Brother Ali and Jeremy Messersmith on Religion and Atheism

16 09 2012

On Twitter this morning, two of Minnesota’s most famous musicians shared some of their views on religion and atheism, and increased my respect for both of them. Muslim Brother Ali made some criticisms of “anti-theist” atheists, and atheist Jeremy Messersmith responded. I love the compassion that Messersmith brings to this subject. I hope that I live up to his example when I talk about my atheism. There’s a lot more I could say on this topic, but here I mostly just want to capture the conversation before it becomes too difficult to find on Twitter. First are brother Ali’s tweets, then Messersmith’s. Each paragraph is a link to the original tweet.

Brother Ali

To my anti theist friends, I’ve read Hitchens and Dawkins. Have you read I Don’t Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges? Not skimmed, read?

I’m not talking about the old school Atheists /Agnostics who’ve made peace with not believing in a higher power…

I’m talking about the anti theists who’ve decided that all spiritual expression is a”dangerous ” and ought to be fought.

Understand that when a first class citizen of a first world empire calls something “dangerous” they’re implying a declaration of war.

I don’t need you to believe what I believe, but be careful not to become the atheist yin to the Christian fundamentalist yang.

What I do every day by picking up a mic is troublesome is Muslim fundamentalists. My community challenges and critiques them every day.

Any blanket condemnation is gonna put you in a place where you’re dissing people who haven’t earned your critique.

Spirituality and Religion are complex nuanced subjects. You can’t assume you understand them all based on a bad experience.

Don’t get me wrong. There are sick evil people who hide behind religious masks for protection. They should not be protected.

Deception gives wings to evil. Evil is almost never straight up in your face. It hides behind something good so you won’t reject it.

How many evil acts have been committed in the name of love, freedom, patriotism, family, loyalty etc?

most anti religious ppl come from extreme religious backgrounds. They were told their religion was the only one.

When they leave that religion they take that idea along with them and project their experiences on all other faith traditions.

Why should Gandhi, Dr. King, Sufis and Native American Spirituality be condemned cause your church sucked?

There are no easy answers to hard problems. Oversimplifying religion denying the spiritual impulse won’t solve the world’s problems

Jeremy Messersmith

Woke up to @BrotherAli talking about probably the only thing we disagree about.

In some ways he’s right I guess- yeah, I came from an extreme religious background and now I’m an atheist. Nailed it.

The reason I sometimes talk about atheism is from (I hope) a point of compassion. Simply don’t want anyone else to grow up the same way.

As far as all spiritual expression being dangerous? Of course not- Richard Dawkins and I both share a love of Christmas songs.

But is some religious expression dangerous? Absolutely. Hard to convince people to be reasonable when reason is secondary to literalism.

It seems like every other week on reddit I read about a scared gay kid who’s been disowned by fundamentalist parents.

It’s hard to be kind when you’re at the receiving end of bigotry, religious or otherwise, but that’s what we’ve got to do.

I’m not sure the religious impulse is going away as some people predict, but I do know the faith of one age is the mythology of the next.

I’m paraphrasing Ralph Waldo Emerson with that last statement.

Not sure what I’m really trying to say, just processing via twitter. Still love you @BrotherAli.


Who at UMD has Milton’s stapler?

18 10 2010

I noticed something odd yet familiar at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). The header on this page appears to include photos of all staff…

Image of MITH web page with staff photos in the heaer.

…yet the MITH Staff page does not include the person in the fourth photo from the left:

Image of MITH Staff web page.

I recognized the missing individual as one Milton Waddams. MITH, you should make absolutely sure that Milton is still receiving his paycheck and that he has his red Swingline stapler. Your records may show that he’s no longer an employee. If you can’t find him, his desk may be in a closet a storage area. However, if that’s the case, it may already be too late:


Follow-up: “Confederate Flag: Symbol of Heritage or Hate?”

27 09 2010
On Thursday, September 23, 2010, I attended the talk “Confederate Flag: Symbol of Heritage or Hate?”, given by Todd Torkelson to the Minneapolis Skeptics. Both the talk and the ensuing discussion were fun, thought-provoking, and full of arguments, many made by me. In this post, I give attribution and further supporting information for some counter-arguments I made to a couple of specific claims.

“Robert E. Lee was anti-slavery.”

Cover image for "Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee though his Private Letters", by Elizabeth Pryor Brown

"Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee though his Private Letters", by Elizabeth Pryor Brown

We need to be careful about saying things like “Robert E. Lee was anti-slavery”, as Torkelson did. That statement requires mountains of qualification and context. Present-day audiences are likely to interpret “anti-slavery” as “abolitionist”, which Lee certainly was not. Lee was “anti-slavery” in a certain sense, a sense that probably would be very surprising to most people today. In her 2007 book “Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through his Private Letters”, Elizabeth Brown Pryor argues that Lee considered slavery a “necessary evil” that was harder on whites than blacks, that for Lee “African-Americans were poor workers and a time-consuming emotional handicap, more trouble than they were worth.” But slavery was part of God’s grand design, so the suffering slave-owners would just have to accept it, and hope that God would lift their burden at some unspecified point in the future. This quotation of Lee by Pryor is especially revealing:

Even in 1865, his world nearly shattered and slavery abolished, he would write that  he considered “the relation of master and slave, controlled by human laws and influenced by Christianity and enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white & black races.” Concluded Lee: “I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both.”

I’m relying on Pryor to support this counter-argument because she had unprecedented access to, and made unprecedented use of, Lee’s private correspondence. In Chapter 9, “Humanity and the Law”, of her book, Pryor addresses Lee’s views on slavery in great depth; I’m barely skimming the surface here. She acknowledges that her work contradicts many previous claims about Lee, and explains how some of those incorrect claims may have originated, in a fascinating talk about “Reading the Man” at Arlington National Cemetery on May 19, 2007.
But what about Torkelson’s strongest evidence that Lee was “anti-slavery”, that he “freed the slaves he inherited”? Pryor again:

Just how long he owned human property is unclear. As he departed for the Mexican War, Lee wrote a will in which he freed the much maligned [by Lee] Nancy and her children, though what he intended for the others he owned is not stated, nor is it clear whether or not we should assume that a special relationship had inspired Nancy’s preferential treatment. Douglas Southall Freeman thought that he liberated all of his slaves after 1847, since he found no tax listing for them after that date. According to a Dr. John Leyburn, who claimed to have interviewed the general before his death, Lee “had freed most of his Negroes before the war”, sending some to Liberia. Another account, written by Robert E. Lee Jr., stated that “General Robert E. Lee inherited three or four families of slaves and ‘let them go… a long time before the war.'” The account states that the reason no formal paper was executed at that time was that he did not want them to have to leave Virginia, which state law required. Hiring records, however, show that Lee himslef still owned slaves at least until 1852, and that he used enslaved blacks as personal servants until the end of the Civil War.

“The Civil War was not about slavery.”

The bulk of Torkelson’s talk laid out a strong argument that the Civil War was about slavery. However, some attendees seemed to disagree.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor of the Atlantic, demolishes the argument that “the Civil War was not about slavery” with quotations from many declarations of secession and other evidence, in a beautifully-written article that I encourage everyone to read: “The Ghost of Bobby Lee” He also brilliantly addresses the fundamental flaw in this entire line of argument, including his own previous belief in Robert E. Lee’s oft-claimed anti-slavery:

It’s weak to manipulate the dead in order to reconcile our present, to force men to play our Gods. Robert E. Lee was a man, and a product of a time and place that turned people into, quite literally, the most valuable resource in this country… These were the kind of forces at work in his world, and I’m not convinced we have the intrinsic right to expect someone like Lee to oppose them. Likewise, I may think that it was sinister for people who “looked like me” to sell me into slavery, but that presumes an expectation of racial unity which almost certainly didn’t exist at the time. Again, it summons the dead to do the work that I would shy away from.

Coates clearly strives to be objective and to confront strong counter-arguments and his own pre-conceptions. Another good example is “Slaves Who Liked Slavery”, also well worth reading, and “Stolen Legacy”, posted just today. Coates says, “The broad reclamation of a Civil War equally shared by all Americans is, at this moment, the work of my life.” Can’t wait to read more.
Photo of Andrew Jackson Smith

Stolen Legacy: 'Andrew Jackson Smith, born a slave, fled, when told that his "master" would be taking him with him into the Confederate Army. Instead, Smith fled 25 miles through the rain and presented himself to Union forces.'

AMERICA IS OVER! We are now living in EUROPASTAN!

24 03 2010

“AMERICA IS OVER! We are now living in EUROPASTAN! We must wear burqas to the doctor and recite the Pledge of Allegiance backwards, while drawing a pentagram on the floor, in order to get ED pills!”

— Hal Sparks, on the Stephanie Miller radio show this morning

Auto-loading Drupal CCK Nodes

10 12 2008

Now online: Auto-loading Drupal CCK Nodes slides for the presentation I gave at the Twin Cities Drupal user group last week.

Simplifying Sofeng’s Python Recursion Example

29 08 2008

In Python recursion example to navigate tree data, Sofeng presents this solution…

def outer(data):
    class Namespace: pass
    ns = Namespace()
    ns.level = 1

    def inner(data):
        print ' ' * ns.level + data['text']
        if data['count'] > 0:
            ns.level += 1
            for kid in data['kids']:
            ns.level -= 1


if __name__ == '__main__':

…for traversing a dictionary of the form:

data = {'count': 2,
        'text': '1',
        'kids': [{'count': 3,
                  'text': '1.1',
                  'kids': [{'count': 1,
                            'text': '1.1.1',
                            'kids': [{'count':0,
                                      'text': '',
                                      'kids': []}]},

Since his blog doesn’t seem to support code formatting in the comments, I’m repeating my comment here:

You actually don’t need the ‘count’ keys in the data dictionary, nor do you need the “if data[‘count’] > 0:” block. The code can be simplified even further by using a closure instead of the ‘Namespace’ class, eliminating the need for two (“outer” & “inner”) routines:

def traverse(data):
    print ' ' * traverse.level + data['text']
    for kid in data['kids']:
        traverse.level += 1
        traverse.level -= 1
if __name__ == '__main__':
    traverse.level = 1

Python Packages via Easy Install for a Unified-Installer-built Plone

18 12 2007

Because Plone/Zope requires an older version of Python than comes out of the box with many OS’s, some people recommend installing Plone with the Unified Installer. On Unix-like systems, the Unified Installer builds Python, Zope, Plone, and some dependencies from source and keeps the whole shebang relatively segregated from the rest of the OS.

This is great until you need to install an additional Python package for a Plone product. For which of your multiple Python versions will your installer build the package? This question would be frustrating enough even if there weren’t at least five different installers for Python packages.

The installer I use, and the one I’ll write about here, is Easy Install, which comes with setuptools. Having much experience with Perl, I chose Easy Install because it’s supposedly “the closest thing to CPAN currently available for Python.” One problem with Easy Install is that it tends to install packages in the system Python site-packages directory. Here’s how to easy_install packages for the Python built by the Unified Installer:

  1. cd $ZOPE/bin
  2. wget
  3. ./python
  4. ./python -m easy_install $package_name

Voila! See the Easy Install docs for details about why this works.

You may also want to set up some aliases for your various Pythons.