Not Our Doing

December 18, 2012

An alarming occurrence in the wake of the Newtown shooting has been to blame it on a lack of god or a lack of faith or something like that. Certainly, there’s been some blaming of those who don’t believe.

I don’t think I can add any kind of context to what happened. I don’t think I can say something new about it. But I can say that the idea that my family and others like us bear any kind of responsibility for a society in which this happens is offensive. I could quote statistics at you and point out who, in this country, tends to have violent tendencies, but I won’t. I don’t want to do that today. Instead, I want to make a series of statements.

We are, generally speaking, pacifists. There is no gun in our home. Nor will there be unless the world changes radically and terribly.

I have a three and a half year old daughter. The children who were murdered were not much bigger than her. Last night, she woke up sick. She vomited. It was a rough night. But right now, especially, I can’t help but hold her tightly and take note of her smallness. She is gossamer. There is nothing to her at all.

It is true that I do not believe in god. Or anything supernatural. Not many people seem to understand what that means to most of us who think this way. It means that we are on our own. That we must hold ourselves accountable. That any good that is done is our responsibility. And so is any bad. It means that we must be aware of the fragility of our own lives (there is nothing after) and of the lives of those around us. To take a life like that… There is no idea of a better place.

I never feel up to the task of writing about these kinds of enormous events. Especially when they are so horrible. But I have to speak up about this. I’m a nonbeliever. I am not a monster. Everybody wants to place blame. Please be careful where you place it.

Godless Morals

January 18, 2012

Lately, there have been several articles about how little trust people have in atheists. I referenced this in an earlier post about being an atheist parent during Christmas. Essentially, the reasoning boils down to this: people believe atheists are less trustworthy because they aren’t worried about god punishing them. Thus, they can act immorally without fear of reprisal. I find this disturbing for many, many reasons.

The one that leaps out at me is this: the people who do not trust atheists because we don’t have god working as a hidden enforcer are effectively saying that they would behave immorally were it not for god. That is, they consider the welfare of others only because they are afraid of divine punishment, not because they care about other people. As I see it, this makes that set of believers look pretty awful.

I don’t want to dwell on that, though. I know there are many believers who are altruistic for all the right reasons. Instead, I want to talk about what my moral beliefs are and where they come from.

Rights of the Individual

My most basic moral is this: people have the right to do as they wish unless doing as they wish would infringe on the rights of another person. Former Senator Santorum would disagree with this. He thinks he should be in charge of everything we do. I will note that I include in this an unfair use of public resources. That is, I’m not libertarian (as I think all my readers know). Rather, no one has a right to reap profits from society without paying something back to maintain that society.

Why do I believe this? It’s all about fairness. Fairness is an intrinsic quality that has been shown to exist in primates. If something I do doesn’t affect you, it’s none of your business, but if it does, you have a right to question the fairness of that effect.

Treatment of Others

Of course, my moral beliefs go beyond this very basic concept. I also believe that it is important to be kind to and supportive of the people you care about and, in general, all people in the world.

Why? This is the one that, I suppose, could be surprising to believers since kindness is heavily stressed in many religious texts. At the same time, it shouldn’t be surprising if you have knowledge of myriad religions. Kindness crops up over and over because everyone wants to be treated well. This is really just the golden rule. I don’t believe kindness should be legislated, but I will think you’re a bad person if you are frequently cruel or callous for no apparent reason.

The Wider World

All life is deserving of respect. I am not a vegetarian or a vegan. In fact, I have no issue with the consumption of animal products. I do however, have issue with cruel treatment of the animals we raise for food. They should be provided comfortable lives and normal living conditions. If this means you have to pay more for a hamburger, so be it.

An aside about abortion: Yes, I am prochoice. I do not believe an unfeeling clump of cells constitutes human life. When it’s viable, that’s another issue, but pretending that everything from a fertilized egg to a newborn child is the same is disrespectful to both the woman carrying it and to the child that is born.

This leads me to general environmentalism which cuts across all of these categories. If your factory pollutes the environment, that affects me and I have a right to question it. If I pollute, it negatively affects my loved ones and shows disrespect for life in general.

These are, I think, pretty basic concepts, but they cover most of the basic precepts that religious Americans hold dear. And I don’t need god for any of them. I don’t need the fear of god to do the right thing. I do the right thing because I care about the world around me. I care about the world around me not because god tells me to, but because I am human.

A Nonbeliever’s Christmas

December 15, 2011

Cate and I do not believe in god or, frankly, anything supernatural. I doubt this is a surprise to anyone. We do, however, celebrate Christmas. Every once in a while, someone will get worked up about this, so I thought it might be nice to write a post about why we celebrate and how we’re going to handle it with Simone.

Let’s start with this: Christmas is not nearly as Christian as a lot of people seem to believe. At least, not in its roots. I’m not going to go into a history lesson here, but Christmas incorporates traditions from all manner of winter festivals. A simple tour around Wikipedia can give you plenty of information on that. Beyond that, I rather like the basic message of Christmas: Peace on earth, good will toward men. That’s something I can get behind, and I don’t need god or Jesus to tell me these are good things. Despite a recent study indicating that most people think I’m about as trustworthy as a rapist because I don’t believe in god, I do try to make the world a better place. And that, at its best, is what Christmas is about for me.

Second, Christmas is fun. I get that some people want to make Christmas all about religion and that’s fine with me if that’s what rolls your jelly. Similarly, I don’t see why anyone should get worked up when I enjoy the secular aspects of Christmas. For many Americans Christmas is pretty non-religious at this point. Pretending it’s not seems a foolish exercise to me.

Third, there are plenty of other nice things to celebrate. Christmas comes, more or less, at the Winter Solstice, and correspondingly, there’s a lot of reverence for nature built in to it. At least there can be, if that’s your thing. It does happen to be my thing and it’s something I enjoy thinking about and taking note of around this time of year.

Now, what about Simone? For one, Christmas is a wonderfully convenient time to teach children about charity. We’ve already started that by donating some seldom used things and giving to charities of our choice (Simone gave to the zoo).

Though we do intend to raise Simone to think for herself, I feel no more obligation to school her in Christianity than most Christians likely feel to teach their children about Buddhism or Hinduism or Islam or Judaism or Sikhism or the various Pagan traditions out there. That is, we’ll give her the basic plot at the appropriate time, but we’re not going to present it as anything other than one of the many mythologies the world has produced. We will, however, have Santa. There are a few reasons for this.

Primarily, it’s about having some magic in childhood. Childhood was a wonderful time for both Cate and I because we had parents who fostered our imaginations. Reality will sink in eventually, but I feel myself better for having spent part of my youth believing in magic, and I don’t feel the need to deprive Simone of that. Santa is a wonderful bit of magic.

Equally important is that when children are older, Santa can teach important lessons about critical thinking. When Simone does start asking questions, I have no intention of lying to her. Eventually, she will figure out that the the big man with the white beard who rewards her based on her behavior is not real. The parallels between Santa and god are not lost on me, and I doubt they will be lost on her. Learning that Santa isn’t real is also about learning to think for yourself and to treat others well not because you are going to be rewarded or punished, but because it is the right thing to do.

A Word that Offends Me

October 19, 2011

I am not religious. This is unlikely to be news to anyone who reads this blog regularly. In general, I don’t have an issue with religious folks, I just disagree with them. There is one particular religious expression that really gets my goat, though. It is when someone refers to themselves as being “blessed.”

Though it might seem like it, I want to be clear that this isn’t really a religious issue for me. I’ve written before about how it ticks me off when people deny the existence of luck. You get this a lot in conservative circles. It comes with adjectives like “hardworking”.

“Blessed,” really, is the same thing. It says, “there is something special about me. God has chosen me. In choosing me, God is saying I am superior to others.” There are one million things wrong with that statement.

Let me use myself as an example. I did well in high school. Correspondingly, I got into a very good college where I continued to get mostly good grades while working all four years. Later, I worked full time while attending graduate school full time so I could become a teacher. Given all that, I don’t think most people would quibble with me saying that my modest success is the result of hard work. But let’s take another angle.

I was born a white, heterosexual male into a loving family in one of the wealthiest countries that has ever existed. My parents did well enough for themselves that I could attend a very expensive private college while only working part time to cover some basic expenses. Does “hardworking” still do it for you or do we need to insert luck into the equation? We’ll get to “blessed” in a minute.

It can get more extreme. I hate to pull out a cliché, but what about kids in Africa living in poverty that is all but unimaginable in the US? Are they unlikely to succeed because they are lazy or does luck play a role?

And now we get to “blessed”. What have the kids I just mentioned done to deserve their fate? When you use the word “blessed,” you are saying God has chosen you. Why you and not the impoverished kid who’s going to spend his whole life trying to figure out where his next meal is coming from? Sure, there’s that other cliché about how we can’t know God’s plan, but come on. Isn’t your sense of justice bothered by that? You are “blessed” but all these other people are suffering. If you deserve what you have, it follows, logically, that everyone else deserves what they have. Either that, or God doesn’t really care about those kids in Africa. You can’t have it both ways. Not if you’re using “blessed” to explain your success.

You can believe whatever you want about how the world works and we can respectfully disagree, but don’t go pretending luck isn’t a factor. Using words like “blessed” and denying the role of dumb luck in our lives is unfair because it trivializes the struggles of others. It gives us an excuse to not worry about them because they aren’t “hardworking” or “blessed” enough. Using words like this says nothing about us other than that our experiences and imaginations are fantastically narrow.

Reinventing the World

August 5, 2011

This is a long and meandering post. I’m not entirely sure what the point is. This is the luxury of a blog.

As you, dear reader, are likely aware, I spent a good part of last month plowing through A.S. Byatt’s wonderful novel The Children’s Book. It is centered in England at the beginning of the 20th century up to WWI. The main characters are, primarily Fabians, Socialists, and similar derivatives. What they generally have in common is a desire to make the world into something different. They live in a time of enormous injustice and are generally aware of it. They hold political meetings or write editorials or participate in protests in an attempt to change their society for the better. They do not, generally, succeed, but that isn’t the point. The point is they tried, and much of what they started did lead to real changes over time.

Beyond that, there was this idea/feeling of optimism. It’s something the US really had after WWII. I can remember the last strains of it from my childhood.

And then I look at the absurd mess that is the United States right now and I am totally flabbergasted. We have now reached a point where some of our elected officials are willing to destroy the economy of our country to ensure that rich people get to keep every-damn-penny they have. There is no sense of optimism. There is no sense that we are all working together to make something new and good. There is only division and selfishness.

Never mind that there is no evidence – none – that conservative economic policies work. What is most disgusting to me is how utterly uncharitable it all is. America has become a place where money is the only thing that matters.

You may be familiar with the concept of Gross National Happiness. It is a concept introduced by the king of Bhutan in an attempt to better measure how well the people of the nation are doing. It attempts to measure several things. Let’s look at each one for the US:

1. Economic Wellness: This is bad and getting worse. Republicans haven’t totally destroyed the economy yet, but they’re getting close. Real wages haven’t gone up in I don’t know how long and unemployment is high. No one thinks the recent deal in Washington is going to make things better.

2. Environmental Wellness: We are currently in the process of gutting a lot of our environmental standards (at least where enforcement is concerned) and it’s impossible to get any new regulations through congress because we don’t want to hurt industry. Someone remind me, again, how it is that industry has been helping the general populace lately?

3. Physical Wellness: Well, once the rest of Obamacare kicks in, things should get a little better here. That said, every year I’ve been teaching, the cost of health insurance has gone up (often matching exactly whatever raise I was given) and benefits have gone down. A great many Americans are still uninsured, and we rank near the bottom of the industrialized world in health care. But again, at least this one figures to get a little better.

4. Mental Wellness: I don’t really know much about mental wellness stats in the US, but since basically everyone is worried about losing their job, I have to believe this is kind of a downer, too.

5. Workplace Wellness: Yeah. Do I even need to explain?

6. Social Wellness: We live in a nation where religious discrimination is almost status quo. We live in a nation where sexism, misogyny and violence against women are horribly rampant.

7. Political Wellness: Oy. vey.

And here’s the thing, we could fix most all of these things. Much as the Republicans have been trying to tear apart the New Deal for decades, it freaking worked. Why can’t we do something like that now? Why can’t we make a giant investment and agree, as a society, that we want to make a better nation. Things we should do:

1. Economic Wellness: We’re going to need some kind of rational tax system. Rich people benefit from the society that allows them to be rich. In most instances this comes in the form of inherited wealth. In other instances, someone is simply lucky enough to have their particular talents valued highly by the society in which they live. A stock broker is very important in America. Less so in nomadic Mongolia. If you are rich, you are also almost certainly very lucky, thus you should pay a higher percentage of your wages to keep society going.

2. Environmental Wellness: It is time to go the route of green energy (if you don’t think global warming is real, you are an idiot, I’m just going to state that as a fact) via direct government. The US government has invested in industry infrastructure before (think railroads, among others) and it’s time to do it again. The primary problem with green energy is the upfront cost. If the government starts to offset that, suddenly green energy is much less expensive.

3. Physical Wellness: Socialized Medicine. Single Payer. Do it. I know socialism is a bad word, but if you really hate social programs, I hope you’re sending your children to private schools and hiring a private security force to take care of crime in your neighborhood. Why basic health needs aren’t considered on par with these other things is beyond me. Also, socialized medicine works way better than our current system as about a million studies will tell you.

4&5. Mental Wellness & Workplace Wellness: I’m tying these together to talk about human-friendly labor policy. Why on earth don’t we have paid maternity and paternity leave? Why don’t most of us have decent amounts of vacation time? This one would be pretty tricky as it really requires a mental shift to the idea that time can be more valuable than money. Less work would lead to less production, overall, but I don’t know why that’s a bad thing. Economies can’t grow forever. Eventually, we need to stabilize, and I would be willing to bet that most people would be way happier without the 60-hour work weeks and constant fear that you could be fired at any moment. Stronger unions would certainly help this along. Interestingly, despite this idea that lack of job-security makes people more productive, every study I’ve ever seen says the more secure a person feels, the harder they work. This comes, I suspect, from feeling like and important part of an organization instead of like a nearly-worthless cog that can be replaced at any time.

6. Social Wellness: Let’s start by trying to value all members of society equally and go from there. It would certainly help if a certain political party could drop the sexism, homophobia, and mad-crazy religious intolerance.

7. Political Wellness: This comes down to the anti-intellectualism in place right now. I don’t know how this happened, but it now seems to be decidedly uncool to have any idea what you are talking about. I suspect a lot of it stems from the political power ultra-conservative religious groups currently have. You can’t be a member of some of these sects without stomaching a lot of cognitive dissonance (I’m thinking of the things that come out of Michelle Bachman and Glenn Beck’s mouths). Basically, you can’t believe that nonsense if your willing to actually research information. Thus, researching information (also known as learning) is bad and ignorance is good. This explains how the Tea Party got so many people elected during the last go-round. If you could take care of this and get everyone thinking that it’s a good idea to listen to people like Paul Krugman (who has been very, very right about what’s been happening in the economy) because, you know, they actually have some expertise and don’t say stupid things like, “You know, where I grew up, we believed in common sense…”

So what if we did all this? Well, we’d end up with a sustainable nation where people are mostly happy. Instead, we have an unsustainable (oil is going to run out eventually) mess with high unemployment and an overwhelmingly unhappy populace. But it could change. We just need to realize, as a nation, that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. It’s time to try something else. We can reinvent the world. We have the means, we only lack the will.

Sometimes, I feel as though our society is going through an intellectual dark-age. So little value seems to be placed on critical thinking and so much value on a sort of cave-man mentality that “what I think is what I think, facts be damned. Also, I am right because I never change my mind.” Two things have brought this lately to my mind: the creationist amusement park slated for Kentucky and the Baseball Hall of Fame. You may think these things are unrelated, but I’m going to talk about both of them anyway.

First, let us talk about the creationist amusement park. Kentucky already houses a creationism “history” museum which the amusement park will, presumably, augment. What disturbs me about these things is that there is so much money in them. A lot of people go to that museum and a lot of people will likely to go the amusement park and these people take this stuff seriously. This all happens because none of them are willing to question a literal interpretation of the Bible that was never ever merited or intended. Of course, knowing this would require one to question one’s beliefs and that is impossible because I AM RIGHT AND NOTHING IN YOUR BOOKS CAN TELL ME OTHERWISE!!!

Which means, of course, that we end up having arguments about whether or not creationism is science whether or not “liberal” science really tells us anything at all because it contradicts a collection of myths several thousand years old.

Now, for the Hall of Fame, I know most of the people who read this are not baseball nerds in the way that I am. Correspondingly, you may be unaware that the latest election results were announced this week. Two excellent players (Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven) were justly elected. However, several worthy candidates were left off. Baseball scholarship has reached the point where it is possible to tell, more or less objectively, how good a player was. Arguments can still happen (what matters more, career peak or longevity, for instance), but these should be the kind of things discussed only with the most borderline of candidates. Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell, Tim Raines, and several others like them are definitively not borderline cases. They are, by every objective measure among the very best that have ever played the game of baseball and are also unassailably better than many other players already enshrined. So why have they not been?

Because some voters think these men do not “feel” like Hall of Famers. What does that mean? It means, effectively, that these voters believe in mystical things like “clutch” performance (this is, supposedly, the ability to perform better in pressure situations. Its existence in Major League Baseball has been roundly debunked by numerous studies). It means, more truthfully, that these voters refuse to question prior knowledge. They are unwilling to adapt. We used to think certain things made a player valuable. We have learned that some of these things don’t, actually, say anything about how good a player is and that some of them don’t actually exist. But, the voters still refrain: I HAVE BEEN WATCHING GAMES MY WHOLE LIFE AND I KNOW MORE ABOUT IT THAT YOU!!!

These are just two examples, but there are more. Many of my students are worried about the apocalypse in 2012. Many more of them take horoscopes seriously. It goes on and on and on and it bothers the hell out of me. I do not mind, and I will never mind, people having views that are different than mine. I only wish that more people were willing to question themselves, I mean really question. As in, if you start looking into something and every bit of actual information you find tells you that some of your views are wrong, you have to be willing to adjust your views instead of denying facts because they don’t fit in with your view of the world. Sadly, at the moment, it is those who yell the loudest and not those who have thought the hardest that seem to carry the day. Welcome back to the dark ages.

Cate and I have often talked about how uncomfortable we are with the term “agnostic” because it implies belief with a hearty dose of skepticism. In a Christian society this is especially troubling because I DO NOT believe in the Christian god who is logically impossible for more reasons than I can begin to discuss here (though see an earlier post for some of that), who is often unbelievably cruel, and who has been immeasurably corrupted by thousands of years of willful ignorance and inflexible dogma. However, I have always felt equally uncomfortable with the term “athiest” for reasons I often had difficulty articulating.

Recently, however, I was puttering around YouTube, and stumbled on this wonderful interview Margaret Atwood gave on the subject of religion where she rather convincingly asserts that atheism is a religion because it asserts something as fact that cannot be proved. And that is exactly the point I have been unable to articulate. I have said to people before that part of my problem with atheism is that you can’t prove there is no god (though, as noted, I do believe that the gods of some religions can be disproven). But what really gets me is that atheism is a religion just as much as Christianity. It has dogma (there is no god) that cannot be proven just as religions do. I find religion pretty pointless. I prefer science. Thus, I am not an atheist. Neither am I an agnostic. If you were to ask me which way I lean, I would tell you that I have a very hard time believing that any of the gods in any of the religions I have encountered being real with the Buddhist concept of Nirvana seeming the least ridiculous to me, but frankly, I do not know, as I have seen far to little evidence to cause me to really lean toward either side.

So, what am I? I do not belong to any religion, including atheism. I am not an agnostic. I don’t think there is a word that describes my viewpoint. I do not worship. I do not believe without evidence. I suppose, if you wanted, you could call me a scientist, though that might stretch the meaning of that word just a bit.

Starting tomorrow, my students will be reading Julius Caesar in class. Today, we did a little warm up where I give them a sheet with some statements that will be themes in whatever we’re about to read and they tell me how they feel about those statements. One of them was: Everything that happens is meant to happen; no one really has any control over it. Now, here’s why I’m writing this blog post: Almost everyone of my students agreed with this statement. Why? God. And frankly, I can’t really argue with them.

(Note: For the rest of this blog I’ll be focusing on Christianity because basically all of my students are Christian, but the sentiments apply to most religions.)

If you are Christian you take for granted that God is all knowing and all powerful. You cannot have freewill and an all powerful, all knowing God. Those two things are not compatible. This is one of the most bothersome things about Christianity. It gets even worse when you bring heaven and hell into the equation.

If you believe God is all knowing and all powerful, then you must believe one of the following things:

1. You are basically a preprogrammed robot with no free will. God knew exactly what you were going to do back when he created the universe. If he wanted, he could have made you do different things. He made the choices, you did not. This is rather depressing, isn’t it?

2. Everything in #1, plus you are either going to heaven or hell based on your actions while you are on earth. It should be noted that you have NO CONTROL over these actions. This is unjust.

3. God is all knowing, all powerful, and yet, somehow you still have freewill. Of course, God created you and you are never doing something that he doesn’t want you to do because God controls everything, but, you know, you totally have the choice to do whatever you want. This is illogical.

I can see a lot of people arguing for #3, but frankly, that seems the weakest of the three possibilities to me. The others are at least logically possible, even if they are much more depressing.

What I’m writing about here is one of the big reasons I am not Christian (or Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or whatever); it doesn’t make any sense at all if you really think about it. The whole thing is one big contradiction and, predictably, a lot of my students use the notion that things are pretty much out of their hands to not do ANYTHING. If they’re right, and I’m wrong about this whole God thing, then I can’t blame them (of course, if they are right, then God is making me type this right now).

Amendment: I know what I wrote is obvious, and I normally stay away from actively criticizing fundamental religious principles here, but this really bothered me today, so you’re just going to have to humor me this one time.