Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Three things I envy about religious people

Despite how much effort idiots put into tainting the word, 'Atheist' is one of the few labels I'm comfortable applying to myself. Trying to pinpoint how long I've been on the agnostic/atheist continuum is difficult, but I do recall an event when I was seventeen or so that has stayed with me.

There was a school outing to the shrine at Knock, and the itinerary called for a gruelling day of prayer and gawping at sacred trinkets. Attendance was optional. But all of my friends were going. Nobody seemed motivated by my suggestion to spend the day off doing what we wanted, rather than enduring a long day of ritual observance [more likely, my friends' parents weren't giving them a choice], and eventually I was goaded into attending. I felt like an outsider, so to avoid looking like an outsider, I bit my tongue for most of the day, only breaking my dishonest silence to a priest when I was forced into confession like the rest of the sheep.

The point is, I've been an outsider for years now, and I've gradually become more comfortable in openly not attending religious services, but there are a few things that I occasionally find myself envying about religious people. This is a quick (and unplanned) blog entry that is as respectful of religion as I feel it's appropriate to be, so if you take offense or have insight on what  I've said as a believer or non-believer, leave a comment and let me know.

#3: Meditation
Alone, in private, Christians pray for all sorts of reasons. I don't think prayer itself is particularly valuable, and intercessory prayer has been proven in clinical trials to not have any effect in the healing of the sick (I'm trying not to launch into a tangent on the absurdity of billions actively trying to alter God's infallible plan). That said, the act of prayer is a form of meditation, where people take time out from their day to organise their thoughts and focus on the needs of others, or their own hopes and dreams. While believers may be parsing their urgent needs in the form of an appeal only heard by themselves, I would consider this a more fruitful labour than merely distracting oneself from troubling situations by engaging in brainless activities.

Taking moments to collect one's thoughts seems to me a great way to 'defrag' the brain, and my abstaining from this activity is consoled by the fact that sometimes prayer does lead to dangerous levels of inaction, and if you pay attention to yourself, you can keep your thoughts in check without having to invoke the supernatural.

While I'm on the subject, I might as well confess that I miss being 'able' to pray to Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost articles, who would be petitioned by my family every couple of minutes when I was a boy. Regardless of his spotty success rate, I can still remember how comforting it was in the moments after soliciting the assistance of an all-seeing entity whose sole responsibility was to help me find my Ghostbusters proton-pack.

#2: Immunity from offense
Yes, I'm mostly taking the piss, but consider for a moment how much privilege is afforded to religion in society. Even after thousands of years of effrontery against science and reason, countless real innocents murdered in the name of expunging imaginary spirits, and countless bad PR days resulting from angry muslims and pedophile priests, gently tutting at the peculiarities of religion is terribly bad manners.

I try to muster as much self-righteous indignation as possible when somebody is trying to peddle misinformation about the world, but my protests don't hold as much weight as the poor victimized Christian, who may defend his religion by dismissing dissenters as ignorant pricks.

This is immense power. Don't want to come up with solid logic for vilifying abortion? Hide behind religion. Someone doesn't agree with your assertion that your wife is your property? Invoke religion and call them a vulgar scoundrel. This bleeds over into political rhetoric, bringing the conversation to a halt before any ground is broken. Equal rights for gays? How dare you betray the inerrant word of the Bible!

Being able to effectively shut-down discourse whenever the cognitive-dissonance gets too taxing is naturally a bad thing, but I envy the power. As an experiment, I once tried to take offense to the phrase 'my brother from another mother', as I have a brother who was born of another mother, but this did not wield the same conversation killing power as religious ire.

#1: Community
This is the big one. The human species owes a great deal to reciprocal altruism, and while I don't entertain the notion that altruistic acts exist because of divine instruction, I do think that in the modern day, having a focal point to build communities around is great for expanding and enriching social circles. My girlfriend attends a [presbyterian] church for community purposes, and on the few times I've attended services, I've heard people asking for 'prayers' for loved ones who are sick or jobless. Worthless though the prayers may be, these people are able to put up a distress beacon for emotional support or job-networking that may well lead to genuine benefits.

The multitudes of ways this can misfire are obvious: in-groups can be hostile towards out-groups, particularly when religious fervour is involved, assuring the aggressor of his divinely-granted inerrancy. Think Christian versus Muslim, Shias versus Sunnis, Protestant versus Catholic, creationists versus sensible people, and you'll get the picture. These conflicts may not necessarily stem from religious affiliation, but it's a convenient way of 'othering' fellow human beings.


What I've discussed here isn't really the most important stuff, it's just what came to mind to me recently as a result of contemplating my future. I've a few notes scrawled down that I might explore at a later date but in the meantime, leave me a comment and weigh in yourself.

The Best Bits of my last Week or so

Busy few weeks! Little time to blog, but here are a few bits and pieces that I found along the way.

Within days of endorsing some sceptical podcasts, I find a toilet that empties into a sceptic tank:

"I'm sceptical that this is natural waste, so I'm going to back up into the sinks now"

While out in Limerick City (for the first time in a long time) I found something oddly reminiscent of the religious graffiti I tracked for a few months years over the country a few years ago. Has the intrepid vandal moved onto a new uplifting message with less? Forensic analysis to follow at a later date:

Accidentally cut off a bit - it reads: "Hope - The unconscious mind works it out - Sleep on it"

Limerick Band Fox Jaw Bounty Hunters released a fantastic new album last week, and I finally got to listen to it uninterrupted. Well worth a purchase, if you're into solid rock with a menacing vibe [Amazon Link].

Here's the latest single, Hatch Sixteen, which I've yet to decide is a paean or condemnation of Limerick City.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Now she tells me?

It was my birthday a few days ago. I received a small influx of material goods. Which was appreciated.

My girlfriend tends to get me some awesome gifts on my birth-anniversaries, but more often than not, it's the joke stuff she includes that always seems to be most memorable. Old school readers will remember the Creationist DVD and the vile evolution-denying children's books that she's gifted to me in years past.

Earlier this week, while Kate was pulling out thoughtful gifts out of her (Christmas-themed) gift bag, I was waiting for the self-conscious titter to announce the arrival of some goofy trinket designed to offend my sensibilities. This titter never came, nor did any offending items. I kept my disappointment to myself.

While I was ignoring her for The Sopranos, she asked me why her Facebook feed was abuzz with chatter of the apocalypse. I paused my show for the chance to pontificate, but had gotten no further than 'some Christian crazies have somehow grabbed some headlines...' when she let out a squeal and ran for her backpack.

She grabbed some pamphlets and eagerly shoved them towards me.

"I meant to give you these with your birthday card!"

Click for hugeness
Three flyers, (each consisting of four double-sided pages), and a business card that asks if you've heard 'the Awesome News?'

The end of the world? The Bible Guarantees It! Awesome! This not-particularly meek and mild approach is seen throughout the apocalyptic literature, with another flyer starting with the assertion that 'GOD GIVES ANOTHER INFALLIBLE PROOF THAT ASSURES THE RAPTURE WILL OCCUR MAY 21, 2011' [no emphasis added]. They've got maths on their side! This is science!

Click for science!

My favourite part about this is that my girlfriend hands these over at 22:30 on May 20th, 2011. Not quite enough time to repent, let alone read through this drivel. How did she procure these items? They were shoved into her sister's mailbox. Someone is paying to get these printed and delivered across the States, and gullible people are losing their minds over it. Just bear in mind occurrences like these when you wonder why I'm flying off the handle about harmless tat for superstitious old ladies.

Fear not, dear reader, Harold Camping, the engineer behind these claims, was wrong when he predicted the same thing in 1994, and as he is now in his 89th year, we can take solace in knowing that he won't be wasting column inches for much longer, rapture or not.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A quick curiosity [Apple]

As a consumer whore, I have a habit of checking the Gold-Box deals on Amazon just to kill time, but rarely does something tickle my fancy.

Whilst navigating through the store the other day, I saw that I could 'save big' on previous generation iMacs, but the prices were tantalisingly out of sight. "Add to cart to see price", it exhorted. Fair enough!

A click later, and I'm looking at the iMacs available. The cheapest is marked down from $1099, but to determine how much has been knocked off, i must 'Click to see price'. Here goes!

$1,079.99? It's fallen by a whole $19.01! That's some serious bull right there. How dare you make me click three times to learn that last year's iMac has barely been discounted. Why, Amazon, why?

Click to read comfortably

Oh. Because Apple (and other retailers) won't allow Amazon to advertise a price below the "minimum advertised price", I wasted twelve seconds of my day thinking I could get a good deal on an iMac, then wasted three minutes of yours telling you about it. You learn something new every day.

But hey, if you were looking at an iMac 10 months ago and thought to yourself "Man, I'd totally buy that if it was only 1.7% cheaper" it looks like today is your lucky day!

Remember, if you're looking to buy anything from Apple, consult the MacRumors Buying Guide to avoid putting your tech-savvy friends in an awkward spot when you show them your shiny new iDevice that's three days away from being old hat.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

5 Podcasts to make you a better person*

I listen to a lot of podcasts - I often use them to ease the monotony of whatever errands I may be attending to, or to distract me away from the fact that my circle of real-life friends is rapidly dwindling and I'm not doing a good job replenishing the ranks.

In years to come, psychologists will point to listening-habits like mine as a trait indicating mental illness, as my obsessive need to stave off tedium leaves me deprived of any time for introspection, genuine human interaction, or the will to make new friends, since the people in my head are smarter than most people I'd meet in my daily life anyhow.

Today, dear reader, I've decided to share this burden with you, in internet-friendly list form! I'm going to give you five podcasts that I consider essential listening to see if I can't rob you of your thought-organising time too.