Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Much Appreciated Gesture

Over at his Better Living blog, Mark Daniels has written a post entitled 'Note from a Former Atheist and Current Sinner/Saint to My Atheist Friends'

it reads as follows:

"It’s not too late to make a fresh start with God."

Take it from one who has wandered from God time and again, God does give fresh starts.

Don't believe there is a God? I was once there myself. I was an atheist. But something (or Someone) incited me to dare to believe. I found myself willing to believe, though I couldn't explain that willingness rationally, in spite of the fact that such belief ran counter to my penchant for utter empirical rationalism and complete self-sufficiency. God, loving and powerful, has been turning my surprising willingness to believe into a deepening trust (faith) in the God made known in Jesus Christ ever since.

If I go to a great movie or a cool restaurant with tasty fare or if I read a book that changes my perspective on things, I don't keep that stuff in. I tell people about them. The same thing is true for my faith. I fell in love with Jesus Christ, God-enfleshed, thirty-plus years ago and I've found God to be incredibly faithful, my relationship with him exhilarating, challenging, and comforting.

Please, consider being willing to believe in God. Just tell the God you're not even certain is there that you're willing to believe and then see what happens.

Then, be prepared to be as surprised as I was and have remained for over thirty years, by all the fresh starts that come your way. Really."

as one of Mark's atheist friends, this is how I replied:

"I can't tell you what a heartbreaking, near-insanity inducing process my attempt to maintain and regain faith was. The farther I get away from it, the better and healthier I feel.

The shift in worldview has been painful and overwhelming at times, but now--as a secular humanist--I feel much more justified (and less defensive) in my beliefs. I also feel a lot more compassion for my fellow man, and have found myself just being good--for goodness' sake--much more often.

I don't know whether or not there's a god, but if there is, I can't imagine that god objecting to where I'm at right now."

Even though the prospect of returning to the Christian religion seems akin in my mind to returning to an emotionally and physically abusive relationship, I deeply appreciate the concern for my well-being and eternal welfare. As Penn Jillette remarks in his oft-used youtube video on the subject of proselytizing, 'how much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?'

I agree with Penn, and interpret the witness of Mark Daniels, and all of those other wonderful religious people in my life as an act of love. A willingness to engage in good faith talk about important existential issues--that could certainly cause some social and internal comfort--is a wonderful show of respect. The best way I can think of to reciprocate that expression of respect and love is to return the favor.

I've documented my ascent (or descent, depending on your perspective) from religion here, here, here, and here. It's been a long process that began with an attempt to give God credit for the good things that happen to some while giving him an out for allowing so many inexcusable things to happen to others. This issue--among a handful of others--led inevitably to a view of God that was very close to that of Harold Kushner's: A God that is good, but is not omnipotent. Some other considerations brought me farther away from that point to a deism of sorts, and from there, I landed at atheism as kind of a default state. Realizing that I would now have to create my own value system without the aid of the revelations of a good god, I have adopted the life stance of secular humanism. Things seem to be working out so far. Not being forced to defend claims about things that I couldn't possibly know has been helpful, and it's been a great relief to no longer have to serve as the christian God's spin doctor for some of his less than attractive traits.

All of that as it is, I'm glad that there are people out there who love me and are concerned for my well being. I return their love. I also offer up for their consideration the thought that a life lived for it's own sake, without the need to make and defend unsubstantiated claims, with an awe for the vastness and complexity of 'life, the universe, and everything', a focus on loving your neighbors, your family, yourself, and your community, and with a desire to leave the world just a little better off than it was when you found it, is a worthy enterprise.

As someone much more famous than myself once said, 'there is grandeur in this view of life'.

Monday, September 27, 2010

My Top Five Favorite Movies Of All Time

My top-five favorite films of all time, for no other reason than I am a nerd and I like to make top five lists.

5. Wonder Boys:

It's Michael Douglas's portrayal of the world weary, mildly amused, and reverse-writer's-blocked Grady Tripp that keeps me coming back to this movie. I think it's his best performance by far. I've always been attracted to the existential crisis; be it triggered by mid-life or some other stimulus, and everyone in this movie is in crisis. To one extent or another, they all seem to get that life is a very dry joke--without the guarantee of a punchline--that is being played on them; It's encouraging to see how they all muddle through.

This movie gives me hope that people can sustain a sense of meaning into later life.

4. The Princess Bride:

'You killed my father, prepare to die'
'Have fun storming the castle!'
'You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.'
'Anybody want a peanut?'

If you've seen this movie, I don't have to explain its awesomeness to you. It's the best movie to watch when you're in bed with the flu, and it's also a film that you are obligated by all that is right and good to show to your kids while they are still young.

3. Melinda & Melinda:

I’ve always wanted to write an essay about Woody Allen’s films, but I can’t, because I wouldn’t be able to avoid gushing. He’s a genius. He’s the great moralist of our time, and the modern heir to Shakespeare. See? I’m gushing. It’s unattractive.

While Annie Hall is widely considered the Woody Allen film, I think Melinda & Melinda best captures his mature philosophy. It's also really funny, and has one of the best closing scenes of any movie ever.

2. The Big Chill:

I was 12 years old when Jurassic Park came out. I had just read the book in one excited evening about a week or so before, and was totally psyched to see the movie. The movie was pretty good, even though there were some major deviations that were important an inexcusable to my 12 year old mind. One of the things that most impressed me about the whole affair was Jeff Goldblum's performance as Ian Malcolm. I thought he was really cool. He was brilliant, mischievous; you got the sense that he always felt like he was getting away with something (that is actually a trait that runs through a lot of Goldblum's performances). I decided Goldblum was my favorite actor, and set about watching all of his movies. I liked the way he...uh...enunciated. I actually intentionally mimicked his style of talking, consciously trying to adopt his conversational tics. I was pretty successful at this, and still possess trace elements of Goldblum in my day to day speech.

I got around to The Big Chill in my early twenties. I was working at a book store, and starting college. I was already married and had a young son. I was still a kid, but life--and the choices I had made--were working hard to change that. I guess that's probably why the movie resonated with me so much. Another brilliant Goldblum performance helped, but there was also that theme of grown people coming to grips with the fact that the world had at least as much (if not more) to say about the order of things than their particular utopian fancies did. It's a movie about rigid reeds learning to be flexible reeds, so as not to snap in the current of the stream. I should also mention, the music in this movie is phenomenal.

1. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

This movie is wonderful. I could watch it over and over. It mixes sentimentality and comedy in perfect measures. Every performance is perfect. The final scene still makes me cry. Whenever I need a boost, or just want to unwind, this is one of the first places I go.

So that's my list. I'd love to see yours.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

They Seldom State It Directly...

Jacob Weisberg has a profile of the tea party movement over at Slate that I am highly sympathetic to.


"Nostalgia, resentment, and reality-denial are all expressions of the same underlying anxiety about losing one's place in the country or of losing control of it to someone else. When you look at the surveys, the Tea Partiers are not primarily the victims of economic transformation, but rather people whose position is threatened by social change. Because racial bias is unacceptable both in American political culture and in an individualist ideology, Tea Partiers don't say directly what Pat Buchanan used to: that moving from a predominantly white Christian nation to a majority nonwhite one is a bad thing and should be stopped. Instead, their resistance finds sublimated expression through their reality distortion field: Beck's claim that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred of white people"' or Dinesh D'Souza's Newt-endorsed theory that Obama is a Kenyan Mau Mau in mufti, or the prevalent Tea Party opinion that policies like Obamacare and the stimulus are merely mechanisms for transferring income from the middle class to the minority poor and illegal immigrants—i.e., socialism. Of no previous movement has Richard Hofstadter's depiction of populism as driven by "status anxiety" been so apt."

It was brought to my attention lately that I have been cruel in my caricatures of the Tea Party. I have to own that. I have been cruel. I have been condescending, I have stereotyped, I have mocked, I have scorned. I have also shivered at the weird undercurrents of Tea Party concern, and creepy revolutionary language. Don't get me wrong; I don't think there will be a revolution (no one can stay that excited for that long), but it's still creepy. The Tea Party movement strikes me as hysterical and paranoid. They seem to be in the thralls of a compulsive, mass twitch. The Tea Party, to me, is just another utopian group that wants to tear everything down and start again from scratch. Life tends towards chaos. The welfare state (the safety net) seeks to put parameters on that chaos.

If I could replace the omnipresent (and now somewhat trite sounding) Gandhi quote, 'Be the change you wish to see in the world', it would be with the lesser known--but more apt--observation from Kurt Vonnegut that reads as follows:

"Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance."

Monday, September 13, 2010

To Burn Or Not To Burn?

So, I want to be clear about this whole National Read A Koran Day.

I don't think there's anything special about the Koran. I don't think religion deserves respect. I don't respect religion. I think these people are fucking idiots.

The only reason I proposed this event was because I dislike the idea behind book burnings. Period. I think book burning is fascistic. I think it's totalitarian. I think it should be allowed, but I don't like it.

I don't like religion either, by the way. I think it softens the brain and waters down the spirit. It's dishonest, and it's trite. It's a cultural atavism whose adaptive value is running out, and I'm glad*.

I'm pretty sure you all understood where I was coming from with this idea, but I've seen a good number of folks (including our president) use this issue as a way to reinforce the idea that religion should not be challenged or disrespected. I just wanted to make sure I differentiated myself from these namby-pamby religious accomodationists and cultural relativists.

I am absolutely a proponent of blasphemy, and irreverence towards religion. I am also absolutely in favor of freedom of expression, and completely support a person's freedom to burn books.

But book burning is an ugly, fearful, and frankly stupid activity.

You'd think the more authoritarian personalities in our culture would catch on by now that they're not going about these things the right way. Burning and banning and protesting books only makes assholes like me more curious about them.

Now, if fundamentalist Christians really want to suck some of the air out of Islam, they could take a page from the new atheist playbook and actually READ the book, and then apply the weapon of reason and skepticism to it.

But of course, that would be a very dangerous approach for them to take...

my brother, cousin, and I outside of a fundamentalist church in West Virginia. You have to appreciate their straight-forwardness. They don't mince words:
* Don't get me wrong: I know plenty of wonderful, decent, upright, and intelligent religious individuals, but I also know plenty of wonderful, decent, upright, and intelligent folks who use drugs and alcohol. My proposition is that it isn't their religion (or drug use) that makes these folks good. My proposition is that they make themselves good.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

National Read A Koran Day

So, there's a guy in Florida who is getting a lot of press for a little Koran burning event that he is planning.

As a person who believes in the freedom of speech and expression, I think he should be able to do this without any fear of retribution.

But as a person who believes in the freedom of religious expression, and a freedom from fear of persecution for private, benign beliefs, I think this guy (and the ridiculous amount of press he has received) needs to be countered. This guy in Florida doesn't speak for America. This guy in Florida doesn't speak for Florida.

Because of this, I would like to invite you all to participate in this event. If you have a Koran, on October 2nd, read it. If you don't have a Koran, buy one (or borrow one) and read it on October 2nd. Read it skeptically. Read it searching for truth. Read it anyway you want to. Just read it. And invite as many friends as you can to participate in this event.

Personally, I am an atheist. I have a problem with religion in general. But, I also firmly believe that if there is a book out there that someone or some group wants to burn, then I should be reading that book.

So, please join me. This is the United States Of America. We don't burn books here. We read them.

Please show support for this event by joining us on Facebook. Click here.

"Don't give up so easily..."

This guy inspires me.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Fall Is Flirting With Me

I'm hoping that God decides to smash the east coast with another weak hurricane so we can have some more of this beautiful, breezy weather up here in Ohio...

Labor day weekend has been beautiful to me. Fall is my favorite season, and this weekend was all about hinting at its inevitable arrival. There was a slight chill. The leaves on the trails that my family and I hiked were just a little crisp, and the wind was getting worked up; a little enthusiastic, just as I like it. I burned a CD full of Nick Drake songs.

If you ask me, the best weather is the kind where you're not sure whether or not it's cold enough to wear a jacket for whatever events you may have planned. You think about it. You open up your closet and look for your favorite light jacket. You take it out, maybe even try it on. Eventually you decide to pass, and set out without it. When you're out and about (wherever you are), you say to yourself or whoever is with you: 'I probably should have brought my jacket!'

That's the best weather, if you ask me.

So, the kids start school tomorrow. It was a good summer. Life makes sense to me right now, although it doesn't always. I've been thinking about learning French, in the hopes that in about a year or so I'll be fluent enough to take my family on a vacation to Paris and at least be able to talk to the locals. When I travel, I don't like to go to the tourist spots. I like to find some random place and just exist. We usually choose some random macguffin for our vacation destinations. On our first trip to Chicago, our only item on the agenda was to see the Man Eater's of Tsavo. Our only goal the first time we went to New York was to see if those hot dogs were as good as we heard they were (they're better in Chicago). Next year we're going to Rhode Island to see where H.P. Lovecraft is buried. After that, we'll just hang out. Hanging out in a new city is always the best.

So, that's all. Fall's on the way, and it makes me almost manic with enthusiasm for life. I want to create in Fall. Poetry makes more sense in the Autumn than it does at any other time of year. In the Fall, I want to visit old graveyards and listen to folk music. I want to catch acorns with my kids, and get lost walking in the woods. I want to take hayrides, eat toasted almonds and run around in corn mazes. I want to stay up too late by a big bonfire, fall asleep in my lawn chair and smell smoky--like I just stepped out of Hell--the next morning.

When all of the leaves are dying, I feel most alive.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Government Is a Tool; It's Not Your Daddy.

Michael Tomasky recently wrote a good essay for The Guardian that suggests a better way to view the relationship we have with our government.


"The two problems here are, first, that while they (tea party supporters) think they owe government nothing, they actually owe government a great deal. If they're small business people, they depend on the freight rails and the roadways and the utilities and the regulation of interstate commerce and the laws that keep their crooked competitors from undercutting them and the courts' abilities to enforce those laws. Without question the government is an annoyance in their lives in dozens of ways. But they don't see any of the good, only the bad. If you tote it up, the government helps them a lot more than it hurts them, and if they think not, let them go open a hardware store in downtown Mogadishu and see how that works out.

The second problem is the one I saw manifest at that dinner that night. Everybody in this country isn't like you. Yes, you worked hard to get where you are. But the vast majority of people work hard. Some have good luck, some have bad. Some stay healthy, some get sick. Some make only wise decisions, some make an unwise one. Some benefit from free-market oddities and inequities, some lose. And yes, some, because of history or birth circumstances, started the race at a starting line several paces back from the one where you started. Part of citizenship, a crucial part of citizenship, is standing in their shoes for a few moments – as they must stand in yours, and understand your point of view too."

The thing that is so surprising about certain folks' polarized views about what government can be used for is that it is so short-sighted, and seems to indicate a certain amount of self-distrust. Every relationship need not be of a parent/child nature. Government is a tool; you can use a hammer to bash someone's head in, sure, but most often, hammers are used productively. To drive in nails. To build.

Now, the skill level of the craftsman using the hammer is a completely different matter, but we need to be more conscious of false choices that certain members of the media (whose job security depends on you accepting their premise) present us with. It's not 'Government is the Savior versus Government is Cthulhu', as Glenn Beck would have you believe. It's 'Can government assist us in this task, or can it not?'

Trust me; my choice structure will be much more useful to you than Glenn Beck's will (although it may put Glenn out of a job).