Sunday, August 25, 2013

What I did over summer vacation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Some women aren't helping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 23, 2013

Sexist, dumb-guy small talk

I've mentioned before in my ramblings that when I was a teenager, I worked at a grocery store (Safeway, to be specific). I still have all sorts of stories to tell from that experience, and hopefully I'll eventually get around to writing them all down. For this, I just have a little anecdote to get things started.

I was sweeping the aisles one evening, and a fairly attractive woman passed by me. One of the night managers came up to me and said, "Wow. She's a real cutie." I nodded my head in agreement. Generally speaking, I'm not the type who feels the need to point out every attractive woman that I see. I can enjoy her beauty just fine on my own, and I don't think that I have to remind my fellow men that I am, indeed, a heterosexual who finds women attractive. Anyway, that didn't really bother me until he had to follow it up with the comment, "Too bad she has a couple of thunder thighs though."

Yes, it was true. The woman wasn't supermodel thin.

My response was to tell him - mind you that he was my manager and I was just a teenage kid - "Too bad you have an ugly face." 

He was shocked that I would say something like that to him - so much so that I think he forgot that he was the guy in charge. He responded by saying, "I was only pointing that she has thick legs. You didn't have to say that."

I then said, "Yeah, but I didn't actually mean what I said. You did."

I'd be lying to you if I said that I don't sometimes notice the flaws that people have, but I wouldn't exactly be honest if I told you that I was looking for them. It was a long time ago, but I'm pretty sure that I was more interested in the woman's pretty face than the fact that her legs were on the thick side (not that there's even anything wrong with that in the first place).

It was this incidents, and countless similar incidents that inspired me to write a short story back in college where a guy makes a similar comment about a woman and then gets violently humiliated. I'm not sure why it bothers me so much, but it does. I could go on about how women are basically regarded as crap in this society and how I don't like the unfairness of it all, but if you don't already see that for yourself - and the connection - then any elaboration on my part will just be lost on you.

When I left Safeway to work for my dad, I'd still hear these kinds of things, and even worse as we worked on a lot of construction sites. While I hate to stereotype, the construction sites too often fit the stereotype, and whenever a woman would pass by, a lengthy commentary about her attributes would be announced by at least somebody. (I need to be clear that I never heard this kind of talk from my father - he was a very good role model in this regard.) Don't get me wrong; I don't have a problem with somebody being impressed by how attractive a woman is and pointing it out. I guess it's all just in the way you say it. I'm not sure where the line is, but I remember a former co-worker from that time once saying about a woman, "I'd let her suck my dick." Pretty sure that's far over the line. (Not to mention that I'm pretty sure the woman would prefer to cut his off than suck it.)

One thing that I was proud of back when I worked for my dad was that I made it pretty clear to my coworkers that I didn't think that kind of talk was cool at all. Of course, I'd get teased, as obviously a guy who doesn't feel the need to constantly reassert his heterosexuality must be gay (not that there's anything wrong with it). Still, I held my ground, and I'd often turn it around on them and make fun of their various deficiencies.

As I got into different professions in my life, I kinda hoped that being around people who were a bit more educated would reduce having to listen to the ultimate in dumb-guy small talk. Too bad for me, I was wrong. Unfortunately, I haven't been as good as my younger self when it comes to speaking up on matters like this. That has me pretty disappointed in myself, to be honest with you.

I mentioned the short-story that I wrote. It featured my character Eagle-Man, who at that time basically existed as my "repressed Id" as my roommate once described him. He was the one who made an example of the guy who was making the rude comments. I still write about Eagle-Man from time to time, but it's hard to get into my young man's mindset when I was full of rage at the injustice of the world. And let's face it, the fact that these kinds of judgments are inflicted upon women - whether to their faces or behind their backs - is proof of the inequality that we have in our society. I guess getting older tends to make you not want to speak up every time your sensibilities are offended, but maybe it's time to let my id out a little - not just in fiction but real life.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Apologists just make it worse

Years ago, I was reading The Bible on BART  and a guy sitting across from me struck up a conversation. He was part of some Christian organization, and he said something along the lines of how he liked the fact that I was reading it. Don't misunderstand, he wasn't some kind of annoying proselytizer, but he definitely had a religious angle in speaking to me, as he asked if I attended church or something along those lines.

I think that he might have been a bit disappointed because I informed him that I was actually an atheist, and I was finding The Bible to be pretty messed up. (This was shortly after I finally "came out" as an atheist, and I was enthusiastic about having an opportunity to actually discuss it with some real Christians.) Of course, he defended it and told me that I had to take things into their proper historical context, an explanation that didn't wash with me then and helps even less now.

Anyway, the conversation was cordial, and one of my key sticking points was the story of Exodus. Many people are familiar with it, as it's the one where Moses demands that the Pharaoh free his people, only to have the Pharaoh refuse, and then Yahweh sends down a mess of plagues to get the guy to change his mind. A little detail that a lot of people don't know is that The Bible says, repeatedly, that it was God who "hardened the Pharaoh's heart". In other words, God makes it so that Pharaoh doesn't give in and obey his command. What the what?

In other words, the whole situation might have been avoided if God had just let the Pharaoh give his own answer. Or better yet, an all-powerful God could have teleported the Jews out of Egypt. But no, we've got a God who manipulates things in such a way that he can bring down all sorts of horrific plagues upon the people of Egypt, including the killing of the first born males. (And apparently God can't tell Jews from Egyptians, 'cause he needs some lamb's blood on the door.)

I pointed out the unnecessary cruelty and, let's face it, total randomness, of this story. The fella I was talking to gave me his email address and suggested that I read Romans, Chapter 9. Shortly after I did, I emailed him and said, "Yeah, that actually makes things worse."

Let's get past the whole thing about how Romans was written centuries after the book of Exodus, which means that if The Bible is indeed the inspired word of God, God didn't see fit to clarify things until hundreds of years later. The problem is that Romans 9 essentially can be summed up as: "I'm God. I can do what I want. Shut your face." The sad thing is that when the guy responded, he didn't even deny that's what the basic message was.

Before I go any further, let me say that I am well aware that there are Christians out there who don't think that The Bible is inerrant. They'll tell you that it's perhaps "inspired by God" or something along those lines. My point isn't to say that The Bible is a totally useless and worthless book. You can learn a lot by reading it, and I'm not just talking about the mythology of the Jews and the Christians. For one thing, you get a good sense of how much people respond to the idea of having some kind of ultimate authority and how leaders are eager to set up a system in which people don't question things. Of course, there are even a few good lessons scattered throughout all the barbarities. But this can be said about any work of mythology, from The Ramayana to The Odyssey. The only thing is, you don't have people making excuses for why it's not really so bad for Odysseus to have his female slaves brutally killed just because they had sex with the suitors.

To me, the sheer fact that Christianity even needs something like apologetics is your first clue that something is wrong. (I should also point out that there are apologists for Islam as well; they remind me of their Christian counterparts, and one of these days I'll write about them. Sample bit of silliness: The Koran is written in a language that's so beautiful and advanced for its time, that it could only have been dictated by a higher power!)

Apologetics are essentially an admission that things don't make sense. Whenever I hear a Christian defend slavery in The Bible, for instance, I can't help but think of the No Prize. For those of you not familiar with the old letters pages in Marvel Comics, a "No Prize" was awarded to anybody who not only pointed out a mistake in a comic book but then gave an explanation as to why it wasn't REALLY a mistake in the first place. Usually, the logic was tortured, but it was all in good fun and the winner received an empty envelope, from what I've heard.

Conan O'Brien does something similar on his show:

That's what apologetics are like. Yeah, The Bible says that you can make slaves out of your neighbors and that you can beat your slave since he's your property, but since the concept of a loving God and slavery don't make sense, "slave" doesn't mean the same thing blah blah blah bullshit bullshit.

The difference with Marvel Comics and Conan O'Brien, of course, is that nobody holds up either of those two to be infallible, and the "apologetics" for them are all in good fun. The apologetics for The Bible are supposed to be taken seriously.

And what I have to wonder is, do they do anything other than reassure the already-faithful? Has anybody been a skeptic and then heard the arguments of Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, or C.S. Lewis and went, "Oh hey! There's a good point!" For Pete's sakes, the first two guys talk about how the empty tomb must be evidence for the divinity of Jesus and their whole train of logic on that revolves around how other explanations as to why the tomb is empty don't make any sense. Meanwhile, every skeptic I know is sitting there wondering where this tomb was in the first place and how we know that it was empty when nobody even wrote about it until at least thirty years after the fact!

In the case of C.S. Lewis, I actually had a Christian throw his little trilemma at me one time. Basically, it goes like this: "Do you think that Jesus was a lunatic, liar, or Lord?" The point is to get the skeptic to answer either lunatic or liar and then show that's impossible, forcing them to conclude that Jesus must be Lord. It's a pretty logical defense if you ignore one gaping problem: the premise is faulty. Basically, my answer to the question was, "I don't even accept the premise of your question." He was confused.

I would have to think that there are some Christians who realize that this is a bad bit of making the case for Christ, even though I know that there are some who think it's foolproof. I don't think that you even need a skeptic like myself to point out what's wrong with it. If you're having trouble, ask yourself this: "Was Hercules a liar, lunatic, or son of Zeus?" See the problem there? If not, this video will elaborate:

This is why I think that so many debates between Christians and skeptics become frustrating. So many Christians get their brains filled with all of these apologetics and then get frustrated when the arguments don't work the way they hoped they would. Atheists get frustrated because they feel that Christians are going for the Divine No Prize.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Don't call believers stupid!

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook the following quote from Francis Bacon:

"A little science estranges a man from God. A lot of science brings him back."

I found that to be just a tad bit interesting. Here's a fun fact about Francis Bacon: he lived from 1561 through 1626, what historians from Northern California refer to as "a hella long time ago". In other words, he was doing the science before The Big Bang, before Darwin, and even before Germ Theory. In other words, while the man was no doubt brilliant for his time, we know a lot more science now than he did then, and maybe that quote might not hold so true here in the 21st Century.

So, I commented, but I honestly didn't want to get into the existence or nonexistence of God. Because here's the thing - if 100% of scientists believed in God, that wouldn't make Him real, and if 100% of them disbelieved, that wouldn't make him not real. After all, did germs not exist before scientists knew about them? Were atoms nonexistent when atomic theory was considered to be a heresy? Of course not. Popular opinion, even among those who are most informed about a subject, isn't what determines what's true and what isn't.

I tried to keep my comment related directly to the quote, and all I pointed out was that what Bacon said back then certainly doesn't seem to hold true today. For one, only 7% of the National Academy of Sciences claim a belief in a personal God. (Note that my link is from not just a religious, but a creationist source!) Also, there is evidence that scientists in general tend to believe in God less than the average American. In other words, here in 2013, Bacon's words just don't ring true.

I then followed that up by pointing out that it didn't matter one way or another as to whether God actually existed or not, and one shouldn't make up his or her mind based on what those scientists believe or disbelieve. What did I get as a response from one of his friends? A laundry list of scientists who believe in God. (Most of them pre-20th Century, I might add.) Also there was a bunch of stuff about how supposedly Richard Dawkins doesn't understand the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and other such nonsense. In other words, the conversation quickly derailed as much as I tried to accommodate the notion that brilliant scientific minds can also believe in God. (In fact, I brought up Francis Collins in my original comment, only to have this guy list him off - showing how much he was even paying attention to what my point is.

It's experiences like that which led me to not even bother sharing a couple of articles that linked intelligence to belief in God. Let's get past the point that the studies that were cited were focused on The West and that measuring intelligence in the first place is a tricky bit of business. Essentially, it appears that the more intelligent a person is, the less likely he or she is to believe in God.

Why did I not share that? Isn't that my final ace in the hole to show theists how spectacularly wrong they are? At the very least, it could let them know just how dumb they are, right? Right?


I didn't bother sharing them to Facebook because no matter how carefully worded the articles are nor how thorough the research is, most theists will interpret the message into being "You're stupid for believing!"  Honestly, I don't blame them. Nobody likes to be called stupid, even if they're not actually being called stupid. People don't even like the implication that somebody might think that they're not as smart as they could be or that their decisions would be different if only they were a little bit smarter.

They're both interesting articles, and I recommend them if you're an atheist who's smart enough to realize that being an atheist doesn't automatically make you smarter than a theist. I also recommend it to any theist who's willing to put down his or her defenses and consider the actual points that are being made.

Ultimately though, I think that for both atheists and theists, citing these kinds of studies (even if the results turn out to be the reverse) is a waste of time. We should be discussing the existence or nonexistence of God on its own merits, not on who's supposedly smarter than who.

I've written before that I don't feel that I became an atheist because I became smarter, and when I speak to atheists, they all seem to feel the same way. We just changed our point of view. Is it possible that the ability to change one's point of view is more likely when one has a certain amount of intelligence? I suppose, but how do we go about measuring that in the first place?

Let's just stick to the subject at hand instead of gloating or worrying about how smart we may or may not be.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Clean your plate!

Yesterday was my son's third birthday, and my wife and I took him out to lunch. He got to go for his first BART ride (although not his first train ride - we rode Amtrack up to Sacramento to see the Train Museum several months ago) and he also got to go on his first bus ride. The place we took him to was the San Francisco Creamery, which is ironically located in Walnut Creek. (Or does the fact that Walnut Creek is in the San Francisco Bay Area void the irony? Bah. Who cares?)

It's a pretty good place, with some decent American food and some really good ice cream. As is the custom in the United States, they give you more food than you really should eat, and definitely more ice cream in one sitting than you should eat in a month. Logan had the corn dog and fries, and after that he got a kid's scoop of ice cream. He ate only about a third of the corn dog, half of the fries, and probably less than a third of the baseball-sized scoop of chocolate ice cream.

Part of me really hates the idea of wasting food - any kind of food, even if we're talking about dessert. Also, as a person who has a genuine issue when it comes to sweets (if they made you drunk, I would have been fired from every job and had my driver's license revoked decades ago) I had a hard time seeing him stop eating ice cream and announce that he was all done. Who the hell stops eating ice cream? If they put a bucket of it in front of you, you're OBLIGATED to eat the whole thing, right?

Okay, I didn't finish my mountainous sundae either, but that required the maturity of a nearly-40 year old man whose gut is making his T-shirt feel a bit too tight. It's not the type of self-control that a three year old can muster, is it? Don't misunderstand, this boy loves himself some ice cream. I mentioned it to him hours before we left, and he lit up so intensely that the electric company is going to give us a refund this month instead of sending us a bill. He also had a huge grin on his face when it was put in front of him.

Still, after having enough, he stopped eating it. Crazy, right?

I know that many people have all sorts of issues when it comes to food. I'm compelled to clean my plate, and I relate to the following quote from Louis CK too much:  "I don't stop eating when I'm full. The meal isn't over when I'm full. It's over when I hate myself." While I don't remember my parents doing this to me all the time, I do remember them telling me on more than one occasion to finish my food. I don't think that this is so strange, especially from my mother who grew up poor. In her early life, you ate when you had the chance. My dad was raised by people who lived through The Depression, so no doubt some of that same train of thought came through in his upbringing.

Kids in my son's situation don't have that problem. We're not exactly living high on the hog here, but there's always plenty of hog and other food for him when he needs it. Obviously, we don't want to get into the game of him refusing his dinner and then asking for something an hour later when we've cleaned everything up. Also, we're not going to make separate dinners for him like I know some parents do (and I'm not talking about kids with special dietary needs here - I'm talking about them just being picky).  On the few occasions when Logan doesn't want what my wife and I are having, he can have something simple like a banana, some bread and butter, cereal and milk, etc. However, I'm not preparing anything special for him. This seems to work out well, as he usually eats what we're eating.

We also don't pester him about eating his vegetables. He's not a big fan of them, but we've noticed that on the occasions when he does eat them, it's when we let it be his idea to try them. This worked out for salads, as he'll often have them. Basically the goal is that we put a bit of everything in front of him and tell him that he can eat what he wants, and if he wants more of something, he can have more of it. Another strategy that gets him to try more foods is when I let him watch and help me while I'm making dinner. Food is often more appealing when it's not just shoved in front of your face and you get to see the process. (Possible exception to this rule: hot dogs.)

Even though we've been pretty consistent, there's a part of me that hates to see food go to waste. Sometimes we can save it for the next day, but that's not always practical. Obviously, there are people out there who wish that they had this same problem, as they don't even know where their next meal is coming from. It's people like that I think about whenever food gets thrown away, but another thought hits me - isn't it wasting it just as much when you eat more than you need to eat? And in the second instance, you're being downright unhealthy. Besides, eventually he's going to get to a point where he can articulate to me just how hungry he is or isn't, so I can adjust his portions based on that.

So, we have days when he eats like a horse and days when he barely touches what's on his plate. In other words, he eats when he's hungry, and when he's not, he doesn't. Seems pretty basic, doesn't it? Yet I have a feeling that there are probably a lot of people out there who relate to me as to why it's not so simple for me to follow. Why else would Weird Al have had such a hit with "Eat It" all those years ago if we weren't a culture that was obsessed with finishing our food?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Personal Jesus

I seem to be cursed. It's the kind of thing that the Greek Gods would inflict on a guy. I seem to be simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by religion. I like reading about it, and I like learning about various beliefs. But then when I stop and think, "Wait...people actually believe this stuff?" I start to shake my head. Take Mormonism, for instance. The whole story of how Jesus came to America and there was those warring tribes and all that? That's AWESOME. It's a great story. As an American, part of me even wishes it were true, ya know, when I ignore the racism in it. But then I realize that hey! wait a second! people actually believe this is real? That's when I smash my face into a wall.

Bearing my curse in mind, I read through Reza Aslan's Zealot, which explores the historical Jesus. You may have heard about it due to that lame FOX News interviewer who couldn't let go of the fact that a Muslim was writing about Jesus. I don't want to delve too much into that, but let's just say that if you think that this book has an Islamic agenda, then it must be subliminally inserted into the book. Sure, it doesn't take any of the miracle stories of Jesus at face value, but that's not exactly an Islamic point of view. Muslims revere Jesus, and he even plays a starring role in their endtimes scenario. They have some different ideas of him, one being that he was never crucified. Aslan, however, takes that as one of the few things about Jesus of which we can be absolutely certain. So, if he's trying to convince people of a Muslim worldview, he's really lousing it up.

The book is a good read for anybody who's interested in the subject and doesn't feel bound to The Bible as being some sort of actual history book. (It's not that it gets history wrong so much as it's not even trying to be history - not in the sense that we'd understand the word nowadays.)  I didn't find too much new in it, as I've read more than a couple of books on the subject - the works of John Dominic Crossan (a Christian) in particular. (I believe that Aslan even cites him in the endnotes.) Still, it was a nice refresher on the subject, as I tend to like the historical Jesus a lot more than the mythological Jesus.

I'd like to take a moment that Aslan takes the existence of a historical Jesus as pretty much a given in this book. He claims that there is proof for his existence at the very least, even though the miracles and all of that is a matter of faith. I'm a little sketchy on this idea myself, but I'm not going to make any bold statements either way. From what I know, there aren't any contemporaneous sources that mention him. (Even The Bible itself wasn't written in his lifetime, assuming he existed.) I'm aware of Josephus, but he writes about Christians, not any sort of personal encounter with the man himself.

I've done a bit of reading from those who claim that even the existence of Jesus as an actual historical figure is unlikely. I'm not well-versed in those arguments though, but I did find them to be at least reasonable. Still, I have no problem accepting that the very germ of the idea for the Jesus story might have begun with an actual person. Shoot, the Jesus story might be an amalgam of a few different would-be messiahs for all we know. Either way, my point is that I'm fine going along with Aslan's assertion that we can be certain that Jesus existed in the first place. So long as we understand that all of the miracles, including the resurrection, are matters of faith and not historical fact (despite what professional obfuscators like William Lane Craig will tell you).

When Aslan gets into the apostle Paul, he points out that the Apostle Formerly Known as Saul doesn't even seem to be too aware of some of the basic tenets of the Gospel stories. Aslan also points out that Paul's teachings often directly contradict what you'll find from Peter and James. What he's getting at is that Paul basically took this movement within Judaism and turned it into his own religion. In other words, Paul is more of a founder of Christianity than Jesus is, at least, what we understand Christianity to be. Before you think that this is some wild, out of left field idea, it's hardly an original thought on the part of the author. Good old Thomas Jefferson was a proponent of the idea - even being downright critical of Paul and referring to him as a "corrupter" of the Gospel of Jesus.

So, Paul took Jesus and made it his own thing. But is this really so strange? Isn't this basically what people do nowadays with Jesus? How often do you hear modern Christians refer to their "personal relationship" with Jesus. Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty certain that's not a phrase that's used in The Bible, and I don't even think that you'll find Christians speaking of this idea over a hundred years ago - if even that long.

Anybody who thinks that Christianity has basically been the same idea since Jesus came back (if you believe that sort of a thing) needs to do a bit of reading. Even if you think that it's been the same thing since Paul, you need some perspective. The whole religion is a laundry list of divisions and revisions, from Arianism to Trinitarianism, from Catholic to Orthodox, from Catholic to Protestant, from Jehovah's Witnesses to whatever the hell Charles Manson was talking about. In other words, it's had to evolve, and even in the modern day, it's no different. As the scientific method reveals more and more about the inner workings of the universe, you need apologists who can speak to these concerns, from accommodationists who believe in a God-driven evolution to young-Earth creationists who think that a snake actually spoke.

From what I can tell, the "personal relationship with Jesus" is where the religion ultimately has to go as Christianity tries to exist side-by-side with the scientific method. It's demonstrable that the Earth wasn't made in six days, but how does one go about proving that the voices in somebody's head actually ISN'T Jesus? Of course, you can't, but oftentimes when you listen to people talk about Jesus, it comes across to me as a manifestation of their own personal sense of justice and empathy. Does Jesus say a lot of stuff that any decent person can get behind? Oh sure. But what about the bits about how you can't be his follower unless you hate your family? What about how he says that he didn't come to bring peace, but the sword? How about when he instructs his disciples to arm themselves?

I know what some Christians will say: OUT OF CONTEXT! Frankly, I find that particular apologetic slight of hand to be so disingenuous that I don't want to address it beyond pointing out that the ultimate take-down of the "out of context!" argument has already been given:

In short: when the Bible says something you like, then it means what it says. When it says something awful or against the conscience of anybody who's not a sociopath, it's OUT OF CONTEXT! (As though there even COULD be a context to justify the notion that you can beat your slave as much as you want, so long as you don't beat him to death.)

Even if you just take The Gospels, it's difficult to paint a clear, consistent picture as to who Jesus was and how he felt about things. For Pete's sakes, the guy answers questions in parables, not exactly one for clear-thinking, is he? Then when you start adding in the rest of the New Testament - not to mention shoehorning in the Old Testament stuff that's supposedly about him (SPOILER ALERT - It's not about him. Don't believe me? Ask a Rabbi, unless you want to tell me that Jews don't understand their own scriptures.)

So what is a good Christian left to do then? You construct your own, personal Jesus using that fella from the Gospels as a starting point. As I said, there's good stuff in there, and it's easy to ignore the stuff that doesn't work for you. You follow your conscience, and you call him Jesus. Don't worry, you're in good company, and you didn't even need to fall off your donkey to do it.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Having sex doesn't make you good or bad.

Have you heard of this thing called "the sex"? Here are some stunning facts about it:

  • Most people do it.
  • Most people like it.
  • It serves some useful functions, among them strengthening bonds between couples and something or other about helping to continue the existence of the human race. (Not all forms of sex help with the species survival thing though, ya know, like sex between people who are all like hella old and shit.)
  • There's way too much emphasis put on it for young people - whether they feel as though they should be doing it when they're not or if they feel that they shouldn't when they are.
For the sake of this, I'm going to focus on my last point. I've actually had this brewing in my head for a while now - long before I ever started this blog. These thoughts began when I taught sophomores (which was over 10 years ago now) and I had them do an oral presentation on who they were and what they believed. I had one class where quite a few of the kids included in their presentation that one of their defining attributes was that they were going to "save themselves for marriage" when it came to having sex.

I didn't comment, but I felt like saying something. Good thing for me that I kept my mouth shut about that issue, because I'm sure that even bringing that particular choice into question would have been interpreted as "Mr. Johnson thinks that teenagers should be having sex!" without any room for some nuance.

What I felt like saying was something along the lines of, "Hey, that's great if that's your decision. But you don't know what life will throw at you between now and then, and if you wind up having sex before marriage, you shouldn't beat yourself up about it." In other words, I wanted to tell them that they shouldn't attach their morality and self-worth into whether they were having sex or not.

Look, if you were to give me a sheet of paper that read, "Should teenagers have sex? Check this box for 'yes' and this box for 'no'" then I would have to go with the "no" box. But I would hesitate and think for a moment, which is more than I can say if the question was "Should teenagers do meth?" (In that case, it would be a definite YES! No, wait, I mean NO! Meth is bad, kids. I've seen Breaking Bad.)

This is an issue where I can't just sum up my feelings in a convenient soundbite. I want to just make the blanket statement that sex and morality should be completely separate issues, but we all know that they are unquestionably tied together in at least some ways. Obviously, having sex with somebody who's not consenting is wrong. Having sex with a child is wrong. Lying to somebody about your intentions is wrong. (Like saying, "I want to marry you!" when you have absolutely no intention of even calling the person back the next day, for instance.)

In all those cases, the sex itself isn't what's wrong, it's the lack of consent, the lack of consent from somebody who can even give it, or the act of lying that is bad. But sex between two people who are old enough to understand what they're doing and are both consenting? Why should there be any moral judgment in there one way or another?

We're hard-wired to want to have sex. Just imagine what would happen if we weren't? It's not a desire that was given to us along with a sense of prudence as to when we should or should not engage in it. You can sit there and say that you're not going to do it, but unless you plan on living in solitary confinement, there are going to be moments when your basic human instinct is going to override your judgement.

Let me give you a scenario, hopefully without being too crude about it, but it will be somewhat on the extreme/mostly unlikely side: imagine a person the most attractive person you can. Let's say that this person also has a really awesome personality and makes you laugh. Imagine that you're alone with that person, and if you're a man, you haven't gone solo (if you know what I mean) for weeks. Imagine that this person is coming on to you, and wants to have sex with you right then and there. Imagine that there's one really comfortable bed (or whatever you're in to) in that room.

Now, you can lie and say that you'd stand up, say "No thank you, ma'am/sir" and walk out the door. But you know as well as I do that the chances are better than average that you're going to go for it. Don't believe me? Well, think of this - how likely is that scenario? Not very, right? Well, even in that sort of unlikely event, abstinence pledges generally tend to be unsuccessful! So, even under non-optimal conditions, people are going to give in and have sex, no matter what they may have promised themselves when they didn't have a sexually attractive person right in front of them. And let's not even get started as to how the teen pregnancy rate tends to be higher in "conservative" areas of the country that espouse "abstinence only" education. (I don't think that's being conservative. "Conservative" is handing your son a condom and/or getting your daughter on the pill in the event that they have sex. Seems pretty liberal to me to just trust that they'll ignore their biological instincts.)

And yes, this is worse for girls than it is for boys. If anything, boys get the opposite sort of pressure. But pressure about sex in either direction is harmful from where I'm standing. As usual, the only thing that I can do is teach my son what's what. I plan on telling him the following:
  • He should only have sex if both he and his partner are ready and willing.
  • His urge to have sex has a good chance of outweighing his ability to think and act rationally.
  • The only way that "abstinence only" will be a surefire success is if he lives in solitary confinement.
  • He should use protection and encourage his partner to do the same. (Doubling up on contraception is even more "conservative" from my vantage.)
  • His having or not having sex has no bearing on his value as a person.
  • Assuming he's straight, how much sex his partner has or has not had before him has no bearing on her value as a person.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Don't take your frustration out on just anyone.

It's been over twenty years since I quit my first real job at Safeway, but I still have a lot of memories of the place. It was my introduction to the world of working for the public and just how infuriating that can be.

One story that I remember in particular was when I was rounding up shopping carts in the parking lot. It was Christmas Eve, so things were getting kind of busy. Also, the city was building an extension of the BART line out to Pittsburgh. (At the time, Concord was the end of the line.) The extension was cutting through the Safeway parking lot, which meant fewer parking spaces for a time.

So there I was, pushing the carts, trying my best to avoid the cars that were circling around the lot. Some guy drove next to me, rolled down his window, and then he asked if there was any more parking. I told him that, unfortunately, there wasn't. I don't remember exactly what he said to me, but essentially it was along the lines that I was stupid for there not being more parking. 'Cause, you know, the guy who pushes the carts has the kind of pull with upper management and the city that he should have ensured that there were more places to park.

There were similar incidents where people got upset at me because we were out of some product, something cost too much, or they read the price tag incorrectly. With the last one, I remember a guy claiming that I was trying to rip him off because the 2 for $3 sale sign was for a different barbecue sauce than the one he wanted to buy. He totally got me on that one, because I always made a little extra dough when people shelled out for the pricier, high-falootin' Bull's Eye sauce instead of the Safeway brand stuff.

Anyway, I got to thinking about this because I heard one of those "friend of a friend" stories of somebody who was getting all set to go down to a particular store and chew out the poor shmuck with the bad luck of working that day. Why? Because a particular item was discontinued. Mind you, this is one of those chain stores, the kind of you find in nearly every shopping mall. It's probably pretty safe to say that the average employee there has little, if any, say on what items they carry and which ones they don't.

Three years was a long enough of a period of time for me to sympathize with people who work for the public. If anything, I think that I err on the side of being too polite. Just the other day, at Walgreen's, the guy behind the cash register apologized because things were taking too long, the reason being that the computer was moving really slowly. My reaction was to call him a useless asshole and demand that he install some faster-moving computers POST HASTE! Nah, my real reaction was to tell him that it was no problem, as he couldn't work any faster than the machinery let him. I think it's pretty safe to say that if he could have a faster register, he'd get one. To what advantage would it be to him for things to go slowly?

I think that some people are just frustrated with life in general, and since they don't have the kind of control they want in their lives, they're eager to take out their frustrations on people who are both a captive audience and trained to treat complainers as though they have legitimate gripes, even when they don't. You know, the whole "the customer is always right" load of garbage.

Another incident from my Safeway days that fits this perfectly was a woman who marched into the store, demanding to see a manager to complain about our "blatant false advertising". She was standing there all smug, like she caught us red-handed. (The "us" being an assistant manager, myself, and a checker - absolutely none of us were in charge of any kind of advertising.) Even if it were fresh in my mind, it was difficult to figure out exactly what she had caught, but I recall it essentially amounted to a difference in a few cents on toilet paper. If only she realized that whatever the situation was, the store's checkers were instructed to give the lower price - even though the store doesn't technically have to do that.

Next time you're eager to go give an employee a good piece of your mind, ask yourself a couple of questions. First off, was that person even remotely responsible for the problem in the first place? If it's a big chain, then the answer usually is "probably not". Second, is this person even in a position to fix the problem? Obviously, if the issue is something like them putting a watermelon on top of the loaf of bread, yeah, go after the guy who did that. But don't expect the ones on the bottom of the totem pole of a huge corporation to have the influence to make any real decisions.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Atheists, learn from the gays.

I sometimes get flak for being such an outspoken atheist. What's weird is that I seem to get it more from my fellow nonbelievers more than I get it from my theist friends. Many of them are just as disdainful of religion as I am, but somehow I get accused of being just like religious fundamentalist preachers -  only substitute religion with atheism. I find this rather odd. What exactly do I do? I write blog posts, sometimes share funny atheist memes on Facebook, and I go into buses and trains and tell the people about how there is no God.

Actually, I don't do the last one. With the other two, my audience isn't a captive one. They can either choose not to read my blog, or they can de-friend and/or ignore me on Facebook. (The second one has happened a couple of times, but I seem to have a ridiculous amount of Christian friends - including a couple of pastors - who I met via Facebook. Either they're gluttons for punishment or I'm not as bad as some of my fellow atheists would make me out to be.)

It's not that I don't have the opportunity to speak to a captive audience. I'm a public school teacher, and I actually teach a unit on The Bible with my seniors. When I do my lessons, I tell them that I'm an atheist and that anybody who believes in The Bible is stupid.

Again, just kidding about the last part. I do tell them that I'm an atheist. I do this in the interest of full disclosure just in case they detect some sort of a bias in a lesson where I try to be as neutral as possible. A funny aside is that last year, I showed a documentary on the historical Jesus to go along with it. My last question on the documentary asked them what they thought of it and whether they thought it was biased in one direction or the other. The majority of students felt it was even-handed. A couple of them thought it was preachy, and a couple of them thought that it was anti-Jesus. That's funny enough, but even more amusing was when I read one girl's comments that went along the lines of, "I was raised with Catholicism, but this is making me think that the whole thing is nonsense." Another girl, whose paper was the very next one in the stack, read, "I was raised Catholic, but I haven't given it much thought about it. This documentary makes me want to revisit my faith."

Make of it what you will, but I think it's safe to say that if I'm pushing atheism on my students, I really suck at it.

With all this though, I'm still an incredibly self-critical person, and I take these comments to heart and worry about them far more than I probably should. One of my friends even described me as a "virulent" atheist. The last time I talked to him, I had gone over it in my head enough to take issue with it. My basic thought is this: what would I think of a Christian who does the same thing as me? In other words, would I think that a Christian is being obnoxious by writing a blog, sharing Christian memes, and being unapologetically open about his faith? Well, that happens to describe some of my friends, so obviously I don't find that to be too objectionable. The only time I'll take issue with them is when they post something erroneous (like how supposedly you can't read The Bible in public school...even though you can).

After some discussion, I was accused of being a "flamboyant" atheist. In other words, I'm like the openly gay guy who makes no effort to hide his sexuality and eagerly shares messages of tolerance. This made me think of a guy who graduated from high school with me. Soon after the Facebook page for the 20 year reunion went up, he posted a message asking who else had come out of the closet since graduation. His photo was one with him and his partner, and he posted about how long they had been together and how happy they were. I remember thinking that was really cool of him. I loved how out there he was, completely unashamed due to the fact that he had nothing to be ashamed of.

So, am I a flamboyant atheist? Yeah. I'll own that.

And this is where you, my fellow atheists, come in. I've written before that I wish that more atheists would be comfortable with the word "atheist". It's strange because you can actually get a person to admit that he or she doesn't believe in any gods, yet they simply won't use that word. Oftentimes the complaint is that they don't like labels, as people attach so much baggage to them. I understand this, but at the same time, I think that when you refuse to use a simple word that simply describes your stance on theism, you're contributing to the baggage that the word has. It's kind of like how Voldemort seemed even scarier when people refused his name, but his name lost a lot of its power when Harry finally became comfortable using it.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that all nonbelievers should be flamboyant atheists like me. I'm not telling you to write a blog. I'm not telling you to post memes. Shoot, you don't EVER have to talk about it. However, you shouldn't hide it from people either. In other words, be like the lady who was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer after the tornado in Oklahoma. When he asked if she "thanked the Lord" she informed him that she was an atheist. I absolutely love that moment. She had a smile on her face, and she didn't act like she was outraged for him bringing up God. She was just being honest and clear.

What I'm saying is that religious people need to know that we're out there and...GASP! they probably even genuinely like some of us! Most of us are friendly, and we care about the same sorts of things that they do when it comes to just getting by in life from day to day.

I'll admit that most of my interactions with my Christian friends started off with us debating. That's pretty much tapered off. Now we tend to talk more about our kids, cooking, comic books, whatever. Some people have told me that my debates with Christians are a waste of time because I'll never convince them of anything. Setting aside the fact that I don't believe that, simply considering the number of atheists who were former believers, it still isn't a waste. I know that some of them have had some notions about what being an atheist meant, and I know that many of those notions have been eradicated. I even heard a story about how one of them had her church pray for her because she was going to meet "an atheist" (me) in person! Gasp! I'm sure they all find that to be just as amusing as I do now that they know a bit more about the rest of my personality. In fact, I get teased by some of them for being a "softie" more than I ever do for being a nonbeliever. (Yeah, I'll own the being a softie thing.)

I've read more than once that a major factor in why so many Americans have changed their minds about gay marriage over the past few years is due to the fact that so many more gay people have come out of the closet. This has forced many of us to realize that there are a lot more of them out there than we realized. Even more importantly, we learn that they're really not all that different from everybody else and that they're our friends.

The same thing is slowly happening with atheists, as the last article I read on the subject shows that more Americans are willing to vote for an openly atheist candidate for President than ever before. I don't see this turning around, and the reason why is that while theists are still clearly in the majority, fewer and fewer of them view atheists as a threat.

And this is why more nonbelievers need to embrace the word. Yes, the word has a lot of baggage. But that can change, and if more people use it to simply describe their feelings on the existence of a god, then it's eventually going to become as banal an expression as saying that you're left-handed.

I remember when I took a class with my wife on parenting, a woman shared her story about some tough times that her daughter was going through. She couldn't figure out what was wrong, and eventually her daughter tearfully revealed to her that she was a lesbian. The woman's reaction was priceless. "She told me that she was a lesbian, and I said to her, 'Oh! Is that all?'"

Right now, there are a lot of young people who are afraid to tell their parents that they don't share their religious beliefs. It might seem like a small thing for my fellow nonbelievers to use the word atheist to describe themselves, but I truly believe that the more of us who do it, the more parents will respond in the same way: "An atheist? Is that all?"

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

What is a skeptic?

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about why I'm a skeptic. I originally was going to write about why I was an atheist, as I wanted a single, be-all, end-all post explaining why that was. However, the more I spun it around in my head, the more I felt that I couldn't address my atheism without getting to what led me to it, which was the fact that I am a skeptic.

Without repeating what I wrote in that, I'd like to follow-up on exactly what I think that means. I think that there is a danger in relying too much on labels to identify one's particular beliefs. I often hear Christians refer to theirs as "the Truth", even though from what I can tell, there's little that's actually true about it. But a lot of atheists run this same danger when they call themselves "free thinkers", for instance. Are you really a free thinker when all you're doing is repeating what all your friends say? I have no doubt that there are some atheists out there who meet that description, and there could very well be other areas in their life where all they do is parrot what their parents/friends/community/etc. says. The word "skeptic" faces the same problems as well.
I have heard people say the phrase "I'm a skeptic" and then tell me about all kinds of fantastical claims that they believe, from miracles to psychics. I even remember an interview with Montel Williams, who propped up the career of that horrific sham of a "psychic", Sylvia Browne. In it, he claimed that he considered himself a skeptic, but the amazing powers of that carny swayed him into believing that she had powers beyond what was understood in the natural world.

Why is believing in Sylvia Browne and claiming to be a skeptic two mutually exclusive ideas? This one's easy, as the lady has an embarassing track record of failed predictions, Not only that, but her whole schtick is indistinguishable from cold reading, a technique that can be duplicated by guys like Mark Edward, who admits that he has no psychic abilities. Aside from that, most of the predictions and "talking to ghosts" crap she does is difficult to verify one way or another, and that alone should make a person maintain their reservations as to whether she can really do what she claims.

Still, being a skeptic is not as easy as just saying, "I don't believe in psychics." Skepticism isn't about what you believe and what you accept, it's about how you approach what's real and what isn't. I'm a skeptic, yet I can think of a situation where I could believe in a psychic and remain one. How's that? Well, what if you had a psychic who could make accurate, specific predictions at a rate that's greater than chance? What about one who can always guess the winning lotto numbers (or at least get them most of the time)? I'd even be convinced if a psychic could talk to the dead and reveal stuff that's specific without having to do the cold-reading game of "I see a J. Maybe it's a Q. There's some red. Could be green." You know, something like, "Your son is the one who has a scar on his left leg from the time he fell of his bike when he was three." Something specific like that would have to be the first thing out of the psychic's mouth - no playing games by asking a bunch of questions first. And they'd have to do this consistently.

In that scenario, I would have no choice but to, at the very least, say that there seems to be something to that particular psychic. He or she would have met Carl Sagan's standard of "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof". If all this happened, and I continued to not even give it any credibility, then I would not be a skeptic, I'd be a denier - something else entirely.

When I think of deniers, I think of the so-called global warming "skeptics". I don't want to get too deep into this issue right now, but let's just say from what I've read, the "skeptics" usually say things that are either 1) a misrepresentation of what the issue even is, 2) an argument that has long-since been debunked (see the whole "There was a global cooling hysteria in the 1970s!" load of malarky), or 3) a statement that simply is not true. Obviously, this could be an entire post unto itself, but in my experience, that's where the "skeptics" are at.

From what I understand, skepticism is a dedication to the truth (small "t"). It means that you have to completely set aside your ego and what you WANT to be true or what FEELS true. It also means that it's okay for you to say "You know what? I just don't know enough about that to comment." (This is where I currently am with the whole issue over frakking.) When you become a skeptic, you don't get a checklist of what you believe and what you don't believe. You follow the evidence, and you are willing to change your mind.

It doesn't mean that you can't settle in with some conclusions. I used to be skeptical of evolution, but I've done so much reading of it that being a skeptic of it seems pretty illogical, and those who don't believe it meet the definition of "deniers" better than they do skeptics. I'm at a point where I'm not really going to bother playing the false middle and say, "Maybe it didn't happen!"

Still, if something spectacular comes along and evolution simply cannot match up with the facts of life on this planet, then I must be willing to let it go, whether I like it or not. That, to me, is what being a true skeptic is.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Will my son play sports?

I'm not a big fan of sports. It's not that I hate them; I just can't get interested enough in them to care. I can enjoy watching the occasional game now and then, but I don't follow any teams, and I don't really know any current players with the possible exception of Tim Tebow because apparently he follows some obscure religion or something. I don't even know what team he's on, but I do know that he plays football.

Sports fandom is an interesting sort of thing. For the most part, it seems like fans of sports are like the majority of fans of anything else. They follow it enthusiastically but recognize that it's a diversion from the important things in life (nothing wrong with distractions - I have plenty of them). It can go a little further, as I always find it interesting when people dress up their babies and toddlers with clothing bearing logos of their favorite teams. It's almost like how people indoctrinate their kids into religion - saying things like how their little babies are "fans" of various sports teams, as if the kid has any clue what that even means. That's pretty harmless though, as I don't think that there's a real risk (unlike with religion) that the parents will disown their kids if they later choose another favorite team or lose interest in sports altogether. It's fun for them, and while I obviously haven't done that with my son, I don't see anything wrong with it.

Of course, just like any other hobby, there are people who take it too far. I really recommend the movie Big Fan starring Patton Oswalt for an exploration of this idea. I'm talking about the types of people who will insist that their team is the best no matter what actually happens, and they'll talk about how that team will win upcoming games with the same zeal that fundamentalist Christians will say that they know that Jesus is coming back in our lifetime. This is the kind that annoys me the most, but luckily I don't run into them very often. It's the kind of fan who will insist on talking to you about sports even when you've made it clear that you're not interested in them and that you don't follow them. A while ago, I was grocery shopping and some guy just randomly came up to me and told me some stupid joke about The Raiders. That's right. There was absolutely no transition, no set-up. He just walked up to me and made some comment about them. No, I wasn't wearing a Raiders shirt. It was just totally random. I should have made a joke about Green Lantern right afterward and then when he'd look at me all bewildered, I could say: "How does that feel?"

My son's been exposed to sports maybe only slightly more than he's been exposed to religion, as I know that they introduce them to the idea at his preschool. I showed up one time and he, bat in hand, was trying to hit a ball that the preschool's owner was pitching to him. I haven't signed him up for any kind of preschool soccer lessons or anything like that though, as I know they exist because I see them going on when I go for walks in the park.

Despite my apathy for sports, I still find myself worrying that I'm not doing my fatherly duty when I don't expose him to sports. I have told some men that I know who are into sports that they're going to have to help me out when it comes to teaching my son how to throw a football and all that - and I'm only half-joking. After all, a boy's gotta play sports, right? That's what they do, so I need to be sure to sign him up for something eventually.

It's occurred to me recently that maybe it's not such a big deal, and perhaps sports are so nested into the popular culture that even a person who doesn't follow them is somehow STILL affected by that. Why should that be? I don't worry about whether he'll be interested in mountain climbing, hang-gliding, or boating, do I? It's fine with me if he gets into those things, just as it's fine with me if he gets into sports, but I don't have some nagging feeling that I'm somehow failing him by not introducing them to him. It's rather weird that a person like me, who doesn't care about sports, worries that my son won't care about sports, isn't it? 

I figured that I'm going to stop concerning myself with that. My dad didn't introduce me to my current interests, so it's quite possible that if he can get into sports all on his own. I do realize that for a lot of sports fans, part of the appeal is all of their good memories of their parents either taking them to games or cheering them on while they were playing, so that might make it a bit less likely that he will ever get into them. However, I'll never discourage him. In fact, I do want him to find some things that interest him, and I'd be really happy if he told me that he wanted to sign up for baseball for the sheer fact that I'd be glad to see him take an interest in something. I'd feel the same way if he took up dance, art, or cleaning up litter in the park. Of course, if he shows a keen interest in comics and superheroes, then that will be even more fun for me, but I didn't have a kid so I could have a little clone of myself running around the house.

If he never gets into sports, he'll be just fine. The worst thing that he'll have to deal with is the annoying sports fan who won't shut the hell up about it.

P.S. If for some reason you're reading this and want to comment along the lines of: "But what if he turns out gay?" then I'd like to ask you to stop reading my blog and to never read it again.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

How about actually listening?

Note: I originally intended for this post to be directed solely at religious believers, but I think that I'm going to end with some advice that anybody can follow. Stick around and let me know if I'm right.

Years ago, my wife and I were planning on adopting (long story) a child. As part of the adoption process, there were some classes that we had to take. Most of them were pretty useful for just about anybody. In one of the classes, we had a lot of discussions, and we talked about grieving and how we deal with it. Different groups had different subtopics, and then they would share what they came up with to the rest of the class. One of the groups had the subtopic of faith and how grieving affects it.

When it came to their turn to talk about it, one lady talked about how people will stop believing in God because of the pain in their life, as they will tend to blame God. I wish that I remember her exact words, because that on its own doesn't really bother me. However, I had to speak up because the discussion basically started to turn into how that could be the only reason why people don't believe in God. (I do remember that this woman's children all had Old Testament names - Noah being one that I remember specifically.)

So, I just had to be me and I raised my hand to contribute. I didn't attack anybody's beliefs, but I pointed out that there are plenty of people who don't believe in God whose reasons have nothing to do with being upset at Him. I even specifically told them that my disbelief had nothing to do with some sort of trauma that happened to me.

And right after I said that, in an epic event of an absolute failure to listen, another woman muttered, "Something must have happened to him." So, even though I specifically said that nothing traumatic happened, something MUST have happened. It's not like I could have, you know, reasons for not believing. I must have been beaten by a priest, punched by a nun, or stabbed by every member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Anybody who's paying attention to what's going on with religion in the United States (and this is even more true for Western Europe) knows that the current generation is getting less and less religious. Young people are abandoning the faith left and right, especially those who go off to college. While it's possible that things might turn around, as history shows that there have been moments of religious influence waxing and waning, I don't think that we're going to see much of a reversal on this.

In other words, if you're a believer, chances are good that you're going to meet a nonbeliever. It even stands to reason that a friend of yours might lose his or her faith. And probably more likely than it has been for generations, it's quite possible that GASP! one of your relatives, perhaps even a son or daughter, isn't going to believe what you believe any more.

Different people will handle this in a variety of ways. One of my Facebook friends told me that it would grieve her heart if her son ever became atheist. I was going to comment, but I left it alone. After all, if she really believes in Christianity, then how could it not? I guess this is where any nonbeliever who is reading this and is thinking of coming out to his or her family needs to realize that it's probably going to be a big deal. Hopefully you'll be fortunate enough for your family to still love and accept you though.

Anyway, you can find all sorts of articles online from Christians who are writing about why so many young people are leaving the faith. Some are better written than others, but every one that I've seen seems to miss out on something important. An example of this is "Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity" that was published on The Atlantic's website. When I read it, I found myself pretty frustrated. While I obviously cannot speak for all atheists - and at my age, I'd be fooling myself to say that I qualify as a "young" atheist - I found the article to be frustrating. I really didn't feel like the author was paying attention to what these people were probably actually saying. I'd go more in-depth, but The Atlantic published a response to its own article that hits the mark: "Really Listening to Atheists: Taking Nonbelief Seriously".

If you're a believer and somebody close to you tells you that he or she is no longer able to believe, my advice to you is to do the following: listen to what he or she is ACTUALLY saying. Let's say for the sake of argument that you're right, and your particular belief system is the absolute truth. You're not going to get anywhere if you think you already know why they don't believe as you. If, for instance, they tell you that they don't believe that The Bible is true, do you know what's really not going to help? A Bible quote.

I'm not saying that you have to agree with them. I'm not saying that you have to completely change your world view. I would, however, say that if you're really interested in the truth (as opposed to "The Truth") then at the very least you'll consider that maybe the other person is right. But even with that aside, if they tell you that they don't believe for reason X, and you try and convince them that reason Y isn't a good reason, you're only going to annoy and possibly even alienate them.

I said at the top of this post that this message could be applied to anybody. I know that sometimes we atheists can seem a bit smug, but it wouldn't hurt us to listen to believers. Sometimes believers surprise me with their answers, and while it doesn't change the way I feel, those believers become less of a caricature in my mind and more of a complete human being. I even think that this could be applied outside of the area of religious belief - as sometimes people switch their political allegiances as well. Are you going to assume that your son became liberal because he was indoctrinated by college professors? Are you going to figure that your daughter became a Tea Party activist because she watches Fox News? Those very well might be the reasons, but it's probably better to listen to them tell you that than it is to just assume anything.