Atheism is not a religion

Every once in a while, the topic of religion (or lack there-of) comes up in discussion among me and my friends. I often try to explain what atheism is, or actually what it isn’t, and almost like clockwork it comes up: sounds a lot like religion. It’s an innocent statement, but it also means my explanation failed yet again. It’s a rousing topic full of nuance and passion, no matter the religion, agnosticism or atheism of the participant in the discussion. And it fascinates me so because it’s supposed to be simple! After all, it’s just semantics:

atheism, noun
disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods

religion, noun
the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

Clearly just by looking at the dictionary, one seems incompatible with the other. All the delicious nuance stems from the fact that the term “god” is part of both definitions.

Quick intermezzo before we get into the weeds: I have many friends with a multitude of different religions, people whom I love and respect deeply. I’m not here to take anyones faith away. This is not about whether religion is a force for good or not, there are far more intelligent debates to be had elsewhere. I just like discussing semantic nuances.

What makes it so difficult to pin down is the fact that atheism is really just a word in the dictionary. We’re not even very protective about such words, so we change its meaning from time to time. New information comes to light! The term evolves and mutates and comes to include more meaning still. Looking broadly, though, the definition of atheism forks in two general directions. One direction has it defined mainly as a disbelief in a god or gods, while the other considers it a lack of belief in a god or gods. Did you catch the difference between the two? It’s quite subtle, yet substantial.

Disbelief means you believe there are no gods. You’ve put your two and two together, and decided hey — it just doesn’t make sense to me. This is unlike religion in a couple of obvious ways, first of all the fact that there’s no holy text that describes what you must or must not believe. There’s no promise of an afterlife or lack thereof if you don’t, err, not believe in god. There’s no codex of laws you have to follow to be a “true” atheist. And there are no places you can go to to meet other atheist to, uh, not pray with. (Actually you can still say a prayer if you want to, it’s not like The Atheist Police comes knocking on your door if you do).

The absence of belief, on the other hand, is a bit trickier to pin down. If for whatever reason you never learned about god, well, then you are without belief in god. How could you believe in something you never heard of? Take my daughter for instance. She’s 3, and she’s only talked for the past year or so. I don’t think anyone has told her about religion, not that I know of at least. So she is, by definition, without belief in god. Literally atheos — greek for “without god(s)”. It wasn’t her choice, how could she even make one? I’m not even sure she’d understand what I was talking about if I tried — she’d probably ask for her juicebox and crayons. From this perspective, being an atheist is, in many ways, a default position. It’s what you’re born as. Even if you later in life find solace and happiness in religion, until you found that religion you were for all intents and purposes, an atheist. There’s no shame in that, it’s just a word.

I half expect some readers (thanks for reading 737 words discussing semantics by the way) to ask me: why so defensive, are you sure you’re not describing a religion? Sure, once in a while you’ll encounter someone who takes their atheism so seriously it borders on being a religious experience for them. But that’s fine, they can call themselves atheists too. It’s not like you get a badge at the door. Atheism isn’t organized behind a hashtag, and it’s not about ethics in games journalism.

You are an atheist until you choose not to be, and there’s room for all of us.

Penicillin

My baby has an inner ear infection. Often times these ailments disappear on their own. Other times they get real bad. Thankfully we have Penicillin, which fixes it right up.

For now.

One day in 1928 — it was a Friday — the scotsman Alexander Fleming went about his daily business at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. He was working in his laboratory when he discovered he’d forgotten to close up a petri dish of bacteria from the night before. What he noticed would change the world: a mould had grown in that petridish, and in a halo around that mould the bacteria had stopped growing. What Alexander Fleming had discovered would save tens of millions of lives in the century to come: this natural mould exuded a substance that had antibiotic properties. Not a decade later we had Penicillin, and on this Friday in 2014, Penicillin is helping cure my baby girl. Thank you, Alexander Fleming.

There’s a problem, though. Penicillin is a wonderful drug, but bacteria — just like humans —  evolve and grow stronger. Put a drop of Penicillin in a petridish of bacteria and the bacteria will die. Probably. There’s a tiny chance some of those bacteria will survive due to a random Penicillin-resistant mutation. Those lucky few survivers might reproduce and migrate. Repeat this process for a century and you’re bound to have a couple of strains of bacteria to which even the strongest of Penicillins are useless.

We knew this would happen. Yet still to this day, Penicillin is used on a grand scale in meat-production of all things. When cattle have particularly bad living conditions, when too many cows are huddled up in too little space, they’ll inflict little scratches on each other, wounds that might heal naturally on a green field of grass. But if your living quarters are also where you go to the toilet, no such luck. Hey, thought the meat industry, we can just pump the cattle full of Penicillin and no bacteria will grow in those wounds!

The way we treat our cattle is troublesome enough, but the inevitable consequences should be alarming. Those dirty farms and cattle transports are evolutionary crucibles for resistant bacteria. The strong bacteria will survive and require stronger Penicillins. It’s an evolutionary arms race and we’re losing. We always knew bacteria would evolve to be Penicillin-resistant eventually, but if we’d been smart about our Penicillin usage, we might’ve had enough time to research functional alternatives. As it stands, I’m worried about a future dad and his daughter battling an infection maybe just ten years from now. I hope she’ll be alright, man.

So I guess here’s another reason you should eat organic meat. Or no meat, that works too.

3.8

When 2013 ends in a couple of weeks, it’ll have been the year where I went from contributing only circumstantially to WordPress, to contributing quite a bit. In fact, despite having had the honor of releasing a default theme this year, it’s not until the end of 2013 — today actually — that I feel like the bulk of the work I’ve done on WordPress is actually released. For me, 2014 is when WordPress gets really exciting.

It’s with quite a bit of pride that I find my name in the release credits for the just-launched WordPress 3.8 “Parker”. This particular release was brought about in a different manner than previous releases: it was developed alongside 3.7 through “feature plugins”. Along with a group of developers and designers I worked on one such plugin called “MP6″, a nonsense-codename with a cool banner. Our true purpose was to redesign the entire WordPress admin. The ease of use of the WordPress admin has always been my favorite part of the software, but I’ve always had little niggles with it. With plugin commit access, this time I was able to put money where my mouth was. So we worked hard to bring you visually lighter and simpler design, with a bunch of usability improvements in tow such as scalable icons, larger fonts and more contrast. My good friend and creator of the initial mockup that excited us to work on this for months, Matt Thomas, details everything you’d want to know about the design.

To celebrate the occasion, I’ve made sure my green and blue Twenty Thirteen color schemes are now in the WordPress theme repository. Yep, it’s now easier than ever to dress last years theme in new clothes. Heck, you can get the default Twenty Thirteen colors without using post formats now.

I think 3.8 will be a watershed release, and I can’t wait to hear what you think of it. It’s certainly deserving of the name “Parker”, who happens to have uttered one of my favorite quotes:

Don’t play the saxophone. Let it play you.

WordPress is 10

On June 21st 2004, I switched this blog from Movable Type to WordPress 1.2. I was living in a rented loft in Copenhagen and worked on Flash games as my day job.

9 years later and I have a little girl, I live in Suburbia (on purpose), and I designed a WordPress default theme. All of that in no small part thanks to WordPress and open source software. Pretty happy I made that switch in 2004.

Happy birthday, WordPress, here’s to 10 more. Oh, and go say hi to the founder, I had a hand in his new site.

Hipster Filters

Instagram. The genesis of the trend of applying fake lomo filters to your photographs. And more. Much much more. You can make your photo brown, you can blow the highlights, you can add a fake photo frame. Basically you can obscure the contents of the actual photo all the while making it look like it came from a camera of yesteryear. It’s so popular that Facebook bought Instagram for one billion dollars.

Filters bug me. It annoys me that they obscure the actual photo. It’s like trying to listen to classical music through a waterfall. Like watching television through a beer bottle. Like playing virtual virtual skeeball.

Why would you do this to your precious photos?

There are plenty of good reasons. Like that it’s not about taking photos, it’s about Instagram being a very intimate and highly enjoyable social network. Fine. On the flipside, these filters are applied at the cost of your memories. Back in the old world, some people used to believe that having a photo taken would steal their soul. In the new world, I posit this: applying a hipster filter to your photo steals the soul of the photo. Ten years from now you’ll regret applying those filters. Trust me.

I understand the attraction, though. The human condition is a bitch. Things don’t always work out like we wanted them to. Life wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it? If coach woulda put me in fourth quarter, we’d have been state champions. No doubt. No doubt in my mind. You better believe things had been different. I’d have gone pro in a heartbeat. I’d be making millions of dollars and living in a big ol’ mansion somewhere, soaking it up in a hot tub with my soul mate. Life should’ve been better.

But this is it. And it’s sometimes bleak and grey and dull and out of focus and sad, and if I just apply this warming filter and lomo effect it improves the memory. All my friends on Facebook who look so happy in their pictures and everything on their timeline is so nice and their lives really worked out for them wow I wish my life was like that but now with this quaint lomo effect they’ll see my pictures and they’ll see THEY’LL SEE how great my own memories are, how much fun I’m having. They’ll see that my life worked out too!

Now where did I put that box of wine?

Why are you revving your engine?

On my way home from work today, I stopped my bicycle at a red light. There was a scooter right next to me, also awaiting the green light. I noticed the chauffeur (is that the right word? I don’t think so) had his right hand on the speeder. Revving. Wroom. Wroom. Wroom. Wroom. Wroom. On and on, like a nervous tick. Surely the scooter is recent enough that he doesn’t need to rev his engine to keep it from going out, I thought to myself. It wasn’t a particularly cool scooter — it was the type of scooter that’ll make most casual observers think “man what a lazy person, why aren’t you on your bike instead?”

It’s fine. It was in the middle of downtown. I had a podcast in my ear, and cars were going by. The noise level was measured in enough decibels that I wasn’t worried about falling asleep at the wheel; a little noise from a constantly revved engine like that will surely blend into white noise, I thought.

And it should have, but this pointless revving reminded of a motorcyclist who lives in the building across from me (fortunately not for long). I’m pretty sure he suffers from a severe case of douchebag-itis, enough that he should at least have it checked by a doctor (if you don’t treat douchebag-itis early, you might end up buying a Porsche Cayenne!). Now this motorcyclist constantly revs the engine, to a point where I’m pretty sure it affects the performance of his driving — it’s really quite ridiculous. Alas, this happens even when there are sleeping babies around. Of which I have one. That is, she’s sleeping some of the time. She’s not when he’s revving his engine.

The difference between a motorcycle and a scooter is that one of them makes an engine-noise that could theoretically be satisfying to the part of the population that has octane in their blood. Theoretically. When I muster all the testosterone that I can, testosterone that’s usually busy making me an exoskeleton for my daughter, I can sort of understand this.

I can’t understand revving the engine on a scooter. Because scooters are not, and do not sound, cool. Ever. If you looked up cool in the dictionary, you’d see a picture of Miles Davis. Not a scooter. Not Miles Davis on a scooter. There would be no scooters nearby. No presentations discussing the birth of the cool would mention scooters.

So please dear scooterist, answer me this: why are you revving your engine?

Trust me. I looked long and hard for a “my other mode of transportation is a Millennium Falcon” bumper sticker on the scooter. Because yeah, revving the Millennium Falcon, that’s cool bra’, yo dawg). Unfortunately, such a sticker was nowhere to be found. I could only see an itsy bitsy engine, making loud noises by the rhythmic revving. I meant to chuckle, but I was baffled chuckleless.