Thursday, December 26, 2013

Can we be honest about the word "faith"?

I have faith.

I have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow.

I have faith that when I take NyQuil, my cold symptoms won't prevent me from getting a good night's sleep.

I have faith that my dog will come back to me when I call her.

In all of these cases, I'm using the same word, but the meaning is not exactly the same. The problem with language is that its use can often be rather imprecise, which can create confusion.

In the first instance, when it comes to the sun, I'm not really taking much of a leap. It's risen every day of my life. (And yes, astronomy nerds, I know that it only appears to rise. You know what I mean.) As far as I can discern, it has risen every day since recorded history. Considering the explanation as to the mechanism of what makes it "rise" every day, there is no reason to believe that it has EVER failed to rise.

If the sun were to not rise tomorrow, that would mean that centuries of knowledge about our solar system has been completely wrong. Is it possible? Sure, but only in that same sense that anything is technically possible. It is, however, totally improbable, so much so that you can feel safe saying it's impossible, knowing that people will have bigger concerns if you turn out to be wrong.

In the second instance, my faith in NyQuil is also based on experience. Has it sometimes failed me? I think, maybe once or twice when my symptoms were particularly bad. However, for the low-grade colds that I tend to get, it usually does the trick. Sure, I don't have as many tests as I do with the sun rising, but I can also talk to people who have had similar experiences. Not only that, but there is science behind it that one could research if one were so inclined.

Being wrong about NyQuil is also improbable. While one can certainly attribute some instance of feeling better to the placebo affect, we'd have to account for a whole lot of people getting one hell of an effective placebo. Also, much work would have to go into rethinking everything science knows about alleviating cold symptoms. Perhaps it's a bigger leap than the sunrise thing, but you're still operating on that which is verifiable and objective.

The biggest leap of faith comes with my dog. She's a really good girl, and even though I spent far less time training her than some other dogs I've had, she sometimes strikes people as being "well trained". She's just very submissive and obedient, which is a nice thing when you're trying to walk a dog and watch out for an inquisitive three-year-old boy who's tagging along on the walk.

Much like the other two examples, I have experience with her which makes me feel confident in letting her off leash in a public park. Sure, sometimes I have to say her name a couple of times, particularly when she's sticking her nose in something disgusting and awful that she finds delicious. However, I can rely on the fact that she doesn't run up to strangers and other dogs, and she'll come running back to me soon enough.

Still, she is a dog. She has instincts that can overwhelm her loyalty and obedience to me. Also, she will get older some day, and perhaps she'll be less inclined to come running when I call her. I'm taking a leap when I let her off that leash, and the very possible truth is that one day my faith in her will fail me, and she'll have to remain on the leash every time we go for a walk.

So there you go, three examples of faith, all somewhat similar, but all a little bit different, as some require greater "leaps" of faith than others.

And now let's get really clear - the following statements also use the word "faith" but are not the same as any of the other examples:

I have faith that God exists.

I have faith that Jesus rose from the dead.

I have faith that the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard have the ability to unlock one's true potential. 

The first one is different for the simple reason that it's not an expectation like my previous three examples. It's a belief in something for which there is no verifiable and objective evidence. And while I risk using generalities, in my experience most people who use this phrase use it as a knowledge claim, and when you ask them what would shake their faith, they give everything from a long-winded answer to a flat-out "Nothing can convince me otherwise." This is also different from the sun rising scenario, as any person would tell you that the thing that would convince them that they're wrong would simply be it failing to rise in the morning.

The second one is making an even more specific knowledge claim. It's stating a belief about an event in history. And while it's true that we can't know for certain that the campaigns of Julius Caesar, for instance, occurred as they did in recorded history, we have multiple sources and multiple forms of evidence. In the case of Christ's resurrection, we have a series of writings that were not written by eye-witnesses and contradict each other. Even more importantly, there is nothing about Caesar that contradicts everything we know about the laws of nature. Saying that you have faith in the resurrection of Christ involves you saying that you believe that something extraordinary happened yet you don't require the necessary extraordinary evidence. In other words, it's not just believing something that "might" not have happened, it's believing something that in all probability couldn't and likely didn't happen.

The third not only is unlikely, but it goes against everything we know about the human mind. And unlike the historical Jesus, where most of the details are shrouded in myth and legend, we know a thing or five about L. Ron Hubbard and what a con-artist he was. We know that the reason why Scientology rejects psychotherapy is because when he submitted his "findings" to psychiatrists, they rejected it for the quackery it was. So, even more extreme than the other two scenarios, having faith in Dianetics is not only believing something that's unlikely, it's believing something where the evidence is overwhelmingly AGAINST it.

Lastly, I will point out that the following uses of the word "faith" are non sequiturs: 

I have faith that there is no God.

I have faith that Billy Dee Williams isn't standing behind me right now.

I have faith that astrology is bogus.

It requires absolutely no leap at all to reject a concept. I mean, Billy Dee could very well be behind me right now. I'm not even saying that he definitely isn't. I'm just saying that I don't have a good reason to think he is, so I'm just going to assume that he isn't until given evidence to the contrary (like somebody handing me a tall, cool Colt 45). I'm not hoping, wishing, counting on, etc. any of those things. I'm just taking the default position of: "I'll believe it with evidence."

So yes, we all have faith, but we don't always mean the same thing when we use this word. Let's just be honest about what we're dealing with, and then we can have more productive conversations.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Pumpkin Ale 3 - Pumpkin Fail

Want to know the best thing about homebrewing?

You can totally screw it up and still wind up with some awesome beer.

This is certainly the case with this year's Pumpkin Ale. I've already written about my first two attempts at a Pumpkin Ale. The first one was pretty good, and the second one was excellent. This year, I wanted to continue the experimentation and ramp it up a couple of notches. I basically wanted something kinda like a Belgian Dubbel, but with pumpkin. Also, unlike last year's, I didn't want to use a whole lot of pumpkin spice, figuring that the spicy taste created by the Belgian yeast would provide the balance that I desired. My last thought was to add maple syrup. This would be the second time adding that particular ingredient. The first time, I added it really early to the boil of a strong Brown Ale that I made.  While it didn't contribute any kind of a maple flavor, it did create a really nice dry taste to it. I figured it might be even more appropriate for a Belgian style, as typically those have you add candy sugar to them, and maple syrup isn't too far off from that.

Before I give my fellow homebrewers the recipe, let me tell you a bit how this turned out. Essentially what I have tastes a lot like a Doppelbock with a Belgian yeastiness to it and a faint maple flavor that arrives in your nose once it's gone down your throat. For those of you not familar with all the beer-nerd jargon, it's got a spicy (not caliente-spicy, but more like gingerbread where they didn't spare the ginger) smell and initial taste when you take a sip. In your mouth, it's thick and bready - somewhat reminiscent of pumpernickel. And as I already wrote, you can catch a bit of that maple flavor once you've swallowed it down.

In short - it's a tasty beer. It's great for cold weather, and it stands up to all kinds of food - either something really rich or something spicy. It's also a good one to have when the day is done and you're looking to just relax and watch some TV while sipping a yummy brew that gets more interesting as it warms up a bit.

Then why is this a "Pumpkin Fail"?

'Cause you don't taste the pumpkin. all. I'll include it in my list of ingredients, but if you're looking to make this beer, save some money and skip the pumpkin. I'm not sure what went wrong. It's quite possible that the strong flavors of the malt, along with the Belgian yeast and maple syrup, just completely overpowered it. Another possibility is that I used a white pumpkin this year instead of the green one that I used last year (which gave me a great, smooth pumpkin flavor). More likely than that last reason, I didn't keep the pumpkin in for the entire boil. I put it in my grain bag (with the rest of the flavoring grains) for the first half hour - before it all went to a boil. I then tried my best to squeeze as much pumpkin juice/pulp from the grain bag, but that probably wasn't enough to get the full flavor.

I also added a few dashes of cinnamon about halfway through the boil, and I really can't taste that at all.

So, here are the ingredients. I recommend making this beer if that description sounded good, but again, skip the pumpkin (and cinnamon too) and you'll probably get basically the same thing.

1 medium pumpkin - sliced, baked (at 400 degrees for one hour), and turned to mush in the food processor

 Flavoring malts:
.5 lb. chocolate wheat
1 lb. Belgian biscuit
.5 lb. honey
.5 lb. chocolate

6 lbs. Munich malt extract
2 lbs. dried malt extract

1 oz. Experimental - bittering (used for entire hour long boil)
1 oz. Herrsbrucker - flavoring (put in during the last few minutes of the boil)

32 oz. maple syrup - added one minute before the end of the boil

Wyeast Saison - This is a high-alcohol beer, so either pitch a couple of packages or re-use from a previous batch (which I did with a Saison that I made).

Saturday, December 21, 2013

How can you celebrate Christmas?

My wife was asked recently by a relative of hers how we were able to celebrate Christmas when we're both atheists. After all, it's CHRISTmas, which celebrates the birth of the son of God, right? So how could we celebrate something like that?

A Christian friend of mine who's living in Japan expressed some disappointment that while Christmas is big there, Christianity really isn't. So you've got all sorts of Buddhists, Shintoists, and basically irreligious folks getting on board with a Christian holiday.

I also have a friend who called me a "hypocrite" for celebrating Christmas. This is because I go around telling people not to celebrate it, I kick over manger scenes, and I burn down every Christmas tree I see. (Actually, I don't do those things, but that's what I would have to do if he was using the word "hypocrite" correctly.)

Seems to me like a strange thing to wonder why non-Christians celebrate Christmas. It seems even stranger to care, as I don't care if you're a Buddhist who celebrates Hanukkah, a Muslim who celebrates Diwali, or an Odin worshiper who celebrates the birthday of Confucius. You want to have a happy day with rituals? Be my guest. However, unlike those other examples, if we take a look at Christmas, there really isn't all that much that's specifically Christian about it. Check out the following list. What's specifically Christian about any of the items off of this list?
  • decorated trees
  • yule logs
  • Santa Claus
  • flying reindeer
  • elves
  • gift giving
  • mistletoe & kisses
Most of those things are from pre-Christian religious traditions, (You won't even find most Christians arguing this.) and gift-giving is something you're likely to find in all sorts of cultures, so even if you can make the argument that it's a Christian practice, it's not a uniquely Christian one. And yeah, Santa Claus has his origins in St. Nicholas, but he's also got a fair amount of Odin mixed in with him as well.

I'm not trying to say that it's NOT a Christian holiday. Yeah, it's called CHRISTmas, and many people celebrate with songs and decorations that are specifically Christian. (But let's not get too carried away with the name of the holiday. After all, Easter is the name of a pagan goddess, so if the name is what's important, than let's start putting the Ä’ostre back in Easter. And don't get me started on Thor's Day.)

Obviously, if you are a Christian, then it's pretty easy to get into the religious spirit. My point is that the holiday is malleable.There is so much to its traditions that it can be celebrated by anybody. If a Christian thinks that me being an atheist is a problem with me celebrating the holiday and they ask "How can you celebrate Christmas?" then it makes just as much sense for me to turn it around on them and ask them the same question considering how much paganism is involved.

That is, I would ask them if I cared what they celebrated.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Beliefs matter

I once had my seniors write a piece on the Dalai Lama, and I asked them to share their personal thoughts at the end of their paper. One student, who's particularly religious, wrote something along the lines of how he seems like a good man, but not all religions can possibly be correct, and all of eternity was at stake. Yes, the student was a Christian - a pretty devout one at that, so you can probably read between the lines here. I wrote one comment next to the bit about how they all can't be correct: "I agree."

I think that this is the bit of common ground that I have with your more conservative/fundamentalist/etc. types. Generally speaking, I find myself rolling my eyes a lot less when I speak to religious believers who tend to be open minded and less dogmatic. There is one thing though with many more liberally-minded folks that I often find frustrating, and that's this idea that beliefs don't matter. Of course, I never hear it put in quite those words. It's more along the lines of: "Hey, if it makes him feel good, then who cares what he believes?"

I also have heard (several times lately) the puzzling phrase that "it's true for them". The first time I heard this was when discussing religion with a Catholic, who said that she had a Muslim friend, and the Muslim's beliefs were "true for him" and her Catholic beliefs were "true" for her. I cannot for the life of me fathom what this means. Unless one means to propose a completely subjective universe, where reality is dictated by one's own perceptions and beliefs, then it strikes me as sounding rather nice but meaning very little. After all, Catholicism and Islam have conflicting ideologies. Either Mohammed was the last prophet or he wasn't (among other things). While they can both be wrong about who's a prophet and who isn't, they certainly can't both be right.

And yes, I am aware that when it comes to many Eastern religions/philosophies, the belief systems can be a bit more accommodating. This is why Buddhism didn't wipe out Shintoism in Japan, and you have some people, particularly in China, who follow Confucius, Taoism, and Buddhism. I'll let the experts in those subjects handle whether that's logically coherent or not, but I feel like I'm on firm ground when I say that if Islam is true, Christianity isn't. No eating all your cake and then claiming to still have it.

So, let's get past this whole notion that "true for you" only fits if we're talking things that are purely subjective like what the best flavor of ice cream is, not objective knowledge claims like who got the right message from the creator of the universe. If you're with me so far, then let's get back to this notion of whether we should care what people believe or not.

There are two major reasons why we should care what people believe, and they're linked together. The first is that my beliefs affect my actions, and the second is that my actions affect other people. Gay people in California wanted to get married and have all of the benefits that come with that. The citizens of California voted against them having that right, and so many couples who had been together for years, if not decades, couldn't enjoy the same privileges that I can with my wife. Now, whether you are for or against marriage equality, you cannot deny that people were effected by the beliefs of others. (Thankfully, it was overturned by the courts, and now gay people can get married here - but my example still stands.)

I understand the democratic, egalitarian motivation behind it when people talk about just letting people have their beliefs. (And let's be clear, I only advocate changing people's beliefs through dialogue and education - I don't believe it's either possible or ethical to force people to change their beliefs.) However, I think that it's a flawed idea. We don't all live in a vacuum. What we do affects others, and what we do is motivated by what we believe. In other words, beliefs DO matter, so let's stop pretending that they don't.

But hey, that's just my belief. If I'm wrong, tell me why - although you'll kind be proving my point if you think it's worth taking the time to convince me otherwise.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Creating a message versus destroying one

Those who read my posts on Blogspot might notice that among my blogroll is the blog of Justin McRoberts. He's a Christian singer/songwriter, and an old friend from back when I was in high school. I have his blog up there primarily so we can all laugh at him and make fun of him, 'cause he's a Christian, and therefore, he is STOOOPID. No, just kidding. Calm down. I have it linked because I read it whenever there's a new post. I often agree with him, sometimes disagree with him, sometimes have nothing to say, and am sometimes confused. But hey, that's probably true of me with just about anybody's blog.

Lately Justin has written a post or two with the theme that it's easy to critique and tear down, whereas it's harder to create something new and better. There were several moments where I wanted to comment and leave a critique, but I kept hesitating. Eventually I had to relent and admit the simple truth: he's right.

This puts me in an interesting position. While I have other interests that I write about, I do spend a fair amount of bandwidth with posts about atheism. I make no apologies nor do I hide the fact that I'm an advocate for atheism, but I'm starting to realize that I'm probably going about it the wrong way.

My last post received some thoughtful criticism over on Glipho. I was essentially trying to make a case for eradicating faith, and well, let's be honest - that comes off as a bit negative. I'm not changing my position, but I do think that I could do a better job of communicating my message. That's kind of the problem with atheism though. The word itself means the absence of something. When you advocate it, you're telling people that you want to take something away from them that they think they need, and I don't know about you, but I don't like people trying to take stuff away from me either.

Instead of being an advocate for taking things away, I need to be an advocate for reason and critical thinking. Of course, it is my contention that faith is in direct conflict with those two ideas, but I don't even need to say that if I'm trying to help people look at the world through the lens of science and logic. My goal should never be to prove atheism, because if the theists have the better, more logical, argument, then I should change my mind. In other words, I cannot lose if I'm promoting freethought and skepticism.

This leads me to the current billboard that's been placed in New York's Times Square by the American Atheists. It's animated and reads: "Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody." It then lists off the "true meaning" of Christmas with words like: charity, friends, family, and food. I cannot say that I'm a big fan of this particular message. Obviously, I agree with it, but it's just going to feed into the persecution complexes of certain attention-seeking Christians out there. I mean, who do they think that this this going to reach? It's just going to make Christians mad, and it will make it easy for them to dismiss atheists as being a bunch of angry curmudgeons who are mad at Thor Yahweh/Jesus.

Personally, I was a big fan of the billboards that read along the lines of: "Don't believe in God? You're not alone." and then gave the contact information for a local atheist organization. I don't have any sympathy with anybody who's offended by that message. In fact, as such an outspoken atheist, I've become a bit of a go-to guy on a few occasions when people make the switch over to atheism. A few years ago, I had a student open up to me that he was an atheist, and when he told his father, his dad refused to even speak to him. Recently I've had another tell me about some of the difficulties he's been having now that he no longer believes. I've got another story to tell, but...well, let's just say that the wrong people might read this and I might wind up divulging information that the recent ex-Christian is not ready to divulge just yet.

(And while this might bear a longer explanation, I want to point out that I never advocate for atheism in the classroom. That would be in poor taste to say the least, not to mention illegal. I do let my students know that I'm an atheist before I do my Bible lesson - and I tell them that the reason WHY I'm telling them is so they can suss out any bias that they might detect. I could elaborate, but I don't want to "protest too much".)

This is what atheists need to do. Thankfully, we've got guys like Jerry DeWitt who are starting to provide an alternative to those who cannot believe but miss the community that comes with being part of a church. We need to let others know that we're out there and that we're leading positive, productive lives. I hope that I'm not being too full of myself when I say that I think that I help in my own small way when I not only post my thoughts about religion to Facebook, but I also post stuff about being a father who likes homebrewing and superheroes. (In other words, I'm not too different from many Christians in my day-to-day affairs - I'm just out walking my dog when they're at church.)

Most importantly, we need to let people know that it's okay to not believe. One friend of mine expressed that she was worried about not bringing her kids up in the faith, but then I countered that some of the most awesome kids I've known are atheists. (And yes - I've known some awesome Christians, Muslims, and even a Hindu or two.) We need to be there when they need to vent their frustrations or to be an ear for those who are afraid to let their families know their true feelings.

And when we discuss faith, let's discuss the process. Let's not knock people down for believing differently. Let's talk about how we reach our beliefs in the first place, and what's the best way to come to conclusions about reality. Never be afraid to say "I don't know" and always communicate how we have no problem with the thought of changing our minds. After all, many of us have already changed our minds, and losing that thing that we thought we could not do without has not brought us to despair. Rather, it has filled us with a sense of wonder about the world that we never realized we could have.

I could elaborate on this last paragraph, and hopefully I'll get a chance to do that soon.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Can you lead a theist to atheism?

A couple of days ago, my son, Logan, was playing with another little boy at the playground. My son is three, and the other boy is five. The five-year-old was explaining to Logan that the "winner" of the game was the first one to climb up to the top of the play structure. The older boy clearly beat my son, but Logan kept insisting that he had won. Basically the problem was that he didn't even understand the concept of competition in the first place, so how could he ever understand that he lost?

This reminded me of some debates that I've gotten into with all kinds of people, mostly certain religious types. We'll get into a debate over science and evidence, but I can never win the argument with them because they don't seem to understand how the scientific method even works or what actually constitutes evidence (which they continuously demonstrate, thinking that multiple, unverifiable anecdotes on top of more unverifiable anecdotes will somehow magically transform it all into actual evidence). I can even apply this to some debates I've gotten into with some global warming deniers, as the ones I've debated refuse to even understand what the issue is even all about (as they'll think that a cold winter in a particular region somehow disproves it), so no matter what evidence I provide, it won't matter because it's like we're not even playing the same game.

Before I go on, allow me to address to common objections:

1. Why debate at all? Nobody's going to change their mind.

This is a very specific claim, and it's a testable one. I know that I've changed my mind, and I can name other people (both personally and those whose stories I've read) who have done so. In other words, people can and do change their minds, even though they rarely do it in the course of one debate. (A friend of mine once related a story where in one conversation, he swayed somebody over to the right side of the gay marriage issue. Yeah, that's correct - there's a "right" side to this issue - the one that maximizes happiness and causes the least amount of harm.)

2.  Why do you care what people think? Let them live their lives.

What people think matters. It affects how they live their lives, how they vote, how they raise their children, etc. The truth matters, and when people operate under false information, they are likely to make bad choices. I don't believe in forcing anybody to change their beliefs, but I do believe that beliefs should be challenged. (Yes, even - especially - mine!) Part of engaging people in conversations and debate is to determine which ideas are best and which hold up. If mine are faulty, then I absolutely SHOULD change them.

I recently read a book that has changed my perspective on the whole notion of debating religious beliefs. It's called A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian. I had heard about it, but I wasn't really interested. I don't know, something about the title turned me off. Even though I'd never deny that I think that this world would be a better place without religious faith, it just seemed like a way to be as annoying as religious fundamentalists who preach on street corners.

I changed my mind when I heard an interview with him on Seth Andrews's The Thinking Atheist podcast. After hearing that, I bought the book and read it within a couple of days. Ironically enough, I now feel less likely to want to debate with believers. I'm somewhat less of a reactionary as well, I think. Let me give an example:

Driving out of San Francisco, you might see a road sign put up by the young-Earth creationist propagandists called Answers in Genesis. It reads something along the lines of: "To our atheist friends: thank God you're wrong!" There once was a time where seeing that might have prompted me to write a blog post, commenting on how stupid it is. But what did I do when I saw it? I smiled. I felt good, actually.

Why would I feel that way? Because obviously we atheists are getting to them. Can you even imagine somebody putting up a sign like this just twenty years ago? Atheists were such a small blip. Sure, they were out there (I was not among them then) but for the most part they felt the need to keep it to themselves. That's changed though, and as the United States (and much of the rest of the world) becomes less and less religious, groups like Answers in Genesis, who not only depend on religious belief but an almost fanatical following, are starting to feel the pinch. And as Sam Harris said, they're losing the argument. And they know it. And they're getting desperate, which is a good thing.

The basic premise behind Boghossian's book is that before you can get into conversations about evidence, the reliability of scripture, etc., you have to get right to the heart of the issue, and that's faith. Essentially, faith is a faulty way of learning and knowing about the world, and that's what needs to be discussed and dismantled before you can go anywhere else. Of course, and I've seen this done before, believers will often play word games and say that everybody has faith in some way or another. That's why the nonbeliever needs to first distinguish between the kind of faith where you can substitute the word "hope" ("I have faith that my wife won't cheat on me.") with the kind of faith that has you making knowledge claims ("I have faith that Mohammed ascended to heaven on a flying horse.")

Once you've established that's what you're talking about, then you can proceed with a conversation, and it's not difficult to show that this type of faith is unreliable. I could write a whole blog post on this alone, but suffice it to say that since there are so many different faiths out there that lead to disparate, contradicting (and in some cases, downright harmful) conclusions, it's not something that's reliable for discerning truth. In other words, it's a faulty epistemology, as Boghossian writes.

What's much more effective than debating is to engage in a Socratic conversation. Keep asking questions, and it won't take long before you give them just enough rope to hang themselves. I've tried this with some of my more thoughtful, intelligent theist friends along with those who, well, let's just say that I find them to be a bit more sheep-like. In all cases, it ends with a "I'll get back to you on that." And I have yet to have any of them get back to me.

Boghossian also notes that when it comes to religious faith, people are usually believers because they are raised with it or some sort of traumatic incident or desperate situation that led them to it. When people abandon their faiths, it's usually the result of a long, complex, sometimes even agonizing process. (These are generalities, of course, and I'm sure that they are exceptions, but I'm inclined to think that it's a pretty useful way to look at it, as it certainly matches my experience and the experiences of many people I know.) They rarely just give it all up in the course of one discussion. But this doesn't mean that nonbelievers should stop having these conversations. While you might not get a believer to go from saying "I know that there is a God" to "I don't believe that a god is likely", it is reasonable to get one from "I know that there is a God" to "I strongly believe that there is a God." That's a subtle difference, but it's a difference nonetheless, and subsequent conversations can take them further down the road to enlightenment.

I realize that to the believers and undecideds out there, this all might seem somewhat arrogant. However, I recommend that everybody, not just atheists, check out Boghossian's book. Because here's the thing - if faith, no matter which religion we're talking about here - is a legitimate way of attaining knowledge about the world, then it will stand up to his methodology. If we can take him at his word that his Socratic method of getting people to abandon their faith has had as much success as he says it has, then the faithful really need to ask themselves why the simple process of asking questions makes it all fall apart.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Read these comics!

Let's keep the intro brief. I read comic books. I love comic books. You should both read and love them as well. Here are a few examples of what's current and good:

The Fifth Beatle - Recently released by M Press, a division of Dark Horse Comics, this graphic novel tells the story of Brian Epstein, the original manager of The Beatles. He died in 1967, and a lot of folks will tell you that it's no coincidence that the band broke just a few years afterward. (I believe that John Lennon even said that he expected things to fall apart once Epstein died.)

It's a fascinating story, part of which because he was both gay and Jewish, two things that were pretty unpopular to be in 1960s England - in fact, homosexuality was a crime in that time and place. He was even given medication to "help" suppress his gay urges.

While it helps to create a sympathetic portrayal of the man, if you're expecting some kind of depressing "Oh, it's tough to be a gay Jew in 1960s England" story, then you should know that there's a lot more to it than that. The book makes it clear why he was considered to be the "Fifth Beatle" by Paul McCartney and so many others. The man's ambition and personality were instrumental in bringing the band to the masses and turning them into not just a success, but a cultural icon.

Even more important, this is a great example of the art form. I was surprised that this was Vivek J. Tiwary's first comics work, as he knows exactly when to let the art do the talking, and the dialogue is sharp - some of it being an obvious homage to the snappy patter found in A Hard Day's Night. Andrew C. Robinson, who does the bulk of the art, is a born storyteller. I always say that you can tell a great comic book artist if you can flip through the book and get a good sense of all the emotions and plot without reading any of the captions, and he certainly pulls that off. There are also several moments which are great examples of what can only be done in a comic book, like when he discovers the band playing in the Cavern Club.

This was one of my favorite comics of the year, and I recommend it to both comics and Beatles fans, and it's even better if you happen to be both.

Bandette - I had the pleasure of reading the first chapter for free on Comixology. When I saw that there was a collected edition, I had to buy it. I can read the original e-comic, but I think that I'll always be a fan of the more tangible sort of comics.

A year or so ago, I tried reading Tin Tin, but I had a hard time getting into it. I appreciated it, but I'd be lying if I said that I liked it too much. Supposedly, Bandette has a bit of its inspiration drawn from that favorite comic, so maybe people who like that old Belgian comic should definitely pick this one up.

It's hard to describe what's so appealing about this. Basically, the lead character is a thief who also helps the police. She's spunky, sassy, etc., and she speaks like her dialogue has been translated from French by somebody who isn't too familiar with actual English/American idioms. (I'm fairly certain that it's deliberate, as it works even though it shouldn't.) The artwork, as you can see, is lively and charming. The characters aren't spectacularly original, but they're done so well that it doesn't really matter.

I'd recommend this one to people who are simply fans of the art form and/or anybody who has a daughter. It's not that I think that boys won't like it, as I would hand it to Logan if he was old enough to read. Girls just need as many fun characters with whom they can relate as they can get, so here's another one for them.

The Superior Spider-Man - For those who don't know, The Amazing Spider-Man ended with Dr. Octopus and Peter Parker swapping bodies, only to have Peter die while trapped inside Doc Ock's body. At the last moment, all of Peter's memories flooded Octavius's mind, and he resolved that he wasn't going to use Spider-Man's life and body for evil but to continue as a crimefighter, although Ock was going to prove that he'd be a more effective, "superior" Spider-Man.

So Octavius is trying to be a hero, and in many ways, he's doing a better job than Peter ever did. He adds new gadgets to his suit. He has a private army (paid off with funds he acquired during his life of crime). He has "spider-bots" patrolling the city at all times, letting him know whenever he's needed.

He's even a better Peter Parker, finally getting his PhD, spending time with his aunt, and ditching Mary Jane, as it's a relationship that was clearly going nowhere. (Okay, that last one is a bit mean.)

We've seen stories where the identities of superheroes are taken on by somebody new. We've even seen it with Spider-Man, the most disastrous of which was the much-maligned Clone Saga. I have a confession to make though, and many longtime fans might agree - The Clone Saga was a very compelling tale when it first started, but it eventually went careening out of control, resulting in the train going off the rails, only to be put back on them when much damage had already been done. The reason for this is that there was a story set in motion with a definite beginning and end, but when it sold well, it was artificially inflated.

Of course, this story hasn't ended yet (and we all know that Peter Parker will have to return - it's just a matter of how and when) but I think that its saving grace is that there seems to be a definite plan in motion. If one looks back at the comics before all of this happened, it's easy to see that much of this was put into motion a long time ago. Also, while an issue here and there might simply spin the wheels a bit, there has been a definite progression from the beginning up until what's going on right now. Yeah, Ock-Spidey is "superior", but he has his flaws (extreme arrogance being one) and just like a Fourth Act Shakespearean Tragic Hero, various forces are starting to move against him - one being Peter's girlfriend Carly Cooper (who's figured out what's happened and can prove it!) and the Green Goblin, who has an army and has figured out how to stay out of range of the Spider-bots.

I think that this can be best compared to what happened in the now-classic Kraven's Last Hunt, where another villain tried to prove that he was better than Spider-Man, although Doc Ock is a very different kind of villain than Kraven ever was, and this is a more long-term story. Also, it's somewhat reminiscent of what Ed Brubaker did over in Captain America, having Bucky take over Cap's identity. The comparison there is that it's long-form storytelling with an ending in mind from the start. (At least, I hope so! It hasn't ended yet. Hopefully the writer, Dan Slott, will prove me right while still surprising me along the way.)

The Carl Barks Library - Fantagraphics has been reprinting all of the Disney duck comics by artist/writer Carl Barks, known back in the day when Disney comics didn't credit their creators as "The Good Duck Artist".

So far, they've reprinted one volume of Scrooge McDuck stories and four volumes of Donald Duck. Much like with Bandette, I recommend that anybody who's a fan of comics as an art form pick up at least one volume (I'm partial to the Scrooge one, Only a Poor Old Man) as it's another great example of what comics can do.

The stories are for children, but if you're like me and appreciate a well-told story no matter what the target audience is, then you'll probably like it as well. The stories are full of inventive fun and amusing characters. Probably my favorite supporting character is Gladstone Gander, Donald's cousin who has ridiculous luck and doesn't have to work because he stumbles upon money. Donald relentlessly tries to beat Gladstone again and again, only to be met with frustration. You always know that Donald's gonna lose, but he's got that Wile E. Coyote level of tenaciousness that you can't help but root for him even though you know the outcome. (And you also wouldn't mind Gladstone finally getting what's coming to him.)

My only warning is that you need to realize that these comics are from the 40s and 50s, and you won't find them to be the most politically correct sorts of stories when it comes to depicting various ethnicities. (Not that there's anything outright hateful, but it's definitely a product of its time.)

Fantagrpahics is also planning on reprinting the Duck comics of Don Rosa, who is generally thought of as the successor to Barks. That should be worth a purchase as well.

The Complete Peanuts - Fantagraphics (again) is currently publishing every flippin' strip that Charles M. Schulz ever did. I didn't really intend to pick this one up, as my memories of the strip have been tainted by its last decade, where it wasn't exactly Family Circus bad, but it wasn't very good either.

My interest was peaked when my son received a book that tells the "Great Pumpkin" story, which prompted me to show him the TV special of the same name. He absolutely loves both of them, and I found myself enjoying the story on a level that I probably hadn't as a child. Has there ever been a better metaphor for religious zeal than Linus's devotion to The Great Pumpkin? He's a smart kid, probably the smartest of the lot, yet he won't let go of his belief even in the face of overwhelming evidence against it.

So, I went and checked out a few volumes. I deliberately picked the 65-66 volume, since the TV special debuted around that time. This seems to be Schulz's peak period, according to a lot of fans, and I'm agreeing with that notion so far. I also have the 57-58 and 61-62 volumes, and while the earliest one is good, it didn't grab me the way the one from the mid-sixties did. I just started the one from the early sixties, and that's becoming a bit more of what I like, as Schulz explores philosophical issues that he'll later develop as the stories go along. It's no shock to me that the man eventually claimed to be a Secular Humanist - he's far too thoughtful to have remained religious (in my biased opinion, that is).

So, why are you still sitting around reading this? You have some recommendations. Go to your nearest comic book store and buy these comics!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thor: The Dark World review

I just got back from seeing the latest Marvel movie, Thor: The Dark World. This is the second post-Avengers film, right after Iron Man 3, and even more so than that film, the consequences of Loki's schemes resonate even more with the main characters - mainly because Loki plays a prominent role in this one, just as he did in the first Thor movie.

I think that Thor is a tough character to get right. I'm really enjoying Jason Aaron's take on him over in Thor: God of Thunder, and personally, I think that what works well with it is the fact that it doesn't shy away from Thor being an actual GOD instead of an alien as these movies portray him to be. (But there's precedent for that interpretation in the comic books.) He seems to be a character who works better when he's a foil for other characters, but I think that this movie managed to find a somewhat compelling arc for him.

I don't think that anybody who doesn't like superhero movies is going to be won over by this one. I even understand why the reviews are lower than they were for the first film, despite my opinion that this one is a bit better, but at least as good. Some people are getting burned out, but I don't think that the loyalists like me are going to have that problem. We know what we're getting into, and while this might not break new ground for the genre, it delivers on everything that you're probably looking for.

The best moments in this one involve Thor's relationship to Loki, and it was smart of the filmmakers to utilize him in this sequel. With this being their third film together, there's been a real progression. Thor might not be as smart as Loki, but he's also not as dumb as Loki believes him to be. There's a nice conversation that the two have when Thor goes to him for help, and it's believable not only why Thor would enlist his brother's help but why Loki would help in the first place.

Another thing that works better in this one is the effects. When the characters traveled to Jotunheim in the first one, I was constantly thinking about how I was watching computer effects. They utilized some actual locations with this one, so that wasn't a problem this time.

Just like the last one, there's a lot of humor. Thankfully, most of it comes naturally out of the story and doesn't come at its expense. There are also a couple of really good cameos that add some laughs. (Is it a spoiler if I say that one of them is Stan Lee? Not at this point, I don't think.)

Overall, if you liked the last one, you'd like this. I know a few people who didn't care for it, and I don't think that this installment is going to win them over. Fans will be pleased that it has a solid resolution while still setting things up for the next installment. (Not so much for The Avengers: Age of Ultron. I'm curious as to how they're going to get all of them to come together yet again.)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Romeo and Juliet in comics

I'm a fan of Gareth Hinds, a comic book illustrator who's probably best known for adapting classic works of literature like King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, Beowulf, and The Odyssey. I wrote a review of The Odyssey on my blog, and I also got to have a short email exchange with him about dogs and his interpretation of the death of Odysseus' dog, Argos. Naturally, I was intrigued when I saw that he adapted Romeo and Juliet, a work with which I am quite familiar as I've been teaching it for over a decade now. I was even more impressed when I saw that it was only thirteen bucks.

I think that artistically, Hinds has outdone himself with this one. The characters all have their own distinct features and body language, the backgrounds are detailed, and the colors create a warm, lifelike contrast to a story that ends in tragedy.

Hinds makes a lot of interesting artistic choices, all of which he explains at the end. He based much of the architecture on the actual Verona, Italy, while borrowing from other parts of Italy as well. He also gave them different ethnicities, with the Montagues being of African descent and the Capulets being of Indian descent. I suppose that some folks might scoff at that, as it's obviously not even remotely historically accurate, but neither is Italians speaking English in iambic pentameter, so why not give us a rendition of the two young lovers that we haven't already seen a million times? (And speaking of historically accurate, did you know that you can visit the homes of Romeo and Juliet when you travel to Verona? You know, the homes of people who probably didn't even exist?)

As for the text, it's probably 95% Shakespeare with just a few tweaks here and there for clarity. He also cuts out a bit, but that's what you would expect if you were to see a movie or stage production. Unfortunately, the Nurse's part gets cut down the most, but I suppose that's a part that works better on the stage than it does on the page.

There might be some people who look down on the graphic novel format, and they would consider this to somehow be a "dumbing down" of Shakespeare's work. (Just realized that this is the first time I mentioned Shakespeare. You all know that the play was originally written by this William Shakespeare fella, right?) Obviously, I would take issue with that, as the man wasn't writing a novel for people to just sit down and read in their living rooms. The text was intended to be adapted by a director and actors. In this case, the artist takes on the role of all of them, and gives us a halfway point between the original and what you'd see on the stage. Personally, I'd like to see more artists adapt his plays.

Like any good adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, this one got me to thinking about the story and what it's all about. I wrote my thoughts on the play some time ago, and all of those came rushing back to me, and probably a few new ones as well. As I've said before many times, I get a bit annoyed when it's simply thought of as a "love story" considering how young they are and how little they even know each other. Shakespeare has bigger ideas going on than just making you sad that two lovebirds die. There's so much negligence going on when it comes to the adults, and maybe it's because I'm a dad now, but I can't help but place a lot of blame on the parents - not so much because they perpetuated the feud between the two families but because they clearly don't even care that much about it, yet they don't take the necessary steps to end it until it's too late. The Prince also shares much of the blame, letting us know at the beginning that the riot that takes place is the third time that's happened. Why didn't he lay down the law the first time?

If you're mostly familiar with the play, and you need a solid refresher with a fresh visual perspective, I definitely recommend that you check this one out.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Colorblind casting - why not?

Several years ago, I went on record as saying that casting a black actor (in this case, the rumors were swirling around Will Smith) as Captain America would be a mistake. In that case, I was strictly referring to if they were going to make a movie about Steve Rogers and stick to his World War II origins. While one shouldn't look to the movies for historical accuracy, especially when we're talking superhero films, it would be pretty insulting to pretend like America was some sort of racial utopia back then that would accept a black man as the symbol for the country.  The first Captain America movie was pushing it as it was when it showed an integrated army.

Right now, there's talk of a reboot of The Fantastic Four, which is a good idea considering the previous two stunk on wheels. Rumored to play The Human Torch is one Michael B. Jordan, and that rumor is looking more and more likely to be something that's actually going to happen. Not surprisingly, you don't have to go too far to find fans who are complaining that they're casting a black man as a character who's white in the comics.  With this rumor, I feel quite differently than I did about the one involving Captain America.

When I think of The Torch, I think of a guy who's young, handsome, cocky, and heroic. Seems to me that Jordan has the first two going for him. I don't know much about his acting, so I'll reserve judgment on whether he can pull of the second two things. My point is that there really isn't anything about The Torch that requires him to be a white guy. Maybe if they were going to have the film take place in the early 1960s, when the original comics were published, you could make a better case for Johnny Storm needing to be a white guy, but chances are pretty good that this film will take place in either the present day or the near future. So why not a black man playing the part?

Some fans have expressed concern over who they're going to get play his sister, Sue Storm, a.k.a. The Invisible Woman. If they cast a white woman, then how are they going to explain how she has a black brother? Here's my response: WHO CARES?

The core concept of The Fantastic Four is that they are adventurers who are also a family. It makes no difference if Sue and Johnny are half-siblings or even if one's adopted. They wouldn't be any less brother and sister just because they might not share the same parents, and any dynamic that works in the comics can work just the same if they're from a racially mixed family.

I really don't believe in being a purist when it comes to adapting works of literature - be it Shakespeare or comic books. I care more about whether they get the heart of the material correct or not. Just look at Christopher Nolan's Batman films. They make a LOT of changes to the comic book stories, but it still rings true as Batman because they made sure to get everything that's important right. Everything else is just details, and there's no reason why this bit of casting would destroy the core concept of the F.F.

Sure, there are some characters where you don't want to mix their races. See my example of Captain America, for instance. You also wouldn't want anybody other than a black guy to play The Black PantherLuke Cage or Othello.  But why not an Asian-American Spider-Man? How about a Latino Daredevil? Maybe you might have some trouble tying them to their Caucasian-sounding names, but if I could get over the fact that an African-American was playing Julius Caesar, I could probably get over that stuff as well.

I don't believe in diversity for diversity's sake, but I also don't think that we should be afraid of it either.  So many superhero movies have missed the entire point of the character in the first place (thankfully, that's becoming more of a rare thing nowadays). If Michael B. Jordan can embody the personality of Johnny Storm, then I think that fans will get over his skin color the same way that James Bond fans got over the fact that Daniel Craig had blonde hair.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Bible - seriously?

"The best cure for Christianity is reading The Bible." - Mark Twain

I remember when I was still on the fence regarding this whole religion thing, and I finally decided to try and read The Bible. I had visited various internet forums where the atheists would quote all kinds of awfulness that it supposedly said, but I wanted to check it out for myself. I'm pretty sure that I didn't get very far into it when I finally decided that I just couldn't believe what was in there.

I would read it while commuting to work (I was riding BART) and then get home and tell my wife about what new awfulness I had discovered. Not long after that, I would get into conversations with Christians, and I'd tell them what was in there. For many of them, they were highly skeptical that it actually said what I had told them. I remember reading from many atheists when they said that they stopped believing when they actually tried to read it, and I think that I had some delusion that if I only had told Christians what this supposedly "good book" had to say, they'd realize what a gigantic load of crap it was.

No such luck on that one though. Sure, it is true that many people stop believing when they read The Bible, but I think that for many of them, as it was for me, they were already at a point where they were willing to accept that it just might not be true - or even a good basis for morality, for that matter. The sad fact is though that many Christians actually DO read it, and they've read all the awful stuff, and yet they STILL believe it!

Okay, time for my standard "I am aware that not all Christians are the same" disclaimer. I have met plenty of Christians who have absolutely no problem tossing out the parts of The Bible that are evil and/or nonsensical. In other words, they think that its various books were written by flawed human beings, and those flaws shine through, even though there are some flashes of divine inspiration throughout. I can't honestly say that I respect this view, as it's a bit too much of having your cake and eating it too, but I'm not going to pick on them because at least they don't engage in the despicable sort of apologetics those who hold it up as being the end-product of an omnibenevolent being.

I'll be honest with you, trying to debate people like this is like trying to talk to a guy who's eating a sundae where the primary ingredient is dog crap. You can keep telling them, "Hey man! That's poo!" but they'll point out the chocolate syrup, whip cream, and cherry. "Yeah, sure...but you're eating poo, dude!" At a certain point, when you've just seen them shovel that fourth scoop of fetid feces into their faces, you just have to turn around and go, "Yeah, I can't do nothing for ya, man."

Except that doesn't quite complete the analogy, because imagine this dog-crap sundae consumer usually eschews junk like Applebee's and knows how to make a delicious homecooked meal. In other words, they're people who you'd think would know better.

What I've noticed is that it just doesn't matter what's in The Bible, they will find a way around it. Apparently it's not bad enough that The Bible says that a virgin must marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28) or that you can beat your slave as much as you want, just so long as you don't beat him to death (Exodus 21:20). They can work their way around it by either saying the completely inconsistent "that's the Old Testament!" rule (Then why even include it?) or the "out of context!" cop-out (What context justifies such things?) or they'll give some long-winded thing about how the death and resurrection of Jesus somehow fixes it - as though that's some sort of self-evident bit of reasoning. Of course, I could give you more, including Old and New Testament horribleness,

But to what end? The only people who might look it up and consider it are the fence-sitters, and I've given them enough to get started on their own. The nonbelievers either already know about all that stuff or don't care in the first place. But for the true-believing apologist, it simply doesn't matter what it says. There could be a quote where Jesus himself tells his followers to rape puppies, and they'll still find a way around it. It's funny, because I've been told that I need to read it with an "open mind" but that's the not how that works. If you're truly open-minded, you're willing to accept that it's either worthy of respect or its not. In other words, you don't start with the conclusion. Because that's the only way you can get around the horrible things it says - if you decide from the beginning that it can all be excused.

I've written so much, and I haven't even touched on the fact that if there was an all-perfect, all-loving God, then a book is the absolute WORST way to communicate with us. (That's right, Muslims! You ain't exactly off the hook with the Qu'ran, ya know.)

For starters, did you know that it wasn't originally written in English? Not only that, but English - especially as we know it today - wasn't even around when Jesus supposedly walked the Earth? That's why you have so many different translations. And anybody who's taken even a first year of a language in high school knows the problem when it comes to translating. With translation must come some interpretation, because there are entire phrases that simply do not translate, and you'll never get the same point across.

For instance, there's a scene in The Odyssey where Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his name is "Nobody". After getting a burning stick jammed in his eye, the brute calls out to his fellow Cyclops. When they ask him, from behind the wall of his cave, who's attacked him, he replies "Nobody!" and so they go on their way, thinking that nobody has done him harm. Well, in the original Ancient Greek, the word for "nobody" is "me tis" which sounds a lot like "metis", which means "cunning" - a word that best describes Odysseus. Basically what you've got in the original is a pun, and there's no way to translate that double meaning into English.

That's just one tiny example. Can't you imagine that The Bible has similar issues - and maybe even with things that aren't so trivial? Well, let's just assume that somehow the translations manage to avoid that, you're still left with some additional problems. For instance, there's the Apocrypha, those books of The Bible that didn't make the final cut - even though many early church leaders thought them to be divinely inspired. Let's assume that's not a problem either, then you still have to deal with the fact that we don't have the originals for any of these scriptures. We do have evidence though that the various scribes who went about copying them would make changes - either on purpose or due to simple human error.

Let's go ahead and overlook that as well, even though there's absolutely no reason to do so. We still have the biggest, most intractable problem there is - the people who read it.

I've gotten into long conversations with people about everything from issues of Batman comics to Hamlet, and we've debated back and forth as to what was really going on in the story. That's all good and fun though, as it's the basis of literature. It's not like the author directly transmits his or her thoughts right into the reader's brain. There will always be a certain level of interpretation. You cannot help but bring part of yourself to everything you read, and that will impact how you receive the message. And let's face it, a person living in 2013 isn't going to approach a text - especially one that's been edited and translated as much as The Bible - the same way as the original audience would.

And before you hem and haw at that point, take a moment to consider how many different denominations of Christianity there are, all of which certain that they got it right, and just keep moving right along.

Am I trying to say that The Bible is completely worthless? Absolutely not. I actually like some of it. However, to say that it's the words of an all-loving, all-knowing being is absurd at best, downright evil at worst. Let's just take it for what it is, a work of mythology that's better in some parts than others, and then we can maybe start getting some real value from it, rather than pretending that it's something that it clearly isn't.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gary Fouse has a crush on me

I already wrote about the saga over at Fousesquawk over a year and a half ago. To briefly sum it up: "conservative" blogger Gary Fouse banned me from commenting on his website due to me being a mean ol' meanie-head who said bad things about him. (In other words, I called him out on his lies and the fact that he can't even define what Global Warming is, even though he's certain that it's not happening.)  I will admit that I still check out his site from time to time, but if I'm honest, I rarely read what he's actually writing. I only click on the links that have comments, as I hope that Siarlys Jenkins, a frequent critic of Fouse) has something amusing to say.  I've even commented a few times using a pseudonym, but that's pretty rare. I realized that there's no point in trying to reason with those who don't understand what reason is in the first place, so there's no point in getting in protracted debates with somebody who's as thick as Fouse.

Turns out that Gary is on to me! Or, at least, he thinks that he is. He recently wrote a post called "Hi Lance!" where he offered the details of somebody who's been visiting his site. Apparently somebody in Lafayette, California has visited his page, and this person works for the Contra Costa County Office of Education. Man, he's really got me! Only I work for the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, and my job site is in Pleasant Hill. And I'm usually not using the computer there at 3:51 on a Friday. And I don't use a Mac.

So yeah, that wasn't me. Do I sometimes check the site while I'm at work? Sure, but only in my down-time. I don't exactly stop a lecture to read Gary's latest posting of George Galloway in a skintight outfit.

Of course, there's his goon squad of Miggie the Misanthrope (stole that term from Siarlys) and Squid, who feel safe in making fun of me, like a Chihuahua who barks at a Rottweiler who's chained to a tree. Apparently, I'm a "Global Warming Nut" which everyone knows, because I write about it so often. I probably must have written about it at least two or three times in the past few years! I'm a NUT! (Apparently, asking people to simply define something before they deny it is a "nutty" thing to do!)

So Gary posts about me, and yet I cannot write a comment because he refuses to approve any of my responses. The really funny thing is that he's scanning through his blog visitors with such meticulous detail. I sometimes check to see where my visitors are coming from, but apparently he likes to know every little detail. And I don't exactly get why it's a big deal that I visit his site. Did he somehow think that by banning my comments, he was banning me from reading the site?

I can only conclude one thing from all of this. Gary is in love with me, and he misses me. Of course, being a married man and a "conservative", he can never admit his undying affection for me. Obviously he must have deep feelings for me, as it's pretty clear that I'm on his mind.  When I emailed him about this, he acted like a woman ex-DEA scorned, and wrote: " far as I am concerned, you don't exist."

I don't exist, yet he needs to call me out on his blog for...ummm...reading his blog.

It's okay, Gary. I cannot return your affections, but I will not judge you for your loving me. The best part is that you can feel free to comment on my blog as much as you want. I promise not to delete them, as now I feel much more pity for you than annoyance. I know that you are still hurt about my "Lies and Ignorance at Fousesquawk" because calling people out on their ridiculousness is something you NEVER do. I still stand by what I say, and I invite you to defend yourself any time you wish. Show me I'm wrong, and I'll write "Gary Fouse proves me wrong!"

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Pope on Atheists - a step in the right direction

I can imagine that I probably wouldn't have to look too far if I wanted to find atheists making cynical comments regarding what Pope Francis said about atheists. If you're looking for that sort of a thing from me though, you're not going to find it.

For those of you who don't know, here's what he said:
Given – and this is the fundamental thing – that God's mercy has no limits, if He is approached with a sincere and repentant heart," the pope wrote, "the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience. There is sin, also for those who have no faith, in going against one's conscience. Listening to it and abiding by it means making up one's mind about what is good and evil.
Obviously, the notion of God and His mercy doesn't mean all that much to me, but let's not pick nits here. What's important here is that he's not questioning the sincerity or motivations of nonbelievers. This is a pretty big deal. I just recently got into a conversation (which I didn't pursue with any real effort) with a believer who trotted out the old "You were never really a believer" line with me. That has got to be one of the most maddening things when somebody thinks that they know what was in your heart and mind better than you do. I understand why they do that though. It's easier than actually having to explore whether they might be mistaken in their beliefs. Why do that when you can just say that those who changed their minds must not have been doing it right in the first place?

Lately, I don't know whether I'm aiming lower or simply refocusing, but I'm finding myself much more interested in communicating rather than debating. When I would debate theists, I'd find that I'd spend most of my time explaining what atheism even was in the first place. That would often involve having to clear up the usual misconceptions (like how I'm not an atheist because I'm "mad at God"). I think that with some of the friendships that I've made in the last couple of years, I've accomplished this. In fact, I sometimes find myself pleasantly surprised when a believer makes an empathetic comment about what it must be like to be a nonbeliever in a sea of theists.

I think that a man like Pope Francis realizes that threats of hellfire really don't go very far in the industrialized world these days. No doubt that this is one of the reasons why the number of faithful is falling. If they want to keep their system going, they're going to have to change strategy. Obviously, nobody is interested in being burned and tortured forever. And even if you're a devoted Christian, you can admit that many atheists wouldn't leave their faith unless they felt like they had pretty good reasons for doing so.

Obviously, I don't see eye-to-eye with The Pope on a whole lot of things. If I had my way, the Catholic Church, as an institution, would either undergo a major reform or vanish. (And please realize that I would be completely AGAINST any action that would FORCE them to shut down.)  Obviously, that's probably not going to happen in my lifetime. For now though, I'll take what he said as a sincere message of reconciliation and empathy. If people like me aren't considered to be de facto villains, and Catholics can acknowledge that I've come to where I have as a matter of my own sincere effort to understand the world around me, then we've made a pretty solid advancement.

I suppose it should be noted that there are some prominent Catholics out there who are going into damage-control mode, just like the last time Francis made a similar statement. I don't worry too much about them, because if the Big Kahuna of Catholicism is saying things like that, then it probably reflects an overall shift in tone of the entire establishment. Or maybe I'm just stupidly optimistic like that.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Militant agnostics are annoying

Let me start off with the usual disclaimers:

1. I don't actually believe that there's such a thing as a "militant agnostic". Until the day that somebody enters a church and/or atheist gathering and shouts: "Nobody knows!" before blowing up the place, I'll stand by that statement.

2. I do not find all agnostics to be obnoxious. I've explained before that while I'm technically agnostic myself, I don't care much for the term. However, I usually find that when I talk to most agnostics, we're pretty much on the same page, yet we disagree on terms - which is pretty unimportant.

What I'm talking about here is a particular breed of agnostic that somehow manages to take what should be the humble position of "I don't know" and turn it into a pompous pedestal that combines the worst of overbearing fundamentalists and condescending atheists. (Yes, I admit that sort of atheist exists. They bug me too.) This particular breed of agnostic is represented by the comic above, but even that only scratches the surface. For a better example, I'd like to direct you to the following link: The Three Sides of the God Coin.

Obviously, I'm just fine with his point when he writes: took me so long to finally decide that a book of parables written by humans and then re-written under the watchful eye of a monarchy was probably 90% bullcrap.  The book does nothing to prove or disprove God's existence.  Yet, the faithful are positive of God's existence and will offer up the Bible as proof.
 Indeed, sir. But then he has to go and write:
The atheists are no better.  They operate on the assumption that God does not exist because God has not shown him/herself.  That for the lack of tangible evidence to the contrary, it must logically follow that there is no supreme being.  Just because you cannot see it does not mean it does not exist.

Let's play a little word-game here, shall we? What do you make of the following statement?
The aleprechaunists are no better.  They operate on the assumption that leprechauns do not exist because leprechauns do not show themselves   That for the lack of tangible evidence to the contrary, it must logically follow that there are no leprechauns.  Just because you cannot see it does not mean it does not exist.
Makes just as much sense, right? Why is it so unreasonable to say that you don't believe in something when you don't have enough evidence to convince you to believe it? Can something exist that you cannot see? Absolutely. Does that mean that I should be agnostic about leprechauns? Shoot, I'll be the biggest advocate for their existence if I ever catch one and get that pot of gold, but until then, I don't think that it's unreasonable for me to assume their nonexistence.

And that's the point. From what I can tell, the evidence for God is just as good as the evidence for leprechauns. What advantages does the belief in God have over leprechauns? From what I can tell, more people believe in God, but since when does popularity equate with truth? How about the following, from the same aforementioned blog:
If you look at life on this planet and how symmetrical and predictable it is, believing that it was by design is not a stretch in my opinion.
I'm fine if that's your opinion, but in MY opinion, it's a really big stretch, and that's what makes me an atheist. Essentially, this line of thinking amounts to nothing but a "God of the Gaps". In other words, it's nothing more than a logical fallacy to assume that "symmetrical and predictable" is enough to assume a deity. And I realize that this is not his thesis, but he holds it as a legitimate point of view that we atheists should at least consider. Well, I've considered it, and it's illogical, so there ya go.

I actually tried to respond to the guy and explain my point of view, and no doubt you can see my comments on his thread. I gave up instantly when he responded:
I do understand the atheist views. I would say that maybe you don't.
So, I manage to be an atheist and yet not understand what my views are. Talk about some condescending bullcrap right there. This reminds me of my post about actually listening to people.

The thing is, I've done this dance before. On another blog forum, I got really frustrated at a guy who kept saying that I was making a "leap of faith" by saying that there "was no God". Even though I explained to him ad nauseum that I don't say "there is no God", he kept at it.

I also ran into this recently on a Facebook thread where somebody kept telling me what atheists, myself included, supposedly believe. When I told him that his description of my viewpoint was incorrect, he showed absolutely no interest in know how I actually felt. I guess it's better to just keep pontificating at somebody rather than actually trying to communicate.

I've tried to explain the concept of agnostic atheists and agnostic theists to a lot of these folks, but they don't want to listen for some reason. Why is it so unreasonable to separate the concept of "believing" and "knowing" from one another? I never make the claim that I "know" that there isn't a god, which is quite different from theists who tell me that they "know" that God is real. (And yes, I realize that there are some out there, although I don't seem to run into them all that much. Religious faith usually brings about a certain degree of certainty.)

Honestly, I respect the agnostic position, and even this guy's. I just wish that some of them would show me the same courtesy and take the time to even understand what mine is.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

What I did over summer vacation.

Tomorrow I return to work to begin my 13th year as a high school English teacher. It's been a pretty good summer, and I had a little more time on my hands this year than last year. My son, Logan, is in preschool now, so unlike last year where I basically hung out with him all day, he was at school for most of the day. I suppose that I could have just kept him home, but I would have had to pay the same amount to keep him enrolled. Plus, he really likes going, and they're going to keep him occupied and stimulated better than I can. Still, my wife and I took him in later and picked him up earlier than usual for the most part, and on some days we kept him home so we could all do something special. In other words, quality time with the boy was definitely one of the highlights of summer. Here are some other good bits:

1. The wifey and I went to San Diego. Unlike last year when we went to Washington, DC, we tried to have more of a relaxing vacation instead of one that was jam-packed with activities. One thing I can tell you about San Diego - there's some good eating there, and it's also a great place for a craft beer fan. I had some great food and great beer there, plus we got to relax quite a bit. The boy stayed with his grandparents, but hopefully he can come along on our next trip, as it's less likely that we'll have to worry about things like diapers and naps.

2. I met Stan "The Man" Lee. This was actually the third time I got his autograph. The previous two times was when I was a teenager and he was at WonderCon (back when it was still in Oakland). On this occasion, he was making a special appearance at Flying Colors Comics, my local comic book store. Tickets weren't cheap, but I didn't want to miss this opportunity. The man is 90 years old, so who knows if I'll ever get another one? As part of the package, I got one autograph and a photo with Stan. I had him sign a reprint of Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man.

The one disappointing thing about that was my wife had jury duty. I had hoped to have her in the picture with me and Stan, but obviously she couldn't make it. It would have also been cool to have Logan there, but he's too young to understand the idea of Spider-Man not being real, much less having a guy who wrote his original adventures. This led me to the bright idea of asking Stan to hold up a photo of my wife and son as we posed for the picture. He seemed to get a kick out of the idea, as I explained the situation. You can see it for yourself below:

3. I got to visit Pixar. This was really cool, as I'm definitely a fan. Even better, Logan got to come with us, and it's safe to call him a fan as well, as he's watched many of their movies on multiple occasions. In fact, Monsters University was his first theater experience. I got a chance to visit because my wife is friends with a woman whose husband works there. (I actually knew him in high school. We had mutual friends, and I was pleased to learn that he remembered me as well.)

It wasn't a long visit, but we got to see how where the animators work and how they let their imaginations run wild when it comes to setting up their offices. (One of them had the theme of a cargo plane that had crashed on a tropical island - that should give you an idea.) It was definitely a cool thing to see where a lot of my favorite movies were developed.

4. I got LASIK surgery. I was super nearsighted without my contacts, basically helpless without them. Things worked out for me that I was able to afford getting the surgery, and it's been over a week now. It's a funky thing - a bit uncomfortable as they're doing it, but definitely not painful. My eyes felt pretty irritated when I got home from the surgery, but after taking all my eyedrops and having a nap, I felt a lot better. Now I feel so good that I'm forgetting to use the moisturizing drops that I'm supposed to be taking four times a day.

It's a pretty amazing thing, and you don't really realize how much your subconscious makes you aware of your contact lenses until you no longer have to worry about them. Every night, I have to remind myself several times that I DON'T need to take out my contacts.

5. I got some writing done. I not only wrote in my blog, but I wrote some fiction as well. I don't know if I'm ever going to do anything with it, but I'm pleased with what I have, even though it's just the beginning of a much longer story. I had hoped to get a lot more done, but I've come to terms with the idea that I can keep at it, just in smaller doses, when I return to work. I think it was a mistake to always tell myself that I'd get back to it during the summer. I think it's something that I can do all year long.

Unfortunately, my blog is probably going to suffer during the school year. I think that I averaged about one blog every other day this summer. Hopefully I can write at least one or two a week as I get back to work. Lucky for me, I managed to get out most of the thoughts that have been brewing in my head during the previous school year. Hopefully I'll have some worthwhile stuff to say when I finally have more time to write again.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Some women aren't helping.

I've written a couple of blog posts on feminist issues lately, but I'd like to point out that if you were sitting there reading them and thinking, "Yeah! Men are hella messed up!" then you're missing the point. I think that I was pretty clear in my view that when it comes to gender issues, it's women who are being treated unfairly. (On nearly every issue, there are exceptions - like child custody battles, for instance.) However, I feel the need to point out that it's not simply a matter of men oppressing women. You shouldn't even look at it as a "man versus woman" issue. It's a "society versus women" problem. Since men are mostly the ones with power in this world, much of the blame lies at their feet. However, I'd say that when it comes to feminism, there are some men who are helping the cause and some women who are hurting it.

Hopefully I'm not too off-base with this, and I hope that if I am somebody will chime in and correct me. However, these are some of the issues where I think that women could do more to help their situation. Of course, I must note that when it comes to this stuff, I'm not pointing the blame at all women, and in some cases there are men who are equally guilty.

1. Embrace the word "feminist". - I wrote a while ago about how you have people who will say things like, "I don't believe in God, but I'm not an atheist." They avoid the word because of all the baggage that it supposedly contains, but I tried to make the point that when you avoid using a word, especially a word that accurately describes you, then you're contributing to that word's supposed "baggage".

The same goes for the word "feminist". Think that women should be treated equally? Congratulations, you're a feminist. And yes, I think that men need to do this as well, but when you have some prominent female celebrities like Taylor Swift and several others claiming that they're "not feminists", we have a problem. I think that Ellen "Shadowcat" Page said it best, " could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?"

2.  Don't feed the beast. - My last blog dealt with how men contribute to the problem of women's self-esteem when it comes to body issues. I was glad to see that several women liked what I had to say, but I also hope that when it comes to this, there are a lot of women who exacerbate the problem. Don't believe me? Just pay attention to the magazine rack the next time you're in the grocery store. For Pete's sakes, I saw one that had the front page advertising an article about how they were going to show the "worst celebrity beach bodies". In other words, it was all about how those fat people are gross and how dare they be fat on the beach?

Is there probably some man who's raking in the bucks when these magazines sell? Yes. Are there some men who read these? I suppose, but let's be honest - they're not the target audience. What would happen if women stopped buying these? They'd go out of business, that's what.

And even some of the higher-end magazines aren't much better. Pretty much every one of them has something about diet secrets, diet tips, or something along those lines. That's fine for Shape magazine, but maybe if women stopped buying magazines that told them that they were too fat, they wouldn't feel like they were too fat.

3. Don't be just as bad. - I was reading a story about a woman who plays drums. She was relating a story about how when she stepped up to play with a bunch of guys, they assumed that she couldn't hack it for the simple fact that she was a she. Obviously, those guys are dumbass douchebags. Below, in the comments, one of her friends commented that "Men are so stupid."

See, this kind of thing doesn't help. I'm not trying to say that comments like that are hurting men as much as this woman was hurt by people making assumptions about her. But if you want people to take you seriously and give you respect, then you have to be willing to give them the same courtesy. If the comment was "Some men are so stupid" or "Those men were so stupid" then I would have totally agreed. Instead, I had to think, "That woman is kinda stupid." (The one who made the comment, obviously.)

4. Don't let other women assume things about you. - I know that some women are going to be happy for me saying this, but NEWSFLASH: not all women believe in astrology and want to hear about your stupid sign. Again, I'm generalizing here, as there are men who believe in this stuff too. However, I have heard several stories from women who have had to listen to other women drone on about how they're Capricorns and are therefore imbeciles or whatever the hell. In almost every case, the woman told me that she just played along, pretending like what she was listening to wasn't the most asinine thing she ever heard.

Screw that noise, ladies! If you embrace rationalism, let people know! It's okay for you to say, "I don't believe in that stuff." Playing along with that kind of nonsense just perpetuates that stereotype, and I've known far too many intelligent women to believe that all of them give a crap about when the moon is going to be rising up your butt.

I realize that this is oddly specific, but I just really hate astrology. We can add all kinds of things to this category. For instance, did you know that there are actually some women who DON'T like going shopping? Egads! It's true! I married one!

5. If you're not letting a guy know how smart you really are so he won't dump you, then he's not worth it. There are plenty of great guys who have no problem with women being as smart, or smarter, than them. - 'Nuff said.

6. Expect better from movies aimed at you. - If the theme of the movie is that there's something wrong with a woman because she doesn't have a boyfriend/husband, then this is not a "chick flick". It's an "insult to chicks flick".

So, that's what I got. I realize that as a man, I'm really opening myself up to some criticism here. There's even something somewhat obnoxious about a man saying, "Hey ladies, here's why you're screwing up feminism!" I'm sure that there are plenty of women out there who don't need me telling them this stuff, and if anything, there's a lot of stuff that they can tell me. In those cases, I should shut up and listen.

Still, somebody's buying those magazines and dragging their husbands to see those movies. Not my wife, nor most of the women I know, but I don't think it's all a bunch of men in drag.