Not as I do

This follows from an earlier post about science and religion, as well as numerous other posts where I’ve talked about respect, accommodationism, and double-standards. They’re not necessary to make sense of this one, but I recommend checking them out anyway for a deeper appreciation of the points I’m making.

A very common occurrence right now, especially in the blogoblob, is someone reprimanding the so-called “New Atheists” for their incivility. There are countless examples, but the primary culprits are bloggers such as Josh Rosenau (who should not be confused with Jason Rosenhouse,) Jean Kazez, Jeremy Stangroom, and the vapid Chris Mooney. If you’re looking for further details about this, Jerry Coyne has posted about it and links to several of the more distinctive posts from others.

If it helps, the term “New Atheist” doesn’t have a distinct definition, but generally refers to atheists that publicly address the issues with religion, most especially if they have published books or receive innumerable hits per day on their blogs – by most accounts, that’s not exactly me (“four” is not innumerable.) This led to another, satirical term, “Gnu Atheists,” which basically means the same thing but is self-inflicted, a matter of pride rather than, as “New Atheists” is usually expressed, an epithet. The reason behind using the epithetical term is to try and create a special distinction of person, a particularly reprehensible and loathsome class much worse than simply the worldview of atheism. If you doubt this, simply note how the phrase is often used.

Invariably, and tiresomely, the principle argument is that New Atheists are resorting to incivility, being shrill and strident when addressing how religion affects the world, and of course, whether science and religion can coexist in harmony even better than Felix and Oscar. On the face of it, this sounds perfectly reasonable – addressing perceived problems shouldn’t have to be confrontational or abusive, and are almost certainly received better without derision.

However, that really isn’t what is being said, as countless bloggers have pointed out. The issue isn’t so much the method of addressing religion, which quite often is perfectly civil. The issue is addressing religion in any way. You see, religion is treated as an inalienable right, not just to pursue, but to pursue free from criticism, examination, or rational support. Religion is, supposedly by its very nature, a special privilege and exemption.

Provided, of course, that it’s your own. Someone else’s religion, naturally enough, can be treated any way that you like. Because, you know, your own is truth and light and all that jazz, but everybody else is being fatuous and following superstition. And the way that this is supported, the rule or guideline or test to demonstrate such selectivity? None whatsoever – that’s also special privilege.

The sarcasm in that previous section hopefully denoted the idiocy of this standpoint. You might also have noted the hypocrisy, especially if you’re from the US: the various rights that we’re guaranteed as citizens not only provide for the right to religion, but the right to free speech as well.

A frequent argument, at least by implication if not outright admission, is that Free Speech can not be used to deny Freedom of Religion. What’s missed, of course, is that these don’t relate. My questioning anyone for being religious does not actually prevent their religious belief or expression in any way. The laws are not changed by someone pointing out that some expression, while freely given, still constitutes irrationality. And there is no right of respect, no guarantee of freedom from offense. Because that would actually deny free speech, wouldn’t it?

We can, of course, play the game by those rules, and assume that freedom from offense actually exists. So go on, guess what offends me? Guess what offends New Atheists? Shit, that was too easy – how come none of those other bloggers up there ever seems to catch that one? Freedom from offense is a painfully idiotic concept, but many people still seem to think it makes sense.

There are much worse implications of all this, though, and evidence of just how damaging arguments over civility really are. I hinted above at the idea of the rights of another religion, but let’s take this exercise right along with the simple substitution game. For instance, islam requires women to remain chastely covered up, and it is thus disrespectful and a denial of religious rights to ignore this practice, right? No no, I didn’t ask how that applies to christians and jews, because this is not about what they get to decide on their own. I’m talking about denying the rights of muslims by any female refusing to wear burqas.

While that might seem ridiculous, change that example to something like laws restricting gay marriage or abortion. All of a sudden, the issue switches from “freedom” to “the word of god” or “the will of the majority,” doesn’t it? We suddenly aren’t talking about whether someone is simply pursuing their own personal belief system, but about what they can decide for others. How come? Should we consider the rights provided by our forefathers to be something we should change based on how the majority feels? Well, we’ve done it before – we openly ignored the rights of both women and non-whites for many decades, willfully finding excuses for those very passages that guaranteed their rights. So what the hell, yeah? If you’re not part of the crowd, you don’t belong – join up or get lost. Too fucking bad you were born that way, I guess.

There’s another aspect, too. I’m not sure how we got so far along this path, but our culture seems to think that criticism is somehow uncivil, inhumane, and damaging. It’s a shame that anyone actually has to point out how ludicrous this is, yet the arguments that revolve around this idea remain. Anyone can consider their test grades to be criticism, or a traffic ticket, or employment evaluations, or even safety standards and contamination prevention. The focus is on the negative aspect, rather than the positive one of setting reasonable, worthwhile goals. A world without criticism is a world without improvement.

So should religion be free from criticism? Well, of course, because it’s a manifestation of perfection! Those parts that we find to be imperfect and damaging, petty and abusive are simply because we don’t understand the will of the creator. Oh, wait, you meant those other religions – no, they’re just bullshit, we can trash those all we want. But ignoring the sarcastic approach for a moment (it takes special effort, so be patient,) what is it about criticism that gets religious folk so defensive, anyway? You would think that not only would it be exceptionally hard, dare I say impossible, to offer distinct faults with the creations and will of a perfect being, it wouldn’t matter anyway, because mere human discussion couldn’t possibly affect such a powerful being, right? Why worry about atheists, muslims, christians, or anyone else speaking against the one true faith – what could mere words do? Apparently, judging from the fear, vehemence, and drastic accusations from the overly defensive religious folk, the answer is, “a hell of a lot.” It’s almost like they don’t actually believe they’re wielding ultimate truth, isn’t it?

So what? The arguments in favor of religion should be able to carry themselves. Yet, they don’t. Actually, the argument against incivility is the best that’s being offered anymore. “Ultimate Truth” has now resorted to addressing tone, not substance, and trying to pretend that this is all that matters. It’s really quite pathetic. Of course, the tone used to describe those New Atheists doesn’t actually count, no no! Nor, apparently, does accuracy or even avoiding outright lies. Those are okay, because, you know, as long as it’s done in the name of religion, it’s all good.

The right religion, mind you.

We, as a species, should welcome criticism. We should treat it with utmost seriousness, embrace it, and learn from it. The only way to be right, to know what correct even is, is to recognize that being wrong is possible, even likely. Disallowing naysayers in any manner is to admit that we are openly afraid of what they say, an admission that we already know that we’re wrong. It’s no way for responsible adults to behave. Not listening to the music doesn’t mean it isn’t playing.

The issue of proper tone is nonsense, as well. Tone is an indicator not just of disagreement, but of how much. I can simply say that stealing pencils is wrong, as is raping parishioners. You’d think I was mental to compare them in any way. Yet that’s exactly what is being demanded by those named bloggers above. But only, mind you, from the New Atheists – the incredibly forceful, demeaning, and arrogant tones from the religious are not actually addressed. Ever. Funny that. It’s almost as if, despite their claims of neutrality, they were being paid to promote religion.

Tone is a serious tool in communication, everywhere. It varies from person to person, of course, but the ability to distinguish such subtle nuances is something developed over time, usually by the age of twelve. Naturally, there is a difference between a frothing rant and an incisive takedown of abject irrationality, and this is determined by examining the content as well as the tone – and being able to understand big words. If something strikes you as particularly nasty, you’re probably well aware that the author isn’t supportive of the subject. But the ability to determine if they’re making cogent arguments, regardless of tone, is paramount here. The myriad bloggers who concern themselves over tone believe (or at least are certainly making the case) that most people can’t actually handle this crucial aspect, and/or need to be protected from big meanies. Myself, I give my audience a little more credit than that.

As far as I am concerned, however, the tone is entirely intentional, and I won’t be drawn into some misleading discussion over its appropriateness. If I seem disrespectful, it’s because I am. If I sound disparaging, it’s because I find the subject asinine. That’s the whole point – I mean, fucking duh! Someone who believes Africa is a country, and someone who believes homosexuals should be persecuted because a scattered and contradictory old book tells them so, are engaging in two entirely different levels of “wrong,” and I will openly and unmistakeably distinguish them. I put rational thought and critical examination on a much higher pedestal than someone’s feelings. I’m funny that way.

Various bloggers and pundits can write whatever disparaging articles denouncing disparaging tones that they like – and I, of course, may point out their hypocrisy and lack of usefulness, and most especially their dodging of salient issues to bring up “politeness” as if it suddenly had bearing in the matter. I will very likely treat it as contemptuously as I view it – but never without providing my reasoning behind it. If anyone cannot distinguish the pertinent content, my posts aren’t for them. And of course, anyone scared or threatened by words on a blog is openly invited to hide under the covers and sob.

Rock Beyond Belief

Rock Beyond BeliefIf you’re like me and have been muttering that all the cool stuff seems to be happening on the west coast, this one’s for you. “Rock Beyond Belief” is a first, a brand-new, secular-themed one-day festival taking place in the parade grounds at the US Army base in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. So dump any plans you’ve already made for April 2nd and join in the fun from noon to 7:30-ish. Admission is free, there’s going to be cool music and some great speakers – like Jen McCreight, Hemant Mehta, Ed Brayton, and Richard Dawkins! And, because of my timing in contacting them, I actually have a scoop on some info that hasn’t been officially released yet. It’s over there in the poster, one of the new musical performers.

While new secular organizations are always good news in and of themselves, this event in particular has a little background. It seems the US Armed Forces have somehow been forgetting that, as a government organization, they’re not really allowed to promote religion of any kind, and most especially not a particular religion above any others. Last year, this was demonstrated in a rather obvious way with the Rock The Fort event, organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Despite many claims of playing neutral on the whole religion thing (yeah, Billy Graham’s organization was just doing this out of the goodness of their hearts,) the event was quite clearly intended to convert people to christianity, and they even bragged about their conversions onstage afterward. There’s also the not-mandatory-but-you’ll-be-prosecuted-if-you-don’t Spiritual Fitness Test that is currently being administered to service members.

There’s really no reasoning at all behind this, so some people have been fighting back to maintain the constitutionality of serving our country. The Military Atheists and Secular Humanists (M*A*S*H) and Military Association of Atheist and Freethinkers (MAAF), with little advance time and some apparent resistance from the powers-that-be, organized a major event “for the rest of US.” It’s not a de-conversion or anti-religion event – it’s simply a fun get-together with a secular theme, making the presence of atheists and freethinkers known just a wee bit more while providing some entertainment free from opportunistic huckstering.

So check it out, and watch for the bearded guy running around with the camera – I’ll be more than happy to meet anyone that has actually found this blog. And in the meantime, spread the word and link to the Facebook page – making this bigger than Billy Graham’s event would be freaking hilarious! But on a more serious note, the military is paying attention, and if you support the idea that they should be concentrating on the defense of the country and not favoring religious recruitment, let them know about it.

This really has nothing to do with whether or not anyone finds religion to be useful – it has direct bearing on whether our armed forces (and our government) swearing to uphold the Constitution isn’t just an outright lie. Isn’t there enough bullshit going on everywhere else?

Science and religion

[The following post was originally written some time back, when the referenced posts within were still “current.” For one reason or another, I never finished it off, which I now find unfortunate because it contains several factors that I want to use as a springboard. So I’m resurrecting this post, and ask that you excuse the reliance on ancient-in-webby-terms, yet still relevant, links.]

While I have actually addressed some of these points before, I feel the need to revisit them, because there are some salient details that deserve better attention.

Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True had the opportunity to publish an article in USA Today regarding the compatibility of science and religion. Short answer: they’re not compatible. And I really can’t disagree with that – science is about examining evidence, about testing ideas to see how well they apply, about not fooling ourselves, about determining a set of criteria to allow us to predict what will take place. Paramount in there is not having a foregone conclusion that you then try to justify or find support for. Religion, on the other hand, is about… well, it’s really hard to put a definition on it, to be honest. The best that can be said to apply almost universally is that religion involves organization around a non-materialistic cause. What’s missing, rather distinctly, is the ability to determine what this cause is, or even the reasons to promote it. In other words, latching onto the cause is first, and the why and how are not considered necessary criteria.

Is this useful, in any way? Does deciding on a conclusion first, then looking for ways to support it, make sense to anyone? Apparently, it does, because enough people engage in it, but call me crazy, I prefer to base conclusions on evidence and facts. I call this, “living with reality.” Amazingly, until we actually started determining knowledge in this way, we made little advancement as a species. Once we did, our knowledge base exploded. Historically, this is called the Enlightenment. I can’t help but wonder if that is a tongue-in-cheek dig, since the term “enlighten” almost always refers to religion or spirituality.

Naturally enough, the article received a rebuttal, not through USA Today, but on The Huffington Post, a site I link to reluctantly because their editorial standards are somewhat cavalier (read: flakey.) It’s not that I try to keep people from reading something I consider insipid, I just don’t think the site deserves any supporting traffic. No matter. Michael Zimmerman, who’s quick to tell you he founded something called the Clergy Letter Project, presented his case about why science and religion are compatible.

Except, he didn’t. He simply maintained that Coyne was wrong and ignorant of the vast majority of religious leaders who accept science and religion without issue. Feel free to read the article, and see where he actually addressed the issue of science and religion. See if, for instance, he managed to distinguish his case in any way from what Coyne addressed in the original article: that scientists being religious doesn’t indicate compatibility between the domains, anymore that married couples being unfaithful indicated compatibility between monogamy and adultery.

PZ Myers at Pharyngula had a grand old time with this, because Zimmerman was silly enough to put forth his Clergy Letter Project as an example of religious people accepting and even promoting science. Myers offered the following example, straight from the Project and written by Susan Andrews:

I have come to believe, in my own journey of faith, that God lives in the questions. I believe that seeking understanding with my mind is the preparation I need to trust with my heart. I believe that faith is the frontier beyond the limits of knowledge. I have started looking for portents – in the sky, in the newspaper, in the textbook, in the science lab, in the hospital room, in the darkness as well as the light. Yes, I have started looking for those signs of a God who is trying to do a new thing. And I have discovered that it is in the process, and in the journey, and in the questions that new knowledge and new understanding is usually found. Specifically in this peculiar American controversy about intelligent design, I have come to believe that evolution is intelligent design. And that the Intelligent Designer is the One whom I call God.

Okay, what? No, seriously, what the flying fuck was all that? If you’re familiar with religious writing, you’ll recognize it as typical, but if you’re expecting the promotion of science, you’re having some difficulties right now, I imagine.

There are eight sentences in that enthusiastic little avowal, and only one that does not specifically say, “I am finding god in every vague way I can” – that sentence is the one having to do with Intelligent Design. ID is very distinctive in that it has repeatedly and determinedly established that it has nothing to do with science, has no testing or experiments behind it, and in fact no research at all, no peer-reviewed papers, and most egregiously, no intelligent designer. No, not even inferred. The only evidence presented to support this lamebrained idea (it does not qualify as a theory) has been trashed from almost the moment it was proposed. ID actually had its day in court, the opportunity to demonstrate that it could qualify as an alternative theory to evolution – and failed miserably. One of the prime proponents even failed to show that he could be considered a working biologist.

As I mentioned above, this is common stuff from religious folk. Notice the lack of evidence, the lack of anything that could possibly be viewed by anyone else. Personal experience, or in this case, not even experience but simply interpreting everyday phenomena the way she wanted, is supposed to be the message. I was born in the mid-sixties, there was certainly no shortage of such messages then, usually involving various pharmaceutical substances. But even leaving behind the snark (it’s hard,) what does this provide for the human condition? How does this work? What does it promote, or predict, or correct, or control? Isn’t it self-indulgent to go looking for the answer that you wanted in the first place, and find it in totally meaningless ways? Is this what passes for religion and science?

One can certainly put forth the argument that such meaningless bullshit is a personal decision and choice, and not meant to provide anything for anyone else, just like having a favorite song. But that ignores the deeper, and very pertinent, issue of what religious motivation gets itself up to. Our politics in this country all revolve around whether any candidate fits with some public idea of religiosity – does that sound like a personal choice kind of thing? We constantly deal with new proposed laws that limit personal freedoms depending on some vague and totally inappropriate interpretation of scripture – I’m hoping no one considers this supportive of “personal choice.” Education standards are getting attacked constantly throughout this country to try and make them more compatible with religion – is that freedom to believe what you want?

Religion is faltering under the knowledge base that we have been building for a few centuries now, as more and more scripture becomes completely irrelevant to everyday life. Morality has long been established as a human trait, not induced by religion. Our origins can be traced back, in multiple agreeing disciplines, far beyond the supposed creation. Science, by finding answers in nature, points out how utterly wrong and misguided scripture and religion really are. And remember, science is not scriptural itself, it is simply a method of learning. If religion gets the short end of the stick when we look at the geologic or biologic record, nature is to blame.

So to try and counter this, people like Susan Andrews above put forth this festering pile of rotting chicken entrails that she considers a journey of faith. “It’s okay,” she says, “call religion any goddamn thing you want, and then you’re justified in trying to change people to be as godawful stupid as you are.” Let’s not forget that religion, as a motivator of actions, is supposed to be justified by being the will of ultimate authority. And lest this turn out to be total fantasy, we have feelgood mantras like that quoted above to try and dismiss the fact that the world itself calls it all a complete lie.

Because, god forbid (I’m a hoot,) somebody actually deal with reality, and with making decisions based on what works best. Fuck, that would require thinking! If god meant for people to think, he would have given us brains!

Let me give you an example of why this fails. Stem cell research is a promising line of medical advancement, because it deals with individual cells that can actually be instructed how to grow, what to produce. A stem cell can become a healthy kidney, a section of aorta, a skin graft, and so on, simply through the way it’s cultured. And with absolutely no rejection issues, because to the patient, it is their own tissue. Note that this is not “in theory,” because it’s already been done to a limited extent – what’s needed is the research to refine it and get consistent results. Some lines that work very well are what’s called embryonic stem cells, because they’re found in the early stages of an embryo.

If you’re one of those who is getting all huffy right now, put it aside, engage your brain instead of your emotions, and keep reading.

Federal funding for any research involving such tissue has been blocked for years now, which means that medical researchers intending to investigate this line of research cannot in any way be funded by government grants, or even be associated with any department that does. Hah, blocked that abortion issue handily, right?

Except that, embryonic stem cells are taken entirely from zygotes created during the process of In Vitro fertilization, otherwise known as “test tube babies.” This is a common, legal, and beneficial process taking place routinely in this country, and allows women with fertilization issues to still have children.

What happens is, it often results in zygotes, fertilized ovum or, if you prefer, early stage fetuses, being nonviable for later implantation within the uterus. But, they still have stem cells. Until this was discovered, the zygotes were donated to others or simply discarded.

Now that the funding block is in place, the zygotes are donated to others or simply discarded.

Lest I haven’t been clear enough, let me state it plainly: Some vote-seeking politicians have made some religious idiots happy by changing absolutely nothing in terms of fetal tissue creation, destruction, or disposal – they simply prevented any further benefit from coming of it. The religious idiots, with kneejerk reactions to hotbutton words like “embryo,” bought it entirely. In Vitro fertilization still goes on. And the politicians involved probably rode a nice voter wave of support for that bit of nonsense. Whether or not they understood the science involved, they knew how few constituents did. Wave the religious flag, and plenty of people climb aboard. It’s Pavlovian, really.

Now, it’s certainly okay to question what is ethical for the handling or treatment of fertilized ovum. But you know something? Religion provides no guidance on this. Seriously, look it up, see what scripture says about eggs and such. Haven’t found it? Neither has anyone else, because it’s not there. Whatever someone might think is the case does not come from scripture in any way. No less a religious authority than Thomas Aquinas argued that “ensoulment” came at “quickening,” or the period of fetal movement, about 40 days into the pregnancy. He certainly knew his scripture, but still didn’t have anything to base it on. And the real sticking point to all of this is, if life begins at conception, original sin damns all the non-saved babies to hell.

But if you treat the “soul” as simple mythology, and “original sin” as a cheap ploy to force piety, and the afterlife as wishful thinking, and consider “life” not the key factor, but perhaps “suffering,” what then? Does the idea of an embryo that won’t be born, lacking even a heart, brain, or nervous system, that can save other current yet endangered lives through medical research, sound like a good thing? Isn’t that what jesus was supposed to have done anyway? Isn’t that what killing abortion doctors is supposed to do?

And the nasty question, do we put more value on life that is small and vulnerable than we do on life that is conscious and active? The person that dies of kidney failure, waiting in vain for a compatible donor, has quite a few things that the embryonic stem cells do not: feelings, emotions, thoughts, memories, family, friends, responsibilities – oh, hell, let’s stop trying to make a complete list and simply call it, “a life.” Because that’s exactly how we define our own, isn’t it? Would we be happy to simply have a beating heart, a sparking brain, or cell division? That’s how the religious want to define “life,” but call me crazy, I like to have the ability to live it.

Even if you want to buy wholesale the doctrines of original sin and life beginning at conception, with eternal damnation unless the living being accepts salvation through an act of will, you still need to know that a high percentage of normally fertilized eggs (you know, people) spontaneously abort anyway, through no action of the parent or medical intervention. There’s already lots of babies in hell, and only one being put them there. That’s, of course, if the whole concept is correct, though since scripture doesn’t address when ensoulment occurs and is pretty vague on hell and original sin anyway, and there’s no evidence to support these pronouncements from religious philosophy, “correct” is not something that can be established in any meaningful way. Facts are not determined by discussion or consensus.

So this is where things break down. Even if you’re entirely devoted to following it, scripture doesn’t have rules to apply to every situation. No matter what, in many cases you’re simply on your own. You can’t abdicate thought – you have to be able to make reasoned decisions based on the factors involved in order to do the least harm, the most good. Interpretations, pithy sayings, and little rhymes aren’t any kind of substitute for reason. If anyone really finds this so hard to tackle, they aren’t required to – but they should then shut the fuck up and leave it to those that can.

Is that clear? If thinking is hard for you, don’t hurt yourself and let the professionals handle it. But if you feel up to tackling this gargantuan task, then give it a try. Hey, sometimes those cute little sayings and rhymes can be correct! Sometimes, the manufacturer’s claims for their product can be correct, too. The thing is, you won’t ever know for sure unless you examine them.

Here’s the really trippy part: that’s science. That’s all it is: examining, testing, proving. That’s why we use it. And that’s exactly why religion and science are incompatible. Bold assertions from scripture, pronouncements from religious leaders, and self-indulgent avowals do not affect, in any way, how the world works.

It’s easy to imagine lots of people vehemently arguing against that last statement. And I can show you an easy way to have them agree with it entirely. All I have to do is apply it to some religion other than their own.

Because the truth of the matter is, very few people have considered religion from the standpoint of comparing the multitudes of faith throughout the world and seeing which one has the most evidence, applies the best to what we experience every day of our lives, or predicts behavior and reaction, both human and non. Very few who dismiss ancient Greek and Norse religious structure (wholesale referred to as “mythology”) can demonstrate how their own religion has more function and evidence behind it than those, or any other. Few who consider muslims “fanatics” with weird ideas about 72 virgins have contrasted it with the resurrection and the bizarre events that supposedly saved us all from sin, only not really.

When we send a probe to Mars, which orbits that planet then soft-lands a soil sampler in a fairly precise location, and discover that the soil composition matches some Antarctic meteorites closely enough to determine, with a high degree of certainty, that Mars rocks have actually crashed on our planet, we have effectively trashed every collection of religious scripture ever written about how the Earth formed. When we create a vaccine against each season’s new strain of influenza virus, we have proven without doubt that common descent is a fact – if you question that, you should get educated as to what vaccines really are. When the nice little GPS voice in our cars accurately gets us right to our destination, we have established that the Earth is round, that electromagnetism travels at a fixed speed, that relativity accurately describes how time and gravity works, and that electron theory has lots and lots of uses. This is just a small sampling of our reliance on knowledge gained only in the last hundred years. It simply works.

It absolutely boggles my mind that anyone at all could possibly consider religion to hold any importance whatsoever to us today. All of this knowledge that we have gained through not trusting scripture and priests, but by simply examining the world in which we live, works for everyone, regardless of religion, salvation, working nervous system, or even cell division. It works whether we are here to witness it or not. There is no “word” to spread, no special action to engage in, and most especially, nothing to try and think of to explain why we have no evidence of it – or as seen above, how to change the definition of evidence to make us “right” all along. Intellectual honesty requires simply seeing how the world works. Anything else is abject denial.

It is long past time to abandon it. We’re bigger than that now.

And finally, we go back to that original question, about the compatibility of religion and science. I feel the need to point out that the question itself can really only be asked because science works, undeniably so, but people are simply too reluctant to give up the faith. So they try, really hard, to find ways to make religion work in a world that has no use for it. They rationalize it, and try to reduce the influence they claim it has, and fight desperately to change scripture into something that might, if you squint and turn your head sideways, maybe slightly kinda matches a loose definition of some facet of proven scientific knowledge. But show me in what way this is different from, “Smoking relaxes me,” and, “I only drink socially.”

Yes, of course it’s addictive behavior. I won’t bother getting into the idea that somebody personally finds religion beneficial to themselves, though I bet I can trash that idea handily. The public face of religion has not ever, in any point in history, been about personal benefit – that’s simply the whiny excuse that is resorted to when someone (like me) is crass enough to point out that denial of rights and broad condemnations are being issued on the basis of a vacuous and wildly inaccurate collection of old scripture. The list of justifications for religious belief is exceedingly long, and yet somehow lacking in any quality approaching “reason.” It practically makes me wonder if the same species actually came up with both scientific principles and religion, since one is enormously functional and the other based solely on emotional appeal.

No, seriously. Try and find the evidence supporting religion as a functional source of information and guidance. Scripture admitting openly and distinctly that it’s the word of god? Yeah, it also says to avoid women when they are “unclean” (while, of course, not allowing them to have any rights that a man does,) where to obtain slaves properly, and that beating children is recommended. The amount of bloodshed and strife is astounding, really, and then we get treated to someone telling us that this is a loving god. I’m not into sado-masochism myself, thanks all the same. And I just realized I also answered the “ethical guidance” argument too, something I’ve never really needed in the first place – I can determine ethics through both empathetical tendencies built right into our species, and using that ol’ brain up there. It’s not freaking calculus, you know.

The desperation to substantiate belief goes so out-of-control that people actually resort to arguments such as “most of the world is religious” (an interesting argument when religious conflict takes up so much of our species’ time,) “the universe/laws of physics are too fine-tuned for us to be an accident” (as long as we don’t go into space without protection against temperature, null atmosphere, and fatal radiation, or go underwater, or go too high up the mountains, or try to live in high desert,) and “I can imagine a perfect being so there must be one” – fuck, no, seriously, this is the heart of the Ontological Argument, considered by those same desperate people to be a leading philosophical argument for religion, followed closely by the Kalam/Cosmological Argument. Even if they made any sense at all (they don’t,) neither one actually supports religion in the way that anyone wants to practice it. There are an awful lot of missing steps between something being responsible for First Cause, and the loving-yet-infinitely-punishing-because-you-didn’t-worship-me-properly god with which most people concern themselves. This is obviously not about making sense, or even finding a personal outlook that works. This is about rationalizing actions and prejudice so that, god forbid, we never admit that we’ve been wrong.

That’s fucked up. There really is no other way to put it.

Coming soon: the repercussions of saying that last sentence.

Cue Barry White

Yesterday I met a student at the local botanical garden and arrived early, so I did a quick tour. The NC Coastal section had been burned off recently, part of the biological maintenance which helps the new plants grow, but it meant there wasn’t much to see. However, a mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) flew up to a branch very close by, which started a slow stalking sequence as he went back and forth down to the ground and up to the fork of a tree – my part was attempting to follow this action with the camera.

This pattern told me what was happening, confirmed after a shift in my position revealed the female in the fork, maintaining and rearranging the new nest as the male brought home materials. The location was excellent from their standpoint, but less so from this nature photographer’s, for exactly the same reason: it was extremely difficult to see. Hampered slightly by the garden trails I was requested to keep to, I had a difficult time getting any vantage that allowed a clear look past obscuring branches and foliage, but she obliged enough to sit up a little higher and appease the paparazzi, so I didn’t have to fetch a ladder or helicopter. Since she barely moved from position, I suspect she was either laying or already in possession of their eggs. For any birder seeking to spot nests, this is perhaps one of the easiest birds to choose, because their wings make a distinctive corduroy-like “wheep”ing sound that makes them effortless to follow. They’re also relatively slow fliers and fairly plump, which is why some people refer to them as “Accipiter Food” – accipiters being the birds-of-prey in North America that catch other birds on the wing. One could be blind and snag a mourning dove…

I mentioned earlier that the hawks were very active, and I’ve been watching them like, uh, a nature photographer to try and capture something interesting. Before I even left for the garden yesterday, The Girlfriend and I got lucky lucked out. The gusty winds have been very helpful to the buteos, the class of raptors most distinguished by their heavy bodies – flapping burns a lot of energy for them, but windy days mean they can soar with exceptionally little effort. Tracking the loud calls, a trio of red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) circled overhead at fairly good altitude, making it hard to get a detailed image, then abruptly descended, with a pair obtaining a perch in a not-too-distant tree with excellent light and pretty decent vantage. They waited patiently for me to get the 170-500mm lens locked onto the tripod before getting right to business.

Yes, I probably should have issued a warning for all the sensitive folk out there before slamming this picture up, but I suspect I’ve chased off any sensitive folk long ago anyway. This is indeed what they look like mating – don’t ask me if it’s typical for the female to look bored in a variety of species. A day earlier I had missed just this item of behavior, potentially from the same pair, due to much worse conditions and my inability to find them in the viewfinder fast enough (when the lens provides high magnification, just like with binoculars, seeing something with the naked eye and then finding it with a much narrower field of view can be difficult, and this was proof that I haven’t fully mastered that yet.)

Afterward, they perched together, and I’d like to anthropomorphize even more and claim that this is the equivalent of small talk, but more likely, they were watching the nearby crows who had worked themselves into apoplexy (as crows are wont) because of the hawks’ proximity. This area is highly competitive, with songbirds, crows, and raptors all using it for nesting and food, and none of them liking the others nearby. The crows are the most obnoxious, often ganging up to harass other birds they consider a threat, but the raptors can usually hold their own. With the frequent displays of territorial and mating calls, from both the red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks, the crows have been maintaining a constant presence, only not too close – don’t piss off a hawk during Singles’ Night. About the only ones not appearing to react to others are the woodpeckers, who have been continually going about their business while all of this goes on, sometimes noisily, around them.

The male is on the right here. Typically, female raptors are bigger, but you may be able to see that the male is fluffed out a bit because, well, size does matter. In my experience, this is atypically pale for a red-shouldered hawk’s coloration, and he has fooled me before when wheeling overhead, because the light underside with speckling is a characteristic of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis,) the other buteo that frequents the area; spotting a perched one earlier was what started the whole photo session.

The moment was brief, and both soon launched themselves into the air to circle overhead a few more times before drifting off, leaving me with little clue as to where the nest may be. I hope to spot this soon before the spring foliage makes such impossible, because it would be nice to follow the hatching and raising behavior, something I haven’t yet accomplished. We’ll see.

What was I thinking?

So, one of the images in my slide collection is seen, full-frame, at left – this is the small cascade of a feeder stream that leads into Window Falls at Hanging Rock State Park, North Carolina. And yes, it appears I didn’t concentrate on keeping the camera level.

Now, I’m not sure this is really the case. When taking long exposures of running water, they can be deceptive. Water splashing sideways – in other words, seeing the cascade from an angle rather than dead on – can appear to be leaning when it all blurs together, and the rock strata can certainly be layered at an angle since uplift and tilting occur frequently. I do occasionally miss leveling the camera perfectly, even on a tripod, but this is a bit extreme. And I don’t remember inducing the angle intentionally to cut across the frame or make a tilted composition.

The trees in the background are no help at all – they support both ideas, since some of them obviously are leaning significantly. I’m just not sure which ones. The series of slides that I took all feature this vantage and angle, since I only changed the zoom setting for the other shots. That’s one of the things that supports the idea that this image is not leaning, since I can see taking one image at a “creative” angle, but not a series. By the way, this is another reminder to take multiple images of a subject, using the zoom and different shooting angles or perspectives to appreciate the possibilities a subject might provide.

Ah, but wait! I have another frame from further back that shows the cascade in the background with some helpful people standing nearby! That should answer the question.

Or maybe not. The women (I don’t know them) aren’t really supporting either angle, and when I tried tilting the image to see which angle looks most accurate, either one works. The woman on the left has her back arched, possibly against leaning forward, while the woman on the right could be leaning to see around the outcropping. The rock strata makes things even worse. The foliage seems to be supporting the original angle from above, but since this is a mountaintop, it could be leaning over from winds and erosion at the edge of this cut. While the top image was definitely taken on a tripod, this one was likely shot freehand candidly. This image was really no help at all. Maybe gravity is all messed up – I seem to recall this happening in various places around the world…

(Please don’t comment to correct me on the various gravity “anomaly” tourist traps – that was tongue-in-cheek.)

I’m now almost bugged by this enough to have to return and confirm just what angle this landscape sits at, maybe shooting a plumb line just for proof. Anyone that wants to clarify this issue should feel free to help me out – this is at the top of Window Falls, hiding behind the little porthole in the rock that can be seen from the finished trail – that’s what the one woman is taking a photo of, but I’m edge-on to it here. It’s only mildly tricky footing to reach this point off-trail. I have no idea of actual compass direction, but supposing that I’m facing 0° (North) with both of these images, Window Falls sits behind me to the right, traveling over the lip facing roughly 120°.

Or maybe I can get my buddy to chime in, since he was there too and has his own images. October 29, 2005 if it helps, dude ;-)

UPDATE: He bit ;-). JL Kramer was also present for this trip, and took his own pics of the same cascade, seen here at left. We see that I did indeed have the camera tilted, just not half as much as it appears. Kramer’s photo matches the angle that I have in the second pic (but has a much nicer composition than my first – the foreground rock is a great element,) so it appears I wasn’t meticulous about leveling the camera. I’m not terribly surprised – there was nothing to align it against or with nearby, but still…

Notice the tree trunk at top, just right of center. This was essentially growing at the top of a huge break in the rock strata that defines this section of Hanging Rock, and may have been leaning from either erosion or the wind, or both. The notch that this cascade sits within is part of a jumbled mess that, only a few meters to the right, drops off suddenly to create a gorge, and the cliff that Window Falls tumbles over. As falls go, Window Falls isn’t remarkable, but the nearby Upper and Lower Cascades are a bit better. I’d love to see them in freezing weather, but the trails to reach them would become so treacherous that I’m almost positive park access is denied during such conditions.

Equinox, schmequinox

When I lived in central New York, I used to laugh at the idea of Groundhog’s Day: “If the groundhog sees its shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter.” Seriously, half the freaking country considers mid-March an early spring. And the same held true for the Official First Day of Spring falling on the Vernal Equinox (March 21 or thereabouts) – we could almost always expect a good snowfall sometime after that point.

But we’ve had a couple of lovely days here recently, and while the grass is still brown and trees have not started to bud, I’ve been able to find some nice signs of “spring,” especially if I kept my sights low – in this case, down at the ground at the macro scale. While one of my two lens issues will soon be resolved, I decided to try another avenue for closeup and macro work. The 80mm macro lens for the Mamiya medium format camera isn’t intended to be used on any Canon EOS cameras, but mating together a body cap for the EOS and a rear lens cap for the Mamiya makes them fit together just fine, and the Mamiya has a auto/manual aperture switch that overcomes the lack of aperture control from the EOS system. Exposure is far from automatic, but this is simply one example of what can be accomplished if you’re willing to experiment. Both the flowers above and at right are barely visible while standing directly over them, measuring less than a centimeter at most. I don’t even know where to begin to look these up, so if anyone wants to chime in and tell me what these are, I’d be more than happy.

Finding these has been good, since I’ve practically been going through withdrawal without anything interesting to shoot. The red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks in the area have been courting, doing a lot of calling to stake territory and pausing at optimal vantage points throughout an area in pursuit of a mate, and I’ll probably feature a few pics of those shortly – I’m aiming for something more dynamic than merely perching against a drab sky, which is what I’ve captured so far. So while that quest is ongoing, I took to turning over some rocks to see what could be found.

The snails haven’t ventured out into the open yet, and rarely do even in the best weather (which for them tends to be very humid and out of direct sunlight,) but they can be convinced to pose a bit if you place them in the open and have a little patience. They’re also hard to identify if you don’t have a decent reference and are simply putting search terms in Google, so once again, chime in if you know your gastropoda. This specimen is about 5-7mm across the shell, and the shell aperture has three “teeth,” two on the outer lip and one centrally against the inner shell, making it seem awkward to try and squeeze past.

What surprised me the most, however, was coming across several members of the species Storeria dekayi, otherwise known as the common brown snake. These should not be confused with the various species from Australia bearing that name, since these are very small and not venomous, unlike every species of animal found in and around Australia save for some of the earthworms (and those are just a matter of time.)

While I’m rather unimpressed with the originality of anyone who names a species “brown snake,” I’m fond of the snakes themselves. Found under rocks and leaf litter, they’re a bit secretive but there’s a spot where I can find them dependably. I didn’t expect to see them active this early, and truthfully they’re not really active yet – several were found clustered under rocks that were absorbing the bright sunlight, warming themselves while remaining perfectly safe from everything except impudent nature photographers. They’re totally non-aggressive and easy to handle, and will often remain very still and count on their camouflage to protect them – when that doesn’t work they resort to finding cover rapidly. They’re also quite small, only a little larger than large earthworms and often mistaken for “babies.”

If it helps, here’s another view of my model, clasped gently in my left hand while the right juggled the camera. My little finger is the background (looking disturbingly aged from this close,) and the green line spanning the crease of the first joint is a measured 4mm – an average pencil measures 7mm. Even if these snakes were venomous, there wouldn’t be anything they could actually bite except maybe your earlobe. Since their diet is grubs and worms, it’s safe to say there isn’t any other species that pales at the sight of a brown snake, so it’s embarrassing that too many people freak out at the mere sight of a snake and feel inclined to kill them. It’s like being scared of fish.

We’ll almost certainly get another spell of cold weather here, but right now I’m enjoying the break and anticipating the arrival of more photo subjects. Really, I have to move to a tropical rainforest or something…


I threatened that I would have more on this topic, and I don’t issue empty threats. Herewith, a little trivia about a curious structure: the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida.

With the race to the moon came, naturally enough, a significant infrastructure to support the endeavor, and the most visibly prominent part of this in this area of Florida is the building used for final assembly of the impressive Saturn V booster that carried Apollo on its way. Standing 110 meters (363 feet) tall, the Saturn V needed a very big building to be stacked together within, especially since it was built atop the Mobile Launch Platform and driven, upright, to the launch pad, and needed a launch gantry that stood even taller. So, 122 meters (400 feet) for the gantry and another 14 meters (45 feet) for the launch platform and crawler means you need one hell of a garage door. At that time called the Vertical Assembly Building, this big plain block structure is visible for kilometers from across Florida but is deceptive in appearance, because it stands alone and has absolutely no features that provide any scale at all.

Shown here getting ready to receive an external tank for the space shuttle orbiters, you can’t really get much of an idea of the size, and in fact even the external tank is tricky, but if you look at the yellow brace near the top end of the tank to the right, at the base of that brace is someone in blue standing right alongside the tank. Clicking on this image will open the full-resolution image in another window, by the way, if you would like to see the detail (photo courtesy of NASA.) And at the base of the VAB, that open door is wide enough for the external tank soon to pass through. The forced perspective is tricky, isn’t it?

But that’s not really enough either, so look at the crossbar throwing a shadow on the face of the building, about 3/4 of the way up in the center. Have a nice close look:

Those little pixels just barely visible now provide an impression of what they really are: a couple of men on a scaffolding on the side of the building (doing what, I’m not really sure, but better them than me.) Now do you get an idea of the scale? The blue starfield portion of the American flag painted on the side of the building is the size of a basketball court; each stripe is the width of an average road lane. The VAB stands 160 meters (526 feet) tall, not quite half the height of the Empire State Building, but four times the volume. Even more interesting, it is 55 meters (180 feet) higher than the highest ground elevation in Florida – yes, the state is very flat; swamps don’t tend to pile up very high.

Inside it’s just one big open space, with several powerful cranes to assemble the various launch vehicles – the Saturn V initially, but now switched to the shuttle orbiters, an era that ends in a couple of months with the last space shuttle launch. It is highly likely that it will continue duty with the new line of space vehicle, whatever that turns out to be (the lack of contingency in the program is appalling, but I’m one of those who refuse to put the blame on NASA – Congress is the body that approves all plans and funding.) In the right conditions, clouds form inside the building due to the humidity and temperature differential, something that would probably not happen anyplace other than Florida, the nation’s sauna. Outside, you can see the square shape from quite a distance away, a child’s toy block in the middle of an empty carpet.

The northern part of the island that holds the Cape is Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, which I’ve mentioned before, and on more than one occasion I’ve had to change my shooting angle when photographing wildlife there to prevent the building from being in the frame (or, in this case, I simply decided to use it as a distinctive setting.)

When watching the night launch of Mission STS-113, I missed an opportunity I really didn’t know I’d have. Both the shuttle launch pad and the VAB are floodlit for night launches, and my viewing angle placed them only a short distance apart, easily able to be seen together with even a moderate-angle lens. Rockets heading into orbit always seem to be falling back towards Earth as they transition gradually from vertical to horizontal and start following the curve of the planet, but that evening the orbital path lay almost directly away from me. As the shuttle dwindled to a point of light and discarded the Solid Rocket Boosters, only the main engines remained to be seen, and the arc was very tight, almost a straight up/straight down affair. It disappeared from view only a little above the horizon, and directly above the VAB. Had I known and been prepared, I could have had a spare camera set up with a wide angle lens, capturing the entire arc from launch to vanishing, pad to VAB. Nuts.

But I have to give James Vernatocola credit for composing this great shot of the arc with the foreground details.


Respect. Oh, sweet baby rhesus, how that word is abused! From my own warped point of view (or at least, from my perspective based on the media I choose to examine,) this is perhaps the key word to define the past decade – not because it was particularly respectful, but because that was what everyone thought they deserved and decried not receiving. The ’80s were considered the “Me” decade; the ’00s might be considered the “Respect Me!” decade. I would like to think that this will pass in the next decade, but we’ll just have to see.

People don’t seem to understand what the word actually means. They demand respect for their views, for their practices, for their lack-of-respect for others. But respect does not translate to “right,” as in, the rights someone may have as a human, as a citizen, whatever. In the US, for instance, we have the right to follow whatever religion we choose – and frankly, no one can enforce or deny what we personally believe, obviously. But this does not mean anyone must respect that belief. Anyone has the right to believe what they want, and everyone else has the right to believe they’re ignorant loons. That’s how rights work.

Respect, however, is a personal quality, an opinion, a value judgment. One does not demand that an opinion favor them, or that everyone agrees to the same values. Respect is earned, despite the impression we might have culturally – for instance, the forced respect of military hierarchy (which isn’t actually respect, but discipline,) or the respect we are expected to have for community leaders or even the elderly. Respect isn’t even provided by laws – the best that they can provide is protection, but they only imply an attitude of respect.

Our culture is a bit confused over this issue, though. Still laboring under the supposed virtue of “political correctness,” we tend to hear people calling for respect and we pause or even give way, instead of the very simple and appropriate response, “You don’t demand that from me, buddy boy! Show me you’re worth it!” But we’ve gotten so far away from this now that people with some really whacked ideas and practices gain far too much attention for holding an opinion and thinking they’re special for that. It has really come down to the vain idea that one person holding an opinion supersedes anyone else holding an opposing one.

Such an attitude, however, destroys the very meaning of the word. Respect used to be something sought after precisely because it was a measure of accomplishment, of regard. You gained respect because you showed that your views were more appropriate, beneficial, or intelligent than average, because your skills exceeded most expectations, because you succeeded where others failed, or even because you demonstrated some self-improvement. It held importance because pleasing a majority of people meant you could provide the greatest benefit to society, or recognized that collective advances work better than individual competition. It was a measure of cultural selection, reinforcement of the benefits of cooperative society. We wanted it because we have internal drives to seek social elevation – that’s how our species works. To think that respect should be reduced to an automatic deference, to the mere recognition of individuality and opinion, actually denies that individuality in the first place.

This isn’t what those demanding respect actually want, though. They really do want to be elevated above others – they just don’t want to work for it.

This is a trap we can’t afford to fall for. No one has to respect another opinion; no one should be held from disagreement. Our ability to separate the bad from the good is the only thing that can possibly work to advance us, in either big or small ways. If someone has a dissenting opinion, this has as much right to be heard as any other.

Even more importantly, we often have a hard time speaking against the perceived majority – we don’t want to isolate ourselves among a group of adverse opinions. But think what happens if everyone feels that way – how do you know what majority opinion even is? If one person speaks their mind, and everyone else stays quiet because they don’t want to stand alone in dissent, you achieve a majority of one with all others abstaining. That’s ludicrous.

While it may sound hypothetical, this happens all the time. In discussions centered on fundamentalists and anti-social practices, I have seen an untold number of moderately religious folk take offense, avowing that they do not want to be lumped in with the fundies. And while I appreciate this sentiment, I find it particularly tiresome – because those same moderates are nowhere to be seen when fundamentalists, always regarded as an insignificant minority, define the path that religion takes. When Westboro Baptist Church parades around redefining both “intolerance” and “fucking asshole,” I have never seen any religious figure, no matter how prominent, speak against them. When some religious leader makes reprehensible opportunistic statements about disaster victims deserving their fate, in a crass attempt to capitalize on human suffering, I have never seen moderates lambaste the practice. When a politician stands up and blurts some pandering religious platitude, I have never seen any religious person of any level remind anyone that political office requires a neutral stance on religion. However, when treated with the lack of respect that necessarily follows from remaining silent in the face of religious impropriety, they cry that they did not support those actions, and apparently carried dissent in their hearts.

If I had more than four people reading this blog, I’d attempt to coin a term: “closet respectable,” referring to those who hold standards that they simply will not display or communicate. It reminds me of the “boyfriend in the next town” that high-school girls seem to have fairly frequently, the one no one ever gets to meet.

We cannot afford to treat respect as a right, as a bumper sticker rewarding non-accomplishment. Remaining silent in the face of what we disagree with produces nothing of any benefit. Being afraid to stand out merely lowers our standards of society. Respect is earned, and it should be a challenge to meet its criteria. If we fail to seek honest respect, we’re not providing any benefit, to others or even ourselves. And if we do not hold that bar of respect high for everyone, we allow our society to sink further toward mediocrity, failing everyone including ourselves.

If someone thinks they have respect because of their title, such as “christian,” “Democrat,” “white,” “male,” “supervisor,” “owner,” “high-salaried individual,” “doctor,” “feminist,” and so on… they’re almost certainly not thinking of respect in its intended definition. If they feel they’re respected by others holding the same titles, they perhaps need to ask if this is truly respect, or simply the lip-service paid by others just to garner the same attitude back towards themselves, mutual self-congratulation. And, of course, if this “respect” within their title is enough.

If we want honest respect, we should be prepared to cultivate it, raise it, groom it, and nurture it – always being aware that it comes from other people. The secret is to make them happy, and proud to bestow it upon us. We do not steal it from them, or take it as taxes; we receive it in trade for being respectable. If, of course, we are not receiving it, what we are offering is not worth it.

I hate it when I’m slow

A few years ago when living in Florida, I kept a journal about wildlife observations, which included no small amount of speculation on what I was seeing. It’s interesting to look back through it and see how certain things solidified as I found our more information or made subsequent observations, and I’ll probably feature some parts of it in posts later on.

On occasion, this blog will reflect it too, like the sudden dawning I had yesterday on a post from a few days back. At the end of that post, I surmised that the value that we place on tradition was so powerful, it seemed almost like an evolutionary trait. The dawning came when I realized that it was, and we’re already well aware of how it works. Kindly note that I have confirmed none of this, and will gladly (well, maybe not gladly, but willingly) retract it if someone comes along and tells me how I’m talking bollocks.

Understanding human behavior sometimes comes when you break it down into core actions, rather than the assigned properties with which we view such behavior from minds that enjoy dealing in abstract concepts – in other words, if you think of us as mere animals (which we are.) “Tradition” then becomes an instinct to follow past examples, or to reduce that even further, to copy our parents. That this is an evolved trait seems abundantly obvious – it’s how we learn to talk, and to parse the nuances and rules of language. It’s how we know what to eat. If we didn’t have this drive, we’d take forever to develop, or really, may not develop very well at all. Independence doesn’t work that well when you’re not very functional for the first stages of your life.

We can see this in other species, and this is the part that made it click in my head. Back in Florida, there were muscovy ducks that lived in the pond at the apartment complex, and I watched them raise a few broods there. Everyone knows the folklore about ducklings and the first thing that they see upon hatching, and following around some other animal they think is “mom,” but the reality is, birds do imprint on behavior too easily, a trait that wildlife rehabilitators have to be aware of lest they raise a bird that does not know it’s a bird, and cannot cope on its own in the wild. Ducklings, like many other species, know instinctively to take their cue from momma, and will copy her behavior automatically. When she preens, they preen, all together.

It’s remarkable to observe, because the ducklings don’t appear to be watching their mother at all, and the sudden onset of preening seems almost simultaneous, but momma always starts first. And no, the two in the back aren’t lacking this behavior, but if you watch birds preen, they do brief sessions and pause, taking a moment to ensure that predators haven’t started closing in while their attention is elsewhere, another instinctual mechanism. I just happened to catch them during this pause.

Considered from this angle, it’s easy to see why “tradition” even became a concept in the first place – it puts a name to the instinct to follow behavior and learn from others. It’s another example of the interesting organs that our brains really are. We have automatic functions, like breathing and pain response, and we have subconscious, instinctual functions, like being aware of danger and seeking mates, and then we have the deliberate functions like cognitive thought. But the cognition part relies on the other two, and we have a hard time distinguishing deliberate (“rational”) thought from the instincts that we have. In fact, we’re very often in denial of the parts played, since we tend to feel that only “animals” (meaning everything but us) rely on instincts, but we vaunted humans do everything deliberately – the whole “free will” concept. It’s total vanity, of course, as only brief reflection will demonstrate, but it’s an insidious belief.

It gets worse. When we fail to recognize that subconscious, inherited behavior plays a large part in our thinking processes, we fall into a trap of believing that everything we do is part of a rational process – we intended to do it, and will even make up excuses as to why we engage in such instinctual behavior: “rationalizing.” The ugly catch becomes that we purposefully avoid engaging the truly rational part of our brains to overcome instinctual behavior that may not apply to a particular situation, simply because we deny that we have such instincts. The failure to recognize it can lead to remaining a pawn of it.

Much of what we have built our culture around is extensions of such instinctual traits, the attempts to take vague urges and feelings and embellish them into important social structures. Tradition is of course one example, and much earlier I pointed out that space exploration might even be another. Facebook actually takes advantage of our desire to build a community of “friends” without any of the effort involved in actually maintaining what we once considered a friendship – it’s prompted by the very name used, “friend,” rather than, “someone I once knew, or maybe someone who knows someone I knew, that clicked on a link in hopes of reciprocation” (SIOKOMSWKSIKTCOALIHOR for short.) We have such a strong desire for social reciprocation and cooperation that we actually get frustrated when life isn’t fair, and think that if bad things happen to us, there must be a reason. Even the trait of curiosity, of determining how things work (which I’m engaging in right now, and hopefully you are too) leads us to believe, all too often, that the entire universe has a reason, when we don’t even have a reason for fire ants (rotten little bastards.) When we think that something has to be the case, perhaps we need to stop and think about whether there’s a distinct rationale behind such a standpoint, or if we favor it because, at some point in time, it helped us survive to think that way.

And now, I ask a sneaky little question: how many people stopped to read this post because of the picture of cute little ducklings? What might you suppose was at work in that case?

[I readily admit that this was not planned, and the duckling behavior memory really did lead me down this road, but I realized how it might work while writing the paragraph above.]

Breaking with tradition

[Originally, I wrote most of these thoughts as a separate article to try and get published, but since the concept of actually getting paid to write has vanished anymore (I knew I should have gone into throwing balls around,) I might as well at least make it public. Granted, a blog is a version of “public” much like the notice of intended demolition of Arthur Dent’s house, but anyway…]

Let’s talk about tradition. Such a simple word, but almost amazing in what it can convey. In virtually every usage, it conjures up an aura of respectability, of culture. Practices handed down through generations, techniques or languages or clothing or entertainment preserved, sometimes painstakingly, from older origins. Just uttering the word in response to a question is almost always a perfectly sufficient answer: “Why? It’s tradition, of course!” Even religion pales before the explanatory power of the word, and in many cases, relies on it. How many words can you think of that communicate so well and require no further support?

But here’s the funny part of it all: ask someone why. Why is “tradition” so complete an answer? Why do we hold the concept of tradition up so highly? And do you get slightly uncomfortable even asking that question? If you imagine asking that of some friend or family member, does their potential response make you cringe? I think most of us would have little difficulty finding someone who might respond rather sharply to such a question. And that, in and of itself, should make us more aware of the power of the word.

Merriam-Webster has this to offer as the primary definition of tradition:

…an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom).

That sounds almost too simple to invoke the response in ourselves that it usually does. Tradition is respect for our forebears, and recognition of our cultures. It is preservation of rituals, and continuation of the “line” (whatever that line may be). It is the bearing of the torch, the survival of something we identify with. Well, now, that’s all right then – survival is important, the prime goal of life itself. No wonder it’s such a powerful word.

Until, of course, you compare this concept against the things we normally associate with tradition. Turkey dinners for the holidays? Well, now, I suppose survival isn’t really in question there – soylent green could work as well (perhaps that’s a bad example when we’re talking about survival). Wedding ceremonies? But more and more people are participating in less traditional ceremonies these days, sometimes none at all. Cultural dress or dance? Can we honestly say dancing or neckties or frills have anything to do with survival? From a practical standpoint, is there much of anything in traditional practices that would be detrimental if we ceased to observe it?

Sure, there’s an argument for preserving a culture. Tradition is what keeps alive many of the facets that define a culture to begin with. But again, is this more the power of the word than the importance of the culture or practice? We know rain dances are just a reflection of culture rather than a method to ensure adequate sustenance for crops. If we’ve never seen a rain dance, are the chances high that we will be at a disadvantage because of it? If we no longer know how to properly dye the family colors, can we reasonably say that the world is poorer for it? Those colors could be considered a representation of the family heritage, a coat of arms if you will, or they could simply have been the hue of ochre that came from the local clay. Had the family been given the choices we have now, maybe they wouldn’t have chosen those colors at all.

Looking still deeper, in many cases tradition is a matter of belonging, of marking the distinction of a particular group of people. Our family, our tribe or village, our land, our country – sometimes these are kept alive simply through the traditions that have been passed along, and often these traditions are the last remaining distinctions long after the other boundaries have vanished – “this is the way we did it in the old country.”

But there are two interesting factors behind this idea. The first is that, things change, for good or bad. It could be argued in many ways, but one is that change occurs because the “old ways” are no longer functional, needed, or wanted. Tradition, in such cases, is a resistance to change, but it may be against the tide. Respect for the old ways is not necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps respect for ways should be tempered by recognizing which ways are respectable in the first place. “Tradition” isn’t particularly meaningful in and of itself – there is a difference between a song that records the history of a culture, and a song that speaks simply of lost loves, or even holes in buckets.

The second interesting factor behind the community idea of traditions is that “community” not only speaks of togetherness, but of separation at the same time: those who are not part of the community. The second message behind, “We are the ones who wear the blue and black,” is, “…and you are the ones who do not.” This may seem to be a dramatic take on tradition, but family colors were exactly the way that clans told one another apart on the battlefield. Often, this idea has become lost in time, and the tradition does not recognizably reflect its bloody origins anymore. But in such a case, what is the tradition we’re keeping alive in the first place?

Right now, numerous cultures embrace traditions that, from an outsider’s standpoint, may be anything from ludicrous to abusive, even self-destructive. Respect for tradition, in such cases, may be radically misplaced – “tradition” is hardly an adequate argument for racism, mutilation, poverty, poor health, or countless other detrimental effects. Some cultural ideas do indeed deserve to die out and vanish in the mists of time – change can be for the better. But we can’t see this if we are swayed by the power of a word without wondering what lies behind it.

I had a little more to the article than this, but this point allows me to go on to the thought that stirred this post in the first place. Over at Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald has a recent post regarding the definition of “New Atheism,” (well, kind of – Eric doesn’t stay to narrow topics,) and within, he talks about examining the histories of scripture and its foundations as divine inspiration:

And then he goes on to quote Irenaeus to the effect that the church did not create the canon; it was instead acknowledged, conserved, and received — as though, in other words, from the very hand of God himself.

But this, quite evidently, simply will not do. We still go back and back, and when we get to the end of a chain of traditions, we find someone with a pen! A human being, just like you and me! So the church, just like the Muslim authorities, took some human writings, no matter how fenced round with sanctity, and then elevated these writings to a stature they simply do not and cannot possess.

Which is where the two ideas came together. The original scribes almost certainly did not run out of their house waving a manuscript wildly and claiming god gave them this great idea for a book. Instead, older writings were selected by church authorities as reflecting divine inspiration (while, as Eric points out, others were not, in a rather arbitrary manner.) But the acceptance of such scripture by the general public, then as it certainly is now, relies on this value of tradition. The strong drive to elevate and indeed revere older sources of wisdom is precisely what gives them value and authenticity.

This idea is supported in three ways. The first is, this is exactly why religion remains active today. Virtually no one chooses their religion, or is ever convinced by reading scripture that it must be accurate – the amount of excuses for the inaccuracies is evidence of that. Instead, people (usually in childhood) are told that scripture reflects the will of the supreme being, and of course, they get to see the elaborate support structure that has grown up around it, the reverence that others place upon it. With no small number of older artifacts and icons, as well. Which is more compelling and interesting: a nice new modern church, or an old church with ridiculously outdated architecture? You know what I mean: the traditional style.

The second way that this is supported is with the histories of the texts themselves. Most of the abrahamic scriptures consist of retelling – almost none of them are contemporary, and even those portions claimed to be from disciples, for instance, show signs of having been written long after the events they relate. The most powerful stories are all historical, in that they do not tell what happened “today,” but many years (centuries!) previously. In fact, the explanation for the age of these stories is often that they were retold with perfect accuracy as oral tradition. This is plainly ludicrous, but such is handwaved away by saying that this tradition was important (which somehow makes it superhuman, it seems.)

And finally, there’s this nasty little fact that many facets of religious scripture have close counterparts in previously existing religions, such as the moses and bullrushes story and several different versions of resurrections. The date of christmas and most of the traditional practices thereof predate christianity (scriptural details point to a spring birth for jesus,) but they were co-opted precisely because they were already traditional. It was easier to morph the whole belief structure into a characterization of previous beliefs than it was to instill a new structure against the power of tradition.

Isn’t that almost frightening? Tradition isn’t just a word, it’s a wickedly motivating force. It raises the question as to whether this is a powerful cultural thing, perhaps one of the most powerful considering how many cultures it spans, or if there’s some kind of internal drive to respect older knowledge over seeking newer knowledge. Is it possible (or even worth speculating on) that there’s some form of evolved mental trait that causes us to fall for the concept of tradition? Tradition itself is difficult to justify rationally, and in all of the history I just outlined above, cultures have changed drastically, but tradition itself remains. It’s something to think about.

[Update: I did, actually – see the expansion of this speculation in the next post.]