Pale Blue Dot

Carl Sagan arguably remains world’s single greatest advocate of science and reason. The man had a way with words, and knew how to make average people think and appreciate the beauty of science. I wonder what popular science would’ve become without him (or what it could have been today had he not died before his time).

Most importantly, however, he often used scientific rationality as a basis for humanism, compassion, and morality, counter to where most people derive – or claim to derive – these notions: namely faith and religion. He helped develop the foundation for secular ethics, and countered the popular idea that a scientific worldview is devoid of reasons to be good and ethical.

Consider this brief but profound message, which I think pretty much sums up Carl’s main message and the one most secular humanists come from.

He presents a very stark truth about the nature of our existence, yet does so in a way that is more inspiring and comforting than it is bleak and depressing. Our planet, as incalculably massive as it is to us, is but a speck of dust in the scheme of the cosmos.

But that doesn’t mean we’re insignificant or should become nihilists. On the contrary, it’s all the more reason to value our unique little niche in the universe and those who share it with us: it’s all we have, and it’s singular existence is tenuous.

For the first time, we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves. This is a time of great danger, but our species is young, and curious, and brave. It shows much promise.

Such an enlightened perspective is as relevant today as when Carl spoke them. If only more people, myself included at times, could truly come to appreciate such a worldview.


Big Ideas: Little Packages

The following is courtesy of National Geographic, another one of my top sources. Though widely perceived to be strictly anthropological in it’s content (and for the most part it is), “Nat Geo” covers a wide-range of topics, delving into science, history, the arts, and even political science. I highly recommend it for those of you with broader tastes in addition to a love of photographic splendor.

Though I should have been in bed hours ago, I could not resist sharing this little gem, rich I just read earlier today. It’s a list of simple but dynamic innovations that could save entire communities across the world, particularly in least-developed nations. The link for it is here, and all but one of the inventions shown come with their own website for those interested in learning more. Most are either awaiting release or have already been introduced in limited number to their target demographics. All of them thankfully appear to have passed their trials.

As the introduction succinctly notes:

Can good design save the world? It just might, one novel idea at a time. Sparked by programs like the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability course at Stanford University’s Institute of Design, designers are creating products to meet the needs of communities in developing countries. It turns out that even the most pressing problems, from health care to potable water, can have affordable—and beautifully designed—solutions.

Indeed, that’s best part: most of these concepts are particularly complex or profound, yet they accomplish as much as we would expect from an expensive new technology. It’s all a matter of applying clever, practical designs – or re-conceptualizing existing ones – to address very particular needs.

For example, one elegant invention is a mere water container that is shaped in such a way as to make it easier to transport (it can be rolled along the ground rather than be carried). This is great for the millions of women and children who must traverse miles of often treacherous land to find water, only to be burdened with a heavier load on the way back.

Another of my personal favorites consist of nothing more than filling one clay pot with sand, than wedging another clay pot within it, keeping them separated by a barrier of wet substrate. As it dries, the evaporated water keeps food preserved for weeks, rather than the usual few days. Simple, cheap, and easy to make just about anywhere. Most fascinating is the fact that this is based on a rather ancient technique. It’s amazing to think that some of the modern world’s problems have already been addressed by our predecessors thousands of years ago!

As regular readers know, I’m a “devout” humanist – I believe in the worth and positive nature of the human species, and am more-or-less optimistic about our capacity to do good for one another and the world. Though I find myself increasingly susceptible to bouts of pessimism and outright misanthropy, witnessing our the exercise of higher faculties – our capacity to ponder, explore, discover, and invent – gives me a surge of renewed hope and enthusiasm.

I can’t wait for these sleek and simple inventions to reach the masses and improve the lives of millions. Funding and coordination is always a difficult process for these sorts of things: all sorts of technologies currently exist that could better the lot of humanity, yet they rarely make it passed their own trials – and even when they do, mass-producing and distributing them is a whole other story. This no doubt explains the growing emphasis on simplicity and affordability that more and more inventors are opting for.

Therein lies the beauty of innovation. It’s not just a matter of creativity or advanced engineering. It’s solving a problem in whatever way possible, and insuring that it’s as easy as any other known thus far. If this short list of ideas are vastly beneficial as they stand, imagine what more could be accomplished if we invest more resources into science and research? It’s something policymakers, investors, and the general public should ponder.

Anglo-Saxon Culture and Depression

Even though they’re not the countries with the world’s highest suicide rate (that dubious distinction goes to a number of mostly East Asian and ex-communist countries) it seems that the US, Canada, and the UK have a much more developed culture of depression, in which the subject is considerably more public and ubiquitous in society, to the point of developing it’s own sub-culture and social apparatus.

Based on my own experience, most of the  websites and organizations that are formed around depression and mental illness originate in these countries, as do most of their members and clients. Depression also seems to be a far more prevalent topic,  frequently referenced in popular culture, literature, cinema, and media. Commercials advertising various treatments are common, and an entire “medical industrial complex” has formed in the face of growing diagnoses of clinical depression and it’s ilk.

Indeed, the psychiatric and psychological community is arguably more developed in Anglo-Saxon nations than anywhere else in the world.  Nowadays, both fields are perceived to be dominated by Americans in particular; the DSM – a handbook classifying various mental disorders – is published by the American Psychiatric Association, and is increasingly used across the world instead of international variants.

Of course, I must acknowledge that much of this is based on anecdotal evidence, namely my years serving as a moderator or active member of various websites for the mental illness community. It was mid-away through my “citizen psychiatry” that I began to ponder about this possible Anglo-Saxon connection.

There is also the issue of a causal dilemma. It’s possible that depression is simply more noticed in these countries because we’re more open to confronting it, and have more advance research and medical methodology to diagnose it. Widespread interest and treatment of mental illnesses often follows a country’s entrance into industrialization: a society overcomes the “old” evils of poverty or infectious disease, only for these to be superseded with “modern” ailments like obesity and psychological maladies.

I would like feedback on this, given my limited time to expand on this topic as much as I’d like. Is there something inherent in Anglo-Saxon culture and society that precludes higher incidences of depression? Is it the perverse influence of the highly developed medical and psychiatric community, which many people seem to regard cynically? Is it something else entirely, or maybe nothing at all?

Forgotten Anniversary: Attica Prison

As regular readers know, I’ve got a penchant for bringing awareness to historical events, especially forgotten ones. Sadly, my love of advocating on behalf of history lapsed last week, as I overlooked an important episode in the American narrative: the Attica Prison Uprising, which had it’s 40th anniversary on September 9th.

The Economist, which usefully served as my reminder, wrote a brief but poignant summary in it’s Prospero column. A thousand inmates took over a section of the prison, as well as held hostages, as they demanded better treatment and true rehabilitation (including more than one shower a week, and educational opportunities). It ended with a violent confrontation that lefts dozens dead, and became one of the bloodiest events of domestic violence since the Civil War.

It’s interesting to note how prevelant prison uprisings are throughout history, and not just in the US (of which there are several of note, particularly in the 19th to early 20th century). In fact, there have been several prominent “convict revolts” across the world these last several years, many of them occurring in under-developed and/or authoritarian countries (where, unsurprisingly, the make-up of prisoners is often quite different, comprising many political activists). The issue is a universal one that informs us much about human notions of justice and the treatment of society’s “underclass” of crooks, subversives, and delinquints.

As the article notes, the uprising and it’s relevance is still as topical as ever, as America’s prison system swells with at least 2 million inmates, the largest incareated population in the world. Though crime has generally been falling across the country, many prisons remain crowded and poorly managed, and the cost of incarcerating criminals is prohibitvely high, especially in a time of austerity.

As states slash budgets, there is much debate about what can be done to reduce this burden, such as whether the legal system should ease it’s relative harshness towards illegal drug possession (many people are imprisoned for this offence) or if there are better ways of handling prisoners, so that it’s cheaper, actually rehabilitates, and reduces recidivism.

Needless to say, the uprising raises questions of humanitarian concern. How should we treat convicts? What’s too inhumane or too forgiving? Where do we draw the line between what is cruel and unusual and what is proper retribution? How do we view the institution of imprisonment: is the purpose  to lock away the bad elements of society for good, or to reform them to be better members of society?

Prisons must also balance between some level of harshness – which is necessary to de-incentivize crime – and providing opportunities that can keep criminals from coming back (and better yet make them productive and well-adjusted). Fairness is a defining part of any good legal system, but it’s also one of the most subjective and difficult to achieve. The history of law is one of tireless efforts to improve the methods and concepts of justice – it’s a constant work of progress.

I for one find it interesting how polarizing this topic can be. By my experience, people either think our justice system is too soft, or believe it to be too harsh. Regardless, both sides agree it’s not working as well as it should be, but they obviously have very different ideas about how to improve it.

Individuals, as well as societies as a whole, have very different attitudes towards forgiveness, the breaking of the law, and human nature; they also have their own anecdotes and personal experiences. All these shape how one feels crime and it’s perpetrators should be handled.

Consequently, very little in the way of research and empirical evidence makes it’s way into this debate. A sense of justice is inherent in all humans – it is a very personal matter, and therefore an emotional one that isn’t suited to pragmatic or utilitarian considerations.

While I’d love to explore this topic more – with articles, research, and other relevant material – my time is, as always, too short. I’m content with leaving on a reflective note that I hope will ellicit some good ideas and serious concerns. I hope others can join me in musing on this largely subdued issue.

A Beautiful Skyscape of Space

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a skyscape is simply a photographic or artistic depiction of the sky. I find it pleasing to say, since it it rolls of the tongue nicely; plus, I enjoy having “image of the sky” condensed into one conveniently word.

Anyway, I have long had a deep fascination with space and it’s related topics: space craft, telescopes, celestial bodies, images, and so on. It was one of my first interests as a child, and perhaps one of the longest held (I wanted to be an astronomer for a long time, and a telescope was at the top of my wish list for quite a few birthdays and Christmases).

Even though the humanities have largely become my dominant interest, I’ve never gotten over my love of science, especially as it pertains to the beauty of the universe. Images like the following, from Astronomy Picture of the Day, always reaffirm why.

The Mangaia's Milky Way

If you click the hyperlink, you’ll see the original photo and be able to click it for a larger view. It’s breathtakingly spectacular, especially when you think about your size and place relative to all those billions of planets and stars. This subject represents just one component of our single vast galaxy -i imagine the millions of other galaxies and all their billions of celestial objects. It’s mentally staggering to try to comprehend it.

The description of the picture, credited to amateur Turkish astronomer and night photographer Tunc Tezel, is as follows:

From Sagittarius to Carina, the Milky Way Galaxy shines in this dark night sky above planet Earth’s lush island paradise of Mangaia. Familiar to denizens of the southern hemisphere, the gorgeous skyscape includes the bulging galactic center at the upper left and bright stars Alpha and Beta Centauri just right of center. About 10 kilometers wide, volcanic Mangaia is the southern most of the Cook Islands. Geologists estimate that at 18 million years old it is the oldest island in the Pacific Ocean. Of course, the Milky Way is somewhat older, with the galaxy’s oldest stars estimated to be over 13 billion years old. (Editor’s note: This image holds the distinction of being selected as winner in the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition in the Earth and Space category.)

It must be quite a job to travel the world photographing space at it’s most gorgeous displays. The fact that Mr. Tezel had to travel to the relatively isolated Cook Islands (also beauties of nature) betrays a sad fact: thanks to light pollution, most of us could barely scratch the surface of what is contained in the great beyond. You have to go pretty out-of-the-way to see space in it’s full glory. I no doubt hope to do so someday (I never did get that telescope, but I certainly plan to).

If anyone is interested, the photographer has an online gallery with dozens of these kind of images captured from around the world (including some rare occurrences, such as meteor showers, occultations, and eclipses). It’s part of a larger collection from astronomers comprising the group, The World At Night (TWAN). It goes without saying that I definitely encourage you all to browse through it if you have the chance.


The Perks of Gridlock: Reflections From Traffic

With my time short, and my computer access still limited, I thought I’d try posting a brief but poignant “thoughts of the day” in lieu of my usually long posts. In fact, I might consider doing it more often, since I see myself being rather busy for the next few weeks.

What I’ve been inspired to share today involves a subject we all know and hate – traffic. It’s a defining feature of urban life, especially in a metropolitan sprawl like Miami, where cars are the only decent way to get around.

I think it goes without saying that there is nothing more aggravating than being stuck in traffic, and it is by far one of the most prevalent frustrations in the modern world. It’s a suffocating and helpless a experience, as you’re trapped in your car and no longer feeling the sense of freedom and control that makes self-transportation so favorable in the first place.

To me, however, this scenario can present a unique and surprising opportunity. Before I go on, I’ll put out a disclaimer: I won’t pretend that I don’t become agitated or even outright enraged during persistent gridlock – I’m only human after all. But for the most part, I do like to think that I try my best to make the most of a bad thing.

In the case of traffic, it’s – perhaps pathetically – one of the few moments most of us really get a pause in our hectic lives (albeit a forced one). Everyone is so busy nowadays, and most of us are just trying to get as much done in as little time as possible. As such, we rarely have a moment to stop, think, collect our thoughts, or clear our heads. It’s no wonder so many people can’t sleep well anymore – our minds have no other chance to operate freely except for that moment of quiet before bed (which afterward becomes anything but).

When I’m stuck behind the wheel with no hope of escaping, I take it as a chance to slowdown and engage in practical reflection: how was my day? What do I want to do when I get to my destination? How about plans tomorrow? Heck, I might even starting musing about philosophical topics. There’s rarely a bad time and place to exercise your mind, provided you’re not off day-dreaming too much (obviously, I’d never advocate pondering yourself away from reality while in the middle of the road).

Today, for example, I had been stuck on the road while coming back from work. So I used it as a chance to reflect on what I did that day, the highlights, the pitfalls, what I’ll be doing the next day at work, and so on. But traffic was persistent, and I was running out of things to dwell on.

So I moved on to my next best method of coping: public radio. Whether you’re a news junkie like me, or  merely someone with a causal interest in the world (if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably one or the other), there’s nothing more satisfying than people able to catch up with politics, local new, and the happenings of the world around you. It’s easy to get insulated from the outside world when you’re caught between work, school, family, and other obligations. Traffic can sometimes be a convenient chance to keep up with the times. And depending on when and where you’re trapped, you might find a nice variety of programs – today was all news reports, but the other day was mostly covering science topics!

Then of course there is music, a rather obvious choice. Nothing is more satisfying or even therapeutic for most people than music. Why not dig through your collection and/or pile of CDs lying around the car and listen to some beats you hadn’t heard in a while? It’s amazing how much of my old favorites I’ve rediscovered thanks to the forcible prompting of gridlock.  As an added plus, it’s also amusing to look around and see people’s reactions to you rocking out (yes, that occurred at some point today).

My ultimate point behind all this is short and sweet: life will inevitably fall out of your control. In fact, it can be argued that your life is largely the product of external factors to which you can only react to. Whatever the case may be, whether it’s traffic or something more profound, there is nothing more painful than feeling helpless and at the mercy of fate and all its fickleness.

In that case, there is no sense in yelling, cursing, or self-pity (though admitted, some emotional outlet is good. All you can do is work within the confines you’re restrained in, try to find an opening if you can, and if not, go with the flow. Adapt. Innovate. Persevere. Try your best to find a silver lining and to make the most of a bad thing. I won’t pretend that works with every challenge we face – the loss of a loved one, for example, has no caveat – but it doesn’t have to. We have so many bigger things to worry about, and we should save the anger and negativity for that.

Upon getting home, I discovered that today’s traffic was the result of a terrible accident. Every time I find myself gridlock, I think to myself how much nicer it is to be stuck behind a wheel rather than sprawled on the pavement – or worse. I can take traffic any day. It’s amazing what you could learn from such a seemingly trivial little inconvenience.

Photo Essays From Foreign Policy

Repairs on my laptop are taking longer than expected, so I’m afraid I can’t delve into some of the deeper subjects I had in mind to discuss.

As some of you may have noticed, however, this blog is devoted to more than just voluminous rants and philosophical reflections. As the entire right-side of this page attests to, I’m aiming to create a hub of information, and spend much of my time bringing attention to all sorts of events, issues, causes, and personal interests. There’s a lot of stuff out there, and I owe a lot to my friends, peers, and colleagues who have introduced me to sources and subjects I had no idea existed. I think it’s only fair that I reciprocate.

As the title makes clear, my topics today will be a series of photo essays from Foreign Policy Magazine (also known simply as FP), one of my favorite and most regularly cited sources. Each of the three I’ll be sharing are pretty diverse in their subjects, which suits me just fine (and hopefully you too). As per my usual habit, I’ll be following them up with some musings and missives that have come to my mind, and that I think should bear consideration.

The first is Barriers to Entry, which consists mostly of photos of prominent landmarks and monuments from Washington, DC, following the 9/11 attacks. Though as iconic and majestic as ever, the sight of these prominent symbols being subject to tighter security makes for an interesting, and some would say tragic, message. It reveals how much the US is still effected by security concerns even a decade on, and the deep-seated and long-lasting impact acts of violence can have on a society. How many generations until we’ll feel safer? Will this be the permanent state of affairs, a new normal for Americans from now on?

I also found it fascinating how a lot of these security measures – mostly barriers of various designs and functions – were made to be subtle and even aesthetically pleasing. We want to be safe and unharmed, but we also want to be free; we don’t want our public spaces and national landmarks to be closed-off and suffocated, but we certainly don’t want to risk their destruction. We’ve been traumatized enough by the 9/11 attacks and the figurative and literal emptiness they left behind – we couldn’t stand to lose any more lives or national sources of pride.

Following that, we have Road to Prosperity, a collection of images showcasing China’s massive construction boom. Skyscrapers, bridges, high-speed rail, highways – every infrastructure project imaginable is being undertaken with unprecedented speed by one of the world’s fastest growing nations. In stark contrast to the ailing rich world, the People’s Republic seems to be embarking on an energetic and enthusiastic journey to development; the ambitious projects, lavish investments, and high job growth that have long defined the Western world are in full force in China. It’s even left many to wonder if China’s state-heavy and authoritative means of getting things done is truly the better approach.

But is it? Corruption is rife in China, and billions of dollars worth of money is siphoned off by government officials or their business elite partners. Some of these flashy looking achievements may be of shoddy construction, and if not that, then they’re often out of reach from many of China’s poor (and there are still hundreds of millions of them). And what about the environmental costs of all this building and resource extraction; could the Chinese, or the rest of the world for that matter, take any more pollution? Dissatisfaction and aloofness with the ruling elites is growing, as is visible discontent –  even in an oppressive state like China, protests are at an all time high, and some state media sources are starting to get critical too. It’ll take more than public works to satiate the Chinese people’s growing demands for accountability and greater freedom.

Finally, we end with Cocacabana, a lighthearted-sounding name for a gritty series of images depicting a tour through Rio’s blighted favelas, or slums. Crime, drugs, and murder are rampant in these communities, which make up a large chuck of the aptly named City of God. Criminal syndicates and gangs rule almost unopposed (except by one another), creating a virtually autonomous community within a community that allows them to function with impunity. Despite this, most of the people here are savvy and hardworking, eking out a living almost from scratch, and managing to live almost self-sufficiently, as few outsiders – cops, politicians, or non-residents – ever venture in, let alone help.

But that may be changing. Brazil is growing rapidly, and becoming increasingly wealthy and more developed. Public spending is at an all time high, and previously neglected regions are receiving unprecedented amounts of aid, including clinics, schools, and regular police patrols. As a result, crime and poverty are falling, even if they remain terribly high. More and more Brazilians feel confident that they, and their nation, is going on the right path. Rio will even be set to host no less than two major international sporting events (the World Cup and the Summer Olympics). Whether Brazil’s most famous city will be ready for the spotlight, and it’s people delivered from their wretched conditions, is still a very open question.

So much to think about, so little time and brain matter. The world is full of events and paradigms to ponder, their implications big and small. It’s overwhelming to consider all the stories and issues that are transpiring around us constantly, millions of them overlapping and emerging simultaneously across diverse parts of the world.

So much for sleeping any time soon.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

This is the title of a fascinating book by Steven Pinker, a prominent scientist known mostly for his work regarding psychology and the human mind, in addition to best-selling popular science books that deal with a wide-range of topics for a general audience. He’s often listed as one of the world’s most influential thinkers and innovators, and I can attest to how thought-provoking many of his publications, columns, and conferences can be. Needless to say, I’m rather enthusiastic about this.

The book is pretty massive – a little over 800 pages long – and it’s due to be released on October 4th, though it’s already available for pre-order at Amazon for around $25 (funny enough, Richard Dawkin’s latest popular science book – which I covered recently – is also going to be published around this time, making October a pretty good month for us science enthusiasts). The official description is as follows:

Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’s existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?

This groundbreaking book continues Pinker’s exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly nonviolent world. The key, he explains, is to understand our intrinsic motives- the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that steer us away-and how changing circumstances have allowed our better angels to prevail. Exploding fatalist myths about humankind’s inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious and provocative book is sure to be hotly debated in living rooms and the Pentagon alike, and will challenge and change the way we think about our society.

In other words, the author is challenging the widely-held – and increasingly popular – notion that modernity has led to unprecedented levels of rapaciousness and conflict, whereas our simpler and more primitive past was more peaceful, harmonious, and idyllic. While there’s some level of truth to this perception – such as how technology has amplified our capacity for destruction – Pinker is making the case that not only were historical times no better, but that they were actually far worse, and that violence has declined precipitously as time passes.

Given his reputation for meticulousness, and the tome’s voluminous amount of research and data, it’s sure to be a well-argued assertion, and a good read. I don’t doubt there will be contentions and debates, but that’s precisely what should be expected of any book that deals with such a difficult topic. I’ll certainly be looking out for reviews and rebuttals.

I must confess a bias for this subject matter, as human nature and mankind’s proclivity for conflict – both on an individual and collective scale – has always fascinated me. Violence is often viewed as a defining characteristic of human society and history, and most of us struggle to make sense of it’s origins and causes, all while coming to grips with the heavy toll that it takes on society, politics, and progress. Given the increasingly cynical attitudes of our time, it’d be refreshing to see some scientific evidence for us being far better than we popularly believe.

I’ve long argued that for all the troubles we face in modern times – both as individuals and as a whole – humanity has progressed much farther then we give ourselves credit for. More and more people are living longer, healthier, wealthier, and more peacefully than at any point in history (and this is both in terms of absolute numbers and proportionately). We have more democratic and free societies, relatively speaking, than ever before too.

Granted, all the corruption, moral depravity, and immense suffering that have mired us from the very beginning of our species remains present and widespread – in some cases even intensifying. Our progress is far from solid, and humankind’s achievements are arguably tenuous and reversible. But the evidence is clear that we’ve still come a very long way, and whatever the challenges and causes for pessimism, we shouldn’t underestimate our potential to evolved and improve.

It’s not just a matter of feeling good about ourselves, but also of education: as we explore the depths of our nature – our minds, psychological developments, social dynamics, etc – we’ll hopefully come to learn more about what makes us who we are, and what we can do to improve ourselves and the world. It’s still too early to say if such an endeavor will be fruitful, or even feasible, but it’s certainly worth a try.

If anyone is interested, they could also take a look at Pinker’s TED talk from 2007, which delves into some of the preceding material and thinking that led up to this book. I think it makes a very compelling case for how much we’ve achieved in terms of law, morality, ethics, governance, and social norms.

It goes without saying that I’ll definitely be exploring this topic again in the future.

Cosmic Extortion And Disbelief

While walking out of the Metro station today, I received a small pamphlet from am older Christian man. He seemed innocent enough, and didn’t dress or speak in any provocative way (in fact, he was so silent I initially assumed he was one of those deaf individuals soliciting for donations). So I took it with a smile and a nod and made way through.

The cover was a gruesome colored picture of a crucified Christ, covered with lacerations that were oozing blood. Below this grim image was typed, in call capital letters, “ALL THIS I DID FOR THEE.” In fact, I managed to find a picture of it online (the group, called the Fellowship Tract League, has a website).

Believe it or not, I also found buttons bearing this image.

Needless to say, I immediately knew what to expect, as I’ve stumbled upon such material before. Only two pages long – in fact it was pretty much a single sheet folded in half –  it preached the usual arguments about what Christ did and why I should accept him, though it did so purely through a list of Biblical quotes rather than some of the appeals to emotion that I normally find (though the cover image arguably intended to do that).

It was all standard fare until I turned to the back. At the top read the provocative  and unexpected question “What is your decision?” followed by two options that, funny enough, had check-boxes next to them: Choose Christ, and thus be saved, or reject Christ and be damned. I’m pretty much paraphrasing what was being conveyed through more colorful lines from the Bible (if anyone’s curious enough to look it up for themselves, the first option had Romans 10:10:13 and John 3:18A, while the second had John 3:18B and Revelations 20:15).

So there you have it: cosmic extortion cloaked as a matter of free choice. It’s a mockery to present these options as if there was any real decision making involved. Basically, one either believes what they say without evidence or question, or faces the wrath of a presumably infinitely wise, loving, and perfect God who will thus make you suffer unspeakable agony for eternity, no matter how good or well meaning you are. That’s as perverse as arguing that an armed robber is giving you the free choice of either giving him the money or getting shot.

Before anyone says it, I’m well aware that not all Christians believe this horrific drivel, nor am I condemning every single one of them as being this repugnant (besides, the man and his organization clearly seem loony). Indeed, most of the Christians I know would be rightly disturbed by this theological position and tactic.

But the pamphlet cited Biblical lines justifying the conclusion of each option, giving them divine legitimacy. Even if some Christians could find other lines that are more pleasant and less oppressive, it only leads to the wider problem of determining which part of a presumably inerrant book is to be heeded. Besides, there are no lines in the Bible that directly contradict the notion that non-believers go to hell. Liberal Christians that think otherwise would have to ignore the Bible as a source.

It profoundly disturbs me that millions of people, if not hundreds of millions, sincerely believe that 75% of the world’s population deserves infinite torture for nothing more than unbelief (in some cases, that’d include other Christian denominations that might be viewed as heretical, out of 38,000). The kindest and most compassionate unbeliever deserves the same fate as mass-murderers and genocidal tyrants?  Where is the justice in that? Where is the fairness? Even our Earthly legal systems don’t give someone the stark choice between being set free or getting the death penalty.

What’s most interesting about this logic is how anyone could encourage genuine belief when using fear and self-preservation as a source of persuasion. Do these people really think they’re getting others to sincerely believe in Christ out of their own volition, rather than scaring them to do it? Won’t God see right through that anyway?

If the belief being presented is really true and just, why the threat of hell? Won’t your case be worthy and self-evident in it’s beauty without having to rely on frightening people, or enticing them with the reward of heaven? If an idea is right and good, then it’ll stand on it’s own, rather than through an appeal to our base instinct for self-preservation.

This is one of the major reasons I’m not a Christian in particular, or religious in general. I’ve read the Bible, in addition to the works of theologians and the arguments of apologetics; I’ve also studied the science and historicity of religious claims. I’ve found no compelling reason to believe, nor have I felt that sense of conviction and certainty that believers often speak of; the “faith” that transcends the need for evidence and overcomes any rational doubt.

In other words, I’ve tried to believe as best as I could. I’ve engaged with Christians of all sorts,  sat in on Bible study groups as the resident disbeliever, gone to Church, and even to prayed. In each instance I felt nothing. So rather than believe out of fear, to play it safe ala Pascal’s Wager, I’ve decided to be honest to myself and others and admit that I simply don’t know if it’s true and can’t commit myself to it until I do. Why should I be at fault for this? Why should I be found deserving of the same fate as Hitler or Stalin or any other monster? For my honesty? For my utilizing of the very faculty of thinking and reason that God presumably bestowed on me?

If God is really as incalculably intelligent, just, and benevolent as they say, he would know whether I was feigning belief in him to save my own skin or was true to myself. He would know I meant well and tried my best to seek the truth using all the tools and resources available. He would know I was being honest. I do not see how such an omnipotent and perfect being could be so petty and cruel as to demand belief in him ahead of any sincerity. Such an entity could only be a projection of the human mind, with it’s well-established proclivities for parochialism and self-righteousness.

The Magic of Reality

On October 4th, Richard Dawkins will publish what is perhaps his most intruiging work, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, now available for pre-order on Amazon. It’s piqued my curiosity because it is his first attempt to take science education directly to young readers, including pre-adolescent children (indeed, it’s even illustrated be renowned graphic artist Dave McKean.

Furthermore, given his infamous reputation for being strident and abrasive, it’s interesting to see him take a more amicable approach to science advocacy. As far as I can see, he avoids directly confronting religion specifically, which is probably intentional, given the scope of his desired audience.

Personally, I think this work is a step in the right direction. Too many people are oblivious to science and reasoning, and I find that younger people are increasingly lacking in scientific exposure and emersion (much less scientific literacy). It certainly seems that Dawkins has reached the same conclusion, which is why he’s clealry trying an approach that will present the scientific worldview is a more broadly palatable fashion.

I also liked how he shared his hope for families to read this together, much like they would a classic fable or traditional fairy tale. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with kids enjoying such “myths” and fantasies, since they’re a fun and enduring part of any healthy childhood. In the form of parables, they can often be a useful and constructive way of teaching children all sorts of moral lessons (though whether they’re the right ones is a different story). Despite some of the criticism I’ve already seen, this isn’t an attempt to rob children of their imaginations and sense of wonder.

Rather, it’s an attempt to tap into a child’s natural curiosity by presenting the real world as every bit as wonderous as any fantasy one. I think Dawkins is simply trying to give people of all ages a chance to explore the beauty of the scientific and natural world, which far too often is treated as something that is cold, boring, and even meaningless.

In reality, the “real” world can be as awe-inspiring, beautiful, and breath-taking as any mythical or supernatural version. Science in general, and naturalism in particular, are far too often regarded as unimaginative or even cynical: those of us perscribing to such views lack creativity, or are incapable of seeing or experiencing the same sort of wonder and deep-feelings that religious or spiritual counterparts do.

But the world can still be a beautiful place for us non-believers, whether we’re full-blown atheists, agnostics, or any other kind of secularist. The unfathonable scale of the universe; the way life evolves and adapts; the intricate complexity and function of our bodies down to every cell; these are just a handful of thescientifically observered aspects of nature that I find breath-taking, all the more so because the constitute the “real” world that we so often taken for granted in it’s mystique.

In any case, I think the religious and irreligious alike can appreciate such an easy-to-read, beautifully illustrated introduction into the greatness of our universe. I will no doubt be sharing such a book with my children some day – albeit once they’ve had their fill of fantastical stories of course. We’re only part of this world once, and we should appreciate it for what it is while we can.