Memento Mori

“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” – Seneca

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” – Marcus Aurelius

One of the epiphanies associated with adopting the secular worldview is the realization that this is the only life we have.  There is not a single shred of evidence that there is anything waiting for us on the other side of death.  Oftentimes the contemplation of this fact prevents some from adopting a secular viewpoint in spite of being convinced by the arguments and evidence.  I’m sure you’ve heard the objection, “I can’t believe we live and die and then that is it.”  This fact is so unpalatable for some that it elicits an emotional response that overrides the conclusions of reason.

For me, this realization was a very visceral epiphany.  The understanding that this is our one and only life, rather than being a strictly intellectual acquisition, resonated deep inside me and caused me to reevaluate just about every aspect of my life both in the present and what I had planned moving forward in the future. Prior to this, I felt like I had all the time in the world and if I didn’t get to it in this life well, there was always eternity (of the Catholic variety) waiting and there would certainly be time o’plenty to get to it, whatever it happened to be. All that changed with the realization that once you got that tap on the shoulder letting you know it was time to leave the party, that was that.  The party wasn’t over, it would continue on but you had to leave never, ever to return.

What goes through your mind, dear reader, when you contemplate this fact?  Is it something you push to the side, glancing at it occasionally with averted vision or is it something you embrace each day?  Some might say that to constantly focus on one’s death is a morbid view and an unhealthy thing.  Nothing could be further from the truth!

The Stoics, Greek and Roman philosophers, understood the importance of meditating daily on the idea of Memento Mori, roughly translated “One day you too will die.” They exhorted those practicing the Stoic disciplines to keep this fact in mind each and every day. In addition to being a philosophical framework, Stoicism is also a mental discipline and, like any discipline is something that is to be practiced.  Was your experience of the realization of your eventual death something that motivated you and caused you to appreciate even more this one and only life we all have?  Then the Stoic practice of being constantly cognizant of this fact each and every day will continue that even more so.  More importantly, it will motivate you to change your behavior. Speaking from personal experience the awareness of my own unavoidable death is the driving force that provides meaning to what I choose to invest my time and energy in.  I don’t have an unlimited amount of time and each and every day I am taking more and more from less and less.  Every second is precious to me and I am careful about how I spend my time and the activities I invest that precious time in.  Far from draining the value of our life as the religious would have you believe, it adds meaning to it which is the very thing the religious claim is lacking in the secular worldview.  There are other philosophies that also take somewhat the same view towards death as the Stoics but I have found that the Stoics have a special appeal to people who hold to a secular worldview.  There is other wisdom to be mined from the Stoics but nothing as transformative as Memento Mori.  If you are looking for a framework upon which to hang your secular worldview give the Stoics a good look.  Practice the different disciplines starting with Memento Mori and see how transformative it can be.

“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.” – Charles Darwin

 

Atheist or Anti-theist?

“I’ll tell you what you did with Atheists for about 1500 years. You outlawed them from the universities or any teaching careers, besmirched their reputations, banned or burned their books or their writings of any kind, drove them into exile, humiliated them, seized their properties, arrested them for blasphemy. You dehumanized them with beatings and exquisite torture, gouged out their eyes, slit their tongues, stretched, crushed, or broke their limbs, tore off their breasts if they were women, crushed their scrotums if they were men, imprisoned them, stabbed them, disemboweled them, hanged them, burnt them alive.

And you have nerve enough to complain to me that I laugh at you.”

Madalyn Murray O’Hair

 

“Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.”

― Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

 

In his book, Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World, David Silverman makes the argument that non-believers should self-identify as ‘atheist’ with the caveat “when it is safe to do so”.  He contrasts ‘atheist’ with other terms that are sometimes used such as ‘freethinker’, ‘humanist’, ‘naturalist’ and various others.  His argument, and it is a compelling one backed up by data, is that most people have absolutely no clue what someone means when they label themselves as a ‘freethinker’, let’s say.  On the other hand, everyone knows exactly what you mean when you tell them that you are an ‘atheist’.  I can attest from personal experience that Silverman’s observation is accurate.  I’ve used terms such as ‘humanist’ and eventually the question comes up, “But you do believe in God, right?”“No, I’m an atheist” has always my reply.  These days, however, in addition to stating at the outset that I am an atheist I always say that, furthermore, I am an anti-theist.  So what’s the difference?  An atheist is someone who rejects claims for the existence of god due to the complete lack of evidence.  An atheist thinks much the same way regarding trolls, fairies, angels, and Leprechauns as they do about god:  no evidence at all so the claim of their existence is rejected.   Things would be fine if both sides left at that.  Unfortunately, the religious never do.

“Religion is not the belief there is a god. Religion is the belief god tells you what to do.”
Christopher Hitchens

While many atheists hold to a live and let live philosophy when it comes to theists, anti-theists view the beliefs of theists as positively harmful.  In fact, were it not for theists being so active in proselytizing and expecting special privileges for themselves, their beliefs, and their institutions in society there would not be any anti-theists in the world.  It isn’t what theists believe but their insistence that everyone else believes as they do and acts accordingly that is the problem.  While religious theists tell you that it is the eternal destiny of your soul and the life after this one that concerns them over and over we see this is just a lie.  They discriminate against women in this world. The seek political power in this world so as to require everyone to believe as they do or suffer the dire consequences of being convicted of blasphemy, which is another word for thought crime.  Not only do they presume to tell you how to act they even claim the right to tell you what you think.  The are after power and property in this world, the most valuable property by far being the inside of your head.  They will stand in front of your claiming to ventriloquize the divine and issue commands at you telling you how to live and what to think as they point to “god’s word on the page.”

The anti-theist will have none of that and will let the zealots know in no uncertain terms that he or she will do everything possible to stave off this poison using the antidotes of science and reason where ever it is found.  This anti-theist refuses to go back to the time when religion “was making an offer that people could not refuse.”

 

 

Trump’s Maginot Line

As we enter the longest shutdown of the U.S. government in our country’s history over the building of a wall spanning the US-Mexico border one wonders how shutting down the government and causing so much pain to almost a million Federal employees is going to force Mexico to pay for this wall as was promised on the campaign trail by Donald Trump.  To be sure, in classic Orwellian fashion, Trump, while admitting he said during his campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall in the same breath denies that he said during his campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall.

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But what is this wall Trump is so hellbent on building no matter how many Americans he hurts in the process?  The wall has gone through various iterations and as of this writing it has become a fence built with steel slats.  Its purpose is to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, drugs, and human trafficking from Mexico which now, according to Trump, have reached emergency proportions although the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) DHS Border Security Metrics Report says otherwise.  Quoting the report, “Figure 2 depicts available data on estimated undetected unlawful entries for FY 2006 – FY 2016, the years for which data are available. As the figure indicates, estimated undetected unlawful entries fell from approximately 851,000 to nearly 62,000 during this period, a 93 percent decrease.”

figure 2

Trump is proposing building a modern day Maginot Line, a multi-billion dollar wall  rather than investing in the technologies and methodologies that, as anyone can see, works in reducing the amount of illegals successfully getting across the border.

The Maginot Line, named after the French Minister of War André Maginot, was a 943 mile long wall of fortifications built along the French-German border in the 1930s intended to deter German aggression against France.  As history shows, specifically images of German troops marching as conquerors past the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, it was considerably less effective than was originally thought. It has become a metaphor for expensive efforts that offer a false sense of security.

Trump, ignoring all factual evidence, is proposing to build a modern day version of the Maginot Line on our Southern border claiming it will work where all other attempts to use a wall on scales such as this have not worked. What has worked is an investment in the most modern technology and efficacious methodologies that employ them.  Opponents of the Maginot Line, most notably such as Paul Reynaud and Charles de Gaulle, argued for investments in other technologies such as armor and aircraft to repel the German forces and the war against Germany may have had a different outcome had their suggestions been heeded.  The historical legacy of the Maginot Line was that it was an extremely expensive way to provide the French people a false sense of security.  Trump’s wall, a modern day Maginot Line, will do exactly the same.

Review | The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten AmericaThe View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

This book is a collection of essays written between 2012 and 2014 covering subjects including the collapse of the US economy, the loss of opportunities, the shrinking middle class, and the transformation of higher education into a debt trap by the super rich. While the book is focused mainly on ‘flyover country’ also called the mid-west or the ‘rust belt’ it will also ring true with those in such places as Williamsburg and Greenpoint Brooklyn, where gentrification has pushed out middle class families some of which had lived there for generations. The author successfully predicted the election of Donald Trump and each essay describes the angst that motivated disillusioned voters to cast their vote for him. To be sure, his populist rhetoric set fire to the simmering anger you could easily see at his rallies but populism is a plant that can only grow in a specific type of soil. These essays describe the soil in which his message took hold.

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Review |Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus: A Brief History of TomorrowHomo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this book the author delves into the perilous depths of predicting the future. Regardless of where you come down on the issues and his prognostications you will be thinking about this book long after you have put it down. The author takes two technologies still in their beginning stages, biotechnology and data processing coupled with ever more powerful AI algorithms and extrapolates the impact these two fields will have to economics, humans and the value of human life. The author uses a broad brush so the reader gets everything from the ‘rose colored glasses’ scenario to a bleak dystopian future chronicling the last days of the human race. One comes away with the impression that both scenarios are possible; it all depends on who gets their hands on the technology first and their subsequent ability to control it.

Of particular interest to me were the authors treatment of two subjects: free will and Humanism. Discussions regarding free will have become increasingly popular with a number of authors such as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett recently releasing books on the subject. Dr. Harari’s treatment of free will is as good an introduction as I’ve seen to the subject. His treatment of Humanism is even better and, while I still have some issues with specifics he has forced me to rethink some of my assumptions and change some of my views. I would love to see Dr. Harari’s next book delve deep into Humanism. His historical approach to understanding a subject would work quite well with Humanism and add a great deal of value to the current discussions.

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A wonderful holiday gift.

I’ve been asked and am honored to have accepted the position of International Editor for Nastik Nation, India’s online forum for atheism and free-thought.  Why the name ‘Nastik Nation’?  As the website explains, “The word nastik generally stands for an atheist in the main languages of the Indian peninsula, except in Tamil. In Tamil it is naathigam, that too is a word derived from the same Sanskrit word nastik.”

The website publishes a monthly newsletter which can be accessed from their website which, in addition to being very well written, is also didactic for the secular community.  The issues facing the secular movements in both India and the United States are fundamentally the same though the particulars differ.  The insights that our secular brothers and sisters in India provide on these issues are invaluable.   More importantly, there is an instant connection you feel between yourself and the writer; the power of ideas to unite groups and cultures moves from the theoretical to the visceral. Seeing the ideas we both espouse at work changing the political, legal and cultural landscape in both milieus shows the power these ideas have. The power of these enlightenment ideas are still as strong as the day they were born and this gives me hope for future generations.

Most importantly, I will be able to have a hand in helping to bring attention to the work that is being done and difficulties our brothers and sisters are facing because of the ideas they hold.  These difficulties are far more strenuous than anything we face here in the States and as such each and every one of these brave men and women are inspirations to us all. A quick Google search will turn up articles such as this which illustrate the risks of being charged with blasphemy, or as I like to call it, thought-crime, by the religious fanatics.  I am constantly inspired by the bravery of the people who make up the Indian secular movement and am honored to be working with them.

Review | Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy by Jonah Goldberg

Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American DemocracySuicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy by Jonah Goldberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“A Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.”
― John Adams, Letters of John Adams, Addressed to His Wife

This book is a great conversation starter and conversations are what are sorely needed at this point in our country’s history. Casting aside the “it can’t happen here” head-in-the-sand position the author shows that yes, Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics can and are happening here and, more importantly gives a lucid and powerful explanation why this is so and what we need to do to counter them.

This is first and foremost a secular argument; the author states plainly in the beginning of the book that you will not find God in these pages. This is befitting for a number of reasons. First, it puts the ideas of casting people in the “good” and “evil” camps, which is the surest way to end a conversation and start an argument, on the shelf. Secondly, a secular nation such as ours deserves a secular argument when defending the principles it is based on. These principles are the principles that came out of the enlightenment and are a scant few hundred years old. In contrast, our species is tens of thousands of years old and the societal systems we have evolved under are what we call Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics. They “feel” right to us. In contrast, the Enlightenment values of inalienable rights, democracy and the rule of law are foreign to our intuitions and, as such, take work. Work to understand them, work to implement them and work to keep them as the principles of our society. The arguments put forth in defense of this conjecture are lucid and powerful. One may not agree with everything but you will have your work cut out for you rebutting them. Sophistry and jingoism won’t do.

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