Atheism is boring to me now.

I look back at some of the stuff I wrote in the past on the subject, I find it odd how little I care about it these days.

Don't get me wrong, my feet can still be found in the waters of the non-believer.  It's just that nowadays I find the topic so mind-numbingly dull that I can't get worked up over it anymore.  For me, the journey to non-belief (I'm hesitant to call it atheism in this context) is a very internalized, personal affair, and even if others feel the need to externalize it, I don't.  My non-belief is my own, and I don't really care about your belief, or your lack thereof.

Mind you, there are still atheist issues that I can take an interest in, such as a) if a person loses their job because they declare they're an atheist, b) if a soldier is forced to attend prayer meetings, or c) if a government outlet displays religious iconography.  But these are issues of oppression, and I would be similarly interested if the issue was about gay rights, ethnic rights, class-issue, and yes: religious rights. 

Truthfully, I get rather nauseated by the segment of the atheist activist community that treats the believer like a mindless automaton, one who is so incapable of thinking for themselves that they need to sell off their brain to an old man in a funny hat because they're basically scared, stupid little children.  Many of the leaders of the atheist community don't act like that, but huge swaths of the rank-and-file do (just read some of the comments at Pharyngula, Richard, and the Friendly Atheist), and I'm stepping away from it.

I get tired of people treating every single religion (and those that follow them) with the same degree of derision that they would heap upon Scientology or the Branch Davidians, and pretending that there are no differences at all between them.  I get tired of being lambasted for refusing to point my skeptic-arrow at Catholicism.  I get bored with the endless navel-gazing about how best one can not believe in something.

I think one of my skepchick friends said it best recently (I forget who, I'm sorry!), "I'm sick of debating philosophy, there's work to do!".  Skeptics have a LOT of work to do, especially with regards to fighting the anti vaccination movement, alt-med, and ensuring that creationism/ID is kept out of the science classroom. Do I really want to spend my time and energies focusing on atheist issues when naturopaths are getting the right to prescribe medications in my home province, and are poised to do the same in other provinces? 

Other large organizations have been working very hard to erase the distinction between 'Atheism' and 'Skepticism', but if these past few months since starting Skeptic North have taught me anything, it's that we NEED to not conflate the two intellectual traditions.  A theist can still be a skeptic, and a skeptic can still be a believer. Skeptism has become too big for the britches of atheism, and if we start calling Catholics archaic hangovers from a superstitious bygone era, how can we expect the majority of Canadians to listen to us in the next breath when we try to impress upon them the importance of a science education, or that we should get the H1N1 vaccine?

What am I supposed to say to follow that up?  "Now that I have your attention, acupuncture has been shown to be no better than a placebo!"  Please. 

I'm still sympathetic to the atheist/humanist/secular project.  But unless there is actual oppression is going on, I'm afraid I just won't be too interested: I'll be busy with actual skepticism.

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As regular readers probably know, I fancy myself to be a bit of an amateur astronomer and astro-photographer.  I've only been doing this for about a year and a half by now, but in 2009 I've had my some of my work win a photography contest, get shown at Bad Astronomy, and be part of a planetarium video at a Science Museum.  I'm going to dedicate this entry to my 10 favourite astro-photography photos of 2009.

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10)Whirlpool Galaxy (M 51)
I took this on March 15.  I like this one because it was the first picture of a Galaxy that I've taken after the easy-to-find Andromeda Galaxy.  It's mostly invisible to the naked eye, and takes some knowledge of the sky to find, so this picture holds a special place in my heart not just because it's a pretty galaxy, but it was taken at a time when I was really starting to understand how to read the map of the sky.

9) Neptune
I know this picture doesn't look like much, but Neptune is absurdly hard to spot, even with an 8" scope like mine.  I like this picture because, like the Whirlpool Galaxy photo above, I had to know exactly where to look, but unlike the Whirlpool Galaxy, it's position changed slightly from one night to the next.  In mid-summer, Neptune crawled within close apparent distance to Jupiter, otherwise I doubt I would have been able to find it.  Considering that I was also in the light pollution of my old city of Peterborough, Ontario, I really shouldn't have been able to come out with such an obvious picture of a planet that wasn't discovered until the mid 1800's.

8) Comet Lulin
Comet Lulin was a double-tailed comet that flew through the bottom side of the constellation Leo during the month of February.  I had a little difficulty finding it, because the night that I was able to get out to the observatory, it was absurdly cold and the clouds kept playing peek-a-boo with me all night.  This image has been processed a little bit to bring out the rich green colour of the comet.  This was also my first comet photo, so I liked how fortunate it was that just as I was figuring out some pretty cool things I could do with my gear, a comet whizzed by!

7) Crescent Moon
This is just a simple composite stitch-together of 8 images taken through my 8" reflector in mid-Feburary.  I just really dig the epic-blackness of everything that isn't the moon and its craters.

6) Saturn & Saturn
I've always liked it when impressive results can come from cheap, easy-to-use technology.  The top shot of Saturn was taken by simply holding my Canon Powershot A340 (which is a standard, albeit outdated, point-and-shoot camera) up to the eyepiece, and zooming in.  No special equipment beyond the telescope, and this early-summer shot of Saturn shows clear ring contrast (though I'm fairly certain the pinkish hue is a digital artifact). The bottom shot was taken with my crappy cell-phone camera (no, I don't have an iPhone or anything like cell phone is over 2 years old) held up to a 5.5" refractor.  No ring detail, but pretty impressive considering how low-tech I went!

5) Jupiter, with Io transiting
Mid summer, Io took an hour-long-transit in front of Jupiter, and the seeing (fancy-pants'd astronomer-word for atmospheric turbulence, usually in the form of moisture or smog) was really good that night.  This turned out to not only a capture of tiny-Io, but also a fairly decent picture of Jupiter as well.  The pinkish-blur in the middle-white band is Io, and the off-orange oval in between the dark band and lower white band is the Great Red Spot.

4) Venus
Another low-tech photo, all I did was use my DSLR with a telephoto...I like how the thin-crescent shape is clearly visible.  The black lines in the foreground are the tops of my neighbour's trees.  During march of this year, Venus was VERY close to the Earth, and it appeared as an extremely bright evening star, shining at around -4.7.  This photo was seen on Bad Astronomy (thanks, Phil!)

3) Jupiter (w/Ganymede and Europa)
I don't get to do a lot of astro-photography these days, and when my Peterborough days were winding down, the weather was very cooperative on a regular basis: very little wind, humidity, clouds, or rain.  Some of my best pictures were taken during August, and I miss climbing on top of my roof with my telescope, camera gear, and my ipod.  I miss listening to the Douglas Adams library on Audiobook while I struggled with some piece of gear trying to focus on a target in the night sky.  This picture was taken on August 27th, and that ugly splotch near the middle of the main white band is Europa and Ganymede transiting Jupiter together.  It also happens to be my favorite picture of Jupiter that I've taken so far.

2) Orion Nebula (M42), Running Man Nebula (NGC 1977)
The Orion constellation is like an old friend to me.  It was the first constellation that I learned to identify as a kid, and as an adult, I'm fascinated at how much you can learn from it.  It's an excellent road-map that points to other stars and constellations (like Sirius, the brightest star in the northern hemisphere's night sky), and the individual stars in it have beautiful colour contrast: Betelgeuse is a dark orange and Rigel is a bright blue.  The belt and sword both reveal some fascinating clusters of stars, and it is home to many nebulae, including the brightest of all: the stunning Orion Nebula, seen here.  It is one of the only nebulae visible to the naked eye, and even with a pair of binoculars (and REALLY steady hands) you can make out some of its cloud-structure.  This image is a 228-second exposure taken in mid-February, and it wasn't until I took this picture home to view on my computer did I even notice the Running Man Nebula at the top-left!
 And now, my personal favourite astronomy photo that I took in the year 2009....

1) The Milky Way Galaxy
This image is a stack of two photos, with a combined 662-second exposure looking south-southeast on the evening of May 16, 2009.  The list of notable stars, clusters, nebulae and constellations is just too long to name, so I won't bother.  Besides, I think that kind of takes away something from the vast sense of wonder that I feel when I see shots like this.  This image has the centre of the galaxy in the right-side of the picture, and goes as far as the southern-tip of the "Summer Triangle" and the constellation, 'Sagitta' this shot covers barely one-quarter of the plane of the galaxy that can be seen at that time of year.  I needed a rather dark-sky to take this image, and considering where I live now, I can't imagine that I'll get a chance to get a shot like this again in the near future.  Furthermore, this image can be seen at the new Planetarium at Science North in Sudbury, Ontario, so if you're in the area, make sure you pop in and see my handiwork (I have about 5 pictures in the planetarium's pre-show).

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So that's it for 2009!  I'd like to thank everyone who has been offering me kind words of support over the past year, and to Phil Plait, for drawing a lot of people to my blog right when this stuff was starting to take off for me.  I'd like to send a very special word of thanks to John Crossen, who runs the Buckhorn Observatory.  John has been a great help to me, and it's at his observatory where all of my deep-sky photography got done.  I'm going to be pretty busy with Skeptic North and holiday stuff over the coming weeks, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoyed the fruits of my astro-labour, and I hope to do this again next-year!

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Just a quick note of reminder: despite my role as Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic North, the words/opinions expressed on this blog are entirely my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Skeptic North.  Skeptic North is not taking a position on this issue, but people have asked me what I think of the Randi/AGW controversy.  So here it is, the non-Skeptic North stance on the issue, as told by me, Some Canadian Skeptic (which was here first!).

By now, you all know what happened: James Randi wrote an entry at the Swift blog expressing his concerns, confusion and doubt with the idea of global warming being anthropogenic in nature. (AGW: Anthropogenic Global Warming). After a ker-huge uproar in the skeptic community blogs, Randi wrote a followup, as did Phil Plait, and a whole slew of others.  The list of names is so comprehensive and obvious that I think I hardly need provide any more links.

What really fascinates me in this whole story is the degree to which people are taking this personally. I expect that part of this is because we all identify with Randi: the man that most of us cite as one of the primary causes for our journey into organized skepticism.  If James Randi can make such an amateur mistake, then what does that say about the entire movement?  Another part of this is probably because since the Skeptic community is so small, many people got to meet him in person, and have an additional relationship with him, on a personal or professional level, so it's a bit like having a friend announce during Christmas dinner that he just doesn't trust Italians and Jews.  Lots of people feel personally affronted by this, and I can understand that feeling (I share some of it), but it's important that we all take a valuable lesson here:

James Randi is our hero, but he is not our priest.  He does not interpret scripture for us.

When Randi posted his article, the skeptic blogs tore it to pieces!  This is a very, very good sign that maybe we're maturing as an intellectual / popular movement. If Randi had posted something like this in 1997, it would have set the agenda for the entire JREF, and maybe would have set the tone for the whole of organized skepticism.  But people like Carl Sagan, James Randi, and Michael Shermer have taught us very well, and we generally have a good understanding that no one is above criticism or scrutiny, and even the best skeptics can express some profoundly un-skeptical analysis from time to time.

If this Randi ordeal has taught us anything, could it be that maybe organized skepticism is no longer a top-down community, but a bottom-up movement?  It strikes me that the leaders and spokespeople no longer get to set the agenda by virtue of their position, eloquence, and skill.  Just like in the meat-grinder that is the peer review process in the scientific community, an idea in the skeptic community must pass-muster.  Skepticism 2.0, for all the dangers of amateurism, also brings to the table a base-level of amateur-peer review, one that which not even the mightiest among us are capable of contravening.

AGW denialism (yes, denialism)  is, in the words of a prominent Canadian skeptic, the greatest shame of the skeptical community, and this uproar has shown that most of us accept AGW.  It's up to the rest of us to start stamping out this AGW denialism fire that goes against the existing scientific consensus.

It's important to remember that most of us are NOT climate scientists, and we should NEVER argue for or against the science if we're unqualified.  The default position of every non-expert skeptic should be to accept the given scientific consensus at the time.  Not everyone needs to have an opinion on every issue, and I think it was irresponsible, foolhardy and hasty for Randi to cite his lack of understanding (his words), and then truck-in with the fringe.

The role of the non-expert skeptic should always be to argue the argument, not to argue the science. 

I think that the skeptic community was forced to take a long, introspective look at itself this week.  I wonder  that we may be at the turning point in the skeptic zeitgeist: we're graduating from the top-down, leadership and organization-based community of decades-past, and becoming a grassroots-level movement.  We have powerful intellectual tools at our disposal, and we're getting so good at using them that even the hero to us all can be forced to look square into the scrutinizing light of peer review.

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I'm not entirely sure he answered my question the way I was expecting. Doesn't really matter now, since I'm trying to actively kill said out-bred population of mountain lions.

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It's been a crazy week, but I'll get into it some time later.

In the meantime, make sure you download today's episode of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, to hear an interview with yours truly.  I didn't mention this blog even once, (which, given my propensity for shameless self-promotion, I'm a bit surprised at myself), as the point of the interview was to talk about Bill 179, and Skeptic North.

I'd like to thank Steve, Jay and Bob (Evan and Rebecca were not in on the call) for a fun, engaging conversation.  I haven't heard the interview yet, so I don't know what got left on the cutting-room floor, but I remember feeling pretty good about it on wednesday (when we recorded)

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