Photo Sunday: Monticello

Earlier this year, I took a tour of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and wrote about the experience. But on that same trip, I also had a chance to see a more hopeful sight, a monument to human reason rather than to false dogma: Monticello, the former home of Thomas Jefferson, now restored and turned into a museum. Unbelievably, photos weren't allowed inside the house, but I got some good pictures from the outside:

Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, Virginia, February 2010. Photo by the author. Camera details: Canon PowerShot SD1200 IS. Click for larger version.

On the hill behind the house, there's a family cemetery where Jefferson and many of his relatives are buried. I also took this shot of his memorial:

The inscription on the stone, though dimmed by time, reads:

Here Was Buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the
American Independence
of the
Statute of Virginia
Religious Freedom
and Father of the
University of Virginia

The omission of Jefferson's term as President was intentional. He wrote this epitaph himself, and these were the achievements he most wished to be remembered for.

Compared to the large and noisy celebrations of ignorance on display at Liberty University, I felt ashamed that Thomas Jefferson has such a humble memorial. It's almost a metaphor for the way that American secularism has almost always been on the ropes against the loud and aggressive forces of religious supremacy. But we've won some inspiring victories as well, and while we've often been battered, we've never surrendered. And humble as it is, Monticello has been standing for over two hundred years. I'm happy to say that, at least in America, the merchants of hate and superstition have no institution they can boast of as lasting that long.

November 28, 2010, 6:16 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments

Snapshots from the 2010 FFRF Convention

Welcome to the convention!

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton addresses the convention on the first night.

The FFRF also gave an Emperor Has No Clothes award to Rep. Pete Stark, the only openly nontheist U.S. congressperson, who accepted in a pretaped message.

Linda Greenhouse discusses the Supreme Court.

Dan Barker presents the Emperor Has No Clothes award to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who signed copies of her books after her acceptance speech.

Pioneering geneticist James F. Crow speaks on evolution and creationism.

Eric Workman accepts the Thomas Jefferson Student Activist award for successfully halting state-sponsored prayer at his high school graduation.

Kirk Mefford (R.) and Aaron Blum (L.) discuss their role as advisors to a nontheist student group at West High School. They brought one of their students with them as well.

FFRF staff attorneys Rebecca Markert, Patrick Elliott and Richard Bolton discuss legal challenges.

One theocratic judge put this copy of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom to show how pious he was. See anything wrong with it? Notice which one is missing?

During the lunch break, we toured this street fair in downtown Madison. You can see the impressive dome of the state capitol building.

Julia Sweeney reads from her new book, My Beautiful Loss of Faith Story.

Madison cartoonist Mike Konopacki gave a graphical (and graphic) presentation on religiously inspired violence in American history.

Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks rallies freethinkers to action.

A wide shot to get a sense of the size of the convention. This was about half the ballroom; the other half, equally packed, was behind me.

Julia Sweeney signs books and DVDs after the convention (with Annie Laurie Gaylor looking on, right). Did you know she had a small role in Pulp Fiction? She was much amused when one conventiongoer presented her with this large poster...

Did someone order a large ham? The last event of the night was ex-Mormon cartoonist Steve Benson, who presented a gallery of his most infamous political cartoons with musical accompaniment by Dan Barker.

Freethought Hall, the FFRF's historic headquarters, was just down the road.

I have to admit, as inspiring as it was to see Freethought Hall, it was dwarfed by this Episcopal cathedral down the block - and that's just one church, in one city. It's a reminder of how much work we have left to do in organizing and advocacy. Of course, to be fair, churches enjoy a smorgasbord of tax benefits and legal privileges not available to groups like FFRF. We've only just begun to fight!

November 1, 2010, 8:06 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink9 comments

Photo Sunday: Fall Bridge

Bridge in autumn, Iowa, October 2010. Photo credit: Peter Nothnagle. Click for larger version.

October 24, 2010, 8:51 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink7 comments

Photo Sunday: Mandala

Street art, Manhattan, June 2010. Photo by the author. Camera details: Canon PowerShot SD1200 IS. Click for larger version.

August 22, 2010, 8:41 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink8 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

Photo Sunday: Red and White

Tulips, Central Park, June 2010. Photo by the author. Camera details: Canon PowerShot SD1200 IS. Click for larger version.

August 8, 2010, 6:02 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink3 comments

Photo Sunday: Swallowtail

This weekend, I went for a walk at a nature center in the Hudson Valley. The weather was quintessential summer - warm, brilliantly sunny and clear - and the forest was alive with life: swarms of bees, butterflies and moths doing the daily work of pollination, dragonflies darting over the water, a symphony of birds in the trees, even a snapping turtle basking in the sun. This was one of my most cooperative photo subjects, who took the time to pose and display the iridescent photonic crystals that give butterfly wings such striking colors.

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), Hudson Highlands Nature Center, July 2010. Photo by the author. Camera details: Canon PowerShot SD1200 IS. Click for larger version.

August 1, 2010, 8:29 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments

Photo Sunday: Dolphin Watching

A special video edition of Photo Sunday!

Last month on our honeymoon, my wife and I went on a whale-watching tour in St. Lucia. We only saw one whale - at a distance, and he didn't let us get close enough for me to take any good pictures - but the dolphins were another story.

We encountered this school of dolphins off the southwest coast of the island. There must have been dozens of them, leaping out of the water on every side of our boat, and they seemed as fascinated by us as we were by them. They were beautiful, sleek and as fast as missiles, easily keeping up with the boat. We circled for about an hour to watch them, but I could have spent all day there without feeling a trace of boredom.

Since it was impossible to predict when or where they would jump, I decided to switch to video instead, and I'm pleased with the way it came out. I think it gives a sense of their speed and grace that would have been much more difficult to convey in a photograph. We should be cautious in ascribing human emotions to non-human species, but I feel comfortable saying, at least in this instance, that these dolphins followed us in a spirit of curiosity and play. In fact, I almost got a sense that they were showing off!

June 27, 2010, 9:02 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink5 comments

Photo Sunday: St. Lucia Sunset

I haven't put up any pictures in a while, so here's a new one. It's from my honeymoon last month - we stayed at a resort on the west coast of the island of St. Lucia, a developing but beautiful country with some (in my humble opinion) of the world's most gorgeous scenery, including a spectacular sunset every night. It was almost impossible to take a bad picture there, but this was one of my favorites:

Boats at sunset, St. Lucia, May 2010. Photo by the author. Camera details: Canon PowerShot SD1200 IS. Click for larger version.

June 20, 2010, 5:36 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments

Photo Sunday: Icy Complexity

For this week's Photo Sunday, a seasonally appropriate picture. There's complexity in the world all around us, and the patterns of cracks and pits on the frozen surface of this lake, almost like the surface of an alien planet, caught my eye as a beautiful example:

Frozen lake surface, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, January 2010. Photo by the author. Camera details: Canon PowerShot SD1200 IS. Click for larger version.

February 28, 2010, 11:09 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments

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