Wednesday, April 27, 2011

It needs to be highlighted

So, I'm a proponent of the scientific method. I consider it the best method to date for gathering objective data, and figuring out how this world of ours operates. One of the key components of the scientific method is "replication of experiments/studies." Meaning if someone does a study or an experiment that seems to show evidence for, say, precognition, telepathy, homeopathy, the efficacy of a drug, the Higgs Boson particle, a genetic basis for homophobia, etc etc, I want to see the study replicated. I want another group of researchers to try the experiment themselves, and see if it works out the same, because guess what? Sometimes, it doesn't. Once the experiment has been replicated multiple times, and once the experiment has been vetted for any methodology errors, bias creeping in, and other problems, I want other experiments to be tried that maybe approach the hypothesis from a slightly different angle. All of this should be done with an eye toward falsifying the hypothesis, and every step of the way should be documented and published in peer reviewed publications.

Thus, when I see something like what Ben Goldacre is reporting, I find it disappointing and annoying. Mr. Goldacre made some excellent points, and I agree entirely.

Really? Can I propose the opposite?

Minnesota Republicans offer constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage

James Croft at Temple of the Future addressed the issue of why people object to homosexuality recently, saying

"Sure, it’s about fear, and wariness of difference, and the human need for a scapegoat – all dark aspects of the human soul which bequeath us racism and other forms of hatred. But really, it’s about power."
I'd like to add disgust to that list as a factor. I think there are those who don't fear it, who probably aren't that wary of difference, and don't look too hard for scapegoats: they just think it's disgusting. Whatever. Keep your disgust out of my marriage, and the marriage of my friends and acquaintances. Those emotional problems are your problems, and I'd be happy to assist you in finding ways to deal with your problems. Limiting the rights of people is not dealing.

The power thing? The worst reason of all to be shoving your nose in the lives of others that aren't harming anyone.

Seriously. How about thinking with a bit of respect for others for once, and oh, I dunno, propose the opposite amendment?

"Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman [a union between adult, consenting couples of any gender or sexual orientation] shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?”

There. Fixed it for ya.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Two Rings, Ring 1

I have two rings on my right hand. Objectively, they don't mean much. Subjectively, personally, they mean a great deal.

On the ring finger of my right hand is my high school class ring, which I got in the tenth grade. Almost two decades later, I still wear it. We were able to pick from various designs in order to personalize the ring, so I aimed for things that were meaningful to me. Some of it is not so deep: the coloring is gold with a black inlay, it has a fake emerald for the month of my birth, with the name of my high school circling the base of the stone. On one side is the year I graduated and the school mascot: an eagle, talons out as if to catch something, wings outspread. On the other side is my first name, and below that a design consisting of a torch held high, with the atomic symbol just right of that, and in a diagonal overlay two words: Truth Honor.

Truth, Honor, Education! These are the things that mattered to me when I was 15, and still do today, the values that, when I think back over my life, were there in some nascent form even as young as 7 years old. They have evolved and shifted over the years, but have always grown deeper.

Truth: I realized sometime between 8th and 9th grade that I was miserable, I had no one I trusted in my life, no one I believed could be trusted. It occurred to me that if I desired people in my life I could trust, I needed to be trusted, to be trustworthy. I made an oath, a vow, that I would not lie. I would strive for the rest of my life to be honest, to stick to my word when given (and to not give it lightly), and be worthy of trust. It's worked out really well for me overall.

I cannot say that benefits were immediate. I still struggled with misery, with depression, not just then, but later in life as well. However, as time went on, some people recognized that I would speak the truth, and that I would stick to my word. As a result, I've heard things from people that were sometimes very ugly, stories of abuse or misery of their own. Others knew they could ask me a question, and get an honest answer. And yes, I found people whom I could trust.

My views of Truth, and of my personal vow, have changed and evolved over time. I still believed at that tender age that I needed to hide from people, and so I got very good at saying things that were literally true, while allowing others to misinterpret my meaning. Sometimes this was useful in being tactful while not lying, other times . . . well, I cannot say it was always the right thing to do, anymore than I can say I've never slipped up and failed to live up to my own ideal. I am human. It is a fact that despite our best intentions, most (or all) of us will slip up from time to time. I do not intend that as an excuse, simply . . . a statement.

My focus has shifted from simply desiring trusted people in my life, to considerations of individual's personal truth, to desiring and seeking objective truth. And that is where I sit now, looking to the work of science to give the world the truth of reality, not as we might wish it be, but as it actually IS. In an introductory philosophy course in college there was a discussion of hedonism, with the following thought experiment presented: if you could be placed in some sort tank that would sustain your life for the length of your lifespan, while also having your emotions and mind stimulated so that you could constantly experience a level of pleasure unknown in normal life for the rest of your life, would you want that? Assume, if you must, that society has already made allowances for such a decision, and that it's accepted and normal, so that you will not be harming anyone by doing so, or that you won't be reducing anyone else's pleasure by doing so. The original presenter of the thought experiment assumed that the only answer anyone would make is "Hell, yes!" My answer is "NO, reality is more important than pleasure." Of course, the fact that reality offers so much in the way of wonder and fascination -- from the sheer bizarro workings of particles smaller than an atom, to the proliferation of life in all it's myriad forms (have you ever taken a look at some of the creatures and ecologies in the deep ocean? it's like another planet down there!), to the crashing of galaxies -- is a distinct pleasure. Yet, even were it not, my answer would remain the same.

Honor. Concerns of honor were much on my mind then, and still are, though I think more in terms of ethics or morality than I do "honor." If you'll notice in my first post I describe how concerns over evil and God's actions in the Garden were instrumental toward starting me on a path to being an atheist. Integrity, ethics, morals. When I study philosophy, these are always my primary concern. I've mentioned before that my grandfather is a pastor, well, he's also the closest thing I have to a father figure in my life (for some reason, I just never had that kind of connection with my stepfather). As such, he's been a large influence in my life. One memory doesn't even have him directly in it, just his influence. I was at my grandparents house, and my grandmother was talking to someone, I don't recall who, and telling a story of something that happened recently to her. Apparently, she'd been having a conversation with one of her lady friends, and this lady friend started talking about something or other going on in her life that had been troubling her. The problem was, the lady was talking as if Grandma knew all about it, without providing any background details to the issue. Frankly, Grandma was confused. When she asked what the lady was talking about, she responded something to the effect of "I told [your husband] all about it when I talked to him." My grandmother had to explain that when someone discusses something with her husband in confidence, than as far as he's concerned that discussion is between the person, him, and God. Get that? He doesn't even tell his wife! That's as it should be. Though I disagree with my grandfather on what he considers the very foundation of his life -- faith in a personal God, and that faith is any kind of virtue -- I nonetheless hold him in the highest esteem, with this story being but an example of why.

I hold that concerns of ethics should be a primary concern in all people's lives. Without it, we could probably construct plenty of laws that would keep society orderly, but how could we possibly expect that anyone would choose to avoid breaking such laws if they thought they could get away with it? And some would indeed get away with it. How could we ever think to raise our children in a way that leads to fulfilling lives for all, without an ethical concern?

Education. The class ring as a whole is an homage to an educational facility, and I firmly believe in the value of a good education. I look at the problems of the world, especially in America, and it strikes me that a direct cause of much of our ills comes down to a poor education. When parents refuse to vaccinate their children for fear the vaccine is at best worthless, and at worse causes problems like autism, that's an issue of critical thinking and knowledge. But critical thinking is not the sole province of smart people, it can be taught, the province of education. When so many people stop taking an antibiotics course before it's gone just because they feel better, and as a result we start seeing the emergence of drug resistant bacteria, that's a failure of education. When we see evolution decried as "just a theory," and legislative bodies seeking to force teachers to teach the "theory of creationism/intelligent design," that's a failure of education to explain just what a scientist means when he or she uses the word "theory," and the reams of evidence necessary to earn that name.  It's been shown time and again that higher levels of education lead to greater economic opportunity for the educated, which leads to better economic health for society as a whole. How can there be any doubt that education is vastly important? Yes, education is definitely a core value of mine.

I wear this ring not for any fond memories of my high school years, and not for any sense that high school was a high point in life (it was actually a rather low point), but for what the ring has come to symbolize: truth and trust and objectivity and ethics and morals and education and a better life as a result.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Positive Sexuality

I saw over at Temple of the Future that April 15th was a Day of Silence to honor those who have been hated and beaten down, emotionally and physically, simply because their sexuality and love is a bit different from society's norms. I missed the boat for the day itself, but I see no reason not to make a few comments about such issues simply because it's not 4/15/2011. I hardly think anyone would call it controversial to claim that this deserves our attention year round.

Now, I cannot say that I've had it as rough as some have when it comes to sexuality. I am bisexual, but I have not experienced any direct prejudice from that. I have heard that some homosexuals will claim that bisexuality doesn't exist, but no one has said that to me personally that I can recall. Nor have any straight people tried to harm me or insult me directly because of it, although I was very aware of the derision felt towards same sex attraction in my high school, and in my own family. To be fair, I do sometimes think that my sexuality can best be described as "fluid" (or greedy, I've used 'greedy' as well). I almost always like the ladies, but my attraction for men will sometimes be the stronger, or my desire for certain practices will ebb and flow, day in and day out. Perhaps as a result, I simply don't put out a "vibe" that would draw attention. On the other hand, I've also been aware that if I were publicly out to my family or at work, I may be faced with exactly the kind of prejudice I've so far avoided. I am out to all of my friends, and generally ambivalent if they happen to mention it to others, so long as it's not likely to harm me.

I'll also mention that I'm polyamorous. I fully believe that it's possible and ethical for people to engage in more than one romantic or sexual relationship simultaneously, so long as respect, integrity, and communication are first and foremost. I've seen it. I've experienced it. I've also fucked it up before, but I don't think monogamous people can generally claim they haven't fucked up before either. I am married to a wonderful woman, and at the time of this writing not in any other relationships. I would like to be, but no one's come along that "fits the bill." Oddly enough, I think I've had more negative reactions to being poly than to being bisexual. People seem to have a very hard time understanding the concept of feeling romantic/sexual love for more than one person at a time, and especially understanding how that in no way denigrates the parties involved. Every individual is unique, having their own quirks and oddities, their own talents and skills, their own way of approaching the world. Sure, I've noticed certain traits in common in all the people I've loved romantically, but I have also seen that they are nonetheless unique people, and that the love I feel for each is equally unique. That's right, love feels different every time, but is always wonderful!

This post wasn't intended as a way to come out as bi or poly or any such thing, or to describe myself. I guess saying all that is my way of putting it out there that I am here, in solidarity with those who've had it harder than I. At times, I can only imagine what they've gone through, and feel an empathetic ache in my heart. I don't know what will happen if and when my family realizes these things about me, but I cannot imagine that it will be a pleasant experience.

A few sites that may be of use to people:
Sexual Intelligence: a blog fighting against sexual oppression
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network
Gay Rights:
Polyamory Society

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Perhaps you have heard of or seen a film called "The Fiddler on the Roof?" I can't remember the last time I actually sat and watched the whole thing, as it is at times slower than the films I like to watch, and quite long. Plus, no dragons, lasers, robots, or superheroes. Anyway. It's a musical (and I do love musicals) with some rather delightful songs, and one who's title line has always stuck in my head is "Tradition!" It's the opening number of the film, split between Tevye (the milkman) speaking to the audience and explaining the importance of tradition to the people of his village, Anetevke, and the chorus of villagers explaining traditional roles. Their lives are shaky, uncertain (the film takes place in Russia during a time of great Jewish persecution), like the balance of a fiddler playing on a roof, and tradition helps them maintain balance in their lives. Everyone has a place, and knows just who they are and what's expected of them, thanks to tradition. They even have traditional feuds, like the time when *he* sold a horse to _him_ that was *he* told _him_ was 12 years old, when it was only 6.

It's powerful, this sense of tradition. And it remains powerful even in 21st century America. We have traditional holidays, traditional dress for men and women, traditional gatherings, traditional foods, and traditional feuds. When those traditions are broken or unable to be followed, it can be distressing. The first time I couldn't go to my parents home for Thanksgiving was a sad time, and when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many, I suspect, were distressed at the idea that Mardi Gras might not be able to go forward. Thankfully, it did. I'm sure you yourself could think of many traditions that you would not wish to miss out on.

Yet, it is in large part because of tradition's power that we need to always be willing to examine our traditions, and to determine if those traditions we hold dear (or not so dear) are still worth keeping. To go back to the "Fiddler on the Roof," it was traditional for the Jews of Anetevke to have fathers choose who their children would marry, often when they were still quite young, yet as the movie progresses 3 of Tevye's daughters all seek to marry a man of their own choosing, each one seemingly worse than the last from a traditional perspective. Is that a tradition that should be maintained?

When considering a tradition, there are always going to be multiple things to consider: is it fun? is it beneficial? is it used to memorialize some event that should not be forgotten? is it necessary? in what way is it necessary? is there a better way? And most important, is it ethical? Choosing who your children will marry may have had benefits, such as ensuring that your children will in fact get married, and thus have social stability protected, the family line will continue, there may be financial considerations, political benefits (ending some of those traditional feuds), etc. But at the same time, it denies those individual children, who will some day be adults, the freedom of choice to choose who they will spend a lifetime with, having sex (effectively legitimizing rape of both the man and woman), raising children, interacting with day in, and day out. If the man does not like the wife who was chosen for him? Too bad. It's tradition. Can there be any doubt that when these things are taken into account, this tradition can only be called unethical? If the tradition is unethical, should it not be eliminated? Of course.

Not all traditions are good traditions. Some are downright harmful (female genital mutilation, for example), some are just boring as hell (sitting through multiple commencement speakers at graduation -- ok, that one might have a redeeming feature or two), some might have had a purpose at some point in time, but no longer have a purpose (I don't have any examples for that one, can anyone else think of one?). It's not always immediately obvious whether a tradition is a good tradition, and as such, all traditions must be open to critical  examination, and never defended solely on the basis of "But it's a tradition." If a tradition is found to be unethical, or harmful, it needs to eliminated, or modified to address those concerns. If it's simply boring, can we spice it up a bit? If it had a purpose once, but that purpose is no longer valid, is it worth keeping as a memorial, or because it's fun, or for any other good reason? If so, by all means hold on to it.

Christmas, for example. On the one hand, I'm an atheist, so clearly, I have no desire to celebrate the birth of Jesus, so you won't see any Nativity scenes in my home, I'm not likely to sing traditional, religiously themed carols, or go to Christmas church services. I worked in retail for a number of years, at the local mall, in a store geared toward children, so I'm quite familiar with the commercialization of Christmas. But, I like the get togethers of family that we traditionally engage in. There's a beautiful song by Tim Minchin, called "White Wine in the Sun," that captures my feeling exactly. So, original purpose? Gone, and was never really valid. Memorial? Nope. Fun? Oh yea, definitely. If you ever saw a gathering of my in-laws when the white wine's a-flowing (or even when it's not), you'd agree. And while there's no white wine flowing on my side of the family, there's still fun to be had. I have yet to find any ethical concerns with the tradition as we maintain it, but there's a sense of belonging and connection that I quite like. I think I'll keep this one.

"You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I'll tell you...I don't know. But it's a Tradition!" -Tevye, "Fiddler on the Roof"

Monday, April 11, 2011

1 Corinthians 4:19-21

From time to time, I will be selecting certain passages from the Bible that seem to have a moral dimension to them, and judging them. I won't often, if ever, consider the factual issues of the Bible, i.e., historical or scientific facts, since such questions are dealt with in far greater detail and by those far more qualified than I in other publications. I will use the King James Version primarily, but will occasionally contrast that with other modern translations.

Today's selection was suggested by my wife: 1 Corinthians 4:19-21. I hadn't been aware of this particular passage before, so I checked out the chapter, trying to see if maybe there was a context that could mitigate the boldness of it. I could not find such a context. Here's the text:

19But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power. 20For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. 21What will ye? shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness? (KJV)
For comparison, here's the New International Version of 2011:
19 But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. 20 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. 21What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit? 

For background, Paul is writing to the Corinthians because he's heard some disturbing tales of dispute and division amongst the church members there. He has a variety of things to say about the divisions, of course, but here he's saying that those who have been speaking arrogantly against him, and causing division, will be answering to him when he gets there. It's not the words they say that he intends to test, but their power.

Might makes right. Let's not engage in discussion and debate, for that's arrogance. Power. I will shut you up, because I have it, and you don't. Whatever happened to turning the other cheek? I suppose he does ask if he should arrive and be meek instead, but he also makes it clear which choice he prefers.

Paul has been held up as one of the more important writers of the Bible, so this is pretty damn interesting, wouldn't you say?

Judgement: Immoral.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Humanity is good and evil. Don't blame it on god.

I would like to write today about humanity's nature. This is inspired in part by views I've held for a long time, by recent events in the world (such as the murders in Mazar-I-Sharif) , and the writing that some have done in response to those events (PZ Myers had a moving piece).

Christianity, Islam, and a variety of other religions tend to give the credit for the good and bad that humanity does in this world not to humans, but to either God or the Devil (or equivalent for the particular religion being discussed). The skill of a doctor who saves a child was guided and inspired by god; the murder of a child was brought about due to the devil's insidious whispers. God is begged for the strength to resist temptation, and praised when temptation is resisted, while the devil (or the flesh) is blamed when temptation is not resisted (the disconnect there is a subject to be touched on later). When great charitable acts are done, god is thanked; when selfishness rules, the devil gets his portion of blame.

This is all false. All the good and evil that humanity has accomplished in this world, is in us. When Hitler started the death camps, it wasn't an absence of god, or the presence of the devil: it was Hitler as human. When hundreds (or more) came together to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, it wasn't the divine hand of god: it was hundreds of people as humans. When a little boy at a parade caught some candy thrown by a fireman, and saw another little boy upset and crying because he didn't catch any, it wasn't god who moved the first boy to share his candy, but that boy's compassion and sense of fairness. When one child grabs another's beloved toy, and breaks it, that's not the devil at work, but selfishness and spite. When a father sees his child crying and takes the time to kneel down and hug him, and find out what's wrong, and do all in his power to fix it, that's not god moving within him, that's a father's love. When a different father jams his thumbs in his son's collarbone and threatens punishment when they get home if the child makes another sound, that's not the devil at work, and that is NOT a father's love.

When we look at all the good that people do in this world, whether small or large moments, whether saving a life or sharing a piece of candy, and then attribute that to god, we denigrate the people who are choosing to take those actions. Let me say that again: when we thank god for the good that people do in this world, we are DIMINISHING, not the action, but the people taking that good action. To say that the hand of a surgeon who saves a life was guided by god, inspired by god, takes away from the years of hard work and stress that the surgeon has undergone to develop that skill, as well as the system that allowed the surgeon to develop that skill. Do not say "Thank God", for that misplaces your gratitude. Rather, say "Thank you Doctor."

By the same reasoning, if we blame the devil for a father who abuses his son, we are absolving him of too much responsibility, and thus raising him up higher than he deserves. We should deal with such a father, not as if the devil is his influence, but as if the father is to blame. Correct and reform the father if possible, but never let him hide behind the devil.

I can think of times when I have shown compassion and goodness, and I can think of times when I've been cruel, selfish, and so-much-less than good. I look at the people I love, and the people I've known, and I see the same: moments of compassion, and moments of pettiness. I look at the world I see in the news, and I see the same: moments of good, and moments of evil. And everywhere, I see things that fall between the extremes. To blame or thank god for any of it, to blame or thank the devil for any of it, is false. More than false, it seems at times downright harmful.

If we continue to excuse our worst natures with appeals to the devil, or because some lady ate a piece of fruit she shouldn't have eaten, it can only make it more difficult to mitigate or (dare I hope?) eliminate our evil. In addiction therapy, it becomes necessary for the addicted to acknowledge the harm they've done to others in service to that addiction before it becomes possible to truly make amends, and break away from the addiction. If humanity is going to progress and improve, we must acknowledge the harm that WE have done to ourselves, and stop blaming it on god and the devil. As long as we deny our culpability, we enable ourselves to continue as we always have.