Thursday, November 3, 2011

Trivial Atheism

In my online arguments, the question often comes up - why are you atheists so petty? Why do you seem so obsessed about trivialities, like an invocation prayer before a city council meeting, or a Ten Commandments poster in a public school? Why, in God's name, do you want to yank "Under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" off the money?

The obvious answer is, of course, "If it is so trivial, why do YOU care?" But that really sidesteps the point, so let's look a little closer at it. Those two phrases, in particular - are they really so trivial?

From the beginning, they were intended as attacks upon atheists. Both phrases have a long history of people pushing for them – but those efforts got nowhere for decades. It wasn’t until 1954 when “Under God” was added to the Pledge, and 1956 that “In God We Trust” was approved as the official national motto. By no coincidence, those actions were passed during the McCarthy Era, as a direct “in your face” attack to the “Godless Communists.” We wanted to distinguish ourselves from the communists that were supposedly hiding behind every bush, so we declared – officially – that to be American meant believing in God. In doing so, we silently declared the obvious corollary – that atheism itself, even if not directly connected to communism, is un-American.

And how are these phrases used today? Well, for starters, hardly anyone says the Pledge itself. Scouts, of course, and I believe some – but not all – public schools still recite it to start the day. And of course, no one ever reads their money, reverently admiring the motto printed upon it. But those two phrases are still in everyday use. Look at the envelopes you get in the mail. I see a lot in my job – a small but noticeable percentage have either “In God We Trust” or (more often) “One Nation Under God” stamped or printed on them. Not “Jesus Loves You” or any other religious message – those two specifically. Look at bumper stickers while you’re on the road. You’ll see a lot of fish placards, church ads, and other religious slogans and greetings – but you’ll also frequently see those two phrases repeated over and over. For bonus points…when you see those two officially endorsed slogans, check to see if one of those other expressions of Christian faith are affixed alongside. More often than not, you can tell exactly which god they trust and are under.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to prevent these private expressions of faith. People can put whatever they want on their envelopes, car bumpers, yard signs, and billboards. But these particular expressions seem disproportionately popular. It appears to me that people want not merely to express their religious beliefs – they want to show that their government endorses those beliefs. It isn’t the private expression I oppose – it is the government endorsement.

While you’re checking bumpers, check the license plates. At least five states currently offer plate designs that include one of those two phrases. Indiana, in fact, tried to offer their version at no extra cost to better encourage people to display their faith on an official government-issued placard. Georgia offers a sticker to be added to the plate at a nominal fee of $1 – probably not enough to cover printing and administrative costs – to be affixed covering the county name on the plates – thus eliminating whatever benefit those county names provide that caused them to be added in the first place. In public schools, where other direct expressions of Christianity have been forbidden as government, those two phrases are often posted as substitutes. In case after case, those two phrases are used to slip religious expression – usually Christian expression – into government settings where it does not belong.

Check out this editorial by the mayor of Tifton, Georgia. Note how he uses “In God We Trust” to support his call to explicitly endorse Christianity. The Supreme Court says that those two phrases are mere “ceremonial deism” with no direct link to any specific faith. Does it look like Mayor Cater agrees with that?

Look at public school teacher Bradley Johnson. He posted huge banners displaying those phrases and others to “celebrate the religious heritage of America” – in his public school math classroom. Note that he claims that forcing him to remove the banners is discriminating against Christians – not deists, not believers in general, but Christians. Does he think those phrases are non-sectarian?

Look over the Congressional Record to see the debate on the recent House Resolution to reaffirm “In God We Trust” as the national motto. In example after example, the various representatives cite Christian quotes of how important God is to our heritage. Rep. Harper (R-MS) cited John 15:13. Rep. Franks (R-AZ) claimed “And I would submit to you…if man is God, then an atheist state is as brutal as the thesis that it rests upon and there is no longer any reason for us to gather here in this place. We should just let anarchy prevail because, after all, we are just worm food.” Rep. Aderholt (R-AL) hinted that while knew they could not legislate a Christian nation into being…that’s really what they intended. Rep. Pence (R-IN) thanked Rep. Forbes for introducing the resolution and his “defense of America’s Christian heritage.”

It is possible, from an objective and disconnected point of view, to interpret these two phrases as trivial, non-sectarian, ceremonial deism. But in the real world, that is not how they are used. In reality, they are used over and over again as expressions of specifically Christian faith, as proof of government endorsement of that faith – and as attacks against atheism and atheists. If you see our opposition as “petty” – then you prove only that you are not one of those being called un-American every time the phrases are used.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Just Making a Comparison...

A friend of a friend posted this picture a few days ago -
The picture itself is fairly offensive - showing our current sitting President, elected by a majority of the voters, alongside a list of some of the worst dictators of the last century. In fact, the poster got called out on that, but defended herself with the claim that this was only showing leaders in the two categories. It wasn't meant to imply that Obama himself is a murderous just happens that his opinions and policies regarding personal weapons place him in the same group as all those horrible people.

Yeah, right. Just a coincidence. Okay, let's look at this a bit.

First, of course, is the obvious - these names and faces were not chosen at random. If we're looking at world leaders associated with gun control...where's Tony Blair, who got the 1997 Firearms Act passed in the UK? Ronald Reagan, who endorsed the Brady Act? Angela Merkel, who signed a measure in Germany that even bans Tasers? I'm guessing that they weren't considered scary enough - especially Reagan. Including him on the list would have confused the target audience severely, I suspect. It is fairly obvious that this list was designed to provide a group of absolute villains specifically for the purpose of ranking Obama alongside them. Showing that some reasonable people support certain gun control measures would have been counter-productive to this Orwellian hatefest.

Second, to be a fair comparison, Obama's policies have to actually qualify him as a leader looking to strip citizens of their right to own guns. Does he have that sort of record? I haven't seen much on that from him. Back in June, he apparently put out some executive orders that would result in computerizing background checks, increased enforcement of existing laws, and improving interstate cooperation. None of which sounds quite like prying guns out of peoples' hands - and I haven't even found confirmation that the orders were issued. Even the NRA says he hasn't done anything on the issue - though of course that only means it's a conspiracy to do more later. But before you go lumping our President in with a bunch of dictators...shouldn't you be able to point to something he's actually done?

Third, the others in the group really ought to belong there, too. Some of them, sure. Stalin, yep. He instituted gun control in the Soviet Union. Amin, Castro? Couldn't find anything on them. Though Uganda seems to me to have been a failed state under his rule, so I wonder just how effective any gun laws really were...and I suspect that it isn't all that relevant in Cuba, where most of the populace can't afford food, let alone a handgun. But Lenin? Gun control in the Soviet Union appears to have started under Stalin, not Lenin. And Hitler? It turns out the 1938 German Weapons Act completely DEregulated long guns and ammunition, as well as liberalizing the rules on licensing. (In fairness, it also made it illegal for Jews to own any guns at all - but considering all the other antisemitic legislation of the time, it hardly seems fair to characterize that as gun control.)

So tell me again - is this really a picture showing the category that Obama's actions have placed him in, alongside all these historical villains? Or is this yet another attempt to demonize the President with lies, half-truths, and innuendo?

Of course, if you wanted to do it right, you could leave the picture exactly the same, and merely change the captions - the pictures in the bottom row are all leaders who believed that they had the right to murder their own citizens purely on their own word. But the people who put out this sort of thing seem to be just fine with that.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Making A String of Plug-in Jack-O-Lanterns

My family likes jack-o-lanterns. Been too busy to make new ones lately, but the last several we did were the artificial foam rubber sort, which means we get to reuse them every year. But with ten of them on the porch, getting them lit every night got to be a nuisance - not to mention costing us a fortune in batteries every October. What I needed, I decided, was a way to light them up that I could plug into a wall outlet.

There were a few restrictions, though. Those fake pumpkins are melty and flammable, so it had to be a cool light. And I really wanted to mimic the flickering light of a candle, which meant no colored compact fluorescents. Last Christmas, though, I decided that LED Christmas lights would be just the thing, and this year, I finally got it done.

First, though, please note that I'm not an electrician. I can't guarantee that I did any of this right, that it won't set your pumpkins on fire, fry your wiring, or destroy your house. It's working for me so far - but the month is young. Try this at your own risk. Here's what I did.

1. Figure out how many lights you need. Like I said, I have ten to light, and the light strings that looked like my best choice came 60 to a string. Just guessing, I thought six would be too few, but 12 would be enough - so I bought two strings. As it happened, that seemed to work pretty well - somewhere in the 10-15 bracket is probably good.

2. Select your light strings. Critical to my plan was a multi-function set - I needed lights that would flicker or shift. It is also important to decide what colors you want. Obviously, red, yellow, and orange are best for imitating candles. All I could find, though, were white and multi-color sets, so I grabbed two multi-color strings. I knew there wouldn't be enough warm colors, so I picked up a third regular string (no special functions) for the spare bulbs.

This was my first surprise - same brand, bought at the same place, but the bulbs from the spare string wouldn't fit the multi-function string. Very annoying, especially since the multi-function sets turned out to be only three colors - red, green, and blue - which meant I was stuck with two-thirds the wrong colors. I strongly suggest you buy a completely identical set for your spares...and maybe open the box to see exactly what you're getting before you make your selection.

3. Get your extras - wire, connectors, electrical tape, and a wire stripper if you don't already have one. How much wire you need depends on how far apart your pumpkins are, and how many wires your light string have - remember you'll need to splice each wire separately. Since my multi-function sets had four wires, that meant even my reasonably small porch took four 25-foot spools. I discovered that the light strings use 18-gauge wire, but the smallest spools I could find were 16-gauge - seems to work, though.

4. Re-arrange your bulbs. Mentally divide your string into whatever number of lights you decided to use - mark them with bread ties, or clothespins, or whatever. If any of your pumpkins can use your blue and green bulbs, great - swap 'em out to get the extra reds and yellows for the others. Otherwise, you'll just need to swap bulbs from your spare strings.

This was my second surprise - LED bulbs are NOT reversible. If you put it in the wrong way, it may be dim or not light up at all, and may also dim the entire rest of the string. So as you're swapping bulbs, check it with each swap, and if one doesn't light, rotate it 180° and try it again. I found it easier to just leave the string plugged in while I was switching them out - which is probably not the right thing to do, but it worked for me.

I also discovered that you can swap LED bulbs in the bases, just like the old-style lights, when the bases from different strings don't fit. It turns out that most of the "bulb" is just a plastic cap, though, and the caps from different bulbs probably won't fit. For this purpose, it doesn't really matter - the bulbs won't show, anyway. But it's something to keep in mind for the ones on your Christmas tree.

Once you have all the lights set the way you want, it's time to start rewiring. Just snip each wire between the sets you've arranged, and splice in a length of wire to extend the set. I strongly suggest you do one wire at a time to make sure you don't get any of them confused. Accidentally splicing the wrong wires together would probably be a bad thing. I used wirenuts to do the splicing - just strip off a little insulation from both wires, twist them together, and twist on the wirenut. I then wrapped electrical tape around it all - partly to help hold it secure, but mostly to try to water-proof the connections a bit.

Repeat that for each wire...then again for each group of lights. Just like when you were swapping bulbs - plug the lights in and check your work frequently. (Obviously, this is NOT a good time to leave them plugged in while you work.) It would be very frustrating to get one bad connection and have to recheck or resplice half a dozen to find the bad one.

Eventually, you'll get all the wires done. It should look something like this:
And the hard part is done.

Now all you have to do is stick the lights in the pumpkins. Just lay them out, cut holes in the back of the pumpkins, and stuff the lights in.

Get them pushed down into the bottom of the pumpkin as best you can. Ideally, the bulbs won't show - the light will still glow just fine. (By the way, those are baggies full of aquarium rocks - fake pumpkins are very light, and tend to blow away if you don't weight them down. This lighting method has the added bonus of hooking them together. I'm hoping it will help hold them in place.)

Pick your light setting - something that will flicker and shift. Having several lights in there, preferably of slightly different colors, should give a nice candlelight effect. Or maybe you prefer a flashing set, or slow color change - whatever you like. Plug the string into a timer or dawn-to-dusk switch, and you should now be able to leave the whole thing alone for the rest of the month, and still have a nice display every night.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Magical Thinking

Stage magic is very cool. For me, though, it gets even more interesting when I find out how the tricks are done. I'm not the only one - Penn & Teller, among others, frequently include the secrets behind (some of) their tricks right in the act, which tells me that a lot of other people like knowing about the reality behind the magic.

But the secrets are only cool when the trick works. Learning how to force a card is just not that interesting when the person teaching you can't shuffle without sending cards flying around the room. And finding out the trick of sawing a woman in half is much less impressive when it involves burying the assistant later - in two coffins. There has to be something real to go with the explanation.

Scientific theories are much the same, doubled and redoubled. A good theory not only tells us how and why something happens in nature, it lets us use that knowledge to make predictions, develop technology, and make our lives better. In science, the term "theory" is the highest accolade a concept can achieve, and the value we gain from them is hard to overestimate.

But the basis for any scientific theory is careful observations. You have to know what is happening before you can even try to explain why and how. A detailed theory of how sheep fly could lead to new concepts in aerodynamics, improved aircraft, maybe even a step towards anti-gravity - except for the indisputable fact that sheep don't fly so much as they plummet. Once again, there has to be something real to go with the explanation.

For the last few decades, conservatives have been championing an economic "theory" - in essence, that low taxes improve the economy, raise tax revenues, and create jobs. It's an attractive idea, fairly simple, and easy to see how it should work. After all, the people who own businesses are the ones who create the jobs and fund the paychecks - so if they have more money, they can do more of that. Makes perfect sense. There's only one problem - it doesn't appear to work. Ever. I can't find any evidence that lowering taxes provides those benefits - in fact, what little evidence I've seen seems to point the other way. It appears to me that the conservatives have ignored step one in creating their theory - observing what actually happens.

I mean, let's look at our current situation.
  • The top tax rates for both corporate and personal income are nearly the lowest they've been since World War II, and they've both been that way for several years - and there are no jobs.
  • Exxon-Mobil set new records for annual earnings in four of their last six years, and are on track to beat their second-best this year - and there are no jobs.
  • A company that makes expensive tech-toys for wealthy people now has more cash on hand than the U.S. government - and there are no jobs.
  • The top 1% of the nation's wealthy hold about one third of the total wealth. The top 10% hold two thirds. The gap between rich and poor hasn't been this bad since just before the Great Depression - and there are still no damn jobs.
Please, conservatives, stop telling us how and why keeping low taxes for the rich is supposed to benefit all of us. I've heard it enough that I can sing along. Instead, show us that it actually works - show us something real to go with the explanation. Or shut up and get out of the way.