An Atheist In Church

What better time to contemplate God than on the biggest shopping weekend of the year? (Even if it isn’t really.) Hector and I have been having an ongoing discussion about religion and once again, he touched on all kinds of interesting things. So here are some choice quotes and some responses.

I liked the Carlin bit. He’s right, that a certain amount of exposure to dirt and germs are required to get the immune system started. Something that bugs me (hah! bugs!) is when people who obviously have a cold insist on shaking my hand. Keep it to yourself, can’t you? At church they do this thing called “sharing the peace.” If germs and virus were big enough to see, people would realize that this is the same kind of thing as snake-handling, counting on God to protect you from danger. I think it’s asking too much of God. He made those snakes and those germs dangerous. A little respect, please! A couple of years ago, the pastor said that since the flu was so bad that year, the “sharing the peace” would be suspended for a few weeks. [Sounds like “The snakes are especially venomous this season, so we won’t be handling them for a month or so.”] That was sensible, and should have continued indefinitely, but no, here we are back again with the coughers and snifflers extending their hands and feeling snubbed if I won’t grab them. And then the backbiting starts: “He’s so full of himself, he won’t shake your hand!”

There is a process called science through which we know things. Then there’s a thing called “science” which could be described as “things portrayed as science”. (Yes, it’s confusing, since the two words look and sound exactly alike and mean almost the exact opposite.) Back in the 19th century, you could find “science” which made claims on the order of “We pretty much know everything and it’s just the details we need to work out.”

Politicized scientific groups, the media, educational groups and the government tend to perpetuate this absurd notion to the extent that most of us walk around thinking we have a clue. And our very safe environment gives us the luxury of not having the truth slapped in our faces. This leads to a lot of superstitious behavior.

Diseases are a good example of us not having a clue. Germ theory posits that microorganisms cause disease. But that leaves a lot of holes. Why are there outbreaks? Why do some people get sick while others don’t? There is a science (epidemiology) but it only works at the macro level. There are too many factors at the micro level–where we all live–to make it seem other than God playing dice.

I’m not sure about what “sharing the peace” is, exactly, but it sounds like something that is incidentally unsanitary as opposed to an attempt to test one’s faith (like snake-handling). If it’s incidental (not intrinsic), you could suggest more sanitary approaches.

But of course, you don’t win friends by breaking tradition, regardless of sanitary (or sanity) issues.

The test of faith issue is probably more interesting.

Well, that’s enough about that. Yes, I’m an atheist; yes, I go to church now and then; so what. It’s a social thing.

Heh. Well, it’s no skin off my nose. And I’ve found that religious folk don’t necessarily lump all unbelievers together. If you’re there, they might see you as a fellow traveler who’s just farther back down the road.

(Several hundred words deleted.) … I place a great deal of value on the social networking that arises from church membership. It would please me greatly if I could see somewhere else for this kind of caring to come from, that was not mediated by the State; since State-mediated caring is not really caring at all, it’s somebody’s job. The reason I love my daughter, or feel concerned about my neighbor, is not because I am paid to do so; I do those things because they are part of myself. They are not things I can give up if I get another job at the highway department or investment bank.

Secular social networking tends to be about individuals hooking up for their mutual, individual benefit. It seldom, from what I’ve seen, goes beyond fairly immediate needs and rarely does it create a group. But it does sometimes.

The American Revolution, for example. created a fairly strong secular group. Religion was involved and influential, but not the primary driver. The Revolutionary movement was primarily philosophical, though it had plenty of violence and hardship that, up until about 50 years ago, was enough to unite Ameicans as a people even when they disagreed.

Military service, especially actual battle time, unites people.

But is violence necessary? Hector goes on:

So, if I’m reading you right, this sort of binding comes from poverty and privation. I’d rather see it come from the kind of self-interest that incorporates the realization that, to use a cliché, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Can we get past the idea that what’s good for me has to be bad for you. The world is not a zero-sum process.

I don’t think privation and poverty are necessary and they’re certainly not sufficient, at the same time it occurred to me recently that without some sort of test, how do you know if someone’s going to be there when you need them?

I think a lot of religions are based on notions of fairness. There’s all this stuff we don’t have a clue about, and life is not only not fair, it seems arbitrarily cruel at time. Religions often tell us that there’s a scale that, ultimately, get balanced. Or they tell us we can achieve a state where we don’t care.

I just can’t make out where a belief in supernatural powers is required to make love work in human lives.

Value, meaning, significance–these are things that are assigned. You can say that a particular thing in the universe has a particular value: The wolf knows that the rabbit has a particular value if he’s hungry and he hasn’t eaten in a long time.

But what makes the wolf valuable? Ultimately, like cause-and-effect, one ends up with something outside the universe. From the standpoint of the strictly material, “life” is just an accident of physics.

But then: I have long thought that it should be possible to prove ethics by mathematics, i.e., that there must be some way to show that the right thing is also the rational thing. In other words, we don’t need threats from a supernatural power to tell us that, for instance, it’s wrong to [sin of your choice here, let’s use “covet” as an example] covet; a little rational thought will show us that it’s counter-productive to covet. Don’t covet your neighbor’s HDTV, and get indigestion thinking about it; it makes more sense to save your pennies and get one of your own. As simple as that.

Behaving ethically is certainly logical. We could even make a mathematical formula:

(G/E) > 1

That is, the ratio of Good (G) to Evil (E) has to be greater than one for the act to be ethical. I’m being tongue-in-cheek here, but only slightly. We could say:

G1 + G2 + G3…/E1 + E2 + E3…=Ϛ

I’m using the obsolete Greek letter “stigma” because it amuses me. We’ll say that the series of Gs represent the positive effects of doing something in various scopes, while E represents the evil.

For example, say you’re building a house: We could count as positives the shelter, the social economic activity (assuming you don’t do everything by yourself), the increase of your own assets (which might mean being worth more money, being more marriageable, etc), what the house allows you to do (raise children), if it grows a community, and we could even count the aesthetic value of the house, and the dog house and bird feeder in the back yard. We could also count tearing down a structure already on that site, if it’s run down and dangerous. (Destruction can be positive, which is why I used the terms “good” and “evil” rather than “constructive” and “destructive”.)

On the negative side we could count the loss of assets (if the market crashed), and basically consider the negatives or potential negatives of all the positives previously listed. Like, the house could be ugly, being a negative aesthetic. On top of that, we could posit habitats that are displaced by the construction, destruction of trees for lumber, etc.

Of course, it’s easy to come up with butterfly-wing-flapping effects, and much harder to weight them. How heavily do you weight the aesthetics, for example?

So, I agree that ethics can be approached mathmetically. We could even say that given two actions,

Ϛ1 > Ϛ2

we should prefer action Ϛ1. For any given set of actions, we should prefer the one with the highest Ϛ, that is, the highest ratio of Good to Evil. The Devil is in the details, of course, but in most mundane cases finding the right action, or isolating the set of more right actions.

When certain factors are hidden, of course–well, that’s when we get into trouble.

It’s Hard Being Right All The Time, vol 2: A Rebuttal

Bakakarasu dropped by to rebut my overpopulation post. Though my point was more that the drivers of media-manufactured hysteria (in the service of totalitarianism) will need a new focal point, and that overpopulation is a great boogie man. So, let’s play:

Yeah, it must be hard being right almost all the time 😉

One of the jokes of being a programmer is that you work with tools that constantly point out your stupid mistakes. You make hundreds of mistakes an hour if you’re being very productive. And yet, the quickest way to make a programmer bristle is to suggest there’s something wrong with his code. (Usually, they’ll get mad without even a trace of irony.)


You don’t have to hate people to believe in science, statistics, and concepts like carrying capacity limits.

Here come da science!

We’ve already exceeded global carrying capacity. We are now in “overshoot”. Global population is nearing 7 billion. Different theorists using different methods seem to end up agreeing that global carrying capacity is probably about 2 billion. (This assumes some level of social justice and a moderate, low by US standards, standard of living. More is possible if you accept a cattle car / Matrix-esque “life”.)

I have a different theory about overpopulation. It’s a matter of numbers. Some numbers are simply overwhelming. Billion is one of those numbers. I think people get overwhelmed by numbers and look for justification for their trepidation. (That’s why they always use counters.)

Malthus had the science, too: Unchecked, population grows geometrically while food grows arithmetically. So in the time the food supply doubles, population quadruples. Neither of those things are necessarily true, however, and they proved not to be. (Actually, I remember reading an Ancient Roman author bitching about overpopulation. And the kids these days!)

In one of the great ironies–and contrary to the Civilization games–a well-fed population reproduces less than a starving one. If one were to theorize, one might suggest that there are triggers that occur when the body is low on, say, protein, that causes it to kick into reproductive overdrive.

A wealthy population reproduces less as well, too. Life is good and safe, we don’t worry about the next generation being there.

Other, less pleasant things suppress population as well. (See USSR.)

As for food growing arithmetically, well, if that were ever true, Norman Borlaug shot it to hell 50 years ago.

“Carrying capacity” is just a modern version of the arithmetic growth of food. The current mathematical expression is slightly more complex, and brought to you by professional doomsayer Paul Ehrlich (check out his quotes and predictions on Wiki):

I = P * A * T

Impact on the environment is Population times Affluence times Technology. This is awesome. Population, okay, that’s the bugaboo. Affluence? OK, although as I’ve pointed out, it is only affluence that gives people the luxury to even care about environmental impact.

He tips his hand with technology, though. Technology can harm the environment, but it can also drastically reduce the impact on the environment. Case in point, Borlaug’s work, which gives us so much super-productive agriculture that we use less and less soil. How about the Internet, reducing the need to kill trees for reading?

How about factory farming (a bad phrase these days, so you know I’m going to love it)? Terrible nutrition? Maybe. But the Native Americans used to just torch the forests to make more room for buffalo. Technology means we can raise buffalo on a ranch (and order it from commercials on “Red Eye”) and not have to burn down forests so that buffalo can thrive.

No, the point is there are too many damn people, and the amount of evidence one can create to back up that point is virtually unlimited.

In any case, we will get to that much-lower-than-7-billion number the hard way (wars, famine, disease, and their accompanying losses of environmental quality, freedom, and social justice) OR the less hard way (immediately and drastically reducing our population voluntarily).

I like this because, well, we’re already lower than seven billion. So, if I understand the new angle, the problem isn’t that we’re going to be overcrowded by over-population, but that we’re going to hit a magic number that causes a sudden, drastic drop.

It’s a “can’t lose for winning” scenario. If the population continues to go up, the Malthusians are right. If it goes down they’re still right. What’s more, the prescription–immediate and drastic population and lifestyle reduction–brings about the conditions we’re trying to avoid, though we’re assured in a much less intense manner.

Sound familiar? A slow processa slowing process, even, because population growth has been steadily slowing–is going to result in sudden, inevitable disaster.

You know what’s also funny? Who took the Malthusians the most seriously? Communist China. (Communists really do hate people, though. That’s why they kill so many.) And there is no greater threat to the world environment than China.

It’s too late for any “us” vs “them” arguments or any belief that national boundaries will do much to help anyone in the long run. This is a global issue with local and nation-state consequences. For example, immigration is a consequence of overpopulation, not a cause of it. Likewise, global climate change is not impressed by national boundaries.

Global climate change isn’t much impressed by humans as near as I can tell. See, this is the beauty of overpopulation: Any environmental problem can be blamed on humans, and overpopulation allows us to reinforce the idea of human-caused (I’m tired of typing “anthropogenic”) climate change, whether it’s getting warmer or colder.

Again, win-win.

I disagree with the argument that there is some “right to reproduce” that must be accommodated in this scenario. If there is any “right to reproduce” it’s in the concept that one has the freedom to nurture a child or children and form some sort of family. Biological reproduction is not necessary to do that and there are many in need of this sort of nurturing.

Well, I hadn’t made that argument, but I will: One has a right to surive. One survives as more than an individual. Isn’t it interesting, though, that bakakarasu actual states that biological reproduction is not necessary if you want children. As long as there is one child up for adoption somewhere in the world, you have no right to have your own, and it’s not necessary. (Ehrlich uses a similar rhetorical device: As long as anyone is hungry in the world–not even starving, which was his original prediction–his predictions are vindicated. Even if those hunger problems are purely political.)

Of course, eventually that runs out. It should go without saying that survival does depend on biological reproduction. I can’t help but wonder if the near complete elimination of a people (as they all go adopting 3rd world orphans) might not have some biological implications.

Being a parent is much different from the romantic and oxytocin enhanced notion of “having a baby” (a phrase I always found to be a bit horrifying for its “possessing-an-object” language frame).

The lecturing on what it means to be a parent (which goes on for another paragraph or two) is sort of depressing because it suggests you’re not even reading this blog. I would have preferred you address your arguments to me rather than some imagined opponent.

I’ve heard the “having” argument before, phrased different. “My wife/girlfriend/husband/boyfriend” being offensive because, you know, you can’t own anyone, man. Dopey. There are all kinds of definitions of “have”, and children actually fall into the category of, “Well, I’m completely responsible for everything they do for eighteen years,” so yeah, that’s a close to ownership as you can get without actual slavery.

The supertanker analogy is also apt because it was the “one time gift” of oil that allowed us to get this far out on a limb, and peak oil has already happened.

This makes me think the whole post is an early Christmas present from a friend. Look! They even threw in “peak oil”.

What kills me about all of this is that, despite failing to predict anything, the tone of urgency never diminishes. There’s never any humility. There’s never any attempt to, say, predict something small. It’s always The End of the World. And always with complete confidence.

And never, ever, ever is it allowed anywhere for human ingenuity to play a role in man’s future. Man holds no key to his own salvation. He must stop, stop, stop. Ehrlich and his ilk despise cheap energy. And you know what I say:

Civlization is energy.

This is not a coincidence. A lot of good people–people who would make excellent parents and who would have children that are a credit to the species–end up sucked in by overpopulation. Humanity loses by that. The poisoning of higher education with anti-American, anti-human and fundamentally anti-intellectual ideas means that a lot of our best will never make a permanent mark on the world. It’s a formula for Idiocracy.

In his comment, Baka talks about the consensus (he doesn’t use that word) of 2 billion being the optimal population of Earth. We’ve got over 1 billion living in first world countries now, on a tiny bit of land mass (relative to what’s available in Asia, where most people live), and the best we can do is double that?

To all and sundry I say, “Prove it.”

I guarantee you something else. Should we ever actually reach the 2 billion number, the Malthusians will not be silent. They’ll start talking about 500 million being the optimum. (And, in fact, already have.)

Fun fact: 1/2B is about what the population of the Earth during the Middle Ages is estimated to have been. Europe felt crowded then, too. Hence the fleeing to the new world. And the twice as many people living in Europe, USA, Canada and Australia are living better now.

And were we to reach 500 million, 100 million wouldn’t be far behind.

If you hate people, two is one too many.

Post Mortem: Death of a Barbarian, pt II

Pity the poor Trooper, out there prepping Lee Lee’s Valise for Black Friday and possible movie-stardom, but who took some time to critique my Taylon Doon story. Thanks to Darcy, who also read it. And anyone else who read it, if anyone. It’s not clear to me from the WordPress reports.

Trooper gave some great feedback; as a voracious reader, he knows writing like I know biting.

Writing in that style is not as easy as it is cracked up to be. A real pulp writer who wrote great stuff like Robert Howard or John Norman are people with a lot of talent who decide to write in that genre. That’s not to say you don’t have a lot of talent, but I think it tends in a much more modern post ironic way while the novel you were attempting requires belief in the conventions not a tongue in check bow to it. Someone like Raymond Fiest or SM Stirling or Harry Turtledove writes in a more sedate version of this style, as there are very very few writers who could pull off a full blown saga in the style you were attempting to use.

Hmmm. I really wasn’t trying to be “post-ironic” but I suppose I can’t exactly help that. I wasn’t exactly trying to mimic Howard or Norman because it’s hard enough to write in one’s own style under the gun.

But what certainly happened was that as I created the story, I had trouble seeing how I was going to get the reader to understand what was going on. Taylon, as a barbarian, by necessity doesn’t know what’s going on. Doc has a better idea and I figured that using Taylon as a contrast, Doc could let the reader in on what was going on as he learned.

The other way to go would’ve been to go from Taylon’s POV or a neutral 3P but that felt too limited. On the other hand, it directly led to what Troop observed next:

I think the problem was you were describing action rather than just plunging in. You were Robert Altman instead of John Ford. You wouldn’t be corny if you weren’t afraid to be corny if you know what I mean. Less is more in the action genre. Don’t describe, just do.

Yes, I had this problem a lot. The subsequent action scenes were more immediate, but I suspect the problem comes from wanting to keep a little mystery.

That’s easy for me to say I have always wanted to write but have never had the time. Although the rise of alternative historical fiction has given me so many ideas that I think my head would explode.

Well, I join Troop’s readers in encouraging to take it up as a serious avocation.

It’s Hard Being Right All The Time, vol 2.

As the glaciers of the new Ice Age advance, we’re starting to hear less about global warming and more about…anyone? Anyone?

Well, what did I say?

That’s right, “overpopulation”. Can you say “Soylent Green”?

A certain group of people have learned they can get people’s attention with impending doom. A few hundred years ago, we were worried (after a fashion) about the rapture. Some percentage of the population relate really strongly–and not in a campy, funny or otherwise entertaining way–to the end of the world (as we know it).

Overpopulation hits a bunch of great button because a lot of environmentalists just hate people. And a lot of misanthropists will happily join the enviro-crowd for a justification for their pre-existing people-hate. And, hey, who doesn’t think there are too many of “the wrong kinds” of people? (Present company always excluded, of course.)

Another great thing about overpopulation is that you can always assert that it’s either here or imminent. The proof is in the poverty, or the over-crowdedness, or in disease or war–really, it’s way better than global warming, because GW can be refuted with a few temperature readings. (In fact, that’s a big part of GW’s current “problems”.)

Could anyone visit Hong Kong or New York and doubt that overpopulation was real? The vast quantities of empty space on this planet notwithstanding, it’s something meant for cherry-picking. And the rebuttal when pointing out a Montana or a (say) rapidly emptying Russia, can always be “Well, sure, there’s no one there…”

And just like the AGW types, the neo-Malthusians always take their own correctness for granted. This is what people miss about “the science is settled”. As far as the AGW believer is concerned, the science is settled in his own mind. Which is what matters.

The advertisers over at Althouse have tied it, rather cleverly, to immigration. (Of course, we could probably absorb our current population in immigrants if our school system worked and we didn’t hand out money with our social services.)

Anyway, there’s another problem with overpopulation as a threat: All the socialist wealth redistribution plans require an ever-expanding base of young people to fund themselves, but all the people living in socialist countries stop having children.


I’ve decided that the fallout from the current economic crisis is going to work out well, at least in the long run. We simply don’t have the money to continue believing that the government can provide a catch-all safety net (and do so with no negative consequences). This is going to cause a realignment that includes disposing of many stupid, observably false ideas.

OK, probably not, but I’ve decided there’s no reason not to be optimistic.

Post Mortem: Death of a Barbarian

I got about 60 pages into my nanowrimo entry before giving up.

There were several factors. Not getting the pages up and formatted, for example. If I had them up and someone had read them, I probably would’ve gone on in spite of it all. But nobody read even the opening page. Boo-hoo.

No, no, you all have lives, more or less. And it’s okay. The main problem is that it wasn’t very good. I could easily finish the book even now. But it’s unpleasant to do bad work. I think I will put up some other writings later, however. Maybe, if I can get my chops up by next nanowrimo, I’ll take another swing at Taylon.

The actual writing was enjoyable. Which probably means I was doing it wrong.

Fur is Murder. Fabulous, sexy murder.

One of the ways we, as a society, went wrong was by buckling into the red-paint-splashing fur-haters.

We can have a debate about the ethics of wearing fur–you’ll lose, but we can have it–but the issue should’ve been removed from the table the instant terrorist tactics were used.

Yeah, pro-oil and pro-fur. And yet, not really conservative. Heh.

I mention this because Malkin is in the new Clare Booth Luce “Conservative Women” calendar. Now, the Luce family was corrupting media long before our current, completely disreputable media was even born. (Henry and Clare dropped LSD–responsibly, under a psychiatrist’s careful gaze–back in 1958!) But that’s a separate subject.

The subject here–the salient, eternal subject–is women in fur. Mmmmm. There’s not much better than a woman wearing a fur. Maybe it’s some primal thing, going back to when you had to hand kill the bear. Maybe it’s that whatever they think consciously, women seem to respond in a primal fashion to wearing fur. Not too long ago, and for quite some time, the fur coat was the epitome of the luxury romance item, alongside of diamonds and fine chocolates.

Anyway, the pix…are a little disappointing. There’s a great shot of Coulter up front, and Malkin’s looking good. But they over did the makeup on Mary Katherine Ham–I know what they were going for, but it required more skill and lighting. MKH looks marvellous with a more “natural” makeup. You can see the same thing in the other pictures, too, although for some reason it works on Amanda Carpenter.

Tragically, I couldn’t find a picture that really epitomized what I was thinking of while writing this. But how about a little Marilyn? An archetypal woman in an archetypal symbol of romance.

Speaking of Ebb and Flow

The Bit Maelstrom readership is way down. No comments on Taylon Doon at all. Post-election blues? Economic worries? I don’t know. Pointy breasts, like large penis, are always welcome*.

And yet.

Ah, well.

I’ve spun off a new blog, very technical, very programming heavy. I’m not really putting my technical stuff here at the ‘strom. There’s probably not a huge crossover between here and there.

I may devote another blog (why not, it’s not like they cost anything) to writing, art and music. Not commentary on, but actual items. Commentary I’ll keep here.

*That’s what Atia (Polly Walker) said in “Rome” and I have no reason to think she was lying.

It’s Hard To Be Right All The Time

Gas here has dropped to under $2/gallon.

I said this was going to happen. Nobody believed me.

This guy claims the high cost of oil is what caused the economic, eh, glitches we’re having right at the moment.

True or not, it is true that oil prices going up suppresses the economy. The suppressed economy reduces demand for oil. The economy is fragile enough that something like this can (and often does) result in enough economic contraction that the countries that jacked up the price in the first place end up getting a lot less per barrel than a slow increase would have.

Oil: Delicious and ironic. Or is it karmic?

Pajamas and Poison

Went to see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas tonight and it was sold out! Second week in a row, they said. (Well, not exactly sold out, but they said the only seats were front row and The Boy likes to sit in the back. In the corner. Go figger.)

Also recovering from some kind of food poisoning. It happens every few years with something that a normal person would throw up. I don’t throw up so a temporary discomfort turns into several days of that not-quite-right feeling.

It’s weird because it often feels like I’m hungry but sorta not, then I’ll get a fever for a few hours, then it closes out with stiffness in my neck and shoulders. The intestinal discomfort moves lower and lower, but usually disappears before, em, the end of the line.

I’d think it was flu, except for not really having the symptoms, and it never spreads. I actually don’t get sick very much. I went from April of 1997 to December of 2005 without so much as a sniffle. Then in 2006 I got three colds in eight months. And I haven’t been sick since.

But all three of those colds went from me to the kids. They crawl all over me. They’re not sanitary in the least. They also do it when they’re sick and I’m not, but I scoff at their puny child germs.

WebMD’s symptom checker–and isn’t that a little bit of awesomeness, especially for hypochondriacs–says I may have gastritis or indigestion (both of which I’d probably classify in my non-doctorial way as “food poisoning”) but there’s also this little gem called Giardia.

Dovetails nicely with the parasite discussion over at Althouse.

But if I’m going to have parasites, I want these.