The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas

Remarkable reading for the holidays!

The Atheist's Guide to ChristmasA month or more ago, someone on Twitter tweeted a link to the Kindle version of The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas for just $1. Like a lot of people, I consider a buck “why not?” money for anything that interests me. I followed the link and downloaded the book. It sat on my iPad for a while, half forgotten.

Sometime later, while I was eating alone in a restaurant in Phoenix, I cracked the cover (so to speak) and began reading it. It wasn’t at all as I expected. It was so much better.

You see, I expected some sort of anti-religious rant against Christmas and everything concerned with it. Not sure why I expected this — perhaps it’s got something to do with the conservative media’s perceived “war against Christmas” that crops up every year here in the U.S. If you believe the conservatives on FoxNews, etc., anyone who is not Christian hates Christmas and wants to destroy it. Following that line of reason, the folks who should hate it most are atheists, since they don’t believe in any religious doctrines at all.

But that’s not what this book was all about.

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is a collection of 42 stories and essays from a variety of atheist scientists, comedians, philosophers, and writers. They include reminiscences (eg., Phil Plait’s “Starry, Starry Night”), celebration suggestions (eg., Josie Long’s “Things to Make and Do at Christmas”), scientific information (eg., Brian Cox’s The Large Hadron Collider: A scientific Creation Story”), historical information (eg., Claire Rayner’s “How to Have a Peaceful Pagan Christmas”), and tall tales (eg., Nick Doody’s “How to Understand Christmas: A Scientific Overview”).

Sure, there was the takeoff on Jeeves and Wooster by Richard Dawkins in which Woofter and Jarvis engage in a conversation about the existence of God, Jesus’s part in the Holy Trinity, and bible inconsistencies. But that was just one small chapter in a very large book. Most of the book is very positive and uplifting, encouraging non-believers to enjoy the Christmas season the way most believers do: with decorations, big meals, gift giving, and gatherings of friends and family members.

The book makes it clear that you don’t need to believe in God or religious doctrines to enjoy a holiday that just happens to coincide with the winter solstice. (Not exactly a coincidence, but try to explain that to a believer.) It also offers plenty of helpful tips and advice for getting along with believers during a holiday that may have some serious religious significance to them.

I’m about halfway through the book — although I do admit that I began reading by using the interactive table of contents to pick and choose among the essays I wanted to read first. While some chapters are better than others as far as their relevance to my personal thoughts about Christmas, I’m certain that any atheist would find something of value in its pages. Likewise, I don’t think any believers would be offended by its contents. As the book’s introduction states, The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is an “atheist book it’s safe to leave around your granny.” Indeed, I’m certain that even believers would find a lot of content in this book to help make their Christmas celebrations more enjoyable — without threatening their beliefs.

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas was edited by Ariane Sherine and published by Friday Books. All book royalties are donated to charity — how’s that for the spirit of Christmas giving?

What’s More Important: Your Beliefs or Your Follower Count?

Should you really be worried about losing followers for voicing your opinion on blogs and social networks?

About two weeks ago, I linked to a story on titled “Redefining Empathy in Light of web’s Long Memory.” The basis of the story is the sad fact that people have been losing their jobs or having old personal information resurface publicly because of information posted on the Web. This information isn’t usually damaging when looked at objectively, but when taken out of context or examined through magnifying glasses wielded by small-minded people, they can be embarrassing — or in one instance covered in the story, ruin someone’s life.

I linked to the story on Twitter because a very close Twitter friend, who is new to social networking, had been making foolish comments on Twitter and Facebook — comments far more likely to get her in trouble than the examples in the story. But it was another Twitter friend who replied:

That article is a good reason for not posting politics or religious views online. I’ve had followers drop me for posting religious

The tweet was cut off by Twitter’s 140-character minimum, but you can end it with the word “views” or “articles” and you’ll get the gist of what he was saying.

Indeed, I know exactly what he means. Although he and I share general religious views — that is, we’re non-believers — he had a tendency to link to the more radically inspired content online, content that could be seen as seriously offensive by believers. (Hell, some of it even offended me to the point that I stopped following his links.) While it’s one thing to read and link to logic-based arguments against religion by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, it’s quite another to read and link to “radical atheist” content. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t believe and here’s why;” it’s another to say “You’re a moron for believing.”

I did notice that he’d stopped tweeting so many of those links, but it wasn’t until his response above that I realized why.

And this got me thinking about something else: why we blog or participate in social networks.

Does Follower Count Matter?

Follower count is never something that concerned me — especially on Twitter. The vast majority of people on Twitter don’t actively participate. How can they when some of them are following hundreds or thousands of people? Twitter would become a full-time job if you actually read the tweets of more than 100-200 people.

(This, by the way, is one of the reasons I’ve never followed more than 140 people at a time and am constantly dropping noisemakers in favor of thought-provokers. I actually read the tweets in my timeline. You can read more about my thoughts on the follower count game in “Twitter is NOT a Popularity Contest.”)

So if so few followers actually read and respond to what you say, the overall value of followers is diminished. You’re not networking when the communication is ignored. That leaves me to wonder why people should actually care about how many followers they have.

After all, it’s not the quantity of your followers, it’s the quality. I’d rather have just 10 followers who interact with me daily than 5,000 followers who seem to ignore everything I say. It’s the networking aspect of Twitter that attracts me.

Should Your Social Networking Activities be a Lie?

So that brings up the more serious ramifications of my Twitter friend’s tweet: changing what he tweets to preserve follower count. Even though he reads radical atheist content and obviously feels strongly about it — strong enough to share it, anyway — he stopped sharing it because he doesn’t want to lose followers.

“…a good reason for not posting politics or religious views online…” are his exact words. But I’ll argue this: if your political or religious views are important to you, why should you hide them? They are part of your personal makeup — they’re what make you who you are. To pretend that they’re not is akin to lying about who you are.

To omit them from your social networking activities will prevent you from finding other people who share the same views you have. And isn’t that why we participate in social networks? To meet and interact with people who share similar views?

The Special Case of Bloggers

Bloggers, of course, face this dilemma in a much more magnified way. Our blog posts aren’t limited to 140 characters a pop. We can go on and on about any topic we like, linking to content, quoting content, opining on the values of that content. We can make complex arguments for or against anything we like. Or we can simply share a link and let our readers do their own homework, forming their own opinions about a topic without help from us.

Either way, the blog post is out there and it stays out there. It’s not 140 characters that flit through the Twitter timelines of the people who follow us, disappearing almost as quickly as they appeared. It’s out there, archived, accessible, searchable. There are comments associated with it, RSS feeds that direct to it, other blogs (and even feed-scraped sploggs) that link to it.

Should bloggers be concerned about sharing their opinions on controversial topics such as politics and religion?

It all depends on what they’re trying to achieve with their blogs. If their blogs exist to voice opinions on these topics, being shy would defeat their purpose. If their blogs exist as a personal journal of what’s going on in their lives and minds (like mine does for me), hiding their thoughts about these things — especially when these things are important to them — would be akin to putting up a false front to their readers — and betraying themselves. But if their blogs are intended to showcase a product or service or way of life, adding their opinions on non-related controversial topics is probably not a good idea.

The Importance of Being True to Yourself

And then there are people like me: people who have non-mainstream opinions but, because of their work, should probably present a mainstream face to the public. I’m sure there are a lot of us out there, but it was only recently that I found someone with a situation so similar to mine that I took great comfort in his blog’s existence. (I’m referring to Ted Landau‘s Slanted Viewpoint.)

While I don’t consider my opinions extreme, I know they’re not mainstream. They are shared by quite a few people, but usually not the outspoken ones you see on television. (It’s ironic to me that the “conservatives” are the loudest, most outspoken Americans; what’s that about?) Still, when I write a blog post voicing my opinions about something like religion or politics, I get a lot of nasty, hateful feedback from readers who seem to have gone out of their way to visit my blog and blast me. The most obvious example, which amazes me to this day, is the outrage of “Christians” over my post, “The Bible in the Refrigerator.” These people got so abusive in comments that I had to shut the comments down. (And don’t bother entering a comment about that post here; it won’t appear.)

So what do I do? Betray myself by pretending not to be outraged by the stupidity and ignorance I see in today’s world — just to make the mainstream happy? Pretend that I’m not offended by having someone else’s religion thrust on me every day of my life? Pretend that I’m content with a political system rendered ineffective by partisanship bullshit?

Does the world really need yet another middle-of-the road blogger? I don’t think so.

But what’s more important is this: Do I pretend I’m someone I’m not just to maximize the appeal of my blog to readers? Do I sell myself out just to give all the “fans” of my books a warm and cuddly feeling about me?

The answer, of course, is no. Because just like Twitter follower count, the number of blog readers or subscribers is meaningless to me. What matters is the quality of the readers, not the quantity. I want my blog read by people who are smart, people who can think, people who can comment with their opinions — whether they agree or disagree — in a clear, unoffensive way that furthers the discussion and makes me — and other readers — think.

So I’ll put that question to everyone who participates in social networking: What’s more important, your beliefs or your follower count?

Highest Duty

A book review.

Highest DutyLast night, I stayed up late to finish reading Highest Duty by US Airways pilot Chelsey B. “Sully” Sullenberger. Captain Sullenberger was the pilot in command of US Airways Flight 1549, which landed with no loss of life in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009.

I’d been wanting to read the book for a while but I kept putting it off. I wanted it to be my first purchased ebook experience. I was supposed to get a Nook for Christmas, but the idiots at Barnes & Noble were completely clueless about customer service and timely order fulfillment, so I canceled the order. I wound up with an iPad in April. After weighing the benefits and drawbacks of ebook reader software — iBooks, Kindle Reader, and B&N Reader — I decided to go with the Kindle software and ordered the Kindle edition of the book from From what I hear from Twitter friends, the iPad makes a better “Kindle” than Amazon’s Kindle.

On Heroes

I’ve always been intrigued by Captain Sullenberger’s modesty and apparent reluctance to bask in the limelight of his extraordinary experience. People call him a hero but he [rightly] refuses that title. He quotes from a letter he received after his Hudson River landing: “I see a hero as electing to enter a dangerous situation for a higher purpose, and you were not given a choice.”

I agree with this definition of a hero. Captain Sullenberger did what he had to do and was fortunate enough to have the knowledge, experience, demeanor, and team to carry it off successfully. His love and respect of life — including, of course, his own — is what motivated him to do everything he could to succeed.

In many ways, that’s better than being a hero. When a terrible situation was thrust upon him by circumstances he could not change, he rose to the occasion and emerged victorious, saving the lives of 105 people. Along the way, he gave the rest of us hope — after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, in the midst of a serious economic recession, with wars going on in the Mideast — he showed us what people can accomplish when put to the test. He gave us the happy ending we all needed.

It Wasn’t a “Miracle”

Another thing that intrigued — and, I’ll admit, pleased — me about Captain Sullenberger was his failure to credit his success to the intervention of some supernatural being. I’m talking about God.

I can’t tell you how sick I am of seeing famous athletes and celebrities and just plain people thank God for something good happening to them. Scored a record number of goals in a basketball game? Thank God! Won a Grammy? Praise Jesus! Tornado took out the house next to yours but left yours unscathed? God was watching out for you!

It makes me sick. People don’t want to give themselves credit where credit is due. They work hard, they train, they practice, but they give God credit for getting the ball through the hoop. They learn music, they practice singing, they get a great producer who helps package their material, but they give Jesus credit for winning that Grammy. They don’t want to admit that luck has a place in our lives — good luck preserves one house while bad luck takes the one next door away. What of the people who lost the basketball game or the Grammy or their home? Did God simply not like them as much? And what about when these winners get their own dose of bad luck — injury, illness, scandal, death? Did God change his mind about them?

Captain Sullenberger, however, did not thank God or any other supernatural being for the positive outcome of his Hudson landing. At least I didn’t hear him do so in any article, interview, or elsewhere. I wanted to read the book to be sure that he didn’t thank God within its pages. He didn’t.

And that just makes me respect him even more.

The Story

The book mingles autobiographical material with events from the day of the landing. The autobiographical material was presented in a roughly chronological order, but did bounce around a lot with side stories, including references to the Hudson landing. I’m not sure that was the best approach, but it did keep me reading.

Captain Sullenberger is clearly a true pilot. He entered aviation because of his love of flying. From his start as a teen, he took aviation seriously, learning what he could to be a better, safer pilot. He understands the importance of knowing an aircraft’s systems inside and out. He understands the value of studying past accidents to prevent future ones. He also understands that all the things that happen in our lives define who we are and how we will react in a given situation.

Flight 1549 from Wikipedia

This iconic photo of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River by GregL originally uploaded to Flickr can be found on Wikipedia under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

A detailed discussion of the events of January 15, 2009 begin about 60% through the book. The story is riveting. He combines his narrative of what happened with references to his past that he believes influenced him to make certain decisions. For example, his knowledge of research into why military pilots sometimes ejected too late is part of why he decided not to worry about saving the airplane by attempting an airport landing and instead concentrate on saving the people by landing in the river. (There’s a lot more to his decision than that; this is just part of what went into it.)

Throughout this part of the book are bits and pieces of the cockpit transcript, recorded by microphones during the flight — the so-called “black box” data. Even though I knew how it would end — don’t we all? — I found the details fascinating. It was a great example of teamwork between Captain Sullenberger and his first officer, Jeff Skiles. Later in the narrative, it was clear that the flight attendants were also part of the team, helping passengers off the plane in as orderly a manner as possible.

The aftermath of the experience also made interesting reading. Getting an inside look at the mail Captain Sullenberger received from people on the plane — as well as many people who had no direct connection to the flight or its passengers at all — revealed the psychology of people. I’m not the only one who appreciated the happy ending to that seemingly doomed flight.

The Soapbox

One of the complaints people have had about the book is the soapbox aspect. Captain Sullenberger believes that airline pilots are not treated as well as they should be by their employers considering the hours and responsibilities of their work. He believes that pay cuts and pension cuts are making it ever more difficult to attract and retain quality pilots who actually care about their work. He suggests that airline pilots are like bus drivers of the sky.

Although I don’t have intimate knowledge of the airline industry, as a professional pilot who has worked for a large tour operator, I know exactly what he means. Aviation employers don’t care how good a pilot is. As long as the pilot meets insurance requirements and can do the job, all that matters is how much that pilot costs. In my experience, many employers would rather hire a cheap, entry level pilot than a seasoned professional who costs more. They don’t see the benefit of the experience. They’re gambling, of course, on the equipment and circumstances of flight — when something goes wrong, will the entry level pilot have the experience and knowledge to bring the aircraft and passengers back safely?

In the airline industry, pilots are locked into their employers for seniority. If they leave one airline, they lose all seniority and start at the bottom at their new employer. This prevents experienced pilots from looking for better jobs. It stagnates the employee pool. And although Captain Sullenberger didn’t mention this, it prevents good ideas from one airline from migrating to another.

Captain Sullenberger does discuss how many airline employees have simply stopped caring about anything other than what’s in their job description. As budget cuts reduce non-essential staff, customer service suffers. Captain Sullenberger talks about his personal experiences going the “extra mile” to help passengers who can’t get the help they need from other airline employees. He talks about how most airline employees are simply tired of doing other people’s jobs. He doesn’t blame them — he hints that they’re underpaid for what they’re supposed to do — but he does decry the system that results in this poor attitude.

He also believes that budget cuts have the potential to reduce safety. A good example of this is the emergency procedures book that his first officer needed to consult on the loss of both engines. In the past, the book had numbered tabs that made it easier to find content. The airline, in a cost-cutting measure, had stopped including the tabs, making it necessary to thumb through the book and look at individual page headings to find content. In the slightly more than three minutes the cockpit crew had to land the plane without engines, every second was valuable. Yes, this flight had a happy ending — but could other flights be lost due to cost cutting measures like this? It certainly makes you wonder.

My feelings about Captain Sullenberger’s soapbox are mixed. I didn’t like reading his complaints, but, at the same time, I knew they were valid. And I know that his experience and the interviews, articles, and books that come from it are the perfect way to get the message out.

While Captain Sullenberger was careful not to criticize his airline, it’s clear that US Airways is just as bad as the others when it comes to matters of pilot compensation and cost-cutting. Perhaps his insight will help make the situation better?

Sadly, it probably won’t.

Thumbs Up

In all, I give the book two thumbs up. While it’s especially good reading for pilots and others interested in aviation, I also think it makes a good guide for young people who want to make something of their lives. And for the rest of the world, it’s a great look at one of the most amazing emergency landings we’ll likely ever see.

Non-Believers Giving Aid

A religion-free way to help disaster victims.

Like thousands (I assume) of Americans, when I first heard of the tragedy in Haiti, I felt a need to help. The obvious solution was to give money to a charity that would be providing aid directly to the Haitian people. But the question was, which charity?

In the first day of the situation, choices weren’t readily apparent. I went with the good old standby: the American Red Cross. Because I wanted my aid to go directly to Haiti and not be used for anyother purpose, I wrote a check, marked it “Haiti Aid”, and mailed it to American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. According to the Web site’s Donate Now! page, this was the best way to ensure donations went to the cause I wanted to help.

A few days passed. Pat Robertson made his asinine comments about the Haitian people having a pact with the devil and then had the nerve to start collecting money to help them. It made me sick. I wish there was a hell just so these self-serving, religious fanatics could rot there.

I wanted to give more to help the Haitian victims, but I certainly wasn’t about to donate to any charity that was in any way related to any religious organization. The Clinton Foundation was one very good option. So was the International Red Cross. And Doctors without Borders.

But another one came to light this morning: Non-Believers Giving Aid. This organization is sponsored by Richard Dawkins and serves two distinct purposes:

  • To send 100% of donated funds directly to two non-religious charities giving aid in Haiti: Doctors without Borders and International Red Cross.
  • To provide an easy conduit for the non-religious to help those in desperate need, while simultaneously disproving that you need God to be good.

As the Non-Believers Giving Aid home page declares:

Preachers and televangelists, mullahs and imams, often seem almost to gloat over natural disasters – presenting them as payback for human transgressions, or for ‘making a pact with the devil’. Earthquakes and tsunamis are caused not by ‘sin’ but by tectonic plate movements, and tectonic plates, like everything else in the physical world, are supremely indifferent to human affairs and sadly indifferent to human suffering. Those of us who understand this reality are sometimes accused of being indifferent to that suffering ourselves. Of course the very opposite is the truth: we do not hide behind the notion that earthly suffering will be rewarded in a heavenly paradise, nor do we expect a heavenly reward for our generosity: the understanding that this is the only life any of us have makes the need to alleviate suffering even more urgent.

Thus, I sent my second contribution for Haiti Earthquake Victims to Non-Believers Giving Aid, with an equal split between the two non-religious charities they support.

I’m pleased to hear that so far over $180,000 has been raised by this organization — an average of over $35 per donor.

Have you given a charitable contribution to help the people of Haiti? Tell us about it in a comment on this post. If you haven’t done so yet, please do consider it. An amount as small as $5 can really help make a difference.

Just please — don’t send it to Pat Robertson.

Einstein on God

Contrary to what many people think, he was not a believer.

A friend of mine who apparently lurked in the background during “The Bible in the Refrigerator” and “Angry, Nasty Christians” debacle, sent me a link to a letter written by Albert Einstein and reproduced, with translation, on Letters of Note. The letter was written to the author of Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt in 1954, and says, in part (translated into English):

Still, without Brouwer’s suggestion I would never have gotten myself to engage intensively with your book because it is written in a language inaccessible to me. The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this….

You can read the entire text of the letter — a and see a scan of the actual handwritten document — here.

Oddly, when I tried to bookmark it on Delicious, I discovered that I’d already bookmarked it back in October, after being directed to it by @MrTeller on Twitter.

I didn’t blog it then because I didn’t think it particularly relevant. But since the attack of the Bible-thumping RVers, I’ve decided to be more forthcoming with links to the works of great thinkers who share my religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

Thanks to my shy friend who sent me the link this morning. I’d forgotten all about it.

A word of warning to commenters here: I will not tolerate any abusive comments. If you have something to say, say it politely, in the spirit of intelligent debate. Any comment that I consider abusive will never appear, so don’t waste your time with the usual “burn in hell” crap that so many of you think is the best way to worship your god.

The Bible in the Refrigerator

And in the barrels.

Welcome RVers!

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I sure do appreciate all the attention this post has been getting lately. It’s helping my site gain the “Google Juice” needed to zip right to the top of search results. I couldn’t do it without your help, so thanks!

Just one thing…before you place a nasty comment on this blog, you might want to read this. And then think: what would Jesus do?

Have a great day and thanks again for stopping by!

Yesterday, my husband and I continued our never-ending search for the “perfect” 5th wheel recreational vehicle. At this point, we’ve visited just about every RV sales lot in the Phoenix area and have seen just about every brand out there.

We visited one of the remaining RV sales lots to see one of the remaining RV brands yesterday. I won’t go into details; it’s not my goal to spotlight a certain dealer or brand. But the brand in question was major and well-known, although the quality of its top-of-the-line model was only about average. And the dealer was relatively large, with three different locations in the Phoenix area. This was the second location we’d visited.

BibleAn odd thing happened when we were looking at a trailer that interested us. I opened the refrigerator to get a feel for how large it was and found a bible inside it. I commented about it, but the salesman, who turned out to be the manager at the lot, didn’t appear to hear me. I closed the fridge and we continued our tour.

Later, Mike told me that there had been a whole barrel full of bibles like that inside the main sales office with a sign that said, “Free! Take One.”

So apparently, this RV dealer doesn’t just sell RVs. It pushes religion. Christianity, to be exact.

Am I the only one who thinks this is inappropriate?

Why would an RV dealer be giving away bibles to the point where it actually puts one in every RV it sells? What’s the purpose? Is the dealership actively promoting a specific religion? Does it think that giving away bibles will help clinch sales with folks who want a bible but don’t actually have one? Is it some kind of code, like the Jesus fish logo so many folks put on their cars? Look, we’re Christians, too! Buy from us!

What’s the purpose?

And how do you think someone who is not Christian feels about it?

I found it a real turn-off. I’d come to the dealership to look at RVs. Religion should not be a part of my shopping experience in any way, shape, or form. I feel the same way when I see businesses with that fish logo in the window (there’s a gas station in Wickenburg with a neon one) or biblical quotes on any signage.

I’m actually offended when the owner or manager of a business so obviously pushes a religious agenda.

In this case, it doesn’t really matter. The product line the dealer represents is not of sufficient quality to meet our needs. In other words, we wouldn’t buy one of its RVs anyway.

But I don’t mind admitting that I really wouldn’t want to do business with anyone who can’t keep personal religious matters out of everyday business. After all, if religion is that important to the sales organization, what kind of customer service can someone who rejects that religion expect to get?

The Bible and Science

PZ Myers explains; I agree.

Just a quick blog post to give you all something to read and think about. Not here. On The Humanist Web site.

That’s where you’ll find an article titled “Comes a Horseman” by PZ Myers. In it, you’ll find this paragraph, near the end, which (to me) sums up why we should all be concerned about religion, especially in our schools:

And this is why I oppose religion. It’s not because it kills people, although it does. It’s not because it poisons everything, although it does. It’s not because it is nothing but a philosophical construct even though that’s all it is, and I actually kind of like philosophical constructs. Even moderate religion is an exercise in obscurantism, the elevation of feel-good fluff over substance. I oppose it because it is a barrier to understanding, a kind of simplistic facade thrown up to veil knowledge with a pretense of scholarliness. It’s an imaginary shortcut that leads people astray, guaranteeing that they never see the real glory of a cell or of the stars. And I honestly hope that once people see the creation story for what little it is–one thin sheet of tissue paper–they will be able to crumple it up and toss it aside.

Read the whole thing.