Monday, April 30, 2007

So Your Child Told You He or She Is An Atheist -- Now What?

What do you do if your child comes to you and tells you they've become an atheist?

Before I go on, I want to be sure you understand a few things.

First, I'm neither a parent nor a therapist; I'm just someone who has experienced a range of reactions from people I love about my atheism, and who has a strong desire to help families stay together whenever possible.

Second, every family is different; what I have to say here may or may not apply to your yours.

Finally, this is not a guide to how to get your child to reconvert back to your religion. It's not intended to be persuasive regarding any particular system of belief, it's just meant to address some of the natural concerns and questions parents of faith might have when their child tells them they're an atheist. Ultimately my goal would be to help families in this situation stay together, emotionally available to each other, and supportive of one another.

Having said that, here are some thoughts that might help you deal with this new revelation from your son or daughter.

First Things First

So what do you do if you're religious and your child tells you that he or she is not? I imagine you're shocked, unsettled, and probably a bit angry. But you need to think very carefully about how this is going to affect your relationship with your child going forward. Decide quickly -- do you want to continue having a relationship with them, or is their atheism so painful to you that you cannot bear to deal with them? From that one decision everything else flows.

I'm going to assume that you do want to keep some sort of relationship with your child, or you wouldn't keep reading this. I want to say, therefore, that I applaud you for that; it takes courage and great strength of character to try and work through what must feel like such a fundamental rejection of what you stand for. I think -- no, I know -- it's worth it, though. This after all is your son or daughter, the little being you gave life to, who's shared your home for all these years. To throw all that away in response not to what they do but to what they think, would be a great tragedy.

Now that you've decided you want to figure out some way to live with this in your life, therefore, I'd like to address a few of the things that are probably racing through your mind.

What Do They Even Mean By "I'm An Atheist"?

You're probably thinking of other belief systems that have a creed or a list of rules, some kind of organizing document that says "You have to adhere to all of these to be one of us." Atheism isn't like that, though; there isn't a group people sign up for and whose terms they agree to in order to call themselves an atheist. Atheism isn't a creed or a religion or even a philosophy, nothing so organized as that.

That's what it's not, but as for what it is -- well, it's simply a description, meaning "someone in whom no god-belief is present".

That's it.

In some ways it would be easier if there were a list of beliefs you could read to know where you stand with your child, if they were joining a new church that had a creed or a holy book you could research. But atheism's not that easy to pin down, because as I said it's just a description of an absence. You'd do as well asking what all people who don't collect stamps have in common.

Because atheism is a description and not a creed, we don't have any lists of beliefs or standards you have to agree to in order to join up. There's not even anything TO join, because we're not a club. We're not an organization.

That's why you'll see some atheists who say they want to stamp out all religion, and others who like religion very much, just not for them. Some will be immoral scumbags, and others will be among the very nicest, best people you'll ever meet. Some will be raging liberals and others will be staunch conservatives. Some will prefer living in big urban environments while others are happy in a trailer out in the middle of nowhere.

Without any kind of central tenets or dogma, you don't ever know quite what you're going to get with an atheist, which I suspect is part of what's so disturbing to religious people about them.

So what kind of an atheist is your child going to be? The honest answer is, they're probably not going to be that different from the young man or woman they've been all along.

Are They Going To Stay an Atheist?

It's impossible to say at this point what destination your child's journey is ultimately going to arrive at. Think about the kids you've known in your church. Some of them start out all gangbusters, full of faith and fire, only to peter out quickly and return to whatever life they had before. Others burn quietly, but for longer, and become pillars of the community. Some join the church out of anger, or jealousy, or greed. Others join for fellowship, faith, or love.

Atheists aren't any different; we all arrive at our unbelief for a variety of different reasons. A blogger named Hank Fox once outlined four different types of atheists, and although I think his list would apply to lots of folks I think it's a good place to start setting your expectations. Here's his list, slightly edited for presentation:
  1. "Rebel Atheist": Decides he’s an atheist more or less just to piss off his mom and dad.
  2. "Revenge Atheist": Believes in a god, but happens for some reason to hate him. “You killed my kitten / gave me cancer, you bastard, and I’ll never say I believe in you, ever again.”
  3. "Inherited Atheist": The guy who picks it up from his atheist parents, and just never thinks seriously about religion, or whenever he does, thinks it’s just some nonsense like Elvis worship.
  4. "Awakened Atheist": Someone who realized one day that some part of her religion didn’t make sense, and worked her way through question after question over a span of years, and eventually came to the firm conclusion that it just wasn’t true, any of it.
As to what what your child's ultimate destiny is in terms of religious beliefs, it's hard to say. I think atheists of types 1 and 2 from the list above return to the faith of their childhood fairly often -- it's hard to stay that angry for very long. You're not dealing with a Type 3, or you wouldn't be reading this. If you've got a Type 4 on your hands, well, I have to be honest with you -- you're probably not going to get them back into your faith. Non-belief arrived at with careful deliberation and deep soul-searching is work honestly done and reluctantly surrendered. This type of atheist is also, however, in my opinion the most likely to end up leading a peaceful, fulfilling life. You might not feel like it now, but you should be proud of your child if they're a Type 4, because you raised a deep, careful, thoughtful person, and that's always good.

Aren't Atheists Inherently Immoral? And Doesn't That Mean My Child Will Be, Too?

No, absolutely not! Regardless of why your child has come to atheism or how long they hold to it, atheists are just as likely as theists (a generic term for anyone who does hold a god-belief) to be moral or immoral, good or evil, upstanding or wicked. This study, for instance, clearly shows that there is no correlation between atheism and immoral behavior.

I know it seems counter-intuitive to you, but faith or its lack isn't a very good indicator of how moral or immoral someone is. I would bet if you think back on people you've known in your church, you can come up with examples of people who seemed very pious but who turned out to be just rotten. And I bet the opposite is true, too, that you can think of some who seemed like the worst Baptist/Catholic/Hindu or whatever you ever saw, only in the end they turned out to be just great, great people.

If you've raised a good kid, who knows how to love others and to treat them well, then you've got nothing to worry about in the morality department. Just like there are good and bad people in every church, there are good and bad atheists as well. Who your child is on the inside is far more important than what they think about god, in terms of their personal morality.

But I Don't Want My Child Going to Hell!

I understand how painful that thought must be to you. From a religious perspective, though, I would encourage you to remember that the only one who decides who's going to hell and who isn't, is God. If you believe Him to be a truly merciful, loving god, then trust in Him to do right by your child. Don't put yourself over Him and substitute your judgement for His; trust that He'll do the best thing when the time comes.

If you want to keep a close relationship with your child, however, I wouldn't encourage you to take up this argument with him or her. An atheist doesn't believe in Hell, so at best this is an empty threat. At worst, it's likely going to drive your child even further away from you; Hell is one of the more common reasons atheists give for losing their faith in Christianity. The reasoning goes that no God who is all-loving would condemn someone to infinite, eternal torture for sins committed during a finite lifetime. Pushing that aspect of your faith to your child as a reason they should abandon atheism is likely going to have the exact opposite effect you're hoping for.

What's the Best Way To Talk To My Child About This?

Getting angry when you talk about this is not going to be helpful. In the words of the Bible, "This man speaks harshly, Who can listen to his words?" It's important to try and stay calm and reasonable. That can be hard, especially if you think your son or daughter is telling you this just to hurt you. You may think this is a childish, silly position to take. You may be taken by an incredible urge to slap some sense into them.


I can almost guarantee you that this decision or realization is not something your child has come to lightly. It's a serious matter, and deserves serious, adult attention. Talk to them, one person to another, and really listen to what they are telling you. This is your son or daughter; nothing about their belief system is going to change that. They love you, and you love them, and even though you might be furious with each other, don't lose sight of that.

I'm not suggesting you give up your beliefs or to say anything you don't honestly believe -- in fact, I'd say just the opposite. Be open and honest with them, and give them the chance to do the same.

Just remember that their atheism doesn't mean they've suddenly become evil. They're not joining a cult, or planning on ignoring all morality and law. They're just searching for answers, even as you are, trying to figure out what it all means and why they're here, what it is they're supposed to be doing with their lives. Tell them you love them, no matter what (even if you don't feel much like it at the moment, you know you do), and even though you think they're wrong it's not going to change that love.

Atheist or theist, Christian or Muslim, black or white, ultimately that's all any child wants from their parent, to be loved for who and what they are. You don't have to agree with their position, you don't have to condone it or celebrate it, but you do have to deal with it openly and honestly, and always with love.

If you want to continue having a relationship with your child, it's absolutely essential that you not belittle or harangue them. They're making an adult decision, you need to deal with them as an adult. Put yourself in their shoes, imagine how you would want someone to react if you were telling them about your faith for the first time. Your child deserves that same respect and openness.

Most importantly, don't lie to them. Don't say "I completely understand and everything's fine, I'm ecstatic for you" if you're not, in fact, fine and ecstatic with it. Say instead "I hope you understand that this is difficult for me to accept, because I love you and my faith is very important to me. It scares me to think of you not having the same faith I have. But I hear what you're saying and I'm going to try very hard to understand and accept that this is what you believe; it's your life, and I know you have to live it, no matter how I might feel about it personally. Regardless, even if I'm angry or upset or not really understanding right now, I love you and always will."

So Now What Do I Do?

All you can do is love 'em. If you've raised them well, if you've loved them with all your heart, then they're going to turn out fine no matter what faith they end up with (even if it's no faith at all). Be open and honest with them. Keep the lines of communication open. You don't have to give their atheism your blessing, but try to express your feelings in a non-judgmental, non-condemnatory way. "You're going to hell but I love you anyway" is probably not the right approach, nor is "I'm sure this is just a phase and you'll grow out of it." Try something along the lines of "I love you no matter what, and although this isn't something I am happy about, ultimately your faith is your choice and I'm going to do my best to respect your decision."

It's all about honesty, love, and keeping the lines of communication open without being too judgmental or harsh.

And the fact is that there are millions of atheists all over the world living happy, fulfilling, moral, loving, complete lives. This may be the end of your religious hopes for them, but it most certainly isn't the end of your hopes for their moral, intellectual, and emotional well-being.

I hope this has been helpful for you. I want to repeat that I'm not a parent, nor a psychologist, so please take all of this as nothing more than what it is -- the perspective of just one guy, an atheist who has a love for kids and a genuine desire to help families stay together in love and support.

Families are precious gifts; please don't let the differences between your faith and theirs ruin that.


Sunday, April 29, 2007


We were passing by the falls on the last leg of our evening dog walk around the ranch when Annie commented on a bad odor and shot me an accusing look.

"Not me this time," I said. "It kind of smells like skunk, actually."

Neither of us thought much about the odor; when you're surrounded by donkeys, horses, dogs, and a husband all day, you learn to let these things pass (ahem). And it was a beautiful spring day, with clear skies, moderate temperatures, and just enough of a breeze to keep you cool. We'd let the sheep out to graze in the front yard and slipped out the back with the dog pack for a quick tour around the property. Wildlife encounters were the last thing on our minds.

But then, just ahead of us, Annie saw a fluffy tail waving. "I guess Lacy went down into that hole," she said.

I squinted against the setting sun, and finally saw the tail. "She's really down in there," I said. I looked around, and strangely, there was Lacy about twenty yards in the other direction. "Uh, hun, I don't think that's Lacy in the hole ..."

He should stick with horses, they're not as stinky.
"SKUNK!" she yelled, and immediately we turned and raced in the opposite direction, calling for the dogs. Three of them were right by us and merrily chased along, but Radar the border collie and Mia the long-haired Wookie were on the opposite side of the skunk.

Annie was calling the two of them frantically, while I hung back just a bit to see if I could spot them. I thought they were safe on the other side of the creek and would cut through to join us by the falls, but then I saw them running close to where the skunk waited. "Radar, come! Come on, boy, quick, COME!"

But it was no use. Just as he passed that elegant looking tail he stopped and turned to see what it was. I could see the skunk spin around, Radar poke his nose in, and then in a flash he was recoiling away. "He's hit!" I called, feeling like an extra in a WWII movie. Radar was rolling on the ground, rubbing his face in the dirt and sneezing.

Mia, oblivious as always to anything not involving a Snausage, raced on past, looking at Radar inquisitively as if to say, "What's your problem, sheep-boy?"

Sure enough, as Radar ran over to us, dropping every few feet to roll and rub his face, the wave of stench hit us. There are few things as stinky as a skunk-spattered, wet dog, especially ones like Radar who hates baths with a passion.

We let him swim in the creek a bit as the other dogs ran up and smelled him, only to then roll frantically in the grass themselves. His sister Echo kept trying to snap at him; maybe she thought he was the skunk. The smell, the black and white coloring, I can see how she'd be confused.

Once we got home we looked up skunk desmellification on the internet and managed to tackle Radar long enough to wash him down with it. I think it helped a little, but there's still an almost-visible cloud of funk surrounding him.

To make things worse, tomorrow is his first day with Annie at Obedience School. He's going to make quite an impression, I'm sure, but the one I feel really bad for is Annie. She's the one who has to ride with a stinky, smelly, skunky dog in her truck for an hour each way.

Suddenly staying home without a job doesn't seem so bad after all.


Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Ultimate Male Cleaning Tool

I have discovered that men need only one tool to keep their homes and work spaces clean.

I went into the little upstairs restroom attached to the home office to wash my hands. I turned on the light, which is pretty unusual, looked down, and realized the sink was dirty.

I looked around for a wash cloth or sponge. I saw one, then looked around for some sort of cleanser, and saw that too.

I eyed them both, then turned off the light again. Presto! Clean bathroom, at least as far as I could tell.

Darkness: the real man's quicker-picker-upper!


A Phone Company Rant

I'm sure there's a difference between the phone company and a team of highly-paid professional sadists, but I can't think of any offhand.

For instance, this morning I tried to dial a number I saw in the local paper's classifieds. I immediately got the saccharine-sweet computer voice of the phone company, that woman who sounds like she'd happily offer me an apple pie while simultaneously poking me with a sharp stick. "We're sorry," she says, not sounding sorry at all, "it is not necessary to dial a 1 before this number. Please hang up and try again."

So the phone company knows what number I am calling from. It knows what number I am calling to. It even knows what numbers I am or am not supposed to dial before the actual number. And yet with all that information, do they use a computer to figure out what the proper dialing sequence is and go ahead and connect me? Oh no, that would be logical. That would be kind. That might have the disastrous effect of making my dealings with the phone company pleasant, and we can't have that, after all, can we? I mean, Rule 8, Paragraph 12 of the Phone Company Code is very clear on this matter:

Make every experience having to do with the phone as painful as possible.
In fact I understand that originally the standard phone handset contained an exposed wire designed to shock the customer whenever a number was dialed. Luckily electric prices went through the roof and they had to abandon that idea.

In any event, instead of using that wealth of information about who I am trying to get in touch with to actually, you know, help me get in touch with them, the phone company in its infinite wisdom instead uses their massive computer system to route me to a pre-recorded phone message telling me what I should have done, and then telling me to hang up and try again!

Why can't landline companies be like my cellular service? Cingular doesn't care if I'm calling my wife in the same room, or if I shouldn't have dialed a 1 or the area code, or if I need the area code AND the 1, or anything else -- I dial all the numbers the same and they figure it out, connecting me to the person I'm trying to call.

I don't understand why landline companies have gone through so much trouble to tell me what number I should have dialed, yet don't take the extra step to just dial it the right way for me already.

Maybe if I promise them I'll shock myself with a live electrical wire every time that message comes up they'll give in. It's worth a try.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Hobbesian Friday: Bad Polling Edition

Last month I predicted that Bush's approval numbers in polls would go up to 41% by September due to Democrats having taken control of the Congress. We've still got a long ways to go till then, but so far one month later I'm looking every bit as wrong as I predicted I'd be:

President George W. Bush's job performance rating has sunk to a new low, with only 28 percent of U.S. adults viewing his job performance positively. In a new Harris Interactive Poll, seven out of ten adults view Bush's job performance negatively, including 48 percent who say his job performance is poor. This is down significantly since February, where 32 percent viewed his job positively, and 67 percent viewed it negatively.

I'm not very good at math, but I'm pretty sure going from 32% to 28% is getting further away from my predicted 41%, not closer. And like Calvin's dad, I suspect the decline has a lot to do with something Bush has actually done. Iraq and continued corruption charges for members of his administration aren't in the same league as flooding the basement, but then again, I don't see Laura making him skip desert either.

On one hand, it's nice that I continue to be wrong; if I were suddenly right about something it would upset the natural balance of the universe and the Earth might spin off its axis into the sun, which would be a real bummer. On the other hand, it's gotta suck to be either the President or Calvin's dad right about now.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bread, Milk, and ... a New Couch?

I went to the fancy new "HEB Plus!" that just opened in the next town over, and I hate it.

I feel like I'm shopping at the carnival, with barkers standing around in little booths sprinkled throughout the aisles, calling desperately to passers-by on their wireless headphones to "Try our new homemade teriyaki sauce!" or "Come see some amazing techniques using a paring knife!"

I get the "Central Market" type of concept, bringing hard-to-find niche products to a wider audience, providing an astounding array of (for instance) cheeses from around the globe or the finest pasta from Luxembourg (do they even make pasta in Luxembourg? Shaddup, I'm on a roll). That has style, panache, a sense of flair and exotic locales tantalizing us from our comfortable suburban enclaves.

Naturally, that dog won't hunt out here in the country, so instead of putting in a "Central Market" HEB, they put in an "HEB Plus!", which apparently stands for "HEB - Profuse Loads of Unrelated S**t!".

You turn the aisle out of produce and you're face to face with a row of outdoor grills. Just past the hot cereal ("Watch me make the best oatmeal you've ever seen!" cries the frantic septuagenarian behind the kiosk, apparently coked up on blow for just this occasion) and you're in the middle of a furniture section. Little tables, couches, televisions, you name it. I feel like I've somehow taken the "red" pill and I'm in the Matrix. Is Neo around here somewhere?

From behind the frozen orange juice comes the heavy bass THUMP THUMP THUMP of car audio equipment. Apparently the concept here is that I'll chug some vitamin C and hit the interstate to impress my homies, I dunno. I can't find the simple things I want like regular chicken breasts or Captain Crunch, but genuine Japanese koi ponds they got. It's bizarre.

And endless. The place is enormous, built in a Sam's Club-style warehouse with vast girder-clad ceilings lost in the clouds. And yet with all that space, the actual height of the shelves is shorter than normal, coming just up to my head. For some reason this combination of high ceilings and low shelves makes me agoraphobic, or claustrophobic, or shopaphobic, whatever the hell it is I start to get panic attacks somewhere in the peanut butter section. I feel like everyone's looking at me over the aisles, like one of those awful bathrooms where the stalls are only half height ("Come see the bladder control demo in our pharmacy kiosk!").

I start to hate all of humanity as I frantically wheel around the aisle, avoiding eye contact and nattering on and on out loud to drown the endless, over-hyped announcements from the carnival barkers-cum-grocery store clerks.

Finally I reach the Promised Land, the long rows of checkout counters, naturally all closed except for two, where long lines queue back into the Aviation Aisle ("All jets, half off!"). I'm doomed, I'll never get out of this living hell, this unholy amalgamation of random crap punctuated by ice cream freezers and personal hygiene products.

And then the final indignity -- my only choice is a "Self-check-out" station. It's not bad enough I had to wade through acres of non-grocery-related crap, it's not enough I was put through the architectural equivalent of Dante's inferno, it's not even bad enough that it took me half an hour to find a parking spot. Now I have to check out my own effing groceries.

And then I have to bag them myself, to boot.

All that money to buy genuine wicker tables hand-woven by Buddhist monks, all that time spent to locate the ultimate ironing board on Aisle Five, and they can't even manage to hire two minimum-wage kids or retirees to scan my effing groceries and put them in a bag. Unreal.

Look, if I wanted to buy furniture, I'd go to the furniture store. If I wanted to be accosted by desperate people hawking their wares at me, I'd go to either the nearest convention center or the red light district. And if I want to buy groceries and have someone check me out, apparently I'm going to have to go somewhere else, because I'm sure as hell not going to find it at HEB Plus!


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

VaTech Blame Game Scorecard

I was in the middle of writing this great post about how many different things have been "blamed" for the Virginia Tech tragedy, but then I discovered that "Cynical-C Blog" beat me to it, and did a better job, to boot.

So instead, I'll just point you there. Here are a few of my favorites, though:

It’s either the fault of violent video games, or the cowardly students who didn’t rush the shooter, secularism, or Muslims and/or foreigners, or Atheists, or it’s society’s fault, or the Liberals, or maybe it’s pedophilia, homosexual couplings and adulterous behavior’s fault (not sure if he means all at the same time or separately), or capitalism, or the Chinese, or Simon Cowell, or Bill Gates, or possibly it’s the fault of trauma induced mind control by a military industrial complex, or because colleges have co-ed dorms and/or students who major in English, or the GOP, or the Democrats, or it could be the fault of Markos from Daily Kos, or Charlton Heston, W, or vaccines, or schools teaching that the theory of evolution as fact, or the school’s architecture.

But come on, you know it's the fault of the Jews. Isn't everything?

I think Ed Brayton put it best, though:

Let me tell you who is to blame for this: the guy pulling the trigger. That's it. End of discussion. One crazed psychotic who decides it's time to go postal is going to find a clock tower to shoot from and people to shoot at, and it doesn't matter how many laws we pass against it. Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to visit the clue store.


Why Can't I Write My Own Prescription?

How come I can tell my lawyer to take a line of defense that's almost sure to get me hung, but I can't tell my doctor to give me medicine he thinks is going to kill me?

That's the main thrust Glenn Greenwald made on his blog recently in a post titled "What is the rationale behind the prescription drug laws?". What does liberty mean if not the right to control what happens to our bodies? And yet when it comes to health care, doctors act as gatekeepers, making it impossible to make decisions about your own well-being:

Let me ask you this question: let's say I come into your office (I'm a mentally competent adult -- at least in our hypothetical) and tell you that I want to take a Schedule II drug (or Schedule III or IV) for Medical Problem X (or even just for garden-variety insomnia, depression, or anxiety). You tell me that I shouldn't, that there is a high risk of addiction, that the problem doesn't warrant that treatment. I tell you that, after listening carefully to everything you have said, I disagree with you and I want to take it anyway.

Why should your judgment prevail over mine for what I take? Why, as a competent adult, should I need your permission before I can take the substance I decide is best for me?

I ask that, in part, with reference to the attorney-client relationship. Often times in that relationship, there is as much at stake as there is in a doctor-patient relationship -- the individual's life savings, or financial security, or liberty, or even (in the rarest of cases), their life.

Yet the decision about what to do always remains the client's. The lawyer can advise them, warn them, urge them in the strongest possible terms not to opt for Choice X because Choice X is stupid, self-destructive, risky, irrational, etc. But it is always an advisory role, never a parental role where the lawyer can override the client's choice for his own interests. In fact, whether to have or listen to a lawyer at all is completely optional. The client can always proceed purely on his own, even in the weightiest of matters.

Why should the doctor have the ability to override the decisions of the patient? Why should the doctor's permission be required before the patient undergoes the pharmaceutical treatment he chooses?

This resonated with me in part because of our recent experience trying to get Annie's hypothyroidism diagnosed and treated. She kept telling her doctors that something was wrong, but they blew her off again and again. Eventually they even removed her thyroid, in what we now think was an entirely unnecessary procedure, because they didn't want to listen to what she was saying about her own health.

Finally, after lots of investigation online and trying several new doctors, she found some who would listen. And she demanded that they give her the medicine she knew she needed. They didn't want to, they argued against it and kept throwing out the scare tactics we figured they would from our Internet reading. But ultimately they gave in, and since she's been on Armour (a natural thyroid hormone replacement) the difference in her health and energy has been staggering.

That she had to beg -- literally beg -- her doctors to take her seriously, that she had to churn through so many health care professionals before finding someone to take her seriously, that this intelligent, motivated, informed, insightful, successful woman was put in the position of being a child, and that she was so let down by those we're required by law to submit to -- well, it makes my blood boil.

Greenwald's point is a good one. As free people we should be able to take charge of our own health care, even if sometimes that goes against what the professionals would advise us to do. It should be no different than an attorney-client relationship, with the expert offering guidance, advice, and support, but the ultimate decision absolutely should rest with the client.

I have GOT to stop reading things that change my perspective. Can't I get a good set of dogma around here that I can just follow blindly? Sheesh.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Have We Found The First Extrasolar Earth?!

Via The Bad Astronomer, there is news tonight out of the European Southern Observatory that the first possibly Earth-like extra-solar planet may have been found! Phil has more:

Why is this planet important? Well, one of the major goals of science right now is to find out if life has arisen and evolved elsewhere in the Universe. Up until 1995 we weren’t even sure if any other stars had planets! Now we know of hundreds, and as the technology gets better, we can find smaller and smaller ones. We’re right on the verge of being able to find ones just like Earth. And while of course we cannot know if this newly found planet has life or not, it’s our best bet yet!

All of the other planets detected so far (and as Phil says it's only been slightly more than a decade since we found the very first one!) have been massive giants, completely unsuited to life as we know it. This world around Gliese 581, however, is the right temperature to hold liquid water, which as far as we know is the one absolutely essential ingredient for organic life.

It is not yet known for sure what this planet is like, and it's still possible that after investigation it does not actually hold liquid water after all. Discovery at the very edges of our knowledge are always contingent, vulnerable to refutation and difficult to prove. But even the possibility is thrilling to anyone who's stared at the night sky and wondered:

"Are we alone? Is there other life out there, around some distant star?"

We probably won't know the answer to that for a long time, but at last it's looking like we might just have the tools to start to figure it out.

Damn, science is cool!


Challenging Preconceptions

Maybe it's the result of being the youngest of seven kids, but for some reason I like finding out I'm wrong. Luckily I'm given the opportunity on a fairly regular basis, although thankfully now that I'm an adult, this is no longer accompanied by "atomic wedgies".

I'm used to actively reexamining some things, taking a proactive approach to maintaining intellectual health. But it's a lot harder to challenge preconceived notions that are so ingrained you don't even know you have them. You can't be proactive if you don't even know there's something there to be acted on.

For some reason, though, this last week gave me three separate chances to reexamine such deep-rooted ideas, in three different fields of inquiry. I'm not sure what to make of them, but I feel like I unearthed little treasures of self-knowledge here, and I wonder where they'll lead me.

The Quality of American Health Care

I've always taken it for granted that America has the best health care anywhere in the world, bar none, GO USA!! I tend to be patriotic and naturally assume that we're the best at pretty much everything. This article by Ezra Klein at the very leftist "American Prospect", however, made me rethink that by looking at the national health care systems offered in four other countries. Each system pays at most half of what America does for health coverage, and yet the service is at least as good (and in some cases better). I guess I always knew we paid more, but I just assumed that we were getting much, much more than they were. Now I'm not so sure.

Anorexia and Calorie Restricted diets (CR)

Lab experiments in mice seem to show that if you reduce your calorie intake (to as little as 2/3 of what's generally accepted as healthy), you can extend your healthy lifespan by up to half. That means you could, potentially, live to be 150 in reasonable health. Sounds great, right? That's what I thought, and I did some research into the concept, which now has some 2,000 adherents around the country. But then I read this article on Slate, asking the very sensible question "But how is this different than anorexia, which everyone says is a disease?". It made me take a real step back to reconsider the entire notion, not just of CR but of how we classify behaviors and conditions. I also was forced to realize just how much "framing" -- how an issue is put to you -- influences how I react to it ("Anorexia BAD, but Calorie Restriction GOOD!").

The Superiority of the Human Mind

Everyone knows that some animals are better at certain things than humans are -- leopards run faster, birds can fly, fish swim better, elephants are stronger, etc. But I alway assumed (without even realizing I was assuming) that humans were unquestionably at the top of the mental abilities ladder. I never thought an animal would prove to be better at any aspect of cognition than a human is -- but I was wrong. According to this article by John Noble Wilford, chimpanzees are clearly better at immediate memory tasks than people are:

Tetsuro Matsuzawa, a Kyoto primatologist, described a young chimp watching as numbers 1 through 9 flashed on the computer screen at random positions. Then the numbers disappeared in no more than a second. White squares remained where the numbers had been. The chimp casually but swiftly pressed the squares, calling back the numbers in ascending order — 1, 2, 3, etc.

The test was repeated several times, with the numbers and squares in different places. The chimp, which had months of training accompanied by promised food rewards, almost never failed to remember where the numbers had been. The video included scenes of a human failing the test, seldom recalling more than one or two numbers, if any.

“Humans can’t do it,” Dr. Matsuzawa said. “Chimpanzees are superior to humans in this task.”

Dr. Matsuzawa suggested that early human species “lost the immediate memory and, in return, learned symbolization, the language skills.”

“I call this the trade-off theory,” he continued. “If you want a capability like better immediate memory, you have to lose some other capability.”

So there you have it, three items in the last week that have challenged my preconceived notions and shown me once again how dangerous it is to think we have all the answers, even when we're just sure we do.


Monday, April 23, 2007

How to Tell If You're an Idiot Driver

Currently there's one simple way to tell if you are an idiot driver.

  1. Look in the mirror.

  2. If the person looking back at you is Jeff Hebert, then you're an idiot driver.

I know this is true because I have experienced the following incidents in just the last week:
  1. I got out of my truck to close the front gate, but forgot one important step -- putting the vehicle in "Park". I was very close to getting intimately familiar with the neighbor's cows by the handy expedient of crashing my truck through his fence. A hasty leap back into the accelerating cab narrowly averted this tragedy.

  2. Scant hours after sending my brother a map that included the phrase "Do not speed through the town of Liberty Hill or you will get a ticket", I got a ticket for speeding through the town of Liberty Hill.

  3. Today while hauling the Incredibly Expensive Pain in the Ass to yet another trailer lot to get it fixed, I misjudged the turn onto the overpass and smashed out the headlight of a waiting car.

Thus if the reflection you see staring at you out of the mirror is bald, with close-shorn side-hair, a goatee, and only one eyebrow, do not -- I repeat, DO NOT -- get behind the wheel of your vehicle under any circumstances. It could potentially save your life, or at least a few hundred dollars in headlight repair, municipal fees, and bovine therapy bills.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

A Nerd's Country Poll

I wanted to see what you, both of my loyal readers, would prefer to read about here, so I've put together a quick poll. If you're so inclined, please check the box next to each answer that you agree with.

Unlike previous US elections, I promise to count your vote, so that's a nice bonus.

What is your NerdCountry writing preference?
Keep the same mix he has now -- humor, ranch life, tech stuff, animals, etc.
Quit writing about politics!
Quit writing about religion and atheism!
I only want to read about animals, nothing else!
I only want to read about politics, religion, and atheism!
More with teh funnah! free polls


Pulling the Hammy

You know you're getting older when you pull your hamstring in the course of chasing a little ass.

And I don't mean that in a dirty-euphemism kind of "Hey look, Jeff's 'pulling the hammy' again!" kind of way but in a "grasping the back of your thigh and writhing in pain" kind of way.

Although the ass I was chasing did have the strip-club-worthy name of "Whisper", she was in fact a new rescue donkey at the ranch. I suspected we were going to have a more difficult time than I'd been led to believe when the guy who brought her over to us told us "It only took an hour" to get her halter on and to load her into the trailer.

Note the Phil Stacey-like glowing demon eyes.
I stood there with the lead rope in my hand as he backed Whisper down the ramp slowly. I'd been told she was fine once she had the halter on, so we planned on walking her to her temporary holding pen.

However, as soon as she got out of the trailer and had a nice look around, she decided it was time to split. She took off, almost pulling me to the ground, and raced around the twenty acres in front of the house. "You did lock the front gate, right?" I panted as we hustled after her. Luckily the gate was indeed closed, and after about half an hour we had herded her into the main barn area.

She still had the halter and lead rope on, which is dangerous -- an animal can step on the rope while walking and trip, breaking a leg or their neck. It was dark, however, and we were wiped out from chasing her around the yard. We decided there was little risk in the small barn area of serious injury, so we let her be for the night.

The next day we got a bit of luck when the rest of the herd came up to check out the new girl. She was eager to be with the other donkeys and horses, so we were able to slowly walk up to her. "You hold the lead rope," Annie told me, "and I'll go get the halter off." With the feel of rope burns from the previous time I'd been assured everything was "fine" with this donkey, I was a bit hesitant, but cowboys show no fear.

I stood there holding the rope, thinking over and over "Let go if she runs, let go if she runs, let go if she runs!"

Then she ran, and I forgot to let go.

I must've looked like something out of a Three Stooges film, legs cartwheeling and body flailing about as I vainly tried to hold back an 800 pound animal with my pathetic and withered muscles. Halfway across the yard I felt a sharp burning pain in my right leg and I hit the ground. At the last moment I remembered to finally let go of the rope, possibly having flashed back to a time when I was learning to waterski and forgot to let go after falling. A mouth full of river water from being dragged behind a boat was unpleasant, but a mouth full of barn hay and horse manure from being dragged behind a donkey would have been much, much worse. Not to mention the cactus -- ouch!

That was small consolation as I rolled there in the hay and muck, clutching my hamstring and trying manfully not to be too obvious about the wracking pain.

Whisper stood on the other side of the barn. I'm pretty sure she was laughing at me.

At that point it was up to Annie. She employed some of the "Donkey Whispering" techniques we'd picked up over the years, and with infinite patience over the course of two hours managed to get Whisper to trust her enough to come close and take off the halter. Once again, kindness won out over brute force, and Whisper was able to get free to join the rest of the herd.

I, of course, learned a valuable lesson as well:

Chasing young, wild ass can lead to serious bodily injury for older married men, so just say no.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Hobbesian Friday: Huge Risk Edition

After my last post announcing that I am currently jobless (pending a much-hoped-for Big Announcement Part II next week), I think this cartoon just about says it all.

Unlike Hobbes, of course, Annie would never abandon me in the face of this kind of gut-wrenching terrifying risk, right Annie?

Annie ... ?

Well, I'll take it by her silence that she agrees. Gulp.


How Can There Be No Limbo When I'm In It?!

I quit my job today without having another job locked down to jump into. Which means that I must respectfully disagree with the Catholic Church's clarification that there's no such thing as Limbo, because I think I'm living there right now.

NOT the kind of Limbo I am in
There's another Big Announcement hopefully coming up next week that's going to make all of this much clearer and less scary, but it's not a done deal yet and so I can't really talk about it. This sort of untethered leap into the great unknown is not something I ever do, and although I feel confident my parachute's going to work with no problems, my heart is still in my throat.

I ought to feel overjoyed, but right now the stress of not having everything on the Other Big Announcement carved in stone technically means I'm just another unemployed schlub. And that's not a good feeling.

So I'm putting my jubilation on hold for hopefully just a few days, and instead am embarking on a stress-eating binge the likes of which haven't been seen since Kirstie Alley met Jenny Craig.

Hopefully I'll have more to report next week, either that I've got a great, fantastic, wonderful Big Announcement to make, or that I've just made the biggest mistake of my life and am rescinding my quitting.

Either way, Limbo's going to have to stay open at least a bit longer, because it doesn't look like I'm leaving for a few days.


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Earth Two

"One of the hardest lessons for an artist to learn," one teacher told me, "is knowing when to stop."

I still haven't figured it out, so after the jump I'm going to post the latest version of my super-hero creation, "Earth".

First, for comparison's sake, here's the last version of the character I drew:

I liked the basic black drawing, but I think I dropped the ball on the coloring. The textures used for Earth's arms and such looked flat instead of contouring along a three-dimensional form. So I recently got motivated to re-imagine the character a bit, in the process changing the human aspect (Gandalf Jones) from a pre-teen to an older man. The nice thing about having done the illustration digitally is that both the human and the creature are complete, separate drawings. That meant I could just delete the young boy and replace it with the older man, while being able to leave Earth exactly the same. Furthermore, since the color and the ink are also on separate layers, I could recolor the black and white lineart without having to redraw it.

Anyway, here's the most recent version:

I like the color work much, much better. I think the chest area on the creature works much better as a solid black than as discrete plates as well -- it's a more dramatic lighting situation, and it echoes the black turtleneck of Gandalf. I also like the glow around the human figure, I think it plays off the creature's glow well.

I also think this treatment conveys much better the concept I was going for, of an ambulatory pile of rocks and dirt, animated by an elemental spirit. I wanted it to seem like he grew up out of the ground, incorporating whatever materials happened to be there where he spawned.

See? This blog's template isn't the only thing I tinker with excessively!


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Chubby, Dirty, and the Twins

While "Chubby, Dirty, and the Twins" sounds like a brief version of my dating history, in fact it refers to the newest residents at Shiloh Falls -- our four sheep.

Why do we have sheep, you might ask? Well, you see, the border collies were getting bored and ... yes, we bought pets for our pets. No one ever said we were sane.

We do have somewhat more rational (or less insane, which is sort of the same thing) reasons for getting sheep, of course. First, there's all the money you save on gas for a tractor or lawnmower, and with the price of oil going up I feel pretty good about that.

Then there's all the cotton they give off, which as Annie assured me we can turn into nice clothing.

But the real reason is, sadly, that the border collies were bored. They get such a kick out of "herding" the donkeys and horses from behind the fence that we thought it would be a good idea to train them to herd for real. Unfortunately that's hard to do without actual, you know, sheep. So we got some. The plan now is for Annie to attend a couple of clinics or training classes to get the basics, then to take a try at teaching the borders how they roll on the Scottish highlands. Even now I can imagine my first kilt fitting.

She already knows a couple of things, and has taken the dogs one at a time into the sheep pen on a leash. The best part of teaching (or "starting" if you want the cool "in" term, just in case you ever find yourself in an awkward conversation with a real shepherd, which I know happens to me all the time) a new dog how to herd is that you get to carry a big ol' staff with you the whole time. I used to think this was just so shepherds would look more picturesque, but in reality it's used to whack the dogs in the head if they try to bite.

No, really -- it's a dog-whacking stick. How cool is that?!

Both of the borders did pretty well, after getting over their abject sheep terror once they were on the business side of the fence. The sheep weren't quite so sanguine about the entire experience, but they came through it like the pros they are.

See, it turns out there are different kinds of sheep for herding. When your dogs are just starting, like ours are, you want "knee-knocker" sheep, which means they've been trained to come to a human when dogs chase them. That's important, because if the new pup gets too aggressive and tries to bite (a very bad habit to let a herding dog get into) you have to be able to whack them with the stick, and you can't do that if the sheep are fleeing at a high rate of speed away from you.

Like I said, so far it's going well. The sheep are taking to their new pen, and the dogs are ecstatic to have something they can actually herd. Me? I've gotten Dirty with Chubby and the Twins, and what red-blooded American bubba can't get excited about that?


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

St. Francis of the Apocalypse

We had a weird cloud formation this evening that looked for all the world like a mushroom cloud. Luckily it turned out to just be a storm, but for a while there we were worried.

St. Francis was ready, though, holding the Pigeons of Armageddon in each hand, ready to fly out and beat the nuclear winter back with their wings.


Monday, April 16, 2007

An Open Letter to Christians, Wondering Why I'm So Scary

Shutting up isn't easy.

Or it's too easy, one or the other.

Either way, as you can tell from the length of this post, I'm having trouble with shutting up and it's starting to get me in trouble.

For the majority of my life I shut up about my beliefs on most things, at least on subjects that matter the most. Politics. Religion.


It took meeting Annie for me to finally come to my senses about that last item, to understand that shutting off part of your heart out of fear is like locking away a wild animal in a cage. Eventually you go a little crazy, I think, the hole where you're shutting away that part of yourself slowly sucking the life out of the rest of you.

Living in that prison is comfortable in some ways, just like that caged animal probably finds some ease in its confinement. You get used to the numbness, and you don't have to deal with the sharp edges and prickly points of disappointment. Routine is comforting. There are no surprises, just the safe monotony of sameness.

But once that cage door is opened and you get your first taste of wide open fields and the feel of the sun on your face, the wind in your hair (or stubble, in my case) -- well. There's no going back, and that's all there is to it.

Understanding what it is to love and be loved was the first crack in the walls, but it led, inevitably, to opening other vaults I'd thought safely sealed. I questioned my politics, my religion, my values. I put myself on trial, and I was a merciless judge. The trial continues, every day, and apparently the transcripts are scaring some people. Aunt Sharon pointed out in a very kind comment that the subject of atheism on this blog is causing a friend of hers some distress.

It's strange to think of myself as some kind of terrifying monster, I who have lived so much of my life in dread of causing anyone distress even by my mere presence; I even avoid calling people on the phone because I don't want them to feel like they have to talk to me when they'd really rather not.

Not exactly Wolfman or Frankenstein material there, is it?

In other places I've been told that by talking about the answers I find that bring me peace -- by talking openly about my agnostic atheism -- I am somehow endangering the minds of children I care a great deal for.

I see the same dread, the same fear, the same anger directed at atheists in many different venues. And I get it, on one level -- differences are frightening. Someone who refuses to sing along with the choir, who deliberately sets themselves apart, who grabs the mantle of "Not Normal!" and flaunts it, that's scary. It's unsettling.

Kids understand this. The worst thing that can happen to a kid is to be different. Tall, short, skinny, fat, black, white, an innie versus an outie, black hair in a class of blonds, it doesn't matter -- if a kid is different, odds are good that some pain is going to come from it. Other kids don't like different.

Average is safe, and most kids take their refuge there if they're lucky.

I think I've been fighting to be average for most of my life, and failing. I mean that not in an arrogant way, like I'm somehow better than everyone else. No, I mean it exactly the opposite, I feel in so many ways like I am less than everyone else, somehow deeply flawed by my inability to conform. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be like everyone else.

I just didn't have any choice but to be who I was, as awful as I so often found that person to be.

There were times I would have given a limb to be just like everyone else. Not to have to answer questions about riding the short bus to school (literally -- we rode a short bus to the special program we were in). Not to have to make jokes to deflect questions about where I spent the first half of every day. Not to get more of a kick out of Monty Python than in the latest sports scores.

Not to feel as if every Sunday I was lying by mouthing words I did not believe.

But my curse has always been that I cannot help but to be honest with myself. There's a great line from the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic "Princess of Mars" when the hero, John Carter, denies that he is brave:

Their attention was so wholly riveted to this point of interest that they did not notice me, and I easily could have turned back into the dark recesses of the gorge and made my escape with perfect safety. The fact, however, that this thought did not occur to me until the following day removes any possible right to a claim to heroism to which the narration of this episode might possibly otherwise entitle me.

I do not believe that I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes, because, in all of the hundreds of instances that my voluntary acts have placed me face to face with death, I cannot recall a single one where any alternative step to that I took occurred to me until many hours later. My mind is evidently so constituted that I am subconsciously forced into the path of duty without recourse to tiresome mental processes. However that may be, I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me.
I might have wanted to change my beliefs to conform to my classmates, but I simply couldn't. Like John Carter with regards to cowardice, I make no claim that this is somehow a laudable quality of mine, for it is something completely beyond my control.

I can't help but be who I am, even though (as I said before) there have been many (many) times in my life when I've absolutely hated that very self.

What good is it to play the chameleon so successfully that you forget what your skin really looks like?

I feel such honest joy when someone I know sheds that fake skin, that mask of conformity, to discover who they truly are and what they honestly believe that I can't understand why they don't feel the same for me when I do the same. No, I don't believe in your God. So what?

Our commandment, Christian and atheist alike, is to love each other. That doesn't seem very complicated, but a lot of people never seem to get it. I suppose that's only fair, because I honestly don't get why atheists scare theists so much, why we're thought of as worse than terrorists. We're people, just like you. We have thoughts and hopes and fears and dreams. We want our families to be happy, to live prosperous and joyful lives. We empathize with the plight of those less fortunate than we are.

Or we don't. Some of us are complete pricks, just like some of the people standing next to you in church every Sunday.

Is that what's so unsettling to you? That maybe we're just like you are, even though we don't believe in your God? Would it be better if we bore some kind of Mark of Cain, some obvious Sign of the Beast or crippling deformity that would make it easier for you to see how God has spurned us, even as you believe we have spurned Him?

Are you waiting for the smiting, and its absence is angering you?

I don't require you to change your beliefs, not one iota. I'm happy that you've found answers. Is it too much to ask that you return the favor, to understand that although you don't agree with me, that I'm not evil, or a fool, or an untutored wretch? That maybe -- just maybe -- we can both be good people who treat others with love and respect, even if we don't worship the same (or any) God?

Atheists aren't scary people, or at least no scarier than your average cross-section of a Sunday church crowd. We're just people. Like I said, maybe that's what's frightening you, but whatever it is, I'm telling you flat out, you're wrong to be afraid. Judge us not by our beliefs, but by our actions, just as you would any of your fellow churchgoers.

I know that's hard, especially since your holy book has some pretty strong words to say about decrying unbelievers. But it also has some even stronger words about loving us anyway, about treating us fairly, with respect and tolerance. Jesus allowed a prostitute to wash his feet with her tears. Do you think that was an endorsement of prostitution? Do you think Christ meant that as a lesson that you should be a prostitute? Do you think He feared that His disciples would somehow become contaminated by knowing these women existed?

Clearly not. The simplest answer is that Jesus loved them because they were people. He didn't share their beliefs -- indeed, if you think Christ was Lord then he knew they were wrong as no human can ever know anything. And yet, He treated them not with scorn and hatred, but with respect and tolerance, accepting their love (though not rooted in worship of His father) as true and honest.

There's this wonderful story about the Buddha that I think is very appropriate here, and which (like the washing of the feet in the Bible) brings me great peace and resonates with me at a fundamental level. Even if you're not a follower of Buddhism (as I am not) I hope you'll indulge me for a moment while I paraphrase it.
Two priests were walking in a forest when a beautiful doe burst through the undergrowth and collapsed at their feet. An arrow had pierced her heart, and her strength was almost gone. The two priests observed the animal closely, debating about what would happen at the moment of death, whether animal spirits could be seen, and how the manner of its passing would affect its karma in the next life.

As the animal slowly, painfully slid closer to death, the Buddha happened along the path. Seeing the injured animal, he rushed to its side and drew out the long arrow, staunching the flow of blood with his own robe, saving its life "You can argue about metaphysics later", the Buddha said. "For now we have plenty to do just trying to keep this doe alive."
Don't we all have enough to do here, right now, on this earth and with these people, without letting our fears about matters completely beyond our control get in the way of our loving and helping each other?

I'm not someone you should fear, no matter what I talk about on my blog, or what I believe (and don't) in my heart. Take joy that I have found a way to pull out the arrow, even if it's not the same way you would have done it. Every foot set along a path is one less lonely beast trapped in a cage when it could be running free. Take joy in its emancipation, even as the different path you walk brings you your own peace and contentment.

That's all we ask, to be given the same opportunity you have had, to find our answers and to seek our homes. There's nothing scary about that.


Texas Hill Country Wildflowers

When I used to travel around the country recruiting for my alma mater, the first thing most people would say when they saw I was from Texas was "It's all a desert there, isn't it?" To those people I say, look at these photos of our weekend drive around the Willow Loop in central Texas' Hill Country. This ain't no John Wayne desert, my friend.

From a high ridge near the middle of the loop you can see wildflowers rippling in the distance like bright blue ponds. Bursting into life for a few short months each year, Texas wildflowers like the bluebonnets seen here stand in stark, joyous contrast to the harsh granite, limestone, and cactus that surrounds them.

A ranch house and windmill nestle in the bluebonnet fields at the bottom of the small valley, the very ideal of the Texas Hill Country. I feel sometimes like I'm living in a Jackson Pollock painting, with hues spilled across the landscape in
wild abandon.
What amazes me about the abundance of these beautiful, fleeting flowers is how much their continued existence is owed to just one woman's vision -- Lady Bird Johnson. Her husband, LBJ, might be better known, but his amazing wife is far more loved here in Texas. Through sheer force of will she's brought these incredibly vivid flowers back to life along the highways and byways of Texas, making their beauty freely available to any who pass our way.

Thank you, Lady Bird, for reminding all of us that one person can make a difference. I can't think of a better way to "Keep Texas Beautiful" than this kind of breathtaking splendor, and I'm glad we got the chance again this year to take in the show.


My Prickly Valentine

I took this photo of a Valentine's from deep in the "heart" of Texas on Friday:

Thanks to my sister-in-law Debra for spotting the unusual formation.


Texas Women

Courtesy of Aunt Sharon, a joke that pretty much hits the nail on the head when it comes to Texas women:

Three men were sitting together bragging about how they had given their new wives duties. The first man had married a woman from Colorado and had told her that she was going to do dishes and house cleaning. It took a couple days, but on the third day he came home to a clean house and dishes washed and put away.

The second man had married a woman from Nebraska . He had given his wife orders that she was to do all the cleaning, dishes, and the cooking. The first day he didn't see any results, but the next day he saw it was better. By the third day, he saw his house was clean, the dishes were done, and there was a huge dinner on the table.

The third man had married a girl from TEXAS . He told her that her duties were to keep the house cleaned, dishes washed, lawn mowed, laundry washed, and hot meals on the table for every meal. He said the first day he didn't see anything, the second day he didn't see anything, but by the third day some of the swelling had gone down, and he could see a little out of his left eye .... enough to fix himself a bite to eat and load the dishwasher.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

On Christian Morality

Some years ago while reading through Genesis, I had a thought about Christian morality which I am not sure is correct. I want to throw it out there to see what you think about it, and to help me understand if I am right or if I am wrong.

I was struggling with trying to understand how the same eternal being could on the one hand tell us through Jesus that we should love each other as he has loved us, and on the other tell us in the Old Testament to dash the skulls of babies against the rocks. The Bible is full of horrifying instances like this, God explicitly ordering His people to commit acts that today we would consider unutterably evil. From slavery to infanticide to rape to genocide, were the God of the Old Testament a human, we would consider Him the most evil being that ever lived, violating virtually every moral commandment He would later give us.

But how could that be? How can you reconcile what we're told God did and what God tells us we should do to be good? It made no sense to me, and I struggled with it long after I'd turned away from Christianity on other grounds. I hate not understanding things, and this I just couldn't get my head around.

Then one day it hit me -- the morality of the Bible is perfectly clear if you assume there are not multiple moral codes, but rather only one. And that one single consistent moral code is "Obey God." That's it. If God says to do something, that is by definition a moral act, an act of Good. If God says not to do it, and you do it anyway, that's an act of moral evil. Acts have no inherent moral weight except for how they relate to whether or not you're obeying God's orders.

Murder is not evil in Christian morality because killing people is wrong; after all, God orders people slaughtered time and again in the Old Testament. No, murder is wrong because God commanded us not to murder people. If He should appear to you and say "I need you to go kill that guy," and you do it, not only have you not committed a sin, you've actually performed an act of moral good.

If that's the case, that the only test for whether or not something is moral is whether or not it conforms to or diverts from God's commands, then the Old Testament makes sense. Dashing those babies' skulls against the stones was a moral act, because the Jews were doing what God ordered them to do. Anyone who sat out that attack, who failed to kill the babies, was committing a sin by disobeying God.

All of the behaviors that trouble the modern sensibility in the Bible make sense in this light. Take slavery, for instance, something modern civilizations view as inherently evil. Slavery was wrong for the Jews in Egypt because God ordered Pharoah to free them. Slavery was right for the enemies of the Jews because God told the Jews they could take slaves.

Slaughtering every male of the Midianites, raping their women, and taking their virgins as brides was not evil because the Jews were simply doing what God told them to do.

At its root, this is a very unambiguous moral code. What it is not, however, is eternal and unchanging in application. This view of Christian morality is just as morally relative as any Unitarian or freethinker or atheist code disparaged by the religious right. When I see a Christian ask an atheist "How do I know you won't just shoot me in the face, then?", I have to ask in return "Well how do I know God's not going to order you to shoot me in the face, then?" In neither case would either person be doing anything "wrong", the atheist (supposedly) because there is no moral code at all, and the Christian because as we've seen, obeying God's commands is the only moral act possible.

Obviously, things are more complicated than that in the real world. The challenge for a Christian in this kind of scenario is figuring out what God's commands really are versus their own mistaken human will, and in deciding what to do when it appears that two mutually contradictory commands are in force.

But I do think viewing Christian morality this way makes sense out of what was formerly (at least to me) the nonsensical Old Testament.


Saturday, April 14, 2007

Contempt of Government

In an interview with a career Department of Justice employee about the politicization of that department under Alberto Gonzales comes this comment (emphasis mine):

Third, and most significantly for present purposes, there was an almost immediate influx of young political aides beginning in the first half of 2005 (e.g., counsels to the AG, associate deputy attorneys general, deputy associate attorneys general, and deputy assistant attorneys general) whose inexperience in the processes of government was surpassed only by their evident disdain for it.

But the disdain for government in this administration has not been confined to just the Department of Justice. You saw it in the way FEMA was run, in how the Iraq invasion was (un)planned and (incompetently) executed, in the derisive way it has treated the Constitutional duties of the Congress, and in the extraordinarily wide-ranging tendency to write "Signing Statements" that flatly declare they have no intention of complying with the laws they're passing.

Look, I don't have a problem with conservatives who believe government should be smaller. In fact, that's an inclination I generally share. But I do have a problem with people who think government is useless, who have contempt for anything in any way related to government. The last person you want running an enterprise is someone who thinks the enterprise ought not to exist, and yet that's exactly what we've got.

If you think the government should only be responsible for three things, then that's fine. But it ought to be GOOD at those three things. It ought to be efficient in executing those three things. The same is true if you think it ought to be responsible for three hundred things, or three thousand -- whatever you think the proper role of government is, you ought to want it to fill that role well.

I see no evidence that the Bush Administration feels this way, however. From their actions and words, I can only conclude that the disdain the man above sensed from the ill-qualified new DoJ lawyers is but an echo of the same disdain emanating from the top down, a feeling that the only acceptable role of government is to not exist at all.

And that's something I just can't accept. Elect a Republican if you must, but by all that's sane, elect one who thinks the government ought to perform its functions well.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Hobbesian Friday: Hoover Dam Edition

©Universal Syndicate

My mom, my sisters, and I had taken a trip to Vegas, and we took a day to go see Hoover Dam. So we trundled into a rented van, and drove out along the Hoover Dam Expressway, to the sign that said "Hoover Dam This Way", along Hoover Dam Road, into a big parking garage that said "Hoover Dam Parking Garage", out through the elevator past "The Hoover Dam Gift Shop", to the top of the road passing on top of the dam itself, right by a big green sign saying "Welcome to Hoover Dam!", and my mother, standing on top of one of the largest man-made structures in history, with a gigantic reservoir of water on one hand and untold spans of concrete falling away to the river below on the other, says:

"So where's the dam?"


Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Good Donkey Tale

What with my brother in town and craziness at work, I haven't had time to write a real blog post (and won't for a couple more days), but I did want to recommend this good Jon Katz article on Slate about his donkeys during their recent snow storm. Jon's great at capturing a lot of the same experiences Annie and I have had, moving from the city to the country, and this latest installment is highly recommended as well.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Types of Atheists

Hank Fox over at "Unscrewing the Inscrutable" has a great comment about different types of atheists that I think is spot on. Here it is in a more condensed form, but I encourage anyone interested in the topic to check out Hank's full post.

  1. "Rebel Atheist": Decides he’s an atheist more or less just to piss off his mom and dad.
  2. "Revenge Atheist": Believes in a god, but happens for some reason to hate him. “You killed my kitten / gave me cancer, you bastard, and I’ll never say I believe in you, ever again.”
  3. "Inherited Atheist": The guy who picks it up from his atheist parents, and just never thinks seriously about religion, or whenever he does, thinks it’s just some nonsense like Elvis worship.
  4. "Awakened Atheist": Someone who realized one day that some part of her religion didn’t make sense, and worked her way through question after question over a span of years, and eventually came to the firm conclusion that it just wasn’t true, any of it.
So far, just on this blog, I've been accused of being both a Type 1 and a Type 2. I can't be a Type 3 because my whole family was devoutly Catholic.

Naturally, I think of myself as a Type 4 (more on that below).

As Hank says, I think it's pretty common for types 1 and 2 to eventually "reconvert" over time. It's tough to sustain rage for that long, especially as you get closer to death and the things that comforted you as a child become more important.

I think it's unlikely that Type 3's end up turning to religion for the same reason that the vast majority of believers stay in the faith they were raised in. Most people just aren't interested in investing the kind of time and energy needed to reevaluate a core belief system (whether it's religion or lack thereof or just what sports team to root for), and tend stick with what they know. That's one reason the single biggest indicator of what religion a person is, is what religion their parents were.

I agree with Hank that Type 4's are the least likely to return to religion. There is a degree of freedom and joy in arriving at an understanding of what your true beliefs are that is difficult to surrender. And the kind of person who is willing to invest in the kind of existential struggle to examine core beliefs is the kind who does so with the understanding that when they've finally achieved what they believe to the be the right answer, they're unlikely to abandon it lightly.

I suspect, though, that 90% of the atheists you'd ask to put themselves into one of Hank's four types would pick Type 4. I mean come on, who doesn't want to be "Awakened"? Types 1 and 2 will angrily deny that anything as crass as anger is behind their beliefs, and Type 3's won't care enough to even read the question in the first place. For that reason, I suspect this system isn't going to end up being all that useful empirically, but I nonetheless think it's very accurate.

It also occurs to me that this kind of classification is applicable to more than just atheism. I think it's true of theists, as well. And homosexuals. And a whole host of other life attitudes that people can hold. Everyone believes what they believe for a variety of reasons, and I think those four groupings hold for people in general, regardless of the specific question at hand. Everyone feels some rebelliousness towards their parents, or gets angry at someone or something and so takes the opposite stance from theirs just for spite, or goes along with the majority because it's easier, or struggles and thinks and wrestles with issues until finally arriving at their endpoint.

Anyway, those are my deep thoughts for today. My brother is coming into town tonight for a visit, which we're very excited about, but he always tells me I think too much so I won't be able to think for the next few days. Expect lots of American Idol and Britney Spears posts, because I'm shutting the ol' noggin off for a bit.


Monday, April 09, 2007

How Wrong is Wrong, And How Right Is Right?

Having been wrong a time or two, I can appreciate how important it is to know just how wrong you are. Are you "Sleeping on the couch" wrong, or just "You're doing the dishes tonight" wrong? For a man, evaluating the differing degrees of wrongness is a critical skill.

Which means it should come as no surprise that the most prolific author in American history, Isaac Asimov, wrote something on the subject of "The Relativity of Wrong". In this case, Asimov was concerned not so much with the vagaries of gender relations, but on the utility of science.

I find it ironic that what its adherents see as science's greatest virtue -- the ability to change in the face of contrary evidence -- is seen by its detractors as its greatest weakness. And yet I often read or hear criticisms of various scientific theories (or even the practice of science in general) as being built on a house of sand. I've even felt it myself; one day we're told eggs are the greatest threat to your health since arsenic, the next that eggs are the perfect food. It's frustrating living in a world of uncertainty, and I think that's always been one of the strongest selling points of religion. For religion is always the same, its adherents are eager to tell you. God is eternal and so is their faith.

Of course that ignores thousands of years of schism, sectarianism, and apostasy, but you get the general idea.

In his essay, though, Asimov points out that there are relative levels of wrongness, not an absolute scale where there is only completely right on the one hand, and anything that falls short of it in the other. Even when you're wrong, he argues, you can be less wrong than someone else:

The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
In short, my English Lit friend, living in a mental world of absolute rights and wrongs, may be imagining that because all theories are wrong, the earth may be thought spherical now, but cubical next century, and a hollow icosahedron the next, and a doughnut shape the one after.

What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.

I know that many theists take the same approach towards religion, and in fact that very argument has been made right here on this blog by GeoPoet. I do have sympathy for that approach, as I do for any endeavor that involves humility and an honest search for the truth, an admission that everything we know is but a beginning to a story that is still incomplete.

That is the profound hope that makes us get up in the morning, that as a species, we are moving in the right direction along the Axis of Wrongness, that we are becoming both closer to right, and closer to wisdom, at the same time. As always, the threat is from fear and malice, from the perverse desire to be right regardless of the evidence, to defend our beliefs (whatever they may be) not because they are less wrong than the alternative, but simply because they are ours.


Easter Bunnies!

Yesterday, on Easter morning, millions of little Christian kids around the world woke up to chocolate bunnies in nests of green plastic grass, surrounded with candy. But out in Nerd Country, we woke up to real bunnies in a nest of real grass! Now, granted, they were surrounded by horse apples instead of the more edible kind, but still, the analogy holds.

Annie found the perfectly round little nest of freshly-born bunnies when she went out for the evening feeding. The placement of the little hollow was a bit of a problem, as it was right underneath our big horse Dylan (giant hooves plus tiny bunnies equals less than secure lodging), so she carefully scooped up the nest and moved it into the hay stall where it would be safe. We worried that the mother rabbit might smell us on the babies and reject them, but this morning when I checked back in they were covered up all snug and tight. One of them immediately poked its head out of the nest as if to challenge me, even though it couldn't even open its eyes yet. He also didn't waste any time kicking back his siblings who were also trying to come up to see what was happening. Those legs aren't just for hopping, you know!

Anyway, I couldn't resist taking some pictures of our little Easter bunnies. I like the first one particularly because he looks so grumpy.


Saturday, April 07, 2007

A White Texas Easter

Yesterday it was sunny and grand. Today it's snowing.

In April.


Our uncle George took this photo of snow falling on Texas bluebonnets. It's a once in a lifetime kind of image, I think, and I thank him and Aunt Sharon for sharing it with us.

Whether you're religious or not, the Easter holiday coming up on this suddenly frosty Sunday is a good time of year to think about renewals, rebirths, and second chances. And a late snow like this is also a good reminder to take nothing for granted -- even the early hopes and promise of spring, sometimes, can fall victim to an unforeseen frost. Enjoy every moment you're lucky enough to see and be ready to take whatever comes.