Saturday, November 30, 2013

Can you lead a theist to atheism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Read these comics!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thor: The Dark World review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Romeo and Juliet in comics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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