Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Various Potshots

I'm normally onside with the folks I'm about to point fingers at, so please understand that there's nothing personal in all of this, and neither is there any dogmatic or political axe to grind. Instead, it was my teeth doing the grinding a few times this week, and I just had to say something.

First off, the always excellent Avedon Carol has been pinch-hitting for Kevin Drum at Political Animal, and in the middle of a tremendous post on the Democrats not being able to keep up with the lies the Republicans constantly spin, she suggests that they try reading several blogs each day. She even lists which blogs are most likely to yield results, and most of the ones she mentions are blogs I visit and can indeed vouch for.

The list includes Atrios, a blog I visit a couple of times a day. And yeah, he's normally good for pointing the reader towards other sites that document all sorts of atrocities. However, he's also keen on using some bizarre nicknames and shorthands that he thinks, I'm sure, are pretty damn clever and that most of his readers think are clever as well. The most recent one is to refer to Bob Woodward as "Booby."

Now, I don't know about you, but for someone who is not familiar with ever bloody intricacy of US media and politics, when I click on a site and am looking for information, I want something concise enough to allow me to decide I should click the follow-through link and pursue whatever-the-hell line of thought might be. But there's no clarity here, nothing to suggest that I should want anything to do with this. Pseudo-posts like this are nothing but confusion, like dangling a carrot five hundred feet in front of the donkey, so why the hell should it even bother.

And yet this is considered one of the good sites, a place where a liberal (or Democratic, since we all know those two states of existence are not always the same) should go to get his or her information. I have no patience for this sort of BS, and I'm not tied up 26 hours a day balancing my time between trying to represent my citizens and trying to raise money to be re-elected. When concise, Atrios is a great clearing house of links to other sites that have the information to cut through the lies. When playful and idiotic, Atrios is a lost cause that would make any busy person just want to open up Freecell.

Also recently, PZ Meyers, who blogs on all sorts of excellent topics (but weighted heavily towards hassling so-called Intelligent Design and other non-scientific travesties) at Pharyngula, wrote an entry called "Naturals and Unnaturals." He writes:

"I need a label, so I'm going to call those people who consider material evidence paramount and regard the real world as a mostly sufficient container of phenomena that define our existence the Naturals. I consider myself one of them, so I think these are the good guys, for the most part; it doesn't mean that all Naturals are correct in all matters, though, because there are many whose interpretations of evidence I disagree with, and vice versa. All that is important is that we agree that measurement and testing and analysis are the best ways to resolve our differences.

"What's the contra position? There are those who think inspiration and intuition and all the internal imagery of their minds define their external reality; that what they wish to be so will be so if only they can articulate it and select and distort evidence for the purposes of persuasion. What they see is only applicable and interesting if it reinforces their presuppositions, and all else is a lure and a distraction, an illusion that must be disregarded or rationalized to fit into a predetermined explanation. Many religious people are examples: they have a vision of an unseen power that acts on the world, and despite the lack of evidence and frequent contradictions between their beliefs and reality, they insist on interpreting everything as a shadow of something impalpable and unimaginable.

"I'm going to call them Unnaturals, plainly enough."

I can see this train of thought, and I can understand it, but Meyers is quick to point out in any occassion that a religious person might agree with his own stand on something the fault that this person carries for being religious, for believing in an invisible friend in the sky. "On the other side, we find Rev. Coyne, the Vatican astronomer who dismisses Intelligent Design, who is clearly mostly a Natural supporting science and evolution, but who occasionally tosses out an Unnatural bon mot about his religious beliefs..."

In an earlier posting about Coyne, Meyers wrote:

"His position as an astronomer is significantly more convincing, but still…astronomy is not evolutionary biology. If we are to encourage respect for legitimate expertise, it defeats the purpose if we then uncritically accept the words of someone whose main claims to fame are regard in an unrelated science and his membership in a hierarchy of medieval metaphysicians who wear funny hats.

"Maybe we should just disregard religious authority in all of its forms, even when it says stuff we like.

"Also, Coyne should have shut his mouth after criticizing Intelligent Design creationism. What are we supposed to make of this kind of silliness?

Rather, he argued, God should be seen more as an encouraging parent.

"God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world that reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity," he wrote. "He is not continually intervening, but rather allows, participates, loves."

"What does he know of this god? How does he know how it operates? What evidence does he have for any of these vague claims, these peculiar insights into the hypothetical mind of a mythical being? When people purport to speak for gods, we should just pat them on the head and escort them to a nice quiet room for a little lie-down, and maybe give them a damp cloth and a good cup of tea."

See, here's the funny thing that I think Meyers refuses to understand (as opposed to not getting it at all; I just think his worldview won't let him take this in): just because you're religious, your worldview shouldn't be instantly dismissed. Coyne is a priest. He works for the Vatican (well, even if he was stationed up here in the middle of freaking nowhere, he'd still work for the Vatican, but you know what I mean). The very core of his life is to try and understand life's mysteries in a way that is meaningful to him. The fact that he does this both as a priest and as a scientist is a decision I find quite fascinating. Do I believe the same thing he does? No, I do not. Do I understand that his position and his belief may indeed require him to say something about it now and again? Why yes, yes I do.

He said nothing that pointed fingers at people for not sharing his own beliefs. He did not claim that God would come and get you for disagreeing with him. And while Meyers at no time suggests that Coyne can't say what he wants, his desire to dismiss what's said by the priest shows an inability to utilize what could and should be an important alliance.

I'd like to propose that Naturals and Unnaturals be defined in a different fashion. Naturals, it seems to me, are those who attempt to foist their views on others. Unnaturals are those who understand that it's quite all right for others to hold other viewpoints, and that, exercised carefully, those viewpoints don't have to be a hindrance to society.

I set it that way because, as animals, we seem to be hard-wired to look out for number one. See Peter Watts on "The Flip Side of Mother Love" for an example. It's easier for us to not accept anything different, anything alien. And so a friend's mother, commenting after the Air India crash that she felt sorry for all those poor souls because they would never go to heaven (being that they were all Indians and therefore must have all been Hindu or Sikh, not Christian), was showing herself to be a Natural. My sister, who spent many years working as a youth and a music pastor, was appalled by this point of view. I would suggest that her response puts her into the Unnatural category.

Another Unnatural statement was recently made at a conference of Reform Jews:

"We are particularly offended by the suggestion that the opposite of the religious right is the voice of atheism," said Yoffie. "We are appalled when 'people of faith' is used in such a way that it excludes us, as well as most Jews, Catholics and Muslims. What could be more bigoted than to claim that you have a monopoly on God, and that anyone who disagrees with you is not a person of faith?"

Of course, the fact that the same convention resulted in an accusation that "the religious-right's opposition to gay rights [is] reminiscent of the Nazis slid the whole thing a long way back towards the Naturals.

My disagreement with Meyers (and with Atrios) probably means that I'm a Natural, I realize, but I'll try to mitigate this by encouraging both to continue to do whatever the hell they want. Because, honestly, what difference does my opinion matter?

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