Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Irresolution

So, tomorrow is New Year's Day, right? This may not be a rhetorical question.

Within the year commonly referred to as 2008, Jews will celebrate the beginning of the year 5769 on September 29th. Many people in Asia will mark February 7th as the beginning of the year of the (Earth) Rat. For Muslims, the year 1429 starts on January 10th, and the year 1430 starts on December 29th. This can conceivably be confusing, you may imagine.

The fact is, I've always felt that celebrating new years and anniversaries was a custom that was somewhat questionable. The amount of time it takes the earth to orbit around the sun is really in some sense only interesting when it comes to agriculture, and not personally being a farmer, why should I care? We mark the days to give them significance, not because they have any inherent significance in themselves.

Even if they did have significance for their own sake, then we have to wonder, how do we properly mark that significance? There are, as implied above, numerous calendar systems, and there is no inherent reason to assume that any one of them is the best. The calendar we use here in the west has a 365-day year, but of course, that's not the actual time that it takes for the earth to move around the sun. How long does it take? Well, it's not 365.25 days, either, as you may have been led to believe. I'm not sure which is the exact measure one might wsh to use, but according to what I have read, the "Gaussian year" is 365.2568983 days, the "Sidereal year" is 365.2563604 days, and the "Tropical year" is 365.2421904 days. The odd upshot of the fractional part of the year and our attempts to adjust for it in our calendars is that a child born on New Year's Day 2008 would likely have the true anniversary of his/her birth on December 31st, 2008, due to the extra day we will be adding in February. Weird.

Really, though, I had a point in all of this, and it wasn't supposed to be a downer about the futility of trying to mark the passage of time in a universe that works like clockwork, if by "clockwork" we mean in the sense of a watch that that loses about a minute per day. The fact is that like so many things in our world that we have laid down as arbitrary rules and measurings of what's right, there is still a purpose, and a good one. So many of us, myself included, have some odd internal preference to live like anarchists and say, "Throw out the rules, all of them, and let me live as I choose, not by your schedule, not by your standards, not by your rules, but with true freedom!" But it is those very rules that give us the freedom that we really truly desire.

I hate living at the mercy of the clock and my work schedule, and I hate to have someone say, you must be sitting at your desk at such-and-such time, and you must take your break at this hour, and you have to stay here until such time as I say. I have to work the same time every day from Monday through Friday, although I'd much rather have the freedom to simply put in as many hours as I wish at whatever time interval I wish, on whichever days I wish. Yet... I said to a friend the other day, "Meet me for lunch on Thursday at 11, okay?" I would not have had the chance to meet with my friend without the common rules of the clock, an understanding of the days of the week, and the annual commemoration (artificial though it is on many levels) of the birth of Christ, which had given him occasion to be in town and visit family.

Yes, like so many of the building blocks of our society, I have a love-hate relationship with the calendar and the clock. I'm a horrible procrastinator, and the people and institutions of the world around me constantly push me with deadlines that I hate, but if they chose not to, I wouldn't give them the time of day, as they say.

Confession time: In 2007, I procrastinated in sending in my vehicle registration papers. I ended up paying a late fee. When I finally sent in the papers, I got my registration sticker, but procrastinated in putting it on the car. I got pulled over and ticketed. I procrastinated in paying off the ticket. Due to further procrastination, what should have been a $10 fine ended up turning into an astronomical amount that I shall not disclose here, and on top of that, because I procrastinated in reading my mail and paying of that increased fine in time, my license was suspended, and I will have to pay to get it reinstated. I am a victim of the calendar, but it's certainly not the calendar's fault, it's my own fault for ignoring it when it came knocking at my door.

There's a lesson to be learned in this, (Setting aside the obvious lesson of "Brucker is an idiot"?) and for some people it may be obvious, while for others not so much. Most of us, when we think of evil, think of an act of causing harm to another individual by our actions. Nonetheless, there is a strong tendency to overlook another sort of evil, which is the evil of knowing what is the right action to take, and not taking it. What I see in the situation I have put myself in, and the situation that many of us contemplate in taking the New Year as a time of self-evaluation, is a corollary sort of evil: the evil of knowing that which is the right thing to do, and putting it off for later.

So often in life, we know what is right; we even know that there is an action that we should do that is right, and failing to do it is wrong. Yet still, we hesitate. Is there a nasty habit that you need to stop? Is there a problem that you need to fix, and have been putting off? Is there an uncomfortable truth that you need to come to grips with, and have mentally avoided as long as you can? If it has to be the New Year for you to face up to those things, then so be it, but whenever you happen to be reading this, it is the New Year. It may be some culture's day to commemorate the completion of a solar cycle, or it may be the anniversary of someone's birth that you know. Every single day is the anniversary of something, and every single day is a good day to do that which is right. I don't know what that is for you, but if you know, then there is no better day than today to do it.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Remembering the king of Kings

It's interesting to me that here in the United States of America, a land that is built on a foundation of religious freedom, we have a national holiday to commemorate the birth of a great religious leader. I mean, have no doubt, he was a great man, and although he was not understood by so many in his own lifetime. He was martyred while he was still young, but in the short time he walked this earth, he shook up society in a way that will probably never be forgotten. While I am a proponent of freedom of religion, and I realize that sometimes means keeping religion out of government, I wholly support the official status of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday.

While I am glad we commemorate this great man who may be one of the greatest Americans of all time, there is something about him that strikes me as interesting in the way it contrasts with that other great religious figure whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow. If a person were to do anything more with King's birthday than simply take a day off from work, they might take some time to review his great "I Have a Dream" speech, study his work in civil rights activism, take time to mentally devote yourself to King's teachings of non-violent political activism or some such thing. I am not aware of anybody who takes the time on King's birthday to sit down and look at King's baby pictures.

To tell you the truth, I've never seen a baby picture of Dr. King; who knows if any are in existence? But seeing as it's his birthday, it's really the commemoration of his birth; do people paint pictures of his mother and father bringing him home from the hospital? Do people make pilgrimages to Atlanta to see his birthplace (Maybe they do, I don't know)? We commemorate the day of his birth because we revere him for all the great things he did long after he was born.

Even on your own birthday I bet nobody pulls out the album and shows of pictures of your mother cradling you in her arms. The day of your birth is the day that we use to commemorate you, but not really to commemorate your infancy, because it was a far more important and memorable day to your mother than it will ever really be to you.

So what's the deal with Christmas, then? Why do we take a man who did so much in the late part of his life, and on his birthday, unlike anybody else in history, we actually take time to remember his actual birth? We buy big plastic glowing models of the manger scene and erect them in our yards, we buy small pewter ones and put them on our mantels, we buy tiny ones made of glass and hang them on branches of trees that we inexplicably have brought into our house. (Imagine telling your family in May that you want to go cut down a tree and put it in your living room! But that's another story...) We get together and reenact the story, making some teenage girl stuff a pillow in her dress and sit sidesaddle on a rented donkey while people parade by and ooh and ahh and say how wonderful it is for an unmarried teenage girl to be pregnant. Everything is about an infant that lived a couple thousand years ago, and in the midst of celebrating the birth, we do all sorts of crazy things that we would simply never do any other time of year for any other historical figure.

Why? It's funny, but there is actually a good reason.

When you look at King, the fact is, as I hinted at before, that the fact of his birth is not particularly important to his life. Who remembers the details other than his parents, who are both long-dead? All of his accomplishments, and those of pretty much everyone else, occurred much later in life, when we and they were adults. That's what makes them great, and why we remember them, the fact we use birthdays to honor people is just an arbitrary cultural way to devote a specific day to them.

Jesus, however, is different. Because of who he was, and what his life meant, because he is both God and the Son of God, because for him, being born was actually a volitional choice, the day of his birth is in many ways the most important day of Jesus' life, and the beginning of his life's work. In order for Jesus to die for us, he first had to be born in a human body for us.

So many of us, in searching for miracles, forget that miracles happen every day when new lives start. It's an amazing thing for a single-celled zygote to grow and mature within the womb and become a living human being. Life itself is a miracle, and to think that the creator of life himself would take on the mantle of life and live through it himself? For the being who is so great that the universe cannot contain him to force himself to be contained by the womb of a peasant girl?

For Jesus, birth itself was one of his greatest accomplishments and one of his greatest blessings to us, and as odd as it may be, it is right, very right for us to celebrate not just the man Jesus, but his very act of being born into this world so that we could have Emmanuel, "God with us."

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Mormon as President? Why not?

I decided not to make this have a clever title, nor to drone on about my own opinion here for overly long because I wanted to mainly drop a simple question out for consideration.

I know Mitt Romney in particular has a few personal quirks that someone might not like to see in their presidential candidates, like the fact he's waffled on a few issues, but set those aside and ask the generic question. What's wrong with having a Mormon in the White House?

We're looking at an election year where we're likely to see a demographic breakthrough for our leader. The next President is likely to be either Black, female, Hispanic, Mormon, or Italian. While I think we probably have come to the point in this country where race matters very little, we do still care about gender to some degree, and we certainly care about a person's beliefs, as they should say something about that person. While I tend to mostly disagree with the reasons people feel a woman does not belong in the Oval Office (yes, women are different, and they lead differently; is that necessarily so bad, though?) I seriously don't get the Mormon thing.

Sure, I don't think that Mormon theology is correct. In fact, I think it's rather strange. But what issue is that insofar as being President? The President isn't going to be teaching the country about God. They're not going to be explaining scripture to us. We're voting for a political leader, not a high priest. Mormon moral values are pretty darned American, as far as I can tell. There is a very short list of religious affiliations that I would hate to see our President have, and Mormonism is not on it.

What is it that people realistically fear a Mormon President would or could do to this country? I'd like to know, because I frankly don't see it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: ad nauseam

So after some difficulties this morning and over the preceding weekend, I finally got into my e-mail this afternoon and found that I'd actually received quite a bit of electronic correspondence over the last few days. Interestingly enough, I really don't get a lot of spam, and this time was no exception. Emails giving me information that I had actually asked for, notes from family and friends, and info from guys at my church who are involved with and/or leading groups with which I'm involved. And there was the one fly in the ointment.

There's this guy, see. He's a nice guy, a good Christian, and someone who I enjoy talking with face-to-face. However, over the weekend he had sent me an e-mail with a picture of and little blurb concerning Barack Hussein Obama (with a noted emphasis on the fact that yes, that's his middle name!). This isn't the first time that he's sent me an e-mail with a subject line starting "FW: fwd: fwd:" or whatever. No, there was some matter of signing a petition that would do something having to do with prayer in schools or some such thing that of course turned out to be completely meaningless on a quick check of

This time was different, though, and to tell you the truth, I was simultaneously unhappy and glad that it was different. It turned out that the bare content (minus editorializing) of the e-mail was correct! This happens so rarely in these situations, it threw me for a bit of a loop. I was a bit disappointed that I couldn't just fire back, "No; this is all wrong; please stop forwarding these to me; can't you see what this is doing to your personal credibility?!" You know, I'll admit that I actually get a bit of smug self-satisfaction from sending out such an e-mail, but you can't send out that e-mail when the person sending you info happens to be right.

So what was the part that made me glad? It was the dawning of a realization that came as much less of a surprise to me than the discovery that the e-mail was technically true: I DON'T CARE! It doesn't matter to me if you find out that Hillary Clinton's a lesbian, John Edwards has made a hobby of torturing puppies, Mitt Romney has seven wives, or Rudy Giuliani was really the mastermind behind 9/11! It doesn't matter whether you have a reputable source or not, whether there's a photo attached or not, or whether there is an action required of me or not. I don't care if you have twenty pictures of cute kittens playing with balls of string, or a heartwarming poem to remind me of what's so great about mothers, or even a coupon for free ice cream. If the subject already starts with even one "FW:", don't click a button and send me a "FW: FW:" because I DON'T WANT IT!

Obsessive forwarders of the world, I'm cutting you off. If you want to send me your own e-mail, please do. I'm not going to read anyone else's.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

10 things about me

Hmph, more like 42, if you ask me. Marauder has once again tagged me for one of these things because he knows I often reply against my better judgment.

1. What were you doing 10 years ago?

I had recently gotten married, and was working for a mortgage company, which I considered to be my first "real job". It was one of those magical times that people talk about where we lived in a small apartment with our only furniture being a deck lounge for a sofa and a futon mattress for a bed, and of course it was one of the happier times in our lives, living so simply. As a bit of technological nostalgia, we didn't own a computer, so if we wanted to check our e-mails, we had to use my father-in-law's computer, which had a 16 MHz processor running Windows 3.1. Of course even then it was out-of date, but it got the job done.

2. What were you doing one year ago?

I was still working at my job at a missionary organization as a statistician, but was in the process of looking for a secular job that would pay more so I could better support my family. My kids were just starting their first year of school (I have twins, for those not in the know), and in my spare time I was following the lonelygirl15 series, which had recently been revealed to be a hoax, but fascinated me for being a sort of new art form. On the tech note, so long as I did it above, I was doing most of my work on an 833 MHz machine running Windows ME using Office 2000 and SQL. As of now, I have a secular job in I.T. working on a 3.0 GHz machine running Windows NT Professional, I do a lot of my work in PHP and JavaScript, and will soon be training my co-workers in how to understand Office 2007.

3. What are five snacks you enjoy?

  • Starbucks pumpkin scones
  • Salt & vinegar potato chips
  • Jalapeño poppers
  • Frosted mini-wheats
  • M&Ms
4. What are five songs you know the lyrics to?

Sheesh, like Marauder, I'm a lyrics freak, so I know a lot of lyrics. It might be more to the point to ask for five albums I know the lyrics to. For instance, if I get a song from the Beatles' White Album stick in my head, I'll usually run through the entire album mentally. Let me think of some unusual songs I know...
5. Five Things You Would Do If You Were A Millionaire
  • Invest in real estate.
  • Get a graduate degree.
  • Travel around the world.
  • Give $1,000 to 1,000 people and tell them to change the world.
  • Never wear the same pair of socks twice.
6. Five Things Your Kids Have Taught You
  • Sometimes having a good laugh is as important as actually being funny. The humor of a four-year-old seldom makes sense, but it's always funny to them.
  • Macaroni and cheese is always a good meal choice when in doubt. Goes without saying.
  • All animals are really cool. One of my daughters loves dogs, but she'll be nearly as excited about touching a spider as a puppy.
  • There's inherent excitement in trying something new and different. 99% of the time, my kids ride in my wife's car, but on the rare occasions that I've moved their car seats to my car, even a trip to the grocery store is an adventure to them.
  • Having my own children has taught me a lot about how God looks at us as His children.
7. Five Things You Like To Do
  • Constructing artificial languages.
  • Studying typefaces.
  • Solving British crosswords.
  • Debating philosophy.
  • Writing crap like this blog.
8. Five Things You Would Never Wear

Never? I don't know that I can imagine, let's see...
  • A toupee. If I ever go bald, I hope to do so with dignity.
  • A nosering. I had been considering getting my nose pierced shortly before I first met my wife, and she told me she didn't like piercings. I don't even wear my earrings anymore.
  • More tattoos. On a semi-related note, I had two tattoos when I met my wife, and have abstained from getting additional ones. Most people who have tattoos seem to have several, as it's actually sort of addicting in a way that's hard to explain. While I'm happy with the ones I have, I realized that there's something oxymoronic and silly about making a permanent fashion statement.
  • A pair of shoes that cost more than a day's wage.
  • A speedo. Ew.
9. Five Favorite Toys
  • I have this windup toy that is sort of hard to describe. Ah, here it is, the Critter. For some reason the thing cracks me up to no end.
  • The Rubik's Cube. I couldn't solve I back in the day when it was hot, but eventually figured out how to solve it (although not very fast) about five years or so after its heyday. A fun mental exercise in algorithmic processes.
  • Scrabble. (Does a board game count as a toy?)
  • Kittens. Awesome.
  • This blog.
10. Five Things You Hate To Do
  • Being forced to come up with five of everything
Okay, I tag Pervez Musharraf, the unknown person who is in current possession of my senior class ring, Bertie Wooster, Ganesha, and the concept of Lazer Tag.

Friday, October 26, 2007


A couple months ago, my boss was having me research info on fire safes. As with a number of businesses, we back up the information on our servers to a tape drive, and put the tapes in a small safe to protect them from fire and/or theft. If you're not familiar (which I'm guessing most people are not), fire safes are typically given ratings of one-hour, two-hour or three-hour, which is more or less considered the amount of time a given safe can sit in a typical building fire without the contents being damaged. My boss wasn't happy when I gave him the particulars of what these ratings mean on a more technical level, expressing that he wanted a safe that would offer complete protection and be truly fire-proof. I explained to him as it says on this website:

Remember, provided there is enough heat, NOTHING IS ACTUALLY FIREPROOF and everything WILL BURN.
As you likely have heard in the news, a large portion of Southern California is burning this week. Over thirty fires have consumed half a million acres of land (about half the size of Rhode Island), taken the lives of at least six people, injured over fifty firefighters, destroyed over 1,500 homes, and are still going at this time.

Like pretty much everything that happens around me, the fires caused some introspection and reflection. Even in areas like the one where I live that are not actually on fire, ashes fall continually, and the sky has been a brownish-orange for six days and probably will continue to be for some time even if the fires are extinguished soon. Everywhere is being effected.

But it did get a bit personal on Monday morning when I drove to work and found the street my office is on blocked off by police. I was a block away from work, and though I couldn't see the fire itself, I could tell from the smoke that it was just a block away again on the far side of my office. I was allowed through the roadblock and arrived at work where my boss informed me that we were not yet told to evacuate, but we knew there was a high likelihood of it as indeed, the fire was just a block away. He himself had gone to the roof of our building and taken pictures of the flames rising through the trees on a neighboring ridge earlier that morning.

I sat at my desk and took some time to survey the junk that usually litters it. Once the call came to evacuate, which was pretty much a sure thing, I wouldn't have time to grab more than one or two things off of my desk, so I decided to be preemptive and grab everything that was irreplaceable, put it in a bag, and take it to my car that moment. It stuck me as I was gathering up my belongings that there were some things that I brought to work with me because I thought they would be safer sitting in a drawer in my work desk than sitting in a drawer in a desk in my home. "What if something happened to my house?" I'd often thought in the past. "Better to bring this to work for safekeeping." Nothing of monetary value, just personal sentimental value. Now I had come to realize that work was not a safe place after all. About an hour later, in fact, my boss would be having me load office equipment into my car to take home for safekeeping, ironically including our fire safe.

I started to think about it all. I already knew that home was not safe. I don't have a safe, so important documents are kept in a cardboard box. Put the box on the floor, and it will be destroyed in a flood. Put the box on a high shelf and it will be destroyed in a fire. Put the box in my car and it will be destroyed in a car crash. Put it anywhere at all and it could be stolen.

Is buying a safe the answer, though? Testing safes for effectiveness is a very lengthy process, and few safes that are not priced at hundreds of dollars make it. They put them in furnaces to simulate fire conditions; then while still hot, they drop them from a certain height to simulate a collapsing building; then they submerge them in water to see if they keep watertight because no doubt the firefighters will dump hundreds of gallons of water into your office building to stop the burning. If you didn't choose a safe that was good enough for the sort of fire that hit your building (which of course, you can't predict), then your stored materials will be melted, charred, smashed and soaked.

But how much is enough to spend on a safe? As the quote above indicates, despite the fact that you can be very dedicated to finding a way to protect yourself from fire, there is a chance that some sort of catastrophe will come that will burn not just your documents, but the safe itself! Sure, it's not likely, but it is possible.

The point of all of this is that in the midst of worrying throughout the rest of the day about the thousands of dollars of office equipment and confidential information of clients that were loaded into my car, I realized I could guarantee no safety. Everything that I own, and everything that my employer had put me in charge of, all of it had potential to be lost, damaged, stolen or destroyed. What's a person to do?

There is a principle that Jesus taught, and I think it's one of a handful of principles that have practical application for all people, not just those who believe in Christ's deity. Yet it is not such an obvious one like, "Love thy neighbor as thyself," or "Thou shalt not kill." In Matthew 6, Jesus said,
"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
I think most people think of this as a spiritual thing, and if you are a Christian, you definitely should, but there is a completely mundane and practical application to this. Buy yourself some fancy clothes, and eventually, they will rot away and go out of style. Buy yourself a cool car, and eventually it will break down and become a pile of scrap metal. Put your money in the bank and the bank will go under due to bad business decisions or embezzlement, the bottom will fall out of the value of the dollar, the stock market crashes and the real estate bubble bursts. Every worldly possession you have can, and eventually will go away.

But if you invest in educating children? If you invest in saving the environment? If you invest in peace, love, understanding, and all sorts of other hippy-dippy stuff like that? The return on that sort of investment is worth more than any amount of money.

A friend of mine remarked that when he watches the news these days, and sees people evacuated from fire areas, repeatedly they so often seem to cry out that they have lost "everything." He wondered to me, "Don't they still have their lives? Don't they still have their families? Don't most of them have insurance that will allow them to rebuild most if not just about all of what they did lose?" It would be a tragedy if I were to lose all those material possessions, no doubt. But so long as I have my wife, my children, and my God, I have all that I truly need. And even if I did lose my family, I would have the fond memories of the joy we shared. No fire can take that away from me.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Why is the sky blue? (It has nothing to do with wavelengths.)

"In our world," said Eustace, "a star is a huge ball of flaming gas."

"Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what a star is made of."
-Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
I'm sure what I have to say here is a reiteration of what others have said hundreds of times if I cared to search through literature and what passes for it on the Internet, but perhaps it stands to be said once again anyway. There are a lot of people in the world these days who, whether they would state it this way or not, put science in the place of faith. I think this is a grave mistake, and a way of closing oneself off from truly glorious possibilities of experience in this life (not to mention the next) by being closed-minded.

Let me make something very clear, though. It is often such self-professed skeptics who hurl the accusation of closed-mindedness at those who do have faith. Hypocrisy? No, actually, because they can often be right. You see, the very point I wish to make here is that science and faith are not opposing sides such that one must choose one or the other, but two separate things that can and should coexist in harmony. Among those of us who have faith as a major aspect of our lives, there are more than a few who have taken a position wherein they have done the opposite of the skeptics, and put faith in the place of science. Given that faith tends to be a thing more rigid than science in general, a person in such a mindset might rightfully be said to be more closed-minded than a person of the opposing camp.

It came as a bit of a surprise to me, and it may to you, to find out that C.S. Lewis, arguably the most prominent Christian apologist of the 20th century, was a believer in evolution. Modern evangelicals love Lewis, but hate evolutionary theory; how many know of his views on this matter?

The thing is, recently I finally had a chance to read some of Lewis' science fiction. (I've been well-acquainted with his "Chronicles of Narnia" since I was about six. Prince Caspian is a book I fondly remember as being the first novel I managed to read within a 24-hour period, back when I was seven years old and I had just discovered that The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe was only the first book in a series of seven!) Perhaps not as deeply engaging and enchanting as his Narnia books, but still a pretty good read, Lewis had written a trilogy of books involving space travel and aliens. The thing that seems odd about them is the manner in which the main character of the stories discusses with sentient beings on other planets his attempt to grasp what forces of nature might have caused them to evolve into the forms that they have come to be, while at the same time, it is quite clear that this protagonist is a devoted Christian in the midst of a very Christian story. The power of Lewis' interplanetary theology drips from every page of the tale, and is a strong, positive message. Yet I suspect that if these stories were to be written today, no Christian publishing house would touch them for the science that doesn't fit in with the popular evangelical world-view.

It's a shame. No really, I mean that not in the "Oh, it's too bad," sense, but in the real sense of meaning that I'm embarrassed for fellow Christians who might miss a good message for the sake of fighting a world-view that need not be the enemy of the faith we live. After all, who can doubt the fervor and intensity of Lewis' faith? Yet he maintained that faith while being quite comfortable accepting the science of the 20th century right alongside his faith. Is it so impossible that Christians could do the same?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to advocate that we all embrace evolutionary theory. It has its merits, but the strength of science is in the allowance of skepticism. By all means, doubt evolution, question it! But don't reject it out-of-hand as though it were blasphemous just because you can't fit it easily into your world-view. And I give the same message to those whose religion has become science, whether you realize it or not. There are a lot of scientists who feel that the natural world is pointing to the idea of a higher power: science and religion can and do mix freely.

What is it that has failed in our culture that so many of us can't see this? I think it is a lack of understanding of the basic questions we ask in order to understand the universe. I thought I had shared this allegory with you before, and if you've heard it excuse me, but it's one of my favorites: There once was a community of mice who all lived inside of a piano. Every day, as the mice went about their business, beautiful music floated down from above them and filled their world. The mice had come to believe that there was a being who was larger and more intelligent than them who lived outside of the piano, and this person, the Great Musicmaker, made the music because of a love of beauty. Some mice decided one day to go and try to find the Great Musicmaker, so they climbed up the insides of the piano to see what they would see. Eventually, they came to a large cavern filled with strings and hammers. As they stood there wondering what they were seeing, the music began playing. They were shocked at what they saw, and they returned immediately to the rest of the mice. Once back, they reported, "There is no Great Musicmaker, only hammers striking strings!"

What's the point of this story? The point of this story, and all that I am writing here is that the question of HOW things come to be is a separate one from WHY things come to be. When the mice looked on the hammers and strings, they understood the HOW, and were somehow blinded to the WHY. Likewise, in our world, many people examine the world and find "There is no God, only space-time and matter and forces, and all can be explained by gravity and chemistry and quantum forces." I've said it many times; yes, all can be explained by those things, but only the HOW of those things.

But there is an extension to this allegory that perhaps fits to the modern world. Suppose the mice chose to continue to believe in the Great Musicmaker? Really, they would be right to do so, wouldn't they? Where they would be wrong is if they denounced those mice who claimed that the strings and hammers existed, and said that is was wrong to believe in the existence of strings and hammers. That would be putting so much emphasis on the WHY that there was no room for the HOW.

It is my belief that everything that exists, exists for a reason. It is also my belief that this reason is twofold: one aspect is WHY the thing exists, and one aspect is HOW it came to exist. Those two aspects may be and probably are strongly intertwined, so I see no reason why either one should be divorced completely from the picture.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The roof! The roof! The roof is on fire!

Years ago, when I used to frequent online discussion groups and had no blog, I had a rather interesting experience in a discussion group on atheism. Being open about the fact that I was a Christian, I got a bit of hostility from the other posters, as is to be expected. I did reassure everyone that I was not there to preach unless asked to, as I was sure they received more than enough people wandering through to explain to them the great peril they were in due to the wrath of God, and I probably had little to add to the discussion. I'd come to discuss some other matter that I no longer recall, but in the midst of the hostility that largely died down once I had made my intentions clear, there was one poster to the group that asked me what I thought to be a surprising question.

He thanked me for not wanting to preach, but he asked me in curiosity why it is that so many Christians are so preachy. Really it had never occurred to me that a person in the midst of our western culture might not know the answer to that one. To my surprise (and some amusement), after I had explained it to him, he became angry again. Although I had done nothing to convince him of the truth of Christianity (and indeed, most likely he is still an atheist to this day) he was furious no longer at the audacity of Christians who preach to unbelievers, but instead at the audacity of Christians who do not preach! This was a strange 180-degree turn I'd never seen before, and have not seen since, but on some level, it makes sense.

There's a popular metaphor used by many Christians in response to inquiries about the purpose of preaching the Gospel and proselytizing in general; it may have been the one I used that day. You see, it's like this: Suppose you are walking along in the street and you see someone sitting in the window of a house that's on fire. He clearly has no idea his house is on fire, because he's sitting there complacently reading a book or watching television or what have you. What do you do? Do you try and get his attention and let him know he's in danger, or do you leave him alone, because you don't want to annoy a stranger? Well, most likely you try and let him know that he's in trouble, right?

You wave your arms, you shout, you throw pebbles at the window, until finally, he comes to the window and exasperatedly asks, "What the heck is it you want?!" Upon informing him that his house is burning, rather than gratefully thanking you for your help and running outside, he looks around. He smells no smoke. He sees no flames. He decides you're a lunatic and tells you to go away and stop bothering him. Now you can do that, or you can stay there and shout and insist to him that truly his house is on fire, and he must get out, now! Eventually, you're either going to save the guy's life, or he's going to get really annoyed at you up until the point he burns to death, and then it's too late.

This is a popular metaphor, and indeed, some people do think of it being literally true, but in a spiritual sense. After all, if you're not saved, then supposedly day by day the flames of Hell are creeping closer and closer to you, until the day comes that you will die and they will consume you.

There's a real problem with this metaphor, though. In a practical sense, if you were in a real-life situation similar to the one presented in in the metaphor, you could always in a last resort enter the house, overpower the occupant and drag them out to the street where the flames would be visible. You could call the fire department to come and put out the fire, for that matter. But the metaphor doesn't stretch quite that far.

How do you drag someone out of a metaphorical burning building?

It's a truth, be it fortunate or unfortunate, that you simply can't make someone believe in something. You can show someone evidence, you can plead with them, you can threaten them, but in the end, people believe what they choose to believe.

It's odd, but I actually feel like I understand fanatics who burn down churches or blow up abortion clinics or suicide bomb buses or what have you. Surely there's a feeling that something is so wrong with the world, or at least a particular part of the world, that the only thing to do is to lash out in violence. But if you burn down a church, you're not going to change the personal beliefs of a single member of that church; blow up an abortion clinic, and you're not going to stop a single woman from getting an abortion; get on a bus in Tel Aviv with explosives tied to you and wipe the thing off the face of the earth, and the nation of Israel will continue to exist. In cases like these, violence is not just wrong, it's pointless! But at the same time, I get the sense of desperation that no doubt drives these people to behave in such an irrational fashion. When something is perceived to be wrong with the world, we want to act to make things right.

Yet unfortunately it is exactly in these areas of life where people are driven to extremes that these extremes serve no purpose. You can't force belief on others, you can't force morality. Blow things up, drive people out of physically burning buildings, and still most likely they will stay in the exact same place mentally they have always been. In the end, all you can really do is share your beliefs and pray.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Racing From Elevators

BTW, as a quick side note that I've been meaning to mention, I remembered the other day that the movie Rat Race has an instance of "running from elevators". At a point somewhere around fifteen minutes into the film, most of the main characters are standing in an elevator lobby near the top of a tall building, waiting for the elevator to come up. One by one, they decide in a panic to take the stairs rather than waiting for the elevator to arrive.

Would the congregation please rise...

YORK, Pa. (AP) - September 12, 2007 - A York County judge says a man ordained over the Internet can't perform a legal wedding in Pennsylvania. That's because the Universal Life Church minister doesn't have a congregation that he meets with regularly or a place of worship. The church is planning to challenge the ruling. A church official says accepting some ministers but not others is arbitrary and violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
Someone tell me whether I'm allowed to post the whole of an AP story without permission, which I have done here. (If not, I'll remove it, and leave a link instead.) I just had to talk about this one. I'm actually quite surprised that in a web search on this, it was actually so hard to find. In my mind, this is one of the top stories of the week, but then of course, I know that I am obsessed with issues having to do with religion in the culture, so it's probably just me.

It's quite possible that someone reading may not have heard of the Universal Life Church. I don't know how well-known they are, but they're pretty easy to sum up. Essentially, the ULC is a church simply for the sake of being a church. Seriously. They are a church with no tenets or rules whatsoever, and the thing they are best known for is that they will ordain people as ministers if you send them a self-addressed stamped envelope. Actually, I don't think even that much effort is necessary. Nope, it isn't: I just got ordained in less time it took me to cut and paste the article above. Seriously. I'm a freakin' minister now.

Their site features a new option to confess sins online, and to my surprise, a list of ULC congregations, which I did not know to exist. (Perhaps they're just made up? Names of local congregations include "Desert Rainbow Phundamentalists", "Our Divine Coven", and "Church of Drawing".) But enough about the ULC, you could almost read about it on their own site in less time than you could read my own ramblings about it. I've got a point or two I wanted to make about the story.

Okay, so the ULC is a fake church--so to speak. As they themselves point out, legally they are a church in some sort of technical sense that I'm not going to bother to figure out, but anyone who takes a moment or two to familiarize himself with the "church" realizes that it's in essence a bunch of crap. But that does not mean that the ruling of this judge is right.

Let's face it; as I and others have said so rightly before, faith is a very personal thing. What could possibly give the government the right to step in and say that any particular faith is bullshit, even and perhaps especially when it's so very obviously the case? Since when was it required that a minister had to have a group of followers to be a minister? Why is it that you can have a wedding performed by a justice of the peace or the captain of a ship or various other people in specialized positions, but as a "minister", you only qualify if you have followers? (Surely a minister who is performing a wedding has in theory at least two followers, right?)

This news story is possibly a landmark in the history of the separation of church and state, but it occurred to me that there may be an implication here that strikes to the heart of another issue: same-sex marriage. I feel like I've said it here before, but I can't find it in any post so at the risk of repeating myself, let me give you my fantasy resolution to the same-sex marriage issue. A number of the people who oppose same-sex marriage claim that it's a religious issue, and that God ordained it to be so that marriage was to be between one man and one woman. In my mind, if that is so (and I personally believe it myself) then it follows that if the government has no right to meddle in the matter of marriage since it's a religious issue, then they should get right out of the marriage business! Everyone always says to me, "You're nuts, that would never happen!" and I know it's not realistic, but really, I'd like to see not only same-sex marriage banned from ever becoming legal, but I'd like all laws pertaining to the institution of marriage, regardless of the gender(s) of the parties involved, to be simply dissolved.

There came a time about three years into my own marriage where my wife and I had need of a copy of our marriage certificate (I think perhaps it had something to do with Social Security records), and could not find one. We realized that neither of us had ever seen our marriage certificate, and wondered if in fact it existed. My wife was worried about this; I was not. I told her that I had married her by giving a vow to God, not a vow to the government. If the government did not have a piece of paper recording that vow, it mattered very little to me.

Anyway, I find myself wondering if people are using their ULC ordinations to perform same-sex marriages? If not, despite the fact that I said above that I oppose legalization of it, I think people should be. If you really believe that the government has no right to tell you who you can or cannot spend your life with, then why fight? It reminds me of a principle of Buddhism that I have talked about in this blog before, that if the world is an illusion, then there is no point striving against an illusion, simply ignore it and seek enlightenment.

It's a small story, one hardly noticed in the press at all, and yet, there's something potentially profound here. Even though the ULC is not really a religion in any practical sense, it cuts to the heart of the bizarreness of what happens when we try to have a non-religious government that meddles in religion. This may lead to a place where the government is more entwined with religion than ever before, or it may lead to the exact opposite. Who can say, but I'm sure we all can hope, right?

And some of us can become ministers, I suppose...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

What's logic got to do with it?

I suppose I spend a lot of my spare time and energy arguing that faith is a good and rational thing. Heck, it's essentially the point of my other blog, if not expressly stated, then at least in fairly obvious subtext. I have a hard time sitting back while I hear people disparage (more or less) faith by describing it as something like "belief in that which has no evidence". I'm sure I've railed on it before, if not here then in countless other venues of public expression. And yet, I'm going to take a moment to say a few things that are a baby step if not a leap in the other direction.

I remember back in my early college days, there came a time when I began to describe myself as a Christian, although in truth, I no longer consider myself to have been one at the time. The stage of personal belief I was at was that I had recently taken the time to read the New Testament for the first time, and I was impressed with what I read. There was definitely something to Christ and his early followers, and I became convinced that Christianity was Truth-with-a-capital-T as one says, and Christians were not (necessarily) idiots following nonsense blindly.

At the same time, I remember an odd moment when I was hanging out with my Christian friends, and I saw something odd. It was one of those things you can't quite explain, you just experience it, and somehow it seems right. One of the young women in my group of Christian friends was looking at another discussing some theological point, and I saw an odd gleam in her eye. At that moment I was surprised and oddly convinced that this woman was completely insane. There was something unsettling and unbalanced in that gleam, and it gave me a thought. Maybe you have to be just a little bit insane to really, truly believe in God. Not to say that belief in God was a delusion of one's insanity, but that God, being the sort of being that He is supposed to be, so totally foreign to our mundane experiences of daily life, somehow causes a sort of mental short circuit when His presence invades our consciousness.

As I write on this, it sounds a bit in the same vein as some of my previous musings on the nature of the soul, and a Christian who followed that and understood it might think I'm talking about some sort of physical analogue to the concept of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but that's not what I'm talking about at all. I think this sort of short circuit (if indeed that is what it is) happens quite naturally, and to people of all sorts of faith. It's related to the idea espoused above that faith is a belief without evidence, but in this case, it's belief in that which is not completely logical. We live in a natural world, how can we be completely sane and yet accept the existence of the supernatural, in whatever form we might believe in it?

Yet there is a problem coming at this from the side of the skeptics and atheists. I think atheists are quite aware of this, and in reading the above, no doubt they nod their heads and say, "Finally, this Brucker guy is making sense!" There is definitely a belief among such people that there is nothing more illogical than belief in the supernatural. Nonetheless, I would like to say (and finally come to the main point of this writing--aren't essays supposed to start with the point and expand on it instead of building to it? I'm a really crappy writer sometimes...) that this is not what I am saying at all. Despite all I have said here, I still claim that faith is not illogical.

I wish to coin a term here, sort of. It's not in the dictionary, although a search on Google turns up nearly 60,000 hits, so perhaps the idea is not so new. I believe that faith is "nonlogical". In case you don't immediately grasp the term from its own form, consider this: It's logical to believe that 1+1=2. It's illogical to believe that 1+1=3. It's nonlogical to believe that 1+1 is possibly a symbolic representation of a concept such as human relationships. "Nonlogical" is the idea that something might be impossible to arrive at through logical reasoning, yet also there is no logical reasoning that can completely dismiss that something. Faith, love, beauty: these things have a truth-value based not on scientific principles or clear-cut definitions of tangible value, but simply stand on their own.

The fact is, there are statements about the world that are simply true, and other statements about the world that are simply false, but many, many statements about the world are in a gray area in between. That fictional champion of logic, "Star Trek's" Spock once said: "Logic is the beginning of wisdom...not the end." Logic can take you far in life, but it was something I realized back in those days and still remember, that in a journey to Truth-with-a-capital-T, there comes a point where logic comes to the end of itself and says, "I can take you no further." Some people get to that point and they let go of logic's hand and walk forward into the darkness. Some people get there and insist that there must simply be nothing more. Still, logic can't really tell you which one is right, can it?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Jagged Little Pill

Rather than reposting the whole discussion--which wasn't long, but why bother--I offer up a link to a post I made on Goosing the Antithesis some time ago. It's a subject that, in a way, I've been thinking about a lot more in the last few weeks, ever since the Skeptic's Annotated Bible actually managed to surprise me. Is the SAB the red pill or the blue pill?

What if reality was not what you thought it to be? In many ways, this is a sticky question most of all on the religious front. Most of us feel we're logically justified in not expecting a "Matrix"-style awakening, and definitely, there is very little reason to think that the wool is being pulled over our eyes to such an extent. Yet at the same time, it's the intangibles of the world that are always on some level very open to questioning. How do you know that your government has anyone's best interests in mind, much less your own? How do you know how the people in your life feel about you, really? How do you know that your brain is functioning right, and you're not insane? And how do you know that your beliefs about god(s) or lack thereof are on the mark?

The thing is, the day I was writing the ASAB blog entry (not the GtA one) I was experiencing a great deal of mixed emotion. I've said it before, and I really mean it, that there are days that I wish the whole Christianity thing was just a bad dream I'd wake up from and find that the universe is somehow simpler. I'm not the sort of person who believes that morality cannot exist apart from God, but definitely in the absence of God, there are numerous moral obligations that completely lose their foundations. In various parts of the Bible, religion is referred to as a "burden" that it would be a shame to saddle someone with unnecessarily, and if the Bible says it, it must be right, eh?

Anyway, the prospect of finding a serious flaw in the Bible was exciting. I've said many a time that while I'm aware of minor glitches in the Bible, the real thing that most Christians worry about is the possibility that there might be a doctrinal error. It's one thing to not know how many chariots Solomon had, it's a whole other issue to not know whether performing a particular action, failing to perform a particular action, or performing a particular action wrong will cause you some sort of torment at the hands of an angry supreme being. So while I would stop short of calling the (potential) problem a serious doctrinal error, the idea that contradictory punishments might be doled out, not just for a crime, but for a rather dubious crime was extremely troubling.

I've always liked Plato's Allegory of the Cave: the idea that we in the world are like people in a cave who only see dark, distorted shadows on a wall when the truth is bright sunlight out side that we didn't even dream of. Plato hypothesized that anyone forced to leave the cave and come out into the sunlight would be essentially traumatized by the change, and might at first fight against it. The fact is, we all believe that our own world-view is correct; that's natural and healthy. Although there might be a better, bigger truth out there, a first glimpse of it might be blinding or painful, and it would inevitably be scary to face the prospect of having to change everything that you know to fit a new set of perceptions.

For myself, the journey into Christianity was like that, and if I should discover it not to be true at some time in the future, the journey out would be similar. Nobody wants to discover that everything they thought made the world what it is is only a lie, even if the world they know is unpleasant. When Morpheus sits before you and offers you those pills, he doesn't give you a glass of water to swallow it with, you've got to choke that thing down, and on the way down it scratches a throat that is straining to reject it.

Maybe you should reject it. Many Christians would tell you that anyone who is trying to lead you away from Christianity is only a servant of Satan in some direct or indirect way. While an atheist isn't likely to appeal to the supernatural, many of them consider evangelistic Christians in the same manner: just charlatans looking to pull the wool over your eyes so you can join the flock and be fleeced along with the rest of the sheep. Whichever position you personally take, it bears contemplating. When I saw The Matrix for the first time, I thought the scene in which Neo is offered the two pills was incredibly creepy. Imagine yourself in a strange house you've never been to before with a bunch of freaky people you just met that day, and one of them says, "Hey, if you take this pill, you're going to see some wild stuff!" My personal response would be, "Uh, thanks, but I tried that stuff in college, and I think I'm pretty much done with it, okay?"

Of course, as I mentioned in the notes of the original post, there was a similar scene in the movie Total Recall in which the hero of the story is also offered a pill that will supposedly make the fantasy world around him disappear. He rejects the pill, and although the ending of the movie is left with a touch of vagueness, we are generally led to believe that rejection was the right choice, and the pill was a deception. In a less philosophical (and cinematic) vein, some people believe that when they take LSD, they are having some sort of supernatural experience of expanded consciousness, while others simply believe that the chemicals in their brain are being made to fire randomly, and it's all garbage. Who in the end is to say whether an atheist or a theist is the one who is having a "bad trip"? Each is convinced in their own mind that they are seeing the true reality.

The funny thing is, it's like you're sitting there with Morpheus, he holds out the pills and says his little speech, and as you reach for the pill, someone chimes up, saying, "Wait a minute, I think you've got it backwards. I'm pretty sure it's the blue pill that makes you wake up from the dream." On a side note, something I've always wondered is what would have happened if Neo had taken both pills? (Edit to add: Apparently, I'm not the only one to muse on this.) Of course, the pills being essentially a metaphor even in the original story, I think the whole thing breaks down at that point. The only reasonable alternative to taking one pill or the other is to take neither and just walk away. (I suppose in my metaphorical take, that would be like agnosticism.) In the real-world scenario, I think that's the choice I would take.

But not too many of us find ourself sitting in a room with a mysterious man offering us two pills that represent radically diverging life-paths. Most of us live a very mundane life. Still, those choices are offered to us nonetheless. "I can't think of any reason why I wouldn't take the red pill," says one commenter on the old post, and yet every day, so many people turn their back on the possibility of knowing the truth, certain (metaphorically) that the blue pill is all the reality they need. This is not a criticism of atheism; this is a criticism of closed-mindedness. Whatever it is that you believe, you should know and accept the possibility that you might be wrong, as logical and well-founded as your beliefs may seem.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Protesting protestantism

There's something I love about irony.

If you ask an evangelical protestant Christian why they are not Catholic, they'll probably have a short list of things that they perceive as being somehow wrong with the Catholic Church. Now, I don't have a source for much of what I'm going to say here, only personal experience from having now lived a fair portion of my life among Protestants, you'll just have to take my word for it if you're not in the same sorts of social circles in which I tend to find myself.

What's wrong with the Catholic Church? Well, it tends to boil down to authority. Maybe it's an American thing, since the U.S. is a country that was largely founded on the rejection of supposed divine authority, but there is this feeling that it is clearly wrong to have a person (a.k.a. The Pope, or maybe your local priest) who tells you what to think when it comes to spiritual matters. The Church (I'll henceforth use a capital "C" when referring to the Catholic Church) apparently has all these rules that you have to follow. The Bible has a specific meaning that the Church teaches; worship is done in a style that the Church dictates; communion, baptism and various other rituals are carried out with a specified liturgy the Church prescribes; etc. Sure, there are other issues, but aside from a few deeper theological issues that most people don't really fully understand anyway, most of it boils down to the fact that rather than a free church in which we all are equals and exist on the same level, the Church has this complicated hierarchy of authority figures that dictate every aspect of your faith life.

The irony in this all is that in the end, most of our evangelical protestant churches have discarded this sort of structured hierarchy in return for a hidden, more vaguely-defined one. Even early on in my experience as a Christian, the first church I ever attended had special meetings to welcome newcomers into their congregation. I actually remember very little about those classes except for one thing that I thought odd at the time. The pastor who was running the class repeatedly informed us, in an odd manner that seemed proudly sly, that "At this church..." (subtle dramatic pause) "...we don't wear ties!" Apparently having grown up in a much more formal church, this guy was very interested in this fact, and seemed to be sure that everyone else would be as well. Big whoop, right?

Yet, there was something about this that in a way he never admitted, perhaps least of all to himself, was indeed a big deal. At the time, I always suspected that the fact that he even brought it up implied that it was a big deal to him. I thought, "You know, I wonder if he'd prefer to wear a tie anyway?" Maybe that's it, and maybe it's one of the smallest examples of the sort of thing I'm talking about. Sure, he doesn't have to wear a tie, but I suspect that although it's not written down anywhere, it is the case that he is not allowed to wear a tie. Not that this is solely a church thing; I've worked in offices with relaxed dress policies, and people tend to give you dirty looks if you show up wearing a tie.

But the institutionalization doesn't stop with an unstated dress code, people talk about how more traditional churches have rituals and liturgy, and sing old traditional songs. At our church, we have once again our own unstated liturgical service, and it's one that's similar to every evangelical church I've attended in my dozen or so years as a Christian.

At the appointed time for church to start, the worship leader will get up on the stage with the band, take his guitar and welcome everyone to church. He will welcome everyone to stand, which is not expressly required, but everyone with the exception of a few elderly people and those in wheelchairs will do so. Most people will show up five to ten minutes later, perhaps as much as twenty minutes if they have children. Around this time, the band will pause and an associate pastor or perhaps a deacon will walk onto the stage. He will welcome everyone again, compliment the band, and invite everyone to sit down. A short speech will be given about upcoming events, the need for more volunteers in children's ministry, and an admonition to visitors not to give money for the offering, but merely fill out a visitor card and drop it on the bag. He says a short prayer, and the band plays a song while the ushers pass the offering bags around. Everyone is asked to stand again, one more song is played, the worship leader asks everyone to shake hands with their neighbor, and everyone sits down as the senior pastor takes the stage and the band exits. The sermon opens with a bad joke or perhaps a humorous movie clip on the screen. Everyone pulls out their sermon notes, which consist of three bullet points with a missing word or phrase to fill in. After about forty-five minutes of talking, the pastor apologizes for his sermon being "so long", wraps it up and excuses everyone. People with children pick them up; every child has a craft project in a white paper sack with a Bible verse sticker on it. People mill about on the patio eating donuts if it's an a.m. service, cookies if it's p.m., and either way there is also coffee, juice and water.

Deviate from the above in any way, and the congregation will freak out. I had a pastor whose wife was a ballet instructor, and at one service, during the music phase, some dancers came out on stage and did a little routine. In principle, there's nothing wrong with this, but departing from routine was bizarre, and a few people got up and left.

Now, there's nothing wrong with routine actually. Like I said above, these things happen in the secular world, too. What about the deeper issues of theology? Surely those are the real vital ones, right? In the Church, if the Pope says things are a certain way, then that's the way they are, and supposedly, that's bad to have a single person driving and defining faith for a large group of other people.

First of all, it has to be understood, as I myself did not understand until a few years ago, that the Pope's every word is not somehow law on par with scripture. At times, the Pope does choose to speak with such authority, but most of the time, he's a lot like a senior pastor of a worldwide church, simply being there to guide and teach like any Protestant pastor would do.

Second of all, who says our little local churches are so different? When my pastor stands up at the lectern on a Sunday morning and says "Jesus is trying to say such-and-such through this passage of scripture," is it at all appropriate or acceptable for me to stand up at my seat in the congregation and say, "Excuse me, but I disagree with your interpretation?" Of course not (in general: as I have mentioned elsewhere, my church does a yearly "open mike" service where anyone can ask the pastor any question they want), that would be incredibly out of the norm; the church would sooner stop serving coffee on the patio!

Lastly, there are a few things to be said about this. Most churches, including my own, have a "statement of faith" which is a document which outlines our theological position. Anyone who wants to join the church has to read the document and sign a statement saying that they agree with it and will not oppose it within the church. While it may seem to some to be a shade totalitarian, it makes sense that you would have such an instrument to foster unity in the church. If you don't agree with it before you join, why would you want to join? If you come to an understanding that disagrees with it after joining, why would you want to stay? At the same time, if you have a question about an issue, there is no rule against discussing it with a pastor or fellow member of the congregation, only against actively opposing it from within the church.

Many things that I have said here in my blog would shock numerous people at my church, (many drop their jaw at the mention that I'm a registered Democrat, which I think is the least of my issues) although I don't keep the existence of this blog a secret; I don't think anyone from my church reads it. If I were to say some of the things I have said in this blog at any sort of official church meeting, I think it's possible I might lose my membership, I'm not sure, but I think it would be fair, actually. Still, I have the right to say whatever I want outside of church, and the thing of it is, that doesn't make me any different from Catholics. In truth, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Catholic that has complete and undying devotion to the Pope; most I have met admire and respect him, but also have occasional issues on which they respectfully disagree with him.

Is the pastor of a church just a little Pope? Sure, we Protestants recognize that the pastorate and the laity are two categories of people between whom God makes no strong distinction. At the church picnic, he's just another guy you josh around with, chat about work, play frisbee with, etc. But on Sunday morning, he's the one standing on the stage, telling everyone what the Bible means, and while you may share the same theological position as he does, you're not going to take his place on the stage Sunday morning as easily as you took his place in line for the hot dogs Saturday afternoon. While the board of elders (or whatever) can have him replaced if necessary, in a very real way, while he is in office, the pastor is the church.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Thumbing my nose at Stephen Jay Gould

(Note: This blog entry has prerequisite reading, a short essay to be found here.)

My grandmother used to have a peculiar habit of collecting rocks. Collecting rocks in itself is not weird, most people have done it at one time or another, but most people do it because the rocks they collect have either a certain physical beauty or perhaps they came from a place that has sentimental value to them. My grandmother collected rocks because she wanted to be an archaeologist.

The place where I grew up was considered by many archaeologists to be a veritable treasure trove of artifacts, having been populated for centuries by numerous cultures. An interesting history there, actually; the Pomo tribe was in many ways like the financial center of the ancient California economy. They had a technology that as far as I know is still a secret to this day that enabled them to make stone drill bits they used in the manufacture of beads from seashells. These beads were used as a local currency because there was a limited supply of them made under strict secrecy and control of the Pomo. When Europeans finally made it to the West Coast, they brought with them the technology to make drill bits out of metal, and the economic system collapsed virtually overnight as everyone freely made counterfeit beads.

My grandmother's interest as an amateur archaeologist was, unfortunately, lacking in any sort of scientific rigor. Her back porch was often littered with various stones she had collected on her walks along a nearby creek, and when asked why she had chosen the stones she had, there were two stock answers.

1. "I think these are man-made because I see so many rocks just like them all over the place."
2. "I think this rock was man-made because I've never seen another rock like it anywhere."

I think anyone could see the problem with this logic. Aside from the obvious contradiction, the fact is that real artifacts will probably fall somewhere in between on the commonality spectrum, but in the end, the real issue is that relative rarity of an object is not something that's truly a factor in how likely it is to be man-made. (Those stone drill bits I mentioned are undoubtedly man-made, but are extremely rare, while old rusty nails, which are also undoubtedly man-made, are very easy to find when digging around in the dirt in that area.)

For those of you that read the essay I linked to, you might be wondering what all of this has to do with evolution, or maybe you see it as a transparent attempt to switch the topic to Intelligent Design. Well, ID is definitely going to come up in some form in this post, but I have a message for people on both sides of the evolutionary debate. In his essay, Stephen Jay Gould mentions

"I had always learned that a dexterous, opposable thumb stood among the hallmarks of human success."
I myself had never been taught this, but perhaps I was biased growing up with a cat that had opposable thumbs. I think what Gould is hinting at here is that anti-evolutionists are looking at the thumb of humans and saying essentially, "The thumb as we know it in humans is extremely rare in other animals, therefore surely we must have been designed." Uniqueness is indeed often touted as a basis for assuming intelligent design, usually, of course, as a list of things that are unique to humans in particular. Something that I have been noticing lately after reading a great deal about the platypus is that uniqueness is a surprisingly common thing. Every animal has something that sets it apart from other animals, or it would be the same animal, wouldn't it? And while the platypus is indeed very odd, odd animals exist everywhere. (I think on this continent, our "odd animal" is the hummingbird, but I'm sure there are other freaks of nature.) Anyway, the oddly unique qualities that are possessed by homo sapiens are really a non-issue to evolutionary biologists, and from a purely scientific standpoint, they shouldn't be, really.

The thing that I really find fascinating about this essay is that Gould (a man who, if Darwinism were a religion as some of my fellow fundamentalists seem to think, would have been one of its archbishops if not the Pope) seems to agree with some of the views that creationists and ID proponents espouse today. While most skeptics insist that the idea of a creator who designed life is preposterous and need not even be addressed as a possibility, Gould gives a nod to the concept:
"[I]deal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator."
Certainly Gould never admits the idea of a creator as a likely possibility, and in fact the whole point of the essay is to argue fiercely against the concept, but he does address the concept in order to make a reasoned argument against it, something few evolutionists even bother to do, it seems to me.

For those anti-evolutionists who may be reading this, I would say to you that if you actually read Gould's essay and it didn't give you pause, I think you're either being intellectually dishonest or you didn't understand his point. I think a big part of what makes his argument so strong is that he does take time to consider the possibilities presented by the hypothesized existence of an intelligent creator of the panda. In seeing both sides, at least in some limited degree, he's creating a case that is much more well-rounded than most I've heard. Creationists could and should take a tip from Gould. While I've been railing a bit in my last paragraph about evolutionists failing to address the opposition, I don't want to give the impression that I think creationists are any better on average in that respect. No ground is going to be gained for the cause of promoting creationism or ID by ignoring the other side. Evolution has a lot of evidence and many solid arguments behind it, and while, yes, it does seem highly unlikely that somehow billions of years of random chance caused inert matter to somehow coalesce and eventually morph into modern humans, simply saying that it's dubious is hardly an argument in itself.

Gould's argument is pretty straightforward, but needs an essay several pages long to explain the backdrop of the real meat of the argument; delving into the general morphology of the order carnivora, comparing pandas to bears and other relatives, explaining the mechanism of the human thumb vs. the panda thumb all lead up to a basis for putting it all together into a simple premise.
"The radial thumb is...a contraption, not a lovely contrivance."
Gould is assuming that an omnipotent creator would either give the panda the same thumb he gave other animals (especially since all the parts are there to do so), or he would build an entirely new type of thumb from entirely new body parts that simply do not exist in other species. There's logic in this, no doubt. The panda's thumb is essentially a thumb that is designed the hard way, so to speak, when at least one more elegant solution to the construction problem exists, and one might suppose other elegant solutions could be made. (If you were a mechanical engineer, you probably could think of one or two easily, I imagine.)

One of the things about this argument that I find interesting is that, aside from acknowledging the possibility of a creator, it also runs counter to what I've heard from other atheists. Often those who promote the idea of evolution over creationism will point to the similarities between creatures and say that those similarities indicate common ancestry. Gould seems to be implicitly confirming what many creationists will say in response to such an argument: that common design implies a common designer. After all, why should God re-create the thumb for humans when a perfectly good thumb already exists in other primates? It's that very argument that creationists love to use (and the average evolutionist pooh-poohs) that is the very basis for Gould's argument here. Why shouldn't God use a pre-existing design, or, if there was a good reason not to, why wouldn't God make something new rather than cobble together a thumb from second-hand parts, so to speak.

When I was a kid, I got some Legos in a McDonald's Happy Meal. The small collection of Legos was designed to make something specific, like a little racecar. Now, I could make that racecar, sure, but the real fun was in making something new and unexpected out of those parts. Could I position the wheels closer together so that they functioned like gears? Could I make a car that bore little or no resemblance to the intended car design? If I really wanted to get creative, I could have asked my parents to buy me more Legos, but tinkering was fun and stimulating. Is it a sure thing that God would not also think so? As I could think of my attempts to combine the same set of Legos in different ways a way of showing my creativity, could not God also wish to show His creative side by combining the same set of bones, muscles and tendons in varying and surprising ways? Is nature's variety God's way of showing us that there's more than one way to skin a cat?

While I do think that Gould's argument is very strong (and has resulted in my wanting to read some of Darwin's books, particularly the one on orchids, which must be a blast), what's really missing in the story here to truly address the concerns of a theist is more info on the theological side. While Gould takes time to unpack all the baggage of ursine bone structure, when it comes to dealing with the question of creationism, he simply assumes the proper action of an omnipotent creator.
"If God had designed a beautiful machine to reflect his wisdom and power, surely he would not have used a collection of parts generally fashioned for other purposes."
So many arguments against the existence of God boil down to this sentence with different phrases inserted in the underlined spaces. "If God was really good, surely he would have spared my mother Alzheimer's." "If God didn't want me to have sex with whomever I want whenever I want, surely he would not make it feel so darn good." "If God wanted me to believe in him, surely he would give me a million dollars." In short, assume you know what God would do or how he would think, and base your beliefs around that assumption.

The fact is, maybe Gould is right. I mean, it sounds reasonable. However, there are a lot of things that sound reasonable, but aren't necessarily so. "Humans are designed in a manner so high above the other animals in dexterity, intelligence and other factors that surely we are the apex of creation." That's something that sounds quite reasonable to most people, but evolutionary biology shows that this is not the case at all, or at least it doesn't follow in direct logical progression.

You know what I think? I think there are (at least) two things in the universe that are simply beyond our ability to fully comprehend. One of them is the full story of the origin of life as we currently know it, and the other is the mind of God. Maybe instead of fighting over who has come closer to arriving at unattainable knowledge, we could just enjoy the journey? Probably not likely, but that's my personal plan.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Mating Habits of Highly Defective People

For those still keeping count (which is probably just me), we are now at 246 out of 292 hits on this blog being people looking for pictures of sexy penguins. (The unlikely phrase "bashemath's husband" has now been used twice to find this blog.) That's about 84% of my traffic.

But that's not the reason for this post. The reason for this post is that I was jokingly looking up info on the mating habits of penguins on Wikipedia, thinking that I'd do a post about it. I found some disturbing stuff.

Not about penguins. Their mating habits are fairly bland, even the homosexual ones. They mate, the female lays an egg and passes it to the male, who sits on it for about two months. The egg hatches, and the female returns and raises the chick. Penguins do not mate for life, but will stay with a single mate for each season, sometimes choosing the same mate several years in a row. No, the shocking stuff had to do with ducks. I quote here:

"While he was sitting in his office at the Natuurmuseum Rotterdam, [Dutch researcher Kees] Moeliker heard the distinctive thud of a bird hitting the glass facade of the building. Upon inspection, he discovered a drake mallard lying dead about two meters from the building. Next to the downed bird there was a second drake mallard standing close by. As he observed the odd couple, the living drake picked at the corpse of the dead one for a few minutes and then, without provocation, it mounted the corpse and began copulating with it. The act of necrophilia lasted for about 75 minutes, in which time, according to Moeliker, the living drake took two short breaks before resuming with copulating behavior."
As I said in a comment I left on this blog elsewhere yesterday, I don't care if that's natural or not, that's just sick. And that's the issue I want to address here. All of those people who, regardless of what socio-political position they are taking, try to make a point for something being the "correct", "natural" or even just "acceptable" way of doing things by pointing to a parallel in the animal kingdom need to consider what sort of things they may be flinging the door wide open to.

I made this rant years ago in a discussion forum in the middle of an argument on whether or not homosexuality is natural. Both sides were trying to argue from the behavior of animals for their side, and I had to butt in and point out some of the things I will point out here.

Let's talk about animal sexual behavior, shall we? One very common strategy among animals is to reproduce with as many different partners as possible. While typically most people think of this as a male strategy, many studies have shown that females also choose this behavior. Some birds have been shown to pick a primary mate and then, when her primary mate is out fetching food, she invites in other males behind his back so to speak to fertilize an egg or two. So, cheating on your spouse that you've pledged monogamy to? Totally natural!

Of course, how are you going to get away with this sort of "cheating"? I recently saw a documentary on cuttlefish, who turn out to be very intelligent and adaptive creatures. During mating season, some species of cuttlefish, who have the ability to change the color of their skin, will change their behavior over from using their chameleon-like abilities to hide from predators to putting on shows of bright, flashy skin to show off to females. Often the dominant male will put himself between the local female that everyone is vying for and all the other males, blocking them off from access. Smaller males, who have no chance of fighting off the alpha male (or whatever cuttlefish biologists would call him) will use their ability to change their appearance to instead pretend to be a female, and thus gain access to the guarded female. Let's call that cross-dressing to get undetected access to the girls' locker room, eh? Let's also call it natural and acceptable.

Among many species (including humans to some extent), it's common for the females to be unable and/or unwilling to mate while still raising children.Thanks, Ruben Bolling Suppose you're a lion who sees an attractive female who would otherwise be available if not for the fact that she's got a couple cubs with her. What are you going to do about it? Correct! You kill the cubs and then invite her back to your place for a lovely evening of candlelight, wine and fresh gazelle carcass. Killing your mate's children by a previous partner? Must be the right thing to do, as it occurs in nature. (Not to mention several species in which males will attack pregnant females in order to induce them to miscarry.)

But why stop at killing your mate's offspring? How many times have you found yourself in the mood for a little snack after some hanky-panky? You might wish that your mate would go and fetch you a snack, but then... Well, some spiders (although apparently not as many as is commonly believed) and other insects, particularly the mantises have an interesting solution to this dilemma: let your mate be your snack! Really, after you've got what you want from them for the purposes of pleasure/reproduction, aren't they just a meal waiting to happen? I mean, in nature, every living thing is eventually eaten, so why not be eaten by your own kind? What's more natural than that?

The thing is, you could find an example of just about any behavior (sexual or otherwise) somewhere in nature. A female ("queen") bee will typically mate with about a dozen males during a single day when it comes time for her to mate, and in the process, she castrates each of them, causing their death. Some species of wasps lay their eggs in live spiders, which then hatch out and eat the spiders. I was not aware of it until I researched some of this on Wikipedia, but apparently some dolphins participate in behaviors that among humans would be called "gang rape".

My point in all of this? Simple. We are human beings, and not any other type of animal, so there is simply no sense in comparing ourselves to any other type of animal. In nature, anything that can happen does, and there's no point in calling it justification for anything.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Microsoft magic!

I don't believe I mentioned it here, but I recently got a new job doing IT support in an office. This week, the main IT guy is on vacation, so I'm on my own for the first time, and today I got my first support call.

"Hey, can you come figure out why such-and-such program isn't launching for me?" co-worker says to me, so I go to her desk. I fiddle about for a minute, checking out whether her connection is working. Finding nothing useful, suddenly the lightbulb comes on over my head. Aha! The old classic!

"Why don't you turn off your computer and reboot, and see if that solves the problem?"

It worked.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Tolerance, but only for the tolerant, of course

So in the ongoing saga of the sexy penguins, I decided to check out Google today (I would have done it earlier, but I was having technical difficulties) and found out that sure enough, a Google image search for "sexy penguin" pulls up a link to this blog as the #2 match. For those who might care about the numbers other than myself, I'm trying to keep a running total, and I've presently got 126 out of 157 hits, or roughly 80% of my visitors being people looking for a picture of a sexy penguin.

However, I'm not here to rant about sexy penguins and the people who love them...this time. I am going back to retouch on the original topic in order to use it as a launching point into another topic that's always bugged me.

Quick recap for those who can't be bothered to read the original post: A pro-same-sex marriage organization launched a campaign in Colorado based on the idea that a person who was sexually attracted to members of the same gender is just as normal as a dog that goes "moo". An anti-same-sex marriage organization, rather than pointing out the ridiculousness of this argument as I would have done, launched a counter-campaign to inform the public that dogs in fact do not go "moo". This high level of debate truly shows how serious this issue is.

Well, in tracking down the Google image search result for "sexy penguin", I noticed that under the picture, there was a snippet of text from my blog reading "...mooing dogs and sexy penguins." Curious, I tried a new image search for "mooing dogs", which my blog came up as the #1 hit! (Note that this is only on an image search; a regular web search did not give a link to my blog in the first 150 hits. The first blog hit was for this site, which rants about thwarting the "Heterosexual agenda" because "Dogs are really hard to milk." Good writing.)

As usual, I'm taking far to long to come to my point. Not too far down in the list of hits, I came across this article. Apparently a family in Colorado Springs has had their lawn repeatedly vandalized for having the audacity to put signs on it that feature a picture of a dog saying "Woof." The unknown people who vandalized the lawn and the signs by either stealing them or defacing them actually left notes for the family telling them that "YOU ARE NO BETTER THAN A TERRORIST BECAUSE YOU DISPLAYED THAT SIGN!" They even went so far as to specifically compare them to the September 11th WTC attackers.

I've got to say that this perplexes me on many levels. While I see no evidence in the article that the vandals ever used the specific word "tolerance", the concept was there, as they had written "STOP THE HATE" on the street near the house. I realize that this story was published by a news outlet that is affiliated in some manner (I'm not sure how closely) with the publishers of the "" web site, and as such, it is doing its darnedest to paint this conservative family in a positive light, but still, the only "hate" I'm seeing here is on the part of the vandals.

While the family with the signs is indeed sending out a message (albeit fairly subtly) that many may find offensive, all they are doing in the end is expressing an opinion. The vandals are trespassing, damaging private and public property, and probably could easily be construed as threatening the physical safety of others. Why would they prefer to do that rather than pursue a number of perfectly legal and reasonable countermeasures? They could put up signs in their own yards. They could write letters to the family telling them intelligently why they disagree with their position and why they feel it is offensive. They could write letters to local newspapers. They could peaceably conduct a protest in the street in front of the lawn with the signs. And of course, they could vote, and I hope they did. One of the neat things about each of those is that they don't require sneaking around in the middle of the night.

Legality and even morality aside, though, there is a social phenomenon that I've found rather odd lately. I think most people tend to think of the freedoms outlined in the First Amendment in terms of a protection for the liberal free thinkers of our society. If I want to say that George W. Bush is an idiot, I can do so freely. If I want to have my children go to school and not have to practice some sort of state religion, then I'm all set for that, too. Lately it seems like a reversal of that sort of thinking has happened, though. In our society at large, you aren't allowed to like the President because we should all agree that he's evil. You aren't allowed to make any public expression of your religious beliefs lest it offend, because we should all value multiculturalism over all other values. You aren't allowed to think that morality as defined by your personal beliefs has any basis or right to be addressed because we should all with uniform assent that morality is relative.

That's what it really boils down to, and don't you see that there is an inherent hypocrisy and/or lapse of logic in that position? The only absolute value is relativism. All viewpoints should be allowed except for those that question whether all viewpoints should be allowed. Society should have no tolerance for those that practice intolerance. Argh... It makes my brain hurt sometimes.

Look, it's an opinion. Some people in Colorado think same-sex marriage should be allowed; others think it should be disallowed. These are just opinions, same as the opinion that people shouldn't judge others for their sexual orientation. Who is to decide which opinions should be allowed and which should be silenced? It's not simply a matter of being offended, because I assure you that on 99.9% of all issues, there will be somebody offended by either position.

There are a lot of people (and while I tend to feel "homophobia" is an overused term, it seems appropriate here) that are absolutely appalled at the thought of a gay pride parade, but is that single fact good enough reason to disallow such a display? I really feel that the First Amendment allows for people to hold a parade for any reason (so long as they avoid undue disruption of, well, traffic, I guess) be it the local high school's homecoming, abortion rights, a war protest, or even if your local chapter of the KKK wants to put on a show. Excepting probably the first of those examples, there's going to be a lot of people upset by such parades, but my advice is if you don't like it, then stay away, or go and organize a peaceful counter-demonstration. If you show up at an event and hassle or even attack the people there, you just let them believe they are some sort of martyrs for a great cause.

Did you read the article about the family with the vandalized signs? In the end, who wins that moral struggle? Isn't it the poor victimized folks with the peaceful signs on their yard? Completely disregarding what their signs say, and the ideas they are intended to convey to passers-by, aren't they the ones with the moral high ground because the opposition took the position of oppressor? Whoever it was that took those signs, they ought to know that they may have set their cause back more than ever could.