Friday, December 21, 2012

Christian Vandals

Recently, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) posted a banner near the courthouse (on city property) in Wilkes-Barre, PA.  The presence of this banner made it clear that the city wasn't promoting just the popular religions, but also the atheists in its community.  The fact that it was posted on city property justifies the religious elements also on display there - a Menorah and a Nativity scene.  Without it, the city could be sued for violation of the Constitutional "establishment clause" that prohibits government (at any level from local to federal) support of any particular religion.  I applaud the courage of the city to allow an atheist banner to be displayed!  But within a short time, that banner was vandalized.

Atheists by now are accustomed to having their billboards and banners attacked by christians.  Most of the time, the vandals escape any detection, perhaps in part because law enforcement seems disinclined to give tracking down the vandals of atheist property a high priority.  Imagine what would happen if atheists offended by religious symbols and messages vandalized them!  The religious community would be so outraged, a huge effort to find and prosecute them would commence immediately.  How often does this actually happen?  Pretty damned infrequently, apparently, because I know of no such incident.  Perhaps some examples of atheist vandalism can be dredged up.  But they would be quite exceptional, nevertheless.

Vandalism happens virtually every time an atheist message is displayed in public, usually within 48 hours of its appearance, even when displayed on private property!  Atheists know of many examples - the word of such incidents travels quickly and widely in the atheist sphere.  It seems there is no shortage of christian barbarians who simply can't tolerate any public display of atheism, despite the First Amendment.  Evidently, these barbarians believe the First Amendment only applies to them and their beliefs, and definitely not to anyone who disputes christian beliefs.  Of course, not all christians are intolerant enough to be vandals, but I'm pretty confident many allow themselves to be offended when they see an atheist messagem anyway.  Although they stop short of vandalism, they gripe and bitch on the interwebs and elsewhere about the "message of hate" promulgated by atheists - I'm damned if I see any hate expressed in the FFRF banner!  If any message of hate exists, it's clearly and unambiguously on display in the actions of christian vandals.

As my friend RJ Evans would say, the hypocrisy of christian barbarians reveals the lies of their justification for their actions.  In their mind, being offended offers adequate justification for a criminal act.  They should be tracked down and prosecuted, but few seem very eager to protect the rights of the atheist minority in this christian-dominated nation.  Such deeds make it clear that many christians simply don't follow their putative christian ideals of peace, love, and tolerance.  Again, not all christians behave this way, but many express their fear, hatred, and intolerance of atheism (and secular humanism) in other ways.

Many of my blog posts here have expressed my concerns for various aspects of the tyranny of the christian majority.  This banner vandalism incident is but another example that supports my concerns as real and meaningful, not a paranoid delusion.  Fortunately, the right to express myself still exists, so I choose to express a contrary, often negative view of the role religion has played throughout history.  Believers mostly like to see themselves as being victimized - persecuted - for their beliefs by such comments, but my criticisms are mere words, not overt criminal actions.  I would never advocate that religious believers be silenced, nor commit a crime against any of them.  I'm willing to die to preserve their right to believe as they wish, even though I have no respect for those beliefs.  Would they do the same for me?  Some, perhaps many, might be, but there are barbarians is their midst, mouthing the words of christian ideals but repudiating them by their actions.  Believers who don't support such actions should make it clear they repudiate such actions by the barbarians in their ranks!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

On Death, Risk, and Prevention

We all know that death is inevitable.  Death can be prevented in some situations, or delayed, but death always wins in the end.  However well or poorly we might accept that principle, there are some deaths we find especially difficult to accept.  The horrible shooting of elementary school children in Newtown, CT, has triggered a vast outpouring on the interwebs and in the meda.  Since that day, we've been bombarded with all sorts of commentary on the topic, ranging from profound to ridiculous.  One that I found particularly striking was this one, which begins to address the issue in terms of numbers and priorities.  As a scientist, I always find quantitative analysis to be enlightening, despite the clear dehumanizing aspect of reducing deaths to numbers.

In what follows, I'm trying to stay as objective as possible, but I hope to retain at least some semblance of a human perspective at the same time.  I suppose you'll let me know my failures.  What clearly characterizes a lot of commentary regarding the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre is outrage and sorrow over the utter senselessness and evil nature of murdering young children.  Cutting these innocent lives short seems frighteningly malevolent and shattering in its impact on everyone, particularly so for the victims' friends and families.  I can only hope nothing of the sort ever happens within my family, so for the moment I remain completely unable to imagine the utter devastation over such losses.  The undeniable fact that all these children would have grown old and died eventually seems almost completely irrelevant - no doubt the friends and families are suffering profoundly from having these children taken from them.  The child victims will be forever young - destined never to grow up and become whatever their fate might otherwise have led them to become, had they lived.  Any notions of such unfulfilled destinies are, sadly, only speculation. 

The whole nation seems to be gripped by a collective, convulsive urge to do whatever it takes to prevent any more school massacres.  It's especially troubling that we don't know precisely what to do about the problem.  We wish to understand why someone would perpetrate such a heinous crime, and I believe that's mostly derived from the hope that if we can learn the Why? of it, then perhaps we could do something to prevent future repetitions.

Ive seen a diverse array of suggested explanations for the Why? of this tragedy.  Some have proposed their deity is angry with us for encouraging the teaching of evolution and encouraging the granting of equal rights to the LGBTs within our midst.  Some have suggested it's the loss of "Traditional American Values".  Some have suggested it's video games and other entertainment where violence is so extreme that people become accustomed to thinking of violence as a reasonable solution to their problems.  Some have suggested that our mental health care has deteriorated to the point that criminally insane people are not diagnosed and receive little or no effective treatment, either remaining free to pursue their insane compulsions or being warehoused in prisons for criminal acts they've committed.  Some believe that guns have become so pervasive in our society that gun violence must necessarily follow, proposing various levels of restrictions on gun access.  Some believe that we need more guns in the hands of more people, so that everyone has the ability to protect themselves from others carrying guns (legally or otherwise).  Some have said that we encourage shooters by giving them the fame (or, rather, infamy) they seem to crave.  There are likely many more opinions to be heard, but it's clear to me that there's no single issue among these (or others I may have not mentioned) that represents a place to look for a simple "solution" to the problem of school massacres.  It's a complex problem without obvious easy answers.

Further, if we consider not just school massacres, but all deaths involving firearms for instance, there are about 30,000 firearm deaths in the USA annually.  About 2/3 of them are associated with suicides, and around 1000 accidental shootings.  The rest (roughly 10,000) are either criminal acts or by law enforcement.  As a nation, the USA has many, many millions of guns already out there.   Any attempt to restrict opportunities to purchase guns legally won't affect gun ownership much, for a long time to come.  The constitutional right to bear arms is one of the bulwarks of American freedom - outright banning legal gun ownership is not an option without a Constitutional amendment that would never be ratified, and likely would not represent much of a solution, anyway.  Not for the school massacre problem, nor for the broader problem of any fatalities caused by firearms.  Without a gun, suicidal people would simply find another path to death.  It might make a dent in accidental firearm fatalities, but that;s just a small fraction of the deaths attributed to firearms.  And I have serious doubts that even more widespread gun use is going to represent much of a solution, either - gunfights have a high probability of "collateral damage" to innocent people not engaged in the fight.  Owning a gun and being trained to use it effectively in self-defense are quite different.  It takes far less effort to buy a gun than it does to be a responsible gun owner.  I'm not a gun person, although I own guns - there are reasonable additional restrictions on gun access that are far from a ban on gun ownership.

If we consider death in all its diverse causes (but ignoring deaths from various diseases and physical ailments), there are about as many fatalities annually in the USA from food poisoning as there are crime-related firearm fatalities, for example.  Four times that number are killed in motor vehicle accidents every year.  Smoking kills around 250,000 people per year.  More people die from natural hazards like floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, landslides, etc. than are killed in mass shootings, by far.  Of these much larger numbers of fatalities (compared to school shootings), most are preventable to some degree and so also can be considered "senseless and unnecessary".  Unfortunately, preventing school massacres, even if truly effective measures to do so could be found, are a drop in the bucket compared to the diverse other causes for untimely deaths.

I observe that we're currently spending billions annually to deal with the threat of terrorism. How many American civilians die every year from terrorism?  Since 9/11/2001, a few thousand have been killed, by far the majority of those on that one awful day 9/11/2001.  More American soldiers have died in wars on foreign soil since 9/11/2001 than civilian Americans have been killed by terrorists.  We're so terrified by terrorism, the terrorists are winning their war against us in many ways - we're sacrificing our freedoms for the illusion of security and have disrupted our society spending huge resources in response to our emotional fear, when the real risk from terrorism is far less than widely perceived!

The sad fact is that if we can be objective about the objective risks, and so know where to invest our resources, preventing school massacres should be far lower on our priority list than many other causes of death.  Sorry, but that's a an objective reality.  Should we give in to emotional hysteria about Newtown, CT, and in the process ignore all these other sources for untimely deaths?  Since we presently have no universally accepted "solution(s)" to reduce the frequency of school shootings, it's not even possible to estimate what the price for any proposed solutions might entail.  On the other hand, there are steps we can take to reduce untimely fatalities in other areas.  Should we forget about those measures and focus on school shootings to the exclusion of all else?  No, I just don't think so.  I certainly feel for the families and friends of the Sandy Hook school massacre victims, but should we ignore the feelings of the families and friends of someone who dies from food poisoning, or in a devastating tornado, or in a traffic accident?  Should we not seek to set priorities in a reasonably objective way, rather that allowing our emotions to hold sway?  I believe so.