Friday, May 21, 2010

Setting it Straight, One More Time... ad infinitum

In yet another illustration of how the most literate and studied among us have missed the point, this morning's story by an L.A. Times reporter on the vandalism of an "Adopt A Highway" sign, sponsored by a local group of atheists, proves that the idiocy lives on.

"Atheism, broken down, means no theology. Atheists simply believe there is no God, or no evidence to support the existence of God."

To this, I wrote him this clarification:

"I wonder how much you bothered to research what atheism actually is before you wrote this piece. Atheism is the rejection of the claim of a positive belief that god(s) exist, not the assertion that no god(s) exist. It's an important distinction, the default position is a response to a claim, not a claim in and of itself, and I would hope that the press (especially the print press) would work a little harder to get it right."

To which he responded:

"Thanks for the words, Casey. For the record, my exact words were: “Atheists simply believe there is no God, or no evidence to support the existence of God.” Isn’t “rejection of the claim” similar to what I wrote, a belief (claim) there is no God? For example, I claim there was a man called Jesus; that is my belief.

Atheists claim there is no God. That is their belief."

/facepalm... and then finally:

"I still think you're not getting it. Atheists don't claim there is no God, they reject the claim of a positive belief in the existence of god(s).

Atheism is a lack of belief, not a belief. Not being a Libertarian is not a belief either. Or as we atheists jokingly analogize "bald is not a hair color."

You may be confusing the position of a "strong atheist" (one who asserts an explicit belief that there are no gods) with the position of "atheism." It would be bad precedent to set by misrepresenting the atheist position because you simply don't have a grasp of the distinction between a claim, a rejection of a claim, and a belief.

And if you aren't inclined to trust the word of "some guy from the internet," put in a phone call to someone in the philosophy department at UCLA. I'm sure they'll set you straight."

Was I too heavy-handed there? Too snarkey? We report, you decide.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mike Gillis' Defense of "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day"

I am posting this for my friend Mike Gillis, Board Member of Seattle Atheists. Today is "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," an idea conceived by Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris who jokingly floated the idea in reaction to South Park's debacle with portraying Mohammed in an episode of the animated series. While there is nearly universal agreement among atheists that the sort of violence and intimidation visited upon Dutch cartoonists and British novelists for exercising free speech is reprehensible, "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" might not be the best approach to express this opposition. Some of the representations it has spawned are silly, harmless or irreverent; others are unnecessarily crass, scatological or grotesque. Norris has since disavowed the movement resulting from her idea and repudiated the "vitriol" that came from it. Nevertheless, it seems an apt discussion to continue. Mike's passionate defense of participating in this exercise of absurdist internet activism really woke me up this morning. I hope you can pass it along:

I support "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" Why? Because I support free speech. Even speech I don't like. Especially speech I don't like.

Just the same way I'd support "Everybody eat a hamburger Day" if it were Hindus using threats of violence against people who ate beef. Just the same way I'd support an "Everybody draw Jesus Day" if Christians were acting like this.

In a free society, free speech means having the right to say exactly what someone doesn't want to hear. If you don't like what someone has to say, you need to answer with your own free speech. Violence and the threat of it is not free speech. It is the admission that you have a losing argument in favor of your position. Nothing justifies violence to chill free speech, not one having their religious sensibilities offended. Nothing.

If some religious person drew an offensive cartoon or wrote an offensive Op-Ed about atheists, it would be insane and morally reprehensible for me to kill the person who wrote or drew it. It would be wrong for me to cut off their head, shoot them eight times and stab them through the heart. It would be wrong for me to set embassies on fire and beat people up. It would be wrong for me to chant for their deaths and call upon other atheists to kill them for being offensive. It would be wrong for me to heavily imply a death threat to the writer or cartoonist and then post pictures of the above beheaded murder victim on my website. It would be wrong for me to break into the writer or cartoonist's house with an axe and try to kill them in front of their grandchild. Ever. No matter how much I was offended. No matter how bad the cartoons or op-ed was.

And it would be insane for anyone on the outside of this -- especially liberal-minded people who claim to support the right to free speech -- to be more offended by the cartoons than by my threats of violence, or the actual execution of said violence. It would be insane for well-meaning liberal folks to take the side of militant fundamentalists' violence enforcement of their blasphemy laws against people who aren't even a part of their religion. Yet, this is exactly what we've done with Islam.

We wouldn't tolerate this violence or the threats if the Catholics or Mormons or Scientologists were doing it in response to having their religion mocked in a cartoon. In fact, they all have been. Part of living in our society means that your culture WILL have to integrate into a few ways. We want your language, your sense of humor, your food, your clothing, your historical narrative and your music. We want all of the things that other immigrant groups have brought to add to and enrich American and Western culture.

But there are some basic principles we WON'T compromise on. Freedom of speech and expression being the big one. The proper answer to speech you don't like is more speech. Not violence. Not because you're offended. I'm offended to the core by what various religious people say all the time. That doesn't give me the right to use law or violence to silence them. It burdens me with the responsibility of responding with words, not fists, blades, bullets or threats.

Welcome to the Western world. You will occasionally be offended by what you hear people say here. And things you say will inevitably offend someone else. That's the price of admission. We're not allowed to kill or threaten people because we don't like what they say. Period.

We don't let Pat Robertson do it. And we won't let you.

And to my well-meaning liberal friends that seem to believe that blasphemy is a worse crime than murder, battery, arson or incitation of violence. Ask yourself if you'd feel the same way if the Pope had called upon Catholics to kill cartoonists for depicting Jesus in an offensive way.

I support "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" not to be pointlessly provocative or to single anyone out for being mocked. In fact, I believe the very opposite. Islam, like every other religion, isn't immune to mockery or criticism. And no one should try to make themselves immune through death threats.

I'm participating because the point needs to be made that religious sensibilities don't give someone license to use violence or the threat of it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Epistemology: A Critical Approach

The lecture I delivered to the Seattle Atheists organization is now online in video form. The title is "Epistemology: A Critical Approach."

Topics covered are a basic introduction to epistemology, the philosophical 'theory of knowledge', basic history and biography of prominent epistemologists (Plato, Augustine, Kant, Locke.... to name a few), belief as a component of knowledge, and our fight against the dual enemies of skepticism and solipsism.

Stay tuned until the end wherein I deftly deflect the audience's attempts to make me appear like an amateur.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Bane of My Existence

Only because it fits no where else, I can't help holding this in any longer: sports video games of the past have NEGATIVE VALUE!

You may consider my usage of all caps in that last sentence a bit extreme when we're speaking of such a trivial concept, but as my daylight alter-ego, Vintage Console Game Scavenger™, I can't help but broadcast this increasingly justified revelation. Of the millions of discarded second-hand console games, a growing number ending up in thrift stores, used game stores, and online auctions, reveal metric shit-tonnes of languishing sports titles. I can only speculate that this is a result of millions of now grown sports-loving, junior-varsity-worshipping, witless-jock-kids-turned-brainless-media-consumers having lost track of their old consoles, and being chucked out or donated to Goodwill by their Moms (along with their old Bo Jackson "Double Trouble" posters and Upper Deck Baseball binders). It's the detritus of an American childhood, reduced to the status another anonymous piece of junk sullying the nation's basements, attics and garages.

There seems a perfectly rational reason why I see so many of these unwanted little bastards on my endless quest to attain classic console perfection, why these games go largely unsold, and eventually taken down, thrown away (and possibly buried under several tons of concrete for future wasteland scavengers to unearth and gaze quizzically at these Enfant terribles from the gaming era). The obvious answer is: no one wants them!

They're like the Freddie Prinze Jr. of the video gaming pantheon; they are distant memories of a by-gone era now looked back upon with ridicule and shame. Now, while saavy cartridge hunters such as myself troll around the back alleys and opium dens of junk stores looking for a forgotten gem (and looking to pay less than 2 dollars for it), you will find that after a grip of console game loot has dropped, the more recognizable goes first (think Super Mario Bros. 3, Sonic, Chrono Trigger, etc...), then the obscure (anything by Koei, or with an extremely limited run) and then the absurdly common (Super Mario/Duck Hunt, Top Gun, etc...) and all else are sports. Most shocking about this phenomenon is that it spans all console eras. NFL Madden '08 for PS2 will sit side-by-side with Joe Montana Football for the Genesis; their odiousness is cross-generational.

Perhaps you are thinking that by revealing this obsession I am projecting my distaste and disdain for the whole sports industry. Sure it's just another form of mass entertainment; devoid of any useful knowledge or intellectual stimulation; consisting of pointless and manufactured rivalries; sowing emotional enmity and divisiveness along imaginary and/or arbitrary geographical boundaries; exploiting nationalistic and patriotic gullibility; stoking the fantasies of undereducated teenagers for unattainable fame and success; glorifying a lifestyle of another tier of unworthy celebrity rife with utter banality; draining critical funds from primary and college education; compelling us to remain docile, and fat, and uninformed; all solely for the enrichment and propagation of a small number of corporations and media outlets. But, it also produces worthless video games.

If I can walk into Half Price Books, saunter over to the gaming section, and see a line of Madden NFL games spanning from years '05 to '09 that clearly no one wants to buy, something is wrong. A copy of Super Mario RPG (even without a box or a manual) would last less than a week on the same shelf. Why?

Once the new season of game debuts, simply by virtue of the change in team roster from the previous season to current, the old game becomes obsolete. More shocking is the gullibility of the devout sports-game-playing automaton that finds it acceptable that their Overlords at EA can demand their allegiance of sixty American Dollars (plus tax), just so they can be blessed by being allowed to buy the EXACT SAME GAME AGAIN with some insignificant changes of a few player names and tweaking of some stat numbers.

Now, perhaps you could make the same claim about any number of popular video game genres. You would be correct. Across the continuum of the video game pantheon, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is so similar to Call of Duty can hardly be considered a real divergence. In fact, if you aren't constantly prostrated, in silent devotion for the epoch-shifting, world-shattering, Unicorn-fucking masterpiece that is Wolfenstein 3D, you're doing it wrong.

My disgust for sports games lies in the static nature of the type of gameplay emulated in these games. A football game will forever feature some number of dudes, dressed in identical uniforms, on the same length field, playing under the same rules with the same narrow range of gameplay possibilities. It will always be dudes playing football, in the strictest and most literal construction of the game, and no one will demand otherwise. Sure some extremely fun, geeky variations on these games exist, but they remain unpopular, unappreciated, and largely ignored. In this sense, the continuation of these sports game franchises appears to me, a sad waste of resources and attention, doomed to leave in their wake millions of dejected plastic discs as worthless as the fliers for escorts you throw on the pavement in Vegas.

And just like those heaps of naughty paper, in the end, we assume cost of hauling them away as trash. I would rather that we, instead, demand the creation of games that will have a lasting artistic value, worthy of finding and cherishing, and protecting from oblivion.