Sunday, April 27, 2014

The argument from ignorance

Ever have somebody accuse you of making an "argument from ignorance"? Kinda sounds like they're insulting you, aren't they? Nobody likes to be called ignorant, despite the fact that we're all ignorant of many things. (Except me. I know everything, but much of it I am sworn to never reveal.) Realize that it's not that the person is calling you ignorant though. Allow me to explain:

Imagine that you met a guy who said he didn't believe in the sun. What would you do? You'd walk him outside, grab a hold of his head, pry open his eyelids, and make him stare right at that big ball of fire until he was blind. Then you'd say, "Why do you think you're blind now, dumbass?"

What if you met a woman who said that she didn't believe in gravity? You'd take her to the tallest building and push her off. Using a bit of pre-planning, you'll make sure to attach an MP3 player on to her and stick the headphones in her ears. As she plummets to her death, the last thing she'd hear is: "What do you think is pulling you down to the ground now, dumbass?"

Maybe you have a friend who doesn't believe in evolution. What do you do but lock them up in the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum and make them memorize all of the transitional fossil and genetic evidence until you finally allow them to leave. (This person gets off much easier, but you can still call him/her a "dumbass" when it's all said and done.)

These, or perhaps somewhat less extreme, examples are what you'd do to prove the existence of what you're talking about. Do you know what you wouldn't do? You wouldn't say: "You can't prove that the sun/gravity/evolution ISN'T real." What kind of argument is that, anyway? It's not necessary when you can prove that they ARE real, is it?

And that's the argument from ignorance. It contributes absolutely nothing to the conversation, and it's not a piece of evidence. The problem is, people will use it to help bolster their claims for everything from God (most popular) to alien visitation, to dowsing. The problem is that it can work easily as well for Santa Claus, werewolves, or the Kardashians, yet nobody would take it seriously if that kind of argument was used. In other words: if an argument is a good one, then it works in all cases, not just the ones that you have already decided are legitimate.

Another form of the argument from ignorance goes along the lines of: "You can't explain X; therefore, I can explain X by saying that it's (insert preferred hypothesis here)." This is another argument that doesn't move a person's case forward at all. There are many things that defy explanation, but the thing is that there are fewer things that we can't explain now than there used to be. When we couldn't explain lightning, all that meant was that we couldn't explain it. It didn't mean that the explanations that people offered up (wrath of an angry sky-god) were somehow more legitimate.

The problem is that it's using ignorance about something as evidence, but ignorance is just that. It proves nothing but a gap in knowledge. For some reason though, people don't like gaps in knowledge, and unfortunately the response isn't necessarily to figure out what the answer is but to supply an answer that can't be justified by any actual evidence.

The two most popular examples of this form of argument from ignorance are the "God of the gaps" and the favorite of the History Channel: "aliens of the gaps". Things are complicated and mysterious, and rather than simply acknowledging that and saying: "We have a lot to learn", they're inserted as "evidence".

I once was accused of being condescending by pointing out that an argument was merely a "God of the gaps". I didn't know how to respond other than to point out that's exactly what had happened. The other person provided no evidence for the existence of God other than to say that a God can explain things that are complicated. Well, if you want to believe that a God is a good explanation, then that's fine, but you need to provide a reason why he's a good explanation - not just the fact that he's AN explanation.

I was then accused of doing the same thing, filling in gaps in knowledge with an "atheism of the gaps". That was a real head-scratcher, and an obvious example of how misunderstood atheism actually is. Atheism provides no explanations. When I can't explain something, I say that I can't explain it. I don't say: "I can't explain it; therefore, it wasn't God." In other words, there is no "therefore" in my point of view. If you want to say that God explains it, then you have to provide evidence for that.

Take my example of the guy who gets blinded by sunlight. The bright light from the sun explains that. And it's not just the "sun of the gaps". We can explain exactly WHY the sun's light does that, and there are other evidences for the sun (like photosynthesis, its warmth, the results are repeatable and verifiable, the fact that you can SEE THE DAMNED THING, etc.) We know what the sun is, what it's comprised of, what it does, and so on. When it comes to God (or aliens) we don't know exactly what he/she/it is or anything about it. When asked questions like that, the other person will appeal to some sort of mystery - which is the heart of the problem. It's replacing a mystery with another mystery, which gets us absolutely no closer to solving the problem.

Keep in mind that using the argument from ignorance does not automatically make you wrong. If a person actually did use "You can't prove that the sun doesn't exist!" as an actual argument, that wouldn't suddenly mean that the sun doesn't exist. Likewise, a person who uses the God of the Gaps hasn't suddenly invalidated the existence of God. God could very well be real - but he's not real for the reason that's being given. In other words, you can make a bad argument for something that's true.

The only thing that I'd point out though is that if the only reasons you have for believing something are all arguments from ignorance, at the very least, you should take a long hard look at why you still believe that.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

You WILL enjoy this, even if it traumatizes you!

Long before my son was born, I used to see parents take their kids to see Santa Claus at the mall. That's all good and fine, but what always made me wonder was when I saw the parents make their kids sit on Santa's lap even when the kids were crying. "Why are you doing that to your kid?" I would think to myself.

I can see why you'd make the effort to go out to see Santa, but I don't see why it's so important that you'd let your kid get all upset over it. I mean, who is this for? It obviously can't be for your kid's benefit if their happiness is secondary to getting the picture taken. If it's for you, why do you want it that badly? Why would you want a picture of your kid when he or she is upset?

Once I became a parent, I totally went against all this. When we took Logan to see Santa Claus, he cried, and I punched him in the face (while wearing brass knuckles) until he finally relented and sat on Santa's lap.

Okay, hold your calls to C.P.S. I'm kidding. Logan was excited to see Santa, and he talked old St. Nick's ear off. It wasn't even an issue. But man, I had those brass knuckles ready.

Put down the phone. In all seriousness, the wifey and I went in with a game plan. We figured that if he started to cry or panic, then it just wasn't worth it, and we wouldn't make him. After all, so many everyday things become major dramatic tragedies when you're with a toddler as it is. Why would you want to add another incident to the things that are leading up to your inevitable heart attack?

This worked out nicely when he was two, and he was even more eager when he was three.


At my local comic book store, there was a photo opportunity with Spider-Man and The Black Cat around Christmas time. When we talked to Logan about it, he was pretty excited. However, when we got there, he wanted nothing to do with them. The two superheroes were really awesome and even got on their knees to talk to him, but he just wasn't having it.

Enter: the brass knuckles.

Come on now. Put the phone away. Put it on the other side of the room. Just stop.

Luckily, there wasn't a huge crowd, so I went for a walk with him. Ultimately, we decided that if he wasn't going to get his picture taken with Spidey and his femme fatale sidekick, then the two of us would pose for one. Still, we weren't in a hurry. When we came back in the store, Logan started to warm up to the two of them - especially The Black Cat. Finally, it was time to make a decision, and we told Logan that we were going to get our picture taken, and he could join us or not. As you can tell from the photo above, he chose to join in with us.

Would it have been a bummer if we didn't get our son in the picture with us? Yes. Would it have been the end of the world? No.

I've spoken with some parents who told me about how they did it with their kids. They said that they were determined to have their kids pose with Santa no matter how much they cried. If I live to be a billion, I will never understand this.

And please, I'm not trying to say that if you do this that you're some kind of horrible, abusive parent. (Although I wouldn't be surprised if I get at least one comment where somebody accuses me of saying this - despite this disclaimer. My posts seem to attract strawmen like crap draws flies.) I'm just saying that I can't even begin to approach your thought process. It's not like we're talking about vaccinations here - it's a frikken' picture with Santa. Even if your kids don't want to do it one year, they will probably be more receptive to it the following year. Kids grow fast, sure, but they are kids for more than a year.

Or is there some sort of college requirement where you need to submit a photo of yourself when you were two years old sitting on Santa's lap, and I'm just not aware of it?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Is comfort from religion worth it?

One of the most common defenses of religion is that it "provides comfort". This defense usually comes from those who are nonbelievers or only nominally religious themselves. I've heard Jon Stewart make this defense a few times on The Daily Show, and I've heard it from some of my friends who are fellow atheists. It's not a defense that should be dismissed out of hand, but I think that it demands a little bit of scrutiny.

To elaborate on why I don't think that we should completely dismiss this line of reasoning is that it's unarguable that religious faith has taken people out of some pretty dark places. I know more than a few people (some still religious, some not) who were into all kinds of bad behaviors until religious faith helped them to lead more productive lives. Sure, you can say that they traded one "opiate" for another, but let's be honest - some opiates are worse than others. For instance, if you found out that your kid had gone from smoking crack every day to drinking eight cups of coffee a day, you might not be okay with it, but your concern would dramatically decrease. So yes, religion provides comfort, and sometimes it's a much-needed comfort.

My problem, however, is that this defense completely bypasses what I feel is a very important question:

Are these beliefs true or not? Ultimately, if you place "comfort" as the primary defense of religion, the implication is that it's okay to believe things that are untrue just so long as they provide some comfort. I'm not really interested in going into the truth claims of religion on this post (because that's another topic all together) but I wanted to at least throw that out there as some food for thought.

Another problem I have is that this defense, especially when given by a nonbeliever, borders on being really condescending. It's as if they're talking about believers like they're children with pacifiers in their mouths. "Oh no! This person is so delicate that you'd better not risk discussing things like critical thinking and the scientific method around them! If he loses his belief, he'll wilt like a delicate little flower!"

Let's get this out of the way before I go further - I don't think that there's anything that I (or anybody else) can make a believer abandon their beliefs. People change their minds for their own reasons. At best, a nonbeliever can introduce ideas that might lead to them changing their beliefs, but they'll only do so when and if they're ready to. So please, let's not let this devolve into "You're trying to take away people's beliefs!" I've had that accusation thrown at me before, and while it's almost flattering to attribute that much power to me, I don't have the ability to take away beliefs. If trying to educate people on critical thinking skills and the scientific method is somehow "proselytizing" or "evangelizing" then so is teaching people that 2+2=4.

My next issue with the comfort defense is that it often provides comfort from problems that religion introduces in the first place. I already touched on this in my last post, but my reasoning basically goes as follows: Yes, the belief that you're going to heaven may provide you with some comfort, but if you didn't believe in an immortal soul in the first place (not to mention the possibility of burning forever in Hell) then you wouldn't need this comfort. There are other examples I could give, but I trust that you get the point.

This, of course, leads us to an even bigger problem: sometimes religion provides the opposite of comfort. Again, I touched on this in my last post, but a fear of Hell - whether it be for you or your loved ones - is not comforting. Also, if you're gay, there's everything from the extreme of "God hates fags" to "hate the sin, love the sinner" - which isn't much better. "Hey! God loves you! But if you want to have a relationship that satisfies your sexual desires, he hates that." Plus, I never found much comfort in the thought that there was a God who was CONSTANTLY watching me and reading my every thought. Some of my thoughts aren't pretty, and I shouldn't have to feel bad for every one of them, especially when I don't have any desire to act out on the worse ones. Let's also not forget the fact that religion doesn't just unite, but it also divides, and many nonbelievers feel the need to pretend that they do believe so they're not ostracized by their families.

The flip side to all of this is that a life of skepticism has led many people to a sense of comfort as well. Obviously, abandoning the fears that are inherent in many religious beliefs is like tossing a huge weight off of your head. Plus, there isn't any need to struggle with why bad things happen to good people. When you believe in a God - especially one that's supposed to be all-good - there is no completely satisfactory answer as to why He'll allow that. When you have no belief in a god, then it simply makes sense that it happens. It's tragic and it's awful, but you're not trying to ram the square peg of loving omnipotence with the cruel realities of life. In other words, getting rid of cognitive dissonance is a huge relief.

The only thing where I see that religion has the clear edge when it comes to comfort is the sense of community that it brings. I know many nonbelievers who wish that they still had that in their lives. While they cannot reconcile their beliefs with what was being taught, they do miss the camaraderie that they once had. There are some people, mainly those who are more introverted, who never got much out of church even when they were believers, so becoming nonbelievers doesn't involve much of a sacrifice for them. (In fact, for people like that, it must be a relief to not only not have to go to church, but to not feel guilty about not going.) This seems to be changing though as the rate of nonbelievers is rising, and folks like Jerry DeWitt are actively working toward rectifying that situation. So, this might not be an advantage for religion much longer.

I'll end this with a little anecdote which relates to one of my earlier points. Recently, my wife and I were talking with a person who was telling us all about a great book she had read - Proof of Heaven. If you haven't heard of it, it's a book by a doctor who claims that his near-death experience provided "proof" of the afterlife. Of course, the big selling point to that book is that he's a former "skeptic" but then his personal experience changed his mind. (Of course, true skeptics don't give that much credence to personal experiences - even their own.) She also said that she was looking forward to Heaven is for Real - the movie based on a "true story" of a four year old who almost died and saw a white Jesus.

I imagine that people who know me primarily through Facebook and my blog probably thought that I immediately went into a rant about specious the claims of both of these true stories are, and how totally debunked the stories are.

No, I didn't do that. I just smiled and nodded. This might have had to do with the fact that we were going to go see the new Captain America movie, and I didn't want to be late. Even without that though, I find conversations to be exhausting, and I didn't have the strength for it.

The thing that really hit me is that she pointed out how she's getting on in years, and that she was glad to know that she was going to go to someplace good when she passes. In other words, these stories of complete bullcrap were providing her with comfort. I guess that's fine, and maybe it's not causing her any harm.

But I don't believe in a soul, so I don't even have any worry about what happens when I die. Just like others before me, I figure that it will be similar to how it was before I was born. That wasn't so bad. And honestly, even a wonderful heaven sounds horrible when I know that it's for ETERNITY. I'm not sure how infinity is a comforting thought to anybody, to be honest.

So yeah, religion provides comfort. There's no arguing that. But is it worth it? That's another question.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Religious indoctrination and child abuse

Want to know a good way to get people on the defensive? Accuse them of abusing their children. Even if they keep their kid locked in a dungeon and feed them nothing but broken glass, they'll insist that under absolutely no conditions are they being abusive.

A frequent accusation lobbed at religion by certain atheists is that indoctrinating children with religious beliefs is a form of child abuse. Richard Dawkins has drawn a lot of criticism for making this accusation. Now, I'm not interested in defending or criticizing Dawkins one way or the other so much as I'm interested in exploring the question on my own.

So, is religious indoctrination child abuse?

It's certainly a loaded question, isn't it? When most people think of abuse, they think of physical beatings, sexual molestation, and inflicting mental anguish. When religious people think of their beliefs, they think of an important part of their lives, something that brings them a certain amount of meaning, joy, and perhaps even comfort. Lumping it in the same category as what we traditionally think of abuse isn't likely to get much consideration, as it sounds absolutely absurd and potentially insulting at face value.

Another part of the problem is that not all religions are the same, and they don't all teach the same things. Also, different people react in different ways to certain religious teachings (more on that later). Adding to this is that "abuse" is a pretty broad term. I'm sure that we all inflict some sort of abuse on our children in some way or the other. I completely flipped out in front of my son one time while going on a walk. I completely lost it, and I was yelling and screaming. Is that abuse? Well, it certainly wasn't good for him. I don't think that puts me in the same category as a habitual mental abuser, but it's certainly not the kind of thing I'd ever want to do again. (It's been over a year without an incident - I think I learned my lesson.)

So, taking these two things in mind, here's the question once again:

Is religious indoctrination child abuse?

Not necessarily, but it certainly can be.

Let's get some of the obvious examples out of the way first, where I'm sure that even most religious people will agree with me that these examples are clearly examples of abuse that was empowered and inspired by religious teachings. We have people who take the "spare the rod, spoil the child" doctrine too far and inflict severe bodily punishment on their children, and they feel justified by this because it's supposedly what God wants. Also, you have people who refuse medical care for their children so they can pray instead.

Slightly less extreme than that, but where I might find still find some agreement among religious people are religious groups that shun those who don't live up to their standards. Ostracizing and/or kicking a kid out of the house because he or she is gay, for instance, is definitely a form of abuse. (And yes, I realize that there are nonreligious people who treat gay people with cruelty as well. I'm talking about those who do it and then use their Bibles to justify it.)

Now, where I'm probably going to find some more disagreement is with my next point, but I feel pretty confident when it comes to the following statement: teaching your kids that they will go to hell for not believing the right thing is a form of abuse. As I said above, different people react to religious teachings in different ways. Some people are able to compartmentalize and not give that idea too much thought - and who can blame them? Eternal agony? Who wants to think about that?

Unfortunately, some people can not push those thoughts out of their head. They get obsessive about it, and they agonize over it. I had an online conversation with a young man not too long ago where he told me that he frequently worries about going to hell (and his loved ones going there). In other words, teaching them about hell is giving them something to worry about.

Oh, but Lance, Hell is real!

If that's your reaction, then my response is: you had better damn well prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt before you teach that to your kids. Just saying it's your belief/faith isn't good enough.

I think that we'd all agree that it would be pretty awful if you taught your kids that there were werewolves out there who would eat them up if they didn't brush their teeth thoroughly. Imagine some poor kid lying awake at night, wondering if he did a good enough of a job so he won't be devoured by a ferocious beast. In other words, it's abusive to make your kids fearful of things that don't exist, and if you're going to teach them about hell, the burden of proof is on you to prove that it exists. Otherwise, I stand by my statement: teaching your kids that they will go to hell for not believing the same thing as you is abusive. It robs from them their very right to view the world as they see it, and it causes all kinds of anxiety. Even if they're true believers, they might still agonize over what happens to their loved ones.

Along with that, I also feel that it is abusive to teach your kids that there are evil spirits/demons/the Devil out there ready to try and cause all kinds of havoc on their lives. I was lucky enough to not be raised with the hell thing, but I was taught about demons. Again, some people are able to give this little thought. As for myself, I had (still have) a very active imagination, and I was terrified of every random noise that I'd hear at night. I don't think that was the intent of my parents when I learned about demons, but that's the result. 

The tragically ironic thing about this is that people will defend this by telling stories about how their faith helps them when it comes to dealing with demons. I believe that I've related this before, but I once  had a conversation with a woman who told me that a demon appeared before her and her three-year-old son in the form of a giant spider. Her son was panicky, and after holding him and praying over him, he calmed down. This was her proof of how prayer makes things better. What she didn't seem to understand was that it was her very faith that created the problem in the first place. My son doesn't see giant demon spiders, so I never have to pray over him to chill him out. Don't get me wrong - he's three. He sees all kinds of things. The last time we had thunder and lightning, he insisted that Thor was outside and wanted to invite him in. 

Okay - the Thor thing was due to my suggestion. He was scared of the sound of thunder, and so I told him that it was Thor. Before you want to call me a hypocrite though, let me point out three important things:

1. Thunder and lightning are demonstrably real.

2. He stopped being scared immediately. Sure, he got so excited that he didn't want to go to sleep, but the point is that it made him feel better.

3. This also shows why I'm not willing to make a blanket statement that religion IS child abuse. Sure, I don't actually believe in Thor, and when my son gets older, I'll explain what thunder and lightning actually is and that Thor is just a character from mythology/comic books (but I'll probably point out that people actually did believe in him at one time). In other words, a magical explanation for something isn't necessarily harmful, and it might even help in certain situations.

Just like with Hell, I'm sure that there are some folks out there who insist that demons are real. To them, I say the same thing: prove it.

So there you have it. Religious indoctrination isn't necessarily child abuse, but it sure has some features to it that lend itself to it. I'm sure that there are some people who might get all bent out of shape with this. (See my first paragraph about how it instantly puts people on the defensive.) As always, I'm willing to change my mind, but if you're going to convince me that the hell/demon thing isn't a form of abuse, then you have to convince me of at least one of the following:

1. Teaching kids to fear nonexistent things isn't a form of mental abuse.

2. There is evidence for hell and/or demons. Please, do not submit your personal anecdotes. I want verifiable evidence.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

10 years of teaching Hamlet

I've been meaning to write a blog about Hamlet for a while now, and I was hoping to get to it during my Spring Break (where I have had more "me" time than I've had in a long time). I suppose the ghost of Hamlet's dad must have been trying to send me a sign, as my uncle sent me this link from NPR about Shakespeare's 450th birthday and how the Globe Theater is planning on bringing Hamlet on a world tour. What finally clinched it is that while out on a bike ride this morning, I passed a "Hamlet Drive". The signs (are everywhere. (Shakespeare would appreciate that pun, no doubt.) Plus, I just finished up teaching the play with my seniors right before Spring Break, so it's pretty fresh on my mind.

I've written about the play before, or more specifically, the movie adaptations. You can check that out at this link here and that link there. Plus, here's a write-up about a live performance that I saw. I have a lot of things to say, obviously, and for this one I think that I will hit on a variety of topics and observations that I've had after teaching it for ten years. The best part about the play is that it continues to surprise me, and every year I feel like I'm pointing out stuff that hadn't occurred to me before. Here's what I have to say about the play now. (Warning: I'm writing this with the assumption that anybody reading it is already pretty familiar with the play.)

Claudius kinda sucks, and he might be a bit of a drunk as well.

I was once at a comic book convention and attended a panel for the creators of Kill Shakespeare, a comic book series that brought together many of the playwright's characters in a huge meta-adventure. Hamlet is the main character, so he was a central focus of the discussion at the panel. With the creators was a college professor who taught Shakespeare and offered some expert advice. For the most part, I found her comments to be enlightening, but one of them has really stuck in my craw. She said, in so many words, that the text hints that Claudius, while an evil bastard for killing his brother, may have been a pretty decent ruler.

Say what now?

First of all, I have no idea where one would get that. The character traits that I get from Claudius is that he's a schemer, perhaps a bit of a drunk, and not really engaged with the affairs of state. Hopefully the bit about him being a schemer is self-evident to anybody who reads the play, but where do I get the bit about him being a drunk?

For starters, after trying to console Hamlet in the second scene of the play, he drinks a toast to Hamlet's decision to stay at Elsinore. He's not just enjoying a glass, as his toast-making will echo in the very heavens:
in grace whereof,
No jocund health that Denmark drinks to-day,
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
And the king's rouse the heavens all bruit again,
Re-speaking earthly thunder.
Okay, so the guy's getting his drink on since he just got married. That doesn't make him a drunk necessarily. I guess what makes me believe this is that I take Prince Hamlet as a reliable source when it comes to describing his uncle, and he makes several suggestions that indicate Claudius's rummy disposition. He tells Horatio that "We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart" and when Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern?) tells him that his uncle is "distempered", Hamlet immediately assumes that it's "With drink, sir?" Plus, there's a whole bit where Hamlet bemoans the drinking game that the king is engaged in. According to him, this tradition makes all of Denmark look bad.
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations:
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements...
Maybe one can be a drunkard and still be a good king, but Claudius doesn't strike me as though he's got his act together. First of all, when told that Fortinbras is going to march his army through Denmark in order to attack Poland, the King's only response is: "It likes us well!" Seriously, dude? Fortinbras originally raised that army to invade Denmark, and now you just trust him to just pass through your country? I think that Kenneth Branagh really improved upon the text when he made Fortinbras's entrance a full-scale invasion, unless there's something about medieval Scandinavian political strategy that I just don't understand.

The guy also doesn't seem to have the people on his side. The whole reason why he doesn't just punish Hamlet directly is because the prince is "loved of the distracted multitude" And then what happens when Laertes comes to town to find out what happened to his father? He's able to storm right into the palace, a huge crowd behind him, all of them chanting  that they want Laertes to be king. Call me crazy, but that doesn't sound like Claudius has the loyalty of his constituents if the son of the adviser can rally the people to his side like that.

Claudius is motivated by an obsessive love for Gertrude

The fact that Claudius doesn't seem to be too engaged in the running of his kingdom indicates that his motivation for killing his brother had more to do with his wanting Gertrude than wanting the kingdom. Sure, becoming king is a nice bonus prize, but it's all about Gertrude, as it's pretty much directly suggested that their "overhasty marriage" within "less than a month" was due to the fact that the "adulterate beast" and the Queen were boinking each other on the side before King Hamlet was "stung by a serpent".

The guy may be a villain and an "arrant knave", but he does love Gertrude with all his black heart. Another reason he gave for not punishing Hamlet directly was that:
...The queen his mother
Lives almost by his looks; and for myself--
My virtue or my plague, be it either which--
She's so conjunctive to my life and soul,
That, as the star moves not but in his sphere,
I could not but by her...
So, he's not going to do anything to upset her. Having her is one thing though, but having to share her love? Oh no. He's not going to have that. The fact is that he was scheming to kill Prince Hamlet all along. One might make the mistake of thinking that Claudius was only planning on killing Hamlet after the death of Polonius. The plan, for those who don't quite remember, was to have Hamlet's companions deliver a sealed letter to the King of England. The contents of the letter ordered the King to have Hamlet's head cut off.

Now we know that Claudius was planning on sending Hamlet to England before Polonius's death because he revealed that much to Polonius himself during the scene where the two of them spied on Hamlet and Ophelia's "get thee to a nunnery" scene. Also, immediately after the death of Polonius, Hamlet explains to his mother that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were going to be bringing "sealed letters". Unless Claudius wrote up a new letter between finding out that Polonius was dead and sending Hamlet packing, which is unlikely considering the rapid pace from those two points, he was planning on getting rid of his nephew all along.

Some folks might argue that he only schemed Hamlet's death after Hamlet started acting all crazy, but we know from the beginning that he wanted to keep Hamlet close by.
...For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire:
And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.
Is it really such a stretch to think that he wanted to keep him close so he could have him killed? This is the guy who killed his own brother, isn't it? Claudius is a guy who had to have the Gertrude all to himself, and he wasn't willing to share it in any sense of the word.

That ghost is a ghost.

When it comes to some of Shakespeare's other ghosts, one could make the argument that we're only supposed to take them as a figment of the character's imagination. In the case of Banquo's ghost in Macbeth or Caesar's in Julius Caesar, they could be the product of Macbeth's and Brutus's (respectively) fevered imaginations, and it would serve the same purpose if it was a literal ghost. In the case of Hamlet though, Shakespeare wants us to take that ghost for exactly what it appears to be.

The first indicator is that the ghost's appearance is confirmed by Horatio, a "scholar" and a skeptic who thinks that it will not appear, but when it comes along again, Horatio declares:
Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes.
We also can trust Horatio because Hamlet praises him to his face:
 ...Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.
This, coupled with the fact that what the ghost reveals bears itself out, is Shakespeare's way of letting us know that we should just go with the flow. Sure, it's only Hamlet who sees his father's spirit in that scene in his mother's bedroom, but why would it be a real ghost throughout and just in his head that one time?

Hamlet is an introvert

He gives long speeches, which in a Shakespeare play indicates that he's got a lot of thoughts in his head. Plus, he can't stand nosy, intruding people like Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. As Shakespeare used to say: "'Nuff said."

Hamlet's character arc is about accepting life and finding the will to live

When we first meet him, he wishes that his "solid flesh would thaw, melt, and resolve itself into a dew" or that God hadn't made a "no killing yourself" rule. When he gets the mission to avenge his father, he is given a purpose, and even though he doesn't act, he is moved to question himself and explore the deepest questions that remain with humankind to this day: How can you know when it's time to stop thinking and time to start acting? Why do we keep ourselves alive when we can so easily end it all? What is the meaning of it all when we're all just going to wind up as a pile of bones?

Hamlet wants to die at the beginning of the play, and by the end, he's fighting to live. More importantly, his journey has enabled him to accept that end with dignity and heroism.

It gets better with age.

At 30, I was able to understand it in a way that I couldn't when I was first introduced to it at 20 while in college. Now that I'm 40, I feel that I get it in a way that my 30-year-old self missed. Here's hoping that I'll be able to write an addendum when I'm 50. Also, if you think that I'm totally off-base with any of this, please share your thoughts.

It's boring.

Hella boring.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book review - How Jesus Became God

When I was a kid, the theology of the Jehovah's Witnesses provided much of what informed my belief system. Lucky for me, my parents never fully joined, but we basically had their belief system - like the whole bit about no birthday parties or "pagan" holidays. (You know, like Christmas.) Two things that really separated my beliefs from most Christians I knew was that I didn't believe in hell (at least, not as a place of eternal suffering) nor did I believe that Jesus and God were one and the same. From what I was taught, Jesus was a separate being - a "created" being by Jehovah. (That's the Latin version of Yahweh for those who don't know.)

I'm sure a lot of Christians find that idea to be ridiculous. After all, Jesus IS God. I mean...duh. Trinity. Same substance. All that stuff.

Turns out that the JW's would have been in good company back in Christianity's early days, as that was a point that took more than a few centuries to settle. Ultimately, the "Jesus is God" crowd won out, and that became the standard belief for the majority of Christians worldwide. I've learned all about this in many of the books by Bart D. Ehrman, who has written extensively on the historical Jesus. (I recommend Misquoting Jesus) as a good starting point.

Ehrman was an evangelical Christian who took it upon himself to study the New Testament and its historical roots. The more he learned, the more his faith began to slip away, as he discovered many problems with those books. What sorts of problems? Well, we don't have the original copies of any of them. The older copies don't match the newer copies (suggesting that scribes changed - deliberately sometimes - the text). We don't know the authors. And, some of the books we think were written by Paul probably weren't - yet they still made it into the Bible.

Ehrman is now an agnostic, but he very firmly states that we can be sure that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who was crucified by the Romans. I understand that there are quite a few "mythicists" out there who have written books demonstrating that Jesus was a complete fabrication, and they have taken Ehrman to task for his assertions. Personally, I'm totally agnostic on this issue. I haven't read the arguments for a mythical Jesus, and I think that even if I did, it would take a great deal more studying to have an informed opinion. Let's just say that I have no problem accepting the idea that there really was a Jesus, even though much of his story has been embellished with miracles and all that good stuff. I feel the same way about Heracles though.

In How Jesus Became God, Ehrman goes back to the earliest writings on Jesus and makes a pretty convincing case that early Christians did not make the claim that he was one and the same as the God of the Old Testament. It was an idea that evolved over time. Not only that, but even the concept of "Son of God" evolved, as it didn't necessarily mean the same thing in its original context that we would think it means today.

Even if you haven't read Ehrman's other books, I think that this one is pretty accessible. He covers a lot of territory that he has elaborated on in his other books. (Lost Christianities is another good one.) But overall, this one stands on its own if you're primarily interested in learning how an apocalyptic preacher transformed in the minds of his followers into the Creator of the Universe. Obviously, if you're a Christian, you're probably going to dismiss what he has to say outright unless you're really open-minded to completely changing your world view. (I'm a bit skeptical in parts myself though. I don't take the man's every word as fact, but I think that he makes a pretty solid case for most of what he says.)

I was really glad to see him address the evidence of the empty tomb in this book. That's one of my pet peeves when it comes to Christian apologists. Many of them will assert the empty tomb of Jesus as "evidence" of him being God. There are many problems with this, including: they don't know where this tomb even was, the report of an empty tomb wasn't written by an eyewitness, there are plenty of natural explanations as to why a tomb would be empty, etc. What's even more important, and Ehrman brings it up, referencing one of my favorite scholars on this subject, John Dominic Crossan, is that it's highly unlikely that Jesus would be given a tomb in the first place. Part of the whole punishment involved in crucifixion is that you weren't given a proper burial - your body was left out for the birds and wild dogs to devour. It's not too hard to see why this particular part of the story would have been changed - as nobody wants a Dog Food Savior.

If you're like me, and find this whole topic interesting while not having any particular attachment to it - allowing your opinion to shift with the evidence - then I recommend checking it out.

Monday, April 21, 2014

I'm a patriot, dammit!

I consider myself a patriot.

I have an American flag in my backyard, but that's only because I got one for free at a pro-gay marriage rally. My son has played with it almost to the point of ruining it, and I haven't really made a very big deal out of it.

I don't like saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Why? Because it's nonsense right from the get-go. "I pledge allegiance to the flag..." Huh? I don't pledge allegiance to a flag. Pledging allegiance to the Constitution might make more sense, but if our Constitution was amended to, for instance, take away the rights of certain people, then I wouldn't pledge my allegiance to THAT either. Besides, allegiance pledges just aren't my thing in general.

I detest Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American" song. It's filled with a bunch of jingoistic blather that perpetuates the myth that every soldier who fought in a war was somehow fighting for our "freedom". Did some of them in some wars? Yes. Were some of the wars we fought for just causes? Arguably. Are the men and women in our military the ones who are going to lay it all on the line should this country ever be legitimately threatened? Absolutely. Should we take care of and respect those who have fought for our country? Definitely. Is Code Pink a bunch of nutters for picketing recruitment centers? Hell yes. But let's stop pretending that napalming the Vietnamese jungle to stop a bunch of rice farmers from becoming communist was somehow about protecting my freedom over here in California, okay?

Toby Kieth's "Angry American" song? Give me a break. I'm an angry American because a doofus like that shares the same nationality as me.

I don't wear American flag-inspired clothing (unless you count my Captain America T-shirt), I don't think that my country is always on the right side of history, and I don't think that my country is necessarily greater or "more free" than every other country on the planet.

Now, before you think that the first line of this - "I am a patriot" - is to set this all up as an exercise in irony, let me tell you that I sincerely believe that none of the above disqualifies me from being a patriot. I find things like the pledge, cheesy songs, unjustified wars, and tacky clothing to be things that are detrimental to my country. In other words, I care about my country, and I don't like things that are bad for it.

Want to see the patriot in me really come out? Let some person from another country (from my experience, mainly certain Europeans are guilty of this) accuse America of having "no culture" (as though such a thing was possible.) My defense of my country and its very rich, important, and diverse culture will come pouring out from every vein in my body. Seriously, I can't stand that particular meme - especially when it's from somebody who enjoys American music, movies, and television shows. For Pete's sakes, where do they think rock and roll came from? It sure as hell wasn't Germany.

You'll also see me brimming with pride when I talk about the American craft beer scene. Did you know that there are brewers in various European countries (including Scotland and Germany, based on some articles I read some time ago) are looking toward what's going on in America in order to get their customers excited about beer again? Yeah, sure, the most popular American brands are pure swill, but the best stuff is now being brewed here - which just goes to show, when we set our minds to it, we can make some great stuff.

I realize that beer isn't everybody's thing, so how about outer space? While I realize that the United States isn't the only country whose inhabitants have led to an increase in understanding about the cosmos, it was an American who first stepped on to the moon. How cool is that? That's right - I belong to the tribe that got a guy from the big blue marble on to the little grey one.

I'm also a fan of comic books and superheroes, and while both of those have their roots in older art forms and mythology, the comic book superhero is an American invention, and from what I understand, the movies based on them are doing quite well overseas, so it's not just us who likes them. (In Europe, superhero comic books aren't the most popular genre. What outsells them are Disney comics. I think that there's something vaguely American about them.)

I could go on, as I genuinely love my country. However, I don't feel that I need to repeat mindless chants over and over again to prove it to anybody. I also don't think that it means that I have to downplay what's great about other countries or somehow think that my country is the best. Nationalism? That smacks too much of unquestioning religion as far as I'm concerned, so that's not for me. But feeling good when the people of my country do the right thing and caring enough to speak out when we're doing the wrong thing? That's patriotism to me.

P.S. U.S.A. is #1

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Noah - Movie review

I don't get to go out and see movies as often as I like, but I was curious about Noah when I first heard about it. When I got the chance to go out and see a movie with the wifey today, this is the one I chose, and lucky for me, she agreed to it.

I suppose I should start by addressing a few things, seeing as how I often write about religion in general and my atheism in particular. You might be wondering why I'd ever be interested in watching a Bible movie in the first place.

Well, I have nothing against a movie based on The Bible. To me, it's mythology, and I only get annoyed by it when people try to insist that it's something more than that (which in my mind, ironically makes it something less than mythology, as I think that myths are important and literalism cheapens them). There's been some internet chatter on the atheist communities where many of my fellow nonbelievers don't even want to give this one a chance. That doesn't make sense to me though. After all, I saw the latest Thor movie, and I'm not a practitioner of Asatru, so I can see a Biblical movie even though I don't subscribe to any of the Abrahamic faiths. Actually, one of my favorite movies is The Last Temptation of Christ, and I have some pretty cool comic book adaptations of Bible stories. I also like the occasional religious song by the likes of Johnny Cash and Al Green. Oh, and I also recently saw The 10 Commandments for the first time, and I thought it was a hoot.

I'm not interested in seeing every religious movie out there. For instance, Son of God holds no interest to me, mainly because it looks kinda uninspired and a bit too "been there, done that". I'm also not going to go and see obvious religious propaganda like God's Not Dead (which, from what I've read, doesn't seem to know the difference between atheism and maltheism). This one got my interest because I've really liked the works of the director Darren Aronofsky that I've seen. From my understanding, the man's an atheist himself (although he hasn't ever specifically used that word as far as I know - let's just say he's not a "believer" at least). I figured that would give him a bit more leeway to take some risks with the material and therefore say something interesting about it. I was interested enough to pick up the graphic novel, which is based on an early draft of the movie's script. I liked that quite a bit, so seeing the movie was the next step.

So, what did I think? I liked it. A lot. More than I figured I would.

Let's get a few things out of the way if you're trying to decide whether you want to see it. First of all, if you believe that the story is literally true, then please just stop reading and go find something else to do. I'm not going to get into all of it right now, but believing that story as literal truth is akin to believing in The Three Little Pigs. Seriously. It's ridiculous.

Also, if you're the kind of person who can't take off his skeptical glasses even in the context of a movie, where one is required to suspend one's disbelief, then maybe you shouldn't watch it either. It's a myth, and as I often tell my students: "Don't go looking for logic in myths. It will just give you a headache." In other words, don't sit there and nitpick it. Nobody's trying to tell you that this is a true story. Looking for logic in myths is like looking for metaphors in algebra.

If you're like me though and can watch this in the same way that you'd watch something like Pan's Labyrinth or the aforementioned The Last Temptation of Christ, and you'd rather see them say something new about a very old story than be absolute purists, then this just might be fore you.

There is a whole lot of stuff in this film that's not in the original text. Now, some of the stuff that you might think wasn't there (like Noah getting drunk - although the movie is the first time that ever made sense to me) actually is Biblical. And while there were no giant rock creatures in the book of Genesis, they are based on the Nephilim - one of those interesting ideas in The Bible that the writers didn't give a whole lot of information about - so why the hell not make them giant rock monsters? Not any sillier than a talking snake, eh?

One thing that some people have praised and others have criticized is that there's a very obvious pro-environmental message to this. Put me in the "praise" camp, because like I said, I wanted them to make this story relevant to a modern audience. Sure, it borders on preachy that one of the sins of the evil people is that they eat meat though. (There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of vegetation - what the heck is Noah eating if not meat? But there's that thing about logic and how it doesn't apply again.)

Even better is how you've got a God who seems to be more consistent with what you actually find in Genesis, rather than the retconned version of him that's been given to us by Christianity. He's mysterious - almost unknowable. He communicates to Noah, but only through visions. He doesn't answer direct questions, and you don't necessarily feel that He's "good" so much as the mystery of the universe. In this, it's not about having Noah build the ark because he's a good man but because he's the best guy to judge whether humanity should continue or not. He's one of them, but he's not exactly a part of the rest of his species.

It also let's some difficult issues rise to the surface without providing some kind of cop-out. Drowning is brutal, awful, agonizing and horrific. Also, the idea that EVERYBODY was evil and deserving of death is almost as absurd as an ark with all the animals. There's at least one person you see die where you don't exactly feel that person had it coming.

I suppose the only easy-fix was how Noah managed to take care of all of those animals. Basically, he's able to figure out a way to get them all to sleep during the whole experience. That's fine with me though because otherwise the movie would have had to constantly address how he and his family were being zookeepers.

Like I said, I really liked this. I sometimes describe myths as true things that have never happened. I think that this movie brings that idea to life. If you take it as a myth, even if it's a myth based on what you consider to be a "real" story, it still brings an important truth to the surface.

And that's that the human race can be awful, brutal, and violent, but there's just enough good in us to make us worthwhile.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review

Watching the new installment from Marvel Studios reminded me of something that I've thought many times before: are superheroes a genre unto themselves? I've been meaning to write a blog post on this topic, and perhaps one day I'll get to it. However, for now I just have to point out that this film really doesn't feel like it's the same genre as Thor: The Dark World or even any of the Iron Man films. It also doesn't feel like it's in the same category as the previous Captain America movie. The only thing that really ties all of these films together, other than The Avengers, is that they're action movies, and the only thing that ties this one in with the last one is the main character.

Basically, this feels more like one of the Bourne movies (in a good way) mixed with a hero who's got some superhuman strength. Throw in a little bit of future tech and paranoia about the government, and you've got Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Anybody who read the original comic book storyline by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting will recognize the tone, even though many of the plot points have to be changed to accommodate the movie. (All of the major ideas and themes are there though, so I'm not complaining.)

What really made me happy about this movie is that they did exactly what I hoped that they would do with the sequel. Captain America is a character whose origin is fun, but he's even more interesting when he's the "man out of time" and placed into the present day. While there were certainly references to the fact that he had a lot of pop culture and history to catch up on since the time he was frozen in ice, it doesn't get too bogged down in that though. What works best about him is when he's a symbol for when (whether it's more mythology than reality) America was clearly on the good side, and putting him in the present day, where things are not so clear, helps to bring an interesting bit of inner conflict to a character who runs the risk of being one-dimensional.

I was also pleased with how they were able to cram as many characters and villains from the comics into the story without it feeling like they were being crammed in there. Batroc the Leaper? Hell yeah! Do we really need an origin and character arc for him? No. Just show him giving Cap a challenge with all his fancy kicks, and you've done the job. Crossbones? Got enough of him to set him up for the sequel. There's also a surprise villain in this, and I don't want to spoil it. While his appearance is brief (but significant) he also has some potential for a sequel.

I found myself really liking Anthony Mackie as The Falcon. Much like Cap, you've got to get a guy for that part who's able to convey a believable, yet morally upright, guy. Mackie pulls this off, and he also handles the action scenes really well, making him believable as somebody who can be Cap's wingman (pardon the pun). He's always been more of a partner than a sidekick in the comics, and it felt that way in this film as well.  I say put him in The Avengers. Also, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow made a lot more sense in this story than she did in Iron Man 2, and she serves as a great character foil for Cap.

I suppose that I should say something about The Winter Soldier himself. I don't want to say too much, as I don't want to spoil anything. Let's just say that fans of the comic won't be disappointed, and it was great how he was able to convey a real sense of unstoppable menace every time he was on the screen.

I'll say again that despite my initial hesitation about Chris Evans taking on the lead character, but he won me over in the first film and then even more in The Avengers. I also wasn't sure what to make of The Russo Brothers directing when I first heard about them (as they're more experienced with comedy) but this film shows that they can direct action with characters that the audience can invest in. I hear that they're signed on for the next one. I'm looking forward to it.

So, where would I rank this considering that I recently ranked all the comics adaptations? It's hard to tell with just one viewing. I'm tempted to say that it would crack the top ten. The top fifteen? That's probably pretty safe to say.