Book Review: God, No!

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Just what you'd expect from its author: outspoken, boisterous, crude, frequently vulgar, often hilarious. Unapologetically atheist, but more about Penn Jillette the person than about atheism per se.

God, No! is written by Penn Jillette, the louder half of Penn & Teller who's well-known for his skeptical and libertarian views. He's also known for being outspoken, boisterous, crude, and vulgar, and the book embodies all these traits in equal measure - although I have to say that it's often uproariously funny as well. Although many of the chapters have a strong atheist bent, I'd say it's less a book about atheism per se and more of a loose autobiography, comprising Penn's life, his professional career, and his views on family, show business, and whatever else he feels like writing about.

The book is divided into ten sections, each of which comprises several chapters roughly themed around one of Penn's proposals for a secular set of ten commandments (hmm, where have we heard something like that before?). Most of them I quite liked, such as "Do not put things or even ideas above other human beings." It's not hard to conclude that Penn's moral view is superior to the Bible's, though of course the same is true of pretty much anyone alive today who has a modicum of education and common sense.

So, let's start with the disclaimers: This one definitely isn't for the prudish or the easily offended. Aside from the ubiquitous swearing, some chapters were explicitly pornographic, especially the scuba-diving one and the one about Penn's visiting a gay bathhouse. (It's not what you think.) There was also quite a lot of nudity (mostly Penn's own, sometimes others'). Penn claims he's never drunk alcohol or tried any other kind of drugs, and given some of the exploits chronicled in this book, that would be hard to believe, except that he clearly isn't the kind of person to hold back any details about his personal life, however embarrassing. There was the aforementioned chapter about the bathhouse, as well as one about a hair dryer that's likely to have all his male readers cringing. (It's not what you think - or maybe it is...)

But mixed in with all that, there was a powerful and well-written atheist message. One of my favorite chapters was the one about Penn's friendship with three former Hasidic Jews - an amazing story about three different people who each had the courage to escape from one of the world's most oppressive and insular religious enclaves. One of them had as brilliant and poignant a deconversion story as I've ever read: he approached Penn after a show and explained that he was in the midst of leaving his religion. He wanted, of all things, to taste a bacon cheeseburger for the first time in his life, and he said it would be an honor if Penn would accompany him for the meal - and he did exactly that. This story could easily have been ridiculous (and okay, maybe it is, a little), but the way Penn writes it, it was unexpectedly moving. Seeing a man deliberately break a religiously-imposed taboo for the first time in his life, as a symbolic proof of his newly freed mind, is a powerful statement.

I do have to mention, as if you didn't already know, that Penn is a libertarian. He mentions both his libertarian views and skepticism about climate change, although he doesn't really explore either of them at length. The whole chapter about libertarianism is only three pages, and basically boils down to, "Even though I think funding cancer research is a good thing, it's still wrong to make me support it by paying taxes." (There's this thing called a social contract, which most libertarians seem to overlook.)

The chapter about climate change, likewise brief, is in the context of one of his talks at a convention. He says that he doesn't know enough to know if it's real, if it's dangerous, or if there's anything we can do to stop it. Fair enough, not everyone can be a climatologist; but if you really don't consider yourself qualified to render an opinion, then you should stay out of the debate altogether. If you say "I don't know" and use that as the basis for policy, then you have rendered an opinion whether you like it or not. And it's not a big leap to guess that the reason for Penn's refusing to render a verdict is that, if climate change is a real threat, preventing it would require collective action of a kind that his libertarian philosophy says is never necessary. Claiming to be perpetually unsure is one way to avoid this cognitive dissonance.

September 7, 2011, 5:42 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink15 comments

Rick Perry's Prayer Follies

Whether you're an atheist or not, you should be alarmed by the sight of elected officials making a big public show of praying during a crisis. It's not that prayer itself does anything one way or the other - it's that their beseeching the gods for help is a good hint, not just that they have no ideas, but that they've given up even trying and are staking their hopes on a miracle. Which is why this story, about the man who happens to be the most recent entrant in the Republican presidential field, is even more disturbing than the usual drumbeat of Christian privilege:

A few months ago, with Texas aflame from more than 8,000 wildfires brought on by extreme drought, a man who hopes to be the next president took pen in hand and went to work:
    "Now, therefore, I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas."
    Then the governor prayed, publicly and often. Alas, a rainless spring was followed by a rainless summer. July was the
hottest month in recorded Texas history... In the four months since Perry's request for divine intervention, his state has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Nearly all of Texas is now in "extreme or exceptional" drought, as classified by federal meteorologists, the worst in Texas history.

In fact, as reported in a later article, the economic losses from Texas' severe and ongoing drought have now topped $5 billion, setting a record. What conclusion should we draw from this story? Should it be that Perry was praying to the wrong god and the real one got angry and worsened the drought? (Maybe he should try praying to other gods - bowing toward Mecca, say, or sacrificing a bull to Zeus - just to see if one of them will help out.) Or maybe Rick Perry himself is just bad at praying. Maybe he's committed some secret sin that God is punishing him for, and any state or country that he governs will be afflicted by drought and devastation. Or, of course, maybe it's just that God doesn't exist or doesn't answer prayers.

An empirically-minded voter would at least consider all these possibilities. But as a Republican, Perry has the advantage of a huge faction of constituents who think that ostentatious public displays of piety are the same thing as character and virtue, and who can be counted on to remember the prayer and forget the result. The inconvenient fact that his praying didn't help will be filed in a mental drawer and forgotten, just as they're used to forgetting all the times prayer made no difference in their own lives. On the other hand, if he had issued a prayer proclamation and the skies had opened up the day afterward, it would be a miracle remembered for decades, and Perry would probably be using it in his campaign literature right now. From a politician's standpoint, it's a win-win situation (which explains why Georgia's governor tried the same thing in 2007, with equally pathetic results).

The elephant lurking in the room is that these increasingly extreme swings of weather are likely due in part to global climate change. But rather than taking effective action, like shutting down coal-fired power plants or offering tax incentives for alternative energy, the anti-science evangelicals would prefer to squeeze their eyes tightly shut and pray for God to magically rescue them from the crisis of their own making. In fact, they're dead set on continuing to foster antiscientific ignorance.

When hurricanes strike our coasts, the religious right won't call for engineers to build seawalls or restore barrier reefs, they'll bow their heads and try to pray the next storm away. When drought and wildfire strikes, they won't call for more efficient water use, they'll just beg God to send more rain so they can continue their wasteful ways. When the economy plunges, they won't vote for government stimulus to put people back to work, they'll just kneel and implore God to fix it (how they expect this to happen, they never quite say - this one is especially mysterious).

As a growing human population presses against the limits of what our planet can sustain, nothing is more important than steering our course wisely through the next few decades if we're going to thread the needle of survival. This will be difficult enough if we rely on science, but the religious right, having amply demonstrated how relying on faith has worsened their own lives, now wants to have a faith-based civilization. This is like taking a road trip by blindfolding yourself before you get in the driver's seat, spinning the steering wheel at random, and trusting that God will see to it that you end up where you want to go. Unfortunately, we're stuck on the same planet as them, which makes it all the more urgent for those of us who don't share this suicidally irrational faith to loudly and fearlessly defend science and reason.

August 19, 2011, 7:25 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink47 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

Some scattered thoughts to contemplate on a Saturday morning:

• Earlier this year, my post on urban agriculture drew some spirited disagreement. Now there's a study from Ohio State University which concludes that Cleveland could supply all its own produce, poultry and honey if the many vacant lots in the shrinking, post-industrial city were converted into gardens.

• A Missouri high school, in response to a complaint from a homeschooling parent who doesn't even have kids in the school, has banned Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer from its library. In response, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis is offering to send free copies of the book to any student in the school who wants one. They're asking for donations to cover their shipping costs, so please consider chipping in a few dollars if you can afford it.

Cosmos is being remade by Fox, with a production team including Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy (!). The fact that the creative team includes Ann Druyan, and the proposed host is Neil deGrasse Tyson (who knew Carl Sagan personally), gives me hope that the result will be good.

• Did you know that California permits its prison inmates to have vegetarian meals only for religious reasons, and not out of secular moral convictions? Another example of the unjust privilege that's often accorded to religion as more real or more sincere than other kinds of beliefs.

• New York's Woodlawn Cemetery is selling multimillion-dollar mausoleums for the deceased wealthy. I've tried without success to imagine the mindset that would lead someone to spend millions of dollars on a lavish container for their own corpse, rather than giving it away to living people who have genuine needs.

• Cult leader Warren Jeffs has been re-convicted of child sexual assault, this time in Texas, after an earlier conviction in Utah was overturned on a legal technicality. He probably didn't help his case by threatening the court with plagues for daring to put him on trial.

August 6, 2011, 11:28 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink12 comments

A Humanist Easter Homily

Today is Easter Sunday, the day when Christians celebrate Jesus' supposed resurrection from the tomb. But though they believe this holiday commemorates a unique and singular event, their timing is suspicious. As you may have noticed, Easter is very close (making some allowances for calendrical drift) to the vernal equinox, the first day of spring.

This strongly suggests that the story of Jesus' death and resurrection is another offshoot of the ancient harvest myth: the story of resurrection invented by primitive people who watched in wonder as seeds were buried in the earth, seemingly consigned to oblivion as if they were dead bodies, only to burst forth into new life. In the ancient world, a pantheon of dying-and-rising savior gods sprang from this belief. The New Testament unintentionally testifies to the origin of its own mythology when it has Jesus incorrectly state, "I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24).

It's not just Christianity that unknowingly beats in time to these ancient agricultural rhythms. I attended a Passover seder earlier this week with my wife's extended family. Throughout the service, I was contemplating how the litany that observant Jews recite every year claims that this holiday is observed to commemorate the Jewish people's ancient deliverance from Egypt. But archaeological evidence shows that the whole story is a pious fiction: they were never enslaved there in the first place. There was no exodus, no wandering in the desert, no genocidal conquest of the promised land; the people we call the Israelites always lived there, they were always neighbors to the Canaanites whom their holy writings despise. It seems more likely that Passover, too, began as a spring festival whose real origins were gradually forgotten as it was pressed into the cause of serving a nationalistic myth.

I think that part of the reason this isn't more obvious to everyone is that modern society is suffering from agricultural estrangement. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, billions of people spend their lives in cities where they have little, if any, direct contact with nature unless they make a specific effort to seek it out. Agriculture, meanwhile, has become an industrialized endeavor where a few varieties of food crops are grown in enormous monoculture.

But nature in all its tangled complexity can't be treated with the logic of a factory, and our society is paying the price for it: soil erosion and depletion, loss of genetic diversity, extreme vulnerability to changing climate, and a never-ending struggle against fast-evolving pests. I recently read in Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire how modern potato farmers, to protect against late blight - the same fungus that caused the catastrophic Irish famine - spray their crops with an organophosphate fungicide that's so toxic they won't step into the field for any reason for almost a week after spraying.

This battle has already been lost on some fronts. For example, the Gros Michel, once the most popular variety of banana in the world, was wiped out by a fungal disease, and the current favorite, the Cavendish, may be next. In nature, the genetic diversity naturally present in every population usually ensures that at least some individuals will resist any disease or pest; but industrial agriculture, which prefers that every plant be a uniform and genetically perfect clone of every other, makes no allowance for this.

If we had a more decentralized, more diverse agricultural system - one that more closely approximated an ecosystem, rather than an assembly line - we wouldn't be nearly as vulnerable. That's why it makes me glad to see the growing prominence of urban farming, like this organic farm in the Battery district of lower Manhattan, the prevalence of community gardens, or small farms on urban green roofs. Shrinking cities like Detroit have also been experimenting with large-scale urban agriculture, partly to remedy the chronic lack of fresh, healthy produce (Detroit, incredibly, has no major chain supermarkets).

Granted, no major city is likely to ever be fully self-sufficient. It probably doesn't make economic sense for cities to grow all their own food, even with fanciful ideas like vertical farms - essentially, glass skyscrapers turned into giant greenhouses. There will always be economic incentives to grow crops in rural land that's not in as much demand for living space.

But the benefits of decentralized agriculture, including urban farming, would be more than purely economic. It would restore that ancient biophilic connection with nature that so many millions of people have lost, and it would give us a greater sense of where our food comes from and how dependent we are on the earth - that sense of time and space, of season and climate, without which we feel adrift and rootless. The psychological benefits of a green environment are considerable, and it's even possible that it might give more people a rational insight into where some of our species' most popular myths first came from.

April 24, 2011, 9:35 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink40 comments

A Confluence of Holidays

This year, there's an interesting calendrical coincidence: Today is both Earth Day and Good Friday. That being so, I thought it would prove enlightening to compare these two holidays and the messages they respectively send to their practitioners.

One of the holidays on this date is to commemorate the gory death of a Jewish mystic some two thousand years ago, a dimly remembered event in an obscure corner of a long-vanished empire - an event which, we're told, takes precedence over everything else that's ever happened, and that people living today should feel personally responsible for. The other is to celebrate the Earth - our home, the cradle of our life - and to remind us of its vulnerability and our common responsibility to protect it.

In many ways, these holidays sum up the competing religious and secular views of our existence, and the contrast between them couldn't be clearer. One celebrates parochial interests; the other is for the sake of common concerns that matter to all of us. One is to pay homage to superstition; the other is to raise awareness of the pressing realities we can't afford to ignore. One holiday is meant to fill us with misery and lamentation; the other is meant to give us reason to hope. One holiday is meant to keep us dwelling on the past; the other encourages us to look to the future.

The overwhelming importance placed by Christians on Good Friday, its ad nauseam repetition and commemoration, shows the myopia of their religious viewpoint. Even if Jesus existed, his death was just one among many in a turbulent and violent era, yet believers continue to insist that this one death, out of billions of anonymous and forgotten others in human history, is freighted with cosmic significance. Some go so far as to call it the only truly important thing that's ever happened in the entire lifetime of the cosmos, and its consequences the only thing worth concerning ourselves with.

Meanwhile, Earth Day calls our attention not to provincial religious mythologies, but to a broader, global perspective and to the things of true importance that are happening on our planet. In the real world, rainforest is being cut down to grow cash crops and graze cattle, and the green and living lungs of the planet are slowly turning to desert. In the real world, our reckless burning of fossil fuel continues to pump carbon into the atmosphere, and as the climate slowly warms in response, ice caps and glaciers are retreating, droughts are growing more severe and storms more powerful, and sea levels are rising, threatening island nations and coastal cities alike. In the real world, human overuse and sprawl is draining aquifers, drying up lakes and rivers, ransacking virgin habitat, and driving species to extinction, each one a unique, irreplaceable treasure trove of genetic diversity lost forever.

These realities press in on us, whether we want to admit it or not. Try as we might to adapt, they're undermining the way of life our civilization has grown to depend on. If we continue on our unsustainable course, there will come a day when we'll have to face a reckoning - and no ancient, crucified Jewish sage is going to return from the clouds to magically save us all by recreating the Earth as it once was. Hoping for a miracle is only going to distract us from the urgency of the course corrections we still have to make, while there's time for them to do our descendants any good.

Not only does Good Friday value superstition over reality, its intent is to moor believers to the past, perpetually replaying a long-ago evil - and telling them that they are personally responsible for it. In the Roman Catholic tradition, Good Friday is a day of lamentation, penance and sorrow. Believers are encouraged to fast all day, to perform the Stations of the Cross (a series of images used to visualize and meditate on Jesus' agonizing death), and to pray acts of reparation apologizing for the crucifixion. Church altars are covered with black cloth, and in some churches, images of the crucified Jesus or Jesus in the tomb are presented so that believers can kneel, weep and kiss them. Any display of happiness is frowned on. According to the official Catholic liturgy, even funerals held on this day should have no singing or music.

By contrast, Earth Day calls on us to acknowledge our responsibility in environmental destruction, yes, but not for the sake of self-flagellation. Rather, its purpose is to inspire us to mindfulness and action: to preserve what hasn't been destroyed, to save what can still be saved, to avert what can still be averted, and most of all, to do this not out of guilt but because we recognize our world as a precious thing worthy of protection. Our planet is a vast, ineffably beautiful, majestic yet fragile place, unique (as far as we know) in all the immensity of the cosmos, and its riches and wonders are the common property of humankind. We should learn from it not to exalt one faith, one culture, or one life above all others, because we are all part of an interconnected whole, and it's this recognition, and not baseless superstition, that should guide us to a more enlightened and moral view of our place in it all.

[Editor's Note: As an Earth Day treat, check out NASA's Eyes on the Earth website - a stunning multimedia display that lets you track, in real time, the scientific satellites orbiting our planet, see them up close, learn about their missions, and even see the data that they've collected!]

April 22, 2011, 6:50 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink14 comments

Movie Review: Into Eternity
Into Eternity poster

This weekend, my wife and I saw Into Eternity, a gripping documentary by the Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen. It's well worth a wider audience, so here's a review of it that I hope will provoke some interest.

Every nuclear power plant in the world produces several tons of high-level radioactive waste each year. In total, there exists in the world about 250,000 tons of radioactive waste, which is potentially deadly and will be for tens of thousands of years. Most countries that rely on nuclear power have no clear plan for disposing of it permanently (such as the U.S., where the proposed Yucca Mountain repository was canceled), and are resorting to temporary storage in water pools until a long-term solution is decided on.

One of the few exceptions is Finland, which is building a repository called Onkalo - Finnish for "hiding place" - drilled thousands of feet deep into the granite bedrock on an island 300 kilometers northwest of Helsinki. When Onkalo is finished, probably around 2020, it will be large enough to store all the radioactive waste Finland will generate in the next hundred years, after which it will be closed and sealed permanently.

But even though Onkalo will be open for about a hundred years, the wastes that it will contain will be dangerous for the next 100,000 years, and must be kept safe for that entire enormous span of time. That's the almost unimaginable challenge that its builders face, and that's the underlying idea that motivates this documentary and suffuses it with an eerily mythic, almost apocalyptic feel.

100,000 years is a span of time difficult for the human mind to grasp. The oldest pyramids of Egypt are less than 5,000 years old; the most ancient human settlements in the world, like Jericho and Çatalhöyük, are about 10,000 years old. Even the cave paintings of Lascaux are only about 17,000 years old. Onkalo will have to outlast all of these, and Madsen very effectively conveys the awful grandeur of that idea, the sense of standing at the lip of a vast abyss of time. In between interviews with the engineers, lawmakers, and scientific advisors of the project, he juxtaposes scenes of ghostly white, snow-shrouded Finnish woods with the vast, cavernous tunnels of Onkalo far below, where gloved and masked workers use heavy industrial equipment to drill ever deeper into the earth. Madsen's narration is addressed to a hypothetical far-future audience, explaining to them why we built this place and wondering what they may think of us.

The engineering challenges in building Onkalo are formidable. For one, it's essential that the repository be entirely passive, able to safeguard its contents without needing human beings to guard or maintain it. The engineers building Onkalo designed it to be immune to fires, floods, earthquakes - even to withstand the glaciation of the next ice age.

But natural disasters, over these long time scales, are a predictable quantity. The biggest threat to Onkalo by far is human intrusion. We can't predict the twists and turns of contingency; we can't be certain how long our society will endure, what may cause it to fall, or what might rise in its place. If Onkalo is ever rediscovered, some day in the far future, the people who find it may not have anything in common with us: not culture, not language, not even our scientific understanding of the world. How can we make them comprehend the danger, how can we persuade them to leave this place alone? How can we possibly communicate across the gulf of a thousand centuries?

This is where nuclear waste storage becomes less an engineering issue and more a philosophical problem. Into Eternity discusses some of the ideas that have been proposed: stone monuments engraved with warnings in every U.N. language, or more imaginative proposals that convey ideas on a level deeper than words, like huge, forbidding black monoliths or a jagged "landscape of thorns" protruding from the earth. One interview subject suggests reproductions of Edvard Munch's "The Scream". Still others suggest that any marker at all will only invite curiosity, and the best thing we can do for our descendants is to seal up Onkalo and leave it entirely unmarked and forgotten, hoping they never stumble across it.

Although this isn't explicitly an environmental documentary, the subject looms unavoidably in the background. Paradoxically, the building of Onkalo shows both the worst and the best of humanity: how insanely selfish and short-sighted it is to light our homes and offices today with a poison that will endanger our descendants for hundreds of generations; and how inspiring it is that we're able to think this far into the future and be willing to consider such extreme measures to safeguard them. But the most terrifying idea of all is that Onkalo, as huge as it is, will only store the nuclear waste of one country. Ultimately, the world will need dozens or hundreds of places like this. How many hidden dangers, how many buried traps, are we going to have to leave for those who live after us?

February 6, 2011, 2:28 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink23 comments

Using Purchasing Power for Good

Since 'tis the season for commercialism, shopping sprees and big-ticket purchases, I thought I'd write a post that I've had in mind for a long time. It's less about atheism per se, more about rationalism and being aware of the ways our choices shape the world around us.

We may scoff, and rightfully so, when the Supreme Court uses free speech as an excuse to lift campaign-finance restrictions on huge multinational corporations. But it's true, nevertheless: Money is a form of speech - and not just in the sense that it lets you rent billboards or buy ads on buses. Every purchase you make, every person or business to which you send your dollars, sends a signal about what you value - and, in essence, is a vote for what kind of world you want to live in.

If you send money to companies that cut down old-growth forests to make tissue paper or clear rainforest to plant oil palms, you're voting for those practices to continue. The same applies if you shop at businesses that fire workers for trying to organize, that use child labor, that pollute the atmosphere with carbon, or that have a record of supporting fundamentalist and conservative religious causes.

Adam Smith imagined market forces as an invisible hand, but that metaphor makes it seem as if there's a single, invisible agency consciously deciding how the economy will go. A better one might be that the market is like the planchette on a Ouija board, and the motion of the "hand" is determined by the sum of billions of small pushes from each of us. When our buying decisions collectively indicate that we only care about price, we should expect businesses to respond accordingly - to focus on reducing the price of their product at the expense of all else - even if it means acting unethically or unsustainably.

But the opposite side of this is that our buying decisions can support good causes as well as bad ones. If we buy from companies that practice business with an eye to sustainability, companies that treat their workers well and pay them fairly, companies that support progressive and liberal causes, then we're signaling that we support those practices and that will naturally encourage more businesses to follow suit to claim their share of that market.

Granted, it's hard not to be complicit in bad business practices. For most people in developed countries, except a fortunate few who live in dense urban areas with readily available mass transit, it's impossible to make a living without owning a car - and that means we have no choice but to enrich corporations that lobby for destructive drilling in environmentally sensitive regions, that cause disastrous spills and pollution, and that enrich repressive theocracies and corrupt dictatorships. Still, even if every buying decision can't be virtuous, there are a lot of things the average person can do. This includes, wherever possible, buying products that are:

Fair trade: Fair trade certification ensures that products are produced by workers who are paid a living wage, work in safe conditions and have the right to organize and bargain collectively. The best known fair-trade product is coffee, but certification is expanding into other markets, including fresh flowers, cotton, chocolate, wine and tea, even ice cream.

Certified sustainable: Many of Earth's natural resources are in danger of being destroyed by voracious harvester companies that use them up faster than they can replenish themselves - for instance, most sought-after wild fish species are being fished into extinction. Groups like the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council certify that paper products, timber and seafood are being harvested at a sustainable rate (but beware of "greenwashing", where corporate-owned front groups sell their own, virtually meaningless "certifications" to companies that want the cachet of a green reputation without the work).

Organic, local and humane: Modern agriculture is driven by vast quantities of fossil fuels, fertilizers and antibiotics, often ending up by shipping food halfway around the world from where it's produced. This approach has its advantages, particularly efficiency and economy of scale, but it also has unintended costs. Much of the meat and poultry you can buy in the supermarket comes from CAFOs - massive industrial complexes where animals are raised, often in cramped and filthy conditions - and even aside from humanitarian considerations, the constant dosing with antibiotics to keep the animals healthy encourages the evolution of resistance in dangerous human pathogens. Meanwhile, the carbon pollution caused by fossil-fuel-intensive farming and shipping contributes to climate change.

Theree isn't a perfect solution to this - it's best to buy locally grown produce if possible, but few people live in places where it's available year-round. And while organic food does have advantages, realistically, its benefits are modest, especially if it's a large corporate-run operation (and be aware that "natural", unlike "organic", is a fluff term that has no legal meaning). But again, buying these products sends a signal about what consumers want, and that helps to steer the market in the right direction. There are also programs like the American Humane Society's certified humane standard for livestock.

Low-carbon or zero-carbon: The greatest threat facing humanity is climate change caused by CO2 emissions from fossil fuel. And yet, surprisingly, there's no international standard for certifying a business as low-carbon or zero-carbon. However, many utilities give consumers the option to buy their power from alternative energy programs that rely on environmentally friendly sources like solar, hydroelectric, wind, biomass and geothermal. If your utility offers a program like this, consider taking advantage of it. The more of a market we create for alternative energy, the more we speed the decarbonization of the world economy - and that will pay dividends beyond just the environmental ones.

December 24, 2010, 12:06 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink13 comments

Under Green Leaves

In an old essay on Ebon Musings, "Finding Beauty in the Mundane", I wrote in a contemplative mood:

Have you ever considered the trees? Though their kind of life is far grander, slower and more patient than ours, they are each individuals, as different as human beings are. They add beauty to the world, give peace in their dappled shade, freshen the air and enrich the earth, and turn even the most hard-edged urban environment into a blossoming garden. We humans grew up beneath the trees, and we love them still...

Several years later, I still find this to be true. Whether I'm depressed or whether I'm already feeling good, it's almost always the case that visiting a botanical garden or a nature preserve, or even just going for a walk on a tree-lined street, noticeably improves my mood. The sight of sunlight slanting down through green leaves never fails to give me a sense of calm and peace. I tend to think the cause is that looking up at a tree reawakens one's sense of perspective: it's hard to see your own troubles as so serious in the presence of an organism that measures time only in years and decades.

But trees have more than just aesthetic benefits. Human beings feel an instinctive attraction to nature and wilderness, what E.O. Wilson called biophilia, and we flourish in its presence. For example, in one famous study, surgical patients who could see trees outside their window recovered faster and required fewer painkillers than patients whose window looked out on a brick wall. Other studies have found that greener urban areas have lower crime rates and that being in green environments lessens the symptoms of ADHD and improves schoolchildren's academic performance. (And that's not even to mention the many environmental and economic benefits of trees, either.)

The most likely explanation for this is that millions of years of evolution have instilled in us a built-in preference for certain kinds of environments, namely those most similar to our species' ancestral habitat. Wilson argues that this is the savanna, an open grassland broken up by patches of forest. This is the habitat we evolved in, the one we're best adapted to, and when we're placed in such an environment, we tend to fare better both mentally and physically. Urban environments, by contrast, present very different stressors that the human species never evolved to deal with.

I wonder if this feeling of displacement from nature is something that plays a role in religious conversions. When people live only in cities, surrounded by concrete and fluorescent lights, separated from nature, they do feel a sense of isolation and loss, and most of them don't know why. Religious proselytizers, of course, claim they can offer something to fill that void, and to people who don't know the true cause of these feelings, it's probably an effective sales pitch.

But when you know the true source of these feelings, the imitation can't compare to the reality. As I found for myself, the feeling of awe induced by direct contact with nature at its most spectacular is an ecstasy that easily compares to anything offered by any church. That's a piece of knowledge we ought to spread more widely. If more people understood the true, natural roots of human spirituality, the artificial attractions of religion might not prove so resilient.

August 9, 2010, 5:52 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink22 comments

How to Eradicate Militant Islam

It's said that nothing is harder to kill than an idea. Trying to stamp out a deeply felt belief by force, especially a religious belief, not only makes its followers cling to it more tenaciously, it gives them an aura of martyrdom that makes the belief look even more attractive to outsiders. And when the belief in question is a religious belief whose scriptures claim that persecution of the faithful is a sign of their righteousness, these tendencies become all the stronger.

This is more than just an academic debate, unfortunately, because we're currently seeing it play out in the spread of militant Islam. In some form or another, Islam is practiced by almost a third of the population of this planet, and this means there's a vast pool of people who are susceptible to the siren song of radical preachers calling for violent jihad. Fundamentalism is spreading among them like a weed, and the memes that give fundamentalist Islam its resilience and persistence are interwoven with memes that encourage acts of bloodshed and terrorism: suicide bombings, chopping off heads and hands, stoning and hanging as routine punishments, the execution of apostates, the brutal oppression of women and religious minorities.

Nor can it be said any longer that militant, fundamentalist Islam is just an insignificant minority within a peaceful faith community. Polls of Muslim countries routinely find that majorities or sizable pluralities approve of tactics like suicide bombing, even against civilians (see p.39). And diplomatic organizations representing dozens of Islamic governments are still pressing for legal restrictions on free speech around the world. In most Muslim-majority nations, the rights of women and minorities, both de facto and de jure, are practically nonexistent.

We badly need to provoke a new Enlightenment in the Islamic world, but how? As any atheist knows, religious memes are self-protecting; they come packaged with concepts such as faith, obedience to religious authorities, the command to trust only one book, and the promise of hellfire for those who disobey or doubt, all of which make it difficult for people inside the religion to take a critical look at their own beliefs. Once they've taken root, they're very difficult to eradicate.

To answer this question, I think it's worth asking another one. Why is it that violent Islam has had so much success at spreading itself? How has it made so many converts?

I don't believe that it's because militant Islam is intrinsically more appealing than moderate Islam, or because it offers a stronger sense of purpose or identity. Nor is it because, as racists sometimes claim, Muslim people are less intelligent or more prone to violence than Westerners. I think the real explanation is very different and, once you realize it, much more obvious. Ayaan Hirsi Ali explains it in her book Nomad, describing her experiences with rootless Somali youth in Nairobi:

"Some of these young men later repented and joined the Muslim Brotherhood. They would go to Saudi Arabia on Islamic scholarships and come back as preachers of what we would now call radical Islam. Their own story was compelling, for they had been saved from evil, Westernized behavior when Allah showed them the straight path." [p.57]

The spread of radical Islam can be traced directly to the disastrous coincidence that the more severe forms of Islam, like Wahhabism, were born in and came to dominate the same countries that have some of the world's richest oil reserves. The leaders of these countries, all of which are theocracies, treated this discovery as proof that God favors their beliefs. And they've used - they're still using - their vast oil wealth to fund an evangelistic movement spreading the poison of militant Islam throughout the world.

This makes the otherwise mysterious success of Islamism much more understandable. There's nothing inexplicable about it - it's entirely to be expected that the wealthiest faction will have the most ability to spread its message. And this is all the more true when they're preaching to people in poor and developing nations, who stand to gain the most from affiliating themselves with the Islamist movement and the financial power that supports it. Most of these countries have governments that are weak, corrupt or autocratic, making an attractive alternative of charismatic Islamist preachers who claim to represent virtue and societal order. And in many poverty-stricken regions, Saudi-funded madrassas are literally the only source of education, which means these preachers face little resistance or competition in the battle for young minds. (This sheds some light on why the Afghani Taliban are so bent on destroying Western-built schools, especially girls' schools. It's not just because they want to keep women ignorant; it's because they fear the competition.)

And this theory points the way to breaking the power of radical Islam: We badly need to free ourselves from our dependency on fossil fuel. The fact that it lubricates every part of our economy means that America and the West are, in effect, paying a tax to the religious fanatics who desire our destruction. This isn't a new observation, of course, but I think this analysis clarifies the direct connection between our addiction to oil and the spread of jihadist ideologies that cultivate theocracy and terrorism.

If we could develop an alternative-energy economy not based on importing fossil fuels from the Mideast, the Islamist regimes would shrivel up and die, and the source of funding for al-Qaeda and its affiliates would dry up virtually overnight. As it is, we're bogged down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives in a futile quest to establish Western-friendly regimes, while at the same time spending rivers of cash that flows to the factions resisting us. We're fighting the enemy with one hand while aiding them with the other. It would be laughably absurd, if the consequences weren't so deadly serious.

August 4, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink40 comments

The Contributions of Freethinkers: Richard Leakey

Atheists have a great number of famous names to our credit. We can justly claim renowned composers, scientists, musicians, civil rights leaders - and conservationists, as we'll see in today's post on the contributions of freethinkers.

Richard Leakey was born in Nairobi in 1944, son of the famous archaeologist Louis Leakey. The elder Leakey was a strong supporter of racial equality, and Richard's upbringing reflected that belief. He started school soon after the Mau Mau rebellion had been defeated, and when he spoke up in favor of the native Kenyans, his classmates taunted him as a "nigger lover", beat him, spat on him and forced him into a wire cage. Several online sources say that he also resolved never to be a Christian after he was caned for missing chapel services.

Partly due to incidents like this, Richard never finished high school. But despite this, he showed an impressive aptitude of his own for finding fossils of human ancestors - including Turkana Boy, one of the most complete hominid skeletons ever unearthed, which was discovered by a paleontological team under his direction. He also showed impressive skill at administration, becoming director of the National Museums of Kenya at just 25.

In 1989, in response to an international outcry over the slaughter of elephants and rhinos by poachers, President Daniel Arap Moi appointed Leakey head of the Kenya Wildlife Service and tasked him with protecting Kenya's endangered wildlife. Leakey accomplished this in characteristically bold fashion - by creating well-armed, specially-trained park ranger units that were authorized to shoot poachers on sight. Draconian though this seems, it was effective: almost a hundred poachers were killed during his first year at KWS, and poaching rates declined thereafter. Leakey also made international headlines when he burned 12 tons of confiscated illegal ivory, worth more than $3 million, in a massive bonfire.

In 1993, Leakey was flying a small private plane that crashed near the Great Rift Valley. This is widely believed, though never proved, to have been sabotage by someone seeking to assassinate him, probably in revenge for the anti-poaching campaign. He survived the crash, though he was badly injured and both his legs had to be amputated. Within a few months, however, he was up and walking again on prosthetics and back on the job.

Unfortunately, as a crusading reformist, Leakey may have been too zealous even for his own government. President Moi demanded that he reinstate 1,600 KWS employees who had been fired for corruption or inefficiency, and when Leakey refused, Moi gutted the agency, taking away most of its budget and power. Leakey resigned in protest, and in 1995, founded a new political party, Safina, devoted to the cause of reform. His campaign drew angry threats from British settlers who felt his zeal was putting them in jeopardy, and on one occasion, he was attacked by a mob loyal to Moi's party. As always, however, he refused to quit, and two years later, he won a seat in Kenya's Parliament. A year after that, with international lenders withholding funds because of pervasive corruption, Moi asked Leakey to rejoin his administration. As a January 2010 article in Sierra puts it:

So Richard Leakey, five times accused of treason — and of being a racist, colonialist, and atheist (the only accusation to which he pleads guilty) — was named head of Kenya's Public Service.

This time, Leakey had even more power than before: in his new job, he had authority second only to the president. But even this wasn't enough, and when his anti-corruption efforts ran into repeated political roadblocks, he quit for the second time. This time, he swore off politics for good.

At 65, Leakey still lives in Kenya, hale and hearty after two kidney transplants and still working to advance the cause of conservation in the country where he's spent nearly all his life. His most recent achievement is the launch of WildlifeDirect, a website that directly connects Western donors with conservationists and field biologists working with threatened and endangered species throughout the world. In 2008, WildlifeDirect helped to fund and train 700 park rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Throughout his life, Leakey's zeal for combatting corruption has been exceeded only by his passion for bridging the gap between humans and nature, whether through unearthing our fossil past or preserving our threatened present for posterity. It's plain that his being an atheist didn't deprive him of an ethical compass. If anything, it contributed to the sense of profound interconnection with the natural world that's driven all the greatest advocates of conservation, past and present. Richard Leakey is one freethinker that atheists can be proud to have on our side.

Other posts in this series:

April 21, 2010, 8:06 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink10 comments

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