Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Go Ahead; Make My Hole

In my younger days, when I lived in conservative Johnson County, Indiana, I was more politically liberal. When I moved to liberal Lake County, I was politically conservative. Now I'm in Indianapolis, the second most liberal county in the state and I find that I lean heavily liberal again. But I hesitate to pigeonhole myself because I still lean conservative on some issues. So I'll leave it to the readers to pigeonhole me. Let's play "What is My Ideology!"

Here are the issues:

1. Social Issues - I am totally, 100 percent liberal on things like women's rights, abortion rights, gay rights, and any other kind of personal freedoms you can think of. I think it is none of the Government's damn business to address or limit anyone's right to do whatever the hell they want as long as they are not in any way limiting someone else's rights in the process, or causing harm to others or to society. And I guess there's a gray area as to what constitutes harm (or likely harm) to society, but I mean actual, empirical, measurable harm (such as driving drunk).

2. Union Issues - Unions have had a positive influence, historically, on working conditions and wages. However, somewhere along the line they got too powerful. When I read about things like a factory worker who is between job assignments and temporarily just chilling out, who wants to pick up a broom and sweep a little, but he is not allowed to do it because it isn't in his job description, it tells me the union there is a little too powerful. And I never did like it when the union forces a worker to join them in order to be hired at a certain business. Compulsory membership sounds like a violation of personal freedoms.

3. Race Relations - I am completely against any form of race discrimination in jobs, schools, or anywhere else. At the same time, there are cases where, in order to correct a past wrong, there has been the equivalent of legal reverse discrimination. They call it affirmative action and I'm completely against it. I was also completely against busing to achieve racial desegregation, but that stuff is pretty much over, thankfully. I have personally never committed any form of forced segregation or been the purveyor of racial discrimination in any form. Therefore, I should not be denied any job or college entrance due to the fact that I'm not of color. I, personally, have not been. But it happens and it shouldn't. That being said, my personal taste is that I don't like and I don't understand the ghetto culture. It's not just black teens and young adults that are involved in this, but it started there. I'm talking about big baggy clothes, sagging pants, hats on sideways or backward, hoodies, and especially rap "music." I realize it's a cultural thing, but I believe that there are so many people of all races who abhor this cultural trend that it actually may interfere with a young person's ability to land a good job or to avoid being the target of racial profiling. I believe that if the ghetto culture were to go away, race discrimination would go down.

4. Entitlements - Social Security and Medicare are not entitlements. We all pay for those through payroll taxes. However, things like the SNAP program, Medicaid, and WIC are entitlements that I support, but with caveats. They should be, as intended, a social safety net to prop those up who have fallen on hard times temporarily. The same is true for unemployment compensation. Any person getting a welfare check from the government should be put to work by the government, doing anything they are able and qualified to do: digging ditches, stuffing envelopes, typing, working in a nuclear power plant, etc. And there should be a limit on the amount of time they are allowed to draw their benefits. During the time that I've been a teacher, I've discovered something about the students whose families are on food stamps or other forms of welfare. Most of them exhibit an attitude of entitlement. They don't appreciate anything. The school gives them free textbooks, so they throw them around and tear them up. Why not? They didn't pay for them. They get free food in the cafeteria, so they have food fights or just throw it in the garbage. Or sometimes they go back for seconds and whine when they're refused because the school can't feed everybody twice. When I was a teacher in Lake County, I was sponsor of the Student Council. Every year we would have a food drive. We collected food and money, then handed out baskets of canned goods and meat to those on the free lunch program. In the five years that I was sponsor, I remember getting only one thank you note from one of the recipients. We didn't do it for thanks, but it would have been nice if more people appreciated what we were doing.

5. Guns - Except for hunting rifles and shotguns, I'm against them all. I would be in favor of repealing the Second Amendment and then passing laws to remove all guns from people's hands (except those mentioned above). But since that will never happen, how about making a national gun registry and make everyone who buys a gun from anyone register it. And if that gun is ever used in a crime, then whoever it is registered to should suffer some legal consequences.

6. Religion - I'm against religion in all its forms, but especially fundamentalist religion. Fundamentalism is probably the single greatest inhibitor of progress in the world. I'm also completely against government funding for anything that even smacks of religion, including vouchers for private schools run by churches. I'm against opening public meetings with prayers and against mentioning God in any government slogan. And when freedom of religion runs up against any other freedom laid out in the Constitution, I believe any of those rights should trump it. There should never be any special exceptions put into laws on account of religion.

7. Immigration - I'm in favor of allowing children up to age 18 into this country and then finding a place for them. I'm in favor of the DREAM Act. I'm in favor of some kind of amnesty for any undocumented immigrant who currently has a job and is supporting a family. But the border does need to be secure to keep drug smugglers and criminals out.

8. Drugs and Alcohol - I'm in favor of legalizing marijuana as long as it is regulated and taxed, with a portion of the tax proceeds going to drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. And since I live in Indiana, I'm in favor of changing the law to allow liquor sales on Sunday in all venues that currently sell packaged liquor or beer.

9. Taxes - Taxes should be a thing that very rich people have to pay. Those who earn less than, say $50K per year for a family of three should pay no taxes at all. Middle income people should pay, say 10 to 15 percent tax. Ultra rich people should pay 50 percent or more tax with no loopholes and limited deductions.

10. Education - There should be a national curriculum, mandated and paid for by the federal government. It should be developed by educators, and it should be very strong in all four core areas: math, language arts, science, and social studies. Public education, including K - 12 and undergraduate post-secondary education, should be free and funded by a combination of federal and state taxes. As an addendum to this issue, I also completely support more science education, because there are far too many people who still do not accept proven scientific facts, such as climate change, evolution, GMO safety, and vaccine safety.

11. States Rights - States are not people. They should have only the rights granted them by the federal government. (Yes, the Founding Fathers got this one wrong.)

12. Government Spending - The government is charged with making sure we are protected and that our infrastructure is in working order. Since we now spend way more on defense than the next few countries behind us combined, we should divert some of that money to infrastructure, scientific research, and education. The government should also be in charge of providing free healthcare to all citizens. If those who can afford it want special health care, they can pay for an upgrade. To pay for all this, just divert funds from the Pentagon and increase taxes on the wealthy.

Ok, so now where do you pigeonhole me politically and/or ideologically?

  • A. Leans conservative
  • B. Moderate / Middle of the Road
  • C. Leans liberal
  • D. Solidly liberal
  • E. Something Else (What?)

Thank you.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Why Some Smart People have Faith

I've been told a number of times by different ministers that all Christians have doubts once in awhile. I've always had doubts, even back when I did not question the existence of God, as a child, I wondered about certain things, such as who created God, or why do we pray if God's will is going to prevail regardless of what we ask him for.

The resolution to these doubts, according to Christian ministers, is simply to pray to God to strengthen your faith. But God gave us free will, right? So if he can strengthen our faith, then why couldn't he just give us faith and be done with it? Again, more doubts. But, yes, I believed. I believed throughout all my childhood and most of my adult life. But I don't believe now. What changed?

One of the things that kept me believing was my recognition that there are many, many highly intelligent people, even some scientists, that also believe. I figured that if these people, who are more highly educated than I, could believe in the Christian god, then who am I to argue with them. And yet, the doubts continued.

Mostly, I just ignored them. I was never in favor of the conservative side of Christianity. It was repulsive to me. I had gone to a revival or two as a teenager and all that did was serve to drive me away from that sort of thing. I didn't attend any church from the time I was in college until my father died in 1992, well except for that one time my girlfriend (who would later be my wife) forced me to go to a Pentecostal church. It was horrible.

Throughout all the '90s and until about 2003, I attended the First Christian Church in Edinburgh. It was affiliated with Disciples of Christ. The two primary ministers that were there during the time I attended were both very intelligent and extremely well spoken. I loved learning about the bible from them. I even attended a few bible studies sessions. Both of them were seminary graduates and so they knew all about the history of the bible and they could read the bible in its original languages - Greek and Hebrew.

But all this bible study brought on even more serious questions. I spoke at length with the last full-time minister the church had, Steve Defields-Gambrel. I remember once, during lunch, I confessed that my main problem is that I didn't know anything at all about God, but that I felt I knew as much as anyone else does. He just replied, "That's it!" I was correct. Nobody knows anything at all about God; they only think they do, and they are all too willing to tell everyone they meet. They think they know about God because their information comes from one of two sources: the bible, or from other people who got it from the bible themselves. But what if the bible got it wrong? For example, there are things in the bible that are demonstrably wrong, such as insects do not have four legs and the earth is not the shape of a coin. If it can be wrong in some areas, maybe it's all wrong.

Steve preached from the bible, of course, but he believed it all to be metaphor. I once asked him what would his reaction be if somehow it was ever proven that Jesus had never been resurrected in body. He said, "That wouldn't make any difference to me." He said it didn't matter whether or not the Resurrection was real or whether it was metaphor, the meaning is still there.

Shortly thereafter I started reading everything I could find about the history of the bible and about the historical Jesus. There isn't much, outside the bible, about Jesus. Thankfully, there are tricks to learning about a historical person or event from limited information. Bart Ehrman, an evangelical preacher turned agnostic bible expert and professor of theology in North Carolina, describes these methods of determining what's true and what's false in a historical setting very well. It's how we know pretty much everything that's in a history textbook prior to the invention of video.

After reading and studying both sides I began my slow progress toward apostasy. But what still bothered me is how so many highly intelligent people could still believe in the bible. So I did some more research on that topic. As it turns out there really is an inverse correlation between a person's education level and their religious faith: The more educated one is, the less likely they are to be a believer. But there were still lots of highly-educated believers. Why?

I've heard a number of possible explanations. But I think the real reason is probably a mix of things. For one thing, human beings are natural agency detectors. That's why we see pictures in clouds or faces on toast. It used to be evolutionarily advantageous. After all, it would be far better for our ancestors to think they see the face of a lion that turns out to be shadows than to think they see shadows that turn out to be a lion. I think mainly, however, people's brains are born with a remarkable ability to compartmentalize. The part of their brains that allows them to believe in ancient superstitions is kept cognitively separate from the more rational parts of the brain that they use to make important decisions.

That might also explain why I believed until late into my 40s. Although I didn't attend church until I was almost 40, I still was at least a nominal Christian. I just simply kept the reasons why on the back burner, without thinking much about it. And, because, as I said, really smart people sometimes believe. But I was no slouch when it comes to education. I do have a master's degree in science education, so one would think that I would have come to my apostasy much earlier. But it wasn't until I started studying about my religion, the bible, and the historical Jesus that I finally cut the strings to my faith. That part of my brain which had compartmentalized it was allowed to open up. It didn't happen in one day, but when it was finally complete, it was as though I was let out of a locked box that had been trapping me. I thought I was happy as a believer, but it was too confusing, as it turns out. It didn't make sense. And now I know why.

Religion is an invention of humans. It originally helped us to develop into civilized societies, because all religions have rules. The rules are supposedly handed down from whatever supernatural being the religious adherents believe in. But in comparing these religions, they are all very common in a few aspects. Most importantly, they believe in a supernatural being that most would call God, or in multiple such beings. And their most devout adherents always have personal stories that seem to justify and strengthen their belief. Whenever they come across a fact or facts that seem to suggest an inconsistency in their faith, such as why is there so much evil or suffering in the world if God is supposed to be completely loving, cognitive dissonance reduction sets in and they make up excuses for their god to tell themselves. That's why you always hear things like, "The Lord works in mysterious ways," or "It's all part of God's divine plan" during funerals.

Cognitive dissonance reduction is a powerful force and simply knowing it exists is not enough to cure it. A compartmentalized brain is difficult to crack open, which explains why seemingly intelligent people believe in gods. And even knowing that adherents to other religions don't believe in your god any more than you believe in there's seems never to stimulate deeper thought into the possibility that maybe both gods are imaginary. But for whatever reason, I was able to break the spell of Christianity. Maybe it was because I had never had any powerful personal experiences that I could have attributed to God. Maybe it was because I had always harbored serious doubts. But I think mostly it is because I explored those doubts with an open mind by talking to my pastors and then by reading secular books about religion, God, and the bible.

I can now claim to be an atheist, even though I do not discount the possibility that a god might exist. What I know for sure, though, is that if a god does exist, he/she/it is certainly not God, as introduced in the bible. I've heard it said that the best way to become an atheist is to read the bible, all of it, with an open mind instead of reading it as a devotional endeavor. A good and omnipotent god could never allow some of those things to happen.

And now, I try to spread the word against fundamentalist Christianity all I can. I can coexist just fine with most mainline protestants who accept what science has proven and who support the separation of church and state. They usually cause me little concern other than the fact that I disagree with their beliefs. But fundamentalist Christianity, to me, is more like a cult. Fundamentalism of all faiths is one of the biggest threats to progress in the world today and it must be blocked at every conceivable turn.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Just the Facts, Ma'am

The slaying of a local police officer in the line of duty, as happened last weekend in Indianapolis, is certainly a tragedy. Local news stations obviously covered this story and its aftermath, as they should have. However, while I know I'm inviting criticism for being somehow unsympathetic or uncaring, it is my opinion, as well as the opinions of others with whom I've spoken, that this local coverage was nothing short of severe overkill.

During the week, I've witnessed on every local news program on every channel a barrage of coverage from the actual shooting to the vigils to the processions to the funeral to the burial. And everywhere along the way I have been bombarded with the comments and Facebook posts from dozens of family members, friends, co=workers, neighbors, and just everyday strangers, as reported by the news media. All of them, of course, lauded IMPD officer Renn for his bravery and meritorious service to the city. And I have no doubt that he deserves this praise, as he was a brave officer who died in the line of duty. But I do not know any of these average citizens, nor do I care what they have to say about Renn.

During the week of over-coverage of the death of this officer, there were other shootings, homicides, and deaths in the line of duty of everyday people. Most of them received either a report on the local news, if it was a homicide or shooting, or at least an obituary in the local newspaper. But none of them received the attention bestowed on Renn.

We do this all the time. When those four officials were killed in our embassy in Benghazi in 2012, only one of them was our actual ambassador. But you never hear their names mentioned. When Benghazi is referred to (normally by Republicans) if any names are mentioned it is always the ambassador. Were his subordinates not as important as human beings?

People sometimes die. It's all part of the cycle of life. And the death of a person is tragic for those who knew and loved that person. If the person is established as a high-profile individual, it is normal and natural that their deaths are given appropriate news coverage. But news organizations should look long and hard as to what counts as appropriate and what goes beyond into gratuitous coverage.

Police officers, firefighters, and paramedics are all in the public safety business. And maybe it is appropriate to provide more news coverage for them if they are killed in the line of duty. But that coverage should be confined to actual news, not maudlin fluff. As Sgt. Friday used to say every week on a popular detective show, "Just the facts, Ma'am."

Friday, July 04, 2014

God's Biggest Problem

Christians' biggest problem is explaining how an all-loving God can allow so much suffering. But they make up excuses by saying things like, "God's morality is different from ours. Maybe what seems like suffering to us is necessary to God's larger plan that we don't know anything about." But that's just a cop out, a conceit, because they can't explain it within the context of their Christian faith without resorting to such excuse writing.

In Genesis it says that God made us in His image. Evangelicals and Creationists always assume it means his bodily image. But John 4:24 says, "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth." That means Christians should always view God not as a human but as a spirit, and since we are created in his spiritual image, we have the exact same morality as God. So either God has acted immorally when he committed genocide, misogyny, rape, and slavery. Or all that is moral and we should be allowed to do it, too. If the latter, then why would anyone want to have anything to do with God, because humans have obviously evolved a higher sense of morality. If the former, it means God is fallible and susceptible to the same weaknesses as humans.

Bill of Rights 2.0

It seems like a lot of court cases these days are centered around separate Bill of Rights issues, such as the freedom of religion vs. freedom of speech or whether the right to choose your own reproductive health care is trumped by someone else's right to their religious views. Then there is always that pesky right to bear arms issue and how far it should go.

So, to fix all that, what we really need to do is replace the First and Second Amendments with another, broader amendment that prioritizes these rights. The new amendment would also encode in the Constitution the rights that most courts have already interpreted the First Amendment as granting, such as separation of church and state and the right to privacy.

So to keep it simple, allow me to prioritize the rights myself. All it needs now is a proper endorsement by Congress and then three-fourths of the states. That shouldn't be too hard, right?

The first priority goes to Freedom of Speech and Expression. Yes, expression is a type of speech as determined by the courts, but now it has it's own mention. Following closely is Freedom of the Media (since "Press" is quickly becoming archaic). One of the first things dictatorial governments try to do is limit the distribution of news coverage, so this freedom ranks high.

Freedom of privacy must be added in third place. This would include the provision that whatever an adult does in the privacy of his or her own home or on their own private property is none of the government's damn business, as long as no other person is being harmed. So smoke your weed or hire a whore; it's your own business as long as you're doing it in a private setting.

Coming in a close fourth would be the right of people to peacefully assemble. However, since mobs can sometimes get violent, the government has the right to break up demonstrations even if only a few protestors are actively participating in the violent or threatening acts.

Freedom of Religion would get a distant fifth place. Government still can't prefer one religion over another. However, people would still be able to believe whatever the hell they want and to worship when and where they want. But if this right even comes close to abridging any of the rights above, then those rights would get priority. This would also mean that someone's religious beliefs could never be used to force any type of compliance from others, such as happened recently with the Hobby Lobby SCOTUS decision.

The last enumerated right would be the right to keep and bear arms. You can own a gun, or many guns, as long as the barrel is at least 15 inches in length (so no handguns), that they are not automatic or semi-automatic, and that the owner has a government-issued permit. In obtaining said permit, the state would add the owner's name to a national firearm registry which could be computer accessed instantly by anyone who wants to know via the Internet. Additionally, Congress or the states would have authority to pass laws that would regulate gun purchases and ownership provisions within the scope of this amendment.

There! The rights issues have been sorted out. Let's do it!