How to drive psychiatrists insane

This is a Super-8 film of the Velvet Underground’s first public appearance – at a psychiatrists’ convention in NYC, circa 1966. It’s also the best version of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” I’ve ever heard: fuzzed-out and ear-splitting.

Here’s what happened:

On January 13 1966, Warhol was invited to be the evening’s entertainment at the NY society for Clinical Psychiatry’s forty thir- annual dinner, held at Delmonico’s Hotel. Bursting into the room with a camera, as the Velvet Underground acoustically tortured the guests and Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick performed the ‘whip dance’ in the background, Rubin taunted the attending psychiatrists. Casting blinding lights in their faces, Rubin hurled derogatory questions at the esteemed members of the medical profession, including: ‘What does her vagina feel like? Is his penis big enough? Do you eat her out? As the horrified guests began to leave Rubin continued her interrogation: ‘Why are you getting embarrassed? You’re a psychiatrist; you’re not supposed to get embarrassed. The following day the NY Times reported on the event; their chosen headline, ‘Shock treatment for psychiatrists’, reveals the extent to which Rubin’s guerrilla tactics had inverted the sanctioned relationship between patient and doctor expert and amateur.

Best rock and roll band, ever.


Justifiable anger

“Coming out is the single most effective political action a godless person can take.” – Greta Christina

I just bought Greta Christina’s new book, Why Are You Atheists So Angry: 99 Things That Piss Off the GodlessThe title sold me on it right away. The first chapter is called “Litany” and it’s just that: 99 reasons she’s angry (and why that anger is justified). The Kindle version is hyperlinked to all sorts of source material, making the book like an extended blog post – which is exactly how it began. (So, at least this time, I think maybe the Kindle version has an advantage over the paperback.)

Here’s the promo video she made. Now go read her book.


Religion (ain’t) for atheists

I’ve read a couple of favorable reviews of Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists. The book sounds absolutely horrible. Seeing as many atheists have had a pretty hard time getting away from religion in the first place, why would they want to backpeddle and inject their lives with religious-type rituals?

…his descriptions of certain rituals, including communion, meditation, the Day of Atonement, and mourning rituals, evoke powerful nostalgia.

Seriously? The Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) evokes in me the taste of bile. This isn’t a joke; I’ve spent more than one joyous day atoning for my sins on the bathroom floor, hunched over a toilet, barfing. The central part of the ritual is fasting, which I find not only abhorrent but unnatural. When I do it, I get sick. So I’m not about to fawn over De Botton’s “descriptions of certain rituals.”

My wife has similarly negative memories of the Catholic rituals she was forced to grow up with. In fact, I think that’s one of the most liberating things about becoming a freethinker – the fact that we’re no longer bound to observe arbitrary traditions. Sure, we all love getting shikker (drunk) with our close friends and family once or twice a year, but I don’t think most non-religious people yearn for ritual in their lives. At least not the way De Botton seems to think.

Here’s another gem from the same review:

“Real freedom does not mean being wholly left to one’s own devices; it should be compatible with being harnessed and guided.”

The reviewer clarifies:

This sounds wonderfully similar to Rabbi Avraham HaKohen Kook’s explanation of the Torah as freedom.

But the Torah isn’t about freedom, not by a long shot. This is exactly the opposite of what the Torah is about, which is obedience to a tribal Jewish law concocted from traditional fairy tales. This sounds disturbingly similar to Catholic prelates pontificating about how Jesus is freedom, and without Him we are slaves.

If this is freedom, I’ll take the slavery of freethought any day.

The importance of being Catholic

There’s been a recent crackdown on religion teachers in Palermo, Sicily. Apparently, they’ve been asked (required is more like it) to produce a certificate of Catholic moral fitness in order to keep their jobs. These, mind you, are teachers of Catholic religion in Italian public schools, chosen by the Vatican and paid for by the State. Now it seems the Vatican has begun to notice that not all Catholics are quite as obedient as they’d like them to be.

How many of those who call themselves Catholics follow the teachings of the Church to the letter? How many of them go to mass, confess, take communion, avoid sex which isn’t for reproductive purposes, don’t use contraception, don’t get divorced, don’t have abortions, haven’t betrayed their spouses, don’t steal, lie and so on?

It’s seriously funny, isn’t it? I wish I were optimistic enough to agree with some people that we are witnessing the death throes of Roman Catholicism, but harmful and ridiculous ideologies have a way of sticking around for millennia.

But guess what? The teachers are really pissed off about this! Which is a good thing, and I hope their anger spreads more generally through the population and Italians finally realize they’re sick of being preached to by a corrupt gang of homophobic sissies. Most Italians have better moral values than the Catholic Church peddles, despite the fact that they often define themselves – erroneously – as “Catholics.”

They’re not, any more than I’m a Hasidic Jew.

***BREAKING*** Millions of Italians are atheists!

Gosh, living in Italy is just too damn funny sometimes. I mean, where else can you meet people who say things like, “This is a Catholic country” and “Catholic traditions must be respected?” These are people, I might add, who get divorced and use birth control. 

They couldn’t pack more irony into a phrase if they tried. Of course, when they say “respected” they mean “submitted to without complaint.” After all, that’s what’s at the heart of the whole “Italy-is-a-Catholic-country” schtick. It means, If you don’t like our bigoted traditions, you can go home. As if everyone who disagreed with Catholic traditions were an immigrant (and immigrants, as we know, have no right to complain). Try pointing out that there are plenty of native Italians who disagree with having a de facto state religion and you just get blank stares. Incredibly, many Italians still think all other Italians are Catholic! Ha!

So sometimes, being the militant secularist that I am, I like to point out to them that

***BREAKING*** Millions of Italians are atheists! Others just don’t give a fuck about religion! Still others are Jews, Muslims or other despised religious minorities! You Catholics are not the only ones on this peninsula! Get it into your heads! There’s room for all of us!

This country is in serious need of hearing dissenting points of view.

Ask a question…

In a recent post, PZ Myers asks:

…do you see religion as a kind of social glue, or do you see it as a disastrously stupid collection of bad ideas? If you are in the latter camp, you’re a New Atheist.

I think any readers I have know I’m in the latter camp. Just wanted to make that clear for everyone, because it seems from his post that many believers actually believe what they say they do – and this has surprised at least one finger-wagging atheist. Well, go figger!

Knowledge increases wonder

Gravitational lensing by a black hole.

My father was a chemical engineer. In the last year of his life he was reading Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.” He used to talk my ear off about black holes and the speed of light. I was more interested in listening to the Misfits, growing my hair out, and skating the local mini ramps. But his enthusiasm was contagious.

I remember him telling me that a person traveling on a space ship at the speed of light would age more slowly than a person on Earth. I remember him telling me that nothing — not even light — could escape from a black hole. He was fascinated, electrified by these ideas. And he wanted to electrify me with them as well.

Some of what he said must have registered with me, though, because a few years ago I found myself in a quandary about those same two subjects: black holes and light speed. Memories of him came flooding back to me, and I suddenly wished I had paid more attention when he spoke. Then it occurred to me that I could simply read a book and find out for myself.

The book I read shocked me much as Hawking’s book must have shocked my father two decades ago. It was amazing: here was a book so rich in information, so eloquent in explanation and so unpretentious in its delivery that I couldn’t believe it was that easy. Could the secrets of the universe really be available to someone with no background in science or mathematics, and for the price of a paperback?

What a discovery! (The book, by the way, was “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan). A window opened and the fresh air of inquiry filled the room. You could find out nearly anything you wanted to know just by opening a book. I’d just discovered what goes by the moniker of “popular science” writing.

The funny thing was that I was no stranger to books. I’d worked in bookstores for years but routinely snubbed the science section. I’d always considered it one notch above psychology (yawn). Today it’s the first place I go when I enter a bookshop, and I comb the shelves with alacrity for exciting new writers.

My love of science writing is manifestly a love of science writers. They’re the ones who translate the complexities and intricacies of science to a general public (how I reviled the general public in those days, too!) and make it the stuff of page-turners. I may never have an advanced understanding of chemistry or physics, but there are dozens of writers capable of explaining the structure of DNA and quantum tunneling who make me feel as if I do. This is no easy task.

When I read about carbon dating (Earth is about 4.5 billion years old), universes popping into existence from nothing, probabilities and the evolution of species I long to share my increasing knowledge with my father. Knowledge increases wonder, and there’s no danger of running out of either in the world of scientific discovery. It seems every day we hear about some new milestone: an “Earth-like” exoplanet revolving around a nearby star, fossil fish with feet, and a particle that moves faster than light (alas, a false alarm).

Science has a reputation as being boring, difficult and elitist. Who doesn’t conjure up an image of nerds in white coats and Coke-bottle glasses, puttering about and torturing mice in a sterile lab? But the reality is rather different. Just consider the word “revolution.” It comes from Copernicus, the man whose revolutionary idea was that the Earth revolves around the sun. Galileo was tried — and condemned — by Inquisition enforcers for his adherence to Copernican cosmology. Only later did the word enter political jargon and become more or less synonymous with “upheaval.”

Science has always been at the forefront of social progress. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Founding Fathers were all scientifically literate men, if not scientists themselves. Nor should it be surprising that totalitarian regimes are fundamentally anti-scientific. The beauty of science is that free inquiry is required for it to work. It is fundamentally a liberal enterprise whose archenemy is dogma.

This is because it seeks truth: not truth as we wish it to be, but truth as things are. And this is why science and religion are (despite many attempts to reconcile them) largely incompatible. Religion is a set of fossilized ideas. What was “true” two millennia ago is just as “true” today. It resists change. Science, on the other hand, thrives on it. It is not a heresy to challenge the most established ideas in science; it’s de rigeur. It’s how progress is achieved.

I began this piece by talking about my father. Now that I’m a father I think about him often. He wasn’t a perfect man. He could be extremely difficult at times, had a bad temper and often meted out punishment that outweighed the offenses. Of course, it’s nearly impossible for me to be objective about him. But in the last years of his life he was able to ignite in me a passion for knowledge that I hope to pass on to our daughter. And that’s what I call progress.