Friday, December 31, 2010

The Sum of All Knowledge

When I was a kid I used to fantasize about future technologies, even before computers were widely available to ordinary folks. I would fantasize about owning a robot that would accompany me to school and help me with my lessons. I would fantasize about building electronic gadgets and wonder at the marvels of how electrons flowing through a circuit could do all manner of things not dreamed of 100 years before.

A couple of things I imagined when I was in my early 20s have actually come to fruition. While listening to a stack of 33 RPM albums on my stereo I imagined how great it would be to have all my music stored in a home library that would be randomly accessible through push-button technology. I still thought in terms of vinyl discs, but this super home jukebox idea would allow me to access any track on any album just by pushing a couple of buttons. I also imagined building a playlist of songs, similar to the way a jukebox plays all the songs that have been paid for in order.

Shortly after the widespread acceptance of the CD and as it was in the process of replacing vinyl, I imagined a new kind of music storage. I thought, one day, instead of going into a music store or Walmart and picking out a CD or vinyl record, one could pick out a memory chip, already loaded with an album of one’s choice. That led me to think, why not take your own memory chip in, plug it into a sort of kiosk, and order up a smorgasbord of music from different artists. Yes, that was in the days before the Internet became a must-have utility.

Today, of course, people store their entire music collections on a tiny music player or on their computer. People can buy their music track by track or in complete albums over the Internet. No music store is necessary. Media player programs can play back playlists of anything you own in any order, just as I imagined back in the ‘70s.

These days my musings about technology center around the instant retrieval of information from a database containing the sum of all human knowledge. Such a database is actually the goal of information technology giants such as Google and Wikipedia. And, in fact, the sum of all digital knowledge is pretty much already contained in their databases.

As a school child, and indeed until about 15 years ago, if I wanted to do research, I would have to trudge to the library and thumb through the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature or one of the several sets of encyclopedias. I don’t think it ever occurred to me how nice it would be if all the information I was tediously seeking could all be kept in one place where a simple search for a word or phrase would bring up everything I wanted to know about any subject. Today, of course, the Internet comes close to providing that ability right in my own home, or even while I’m relaxing on a park bench or dining in a restaurant. I can always pull out my smartphone and look up almost any information on any subject within a matter of seconds. Everything from the current weather radar image, to the traffic report for my trip home, to what recent tweak has been added to M-theory. It’s all right there at my fingertips. I can even pull up a scanned copy of, say, Popular Science magazine from the year and month I was born to read about what the big science news of the day was. It turns out that a $40 bomb shelter in your basement might save you from an A-bomb attack on your house. Well, it was the early ‘50s after all.

But as much information as is out there, there still is far more that is nowhere near being indexed yet. Can I read every book that has ever been written? Can I listen to every musical composition that has ever been performed and recorded? Can I view every work of art that has ever been painted or sculpted? No. Until very recently, I couldn’t even find any legitimate copies of “Please Please Me” by the Beatles.

Google has come under attack by those who are more interested in not showing their faces on the Internet than encouraging the spread of human knowledge for wanting to provide recent images of every stretch of road in the world. If someone said ten years ago that they wanted to get online and look at a picture of any storefront or any house in the world it would have elicited nothing but giggles and snide laughter. But the forward-looking folks at Google are making it happen. And over at Wikipedia they are inexorably working toward describing everything we, as humans, know. Between these two Web giants we may, indeed, one day be able to access any piece of information that has ever been created by mankind. And when it happens, will anyone even notice?

Advanced technologies have become so seamlessly entwined in our lives that we often don’t stop and just marvel at what has been accomplished. Young people have known nothing else. They have grown up in the information age. But to us older folks, to me at least, the information we are able to access at any time and from any place is nothing less than awe inspiring.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Are We Old Enough to Stop Believing?

How old is too old to believe in Santa Claus? And how old is too old to believe in God?

I’ve called myself an atheist only for about the last three or four years. Before that, I was an agnostic. Before that I was “spiritual but not religious.” And before that I was a Christian. I went to church every Sunday. I attended Easter Sunrise services and Christmas Eve service. I got myself baptized. I prayed.

I did many of those same things when I was a child, too. I went to the altar and prayed for redemption when I was 12. I attended Sunday School and took part in church Christmas plays. I went to Vacation Bible School in the summer. So it’s safe to say that I was a believer. I learned about God and Jesus early and I never questioned their existence, even well into adulthood.

Of course, when I was a kid, I never questioned the existence of Santa Claus, either. I knew he was real; he brought me presents every Christmas morning. It couldn’t have been anyone else but Santa. I would know if my parents were tricking me because I often stayed up all night on Christmas Eve and I would have heard them. It wasn’t that I tried to stay up all night; it’s that I couldn’t go to sleep no matter how hard I tried.

But apparently I went to sleep long enough for Mom and Dad to deliver the goods, because they were around the tree on Christmas morning and I hadn’t heard a thing.

Eventually, I started questioning whether Santa existed. I still wanted very badly to believe, but I realized that Santa was bigger than life and I was probably hoping for too much to believe he was a real man with flying reindeer. I wanted to believe so badly that I started asking my school friends if they believed. By then, most of them didn’t, and some of them made fun of me because I still clung to my delusions. That’s when I confronted Mom and asked her the big question. She confided in me. I was sad, but not very surprised.

But I still received presents on Christmas, so there was no real harm done. It was just a childhood fancy that I had outgrown, much as I had done with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy many years earlier.

It took me longer with God. But, looking back, I wonder if at some level I was always an atheist. Yes, I know what I said. I never questioned God’s existence. But on an almost subconscious level I did question the existence of heaven and hell, or at least the Christian view of them.

Sometimes when I’m halfway between sleep and wakefulness a thought occurs to me. It is an awful, dreadful thought. I’ve gotten this same thought on occasions, thankfully rather rare occasions, since childhood. The thought that enters my half-awake mind is, I’m mortal. I am going to die some day and I don’t know when. It is a very lucid understanding of my own mortality and it’s frightening.

These moments of clarity with respect to mortality last only a few seconds, then wakefulness sets in and whatever part of my brain is responsible for cloaking that clarity so I can get on with my life snaps back on. I still cognitively know that I’m mortal, but that veil of security separates my knowledge of it from the bare experience of knowing it’s real and imminent.

When I was young, I could comfort myself afterward with the knowledge that, it doesn’t matter if I die, because I’ll be in heaven. But, I also recall thinking, and suppressing, the lingering doubt that maybe heaven wasn’t a real place. I mean, how could it be? Everything I had ever heard about how good heaven was didn’t really sound very good to me. I didn’t want to sing and praise God for all eternity. I’d almost rather be in hell. And, that, too, was a distinct possibility, I remember thinking. I mean, what if I DON’T go to heaven? Maybe I won’t be on God’s list of chosen people because I have doubts.

But those doubts I had as a child were really quite ineffable. They didn’t come to the surface or spill into my consciousness until I was in my 40s. And even then, my conversion to atheism was rather slow. It’s because I didn’t really want to be an atheist. I wanted God to be real. I wanted heaven to exist.

But, alas, reality finally struck me square in the face. It doesn’t matter what I want. It doesn’t matter what I hope is true. It only matters what really is true. You can’t wish something into existence. I know there are people out there who claim that they really, truly feel God’s presence. They know for a fact, they say, that he’s real and abiding. But how can they really? There is no proof of God, not even any evidence – none at all.

People have been duped into believing that faith is a good thing. But all faith really does is mask the truth. Just like I so much wanted to continue to believe in Santa Claus, Christians want very badly to believe in God. Maybe, like me, they suspect way down deep that what they believe is a figment of an earlier age. Maybe they just want to believe so badly that they are afraid not too. Or maybe believing just gives them comfort and they don’t want to give up that security blanket.

If it makes you feel good, believe whatever you want, just as my belief in Santa Claus gave me pleasure when I was young. Just don’t let your skewed view of reality affect what I can and cannot do. I would have no real problem with religious belief if there were no laws based on it.

And at some point, people should stop believing in things unseen. It just gets in the way of reality. We as a culture and society are too old to believe in Santa Claus anymore. It might be uncomfortable to let him go, but the grief doesn’t last long. And in the end, we still get the presents.

Longing for a Faithless Society

I was at a Christmas luncheon at work the other day talking about my students and how some of them might do better with a home schooling option. I related how I had home taught my two kids for part of their secondary school career. Another teacher explained how she was home schooling her children and that she was using a curriculum that was prepared by a Christian organization.

My heart immediately sank. This was a well-educated young woman who was a teacher in the public school system and she had chosen the route of religious indoctrination for her kids, and she was proud of it. It obviously has never occurred to her that she is deluding her young children into believing fallacies and, in the process, is doing them an educational disservice. Even if she is teaching them a curriculum that is scientifically appropriate, which is unlikely, she still is presenting her children with false notions that the bible is somehow a book of morality and something to base one's life on.

I wanted to confront her with the truth, but that never works anyway and it would only cause hurt feelings. Religious people don't want to hear the truth; they believe they already know it. They have been brainwashed into believing that faith is a great virtue and they feel sorry for those like me who have lost our faith.

But the veil of indoctrination has been removed from my view. I now know what my subconscious suspected since I was a kid: The god of the bible is a fake. I can't say for absolutely certain that a god does not exist, and I'm willing to listen to proof of God's existence if anyone has it to offer. I can be convinced, unlike Christians or Muslims who are absolutely certain of the existence of their gods and cannot be convinced otherwise regardless of the evidence.

But my question to them is, Why do you believe? What is the basis for that belief? What makes you so absolutely sure? If they are honest in their answers, they must admit that they believe because that's what they were taught. They grew up believing and never stopped, because faith is reinforced by a powerful religious organization, their church.

No one comes to faith naturally. Faith goes against nature. Faith benefits no one except the church and its coffers. Faith means believing without evidence. Where else in our lives do we choose to believe something wholeheartedly without so much as a smidgeon of evidence to support that belief? It's only because we are fearful of what happens to us when we die that we succumb to the fairy tales taught to us in church. We would rather live our lives in complete denial of reality than to even consider the notion that our gods do not exist.

But think about it; if you believe, you do so because your parents or your pastor taught you to. But what if they're wrong. They are only people and they've certainly been wrong before. Maybe they believe only because they, too, were taught to. It's a never-ending cycle.

Believers might ask what if I'm wrong. Isn't it better to be safe than sorry? But which religion would you have me believe in? Why is one any better than another? What if I choose the wrong one? Isn't that just as bad as not believing at all? Many religions believe that it's their way or the highway - to hell that is. People who believe have chosen their particular belief and to them, it's true. But everybody can't be right, can they? If there is a god and if he is a personal god who cares what you believe and how you worship, then there is only one correct way to do it, his way. The trouble is, nobody knows what his way is. The bible is no help because it can be interpreted in many different ways, thus the many Christian denominations. And maybe Christianity is totally wrong. What if Muslims are more nearly correct? And then you have to worry about which branch of that religion has it right, Shiite, Sunni, Kurd? If there is one god and one true religion, then God is not telling anyone what it is in a clear fashion.

Although I might be willing to listen to evidence supporting the existence of a creator god, I know for certain that the god of the bible is not real. How could he be? He is supposed to be omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. And yet he allows suffering in the world, not just human suffering, but indescribable suffering of animals in the wild. Who could create living beings and then allow them to suffer so much?

Christians have a pat answer to these questions, but they are all cop-outs. They are all just excuses for their god because they can't come up with a reasonable explanation.

Anyone who takes an honest look at his or her religious belief, anyone who deeply contemplates what the bible has to say and the claims that are made, must come to the conclusion that their religion is bogus and the bible is baloney. Nothing in it makes sense in today's world. There may be a few common sense prescriptions for living a good life, but it is also littered with atrocities. Just take a look at what is apparently the worst form of sin – sex. Sex outside of wedlock is condemned throughout the bible. Homosexual sex is condemned. Lust is condemned. Incest seems to be ok, but only if performed for procreation. Sex for the sake of pleasure is always frowned upon. And that view is reflected in American society, where bloody violence in video games is tolerated, but nudity on TV is completely taboo.

Society can't be free as long as most of its members belong to a religion. Religion does nothing but hamstring society's citizens. And, of course, those who subscribe to a religion will say that's a good thing. That's because they want to make sure the rest of society's citizens live by what they believe is moral. Without religion, there would be no one to draw the line for you. You would be free to draw a line wherever you feel comfortable, as long as your line does not infringe on someone else's rights.

Consider a society where parents stop indoctrinating their children into religion. Eventually, the society would become more open and free. There would be no one to tell you that you can't do something because they don't believe it's right. Science would be free to blossom unencumbered by dogmatic anachronisms. It would be an enlightened society that puts its faith in human potential, not ancient superstition. It's a society I continue to long for.

Friday, December 10, 2010

More Excuses Made for God

It’s Christmastime and ‘tis the season for those holiday movies to reprise their appeals for kids who are on the cusp of becoming too old for Santa to “just believe” as the lyrics to Josh Groban’s song from Polar Express goes. To “just believe” in Santa is also a metaphor to implore a belief in God.

A belief in a god requires faith – a baseless, strong belief in something unseen. To have faith means that one must constantly make excuses for their god. Neglecting to make those excuses means accepting the fact that a god does not exist.

What excuses?

When a prayer goes unanswered the believer often makes the excuse that “God answers prayers in his own way and in his own time.” The alternative to that is to admit that prayers are seemingly answered randomly, much as they would be if God never answered prayers at all, or as if there was no god.

When evil people do things they should not, without reprisal, the believer is often comforted by a belief that the evildoer will get what’s coming to him in the end. That’s another excuse for God’s seeming procrastination in doling out justice. We don’t feel so bad that someone is getting away with murder if we believe that God will deal with them later. But we never really know for sure that’s what happens, do we? We just believe.

And why is it that so often those who do good works, who are kind and magnanimous, are sometimes stricken with serious illness or an untimely death? The believer makes an excuse for God, saying “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” Really? It’s so mysterious in fact, that it’s almost like God doesn’t exist at all. Bad things and good things seem to happen at random, but since there must be a god behind it all, it only stands to reason that he works in mysterious ways.

The believer is quick to extol the loving nature of God. “God loves us all so much that it breaks his heart when we do bad things,” is what I’ve heard parents tell their children. But what about the parents of children who are handicapped or have some kind of genetic disorder? Why does God allow those sweet, young children to suffer so much? The believers I know make up the excuse that, “God will not lay any more on us than we are able to bear.”

Is that right? Or is it just a way of comforting oneself and others for not being able to explain why suffering seems to be bestowed at random. It can’t be random if there is a god, so maybe he is a sadistic god who wants us to suffer, but he doesn’t torture us any more than we can stand. If so, what about those who are tortured into committing suicide? Was it too much for them to bear? Did God miscalculate? Or is it actually just nature behaving randomly, like one would expect if God didn’t exist?

The easy answer to all these questions is that nature really does operate at random. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people in the same proportion as the number of good and bad people. Is that God mimicking nature, or is it simply nature behaving randomly, as expected? Does God really need us to make excuses for him so that we can comfort ourselves in our faith, or is faith something we should perhaps not hold in such high esteem?

If an omniscient overlord does exist, then one should expect him to behave in a rational manner. But if God does not exist, then events will happen at random. Things actually do happen at random. We can accept that and go on with our lives, or we can continue to believe in an omniscient, all-loving god, and continue to make silly excuses for why he behaves in such a mercurial and capricious fashion.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Blue Laws Making Me Blue

The Indiana General Assembly, during its upcoming session, will once again consider whether to lift the ban on Sunday sales of liquor. It tried last year and failed. Proponents of lifting the ban have higher hopes for this coming session.

Several states join with Indiana in banning the sale of certain items, such as alcoholic beverages or vehicles, on Sunday. These are called blue laws for reasons that are not entirely clear, but it is not because these laws were once written on blue paper or in books with blue bindings as some say. They date back to Puritan days when this ultra-religious sect banned certain activities on the Christian Sabbath.

In the U.S., blue laws are permissible as long as their purpose is allegedly secular, even though in almost every case the day on which the sale of certain items is banned is Sunday.

But there is no real purpose for blue laws and they should all be repealed. Decades ago, many states banned the sale of almost anything on Sunday. Why Sunday? It was obviously tied to the Christian day of rest and worship. But in 1961 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that blue laws were constitutional as long they had a secular purpose. I can’t imagine a true secular purpose for banning sales on Sunday, but the ban on liquor and automobiles remains in effect in at least a dozen states, including Indiana.

Most states no longer have or enforce blue laws prohibiting shopping on Sunday. In 1990, Massachusetts became the last state to lift its law requiring shopping malls to be closed on Sundays.

Sunday has become a major shopping day. As part of a two-day weekend, it is the time when most workers can spend the day at the mall. But in many states, they can’t spend their day shopping for cars. In Indiana, they can stop by the bar for a couple of beers, then proceed to drive home, but if it’s Sunday they can’t stop by the grocery store or liquor store to buy a six-pack of beer to consume while at home.

If it is true that the purpose of these remaining blue laws is to protect commissioned sales people from the undue stress of a highly competitive industry, or to protect Mom and Pop liquor stores from increased competition from chains, then why choose a huge shopping day like Sunday for the ban? Why not, as some states already do, allow the store owners or auto dealerships to choose whatever day they wish to close?

The liquor store lobby doesn’t want the ban on Sunday sales lifted. They want their day off, free from competition. But laws are supposed to be for everybody, not just the big lobby groups. If a liquor store owner wants to close one day a week, let him pick a day that typically has sketchy sales and close that day. It might be a Monday or a Wednesday, but it probably won’t be a Sunday.

If an individual store owner wants to close on Sunday, then that is his or her choice. But to force a Sunday closure smacks of religious intrusion into public life.

The time has come for adult consumers in general to have the right to shop for anything on any day they wish. The time for blue laws has passed, if it ever actually existed in the first place.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Five Thanksgiving Myths

Thanksgiving is an American holiday set aside to be grateful for all that we have. There are a lot of customs and traditions associated with this holiday. But there are just as many myths. Let’s take a look at some of the myths of Thanksgiving and then what really happened.

Myth 1: The first Thanksgiving took place in 1621.
Reality: There was, indeed, a three-day harvest celebration in the fall of 1621, but it was not a holiday and it was not repeated for more than 150 years. In 1676 another feast of thanksgiving was held in June. It too was a one-year affair. Then, in 1789, George Washington declared a National Day of Thanksgiving. It was a controversial proposition and it also was a one-time event. It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, proclaimed Thanksgiving Day that the tradition stuck. Every president after Lincoln proclaimed the holiday until, in 1941, Congress made it a national holiday.

Myth 2: Our modern Thanksgiving meal staples of turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie is traced back to the original feast of the Pilgrims and Indians.
Reality: The Pilgrims had neither flour nor sugar. It had all been used up long before the fall of 1621. So they had no pies or cakes. They didn’t even have bread except for some fried flatbread made from cornmeal. It is questionable as to whether they had turkey. They did eat wild fowl, but it could have been ducks, geese, or pheasant. They certainly ate venison, lobster, and other seafood. They had cranberries, but without sugar, there was no way to make a sauce. They ate watercress, corn, pumpkins, and turnips. But they ate no potatoes, since many Europeans still considered them to be poisonous.

Myth 3: Thanksgiving is a religious holiday in which we give thanks to God for our blessings.
Reality: Many people do give thanks to God for their blessings. But the day was and always has been secular in nature. People can give thanks to each other, to nature, and to simple good fortune without the need to bring in a deity.

Myth 4: Turkey makes you sleepy because it contains a lot of tryptophan.
Reality: Turkey does contain tryptophan, an amino acid that can induce relaxation. But turkey contains no more than most meats and certainly not enough to induce sleep. More likely, overeating carbohydrates is the culprit.

Myth 5: The day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, is the busiest shopping season of the year.
Reality: Actually, although this might have once been the case, in more recent years the last Saturday before Christmas is much busier for shoppers who are looking for those last-minute Christmas bargains.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wedding Ceremony Blues

I attended a wedding this weekend, which is unusual for me because I like attending neither weddings nor funerals. But since it was my niece who was getting married and they were going to serve me food at the reception, I had to attend.

The reception was fun. They did have food and it was a chance to visit with members of the family. The wedding, on the other hand, was excruciating. First of all, let me say that the beautiful bride, my niece, handled herself with poise and dignity when the minster called her Laura. (Her name is Heather.) He also called the groom Justin. (His name is Ricky.) Then he interrupted the ceremony by trying to explain to those in attendance that he had forgotten to change the names on his notes from a previous wedding. If I had been the bride, I think I would have stopped the whole thing and made him start over.

I also would not have hired a minister. Granted, my niece calls herself a Christian, but then so do most other Americans who never attend church but on Easter and Christmas. I don’t know how often she attends, but I’ll have to say I don’t attend at all anymore, and it was almost painful to sit through a wedding that doubled as a Sunday morning worship service. Yes, there was lots of bible reading and praying going on. God’s name was spoken more often than the bride’s and groom’s, especially given that he got them wrong on at least three occasions during the ceremony.

But I’m not writing about the wedding, per se. While I was sitting there during the church service, uh, wedding ceremony I was struck by the realization that most, if not all, the members of the audience who went along with the minister’s calls for prayer and who nodded in agreement every time the minister uttered the phrase, “our lord Jesus,” had all been taken in by one of the world’s greatest hoaxes: Christianity. Did they not realize how silly they all seemed? They were, after all, mostly adults who were intelligent enough to make a decent living but who had succumbed to the propaganda that is their church’s dogma.

When they reached the age of 8 or 9, did they all not question the existence of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny? Did they not all stop believing in the Tooth Fairy at an even earlier age? Yet they keep their belief in an ancient myth about a talking snake that tempted the mother of all mankind with a fruit and now we all must suffer for her sins throughout all our time on Earth? They believe that a perfect and benevolent god created all of us, then allowed us to be tempted by the devil (whom he also created, since he created everything), and then he sends us to eternal torment if we actually give in to the temptation. And when all that doesn’t make sense to them, they make excuses for their god by saying things like, “God works in mysterious ways,” or “It’s all part of God’s divine plan.”

And when asked how they know all this stuff is true, they invariably point to their holy book, the bible. Everything in there is true and right. How do they know that? Because the bible tells them so.

People believe silly nonsense because they are raised to believe silly nonsense. Most people stop believing in silly nonsense like the Easter Bunny because their maturing minds become more curious about how things really work. But because society grew up believing in myths to explain things that were not understood, most people still believe those myths. I guess that means society hasn’t reached the age of reason yet.

At the wedding, the minister lauded Heather for actually choosing which bible verses she wanted him to read. He praised her for knowing enough about the bible to choose wisely. I praise my kids for dumping their belief in the bible. I applaud people who know the bible, too. But I applaud them if they actually know about the bible as well, and how it came to exist. Who wrote it and when? Who decided which of the hundreds or thousands of early writings would be included in the canon? Were there any early challenges to their religion by other sects? Most people don’t know much about the history of the bible or of their religion. In fact, according to a recent Pew Research survey, atheists and agnostics know more about the bible than most Christians. If more Christians knew more about the bible rather than just what’s in it, they probably wouldn’t be Christians anymore.

I long for the day when people will start really questioning their faith in a critical manner. Most Christians have moments of doubt, but they lament these moments as signs of weakness. Instead, they should embrace them as flashes of incite.

We, as a society, don’t have to give up going to church if we give up our faith. We can still be spiritual. We can still congregate. We just won’t congregate under the delusion that some higher power is watching over us. We’ll appreciate that everything we have accomplished is due to our own ability and resourcefulness. And we will be proud of ourselves for doing it, all without the help of a supernatural father figure in the sky.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Growing Up in Fear of Armageddon

I grew up in a Christian family. Mom made my siblings and me attend church on a regular basis. I didn’t much care for it and often went to great links to avoid it, such as turning the clock hand ahead to make her think we were already late. It didn’t work.

She eventually stopped attending church regularly herself, but when I was 10 or 11 I started going to church on my own because all the other kids in my new neighborhood were there. It was a kid-friendly church. We sang lots of cool songs accompanied by hand gestures; we made nice things in Sunday school class, and we even put on a Christmas pageant.

I went to the altar for the first time when I was 12. I remember a lady from the church kneeling down by me and a couple of friends of mine who also made the trip. She shed a tear as she prayed over us. It made me uncomfortable, which is the only emotion I actually remember feeling.

What I remember most about my life as a kid Christian was thinking that my life on Earth would be over soon. I would be alive when the Rapture came. The end of the world was no more than a few years away, and certainly within my lifetime. And I was none too happy about it either. Why should the world end on my watch? I wanted to have a full life, but apparently, I wasn’t going to.

When I matriculated I had to complete a questionnaire. One of the questions was, “Do you believe in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ?” The college was affiliated with the Baptist Church, although it was a liberal arts school with no Christian curriculum per se. I left the question blank, because I just didn’t want to face that question anymore. I kind of did believe it, but I wanted to live what was left of my life as though it would not happen.

My childhood was filled with deadlines for the end of the world. I remember being horrified by predictions that the world would come to an end on this date or that. Most of the predictions of doom were from those who were expecting Jesus’ return. My mom tried to assuage my fears by telling me that nobody knows when Jesus will return, but the harm was done.

When I was about 13, my best friend was telling me about his belief that Jesus was ready to come. He said it would happen when the bible is fulfilled. I asked him when that would be and he told me it was fulfilled already. His father dabbled in ministry, as a hobby I think.

Even as a young adult I was continually exposed to people claiming that the bible was fulfilled or nearly so and that the end times were upon us. Even TV preachers in suits, whom I supposed were intelligent because they spoke in a seemingly intellectual manner, were telling me to be ready because Christ would be coming any day, and certainly prior to the year 2000.

I remember thinking, “Ok, so that might give me another 20 years or so.” So that must have been in the late 1970s, shortly after I graduated college.

But, and yes it took me until I was an adult, I eventually caught on to the fact that none of the early predictions about the end of time had come true. Maybe, I thought, people are simply wrong all the time when they predict the Second Coming. I knew the bible said that no one would know the day or hour, but it didn’t say anything about being able to narrow it down to the month or year. So I was still apprehensive about predictions of the end that didn’t zero in on a certain date.

But even those kinds of predictions never came to pass. I was beginning to think that prophets of doom were merely wishful thinkers who, for whatever personal reason they had, wanted to be here at the end. So I started looking to history. Had people been predicting the end of time long before my time? As it turns out, the answer is a resounding yes.

The very first prediction of the Second Coming of Christ was made by Christ himself. In a number of places in Matthew and in Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that some of them would still be alive when God’s Kingdom came into being on Earth, (See Matthew 23:34). And in 1 Thessalonians Paul writes about the imminent return of Jesus.

Of course, these early predictions didn’t come true, so later Christians had to start interpreting them symbolically if they were to hold on to their cherished belief that the bible is the infallible word of God. But very early Christians were all pretty convinced that their generation would be the last.

Every generation of Christians since Jesus has had its share of prophets of doom. Saint Clement I predicted the Second Coming in 90 CE. In the second century, prophets of the Montanist movement predicted that Jesus would return sometime during their lifetime. In the fourth century, Hilary of Poitiers and his protégés predicted various dates for the end sometime before 400 CE.

The year 1000 was a favorite target of end-time predictions by Christians in Europe back then. In fact, they went so far as to dig up the body of Charlemagne because, according to legend, an emperor was to rise from slumber to fight the antichrist. The year 1033 was also rife with end-time predictions because it was supposedly the 1000th anniversary of the Crucifixion.

The 1800s were full of predictions by Christians who thought the end was near. Joseph Smith and William Miller were two well-known prophets of doom who went on to be the founders of modern day churches after their predictions failed. The gullible apparently would rather watch and wait for decades or centuries rather than admit that they had been taken in by charlatans.

Throughout my adult life, the more I read of all the failed prophecies of the end of the world, the more convinced I became that it’s all just gibberish. It’s bizarre and absurd that even in the 21st century people are still very serious about their belief in the end times or the rapture.

The end of the world probably will happen one day. A comet or asteroid could strike and kill us all. A supervolcano could erupt and send humanity back to the Stone Age. Nuclear war could wipe us all out. But I don’t see it happening soon. And a belief in the Rapture or a second return of Jesus is simply unpardonable. It’s just not going to happen, folks. And I can predict that with 100-percent assuredness. That’s right, instead of predicting a date for the Second Coming, I’m going to predict that the Second Coming will never happen simply because the first coming involved just a mortal human like everyone else.

I just hope that fundamentalist parents are not scaring the bejesus out of their offspring by bringing them up in an environment that elicits fear that they may never grow up. But I know that is, indeed, happening. And it’s a shame. It’s a form of child abuse and it shouldn’t be tolerated by a civilized society.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Genetically-Modified Salmon: Good Eats

If there is one thing that is as certain to happen as tomorrow’s sunrise it is the drone of opposition to anything new and different by the naysayers who are always suspicious of almost any improvement or innovation.

In the news recently is a story about genetically-modified salmon. The salmon is genetically enhanced to produce more of a different salmon’s growth hormone, which causes it to grow much larger, thus producing more salmon. This will help alleviate the problem of overfishing in some areas and result in more food for human consumption.

But the cynical crowd is having a conniption. A feature report on NBC News shows people at a fish market saying things like, “I’m not going to eat any of it,” or “They are playing God.”

These opponents to genetically-modified food have different reasons for opposing the process and the products that result. Some of them believe that humans have no right tinkering with God’s creation. I dismiss this argument out of hand. First and foremost, there is little chance that a supernatural creator being actually exists. And even if I grant that there is an outside chance that God is real, there is a 100-percent chance that the personal God of the bible does not exist. So why should we worry about whether anyone “plays God” if there is no such entity?

Then there are those who insist that we shouldn’t play God in the metaphorical sense. They believe that what took nature millions of years to produce probably shouldn’t be tampered with and then consumed as food. Although I can understand their skepticism, in my view it is unlikely that changing a single gene will produce a Frankenstein-like fish or other creature that would be harmful for human consumption. I would not hesitate to eat one of these “Frankenfish” salmon, as some people have dubbed it.

The last group of cynics may have a better reason to be cynical. Some people are allergic to fish anyway, so they are afraid that an extra boost of hormone might cause the fish to be more allergenic, causing some people who can consume normal fish to suddenly develop an allergy to it. Although not likely, this scenario might be possible. At least people who are highly allergic to other foods might be prudent to proceed with caution. But it does not mean that genetically-engineered salmon should be banned. Lots of people are allergic to peanuts, but it would be ill-advised to ban the sale of peanut butter because a few people might die from eating it. A warning label is all that is required.

Maybe they should genetically engineer salmon to display its own warning label to appease the naysayers.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Rev. Jones is a Fool but He Proved a Point

Until just a few weeks ago no one outside his small circle of friends, family, and congregants had ever heard of Rev. Terry Jones. This morning, merely typing in three letters on a Google search, “T-E-R” produced several listings for the reverend.

Jones is the pastor of Dove World Outreach Center, a small evangelical Christian church in Gainesville, Florida. Founded in 1985, the church has only about 50 members.

In July of this year, Jones announced his plan to burn a number of Koran holy books at his church on Sept. 11, the ninth anniversary of the al Qaida terrorist attack on the U.S. The news media picked up on the reverend’s planned book burning event and catapulted Jones into the international limelight. Religious groups of all flavors from the U.S. and around the world condemned Jones’s plan and called on him to cancel the event. Jones had steadfastly refused to do so until very recently.

But this morning, on NBC’s Today, Jones declared that there would not be a Koran burning at his church, “Not today, not ever.” So why the change of heart? Did he succumb to pressure or fear? And is this man a genius or a fool?

Whether or not he is a fool depends on his original motive. If, as he claimed in the Today interview that he was on a mission from God, then he is a fool. Anyone who believes God has spoken to them and given them a mission has a few screws loose. On the other hand, if his mission was to gain notoriety in an effort to bring his church more popularity among Florida’s evangelicals, then he has certainly accomplished that mission with great alacrity. That would make Jones a public relations genius, at least with respect to his own base of faithful.

Jones claimed he has not caved in to threats of violence against him. He also claims that the negative publicity had nothing to do with his decision. He compares what has happened to him with the story of Abraham in the bible. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his own son. Abraham was about to go through with it when, at the last minute, an angel appeared and stopped him. The point to the bible story is a mystery. It is apparently an allegory, but with what message, that God is capricious or mercurial? If God is omniscient he certainly didn’t need to test Abraham’s faith.

But Jones claims that God’s plan for him was to show the world how violent and dangerous Islam is. Whether that plan was God’s or Jones’s the point was definitely made. Jones pointed out that his view of Islam as a fanatical, dangerous religion was confirmed by the violent uproar that has pervaded the Islamic community abroad since his announced Koran-burning event. Demonstrations, threats of violence, and condemnation have been pervasive throughout the Islamic world. Gen. Petraeus, the commander in Afghanistan, begged Jones to call off the event because he feared for the lives of his soldiers. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Commander in Chief himself, Pres. Barack Obama, called on Jones to cancel his plans for fear of repercussion by Muslim fanatics. And those repercussions would have come. Some blowback may still occur despite the fact that the Koran-burning event has been cancelled.

For years, Muslims have burned the American flag in protest of the fact that America is the leader of the Free World and they are obviously jealous of our ways. Of course, their claim is that America is an evil nation who wants to wipe them out and take over their religion. But Americans just chalk up their demonstrations and chants to the fact that they are lunatics. If a Muslim Imam were to threaten to burn a few bibles, there might be a denunciation by devout Christians, but they would not resort to mass violence.

But draw an unflattering cartoon of Mohammad in a newspaper or threaten to burn a Koran, and death threats, violence, demonstrations, and chaos abound in the Islamic world. And that does tend to prove Jones’s point about Islam, even if he didn’t have to go through with his Koran burning exercise.

So was that his plan all along? If so, the reverend may be a genius. But I am highly skeptical. The fact that he vacillated so much over the past couple of days – the event was on, then it was off, then it was maybe on again, then it was definitely off – indicates that he really didn’t have a clue. He was looking for a way out that would save face, and he found it. He would play the role of Abraham, this time with a real message to the world that Islam is a freaky violent religion. And even if that was not his plan all along, serendipity stepped in and allowed him to come away from this debacle declaring victory.

The events of the past couple of weeks show that Muslims, at least those who reside in Islamic nations, are dangerous and misguided. It is not just the fringe element of Islam; it is Islam itself that promotes violence and hatred. There are, of course, Muslims who do not fit the well-deserved stereotype. But to the vast majority of Muslims whose views have not been tempered by civilization, Islam gives them the green light to invoke terror at will.

Monday, August 23, 2010

We Don't Need No Stinking Mosque

Enough already! I’m sick of hearing about the proposed mosque and community center that will occupy a new 13-story building only two blocks from Ground Zero. Do people really have nothing better to do than to go protest for or against the building of this mosque? So what if they build it? The sky is not going to fall.

Sure it is disrespectful to those who lost loved ones in the 9/11 terrorist attack. I understand that. I also understand that it is disrespectful to Muslims to protest their building a mosque. There’s enough disrespect to go around.

But when it comes down to it, I do not think the mosque should be built there. And I think that not because of anything to do with 9/11; I just don’t think a mosque should be built anywhere, ever again. We don’t need any more stinking mosques.

And before you call me an Islamophobe, let me quickly add that I also don’t think we should build any more churches or cathedrals anywhere. I also don’t think any more synagogues should be built. What this country does not need is another place of worship.

Churches, cathedrals, synagogues, and mosques are some of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring works of architecture on the planet. And none of them add anything at all to the tax base. Unlike factories, stores, and people’s homes, places of worship do not have to pay into the tax stream. They get a pass because they are non-profit. I wish I were as non-profit as some of the churches out there. I could retire early, in style.

Throughout history some of the most awesome works of art, some of the most beautiful music, and some of the greatest architecture have been produced to honor a myth or a legend. And if that fact were relegated to history it would be sad enough, but it’s still happening in the twenty-first century. If we were ever actually visited by space aliens who were looking to develop a relationship with a race of beings in the process of development, they may very well pass us by when they find out that most of the population on earth still worships mythical creatures and wastes big bucks building monuments to them.

Every story in the bible is demonstrably false. Every story in the Koran is demonstrably false. And yet billions of dollars are spent every year in support of these myths as though they were fact. It’s astounding to everyone who has not already fallen for these myths.

There are Christians out there who realize that the bible stories are not literal. There are Christians out there who admit that they do not know the mind of God. They believe in God and they see Jesus as someone who was somehow in touch with God on a personal level. But mostly they see Jesus as a guiding influence to lead a decent life. These are the true Christians.

The fundamentalist Christians, as well as the fundamentalists of any religion, are the true danger to America. They are the deluded. They are the ones who indoctrinate our children into mindless cult-like sects. They are the ones who threaten science and education. They are the ones who want to take away the freedoms and liberties of anyone who does not subscribe to the same delusion that they do. If people have so much free time that they can go protest a meaningless mosque, they might do better to turn their ire toward the real threat to our nation – fundamentalism.

I would certainly join that kind of protest.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Making Excuses for God

One of the biggest challenges to my understanding of the religious mind is that so many believers continually insist on making up excuses for their god when things go badly. For example, the quintessential excuse used when prayers seem to go unanswered is, “God answers prayer in his own way and in his own time.” So, in other words, either God is behaving capriciously or God is not answering prayers at all. Christians are all too eager to continue praying to a seemingly capricious god, because the other choice is not an option for them. (Muslims, Jews, and other religious people are as guilty as Christians, but I come from a Christian background so my focus is on that branch of religion.)

And then there is always the excuse, “God knows what’s best for us and answers prayer accordingly.” Again, either God knows what’s best for us and hasn’t let us in on his little secret, or prayer only seems to be answered or not answered randomly, as if God didn’t exist.

What about all those suffering extreme burdens or hardships, many of them devout Christians? Why doesn’t God help them out? The excuse given is, “God does not put any more on us than we can handle.” Really? Maybe he does sometimes. Maybe that’s why people commit suicide, because they can’t handle the pain or stress. Why didn’t God see that one coming? Some people suffer heart attacks or strokes because the stress of life has become overwhelming. So how can the Christian excuses explain those instances?

What about all the hardship and suffering in general? How can that be explained if there is an all-powerful and all-benevolent god? The excuse Christians give for God’s seemingly total lack of compassion is, “God allows us to suffer for our own sakes, because suffering makes us stronger and builds character.” Really? How does it build the character of a baby who is born with so many birth defects that it suffers and then dies after a few days or weeks of life? Maybe it was a lesson for the parents? So God creates horrible suffering for an innocent child in order to teach the parents a lesson? Maybe that idea should be sent to M. Knight Shyamalan so he can use it to write a sequel to Signs.

Suffering has always been God’s biggest problem. It has even spawned a whole area of theological study called theodicy. Theodicy has never been able to successfully explain how a good god can allow suffering. Of course, that doesn’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but it does pretty much seal the deal on the existence of an all-loving and all-powerful god; such a god is incompatible with so much suffering. There can be no real excuse for it all.

That, of course, doesn’t stop Christians from making up excuses. “God works in mysterious ways.” “God is punishing us for our sins by causing us to suffer.” “The devil causes us to suffer and God allows it because it is all part of his divine plan.”

If a child came up with excuses so lame for his poor behavior, the parent wouldn’t buy it for a second. But God gets a pass. Why? It’s because everybody wants God to exist, and they want him to be all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful. But to be all those things, and still allow suffering is not possible, not even for God. There really is no excuse.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

No-Guilt Sex should be the Norm

I was reading a blog the other day in which the author claimed that people in America were becoming less religious and, as a result, this country was becoming less moral. The post lamented that morality was quickly becoming a casualty of ecumenicalism.

But when Christians talk about morality, what they are really talking about is sex. Nobody disputes the fact that things like theft, rape, and murder are immoral. If it’s a felony, it is probably also immoral. But most Christians will also add premarital sex and homosexuality in as immoral behavior. They may also even toss in masturbation and lusting in one’s mind as sins worthy of the immoral label.

I was struck with the notion that the blog I was reading took it as a given that sexual promiscuity of any kind was a behavior that everybody agrees is sinful. After all, the bible is clearly anti-sex, (except for parts of the Old Testament where raping your drunk father is perfectly fine).

I take issue with that assumption. Sex is normal and natural. Although parents are well advised to caution their teenagers about having unsafe and promiscuous sex for reasons of their immaturity, once you reach a certain age (whether it be 17 or 22, depending on one’s maturity level) having sex is fine and should be practiced without the religious baggage of guilt.

There is nothing wrong with having sex before marriage, if that’s what you choose to do. There is nothing wrong with having sex with someone you care about, or even having sex with someone you don’t. There’s nothing wrong with having sex just because it’s fun. As long as you take precautions against unwanted pregnancy and STDs, a person should have all the sex they want without stigma attached.

And, if by chance a pregnancy does result, despite having taken precautions, there should be absolutely no guilt about having that pregnancy terminated as soon as possible. Obviously, it is the woman’s choice, but too many people make a bigger deal out of it than it should be. If birth control didn’t work, try the morning after pill. Or if you find out later, just go in for an abortion without drama or guilt. Early-term abortion shouldn’t be any bigger deal than birth control, except for the expense. It certainly should cause no guilt or consternation.

We need to slough off the puritanical baggage in this country. Things like nudity and casual sex are practiced often here, but there is still a lot of stigma attached to it and many people do it but then feel cheap or guilty. There should be no more guilt associated with having casual sex than there is about having a bowel movement. You don’t necessarily want to do it in public, but it’s just a natural bodily function, so there should be no stigma attached to it.

My point here is that, notwithstanding the Christian blogs that lament the loss of morality in this country, nothing bad can come of having protected sex if both parties are consenting. It’s not a sin, because sin is a made-up concept of Christianity which should carry no weight in making decisions. If God exists, I’m fairly confident that he doesn’t care how often you have sex or with whom you have it.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

How to Convert Me to Christianity

Most Christian apologists think that atheism is as much a religion as Christianity because atheists seem to show just as much devotion to the idea of their being no god as Christians show to their god. While, admittedly, some atheists are zealous in their non-belief, many go about their daily lives quietly not believing in a deity, not saying anything about it to anyone. They are either closet atheists or they simply don’t think religion, or lack thereof, is all that important in their lives.

I’m one of the more zealous types, but there is still something fundamental that separates even the most enthusiastic atheist from his believer counterpart. Atheists are open to being convinced that God exists. Devout believers cannot be convinced that their religion is simply ancient mythology.

So, how do you convert an atheist to Christianity? It’s simple really. Here is a list of dos and don’ts that, if used properly, will convince the vast majority of atheists, including this one, to become one of you, a devout Christian. First, the don’ts. Don’t try to sway us with any of these methods or you’re doomed to failure from the start:

1. Don’t quote from the bible. If we believed that the bible was anything more than ancient fiction, we would already be Christians. To us, the bible not only lacks evidence that God exists, it is evidence that he does not. With all the God-approved violence, wars, genocide, rape, slavery, lust, misogyny, and child murder going on throughout its pages, how could anyone believe it was written (or dictated) by a loving, all-caring god? Not to mention the fact that it is full of inconsistencies and outright falsehoods. A real god could have done much better.

2. Don’t have pity on us or say you’re going to pray for our salvation. That just pisses us off. If we don’t believe in a god, why would we believe in prayer? And why do you think your meager effort at prayer is in anyway helpful? It’s demeaning and shows you as the self-righteous, holier-than-thou egotist that you are.

3. Don’t tell us we are going to hell if we don’t change our ways. Since we do not subscribe to the concept of Christianity, or any religion, we certainly don’t believe in one of its inventions. Hell was never mentioned in the Old Testament and Jesus mentioned it in the New Testament as a metaphor. Hell is Gehenna, a real place in ancient Jerusalem which was used as a constantly-burning garbage dump. If we do not believe in hell, then how in hell are we supposed to fear going there?

4. Don’t tell us that God must exist because of all the beauty in the world: The miracle of child birth, the beauty of a rose, the magnificent detail in a flake of snow. Yes, we all agree with you that nature is beautiful and intricate. We also know for a fact why it is true. We know that nature follows its own rules, the laws of physics. Things are the way they are because chemicals behave like chemicals; they can do nothing but. The laws of classical physics and quantum mechanics can describe and explain wonderfully why things are the way they are; there is no need to invoke a god. God was invented to explain the unexplainable before we knew enough to explain it. There is no need for God anymore.

5. Finally, don’t tell us that we need God as a moral foundation. That’s just plain nonsense. The most atheistic countries in the world have the lowest levels of crime, divorce, and teen pregnancy. In America, the most conservative states in the Bible Belt have the highest divorce rates, crime rates, and teen pregnancy rates. There is exactly an inverse relationship between religiosity and moral fiber as measured by the statistics. Ethical treatment among humans is innate. We evolved that way because we are a social species and being ethical strengthens society. If you go by the morality of the bible, we would still own slaves, stone adulterous women to death, and crucify people for blasphemy.

So those are the things you should not do, ever, if you want to help us see the light and become Christian. Now, here are some things that you should do. If you avoid the above and can show us the following, I promise most of us will at least listen to reason to your proselytizing efforts.

1. Show us any historically-verifiable evidence that any of the miracles that you claimed Jesus performed really happened. For example, show us an entry in a Roman journal or registry that Jesus was resurrected. Show us a copy of his death certificate. Show us any secular document whatsoever that was written during the lifetime of Jesus that tells anything at all about what he did. And no, we won’t accept hearsay evidence that you heard about this document or that document that exists somewhere in Rome or in the Holy Lands that proves Jesus performed a miracle. If you haven’t seen it and if you can’t show it to us so we can go look for ourselves to verify its authenticity, then we’re not interested.

2. Show us a legitimate miracle of healing that cannot have a natural explanation. In other words, show us a medically-documented case of a person re-growing a severed limb after being prayed over. There are people who claim to have been cured by prayer or by faith. But that happens in any culture and in every religion, even voodoo. And, yes, even the occasional terminally-ill atheist will get better inexplicably. It happens. Just because science can’t explain how it happens yet doesn’t mean that it was caused by God. That is the God of the Gaps again. You invoke God to explain things that science can’t, instead of just being patient until science can.

3. God could reveal himself to us in an unmistakable fashion. In other words, if we could be witness to a bona fide, personal miracle then we would certainly take notice. Of course, we would have to be able to rule out fraud or deception; after all, magicians seem to perform miracles all the time. We would also have to rule out hallucinations. Some hallucinations can appear quite real. Now, this is listed in the “dos” column, but I don’t think there is anything you can actively do to cause this to happen, other than pray, I guess. But if a true revelation happened to us, we would consider believing in a divine being. Keep in mind, though, atheists are skeptics. We would have to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt that what happened to us was truly a miracle.

That’s about it. Do any one of the latter three things and we will treat you seriously. Do any two of them and we are well on our way to conversion. Do all three and you’ve pretty much won us over. All we’re asking for is evidence, the kind of evidence that would be admissible in a court of law, not hearsay or anecdotes.

That’s all we ask, as atheists, for you to do or not do in order to bring us into the fold. Now, what can we do to convince you that you are deluding yourselves with your religious mysticism?

I didn’t think so.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Family Values are Stronger in the Blue States

During the George W. Bush era, they were called the Red States. They are states filled with conservative Republican voters who espouse Christian values. These states are filled with church-going people who believe that the bible is the literal Word of God, who generally do not believe in evolution (The Creation Museum was built in one of these states, Kentucky.), and who believe that homosexuals are perverts who are going to hell.

Obviously, not everybody in the Red States believes everything in the above paragraph. Some are even atheists. And, believe it or not, as a percentage of the population, there are just as many homosexuals in the Red States as in the Blue States. But the Red States are red for a reason: The majority of the population in these states is very conservative. And that means they cling to their family values and to God.

It also means that there is far less crime, especially violent crime in the Red States, right?

No. Just the opposite is true. According to FBI crime statistics the overall crime rate is much higher in southern states than the national average. Louisiana, for example, has a murder rate that is 130 percent above the national average. Between 1988 and 2008, twenty years in a row, Louisiana had the highest homicide rate of any state. In addition to Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee have crime rates that are much higher than the national average.

Compare that to the Blue States of New England and the Pacific Northwest. These states have overall crime rates and violent crime rates that are far below the national average. These are the states where people tend not to have a problem of acceptance for homosexuals or for those of diverse backgrounds. The so-called Blue States are more liberal, go to church less often, and have a much higher percentage of people who do not believe in God.

But at least conservative states, which tout their superior family values, can boast a more stable, long-term family life, right?

Wrong again. The divorce rate in Red States is much higher than in the Blue States. A Barna Research Group survey showed that divorce rates among born-again Christians were significantly higher than among non-believers. George Barna, president and founder of Barna Research Group, made this comment: "While it may be alarming to discover that born again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in place for quite some time. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that when those individuals experience a divorce many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing.”

So how about teen pregnancy? Surely the teenage girls of God-fearing conservative parents are less slutty than their non-believing counterparts. Again, the answer is a resounding no. The rate for teen pregnancy in conservative, religious Red-State America is much higher than in the liberal Blue States.

So what’s going on here? Why are the statistics upside down? Some people will claim that poverty plays a role, maybe the majority role. The Red States, especially in the South, have a much higher poverty rate than the national average. And while it is true that poverty is correlated with higher crime rates and higher teen birth rates, it also is correlated with a higher degree of faith in God.

Is poverty the causative factor for fundamentalist beliefs and for higher incidence of crime and teen pregnancy? Although causation is not proven, it is often assumed. An argument could be made that a lack of education can lead not only to poverty but also to fundamentalist beliefs. Poverty, poor education, fundamentalism, crime, and a distressed family life are coexistent factors. It is an irony that fundamentalism, which espouses positive family values, is linked directly or indirectly to the opposite behavior, crime, promiscuity, and divorce.

Fundamentalism may not be the causative factor, but that does not excuse the fact that fundamentalist, conservative beliefs cannot negate or even mitigate high crime rates and distressed family life. It’s all lip service. There is no positive correlation between belief in God and a higher moral fiber. If anything, there is a negative correlation. So much for the Christians’ claim that the bible is the moral foundation for America.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Christian Theology did not Come from Jesus

What do Christians believe? To answer that question it helps to know which group of Christians is answering. But the main theology is common among almost all Christians.

Here it is in a nutshell: Christians believe that if you have faith that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God who died on the cross for your sins and then was resurrected and ascended into heaven as a flesh-and-blood body, then you will be rewarded in heaven. Christians believe that Jesus was both divine and human.

There are obviously some differences of opinion regarding what you must also believe and how you must act, but these are peripheral to the theology outlined above, which is common among all Christians, regardless of denomination. This view is called orthodox Christianity and any religion that believes differently is called heretical.

But this central belief of Christianity did not come from Jesus Christ. It didn’t even come from the Gospels. It came from Paul. The Pauline Epistles, of which there are 13 in the New Testament, are the sole source of modern Christian theology. And not all 13 of them were actually written by Paul; six of them are attributed to him but were written by someone else, likely after Paul’s death.

The first gospel, The Gospel According to Matthew, takes a view of Jesus that is especially contrary to what Paul wrote of him. Paul and Matthew definitely did not see eye to eye on their respective theologies. And Paul’s theology even runs contrary to what Jesus himself taught.

First, I must offer the disclaimer that what Jesus and his 12 disciples thought or did cannot be known for certain. The gospels and the Book of Acts are all we really have, since there is no independent corroboration of any of the events. And the gospels themselves were only attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They were not actually written by them, but are anonymous. So when I speak of what Matthew says, I’m referring to what he is attributed to have said by his gospel writer.

That said, let’s look at what Jesus taught according to Matthew. Jesus was an itinerant Jewish preacher. He spoke in parables. His disciples were idiots who never got him, (although that view comes mainly from Mark), and most importantly, he was an apocalyptic prophet. He taught that the Kingdom of God would be established on earth by the Son of Man (not himself), and that he would be the one in charge after this happened. His 12 disciples (apparently even Judas Iscariot) would rule the descendents of the Twelve Tribes.

According to bible scholar Bart Ehrman, all Jews of Jesus’ day believed the Messiah would be an earthly king, anointed by God. The Messiah would take up his position on Earth after kicking out or destroying the Romans who were occupying Jewish lands at the time. Jesus taught that this Kingdom of God would be arriving very shortly, within the lifetime of the disciples, (Mark 9:1, 13:30). Jews did not believe that the Messiah would at all suffer a horrible death. He would be more powerful than that.

Paul agreed with Matthew and Mark that the Kingdom of God would happen very soon. He set up his churches in Asia Minor with the idea that their current congregations would be their only congregations until the end came. That’s why the churches became so disorganized; they had no hierarchy or leadership. Paul didn’t think they would need one since they wouldn’t be around that long. Only in the forged epistles that are attributed to Paul does he seem to change is mind about the timing of the End of Time. It was pushed into the future at some unknown time. This view came only after the apostles had started to die off without having witnessed the event. The Gospel of John echoes this same theology, since it was the last gospel to be written and the original apostles had not yet witnessed the coming Kingdom of God.

But the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth is about all that Paul and Matthew agree on regarding theology. Paul teaches that the only road to Salvation is through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul adamantly believes that the Jewish Law does not apply and, in fact, might even hinder one’s Salvation because adhering to Jewish practices such as circumcision would diminish your faith in what actually matters, Jesus’ atonement for sins through his death and resurrection. Paul claimed that Jesus was divine.

But is that what Jesus, himself, taught? Not according to Matthew and the other gospels. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish. He preached that one must keep the Law (Matthew 5:18). To earn a place in heaven, Jesus preached that one must obey the Law, and especially the law about loving God above all else and to love your neighbor as you do yourself. Jesus never taught about his own divinity in Matthew. Like Jesus, Matthew was a Jew who believed in keeping the Mosaic Law, and his gospel is full of this message.

Paul, on the other hand, was a converted Jew who believed that Salvation could only be obtained by a belief in Jesus, that keeping the Mosaic Law was not necessary, and possibly even harmful. Paul’s theology was passed along to all those who heard his message. But it wasn’t the only message being taught. The Ebionites were a group of early Christians who believed that in order to be a good Christian, you must first be a good Jew. Gentiles who wanted to become Christian first had to be circumcised and start following Mosaic Law. The Ebionites were not a minor offshoot of orthodox Christianity, for orthodoxy had not been established yet. It was a mainstream theology. Ebionites believed that one’s adherence to the Law was necessary for Salvation. They also believed that Jesus was not divine, but fully human. They denied his resurrection. They believed that Jesus was a prophet, chosen by God, and that his teachings are what is important. The Ebionites had their own sacred manuscripts that supported their theology, though they also liked Matthew.

Other early Christians believed pretty much the opposite, that Jesus was divine and not at all human. Some believed Jesus could, if he wanted to, take on any form. Some even claimed Jesus sometimes appeared in the form of an animal. Some early Christian theologies taught that the God of Jesus was not the same as the creator god of the Jews.
Others, such as the Gnostics, were more like pagans, believing in many deities, but also believing that Jesus was chosen to deliver the message, or knowledge, of how one could escape the body that is imprisoning the spirit within.

But the theology that became orthodox, most likely because it was centered on Rome and was adopted by Emperor Constantine, claimed that Jesus was both completely human and completely divine and that one need not accept or follow Jewish Law to be a Christian and gain Salvation. In other words, the theology that would later dominate Christianity, and be called orthodox by its followers, was the theology espoused by Paul. And, as I’ve just described, the theology of Paul was not the same as that of either Matthew or of Jesus himself.

For that reason, maybe Christians should rename themselves Paulianites. The true Christians, according to what Jesus himself supposedly taught, were the Ebionites. But they no longer exist, their theology having been eradicated by the Roman Catholics back in the fourth century.

Of course, I’m not espousing the return of the Ebionite theology to replace mainstream Christianity. Whether it’s Orthodox, Ebionite, Marcionite, Gnostic, or any one of dozens of theologies that all claim or claimed to be the true Christianity, they all have one thing in common: They believe in a supernatural god and his son (or prophet) who was sent to save us from sin. It’s all just myth anyway. My point is to show that Christians today believe what they do because of which version of their religion won out; the one with the most power and influence. It didn’t even have to agree with the teachings of Jesus.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Contemplations on the Meaning of Life

A fly lives for about four days, reproduces, then it dies. If it somehow managed not to successfully reproduce, its existence was for naught. But even if it does reproduce, what does that really mean? Hundreds of other flies just like it will be produced (once they go through the larval stage). Then they live a few days, reproduce, and die. What’s the point?

But it is not only the lowly fly that fits this scenario. Flies are good examples because they are little more than tiny flying robots. They have nothing but instinct to guide them. They have no emotions. They think no thoughts outside the context of their instincts. We give little thought to swatting a housefly and discarding its shattered body.

Higher organisms, such as mammals, have a more complex brain and a longer life cycle. It is certain that they can feel pain; they can suffer. They probably have thoughts that are independent of their still-dominant instincts. They can make simple decisions. But, ultimately, the point of being born is so that they can reproduce, to leave behind copies of themselves to carry on the species. The only legacy a mouse or a raccoon has, like the fly, is its offspring.

It has to be that way. Once life began by whatever process is ultimately discovered for its genesis, it had to change as its environment changed, else it would die off and that would be the end of it. Environments change, sometimes rapidly, but more often slowly. The earliest self-replicating chemical entities randomly changed, too. They had no choice, since they derived from a dynamic environment. The changes were not planned. They did not change in order to fit with a newly-changed environment. But if, by chance, the changes in these exceedingly simple living entities happened to mean that they were more likely to survive and continue making copies of themselves in their new environment, they would continue to exist, although slightly altered.

This was the start of evolution by natural selection, the process that Charles Darwin discovered and described more than 150 years ago. It is elegant and simple, but it took the genius of Darwin, along with his inestimable patience, to formulate the principle.

In these earliest forms of life, for since they were self-replicating they were indeed alive, the process of reproduction was simple and based only in chemistry and physics. Replication was simply chemicals being chemicals. But as the first living entities began to change so as to fit an ever-changing environment, competition among them for limited resources, their primordial soup, made it so that the more efficient mechanisms of chemical replication were more likely to survive. Eventually, over untold eons of time, these simplest forms of reproduction blossomed into the robust and elaborate methods of reproduction employed by living organisms today.

And yet the purpose for reproduction remains exactly as it was for the first reproducing protocells in the ancient primordial goo: There is no purpose in it at all. Its purpose seems to be to carry on the species, but that would imply some sort of forethought or design. Reproduction among higher organisms is simply a much more complex version of the chemical reactions that kept the earliest forms of life from going extinct. And these chemical reactions occurred without purpose; they just happened because, again, that’s what chemicals do. It’s part of their nature.

These early forms of life were not concerned with surviving for they were not concerned with anything at all. To be concerned implies a brain with a mind. Brains with minds were left for higher organisms. But a mind is not really necessary for reproduction to take place. It is only necessary as an ancillary device used to enhance the likelihood of survival in a competitive world. Natural selection does a very good job of mimicking design. It is, of course, an active selective process, not random at all, though it does depend on random changes to supply the raw material. But it’s still natural.

Reproduction, then, even among higher organisms is not purpose driven, even though it seems like it is. It’s just simply chemicals being chemicals, but in a much more complex manner than the simplest protocells. But because it mimics a purpose, to continue the species, then maybe we should call it something, such as a pseudo purpose, phantom purpose, or better still, a geistzweck (German for “ghost purpose”).

Now, since even higher forms of life, including humans, have a chemically-induced geistzweck that drives reproduction instead of a real purpose for it, we can arguably conclude that our lives, much as the life of the fly, have no real purpose at all. Humans have spent thousands of years and millions of hours in deep philosophical thought looking for the meaning, the purpose in life, but there is none. Our geistzweck, our presumed purpose, biologically is to carry on the species. But that purpose is only a phantom. There was no choice involved. Chemicals have to react.

We are born, we live, we reproduce, we raise our children, and then we die. And the whole cycle starts over again. We may think that our purpose in life is to leave behind a lasting legacy. But even so, we’re not around to enjoy that legacy. And even the best of legacies, such as the great works of literature, art, music, and the greatest discoveries of science mean nothing to anyone when their lives end. Certainly they mean a great deal to those who are still alive, but I’m talking ultimate meaning here, not fleeting moments in an otherwise endless stretch of time extending from the moment life began into the unseen future.

Some theologians and philosophers posit that there must be ultimate meaning in the universe because, after all, it does exist, and it doesn’t have to. Or does it? Theologians hypothesize that since the universe seems to be created then it must have a creator: God. But who or what created God? Some say that God is infinite and eternal, without beginning or end. But if God can be eternal then why couldn’t the universe itself be eternal, without beginning or end? If the universe is eternal then it had no beginning, no creation, so there is no need for a creator. God becomes unnecessary in an endless universe.

But what of the Big Bang? Wasn’t that the beginning of the universe? Scientists cannot say that with certainty. It was the beginning of what we can observe as the universe, but that doesn’t mean there was nothing else before. A new and exciting field of quantum physics known as M-theory hypothesizes that our universe is one of an infinite number of such universes, all existing within the 11-dimensional multiverse. Our big bang was simply one of an endless cycle of big bangs. One happens about every trillion years.

But why, some ask, are all the constants of nature exactly what they should be in order for life, or even matter, to exist. These constants could have been anything, but as it turns out, they are what they need to be. Surely that points to a creator. But not when you consider that, if the multiverse is eternal and infinite, then there has been an infinite number of big bangs. So that regardless of how infinitesimally small the odds are that our universe was formed with just the right conditions to support itself and life, there would have to be an infinite number of just such universes. Our universe is not all that special; it is just one of an infinite number of universes that are exactly right for producing matter and life. The odds are meaningless when you have an eternity.

So what about God? If God is not necessary then why did we invent him? There are probably a number of good answers, including the fact that we humans have a compulsion to understand how things work. But in our early history, we understood very little. If we do not understand something, especially something profound, we attribute it to a god. This god is called the God of the Gaps. Any gap in our knowledge is happily filled with God to explain it.

But also, I think, humans are purpose driven. It’s in our nature. It helped our survival. And it's ironic. If we have no purpose except for reproduction in order to carry on our species, and if even that purpose is only a geistzweck, that would make us uncomfortable and ultimately unfulfilled. Our minds strongly desire a purpose in life. And God provides that purpose, even if it's an illusion: An infinite and eternal god created a finite universe (for us), adjusted its constants of nature so as to be able to support the formation of matter and life, and then provided an afterlife for us to dwell in when we die. Our purpose, then, is to do whatever our god wants us to do in order to be welcomed into his afterlife.

But since a creator god is not necessary in an infinite and eternal universe, then our presumed purpose is an invention. We are simply biochemical machines that happen to be able to contemplate ourselves and our origins. It’s not a very comforting notion. But then, reality has no obligation to be comforting.

But this nihilistic approach need not be distressing. Whereas the Christian, Muslim, or Hindu may view this life of ours as just a prelude to the true, meaningful life that comes after death, I believe the life we have on earth is all that matters, thus it becomes infinitely more precious. It may not have any ultimate meaning or purpose, but it certainly has value in the here and now. Philosophically, it is preferable to abandon our quest for ultimate purpose, for we will never find it, and concentrate instead on our own goals for this life. Improving ourselves, and our environment, so that our minds and the minds of others can feel the joy of existence, however fleeting, is a worthy enough purpose. It's a purpose created by us, for us. The only purpose that makes sense is the one we create for ourselves.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Copenhagen Declaration as Foundation for All Political Platforms

I am dedicating this entry to the declaration of the World Atheist Conference below. All politicians running for any office, local or national, should sign off on this set of principles as their baseline position. If they do not, then they do not deserve to hold public office and voters should decide their fate accordingly.

Notice that this declaration is certainly not an apologetic for atheism. It recognizes the right of religions and spirituality to exist. It merely sets limits to the encroachment of religious dogma into public discourse. Here is the declaration:

We, at the World Atheist Conference: “Gods and Politics”, held in Copenhagen from 18 to 20 June 2010, hereby declare as follows:

• We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.
• We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.
• We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.
• We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.
• We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.
• We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.
• We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce. We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.
• We assert the principle of one law for all, with no special treatment for minority communities, and no jurisdiction for religious courts for the settlement of civil matters or family disputes.
• We reject all discrimination in employment (other than for religious leaders) and the provision of social services on the grounds of race, religion or belief, gender, class, caste or sexual orientation.
• We reject any special consideration for religion in politics and public life, and oppose charitable, tax-free status and state grants for the promotion of any religion as inimical to the interests of non-believers and those of other faiths. We oppose state funding for faith schools.
• We support the right to secular education, and assert the need for education in critical thinking and the distinction between faith and reason as a guide to knowledge, and in the diversity of religious beliefs. We support the spirit of free inquiry and the teaching of science free from religious interference, and are opposed to indoctrination, religious or otherwise.

Adopted by the conference, Copenhagen, 20 June 2010.

Now I ask you, what reasonable person could argue with any of the above tenets?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

CSPI vs Ronald McDonald

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is at it again. The “Food Police,” as food industry advocates have dubbed it, is now targeting that great American institution, McDonald’s.

The CSPI is best known for whining about consumer food favorites such as buttered theater popcorn and sugary-sweet breakfast cereals. This is the group that forced the Kellogg Company to stop marketing its sweetest and best-tasting food product choices directly to young children. Now, those kids will have to rely on Mom to decide whether to allow them to eat the foods they love best.

Did you know that one Boomin’ Onion from Outback Steak House has more than a full day’s worth of calories, about 2,500? Well, neither did I until the CSPI came right out and said it, thus spoiling the enjoyment of millions of Americans as they belly up to the table to devour one of their favorite appetizers prior to digging into that giant steak and potato meal.

This same organization is responsible for bullying KFC into frying its chicken in oil that has no trans fats. Now, although trans fats are a menace to health, it was the CSPI that, back in the mid-1990s, threw its weight around and forced restaurants to stop using saturated fats in their fried foods. So these restaurants, in order to appease the Food Police, started using trans fats in place of saturated fats. It is now known that trans fats are far worse than saturated fats for being deleterious to human health. In essence, then, the CSPI forced the food industry to start using a product that was actually worse than the product that it replaced. Ten years later, CSPI basically said, “Our bad, just kidding.” Its policy now is to promote the frying of food in oil that has no saturated fats or trans fats. But these are the exact kinds of fat that make fried foods taste the best.

It should be clear by now that the CSPI has a vendetta against great-tasting food, especially as it is marketed to young children. Soon, if the CSPI gets its way, there will be no more toys in Happy Meals, no more little doodads in packages of breakfast cereal, and dare I say, no more tiny comic books or cheap rings inside boxes of Cracker Jacks. What will be next, the demise of Bazooka Joe?

Think about it, a world with no bright and colorful cereal boxes with cartoon characters on them. And there’ll be no more Saturday-morning commercials with fun cartoon characters. No longer will kids get the pleasure of collecting cereal box tops to send in and get a cool decoder ring. Parents will be forced to determine what foods to buy for their children based on taste and nutrition rather than just letting their kids decide for themselves what to beg their parents into buying for them based on delightfully-funny cartoon pitchmen or the promise of cheap toys.

What a dull and listless world that would be.

But taking the tongue out of my cheek for a moment, obviously directing advertisements of junk food directly at young children is a bit dodgy. One might conclude that it is the government’s responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen. After all, state governments have mandated the use of car seats and seat belts for children because, the thinking is, if the parents are not going to take steps to protect their children from harm, then society will by enacting laws.

The Federal government has banned tobacco companies from marketing to teens by forbidding the use of cool images, like cartoon camels, in product ads. So is it much of a leap to advocate barring the use of cartoon characters in the marketing of junk food to kids or preventing restaurants and cereal makers from including toys in their unhealthy food products?

On the one hand, there is the argument that too much government interference in the free market is not a good thing. There are freedom-of-speech issues to consider as well. But, on the other hand, one job of the government is to protect its citizens, by preventing one group of citizens (the food industry, say) from harming another group of citizens (underage consumers). CSPI has threatened to sue McDonald’s if it does not stop giving away toys with the purchase of some Happy Meals. But a better solution might be to simply inform parents, or even to launch their own ad campaign directed at kids to inform them directly of the dangers of consuming french fries and other fatty, starch-laden foods.

Unless we, as a society, really do want to ban all advertising and promotions directed at children (which some say we should), then a better solution would be for organizations such as CSPI to educate and advise, rather than try to force compliance by suing.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

So am I Extremely Middle-of-the-Road?

I have had many labels placed on me during my life. I have been called a conservative. In fact, one man once described me as being "just to the right of Hitler." I, of course, disagreed with him. I’ve also quite often been called a liberal nut-job.

I don't mind being labeled. It is just interesting to me that I can carry so many conflicting labels, placed there by people trying to further their own agendas.

In actuality, it’s hard to pigeonhole me. To an ultra-conservative reactionary, I am a bleeding-heart liberal. But, to a bleeding-heart radical, I am a fascist! In reality, I can straddle the fence on many controversial issues. I can also hold strongly liberal views on one topic while being ultra-conservative on another. I take each issue separately, and decide on each using criteria that I feel applies specifically to that issue. And, when possible, I rely on reason more often than I rely on emotion.

As a public service to those who feel the need to stick a label on me, here’s a how-to guide describing my view on various issues.

Abortion -- I believe that elective abortion as a means of birth control is wrong. However, I also know that a fetus that is so young as to be unviable is little more than a foreign organ inside a pregnant woman's womb. Therefore, I believe that a woman should have the right to CHOOSE what to do about her pregnancy, as long as she makes that choice before the fetus becomes viable. Those who believe that abortion is murder should simply choose not to have an abortion, if it ever comes up. But to deny others the right to choose one way or another is a travesty of our American system that values free choice. (Ideology: left of center.)

Gun Control -- I believe that assault weapons and guns of mass murder should be outlawed for sale, manufacture, and importation. I believe that heavy restrictions should be placed on the sale of hand guns. (Ideology: left of center.)

Affirmative Action -- I believe that affirmative action, and its associated tenets, is probably one of the worst mistakes ever made by Congress. I believe that similar rulings made by federal court judges regarding forced busing, quotas in the workplace, etc., are similarly misguided. I believe a private employer should have the right to hire and fire whomever he or she wishes, for any reason. (Ideology: far right.)

Welfare -- Welfare should be "workfare" in that all able-bodied recipients should be put to work. In addition, they should be trained and given job skills, then sent through a placement program which will ultimately lead to their being employable, contributing members of society. (Ideology: right of center.)

Government -- I believe in the Federalist doctrine where that applies to everyone, such as in foreign affairs, domestic policy, and education. I believe in strong states' rights on issues that are more effective if handled locally, such as what speed limit to enforce. I don't believe that the federal government should create unfunded mandates. (Ideology: basically neutral.)

Prayer in school -- There has always been, and there currently remains, no ban on prayer in school. Every student, every teacher, and every administrator has the right to pray in school, (even out loud), as long as it does not interfere with the educational process. There is, and there should remain, a ban on organized prayer. I don't want any law or school policy dictating to kids how or when they should pray. (Ideology: left of center.)

Church and State – The framers of the Constitution built a wall of separation between religion and government. That wall should remain tall and firm. There is absolutely no place in public schools for religious indoctrination. There is no place in science class for the teaching of religious dogma such as Creation or Intelligent Design. The phrase “In God We Trust” should be removed from currency and license plates. The phrase “under God” should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. There is no room to display the Ten Commandments on government property. Religion should be taught in schools, all religions, from a historical perspective so that students can learn for themselves that religion is an antiquated notion whose time has passed. (Ideology: left of center)

Health Care – Health care should be a basic human right provided to all citizens equally by the government. For those who can afford it, they can opt in to a premium insurance plan that provides extra coverage if they wish. (Ideology: left of center)

Overall ideology -- Both liberals and conservatives believe in equality. The point of contention is what should be equal. It is said that liberals believe in the tenet of equality of condition; that is, the wealth should be spread around so that everyone has what he needs. It is also said that conservatives believe in the idea of equality of opportunity, in that everyone should have an equal opportunity to make it, or to fail. They must then live with their accomplishments, or lack thereof. I think these summaries are oversimplified. Economically, I tend to lean conservative, but with a nod toward the progressive ideals and ideas that prevent widespread poverty and lack of health care. (Ideology: slightly left of center)

In the end, I guess my conservative side balances out my liberal side, making me more or less "middle of the road," but with a slight leaning toward the left. But I'm not a centrist on most individual issues. When I do form opinions on an issue they tend to be strong, whether they are left-leaning or right-leaning.