

A friend on facebook posted a link to a new study showing just how much everyone hates us atheists, arguing that this hatred stems mostly from distrust.  I wouldn't have felt the need to comment on this originally; it's a sad but true fact that people distrust atheists, that we're one of the most hated groups in the world, yadda yadda yadda.  Then I saw this part of the study:

 this description — of an individual who commits insurance fraud and steals money when the chances of detection are minimal — was only seen as representative of atheists and rapists, and people did not significantly differentiate atheists from rapists.
Read the link presented by the Friendly Atheist to see the whole scenario, but I promise you it doesn't paint a good picture.  It doesn't say "oh, all people think atheists are awful," but it does say when people make logical fallacies of inference, they view us as just as awful, immoral, and corrupt as a rapist.

This is unacceptable.

Why is it that we live in a world where belief in an unproven and to some degree unprovable phenomenon is the mark of good morality?  Why are we constantly viewed as cesspools of greed and villainy, time and time again?  I've been spared the bulk of this treatment on most cases.  I'm fortunate enough to be surrounded by friends and people who either are also atheists or, at the very least, are areligious.  Yet even still it happens.  I've been told before that my atheism is just a phase, and I made my own mother ask her friends if she was a failure when I "came out of the atheist closet."  She came to respect my decision over time, and I respect her for that, but then there are other, more recent examples.

When my girlfriend and I "went public" with our relationship, linking our profiles on facebook, one of her coworkers came to her and said, "Oh my god, Erin, did you know that your boyfriend is an atheist?"  It's funny, but also more than a little sad.

Ok, I'll admit, this is probably coming across as a little more angry than it ought, but I hate this.  Still, The Friendly Atheist offers good advice, advice to enact change.

Let’s say all of this is accurate. How do we counteract the negative perceptions about us?
Two ways.
First, we have to continue doing community service — serving at food banks, donating to charity, giving blood, etc. Show people that we can be good without god.
Second, we have to let people we trust know that we’re atheists. People think poorly of atheists because they don’t think they know any. It’s a shock to their system when they find out someone close to them doesn’t believe in a god… so shock them! Let them know that someone they already trust is an atheist.
Those two things would do more to reverse the results the researchers found in these studies than anything else I can think of.
So yes.  Friends, I am an atheist.  And yes, we do good deeds not because people are watching, but because it is fundamentally the right thing to do.  The reward is in the success and goodwill of our entire species, because I do have faith.  I have faith in the heart of humanity, in our dedication to others, and I have faith that most people do good deeds not because they are afraid of eternal punishment or hope that they'll "get their reward in heaven," but because it's the right way to act.

And if you think that fear of hell will persuade anyone any more than fear of prison will, I've got a plot of land on the moon I'd like to sell you.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Virus and the Sanctity of Life

This paper, below, was a project for my Virology class.  I really wanted to go into more detail, but she specifically asked for around one page and I found, if I tried to talk about any other aspect of this debate, that I ran well over that limit.  So am I overall happy with the paper?  Well, no, not really.  Do I think it's reasonable for being limited to a page?  You bet'cha.  Let me know what you think!

Oh, the prompt was simply, "Are Viruses Alive?"  We had to take a side, though I'd like to place them pretty firmly in the "kinda sorta" category.
                Characterizing viruses as alive or nonliving presents a very real challenge in modern biology; one must, before taking a stance, come with a functional definition of life that can clearly delineate living from the near-living.  This presents a problem, as we don’t really have a definition that accomplishes this.  We know to some extent how life functions, but have difficulty coming up with a clear, concise definition that excludes all things dead yet includes all living things.  The task would be easy if not for the strong societal connotation that “alive” bears.  You can see it permeated throughout our culture.  The 1980s movie Short Circuit focused heavily on this idea, featuring a robot that had argued for his own sentience with such clever catchphrases as “Number Five is alive!”  Humans are overly concerned with the notion of “living” when we actually tend to mean “sentient” or “self-aware.”  Rare is the person who cares if we kill a colony of bacteria, but human life or, to some, animal life bears greater significance.  This concern for the existence of sentient, feeling organisms seems to charge “life” and its variants with a connotation that can impede our efforts to define it. 
                We commonly consider an organism “alive” if it has a metabolism, responds chemically to its environment, maintains a separation from itself and its environment, and is capable of reproduction.  This definition carries with it many problems, as no single characteristic is exclusive to life, and some may, in fact, exclude forms of life.   A man who is infertile is not capable of reproducing more copies of himself (save at a cellular level), but is still considered alive.  A house has clear boundaries, but is quite dead.  A car has a form of metabolism, and nearly everything can respond chemically to their environment in some fashion or another.   A better definition of life must be more specific to have any relevance to biology.
 We know a few things about what we define as life.  All clearly categorized living things have a genome, a code of instructions that can be replicated by the organism.  This genome also undergoes a process to create proteins based on that genome (traditionally transcription followed by translation), which can be used for a variety of purposes.  These features function elegantly, but their function seems little more than that of a machine.  The genome is the programming code, the proteins created by that code are the gears (enzymes and cell signaling proteins), and while capable of some self-repair there comes a point when the machine is no longer capable of functioning.  In machines we might call it simply “irreparably damaged” or “junk.”  In life we call it “dead.”  A “living” machine must be organic and utilize a genome, certainly, but that makes it a category of machinery, not a classification separate from it.  Viruses are merely simpler organic machines.  They are capable of a set of processes defined by their genomic code, and have a point where they can no longer function.   By this presented argument, viruses are alive.  A bacterial spore has little to no function, but is still considered alive since it can be viable years after encysting.  If we accept these simple spores as alive, then a virus, which may like smallpox remain dormant for years and still be virulent, should be considered alive.  A prion, carrying no genetic code but being a peculiar infective result of that code, would not be considered alive.   It is a rogue cog in the machinery of life, causing significant damage yet holding no heritable, reproducible advantage or capability.