Thursday, December 23, 2010

My Hedonistic Holiday

Christmas and I have had issues with each other for a long time. But it never really occurred to me that I didn't have to participate in it the way I always have in the past.

But this year, I finally have the nerve and the means to do something different, so I'm going to. I'm taking a mini-vacation to New Orleans, and if nothing else, I will eat well over the next few days! I've already done the gift-exchange thing with the ones on my list, so I'll get to focus on the one area where I mostly have good Christmas memories: food! No one will ask me how much longer I'll be in school or if I'm seeing anyone, and I won't have to listen to any political debates.

This may be my best Christmas ever.

Friday, December 10, 2010

I joined a book club

Occasionally I like to expand the set of people I talk to. I think this is true of most people, but it's also true that this sort of thing is easier said than done. Personally, I've had a mixed (at best) record with the whole common-interest-group thing. Often these groups are very comfortable with the dynamic they've already established and aren't that interested in welcoming new people. So when I saw a flyer advertising a book club on campus, I was certainly interested, but I prepared myself for disappointment.

Turns out my fears were unfounded. I was especially worried when I realized I didn't like parts of the book to be discussed. But I figured since there were parts I did enjoy, and I kind of live to provide a contrarian perspective, it would at least be worth a shot. There was a decent turnout, and I wasn't the only one who didn't like the parts I didn't like. The people were surprisingly friendly and interested in what I had to say.

I'm pretty sure I'll go to their next meeting. I might even bring a friend. I might also post my reviews of the books we read here. It will be nice to have something non-computer related to do on a regular basis. And it's really nice to have something like this pan out for me. It's funny how this sort of thing works. I'd been trying for months to find something with no luck, and I found something potentially very good after I'd basically given up hope. Not sure whether to feel hopeful again or whether I get better results without it.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Some Rocky Horror fun

Have you ever created your own fantasy cast for a movie? It could be for a remake, or for a book that has yet to be made into a movie.

The other night, some friends and I got to recasting our own version of Rocky Horror Picture Show. There actually was talk of a remake happening, but it has since been shelved. Anyway, it's still fun to imagine who would be in certain roles. So if a remake ever does get off the ground, here is our fantasy cast, with a brief explanation of why they were chosen, submitted for your approval:

Frank-N-Furter: Sacha Baron Cohen. He's certainly uninhibited enough for the role, and thanks to Sweeney Todd, we know he can sing.

Brad Majors: James Marsden (Cyclops from X-Men). This was one of the toughest roles for us to cast. The current trend in Hollywood leading men is toward the man-child, and it took us a while to come up with someone we thought could portray manliness and squareness at the same time.

Janet Weiss: Taylor Swift. She's the epitome of middle America niceness, and while her music isn't my cup of tea, she can certainly sing well enough. What else do you need?

Riff Raff: Matthew Bellamy (also answers to "that Muse guy"). If you're at all familiar with his music, you know he'd nail the part vocally. I also suspect he has more than enough freak in him to connect with the character, despite his lack of acting experience.

Magenta: Lady Gaga. She would probably have to dial down her freakiness a bit, at least until the end. In any case, she would bring out the other-worldliness of the character.

Columbia: Katy Perry. "I Kissed a Girl" was really more about male attention than anything else. And Columbia craves attention wherever she can get it.

Rocky: James Franco. OK, this is mostly an excuse for extended viewings of James Franco in his underwear. Not gonna lie. That said, we figured he has the acting chops to do "dumb and beautiful" very effectively.

Dr. Scott: Ian McKellen. Who else could pull off glittery pumps with such gravitas?

Eddie: Zach Galifianakis. Speaking of man-child, where it wouldn't work for Brad, it's perfect for Eddie. And Galifianakis is the current king of man-child.

Criminologist: Liam Neeson. For one thing, he looks the part. For another, he could totally play this part straight, which would make it even funnier. The best comedy is often played straight.

So, what do you think? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to submit your own suggestions!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Blaming the media

Last night I went to meeting of a feminist group on campus. We watched this documentary called Mickey Mouse Monopoly. The film is very critical of Disney and the messages it puts out in its products, whether those messages are intentional or unintentional.

For some, this is not news. Those who are old enough to remember Aladdin may also remember the outcry from Arab-Americans who believed the lyrics of the opening song portrayed Arabs as barbaric. In The Lion King, several people pointed out that the villains were not only voiced by minority actors, but also seemed to emulate street thug behavior.

One problem I had with Mickey Mouse Monopoly is that the speakers seemed to imply that gender and ethnic stereotypes were the sole fault of Disney. Toward the end, they quoted an internal Disney memo from then-CEO Michael Eisner about how their sole responsibility was to make money. The film made it seem like the memo was this sinister thing, but it shouldn't surprise anyone who follows financial news. The speakers in the film talked about how they believe Disney (and, I suppose, all entertainers by extension) has a responsibility to promote less stereotypical behavior, I guess.

So far I've been pretty critical of the film, but I do want to clarify that I believe many of their concerns are legitimate. Disney movies clearly promote stereotypical behavior, and I wish they wouldn't. Anybody who gets most of their ideas about gender and ethnicity from Disney is going to have some seriously skewed ideas. But a lot of those skewed ideas are also in the source material that Disney uses. Anyone care to tell me about the bad-ass, independent heroines in the original versions of Grimm's Fairy Tales, for instance (although Ever After was an awesome retelling)?

I also want to address the idea that Disney or any other entertainers have a responsibility to the public. I have a really hard time with this because I'm not sure how you would achieve the desired outcome without some kind of censorship. And that's just not how we settle things in a free society. Also, I think that ultimate responsibility lies with the parents. If you keep feeding your kids junk food, whose fault is it when they have health problems? Actually, that's a pretty good analogy. And Mickey Mouse Monopoly can be useful for revealing Disney movies to be the cinematic junk food that they are. Just don't overdo the junk food and be sure to balance it with healthier things. It also might be helpful to talk to kids about the messages in those movies.

Ultimately, I think the best solution is to install critical thinking skills in your kids. Don't just uncritically accept everything people tell you, whether those people are Disney employees or your relatives. It's never too early or too late to work on your bullshit detectors.

Also, for examples of other sources with shady gender portrayals, check out this article from the fine folks at Feministing.

Friday, October 1, 2010

School update

To get a master's degree in computer science at my school, you have to choose a concentration area, like networks or artificial intelligence. I had some interest in the systems concentration, partly because it would give me a course background that would be very helpful if I decide to pursue a Ph.D.

As part of our orientation for new grad students, one of the professors talked to us about the possibility of doing a directed study with him on compilers (don't worry if you don't know what compilers are; just trust that they're an important topic in computer science, especially in the systems area). This professor also mentioned that this would probably be our best chance to study compilers early on, since the formal class on compilers is typically cancelled due to low enrollment. So, as soon as orientation was over, I naturally high-tailed it over to this professor's office. Paperwork was filled out, and I was signed up for this directed study.

Fast-forward a little over a month. Compiler stuff is hard. Another course that I'm taking in my concentration has proved similarly head-spinning. It was starting to look like my choice of concentration was a bad idea.

So I went to our weekly meeting for my directed study feeling down. I hate to fail at anything. I wondered if this would be total gibberish to me like some of the reading had been. Surprisingly, I was able to follow enough to hang on, and I had an epiphany: if I quit on this, I'd just be taking the easy way out and selling myself short again, which I totally have a tendency to do.

Not this time. If I have any hope of proving myself worthy to run with the big dogs, I need to challenge myself. During my first degree, I made the mistake of taking the easy way as much as possible, and I paid for it for a very long time.

So, approximately a month into my grad school career, I've had my first serious gut check. I have responded by kicking it in the pants and officially declaring a systems concentration (my directed study prof is happy to serve as my official advisor). That way it knows I mean business. I will do whatever it takes to succeed.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Interesting diet news

In the CNN article I linked to in the previous post, the author mentioned she had started her weight loss using a low-carb plan, although she didn't say which one or whether she continued in that direction. At any rate, one of the criticisms often heard about low-carb plans is that so much animal protein can't possibly be good for you.

Animal-based protein diets increase mortality rate

What the headline doesn't mention is that the study cited in the article yielded pretty good results for low-carb, high-protein diets where the proteins were vegetable-based. In other words, a vegetarian low-carb, high-protein diet can actually be pretty good for you.

So I was on the phone last night with a friend who had read my previous post and asked me how it was going (pretty well, for the record). We got into the specifics of what I was doing (paraphrased):

Me: For lunch I usually have a big salad with some chicken on top.
Him: It's not good to kill a chicken for your food. Americans and their fried chicken... (Ed. note: my friend is Indian)
Me (slightly defensive): No, no, it's not fried. It's grilled, so it's about as healthy as chicken gets.
Him: Yes, but the chicken was healthier before it was killed.
Me: *sigh*

You may be aware that many Hindus are vegetarian. This is because one of the core principles of almost any Hindu group is nonviolence (ahimsa in Sanskrit), and many choose to extend this to animals as well as humans. The Vedanta Society does not require or expect its devotees to be vegetarian (although many are), but generally, the food served at our functions is vegetarian, with the exception of the very occasional fish dish.

So if I can eat a healthy diet without meat, it's certainly worth considering. The plan I'm on has a vegetarian version, so it's certainly doable. I have to battle my inner Vincent Vega on this, though (NSFW, language, etc.):

Not the best quality video, but I'm sure you get the idea. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Confession with hypothesis testing

First, the confession: I've always wanted to be beautiful, and it bothers me (probably more than it should) that I'm not. Before any of my family, friends, or just anybody who preaches the gospel of inner beauty gets all wound up about this, let me clarify what I mean.

It is fairly obvious that society favors those who are considered attractive. For instance, I thought the movie The Invention of Lying handled this idea very honestly and effectively, although it wasn't the main theme of the movie. Generally, attractive people are rewarded more and get away with more than their less attractive counterparts. Society does not favor me in this regard, so I think it's safe to say I am not considered particularly attractive by society at large, which is what I mean by my initial statement.

This is not entirely for lack of trying. I've made improvements in the way I dress and even found a hair stylist who is good with curly hair. However, my weight is a problem. A few days ago, I encountered this article on CNN's website:

She drops 100 pounds, gains new world

The gist of the article is that this woman loses 100 pounds, and lo and behold, people start treating her better. Not just potential romantic interests, but more people want to be her friend, too. Even her professional life has improved.

As you might have guessed, I have a few things in common with the author of that article. We both come from deep-frying cultures and use humor as a coping mechanism. Like her, my social life isn't quite what I want it to be.

I've actually been thin before in my life, but I was such a mess mentally at the time that I didn't enjoy it. This time, I feel like I've done the inner work. I feel pretty good about who I am on the inside. Now I just want an outside to match.

Here's where the hypothesis testing comes in. I have a feeling if I am able to drop some weight, I'll have an experience similar to the CNN article author's: suddenly people who previously ignored me will find me interesting. There is other evidence to back this up.

I think I've chosen a plan, but I'm not going to discuss it here for the time being. One, I don't want this to turn into a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of this plan. Two, I want to make sure I get results before saying anything one way or the other about it publicly!

It won't be easy, but nothing worthwhile is.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The siren song of pseudoscience

Many freethinkers are accustomed to opposition in the form of bigoted homophobes, scientifically ignorant creationists, etc. But every so often, irrationality comes in a really attractive package that seems to beg you to pick it up, if only for a moment.

I've been having many conversations lately with someone about past-life regression. As you might guess, I think the whole thing is nonsense. Interestingly enough, many Hindu groups seem to agree with me on this. While they certainly believe in reincarnation, they generally don't consider it worthwhile to investigate the events of past lives. So while the idea of reincarnation has its roots in Hinduism, past-life regression seems to be mostly a New Age thing.

Of course, there are several people out there who bill themselves as "regression therapists" and will, for a fee, take you through some of your past lives. You can find the source of your problems and maybe even your long-lost soulmate!

Now, I totally understand the appeal of this stuff. It absolves us of responsibility for things in this life. If someone's your soulmate and you're meant to be with them, why would you want to do something so mundane as work on your relationship or (gasp!) show some consideration to your partner? If your problems can be traced to past lives, then you don't have to be honest with yourself about how you've contributed to the situation in this life.

It shouldn't surprise you that high-profile cases of so-called regression that have been closely examined have been debunked, such as Bridey Murphy and the Bloxham tapes. While the concept is appealing, generally cases can be attributed to factors in this life. Don't give these charlatans your money. If you want some feelgood treatment, book a massage instead.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hope you enjoy my new direction

When I first started this blog, I'd recently had a birthday and had made it a goal to figure out where I was spiritually by my next birthday. That next birthday has come and gone, and I've come across some interesting developments. I still have a lot of questions about things, but I've found a great community that supports me in my search, which may be more important than any conclusions I reach (I'll expand on this in a future post).

While I'll continue to post my thoughts on these matters, I'm not inspired to write about religious or spiritual topics as frequently as before. So I'd like to expand the scope of this little blog and talk more about other aspects of my life. This will probably include a lot about technology and my experiences in graduate school. I'll still post spiritually-themed articles occasionally; they just won't be the main focus anymore.

In the next day or two, I'll post something about the official beginning of my second attempt at graduate school (including an explanation of why it's my second attempt). Even at a seemingly inconsequential event like a department orientation, important lessons can reveal themselves. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

NPR piece gets a bit elitist even for me

I usually love NPR, but they screwed the pooch on this story:

The gist of the piece is that Western psychiatric treatment isn't widely available in India, and many Indians seek treatment through faith healers. You might think that my main objection was to the reliance on faith healing over conventional mental health treatment, and I do object to those practices.

However, the tone of the article is what made me cringe more than anything. It’s symptomatic of a sort of meme that has bugged me for a long time: the idea that Indians are inherently more superstitious than Westerners. This is utter bullshit. Uneducated Indians are superstitious, as are uneducated Westerners. The educated Indians I've met are no more or less superstitious than their Western counterparts.

For instance, I've talked a bit about my involvement in the Vedanta Society, which, at least at our local branch, is mostly comprised of Indians. But the education levels are generally higher than those of the people depicted in the NPR story (we even have some doctors in our group). I have not seen any anti-science sentiment among the leadership, and very little among the laity (almost any group has a few New Age types). In fact, when someone asked one of our most senior monks about focusing mental energies on an illness, the monk advised the person to see a doctor! So I think superstition is much more a function of education level than of nationality.

If you don't believe me, go to some of the less-educated parts of any country and see what kind of crazy beliefs you find. Hell, go to the halls of your nearest high school and just listen for all the supposed things that if you do after sex, you won’t get pregnant (my personal favorite is doing a handstand and having your partner pour cold water down your vagina). While you're at it, search YouTube for "cast out demons" and then tell me how that’s so much more sophisticated than going to a Shiva temple.

Also, the cost of psychiatric treatment is hardly a trivial matter. While the faith healers do charge ridiculous sums, those sums are still much cheaper than counseling and medication, which could go on for the rest of a person's life. That’s a problem in this country, too, and probably every country that doesn’t have socialized medicine (I’m referring strictly to end user cost; I’m not commenting one way or the other on whether socialized medicine is a good idea). And if you think there’s no stigma in this country associated with seeking mental health treatment, you need to pay attention or get out more.

I'm not in favor of faith healing by any means, at least not to the exclusion of medical treatment. But condescending crap like this doesn't help. It perpetuates stereotypes and gives the audience a false sense of superiority, which can take the focus away from the problems we have in this country regarding superstition and mental health treatment. And that would be a damn shame.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Agnostic bashing

Sorry for the absence. Now that the semester's over and my schedule has stabilized, I should be back to posting more frequently.

I've mentioned Friendly Atheist several times in this blog, and he often has a lot of good things to say, but I was disappointed with his recent post, Why Are You Agnostic? The post is full of the usual forms of agnostic bashing. They've been so done to death that I'm not even going to recount them here.

First off, why does it matter if some people call themselves agnostic instead of atheist? I'm not going to get into the idea that they actually refer to different things and can be compatible, etc. That's a valid point, but outside the scope of what I'm talking about.

Actually, I think that leads to our first problem: like it or not, atheist and agnostic mean different things to different people. So while I generally identify as atheist, some would probably argue that I'm not one because I don't affirmatively claim there are no gods, or I'm not a total nihilist, or whatever. So before we get all pissy about labels, let's be absolutely clear about what those labels mean.

Second, you can't force people to adopt a particular label. Greta Christina talks about this in her post, Atheist Or Agnostic? She uses an analogy of a person who identifies as bisexual. This person constantly has to deal with statements like, "Oh, you're just a gay/straight person in denial." People have the right to label themselves as they see fit. As she also points out, "it's patronizing to tell other adults that you know who they are better than they do."

It's stupid to bicker so much over labels. It sets up an us-vs.-them mentality that unnecessarily places people into "them." It sounds way too much like some sort of purity test, which sounds way too much like, well, some nasty forms of religion. I'd even go far to say that it's a form of emotional blackmail: "If you were really one of us, you'd..." See how that sounds? More importantly, do you see that it's no different from the way many religious groups operate?

Finally, part of being an adult among other adults is respecting a person's right to make choices different from your own. Sure, you also have the right to express your disagreement, but past a certain point, it's probably only going to damage your relationship with that person.

If you really want more people to adopt the atheist label, work for a common definition. That alone will probably go a long way. Once people realize, "Oh, you don't have to assert there are no gods to be an atheist," etc., more people will adopt the label on their own. But criticizing people who do not choose your label is misguided and divisive.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Miracle That Isn't

In November of last year, there was a big stir in the news about how a Belgian man who had been in a vegetative state for 23 years was able to communicate with the help of a speech therapist and a touchpad. The story was hailed as a breakthrough, a miracle, etc.

Only one problem: the man can't actually communicate using the methods people claimed he was using. At least the doctor who originally brought forth those claims in November had the decency to admit his own further study has shown the method doesn't work as claimed. His study results were presented yesterday in London. He still believes his patient is more conscious than such patients are generally thought to be. But of course, we don't have any way of proving that.

Back in November, many people expressed skepticism toward the original claims, but on most of the news sites, that skepticism was buried in the comments. Kudos to the BBC for putting the debunking front and center (Note: many sources incorrectly say that the patient was in a coma instead of a vegetative state). There's also an article in the New York Times, but I had to search to find it.

I completely sympathize with this man's family. It's often in the aftermath of something really terrible that people are most prone to being duped like this. Shame on those who promote their quackery by preying on grieving families.

(via BBC News)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Book review: The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

As mentioned in the previous post, I've been reading The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville, translated from the original French by Nancy Huston. Here's the review I promised.

It seems like a harmless enough book. At slightly over 200 pages, you'd think you would be able to breeze through reading it. Well, you'd be wrong. It's somewhat of a dense read. I don't necessarily mean that as a criticism, but I wanted to call attention to this. Don't let the size fool you.

The book has 3 chapters, plus the usual introduction and conclusion. The titles of the chapters are "Can We Do Without Religion?," "Does God Exist?," and "Can There Be an Atheist Spirituality?," respectively. Guess what they're about.

In the first chapter, Comte-Sponville discusses what is appealing about religion. Not surprisingly, he touts the communal benefits, especially support in times of adversity. He also talks a lot about fidelity, which he defines as a set of core values. He seems to think this fidelity can be achieved through a sort of cultural Christianity. You could certainly argue that this has actually become the de facto religion of much of Europe--showing up in church for weddings, funerals, and the occasional baptism, Easter, or Christmas service.

However, I think this is harder to pull off in the US for two reasons. First, there are way too many American Christians who not only take Biblical ideas very seriously, but they also insist that everyone else do the same in order to be a good Christian, or even to feel welcome in that church. Second, my experience with people who have left Christianity is that they have typically had some sort of significant negative experience that would prompt them to avoid anything remotely Christian (of course, the first reason partially plays into this one!). So, while I like the idea of shared values, I think even cultural Christianity might have too much baggage for a lot of people. I'm not opposed to the idea; I just don't know if it would catch on here. I'll probably elaborate on this in a future post.

I'm not going to get into the second chapter very deeply, because it mostly contains material that can easily found elsewhere. I'll briefly mention one of the arguments against God's existence that I hadn't seen before in detail: basically a "too good to be true" argument:
I would definitely prefer for such a thing to exist, but this is no reason to believe it does. [. . .] I would also prefer for war, poverty, injustice, and hatred to disappear completely. But if someone came up to me tomorrow and told me they had, I would say he was a dreamer, a victim of wishful thinking. . .

This ties in with Freud's stance on religion, but I'd never really heard it fleshed out like this before.

The third chapter is, to me, the heart of the book. I've already discussed whether there can be an atheist spirituality, so here I'd like to focus on what that might entail. Comte-Sponville proposes a variety of options. Throughout the book, he frequently refers to Spinoza and seems to consider pantheism a reasonable choice. Various Eastern thinkers come up as well, and Comte-Sponville's idea of the All or the Absolute could be a way of looking at the Tao or Brahman.

This is probably where hardline materialists and empiricists start to freak out. We have now entered the realm of the unprovable. It's very difficult to talk about something that is universal and intensely personal at the same time. Comte-Sponville talks about what Romain Rolland called the "oceanic feeling." It's worth noting that Rolland was strongly influenced by the writings of Swami Vivekananda.

Obviously, I can't speak for everyone, but it seems most people have experienced a feeling of unity at some point in their lives. I can definitely think of instances where I've felt like I disappeared into whatever I was doing. But everyone who's had such an experience probably reached it in slightly different ways than I did. They might describe their experiences a bit differently, too.

Getting back to the book, there is one major difference between Comte-Sponville and most Eastern religious beliefs, aside from possible supernatural beliefs. Many strains of Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the world is something to be renounced for spiritual gain. Comte-Sponville disagrees, saying that the highest good is actually to engage with the world as it is and do the best you can.

Whew! See how much we went through in my little review of this little book? If you're hungry for more, check it out. If I lost you three paragraphs ago, this may not be the book for you!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Can there be an atheist spirituality?

When an English translation of The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by French philosopher André Comte-Sponville was published, the title naturally made some waves among atheists. Atheist spirituality sounds like an oxymoron. In fact, anytime I've heard or seen discussions on this topic, somebody always says that such a thing is impossible because spirituality refers to the supernatural by definition. For the record, this is not a review of the book per se, just a general discussion of the idea of atheist spirituality. When I finish the book, I'll post a review.

So, is Comte-Sponville radically redefining his terms, or is there another explanation? While it's admittedly not a definitive source, I checked the dictionary that comes with my computer. Naturally, spiritual was defined as relating to the spirit (duh). So what does this dictionary mean by spirit?
The nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character.
Further definitions do refer to supernatural entities, but as you can see, this one does not. This definition doesn't imply anything about the nature of this entity. It's entirely possible that these are all brain functions or their byproducts. Actually, the word in that definition that has the most quibbling potential is nonphysical. If that word really bothers you, just replace it with intangible.

In this sense, spirit is something people deal with all the time, regardless of religion or irreligion. Yes, it refers to ethical standards, but it also refers to a general perspective on the world and how to interact with it. As you can probably guess, spirituality in this sense is of great interest to me. So the answer to the question, "Can there be an atheist spirituality?" is "Yes, definitely." You could argue that spirituality is a poor word choice, but that's an entirely different discussion.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why is this atheist blog different from all other atheist blogs?

Since officially putting up the Scarlet A, I've wondered what I could do to distinguish this blog from the other atheist blogs out there. Unfortunately, I don't belong to any special group that could lend me particular insight into this sort of thing. I don't have any special expertise in philosophy or the natural sciences. But even a cursory reading of my previous posts hints at what I think is sparsely-populated territory in the freethinking blogosphere.

Many who have left religion compare their experience to abusive relationships, and sadly, this is often based on actual abusive experiences. But at some point, it becomes counterproductive to wallow in victimhood, and if nothing else, it gets tiring after a while! If you are in such a situation, eventually you have to ask yourself, "OK, so all this happened. What comes next?"

That's what interests me. Once you've made mincemeat of the ontological argument and can refute creationist talking points blindfolded with one hand tied behind your back, how do you go about living your life? After you throw out the Ten Commandments, what do you put in their place? What process do you use in such choices?

As you may have guessed, I don't think there's necessarily a single set of answers that applies to all people in all situations. But I think it might be possible to find general principles that at least apply to most people in most situations, and equally importantly, to understand the occasions when such principles don't apply. I also think it might be possible to help people devise a framework for constructing meaning in their lives.

Most importantly, I'm interested in the discussion on these topics. If I had to sum it up in one question, it would be, "What constitutes a life well-lived?" For starters, it's perfectly reasonable to wonder what I mean by "a life well-lived," and I'll probably elaborate on that in future posts. I fully expect to discuss ideas from across the theological spectrum. If someone I vehemently disagree with on other issues says something insightful on the topics relevant here, I'll gladly mention the idea and credit that person.

Naturally, I hope you will join me and participate. If you've got a thinker whose ideas you'd like to discuss, suggest away!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

That's how I roll

This blog has been added to the blogrolls of:
Yes, I realize that I didn't do anything special to merit this, but every bit helps! Thanks, guys!

Coming soon: why is this atheist blog different from all other atheist blogs?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Non-religious disaster relief

I don't need to tell you about the suffering that continues in Haiti because of the earthquake. If you specifically want to help in the name of a non-religious organization, the Richard Dawkins Foundation has combined their efforts with several other freethought organizations to raise some money for disaster relief. Details are available at a website they've set up, Non-Believers Giving Aid. The donations will benefit Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross (despite its name, the Red Cross is actually a secular organization).

Over at Beliefnet, Rod Dreher takes issue with the tone on the website, but he does at least appreciate the efforts. I cannot tell you how glad I am to see these efforts out there. I hope they're able to raise a lot of money this way. For my part, I had already donated via the text message thing before hearing of this, but if this becomes a standing thing, I'll try to remember and promote it for future efforts. For anyone who has yet to donate, what are you waiting for?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Status report: Yet another atheist blog is officially born

Note the new decoration in the right column.

On a friend's recommendation, I read Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, which is a graphic novel about the life and work of British mathematician/philosopher/logician (yes, he was that damn good) Bertrand Russell. Logicomix also shows the influence Russell had on other prominent figures such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Kurt Gödel. If you're remotely interested in this sort of thing, I highly recommend checking out Logicomix. If you're really interested, you'll naturally want to read the writings of the main characters themselves.

Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem states that no logical system can be both consistent and complete. This implies that any complete system will require axioms that cannot be proven within the system itself. The Incompleteness Theorem was a huge blow to Russell and many of his colleagues, who had spent the last few decades trying to formulate a mathematical system based on absolute certainty. Gödel had now shown that such a system was impossible.

For a long time, I had suspected as much on some level, and of course, many of history's great thinkers have hinted at it. Sources as diverse as Socrates and the Kena Upanishad (like most of the Upanishads, the author or authors are unknown) advise skepticism of anyone who claims certain knowledge of absolute truth.

I think one of the things that leads people to say, "Atheism is just another religion," is the certainty that some atheists seem to insist on in their tone--for instance, when someone says directly or indirectly that religion has never produced anything of value and has nothing to offer people today. That's a pretty dogmatic-sounding statement, dripping with certainty and more than a little smugness. I don't think that atheism is just another religion, but I would say that there are those who treat it the same way some devout believers treat their beliefs.

Another implication of all this is that I probably won't be able to find a single group that has what I'm looking for. Previously, I've been known to agonize that there's something wrong with either me or the group when I'm not getting along with them like I'd hoped. For instance, if I didn't like the tone of one of our atheist meetups, I'd ponder the "trouble with atheism," or worse, fear that I was some poseur intellectual lightweight. Now I'm starting to think this distrust of certainty might be all right.

In fact, for the time being, I'm going to continue visiting the Vedanta Society, too. I think they have a lot of interesting stuff to say, philosophically, and I get a sense of humility and community that I haven't gotten too many other places (I wish I could say I got this from freethought-related groups, but this is not the case). Also, what I've seen of their writings so far tends to display a keen understanding of how people work. Many belief systems, religious and otherwise, have bred disaster out of their failure to account for this.

Actually, if I had to describe my belief system, naturalistic pantheism (I'll probably elaborate on this in the near future) would come closest, but since there's no community for that in my area, I have to make do with what I have. It might happen that I can practice Vedanta in a pantheistic way.

But there are things I have in common with the most militant atheist, too, like the lack of belief in anything supernatural and the desire to keep religion out of government (and science classes!). And by the definition espoused by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, I'm at least a de facto atheist. So, up goes the scarlet A.

Scientific Education

A fun graph...

My status update is forthcoming, but as soon as I saw this, I wanted to share it.

Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal via Friendly Atheist

Friday, January 15, 2010

Useful tools in a spiritual search

In all my encounters with Vedanta, everyone from Swami Vivekananda to the Resident Minister at my local Vedanta Society says I shouldn't accept anything they teach without investigating it for myself. At no point has my skeptical behavior been discouraged or criticized; in fact, the Resident Minister encourages me to ask her questions all the time.

But every group looks good to its own people and its own literature. I think when researching a group (of any kind, not just religious), it's also worthwhile to see who its enemies are and what they have to say. My parents encouraged me to read authors I disagree with from time to time (you may have seen the recent Friendly Atheist post on the subject). I might refine my perspective on an issue, or at least learn how the opposition thinks.

Regarding religious groups, the Advanced Bonewits' Cult Danger Evaluation Frame by neopagan Isaac Bonewits is a good starting point. Basically, if a group seems awfully concerned with perpetuating itself and taking over your life, you might want to think twice, or as many times as needed for you to run the hell away.

For information on specific groups, visit the Ross Institute's Controversial Groups Archives. Rick Ross is an expert on cults and is probably most well known for his "deprogramming" work, which is basically helping people break out of cults. He has used some methods in the past that I wouldn't advocate, but his website is an excellent clearinghouse of information on controversial groups. Note: a group's listing on this site doesn't necessarily make it a cult per se, and I don't think Ross is trying to say it is. But if certain scary patterns of behavior seem to emerge from a group, well, you've been warned.

Next time: an update on where I am in my search.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Merry New Year!

If you think the title is a mistake, first, shame on you; second, go see Trading Places already.

In the Ramakrishna movement, January 1 is known as Kalpataru Day. According to Hindu tradition, Kalpataru is a wish-fulfilling tree. Of course, no known physical tree has this property, but that's not really the point. In fact, most of the stories about Kalpataru illustrate that people getting what they want does not always truly benefit them.

Anyway, the significance of this date in the Ramakrishna movement is that it was the day in 1886 when Sri Ramakrishna revealed himself to a group of devotees as an avatar, an incarnation of God on earth. He had already been quite ill with throat cancer, and in fact, he passed away later that year on August 16. In most of the days leading up to January 1, Ramakrishna couldn't even get out of bed. But on this particular day, he felt well enough to get up and walk around a bit. Since India was still under British rule at the time, January 1 was a major holiday, so many of his lay devotees had come to see him.

Prior to this, whenever someone called him an avatar, Ramakrishna would ignore such claims. But on this day, he asked one of the devotees, Girish Chandra Ghosh, what made Girish want to tell people that Ramakrishna was an avatar. Girish bowed at Ramakrishna's feet and said that even the authors of great Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagavad Gita) and the Ramayana could not sufficiently express the devotion that Girish felt for his guru.

Ramakrishna responded, "What more need I tell you? I bless you all. May you all be illumined!" This was the first time he had embraced these ideas. He went into ecstasy after saying this, and when he came out of it, he touched each of the devotees present, and they had their own ecstatic experiences, including visions of their Chosen Ideals (although Hinduism is famous for its many gods, most Hindus choose one to focus on, which is the Chosen Ideal, or Ishta Devata).

Although the name Kalpataru Day has stuck, most in the movement seem to find it somewhat inaccurate. Notice that these devotees did not receive anything material. But some say that Ramakrishna helped transmit his own fearlessness (which I'll discuss further in a future post) to these devotees. Whether he actually did it by touch or the devotees were just so moved by seeing their guru is irrelevant.

At any rate, this is obviously an important day in the Ramakrishna movement. In fact, the celebration held by the Vedanta Society was at the main Hindu temple, as the Vedanta Society's grounds would not have been able to hold everyone who came.

Brief aside about the Hindu temple: they were having their own event today, a big worship of Ganesha (he is often invoked for beginnings). The temple and parking lot were packed, and I thought, This must be a small taste of what going to India would be like. Crowded, chaotic, and leave your shoes in the lobby. That said, the temple workers were friendly and helpful. I think I got sprinkled with a bit of water from the Ganesha worship on my way out.