Theocracy Causes Famine

Recently, I got an e-mail from the Foundation Beyond Belief, which is working with USAID to raise awareness of the continuing drought and famine in the Horn of Africa. The toll in lives is already appalling, including over 29,000 deaths from starvation and outbreaks of measles and cholera, and hundreds more dying every day. The crisis has produced almost a million refugees, including over 400,000 at the Dadaab camp in Kenya.

I have to admit that my first reaction to this news was a feeling of hopelessness. Sometimes it seems that occasional famine is a painful fact of life, especially in poor, overpopulated regions of arid, sub-Saharan nations, and that any effort to help, however well-intentioned, is only going to delay the inevitable. I won't deny that I've had some of these thoughts myself. But I was brought up short by a passage that Johann Hari wrote in a recent book review:

As recently as the mid-1980s, it was thought that famine was usually an "act of God" - a "biblical" failure of rains or crops or seasons. But in the 1990s Amartya Sen, the Nobel­winning economist, showed this was wrong by proving one bold fact: "No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy." Famine, it turns out, is not caused by a failure to produce food. It is caused by a failure to distribute food correctly - because the ruler is not accountable to the starving.

Although a natural disaster, like drought, is often the trigger, the ultimate cause of famine is almost always a corrupt, greedy, or unaccountable government that siphons off food from the needy. For example, during the infamous Irish potato famine of the 1840s, Ireland was producing more than enough food to feed itself, but the imperial British rulers of the time demanded that the majority of it be shipped abroad for export. The only space left for the Irish to grow their own food was on small and marginal plots, and when the potato blight wiped out their chief crop, disaster followed.

And the same thing is happening now in Somalia. As Nicholas Kristof writes, the country is experiencing a historic drought - aggravated, no doubt, by climate change - but that alone wouldn't have caused such a severe crisis. Kenya and Ethiopia, which are also affected by the drought, are coping better thanks to technological advances, like drought-resistant crops and irrigation systems. But the closest thing to a government in Somalia is the violent, ignorant Islamist movement called the Shabab that's the only authority in most of the country. Kristof puts it chillingly:

The area where large numbers of people are dying almost perfectly overlays the regions where the Shabab is in control.

The Shabab has actively kept out aid workers and relief shipments, apparently viewing them as unwanted intrusions from corrupt and godless Western countries. They've blocked rivers and stolen water from villagers to divert it to farmers who pay them bribes. They've even tried to prevent starving people from fleeing.

So, yes, famine is an "act of God" - but only in the sense that it's caused by God's self-appointed agents, the forces of religious darkness that don't value human life and are perfectly willing to allow suffering and death. Famine is not inevitable, even in a warming and overpopulated world. The question is whether we, the defenders of humanity and civilization, the people who care about this life, are willing to act to prevent it.

Whenever I think of Somalia, I'm reminded that the brilliant, amazing Ayaan Hirsi Ali came from there. Could there be other minds like hers swept up in the famine, people with the same potential as her even now cradling their dying children or trudging to refugee camps? Will we stand by and permit the strangling darkness of theocracy to snuff out these bright sparks?

If you want to help, see the FBB's Humanist Crisis Response Program, supporting the International Rescue Committee.

September 26, 2011, 5:55 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink44 comments
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His Noodly Appendage, Now in Yarn Form

I'm inordinately pleased by this. :)

Earlier this summer, I threw in for a fundraising contest for Camp Quest, pitting a team of us lowlier bloggers against the Dark Overlord himself. The over $30,000 we collectively raised was reward enough for me, but I just received a completely unexpected thank-you gift in the mail: a hand-crocheted Flying Spaghetti Monster, crafted by Sue Henry and Kelley Freeman of the Secular Student Alliance. Thanks, Kelley and Sue! I shall display it with pride, and whenever I see it on my desk, I'll be reminded that the FSM and His glorious noodly appendage are always watching over us.

Isn't he cute?

I decided to reenact the FSM's creation of the universe. (Desktop image by Digital Blasphemy.)

September 25, 2011, 4:20 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink4 comments
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Support the SSA Through Sleep Deprivation

I've often made mention of the Secular Student Alliance, an outstanding organization that supports atheist student groups on high school and college campuses throughout the country. Not only does the SSA offer literature, monetary grants and hands-on assistance in organizing, they also stand up for atheist students' rights when bigoted school administrators try to stop them from forming clubs, which happens very often. (Obligatory full disclosure/self-promotion: I also happen to be on the SSA speakers' bureau. Want to invite me to speak at your school?)

For its superb work in cultivating the next generation of atheist activists, the SSA deserves our support. And this weekend, you can help them out and get something out of the bargain too.

Fellow blogger Jen McCreight is on the SSA board of directors, and this weekend, she's running a blogathon - the blog equivalent of a telethon - in which she's soliciting donations to support the SSA by pledging to write a minimum of one original post every 30 minutes for a full 24 hours, starting at 7 AM this Saturday. I assume that the inevitable hilarious sleep-deprived ramblings are part of the attraction.

But wait, there's more! She's also raffling eight copies of Michael Shermer's book The Believing Brain, signed by the author, to anyone who donates $5 or more. Plus, the people who make the ten largest donations before midnight on Friday will get to choose a topic for her to write about during this marathon session.

If any of this is appealing to you, then please consider donating on her ChipIn page. Support a good cause and help build the secular community!

July 21, 2011, 5:52 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink0 comments
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The Evil Overlord Has Fallen!

On a brighter note, the Camp Quest fundraising contest pitting the atheist blogosphere against PZ Myers has come to a close... and as the smoke clears, a tattered flag is waving defiantly among the heaps of squid. Yes, the once unthinkable has happened: Barad-dur has fallen, the Death Star has been destroyed, and our motley coalition of underdog bloggers has toppled the evil overlord himself!

The awesome Stiefel Freethought Foundation jumped in in the last few hours of the competition with a matching offer, which helped both sides boost their totals, but it helped us more. As reported by Amanda Metskas, executive director of Camp Quest, these are the final tallies:

Team Awesome: $13,550.06
Team PZ: $13,016.01

Matched amounts:
Team Awesome: $1,868.73
Team PZ: $1,640.00
Total Match: $3,508.73

Team Totals (with matches included):
Team Awesome: $15,418.79
Team PZ: $14,656.01

Grand Total Raised: $30,074.80

OK, now I know what some of you are saying: in the last few days, PZ switched tactics and started urging people to donate to our team so we'd have to do the forfeits we had on the table. I responded by commanding everyone to donate to his team, so as not to reward this skulduggery. And since our team raised the higher total in the end, PZ technically got what he wanted, so shouldn't he be considered the winner?

But you know what? I'm just going to forget about all that. Frankly, there were so many schemes and counterschemes running at once, I'm no longer sure who was rooting for whom. Since everyone's real intentions are unknowable, I'm just going to go by one simple principle: Big numbers are good. Bigger numbers are better. And since our numbers are the biggest of all, that means we're the winners! And (as the band winds down and the confetti slowly settles), we can exult forever in our glorious victory, and that's the last I ever need to say about....

Oh. Right. I, um, sort of offered to do something too, didn't I?

Well, you see, it's like this: Earlier this month, PZ made a crack about us in the opposition lacking "manly facial hair". Not one to let such a jibe go unanswered, I vowed to grow a beard in the event of our victory, so as to prove that we of Team Awesome were no slouches in the testosterone department.

True, at least I'm not publicly humiliating myself by singing karaoke like Greta, or videotaping myself falling off a bike like Jen... but it's hot here in NYC, damn it. The last thing I need is more insulation. But I gave my word, and I suppose I have no choice but to keep it.

So, here's how it's going to be. I'll mow my face tonight, and then after that, no more shaving till the end of June. I figure a month ought to be more than enough to prove the point. I will, of course, post before-and-after pictures so you nosy people can see the results for yourself.

June 1, 2011, 5:47 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments
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I Have Returned

By Ebonmuse

Greetings, all. I'm back safely from Spain - actually, I was back yesterday, but pretty much went right to bed when I got home to sleep off the jet lag and recover from general sleep deprivation. (You see, we were in Barcelona on Saturday night, which was when the home team won an important soccer match. The people were very enthusiastic in their public displays of approval, resulting in neither my wife nor I getting much sleep the night before our flight...)

In any case, I'm feeling rested and refreshed and more than ready to take up the reins of Daylight Atheism again. Many thanks to my guest admins, Leah, Ritchie and SuperHappyJen, for writing posts and looking after the site while I was away. I'm still catching up on comments, but things were certainly lively in my absence!

I'll have more to say about my trip soon, but for now, let me just say this: Spain is a beautiful, vital, romantic country with an almost ridiculously picturesque countryside, with vast fields of fiery red poppies and golden sunflowers, endless groves of olive and orange trees, mountaintop windmills, solar farms, and beaches and coasts overlooking the intense blue of the Mediterranean. It has spectacular art and architecture from every era from the Roman empire up to the modern day. And it has an abundance of the most morbid and gruesome religious iconography I've ever seen.

Despite its secular population and plummeting rates of church attendance, Spain bears the stamp of its long history as a Catholic theocracy. Churches and cathedrals dot every city, and most streets are named after Catholic kings, saints or religious figures. And all its churches, as well as most of its museums, contain endless depictions of Jesus being flagellated, Jesus being crucified, Jesus' dead body being taken down from the cross, and so on, all of them executed in all the gory and graphic detail that the greatest painters and sculptors of the Renaissance could conceive. It's not just Jesus who's shown suffering these torments, either: Peter being crucified and John the Baptist having his head cut off are also popular subjects.

This fixation on suffering is part of a larger, morbid fascination with death and martyrdom that's very much on display in the churches. One of the cathedrals we visited had the preserved, severed arm of a long-dead martyr on prominent display. The chapel where the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella are interred offers visitors the chance to descend into the crypt and see their lead-lined coffins. And in one cathedral we visited, the tour guide told us about the 600-year-old mummified body of a saint that's brought up from the crypt once per year and laid on the altar, in an open casket, as part of a popular festival that draws families. (She related with great amusement how parents warn their disobedient children that the dead saint would rise from his coffin and grab them if they didn't mend their ways.)

Anyway, I'll have more to say about that soon. I see there are a few important stories which happened while I was away, particularly the Damon Fowler case, which I'd like to tackle as well.

A couple of business items:

• The Rapture went off, or rather failed to go off, precisely on schedule. As predicted, Harold Camping has rejiggered his timetable to claim that May 21 was a "spiritual" event (where have we heard that before?) and that the rapture and global devastation he predicted are now delayed to October 21. (Predictably, there was no apology to the followers who quit their jobs or spent their savings to promote his message.) But it seems that he's now hedging his bets: he says that they "don't need to talk about it anymore", and the new, redesigned website no longer has any mention of the date.

• As I mentioned earlier this month, Team Awesome is still competing with PZ Myers in our fundraiser for Camp Quest. We put a variety of forfeits on the line depending on who wins... and, well, PZ made a snide remark about his adversaries lacking "manly facial hair", so I might have offered to grow some of my own in the event of our victory, just to make it clear who's got the testosterone around here. Only now I see that the dirty scoundrel is throwing the match!

This sort of skulduggery cannot stand. I hereby order you all to contribute to PZ!

May 30, 2011, 6:57 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink15 comments
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Open Thread: Self-Promotion Day; Plus, Help Beat PZ!

So, I think it's about time for another self-promotion thread. What say you?

If you maintain a blog or other site that you want to tell us about, now's the time! Feel free to post a comment telling us about yourself and your site: who you are, what you write about, and why we should be interested. Atheist-themed sites are of course preferred, though all comers are welcome.

If you've participated in past self-promotion threads, you're welcome to do so again. However, this time I'm going to change the rules a little bit: since I like to see creativity and good writing, I'm asking that you link not to your site in general, but a specific, recent post of yours that you're particularly proud of, that best demonstrates your talents, or that sums up what your blog is all about. As always, the most interesting entrants may wind up on my blogroll, so put your best foot forward!

If you can't see the Flash widget, click here.

Also, while we're on the topic, I'm putting out a call for help to readers. This past week, a bunch of my favorite bloggers squared off in a fundraising challenge for Camp Quest, the summer camp for kids from humanist and nontheist families. On one side was the evil overlord himself, P.Z. Myers; on the other, a tag-team of Greta Christina, Hemant Mehta, Jen McCreight and J.T. Eberhard of the Secular Student Alliance, competing to see who could be the first to raise $5,000.

Well, PZ won the first round much too easily. But atheists, as we all know, fight dirty. That's why the anti-PZ team has raised the stakes, not just to a fixed amount but to whoever can raise the most by June 1... and they've recruited some new bloggers to join their side, including yours truly.

Since it was already four against one and the side with four is now adding even more people, some of you might wonder: isn't this cheating? And my answer to that is: Yes. Yes, it is. It is brazen, shameless cheating. Fortunately, since I'm an atheist, I'm not bound by petty notions of right and wrong - not when there's something more important at stake, like blog bragging rights!

Frankly, I'll be surprised if we win this one. PZ and his legions of tentacled minions make for a formidable adversary. But I don't intend to go down without a fight. Let's show that godless cephalopod-lover that he can't push the rest of us around! I'm not saying that I'll look more favorably on your self-promotion comment if you also make a donation to the challenge... but maybe I am saying that.

May 4, 2011, 6:16 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink32 comments
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Charity Yes, Interfaith No?

We atheists are nothing if not argumentative, and the latest argument is over whether an atheist can or should participate in "interfaith" charitable work. Chris Stedman, a member of the humanist chaplaincy at Harvard, asserts that "we must actualize our commitments to justice and compassion" by participating in interfaith projects as often as possible. Ophelia Benson and Jen McCreight were unimpressed, pointing out that there's something paradoxical in a nonbeliever participating in a movement explicitly based on faith. I especially like Jen's comment:

What do you call interfaith volunteering where atheists participate?

Volunteering.

...Atheism is not a faith. In fact, it's the complete absence of faith. Therefore, it is not interfaith.

This is a personal dilemma for me: the Unitarian Universalist church my wife and I attend supports a local food bank called the Interfaith Nutrition Network, and I've donated money to support their efforts in the past. I felt some uneasiness about donating for just this reason, but as the INN is non-sectarian and the need is great, I decided at the time that the potential good to be done outweighed other considerations. I suppose, then, that I either have to declare myself a hypocrite or else conclude that atheists can rightfully participate in interfaith efforts at least sometimes.

Still, something about the notion leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And to be honest, I think it's Chris' scolding, condescending tone. (Yes, I'm making a tone argument!) For one, he describes himself as a former "rejectionist atheist". This is clearly meant as a pejorative, but I can't see how it wouldn't apply to all atheists, unless he means to compare the "bad" atheists who speak out forthrightly about their rejection of religious belief with the "good" atheists who don't. And then there's this:

Can we set aside intellectualizing and debating, even just for a moment, and start putting our money where other people's mouths are? I hear a lot of talk among my fellow Humanists about truth and knowledge - but not yet enough about love and compassion... Until we can show that the nonreligious care just as much about improving the world as the religious do, we've got no business saying that "religion poisons everything."

This treads dangerously close to saying that our arguments against religion are invalid if we don't do as much interfaith charity work as Chris Stedman thinks we should. I happen to agree that everyone should do whatever they reasonably can to make this a better world. But I emphatically deny that this has any bearing on whether one's views on religion are factually correct or should be voiced in public. We can (and should) say that religion poisons everything as often and as loudly as we like, no matter how many dollars we've donated or hours we've volunteered.

There's nothing wrong with atheists working together with religious believers to advance moral goals that we have in common. I've advocated this myself in the past. But when we cooperate with religious groups, we should be very careful to do so as equals. Participating in "interfaith" work undermines this. It means that you're starting out on their turf, and it lends credibility to the harmful frame that faith is necessary as a source of morality - especially when you make a big deal out of how it's essential for atheists to do "interfaith" work. I have an alternative suggestion: Why not just do regular charitable work?

It's not as if we're not doing this already. Atheists have the largest lending group on Kiva. We have the Foundation Beyond Belief and other secular charities. We organize food and clothing drives, book drives, blood drives. We participate in disaster relief.

It's perfectly fine for Chris Stedman to call on atheists to do more, but he should acknowledge these already meaningful and substantial efforts. To do anything less is insulting to the nonbelievers who do work toward making a better world (and, again, reinforces a pernicious religious stereotype that no genuine good can happen that's not done in the name of "faith"). Interfaith work per se isn't necessarily bad, but using it to scold your fellow atheists most definitely is. Rather than trying to prove that we can be good people just like theists, we should just be doing good, in whatever ways the opportunity presents itself. The rest will follow naturally.

April 25, 2011, 8:16 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink20 comments
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Atheist Action Items

• We've all been following the news about the massive earthquake and tsunami that's devastated Japan, and I won't waste your time rehashing the details. Help on an international scale is urgently needed, and the Foundation Beyond Belief has stepped in and is raising funds for the Japanese Red Cross. They've already collected almost $10,000, but that's just a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed. Visit their ChipIn page and contribute if you can.

• On another note, my good friend and general paragon of awesomeness Greta Christina is compiling a list of living atheists who are people of color, similar to Jen McCreight's list of female atheists. The intent is to offer the completed list as a resource for conference organizers who want to diversify their lineup, but don't know or can't find any non-white atheists to invite. Go check out the comment thread, and if you know of anyone who hasn't been mentioned, please add them!

March 15, 2011, 7:36 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink0 comments
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A Milestone for the Foundation Beyond Belief

[Editor's Note: In the past, I've written about how it will advance the atheist movement for those of us who have the means to make charitable donations that serve as a positive, collective expression of our worldview. Specifically, I've written often about the Foundation Beyond Belief, a clever and worthwhile meta-charity, to praise their work and encourage freethinkers to support them. I'm happy to reprint this press release announcing the FBB's achievement of a major milestone. —Ebonmuse]

Early Thursday morning, total donations from the members of Foundation Beyond Belief to our featured charities quietly surpassed $100,000.

Foundation Beyond Belief

That money has done a lot of good in our one and only world - feeding the hungry, educating children, providing access to health care, protecting biodiversity, fighting climate change, and supporting organizations that work for peace and basic human rights.

One of the central ethics of humanism is mutual care and responsibility. In the absence of a supernatural caretaker, we know that the responsibility for improving this world rests where it always has - with the people who live, think, feel, and act in that world.

The humanists in this unique philanthropic community have made the choice to step forward, becoming more active in creating a better world as an expression of our worldview. For the remainder of 2011, we'll be working to increase our impact even more, connecting our members more tangibly to the work of our beneficiaries and increasing our own direct efforts through a humanist volunteer corps.

In the meantime, thanks so much for your help in reaching this landmark. And on we go to the next!

Dale McGowan
Executive Director

February 25, 2011, 12:59 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink2 comments
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Help Bring Freethought to Prisoners

The United States of America is the prison capital of the world, incarcerating far more people than any other nation (including China, which has over four times our population and is a repressive dictatorship). And most atheists already know that Christian proselytizing is rampant in prisons, with programs that both skirt the Constitution and blatantly trespass on it.

Given these facts, it makes sense for the atheist movement to care about what happens behind prison walls. Although atheists are known to be underrepresented in prison relative to our share of the general population, that doesn't mean that there aren't prisoners who are desperately seeking an alternative to omnipresent, coercive religious evangelism. Any real education we can offer them, as opposed to indoctrination with fundamentalist superstition and dogma, would be an extremely welcome breath of fresh air.

That's why, on suggestion from a reader (thanks, Jerry!), I want to recommend the Freethought Books Project, an effort to get atheist and freethought books to inmates and others in need. Donations of both money and books are welcomed. There are also prisoners who'd like to correspond with freethinkers on the outside, so if you'd prefer, you can volunteer to be a pen pal as well. If you have the time and the interest, please consider it!

February 8, 2011, 8:50 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink8 comments
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