My Life as an Atheist Outcast

Nice Atheist GirlI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Andrea has become quite the atheist. She is now going by Nice Atheist Girl. It all started with a conversation we had. I mention it mostly because it is so rare that Andrea finds any idea I have compelling. This is in stark contrast to the way I feel about her, which is basically that if she just decided to work on even her weakest ideas, she would quickly become an internet phenom. Anyway, we were talking about her son who is seeing a Catholic girl. And I made a joke that she ought to be like a Jewish mother, “Why can’t you meet a nice atheist girl?” Before you know it, I’m in charge of making every conceivable change to her new website, which is admittedly really good.

The thing about Andrea’s atheism is that it is so much more pure than mine. For me, atheism is a very complicated thing that is deeply related to what most people would call spiritualism. And indeed, I think that I commune far more profoundly with “God” than almost any Christian I know. Andrea has no tolerance for this kind of nonsense. To her, I think, atheism isn’t so much a rejection of God as it is a rejection of Christianity. And if I could look at it that way, I would be completely on board. Because Christianity is a laughable religion. (Sorry all my Christian friends!) But I feel just as strongly that the nature of existence is a paradox. So my mind reels.

What this means is that most atheists think I’m a squishy kind of proto-agnostic. And that’s not true at all! As far as I’m concerned, most of them are very much like the Christians I talk about. They don’t really engage in the debate at a serious level. But at least such atheists understand that they aren’t engaging. They know that they are simply defining God out of the realm of what is knowable. (Quite rightly!) Christians and other theists think of God as some super powerful friend or father figure in the sky. But the main thing is that atheists don’t much care of my form of atheism. They think of it the way that Baptists think of Unitarians.

To be honest, I feel a lot like the Terry Eagleton of atheism. I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere. (Except probably with Eagleton who considers himself a Christian while no one else does!) So I was encouraged this evening when Andrea sent me a a link to an Abby Ohlheiser article, A Short History of Richard Dawkins vs The Internet. It came along with a text, “It seems that Richard Dawkins is a bit of an asshole.” Being the ever faithful friend, I texted back, “I told you that!” But she said she didn’t know how bad he was. Well, it turns out that I didn’t either.

But here’s the ironic part. I actually kind of agree with Dawkins on his major point. I just don’t think he was making the point well. So I’m going to give it a try here. Religion really isn’t a problem. The key is that you can’t take it that seriously. In the Middle Ages, Islam was an incredibly liberal religion. Now, it is very conservative, by and large. The fundamentalists are in control. That’s a problem. And it’s a problem that hurts all Muslims.

Where I differ from Dawkins is in his focus. It’s true that Islam is coming out of a period of fundamentalism. But I actually think the trend is really good. The Mulsims are becoming more liberal and in another hundred years, I think it will be a force for good. Christianity (maybe with the exception of Catholicism—we’ll see) is moving in the opposite direction. In the United States, 36% of the population thinks that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and doesn’t believe in evolution. In the United Kingdom, the number is only 25%, but another 20% believe in Intelligent Design. Now I understand that there are are a lot of scary Muslims in the world. But shouldn’t Dawkins be more concerned about the bad trends at home?

The article itself gets much worse, with stuff that is an outgrowth of my long held negative opinions about Richard Dawkins. He is very much a man of his social class. And I very much understand: Skepchick is outside his comfort zone. And, most sadly, outside the comfort zone of most male (which is to say simple “most”) “new” atheists. As I discussed a few weeks ago, CJ Werleman quite accurately described the atheist movement as “white, middle class, intellectually smug and mostly apolitical.” But that apolitical part of it is based on the fact that the status quo benefits them. And the idea that women might have a few complaints of their own rankles them.

Of course, Dawkins argument is way beyond the pale. Basically, he claims that western women have nothing to complain about because their clitorises have not been cut off. I’m serious! All I can think is that he was drunk. Because even I don’t think that lowly of him.

Regardless of all this, I continue to find that I mostly agree with atheists. By this I mean “there is no God” and not “you can only complain after an honor killing.” But I still feel very much on the margins of the movement—a man who doesn’t believe in God but understands why people would. There is something good about my position. I’m kind of like the interfaith atheist, or the “intertheist,” if you prefer. And I think the atheist movement could learn a few things from me. Not as much as the theists could. But still.

Muppet Mash

GroverLook: normally, I’m not that fond of this kind of music. But this is Sesame Street and for whatever reason, I find it really compelling. It could be as simple as this: Grover. He was long my favorite Muppet and I was crushed when he did not show up on The Muppet Show, although I can’t help but seeing a family resemblance between him and The Great Gonzo.

I think my adoration for Grover comes from the fact that he isn’t nasty like Oscar, generally stupid like Bert and Ernie, nor cloying like Big Bird. Don’t get me wrong: Grover is a hell of a nice guy! Or a hell of a nice monster. Whatever. But he’s the kind of nice that you want to hang out with and have a beer. And there are none of those annoying contractions to worry about.

Also in this song is Kermit the Frog. And of course, Kermit is one of my heroes: an intrepid reporter on Sesame Street who went on to manage that gang of loons on The Muppet Show. That’s what I aspire to be: the sane one surrounded by total nuts. I have not succeeded yet. But until then, there is this delightful song:

And Kermit the Frog yells, “Yeeeea!”

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

BuffaloI don’t know how I missed this all these years. At some point last week, Chris Hayes mentioned the sentence “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” Being the kind of guy I am, I went crazy with it. I even dreamed about it. It’s all syntax so it was very much like the kind of math dreams I used to have with ideas and equations bursting into my mind from what always felt like different locations. This sentence is very much like a mathematical equation.

There are three different definitions of “buffalo” here: two nouns and a verb. The nouns are “Buffalo” the city and “buffalo” the animal. The verb is a synonym for “bamboozle.” It is more easily thought of as follows:

Buffalo from Buffalo that buffalo other buffalo from Buffalo also buffalo other buffalo from Buffalo.

It does show the vagaries of the language. One might say, “People other people abuse are often abusive.” It is clearer to say, “People whom other people abuse are often abusive.” But I don’t think anyone has a problem with the original construct. That’s especially true when spoken. In writing, I find it confusing and so I try to not do such things. It is best if the reader can gradually understand a sentence rather than have to figure it out in retrospect.

So given our sentence, it helps to set off “Buffalo buffalo,” which means “buffalo from Buffalo.” I’m going to do that and throw in a couple of commas as well:

(Buffalo buffalo), (Buffalo buffalo) buffalo, buffalo (Buffalo buffalo).

This actually allows us to get rid of “Buffalo” altogether. We’ll just assume that all the buffalo we are talking about are from Buffalo. Now the sentence is much simpler:

Buffalo, buffalo buffalo, buffalo buffalo.

Now let’s substitute “bamboozle” for our verb “buffalo”:

Buffalo, buffalo bamboozle, bamboozle buffalo.

I think the sentence is clear enough that we come to an uncomfortable truth: it is not a very useful sentence. Most likely, all it means that buffalo from Buffalo bamboozle each other. Strictly speaking, it means that there are a set of buffalo from Buffalo who bamboozle each other. So the con artist buffalo are prone to each other. In terms of meaning, it is no great shakes. But the syntax is nice: noun noun, noun noun verb, verb noun noun. It’s fun to play with.

Now maybe I can stop thinking about it!


If you want to know the history of the sentence, Wikipedia has a very nice page on it.

An Atheist in the Foxhole

An Atheist in the FoxholeI just read Joe Muto’s An Atheist in the Foxhole. What a great book! The guy can write. I just tweeted to him that he ought to write a novel. The story he tells in Foxhole is not all that interesting. But his telling of it is constantly exciting and often laugh out loud funny. I also found it personally fascinating because when I was his age, I too felt similarly cocky and similarly learned that it is usually best to tread lightly with one’s political passions.

For those who do not know, Muto was Gawker‘s famous “Fox News Mole.” Sadly, he was outed in only 36 hours. At the time, many of us thought that this was due to the fact that he had gone to Gawker instead of a more reasonable outlet. After reading the book, I feel even more convinced of this. If Gawker really wanted a mole, why even publish the videos? He had little to offer in that regard anyway. A few months of dispatches would have been great fun. Gawker didn’t manage a really good opportunity. And then after it was all over, they abandoned Muto. I think Muto’s biggest act of stupidity was turning to Gawker. Slate or Salon (where he now freelances) would have been better choices that would likely have served him better.

The book offers a great look inside the Fox News operation. The most shocking thing is just how low tech the place was and probably still is. You may remember the great scene in Broadcast News where Joan Cusack as a production assistant has to run through the office to get a tape on time to the live control room. Here it is; it’s a great scene:

The first job that Moto gets at Fox News is delivering the on air scripts to the set of the live broadcast. This is often done at the last minute requiring the production assistants to run through the halls to get them to the anchors. I wondered: why don’t they just have the pages printed directly to the studio? Regardless, all the money seems to go to Bill O’Reilly and company and little is left over for technology. Or staff salaries.

A good example of this is that Muto was hired for $12 per hour as a contractor. After six months, he gets taken on a regular employee. That means he gets benefits, so that’s all good. But they raise his salary to—Wait for it!—$12.74. That’s not a mistype; they raised his wage 74¢. That’s a 6.2% raise. Before he gets “promoted” to regular employee, a vice-president tells him he should be dressing better:

“Right, well, you should buy a couple [suits]. I mean, we pay you enough that you…” He glanced down at the paper on his desk, searching for the correct number. He grimaced when he found it. “Oh, well… you can at least to to Mean’s Wearhouse, right?”

That strikes me as entirely typical of conservatives: they always assume everyone must be well paid and if they aren’t, well, soon they will be. Liberals take it for granted that most employers screw their employees as much as they can. The outrage I hear from people about specific examples of this kind of stuff comes from conservatives. They are the ones who have this fairy tale idea that “almost all” bosses are Milton Hershey.

Most of the book is not an attack on Fox News. It’s just a memoir that I think even conservatives would enjoy.[1] But at the very end of the book, he gets serious. I want to leave you with an extended quote from the book that sums up what is really like to work at Fox News. I took the time to enter it myself, so read it!

About a month after I left, Fox & Friends played a video on their show. Four minutes long, it was a slickly produced package featuring sound bites and graphics, and absolutely throwing the kitchen sink at President Obama—hitting him on everything from the debt to unemployment, to food stamps, to gas prices. It played like an attack ad that had been created by the Republican National Committee. There was a massive uproar after the video aired, with repeated cries that Fox News had finally shed its last vestige of objectivity.

For the first few hours after it aired, Fox seemed poised to stand behind the video, featuring it prominently on the Fox Nation website. Then they reversed course and disavowed it, with an opaque statement that read, in part: “The package that aired on Fox & Friends was created by an associate producer and was not authorized at the senior executive level of the network.”

The associate producer in question was a guy named Chris, a guy who I came up with, a guy who started as a production assistant on the overnights around the same time I did. A good producer, and an honest one. And Fox was letting him twist in the wind, with a statement that left the door open to the interpretation that he had been acting alone when he put the piece together.

But that’s not how Fox operates. Something that long and elaborate would have taken at least three or four long days in the edit room to put together, days when a producer would be unable to do any other work. So unless Fox & Friends changed their operating procedures drastically in the month or so that I had been gone from the network at that point, I believe that Chris’ work on the package had to have been authorized by a senior—or even the executive—producer of the show. Someone had pulled Chris off his regular duties, and said, “Spend all your time the next few days making this tape and we’ll air it when you’re done.” I believe there’s no way that he was acting alone, but that became the narrative: the rogue Fox News producer who created an Obama hit piece! Reports surfaced that CNN—the high-paying promised land we’d all fantasized about as young PAs—had offered Chris a job shortly before the incident, but rescinded the offer following the controversy.

An Atheist in the Foxhole is not profound, but it is a quick and fun read. It’s probably better than most novels for vacation reading. And it answer the burning question, “What is Bill O’Reilly really like?” The answer: exactly what you think.

[1] The publisher must think this too. I noted many occasions when clarifying text was thrown in that I thought wasn’t necessary and burdened the flow. I assume these were editor added.

Carl Sagan and the Cosmos

Carl SaganToday’s birthdays are way worse than they were yesterday. At least we had some good songs then.

On this day in 1731, the surveyor and astronomer Benjamin Banneker was born. He wrote a number of the most popular almanacs of his day. But he is most notable for being a free black man. His father was a former slave and mother was free born. He was self-taught in science and no doubt brilliant. It’s the anti-Tagg-Romney syndrome. No one hires a poor black man unless he’s brilliant—then or now.

Other birthdays: Russian writer Ivan Turgenev (1818); mathematician Theodor Kaluza (1885); British film director Anthony Asquith (1902); Futurama politician Spiro Agnew (1918); the murderer (who shall remain nameless) of Medgar Evers (1920); poet Anne Sexton (1928); chess grandmaster Mikhail Tal (1936); singer-songwriter Tom Fogerty (1941); actor and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno (62); one of the decent politicians Sherrod Brown (61); and character actor Tony Slattery (54).

The day, however, belongs to the writer and scientist Carl Sagan who was born on this day in 1934. If you ask 10 scientists of my generation, 7 of them will tell you they went into science because of Sagan. It wasn’t just Cosmos. (Which is still quite watchable today!) His books were great, especially The Dragons of Eden. He was, I would say, the Mr. Rogers of teen nerds. Science has moved on since he was around, so his books are kind of out of date. But they are still good reading. He had a happy talent for composition and singular felicity of expression. Here is the opening of Cosmos for those who have not seen it:

Happy birthday Carl Sagan!