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Wednesday, 29 October 2008


Imagination suffers, being free.
The real world gets more curious with time.
So play with method. Study how you see,
and by a prism
unweave the rainbow

and do not fear to write in red on lime,
but if the colour scatters carelessly
then look for method, metre, even rhyme,
and by a prison
shape a poem.

Yes, this is rainbow--poem, take 2.

[Edit: I've edited the title, because, staring at it after it was up, I realised that my original title of 'Humanism' mostly just fogged things up by linking it to a whole slew of ideas that were only partially related. Atheism has a much sharper denotation.

I don't know what it is about this poem that makes me so impulsive in posting it.]

Saturday, 25 October 2008

If you tag people, people tag back . . .

. . . which is why I'm now doing this atheist meme, courtesy of Susan over at Intrinsically Knotted.

Can you remember the day that you officially became an atheist?

Nope! If I'd wanted to stop being an atheist, that would have required an official change.

Do you remember the day you officially became an agnostic?

I remember being quite taken by the notion of agnosticism when I was eleven years old or so. I knew the term referred to God-belief but frankly, I was going through an ultra-skeptical phase and I wanted to be agnostic about the existence of everything besides myself. You see, my mother explained to me about Descartes when I was ten, and whilst Descartes' argument about the existence of God never seemed very sensible to me, I did go through a stage where the fact that it was possible to doubt almost everything was just fascinating.

How about the last time you spoke or prayed to God with actual thought that someone was listening?

I've never prayed with the belief that someone was listening. On the other hand, eight years old is the earliest time that I can remember others' belief in God bothering me, and one of the things that bothered me was the whole "if you don't believe you'll go to hell" line. I'm very sensitive to disapproval from authority, and even an imaginary authority who disapproved of me badly enough to condemn me to the worst punishment anyone could dream up was a really painful thought. So around that time I prayed quite a lot of "Dear God, if you exist, I'm really sorry I don't believe in you but I care about what's actually true and I'm honestly not doing this out of malice or anything . . ."

The last time I prayed in that sense was three years ago when I was twenty. That story is here and I don't really want to go over it again.

Did anger towards God or religion help cause you to be an atheist or agnostic?

Well, no, because I've pretty much always been one! Critical thinking, a love of the truth, and the simple fact that my parents didn't believe were the major factors, not necessarily in that order.

Getting angry with God for being so unreasonable as to dole out infinite punishments for finite crimes never helped me much in the whole internal "Gosh, there's an imaginary authority who really, really disapproves of me" debate, either. That debate stopped once I had been through the mill on that issue -- once I knew that I had been in a situation where I had a strong reason for wanting to believe. It was much less credible after that for me to worry that I was just disbelieving because I didn't want to change my worldview.

Here is a good one: Were you agnostic towards ghosts, even after you became an atheist?

I read a book about skeptics when I was quite young. I thought skeptics were awesome, running around finding the truth behind the lies. The notion that there were people for whom 'skeptic' was a doubtful classification implying an unwillingness to believe the truth never occurred to me. Mind you, the first person I heard saying 'skeptic' in a tone of voice that implied that it was something bad was 'psychic' Sylvia Brown, and she's got a mercenary reason to make that implication!

I never believed in ghosts.

Do you want to be wrong?

Very much not.

Okay, this time I tag John Evo, Maria, and Eshu. If you feel like doing a meme, go ahead and pick this one up.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Meme: Five ways blogging changed my life.

This meme was begun by L. L. Barkat. The rules are as follows:

1. Write about 5 specific ways blogging has affected you, either positively or negatively.
2. link back to the person who tagged you
3. link back to this parent post (LL says she's "not so much interested in generating links, but rather in tracking the meme so I can perhaps do a summary post later on that looks at patterns and interesting discoveries.")
4. tag a few friends or five, or none at all
5. post these rules— or just have fun breaking them

LL didn't originally tag me for this meme, but she asked me to take part after remarking in a comment on this blog that she "created the report after reading a truckload of blogs and today realized the responding group was rather homogenous (read Christian)." Broadening the sample? I approve! Here goes, then.

I don't know that blogging has actually changed my life dramatically. Blogging has reflected my life. Important parts of my development have drawn on blogging to help them along. But, at least with some of them, if I didn't have a blog, I'd have drawn on other things. Here, then, are a few small ways that blogging has changed me:

1. I have -- or at least had -- an alter ego. 'Lynet' was created to play with ideas that I didn't yet wish to include, or didn't yet feel capable of including, in my usual self. Where I was still playing by the 'rules' as laid down by my childhood, Lynet was able to go out and play at being more separate from her parents, more (I think) rambling and indeed unsure of her opinions, and less afraid that having a sexuality would automatically degrade her. Lynet was nice. I liked her. She's still here, it's just that around the time I wrote Penelope we sort of merged.

2. I have a small audience for my poetry. I think I would have written poetry in any case, and my foray into rhyme and metre and other strict forms was begun before I started blogging, but having an audience certainly does change the way I write. Thinking about whether I would post it changes my standard for whether a poem (or a draft of it) can be said to be 'finished'.

3. Even before I came to America, I knew a heck of a lot more about American politics than any outsider has reason to know! Actually that's not quite true. America affects all of us, so it's not like the information isn't interesting. Still, the blogosphere is skewed towards America, and my political knowledge has been skewed accordingly.

4. I've got a perpetual source of reading material. This also means I've got a perpetual source of procrastinatory material, of course. For example, I'm writing this late at night when I should be in bed and I have an assignment due tomorrow :-).

5. I've come to feel like my atheism is worthy of at least the same respect and courtesy that I would afford to a religion. I had sort of internalised the idea that atheists ought to keep their heads down for fear of offending people. These days, I still wouldn't go out to offend, but I find that simple honesty about my beliefs ought not to be offensive in the first place. That's a deep change with just a few subtle effects. For example, I wouldn't feel the need to be apologetic about not joining in when people say grace. And yes, Ebon Musings deserves most of the credit.

I tag, with no obligation:

C. L. Hanson
Ordinary Girl
The Chaplain

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Attack Highlights the Best of Atheist Blogging

Now is not a good time to be a Republican politician. Way back in August, Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole found that defending her seat against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan might not be as easy as she thought. One of her ways of fighting back was to demonise Hagan for meeting with atheists and taking donations from them. The press release from her campaign said:

On September 15th, Kay Hagan is heading to Boston, Massachusetts to attend a fundraiser for her Senate campaign. What may surprise mainstream North Carolinians is that the fundraiser will be in the home of leading anti religion activists Wendy Kaminer and her lawyer husband Woody Kaplan -- who is an advisor to the "Godless Americans Political Action Committee."

. . .

"Kay Hagan is trying to run a campaign in North Carolina that casts her as a moderate but the money that's paying for it is coming from the left-wing fringe of political thought," said Dole Campaign Communications Director Dan McLagan. "You can tell a lot about a person by their friends and these are friends most North Carolinians would not be comfortable having over for dinner."

Got that? Atheists are people "most North Carolinians would not be comfortable having over for dinner." Note also that the Dole campaign's description of the Kaminers' activities suggests to me that the Kaminers are activists for church-state separation and for the civil rights of atheists rather than "anti religion activists" as labeled by the Dole campaign.

At the time, atheists in the blogosphere seized the opportunity to show support for the acceptability of atheist voices in the political process by donating to Hagan's campaign (see, for example, here) and writing to Elizabeth Dole to explain why.

For a variety of reasons, I'm sure, Hagan has now shifted ahead of Dole in the polls. The Dole campaign is fighting back -- and they haven't given up on the atheist connection! A recent mailout from the Dole Campaign, displayed on the blog of an understandably angry North Carolinian atheist blogger, attacks Hagan yet again for daring to accept support from atheists. The mailout includes two quotes from the atheist blogosphere. Fairly innocuous quotes, at that. One is from a comment on Friendly Atheist, and reads:

I don’t know that I’ve ever been to North Carolina besides driving through, but I just donated [to Hagan's campaign].

The other is from a post on Daylight Atheism:

Kay Hagan ought to be rewarded for inviting nonbelievers onto her platform . . .

I'm startled that the Dole campaign thinks this is a good move. Only voters with a truly overt prejudice against atheists are likely to find a website name like "" threatening.

Whether or not Dole has helped her own campaign, she has certainly helped the atheist movement! She's promoting the atheist blogosphere at its best. Any North Carolinian who follows the attribution of those quotes will be led, not to some scary den of atheist supremacy, but to the open-minded affability of Friendly Atheist and the even-tempered eloquence of Daylight Atheism. American atheists couldn't choose a better pair of blogs to represent their cause.

[By the way, here are the respective reactions to this news on Daylight Atheism and Friendly Atheist].

Thursday, 2 October 2008

This wasn't what I wanted

I was worried by Paulson's initial bailout plan. Only three pages? No oversight? $700 billion?

Worse, Paulson didn't seem sure he knew what to do with the money. When Lehman Brothers went under and things suddenly got dramatic, well, quite frankly, it looked like nobody had any idea what to do (Certainly not John McCain or Barack Obama, and, unsurprisingly, not the current President either). It was as if Paulson had stepped into the vacuum and said, well, since we're not sure what to do about it, how about we throw lots of money at it and hope it works?

So I hoped that additions would be made to the plan. I was glad there was questioning and opposition. I hoped somebody would come up with some more specific suggestions!

What I was not hoping for was this. Now, I'm glad that the bill that passed the Senate includes more oversight. I approve of giving the money in installments. But I'm deeply disappointed that the critical eye of many Senate members, even at a time like this, seems to be mostly on the lookout for irrelevant but costly concessions.

I'm not even sure I approve of the suggestion that we help out "Main Street" by bailing out the small people who owe on their mortgages as well as the big companies. Not if it costs more money. I don't want to see lots of random spending. I don't necessarily want that spending to be based on who is more deserving. I want to see 'bailout' money used as wisely as possible. If this article is to be believed, the approach currently outlined is well short of shrewd.

There's a real, scary problem here that needs solving. Slacktivist points out this incredibly informative piece from NPR and This American Life detailing the problems faced by small businesses and areas of the market which had nothing to do with sub-prime mortgages. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with those areas of the economy, it's just that they need day-to-day credit to survive. They pay off that credit, and quickly. We're not looking at dodgy loans here. But the whole credit market is in danger of freezing because loans that looked secure before -- mixed packages of mortgages -- have been shown to be stupidly risky, so nobody really feels like lending money to anyone right now.

I am not an economist (IANAE). Still, here's a thought. What if, instead of trying to bail out the purveyors and packagers of dodgy mortgages and hoping that this will make everyone forget what happened, the government were to focus on finding a way to secure the rest of the market? Protect the innocent, so to speak. IANAE, and I've got no clear idea of what we could do with any amount of money, but what could we do with $700 billion focused directly at the problem of availability of credit in general? For example, could we find a direct way to make the commercial paper market more secure? After all, I get the impression (with many repetitions of IANAE) that it's not that insecure to begin with, it just feels that way. I would have thought propping up a system that is still mostly sound but with a lot of uncertainty might be easier than mopping up a system that is fundamentally unsound. What if the government proposed temporary insurance on certain kinds of lending that probably won't fail, just for a few months until the crisis eases?

IANAE. Is bailing out banks and investors the only way to make credit available out there, or is there another way?