Monthly Archives: August 2013

Every once in a while, I poke around blogs written by or about atheists. I go in and out of being interested in the subject. One theme that comes up again and again is that atheists are a contentious lot. Just last night, I read a very moving post entitled “My Childhood Had No Place for God.” In the last paragraph, the writer says, “As an adult, I don’t identify as an atheist.  To me atheism is the religion of denying religion, and many of them have waged some kind of anti-holy war against believers.” If he doesn’t believe in the existence of any gods, then the writer is an atheist whether he chooses to identify as that or not.  He follows that with his own private definition of an atheist. Needless to say, although language does change and there are regional variations, language is only functional if we have some broad agreement about the meaning of words and the structure of grammar. What interests me is not the reduction in the ability to communicate that might result from making up one’s own private meaning for common English words, but why he might have this particular image of non-believers, that we are, indeed, a rather unpleasant lot.

When I poke around the internet, I see a world that bears only a superficial resemblance to the one I see in real life. As I’ve said elsewhere, I grew up in a suburb of a big city. The town in which we lived had people of all different ethnic backgrounds and a large number of religions, Catholic, Protestants of various sects, Episcopalian, Judaism, Greek Orthodox, Taoist and Buddhist, and probably a few others. My own parents were atheists as was my maternal grandfather. This was not the colorful inner city of recent immigrants clinging to old world traditions. This was the melting pot, not the beautiful mosaic. When questioned about my ethnic “identity” my own list of ancestral origins contains at least eight. Now, I’m middle-aged, so this mixed-up melting pot existed forty years ago. This is not some kind of new development.

So, when I hear people talk about having grown up in a “fundamentalist” atmosphere in which every one believed in the same fire and brimstone version of evangelical Christianity and appears to be exclusively of English ancestry, I feel like I should rouse Harry Smith from the dead so we can head down into the holler and do some folkloric research. And yet, when I look at atheist message boards, the number of “former fundamentalists” is astounding – and they’re young!

Which brings me to another characteristic of atheists that I encounter on the internet as opposed to those I encounter in my off-line life. On the internet, self-identified atheists disproportionately have recently lost their faith. By internet atheists I don’t simply mean atheists who use the internet, but people who frequently identify themselves as atheists, who blog about being atheist or spend a lot of time on atheist message boards or writing comments about atheism.

When you stop and think about it, it makes sense. People who have recently lost their faith have more to talk about on the subject of atheism. People who are living in highly religious environments or in families with many devout members need to reach out to strangers on the internet more often. Beyond that, you wind up with people like me who are mainly roused by the intersection of politics and religion. Another post I read recently asked why atheists are fascinated by creationism. First, the writer makes the mistake of equating angry people on the internet with all atheists. The answer is very simple, creationists want their version of reality to be taught in schools. People who feel insulated from the fundamentalists because of their socioeconomic class or the region in which they live tend to not run to the barricades. Internet atheists are a self-selecting lot and not in any way an appropriate survey sample.

As I mentioned the other day, I picked up in the bookstore a book by Colin Woodard entitled American Nations: A history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America. After finishing Chapter 2, “The Founding of New France,” I wondered if it was worth my while to continue. While I was in Quebec, I desperately wanted to assimilate successfully and one way to doing that was by trying to learn as much as possible about what I assumed at that time would be my adopted homeland. My ex was a Quebecois separatist who told me many times that his ancestor had come over with Champlain and that he was “pure laine” and “Quebecois de souche.”

Woodard refers to Francis Parkman’s famous sentence: “Spanish civilization crushed the Indian; English civilization scorned and neglected him; French civilization embraced and cherished him.”

What is important about this phrase is an unstated assumption, one that I suspect most readers make as well, that Spanish civilization in North America is represented by Mexico, English by the colonies that became the United States, and France by Quebec. When we consider that each of these three groups settled multiple areas and we consider the history in light of the finer detail that provides, the statement appears gravely in need of qualification. The economic conditions in each of what eventually became Quebec, Mexico and the United States differed vastly. If we examine regions where the environmental, and therefore economic, situation holds true, a different pattern emerges, one in which the three empires behaved in similar ways.

There were colonies from all three Empires located on islands in the Caribbean.  Spain was the first to arrive in the region and settled the islands we now know as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, the Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat, Guadalupe, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and Trinidad. France established colonies on the islands of Saint Kitts in 1625,  on Guadeloupe and in 1635, and on Saint Lucia in 1650, and on the island of Hispaniola they established Saint-Domingue, today known as Haiti, in 1664. The British settled the Bahamas, Bermuda, the British Leeward Islands, the British Virgin Islands, the British Windward Islands, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos Islands. Many of these islands, such as Saint Kitts, were claimed alternately by each empire, while others, such as Hispaniola, were shared.

On the Caribbean islands, all three empires did their best to massacre or expel the native inhabitants. (I’ve come to dislike the use of the word “extinct” when applied to human communities. Many people appear to make an analogy with animal extinctions in which no living member of that species remains and assume that the “extinction” of a tribe means that every last man and woman died without any offspring. In fact, it means that the group no longer exists as a political entity. Frequently, descendents remain. The majority of contemporary Puerto Ricans are descended from the Taino. Actually, as I was looking for a link for that, I saw that even academics are confused about the different uses of the word. Perhaps, I should do an entire post on this.) All three empires imported slaves from west Africa, whose descendants became the majority of the population on many of the islands. If we want to compare how cultural factors affected the treatment of native peoples under different European empires, we would do better to compare the empires under similar environmental conditions.

Similarly, where both the French and the English profited from the beaver trade, the native tribes were treated as trading partners. It was only after the collapse of the fur trade that European interests in the northern areas of North America turned from trade to settlement and the change in treatment of the native tribes changed accordingly. By this time, however, the English had defeated the French in Quebec and it is not possible to tell if the French policies would have changed as well.

Perhaps we should not even say that “the English defeated the French” so much as the Iroquois defeated the Huron. What we in the U.S. call the French and Indian War was, in many ways, the Indian and Indian War. Woodard makes much of the French settlers’ “cultural openness” citing alliances with the Huron and others. However, the British Empire allied themselves with the Iroquois. In fact, I have often quipped that the French chose the wrong Indians. The Iroquois are not a tribe, but a confederacy of several tribes, six today and five at the time of the French and Indian War, and were far more numerous and powerful as a group than the culturally and linguistically similar Hurons.

I don’t mean to imply that cultural factors have no bearing on historical events, but we need a much more balanced view than Woodard is giving us. I’ll deal with numerous errors he makes in recounting the settlement of New France in a separate post. It’s very disturbing to see because we don’t have many good books in English on the subject. Woodard appears to lean heavily on David Hackett Fischer’s book Champlain’s Dream, which I haven’t read.

Well, I’ve been playing around with a new Gravatar image. I’m not happy yet, but this is what I have so far.

Right now, I’m using a photo. Although the photo looked very graphic to me, after it was reduced it just looked like a blur. I don’t know if this will be better or not.

Ouch, it’s almost midnight, so I better put something up soon. I’ve been going through my photos and trying to get some sort of identification on some of the insects and flowers I saw. I’m no naturalist, so if I’ve misidentified anything, please let me know.

Agalinis acuta, also known as Sandplain Gerardia, is a rare flower.

Agalinis acuta, also known as Sandplain Gerardia, is a rare flower.

This is a Red-banded Hairstreak.

This is a Red-banded Hairstreak.

One of the many little brownish skippers. I find them hard to identify, but I have tentative identified this one as a Zabulon Skipper.

One of the many little brownish skippers. I find them hard to identify, but I have tentative identified this one as a Zabulon Skipper.

A mantid.

A mantid.

partridge pea

partridge pea

This is a Pearl Crescent. There were dozens of these butterflies in one spot.

This is a Pearl Crescent. There were dozens of these butterflies in one spot.

A Blue-fronted Dancer.

A Blue-fronted Dancer.

I got so many photos, so I guess I might as well stop here. If you want to see more, I just posted some others on my French language blog.

Yesterday, I took a trip to a really remarkable place. About a year or so ago, when I was doing a bunch of research on native plants and wildflowers, I saw quite a few references to a place called “Soldier’s Delight.” It’s nearby, located in Baltimore County. A landscape of a stream on a beautiful, sunny day. To the left, there is a field of grasses. To the right are some pines. A small butterfly is in the foreground. A patch of woods can be seen in the distance.

The it once was part of “the Great Maryland Barrens”, a unique ecosystem of which only 5% remains. Most of the area is in a state wildlife reserve called Soldier’s Delight. Much of the soil in the area is made up of a rock called serpentine. Serpentine soil is low in nutrients. While much of the east coast is deciduous woodlands, the Maryland Barrens were a unique grassland and supports correspondingly unique flora and fauna, specifically insects, some of which are found no where else.

When we arrive, a naturalist was showing beautiful Turkey Vulture. I’ll have to write more about vultures one day. In the meantime, here’s a portrait of the lady.

A twenty five year old female turkey vulture.

Anyone who’s interested in butterflies should take a trip there. It was far more rewarding than I expected.

Okay, the WordPress platform is acting buggy again, and I don’t have the time to deal with it. So I’m just going hope this will publish.

One of my favorite movies is Gattaca. A small detail in the movie is a pianist with six fingers. In the movie, it is intentional, achieved through genetic engineering. In the real world, polydactyly is a congenital abnormality, a type of birth defect characterized by structural deformities. In my high school biology class, one of my classmates told us that she had been born with six fingers but the sixth finger had been cut off a few days after she was born.  One of the other students said, “It would be so cool to have six fingers.” The first girl explained that the sixth finger is rarely fully functional and hers was not. She showed us the scar on the side of her hand, which was so old and faded that I wouldn’t have noticed it had she not pointed it out.

Birth defects can run the gamut from those that threaten a child’s health to the comparatively trivial. It is not at all unusual for parents to choose, as my schoolmate’s parents did, to have abnormalities corrected when possible. Parents make these kinds of health decisions for infant children all time. Since, in this particular case, the finger was non-functional, the young woman was happy that her parents had made the decision they had. However, what if the finger had been functional? Would be better for her to look like other people or to have six functional digits? Who should make that decision?

Few congenital disorders have multiple choices that many people can see as equally valid. However, intersex is an exception. Formerly called hermaphrodism, intersex is, “is a variation in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, and/or genitals that do not allow an individual to be distinctly identified as male or female. Such variation may involve genital ambiguity, and combinations of chromosomal genotype and sexual phenotype other than XY-male and XX-female.”

When I was in seventh grade, our school showed us a documentary about a girl who had been born ambiguous genitals. I no longer recall why the parents chose to raise her as a girl and not a boy, but that is what they did. She must have been born in either the late sixties or the early seventies, and the most common way this was handled at the time was for parents to choose to raise the child as either a boy or a girl. Surgeries made her previously ambiguous genitals into externally female genitals, she was dressed in girls’ clothes and the rest of the world identified her as a girl. They also discussed with her the subject of adoption since she would not be able to have children. I have no doubt the parents, with the information available to them at the time, were doing what they believed to be in her best interest.

Intersex is a condition that you don’t choose; you can’t choose. You’re just born with it. One in every 2000 people are born with this condition, so it’s not especially uncommon. People have been born with this condition throughout recorded history and they have dealt with it with the best way they could at the time. This is why I was aghast when I read the word “desire” associated with intersex in an article in The American Conservative.

Desire Über Alles” was prompted by an article in Der Spiegel.

The option of selecting “blank,” in addition to the standard choices of “male” or female” on birth certificates will become available in Germany from November 1. The legislative change allows parents to opt out of determining their baby’s gender, thereby allowing those born with characteristics of both sexes to choose whether to become male or female in later life. Under the new law, individuals can also opt to remain outside the gender binary altogether.

When I was young, intersex people’s lives were determined at a very young age by their parents. Today, there has been a move for those individuals to determine these questions for themselves. This really strikes me as being such a simple, and obvious, way of dealing with the situation, I can’t help wondering if conservatives immediately go on the attack the moment they hear the word “sex.” The writer, Rod Dreher, draws a link between new-born infants whose sex is not obvious to adult observers to Paolo and Francesca, adulterous lovers burning in hell Dante’s Inferno. Do not ask me to explain how these things are similar. Dreher’s article is a masterpiece of incoherence. He throws together unrelated things as if he was playing a journalistic game of exquisite corpse.

“Good Godwin,” you may be wondering, “did he mention Hitler?” You bet your sweet bippy he did! But you can ignore that because, well, he said so. “Ignore the Godwin’s Law screaming meemies and grasp the deeper point Reno is making about how we allow desire, abetted by technology, to determine reality.”

So, to recap: Dante, adulterers, desire, people born with ambiguous genitals, German birth certificates, Australian passports, desire is will, Triumph of the Will, Nazis, Francis Bacon, Liberalism is like Marxism, Karl Marx, Marxist-turned-Catholic Alasdair MacIntyre, Liberalism is not like Marxism, Nietzsche/Heidegger/Hitler, abortion. All of this is thrown together in some sort of exercise in conservative free association.

I kid you not. This is not an article. It’s the ramblings of someone lying on an analyst’s couch.

So, people who did not choose to be intersex should not be allowed to choose how to deal with that fact even when they are adults? Is that the conservative position?

The other day, I was sitting at my desk while the sun was rising. My windows face west and I could see the moon setting. It looked full and huge, and it was a bright pink in the blue sky. I grabbed my camera and took a couple of pictures.



It turns out that I was looking at a blue moon, which is the third moon in a season that has four full moons. It occurs approximately once every three years.

So I’ve put up a post everyday until last Saturday. True, sometimes I posted past midnight and often I put up nothing but a photo, but I did manage to have at least one post for everyday since the first of the year. It was a weird little commitment I made to myself.

I’m probably trying the patience of my readers here. The shutdown of Lavabit has created a bigger crisis in my life than I expected. Since I never store important documents, including emails, on other people’s hardware, I thought it would be as simple as getting a new email address and logging into various services like the one here on WordPress and updating that bit of information.

I should probably confess something here that I didn’t intend to get to for a very long time. About a year and a half ago, I was hospitalized for suicidal ideation. A complicated set of circumstances brought it on and I didn’t want to discuss it outside of the context, but, for better or worse, it’s part of the context of what’s going on now and I can’t talk about my current situation without referencing it. The short version, is that I never wanted to get married or have children. I wanted to have a significant career of some sort. I failed. I’m going on fifty and I now realize I’ll never achieve the things I wanted to achieve. This has led me into a depression although I didn’t have a history of it. I did have a history of anxiety and I am a little bit quirky. So I take medication now, and at least I’m no longer thinking about suicide. But I’m still struggling with how to make a life for myself that I can actually enjoy more often than not. I was enjoying getting some of my opinions out there.

I just don’t like the things other people like. They don’t give me satisfaction. I wish I could go shopping and feel good. Hell, I wish I could believe in Jesus, enjoy watching teevee, enjoy sports, accept the fact that women are supposed to act as if their vagina is a non-renewable resource, think people look better photoshopped, worry about what celebrities are naming their babies, and all sorts of things that are just a blank for me. In short, I wish I could be just a little bit more like other people. Life would be easier for me. I wouldn’t have much to blog about, but that’s okay. Facebook is sufficient for most people.

I’m not ready to hand over my whole life to the owners of Google. I have a lot to say about many things, but I just wanted to maintain a modicum of privacy. As I’ve said before, I wasn’t using Lavabit for their encryption or security. I was using them simply because they weren’t tracking me and selling my information to advertisers.

So now I don’t know. If I can’t find another email provider that allows a little bit of privacy, I’m going to take a significant part of my life off-line. What will remain on line will be under my own name, but I won’t have any opinions that aren’t acceptable to the majority. I’ll have to cease speaking out about atheism, politics, sexuality and women’s issues.

I can’t even begin to explain to everyone the pain I’m going through right now. I feel a little bit crazy right now. Am I overreacting? Everyone else is seems so happy with Facebook. Why don’t I like it? What’s wrong with me? Why am I not like everybody else?