Wednesday, July 29, 2009

For Those Needing a Good Laugh

Type the phrase "secondary virginity" into your search engine of choice. Just do it.

Actually, in keeping with the concept, do it, feel terribly guilty about it, then promise to never, ever, ever do it again until you've been given permission.

My favorite piece of advice, courtesy of
Avoid intense hugging, passionate kissing and anything else that leads to lustful thoughts and behavior. Anything beyond a brief, simple kiss can quickly become dangerous.
Because, you know, you gotta watch that intense hugging.

If you'll excuse me, I'm off to explode with laughter. That is all.

Questioning Assumptions

The hardest assumptions to question are the ones you make about yourself.

I have avoided swimming pools for most of my life, and it's not because I'm self-conscious about how I look in a swimsuit. I'm much more self-conscious about not being a very good swimmer. It's not so bad that I have trouble staying afloat, but let's just say if you see someone who looks like me doing laps, that's a good indication it's not me.

I took those Red Cross swimming lessons when I was a kid--three classes, in fact. Actually, it was the same beginner class three times because I flunked it the first two times. My third instructor really put in a lot of extra work with me so I could pass the third time. I wish I could remember her name so I could thank her properly. I had (and still have) issues with putting my face in the water. I've never been able to coordinate that with the whole breathing thing.

For any experienced swimmers out there, that probably sounds really dumb, but one of the stories of my life is that hard things are easy for me, and easy things are hard. Calculus and programming? Relatively easy for me, while just about anything touted by others as really easy sends shivers down my spine. For instance, when I was in the Marine Corps, I was always hearing about how easy marksmanship is. Guess who can't hit the broad side of a barn with a rifle?

Enter my friend Jenny, who was on her high school's water polo team. We've been going to the gym and doing the usual cardio and weights thing. She suggested trying out the pool and is now determined to make a water creature out of me. I can get around by doing a sort of elementary backstroke. I'm pretty sure some of the other swimmers thought I looked like a doofus, but I don't really care. My goal isn't to be the next Dara Torres; it's simply to have a good time in the pool and burn some calories while doing it. So by that standard, last night was a success!

Jenny seems to think she'll have me front crawling eventually. I like the idea, but I don't know how long that's going to take. I think I'll work my way up to a standard backstroke first. Small steps. If I could get to a point where I'm actually comfortable front crawling, that would be huge for me. That's why I try not to be too critical of people who dress badly or otherwise look silly when they exercise. At least they're out doing something instead of staying on the couch. I wonder how many people are scared into inaction by fear of how they'll look.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I Smell an Opportunity

I found this at Friendly Atheist. The gist of it is that a Denny's in Euless, TX (near Fort Worth) is offering a 10% discount and a donation of the same amount to the church of the customer's choice for bringing in a church bulletin.

How can a godless heathen take advantage of this offer?
  1. They could swing by a church and swipe a bulletin. But I'm willing to bet most don't want to go that route.
  2. They could bring in a bulletin from the North Texas Church of Freethought and see what happens.
I posted this idea in the comments on the Friendly Atheist post and over at Atheist Nexus. Thoughts?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Good Things About "Organized Freethought"

After my previous post, you may wonder why I don't just "cut a deal" with one of the more liberal religions, as many in my situation do. For example, I have a good friend who told me he's not convinced Jesus was divine, but he finds beauty in the Anglican rituals, so there he stays, keeping his opinions to himself. I'm sure he's not the only one. Technically, if I were to go the Unitarian route, it wouldn't even be cutting a deal, since I wouldn't be required to profess any creed or adhere to any particular doctrine. And many freethinkers have found happy homes in Unitarian churches.

Well, as you may have guessed, I've kind of already tried that. The thing about liberal religion in general is that it's a crapshoot at the group level. I attended a Unitarian church in Austin a few years ago that was actually pretty cool, and probably the only reason I didn't come back is I was really trying to do something else at the time (more on that in another post). But I don't live in Austin any more, and my Unitarian experience where I currently live has left me cold for a couple of reasons.

You can probably guess that I have little patience for fundamentalism of any stripe. But there are other things that I hold in almost equal contempt. The first one is New Age bullshit. I thought about finding a more polite phrasing, but I think it's necessary here. If you value science at all, the belief that you can't sign a contract because Mercury is in retrograde is no more tenable than some Middle Eastern guy who lived a few thousand years ago managed to get every species on the planet onto a vessel about one-third the size of a modern aircraft carrier. Obviously, not every liberal believer has these views, but often such views are spared the skepticism they deserve in the name of tolerance and respect.

The second issue I often run into with liberal congregations is actually the flip side of the same issue I've run into with conservative congregations: I don't like politics being preached to me. At first it was a little easier to stomach when it referred to politics I generally agree with, but I've come to find even that distasteful. That whole "separation of church and state" thing? I'm a huge fan of it--in both directions. So this, combined with the previous paragraph, does not exactly make me a lot of friends in any kind of religion.

And that leads to the things I like best about "organized freethought," to the extent that there is such a thing: freethought groups are always at the forefront of promoting church-state separation issues and the teaching of proper science. You have the right to believe all the craziness there is on this planet if you want to, but the second you try and tell me I need to believe something, well, you'd better have some evidence for it, especially if you want to write these beliefs into law.

I highly recommend this post at Pharyngula that reminds us:
This is atheism: we have no dogma, we have no infallible leaders, everyone is naturally flawed, and we recognize that within our ranks there is a huge diversity of opinion. [. . .] There is no Atheist Supreme Leader. There is no Atheist Pope. There is no Godless Ruling Council, no Atheist Inquisition, no Freethought Dogma.

You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise at times. Remember that anytime you feel tempted to appoint yourself the Ideology Police.

Monday, July 20, 2009

When "Not Collecting Stamps" Becomes a Hobby

A favorite Internet chestnut is that atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby (alternate version: like bald is a hair color). I'm sure whoever came up with that is proud of himself (since vocal atheists are almost exclusively male, I feel pretty safe saying "himself" here).

Fair enough. It's a catchy statement. So let's check in on the latest meeting of the local Non-Stamp-Collector's group, shall we?

Reg (the group leader): Let's all welcome Judith to the Non-Stamp-Collector's group.
Group: Hi, Judith!
Reg: So, Judith, did you ever collect stamps?
Judith: Yeah, when I was a kid. My parents are still avid stamp collectors.
Stan: Hey, Reg, have you had a chance to read Why Stamp Collectors Have It All Wrong yet?
Reg: Not yet. Did you crash that Internet poll: "Is stamp collecting totally stupid?"
Stan: Oh, yeah! We totally turned that around. I don't know why stamp collectors can't see the fallacies in their arguments.
Judith: (wonders if they're ever going to talk about something else)

OK, that's enough of that (yes, the names are shamelessly pilfered from Life of Brian). Do you see where I'm going with this? Judith knows she's not into collecting stamps, despite it being the predominant hobby. But she was kind of hoping for suggestions on alternative hobbies, and she isn't getting any. And if you spend most of your time complaining about stamp collectors, well, then that is a hobby.

At this point I think the metaphor is obvious enough, so I'll dispense with the references to stamp collecting. I actually don't want to condemn these types of groups outright, because they certainly have value. It just depends on what kind of group you want to have. For some people it's important to have a safe space to air their grievances. But if you're going to be that kind of group, your membership will almost certainly remain small.

For people who want to expand their freethought groups, it might be necessary to lay off the bashing of those who aren't hardline atheists and incorporate activities other than talking about what they don't believe and playing "spot the fallacy." I brought a friend with me to one of the groups I hang out with, and she's been afraid to come back because she felt like people were looking down on her for identifying as agnostic instead of atheist.

It might sound like I'm saying the second kind of group is better than the first, and I'm actually not. Like I said, safe havens are important to have. Just realize it's going to narrow your group's focus considerably. If you're ok with that, keep on doing what you do. Just don't wonder why more people don't come.

For even better phrasings of this argument, check out this post on The Meming of Life by Dale McGowan. He's a professional. Trust him.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

My Early Faith: The Coroner's Report

As you might expect, I've read my fair share of arguments for and against the existence of God. A favorite counter to certain atheist arguments is, "That's just the crazy fundamentalists. Even most believers don't believe in that God. You should read some sophisticated theology."

Well, I've read my share of theology, and every argument I've seen boils down to cherry-picking. This is not to say that fundamentalists don't cherry-pick, because I think you have to with the Jewish and Christian scriptures. It just seemed like these "sophisticated theological arguments" could all be said as, "Ignore the parts you don't like."

Let's take that sentiment to its logical conclusion, shall we? Say someone gives you a novel and tells you it's the best book you'll ever read in your entire life, but oh, you might want to skip this paragraph, this chapter, etc. But this book is the gold standard for all books. Is it, if you're having to skip portions of it? Sounds more like a book in need of a competent editor!

I'm not inherently opposed to the "ground of our Being" God-concept. However, I don't think there's acknowledgment for that in how Christianity is usually practiced. That seems a bit odd, because I'm willing to bet that there's a lot of individual Christians who believe that way, but I don't think there's a real institutional framework for that mode of thought (as opposed to most Eastern religions, where that pretty much is the framework). I don't really know what such a church would look like, but I'd think it would have to toss out a lot of the old hymns and rituals, or at the very least approach them differently.

Since that church doesn't exist, a lot of people have to make big compromises for the sake of community. And I understand that everyone makes some compromises when choosing to be part of a larger group. But that seems like an awfully big one to me. While I do find some of the Gospels' teachings inspiring, it's not enough to enable me to sit through songs with militaristic overtones and being preached at like all I need to do is read the Bible more (or its flip side with watered-down hymns and a message I could get by watching Oprah). And frankly, I find just as much inspiration in texts from other religions as I do the Gospels.

Once opened, you can never close the gate of "psychologically true." The trick is where to go from there, and I haven't seen much advice from theists in that regard (you can probably guess what an atheist's advice would be). Don't worry, I have some issues with atheism, too, which I'll discuss soon.

Friday, July 17, 2009

How Theology Killed My Faith

First off, I'd like to apologize for yesterday's somewhat craptastic post. I think it's about as exciting as, well, sitting through a Lutheran service on Setting II. But it does give some background for the information in this post, which I think will be a bit more interesting.

Texas Lutheran requires all its students to take two theology classes. There's an introductory course that everyone has to take, and after that you have your pick of advanced classes. I had put off the intro course because I had this terrible fear of it being a kind of Sunday school for college credit, even though friends assured me that was not the case.

I finally got around to the intro class my junior year. It certainly wasn't Sunday school! We read books like Honest to God by John A.T. Robinson and Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich. Robinson said that instead of thinking of God as "up there" or "out there," we should think of God simply as love. Tillich said that faith was whatever our "Ultimate Concern" was and that God is "the ground of our being." Reading books like these illuminated the theological and intellectual canyon between clergy and laity in most denominations. Apparently Robinson's and Tillich's ideas were much less controversial among theologians and pastors than they were among ordinary members.

At first I was furious. I felt like these ideas had been kept from me as if I'd be too dense to understand them. And then I started pondering the implications of these ideas and got really furious. I thought, "Well, if it's all just metaphor and poetry, why bother?" Now I just think the Hindus beat these guys to that approach by a few thousand years.

I actually have more to say on this topic, but the point I want to make deserves its own post, which I'll probably put up sometime tomorrow.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Then Came the Lutherans

After my falling out with the Southern Baptists when I was in high school, I was invited by a friend to try out her church. Going in, my knowledge of Lutheranism was limited to what I'd heard about the Reformation in history classes, which wasn't a whole lot.

The liturgy threw me off completely. It took me months to get the hang of flipping back and forth between the liturgy and the hymns. Sometimes it felt like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books: "For Sundays during Pentecost, skip to page X. For Sundays during Advent, skip to page Y." I didn't even know what Advent (or Lent, for that matter) actually was until I started going to the Lutheran church. I knew they made Advent calendars for Christmas and that some people gave stuff up for Lent, but I'd always figured that was just something people did in other parts of the country, like sledding. I didn't fully get the ideas behind the structure of the Lutheran service until I had to study the structure of the Catholic Mass in a music history class a few years later. But eventually I was able to at least follow along capably.

I never really cared for the service (although Setting I of the Lutheran Book of Worship was at least less dreary than Setting II), but they were nice enough people, and there were punch and cookies after most services, not to mention real wine in Communion! For those who don't know, Southern Baptists use grape juice, and they don't call it Communion--they call it "The Lord's Supper." So I was happy enough there, and I enjoyed the community service stuff I got to do with the Luther League.

While I only attended that church for a little over a year, that happened to overlap with my taking the SAT's, and in the demographic info, I checked "Lutheran" as my religious preference, which turned out to be pivotal. Shortly after the SAT's, I had a falling out with my Lutheran friend and figured it would be best if I stopped going to that church. However, I received a letter just before the start of my senior year from Texas Lutheran College (now Texas Lutheran University). It began something like, "We thought you might be interested in the benefits of a Lutheran education."

"Um, not really," I remember thinking.

However, the letter went on to say that because of my GPA and test scores, they'd give me $2000 off the top, which quickly turned "Not really" into "Keep talking." The short version: they were the highest bidder, so that's where I ended up after high school. That's when things really got interesting.

For next time: details about my time at TLU, and the effects of studying theology.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Promised details and underlying assumptions

As mentioned previously, I was raised Southern Baptist. This was mostly due to my paternal grandparents' influence. I didn't have a lot of stability early on, but what little I did have came mostly from my grandparents and other extended family. They also went to church regularly, which my parents did not, and I created a connection in my mind between stability and church attendance. I also considered my grandparents to be the nicest people in the world, which I think is how most little kids feel about their grandparents. So it wasn't a huge stretch to think more church attendance would make me a nicer person.

Kids learn very quickly what behaviors get them positive feedback. For some, it's athletic ability; others have artistic talent or even just a certain natural charm. My shortcut to positive feedback involved a gift for memorization (I think I'd have preferred athletic ability, but such is life). Obviously, this came in handy during church and Sunday school, where I memorized Bible passages like a fiend.

In fact, this ability led to the only time I've ever been really useful in an athletic event. At church camp one summer, we had this relay race that involved the kinds of things you typically find in a summer camp relay. However, this race came with an important Biblical twist: the next-to-last person would tag the last person, who would sit down in a chair, recite the books of the Bible by memory, and then run about 50 yards to complete the race. I've never been a fast runner, but I could say all 66 books of the Bible in 21 seconds. This enabled me to get enough of a head start to where my slow running didn't matter, and our team claimed victory!

So that's enough about my background for now. I promised to list some of the assumptions underlying my search:
  • Claims of divine revelation are unreliable at best.
  • Reason is an effective tool for finding truth.
  • Delusion is dangerous.
I'm not saying reason is the only tool or even that it's always the best tool, but I've found it useful, and when I see something that runs contrary to reason, it raises a red flag. The third assumption is mostly based on experience.

It's probably a bit early to ask, but I'll do it anyway: is there any particular topic you'd like me to address? Submit your ideas and any other feedback in the comments.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Here goes.

I had a birthday recently, and I decided that it was time for me to get off the spiritual fence. Sometimes I feel like Susan Sarandon's character in Bull Durham, who's "tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones." But it's been pretty much impossible for me to find something that offers meaning but doesn't also blatantly contradict what we know about how the world works.

So, a little bit about me: I was raised Southern Baptist until I was 15. After that I attended a Lutheran church for a while, which led to my attending a Lutheran college. It's one of the great ironies of my life that taking the required theology courses accelerated my journey away from organized religion, which I'll elaborate on in a future post. By the time I graduated, I considered myself a rabid atheist. That didn't last long, though, probably in part because it freaked out people close to me.

Between then and now, I've checked out my share of religions. But after all these dalliances, I've started to wonder if it's all a bunch of hooey. I think I can safely say that I don't believe in a personal God who intervenes in the world. But that's not the only conception of God out there. And there are several religions that don't require belief in any supernatural beings.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll tell you that I currently attend meetings of freethought groups in my area. It's fair to say that I am a sort of atheist by default, in that I am unconvinced of claims for God's existence that I've heard so far (Note: I am not asserting, "There is definitely no God."). However, you won't find atheist paraphenalia all over this site, as I don't yet consider the question settled.

This blog is going to consist mostly of my musings as I settle that question. I also reserve the right to comment on whatever else I feel like. ;)

Next time: more about where I am now, and some of my underlying assumptions on my search.