Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Spreading atheism is pointless

The last President of the United States, George W. Bush, stated that God told him to invade Iraq (among some other requests). It's stuff like this that atheists point to when they want to see religion and religious thinking to go away. God told him? You mean that being for which there is no evidence of its existence? This is what you're basing policy on? Policy that costs the lives of thousands of people?

Many of my fellow nonbelievers find a little bit of hope in the fact that religion is on the decline in this country and around the world. It certainly would remove a lot of reasons for behaviors that are difficult to justify when you don't have a supreme being commanding you to do it. It certainly seems like we're entering a new age of enlightenment, but I'm not so sure that there's any reason to get too optimistic.

Let's take the example about Bush invading Iraq because Jesus told him to do so. Would it be any better if he said that he did it because that's what his astrologer told him to do? How about the ghost of George Washington said it would be a good idea? Maybe some aliens landed and told him that he should do so, and since they come from an advanced civilization, he figured that he'd follow their advice. Would any of these scenarios be any better? Of course not because they're all irrational and not based on any kind of evidence.

I sometimes will post all kinds of skeptic-related memes and thoughts on Facebook, and it's amazing to me how I'll get some people who'll "like" pretty much everything I post, but then they draw the line when I make fun of something that's equally irrational. For instance, I know people who will laugh at religious absurdities, but then they'll defend homeopathy. Also, I have one online friend who posts all kinds of amusing anti-religious memes, but then she posted something about her astrological sign. I didn't want to give her a hard time about it, but I expressed my confusion as to how she could be such a firm atheist and yet give any credence to astrology. I ended by explaining that the reason why I don't believe that me being a Sagittarius has any significance is the exact same reason why I don't believe in a god.

Obviously, a person can be an atheist and not be a skeptic. I think that's a little hard for people like myself, who started out as skeptics and found themselves becoming atheists as a result, to understand sometimes. I'm not quite sure what motivates people to become atheists otherwise. Perhaps it's that they simply don't like what religion has to offer, and they don't feel enough pressure from their friends and family to get involved with one. Maybe they had bad experiences. I don't know, but it seems like an interesting bit of compartmentalization to reject the idea of a God yet still believe in ghosts, for instance.

Let's also not forget the fact that there are a lot of atheists out there who might be skeptics when it comes to the supernatural, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're on the right side of science. Take, for instance, Bill Maher. I have such conflicted feelings about this guy. When he discusses religion and politics, I find myself in agreement with him, and I think that he has a great way of cutting right to the heart of the matter in a humorous way. Sometimes he goes a bit over the line, but I'm fine with that. When I have a real problem with Maher though is when he goes anti-science, in particular his statements about vaccines and GMOs. I ask you now, my fellow atheist, would you feel comfortable living in a world with a bunch of Methodists who vaccinate and don't work toward preventing potentially life-saving GMOs from going to poor people? Or would you rather be around a bunch of atheists with whooping cough?

So, yeah, it might be great to imagine a world with no religion, as John Lennon explained, but getting rid of religion doesn't mean that we'll suddenly be in a more rational world. If it's not coupled with skepticism, then we might be exchanging one kind of absurdity for another. This is why trying to spread atheism is ultimately pointless if you're also a skeptic. So, consider me unimpressed that there are more nonbelievers out there. I'll be more hopeful when I see other irrational beliefs go on the decline.

This is why we should concern ourselves with encouraging people to think skeptically. It's the sort of thing that ultimately works against religion, and all sorts of other tribalistic ills like nationalism, Atheism will come with a more skeptical outlook, and if there is good reason to believe in a god, then skepticism will bear that out as well.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

It doesn't convince you either!

A few days ago, I was having a conversation with a Christian apologist who was working on a series of videos that would provide evidence for the existence of God. During the conversation, I asked him if he would no longer believe if he would change his mind if I could conclusively show that each of his bits of "evidence" were, in fact, not evidence. (I've done this rodeo before. They don't have "evidence" so much as "arguments", and there isn't one that I know of that doesn't rely on some sort of a logical fallacy.) He told me that even if I was able to convince him that his arguments were bad, he wouldn't become an apostate.

I found this to be pretty curious. If those are supposedly the reasons why one should believe in God, then why would you keep believing if all of those reasons were shown to be false? Obviously, the bits of "evidence" that he was going to give weren't the reasons why he believes at all then. That's fine, but why even bring it up if it's not what convinces you?

I try and make the case for all sorts of things that some people don't believe: evolution, climate change, the safety of GMOs, etc. However, all of the reasons that I give are the reasons why I accept these things to be true. If somebody showed me that all of my reasons for believing in climate change, for instance, were actually false, then I would have no choice but to change my mind.

Likewise, if I found that all of my objections for not believing in a God were shown to be faulty, then I would have to become a pure agnostic at the very least if not a full-on believer. I don't just say things like that there is no evidence for God's existence just because it sounds convincing. I genuinely believe that to be true! And when I say that the arguments for God's existence rely on logical fallacies, I'm not just giving a sweeping dismissal of the other side's arguments. I genuinely think that this is the case, and I think that I can effectively point out where the fallacy is in each instance. If somebody can show me just one instance where I'm wrong on that score, then I'll have to take at least a step closer toward belief.

I don't think that this phenomenon is so unique to religion either. People like to pick a side and stick to their side in various debates and disputes. If they think that they have a talking point that will "win" the argument, then they'll use it, even if the truth of that point is in serious question. For instance, I don't think that anybody who says that "The United States is the greatest country on the face of the Earth" is genuinely interested in finding out what might disprove that. Even if they give reasons why (like all of that freedom, ya know) they're not going to change their minds if you show those reasons to be fallacious.

If you genuinely care whether your beliefs are true or not, it's important to understand and question why you believe what you believe. Are the reasons you're giving the actual reasons? Or do you just think that they will sound convincing to others?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dirk Diggler's Heroic Journey

In both my freshmen and senior English classes, I teach a version of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. It's a good way to get students to start looking for patterns and symbols in stories. For the freshmen, I teach it with Greek Mythology, and with seniors, I teach it with Beowulf, Siddhartha, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I include the last one because the overall point I'm trying to get across with them is that the things that happen in stories reflect what happens in reality.

When teaching it, I have a video that I made that illustrates the various parts of the Hero's Journey. Some movies that come up often are the Star Wars films, The Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter series. Those work well because they're basically patterned after older myths. However, I also include a few scenes from other movies (that remain popular despite their age) like Mean Girls. The kids are often surprised to see the latter in all of that, but when I explain it all, it makes sense to them.

There is one movie that exemplifies the Hero's Journey that, when I made the video with all of the movie clips, I was really attempted to include some scenes from it. There's just one major problem. That movie is Boogie Nights, and that movie's about the porn industry. In other words, somebody's probably going to get offended if I include that, and I'll find myself having a meeting with administration. I suppose that even with that aside, I'd agree that it would be pretty inappropriate for a public school setting.

I give my freshmen a paper where they're allowed to write about any story that they want and relate it to the Hero's Journey. That's essentially what I'm going to attempt here in order to finally get this example out of my system. If you're a former student and you liked that lesson, then enjoy. If you're a current student, keep in mind that I don't promote my blog in class nor have I made it an assignment to read this. In other words - you're choosing to read this on your own. If you like mythology, movies, and/or porn, then you might find yourself enjoying this. But let's get one thing straight - this entry will be discussing porn, however tangentially, so don't keep reading if that sort of a thing offends you.

So, let's get started:

The Hero's Journey of Dirk Diggler - better known as Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights tells the story of a young man from Southern California in the 1970s who adopts the pseudonym "Dirk Diggler" when he joins the porn industry. Gifted with a large penis, he's a natural for the genre; however, his natural charm and ambition pushes him beyond what's expected and he emerges as a superstar of porn. With fame comes temptation and a battle with his own ego, and he begins to alienate his friends (who have become like family) when he overestimates his own importance. After a series of disastrous mistakes, Dirk Diggler eventually rises again, ready to conquer the adult entertainment industry once again.

One can find a lot of basic archetypes in Boogie Nights. Obviously, Dirk is the hero of the story. He meets the archetypal definition as he overcomes overwhelming obstacles. His obstacle includes baring everything, which is a big deal in a society whose mythology is based on the idea that being ashamed of one's nudity is the first realization when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Much like any good mythological hero, Dirk also suffers. He's cast out by his mother, and lacking appropriate role models leads to all sorts of dangerous behaviors (which will be elaborated on later).

Of course, any good hero deserves a mentor, and in this case, it's Jack Horner, a producer of porno films. Jack's goal is to get people to stay in their seats and finish the movie once their done masturbating. In other words, he's looking to transcend the genre, and he sees what he needs in Dirk. Through Jack, Dirk is able to learn the ropes of the business, and his star rises because of Jack's love and support.

There are multiple characters who fit the role of the sidekick, but probably the most obvious example would be Reed Rothchild. He's there from the beginning, and he comes along with Dirk as he rises to the top. He's also there through the bad times, and he's still around at the end. Everybody deserves a friend like Reed.

The character Amber Waves presents an interesting dilemma, as one can find multiple archetypal ideas in her personality. In other words, she's more complex than the sort of characters that you'd find in a myth - especially considering that females have so long been used more as plot devices than fully realized human beings. On one hand, she's the Outcast, as her husband keeps her apart from her son due to her choice of career in the porn industry. She's also a bit of an Earth Mother, as she acts very loving toward Dirk and it's clear that she's looking to him as a replacement for the son she cannot see. Most fitting though is that she's the Platonic Ideal for Dirk. This, of course, sounds strange as the Platonic Ideal usually involves a non-sexual attraction, and Dirk has sex with her shortly after meeting her. However, it's important to note that this sexual encounter is entirely in the context of his job. She's very sweet and motherly to him. And yes, that is a strange, awkward, uncomfortable thing for the audience. This is the porn industry, where if one is looking for normal, healthy relationships, then somebody's doing something terribly wrong.

Dirk's Journey as the hero begins with his extraordinary birth. While not the son of a god, king, or other important figure, he is endowed with an extraordinarily large penis. So, really, who is to say for sure that he's NOT the son of a god, most likely The Dagda of Celtic Mythology, whose penis was so large that it dragged on the ground behind him as he walked. The call to adventure comes when he meets Jack Horner, his helper and mentor, for the first time. Jack discovers Dirk working at a nightclub and asks to see Dirk's "equipment". From that point on, nothing will be the same. By this point in the journey, many heroes are presented with the talisman, a magical object that will help them through their journey. Oftentimes, the talisman comes in the form of a sword. Insert pun about Dirk's penis being his talisman here.

Dirk crosses the threshold when he attends a pool party at Jack's house. Oftentimes in stories, this is a moment that involves a great deal of danger and much confusion. This scene doesn't have that, but it still fits because Dirk is in a completely new world. He's surrounded by people who not only have more money than he did growing up, but they are extremely liberated. Dirk is able to overcome his initial trials and obstacles without any problem, as his large member not only impresses the filmmakers, but his ability to generate multiple ejaculations within a short time frame has everyone's jaw on the floor. With his ability comes fame and awards, and soon his illumination comes when he realizes that he and his pal Reed can star in a series of pornos that feature a recurring detective character named Brock Landers. Dirk realizes that the movies that he's in can be so much more than what people expect from him.

It doesn't take too long into the story to witness Dirk's transformation. With fame comes money, and with that comes a more expensive wardrobe. While Dirk never marries nor returns home to make peace with his parents, his story does fit the atonement with the father, as he has a severe falling out with Jack. Eventually, he returns to his mentor, realizing how important the man was to him and his success.

While Dirk doesn't literally become a king, he still fits this particular part of the Hero's Journey, as he becomes the most popular adult film star - and as was mentioned before, he wins multiple awards. Towards the third act of the film is when one can see how strong Dirk's connection is to the Journey, as the story focuses heavily on his fall from grace. With his fame, Dirk's habits also became more expensive. To be more specific, he developed a cocaine habit. This, in turn, resulted in him losing the ability to attain an erection when needed for a scene. This led to a severe blow to his self esteem, and he started butting heads with Jack, creating a falling out where Dirk and Reed were exiled and went their own way to achieve their fortune. This turns into a real mess, as they pursued a music career, drug dealing, and the worst example, Dirk turned to masturbating in front of strangers for money. 

Here was Dirk Diggler, once the most popular porn star in the business. He had it all. He had friends. He had money. He had the finest shirts made from imported Italian nylon. He had more creative control than any other porn star, with Jack even letting him block his own scenes. All of that, and there he is, jerking off in front of a guy for a lousy ten bucks. To add insult to injury, the guy gets a bunch of friends to beat up Dirk afterward. As though that wasn't bad enough, one of them even shouts at Dirk, who's lying on the ground, beaten and bloody: "You don't do this, donkey dick!"

We never witness the death of Dirk Diggler, but his fall from grace was very much like a death of the hero the audience grows to love. Just like Dionysus, Balder, and even Jesus Christ, Dirk rises once again, and no doubt that even long after his physical death, he will be remembered in the porn idustry forever, thereby insuring his immortality.

Boogie Nights might not seem like the most obvious choice when pondering the Hero's Journey, but clearly it fits rather well. It doesn't just work on that level though, and there are a lot of other interesting subplots and characters like: Rollergirl, Buck Swope, Little Bill, Scotty J., and Todd Parker. It certainly deserves to be considered a classic, and hopefully this analysis just adds one more reason to the list of what makes it great.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Giving The Bible to kids

I have no problem identifying myself as an atheist, but there are times when I find myself disagreeing with what seems to be the majority of my fellow nonbelievers. While we all see things the same way when it comes to the God question, we don't always feel the same way regarding how to treat believers or even how to regard The Bible.

I read a story recently that was linked to an atheist Facebook group that I follow. The point of it all was that there's another affront on the part of Christians toward nonbelievers. What happened? Apparently the Gideons came to an elementary school and handed out Bibles. A mother protested, and she found that the rest of the community was against her and were all for kids getting copies of The Bible. 

Let's get a couple of things straight. First of all, I don't think it's appropriate for any religious (or even a non-religious) group to come to a public school in order to hand out anything. Secondly, I don't think that the school went about this in a very good way, as the kids who didn't want a Bible had to all stand aside for the other kids to get one, which would draw attention to them.

Aside from that though, I just can't find myself getting too upset about all of this. I remember when I was a high school student, there was a guy passing out copies of The New Testament. He didn't say much other than letting people know what it was that he was handing out. When I got home, I read it cover to cover and decided to give my life to Jesus Christ. I got down on my knees and prayed to Jesus for forgiveness.

Actually, the only part of that story that's true is the bit about the guy giving me The Bible. I took it home, probably read a little bit of it, and then I lost interest and forgot about it. This is probably more than what will happen with these elementary school kids who took a copy of The Bible home with them, unless their parents have already indoctrinated them into Christianity. And if that's the case, chances are pretty good that they already have a Bible in their home.

I guess I just don't understand what some folks seem to be afraid of. I know that some atheists bridle a bit at this scenario because they personally have bad memories from when they were believers. Also, they don't like the idea of their kids being indoctrinated into a religion. But seriously, who converts simply by picking up The Bible and reading it? If anything, I hear from people who became atheists when they tried to read it, but it's probably even safer to say that most folks give up on it when they try to read it. They probably lose interest somewhere around all the "begats".

Maybe this might sound strange, but I just don't see The Bible as a piece of religious propaganda. If it was, then there would be no need for religious tracts, preachers, and proselytizing. The Bible would do the job all on its own. Just try and put yourself in the position of somebody who was raised on a deserted island (yet could somehow still read) and never heard of Christianity. Do you think you'd convert simply by reading The Bible? Would it be the talking snake that would make you think that you were reading the word of a supreme being?

Are believers able to use The Bible to confirm their beliefs? Absolutely. But I've heard a lot of conversion stories, and they rarely involve picking up The Bible and reading it with absolutely no other outside influence (family, friends, etc.) 

If I found out that somebody gave my son a Bible at his school, then the only thing that might annoy me is the fact that we already have one, and we don't need the clutter. Either way, I would hope that my son would say either "thanks" or "no thanks".

Christians often speak about The Bible as though it's some sort of magical book that has the answers to life's problems. Nonbelievers sometimes treat it like the Necronomicon from the Evil Dead movies, and even opening it will bring all sorts of ruin. Neither extreme is justified by what it actually is - a book of myths. Some parts are great bits of mythology that reveal universal truths. Some bits tell us about the culture(s) that produced it. Much of it is tedious minutia that has little relevance to anybody who isn't specifically a Biblical scholar.
Still, it would be nice if somebody stood a little further down the block handing out free copies of The Odyssey.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Theory of Everything and Atheist Tropes

My wife and I saw The Theory of Everything last week, and I didn't get a chance until just now to sit down and write about it. Since it's been gestating in my mind, this is going to be more than just a straight-up review, as one of my concerns going into this film was how they were going to handle the atheism of Stephen Hawking (the subject matter of this biographical picture, for those who don't know what this is about).

Why would I be concerned about this? After all, it's just one aspect of the man's life, and some would argue that it's not even the most interesting part. It probably wouldn't be too wild of an assumption to say that even Hawking himself wouldn't find that aspect of his life to be all that important. He's not an atheist activist. If anything, he's an activist for science and reason, and this has led him to conclude that there simply is no need for a God's existence. So, what's the big deal?

I think it's important for the same reason that Johnny Cash's Christianity was important in his biopic, Walk the Line. It's not all there is to the man, but he came from a spiritual household, and music and spirituality were intertwined for him. Also, one of the best parts in that movie is when his record company tells him that he shouldn't perform in a prison because his audience wouldn't like it, since they're mostly Christians. Cash's response to any Christians who think that he should stay away from sinner? "Then they're not Christians!" It's there, and it would have been a disservice to completely neglect Cash's religious feelings. I can't speak for everybody, but I certainly didn't feel that the movie was preachy.

I didn't want some sort of anti-religious screed for this movie, but I didn't want the movie to skip over what his conclusions were when it came to the God question. (I skip the phrase "how he feels" because Hawking himself has said, and the line is in the movie, that it "doesn't matter" how he "feels".) I feel that it's important for a few reasons:

1. The man is easily the most, if not one of the most, prominent scientists, and his area of expertise is
how the universe came to be. You'll hear a lot of talk from certain religious quarters that somehow the idea of God is bolstered by science, even though nothing could be further from the truth. Hawking understands, and is able to explain, how the universe came to be, and if he doesn't see the need for a creator, then you need to do more than dismiss him with a wave of the hand if you're to challenge him on that - especially from a scientific perspective.

2. As most people know, he has ALS, which had doctors predicting that he'd be dead within a few years of the diagnosis. (That diagnosis was in the early 1960s.) A common thing that atheists hear is that people find their belief in God when they are suffering hardships and need Him the most. (Which never strikes me as a good argument - it's essentially an admission that the idea becomes more appealing when you're in a state that makes you less rational.) Call me crazy, but being confined to a wheelchair and having a computer do your talking for you strikes me as a pretty severe hardship. Yet the man doesn't complain, and I even remember an interview where he described himself as being "lucky" because so many people with ALS have it even worse than he does. The fact that he has this disease and remains so positive is a pretty clear demonstration that there isn't a "need" for a God even psychologically speaking.

3. Atheists make up a small percentage of the population, and we don't get to see many of us portrayed in a positive light in the media. Oftentimes, in fiction, atheists are seen as being "broken" somehow, and the resolution of the story is that they eventually find their way back to belief in God. You get that, or you get an atheist who's cynical and generally pretty surly. The worst though is the one who claims to be a "skeptic" even though he/she lives in a world where the supernatural is consistently meeting the burden of proof. Of course, with Hawking, we're not dealing with fiction, but considering the way Hollywood usually handles atheists, I was worried that even though they'd present his views correctly, there would be some sort of undercutting of his ideas in the last few minutes.

So...how did it do? Turns out that my concerns were unfounded. Not only is it a terrific film in general, but it dealt with Hawking's atheism exactly how I would have hoped. It's a part of his overall story. Even better, the religious people in his life, like his wife, were treated with respect. The movie made both of their feelings known without taking sides. Maybe some would argue that point, as the movie ends with Hawking giving his answer to what his life philosophy is since he doesn't believe in a God. However, the movie is primarily about him, and his philosophy might be atheistic, but it certainly isn't anti-theistic. I get the feeling that Hawking doesn't give the God question all that much thought, but he'd be willing to if given some compelling evidence.

Even more important than presenting atheism accurately, the movie showed what the scientific view of the world really is. There are a lot of strawmen versions of that in the media, as people with a scientific mindset are usually shown as being closed-minded and practically worship science as a religion, rejecting out of hand anything that doesn't fit into their paradigm. What this type of representation misunderstands is that an evidence based worldview allows for the possibility for pretty much anything, provided that there's evidence for it. If anything, it's the most open-minded point of view. One of my favorite parts was when Hawking explained how once he tried to prove his black hole theory, his next mission was to set about DISproving it! This is the key thing that's different from a religious-based versus a reason-based worldview. You don't go looking for things that prove you right, as that's nothing more than an exercise in confirmation bias. The point is to accept the idea that you can be wrong about anything, and, as Hawking said, how you "feel" about what's true is irrelevant.

I realize that I'm really narrowing in on one slight aspect of the film, but there are plenty of professional reviews out there if you want that sort of a thing. As I stated already, the movie is fantastic. I found myself tearing up pretty regularly throughout. If I wasn't getting misty-eyed because of his hardships, I was getting emotional because of his triumphs. He's definitely an inspiration for a number of reasons, and I'm glad to add Stephen Hawking to my list of personal heroes.

I do think that the film should have ended with his rap battle against Einstein though:

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Soundgarden and my black days

More than a couple of decades ago now, I was sitting in a hospital bed in London, England. I had come down with Hepatitis A after returning from a trip to Egypt a few weeks before, and I was recovering as my skin slowly went from being yellow to its more natural color of Caucasian Flesh. (Crayola, you owe me a royalty if you use that as a name for a crayon color.) I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, as I not only had that to deal with, but I was heartbroken over some girl. There was also a sense of general melancholy that would have been there if either of my other two problems had been nonexistent, as the news coming from the television in my hospital room reported that Kurt Cobain had committed suicide.

Essentially what had become my theme song was Soundgarden's "Fell on Black Days". I had purchased the Superunknown CD, which included a bonus track not available on the U.S. release, about a month before. While I liked the entire disc, this was the song that was speaking to me in particular.

Yeah, I know, there are few things worse than people feeling sorry for themselves. It certainly could have been worse, especially considering that Hepatitis A is the one that you eventually get over, and yeah, I can't even remember the last name of the girl that had me all obsessive. What do you want from me? I was twenty - not too different from a teenager. There's just something about those ending lines when you feel like your luck is in the crapper:

I sure don't mind a change 
But I fell on black days 
How would I know 
That this could be My fate?

I think that I sometimes forget to list Soundgarden when I'm asked what my favorite bands of all time are. But when I look back on it, and when I think of how much I still enjoy their music when I bust out those old CDs, they certainly belong somewhere in my top ten. I mentioned that I had bought Superunknown when it came out, even though I was studying aboad. I didn't have a whole lot of extra spending money, but I made sure that I got this one on the day it came out. (And yes, I still have it.) And of course, I saw them live when they were touring for that particular album.

That wasn't the first time that I saw them. When I was in high school, and slightly before the whole "Seattle Sound" thing went crazy, I went to a "Day on the Green" concert at the Oakland Colosseum. The headlining band was Metallica, but also playing were Queensryche, Faith No More, and Soundgarden - which was the only band I didn't know. (Funny side note - I was probably most enthusiastic for Queensryche, but let's just say that of all those bands, their CDs are the only ones that I don't still currently own.) I don't remember too much about that show, but I remember thinking that they were pretty cool. And I definitely remember when they performed "Big Dumb Sex", and I'd like to think that I was savvy enough to get the fact that they were being ironic.

It probably wasn't too long afterwards that I purchased Badmotorfinger. I suppose the reason why I sometimes neglect to think of Soundgarden when thinking of my favorite band is that they were overshadowed by Pearl Jam. That was the band that always sprang to mind when I thought of what my favorite current bands were. They certainly got more attention in the media, especially after Kurt Cobain died. And if anybody remembers Rock 'n' Roll Comics, they might recall that Soundgarden never got their own issue; instead, they were a backup in the Pearl Jam comic. (I still have that somewhere as well.) And to further prove this point, you can check out my tribute to Pearl Jam that I wrote more than five years ago! I guess that you might say that Soundgarden got a little bit "Outshined". Ahem. Heh. Heh. Hurm...moving on...

I've heard people tell me that as they get older, they like things to be a little bit more mellow. That might still happen to me, but as of now I continuously find myself heading in the opposite direction. I can't stand it when one of my local radio stations has its "Acoustic Sunrise" on Sunday mornings. Acoustic? Acoustic? I need something to wake me up, dammit! I don't want to go back to sleep!

With that said, I find myself gravitating toward Soundgarden when I need a blast of something loud. I ordered their new CD of rarities and B-sides, Echo of Miles, but I wanted a fix while driving yesterday, so I put in Badmotorfinger. I think that I was banging my head to "Slaves and Bulldozers" with as much enthusiasm as I ever did.

My love of the band continues to the present day, and it's even rubbed off on my four-year-old son, Logan, who will sometimes request that I play the band. He was a big fan of their song that they did for The Avengers, "Live to Rise", and you can see him, when he was about two, rocking out to that song below:

He (and I) also enjoy their latest studio release, King Animal, and we've spent many trips back from pre-school listening to it. His favorites are "Been Away Too Long" and "By Crooked Steps". (I'll never understand why some parents complain that they have to listen to kids music in the car. I've always just played what I'd normally play. Luckily, he gets enthusiastic about at least some of it.)

So, why do I like this band so much? First of all, I think that it's time to acknowledge that Chris Cornell has one of the best rock voices ever. He's got a range, and he can go real throaty and soulfull in one song to a bloodcurdling metal wail in the next. (And sometimes in the same song.) Also, and I think that guitarist Kim Thayil has something to do with this, but they have a certain sound about them that you can't trace back to another band. Sure, they have their roots in loud 70s rock, but there's definitely something unique about them. Think of all the copycat bands out there that wound up sounding like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, etc. I can't think of any that copied Soundgarden. Maybe that's because they're unique enough that it would be painfully obvious if somebody did.

Are their lyrics a touch on the dark side? Sure, they can sometimes lean that way. However, sometimes the dark stuff is what you need to get you to see the light. Back when I was living through my own "black days", part of what got me through is that song. Contrary to what some folks might think, songs like that aren't depressing. Instead, they make you realize that you're not the only one who goes through that kind of thing. It's the artist's way of letting you know that you're not alone, and knowing that is what gets you through it.

And it's not all dark. When I'm coming out of a funk, the lyrics to the song "Dusty" are always a nice way to reflect on that mood:

And nothing's gonna put me out 
It's backing down and under 
I'm down on the upside now 
It's turning back around 
Turning back around

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Might I suggest a divorce?

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My wife and I talk about divorce every now and then. No, we don't talk about getting a divorce, but we sometimes talk about the concept. When I told her that I was thinking of writing a blog post on the subject, she told me that I should do it, but I wasn't so sure that it was a good idea. Why? Because I figure that there's no way for me to write about divorce as a concept without at least some friends and/or family members taking it as a sign that there is trouble in my marriage and that we're thinking of getting a divorce. And even if I'm sure to write a disclaimer, like I'm doing right now, that we're thinking of getting a divorce, it'll sound a bit too "doth protest too much", which would be a sure sign that we're talking about a divorce. Why else would I be so defensive about it?

What's the right amount of times I can deny that my wife and I are discussing divorce which will put people's minds at ease that we actually are not discussing divorce? Should I toss one more in? Okay, one more, and then I'll do it just one more time at the end. Hopefully that won't seem like overkill. So, here goes:

I assure you that my wife and I aren't discussing divorce.

Why do we talk about divorce (not getting a divorce - shoot, that's one denial too many now, isn't it)? Oftentimes, it's because we know people who seem to be in rather loveless marriages where they don't even like each other to the point where it seems like they might be better off divorced. Of course, we'd never say this to their faces because nobody really knows what's going on between two people aside from those two, and "get a divorce" is the sort of advice you should only give when you know one of the partners is a serial killer.

We've even heard somebody say that "Divorce is simply not an option!" Well...why not?

I realize that with current divorce rates in this country, it's not like not enough people are considering it. I also think that people shouldn't rush into marriages, as those are more likely to end in a divorce. Still, there's a stigma about ending a marriage that I don't think should exist.

Here's the thing - I do consider divorce to be an option when it comes to my marriage. It's not an option that I'm genuinely considering. I can't even say that it's a fleeting thought. That's because I'm happy right now. But things can change. I could change. My wife could change. We both could change. We could grow apart. What if we get to the point where we can't stand the sight of each other anymore? What if we get to the point where everything becomes a loud, shouting argument with one another - which we would be subjecting our son to?

If it ever gets to that, and while I honestly can't ever see that happening, then yeah, we should probably start talking about getting a divorce. I'm not saying that we shouldn't try to salvage our marriage for the sake of both us and our son, but shouldn't there eventually be a point where we can be honest about whether we'd be better off separated or not?

When I think of all the people I know who are divorced, I don't look at a single one of them and think that they would have been better off if they stayed married. If anything, I think that some of them probably should have gotten divorced sooner. They probably could have spared themselves a lot of pain.

I'm also aware that for some people, it's a religious thing as to why divorce is not considered to be an option. That, to me, is just one more knock against religion, as it arbitrarily creates a boundary against something that could help a person. Yeah, God doesn't like divorce. He doesn't like a lot of other things too. But if God wants you to stay in a loveless, and possibly mentally damaging, relationship, then maybe it's time to stop giving a crap what this fictional character has to say.

Oh, and I'd just like to point out that in no way should this blog post be interpreted as my wife and I discussing getting a divorce.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

That ain't Doctor Doom

When it comes to adapting works of literature into motion pictures, one thing I'm not is an absolute purist. I'm probably one of the few English teachers who likes the movie version of Beowulf with Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother. Sure, it took a sharp turn from the plot of the original, but it was clearly commenting on issues that were brought up by the source material. (And let's all be honest and realize that even the 1000 year old version we've read in school isn't really the "original" version of the story either.)

I also don't mind making changes made in adaptations of comic books so long as it's all true to the heart of the original. For instance, X-Men: Days of Future Past changed up all kinds of things from the original story, mixing in all kinds of characters and introducing new subplots. However, with both the comic and movie, you can summarize them the same way: a member of the X-Men has to travel back in time to stop an assassination that triggers a post-apocalyptic future.

So yeah, I don't care if they change stuff around. Movies have different needs from novels and comic books, and changing things often makes sense.

Which brings us to the reboot of The Fantastic Four. I was looking forward to this because they basically loused up the last version of it. (To be honest, I never bothered watching the second one.) It definitely had elements taken right out of the comics, but it basically didn't work very well as a movie itself. It's most egregious sin though was ruining Doctor Doom, one of the best villains of all time. More on that in a minute.

Generally speaking, I avoid complaining about movies before I see them. I didn't jump on the "OMG! No Ben Affleck as Batman!" bandwagon, as I'm more than willing to give Batfleck the benefit of the doubt. I also didn't lose my shit when it was announced that Toby Maguire's Spider-Man would have organic webshooters. When it came to the reboot of The Fantastic Four, I didn't give a hoot that Johnny Storm was going to be played by a black guy. Comics fans can be a passionate bunch, but sometimes it seems more like they hate this stuff than love it based on what you read online. 

However, I'm now officially going to bad-mouth this movie, and it brings it all back to Doctor Doom. He sucked buttnuts in the last incarnation of the character. In this version, I don't even understand why they're calling him Doctor Doom, as I have to wonder if anybody's even read a Fantastic Four comic book. No, I don't care that they give him the more believable name of "Domashev". However, the one thing that's too egregious to ignore is that they're making him into an "very anti-social blogger".

Blogger? Blogger?! BLOGGER?????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Doctor Doom is the despotic ruler of an entire country! His people have been brainwashed into worshipping him! He's a genius when it comes to science. He's a prodigy when it comes to magic. He knows everything, and it pisses him off like nobody's business that Reed "Mr. Fantastic" Richards might very well be smarter than him.

He's not a frikken' blogger!

I know, let's make a version of Hamlet where King Claudius is the court's jester instead. Let's make a version of To Kill a Mockingbird where Bob Ewell is simply a guy who jaywalks. Let's make a version of Batman where Batman doesn't obsess over the loss of his parents! (Oh, wait...they did that.) 

Ya know, maybe you can create an interesting villain out of an anti-social blogger. But that's not Doctor Doom. It's something else. Blogging would be beneath Doom. And the man's not just anti-social, he's a complete narcissist, but he actually has the ability to back it up to some extent.

Shoot, I've even had good things to say about Daredevil, but I'm starting to think that unless it gets unbelievable word of mouth and manages to be a good movie (if not necessarily a good Fantastic Four movie) then I just can't see myself actually seeing this in the theaters, and dammit, I saw Green Lantern at the cinema.

The only positive thing I can think of all this comes from what Scott C. Harris had to say, and I paraphrase: hopefully this film will totally bomb and the rights to the FF will revert back to Marvel Studios, and then we can finally stop saying that The Incredibles is the best Fantastic Four movie.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Multiple monotheisms

A talking point that gets thrown around a lot when discussing the major Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is that they all worship the same God. Usually, the point in bringing this up is to encourage tolerance and acceptance among the three groups. While I don't want to crap on the idea of people getting along, I do feel like this is a disingenuous talking point. It's not quite as bad as those who try to accommodate other beliefs with the "it's true for me and that's true for them" talking point, but it bears more analysis than it usually gets.

Sure, they all have something in common. They all begin with the same God who kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, told Noah to build a boat, and made a covenant with Abraham. They all accept the story where Judah Ben Hur told the King of Siam to let his people go (or something like that). So, same God, right?  I'm not so sure.

According to Jews and Muslims, God is one and indivisible. According to most Christians, God came down in human form as Jesus Christ, and he is split into the Trinity, giving you three gods for the price of one. (Christians will insist that they have a monotheism, but honestly I think that the Muslims and Jews make more sense when they think of that concept as being decidedly polytheistic.) So, the very nature of this same God they believe in is different. If I told you that I owned a certain kind of animal that was a mammal, and you said that you had the same one but it was a reptile, would you think that's the same animal? (That might not be the best analogy. Work with me here. The point is, how can a Trinitarian God and an indivisible one be the same thing?)

Perhaps you think that's a nitpick, but we can go on from there. Jews don't even recognize Jesus at all, but for Christians, he's easily the most important part of the whole concept. The sacrifice of Jesus was necessary for salvation and what everything in the Jewish scriptures was leading up to. Jews don't even believe that humanity needs the kind of salvation that Christianity claims that we do. Plus, tehy can give you an entirely different interpretation of their own scriptures. (But hey, what do Jews know about the Torah anyway?) So, supposedly it's the same God who has two completely different concerns regarding what his creation needs. How is this the same being?

The difference between Christianity and Islam is similar, as Muslims absolutely reject the idea that God came down in the form of a man and "died". They also do not accept that God can be split into a Trinity. Unlike Jews, they do believe that Jesus was a prophet and he plays an important part in their overall theology, but to say that a guy's not God is saying something drastically different than saying that he is God.

I'm not denying the historical link between all three of these religions, but they each define their deity in such different ways that it's like they're not even talking about the same thing. Even when you start to break it down by denominations/sects/schools of the three main faiths, you still wind up with a singular God who's described in so many different ways that it's hard to imagine that they're all talking about the same being. Are the Orthodox Jews correct and the creator of the world gives a crap about mixed fabrics? Seems like a different sort of personality from the being of Reform Jews who is more hip with changing times. One way or the other, he certainly can't be both.

Of course, Christians aren't off the hook. We can go as extreme as Mormonism (which is arguably more different from mainstream Christianity than Islam or Judaism when you've got a God who used to live on the planet Kolob.) And it sure doesn't seem like Methodists are talking about the same guy that the Westboro Baptist Church rant on about. Same name? Yeah. Same being? I can't find my way to that conclusion.

Even in the earliest days of Christianity, there were strikingly different views as to what Jesus even was. Some considered him to be fully God. Some considered him to be more along the lines of an "adopted" son. It's like they weren't even talking about the same thing, just many different ideas that they all wanted to call Jesus.

Despite the fact that all these Gods stem from the same source, there is reason to believe that this is hardly a unique phenomenon. The Norse goddesses, Frigga and Freyja, are considered different goddesses, but there is reason to believe that they might have evolved from one singular goddess. With enough time and distance between related peoples, its not so strange to have that sort of a thing happen. You'll also find similarities in gods from different cultures. For instance, the Slavic god Perkunas shares many of the same attributes as the Norse Thor, as they both control the thunder and lightning while riding goat-pulled chariots in the sky. It's not so unlikely that the two descended from a common ancestor, if you'll pardon the evolutionary wording of that statement. (It should be noted that they have a lot of differences as well - but I'd argue that their differences are no greater than the differences you'll find within the Abrahamic faiths.)

I realize that as of this point, I've probably completely lost most theists, as I'm treating Yahweh/Jesus/Allah the same as any other mythological deity. But if you're with me so far, then consider that there has been at least one study which shows that people who believe in God generally tend to think that God agrees with them on important issues. It's pretty rare to meet two theists who see God in exactly the same way, but even when they're close, they'll ultimately be describing somebody who's more their idealized self than anything else. I've noted this before when it comes to Jesus, as people (even some atheists and agnostics) will talk about how wonderful he is, but they're essentially describing a character that they've invented in their heads, only borrowing the bits of the New Testament that they like.

I realize that it's a very inclusive, accommodating point of view that creates this idea that all of these people are worshiping the same being. Some will take it even further and say that basically any idea, be it Hindu, Sikh, Zoroastrian, deist, etc. of a deity essentially amounts to the same thing. While the motivation might be a good one, it ultimately trivializes one hell of a lot of history and a great deal of cultural diversity.

I once debated a Christian and I spoke of how there are other gods, but the Christian kept insisting that there is only one God. I tried to make it clear that while I understood that, according to his belief system, there is only one God, there have been thousands of gods that have been worshiped all over the world for a long, long time. He wasn't having any of it. But honestly, now I'm not even sure that I agree with as much as I was willing to grant him. Yeah, people might be using that generic term "God" and think that they're all talking about the same thing, but I can make an argument for many different monotheisms - perhaps even one for each theist out there.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Parenting - on "bad" language

I'm not a fan of the idea that there are some words that are "bad". Sure, there is language that is inappropriate for some situations, but nothing about a word makes it inherently bad. For me, it's more about what a person means rather than the actual words. For instance, I've heard some of the most racist things in my life by people who didn't utter a single racist epithet.

Lately, my four-year-old son has been a fan of watching YouTube videos. He especially likes watching the ones where a person plays a level of Super Mario Brothers while commenting on the game. Sometimes it's multiplayer, and they all riff off of each other and make all kinds of jokes. Sometimes the language gets a bit rough. Don't get me wrong - they're not dropping the F bomb, but they're saying words that I'm not ready for my boy to go around using in public. You know, stuff like crap, dammit, bastard, etc.

Fortunately, I haven't heard my son use any of those words yet. I figure though that it's probably only a matter of time before he does though. Part of me was tempted to tell him that he could no longer watch those videos. There would definitely be a lot of whining and complaining if I did that, and he'd feel like I was punishing him even though he hadn't done anything wrong.

I tried another tactic. I sat down and had a talk with him. I told him that the players use a lot of words that aren't very nice, and I don't want to hear him talking like they do. I told my son that so long as he didn't use those words, he could keep watching. However, if he started repeating what he heard on the videos, then he could no longer watch them.

How well did he understand that? I'm not sure. Was this a good strategy? I guess I'll find out. That was a few weeks ago, and he still hasn't said any of those words. It's working so far.

Ultimately though, I realize that I can't hide him from these things forever, and forbidding things is something that I think should be done as sparingly as possible - even though I realize that there are some things that I absolutely have to keep away from them for as long as I can.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

An escape hatch for your beliefs

I don't know about you, but I hate the idea that I might currently believe something that isn't true. While some of my beliefs are fairly secure, I try to not lock myself down on to anything so tightly that there's no way that I can ever change my mind on it.

One of the reasons why I try to engage in conversations rather than debates over various issues lately is because debates often don't go anywhere - even when you have the facts on your side. Too many times, people are so convinced that their particular side of an issue is the correct one that it doesn't matter what you show them. For instance, I recently got into a conversation with somebody about climate change, and he gave me some links to a couple of videos that supposedly debunk the idea. I didn't have to get very far to realize that these arguments were pretty specious, and I provided him with a link that went into specific details as to why climate change hasn't actually been debunked at all.

His response? The whole thing is a hoax, and sites that debunk the talking points of deniers are part of the hoax. In other words, the sheer fact that it contradicts what he believes is proof that it's not true.

Where do you even go from there? It's not that he was able to go into detail as to what was wrong with the links I provided. Why is that necessary when you already know that it's wrong?

It seems to me that if you genuinely care about whether your beliefs are true or not, you can think of a way out of them. For instance, a friend of mine recently told me about a debate that he got into with some anti-vaxxers. I'm totally pro-vaccine. My wife, my son, and I get our annual flu shots. My son is fully vaccinated. I think that people who don't vaccinate their children are creating a public health crisis, and their actions (or lack thereof) border on being criminal. They are dangerous.

So, yeah, I definitely feel pretty strongly about this. But is there any way to see my way out? I think that there is, and it's not too hard to come up with a really obvious way for that to happen. If the data shows that children who are vaccinated are more prone to having specific ailments and diseases than those who are unvaccinated, then that's pretty much the end of it, isn't it? Of course, you're not seeing anything like that, and in fact, you're seeing the return of life-threatening illnesses like the measles in communities where there is a high rate of unvaccinated kids.

But hey, maybe that's not even true. Do you have a reason for me to doubt that? I'll consider it, I'm not holding my breath, as it would involve a really deep conspiracy which would require some extraordinary proof, but if you've got it, then what do I have to gain by believing something that's not true?

I could give other examples as to things that I believe - ranging from things I feel pretty certain about (evolution) to fairly certain (GMOs are safe for human consumption) to somewhat certain ("conservative" economic policies don't actually work). I'm not going to bother though, or this blog would be ridiculously long. But let's just say that I can't see the harm in thinking of what would make me change my mind. If I have good reasons for believing what I believe, then how can it hurt to contemplate my way out of my belief if it's ever necessary to do so?

Am I wrong? Is there no good reason to have an "escape plan" for your beliefs? Can you show me a reason where something was gained by simply locking on to a belief without considering that it might be wrong?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why do atheists seem so angry?

Do you believe in God? Do you sometimes wonder why people who don't believe in God seem so upset sometimes? Maybe I can help clear things up for you.

Let's get one thing out of the way before I continue though. Sometimes atheists aren't upset at all, even when they're being told that they are upset. For instance, there's a story that was making the rounds online recently about how atheists are supposedly enraged over a song by Carrie Underwood. This has a lot of Christians wondering why atheists would get so mad just because somebody would sing about their religious beliefs. The thing to notice though is that no actual atheists have been quoted as being mad about the song at all. In fact, the only response I've been seeing is not a response to the song but a response to the original article. In other words, atheists aren't upset about the song, but they are baffled as to why they're being called upset.

There's also a lot of exaggeration out there about things that supposedly upset us. Some comedian had a whole bit about an atheist who got offended because somebody said "Bless you" after he sneezed. Is it possible that there are atheists out there who would take offense to that? I suppose, but I think that I'll go out on a limb here and say that most atheists don't care, and many of us still say it reflexively.

Still, sometimes atheists seem upset, and sometimes they genuinely are. While I'm not the first person to explain why this happens, let me give a few possible explanations:

1. We feel like we've been duped.

Imagine what it's like to be married for twenty years only to find out that the person whom you thought was faithful to you was actually leading a double life and was cheating on you the whole time. This is how many people who are just coming out of faith feel. We feel like this idea, which we trusted to be true, has turned out to be a colossal lie.

I realize that if you are a believer, your response is that it's not a lie, so we shouldn't feel that way. But that's not my point. Even if we're mistaken in our belief that it's a lie, the point is how we feel about it. Nobody likes to be tricked about something that's important, and what can be more important than the fate of your immortal soul (if there was such a thing)?

2. We feel like those closest to us don't care.

Oftentimes, when a person loses their faith, it's due to a long process that involved a lot of reading and soul-searching. When they reach the conclusion that there is no reason to believe in a God, they want to go out and share this information. Their motivation is the same as yours would be if you found out that a particular model of car would explode if somebody barely bumped it from behind. You'd want people who own this car to know the truth. At the very least, you'd want some sort of good explanation as to why this isn't the case. Now imagine that people responded by explaining away the evidence or completely ignoring all together; instead, they chose to keep driving that death-trap.

I realize that many theists feel this way about when they share their faith. They think that they have some important information to tell those who don't believe in their religion. I've even heard Christians say that they proselytize because they want to "save people". I have no doubt that their intentions are sincere, and if you're a Christian, then you should be able to understand this frustration perfectly. Now, the question as to who's actually right is another story, of course, but hopefully you can see what I mean.

3. People don't even attempt to understand what we're saying.

Let's stay with the defective car analogy. What if you told people about this car, and their responses went like this:

"Why are you so angry at this car manufacturer?"

"You just say this because you love bicycles."

"So, are you saying that mayonnaise isn't healthy?"

None of those things have anything to do with a car that will explode, do they? How frustrated would you be if people responded this way? You'd probably start shouting and flailing your arms, I'd imagine. Well, this is how we feel when we get responses like this:

"Why are you angry at God?"

We're not. We'd have to believe in him to be angry at him. Many of us think that if he was real then he would be pretty awful, and it makes us angry that anybody would want to worship such a thing - but this idea can coexist with not believing that he's real.

Also, we're sometimes angry at believers because they want to enforce laws based on what he supposedly wants, but they aren't even able to demonstrate his existence in the first place. (And oftentimes, what this god wants is to treat certain groups of people unfairly.)

Do you want to make an atheist happy? Then respond as follows, and it doesn't require you to compromise your own beliefs:

"So, you don't think that a God exists, and you don't see any good reason to believe in one?"

From there, don't assume that they haven't considered the reasons why you believe. Chances are good that they have, and they find those reasons entirely unconvincing. (And in some cases, you'll even learn that there once was a time that they found those reasons to be compelling.)

4. Believers often create a false narrative.

This idea is related to the first one. I've had people assume many things about me, like how I must have had some bad experience, or I don't want to be held accountable for my actions and would rather "live in sin", or the most frustrating: I don't believe because I'm biased.

These are all untrue, and the last (most frustrating) one ignores that I started out with a bias to believe in God. If a bias is that strong, then how was I able to change my mind? Certainly a bias can explain why people stick to a particular position, but it's false to assume that's the reason why, and I think that I can demonstrate why it's not a matter of a bias that has me feeling the way that I do.)

Perhaps this isn't intentional on the part of the believer, but these sorts of narratives - along with the ever-popular "You're just going through a phase" - enables the theist to completely dismiss what the atheist is saying without having to consider any of their actual arguments.

And that, along with all of the other reasons I mentioned, can be very frustrating. Frustrating enough to make us a bit angry.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Should you buy organic?

Organic nightshade berries!
I have a lot of organic products in my house. I drink organic soy milk. I have some organic beef that's thawing in my fridge right now for tomorrow's burritos. I'm sure that some of the veggies in my freezer are organic as well. Why do I buy organic?

Because it's healthier and GMOs are going to kill us. Also, something about Monsanto and chemtrails.

Because I happen to like how some of those products taste, and in some instances, there wasn't really much choice when I was at the store. I like to go to Costco, and they're really big on the organic foods and "No GMO" labeling. That beef was slightly more expensive than the non-organic stuff, but I like the fact that they avoid antibiotics, and the way it's packaged is really convenient. With the other kind, I'd have to use several freezer bags after breaking it up into meal-sized portions.

I'll admit it though - I pretty much avoid the organic section at the produce section of my local grocery store. I have no problem buying the non-organic bananas, strawberries, lettuce, etc. I have no problem with them for a couple of reasons, the first being that the organic stuff tends to cost a lot more. The second is that there simply is no reason to believe that organic food is healthier for you.

What? How can I possibly say that? Everybody knows that organic food is healthier! Haven't we been told this many times before?

Indeed, we have been told. And who's telling us? The organic food industry, which rakes in over 30 billion dollars in the United States alone. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that organic companies are bad simply because they're making money. I just wish that people would treat them with the same skepticism that they treat the rest of the food industry (which deserves plenty of skepticism).

Who else is telling us? Bloggers with no scientific qualifications. This, of course, includes me. However, here's the difference between me and the Food Babe - I don't want you to believe me. I would hope that people who know me and/or have read my other blog posts would at least give me the benefit of the doubt and trust that I probably have good reason for my opinions on this. However, I think that your best bet would be to look at what the actual science says on this issue. Also, I'm not trying to sell you anything. (Although I'm waiting for a really big "shill" check from Monsanto to be be delivered in the mail.)

From my understanding, there is no evidence that organic food is any healthier than conventional food. Yeah, you'll find some stuff out there that will tell you otherwise. In fact, I was about to cancel this very post when I did some reading and came across what looked like a study that proved me wrong. However, with a little more digging, it fell apart. (It was on the Huffington Post, which props up pseudoscience from the likes of Deepak Chopra, so I suppose that I shouldn't have been too surprised.) I'm willing to be proven wrong, but I will have a lot of skepticism if somebody sends me a source from somebody who's selling organic products and/or isn't actually representing a scientific organization.

A lot of people will tell you that the use of pesticides is a concern. Well, I hate to break it to you, but organic farming uses pesticides as well. How do you think they keep the bugs from eating into their products? Harsh language? It's not that I think that you should be worried about the pesticides in organic farming, but to think that it's somehow safer than the pesticides used in conventional farming is false. Organics use natural pesticides, whereas conventional uses synthetics. "Ah! That's the thing! Natural is better! Right?" If you think that, then I would suggest that you're making the naturalistic fallacy. There are plenty of natural things that will kill you faster than any synthetic product.

I also don't understand how organic farming is necessarily better for the environment. I understand that some of the techniques are better for the soil, but almost by definition organic farming is less efficient than conventional farming. Why is it better for the environment to use more land?

So, to answer the question that my blog title asks: Should you buy organic? Sure. Why not? But don't buy it because you're scared to do otherwise.

Now, go read an article from Christie Wilcox, who has a PhD in cell and molecular biology and writes for Scientific American's blog. In other words, she probably knows what she's talking about better than random bloggers like me.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

I'm flip-flopping again on GMO labeling

Sometimes I make a 180 when it comes to how I feel about things. In rarer cases, I make a 360. In this case, I think that I've made a 540.

When it comes to mandatory labeling laws for GMOs, I've gone from for it to against it to moderately for it to moderately against it back to totally against it.

I was originally for it because, I mean hey, what's wrong with transparency? Then I was against it when I read up on California's Prop 37, and there seemed to be too many loopholes to make it an effective law in the first place. Then I was for it when my left-leaning, anti-corporate, anti-government friends shamed me into being for it. Then I became ambivalent when I gave it some thought and realized that if we're talking honest labels, it's far more complicated than what these laws call for, and you can read about that here.

The talking point that gets thrown at me when I say that I'm against labeling is: "We have a right to know what's in our food!" It's tough to argue that. What, do you think that we DON'T have the right to know what's in our food? Do you think that corporations should be able to just feed us whatever?

I completely agree with the notion that we have a right to be informed about our food. However, I don't think that labeling laws are about informing people. At least, none of the ones that I've seen proposed are about that. I feel the way I do for a number of reasons:

1. Products that don't contain GMOs are eager to advertise themselves as such. Do you want to avoid GMOs? Easy enough. Buy only organic. Hope you can afford it.

2. Proponents of labeling are eager to point out the companies that are against it: Pepsi, Monsanto (owned and operated by Satan himself, apparently), Dupont, etc. The argument goes that these companies are obviously trying to hide the truth about what's in their food. After all, they only care about making money.

This argument seems logical enough, but who's funding the other side? The Organic Consumers Fund and various companies that sell organic food. Also, you have Joseph Mercola's company, and one can write an entire blog on their anti-scientific stances. Are these all charities? Why does nobody question their motivations? I totally understand, and even sympathize with questioning the motivations of the big companies, but the organic industry raked in over 60 billion dollars last year

Here's the thing, if I had absolute knowledge and knew 100% for certain that GMOs were safe, and you put me in charge of Monsanto, I'd STILL be against labeling. Why? Because people freak out about it and will be less likely to buy stuff if it's labeled such even if there's no good reason to be afraid of it. Likewise, if I was put in charge of an organic food company, I'd be for it, because I know that it would mean more sales for me.

In other words, the profit motivation argument is a wash, and it doesn't get to the heart of the real issue. The real issue is what the science says about the safety of GMOs, and that leads me to...

3. GMOs are safe. Get over it. You think that they haven't been tested? How about a study of 100 BILLION animals? How about the fact that they've been in our food supply since the 90s and no adverse effects have been discovered? How about 600+ safety assessments? How about the fact that the overwhelming scientific consensus is that they're safe? 

Why is it that fruits and vegetables that have been modified using traditional breeding practices (which is just about everything) don't need to be labeled? The results are far more random and thousands of genes are altered. With GMOs, the results are precise and only involve a few genes. Plus, unlike traditional breeding, they're tested. But somehow doing something in a lab is scary because people took what was going on in Gremlins 2 literally.

I'm willing to change my mind again (and again), but as far as I can tell, labeling laws are not about providing information; they're about spreading unnecessary fear. GMOs don't require a warning label, and anybody who's so inclined to learn about the process can do so. Plus, they're easy to avoid if you want. I'm not totally against the idea of labeling in general, and I'm certainly not against informing the public, but the current labeling laws that have been proposed are all founded on scientific illiteracy and science phobia.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Talking religion with my four year old

I got a chance to hang out with my son, Logan, quite a bit today. We played some Just Dance on the Wii this morning, and then he played with some of my old toys while I arranged my comic books. My wife went out with a friend to dinner, so the two of us had dinner together and later rode our bikes to the playground.

Sometime during the day, I heard him say something about "the gods".

I asked him, "Who are the gods, Logan?"

He just looked at me, a bit puzzled that I expected him to know the meaning of the words he uses. Where did he get such a phrase? Probably me, as I sometimes say ridiculous things like "Because it's the will of the gods!" when I know that I have no actual justification for doing what I'm doing.

He answered me with, "I don't know."

After another pause, he asked, "Who are the gods, daddy?"

My response was that many people used to believe that many different gods created the world and the sun, moon, stars, and so on. I then told him that most people nowadays believe that there is one God who created everything, including people, dogs, cats...

"And horses!"

"Yeah, and horses."

Logan then changed the subject. He had a Transformer in his hand, and asked me if I could turn it into a robot. He was clearly done with this topic.

I would like to point out that I didn't say anything about what I believe, for the simple fact that he didn't ask me. I also didn't make any mention of whether those people are right or not. I just stated something that's a pretty unarguable fact.

I have written a few times before about religion and the indoctrination of children. A religious friend once posted on Facebook a quote that went along the lines of how it's important to teach your children HOW to think, not WHAT to think. I responded by saying how I don't know how one can do that while raising a child to believe in a certain religion.

The thing is, a religious person could answer my son's questions the exact same way that I did without compromising their own faith. 

But would they? I'm not so sure.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Cal Shakes - A Midsummer Night's Dream review

If there is one thing that I figured out while watching the last play of this year's season at the California Shakespeare Theater, it's that my wife and I need to start going to evening showings. Pretty much every time we went this year, it was really hot for the first hour, and then it cooled down a bit after that. With this play, it was practically unbearable, as I was gushing with sweat. Normally I sweat more than the average person, but I saw a lot of folks with shiny faces and wet shirts. Sure, it can get pretty cold on the evening performances, but bundling up with sweaters and blankets is much more pleasurable than feeling like Helios is punching you into submission.

That said, even the sweltering heat wasn't enough to ruin my enjoyment of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I first read the play in high school, then again in college. I remember pretty much enjoying the movie version with Kevin Kline, but I hadn't given it much thought since. I was worried that I might be a bit confused as to what was happening, but it all started to come back to me. My wife, who's less well-versed in Shakespeare than me, had no problem following the basic storyline - which is a testament to both the writing and the performance, as it's not the most straightforward narrative there is, as there is both the human and the fairy world at work here.

This was probably my second favorite show of the season, but that's only because A Raisin in the Sun was so ridiculously excellent. Aside from that, it's up there with some of my favorite performances that I've seen over the years, including Julius Caesar, Richard III, and Spunk. It was good to see some returning favorite actors, especially Danny Scheie, my wife's favorite, as Puck. I should also note that he scared the crap out of me (and the look on his face acknowledged that he was aware of it) when he entered his scene, yelling at the top of his lungs in that distinct voice of his. He came in through the audience, and I was right at the entrance. I jumped a bit in my seat - totally unprepared for his entrance. It's all good though - it was funny.

I also really dug Margo Hall as Bottom. I saw her in the aforementioned "Raisin" along with Spunk and always thought that she did a good job, but it was really cool to see this Shakespearean-trained actress take on some actual Shakespeare. Even though Bottom is a male part, she really made it her own, and I hope to see her do some more in the years to come.

I don't feel like there's as much to say about Shakespeare's comedies as there is with his comedies. I have to wonder if his work would have the broad appeal that it currently enjoys if he only had his comedies to his name. Don't get me wrong - I like them, and I think that there is a lot of good stuff one can say about pretty much all of them. However, there's just never going to be as much to ponder as there is with the tragedies - the possible exception being The Merchant of Venice, I guess.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Argument from Authority

Years ago when I worked at a dotcom, there seemed to be a lot of my fellow coworkers who were believed that aliens were visiting us and doing all sorts of things from leaving crop circles to rectally probing people. I remember having a debate with a couple of people who were insistent that all of that were true, and one woman used as her trump card that she heard "a guy from the C.I.A." who said that it was all happening.

I pointed out that she was using an argument from authority fallacy (technically, it's an argument from an anonymous authority), but as I've mentioned before, pointing out logical fallacies only has an effect if you're talking to somebody who's playing by the rules of logic in the first place. It's not too hard to figure out why this is a fallacy. What if I got another guy from the C.I.A. who said that it wasn't happening? (He's part of the cover-up, obviously!) Sure, it very well may be possible that it is happening, but I need some actual evidence if I'm going to believe something so incredible. Simply having some guy with some insider government information (that he's rather reckless about spilling to the average person) claim that it's so doesn't make it so.

Essentially, the argument from authority is the adult version of: "My mom said (x) is true!" I remember that I once had a student tell me that Catholics weren't Christians because her grandmother said that they weren't. I had to gently tell her that her grandmother was wrong. As we get older, we tend to give automatic credence to doctors, scientists, etc. without necessarily checking to see what their specific credentials are or if they actually have evidence to back up their claims. Nothing is true simply because an authority figure says it's true.

I can imagine that somebody might object here and point out that I often point out the scientific consensus when it comes to things like evolution, climate change, and GMOs in order to make my point, and thus, I make the argument from authority fallacy. While I do point out the consensus, I'm not guilty of making the fallacy as I'm not trying to make the case that evolution is true, climate change is happening, and GMOs are safe because the scientific consensus says so. In the case of each of those, the evidence speaks for itself, and you don't need expert opinions to figure that out.

Then why bring it up at all? I do so because it's an interesting challenge, and when I refer to the scientific consensus, I refer to a consensus of scientists who are experts in those particular fields because ultimately the person who is arguing the opposing side is asserting that they have an understanding that the experts don't. For instance, if somebody denies anthropogenic climate change, they're implying that they understand the science better than the vast majority of climate scientists. It very well may be the case that they do, but when I bring it up, I'm asking them to explain what it is that they get that the experts don't get. Usually in this case, you can expect an evasion.

I once got into a conversation with a creationists about a TV special featuring Stephen Hawking. In it, Hawking gave his reasons for why the universe doesn't need a creator in order for it to exist. The creationist called Hawking's conclusion "laughable". My response was to ask what, exactly, did Hawking get wrong as far as the science was concerned. He brought up the fact that Hawking didn't mention things like "evidence from design", which still doesn't address the question. Did he really think that Hawking had never heard that before? Same goes with people when I talk about GMOs; they will express that more testing needs to be done, but that implies that they understand something about the process that the majority of geneticists understand, since they are saying that they're safe. Again, the critics might be right, but if they are, they should be able to explain why their understanding is better - preferably with an actual geneticist in the room.

Bringing up what the experts say isn't a logical fallacy so long as you're not using it as the reason as to why something is true. It's simply a way of getting people to address the specific arguments and offer any evidence to the contrary. The problem comes in when people use the opinion of an authority figure as evidence, their authority figures aren't even experts on the particular subject, or the authority figure isn't even named in the first place (like our mysterious C.I.A. official).

A big problem that comes up with this fallacy is that often the people who constantly use it will assume that you're doing it as well. To be specific, I have had on more than one occasion Christians bringing up the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche to me. Nietzsche is understood to be an atheist, and he was the one who is often quoted as saying that "God is dead". From what I understand, and I very well could be getting this completely wrong as I'm no philosophy expert, his point was that as society moves away from religious faith, humans will struggle to find some sort of intrinsic value to life, as that's what they had with a belief in God. Essentially, the Christian is trying to tell me that since Nietzsche is an atheist, and I'm an atheist, that I should accept his premise and feel that life has no inherent meaning (ultimately as a way of demonstrating that their worldview is superior to mine).

What they don't seem to understand is that if this I don't give a crap what Nietzsche had to say. If he says things with which I agree, then I agree. But if he says something with which I disagree, then I disagree. I'm not going to agree with the guy on everything just because I agree with many of his critiques of religion. More importantly, if I am understanding his premise correctly, I think that it's a false one, as I don't think that people derive intrinsic value from religion. Rather, I think that they have their values and then wind up ascribing them, after the fact, to their religious faith.

This doesn't just happen with Nietzsche. I've had a theist tell me that Richard Dawkins thinks that atheists should embrace the idea of being "militant" after I said that was a ridiculous thing to do. I suppose the person thought that I was going to find myself in some sort of difficult position of sticking with what I said and contradicting Richard Dawkins. Fortunately for me, I have no problem disagreeing with the man. (I personally think that calling ourselves "brights" is pretentious as all hell, for instance.) I guess what many theists don't seem to understand is that atheists - or to be more specific - skeptics don't have any authority figures. We might have people we admire, but if Lawrence Krauss (another atheist I admire) started talking tomorrow about how we need to wear tinfoil hats to protect us from alien mindreaders, then I'll have no problem saying that Krauss is off his nut. (That is, of course, unless he provides objective and verifiable evidence.)

An even better example of this misunderstanding comes up in the movie God's Not Dead. The setup for the film is a Christian student takes a philosophy class with a professor who insists that the kids sign a statement declaring that "God is dead" in order to pass the class. (Something which has never happened and would be criticized by even some of the most strident atheists.) During the film, he debates his professor on the existence of God, only to get the professor to admit that the problem is that he's mad at God, which makes him not an atheist at all (but I digress).

I hesitate to give this movie any publicity, even if it's the 30-100 hits my blog posts get. I also must admit that I haven't seen it, but a friend told me about it, and I've read so many reviews of it that my point still stands. If anybody has seen it, and it turns out that I'm getting something wrong, please let me know. (And if you want a very thorough analysis of the film, check out what the Camels with Hammers blog, written by an actual atheist philosophy professor, has to say.)

From what I've read, the arguments that the two throw at each other consist of little more than arguments from authority. The professor quotes the likes of Dawkins and Hawking, and then he's dumbfounded that the student (the hero of the film) isn't impressed by the credentials of those he quotes. In other words, he is unable to make any arguments of his own. He can't even seem to paraphrase what others have said.

Perhaps there are atheists out there who only parrot what prominent nonbelievers have said, but that's not the way most of the ones I know come to their conclusions. I was an atheist long before I ever heard of Richard Dawkins or many of today's prominent nonbelievers. Sometimes I will quote one of them, not as a way of providing what I think is evidence, but because I think that they have made a true statement in as clear a manner as possible, and for me to use my own words would be to run the risk of being less articulate. A prime example includes Christopher Hitchens, who said: "That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."

It's not true because he said it. It's true because it simply makes sense. Why should I have to go digging for evidence to disprove something for which no evidence has been provided? A basic tenet of logic is that the person making a claim about something is the one who has the burden of proof to provide evidence, not the other way around. (I guess I ought to write my next logical fallacy post on the burden of proof.) In other words, Kermit the frikken' Frog could have said it, and I'd still quote it. Shoot, I bet you could easily compile a list of Hitchens quotes with which I do NOT agree, but that has no impact on the fact that I like what he said that one particular time.

I suppose that I can understand why I run into this problem with so many theists in particular. Their entire belief structure is based on the words of an authority, so naturally they assume that I must be doing something similar. Even when people get away from theism though, they run the danger of replacing one authority (The Bible - or somebody's interpretation of it) with another (like the Food Babe or some other mountebank).

The good news is that it's very possible to not fall into this particular line of fallacious thinking. As Lawrence Krauss said, when speaking of the scientific method:
There are no scientific authorities. That's a key point. There are scientific experts. But there's no one whose views are not subject to question. And that's the key point. And there's no student that should ever be afraid of saying to a professor in a science class, "You're wrong and here's why."