Archive for November, 2006

Bush sits down with Cindy Sheehan

November 22, 2006

CS: Mr. President, I’ve wanted to speak with you for months now and I’m not sure you ever knew why. I pursued you for answers. I want to know why we went to war in Iraq. I want to know why my son died. You sent him to his death and I think you owe me an explanation. I want you to look me in the eye and tell me why we went to war.  My son’s life blood seeped away in the dirt of a foreign country and you should have to explain why.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

GWB: Ms Sheehan, I’ve dreaded this conversation for a while now.  Firstly, let me say I’m sorry. I’m sorry for your tragic, devastating loss. I feel powerless even trying to put into words what you must have gone through. Your suffering and the suffering of thousands of other parents is very real to me. I think about your family and families like yours every day. That burden never, ever leaves me and I know it never will. I’m sorry.

I’m also sorry I ducked you for so long.  I did it for many reasons but all of them were political.  I owe you more than that.  I owe your son’s memory and his sacrifice more than that.  For that, I’m sorry.

Now, to your question.

We went to Iraq mostly for the reasons I gave publicly and some that I didn’t give … couldn’t give … in public. I’m the president of the most powerful nation on Earth. Many say that makes me the most powerful individual on Earth. That might be true, but I’m still just a man. There are things I don’t know, things I can’t know. I surround myself with advisers and experts to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I have to rely on these people to give me information about the many subjects I deal with every day.

When it came to Iraq, the advice I got was terrible. Absolutely terrible. First, a caveat; this isn’t an excuse. I’m not trying to duck my responsibility here. I listened to the experts, but I made the decisions. In many cases I was involved in appointing the advisers, so I won’t be pointing fingers without realizing that ultimately all fingers point back to me. I understand that.

As I said, this is not about excuses, it’s about explaining.

After 9/11, America was hurting. We wanted to strike out and make sure that the people who conducted the attacks on us were made to suffer. We wanted to make sure that their capacity to strike at us was removed. We were pretty successful at that in Afghanistan.  While Afghanistan was a success story, Iraq was far from it.

Iraq wasn’t really about terrorism.  It was about two main things.  It was, first and foremost, about the politics of the region and trying to create a foothold for democracy.  Secondly, it was about stabilizing one of the major oil producing nations in the region and installing a government that shared our sympathies.

Yes, in hindsight these are terrible reasons.  I understand that.  At the time, based on advice I was given, I mistakenly believed that we’d be in and out quickly.  I believed we’d be greeted as liberators for removing a despicable tyrant from power.  It certainly didn’t turn out that way.

I saw an estimate the other day that said 650,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed.  I can tell you this face to face (but I’ll deny it on the record) , I believe that number.  We made sure that earlier reports of civilian casualties were much, much lower than that to train the public perception.  Mission accomplished.  The number 650,000 sounds outrageous now.  It isn’t outrageous and it might actually be low.

The first few weeks in Iraq could be reasonably described as a resounding success.  However, that was the last point at which I can describe anything we did as successful.   It devolved from there into a situation where it wasn’t an invading force taking control of terrority.  It was an occupying force involved in skirmishes with local insurgents.  The skirmishes have steadily increased in frequency and damage as time has gone on.  We’ve also given up almost everything we gained in Afghanistan.

You asked me for the truth.  The truth is that your son’s life was lost in a war we shouldn’t have been fighting.  His life was given for goals that, in hindsight, don’t make sense.  Nothing I can say or do will give your boy back to you.  I understand that.  All I can do is tell you that his sacrifice won’t be in vain.  It’s a reminder that America has to fight for the right reasons.  We have to fight as a last resort.  His death is a reminder that the President of the United States of America is, above all else, a public servant.  He’s supposed to protect this country from harm, not increase the risks.  He’s supposed to defend the great freedoms that America stands for, not whittle them away.

I’m sorry for the loss I’ve caused you.  I can tell you our foreign policy will change because of the sacrifices of the brave men and women I killed in this war.

The highest sacrifice a person can make for their country is to die in its defence.  That carries an obligation at the highest levels to make sure that sacrifice is only made when absolutely necessary.  Your son died as a result of poor policy, planning, diplomacy and leadership.  I’m the leader and therefore that’s my fault.

I’m sorry.

Why there’s no need for an atheist’s code.

November 2, 2006

Here’s the article that got me thinking about this topic.

This might be pedantic, but I think there’s an important distinction to be made. There’s no need for an atheist’s code because atheism isn’t a belief system. It’s much simpler than that.

“After all, many theists will proclaim, does it really make sense to organize a group of people around a non-belief? One could just as easily form an ideology around lack of belief in the tooth fairy.”

Atheism doesn’t need an ideology formed around it. It’s hard to explain but basically it’s only the prevalence of theism that lends atheism any meaning in the first place. Atheism is just the “default position” of not assuming supernatural explanations for things. In a world where belief in the tooth fairy was as wide spread as belief in god is in ours, afairyism would become relevant. However, prior to the rise of fairyism, afairyism would have no reason to exist. Same situation with religion and atheism.

Humans have a built in predisposition to socialize and form groups. The discussion of an atheist’s code is probably an outpouring of that need. The problem is that atheism in and of itself doesn’t necessitate belief in anything else, so how would you codify that? The only real necessity for being an atheist is the stance that it’s irrational to believe in a god given the lack of evidence to support it. That doesn’t say anything about any other beliefs that an atheist may or may not have. I can happily believe that the moon is made of green cheese in conjunction with my lack of belief in a deity. They’re unrelated. It is, admittedly, highly unlikely that atheists would believe that the moon is made of green cheese. However, such a belief wouldn’t disqualify them from being an atheist. It would certainly disqualify them from being considered rational. So maybe “rationalist” is more in line with the author’s thinking?

One other possibility is The Brights.  They have an ideology of which atheism is a part. Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins are two well known names involved with the Brights.  You can check out the list of “Enthusiastic Brights” to see them. These guys are renowned scientists and atheists and any belief system they espouse will undoubtedly have much to recommend it. This dovetails very nicely with what I was saying above. It’s not necessarily about atheism, it’s about going above and beyond atheism and codifying an actual ideology. One belief does not an ideology make 🙂

I can be an atheist and also a believer in the green cheese moon theory. It doesn’t seem that the Bright’s naturalistic world view would let me get away with that. That’s the only distinction I was trying to make; Don’t build the code around atheism, atheism depends on rampant theism. All atheists should hope that one day the term atheist will become meaningless. It’s no longer necessary to proclaim the fact that you don’t believe in Zeus.

Thanks a great deal to the author of the linked piece, it was very thought provoking.

More Atheistic Feelings

November 1, 2006

In the last post, I tried to give religious people some insight into how it feels to be an atheist. Rereading it, it’s a little dry and abrasive. Sorry. I’ll just keep spilling these thoughts out until I get something that feels like I want it to. Let’s try again.
From the perspective of an atheist, the world is a scary place. Actually, that’s not quite true. The world is an awe inspiring place. It’s people that are scary. The scariest thing about them is that they’re willing to fight, kill and die over fairy tales. It’s hard to communicate that concept clearly, but to an atheist all religiously motivated actions seem deluded. The attacks on the WTC on 9/11 are a chilling example. The guys who flew into the WTC believed an eternal paradise awaited them as a result. Most reasonable people would think that’s just a tad crazy. They’d be right. However, are Christian beliefs about Heaven more rational? Hell no! Christianity has effectively the same setup. Perform action X while alive and you’ll get a pass into eternal realm Y. It’s the same damn thing. Usually the Christian version doesn’t involve killing people with different beliefs, but that tolerance is a very modern development.

It’s not that atheists can’t understand the pull of religion. We can. Who wouldn’t want access to an eternal paradise? That would be fantastic. We understand the comfort that religion can bring. Whenever someone I care about dies, I always want to believe they’ve gone to a “better place”. However, wishing doesn’t make it so. “No.  Rover isn’t dead Jimmy, he’s gone to a big farm in the country where he gets to play all day with other dogs and have fun”. Valid for kids, but at some point adults shouldn’t need the crutch any more.

God is, ultimately, an adult version of Santa Claus. Behave well and you’ll be rewarded, screw up and you miss you out.

Something that I’ve always wondered about is why religious people believe they have the moral high ground. Aren’t they really just behaving because they believe they’re being watched by the big guy upstairs? Atheists don’t have that to fall back on. We behave because our morals are deeper than that. We’re not afraid of being punished or angling for some sort of reward. We behave morally because it feels like the right thing to do. Religion is completely unnecessary (and is regularly in opposition) to having good moral character.

The deepest problem that I, as an atheist, have with religion is the crushing effect it has on critical thinking. Critical thinking is crucial to running a democratic nation. Many of the problems we’re going through at the moment appear to stem from the fact that the nation isn’t critical enough to elect a smarter leader. Religion teaches you not to question things. It teaches you to accept them on faith. You’re supposed to be okay with fairy stories in the absence of evidence. It’s particularly scary when you think about the amount of effort devoted by religious people to discrediting evolution. People should think critically as a general rule. Religion is directly in opposition to that and it’s a huge problem.