Is Alain De Botton The Next Neo-Atheist?

Alain de Botton is a different kind of atheist. In fact, I’m tempted to call him a post-atheist, or even post-theist (meaning that theism is obsolete). He takes for granted the fact  that we squabble about metaphysical “proofs” of god’s existence, and that you don’t need god to be morally good. But, he says, we could learn a thing or two from religion. I fact, quite a lot: that’s the premise of his new book “Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.” In a recent HuffPo article, de Botton summarizes this position:

In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts. The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many sides of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed. Once we cease to feel that we must either prostrate ourselves before them or denigrate them, we are free to discover religions as a repository of occasionally ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.

de Botton claims he is a “gentle atheist,” and this may appeal to those wavering of the fence of belief in contrast to the more aggresive stance of “neo-atheists” like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late but profound Christopher Hitchens. I enjoy that term, neo-atheist, as I believe 1) it pulls atheism, which shouldn’t be a dirty word, into the spotlight, and 2) signals that fact that atheism has been around, is here to stay, and is an extremely tenable position this day in age. A quick search for the term reveals over 84,000 hits from Politics Daily to Time Magazine.

The book was only released officially on Tuesday, but already enjoys a pretty wide spectrum of praise. The criticism, mainly, comes from religionists who take offense at the idea that we, the secularlists, might “steal” the parts of religion we like. Do they forget that Christianity stole most of its traditions from paganism? Or re-purposed the idea that the sun “rises” because of relative rotation of the earth, and not due to the will of a god? That aside, moral critiques still abound, like this one from Stephen Hough of the Telegraph (referencing the smoking of the “opium of the masses” pipe a la Marx):

And, returning to opium, if atheism’s claim that nothing to nothing is the Universe’s non-plan, then nothing really matters that much in the end – including my smoking of the pipe of delusion and escapism. If I were languishing in solitary confinement until death in a prison cell (whether falsely or justly convicted) atheism could provide me with no reason to live, whereas faith and contemplation could actually bring me unspeakable joy, even in those most desperate circumstances.


Mark Cuban Reps Skepticism Hard On Shark Tank

One of my “guilty pleasures,” if there is such thing, is the ABC show Shark Tank. Some of the lines are so ridiculous they just can’t be scripted, and I really enjoy the diversity of personalities in the different investors. In a nutshell, five ridiculously rich investors hear pitches from people across the country with interesting ideas; most of which I think are utter trash, but a few that are cool. Clean Bottle was on there, for instance, and that’s pretty big in the cycling world right now.

Mark Cuban is a pretty outlandish guy as it is, and his remarks are often patriotic (he supports keeping jobs in the US) and family-oriented. Still, he’s a business-man, like they all are, and at the end of the day looking to make a solid investment to return a nice profit. I can appreciate that, but it reminds me that the show is really little more than a money maker for a ABC, and a driver for capitalism as a whole. Damn you CrimethInc, raising my consciousness on stuff like that!

All that aside, Cuban stepped way outside the box last week and absolutely trashed a guy selling “negative ion” watches. I’m not gonna link the watch or the guy because, true to form, he generates revenue from SEO wizardry and more back-links would only help his cause. After the guy makes his pitch and “proves” the technology with the falling-over trick, Cuban responds:

No, I’m allergic to scams. Seriously, this is not new. It’s been disproven. What you saw is the placebo effect. There’s athletes that wear it. It’s a joke. It’s a scam. It’s not real. I’m out. Okay. Thank you.

The digs continue as fellow investor Robert Herjavec jokes that the ions are put in by “waving a wand.” When asked if he has independent laboratory testing, Cuban responds for him, “Hell no, hell no!” He’s firmly committed to how much of a bullshit claim this is.

For once, some intellectual content on a reality T.V. show! I would expect this sort of reply from Joe Nickell or my friends at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, but Cuban cuts through the delicacies and delivers the one-two punch: this is bullshit, this is pseudoscience, and this kind of quackery does not need to be invested in. For a more solid debunking of “negative ion” products, see: “Epic Power Band Scam” (video), “Health-Giving Jewelry” (Australia), or a lengthy discussion of the very similar “Q-Ray” bracelet. I knew that Mr. Cuban enjoys himself some Naked Pizza, but now the world knows he’s got a streak of skepticism in him!


Committed To A Wood Burning World

It’s no secret I’m fond of Sam Harris, and his latest blog post on wood burning and the effects of wood smoke is yet another tour de force by the rational thinker. In it, he compares our aversion to the idea that burning wood – in any quantity, at any time, for any reason – is harmful, to the faithful’s aversion that they might be wrong: that there is no god, no divine morality, no “son” sent by a father, and so on. In his latest post, entitled The Fireplace Delusion, he spells out what scientists have known for decades:

There is no amount of wood smoke that is good to breathe. It is at least as bad for you as cigarette smoke, and probably much worse. (One study found it to be 30 times more potent a carcinogen.) The smoke from an ordinary wood fire contains hundreds of compounds known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, and irritating to the respiratory system. Most of the particles generated by burning wood are smaller than one micron—a size believed to be most damaging to our lungs. In fact, these particles are so fine that they can evade our mucociliary defenses and travel directly into the bloodstream, posing a risk to the heart. Particles this size also resist gravitational settling, remaining airborne for weeks at a time.

Much of his evidence comes from a 2007 study from the University of Georgia, which describes that wood smoke is harmful, without exception, but the question remains how to address it: should we regulate it like cigarette smoke? Also of concern to the researchers is the specific particle size of wood smoke, and how it effects us versus smoke with different size particles.

This was news to me. Though there is much I know nothing about, I try to inform myself about the various health issues facing our society, from environmental toxins to lack of fitness, and of course (my favorite) diet. So to think that wood stoves – a staple in my grandparents’ house – and wood-burning cook-outs (of which I’m a big fan) are all harmful and pollute the environment, well, that’s kind of a shock. And that’s the point, says Harris. You try reconciling the long-time belief, habit, ritual, and comfort of wood burning lore with the current science that says unequivocally: it’s bad! That’s what we are up against, when it comes to the delusional believer, the Christian, or the Muslim, versus the rational freethinkers. They are committed to a world where there is a heaven, a hell, a god, and a set of rules they have to follow, much as wood burners are:

Most people I meet want to live in a world in which wood smoke is harmless. Indeed, they seem committed to living in such a world, regardless of the facts. To try to convince them that burning wood is harmful—and has always been so—is somehow offensive. The ritual of burning wood is simply too comforting and too familiar to be reconsidered, its consolation so ancient and ubiquitous that it has to be benign. The alternative—burning gas over fake logs—seems a sacrilege.

Not content to merely trust Harris’ research, I made a quick search using Pubmed and Google, and sure enough, there’s plenty of research out there: a toxicology review in 2002 claiming that ” exposure to woodsmoke, particularly for children, represents a potential health hazard.” A link between wood smoke exposure and lower respiratory disease (1990). Sydney, Australia claims that wood smoke adds billions to health bills and is considering banning wood stoves all together (The Herald article). The site (by Clean Air Revival) has a comprehensive list of the science behind wood smoke and its effects.

I’m all for renewable energy, and certainly we can make wood go round and round in a natural cycle through burning, composting, planting, etc. But at what cost? Just because wood has been burned for thousands of years doesn’t mean we should keep doing it, even if it is more “natural” than gas or electric. Those aren’t great either, but solar remains off in the horizon, inhibited by the cost that corporation aren’t willing to put into it.

Harris gives two strong arguments here: 1) burning wood is a bad idea, and 2) the resistance to #1 should illustrate the resistance the religious feel to changing their minds. Another great analogy by a great mind. For an up-to-date look at the wood smoke crisis, Harris suggests San Francisco-based group Families for Clean Air.

Photo: frostnova


Behemoth Returns, Cancer Destroyed, US Tour Announced

Remember when a “bone marrow” Google search would yield blackened death metal results? That was back when Nergal, the vocalist for Polish band Behemoth, was diagnosed with luekemia in August of 2010. Since then, a lot has happened – he got a bone marrow transplant, lost his hair, made a new video, crushed Poland with a few shows, and are now heading across Europe and US for two headlining tours.

Nergal stated in a recent interview, “I owe you people so much…the whole thing with us coming back to tour(s)…is I’d love to see you all there, and meet you personally, and shake hands. That’s my main goal.” Lest you think their satanic shtick is a bunch of hate; I honestly think that with the outpouring of support that Nergal and the band experienced during his illness, that he embodies both a generous nature, while at the same time delivering an aggressive, crushing black/death metal force to fans. I’m passionate about that dichotomy because too often metal is characterized as evil and anti-social; left for Luddites in dark caves instead of strong men and women who use it as a way to affect change in themselves and others.

Recent evidence shows that not only is Behemoth back, but their stage show is even grander than before:


In that song, “Of Fire And Void,” Nergal sings: “I pulse ov existence / The law ov nature undenied / I hold the torch ov Heraclites / So I can shake the earth and move the suns.” This is pure secular morality, personified by Nergal as he states the “pure joy” of “the here and now.” Greek mythology, coupled with the philosophy of Max Stirner, brings a powerful message to the metal community: we have to act, regardless of any exterior forces; this is “potential in action, never in inertia.”

Behemoth brings this joyful rage to the United States starting in April with fellow black-metallers Watain. I’m stoked to see a reinvigorated Nergal and company bellow and thrash as “pylons ov light.”

Photo: Heavy Blog is Heavy

Occupy Louisville In Full Swing, Huge March In Solidarity

I had the privilege, pleasure, and extreme joy of being part of a 200-person march up and down Bardstown Road today, all part of the the October 15 Global Day of Action, in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy Louisville, those brave souls who have been camping out at Jefferson Square Park for almost two weeks now, continue to organize and get Louisville motivated to take action, to fight corporate greed, to take back “our street” and demand accountability. Protests are happening all over the world and I was so proud to be a part of one today.

Below are a few pictures and videos of the grandiose event, which drew young and old, black and white, and everyone in between. We all united, screamed our lungs out, and showed Louisville, indeed, there are people who care. I am proud to be one of those people and stand behind the millions of others who back Occupy Wall Street and all the Occupations around the world.

This is the time for action. It’s time for you to get involved. Find an occupation near you (Occupy Together), get online and share the hell out of #ows posts or news coverage of the occupations. Don’t be embarrassed to tell your friends why this matters to you – we are the 99%, and that’s a hell of a lot more people than the tiny 1% who control forty percent of the wealth in this country.