The Weaponization of Atheism

In a few days time, the Global Atheist Convention meets in the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, a huge building sprawling out next to the Yarra River, just south of the central business district of Australia’s second biggest city.

But walk north for fifteen minutes or so to Victoria Street, Fitzroy, and you’ll find a much less imposing structure with a much older connection to atheism.

From the outside, there’s little to show that what’s now called Brenan Hall, a brick building in the St Vincent’s Hospital site, was once known, rather grandly, as the Hall of Science. Few Melbournians realise that their city boasts one of the second oldest purpose-built Freethought halls in the world, a meeting place constructed by the Australasian Secular Association in 1889.

As non-believers from around the globe come to Melbourne, the Hall of Science reminds us of the city’s long atheist history. But it does more than that. On this spot in June 1890, a man was shot, as a struggle over the direction of Freethought broiled over into a violent brawl. And that long-forgotten conflict over the politics of skepticism has major implications for today.Read Article

by Jeff Sparrow

Silence Resembling Stupidity: Peter Slezak on the New Atheist and Islam

“One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” George Orwell, 1945

Sam Harris, the hero of the New Atheists, suggests that ‘anyone who cares about the fate of civilisation would do well to recognise that the combination of great power and great stupidity is simply terrifying’.

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens are full of praise for Harris’ sanctimonious rhetoric suggesting that ignorance and religious credulity ‘should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency’. These highbrow thinkers pick, however, an easy, perhaps even irrelevant, target, since the real danger to the world arises more from the secular and educated intellectuals like themselves – a proposition for which there is ample evidence, as we will see. Religious belief that is unfounded is less culpable than belief that is refuted by overwhelming evidence known to the believer. We must ask whether the ‘ancient stupidity’ of religion that Hitchens says ‘poisons everything’ can conceivably compare with the moral lapse of apologists for our own vast crimes. Read Article

by Bill Stranger [April 09 2012]

Flashback! Psychedelic research returns

Kristof Kossut arrived at an unlikely address for his first psychedelic experience. The 60-year-old New Yorker and professional yachtsman opened the door not to an after-hours techno party, but to the bright reception room at the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, a large spa-like space occupying the second floor of New York University’s College of Dentistry. Kossut was among the first subjects of an NYU investigation into the question: Can the mystical states of mind occasioned by psychedelic drugs help alleviate anxiety and depression in people with terminal and recurrent cancer?

Kossut had no idea, but in the spring of last year, he was looking for something, anything, that might improve his mental state. In 2008, he was diagnosed with cancer of the tonsils and put on a biweekly chemo and radiation regimen. He quickly lost his appetite, dropped weight and sank into a deep depression. When a friend sent him a news brief about the experimental NYU study, he applied.

Shortly before Kossut’s arrival on the morning of his session, two clinic employees entered a high-security storage room, which just happens to face a painting of a white rabbit. From a massive steel combination safe they removed a bottle containing one gram of synthesized psilocybin, the psychoactive agent animating the 200-member fungus family commonly known as “magic mushrooms.” The duo carefully measured the small container against the previous day’s weight, as if securing a store of weapons-grade plutonium. They then pill-pressed an amount of powder containing 20 milligrams of the molecule, first identified in 1958 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, most famous for his other psychedelic synthesis, LSD-25.  Read Article

by Bill Stranger [September 28 2011]

Secrets of the sperm bank:  What do we want from a donor?  Hidden dynamics of the fertility industry

Since the economic downturn, a growing number of Americans have begun making money off their bodies. Since the recession began, the number of aspiring sperm and egg donors has surged dramatically in the United States. In 2009, some sperm banks saw a 15 to 20 percent increase in applicants, while, in 2008, egg agencies reported a similar rise—including, at one company, a 40 percent increase in wannabe egg providers. At a time when other industries are collapsing, the sex cell business seems to be doing well for itself. But what is it actually selling?

Sex Cells, a new book by Rene Almeling, an assistant professor of sociology at Yale University, pulls back the curtain on the egg and sperm market. She looks at the ways our cultural assumptions about gender roles influence not only the egg and sperm donation industry but also the people within it. As it turns out, egg and sperm donors have remarkably different experiences of the process. “Sex Cells” explains how this unique industry shapes the way we think about gender and parenthood.

Salon spoke to Rene Almeling over the phone about the strange rhetoric of the sex cell industry, which donors are most valued and what this says about the American family.  Read Interview

by Bill Stranger [September 25 2011]

Steve Jobs Understood Something About Emotions That The Green Movement Too Often Ignores

Going through all the Steve Jobs commentary this morning I came across actor-comedian-proud technophile Stephen Fry’s commentary on BBC News. Fry and Jobs have apparently been friends for a while and the whole thing is worth a listen.

But there’s one passage that really jumps out at me as being something the environmental community, particularly those involved in politics and those trying to motivate people to become more environmentally aware, should pay close attention to.

Fry says,

  Steve Jobs has always understood that, as human beings, our first relationship with anything is an emotional one. ... A device isn’t just a sum of its functions; it’s something that should make you smile, you should cradle, you should love, you should have an emotional relationship with. If people think that’s pretentious, then, in a sense, the success of Apple proves how wrong they are.

The environmental connection in that: From my perspective it all too often seems like the environmental community, when trying to convince people of the benefits of preserving this ecosystem or that, of switching to renewable energy, of the urgent need to combat climate change, of reducing resource consumption, ignores the truth that Fry points out Jobs understands so well.  Read Article

by Bill Stranger [August 26 2011]

What asexuals reveal about sex:  They help expose the nuance of sexuality and desire

It may seem odd to look to an asexual for any insight on sex—but sometimes the absence of something can tell you a surprising amount about the thing itself. Besides, few people have spent as much time thinking critically about the subject as David Jay.

The 29-year-old star of “(A)sexual,” a documentary currently making the film festival rounds, has never desired sex, so he’s spent most of his life looking at the act with the scientific curiosity of an outsider. He’s largely responsible for staging asexuality’s coming-out party over the past decade, having founded in 2001 the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). Ever since then he’s done TV, radio and print interviews, tirelessly fielding the same questions, bad jokes and weird looks. The mention of asexuality is typically met with blank, disbelieving stares.

Many react to the idea of someone having zero interest in sex as offensive. It goes against everything we understand about what makes the world go ‘round, so it’s an inherently confrontational concept. With this disbelief often come attempts to write asexuality off as a result of repression or sexual trauma (as of now there’s no evidence of that). It becomes even more complicated for people to understand when they discover all the variation within the asexual community. Jay tells me by phone, “There are asexual people who are dating, falling in love, getting married”—they just don’t have sex, although many do take pleasure in cuddling and kissing. Then there’s the category of “gray-A’s”—those who have very minimal interest in sex—which the documentary leaves out entirely to avoid confusing viewers (sorry, readers).

When you step into asexuality land, suddenly up isn’t down—it’s more like up, down and sideways all at once. It also brings up broader questions about desire and intimacy in general. As Angela Tucker, the documentary director, told me by phone, “I think these issues really tie to people who don’t identify as asexual.” She was inspired to make the film after stumbling across a Salon article about asexuality in 2005—it struck her as as great way to look at sexuality “through a different lens.” She laughs, “When you talk about asexuality you have to talk about what you’re not doing, right?”  Read Article

by Bill Stranger [August 21 2011]

Reflections on the Mind:  Experiments with a simple mirror setup can reveal much about the brain

You probably look in a mirror every day without thinking about it. But mirrors can reveal a great deal about the brain, with implications for psychology, clinical neurology and even philosophy. They can help us explore the way the brain puts together information from different sensory channels such as vision and somatic sensations (touch, muscle and joint sense). In doing so, they can reveal a lot about our sense of self. Would a person who has never looked at his reflection—even in a pool—ever develop a sophisticated self-representation?

Using two bricks, or some duct tape, prop up an 18-inch-square mirror vertically on a table. Sit so that the edge faces you. Now put your left hand on the table at the left side of the mirror (either palm up or down) and match your right-hand position on the right side. If you now look into the right side of the mirror, you will see the right hand’s reflection optically superimposed in the same place where you feel your left hand to be. (You may need to adjust the position of the left hand to achieve this sensation.) It will now look like you are viewing your own left hand, but of course you are not. Now try the following experiments.

While continuing to look in the mirror on the right side and keeping your left hand perfectly still, move your right hand, wiggle its fingers or make a fist. The “left hand” in the mirror will appear to move in perfect synchrony with the right but, paradoxically, feel completely still. The conflict creates a slight jolt; it feels spooky, sometimes mildly uncomfortable. The brain abhors discrepancies.

Now do the opposite; keep the right hand still and move the left hand. The left hand appears still but feels like it is moving. You will feel the same kind of jarring sensation, but it will be less powerful than in the preceding case. The reason for the asymmetry is not clear.  Read Article

by Bill Stranger [August 18 2011]

Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?

Three men doing time in Israeli prisons recently appeared before a parole board consisting of a judge, a criminologist and a social worker. The three prisoners had completed at least two-thirds of their sentences, but the parole board granted freedom to only one of them. Guess which one:

Case 1 (heard at 8:50 a.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud.

Case 2 (heard at 3:10 p.m.): A Jewish Israeli serving a 16-month sentence for assault.

Case 3 (heard at 4:25 p.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud.

There was a pattern to the parole board’s decisions, but it wasn’t related to the men’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences. It was all about timing, as researchers discovered by analyzing more than 1,100 decisions over the course of a year. Judges, who would hear the prisoners’ appeals and then get advice from the other members of the board, approved parole in about a third of the cases, but the probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.

The odds favored the prisoner who appeared at 8:50 a.m. — and he did in fact receive parole. But even though the other Arab Israeli prisoner was serving the same sentence for the same crime — fraud — the odds were against him when he appeared (on a different day) at 4:25 in the afternoon. He was denied parole, as was the Jewish Israeli prisoner at 3:10 p.m, whose sentence was shorter than that of the man who was released. They were just asking for parole at the wrong time of day.

There was nothing malicious or even unusual about the judges’ behavior, which was reported earlier this year by Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University. The judges’ erratic judgment was due to the occupational hazard of being, as George W. Bush once put it, “the decider.” The mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever the individual merits, wore them down. This sort of decision fatigue can make quarterbacks prone to dubious choices late in the game and C.F.O.’s prone to disastrous dalliances late in the evening. It routinely warps the judgment of everyone, executive and nonexecutive, rich and poor — in fact, it can take a special toll on the poor. Yet few people are even aware of it, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.  Read Article

by Bill Stranger [August 18 2011]

Prince Charles: ‘If I didn’t do this, who would?’  Britain’s best known organic farmer

There is a sign as you turn into the drive at Highgrove that reads: “Beware. You are entering an old-fashioned establishment”. After the best part of the week following the sign’s owner, Prince Charles, around the country – from Dartmoor to the Yorkshire Dales and back to Gloucestershire, him mostly in a helicopter, me mostly on a train – I have been struggling to work out exactly how old that “old-fashioned” is.

There has been a strong whiff of the early 1930s about a lot of it. At the bunting-festooned Great Yorkshire Show, HRH has been touring pig pens and tasting pork pies carrying a shepherd’s crook and surrounded by red-faced men in bowler hats. You half expected William Brown and the Outlaws to emerge from under a trestle table. At other times, though, as he has mused on the latent spirituality in hedgerows, we could be at the Wordsworthian beginning of the 19th century before steam engines and progress came along to ruin everything. The prince is frankly unapologetic about this. More than once I hear him say: “People think what I’m doing is about going backwards.” The implied subtext is: “And what on earth could be wrong with that?”

The occasion of this particular bout of time travel has been the inaugural National Countryside week, created to coincide with the first anniversary of the Prince’s Countryside Fund. The fund is designed to reweave some of the fabric frayed by urbanisation and industrialised farming; to encourage big agriculture-related business to support the rural communities that supply it and to attempt to reconnect city-dwelling families with farming and food production. Like all of the prince’s work, this is heartfelt, highly ambitious, energetically pursued on many fronts and beset with more than a few contradictions. He seems to feel both inspired and fated to have taken it on: “If I didn’t do it, who would?” he asks me, in passing.  Read Article

by Bill Stranger [August 17 2011]
In News and Briefs:

Further Resources on the Chofetz Chaim

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