Thursday, December 26, 2013

Can we be honest about the word "faith"?

I have faith.

I have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have faith that God exists.

I have faith that Jesus rose from the dead.

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

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

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

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

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

I have faith that there is no God.

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

I have faith that astrology is bogus.

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

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

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Pumpkin Ale 3 - Pumpkin Fail

Want to know the best thing about homebrewing?

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

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

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

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

Then why is this a "Pumpkin Fail"?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, December 21, 2013

How can you celebrate Christmas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Beliefs matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Creating a message versus destroying one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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