Thursday, December 26, 2013

My Favorite Party Game Ever

We have been playing a particular game every Christmas for a few years. I don't know where it came from really. I think a few of us just made it up one year. But it's a great party game that doesn't come in a box, doesn't require a board or a drawing pad or even keeping score, and is for any number of players. We just call it the Name Game. The rules are very simple. Here they are:

1. Any number of players sit in a circle (or just around the room).
2. Pick one player to keep time.
3. Pick one player to look up challenges.
4. The timekeeper starts by naming a famous person, literary character, sports figure, or animated character. They must yell out the first and last name. Single-name celebrities, such as Eminem, are not allowed. Cartoon characters, such as Mister Magoo, count as a legitimate name if that is how they are recognized and listed in Wikipedia.
5. The player to the timekeeper's left must now state another name whose first name begins with the letter of the last name that was previously played. So, for example, if the timekeeper says Alec Baldwin, then the player to his left must think of a famous individual whose first name begins with a B. So let's say he says Ben Casey (fictional character). The next player must then think of someone whose first name begins with C, and so on.
6. Each person in turn has 60 seconds to think of a name. (You can trim it to 30 seconds for a more challenging game.)
7. If the player in turn says a name where the first and last names begin with the same letter, the next person in line must also think of a name where the first and last names begin with that same letter. However, having done so, the next person in line must only think of a name where the first name begins with that letter. Anyone, however, can use a double letter name whenever they wish. For example, if it's my turn and I say the name Amy Adams, then the next person in turn has 60 seconds to come up with a name such as, say, Adam Ant. The person in turn after him needs only to come up with a celebrity whose first name begins with A.
8. If a player in his turn can't think of a name in the allotted time, it's a strike. Three strikes and you're out of the game.
9. The winner is the one who is left after all other players have had three strikes.
10. Legitimate names: If a person says the name of someone that no one else is familiar with, any player may challenge. The timer is stopped and the challenged player must describe the person he named (job, character portrayed, etc.). The player designated to look up challenges must look up the name in Wikipedia. If it is listed in Wikipedia, it's a legitimate name and it counts. However, it must be the same person the player described. If it is not listed, or if the description does not match, it's a strike. Play continues with the next player in turn having to think up a name that begins with the same letter.
11. When a name has been given, it cannot be given again by any player.

The game is pretty easy when it begins, but as it progresses, it gets very difficult. It's also great fun!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Proof that Jesus was a White Man

FOX News is often lambasted by the left-leaning media for being too conservative, especially on religious and social issues. Host Megyn Kelly has recently been ridiculed by the left for her comments that Jesus was a white man, just like Santa Claus and that both men are actual historical figures. Well, the New York Times and the other liberal media outlets can now eat crow, because archaeologists in Israel have just released a find of historic proportions. And it proves beyond any doubt that Jesus was, indeed, white.

The dig was part of an international effort taking place at Nebi Samwil, a biblical town near where Jesus lived in Galilee. The archaeologists, headed by Dr. Benjamin Naphtali, Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Jerusalem, unearthed an ancient piece of furniture, a heavy cabinet with embedded compartments, like drawers. These compartments contained mostly debris (broken pieces of pottery, rocks, and soil). But nestled in the corner of one of the compartments was a fairly-well-preserved ancient photographic image of Jesus as a young boy.

How do we know it is Jesus? Because on the reverse side of the photograph is scribbled some words written in Aramaic. Translated, it says "Jesus - My son who came from God, Age 10, Mary." The photo, although it came from a world where everything was tinted with sepia, clearly shows the young Jesus as a white boy. According to Naphtali, he seems to be clutching a book. "Judging from its size and cover, it's probably his New Testament," Naphtali said. If so, it shows that Jesus was already biblically literate even before he taught the rabbis in the synagogue at age 12.

The photo was actually found in February of this year, but the scientists wanted to keep the news of this great find a secret until it could be verified as authentic. Researchers at the Pascagoula Nuclear Laboratory in Pascagoula, Tenn. ran the photo through myriad tests to make sure its age was authentically first century AD. They also authenticated the type of pigments used in the photographic plates of that day. "It definitely is the real deal," said one of the researchers. Using the latest C-14 and even C-15 dating techniques, they dated the photo back to June 14, in the year 6 AD. That, indeed, would put Jesus' age in the photo at 9 or 10, depending on what season he was actually born in.

I have included a copy of the photo showing the young boy Jesus with his bible, and on the back, the Aramaic scribbling. So this should settle the debate once and for all. Jesus was definitely white. Maybe not Nordic white, but definitely an Italian sort of white. Take that, left-wing media and those who would wage a war on Christmas!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ten Christmas Myths and Facts Revealed

Christmas has more traditions associated with it than any other holiday by far. Some of those traditions and beliefs are based on historical occurrences. Others, however, are based on myth. Here's a rundown, separating fact from fiction:

1. December 25 is Jesus' birthday. - MYTH - Nobody is certain when Jesus was born. They are not even very sure of the year, let alone the date. Besides, they didn't even use our modern calendar in those days. Based purely on biblical passages, however, most scholars set the year of his birth at 4 BCE, which is the year that Herod died. Also, since shepherds didn't watch their flocks by night except during the spring, if the account in Luke is to be believed, Jesus must have been born sometime in the spring.

2. Baby Jesus was visited by 3 wise men from the East - MYTH - The bible doesn't say how many wise men there were, nor does it say they visited him while he was a baby in the crib. Herod ordered the death of all children under the age of two, according to the bible, so that means Jesus could have been a toddler by the time the Magi came.

3. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. - MYTH - Jesus was from Nazareth. Every passage in the bible that refers to where Jesus was from says that it is Nazareth except for the two birth narratives. Matthew and Luke (or the writers of their gospels) were compelled to find ways of placing Jesus' birth in Bethlehem in order to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament, which claimed that the Messiah would be from the City of David.

4. The wise men followed a star in the east to the place where Jesus was born. - MYTH - First of all, according to the birth narrative in Matthew, a star was placed in the east to guide the magi. But the magi came FROM the East, so wouldn't they have to follow a star in the West? Even so, unbeknownst to the astrologers of the day, stars are sun-sized objects that are great distances from the earth. There is no way that one of them could have been low enough in the atmosphere for anyone to follow.

5. Jesus was born into a poor family. - FACT - It is most likely that Joseph and Mary were peasants. They lived in Nazareth, a very small, lowly, unimportant town in a backwater part of Galilee. It is highly likely that they were poor.

6. There was a real St. Nicholas at one time. - FACT - Nicholas was born in Turkey. He was very pious and often made presents for the children in his village. He was later named the patron saint of children, as well as sailors and voyagers.

7. The celebration of Christmas has always been associated with Christ and Christians. - MYTH - Although the holiday we now call Christmas was made up by the early Church in order to commemorate the birth of Christ, it was purposely associated with a pagan celebration. It was hoped that Christmas would eventually become more popular as Christianity grew and the pagan festival of Saturnalia would diminish. That's what happened. But not everybody was on board. The celebration of Christmas in colonial America was banned by law, as it was thought to maintain too much of its pagan heritage.

8. Xmas as an abbreviation for Christmas is antagonistic to its meaning. - MYTH - The X looks like the Greek letter chi, which is the first letter of Christ in Greek. The origin of Xmas was never meant as a slight to Christmas.

9. It is not proper nor appropriate for atheists or agnostics to celebrate Christmas. - MYTH - Since Christmas was celebrated as a pagan festival long before it was celebrated as a Christian one, and since even after Saturnalia became co-opted by the Catholic Church, Christmas has always had a secular side. There is no religious significance to Christmas trees, holly, mistletoe, poinsettias, or candy canes, despite attempts to make stuff up about them. The modern version of Santa Claus is nothing at all like his real-life persona of St. Nicholas. Sleighs, Christmas cards, and presents bear no resemblance to what the Catholic Church had in mind when it invented the holiday. When evangelicals say we need to put the Christ back into Christmas, it means they don't know the history of the holiday. Christ was not always solidly involved. So regardless of your religion, or lack thereof, Christmas in today's America is for everyone to enjoy.

10. More money is spent on material items during the month prior to Christmas than any other month of the year. - FACT - Retailers generally make as much as 30 percent of their annual revenue during the holidays.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Thanks to Christians, Christianity is Dying

Christianity is slowly dying. That's good news. The world doesn't need to be run by believers in the supernatural. But part of the reason it is dying is thanks to a subset of Christians. Call them evangelicals, fundamentalists, right-wing conservative zealots, bible thumpers, or anything else you like, they are the reason that young people are leaving the Christian faith in droves.

Evangelicals are mostly YECs, Young-Earth Creationists who believe that the bible is literally true, that the world is only 6,000 years old, that God created two actual people called Adam and Eve who had a conversation with a talking snake and sent the world into sinful chaos. These two people somehow populated the entire earth only to have God destroy everyone a few hundred years later, so that it could then be repopulated by the Noah family after they built a big enough boat out of wood to house at least two of every kind of animal in the world.

One can see how ridiculous this story is and how difficult it would be for a person with critical thinking skills to accept it as literally true. It is obviously allegorical. The scientific method has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the world is 4.5 billion years old and that life on it evolved. But so strong is their delusion that conservative Christians can't handle the cognitive dissonance that would result from considering the true version of history that they basically isolate their brains from reality, compartmentalizing their bible babble from the part of their brains that get them through a day in the real world.

Fortunately, the younger Christians are beginning to realize that it's all a big hoax perpetuated by their delusional elders. They are leaving the church in search of something else that provides them with equal comfort in life but without all the crazy mumbojumbo. And, it is also unfortunate for the more moderate or liberal Christian churches that do believe in God and in Jesus as God's risen son, but who interpret the bible in a more reasonable manner that doesn't lock them into literalism. Those in the more liberal churches might still harbor their delusions, but they are a more benign breed of delusions. But since the conservative Christians' children associate the term "Christian" with their wack-a-do evangelical group, when they leave the fold they stay far away from other, more moderate, groups who still use the term Christian. Thus all Christian denominations are harmed by the weirdos in the fundamentalist sector. I guess in that respect Christianity is much like today's Republican Party; the nutjobs on the right are harming the brand of the entire GOP party and they don't seem to care, since they are the ones who are right. I guess that's why the tea party Republicans are pretty much all evangelical Christians, too.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

My Favorite Christmas songs for 2013

A couple of years ago I posted an entry that included all my favorite Christmas Songs for 2011. Most of the ones I liked then I still like this year, but there are a few changes. So I have decided once again to list my favorites, for this year, and include links for you to listen. In reverse order, they are...

10. Winter Light

Winter Light, sung by Linda Ronstadt, is not strictly a Christmas song but it does evoke a melancholy feeling of winter. This was the theme song for the hauntingly beautiful children's movie, Secret Garden.


9. Song for a Winter's Night

Also not technically a Christmas song (but then neither are Jingle Bells, Let it Snow, and Winter Wonderland) this song gets played more around the holidays because it is a winter song and evokes a melancholy feeling. I actually prefer Sarah McLachlan's version, but two other of her songs are featured in this so I've included the original Gordon Lightfoot version.


8. Skaters' Waltz

Composed in 1882 by Émile Waldteufel, the Skaters' Waltz was inspired by a rink of skaters in Paris. It, also, is not a Christmas song, but it certainly evokes the holiday spirit.


7. The Christmas Song

Subtitled, Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, this song is another classic from Mel Torme that many people have recorded and performed since. Its name says Christmas, and it certainly evokes the feeling.

6. Promises to Keep

By the Trans Siberian Orchestra this song really hits you over the head with its haunting, melancholy holiday tune. It's beautiful.


5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

This song was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for the movie, "Meet Me in St. Louis" in 1944. It was first performed by Judy Garland who sang the worst rendition of all time. I'm partial to this Sarah McLachlan version.


4. All Through the Night

This song was turned into a Christmas song by Olivia Newton-John. It's a lovely melody that deserves to be performed at Christmas.

3. Christmas Canon

This is another one by the Trans Siberian Orchestra. It takes Pachelbel's Canon in D and puts Christmas lyrics to it but beautifully maintains the contrapuntal style that makes it a canon.


2. Ding Dong Merrily on High

Blackmore's Night takes this traditional Christmas hymn and turns it into a contrapuntal masterpiece. Just beautiful.


1. Christmas Time is Here

Performed by Vince Guraldi for "A Charlie Brown Christmas" in 1965, both his instrumental version and several vocal versions have gone on to become classic at Christmas. I'm very partial to Sarah McLachlan's version.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What YECs Claim as Evidence for Their Beliefs

Here is a response to a claim by The Thinking Atheist on Facebook that there is no geological evidence for a literal biblical flood. The response is unedited (except for the boldface emphasis of one sentence, which is mine).

* The mid Atlantic ridge, the tilt of the earth on its access, the Ring of Fire, the coal and oil deposits the giant animal and human skeletons and jumbled bone graveyards, the layers of human and dinosaur footprints side by side, layered deposits, (like the Grand Canyon), that were formed by swiftly moving water. The entire geography of the planet shows that the mountains arose, the valleys sank down and the water rushed off. Clams are found petrified in the closed position found on top of mount Everest. diatomaceous earth is the result of millions and millions of sea creatures being destroyed at the same time. These things prove that there was a world wide flood. I have only barely scratched the surface of these kinds of examples. You must have lived under a rock to make the claim that there is absolutely no geological evidence for a global flood. There are literally mountains of proof.

This is the perfect example of why it is utterly useless to debate a young-earth creationist. This is what they regard as evidence of a worldwide flood. It is also unequivocal evidence that YECs have no clue about how to interpret geological evidence. Real geological evidence leads to conclusions that are good at making predictions or that can be experimentally verified. Every single point made by this YEC is used only to strengthen his pre-existing conclusion that the Flood was real. It doesn't matter to him, apparently, that every one of his interpretations of the evidence is incorrect.

The Mid-Atlantic ridge, for example, is caused by rising magma oozing up between a diverging plate boundary. It has nothing at all to do with a flood. Neither does the Ring of Fire. There are no cases where human and dinosaur footprints lie in the same rock layer. The Grand Canyon contains strata of sedimentary rock that look nothing whatsoever like the sorting of sediment that takes place in the aftermath of a flood. Mountains were not caused by any flood. It even says in Genesis that the flood waters rose above the mountain tops, so how could the flood have created the mountains?

Geologists are very familiar with how all the geologic features mentioned in the above diatribe actually formed. They have done actual research and experimentation to prove it. They have used this knowledge to predict the answers to other geological questions that were previously not understood well. YECs have to use something that sounds scientific in order to convince themselves and others that the earth is really only 6000 years old. Real evidence that can be verified and corroborated shows them nothing of the kind, so it has to be twisted or ignored.

It saddens me that there are adults in this modern world who refuse to give up on the God myth. It's a sign of just how far we, as the human species, need to go before we can truly call ourselves an advanced society.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Do You Hear the People Sing?

WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

I almost never write movie reviews on this blog but I'm going to make an exception. It's not actually a movie review so much as a review of the original story by Victor Hugo. I'm talking about Les Miserables. The movie adaptation was simply amazing. I've watched it three times. The solo performance by Ann Hathaway alone was worth the ticket. Add to the that the superb cinematography and the awesome special effects and it was nothing short of a masterpiece. There were some weak spots, such as the singing ability of some of the actors, particularly Russell Crowe, but that's just my knitpicking.

Recently, I got to see the stage adaptation at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre in Indianapolis. The venue was too small for such an epic tale, but the performances were superior despite the small stage. Some of the singers, were by and large, as talented as any I've seen on Broadway.

But now to the story itself. It is set in early 19th-century France. Normally I don't care much for period pieces. I also really tend not to like opera-style musicals where they sing every line. But once I put that behind me, I regard Les Miserables, the show I was dragged to by my daughter and was sure I was going to hate, as probably my favorite movie/musical of all time. And part of that is because of the story itself and how it relates very well to the politics of today's world.

It's hard to imagine but the economic conditions of the period were even more polarized than they are today. The vast majority of the population were peasants. There were a handful of well-to-do citizens and probably no actual middle class as we would recognize them today. At the beginning of the story, Jean Valjean was a prisoner, having been part of the peasant class. His crime was stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving child. Apparently, that earned him five years of hard labor, onto which was tacked another 15 years for trying to run from the law. At the time of his parole, he was a jaded and desperate man who trusted no one and who thought the world was against him.

Although he had been released from prison, he couldn't find a job because no one would hire an ex-convict. He was what he had been - a criminal, and nobody wanted anything to do with him, that is until he happened upon a remarkable bishop. The bishop took him in, fed him, and gave him a place to sleep for the night. But Valjean, far from having learned to trust anyone again, took advantage. He stole some silver and tried to run. He was immediately found out by the authorities while trying to sell his booty and brought back before the bishop. The bishop thanked the officers but told them that they had made a mistake, that he in fact had given the silver to Valjean. He even brought him two more silver candlesticks to put in his bag, saying he had forgotten to take them. When the officers left, the bishop told Valjean that he had bought his soul for God and that he must now use this silver to make an honest man of himself.

This was the turning point in Valjean's life, and a turning point in the story. The whole scene with the bishop represents what it is truly like to be Christian in the best sense of the word. In 19th-century France, everybody was a Catholic Christian, but in today's world a Christ-like man does not have to believe at all. It's not a prerequisite for doing what is good and right. But I digress.

The rest of the story basically pits good against evil, but with both sides claiming that God is on his side. Valjean tears up his parole papers and uses the silver to establish himself as a respected factory owner. But the prison guard, Javert, who had given Valjean his parole papers and told him to remember his name, had taken it upon himself to hunt down and arrest the parole-jumping Valjean. It had been 10 years when the two met again at Valjean's factory. A scuffle had broken out among the women who were laborers there. The factory barely paid a living wage but if you didn't do menial labor then you were out on the streets and homeless. Fantine, one of the workers, was very pretty and was given favors by the foreman, that is until he found out through another worker that she had a child and, by implication, a man. The foreman didn't want anything else to do with her so he fired her. Valjean, being pre-occupied with Javert (who didn't recognize his old nemesis), allowed it to happen.

Fantine's daughter, Cosette, was living with a crooked innkeeper and his wife while Fantine worked to pay her keep. But now how was she supposed to pay without a job? She was distraught and homeless, having to sell her beautiful hair, her teeth, and her body to help pay for Cosette's keep. She was wrongfully arrested by Javert after she struck a well-off man who had tried to take advantage of her. But Valjean stepped in to rescue her, taking her to the hospital. Both Valjean and Javert said graceful prayers to God: Javert for justice and Valjean for the safety of well-being of Fantine and her daughter.

It was how this society is reflective of today. At Fantine's arrest, Javert said that a hard day's work for a fair wage is what looks right in the eyes of God. He had absolutely no pity whatsoever on Fantine and said that the story of her starving child had been told to him again and again for 20 years. I can hear the same words spewing forth from the mouths of modern-day conservative Republicans. And yet, as is painfully obvious in this story, a day's wages barely allow one to subsist, and that's assuming one was lucky enough to acquire a job.

Valjean, on the other hand, was praying for the well being of others and did all he could to help those who needed it, by giving hundreds of people a job, and by helping poor Fantine. Although he was a "job creator" he understood, by referencing his own life from an earlier time, that there were those who, through no fault of their own, were not making it in the cruel world of the 19th century in Europe. Not only did he take Fantine to the hospital, though he was too late to save her, he promised her he would find her daughter and take care of her. And he did just that, despite being hounded by Javert for decades.

Javert was not really an evil man, he was simply doing his duty. He looked at the world from his own sheltered perspective and didn't understand why so many others couldn't also make it on their own without resorting to thievery and without having to rely so heavily on the good will of their fellow humans. He thought God was surely on his side and his prayers reflected that bent. Valjean wondered why God would turn his back on so many people who had done "nothing wrong." And his prayers reflected that personal plea. Of course, when God does not exist, it is very easy for anyone of any socioeconomic persuasion to believe that God is looking out for them, even though he may not show it in an expected manner.

The story ends, after a failed uprising by the people of France to overthrow their unfair government. Javert plays a double agent, telling the revolutionaries the plans of the military, but he is ratted out by Gavroch, a young boy who stands with the rebellion. They hand him over to Valjean to dispose of, but Valjean allows him to leave. This action perplexes Javert, who can't live with himself owing a debt to the man he has chased all these years. He is so conflicted that he commits suicide by jumping from a bridge. Cosette marries a young man of high society who, after being severely wounded in the battle, was saved by Valjean, unbeknownst to her at the time. Valjean tells the young man his life's story but begs him not to reveal the truth of his life to Cosette. He promises but when they find Valjean near death he breaks the news to her of how Valjean had saved him. They both plead with Valjean to come live with them but it is at that point that Valjean dies. The story ends with his posthumus reunion with Fantine and all the dead soldiers with whom he had stood during the failed uprising.

But the story's lessons live on for today's society to take to heart. If financial rewards were always commensurate with the amount of hard work and effort put in, then there would be a lot more people in what is today the top two percent, the ones who hold 90 percent of the wealth. Those who make it often owe their station in life to more than effort, but also to good fortune and knowing the right people. Those who are among the poor are not always those who are lazy, trifling, or have no ambition. It is up to society to be equitable and to help balance out the randomness of life by making sure that all those who desire to earn their keep can do so. If private enterprise can't or won't do it, the government has the obligation.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Maudlin Displays of Emotion

I can't explain why, but it really makes my skin crawl with disgust to witness almost any kind of maudlin display of emotion in public. Let me provide some examples.

I really can't stand it when news reporters talk to crying, babbling witnesses to acts of violence or to those who have suffered some kind of catastrophic loss, such as after a tornado or fire. It's not that I don't have any feelings for the victims; I just don't want to hear what we all already know - they're sad now.

I hate watching any kind of reunion of a military man with his family, especially when it is set up as a surprise. It's banal, uninteresting, and sappy. And it is nothing new to me to feel this way. I remember when I was a kid watching "Truth or Consequences" with host Bob Barker. I loved that show, but sometimes they would set up a stunt in which the surprise was a reunion with a soldier who had come home unexpectedly from Vietnam. When I knew what they were planning I immediately changed channels.

There are even some commercials now, especially hospital commercials, that show people tearing up because someone they expected to die is now fine thanks to some treatment or whatever. And when they show documentaries or extended news coverage of natural disasters I am always very much interested in the science of what caused it, but I become bored and completely disinterested when they start showing people moaning about the toll they've had to suffer.

I don't know these people. It is obvious they've suffered loss so they don't need to tell me about it. And personal stories of loss are not at all interesting to me. It's boring and it makes me uncomfortable. I can't help the way I feel about it and maybe there is something wrong with that part of my brain that produces empathy, but I don't think so. I can be very empathetic and sympathetic if something happens to people or things that I personally care about. But not strangers. Sorry, it's just who I am.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Traditional Values Hamper Progress

I like tradition. At least I like certain types of tradition. I like family traditions, such as reunions or holiday dinners or returning year after year to a favorite vacation spot. I also like annual traditions put on by towns and communities such as festivals, parades, and Christmas light displays. These types of traditions bring people together in a positive manner to commemorate something that can be shared in good cheer.

But despite the fact that I just entered my seventh decade of life, I am not a big fan of doing things a certain way just because it's traditional. I am not a traditionalist. For example, I am just as much in favor of traditional marriage as any Republican. But I am not about to say that traditional marriage is the only legitimate type of marriage there can be. Why should we legislate tradition?

People use the excuse of tradition far too often to justify doing things or not doing things based upon the way we have always behaved. I don't like doing things simply for the sake of tradition. I don't like doing or not doing things just because it is biblical or because it complies with someone else's idea of what is moral. I love it when people find new ways to do old things. That doesn't always mean that I do the same thing a new way myself: Sometimes I do; sometimes I don't. But I support everyone's choice to behave in a new manner if they wish.

I support gay marriage. I support abortion rights. I support texting over calling if that's your preference. I support email over snail mail. And I support doing everything by computer instead of by paper. I was paying all my bills online even before the Internet became a thing. And I hope I never get to be one of those old fogies who lambast new-fangled ideas or paradigms in favor of traditional motifs. I don't like that kind of person and I'm getting to the age when that type of mindset begins to set in.

Taking a look at the makeup of the Republican caucus in Congress, they all kind of look like me. They are mostly older, gray-haired, white, and male. They also like holding on to traditional values, which is fine except that they let those values inform their policy-making decisions. Traditional values don't often work in a modern, pluralistic society. My mug might fit right in there with the rest of those old bastards in Congress. But my mindset is far younger and more progressive. And I wear that distinction with great pride.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Religion Diminishes Inquiry at an Early Age

My daughter is a substitute teacher. She related to me a story about what happened with a fifth grade class she was teaching the other day. The subject was science and she was teaching them about renewable resources. One of the resources listed was wind energy. That prompted one of the students to ask, "What causes the wind?" Well, science is not my daughter's strong suit, so she whipped out her iPhone to make sure she told them the right answer. In the meantime, some of the students tried to answer it themselves. They settled on the answer, "God makes the wind."

They were all ready to just settle for that answer. It was all they needed. But my daughter, having found the real answer about the uneven heating of the earth's surface, creating pressure differences, wrote the answer on the board and told them this is what causes wind. "But God causes that to happen, right Ms Wilson?" My daughter, being an atheist, replied that it was not her belief but that it's ok if that's what they wanted to believe. She said some of the kids looked a little stunned or perplexed that she didn't believe in God.

Maybe, though, she planted a little seed of religious doubt in their little heads without actually crossing any lines. She didn't try teaching them that there was no god. She just stated her belief in response to a question. The main point, though, is that at an early age, the religiously indoctrinated are turning off scientific inquiry and substituting it with the pat answer, "God did it." Sad.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Before You Can Understand the Bible You Need to Understand its History

Fundamentalist Christians believe, and will tell you, that every word of the bible is true, that it is the Word of God, that it means what it says in the literal sense. Therefore, they believe things like the world was created in six days and that Jonah was eaten by a big fish and spat out three days later. They believe that Noah really did build a big boat and put two (or seven) of every animal species in it. And they, of course, believe that Jesus really did die and was bodily resurrected on the third day.

But which bible, exactly, are they believing? Is it the King James Version? Maybe it's the New Revised Standard Version. Or perhaps it is the New International Version or the American Standard Version. Maybe it's another one of the plethora of other versions, all of which translate things slightly differently. For example, the King James Version clearly has humans being created prior to the creation of animals in Genesis Chapter 2. But in the New International Version, the syntax is changed just slightly to make it seem as though God had already created the animals. It's a slick use of the past participle when the KJV simply uses past tense.

But there are many other questions besides just which modern version of the bible is used. What about the language? Did Jesus speak English? Of course not, and that means the King James Version and all other English versions are translations. Translations almost always present with a bias of the translator. Jesus spoke Aramaic. But the Gospels were all written in Greek. So even the original manuscripts represent translations. The trouble is, we do not have the original transcripts - the ones written sometime in the first century CE but decades after Jesus died. Prior to the written Gospels, all that was known about Jesus was transmitted by word of mouth. How can we abide by the Word of God when we don't even know what it originally was?

So which word of God did the earliest Christians use? There was no bible. Their Scripture consisted of what we now call the Old Testament plus a loose collection of gospels, apocalypses, and letters written by followers of the Christian movement. Some of these early manuscripts were eventually included in the canon; others were not. And there was hot debate among the early bishops as to which ones should be included. Should the Gospel of Thomas be included? What about Revelation? Eventually, the former was not included, the latter was. But there were very many early manuscripts that devoted Christians of the day followed religiously that did not get included in the canon. Most were lost forever, though some have been found within the last hundred years or so.

So the Holy Bible that you find in your bookstore is not the Word of God; it is the translated, transcribed, and highly edited word of humans trying to make the best of what they knew. To live one's life as though every word of the bible were dictated by God is surely to live a delusion. Before anyone tries to understand what the bible is telling them, they first need to understand the history of how the bible was written and canonized. It wouldn't hurt, also, to understand a little bit about Jewish history, especially that of the first centuries BCE and CE. Context is everything.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Sometimes it's Hard not to be a Little Racist

I try not to be racist because I know it isn't fair to individuals to prejudge them due to their ethnicity. But sometimes certain things happen, and you just go WTF!!!

My daughter was substitute teaching for a class of inner-city middle schoolers for the past 2 weeks. Today was her last day. They had to take a standardized test. The test weighs very heavily on whether or not the kids will be moved up a grade. This is a charter school that is supposedly for college prep science and math.

Anyway, one class (almost all black students) was rowdy and wasn't taking the test seriously. She asked them, "This test is important. You seem to be ignorant of the significance of this test?" This set the class off: One girl said, "Are you calling me ignorant? I'm not stupid!" She tried to explain that ignorant just simply means you don't have knowledge about something but they wouldn't hear of it. Then, her co-teacher (also a sub) went and got another permanent teacher (who was a black woman) and brought her back to the class. The permanent teach laid into my daughter saying that the word ignorant is derogatory and that she was calling her whole class stupid. She threatened to tell the director.

My daughter told the other sub to watch the class and she would walk with the other teacher to the director's office. While there, the director told my daughter that she had used the word properly and that she hadn't done anything wrong, after dismissing the black teacher from the room where she hadn't shut up yet. But the director (who is white) said he didn't realize that the word ignorant was derogatory to blacks but that he should put that on his list (along with the Spanish word "negro" which just means black, that they are now not allowed to teach in that school due to a prior incident). When my daughter got back to the room for her next class, the black co-teacher wouldn't let it go, calling my daughter racist.

Are we supposed to tiptoe around actual words that people in the real world of work should know just because some inner city blacks are IGNORANT of them? Shouldn't the school actually be trying to teach the real meaning of these words instead of avoiding them for fear of pissing off the blacks?

Thankfully, five black students came up to my daughter after class and apologized for their classmates, saying they knew what the word really meant. I feel sorry for them. The students can be forgiven, since they haven't been taught, obviously. But there is no excuse for a college-educated teacher not knowing what an everyday word really means and then using that ignorance to lambast a colleague in front of students.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Fetuses are not Babies

A fetus is not the same thing as a baby. A fetus is attached to its mother and depends on that person for its very survival. A fetus takes its nutrition directly from the mother's body through the placenta. The mother cannot just hand it off if she is tired of nourishing it or if it is causing her nausea or causing her back pain. It is there 24/7 and it demands to be nurtured.

A baby is also dependent, but not necessarily on the mother that gave it birth. The birth mother can, if she doesn't want the baby, leave it at the hospital, or give it up for adoption. She can wash her hands of the whole baby affair. But while it is a fetus, she is stuck with it, regardless of what kind of hardship she must endure.

Now, one might argue that if she didn't want to put up with the hardship maybe she shouldn't have gotten pregnant. Maybe. But is that anyone else's call but her own? Is it your place to judge? More importantly, is it your place to mandate her choices? I don't think so.

For some reason that is hard to figure out, Republicans believe that they have the right, even the obligation, to make it as difficult as possible for women to be able to choose abortion. Small-government Republicans have passed more legislation that restricts personal choices over the past few years than Democratic lawmakers ever have. It is incredibly ironic.

I want one of these Republicans to explain to me in coherent English why it is they can espouse to be hands-off, small-government, even libertarian-leaning conservatives while at the same time dictating to women that they are not allowed to freely choose to have an abortion without government restriction. And I want them to explain it to me without using biblical morality as their reason. Because if that truly is their reason, they have to realize that it is an unconstitutional reason. That may not bother them much, seeing that most of them share a revisionist view of history. But history is what it is, and the Constitution is what it is. It won't change just because a vocal group of revisionist lunatics is uncomfortable with the facts.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

We Don't Need No Stinking Papers!

Why are we still using paper?

Look on the desk of any office assistance, secretary, or administrative assistant and you'll probably find reams of paper scattered across it. Ditto for the desk of most teachers. We use far more paper than we really need to in the modern world. A decade ago, I was working as a media specialist for the Job Corps. Even back then the standard method of communication between centers and offices was email. But the administrative assistant, upon receiving an important email from headquarters, would immediately print it out and file it away in one of the many file cabinets that cluttered the back room. It's just the way she had always done it: file things in cabinets. She could have saved time, effort, and paper by simply filing it within the computer's file system.

And now, a decade later, my daughter works as a substitute teacher through a company that still uses paper forms, three of them, that must be dropped off in the office after each assignment to provide feedback about how she did. This company uses online interactive forms to make teaching assignments, but they revert back to old paper forms for feedback. Wouldn't it be simpler, faster, and use less paper if this type of feedback could also be done online?

I waited in line at the grocery store the other day while some older lady in front of me paid for her groceries with a check - a personal check instead of using a debit card! It was maddening. About the only thing we should be using paper for these days is to jot the occasional note. Granted, most schools still do not hand out laptop computers or even tablets to every student, so they still need to be given paper worksheets and quizzes, but the things we need to use paper for these days is almost non-existent.

Electronic transfer of information can replace paper in all these cases and more: Checks, forms of all kinds, grocery lists, notes, letters, receipts, bills, surveys, and contracts. And mostly, these electronic devices are being used. It's hard to fill out a job application, for example, without doing it online. But it's not 100 percent yet and that should be the goal. The only thing our printers should be used for is to print the occasional photograph.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Economic Balance that is not Balanced Enough

Mark Zuckerberg is leading a campaign to make the Internet available and affordable to everyone on Earth. Pres. Obama pushed through his signature domestic policy initiative of providing affordable health care to all Americans. It falls far short of the health care access provided by most other modern countries, but it's better than nothing. But what do these two, seemingly disparate pieces of news have in common? They both are efforts to provide low-cost availability of essential services to the population at large. And that is a critical consideration for a functional society.

The world has struggled through two extremes in economic theory: One of them, communism, seeks to provide complete equality of condition for all its citizens through government-controlled output. The other allows free enterprise to run amok so that some people are so vastly wealthy that they could never spend all the money they have while others are so poor they are literally starving in the streets. Modern democracies and welfare states try to strike a balance between those extremes. But in the U.S. the balance struck is still not equitable. There are still far too many hungry and homeless people. There are still too many who can't afford basic services.

Conservatives believe in equality of opportunity, they say, but government-assisted equality of condition is anathema to them. And so, we have a great divide in this country among those who have and those who do not. We have people who are homeless, begging in the streets for their very survival, let alone access to the Internet. On the other hand, we have those who can afford to buy and sell entire companies without batting an eye. Some have multiple homes, a slap in the face to the homeless. But, conservatives tell us, the rich have earned their way to the top. They deserve what they have. Sure, there are those who were born into money (or married into it), but ultimately someone earned it and is willing to share it with their family members who did not. And that's their right. And, besides, those who are well off are responsible for job creation so that others can also make a living. The vast wealth of a few will eventually trickle down to everybody else.

I admit; I used to believe that. And if the rich would spend the same proportion of their wealth on goods and services as the poor have to, perhaps there might be a little truth in the trickle-down approach to economics. But that's not what the rich do with their money. They invest it. They save it. They hoard it. Very little of it actually percolates down through the economy and lands in the pockets of paupers.

The system of capitalism we have in the U.S. today cannot be sustained for long. As the divide between the rich and poor widens ever larger, something is bound to give. Do we really want to go back to the type of society that existed in the nineteenth century, such as that depicted in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol? Sure, we have a social safety net, but there are holes in it big enough to filter through a whale. We have a safety sieve that allows too many to pass through. What we need is a shield that protects everyone from poverty.

And here's how to build one:

Make it the policy of the U.S. that essential services are available to everyone at a cost that is commensurate with each person's ability to pay. If that means providing free broadband Internet to those who barely eek out a living, then that's what we need to do. If that means providing free and unlimited health care to those who can't afford insurance, then we need to provide that. If that means building and maintaining public transportation systems that are cheap enough for everyone to afford then we need to build them. If that means providing free public education all the way through the college level then we need to provide it. And if that means providing every family or even every single adult with enough, dare I use the term, welfare subsidies so that they can survive without begging for money on the streets, then we should provide it.

We can't afford to do all that, you say? I say we can't afford not to. Yes, there will be expense involved, but just imagine the results: No one will be homeless. Every sick person will be attended to. Every child will have a free education through college. Everyone will be electronically connected through the Internet. Everyone will be able to commute to work and back home without having to worry about the expense. Poverty will be a thing that we read about in history books.

Yes but won't that just make people lazy? Why should those who work and make a good living have to subsidize those who want to lay back on the couch and play with their free Internet and eat the food they bought with their government handouts? And I admit that this image is maddening. It isn't fair for some to have to work hard in order for the lazy among us to eat well. I completely understand that. But providing a minimal living to the poor will not make them lazy. People are lazy already or they're not. More importantly, just because you provide someone with a minimal living doesn't mean you don't require something in return. For every food stamp or welfare check that's given to someone, they must give something back. If they are able, they must work at a government job. If they are not able to do manual labor, they must be assigned some type of community service work that they are physically able to handle.

In addition, there must be a wide enough gap between the subsidies they receive and the minimum wage so that those who have temporarily hit upon hard times will be compelled to actually look for a job rather than just accept what the government gives them. If they can make just as much from government assistance as they can from a minimum wage job, then most of them are not going to take the job. But make even the minimum wage an improvement over welfare, and most people will feel compelled to find work if they are able to work. And for those who can't, or even for those who won't, that then becomes part of the price for a social system without poverty.

This is not socialism. Socialism is where the government owns all businesses and hires all workers. Capitalism can still reign supreme. But for those who find it hard to climb the ladder of success from the basement, it means a boost to the second rung. It means they will be able to save a little money instead of using every penny for sheer survival. And the rich will still be rich. They will still be able to afford whatever they want to buy. Maybe it means buying a smaller yacht or buying a home with one less swimming pool. But it's a redistribution of wealth that would be good for society as a whole. And it would be a system that would be the envy of the world.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Are Christian Values Being Endangered? You Bet They Are!

Christian conservatives love to complain. But do they really have anything to complain about? The answer to that question is yes, they do.

They complain that this country is losing its once-strong focus on Christian values, that organized prayer has been kicked out of public schools, that atheists won't let them celebrate Christmas because they can't display their nativity scenes in the public square, nor can they post the Ten Commandments on public grounds.

They also complain that godless liberals are trying to remove any reference to God from our currency and from the Pledge of Allegiance. They complain that schools who teach all religions equally in social studies classes are following a liberal agenda that tries to teach students about heathen religions in place of the one on which this country was founded, Christianity. They fear that homosexuals are gaining respect, gaining rights and that gay marriage is actually becoming a thing. They worry about the loss of biblical values and the suppression of God's laws. And they are very concerned about the loss of young people from the fold, as more and more of them choose secular ideals over Christian values.

And all of the things they fear is happening is really happening. They are correct to be worried that their young congregants are leaving the church, because they are leaving in droves. They are correct to feel anguish that more Americans than ever before are choosing the "no religion" label. They are right to point out that guided prayer is not allowed in school anymore. They are rightfully concerned that their symbols of Christianity are being banned from public display all over the country. They are correct when they lament that the once-dreaded homosexuals, who, in the 1950s were vilified in TV public service announcements, are now accepted by the majority of Americans as upstanding citizens. And they are correct to assume that our system of laws are becoming less and less based on biblical morality (thus, the reduction in the number of blue laws).

What Christian fundamentalists fear is the breakdown of society due to the turning away of this country from God and the bible. And, although they are correct to fear that this country is beginning, slowly, to turn away from a reliance on biblical morality, they are wrong to fear society's breakdown because of it. Theirs is just one point of view among several, but the contrasting point of view is the one that I hold: That we should welcome with open arms the rejection of biblical morality. We should disregard any dictums made by the bible. We should ignore God completely when it comes to public policy. We should embrace the ideas of gay marriage and equality. We should embrace women's rights to make their own decision regarding reproduction, including abortion. The only morality we should legislate is the one code of conduct that says we should not do anything to restrict any citizen's right to do anything he or she pleases, as long as that does not also restrict someone else's rights to the same. Now, I understand there are certain things that should be regulated, especially with regard to business and industry. Unbridled capitalism does no one any good except the ultra-rich. Certain laws are needed solely to protect the public welfare and to redistribute wealth as necessary. And, of course, the government has to be paid through taxation. But mostly, the government should take a hands-off approach to personal and social choices.

The fear the Christian conservatives feel is warranted. They are a dying breed, even if they are dying slowly. I welcome the death of Christianity, even though it is not likely to die, or even become moribund, within my lifetime. Hopefully, my two children will be able to witness the demise of religion. But it explains why the fundamentalists are being so vocal and annoying these days. Their religion is in its death throes and all they can really do about it is whine and complain.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Is God an Angry Ogre?

This article might be funny if it weren't so serious.

It concerns a debate over whether or not a gospel song written by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty called "In Christ Alone" goes too far in emphasizing God's wrath over God's love concerning the atonement. Presbyterians want the line in the song that mentions God's wrath to be changed so that it stresses God's love instead. The Baptists chimed in and said let the song lyrics stay the way they are. But one Baptist believes the Presbyterians have a point. Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist newspaper sided with the Presbyterians, which got him a tongue lashing from Baptist leaders.

“Sometimes Christians carelessly make God out to be some kind of ogre whose angry wrath overflowed until the innocent Jesus suffered enough to calm Him down,” Terry wrote. In reply, the president of the Alabama Baptists Assembly wrote, “As Alabama Baptists seek to be true to Scripture, we affirm the essential and historic Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement." In other words, sure, God was indeed an angry ogre who needed a human blood sacrifice to settle his nerves.

The song’s original lyrics say that as Jesus died on the cross, “the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Presbyterian committee wanted to change that to “the love of God was magnified.”

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville agrees with the Alabama Baptists. He said anyone who thinks that those who want to change the lyrics to remove the line about God's wrath have "bad theology." And therein lies the whole problem. Two leaders of different Christian denominations can't agree on something as fundamental as the character of God. What kind of a god would set us up with such diverse opinions about who God really is and then expect us to all believe the truth or go to hell?

Was God wrathful in the Old Testament and Loving in the New Testament? Was Jesus really God? Was Jesus really just a man? Was he both at the same time but 100 percent so? Was Jesus resurrected in body or just in soul? Was he resurrected at all? Was Jesus an apocalyptic preacher and prophet or was he a political zealot? Did he exist as God's son only after his baptism or from his birth, or perhaps from time eternal? Are the stories of the Exodus, Noah's Ark, and Jonah as told in the Old Testament literally true or allegorical? Did Moses write the Pentateuch? Did Moses even exist?

These are just a few of the questions about God, Jesus, and the bible that Christians - yes, real, believing Christians - disagree about now or have disagreed about throughout Christian history. And everyone who believes a certain way also believes that every other denomination has bad theology. But since God, if he even exists, apparently did not make it clear what we should believe, it is no wonder that people are leaving the Christian cult in droves. What else can a thinking, intelligent person do?

This little scuffle over the lyrics to a Christian song only amplifies what is really wrong with this whole believing-in-ancient-superstitions scenario. Since no one can prove, or even provide empirical evidence, for their side of the belief, there is a considerable divergence of opinion about just what God really wants us to do. The side that most Christians tend to ignore, though, is the side that would settle the whole matter once and for all: God doesn't exist, so why believe anything at all about him?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Which Came First, Religion or Low Intelligence?

A meta-analysis shows what most people already know, that the more religious you are, on average, the less intelligent you are likely to be. Of course religious people are less intelligent in general. But the real question is why? Do they start off less intelligent and therefore are easier to be seduced by superstitious nonsense, or is an initial belief in superstition that they were indoctrinated into during childhood hindering the development of critical thinking skills, thus making them seem less intelligent? Or maybe some combination?

Take the poll.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Is Texas using Back-Door Discrimination to Disenfranchise Hispanic Voters?

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is suing Texas for allegedly violating part of the Voting Rights Act, claiming that Texas Republicans redrew district boundaries purposely to alienate Hispanic voters. Texas responded by saying they didn't redraw the boundaries to alienate Hispanics but to make it more difficult for Democrats to get elected. And if Hispanics tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, well, that just makes them collateral damage. So, I guess the question then becomes, Is it legal (moral, ethical) to discriminate against a minority group simply by virtue of their political preference? Isn't this really a form of de facto segregation?

In 1970 the Supreme Court ruled in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that schools that were segregated only because local neighborhoods tended to be segregated were still denying equal education under Brown v. Board of Education. The majority interpretation was that Brown was a charge to integrate schools rather than a charge to no longer segregate. Voting districts are not schools, but this type of de facto segregation exists in the voting districts and Holder may have the rule of law on his side.

On the other hand, four years later, the Supreme Court ruled in Milliken v. Bradley that school districts were under no obligation to force integration if schools were segregated due to the existing segregation within the neighborhoods but only if the schools themselves had a prior policy of segregation. Again, we're not dealing with schools here, but parallels can be drawn.

The basic question is, If the people of Texas choose to live in a certain neighborhood in order to be closer to their own ethnic group and if that ethnic group tends to vote a certain way, can the district maps be redrawn in such a way that it disenfranchises them due to their voting record even if that means it also disenfranchises them due to their ethnicity, which is clearly against the law?

I guess we'll see.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Another Example of People being Honest

I was doing a little shopping at Walmart today and at checkout I used the Debit Card option because I needed some cash back to use at the State Fair. But I was so preoccupied with making sure I recorded the transaction on my checkbook app that I forgot I had ordered cash back. I started to walk away. There was no one behind me in line but I heard some gentleman in the next aisle call out, "Sir!" I turned around and he pointed at the cash dispenser. There was my $60 just hanging there. It could have been a nice windfall for the next person up, or for the guy who noticed. But he decided to be honest, as I'm sure most people would. I offered my thanks, took my cash and went on my way, knowing that had it not been for that honest stranger, my day could have gone so much worse after I had gotten to the fair.

What would you do in these hypothetical scenarios?

A. You find a $20 bill lying on the floor of the supermarket, no one around. Would you keep it or take it to the customer service desk?
B. You see a shopper in front of you at the checkout drop a $20 bill on the floor and didn't notice. No one else noticed but you. Would you keep it or give it back?
C. The cashier accidentally gives you $20 too much and doesn't catch it. You catch it after you have left the cashier and head out of the store. Would you just keep it or take it back?

As for me...

A. I would keep it. There is no way to identify the owner of the cash and if you don't keep it where would it go?
B. I would give it back to the person who dropped it. I know where it came from.
C. I've done it both ways, but not with as much as $20. But typically, I would keep it. The cashier will not be docked for it because that is illegal. She might be reprimanded and even fired if it keeps happening, but that's all on the cashier, not you. It was his/her mistake. Just enjoy a little schadenfreude and keep the cash.

Study Shows Outside Smoke is Bad Too

It can be just as annoying to have to breathe someone's nasty cigarette smoke outside as it is inside. Indiana has banned most smoking inside public buildings, but it is still permitted in parks and outside dining areas. The next step should be for the state to ban smoking in these areas, too. The ONLY place that it should be legal to smoke is inside your own home (sans kids) or on your own property or in a smoking-designated area.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

America, the Way the Tea Party Wants It

The socially-conservative Texas-style Republicans love America. They are very patriotic. But their view of what America should be is not universal. This is the right wing's perspective of what America should look like:

Everyone would be a fundamentalist Christian. You can have freedom of religion, as the Constitution says, but that just means you can go to any denomination of conservative Christian church you want to. No one is going to force you to be a Baptist. You could be a Pentecostal or belong to the Assembly of God Church. You also don't really have to go to church every Sunday if you don't want, just as long as you keep reminding people that Jesus loves them and that biblical morality is all you need to live by.

Pornography and other filth would be officially banned, but the thriving underground porn business would succeed since politicians turn a blind eye to that sort of stuff out of respect to the concept of small government. However, all forms of abortion at any stage would be outlawed. Women and even girls who are raped or who are a victim of incest would be forced to carry their rape baby full term as a warning to be more modest with their nubile bodies.

Birth control would only be allowed for men. Men should wear condoms to keep from getting the clap but any female birth control that might interfere with a fertilized egg would be considered a type of abortion, punishable by imprisonment. Also, any woman who has a stillborn baby must report it to the police for investigation. Not doing so would mean you could be charged with fetuside.

All public schools would include a curriculum that includes creationism in science class. Evolution and the Big Bang Theory would be mentioned only as worldly views that could lead you to hell. Climate change, if it is occurring at all, is simply God's way of getting our attention. Humans could not possibly be responsible for changing the Earth's climate, since God is who made it in the first place. Also, in history class, schools must teach that our Founding Fathers were all Christians, that this country was founded on the principles of the Ten Commandments, and that the most important of all the amendments is Number Two. In addition, the bible would be required reading in all classes.

Homosexuals would be prohibited from committing any kind of homosexual acts, even in the privacy of their own bedrooms. Sodomy would be against the law again. Teens would be forced to learn abstinence-only sex education and sex before marriage by anyone would be against the law. Gays, of course, could not marry each other.

In this conservative theocracy, the government would be prohibited from giving a poor person a helping hand. Those who have figured out how (or been lucky enough) to make it rich can afford such things as health care, but those who have hit upon hard times must rely on the good nature of their neighbors to lend them a helping hand. Everybody would have to pay taxes, even if you are unemployed and poor. But the rich people can claim deductions as a reward for being job creators.

In this America, everyone would have to carry a handgun to protect themselves and everyone has a right and duty to stand their ground. Every school day begins with a prayer and the Pledge. Every public meeting begins and ends with prayer as does every sporting event.

This is America the way it is supposed to be - at least according to the Tea Party.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Evolving on Homosexuality

I spent most of my childhood in the '60s. The only thing I knew about being gay was that it meant you were happy. I didn't know much about homosexuality, either, except that I kept hearing a rumor that an older kid we all knew was "queer." And that meant he liked boys. And to me that really was queer.

By the time the '70s rolled around I was in college. I still didn't pay much attention to homosexual talk, but I knew gay people were now considered "normal" according to the overwhelming opinion of the psychological community. But it was a different kind of normal in my opinion. I didn't know any gays personally, at least none who were out. But I didn't openly make fun of them nor shun them as my friends and I had done when I was younger. But I was not in favor of them behaving gay in public. To me it just didn't seem natural.

I knew about the anti-gay movement led by singer and orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant. But she objected on biblical grounds. That was not my objection. I wasn't overly concerned with what the bible had to say about modern culture. No, I just thought it was abnormal and kind of creepy.

And that was where my opinion stood for a couple more decades at least. Even when my younger brother came out and told me he was gay I asked him if he had tried to find help. He said he had talked to both a therapist and his pastor and both told him it was normal and just to go with it. Although I accepted him as he was I told him I did not care to hear his stories about love interests.

By then I had a couple of teenagers. Both of them were liberal. My daughter and I had several conversations about gay rights and gay marriage. I kept telling her that I accepted gays but that I didn't understand it biologically. I remember reading a book called "The Human Zoo" by Desmond Morris where he likened aberrant human behavior such as homosexuality to the fact that humans had become captives of their own environment, much like zoo animals. Zoo animals had been observed engaging in homosexual activity, so he drew a parallel.

One day my daughter asked me a series of questions that I had no good answers for. She asked me how other people's homosexuality, gay rights, and even gay marriage would bring harm to me or to society. All I could come up with was that it would break tradition. And that's when it hit me. So what? If it's a bad tradition then maybe it's worth breaking.

So over a period of 40 years or so my attitude toward gays has evolved from mockery and shunning to acceptance at a distance, to active promotion of gay rights and gay marriage. If a church or denomination doesn't accept gay marriage, they are not forced to participate in any gay wedding ceremonies. But to actively oppose it makes no sense to me anymore. Don't get me wrong; I still think two men having sex is creepy. But that's just my own hangup. I try not to let my personal revulsion inform my desire to do what's right by society.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Proof that God is a Universalist

As anyone who has read my posts on this blog already knows I do not believe that a god exists, and certainly not the god described by most Christians or Muslims. I cannot prove that a god does not exist, but given what I know about the natural world, logic, and reason, I seriously doubt there is a place for a god in this universe. However, as an open-minded person, I must admit to a possibility that some kind of god exists.

Given that possibility, let's define what is meant by god. Most religious people believe that their god is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. That is, their god knows everything, can do anything, and is perfectly good, fair, and just. God also is the entity that created everything we know about in the universe. But let's get real. Even the most conservative Christian would admit that there are certain logical impossibilities that remain impossible even for a god: God cannot create a stone that is too heavy for even God to move, for example. So let's define omnipotence as the ability to do anything that is logically consistent and move on.

Given these definitions I have concluded that if a god exists, and that's a big IF, then God must be a universalist: Everybody gets into heaven. Here's why:

God is omnibenevolent, so he is infinitely good, fair, and just. It would be unjust to condemn a person to the death penalty for jay-walking, even more so to condemn him to death by torture. It would be far more unjust to condemn a person to everlasting torture in hell simply for not having enough evidence to cause his belief in a god. So God has to do something about that. God is also omniscient, so he knows everything, including the past, present, and future events. He knew me before I was born. He knew when he created the universe that he was going to create me. If he did not know this, then he is not omniscient, by definition.

God also knows in advance when I'm going to die and how I'm going to die. More importantly for this discussion, God knows what the state of my mind will be the moment I pass away. He knows if I'm still going to be an atheist or if I have had a change in heart. Assuming that I still will be an unbeliever, he also knows that I will be going to hell, according to the Christian interpretation of the bible.

Now, given that God knows when he created me that I am going to be an atheist and, as such, will be going to hell, and given that God is omnibenevolent and is loathe to allow for me to go to hell (preferring instead that I go to heaven with him), and that he is omnipotent (having the unlimited ability to change my mind for me), then allowing me to die as an unbeliever is incongruous with God's personal characteristics as ascribed to him by the Christian faith. In other words, the Christian god would not create a person that he knows in advance would be doomed to eternal torment in hell. Doing so would make him the opposite of omnibenevolent.

Now consider free will and heaven. The argument that is used to mitigate God's problem with evil (why an all-loving god would allow for evil and suffering in the world when he has the power to stop it) is free will. God gave us free will and chooses not to tamper with it. That's fine except for the concept developed earlier: God may have given us free will to choose our own path but since he already knows in advance what we will choose he could have chosen not to create us in the first place. Some inconsistencies also arise with the concept of heaven. Heaven is supposed to be a place of eternal peace, happiness, and harmony. But doesn't that also mean that we will have no free will in heaven? If we have free will in heaven then somebody will screw it up just like they did on Earth when Eve ate the apple. It's inevitable. So if heaven exists, God will have to control our will in some way.

So, back to the moment of death for an atheist: Since God, being omnibenevolent and omniscient, would not create a person knowing full well that he is going to be doomed to eternal hell fire, then God must choose (or has already chosen) to change his mind about believing in God in the moment right before he dies. Thus, he is instantly a believer and accepts Jesus Christ as Savior in his last breath. And that doesn't present a problem for God's granting him free will because he had free will all his life, right up to the moment he died. He is not going to have free will in heaven anyway so what's one more second to matter?

Thus, to save God's credibility as an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being who has granted us all free will on Earth, God must by necessity be a universalist, meaning that if any one religion has gotten it right, it must be the Unitarian Universalist Church. I do not belong to that church, but if I were a believer, that would be the one I would attend I think.

Even so, and even using this impeccable logic, it turns out this means that God has painted himself into a corner. If he is, indeed, omnipotent but in order to uphold his omnibenevolence he is forced to cause our belief the moment we die, then he is not really omnipotent after all. Such a quandary. Maybe this is the unmovable stone that God has to move.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

The News Keeps Proving the Stupidity of Conservatives

I like Facebook because that's one way I keep up with what's going on in the world. But almost every time I browse through the news items I get depressed, or pissed off. And this morning was no different.

In the span of about an hour here are some of the stories that caught my attention:

The Southern Baptist churches across the country are kicking out the Boy Scouts because their national organization decided it would no longer discriminate against gay scouts. This is freakishly and blatantly bigoted. And I assume the move is approved of by the vast majority of the church's membership, which is even more depressing. These boys have done nothing wrong whatsoever but now they are made to feel like vile, subhuman creatures because their organization now tolerates homosexuals.

I read about how General Mills had to disallow commenting non its YouTube commercial that features an interracial family, including a biracial little girl, because there were too many assholes commenting with racial slurs or otherwise disapproving of the ad because it featured a mixed-race family. And this is the 21st century?

I read about a political candidate running for Lt. Governor in Virginia who believes that evolution cannot be true because God gave the gift of speech to humans only, which is why other animals cannot speak. He insinuated that if we evolved from apes that chimps should be able to speak. I also read that the governor of Louisiana believes that creationism should be taught in science classes as an alternative to evolution. These are the people who make policy in this country and they can't even get simple science right. It's science that has been accepted and used by scientists for well over 100 years. It's science that is non-controversial within the ranks of scientists worldwide. But because some ancient book written by superstitious goat herders says that God created everything in six days, well then science must have gotten it wrong. It is so depressing that so many citizens and leaders of this country still believe that bullshit. Get over it folks; there is no such thing as the Christian god or any other god who meddles in personal lives. And if there is a god of some kind out there, quit thinking you know what he wants you to do or how he wants you to behave. Grow up and join the 21st century and stop being so goddamn stupid!

I saw a meme picturing a U.S. flag with the words "Like if you agree that we are one nation under God." Well, whose god are we talking about here? There are Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Native Americans living here as citizens and they all have different gods. There are agnostics and atheists living here and they have no god at all. So why are we supposed to be one nation under God? Every religion believes that their god is the one true god, or that their gods are the real ones. We are a religiously diverse country founded on religious freedom. We are not a Christian nation any more than we are a Hindu nation, so take your Christian-centric meme and shove it.

I read where a committee of all men in Congress voted to recommend a law that would prevent any woman from having an abortion beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy, even if at 21 weeks the woman discovers that her fetus is inviable or will be born severely deformed. She would still be forced, under penalty of law, to carry it full term. There were no women on the panel made up mostly of Republicans. The Democrats on the committee voted against it.

According to a Rasmussen poll, Congress has an approval rating of only six percent. Those six percent who believe Congress is doing a good job must have been on crack. Nobody in their right minds would believe that Congress is doing anywhere near a good job. Mostly they are doing nothing at all. The House of Representatives has punted to the Senate to initiate any policy legislation. All they've been doing is trying to eliminate Obamacare for the 38th time. In the Senate, Republicans seem to want to make one important policy change on immigration, but they can't even seem to get that passed. And even if they did, any bill would be DOA in the House. The one and only goal of the Republicans in both chambers during Obama's first term was to make sure he was a one-term president. Having failed in that effort, they just seem to be spending his second term whining and denying the president from any success at all, including approving any of his nominations. It's politics at its worst. No wonder even the rank-and-file Republicans in this country believe their party has gone off the deep end.

No wonder I get depressed and angry when I read Facebook.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

How We Can All Just Get Along

By now anyone who has read more than a couple of my blog posts knows that I hold religion, all religion, in contempt. I especially detest Christianity and Islam because they are proselytizing religions; they seek to subjugate those who are not of like mind and assimilate them into their own superstitions.

But I want this post to focus on religious people from a different angle. Not ALL religious people, probably not even most, are of the type that raises my ire. I can live in perfect harmony with most people of faith, even though I vehemently disagree with their beliefs. Having faith in a supreme being and living your life as though this being exists and is watching you is silly and childish from my perspective, but even so, those who believe that and I can still get along quite well and I can respect their American right to believe what they do, even if I don't respect the belief.

So how can we all just get along? Just avoid the seven most onerous beliefs of the fundamentalists listed below. I do not respect those believers who refuse to accept any facts that run contrary to what someone they trust has told them the bible says and means. The people who put their blind faith in things that empirical evidence has long ago disproved do not deserve my respect. They are not simply ignorant; they are ignorant by choice. And when you are ignorant by choice you are no longer deserving of anyone to respectfully listen to you.

The religious people who do not deserve my respect because they are willfully ignorant, even to a point of being proud of their ignorant stance and hence join the ranks of the stupid are those who hold onto the following beliefs:

1. God created the world and even the universe in six literal days about 7,000 years ago as outlined in Genesis. For anyone beyond the age of four to still believe this nonsense makes my brain want to explode. As the robot on the old Lost in Space series would say, "It does not compute." The age of the earth and even the age of the universe is a known fact of science. It is a measurable quantity in the same sense as the number of molecules there are in a cup of water is a known quantity. You might be a few hundred off the actual value, but given the enormous number, the percent of error is inconsequential. So when a cosmologist says that the universe is 3.8 billion years old, he might be off by a factor of a million years, but 3.8 billion years plus or minus a million is still 3.8 billion years. And that is nowhere in the vicinity of 6,000.

2. The world was covered by the Great Flood of Noah and all the fossils scientists find were laid down during the year or so of the flood. There have been several lame attempts to explain how such a flood could sort the different types of fossils into clear layers, based not on size, but on evolutionary complexity. Flowing water does, indeed, sort sediment. But it sorts them based on the size and weight of the particles and in a continuous spectrum from small to large, top to bottom. It does not sort them into distinct layers, with some fine-particle clay underlying larger-particled sandstone. And it most certainly does not sort them with complex life forms on top and simple life forms below.

3. God made man out of soil and woman out of a rib of man. Again, this is a belief that should have been shed as a young child. It is clearly a metaphor with an obsolete message. It is as simple to disprove as asking yourself why do men and women have the same number of ribs.

4. Evolution is false because "I didn't come from no monkey." Well, guess what; I didn't either. You also didn't come from your cousin Bob either, but both you and Bob shared a common grandparent. In the same sense, humans and monkeys share a common ancestor, but monkeys did not evolve into people. Humans and monkeys are evolutionary cousins. There were literally piles of evidence supporting evolution ever since the early part of the 20th century. Fossils made up the bulk of this evidence. But today, using DNA and genetic research, the evidence of the fossils has been resoundingly corroborated. Evolution is a fact and to deny it because you'd rather believe in an ancient metaphor makes you stupid, not ignorant. Ignorance stems from a lack of information. Stupidity stems from a willing desire not to know the truth.

5. The bible is the inerrant word of God and I believe everything it says. When people say this to me, my first response is always, "How do you know?" In order to know something, you either have to have witnessed it yourself or have a great amount of empirical evidence that what you believe is true. But even Christians cannot all agree on what the bible means. If they did, Christianity would not be splintered into thousands of different denominations and sects, all disagreeing on the finer points (and sometimes the major points) of the bible. The only facts we know for sure about the bible is that it was written by many different authors. Many of those authors are unknown and perhaps unknowable. They were all superstitious. They all lived thousands of years ago before the age of science. And they all had their own agendas related to the god they believed in. So how is it this collection of ancient, superstitious authors knows more about such things as evolution, global warming, and cosmology than all the modern-day Harvard-educated scientists?

6. Life begins at conception; the soul is added at that point, and killing a zygote is murder. Since there is no scientific proof (or even evidence) that a soul exists at all, it would be unfair and imprudent to pass laws based on when it arrives. You are free to believe that life begins whenever you say it does, as long as you don't try to force that belief on others by supporting laws mandating your compunctions on everybody.

7. Gay marriage is an affront to God and nature. The sole purpose of sex in humans is not for procreation. It is a bond strengthener and is also purposely meant for pleasure, otherwise a human female would go through an estrus cycle, much like a dog. If marriage is meant just to form a base for raising a family, then marriage should not only be prohibited to gays but also to old people or infertile couples. Most Christians will say that if you don't believe in abortion then don't have one. If you don't believe in gay marriage, then marry someone of the opposite sex. But don't prevent others from following their own hearts and minds on those subjects.

So if you literally believe any or all of the seven things outlined above, you are not worthy of my respect or the respect of anyone who values education, fairness, or truth. You are a drain on society because you cannot contribute to the knowledge base. You are an encumbrance to your children for filling their heads with superstitious nonsense. You are even a disappointment to many of your fellow Christians, who believe in your God and your Jesus, but who are smart enough to accept the evidence of science. You are a pathetic impediment to progress and you should be ignored. Unfortunately, your kind seems to have the loudest voices, just like a child throwing a tantrum.

Your branch of religion is experiencing its death throes. Fundamentalist Christianity is not long for this world. Unfortunately, while it is here, it is very loud and annoying. And even after it finally vanishes into the abyss, fundamentalist Islam will probably still be flagellating the world with an even more sinister kind of fundamentalism. But in the distant future, when humankind realizes that religion is stupid, if we survive today's bout with fundamentalism, we as a society may finally be able to thrive, unimpeded by religious zealotry. What marvels we will accomplish!

Friday, April 26, 2013

What's Really Wrong with Education?

The powers that be keep trying to fix the education system in America and it isn't even broken. Sure, there are improvements that could be made. But the problem we are having with education isn't the educational system. It's American culture. And, unfortunately, that is much harder to fix, especially when no one is trying to fix it.

There are parents who understand the value of a good education and do all that they can to instill those values into their children. There are also parents who couldn't give a rat's ass about education, except that school is a good place to send their kids to get them out of the house and from under foot. Or it's a cheaper alternative to hiring a baby sitter. There are far too many parents who fit the second category. Their priorities are messed up. They can't see the value of making sure their children get a good education because, too often, they don't have a good education themselves.

Sure, I know; it's easy to place blame. But way too many American kids are not getting a proper education, especially in math and science. That is why we rank toward the bottom when compared to other industrialized nations. Countries that consistently rank near the top have a culture of education. Their governments place a high priority on educating the masses.

Part of it might stem from the fact that America's education system is too disjointed. States and local school boards run the show. That is what most people seem to want. But is it really the best way to educate our kids? It doesn't matter whether a student graduates from a school in Massachusetts or Mississippi; they still need to compete in the global marketplace for jobs. They still need to be able to get into a good college or trade school, and that means they all need to have the same high-quality education. How can a student who graduates from a school district that still teaches creationism, for example, compete in science with a student who graduates from a science prep school? There needs to be national standards, and they need to reflect what the students are going to need when they graduate. And they need to be developed by educational professionals, not politicians.

More importantly, though, the best place to spend education money is on developing a plan to increase cultural acceptance of a high-quality education system. Education should be the top priority from the Federal government on down through the states and into the living rooms of parents. I've been a teacher since the mid-1970s and every couple of years the school district or the state comes up with some kind of program to improve education. Most often it centers around improving test scores. This does not improve education; it hinders it. Teachers spend most of their day preparing the students to pass the next major exam and they don't have time to actually teach what's important. Millions of dollars are spent every year on professional development programs that try to teach teachers how to teach. With minor exceptions, teachers know how to teach. The best thing a principal can do for a teacher is to give him a room with decent equipment and tell him to teach. Hold accountable those teachers who don't do their job and let the rest of us handle our classes as we see fit, as long as we follow the mandatory national curriculum.

As far as throwing money at education, that's all fine and good. But it needs to be spent improving the culture of education in this country, not on mandatory programs like No Child Left Behind or ISTEP+ testing. Schools are wasting too much time doing nothing but teaching kids how to take a standardized test. I waste 35 minutes every day in a class called Success, when a better name for it might be Sucks. It is a useless, horrendous waste of my time and the students' time. It's basically drill and practice on taking the ISTEP test or the End of Course Assessments. Divvying that wasted time up among the other real classes during the day would be a better use for that time.

Of course, it's far easier for a politician to come up with another educational program to fund than it is to tackle the real problem. The socioeconomic status of families is probably the biggest indicator of how well their kids will do in school. Bad parenting or deficient parenting due to family structure or single-parent homes plays a huge role. These are the things that need to be fixed. I don't have all the answers; if I did, I would get funding. But then again, maybe I wouldn't, because my answers would address the real problem with education, the problem the politicians aren't brave enough to even admit exists, let alone do anything about.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

It's NOT News, Folks!

There is no denying that the Boston bombings are news - big news. But not everything that can be said about the bombings is news. And, like with every other big story, the TV news media kicked into overdrive when reporting this story, resulting in the usual overkill. So what is and is not news as it relates to the Boston bombings? What should and, perhaps, should not be reported?

Rather than go into a long dissertation on what should be reported and what should not, let me resort to a simple list and then an explanation. Here is what constitutes actual news and should be reported by the electronic media:

- The fact that the bombings actually occurred, of course, is news.
- How many bomb blasts there were is news.
- What kind of bombs they were is news.
- If there were any unexploded bombs is news.
- How many people were killed or injured is news.
- The extent of injuries is news.
- Police or FBI updates are news.
- Interviews with people on the street about the facts relating to the blasts, such as whether any suspects were seen, etc. is news.
- How someone can send help is news.
- How many of the killed and injured are children is news.
- Whether or not the bomber or bombers were acting alone, as a small group, or part of a terrorist cell is news.
- Evidence gathered about the motive for the bombings is news.
- Whether or not there are any suspects or persons of interest is news.
- When a suspect is caught will be news.

As Sgt. Joe Friday was so fond of saying, "Just give me the facts, Ma'am." That's what the news is. So what is NOT news, but what is being reported anyway? Here's that list:

- What the marathon runners were thinking when they crossed the finish line is NOT news.
- Whether or not people are being asked to pray for Boston is NOT news.
- A father's letter telling about his poor dead son and how he will be missed is NOT news.
- How people are grieving about the incident is NOT news.
- How an elderly runner fell down and was then helped up so he could cross the finish line is NOT news.
- Street interviews about how people are coping, what their thoughts were at the time, or how it made them feel are NOT news.

Yet, in viewing the TV news coverage, probably 70 to 90 percent focuses on something in the "NOT news" list. The reason is simple enough: Once the initial round of real news was reported, that's really all there was to report about it until the police or FBI discover something new. Until then, the news shows should either stop reporting about it and move on to other news of the day, or they should perhaps produce a human interest show that reports all the other, more emotional bits of information.

It's not that everything in the latter list should not be reported at all, or that it should be ignored. It's simply not hard news. When I turn on to learn the latest facts about the bombing, that's all I want. I don't want heart-wrenching stories about people with courage coping with a terrible ordeal. It is best to collect all that information and turn it into a special program, or at least a special human-interest segment on the news shows and then label it as such. But don't call it what it isn't and don't use up most of the broadcast time focusing on it. It's NOT news.

One thing is certain, if the bomber's motive was to garner attention for himself, the wall-to-wall coverage of the incident is giving him what he wants and then some. If there is nothing new to say about it, then just move on.