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.