A Lapsed-Catholic reply to the Catholic Reply to “How To Suck At Your Religion”

First, some background.

Web comic “The Oatmeal” published a very funny web-comic, called “How To Suck At Your Religion“, taking aim at some of the more bullshit qualities of modern religions.

Of course, a bunch of Catholics were hyper-offended by this examination of religions in general (not just their religious beliefs, but it must’ve struck a nerve for them or something). They posted a multi-point rebuttal to the comic, “A Catholic Reply to ‘How To Suck At Your Religion'”, attempting to show how “wrong” the comic is.

So, now, with that out of the way, let’s do a point-by-point rebuttal to their rebuttal. :-)

1.) This article makes a very auspicious claim: “the Church has never declared anyone in Hell”, which is a very tricky bit of writing. Who is “in Hell”? Of course, they’ve never said “Adolf Hitler is in Hell”, because obviously, how would they know?

But that’s not what the Oatmeal comic says. The rebuttal authors have constructed an excellent strawman argument and then knocked it down.  What the Oatmeal comic describes is telling people “they will go to hell”, and that’s something Catholicism has a long history of doing, even in the modern era.

For instance, the Catholic Church is very clear on the fact people DO go to hell, they’re just not in the business of picking specific individuals who have. In fact, the Church, shortly after their leader tried to explain that deeds-not-words was what Jehovah cared about, completely torpedoed that assertion, and reaffirmed that even “good” unbelievers go to hell.

2.) Their protestations to the contrary, the web comic gets the Galileo narrative exactly right. Unfortunately, their entire rebuttal is in a dead link, so, y’know, “loss by default”? Nah, we’ll go to the version of the page at Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

In that document, the Church’s whole argument seems to come down to “Well, we wouldn’t have sent the Inquisition after him, if he’d just spoken to us more nicely,” because y’know, that’s a completely valid justification for massive overreaction, right? Since you weren’t nice to us and consider our feelings, we’re going to send the fucking Inquisitors after you.

Galileo may well have been a colossal dick. But that doesn’t change that the church persecuted him for trying to spread scientific fact.

The article tries to inject some disagreement about whether or not the Church tried to stop him from teaching heliocentrism. ProTip: the only people for whom this is still “in doubt” are Catholic apologists.  Certainly the Church hated him enough to condemn him for heresy, an error that stood for centuries until only recently. That certainly lends a substantial amount of credence to the persecution claims, an amount of credence which Catholicism’s claims to the contrary do nothing to overcome.

3.) I’m tempted to simply invoke Godwin’s law on this point, since they try to make comparisons to the Nazis, but I’ll hold that in reserve for the moment.

This is the argument of this blog posting where the authors come closest to making a coherent argument.  It’s true, as a matter of scientific fact, that a human life-form is created at conception (technically, shortly thereafter, but for the purposes of this discussion topic, they can be assumed to be human life).

However, the Christian argument that this is “mass murder” falls flat for a number of reasons:

1.) Legally, it’s not. While it’s a murky gray area where they actually reach “personhood” and have legal rights, it’s certainly not the case at the stage where Embryonic Stem Cells (ESCs) can be harvested.

2.) Logically, it fails. ESCs are generally harvested from embryos which are never going to be brought to term, as a result of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Without them being artificially protected from death (by being frozen), they would simply die in a test-tube somewhere. It’s not murder, in most people’s eyes, to find a silver lining when a person is going to die anyway. Think of ESC harvesting in much the same way as organ donors — the embryos weren’t created specifically for stem-cell harvesting, they were created for IVF. The embryos in question aren’t being killed specifically for the purpose of harvesting, they were going to die anyway. Those are the two places where the morality argument can come into play – if they were created for this purpose, or they’re being selected for death for this purpose, and neither is the case. So now, since they’re going to die anyway, if their dying can help stop pain and suffering for others, this is considered a societal win, and would be acceptable even if the stem cells were considered to have legal personhood.

4.) Religion is fine, and you’re more than welcome to tell your kids “this is what your mother and I believe”, and answer their questions, but make available to them the full spectrum of beliefs, and let them decide for themselves what makes the most sense to THEM.

Children are incredibly inquisitive. Let them read the Bible, the Qur’an, the teachings of Buddha, the writings of Dawkins. Answer their questions about the beliefs you’re legitimately knowledgeable in. Refer them to others to answer questions on the other belief systems where you’re not a legitimate authority of knowledge.

If your flavor of mysticism is truly superior, parents should have absolutely no problem allowing their child to explore in this fashion, confident that they will follow their parents’ lead.

5.) The comic doesn’t say that “good parenting is to pretend to be agnostic”. Again, a wonderful misinterpretation of the comic. The comic says to expose your child to a multitude of ideas, and let them consider them and make up their own mind, instead of doing — what so many believers do — of insisting that the child go through the steps of becoming indoctrinated into their own religion.

I remember trying to convince my own parents that I was an atheist, and still being forced — forced — to go to Sunday School and Church. My fondest memory is the Sunday after I was confirmed, when I was able to look my parents in the eye and say “in the eyes of this religion, I am an adult who can make my own decisions, and my decision is — I reject them fully.”

Shoving your religion down children’s throats doesn’t make them faithful, it makes them ignorant. Having limited exposure to other beliefs, they will go through their formative years having none of their religious beliefs challenged, compared to other childrens’ beliefs from different parts of the world. Think of it like the Montessori school of teaching, as applied to religion.

6.) I’m not sure the point they’re trying to make here. “Well, other things cause sexual hang-ups too, so it’s not a problem if we dog-pile onto that list”?

7.) Nobody is saying you can’t try and convince people that your belief system is right. But you don’t have a right to intrude upon their personal time and space, by coming onto their property to tell them how wrong they are and how right you are. Religions that simply try to “convert” are cults. Plain and simple. Religions which accept all seekers of “truth”, who come to them seeking purpose, or comfort, or whatever, are perfectly acceptable. This is the point the comic is making by comparisons to, say, Judaism, where the teaching of their religion isn’t “go tell people how wrong they are”, but instead “welcome anyone who comes seeking enlightenment”.

As to the rebuttal’s argument about it being better if you “make it hard to join”, I think of the scene in Fight Club, where Bob (Meat Loaf) is forced to stand outside on the stoop for a few days straight, to show how exactly much he wants to join up.It’s not about exclusivity, but about showing commitment to the belief system.

Many religions which don’t measure their success on conversion rates, do typically have stages where the seeker has to demonstrate to some extent a strong desire to join the ranks of the faithful, whether by consistently showing that they have a moral/ethical code consistent with the religion’s teachings, or any number of other things.

8.) Perhaps the author of this rebuttal is wonderful at being civil. But the vast majority of his brethren come across as mouth-breathing assholes who will insist that you’re wrong/insane if you believe some crazy-ass mythology that isn’t in their holy book, and yet their holy book is full of some crazy-ass mythology.

9.) Plenty of people vote completely based on religious beliefs. I’ve known people who would vote for candidates who are going to completely screw them over, simply they believe in the same mythology with the same level of orthodoxy. There’s plenty of places in America where people will vote for a candidate specifically because “he wants to put prayer back in our schools”, or whatever. The author of that post may never have encountered these folks, but in the flyover-states, those voters are like flies on shit.

10.) Don’t kid yourself, true believer. It’s more like both Christians and Muslims are on this “crazy scale”. And there’s elements of radical Islam that are way further into the realm of crazy than Christians are. But make no mistake, just because you’re not as far out there that you’ll launch a worldwide holy war over something (well, not *anymore*, right? I mean you used to be) as inane as a cartoon doesn’t mean you’re not still crazy enough to kill people because they have different views than you do.

11.) If you’re hurting someone in the name of your chosen mythology, you’re wrong, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of “killed them”.

12.) I’m not sure the author understands the word “placebo”. Your chosen religion can be as real to you as you like. So long as you don’t harm anyone else, try to force them to live by your beliefs, then go nuts, folks.

Treating religion as “true” is disingenuous. Modern religion is just the latest instantiation in a long history of man-made mythologies. Take a cocktail of “stuff humans are afraid of”, sprinkle in “stuff humans haven’t worked out through science yet”, and throw in “smart people who know how to use their oratory and writing skills to convince other people to give them power”, and you’ve described nearly every religion in the history of mankind, including Christianity (in fact, Christianity might very well be the textbook example of this phenomenon).

So while “true believers” might get offended by the Oatmeal’s lambasting of their flaws, and get their warm-n-fuzzy back by reading off a point by point rebuttal from one of their own faithful, that rebuttal really only exemplifies the lengths of twisting of reality that some religious leadership will go to, in order to protect their control over others.

The Dark Side of Puppet Forge (et. al.)

Let me preface this by saying I don’t think this is unique to Puppet Forge, and the problem isn’t even with Puppet Forge itself. Puppet Forge provides an excellent resource for the Puppet community, and I think it provides tremendous value.

But I think that a push towards “configuration management everywhere”, combined with reductions in resources leads folks to think that resources like PuppetForge are a panacea.

Sherman, set the Wayback machine….

A couple decades ago, as Visual Basic started to become popular, and various development platforms were created for simply making programming “attach this pre-made module to that pre-made module and plug in a couple values”, the industry (rightly) cried foul that people would confuse an ability to assemble the software-development version of Lego with actual programming. The difference in ability between “constructing a house from scratch” versus “sticking together some pre-fab materials” was an apt analogy.  Some people didn’t necessarily understand how their code worked, or even what it was doing, and still bandied around the title of “programmer”. To a large extent, we’ve dissuaded that sort of practice from continuing (near as I can tell).

In the system administration community, we need to be wary of falling into the same trap. There’s a world of difference between going to PuppetForge, grabbing a pre-made manifest for managing “OpenLDAP”, and that of installing OpenLDAP (even just from yum/apt), and then configuring it yourself. (Better still would be the level of knowledge imparted by compiling from source, but install/configure is a good middle-ground).

When sysadmin’ing a given package becomes “I grabbed the module from PF and installed it, and now it works”, a lot of the knowledge necessary for day to day maintenance is simply missing. What files were installed where? Why were they installed there? Configuration options in a Puppet module that seem benign might actually have much longer-lasting ripple effects than you can realize.

As I said, Puppet Forge is an excellent resource. But it is no substitute for understanding how to do the install in the first place. Puppet Forge should be used for ideas about “how to configure YOUR module,” as opposed to being “the module you use”.

While that seems like I’m saying “reinvent the wheel every time,” because of some weird theme of “not invented here” syndrome, I’m not. What it means is that after the application is installed, months down the road, there’s going to be some sort of problem with it. And if all you know about the configuration of the application is what was exposed to you (or worse, your predecessor) by the pre-made module that was downloaded, your ability to diagnose problems with that application is going to be substantially reduced. Having configured it yourself, from the ground up, and then built a Puppet module on your own (or by referencing existing modules) to recreate that config is most definitely the path to success.

As a profession, we need to be wary of falling into the trap of “Oh this is an easy and quick to solve this, and I’ve got so much other stuff to get done today before I go home.” This is the sort of problem which silently lurks below the surface, and wreaks untold damage when it goes foul.

We’re still early enough in the adoption of “config management everywhere” that it’s not too late to change the direction our collective mindset is heading; to ensure that we don’t end up in a realm of tech-skills disparity the way the programming industry did in the not-too-distant past.

The Ecology of the Goa’uld

(Non-sci-fi-nerds.. just turn away, this is the sort of thing you probably beat up kids in high school for talking about).

So I’ve been re-watching Stargate SG-1 (Wikipedia) (IMDb) on my morning and afternoon commute, and something has been bugging me.  I dug around on SG-1 fan sites and couldn’t find a satisfactory answer, hell even a discussion, of the topic.

Throughout the course of the series we encounter maybe a dozen Goa’uld – the System Lords. Which gives us the impression that Goa’ulds, in hosts, are uncommon. This would make sense as well, since the Goa’uld fool everyone into thinking they are gods, and there can’t be a lot of gods.

But we see literally hundreds of thousands of Jaffa throughout the show. The Jaffa carry, in their bellies, Goa’uld symbiotes that are maturing.

And so my question is:  Where the fuck are those symbiotes going when they mature?

Sure, some of them are dying – en masse – in various conflicts. But surely some of them are surviving, reaching maturity, and … then what?

At the rate symbiotes are growing inside Jaffa there should be planets full of matured, fully hosted, Goa’uld (just, presumably, ones who aren’t System Lords, and aren’t going around pretending to be gods, unless the faithful are supposed to believe in a pantheon of a billion all-powerful deities, which would strain credibility.

Why have we never even heard of this society in the course of the show? It seems to be a glaring plot-hole that I’m just surprised nobody has mentioned before. I feel like I must be missing something.

On Yahoo and PRISM, and the Art of Playing Chicken

I was reading the New York Times article which reveals that a secret intelligence court threatened to fine Yahoo! $250,000 a day for failing to turn over confidential customer/user data.

Now, one can hardly fault a publicly traded company for not wanting to incur nearly $2,000,000 a week in fines. That’s a hefty chunk of change to play chicken with.

But here’s a take-away for future companies in this position: PLAY CHICKEN. YOU WILL WIN.

First, the only way the government can collect is either by seizing the cash outright (which will expand the number of people who know there’s something going on between the NSA and the company in question).

Second, if they DO, remind them that — as a publicly traded company — you’re going to have to mention this fact in the next quarter’s SEC filings. That’s a material change to cash-flow that it would be a felony to conceal from shareholders, and which would show up in your next annual audit, the results of which are public information, anyway. “Of course, we won’t name you, we’ll simply say, ‘We are being fined based on court orders from an intelligence court which we can’t even confirm the existence of.'”  Let the NSA stew over how they’re going to react to the bad press on that.

Remember that the most important thing to the intelligence community is the cover of darkness. That’s one of the lessons of the Snowden disclosure. If you are willing to stand up to them, chances are, they are not going to take the chance that their bullying tactics, and the reason for those bullying tactics, will be exposed in the light of day.

Asking For Help From Your Customers

There’s a trap that a lot of companies fall into. In one way or another – whether it’s surveys, or forums, or focus groups, or whatever – companies ask their customers or users for feedback, suggestions, “ways to make things better”. This, in and of itself, is awesome. It’s how companies can best determine what their paying customers are looking for, direct feedback-loop closure from the people who pay the bills to make it all possible.

But too many companies – both ones I’ve worked for and ones I’ve been a customer of – will respond to a lot of suggestions with answers like:

  • “That’s just not feasible.”
  • “That can’t be done.”
  • “That doesn’t scale.”
  • “That makes things complicated.”
  • “We can’t do that.”

And all of those things may be true, but all of those statements, as written or spoken, are “shutting down the conversation” statements. They don’t brook any sort of follow-up dialogue. They tell your customer “that idea is SO bad, that I’m not even going to explain to you how bad it is and why.”

Contrast those with:

  • “That’s just not feasible, because the number of volunteers it would take to man those areas would be more than we have.”
  • “That can’t be done, because there’s a regulatory requirement to keep portions of that data private.”
  • “That doesn’t scale, because once you’ve got more than a couple hundred thousand rows in that table, your indices are going to look like shit.”
  • “That makes things complicated, because then we have to deal with two completely different products that go to the printers, two sets of inventory, etc.”
  • “We can’t do that, because the capital expenses of the widgets are too high.”

You can see how each of the second set leaves the door open to discussion. It says “Your idea is good, but we thought about that before, and we rejected it not out of hand because it’s just a bad idea, but for the following reason…,” leaving the possibility for the suggester to reply in a couple different ways:

  • “Ah, shit… I hadn’t thought of that, you’re right. Never mind.”
  • “That’s true, but maybe we don’t need that particular piece of data that’s regulatory-encumbered, we’ll just use all the non-encumbered data, and that’s actually enough.”
  • “Man, those indices are gonna suck. I wonder if there’s a way to make them easier to manage and be more efficient…?”
  • “You can probably get widgets as cheap as $0.whatever … is that more or less than what they were going for the last time you looked at this problem?”

Even if you don’t believe they are, and you rarely will — treat your customer as though they are at least as smart as you are. Yes, your company has been doing this for a long time. Yes, you’ve got really bright, really focused people working on these problems day in and day out. But you’re not the smartest people on the planet. There’s only one guy who is, and he’s definitely keeping a low profile these days it seems. Walk your customers and users through the reasons why you’ve considered that idea in the past and rejected it. Maybe they completely agree with you and just accept the answer. Maybe they point out some flaws in your internal logic, and a dialogue ensues, where it’s still a bad idea, and now you have another piece of data about why it’s a bad idea. But, maybe they have a completely novel way of solving a problem, which you haven’t thought of before. Taking that suggestion achieves two very valuable things:

  1. You’ve improved the product offering in a way that is directly valuable to your customer base. It was their idea, after all.
  2. You’ve demonstrated the willingness to do so in a very tangible, concrete fashion.

There’s certainly always going to be “vetoes”, but any time you can back up your veto with the “why”, it goes down much smoother with the folks who have to hear it.

Blog Version 3.0

With my departure from the land of Facebook, I decided to spend some time on a Sunday morning and re-vamp the blog a little bit, since it’ll probably be the new place for my sharing of thoughts. I got neck-deep in it pretty fast, and it became clear it was now a “whole new thing” as it were.

I don’t yet know what all will end up here, but I wanted to make it someplace I felt interested in again as opposed to a snapshot of what a web page looked like in 2011 or so when I moved this to WordPress.


Quitting Facebook

I deactivated my Facebook account last night.

This story on Slate does a pretty good job of summing up what I would call “the straw that broke the camel’s back” for me. Chuq von Rospach also summarizes things pretty well, also.

I guess this means I might start using this thing more often again. After all, I’m still going to have the occasional thing I want to “say”, but Google+ as a forum is a wasteland (and – frankly – Google is just as bad as Facebook, they’re just smart enough not to say out loud in public what they do).

I don’t harbor any belief that my act of defiance will change the world or anything. I just know that I can’t sit by and be a rat in their lab.