Thursday, January 31, 2013

Comics Roundup for 1/30/13

The Superior Spider-Man #2 - I'm not sure how long this storyline can hold up, but it's pretty interesting now that we get to see Peter Parker reacting to everything that's going on as Doctor Octopus continues to control his body.  I think that one good thing that Dan Slott has done with all this is that it's clear that he's been setting stuff up long-term.  In this issue, Mary Jane is getting suspicious, but Peter's other ex-girlfriend, Carlie Cooper, has even more reason to be.  I'm hoping that all of this will play out in the issues to come.

Avenging Spider-Man #16 - I figured that I'd give this book another shot since it looks like it's getting a regular writer.  Plus, it will be interesting to see Ock-Spidey interact with the rest of the Marvel Universe.  I'd be disappointed if Wolverine didn't notice that something was amiss in this team-up with the X-Men, considering that they're fellow Avengers and the two are friends, albeit unconventionally so.  Anyway, I buy it that Rachel Grey wouldn't violate Spider-Man's privacy to see what's going on in his head, but I'm thinking that the new Spidey needs to run into Emma Frost.  It would be hard to imagine her having such reservations.  Overall, I liked this one, and I'm glad to see that it's going to have an ongoing story, as although the team-up concluded, it set things up for the next issue.

Hawkeye #7 - This issue is Matt Fraction's response to Hurricane Sandy, if you will.  Basically, it's got Hawkeye and his friends dealing with what happened.  It doesn't feel too much like a superhero story, but this series is barely your standard superhero fare in the first place - which is part of its appeal.  Anyway, I didn't like this one as much as I've liked the past issues, but it certainly has its place as an important comic along the same lines as the 9/11 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man.

Avengers #4 - Glad to see that this whole Hyperion guy gets explained in this issue.  Plus, it's not like the story from the first three issues is actually complete.  I'm not sure what to think of this series.  It's different, that's for sure.  I'm not entirely convinced that I'll be sticking around for some time, but I'm at least interested enough to check out the next issue.  I'm just hoping that I won't have to wait too long for some payoff.

Batman Incorporated #7 - This certainly is the oddest Batman title around, which is what keeps it interesting.  I'm not sure where Grant Morrison is going with all this, but it's nice to see that he's following up on ideas that first came up in the initial Batman Incorporated intro book.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Better Bible Stories: Job

Some time back, I wrote the first of my "Better Bible Stories".  It was a retelling of the story where Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his son and somehow, agreeing to do it was the right thing to do.  Today, I thought I'd write my own version of the Book of Job, mainly because it gets to the heart of pretty much everything that I think is wrong with religion.

In the land of Uz, which was not too far from Oz, there was a fella named Job.  The dude was hella rich and stuff.  He had sheep, oxen, donkeys and camels.  Man, did the guy have some camels.  He was also really faithful to his God, which in this case is Yahweh, the god of the Jews, who also  happens to be the one, true god, unlike that Huitzilopotchli asshole.

One day, Yahweh was bragging to Satan, who may or may not take the shape of snake from time to time, about how swell Job was and how much Job loved Him.  Satan pointed out that it was only because of the fact that Job had a really great hedge, the kind you'd see on the front cover of Better Homes and Gardens.

Then Satan had an idea, and before he could speak, Yahweh replied:

"Forget it."


"What you're about to propose."

"I didn't even get to say it!"

"Yeah, well, I'm omniscient, remember?  I know everything."

"Oh yeah, then what was I going to say?"

"You were going to suggest that if Job didn't have that really great hedge, he'd start to curse me.  Then you were hoping that I'd be all: 'Go for it.  Take it away.' And then you'd take away the hedge and do all sorts of nasty things to him like make him sick and kill his family.  And his camels.  You were going to kill his camels.  Your hope would be that he'd then curse me."

Yahweh paused as Satan sat there, astonished, which was stupid of Satan, because by now he should be aware of the fact that Yahweh was omniscient.  But then Satan explained that he only pretended to be astonished as the reader needed some kind of a reminder that being omniscient was an impressive thing.

"That about right?"  Yahweh asked.

"Yeah.  So, let's give it a go then, okay?  I bet that he'll curse you if you let me completely ruin his life."

"He won't."

"How do you know?"

"Omniscient, remember?"

"How do I know that you're not lying?"

"What do I give a crap what you think?  You refused to bow down before Adam, according to one major branch of the Abrahamic faiths."

"You're just scared that I'm right."

"No, you're wrong.  I know you're wrong, and being that I'm not only omniscient but omnipotent, I'm now also going to make it so that you know that I'm right in the same way that I do."  Yahweh then said the secret, magic word that he uses when he does all of his tricks.

"Whoa."  Satan said.  "You're totally right.  He could go through totally unimaginably awful stuff and still be faithful."

"Kind of messed up, isn't it?"  Yahweh said.

"Messed up?  How do you figure?  Seems reasonable to me."

"Reasonable?  I let an evil being ruin his life and kill his children, and yet he still remains loyal to me?  He's like one of those abused children or spouses who makes excuses for their tormentors.  Can you imagine if a parent let some guy beat the crap out of their kids just to see if the kids would still love them?  How messed up would that be?"

"Messed up, I guess.  But I'm the devil, and I'm evil, so I dig that sort of a thing."

"Figures."  Yahweh sighed, which is bizarre because he's an incorporeal being who doesn't have lungs.  "I'm going down to talk to Job to give him a bit of a lesson on how to respect himself.  Geez...he'd still worship me after his kids were killed.  His kids!  It's like they're just props in some kind of sick farce.  And don't get me started on the camels.  I like camels."

Comics Roundup 1/23/13

Uncanny Avengers #3 - This is a bit late, isn't it?  That's okay because it's a nutty good time, and John Cassaday's art is in top form.  Rick Remender is also making good use of each team member, and it's certainly interesting to see Captain America have to defer to Havok.  How the heck can somebody give orders to Captain America?  Well, Havok seems confidant enough to pull it off.

Green Lantern #16 - I'm hoping that I won't have to buy all the other Green Lantern books to be able to follow what's going on, because I'm enjoying this story, and I like the new Green Lantern.  This issue also gives us a reason why he carries a gun, and it's a pretty reasonable one.

Wonder Woman #16 - This is becoming another one of those titles where I don't have much to say simply because it's an entertaining read and I have not much else to add to it than that.  I guess I could point out that I like the new look for Orion, and the story gives a pretty good reason for introducing the New Gods into the mix.  I still think that this would make for an interesting team-up with Jason Arron's Thor:  God of Thunder.  Oh, and I love the bit when Hera reminds Ares that he's her least-favorite child.  Mythology nerds like me eat that stuff up.

Avengers #3 - Apparently Jonathan Hickman is the kind of writer who thinks long-term, which he'd better be doing here or else that was really anti-climactic.  I also have to wonder just how new-reader friendly this is.  Apparently that's Captain Universe who saved the day there, right?  Doesn't the Captain Universe power only attach itself to a person in times of great need?  And what's the deal with Hyperion?  Not a whole lot is being explained here, but I'm intrigued enough to check out the next issue.

Winter Soldier #14 - Ed Brubaker goes out on a pretty high, albeit melancholy, note with this series.  I'm not sure if I'm interested enough in the character to see what happens to him with the new writer, but it's certainly been fun following his adventures ever since Brubaker introduced him in Captain America's book.  Hopefully the movie will do him justice.

The Secret Service #5 - Another installment of another Mark Millar book, and I'm entertained and surprised that I don't have to re-read everything that came before since it's been a while since the last issue.  

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Making my brain work better

Over a year ago, I wrote an entry that I entitled "Not Depressed Enough to be Depression".  What I really liked about it was the response that I got.  A couple people, both on my blog here and on Facebook, told me that they could relate to what was going on.  I think that it was one of the few entries where I ever really got personal - instead of writing about my thoughts on beer, comics, religion, etc., I was writing about me and what was going on in my head.  While I figured it would have been a bit of a form of therapy to write that stuff down, I guess the real therapy was in knowing that I wasn't alone.  I tried the same thing with "Got Guilt?  Kill a Hydra!" but I think that my mythological reference might have gotten lost on some people.

I've been thinking for the past few weeks that I should follow up on what I wrote because I have some good news - I've been feeling really good lately.  Oh, sure, there was a moment of depression when it looked like Prop 30 wasn't going to pass in California, but I think that even in that awful scenario I'd find a way to bring my mood back up to what it is now.

Perhaps the biggest sign is that I've been sleeping really well.  One problem that I'd often have is that I'd fall asleep quickly enough, but then I'd wake up in the middle of the night with my mind spinning on something.  This isn't happening anymore.  I guess the trick that I learned is that much of my sleeping experience depends on the thoughts that are going on in my head when I go to bed.  This became really obvious when I'd either read or watch The Walking Dead right before retiring for the evening.  It was inevitable that I'd have bad dreams about zombies.  So, what did I start doing instead?  I'd read something light - oftentimes some Uncle Scrooge Stories by Carl Barks.  That really did the trick.  Now, not everybody has this exact same situation, or a collection of Uncle Scrooge stories handy, but the basic principle is the same - go to bed with good thoughts.

However, I have an even better control over it lately.  When I have some negative thoughts, I just push them out.  This is easier said than done.  I remember telling my therapist that I wished that I could just shut my brain off and stop thinking about things.  She told me that I had to just keep working at re-focusing my mind.  It's not that I didn't believe her, but I resigned myself to the notion that this was simply the reality that I was dealing with - I had a brain that went places that I didn't want it to go.

But like most long-term solutions, it takes a bit of time for it to finally work.  Does my brain still start to dwell on things that drive me nuts?  Sure, it definitely goes there.  However, now I'm able to push it out of my head with just a little bit of effort.  It's not even so much that I have such excellent control, but I'm just TIRED of thinking about things that bother me.  It's like I get annoyed with the fact that those thoughts are even there because I finally understand that dwelling on them solves nothing.  Of course, I had always understood that on a conscious level, but it's like my subconscious level finally understands as well.

I'm not sure what other factors have played a part in all of this.  I think that much of it has to do with the fact that my wife and I finally moved out of our house, where we were ridiculously underwater - literally, if literally means figuratively, which it doesn't, so we weren't.  The stress of that situation finally being gone is a big plus.  Also, I seem to have adjusted to condo life.  The sheer fact that I don't have lots of yardwork is fantastic.  Would it be nice if it was a little bit bigger?  Yeah, but do you know what I'm also tired of?  Not being satisfied with what I have.

Part of me thinks that being a dad has adjusted my outlook a bit.  It's possible that I just don't have as much time for my brain to go wandering off places.  I pick up Logan right after work, and then I take him and the dog on a walk once we get home.  Then it's time for dinner and a bath (wifey usually does the bath) and then bedtime for him.  After that, I'm pooped.  Maybe it's that, but maybe some sort of instinct has kicked in where my brain simply won't let me go off into a dark cloud.

Part of it too is that at 39, I'm probably closer to death than I am to my birth.  Yeah, that sounds depressing, but it isn't to me.  I have no plans to kick off anytime soon, and I hope that at the very least, I grow old enough to see Logan become a man.  But as for death itself, I have no fear of it.  (I do fear dying though - at least, a painful experience.  Once it gets here though, I'm fine with it.)  And unlike the Egyptian Pharaohs, I realize that I can't take stuff with me, good or bad.  Perhaps some people might think it's morbid, but often I get rid of those negative thoughts by just thinking as to how much it will all matter when I'm dead.  It may sound strange, but it cheers me up.

All of these unimportant things that I stress over won't matter, and the only thing that will matter is that I've left this world in a slightly better place, as that will no doubt be my final thought.  While I certainly don't think that I'm a Martin Luther King or somebody along those lines, I think that I've done all right.  Here's hoping that I'll be around plenty long enough to pad the resume some more.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Comics Roundup for 1/16/13

Lots of good stuff.  Here we go:

Star Wars #1 - I read some good reviews of this new series from Dark Horse.  It's basically what the old, original Marvel series was back in the 1970s - the adventures of Luke Skywalker and company right after the destruction of the Death Star.  I like this issue well enough to check out the next one.  The one thing that I thought was pretty good was how they dealt with Han Solo and his Jabba the Hutt situation.  After all, why not just go and pay the guy off and then move on?  Han gives a good reason in this one; at least, he gives a reason that you could believe Han would think is a good reason.  I have to wonder though with all of these Expanded Universe Star Wars stories, are they starting to contradict what's come before?  There are only so many times you can go through the same territory without walking on your own tracks.

Daredevil #22 - This was a fun issue, and thankfully, DD can tell that there's definitely something off with Spider-Man, even though he sounds, smells, etc. the same.  I think it should only be a matter of time before other characters start to catch on.  My only slight complaint is that it would have been nice to see the Peter Parker "ghost" have a say, but maybe they didn't want to spoil the first issue of Superior Spider-Man for those who haven't read it yet.

Captain America #3 - Well, things get even more bizarre in this issue.  It still feels like a Captain America story, but only just barely by this point.  Let's hope that Rick Remender can walk the line between doing something completely different from Ed Brubaker (his shadow still looms large) and something that's still true to the character.

Indestructible Hulk #3 - Just like the first two issues, this one was a fun read but it's not quite sticking with me.  However, at least with this one some interesting developments including a supporting cast get introduced.  I'll stick around.

Savage Wolverine #1 - The art of Frank Cho is the selling point of this series.  His writing?  It's not bad, but it's nothing special.  Still, this was an enjoyable read.  I'll get at least a few issues of it, but I have a feeling that the new adjective-less Wolverine series drawn by Alan Davis might give me my monthly Wolverine fix a bit better.

The New Avengers #2 - This was stronger than the last issue, and that's mainly because we start to get some of the personalities conflicting with one another.  Having Steve Rogers as a member of the Illuminati (which should be the title of this series) certainly sets a new tone for the team (if you can call them that).

Batman #16 - This issue felt kind of perfunctory with its confrontation with the Joker and other members of Batman's rogues gallery.  Also, I was a bit confused as to what was going on, as the art didn't clearly lay out what happened during the fight with Mr. Freeze.  Oh well, the beginning of this story has been great, and Scott Snyder has entertained me more than he has not, so I'll just consider this to be a bump in the road.

All New X-Men #6 - I was feeling somewhat uninterested in this issue until the end, and then things started to get good again.  As for new artist David Marquez, I don't think that I like him as much as Stuart Immonen, but I sure as heck am not going to complain about his work - it's pretty spiffy.  Again, this is the series that has surprised me the most, but I guess it shouldn't considering how many of my favorite comics from the past decade have been written by Brian Michael Bendis.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Just be a dad, dammit!

Little known fact:  Once the baby is born, the father can do almost all of the same stuff as the mother can do.  No, this isn't going to be one of those blog posts where a man moans and groans about how tough he has it in this CLEARLY oppressively matriarchal society.  It's just that it seems like there might actually be some dads out there who need to be told this.

My son, Logan, is not quite two and a half, but I've been changing diapers, feeding him, reading to him, playing with him, hugging him, kissing him, putting him to bed at night, etc. pretty much since he got out of my wife's belly.  Obviously, I deserve some sort of a medal.  No, that's not it.  I'm fairly certain that my dad did all of those things with me as well.  (I kinda have to take his word for it since I don't remember those days so much.)

So, this is obviously some sort of magnificent trait that's been passed down through the Johnson line.  We're clearly a family that produces awesome fathers.  Well, that's not it either because my father-in-law is the same way.  Also, all of my friends who are fathers do the same stuff that I do.

Then what's the big deal?  I'm just doing the same stuff that all dads do, right?  Well, not necessarily.

I've heard a few stories about some dads out there who basically see caring for the child as "her job".  Not only that, but my wife once told me about a guy she knows who got all nervous when his wife left him with their baby for the evening.  "What do I do if she cries?"  He asked.  Umm...figure it out, dude!  You're the dad!  (Again, it's not any of my friends who fit this description.  These are "friends of friends" kinds of stories.)

I'm hoping that these types of dads are in the minority, but it amazes me that there are even any of them out there nowadays.  How the heck do you bring that little baby home and then NOT want to care for it?  It's not exactly like I was fighting my wife to hold on to my son, but I'm pretty certain that if she never let me touch him, I'd start to get pretty upset.  Call it instinct, because I'm fairly certain that there's just as much of my DNA that's invested in my son's welfare as my wife's.

I guess that nothing should really surprise me about people, but a father who's unable and/or unwilling to do the basic are for his child?  It boggles my mind.

The afterlife of Christopher Hitchens

Sometimes when I'm getting ready for work in the morning, I like to listen to various Youtube clips.  Since I'm not sitting in front of the computer, some of the best stuff to listen to are videos that feature debates.  Lately, I keep getting videos featuring the late Christopher Hitchens in my "What to Watch" feed.  Some of them I've seen before, but every now and then one will come up that's brand new.  It's pretty astounding how many videos there are.  One thing the guy was not afraid to do was get into a debate.

While they're interesting, part of me dislikes the entire debate format.  I can understand why guys like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers refuse to debate creationists.  On one hand, it gives those creationists ammo to say, "Look!  He's afraid!  He knows he's going to lose!"  On the other hand though, why should a respected biologist take the time to debate something that's nothing more than a ridiculous pseudoscience?  It doesn't matter how many people believe it, creationism is bogus, and why should he legitimize it by having a debate?  Sometimes, there simply isn't anything to debate.

There's something different though about those Hitchens debates.  True, many of the people he debates drop so many ridiculous logical fallacies and unproven assertions that there's no way for him to address all of them point-for-point.  What's great about them though is the fact that he did them while promoting his book God is Not Great.  Also, according to him, he didn't take the expected book tour for a book like that, and instead he went right into Christian territory in order to have these debates.  In other words, the Christians were giving him a format to bring his point of view to people who might not hear it otherwise.

Because that's the thing, in some parts of this country, there are people who never really hear the arguments against theism.  All they hear is what they're exposed to.  Even in the Information Age, it's astounding how many people I've talked to who don't seem to understand the basic objections that an atheist has.  If I had a nickel for every time I had to explain basic stuff like what the Big Bang even is and how atheism and agnosticism aren't mutually exclusive, well, I'd have one hell of a lot of nickels.

So that's what he was doing - getting the message out to people who wouldn't normally hear it.  I think that one of the most telling of these debates was the one with William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, Douglas Wilson, and Jim Dennison.  What's so telling about it?  All of those guys are Christians.  Not only that, but so is the moderator, who gets into the debate as well and makes some points.  In other words it takes 5 GUYS to debate Hitchens.  What do you think it would be like if it was the other way around?  Well, I'd feel bad for the Christian, that's for sure.  And it's not like each of the Christians get their turn followed by a response by Hitchens.  He has to listen to all four (five, really) before he's able to get his say.

Honestly, I'm not sure how many atheists would be willing to do this, and Hitchens handles himself admirably in this.  At least, he does a better job than I ever would.  I'd be sitting there facepalming my way through the whole event if I had to listen to those guys.

It's a pretty long debate, and I watched it in pieces over the course of a few days.  The things that stand out are the absolutely absurd assertions of William Lane Craig.  The guy's a good speaker, and he's probably pretty convincing to everybody who's already convinced.  However, his assertion that "if it's possible that a God exists, then a God exists" is so breathtakingly inane that I'm surprised that Hitchens didn't fall out of his chair.  Craig also likes to use the "fine tuning" argument, which I've heard theists parrot ad nauseum.  Luckily, Hitchens skewers that one, although I doubt it changed the minds of his fellow panelists.  The thing is with that point is that it's so nebulous, like most arguments for theism.  What, exactly, does "fine tuning" even mean?  And considering that our planet (not to mention the universe) is mostly completely uninhabitable and that the galaxy next to ours is crashing into us, how can anybody even go there?  Plus, with 99% of the species on this planet going extinct, you really gotta wonder.  (I'm repeating what Hichens said here, but I think those points stand just fine on their own.)

Of course, a theist can work his way around anything.  I once had one brush off the whole crashing galaxies thing by saying that God can do what he wants, and it's probably just part of his plan since he said that he was going to destroy our world some day anyway.  In other words, there's no way that they can be wrong.

Then you've got Douglas Wilson, who seems like an affable fella, but he makes one of the most disingenuous arguments that's been floating around in Christian circles.  He tries to flip the burden of proof around by insisting that Hitchens can't call anything "immoral" in his world view because he doesn't have a "standard".  I've had this bit of sophistry thrown my way before as well.  The fundamental flaw with this assertion is that just because one has a standard, that doesn't make it either good or correct.  If Hitchens was a Scientologist, then he'd have a standard, but that wouldn't make it correct or even reasonable.

Forgive me for somewhat parroting Sam Harris here, but just because an atheist can't define an ultimate, objective standard for morality, that doesn't mean that he cannot speak to it at all.  What's the ultimate standard for what's healthy?  Is it the shape you're in?  Is it how long you live?  Is it how many pullups you can do?  If I can't do what Michael Phelps does, does that mean that I'm unhealthy?  What about a basketball player who can't swim as well as him but can jump higher?  Who's healthier?  But the problem with the Christian who makes this form of argument is that it's like saying:  "Hey, you can't say that drinking lighter fluid is unhealthy!  You don't have an ultimate standard!  However, I do.  And my standard is Kieth Moon."

Unfortunately, Hitchens is only able to address this point very fleetingly, as he's basically buried up to his neck in bullcrap.  Still, you gotta admire that he even went for it, and if he even reached out to one person in the audience (or on Youtube) then it was worth it.  And this is the great thing about the world we live in.  Hitchens may be no more, but he's still out there, haunting the tubes, getting the message out to those who are struggling to reconcile those nagging doubts in their heads.

For a much more amusing example, I recommend the following two videos.  Hitchens is the guest on the Way of the Master radio show, which is hosted by the odiously arrogant Todd Friel.  While I'm not a fan of what the guys in the other debate are saying, I could see myself enjoying a conversation with them (maybe not Craig - the guy is too absurd).  This Friel guy is something else though.  Anyway, Friel tries to get Hitchens to play along with his absurd little "game show" that's basically an attempt to corner a nonbeliever into accepting that his position was groundless.  Hitchens simply will not play along though, and Friel keeps trying to get him on track, with much amusement resulting for any nonbeliever out there.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Comics Roundup for 1/9/13

Superior Spider-Man #1 - I realize that it's the norm for anybody who's writing about the Spider-Man books to bash them nowadays, but you still won't find me doing it.  Obviously, I don't want this Doc Ock in Spidey's body to be what they're still doing years from now (and I don't believe for a second that's what anybody at Marvel wants either).  Still, I found myself eagerly flipping through the pages, and I like how even though Octavius has the sense of responsibility, he continues to be an arrogant blowhard.  I especially love the fact that he sits there at the dinner table with Mary Jane with one of those douchey headsets in his ear.  You gotta figure it's only a matter of time until she catches on that something's wrong - and again, she continues to be an interesting character as his non-wife.

As for the twist at the end?  I wasn't surprised, but I was glad to see it.


Basically, we find out that Peter is still holding on to at least a little bit of control, and he's continuing to fight to regain full consciousness of his own body.  Personally, I could have settled for a more subtle way of showing this and holding off on this reveal until the third or fourth issue.

Punisher War Zone #3 (of 5) - Thor versus the Punisher?  It's not much of a contest, so it ends in a conversation - a somewhat interesting one though.

Thor:  God of Thunder #4 - More excellent stuff, and we're starting to see how the young Thor, present-day Thor, and Old Thor stories tie together.  I hope we get a motivation for the villain.  He's kinda like Christopher Hitchens as a god-killing supervillain, only not sympathetic.

Friday, January 4, 2013

You don't have that much to say

I've taken an interest in listening to right-wing radio lately.  Mainly the reason for this is that somebody has informed me that we have a Marxist in the White House!  And he's a Muslim!  And an atheist!

No, wait, that's not it.  I guess I'm just tired of my radio stations, as there are only so many times in the week that I need to get the Led out and/or be welcomed to the Hotel California.  One of these days, I might invest in satellite radio, but considering that my commute is so short, it just doesn't seem all that practical right now.

Why listen to right wing radio then?  I don't know.  It's morbid fascination, I guess.  I've done it before.  Years ago, I'd go to the beach with a couple of friends and we'd listen to Michael Savage and Sean Hannity.  Usually we'd just make fun of the stuff they said - which was either nonsensical, knocking down a strawman, shameless propaganda, gratuitous lying, and/or repetitive talking points.  Lately, my personal favorite has been Mark Levin.

This guy is an expert in the Constitution.  How do I know?  Well, he says the word "Constitution" so much that if you made a drinking game out of his show where every mention of the word equaled one shot, they'd have to pump your stomach by the second hour.  He's also taught me that the current administration and the Democrats in Congress (and some Republicans too!) don't believe in the Constitution and what they prefer is tyranny.  He proves this point by repeating it.

This actually isn't the first time that I've mentioned the guy on my blog.  In my post titled "Why I'm not a Conservative", I wrote the following:

A conservative recently recommended the book Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto by Mark Levin. I read through bits and pieces of it at Barnes and Noble, but I think that I read enough to say that it's ridiculous. His first chapter sets up both the strawman and the false dilemma. Basically, you were either a conservative, or you were a "statist". Essentially, if you weren't somebody who identifies as being conservative, then you essentially want a government that controls every aspect of your life. I remember reading his opening chapter and thinking, "I'm not either one of these things!" Yeah, yeah, I know, you probably shouldn't judge a book unless you've read at least the majority of it. But how can I keep going when the initial premise is so flawed to begin with?
And don't get me started on his chapter on religion. His whole argument was, "Science can't explain reason, so therefore a magical man who lives outside of space and time created everything." (Okay, he didn't use phrases like "magical man" but that's still the crux of his argument. Since you can't explain something, therefore a god must have done it. This of course is fool-proof logic, as we all know that Thor brought lightning before we could explain it.)

Honestly, I probably only listen to his show for about 15-20 minutes a day, and I've only been doing so for the past month now.  Yet somehow I feel like I've heard pretty much everything that the guy has to say, although I must admit I could stand to hear him say the word "Constitution" one more time.  What gets me is that there are no doubt some people who listen to his show all the time, and the entire thing!  I realize that even though it probably runs for about 2-3 hours, about 1/3 of that is commercials, but still!  Are you hearing anything new?

There was a time there when I was listening to some liberal talk show or another in the morning.  While I found myself agreeing and being at least slightly more entertained, I started to lose interest because it started to turn in to the same thing over and over again.  Maybe some people need to have their beliefs constantly reinforced, but I'm not sure that I do.  At least, not via radio or TV anyway.  Part of me thinks that this is why left-wing radio never really catches on in the first place - many people who tend to lean more left don't flock to authoritarian demagogues like those on the right do.  And yes, I'm aware that I just made a dangerously oversimplified generalization with little evidence to support it.  Let's just call it a hunch for now.

I think that it takes somebody who's remarkably thoughtful and well-read on a myriad of issues to be able to fill that much time with enough original thought, and I'm not sure if such a person exists or if he or she did, people would listen to something with that much variety.

Blogs are kind of like that as well.  So long as new comic books come out, I'll always have something to write about.  However, there's a reason why I go long periods of time lately without writing my thoughts on religion and politics - it's because I've said much of what I've had to say in the first couple years of writing this thing.  I know that I have written a few religion posts lately, but I wouldn't be surprised if I touched on those issues at least once before.  At best, I'm just refining some old ideas, approaching them from a new angle, and/or elaborating on different aspects of them.

I check out some atheist blogs and podcasts, but unless they're talking about stuff that hasn't already been discussed ad nauseum, I usually skip those posts/episodes.  I don't need it explained to me again that the burden of proof is on the one claiming that a God exists, for instance.

Hosting a talk show where the whole thing is basically centered on your pontificating is probably a difficult thing to do well - at least, in a way that attracts listeners.  I suppose I can respect that, but I don't think that I can listen to this stuff much longer.  If I didn't find it to be hilarious, albeit unintentionally so, I probably would have tuned out a long time ago.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Knowledge only accessible to me

I'm not entirely sure what distinguishes a religion from a cult.  Apparently, Mormonism was a cult but then it stopped being one when a Mormon Republican ran for President.  I imagine that there are some of my fellow non-believers out there who make little distinction between the two, but if I'm being honest, I can't exactly lump The People's Temple (you know, Jim Jones, Kool-Aid) in the same category as your average group of Lutherans.  There's a difference, even if I'm not able to define exactly what it is.  Sure, you could say that the difference is that one involved murder and suicide whereas the other doesn't, there are definitely groups out there that I would call a cult that aren't necessarily deadly - the Jehovah's Witnesses, The Purple People, and Mac users spring to mind.

What about Mormons?  Are they a cult?  I've had this conversation with some friends.  One of my friend definitely thinks they are, but I disagree.  Now, if we're talking about the Fundamentalists who live in those isolated communes with multiple wives, then yeah, that's a cult.  However, Joe Average Mormon?  I don't see him as a cultist.  They're too mainstream and more importantly, which I think is a major distinction, they're very open about their beliefs.  Mormons will tell you the whole story if you want to hear it (and in some cases, even if you don't).  There's just too much that's out in the open with them.

There is a relationship between cults and religions though.  Oftentimes, cults spring out of more mainstream religious movements, for starters.  Maybe the best way to look at this is for me to come up with a completely original analogy for religion that nobody else has ever thought of ever.  I'm going to say that religion is kind of like a drug.  No, that has the wrong connotation to it.  How about religion is like the poppy plant?  Opium?  Opiate?  Yeah, that's it.  Religion is like an opiate.  If you ever use that comparison, remember, you heard it here first, and you owe me a nickel every time you do.  After all, I'm a capitalist.

So, to continue on with this metaphor, religion can be for some like having a couple of beers after a stressful week of work.  It makes you happy, it gets your mind off your problems.  While you might not really NEED it, you could make the argument that it's doing more good than harm to you.  Of course, too much of it and you turn into an asshole, but you get my point.  However, there are other opiates out there like meth which pretty much ruin your life, and that's where the People's Temple comparison starts.  Then you've got all sorts of stuff in between.

Recently, I was doing some reading on cults as a bit of research for my senior English class.  We're reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, so I thought it was apropos to have them read about cults since we need to distinguish between the religion of the Nation of Islam and the religion of Islam.  I tell the students that in my opinion, the former is a cult whereas the latter is a religion.  (I make it clear that this is my opinion though, as there is no scientific scale that measures which is which.)  As a little writing exercise, I have them create their own cult, using various criteria that I've been able to piece together that all cults seem to have in common (like charismatic leaders, a combination of traditional religious beliefs with New Age, etc.)  One of the things that I noticed that all cults do is they have some kind of secret, for lack of a better word, knowledge.  It's stuff that only the leader, or people who are deep into the organization, are able to figure out.

For instance, Marshall Applewhite of Heaven's Gate was able to interpret various passages from the New Testament to let his followers know that it was about alien visitations and UFOs.  Charles Manson heard messages in songs from The Beatles.  Shoko Asahara of The Supreme Truth actually managed to travel into the future and witness the devastating effects of World War III.  (That happened in 2006.  You probably don't remember it because it didn't happen - most likely because Asahara managed to prevent it ala Terminator 2.)  And let's not get started on the Scientologists.  You've gotta get to Tom Cruise-level status until you finally realize that psychotherapy is a Nazi conspiracy.

So, that was one of the criteria that I had my students create - a source of "secret knowledge".  It could be an interpretation of Moby Dick.  It could be from the back of a cereal box.  Whatever.  The point is that not just any schmuck should be able to figure it out.  (I got some pretty fun bits of creative writing out of this assignment, by the way.)

Several days later, it occurred to me that this is something that's not really unique to cults.  Crap, this is what nearly every religious person does when they engage in debate with a nonbeliever.  They might not point out something that's obviously as wacky, but, still is kinda wacky.  You especially find this kind of thing with the Biblical apologist.  I was listening to a debate with Christopher Hitchens and Dennis Prager some time ago.  (You can probably find it on Youtube).  I remember that when Hitchens was talking about all of the atrocities and absurdities in The Old Testament, Prager hemmed and hawed about how he didn't have a problem because he had studied it in the original language and thusly had a greater understanding.  (I'm not using any quotes, because I might not be remembering this correctly.  However, I've heard this sort of a thing  from other apologists.)  In other words, you've gotta spend your whole life studying this damned book in order for you to realize that all the awful stuff isn't really that awful, and all the ridiculous stuff isn't all that ridiculous.  Heaven forbid that you expected it to just be straightforward and easily understood.  It would take some sort of all-perfect being to pass on something like that!

I've also gotten into discussions about specific passages where apologists refer to something called Strong's Exhaustive Concordance.  Basically, you can check that out to find out all of the possible translations, variants, connotations, and denotations of every damn passage from the Bible's original text.  It's aptly named, because you'll be exhausted when you realize what a ridiculous waste of time you've engaged in trying to fit square pegs into things that aren't even meant to have pegs inserted inside them.

Beyond that, you get the arguments from personal experience.  You know, God talks to people, but you can't record the conversations or objectively verify it.  People will tell you that they "know" that it's true because they have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe.  Basically, that stops any and all discussion, but it does it in the same way that a personal vision of the future stops discussion.  The truth of the matter can't be confirmed one way or another, making it indistinguishable from bullshit.

You also get a combination of the last two examples.  See, just reading The Bible isn't good enough.  You have to ask God to open your heart so you can read it the right way.  Obviously, if you're going into it as an atheist, you're going to have trouble asking this thing that you don't think exists.  Whatever you do though, don't read it while considering that it's untrue is a possible conclusion that you might reach.

I've even had somebody go so far as to use the phrase "other ways of knowing" in order to explain how one can "know" that his or her religious beliefs are true or not.  I'm not even sure of what that means.  Couldn't I just say that I have another way of knowing that your other way of knowing is malarky?  How could you verify it one way or another?

Well, in the 200th issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, you will see the prophecy that proves that I can figure these things out.  Of course, if you try and read it for yourself, you probably won't get that message.  You have to ask Spider-Man to guide you, and if he doesn't, and you still don't get it, then you're doing it wrong, obviously.  Send me money, and that will be a good first step toward figuring it out.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Comics Roundup for 1/2/13

Hellboy in Hell #2 - While reading this, it occurred to me that this sort of thing would have scared the bejeezus out of me when I was a little kid.  Don't believe me?  Well, Jack Kirby's Demon used to freak me out, so this book which has a hero who goes down to hell and sees his dad, Satan, would certainly do the trick.  I like the fact that there's no Marvel Comics style ambiguity with who that big bad guy is.

Anyway, I was really looking forward to this series, and I only liked the first one well enough.  This issue really picks up the pace though.  I love how dead serious and almost pseudo-poetic all the characters are, and then you've got Hellboy with his rather gruff way of speaking.  Example bit of dialogue:

Hellboy:  Who's in there?
Faceless guide character:  Satan.  The enemy.  King of the rebel spirits, king of the world, lord over all the powers of the air.
Hellboy:  Yeah.  I've heard of him.

Mignola's also really back in the swing of things, art-wise.

New Avengers #1 - Why don't they just call this Avengers:  Illuminati?  I think the only reason why they call it what they call it is because it's more likely to sell with that title.  Whatever.  I liked this issue well enough, and even though some online reviews panned it for focusing too much on just one member, I was fine with that.  Basically, The Black Panther runs into a pretty serious problem, so he has to call in the Illuminati, which now includes Captain America.  I'm interested enough to get the next issue.

All New X-Men #5 - What Wonder Woman was to DC's "New 52", this title is to "Marvel Now".  I actually didn't even get the first issue when it came out, but the artwork inspired me to pick it up.  Four issues later, and I'm looking forward to this one the most.  I have a feeling it's going to be one of those books where I don't have much to say other than "I liked it" - mainly because there are only so many ways I can explain how I appreciate that this book attempts to get to the roots of what makes the X-Men what they are.

Batman Incorporated #6 - Speaking of running out of stuff to say, here's another book where I like it but don't have much to say about it beyond that.  I wonder if this book will continue once Grant Morrison departs.  Seems to me like Scott Snyder is the bat-writer to beat nowadays.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What about Judeo-Christian-C'thulhu values?

The following video was brought to my attention recently from American Atheists.  If you don't feel like watching it, I'll summarize.  If you watch it, skip the next paragraph.

Basically, you've got a Fox News talking head addressing the issue of how those who consider themselves "religiously unaffiliated" is rising.  And to discuss this, she brings on two very-much-affiliated guests - a Baptist Pastor and a Rabbi.  (I almost wrote Jewish Rabbi...heh.  As opposed to the Hindu Rabbis.)  The Rabbi bemoans the current state of affairs, saying that our values are "Judeo-Christian" and that it's being replaced by "liberalism" and "moral relativism."  The Pastor claims that his church is growing because people from "all different religious backgrounds" are joining.  Of course, he's not talking Muslims, Shintoists, and Zoroastrians - he's referring to different denominations of Christianity.  The rabbi then goes on about how there's "more to life than being a good person" and you need a "relationship with God".  The Pastor then claims that there's "no evolutionary explanation" for evil, and the fact that we call things evil proves God.  (Insert me rolling my eyes here.)

I don't want to get all bent out of shape over these two guys because I've never even heard of them before this.  I'm not sure how influential either one of them is in the first place.  Also, I don't want to get into the standard atheist talking points, mainly because I've probably already gone over them in other posts and anybody who hasn't heard them yet obviously doesn't care to hear them.  Instead, I want to address some of the points that I've heard made before and maybe point out the one thing that I find particularly silly about these kinds of conversations in general.

First off though, I just want to say that I find it hilarious when people of any religion go off about how atheists follow a sort of "moral relativism" (and I realize that not all of the "unaffiliated" are atheists - that category can mean all sorts of things from atheists to agnostics to agnostic theists with Christian leanings).  I've gotten into this with some Christians before about how supposedly whatever I determine to be good or evil is based on my own subjective feelings, and I don't have any kind of objective way of determining that.  Well, my response is that a Christian or any other theist is in no position to criticize me for that.  Considering the sheer fact that you can't get two people of the same religion to even agree 100% of the time on exactly what their God thinks is good and what is evil, they're doing the SAME THING.

Look at all the divisions in the major religions of the world.  They're practicing subjective morality just as much as anybody else, only they like to pretend that they aren't.  At least I can honestly say that I'm the one trying to figure out what's good and what's evil, although I can gladly say that most of my fellow human beings tend to agree on a lot of those issues - this probably has much to do with the fact that we're from the same species.

Anyway, I also find the Rabbi to be ridiculous when he points out how we get our values from "Judeo-Christian" principles, and then he goes on to cite the New Testament along with the Old Testament.  Now, I'm not Jewish, but I think if I was - religiously, culturally, or both - I would be doing a spit-take when he said that.  Is he not aware that Judaism flat-out rejects the primary claim of the New Testament?  Sure, your average Jew, just like any other person, can find bits and pieces in Christian scripture where he or she can agree.  However, the basic premise - that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God who came to redeem humanity of our sins - is one that simply does not jive with the Jewish faith.

Now, if this was simply a polite difference of opinion for the past 2000 years, then I wouldn't make anything of it.  However, it's this basic difference that has been the linchpin of Anti-Semitism ever since Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.  Jews were seen as "Christ Killers".  Shoot, in the New Testament, the Gospel of John has a very clear bone to pick with the Jews, which has been used to make them out to be the boogeymen for centuries now.  In other words, a lot of Jews have died over this issue.

So yes, there's a definite connection between Judaism and Christianity, but there are also some completely irreconcilable differences.  Of course, the Fox News narrative is "atheists are baaaaaaad" so this would never happen, but I would have loved to ask the pastor to tell the audience, while the rabbi was listening, exactly what he believes will happen to that rabbi when he dies if he does not accept Jesus Christ before shuffling off the mortal coil.  And while I don't necessarily want to assume exactly what this Pastor thinks, I know what the vast majority of Christians think will happen to him and every non-Christian out there - and it ain't a trip to Valhalla - it's straight to HELL.

Of course, the Pastor is funny when he talks about all these denominations of Christianity being welcome at his church.  I bet his church is growing, and he's smart to try and tie together Baptists with Catholics, Lutherans, etc.  If anything, it shows the lengths that he has to go to in order to bring up his numbers.  Christianity has to evolve a bigger umbrella, as it's going to die out if it keeps being segmented into different denominations.

But hey, it's not like there has ever been any kind of violence and/or oppression among different Christian denominations though...what's that?  There has been?  Christians killing other Christians over differences of belief about what amounts to the same religion?  Well, I never!

Still, it's amazing what you can accomplish when you ignore history and your followers are ignorant about it.  Just look at how some Christians have embraced the Mormons - even Billy Graham took them off of his list of "cults" when Romney ran for President.  That's okay though, Mormons are Christians and basically believe the same thing as the rest of the Christians do - you know, how Jesus came to America and Yahweh is an alien from the planet Kolob.  They all believe that, right?

I guess I shouldn't complain too much.  It's good to see people getting along, even if guys like the Pastor and the Rabbi are doing it to point out the nonbelievers as the enemy d'jour.  Also, if anything is a sign of religion's waning influence, it's this - where various believers are ignoring their differences that have existed for centuries.  If we keep this up, they're going to start including the Muslims, then the Hindus, and even the agnostics, 'cause hey, at least those Hamlets of religious commitment aren't telling you that God isn't real, right?  Shoot, by the time I'm an old man, they'll include the atheists, 'cause when we get mad, we still tend to say things like "Goddammit".

For a similarly-themed article, check out what Penn Jillette has to say.