Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bedtime and letting my son manipulate me

Sometimes when I look at the status updates on Facebook, I will read about parents who are struggling to get their kids to sleep at night. Often it involves the parents giving in and letting the child sleep in bed with them, or sometimes even the parent bringing in a cot so he or she can sleep in the kid's room. Also, I have read many stories of parents whose really young ones (less than a year) will sleep for only a few hours at a time.

As tempting as it is, I'm usually pretty good at not rubbing in the fact that my son, Logan, has been ridiculously easy when it comes to bedtime. I remember my wife and I coming up with an elaborate sleep schedule for the two of us so that way we could both be sure to get around six hours of sleep a night. We only had to follow this plan for a couple of weeks at the most though, as Logan didn't take long to start sleeping through the night. It's not so surprising though, as when perusing our respective baby books, it turns out that both my wife and I started sleeping through the night at an early age. I guess the desire to sleep is in the DNA.

We've never had him spend the night in our bed. He will climb in with us in the morning, and even when he climbs in too early, we don't have a problem telling him that he needs to go back to bed. Sometimes he requests that my wife rock him for a minute or two (a "hug in the chair" he calls it) but that's pretty much all there is to it. I think that there was also one time when he wasn't feeling well when we had him in our bed for a little bit, but he soon asked to go back to his own bed.

The kid likes his bed, and he likes to sleep. One time, when my father-in-law was babysitting him, Logan just turned to him and said, "Go night night?" Turns out, it was time to go. When my dad came over, he wanted to go in to Logan's room to say goodnight. I put Logan down, gave him a hug and a kiss, and then I had "Papa" do the same. We left the room, and my dad said, "That's it?" Yup. That was it.

Only now that's not it. Logan's almost three years old, and it's getting a bit tougher, although I'm sure that there might be some parents out there who would love to trade their bedtime problems for ours. I'm fairly certain that it's no coincidence that this has taken place right around the same time that we weaned Logan off of the pacifier. While getting rid of his "binky" went smoothly, I think it has some effect on his inability to fall asleep as quickly as before.

What's happening is that we'll put him to bed without any problem. The routine involves giving him a bath, brushing his teeth, reading some books, a "hug in the chair" from both Mommy and Daddy, and then "night night". Then he goes to bed, and just when you think that's that, he gets up five minutes later and comes out because he needs a hug and/or a kiss. Sometimes he asks for water or to blow his nose, but 80% of the time he just wants a hug and a kiss. Oh, and after, he asks that one of us carries him back to his bed. This happens about five or six times, each time with him getting more and more sleepy, until he finally stops.

This seems to be a bit different from what I hear from other parents. Usually the child will have all kinds of requests and then resist going back to bed. Putting him back in bed is never an issue. He wants to go back. Usually, when he doesn't want to do something like get his diaper changed, we'll say something along the lines of, "Are you coming with me or do I have to carry you?" Most of the time, he'll insist on walking himself. With this, that doesn't really work because he wants to be carried back in bed. So, I can't say, "Go to bed, or I'll put you back in bed!" I might as well say, "Go to bed, or I'll give you some ice cream!"

Last night, I tried staying in his room and talking to him in a soothing voice until he finally fell asleep. What did he do? He pointed at the door and asked me to go. So much for that bright idea. I also tried reading a book while he stayed in bed, but that only got him more excited and he probably fell asleep about an hour after he normally does.

I know what some of you are thinking. You think that what I need to do is just pick him up and put him in bed without saying anything to him. Don't give him that hug or kiss. Just gently pick him up and put him back in bed. Trust me, I tried it, and I just can't do it.

Honestly, I don't think that I indulge my son all that much, and I'm aware that those cute little buggers are masters at manipulation. Lately, he's been getting into a bossy phase, and he'll ask me to go get a toy out of his room - a toy that he can get just fine on his own. I'll respond that if he wants it, he can go and get it. He'll cry and insist "You go get it!" but I don't give in. I don't mind doing him a favor here and there, but if he wants to play with his truck, he can go and get it just fine. I can also tell you that my wife handles this the same way, and I'm lucky that we don't differ too much in this. I can give you other scenarios, but I hope that's enough to illustrate how we parent.

In other words, neither my wife nor I have any problem saying "no" to him. I will admit that it's a pretty rare thing for me to say it when he asks me to read a book with him. Unless I'm in the middle of cooking or something where I can't just stop, I will drop what I'm doing, if it's something like reading my own book or watching a TV show, in order to read to him. I'll also admit to reading an extra book at night when I say that the one we just read was going to be the last one. Usually that will finally be the last one when I say, "Okay, but this is IT." but there have been a few times when I finally had to tell him that sorry, it was bed time.

So, I tried to just pick him up and put him back in bed while he insisted on a hug or a kiss. I can't do it though. If you're thinking that I'm like this because my parents withheld affection from me, you're wrong, as it's really quite the opposite. I have a hard time seeing either one of them refusing a hug or a kiss, especially when I was that little.

Yeah, I probably wound up giving my son about five or six extra hugs and kisses. He is manipulating me to some degree, and he knows that I'm not going to turn him down. For some reason though I can't help but feel that this isn't so bad, especially if it's clear to him that this doesn't work every time he tries to get his way. Maybe I'm making some huge mistake, but I don't think that I've ever heard an adult complain that their parents returned their affections too often.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Wolverine review

Is it possible to write a review of The Wolverine that doesn't mention how bad X-Men Origins: Wolverine was? Probably not, so let's get that out of the way first.

I've been a fan of the character since I was in middle school, and I remember being really pleased with Hugh (maybe a bit too tall) Jackman's performance in the X-Men movies. I'm actually one of the few who didn't hate the third X-Men movie, even though I think that it was the weakest of the three.

I had high hopes for a solo Wolverine movie, and the trailer made it look like it would be pretty cool. Unfortunately, it was a huge disappointment. I don't remember much about it being particularly bad, aside from the horribly bad CGI claws and lame explanation as to why he lost his memory. The main problem was that the whole thing just felt like it was going through the motions, and I couldn't get invested in any of the characters, especially considering that they were trying to cram as many mutants in there as possible, even if they had no reason to be there. (Hello, Gambit.)

My hopes for a good Wolverine movie were rekindled when it was announced that Darren Aronofsky was going to be directing a new one. It had a lot of good things going for it: a good director, the fact that it would be a stand-alone story, and it would be based on the great Chris Claremont/Frank Miller Wolverine mini-series from the early 1980s that I read and loved as a kid (that still holds up pretty well). My enthusiasm began to wane when Aronofsky dropped out of the project, but when I heard that James Mangold was going to replace him, I figured that there was a good chance that they'd make something decent.

I started to get a little bit skeptical when I saw the previews. Yeah, it took place in Japan, but the plot didn't seem to be the same as the one from the mini-series. Also, the reviews haven't been fantastic, even though it's currently at a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes, which still counts as "fresh" and is 10% higher than Man of Steel. I guess you can say that I approached this movie with cautious optimism.

So what did I think? I really liked it...a lot. Do I think that it's a great movie that's destined to be a classic? No. Do I think that it transcends the genre like Christopher Nolan's Batman movies? No. However, it's at least as good as any of the X-Men films, maybe even a little bit better. The one thing that might put it over those films is that the action scenes are really well-done (and that's the one thing that I think that the third X-Men movie did better than the Brian Singer-directed ones). They were pretty intense, and even though some critics have complained that they come one after another, it just felt relentless to me - but in a good, adrenaline-spiking sort of way.

The most important thing that this film does well is that it made me feel invested in the characters, Logan in particular. The problem with the last one was that I just simply didn't care about what happened to anybody, and that to me is the worst thing that a movie can do. I can overlook various plot problems if I feel like what's happening matters. I remember the moment in the last Wolverine movie where his love interest died and I felt absolutely nothing. I didn't care about her, and I didn't care about his reaction.

Like any good superhero movie, this one really digs into why having superpowers would probably as much of a burden than anything else. In the case of Wolverine, it was cool to see his apparent immortality be explored in a way that I don't think they've ever really done in the comics. Also, while he's lost his powers here and there, I've never seen it done to such an emotional effect as how this movie handled it. What really worked for me is that the hero was given an actual character arc here, and I didn't feel like he was the same guy at the end of the film as he was in the beginning. He learned to finally accept who and what he is, and I hope that's reflected in the next X-Men movie.

I should also mention how this relates to the original mini-series, for those of you who have read it. It's definitely not a straightforward adaptation. However, it's clearly inspired by that story, and it touches on all of its major themes (Wolverine as a Ronin) while introducing some other pretty interesting ones.

Overall, I say that if you're a fan of the comics and/or the character, you'll enjoy yourself in the very worst case scenario. If you're normally not into this sort of a thing, this won't do anything for you. I always like to give my wife's perspective on these, as she will almost always go and see them with me, but there are only a few that she really likes a lot. In the case of this one, she was entertained, and even called it a "great" movie on her Facebook status. Maybe it's just because that Hugh Jackman fella is pretty handsome though.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The impasse

I have been having some really pleasant online conversations with theists over the past few weeks. They've been good because it has been an example of genuine communication, where it doesn't feel like either side is talking AT the other side. So, it's been pretty nice, and while I don't feel any differently about my beliefs, I've been feeling very positive about the state of relations between believers and nonbelievers.

Then something had to go and ruin everything, and it reminded me of what's lurking beneath even some of the most productive conversations.

Before I get to that, let me pick on the nonbelievers first in the interest of fairness. There's always going to be something lurking in the back of the mind of every nonbeliever, and that is: "That stuff you think is real? It ain't." I suppose that there are probably a lot of nonbelievers out there who will say that they respect everyone's beliefs, but you'll never hear me say that. I respect people, and I respect their right to believe whatever they want. I might even respect how their beliefs shape their behavior, but I'll never say that I "respect" the idea that some dude died a couple thousand years ago and came back to life and all the trappings that go with it. I think that Patton Oswalt said it best:
"You’ve gotta respect everyone’s beliefs.” No, you don’t. That’s what gets us in trouble. Look, you have to acknowledge everyone’s beliefs, and then you have to reserve the right to go: “That is fucking stupid. Are you kidding me?” I acknowledge that you believe that, that’s great, but I’m not going to respect it. I have an uncle that believes he saw Sasquatch. We do not believe him, nor do we respect him!
 If you want to hear the whole thing in context:

I realize that some people might think that I'm being arrogant or intolerant even for saying this, but personally I think that it would be condescending of me to nod my head and say, "Yeah, well, maybe Jesus really did walk on water." I've known some nonbelievers who think that you need to just "let people believe", which I think is even more insulting, as you're treating the believer like a child who isn't ready to let go of Santa Claus yet. For me, I'd prefer it that people know where I stand.

So, if you're a believer, realize that I might genuinely think that you're a terrific person - and I really can say that about a lot of believers I've known - but do I respect those beliefs? No, I'm sorry, but I don't. I should point out though that there are some beliefs that I respect far less than others. I don't respect the belief in the Jesus story, but I have outright contempt for something like Scientology.

But don't get all smug there, theists, 'cause now I'm gonna turn the tables. Before I do, I need to point out that I'm going to be generalizing here, and I know that these particular beliefs do not apply to ALL believers, or even all Christians.

With that said, Christianity just had to go and piss me off again this week. I learned about a couple of kids whose church teaches them that nonbelievers are going to burn in hell for eternity. Guess who happens to be a nonbeliever who's important in their lives? One of their parents. So, basically, these kids are being taught that their beloved parent is going to suffer eternal torment for not believing the right thing. I was going to write a blog about how that's psychological abuse, but maybe I'll have to get to that another time.

Because this is the thing that sticks in the back of my mind, and one of the reasons why I absolutely CANNOT respect many forms of Christianity. Christians think that since I don't believe the same thing as them, I'm going to be tortured forever. Am I supposed to just grin and go, "Yeah, well, maybe that is going to happen to me. We'll see!"

What makes it bad is that for Christians who believe in an everlasting punishment (and I realize that there are many who don't) is that on some level, they not only think that this will happen, but they think that I deserve it. Of course, when you talk to most Christians, they're far too decent to actually say those words, because actually putting those thoughts into their head is too barbaric for them to deal with. They'll give you some runaround about how God is the judge, etc. That doesn't get a pass as far as I'm concerned though because if you believe in God, then you believe that he's the one who makes the decisions and ultimately is the one who determines who "deserves" what.

So, you can't get around it. Yeah, I might think of Jesus as being on the same level on the veracity scale as Santa Claus, but believers think that I deserve to be tortured endlessly. And not just me, most of humanity. If that's not an impasse, I don't know what is.

Note: Please don't go into what The Bible really says about hell and everlasting torment and all that. I don't care what it says. It's the fact that people believe that which is the point.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Spider-Man 2099

I haven't written about comics since my last weekly roundup, so I figured it was time to write about something a little less heavy than religion, rape, and gender issues. After reading about the return of Spider-Man 2099 in the current Superior Spider-Man series, I figured that I'd dig out and reread the original run of Spider-Man 2099, which ran in the early 1990s.

For those who don't know, the character debuted in Spider-Man 2099 #1 back in 1992. It ran for 46 monthly issues. The basic concept was that it was the Marvel Universe of the future, and a new hero, Miguel O'Hara, adopted the identity of Spider-Man. His world was dystopian, where corporations basically ran society (unlike reality, ya know). He also stumbled into the role of hero, and instead of having a "With great power comes great responsibility moment" like Peter Parker, he gradually grew into being somebody who did the right thing.

He was different from Peter Parker in other ways as well. He was the exact opposite when it came to his sense of humor, as he tended to be more sarcastic and witty when in his civilian identity. When he was Spider-Man, he didn't say a whole lot.

Anyway, you can go to the Wikipedia page if you want the full scoop on his powers and publication history. I'd rather tell you about my thoughts on the character and the series.

When the series debuted, I was in my senior year of high school. There were some other 2099 books that came out at that time. This was the only one that I stuck with though, and much of it has to do with the writing of Peter David, one of my all-time favorite comic writers. The first artist and co-creator, Rick Leonardi, is a favorite as well. It didn't hurt that Al Williamson was on board for the inks. In fact, I seem to recall that a period in the early 90s where the only two Marvel Comics I was reading were this one and The Incredible Hulk. Considering that for most of the 27+ years that I've read comics I've primarily read Marvel Comics, that's really saying something, as they were really producing a lot of crap then.

Even though the character was called Spider-Man, and there were a few 2099 villains who seemed familiar (The Vulture, Dr. Doom, Venom, The Green Goblin) this didn't feel like a knock-off set in the future. The creators really made a whole new world with all kinds of fresh ideas. One of the best bits was Miguel's holographic servant, Lyla. She basically was supposed to look like Marilyn Monroe - only not too close for legal purposes, I guess. There were always some funny bits with her, and even a complete story where she basically went out of control and became obsessed with Miguel like some sort of Fatal Attraction situation, only with a hologram that controls your house.

The supporting characters added to the appeal of the series as well. Miguel's boss, Tyler Stone, was a sociopath, and he also turned out to be Miguel's real father. There was a really great bit where Stone was going to finally drop the bomb on the hero that he was his father, but the wind was taken completely out of his sails when Miguel informed him that he had already known about it for some time.

Then you have Miguel's mother, who's a bit of a nut and a drama queen, to say the least considering that she tried to murder Tyler Stone. Rounding out the family was Gabriel, his brother, who knew his big brother's secret and had all kinds of issues with it. Like any good comic, there were also love interests and love triangles.

Even though it really felt fresh, it still captured the heart of what Spider-Man, in the general sense, is all about. You have a hero who does what he does out of a sense of responsibility, and he's not exactly beloved by the people. His fortunes shift drastically, and one way or the other, you always find yourself rooting for him.

I should also point out that there was a Spider-Man/Spider-Man 2099 crossover special, done by the creative team of David/Leonardi/Williamson. That one was a lot of fun, as the two heroes wound up changing places in their respective time periods. Some great moments from that one included a recreation of the splash page from Spider-Man 2099 with the original Spidey in place of his counterpart, Miguel waking up in bed next to Mary Jane, and Miguel telling J. Jonah Jameson that in the future, Spider-Man is revered as a hero, and Jameson's not even a footnote.

It's probably been 15+ years since I've read these comics, and it's nice to say that they hold up pretty well. I'm sure that they will survive the next time I purge my collection of stuff I don't think that I'll ever want to read again. From what I understand, they have never reprinted the series in its entirety. Hopefully with Spidey 2099 making his return appearance in the regular Spider-Man title, there will be enough interest for that to happen and for new fans to discover his adventures. (And maybe we can convince Peter David to write a new series!)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Some men will never understand why rape is always wrong.

I don't know if I've ever written this before in my blog, but when my wife was pregnant, I was hoping for a girl. I always pictured myself as being a good dad for a girl, as I believe in women's equality, and I wouldn't have any lower standards for what I expected from a daughter than I would for a son. I'd encourage her to be whatever she wanted to be, and I wouldn't expect her to fit any expectation of what a female is supposed to be like.

Well, whattaya know? I wound up with a boy. Hopefully I can be a good dad to a son as well. The funny thing is, I never look at him and think, "Man, I really wish he was a girl." When I look at him, I wish that I had him, and as chance would have it, I do. However, as somebody who fancies himself as being forward-thinking when it comes to gender relations, I think that I can still do my part just as effectively with a boy as I can with a girl. In other words, I can teach him how to treat women right.

I'll be honest. I think that women aren't treated as well as they should be. Sure, there might be a few things here and there where they have some advantages over men, but overall the deck is clearly stacked on the male side of things. I think that there are many levels to the problem, from men who are basic stereotypical chauvinists to men who ought to know better but have a touch of misogyny in them. For instance, a woman's looks - whether good or bad - will come up in conversation no matter what, even when her looks are completely irrelevant (which is nearly every instance except for beauty contests). Also, I hear men, when talking about a woman who's being particularly nutty, referring to her as a "typical" woman. The funny thing is, whenever I hear about these supposed "typical" female traits, the first thing that occurs to me is that my wife certainly doesn't fit them, and there are plenty of other women I know who don't either. I guess it's just the confirmation bias thing at work - if you're convinced that women think and behave a certain way, you'll always take note of it when they meet the expectation but will promptly forget it when they don't.

All this could be fodder for another blog post, but right now I want to address what's probably the most serious problem when it comes to gender issues, and that is the issue of rape. The fact that rape exists is enough to say that we have a problem, but the problem becomes even more insidious when we see how people deal with it. A particularly grievous example of this was CNN's coverage of the Steubenville rape trial, where the network seemed more concerned about the uncertain futures of a couple of rapists than how their victim was doing.

There seems to be some disconnect for too many young men as to what, exactly, rape is. In the case of Steubenville and the rape of Audrie Pott, (who later killed herself after also being the victim of "slut shaming") both of the victims were not resisting and screaming for their attackers to stop. But why was it rape then? Simple - because they were both passed out and, the most important part, they obviously did not give consent.

I remember one time, when discussing the Scottsboro Trials with a group of freshmen, I took a moment to point out that the defense had portrayed one of the supposed rape victims as being a prostitute in order to damage her credibility. I asked the class, "What should that have to do with it? Isn't it possible to rape a prostitute?" Several boys insisted that no, it was not possible. That disgusted me so much that now I don't even ask the question. I just tell them that if they think a prostitute can't be raped, they don't know what rape is. (And yes, I am aware that in the case of Scottsboro, the "rapists" were actually innocent, but that's beside that point.)

Rape is definitely a problem, and as a father to a boy, I can do my part to help stop it. I remember shortly after a horrific rape on a bus in India that there was a protest against India's problems with rape culture. There was a photo of a woman whose sign read something along the lines of: "Instead of telling us what to wear, teach your sons not to rape." And that's pretty much where it is as to what us parents need to do. Obviously, my son's mother will make this clear to him, but I think that in this case, it'll be especially effective to hear it coming from his father as well. I will make sure that my son will understand that rape means that there wasn't consent, no exceptions.

And while I hate to think of the possibility, if he's ever accused of rape, my only question will be "Did you do it or not?" What she was wearing has nothing to do with it. What she was drinking has nothing to do with it. Even if she had sex with every single guy he knew except him, that would have absolutely nothing to do with it.

If you're expecting a "but" here, I don't have one so much as I have more to say - if I had a daughter, the message would be the same - rape means a lack of consent. It doesn't matter what you wore, drank, etc. If you did not make it clear that you wanted it too, then you are a victim of a crime, and that boy should get whatever punishment is coming to him - case closed.

I would have to add something to that though. I would have to explain to her that not every guy out there understands that. There are men who DO think that it's okay to have sex with you when you're unconscious. There are men who think that you're asking for it when you dress a certain way. You can say that's wrong, they should know better, and their parents should have taught them better. You can say all those things, and I agree with ALL of them, but it doesn't change the fact that there are men out there who will not care about any of that.

A friend of mine told me, while talking about the Steubenville rape case that what was scary for her was that she felt like that sort of thing could have happened to her, as there were times when she drank so much when she was young that she passed out. Lucky for her, none of them men in her company took advantage of that situation, and it might even be safe to say that their parents taught them better. Still, she felt lucky that she didn't wind up like those girls.

I never want to blame the victim, and in both of those cases, the only guilty parties are the rapists, and I would have no problem if they spent the rest of their lives in jail. These girls didn't deserve to get raped and you can't even make the case that they "had it coming" either. Those rapists don't get a pass because the girls were behaving irresponsibly, but is it so wrong to address the fact that they were behaving irresponsibly? Does anybody want to make the case that teenage drinking ISN'T irresponsible? They put themselves in a position where it made it easy for those bastards to rape them. It's a situation that shouldn't exist, but unfortunately, it does exist. I wish we lived in a world where every teenage girl could pass out wherever she wanted to and not have to worry about anything, but we don't.

I wish that by me teaching my son properly that the problem would go away. I wish that by my little explanation of rape to my freshmen class could solve it all as well. Unfortunately, it's going to take a major cultural shift for things to significantly improve.

Until then, the only thing I can say is that parents need to tell their sons that there is no excuse for rape, but they also need to tell their daughters that there are assholes out there who haven't gotten the message. Until they all get the message, then we need to be real about the way the world is while still working to make it the way that it should be.

NOTE:  I realize that this is an issue the results in emotional responses. If you want to disagree with me, please do so, but I ask that you PLEASE do not argue with what I'm NOT saying. Again, to be clear: I believe the rapists in those cases are 100% guilty and should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. The condition that their victims were in has no relevance on how guilty or not guilty those guys are. I'm just saying that we need to warn girls about guys like these.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Religion isn't bad.

The debates over religion have many layers. The primary debate, or at least what I think should be the primary debate, is over whether they teach things that are true or not. After that, we get to whether religion is good or bad for the world. I don't really like getting too caught up in the second sort of discussion. It's not that I think that religion has been good for the world, because I don't, but I think that talking about whether religion itself is good or bad kind of misses the bigger picture.

These sorts of debates tend to fall into the same talking points over and over again. It's kind of like this:

Nonbeliever:  Religion brought us the Crusades! And witch burnings!  And flying planes into buildings!

Believer:  Oh yeah, what about Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot?

Blah blah. And of course, sometimes you get the spectacularly misinformed nonbeliever (looking at you, Bill O'Reilly) who insists that Hitler was an atheist. Pretty strange considering how much he spoke of  Divine Providence and how his regime banned atheist organizations. If you want to try and tell me Hitler wasn't a Christian, that's a conversation worth having. But calling him an atheist? That's demonstrably wrong.

I already reviewed Justin McRoberts's CMYK, but in it, he brings up that humanity doesn't need religion to do awful things. It's a good point. He even asserts that things like slavery did not come about because of religion, and I totally agree with that as well. Nobody needed a holy book to exploit people.

Of course, the flip side of this is that if people don't need religion to do bad things, they don't need it to do good things as well. Some of the world's prominent philanthropists are atheists, so no religion required for that. Also, if you're religious, I'm sure that your atheist neighbor will be just as likely to do nice things for you like give your car a jump start as your Sikh neighbor would.

So, what am I saying? Is religion neither here nor there on the good/bad scale?

No, but religion emboldens ideas, whether they're good or bad. If you think that Jesus wants you to do good works, that's not necessarily going to be the reason why you do good things, but it helps you to feel justified in what you're doing. However, you can turn this around, and it can also lend an unearned credence to horrible ideas.

It's true that religion didn't create slavery. However, it sure as heck helped give some motivation to those who perpetuated it. In the Christian world, the fact that The Bible condones slavery sure helped those who wanted to keep it going. (And please, don't write to me saying that it doesn't and give me crap about "context". This is a stupid argument. It specifically says that you can beat your slave as much as you want just so long as you don't kill him. There is NO CONTEXT in the world that can make this anything other than an endorsement for slavery unless the very next line is "Scratch the previous sentence, 'cause that's plain evil. Just checking to see if you're paying attention.") Yes, I am aware that many prominent abolitionists were Christian and claimed to oppose slavery out of their religious convictions, but again, the flip side of this is true, unless you want to try and tell me that there aren't a lot of Christians in the South.

The thing is, you can have bad reasons for doing things that are good. If I donated money to help fund prostate cancer research because I thought that if I didn't, gremlins would eat my earlobes, the fact that I'm doing something good wouldn't somehow justify my belief in gremlins, would it?

The problem then is not religion, but a lack of critical thinking and proper skepticism. This addresses pretty much every religious atrocity, from large-scale horrors like The Holocaust (don't tell me that wasn't emboldened by religious beliefs when you have over a 1000 years of both Catholicism and Protestantism scapegoating the Jews as "Christ Killers") to smaller-scale atrocities like parents who don't take their kids to the doctor because they think that Jesus doesn't want them to do that.

This also confronts your secular abominations like what happened in The Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Believers love to throw that one around. "It was all done in the name of atheism, and they killed more than anybody else!" While it's true that they were atheists, or at least, they preached an atheistic doctrine, I should also point out that The Crusades would have probably claimed a lot more lives if they had the same technology as the Soviets did. But back to my point, while it may have been an atheistic regime, guys like Stalin weren't trying to enforce skepticism and critical thinking. Under that program, Stalin's word was law, and he was not to be questioned. Atheism? Sure. Skepticism? Quite the opposite.

If people were encouraged to think critically and skeptically, we would still have bad ideas, and we'd still have people doing evil things. However, those bad ideas would be subject to question, because with skepticism, there are no sacred cows, and EVERYTHING is open to debate. People don't get to point to their Bible to justify everything from opposing same-sex marriage to handling poisonous snakes. And nobody gets to come forward and say that his or her ideas are automatically better and not to be questioned, whether he claims to be speaking for Jesus, Shiva, or The Fonz. Religion might not necessarily be bad, but it's often a conversation stopper when one can just point to a divine authority and say: "It's the will of Zeus!"

Religion's not the problem, it's just a symptom of the real problem: the lack of critical thinking and skepticism.

And I realize that there might be some Christians (or other theists) out there who are saying, "Hey! I'm a Christian, and I'm a skeptic, too!"  While probably worthy of another blog post, my quick response is:

No. You're not. If you believe that a guy died on a cross and came back three days later, and your basis for this is either your subjective, personal relationship and/or a series of writings that were written at least a couple of generations after the supposed event took place, then you are NOT a skeptic. I'm sure that you're a wonderful person in every other regard, but you can't have your Jesus and critical thinking too.  (Sorry to pick on Christians. Substitute any other supernatural event and/or belief system that's been debunked and it works just as well...except for Shinto, that stuff's legit.)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

An Atheist reviews CMYK

I had the pleasure recently of receiving a free copy of CMYK by Justin McRoberts.  I got it for free because I know him personally, and I threatened to shoot him in the kneecaps if he didn't give me one.  Being a weak "turn the other cheek" Christian, he obliged, right after peeing in his pants from fear.  Nah, I'm kidding.  He sent me one for free, no doubt one of the reasons being that I inspired (at least partially) one of the chapters.  Actually, I got two copies - the text-only one, and a digital edition of the full-color version.  By the time you're done reading this, and you're thinking of buying it, I definitely recommend getting the full-color one.  Why?  'Cause it's got pitchers.  It also looks really good. Check out his entire store, as you'll find that it's not just a book but a "project" that includes music with different albums that thematically fit the prose. (Is "albums" the right word nowadays?  You know what I mean.)

Before I go any further, I should point out that while I wouldn't lump this book into the category of Christian apologetics, it takes the Christian viewpoint as a given.  Generally speaking, I think that this is book from a Christian to his fellow Christians.  Even the chapters that are aimed at atheists are really more there for the Christians, or at least, that's how I interpret it.  I'll get to that later though, as I'd like to start off on a positive note before I ruthlessly demolish his entire world view and unload every foul curse that I know.

How it's structured:

The book is mostly a series of letters that Justin wrote to his friends and family.  Many of the letters deal with people who are struggling through their faith through one reason or another.  Some of the letters are directed at friends who have completely lost their faith, and one of them is a letter to Justin's dad, who committed suicide about two decades ago.

My overall reaction:

There are parts that were really moving, and I had a hard time putting the book down.  Other parts, like when he addresses his fellow Christians who struggle with faith, made me want to write my own letters to them saying, "It's okay to not believe this stuff, you know."  The parts where he addresses atheists and atheism are probably the closest I've ever seen a Christian address the way nonbelievers see things, but I still found myself shaking my head and going "No, no, no..." from time to time.  It's not full of strawmen arguments, although somewhere in there he presents the false dichotomy of believing that the world was "created" rather than "a coincidence", as though those two words were opposites.  I'll let that go, as he kinda just throws it out there instead of making a greater point of it.  I'm forgiving like that.  Just like that one guy.

Where I'm with it:

Gotta give Justin credit for the following:
I have found most of the challenges offered by atheists are not couched in a hate-driven, maniacal desire to eradicate faith so that they can control the world...I've come to find atheism as a worldview in which many friends find hope...Atheism is a worldview in which religion is problematic insofar as it is an obstacle in a fully flourishing human life.
Let's see the likes of William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, or Rick Warren say something like that, and I'll eat some broken glass.  Seeing that many of us atheists find hope in our non-belief?  That's awesome, and I intend no exaggeration or sarcasm in it, because usually we atheists get nonsense about how we're "sad" and "without hope".

As for me, the best part is the section where Justin writes about his decision to become a father and reconciling that with what happened with his dad.  He's very candid with his feelings about what his father did, while still showing an incredible amount of love for the man.  There's a fear in all of us that we'll become our parents (for some, the fear is greater than others) and for Justin, he's clearly determined to bring about an end to the pain that his father found to be insurmountable.

Maybe it's because I'm a dad, and our sons aren't too far apart in age, but that bit really got to me.  Still, I think that you'd have to be pretty dead inside to not have it hit you right in the heart.  Oh, and just in case you're wondering, we plan on having our sons battle it out, gladiator-style.  If his son wins, he'll shout: "Praise Jesus!"  If my son wins, he'll shout: "Where's your God now?"  Obviously, our sons are too young for this right now, and we plan on making this happen when they're both five.

Justin also relates some personal stories, like how he proposed to his wife, and his experiences in India. That all makes for some good reading.

Where it loses me:

Well, you know that it had to go here eventually, didn't you?

The chapter entitled "The Fear of God" is the one addressed to me.  It starts off with sort of an odd sentence:  "The idea that anything beyond observation is absurd to you."  Hmm...I've been struggling to wrap my head around that sentence, and while I can't tell you exactly what's wrong with it, it just doesn't quite sit right.  A more accurate description of how I see the world is what Carl Sagan said:  "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof."  In terms of Christianity, I find that it fails to meet the burden of that proof and considering just how outlandish its claims are, yes, I would call them absurd.

After that, he spells out my objections to faith pretty accurately, while contrasting them with his beliefs.  He writes about "The Creator" though without making a case as to why I should even entertain that concept as a serious possibility.  I don't necessarily blame him for this, as the book's intention is not to make a case for Christ.  Still, substitute the word "Creator" with any other mythological concept, and you'll have a feeling of how I'm already starting to shake my head a bit.

But where I really get lost is when he moves on to write:
And this is where my challenge to you begins.  I believe your value system - your vision for what is good - is as much a matter of faith as mine.

This is where the train goes completely off the tracks.  For me to have a value system is not even in the same neighborhood as saying that you believe that God had a son who was Himself and was crucified only to come back three days later, not to mention talking snakes and donkeys.  Shoot, it's not even on the same planet.

My vision for what is good basically boils down to an opinion - an opinion that has been shaped by millions of years of evolution, the society in which I was raised, my parents, and my own specific experiences. Thankfully, most people tend to agree on the bigger issues.  Those who don't tend to find themselves not getting along too well or even thrown in jail.

Saying that the Christian story is true is not stating how you want the world to be (although that thought comes along with it) it's making a statement about reality and what happened in history.  It's saying that things that we understand to be impossible are actually possible, but only when it comes to one particular mythology. While a Christian might say (as Justin has) that determining what's good and what's bad involves a process that cannot be explained through nature, the fact remains that we have a perfectly natural explanation as to WHY we have values.  (And I also disagree that you have to go beyond the natural world to figure it out, in case you haven't figured that out.)

Justin goes on, of course, but as of this point it doesn't matter how logically he forms the rest of what he says, the very premise is flawed, and it's like building on sand.  The walls might be well-designed, but the whole thing is gonna sink.  Still, I'd like to address this:
Part of what this means for me is that when my will differs from the Creator's will, I am not only in the wrong but possibly detracting from what is good in the world. Ultimately, such a crisis of wills must be resolved in my submission to the Creator. Not because I find his will more appealing or better suited to my sensibilities, but because His will is the standard of goodness.
I have so many problems with this statement.  Embedded in it is the assertion that God is good.  (For the sake of argument, I'm going to assume the existence of God here.)  Why is that?  Because He created the universe?  Is it because he's the one who created the concept of "good" in the first place?  I don't know why this is an automatic.  It seems to me that His will could just as easily be the standard of evil.  If He created everything, then he created both good and evil, so why does he instantly get put in the "good" category? What's to say that he's not just messing with us?

Ultimately, it's this word "submit" that I find frightening. (I need to go back to my assertion that this God probably doesn't even exist here.) It's like the late Christopher Hitchens said, and I'm paraphrasing: "It's one thing to say that a God exists.  It's entirely another thing to say that you know what He wants."  Until you meet the burden of proof for this God's existence, then it's more likely to say that you're either following what you have decided that this God wants or, as is the case of so many people, what completely fallible human beings are telling you that He wants. In other words, it's a complete surrender of your own mental faculties to something that is quite likely a falsehood.

Anyway, there were a lot of other bits that rankled my sensibilities, but I don't want this review to be as long as his book.  I just think that a lot of these points are indicative of religion's death throes. I genuinely think that we're going to see more nonbelief as time goes by considering that a lot more people are being exposed to the objections of religion than might have before the days of the Internet.  Some religious people will go out kicking and screaming and some will reach out and politely tell you to keep checking for vital signs because maybe this whole religion experiment wasn't completely useless after all.  I guess I'd put Justin in the latter category.

Even though I completely disagree with the entire notion that God has a place in discussing what's good and what's bad, Justin is doing something that I think we can all agree is important - making us think why we believe certain things to be good or bad. He's right that we basically make an assumption that human life has value, but I think that this assumption can be defended - and it should be defended. Any atheist who reads this book will have to think about why that is, and even though they'll conclude that introducing God to the mix is akin to saying, "Hey! What about magic?" the thought process is still worth having because it goes beyond the existence or nonexistence of God.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Stuff I used to think and write.

I love a good deconversion story.  Honestly, I'm not too sure that I'd be interested in reading another atheism book along the lines of God is Not Great or The God Delusion.  Yeah, I get it, there's no good reason to believe in a god.  I'm good.  However, I'm still fascinated by deconversion stories.  It doesn't even have to be about Christian apostates like Jerry DeWitt, whom I wrote about a few times just recently.  One of my favorite parts of reading Going Clear, a book about Scientology, was when it went into the personal stories of people who broke away from L. Ron Hubbard's horrible cult.  It doesn't even need to be about religion necessarily, as reading Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea also gave me some stories about people who lost their faith in Kim Jong Il and the Juche ideology.  What can I say?  I love stories about people changing their minds, which probably explains why The Autobiography of Malcolm X remains one of my favorite books to teach.

What's really great is when I get to see these changes slowly take place, either in people I know or people with whom I'm familiar via the Internet.  I'm a subscriber to Don Exodus's channel on Youtube.  I used to refer to his videos when I'd debate with Christians about evolution, as he was a Christian who accepted (and studied, quite thoroughly) the theory and posted several videos that explained how it worked and what it was.  Eventually though, things changed, and there was a bit of a change in tone to his videos when it came to discussing religion.  Then he finally went and posted his "Why I am no longer a Christian" video.  If you want to see it, here it is, but you won't need to watch it to follow along with the rest of what I'm writing.

I also subscribe to Jaclyn Glenn's Youtube channel.  It's basically just her commenting on her views on various issues, and I usually find myself in agreement with her, but the reason why I subscribe is that her videos are well-made, and she's usually pretty funny.  When I started watching her videos, she would sometimes mention the fact that she considered herself a Christian.  This didn't really matter to me too much one way or another, as she wasn't making videos that were proselytizing or engaging in apologetics.  (Not that I never watch those kinds of videos, but I can only take so much.)  As with Don Exodus, she started to get more critical of Christianity to the point where she joined the agnostic camp, and not too long after that, she went full-blown atheist.  Her videos on that pretty much say stuff that I've heard before, but she's not just repeating the usual talking points either.

Her most recent video really spoke to me, and I found myself watching it a couple of times.  If you don't have the time to watch it, here's a brief summary:  She takes a poem that she found that was written by a Christian who was responding to unbelievers who criticized her faith.  Jaclyn then proceeds to eviscerate the content of the poem, brutally mocking it for its totally baseless assertions.  Honestly, it comes off as a little mean-spirited, especially considering that she starts off by saying that the video is for Christians.

And then she drops the bombshell.  Who wrote that poem?  She did, back when she was a believer.  And her whole point in the video is to express that she doesn't think that Christians are stupid, as she didn't think that she used to be stupid.  Just because you might take issue with a set of beliefs - and you might even find them to be genuinely absurd - that doesn't mean that you necessarily take issue with the believer.

This got me to thinking, as I had recently unearthed an old journal of mine, along with a bunch of other writings.  The journal was from when I was 20, and I kept it while spending a semester in London.  And back then, I was a believer.

There wasn't too much about my faith in that journal.  Like most guys that age, I was a little more interested in girls, so that takes up the bulk of what I wrote about.  (And honestly, that stuff is far more embarrassing than the Jesus stuff.)  I dealt with my faith more in my creative writing, which could be another blog post entirely.  Still, there were a few bits and pieces that I came across.

In one passage, I was recounting a conversation that I had with this one girl who was part of the same program as me.  She was very religious and very serious about her faith.  Her name was Alex, and I remember her telling me that she "looked forward" to death, because that was when she got to be with Jesus. While I liked the idea of being with Jesus, I couldn't get on board with the whole "looking forward to death" thing.  Anyway, in our conversation, she insisted that God did not have human characteristics, and it was a folly to attribute human emotions to him.  What I specifically wrote about in my journal was that I insisted that God had a sense of humor.  My "evidence" for this was the platypus and the fact that sometimes after my cat was done cleaning himself, his tongue would keep sticking out, and he'd go about like this for some time, causing everybody in the family to get the giggles at how silly he looked.

Oh, in case you're wondering what that loud slapping sound you heard earlier today was, that was me smacking my own forehead when I read that entry.  Sheesh.

Funny I mentioned the platypus.  I know that back then, even though I didn't write about it, I was pretty much a full-on evolution denier.  I remember even Robin Williams had a joke about the platypus, where he said that it was God's way of giving the finger to Darwin.  I thought that joke was brilliant.  Now though, well, I actually know something about evolution, and I know that the platypus is exactly the sort of thing you might expect to find if evolution were true.

Another incident I wrote about was a time when a Christian approached me on the bus and began proselytizing.  When I told her that I believed in Jesus, she told me that it wasn't enough.  I had to go to church, and I had to give my life FULLY to Christ.  I disagreed with her, but now I realize that yeah, that pretty much is exactly what Jesus asks of his followers.  She had also told me that I needed to read my Bible, and I granted her that point in my journal.  Heh.  It took me almost another ten years until I actually tried reading my way through it.  I wonder what would have happened if I tried earlier?  Would I have done the same thing I did at age 27 when that horrible book finally pushed me over to atheism?  (Only to have my atheism re-confirmed by listening to the awful, tortured reasoning of apologists who can excuse any barbarity through "context".)  Or would I have hemmed and hawed my way through it, putting on willful blinders so I could keep believing what I wanted to believe?

When I was in London, I spent about a week in the hospital.  I contracted Hepatitis A during spring break when I went to Egypt.  In my journal, I wrote a the following about my experience, nearly verbatim:
Funny thing, at the hospital, there was this chair beside my bed.  I thought about what my mom told me when I was in the hospital for heart surgery (when I was three).  She told me that Jesus had sat with me the whole time I was there.  I took great comfort in the thought that that chari beside the bed was his.  He's probably watching someone else in that room now, still checking up on me every now and then.
Yup.  That was me.  My words.  I may not have been a church-goer, but dammit all if I didn't believe that Jesus sat right next to me the same way I believe that my dog sleeps under the computer desk.  If you're a believer, I just don't know how to put this in a way that won't sound somewhat insulting or condescending, but this is reminiscent of reading a letter to Santa that you wrote when you were five.  You were damned certain that letter was going to St. Nick.  Why the hell else would you write it?  But of course, when you see that letter now, you write it off as being a child who didn't know the difference between fantasy and reality. Reading stuff like my journal entry, well, it's like reading that letter to Santa, but you wrote it when you were twenty.

Did it give me comfort?  Yes.  Does that have anything to do with whether it's true or not?  No.

As for the bit about how when I was three, I can't help but think of a recent incident with my son, who's going to be three next month.  He got out of bed crying and told me that there was a monster in his room.  When we got in there, it turned out that the shadow of his stuffed monkey, which sits on top of his rocking horse, makes kind of a creepy shadow on his wall.  I took it out, but Logan kept insisting that there were monsters outside his window. Being the kind of guy I am, I tried to tell him that there were no such thing as monsters. Guess what though?  The concept of "real" versus "fantasy" means nothing to a kid his age.  It was like explaining to a dog how to play checkers - it just wasn't going to sink in.  So, I switched tactics and told him that the monsters were friendly, like the ones from Monsters, Inc.  His reaction?  "I want to say hi to them!"  He then smiled, turned around, and I didn't hear a peep out of him for the rest of the night.

So, I had Jesus.  Logan has Mike and Sully.  They both provide comfort.  But what's he going to do when he's twenty?  When I continued reading through the journal, I found myself writing a lot about all of my friends who came by to visit me.  In fact, they got a lot more page space than the Nazarite got.  And ya know what?  Some of them actually did sit in that chair.  I'm thinking that while the comfort of a fantasy was nice, the comfort of my friends went a bit further.

P.S.  If you also like deconversion stories, I just came across this one, but I'm not done reading it, so I can't tell you if it sucks or not.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Pacific Rim review

I read about Pacific Rim long before I ever saw the trailer for it.  It caught my interest because it was being directed by Guillermo del Toro, one of my favorite directors.  I've seen all of his films, with probably Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies being among my favorites.  I also absolutely love the guilty-pleasure of Blade II, which is a ridiculous movie, but it's ridiculous done right.

When I saw the trailer, I wasn't sure what to think.  Had I not known about del Toro's involvement, I would have written it off as a Michael Bay/Transformers ripoff that would hold little interest for me.  Still, I remember telling my wife, who thought it REALLY looked lame, that I was still curious about it due to who was making it.  She just nodded her head and gave me a strange look.

I figured that this would be one of those films where I'd just go and see by myself, but the day before it opened, Kirsti suggested that we go see the Friday morning show.  I was surprised, but she became a bit more curious when she read some of the early positive buzz on the movie, and she finally thought she'd check it out when the guys on her radio morning show gave it a glowing review (and supposedly they, too, had been skeptical.)

It turned out to be as good as I hoped it could be.  One thing that I liked is that it had a simple plot, and it stuck to it without feeling the need to add all kinds of convoluted layers that would completely fall apart if you spent the time to think too much about it.  The setup is simple - giant monsters have started to emerge from a dimensional portal at the bottom of the sea.  After discovering that conventional weapons took too long and were too costly, humanity banded together to create giant robots in order to defeat the monsters, which keep coming, and eventually start to come at a faster rate.  The only real solution becomes to destroy the portal.

There are a few interesting subplots, one of them involving a scientist who examines the brains of the monsters in order to figure out exactly what they're up to.  Also, probably the most interesting bit to the plot is that it takes two pilots to control one of the giant robots, and they have to undergo a process where their minds merge.  This sets things up to create tension and drama that could no doubt be expanded upon some more in a sequel.

So, should you see it?  Well, if the idea of giant robots fighting giant monsters is enough to at least grab your attention, then yeah, this movie is for you.  You're going to get exactly what you want, and there aren't too many lame moments in it.  Also, the characters are interesting enough where you're not looking at your watch waiting for the next action sequence.  I saw a few negative reviews where the critic had problems with the film's lack of character development.  That's ridiculous.  It's not that I think that action movies are exempt from good characterization, but this movie isn't intended to be a character study.  It has exactly the amount that one could possibly expect from it, and the amount that it has works.  I was invested enough in the main characters to care what happened to them, which is precisely what you need.  I'll write some Pacific Rim fan fiction if I want to see the characters discover themselves.

I hesitate to compare this to Michael Bay's Transformers films, but that's only because other critics have already done so.  Still, in case anybody's wondering how I could bash those movies and praise this one, let me explain a few things:

1.  My problem with Transformers was never that it was just a dumb action movie.  I like dumb action movies.  I don't, however, like dumb action movies that insult my intelligence.  It doesn't need to have a story that makes me a better person, but it needs to have a story where the story gives birth to the action and not the other way around.

2.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again - the action sequences in Transformers suck.  To be fair, I only saw the first and about 1/3 of the third (I fast-forwarded through much of it because it was so tedious.  It was like The Phantom Menace if every character was Jar Jar Binks and somebody was shaking my seat the entire time.)  With Bay's crapfests, I can't even tell what I'm looking at half the time.  With Pacific Rim, I was able to follow the action, and the only times I couldn't, it was when the director deliberately wanted to disorient the audience for a moment.  Del Toro wasn't afraid to let the camera linger on a robot or a monster for a few moments, so you could properly get a sense of the scale of these things.  And when they'd hit each other, I got a real sense for the power that they possessed.

3.  Transformers didn't even respect the source material.  While Pacific Rim isn't directly based on an old cartoon or toy, it's obvious to everybody not in a coma that it's borrowing heavily from various monster movies and robot cartoons.  In the cases of both films, the sources are pretty hokey and are made to appeal to kids.  Neither of them is high art, but they both have certain conventions and take themselves seriously, which is part of the fun.  Transformers wasn't even as well-written or imaginative as the cartoons; in fact, it felt like it was made by people who only had contempt for it.  Do your really think for a moment that Michael Bay has sat through and enjoyed any single Transformers cartoons?  I don't.  But I believe completely that Guillermo del Toro loves himself some anime and monster movies.  Pacific Rim is made with affection for the source material, and it's not a cynical attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator.  And if you think that Transformers doesn't do that, allow me to submit the following:

Only Michael Bay could rob a transforming robot of its dignity.

Okay, so what if you have a significant other who wants to see this movie, but you're thinking that you'd rather die?  As I wrote above, my wife went to go see it with me, and this really isn't her sort of a thing.  She likes some action movies, and she's a fan of some of the better superhero films, but this was one that she figured she'd avoid.  Her review was that it was "okay, and better than I thought it would be".  So, if you want to spend some time with your significant other, you might like it enough to find it worth it for that reason.  Otherwise, you can probably skip it.

As for me, I'll definitely buy this one when it comes out, as I feel it will get multiple plays when I feel like a nice distraction from the real world.  My son, who's nearly three, might like it as well.  It will be a good introduction for him to the world of monsters and giant robots.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What's wrong with it just being in your head?

I'll spare you the gruesome details,but a few times a year my digestive system will just go completely amok, and let's just say that I have to visit the restroom frequently.  Once everything starts to calm down, and I'm ready to eat again, the one thing that often sounds most appealing is an Ultimate Cheeseburger from Jack in the Box.  (Too bad my blog doesn't have a wider audience; I'd like to make some money for that plug.)  And usually after I have one, everything starts to run normally again.

It's probably pretty obvious why this happens, as it's a known fact that an Ultimate Cheeseburger is the pinnacle of health food.  No, wait, that's not it.  It's probably one of the worst things you can eat.  What can I say though?  There have been several times where I've felt like crap, hand one, and then felt better.  I don't exactly recommend that people try the same thing, but I know that it works for me, or at least, it has a few times.  It's quite possible that I tried it a couple of times and didn't get the results I wanted, and I'm just not remembering that all too well.  I do know that I will usually say to my wife, "I don't know if this is all just in my head, but dangit if I don't feel better now."

I have absolutely no problem admitting that the reasons why some things make me feel better is because it's all just in my head.  However, I feel like I just might be in the minority though.  For example, I have had several conversations with people where I've discussed things like alternative medicine.  One person insisted that acupuncture works because of her personal experiences.  When I suggested that it might simply be the placebo effect in action, I was instantly shot down.  Was it because she could explain the exact mechanism as to how acupuncture affects the body?  No.  Apparently it was simply insulting of me to even suggest this.

I've had more than one conversation like this, and I really don't get it.  I'm not a total expert on acupuncture one way or another, but I'm pretty skeptical of it, and I know enough to know that anecdotes do not qualify as evidence.  I also know that there is a great deal of research on the placebo affect; it's a very real thing, and yet, people just don't want to even consider it as an option.  Am I just missing some sort of pride gene that makes it impossible for me to admit misinterpreting what's happened to me?

Speaking of which, what the hell is going on with people freaking out about gluten all of a sudden?  I realize that there are some people with Celiac disease, which gives them some pretty specific and extreme reactions to wheat products.  I'm not talking about them.  I'm talking about how all of a sudden you have people panicking about wheat as though it's some new sort of a thing.  Yes, I realize that when looking at the entire history of humanity, wheat is relatively new, but it's not NEW.  People have been eating it for generations, and our lifespans are higher now than they were when we didn't eat it, so how bad can it possibly be?

Like a lot of these dietary fads, the various problems are incredibly non-specific.  I keep hearing this refrain that we "cannot process" gluten in our digestive systems.  What exactly does that mean?  Does that mean when I eat a peace of bread, it just goes through me?  It stays inside me?  It stops me from living to be 1000 years old?  And again, when it comes to folks with Celiac disease, the "cannot process" is pretty specific - they vomit, they have diarrhea, they bleed, bruise, have ulcers, etc.  But what about all these other folks?  Do they just get a little gassy?  That happens to me when I eat too many refried beans.  Am I not processing them?  And why are we just realizing this about wheat now?

I came across this pretty interesting article that compares the gluten intolerance hysteria with the MSG intolerance hysteria of a few decades ago.  I know that I was victim to it, as I would avoid products that had MSG in them, and if a product read "No MSG", that would be an enticement.  Of course, I couldn't tell you exactly why; I just "knew" that MSG was bad.  Well, guess what?  Turns out that MSG is delicious, and it not only explains why my mother's cooking was so good (she used a lot of bullion, which has it) but it explains why my cooking has improved (after I finally felt free to use it).

My mother likes to relate a story about a friend of hers who came over for dinner one time.  As they were talking, he told her about how MSG would give him headaches, as he was supposedly intolerant.  She didn't have it in her to tell him that the chicken he was enjoying was partially flavored with MSG.  The next day, she called him up and asked how he was doing, and he said he was fine - even after she revealed to him that he had consumed some MSG the day before.  Let's just say that my mom was ahead of the curve when it came to figuring out that the whole anti-MSG craze was a load of bollocks.

I actually did a little research on MSG some time back to make sure that I wasn't slowly poisoning myself.  I was surprised to find out that it's a perfectly natural flavoring enhancer.  And I felt like a doofus when I realized that the supposed ill-effects of it were pretty spurious at best.

I suspect that this is what's going on with a lot of folks who are supposedly having problems with gluten.  (And yet again, I'm NOT talking about people with Celiac disease, and I do not mean to make light of it.)  I'm sure that if you'll suggest it to many of them though, they'll be offended, even though it's perfectly human to be mistaken and to convince yourself of things that simply are not so.  I realize that it's easy to understand that it's the other guy who has it all in his head, but it couldn't possibly be the case with you too, right?  Well, I have no problem admitting that I very well could be doing that to myself with any number of different things that I'm convinced are real.

I guess it's like Mark Twain said:  "It's easier to fool people than convince them that they have been fooled."

Monday, July 8, 2013

Kids, religion, and indoctrination

In some of the discussions that I've been having, and some of the stuff that I've been watching, I keep hearing theists try and put atheism on the same level as theism.  I'm currently reading a book from a Christian that's for Christians, and it tries to equate religious faith with faith that medicine will work, your wife will remain faithful, the bus driver won't crash, etc.  Obviously, the major difference is that trusting medicine to work, my wife remaining faithful, and a bus driver not crashing doesn't involve a suspension of natural law, but hey, why bring up important points like that when we're trying to equivocate, eh?

Aside from this, I've also seen a few video clips and read some blog posts where both theists and obnoxiously condescending agnostics refer to atheism as just being "another religion".  I'm tempted to write a rebuttal, but for Pete's sakes, I just don't have it in me to write the usual atheist responses like:  "If atheism is a religion, then 'off' is a TV channel."  I could go on and on, spelling out the differences and why atheism, by itself, does not qualify as a religion, even if one is being assertive with it.  I'm not going to, because I think that it would fall on deaf ears, and this stuff has already been written about a billion times before.  Instead, let me just focus on one very important difference between how I, as an atheist, plan on raising my child when it comes to religious belief.  I know that there are some Christians out there sometimes reading this, and I hope that they chime in if I get something wrong of if I generalize too broadly.

The biggest difference between how an atheist like myself, and a Christian (or pick a religion - I'm just sticking with Christians because that's the dominant religion in my country) will raise our children is that I will not indoctrinate my kid as far as religious belief goes.  Before I go any further, allow me to explain what I mean by that.  If my son asks me if I believe in God, I will tell him the truth and say "No".  I do not consider that indoctrination, just as I wouldn't consider it indoctrination if a Christian would answer the same question with a "Yes".  That's just honestly answering a question.

My son is three years old.  Guess what his religious beliefs are?  If you say "atheism" you're only right in the sense that he's an atheist by default, as he has no belief in any gods.  However, he's not an atheist like me in the sense that he's examined the claims of theism and rejected them.  Why?  Because he's not even three yet!  How would he know one way or another?

Does this mean that I completely shelter him from any kind of religious thinking?  Nope.  I have a book of Bible stories in his collection of books.  He hasn't touched it yet, but that might have something to do with the fact that he has a ton of books and that one just hasn't stood out to him.  I also got him a book about world religions for kids, and it shows pictures of different kids all over the world practicing their various religious faiths.  He's expressed mild interest in it, and I've sat down with him.  I specifically remember him pointing to a picture of Krishna, and repeating the name after I said it.  As far as telling him whether Krishna is real or not, I didn't even get into that.  I was just showing him the pictures the same as we go through his big book of animals.  It is what it is, and whether it's real or not doesn't even enter the conversation because as of right now, he's in a mode where he's just absorbing information.  In other words, I'm not telling him what to think about any of this stuff one way or another.

Can a religious person say the same?  I'd really be interested to hear from any who handle this the same way that I do.  I suppose that it's very well possible, but I don't think that I'm out of line when I say that most religious people talk to their kids about God as early as possible, and when they do talk about it, they talk about their particular deity as thought it's as real as Mommy and Daddy.

Yeah, Lance, but aren't you doing the same thing?  Aren't you telling your son that God's not real?

No.  I'm not.  I'm not telling him what to believe one way or another.  It's up to him to figure it out, and as of right now, he's too young to even entertain it.

But isn't telling him that I don't believe pretty much the same thing?  That's a better question, and I'm no fool as to disregard the influence that I'll have over my son's thinking.  However, when he asks me if I believe or not, I'll tell him the truth and follow it up with:  "What do you think?"  If he tells me that he believes, I won't tell him that he's wrong, I'll simply ask him why.

Ahh!  There it is!  Gotcha, Lance!  If he says he believes, you're going to keep asking him questions until he feels too embarrassed to keep believing it!

Hold on, I'm not finished yet.  The thing is this:  if he tells me that he DOESN'T believe, I will ask him why.  I will ask him just as many questions one way or another.  I'll specifically tell him that it doesn't matter to me so much what he believes as that he comes to his beliefs on his own and not because he simply repeats me.

I'm not sure where I heard or read this, but I came across a mother telling a story about her young son.  She had allowed him to go to church with one of his friends, and one day he came back and informed her that he believed in heaven.  She then proceeded to ask him why he believed it, following it up with all kinds of questions to see if he considered the matter thoroughly.  About a week later, he told her that he no longer believed it.  And what was her response?  Was it:  "Good!  So glad you no longer believe that nonsense!"  No.  She proceeded to ask him just as many questions - in other words, she played God's Advocate, if you'll excuse the expression.  When I heard this story, I said to myself that's exactly how I want to handle it.  What I want my son to do is THINK, because I'm confident that if he does so, he'll reach the same conclusions that I do.  And what if thinking makes him reach different conclusions?  Well then, if my conclusions don't stand up to scrutiny, then I'm the one who should be changing my mind!

Look, I realize that even if we're just talking about Christians here, we have all types.  I know that there are some where if their kids don't choose the same faith, they will completely disown them.  I also know that there are some Christian parents who would rather that their kids choose atheism or another faith than just blindly parrot what they say.  When it comes to indoctrination, there are various levels of it.  However, if you raise your kid and talk about God as though he is completely real, then you're indoctrinating your kid with a belief, no matter how innocuous that might even be.

Don't get me wrong.  It's possible for you to be religious and not indoctrinate your kid.  You could approach this the same way as I am.  You could tell your kid that you believe in God.  However, don't speak about God as though it's real and something your kid should believe.  Tell your kid that it's his or her choice to believe or not.  Question your kids when they both believe and don't believe.  If they're curious about the atheist position, hand them a copy of The God Delusion.  (Yes, I have a Bible in my house, and I'd buy any Christian apologetic book my son might want to read if he expressed interest.)  Also, learn what all the atheist objections are - not just the strawman versions that apologists like to throw about.  Oh, and also teach your kids about all the other religions and the interesting phenomenon of how geography seems to play a big part in which religion a person follows.

Unless your prevailing message is "You need to figure this out for yourself because I could be wrong", then you're indoctrinating your kid with religious belief.  And that's why atheism isn't the same as a religion.  Please realize that's my sole point in this - the difference between believers and nonbelievers.  Maybe you're convinced that your religion is the truth, and you'd be doing your kid a disservice if you DIDN'T raise him or her to believe.  That doesn't change my point though, does it?  I plan on indoctrinating my kid to believe that he should brush his teeth and look both ways before he crosses the street.  That's perfectly sensible, but it's still indoctrination.

The video above is a talk on Raising Freethinking children.  It's good stuff.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Beer > Wine

Did that headline grab your attention?  Or were you just confused because you didn't recognize that I was basically using symbols that one uses in math to indicate that beer is "greater" than wine?  Honestly, I don't think that beer is better than wine.  This isn't so much because these things are a matter of opinion, but I just don't know enough about wine to feel that I can make any kind of an informed opinion about it to say that beer is better.

My point in this is to say that wine has a better reputation than beer, generally speaking, but it shouldn't.  Have you ever been to a restaurant with an impressive wine list, but its beer list consisted of nothing but pale lagers, and maybe, if you're lucky, just one quality brew like a Sam Adams or a Sierra Nevada?  I know that I certainly have.  I went to a pretty popular steakhouse near me not too long ago, and that's exactly what I wrote about in their guestbook - food, good; wine selection, good; beer selection?  Could be better, as it was all just what I described above - pale lagers and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Just a few days ago, I had a really nice time when I went to ├śL Beercafe in Walnut Creek.  Check out their beer list, and you'll see that they have quite a variety, focusing on Belgian styles.  What was nice about my visit was that I was with some folks who were really into wine.  They certainly weren't wine snobs, but they were definitely buffs.  It was cool that they were open-minded about what the world of beer has to offer, and I think that they might have been genuinely impressed by what they had.

If you're the kind of person who's having a dinner party, and you want to get all fancy and offer your guests wine, allow me to give you some reasons to maybe consider beer either in place of, or in addition to wine.  These reasons aren't there to say that beer is necessarily better, but it might be more sophisticated than you may realize.

1.  Variety - If all you know is Bud/Miller/Coors, then there's a whole world of different styles that await you.  If you have branched out to things like Guinness, Sam Adams, and Sierra Nevada, then guess what?  You might be ahead of the mainstream curve, but there's still a lot out there.  Just getting into Belgian styles alone will keep you busy.  Ever have a sour ale?  They specialize in those in parts of Belgium, and they can range from the sweeter side to the really sour side.  I kinda prefer the really sour stuff, myself, but I realize that it's not for everyone.  The point is that I can imagine that there might be people out there who think that they don't like beer, but they might just like this.

Basically, when it comes to beer, you've got three major flavors going on - and that's the malt, the hops, and the yeast.  Generally speaking, malt brings the sweetness, hops bring the bitterness, and yeast brings the funk.  English ales and some German lagers focus on the sweetness of the malt, with just enough hop bitterness to ease up on it a bit.  IPAs, especially the American styles, load themselves up with hops, and when they're done right, the malt sweetness is there enough so it doesn't taste like you're biting into a pine tree.  As for the yeast, you won't notice it too much in most styles, even thought it's the ingredient that turns the drink into beer, but when it comes to Hefeweizens and most Belgian styles, it's the yeast that drives the flavor.

Of course, it gets even more complicated than that, as sometimes the malt is toasted, which is where you get your darker ales and lagers.  Then you've got the sour ales which require some bacteria, and the fruit beers which include...ummm...fruit, but for the most part, I'd avoid those.

2.  It pairs well with food - There are many kinds of food out there, and there are many kinds of beer.  People like to talk a lot about what wine goes with what food, but you might be surprised as to how much thought can go into beer and food pairings.  According to Beer Advocate's Food and Beer Pairing Guide:
The more hop bitterness the beer has, the heartier or livelier the meal needs to be to hold its own. Don't overwhelm your palate or meal and ruin what the chef was trying to achieve. 
Another general rule is keep sweet with sweet, and tart with tart. Try to keep your beer sweeter or tarter than the sweet or tart food on the plate. There are exceptions, like pairing drier robust beers with sweet chocolates.  
Throw all of the rules out the window and experiment with contrasting and complimentary pairings. Match foods with complimentary flavors, or try contrasting them and create a slew of unique results.  
 For those of you who are bound to the wine pairing school of thought, think of ale as red wine and lager as white wine. Hoppy beers can also be used in place of a pairing that calls for an acidic wine. Though it honestly doesn't matter, these tips might help you to convert your taste buds over to beer or those of a friend over to beer.  
Taste is very subjective and what works for one person might not work for another. If it tastes good to you, then go for it. However, also be open to suggestions, as these tend to come with some knowledge and possible palate enlightenment.
3.  But you can't beat wine and cheese...or can you?  When I toured the North Coast Brewery, I remember the guide telling us that beer is actually a better pairing for cheese than wine is.  I can't remember exactly what he said, but perhaps it was something along the lines of Beer Advocate's Beer and Cheese guide:  "Think about it, it's harsh sometimes. The overpowering acidity of wine usually kills any chance that your delicate taste buds have of actually enjoying a pairing."  Basically, both beer and cheese were made in farmhouses, and have their origins in grasses (barley that's used to make the beer and grass that feeds the cows).  Plus, "the carbonation in beer also lifts the palate and brings out many nuances in the cheese."

4.  Wine is frikken' pretentious - Are some beers more expensive than others?  Yeah.  The reasons are varied, some of them having to do with the particular style being part of a small production run.  Also, beers that are more complex to make and/or need to be imported will run you a higher price.  Also, higher-alcohol beers might be more sometimes because more alcohol equals more malt, which would make it more expensive - which is also the same for beers that use more hops.

Ever try to read about wine pricing though?  What a headache.  They'll take the same wine, put it in two bottles with different labels, and charge different prices for the same wine because they know that some people won't buy a "cheap" wine.  However, it seems like Joe Average Wine Consumer can't tell the difference between the cheap and expensive stuff (although I hear that even a novice can suss out the REALLY cheap stuff), and it seems like even the experts have a hard time telling the difference in blind taste tests.  I've read about all this stuff more than once, but here's a link if you want to do some further reading.

Lookin' to get fancy with your beverages?  Hold off on that wine for a second, 'cause the beer just might do you one better, minus the snobbery.