Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Memorial controversies are back in the news. This AP story, "Small cities struggle to pay for 9/11 memorials", relates how local governments in several states, sometimes with no personal connections to 9/11 victims or responders started out to build memorials but now find themselves in the lurch since the economy went south. This on the heels of the debates and lawsuits about the "cross" going into the Ground Zero memorial in New York and the mosque being built nearly adjacent to the WTC site.

It seems to me that sometimes memorials like this cause more trouble and hard feelings than serve their ostensible purpose, which is to keep alive and present the memory of people who have died in service of the country or as a result of a natural or man-made disaster or tragedy. 

While this is a noble goal we seem unable to undertake memorial building without having it become an exercise in controversy and mollification. 

Thinking back to the Vietnam War Memorial project in Washington, DC, I remember several controversies. The first regarded the fact that an Asian artist, Maya Lin, won the design competition. This apparently upset some veterans who felt that this was an "insult" to those who died in Southeast Asia. The second issue was that the original design did not have any statues of people in it. This was also found wanting by critics. So the Three Soldiers statue was added later in the process. And then of course, a third debate ensued about what races or ethnicities were to be represented by the statues. This is how there came to be three soldiers, one African-looking, one caucasian-looking and one Hispanic-looking (and lest it be overlooked, no Asian-looking). Finally, a Women's Memorial was proposed and added, which itself went through a controversy about the initial design being a political statement. The Wikipedia entry on the memorial details all of this.

Memorials can serve a purpose of remembrance, surely. But they can also perpetuate grudges that are sometimes better forgotten and in their mere undertaking bring ethnic, racial, religious and political animosity to the surface that otherwise might have never arisen. The last thing we need in our country now is more division. Everyone wants a memorial now. Perhaps if they were all abstract representations with no individuals or groups specifically identified, maybe they could fulfill their purpose of uniting us in remembrance not dividing us in gratuitous difference-seeking.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sarcasm overload

I know the feeling, we all do. When you're confronted with a typically prejudiced, logically defective, stunningly uniformed or otherwise ridiculous statement or question ("atheists only care about themselves", "what do atheists have to live for?", "what do you celebrate'?) from the faithful, it's hard not to counter with sarcasm. How can you help but make fun of people, who as Lewis Black says, "watch the Flintstones as if it were a documentary."? (See, I just did it!) And it's frustrating, I'll grant you, to have the same insults, logical fallacies and outright lies re-scrambled with some new spin and thrown in your face again and again.

Yes, sometimes, sarcasm is warranted to make a point, to give people that whack upside the head they need to jump-start their reasoning engines again. But I think that too often my fellow reasoners and non-believers go way overboard with it. As I opined in my last post, I think many times it's best not to engage the closed-minded, the belligerent and the just plain stupid, especially if your tone is just as mean-spirited and insulting as theirs. Reason, intellect and rationality are the high road. We might get a better hearing with people if we took it more often.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Should people of reason debate people of faith?

As person of reason who thinks it's a good thing to promote facts over faith, I often wonder if we do ourselves a disservice by engaging the faithful in debate about creation or the existence of gods or miracles or prophets or any number of other topics. Lately, the more I think about it the more I think it at least unnecessary and perhaps counterproductive to openly debate people of faith.

First of all, debating is in some sense a sport. It's indulged in or performed as entertainment, especially in law schools and universities. There are well-known strategies and tactics that in the end have little to do with the issue at hand. A good debater can advocate equally well for either side of a question. In fact, there are college courses and clubs that teach and practice the finer points of the sport, again with little regard to the actual matter at hand. This seems to me to make light of a question that is too serious to be taken as mere sport. Moreover, the importance of tactics and rhetorical tricks seems to me to play right into the faithful's strength. In the final analysis, they have no factual or logical arguments that can stand up to serious critique. Rhetoric, metaphor and emotional appeal are the only cards in their hand so they're really good at playing them.

Second, and perhaps more important in my mind, is that I don't wish to dignify or lend credence or publicity to what are utterly unfounded and frankly preposterous propositions. Would a physicist debate a geo-centrist, or a cancer researcher even appear on the same stage with a faith-healer? I doubt it. In fact, Richard Dawkins will not debate creationists for exactly this reason.

What are the alternatives? Lecture, write, inform, meet, educate, advertise, blog, tweet, but don't debate. In particular, don't let religious trolls suck you into playing their game on the internet. Be the voice of reason, literacy and culture. Don't insult, inform. State the facts, leave the name-calling and bad behavior to the pious.