Being Less of a Jerk About Faith

One of my recurrent ruminations of the last decade or so is a bit of reflection on my relationship with religion. To be clear: I don't have one. I know there are no gods, that the supernatural does not exist, and that we should not base morality on mythology.

But I was raised Hindu, my family co-founded our local house of worship, and I was raised with a keen awareness of my family's work to protect religious minorities from oppression. So I was raised with a respect for faith and for religions. It' s a respect that, frankly, I seldom show. I also understand the fundamental human desires that drive people to seek out the ritual, community and reassurance of religions; It's only natural that people would gravitate toward any structure which addresses those needs, even if I feel they are better met through science, government, community and activism.

My reasons for being frustrated with, and unforgiving toward, organized religions are the obvious, even trite, ones. Religions are used as tools of oppression, religion is used to prop up other institutions which are unjust, important values of our secular society in America are being undermined by religious extremists, and I've personally had any number of unkindnesses inflicted upon me by people in the name of their religions.

To be clear, I don't much distinguish between the relative "goodness" or "badness" of any of the major religions. The Abrahamic family of Judaism/Christianity/Islam are pretty much indistinguishable to me, and are perhaps most pervasive in triggering my annoyance due to their inescapable influence on American life. But I'm just as offended by the Hindu extremists in India and by the privilege my own family's benefitted from in being part of that religion's highest caste.

Great, Another Annoying Atheist on the Internet

None of this is so new; Finding an atheist being annoyed with religion on the Internet is as easy as finding cat pictures. What I've been struggling with, instead, is figuring out why the hypocrisy and intolerance and ignorance of the religious bothers me so much more than the hypocrisy and intolerance and ignorance of, well, people in general. I generally love to champion unpopular perspectives, or to advocate for mainstream ideas that are considered gauche or uncool by the cultural elite. More importantly, many of the ideas that are most important to me are far easier to discuss with my friends who have a faith.

Forgiveness and atonement, detachment and grace, kindness and kinship — these ideas are so bound to religion in our culture that many people I talk to get confused when I use them in a secular context. Yet they're ideas that are important enough to me that they preoccupy a lot of my thoughts every day, and a logical response would be to discuss these concepts with those who care about them, regardless of what beliefs they profess.


The tension between my desire to in keeping with values of kindness toward others and the undeniable frustration I feel when confronted with people trying to impose their religious beliefs came to a head again a few months ago when I spoke at the Plywood Presents conference in Atlanta.

It was a great event, very well run, and I was relatively happy with how my talk came out. But the best talk of the event happened the first night, when Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries paid quiet witness to his work with gang members in Los Angeles.

Father Gregory epitomizes the best of belief, a nearly unfathomable well of goodwill toward others. And he spoke earnestly, honestly and uncompromisingly about kinship. I experience these ideas in the context of citizenship rather than faith, but that seems a silly and trivial distinction to focus on. And none of this is peculiar or unique to me; I can see friends who are also non-believers reckon with the same ideas as well.

What, then is my conclusion? I don't yet know. If faith is about comfort in the face of unanswerable questions, then I should at least be comfortable with questions that are merely difficult to answer. Until I know how to be better about my shortcomings here, I'm settling for a placeholder that at least acknowledges I haven't met my expectations for myself. Yet.

Rat On The Tracks

My wife, in addition to being wise and kind, is generally made of sterner stuff than I am. This serves us both well, but the contrast does serve to elucidate some important concepts from time to time.

Living as we do in New York City, subway rides and the occasional rat are both inevitable parts of our experience. It is not at all uncommon to be standing on a subway platform and to see a rodent or two scurrying about on the tracks before a train arrives. It's not a ray of sunshine in anyone's day, but isn't particularly remarkable or traumatic when it happens.

For the first decade or so of our relationship, during those few moments when we were standing together on a subway platform and there was a rat on the tracks, I'd inevitably get an elbow in the ribs. "Hey, look."


The impulse to point out a rat on the tracks is understandable; it's a mildly noteworthy thing to observe, it's kind of boring to kill time on a train platform, and some folks like to observe creepy-crawly things from a distance.

After years of this pattern, I came to see it differently. In this situation, the best case scenario was that I'd see a rat on the tracks, something that I don't enjoy.

That is, if everything went exactly according to plan, and if everyone did their part, the net outcome would be at least one person being a little less comfortable than they were before. This was epiphany.

So, so often, we all are pointing out a rat on the tracks. I'm as guilty of it as anyone. It's not saying "Maybe we can go shoo that rat away." or "Let's tell someone with powerful poisons that we'll regret using!" or "Perhaps we can all sing Ben to it!"

My shorthand, then, for any course of action that will result in slightly less happiness if all goes as intended is "rat on the tracks". Feel free to use the phrase as needed. And if you see a rat on the tracks, you don't actually have to tell anybody.

Some True Things About Technology

  1. All printers are 3D printers.
  2. Every device is wearable.
  3. All technology is mobile technology.

And of course, this remains true:

(See also: 10 Rules of Internet.)


Talking to Steve Case

I had the chance to interview Steve Case for Social Media Week the other day, and though it was a brief conversation, I was really pleased with how it went. Steve's earliest work on Quantum Link, a predecessor to what would someday become AOL, was formative in my understanding of what computers could be used for, and it was great to get to talk to him in some depth about that.

At the other end of the spectrum, it was also truly refreshing to talk to a tech billionaire who recognizes the social obligations that the tech industry and its leaders have to their communities. Whether it was talking about how to truly address the high unemployment rate for which the tech industry bears some responsibility, or discussing immigration in a broader context than simply importing more programmers, or more fundamental issues of inclusion and opportunity, Steve didn't shy away from any of it, and I think it makes the conversation well worth watching.

There's a peculiar and unsettling feeling that arises when looking up background information for a piece and finding a blog post I wrote more than fourteen years ago as one of the top results.

One of the dead links from that post led to the text of the message Steve sent to Quantum Link subscribers just before the service shut down in November 1994:

Dear Members,

As you know, QLink was originally launched in November, 1985. In the years that followed you, as our loyal members, have helped us build a unique online community for Commodore computer users. I want to thank each of you for your contribution, your support and your feedback over the years.

The computing industry has changed dramatically since those first days of online communications. Commodore ceased to produce Commodore brand computers in 1993. Sadly, the company has recently closed its doors entirely. The Commodore computer, once a leader in the industry, has been replaced by faster, more powerful systems. Many software vendors no longer support the Commodore operating system.

Now we find, with great regret, that we simply can no longer support the QLink service. It has become impossible for us to maintain the product up to a standard of quality that we can be proud of. Many of you I'm sure have noticed a diminished level of product quality in the last few months due to these technical limitations. Without technical support from the industry, we are not able to add new services, fix existing problems, or prevent new ones. Therefore we have made the sad decision to discontinue QLink as of November 1, 1994.

We would like to thank each of you for your long and continued support and, if at all possible, keep you as part of our online community.

If you now have the ability to use America Online (PC-DOS, Windows or Macintosh), we invite you to convert your membership to one of these other systems. For details on what these versions have to offer and the system requirements needed to run them, see the document in this area entitled "Converting to America Online."

For details on the last month of service for QLink, important dates and billing information, see the document in this area entitled "Your Final Bill."

We have enjoyed serving you. Thanks again.

Steve Case


People Connection

Also courtesy of the Web Archive is this old page that captured many details of the Quantum Link experience.

Quantum Link Music Astoundingly, the full-screen loading images that we watched while waiting for Quantum Link content to download at 300 baud were only 368×240 in resolution. A few highlights of images that I remember especially well include the People Connection (chat) and Music screens.

And of course, the one image I saw most often was the main menu, which is both completely analogous to, and completely different from, the home screen on my phone that I use every day.


Read more