Monday, October 27, 2008

Lactose intolerance

In one chapter of Isaac Asimov's autobiography, he talked at length about the sorts of letters he gets from readers, and in particular, there was one type of letter that he always thought strange. As a life-long atheist, he often would get letters from people who had something to say about his spiritual state. Some would inform him that they would be praying for him, to which he simply shrugged his shoulders and said, okay, if it makes them feel better. Another type though, the one that was the really strange one, was letters from readers denouncing him for his atheism, and telling him what a terrible person he was for not believing in God, and how much they despised him. He said he wrote one of these people back and said, "I am sure you believe I will go to hell when I die, and that once there I will suffer all the pains and tortures the sadistic ingenuity of your deity can devise and that this torture will continue forever. Isn't that enough for you? Do you have to call me bad names in addition?"

Asimov apparently lived a very happy life. Throughout his autobiography, he repeatedly reports that he has had nothing to complain about, having spent his life largely doing the thing he loved most: writing. There were a few regrets (a failed first marriage), but he had the sense to try always to look on the bright side of those (two wonderful children that brought him much joy). Despite the fact that obviously, as a Christian I disagree with his theological views, I have a lot of respect for the man, who seems to at least have been true to himself in his life, if not to any sort of higher power which he didn't believe in anyway.

I'm glad Asimov had a happy life. As a Christian, I have to believe it highly likely that yes, in fact, Asimov is in Hell now. Knowing that, why would anyone endeavor to make someone's life miserable because of their belief in greater misery to come? It's a very good question, and one to which Asimov never got an answer.

This is not an essay on Asimov, nor on Proposition 8, which will come up as a big part of the inspiration for my writing of this. It's not even an essay on salvation, although that's obviously important. This is an essay about hatefulness.

The other day, I saw... Well, I've told this story to a few people, and I realized that the best way to tell it is to leave out details that might give away anything to reveal the identities of the parties involved, so as not to bias it. After all, the story is about the event, not the political positions of the persons involved. The other day, I saw a person standing on a street corner holding up a sign that espoused their view on Proposition 8. A car came by, and did not slow down, but somebody leaned out the passenger window with a sign espousing their support for the opposing view, and waved it in the face of the person on the corner, shaking their fist. I was appalled. It seemed to me that this was an incredibly stupid and dangerous action on the part of the passenger (probably illegal, too). They were making a fool of themselves and potentially endangering themselves, the person on the corner, the driver, and various others in the vicinity, just so they could put on a public display of hatred for a political position.

If the pro-8 people believe they're going to win, what purpose does it serve to make the lives of homosexuals (and gay-friendly heteros) miserable on the way to taking away the rights they think they deserve? If the anti-8 people think they're going to win, what's the point of rubbing the noses of homophobes in it and making them miserable? Is hate doing anything to make the world a better place? Why are people getting so worked up about this law that in the end will pretty much stop nobody from doing anything? If it passes, the pro-homosexual activists will just keep pushing until it's taken out of the constitution. If it fails, the proponents will bring it back next year. Anna Quindlen was so wrong about the debate over same-sex marriage being over that it's scary. This is a debate and a fight that will never end.

We human beings are very good at hating. We hate people who have different philosophical views, we hate people who have different sexual orientations, we hate people who have different political positions, we hate people who have the wrong color skin, we even hate ourselves sometimes. What good does it do to hate, though? I'm certainly not hate-free. I'm human, but at the same time, I recognize that on those occasions wherein I experience hate, my hate is doing nothing to make the world--or even my own personal experience of the world--any better. I can hold it in and fume over it, damaging my own sense of peace, or I can lash out and become the villain. Neither one is going to improve my happiness. Why do we do it?

It seems like everyone I know either hates Barack Obama or hates John McCain. Some people hate both of them. They're just a couple politicians, both of which are doing the best they can in their own belief to make the country a better place. They're not bad people, neither one of them, no matter what you believe about them. I only wish it were that simple to convince people of this fact. I know who I'm voting for, but I also know that whoever wins, people are going to be angry and disappointed. People are going to view the losing of their candidate as an earth-shattering event. I don't get it. How many Presidents have really made changes that have deeply, radically changed the country as we know it? Abraham Lincoln? Franklin Roosevelt? Ronald Reagan? They steer the country, but we're a country so large that, like an aircraft carrier, turning around is a slow and laborious process. If the next President is headed the wrong way, then simply wait four years and get a new one. Meanwhile the Supreme Court legalizes abortions, desegregates schools, and makes the real changes in the country while Justices keep their positions for life.

Darnit, this is all so fleeting! Why do we get so caught up in this? Politics are important, but they're temporary. If the average person lives 80 years, then a Presidential term is just five percent of a lifetime. Raising a child is a task that will stretch through five terms, but will have an impact that potentially reaches for generations. On the national level, my political opinion is just one among half a million, but at home, my influence on my kids is about 50%. Do I want to teach them to hate, or do I want to teach them to stand up for what's right with love and compassion? However I express myself, they will pick it up and emulate it.

That goes for politics, yes, but it also goes for spiritual matters. Going back to my original line of thought, what good does it do to hate non-Christians? Hatred is not going to save a single soul, is it? Hatred is the sort of emotion that consigns people to Hell, not the sort of emotion that draws them out of it. I fear that Christians are caught up in the pop-culture theology that says, "Bad people go to Hell." Not that they truly believe this heresy, but that they draw on this concept to prove to themselves that since non-Christians are going to Hell, they must be bad people, and deserve to be punished. Funny, I don't see that in the Bible; I see the statement that God wants to see everyone saved. I see the statement that Christians who can't live in peace are severely lacking in spiritual maturity.

Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? (ICor. 3:1-3)

How can anyone think that hate can be the foundation of anything good?

Let's talk about what to so many Christians is their pet topic: abortion. Where in the Bible does God say that people who are "pro-choice" are going to Hell? Where does it even say they are bad? If abortion is murder, then we're faced with a challenge: If people don't believe abortion is murder, then they'll never agree that it's something bad that should be made illegal. In order to change abortion, we supposedly need to change the law, but the law is made by people. You won't change the law unless you change people's minds. You won't change people's minds unless you change their hearts. You won't change their hearts unless you convince them to let God into their lives. If you want to save all those unborn babies, you could spend some time barricading clinics or protesting Planned Parenthood, but in my opinion, the best way to really make the situation better is to show some love and share the Gospel with people. Do you really believe that all Christians will be against abortion? Then you'd better figure out how to make this a nation of Christians.

I'll give you a clue: you're not going to make converts through hate.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Finally, after noticing that many people are finding my blog looking for the "nine real differences between marriage and domestic partnerships", and lamenting that I could not supply the answer, I did some digging, and turned up this document (you have to download the rather large pdf from a link). I quote from foot note #241 in italics below.

Nine differences have been identified:
(1) common residence requirement for domestic partners, not applicable to spouses,
In other words, a married couple does not have to live together, but domestic partners do.

(2) application for lifting of the minimum age requirement not possible for domestic partners,
In other words, you can get married under a certain age with (I'm guessing) permission from your parents, but not become a DP.

(3) to register a domestic partnership the couple must file adeclaration with the Secretary of State, whilst spouses must obtain a marriage licence from the county clerk,
So DPs deal with a different part of the government, somewhat higher up.

(4) possibility for confidential marriage in which marriage certificate and date of the marriage are not made public, not applicable to domestic partners,
Marriages can legally be made secret, DPs cannot.

(5) summary dissolution for domestic partnership initiated by filing joint notice of termination with Secretary of State, for summary dissolution of a marriage is petitioned to the superior court,
Similar to the third point.

(6) residency requirements for dissolution are different providing for a forum necessitates for domestic partners,
I'm not sure what the Latin term means, but from what I've read, if a DP moves out of state, the partnership is dissolved; this may be what is referred to here.

(7) differences with respect to the State Public Employee’s Retirement System,
I don't know what this refers to, but I'd guess DPs don't get pension benefits the same way as spouses.

(8) difference in interpretation with regards the property tax exemption for unmarried spouse of a veteran and
No idea.

(9) putative spouse doctrine does not apply to domestic partners.
I don't know what this means, but a Google search seems to show that this difference no longer applies.

Make of this list what you will; I only offer it as information.

Queer voting: Don't ask, don't tell.

Well, let's just have one last talk about Proposition 8, but then that's it. (At least until after the election; then I'm sure I won't be able to resist.)

I've said it many times, both in conversation and in writing that I realized long ago I simply can't retain my sanity and get involved in certain discussions. Politics and religion, those general topics that many people say ought to be avoided in polite company, are some of my favorites, but there are more specific topics that are like Plutonium. Abortion is the most prominent one, the fact being that there are enough people in the world who feel strongly enough about the subject at either extreme that open discussion of the issue is impossible. Suggest the slightest shade of grey to the issue, and you may be reduced immediately to the rubbish bin in people's esteem relegated for child molesters and telemarketers. (Sorry telemarketers, I couldn't resist a line like that, and lawyers need a break now and again.)

Anyway, I've come to realize (unfortunately too late for a handful of conversations already let out of Pandora's Box) that Proposition 8 and the legal status of same-sex marriage is one of those conversations. It's a topic I've talked and written about many times, and yet something seems to have shifted. Maybe it's the bringing of the topic to the forefront of the culture by putting it on the ballot yet again, but suddenly, it seems to be undiscussable.

You see, I'm in a difficult position of having a foot in both camps due to the company that I have kept in my life. Let me make it clear that I make no apology for either group nor my associations with them, but a fair portion of my friends are conservative Christians, and at the same time, a fair portion of my friends are gay/lesbian/bisexual. What's a guy to do? No matter how I vote, I'm going to offend some people I care about very deeply. I simply can't avoid it.

I briefly considered abstaining, but then I realized that was a copout. Not just a copout, but one that would be counterproductive. Abstaining would solve no problems, and it would simply offend everyone, I imagine. It reminded me for a moment of Bill Clinton and "Don't ask, don't tell." In an attempt to please everyone, a solution was arrived at that pleased virtually nobody. Homophobes want to ask. Homosexuals want to tell. Nobody's satisfied.

Clearly, I had to make a decision, and I wanted it to simply be the right one, not the one that society (or any subsection thereof) told me I should choose. Don't think I'm going to tell you here, because in case I didn't make it clear, part of my process was eventually deciding that whatever I chose, I would not tell a soul. But still, there was something that needed to be said. What people on both sides of the issue agree on is the fact that it's an important issue.

There were plenty of reasons to vote Yes. As a Christian, I do believe that the Bible, the basis for Christian morality, teaches that certain sexual relationships are not to be condoned, and allowing a person to legally call certain of such relationships "marriage" would be condoning. There were plenty of reasons to vote No. Our government is secular, and has no compelling reason to bow to religious morality, and finding a reason for this law outside of that realm of thought is difficult. Yet if morality is not our basis for deciding our vote, then what is? Yet what good does it do to impose one's personal morality on another? You can go back and forth all day.

Furthermore, I'm often left with the impression that despite the supposed importance of this law, the outcome of this vote isn't really going to change anything. The proponents of the law said as much, which was an odd argument to my mind. (I've always said that if you had a choice between two religions, one of which says, "believe in me or suffer," and the other says, "believe whatever you want, it doesn't matter," then it seems believing in the former is a manner of hedging your bets, so to speak.) Long before same-sex marriage was declared to be legal, I knew many same-sex couples that had weddings and considered themselves wife and wife. It seems that with legal domestic partnership, this law is really a matter of semantics. You can be married, but you can't technically call yourself a "married" couple is what the law says, which in some ways is ridiculous, since the name was all that same-sex couples can really get away with without having to get government sanction. You call anything whatever you want to call it; that's free speech.

However, it appears that what one is not allowed to say is that one is a Christian, and yet votes No on 8; or that one is friendly to homosexuals and yet votes Yes on 8. I hate it, and yet, it seems a fair enough evaluation, which puts me in a quandary. Do I lie? No, that's wrong as well. Do I say nothing? It seems the safest, although with the way I end up talking about the subject so often, almost everyone who knows me at all well knows I'm on the fence, or at least near it, and would be rightly curious of my choice. I don't want to lose friends and create enemies.

Or do I? I started to think about it. Do friends really break off their friendships over politics? Well, maybe they do, but I hope it's over something of great depth. I would like to think that in Nazi Germany (Godwin's law again, sure, but it's always a great example) there were people who were moral and brave enough to break off friendships with friends who joined the Nazi party. I'm sure there are lesser issues that might apply, but not many, in my mind. If I had voted for President Bush in 2004, are there people who would have refused to ever talk to me again after hearing such an admission? I know a few people who seem to feel as strongly as that about him, but if they weren't exaggerating their feelings, I imagine they would have moved to Canada by now.

Although I don't feel so strongly, I almost understand how someone could feel very strongly about the abortion issue, on either side. Actually, the fact that I can understand both sides no doubt has a lot to do with why I'm not at either extreme. What I really have a hard time understanding is why people feel so very strongly about an issue that really is just semantics. If you really think that homosexuality is so evil that it can't be allowed, then this law ought not to be enough for you; you ought to be pushing to outlaw same-gender sexual relations entirely. If you really think that gay people ought to be allowed to be married, then damn the law, and get married anyway!

If you are a person who has a strong opinion on this issue, and you want to know how I'm voting, I've decided what it is I want to say to you: Please assume that I voted the opposite of how you voted (or would have voted, had you the chance). Treat me accordingly. If you don't judge me on my voting record (and I'm not a politician, so I'm not sure you should) then fine. If you do, then judge away, but for now, I'm done talking about it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Add It Up

Today, another rant about a Newsweek column; this time, it's not Anna Quindlen, but the topic is definitely strongly related to feminism.

Sharon Begley, Newsweek's science columnist takes a moment to speak up on a subject near and dear to my own heart: sexism and stereotypes about learning ability. ("Math is Hard, Barbie Said") See, just in case you're not aware of it, American girls have a hard time with math, generally finding it too challenging for them, and thus we find that there is a clear gender gap in ability and achievement in this area. The thing is, though, it's all (as they say) in their minds.

I love parenthetical statements, don't you? (Okay, maybe it's just me.) "As they say" is really the operative phrase here. The fact is, while girls in America and Japan have consistently lagged behind men in mathematical ability, that gap has been far narrower in communist nations where supposedly they take a more liberal view of the ability and worth of the individual, regardless of gender. It would seem--and to many of us, there's no surprise to this--that girls do badly in math because society has told them that they will have this failing.

The result, according to Begley is something more than simply a self-fulfilling prophecy of "Tell somebody they can't do something, and they probably won't be able to do it," but actually an emotional response. Tell a girl she can't do something, and even if she doesn't believe you, the fact that you gave her discouragement will cause a distracting emotional reaction. How well are you going to be able to focus on factoring a polynomial when half your brain is screaming out to you, "How DARE they say that!"

This fact is very personal to me for two reasons. One of them is that despite that my degree is in mathematics and I know I tend to be very good at it, there was a time around fifth and sixth grade when I struggled with math. I had a couple of math teachers who, instead of encouraging me to do better, essentially took time and effort to embarrass me and tell me I was a failure. I never considered the fact until just now what a boon it was for me to have a seventh-grade math teacher who was completely incompetent. I've always wondered how a guy like that ended up teaching math when he obviously had no skill in the subject, but in retrospect, I wonder if it helped stroke my ego to recognize that my own ability was better than the teacher. (This was the first of many teachers that I had the habit of viciously correcting on a daily basis, pointing out his errors at every opportunity, which came frequently. On the same note, it was probably oddly useful for his ego that he clearly just didn't care.) I realized long before seventh grade that mathematics was the method of understanding reality on a basic, foundational level, and seeing it taught with such ineptitude goaded me into always being the best I could be.

But I was lucky. As a boy, when I showed ability in math and science, society approved and egged me on to greater achievement. The second thing that's always bothered me about this topic, and this one even more so and more repeatedly at every chance it had to come into my mind, was the fact that my sister did not go into a college major in math or science. Sure, all things being equal she might still have chosen the path she did, and I'm not aware of any regrets on her part; she's been very successful in the things she's set her hand to as far as I am aware. What irks me is that I do feel she was shorted in the area of praise for her abilities. I became the math major in college, I was the one that people actually called a "math genius" repeatedly in high school. (Note that when you go to a small-town high school, and then graduate to a large university, you tend to find that most areas where you were considered excellent are now areas in which you are merely average; I don't claim to be anything special today.) Nobody ever called my sister a "math genius", but I always suspected that she was far superior to me.

Once when visiting home from college, I was rummaging through some papers in my mother's house, and came across some standardized test scores. A test taken sometime towards the end of elementary school revealed that while I was above average in my mathematical aptitude, my sister was truly the cream of the crop. Yes, my sister was the real "math genius", but where did that genius go? Fast forward from elementary and rewind from college to the beginning of my senior year. This is the time that you start looking at your grades and test scores and pick what schools you want to look into. The school guidance counselor called me into his office and informed me of what was supposed to be great news. I knew my SAT scores were good, but apparently, in my small rural county of Northern California, I had set the record of highest-ever SAT score. I might have reveled in that announcement if it weren't for the very following sentence with came before the first had a chance to sink in.

"And the person who previously held the record was your big sister!" I was told with a big grin. How about that, Brucker? Consider the irony! Oh, I did.

"Uh... Was my sister informed when she had set the record in the first place?" I asked. "This is the first I've heard of it."

The smile disappeared. "Um, well, I guess not."

"Why the hell not?!" I responded through gritted teeth, and I got up and left. I was always somewhat aware of the problem, but that day, it hit home in a special way. Friends come and go, but my sister will always have a special place in my heart, and I couldn't forgive the injustice done to her or to all our sisters everywhere. As I said, I get the impression that my sister was satisfied with the academic course her life took her on, but I can't help but feel that nonetheless she was robbed of a full set of options.

Thus comes the real problem, the larger problem as I see it. Sexism and racism aren't just bad, but hurtful things that cause often nearly irreparable harm. Our society is closing down gaps all over the place, but will the wounds of the past ever be healed? Within a few months, it appears we will likely have our first black President, but will a single black President make up for centuries of slavery and oppression? When the day comes that a woman is placed in the Oval Office, will that make up for all the years they were treated as slaves in attitude, if not in name?

Prejudice says, "We're not going to allow you to be equal." When pressed, it says, "Okay, you can have the right to be equal, but you will never really be equal." Eventually, after centuries of beating down the oppressed, be they members of a race, gender, or other social group, the members of the oppressive group ask the oppressed group, "Why are you so bitter about all that stuff? It's in the past!" There is a tendency to miss the fact that the fight against oppression is an uphill battle, and even when the playing field is leveled, it's hard to shed the weight of the past.

When Begley points out that the very fact of being told that you can't do something impedes the brain from doing it, she points out that it doesn't have to be personal. A girl doesn't have to be told that she is incompetent in mathematics, she need only be told that historically, women have underachieved in comparison to men, and the discomfort that sets up in her mind is sufficient to impede her thought processes. This is the sort of thing that goes beyond self-worth, and turns into an evaluation of the worth of the group to which one belongs. We tell people that they are inferior for long enough, and some of them believe it; among those who have the determination to not believe it, more than a few will still be burdened by the injustice of the sentiment.

You don't have to be a member of an overtly downtrodden group to experience this for yourself. Think about the situation we have here in America with respect to the learning of foreign languages. There's a joke I've heard a few times that goes like this: "A person who speaks two languages is called bilingual; a person who speaks three languages is called trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? An American." Why is it that Americans have such a hard time learning foreign languages, but so many Europeans and Asians seem to typically speak three or four languages? I know Americans in general won't accept the argument that these people are somehow intellectually superior to us. I personally believe that we as Americans don't learn foreign languages because we've decided it's just too hard. This is not something indicative of any subset of the culture of the United States, but seems to pervade us in general. We either believe that we just can't do it, or we think we might be able to, yet we look around and note that few people are doing it and get discouraged. This isn't even the result of anyone acting prejudicial towards Americans, but merely a culture that has shifted into a sort of self-prejudice. Imagine if it were a matter of prejudice; instead of simply struggling through your language classes worrying about how difficult it is to conjugate verbs and learn the gender of nouns, you also have to keep thinking about how everyone's expecting you to fail.

But here's where my cynicism cuts in and takes over again. Begley points out that things are getting better for women, and they are beginning to be accepted more often as the intellectual equals of men, but will equality--true equality--be realized in our lifetime, if ever? If we as Americans can slip into a feeling of hopelessness over our inability to acquire languages without any sort of external oppression, how can people who have been actively pushed into a state of hopelessness rise above it? Perhaps asking such questions is largely adding fuel to the fire, but it needs to be said anyway.

I don't believe that we escape the evils of the past by simply trying to forget that they ever happened. We escape from them by actively fighting to overcome them. As a father of two daughters, there's a significant battlefront of this culture war located within my own household. It's a hard responsibility that's been given to my wife and me to see to it that our daughters are never told that they are any less capable of anything simply because of their gender. Really, that's the only thing we can do: try our best to raise up a new generation better than the past. Do we do this by never mentioning the sins of past generations towards their mothers and grandmothers, or by entreating them to actively strive to overcome the vestiges of that shameful past? I don't know the answer to that. Maybe it would take a woman to figure it out?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Long Train Runnin'

So, now I get to commute to my new job via train. I like it, to some extent, but in some other ways, it represents a certain loss of innocence. There's a magic to trains that can very easily get lost.

I don't know where this magic comes from. I do think I'm not imagining it, however. Think of a movie like The Polar Express, in which a train takes children away to meet Santa Claus, or various movies like the serious thriller Runaway Train or comedy Throw Mama from the Train in which people in trouble with the law make their final bid for freedom via the rails. There's this feeling that seems to subtly pervade the culture that says that a train is the way to get away from your problems to somewhere better. This is the real story of the Little Engine That Could.

For me personally, I had actually put a start to a story I was going to write--and who knows, I still might get it done--about my personal take on the whole phenomenon. For me, I think I know exactly what it was. When I was in grade school, I used to live in a house right next to the freeway, and on this particular stretch of freeway, there was a set of train tracks running up the middle. I remember lying in my bed at night, listening to the sound of the traffic, and the occasional clack-clack noise of trains moving along.

I lived next to the freeway, but personally, I never took it. My school was actually on the exact same street as my house, but on the other side of the freeway, so every morning, I'd walk through an underpass to get to school, and when I arrived, I could look back and see my house from the top of the monkey bars. On a regular daily basis, I essentially went nowhere. But trains and freeways? Those went places.

Once, I went on a train trip to Portland to visit my favorite cousin. I got to travel with my grandmother, of whom I was very fond. I remember spending a great deal of the trip sitting in the lounge car, which was all windows, and one could look out and see scenery. Not the same scenery every single moment like one sees at home, but new scenery all the time, always changing and scrolling by, and I can almost hear my young mind thinking, "This is very beautiful, but we're leaving it behind to move on to something new and exciting, and each piece of scenery will somehow be more exciting and beautiful than the last."

I was definitely smitten, although it may not have been just trains. Maybe it was the freeway as well, and time has made me forget much of that. After all, the thing that greatly enchanted me more than anything was the idea of moving, of going someplace new. Freeways will do that, and airplanes most of all, although for me, airplanes may have been more routine (I flew a lot as a kid), or perhaps they just seemed too much like nothing was happening with the scenery so far away that often all there is to look at is the clouds.

Of course now, here I am on the train, and there isn't much to see anyway. As I write, it's six in the morning, and outside the window is largely just an expanse of blackness with an occasional lonely streetlight flitting by. This is what I dread. Even when the afternoon brings me back, and when the seasons change and allow me to see the scenery during the morning commute, the scenery will still all be the same. Every day, I will take the same train, pass the same landmarks, arrive at the same destination, and all of this will become routine. As it is, even so early in my train commuting experience, there is a decided lack of excitement. The wheels of the train turn over and over, and the same expanse of track will take me back in a few hours. Tomorrow, I will repeat the trip, and the day after that.

Instead of the excitement of the wheels turning to take me somewhere new, the time comes that this is routine. I remember in college, I had an astrophysics professor who scoffed at the Ptolemaic model of the universe, which envisioned the stars and planets fixed in circles upon circles in the sky. I don't think he (Ptolemy or my professor) thought that there were supposed to be literal physical circular structures affixed to the dome of the sky, but my professor thought the whole thing was ridiculous, saying, "If you get enough circles, you can map out any path, so what's the point?" I thought it was very clever, since the Ptolemaic system was surprisingly accurate for being "incorrect". Today, we understand that the planets travel pretty much in ellipses, which are very circle-like. We live on a globe that turns about roughly once per day, and travels around our sun in a roughly circular path, while that sun travels in a circle around the galaxy.

See, everything goes in cycles. There's our daily cycle, and most of us have five daily cycles that fit into a weekly cycle, and fifty-two weekly cycles make a yearly cycle. Various aspects of our government run in two- four- or six-year cycles, and the U.S. conducts censuses in ten-year cycles. All of that cycling becomes rather routine. The fact that we're on a hunk of rock that flies through space on an elliptical path with a radius roughly 93 million miles should be fascinating, but by the time we're old enough to fathom the concept, we realize we've already been riding that path for numerous repetitions, and it's almost instantly old hat. Space travel? No biggie, I've already travelled at least twenty-one billion miles through space just within our solar system. Going just to the moon is a snorefest in comparison.

So here I am on the train, but I'm not convinced it's really taking me anywhere. It's a shame, and not just because of my supposed disillusion with trains. Really, I ought to be looking at it differently, and precisely because of that 93 million mile ellipse, and because I've taken a plane about halfway around the world before. There's a romanticization involved with the idea of moving in physical space, but even when we seem to be holding still, we're moving at a great rate, all the time. People are always riding on trains and driving on freeways. (As a child, I remember the sound of the freeway never completely stopped, but went through a cycle of intensity throughout a 24-hour period.) In our modern society, where everything is moving quickly all the time and information travels around the globe in an instant, the only real movement that matters anymore is socio-economic movement.

I remember I scoffed at the fact that Engels, that idealistic co-author of The Communist Manifesto happened, in his spare time when not subverting the dominant paradigm, to be the owner of a factory. Hypocrisy? Maybe, but then, how can one change the world without money? They say money makes the world go around. Well, some do, while others say love. Others still in ancient times said that it was the heavenly spheres set in motion by the gods, but in modern times, we know it's really the forces of gravity. Ramble, ramble, ramble, do I have a point?

Physical mass is what makes the physical world spin. What makes the socio-economic world spin, if that's the movement that really matters? Well, it is money and love after all, isn't it? I have a great deal of love for my family, and most of the best ways to express that love involve money: providing shelter, clothing and food; giving them gifts for fun; enjoying entertainment together; all sorts of things. Love and money provide inertia for the non-physical world, and we all need both of them, in one form or another.

Why am I taking the train? What's the real purpose of this movement, the beginning of a repetitive series of motions in which train wheels will turn thousands of times along a track to carry me to place where I will perform repetitive motions and climb aboard another train that will carry me back, rolling along those very same tracks to return me to my starting point? The moving of myself as an object to another location, just to put that object back again over and over, day after day? Physical movement is just a means to an end. I'm here because of money, which I don't like, but I need it. I'm here because of love, which is difficult, but I want it.

In order for the train to move hundreds of miles away, the wheels have to turn around and around in a tiny little radius; in order to make the wheels turn, the pistons of the engine have to shift back and forth along a short little path. Repetition, repetition, repetition, do you have a point?

By going back and forth, those little movements get translated into larger movements, and those (relatively) tiny little wheels on the train move the whole world. There's a sense of magic in that, it's just not so romantic unless you let it be. When the train approached my station, I leaned forward and eagerly strained my eyes to see what the day would have in store for me. I think there's still hope for me.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Violent Femmes

Feminism can be a tough issue, especially for a fundamentalist Christian. I've noticed that among my kind, feminism can be a dirty word, but it doesn't have to be. Strictly speaking, feminism is simply the belief that women are equal to men in value, and I would hope that's not something that many people in my church would dispute, at least when put that simply.

In the world at large, it's a lot harder for me to say how people view the relative value of women vs. men. This particular presidential election cycle has given us a lot of food for thought in this arena. Hillary Clinton came so close to being the Democratic candidate that I'd hope people wouldn't label her eventual failure as the result of sexism, although of course they have and will continue to do so. Sarah Palin, of course, has become the Republican vice-presidential candidate, thus resulting in an unprecedented amount of talk of "glass ceilings" by conservatives. In my mind, whether or not we get a woman President anytime soon, we've shown it's possible in theory. But I know so many people will question whether "in theory" can really measure up to "in practice". Since women have had the vote for so long here in the U.S., why haven't we seen a woman President yet?

There's a weird sort of sexism that exists in our society which is not often obvious, mostly because it's so ingrained in us. Men, far more often than women, are characterized by being strong and ambitious. A woman who exhibits those tendencies is often viewed as "bitchy", which is a nasty word that ironically implies that a woman is acting like a man. I don't say that humorously, but seriously. Even in the liberal town where I went to college, I remember having a boss that people labeled as a bitch behind her back; I would point out to these labelers that a man acting the way she did would probably be promoted out of her position.

This sort of verbal sexism, while fairly well-known, is actually symptomatic of bigger issues that lie under the surface. With Clinton losing the nomination to Obama, there's been some dialogue concerning sexism vs. racism. There's a funny (peculiar, definitely not "ha-ha" funny) difference between these issues. There are a lot of people worried that the first black President is likely to be assassinated by racists. Does anyone think that the first female President will be assassinated by chauvinists? I've never heard it suggested, and I think there's a reason why. Sexism, despite any supposed similarity to racism, works in a very different manner. Racists tend to look down on people of the hated race and say, "They're inferior, we must be protected from them," while chauvinists seem to say, "Women are inferior, we must protect them from us."

I recall many years ago, there was a "For Better or for Worse" comic strip in which the character Liz had discovered her boyfriend had been cheating on her, and in her outrage, she started punching him. A few people were apparently outraged by this, but of course, the outrage was only a fraction of what it would have been had the genders been reversed. Imagine Liz's brother Mike discovering his girlfriend/wife had been cheating on him, and punching her. I don't know if my emotional responses are typical of society as a whole, but the latter scenario almost brings feelings of nausea, while the former at the time hardly caused me to blink. But violence of any kind should bother us, shouldn't it?

It's a weird thing that I was thinking as I was pondering writing this. Back when Governor Schwarzenegger was running for office, a number of his interviews that showed him in a less-than-flattering light were publicized. Among them was one in which he talked about how much fun he had making Terminator 3:

"I saw this toilet bowl. How many times do you get away with this, to take a woman, grab her upside down, and bury her face in a toilet bowl? I wanted to have something floating there ... The thing is, you can do it, because in the end, I didn't do it to a woman, she's a machine! We could get away with it without being crucified by who-knows-what group."
This was appalling to me, and I imagine to many others, but after making two movies (Terminator movies, that is; he's made far more than two overall) in which he beat the crap out of male adversaries, wasn't beating the crap out of a teenage girl in some sense a very "feminist" thing to do?

How bizarre to think that violence against women could be a positive thing, helping to modernize our culture! It's not such a crazy idea, either, as Anna Quindlen, the very feminist columnist herself, wrote a column near the beginning of the war in which she insisted that if this war meant reinstating the draft, then women should also be drafted. Quindlen's probably twenty years older than me, yet she manages to make me feel awfully old, or at least old-fashioned. Something about this seems dreadfully right somehow. Why is it that I can accept the idea of a woman being the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, yet I quail at the idea of women serving in the armed forces? Clearly, while I claim to accept women as equals, there's a part of me that can't quite do it.

I think the problem of women in the workplace not being recognized goes back to this, too. I've worked in a lot of offices with a lot of men and women, and I think it pervades the culture in a way that is hard to overcome. It's not just a matter of the men in charge not accepting the competency of women, but I think on some level, a lot of women are either aware of this tendency in their male superiors or don't accept competency in themselves. Possibly both. Over the years, working in various office environments, I've noticed that the lower levels of the org chart are overwhelmingly filled with female employees. Not being managerial material myself, most of my coworkers seem to be women, but it's the exceptions that are interesting. It's seemed to me that the tendency of men is to say, "This job sucks!" and so either push for a promotion to a cushier job or quit. On the other hand, women seem to say "This job sucks!" and then just sit in their chair and keep doing it year after year. Either women don't think they're worth more, figure that their true worth doesn't matter in the face of perceived worth, or perhaps stagnate due to an innate craving for stability.

After all, there's something about striving for advancement that implies risk-taking activity. A friend of mine told me (and I think he's right, although I don't have any data to back it up) that most people only make truly big career advancements when they change jobs, not when they get promoted within the same organizational structure. It does seem to be true that women have a stronger need for stability than men do. That being true, perhaps it really does take balls to make risky decisions. Without risk, one can't succeed in a big way, but on the other hand, one also can't fail in a big way. I wonder, people often talk about how men make up a large percent of top executives in America, but what portion do they comprise among the unemployed?

We men tend to be irrational, impulsive, and yes, violent. And we run the world. Is it any wonder things are in such turmoil?

If a train leaves Los Angeles at 12:25...

I had to take a train to go to a job interview. It was just far enough away that taking the train made more sense than driving my own car. It might have actually cost a little less in fuel costs than the ticket ended up being, but who wants to deal with L.A. traffic? So train it was, and the interview went reasonably well. I just might get the job, actually.

The thing that turned out to be the real problem with the day was the return trip. The station nearest to where I interviewed is one of those stations where the train doesn't stop every time. I had to get up at five to drive to the station and catch the right train, which is not that big of a deal, but interviews take all of...well I couldn't imagine one going longer than two hours, tops. So about an hour there, about an hour with time in transit from the train to the office and waiting for my interviewer to get out of a meeting, then an hour and a half of interview and tour of the facility. It's about 10:30, and the next time a train stops at the local station is 3:30. I briefly bemoaned not checking the train schedule more carefully, but it was a tad less than four hours, and I was bound to have lunch anyway, so no big deal, right?

So, I get a ride to the central station, which should actually have trains stopping, but I'm faced with a choice. It turns out there's a train leaving the station at 12:25 heading my way, but it's not going all the way to my station. I can take this train and wait for a train about two hours later that will take me all the way, or I can take that later train from my present location.

Once again, this should be no big deal. It's really a matter of deciding which station I'd like to sit at for two hours. Of course, not being a regular train rider, I have no idea what the other stations are like. I’m thinking about lunch, as I said, and there are a couple of snack bar/hotdog stand-type places where I am, but I wonder, could there be something better at the next station? I decide to stay and have a hotdog, which wasn't bad, although perhaps a bit pricey, and I ended up spending all my cash. I went to the platform and waited.

Soon, I started to wonder if I'd made the wrong choice. I don't know if you've ever been in a big city and spent time hanging around the train station or bus depot, but you wonder (okay, I wonder, I can't speak for you) whether one of the big problems that people have with public transportation is the sort of people who hang out at train stations and bus depots. I suppose like everywhere else, the majority of the people there are fairly "normal" as fine as one can expect of your average citizen, but then...

Well, I'm sitting there, and this guy comes up and strikes up a conversation. No need for fine details, but the guy turns out to be this homeless ex-convict who just got kicked out of his rehab home, and is on his way to another one. Actually, as homeless guys go, he seemed to be set up pretty well: he had a big duffel bag full of clothing which seemed to be clean, and much of it new; he had some food and some books; he had some money and a ticket for the train; and he had spent the previous night in a hotel.

Still, he was obviously not in great shape. Rehab seemed to have done him good, as he was adamant that he wanted to stay away from drugs (although he wouldn't mind a beer or two) and out of jail, but still, drugs are tough on you, and after all, while it didn't seem likely that he was going to end up sleeping on a bus stop bench that night, he was still homeless. Already feeling wiped out from the day, I just felt eaten up inside for this guy who's unloading his problems on me, and I had nothing I could really do to help him. I kept thinking to myself I'd have rather taken the earlier train and not had to deal with this.

I realized something, though. If I'd taken the other train, I might have found myself sitting at a train station without even a hotdog stand, and nowhere to go to get any lunch at all. If that had happened, then surely this story would have been quite different, and no doubt I wouldn't have had the imagination to think that surely if I'd waited, I'd have ended up sitting for over an hour with some stranger telling me about his triumphs and troubles with Narc-Anon. I'd just be sitting there fuming at myself that I'd made a very poor choice, and surely if I'd stayed put, I'd have had a fine time waiting for the later train. Of course, I'd be wrong.

I’d have rather skipped lunch and not had to deal with somebody else's problems, but realizing now my situation and lack of imagination, it's entirely possible that even at a stop farther down the line I might have run into some much more unpleasant fellow, or found that the station had no shade to sit in, or by some random chance, I'd have run into some vengeful ex-girlfriend or the earlier train could have crashed. Who knows?.

I find it fascinating how human nature leads us to notice coincidence, and attribute it to "luck" or even sometimes "miracles". There's been a lot written on the fact that when a psychic makes twenty predictions, and one of them comes true, people say "Wow!" in response to that one, but forget the nineteen failures. Yes, I've heard a lot about this phenomenon, but not so much on its flipside: the noting of pessimistic coincidence.

The fact is, no matter which train I had chosen, I would likely have complained of whatever results I got, claiming that surely, I had made the worst choice possible. If I'd driven, I would have spent hours stuck in traffic, beating myself up for being so foolish as to not take the train. If I had decided not to bother interviewing for the job since it was so far away, I'd have wondered if I had been extremely foolish to not even try and see what my chances were.

Pessimism is easy, and I fall into it a lot. I don't know what the cure for it is, but I do know one thing. As I sat on the train writing this, heading to my home where I would spend the evening with a wife and kids who love me, I realize that somewhere along the line, I could have easily made some series of decisions that had led to me being a homeless ex-con drug addict standing on a train platform and telling my troubles to some stranger.

Monday, October 13, 2008

I've got issues...

Let's revisit Proposition 8, shall we?

As is usual in my writing, I don't think the real point I'm trying to make is going to be right here in the beginning. Whether or not Proposition 8 should be passed or not is not really the main issue, but really, it's sort of a sub-issue, if you will. Shortly after I last wrote about Proposition 8, I had someone tell me that all good Christians should, as a matter of principle, vote against legalization of same-sex marriage. Assuming that you are a Christian who believes that same-sex marriage is a bad thing, there's some level of logic to this. As I myself have argued, "You can't legislate morality!" is a poor argument. I really do believe that morality is the only thing we really legislate, in one way or another. If you really believe that government has no place to pass laws that dictate moral choices, then may I suggest first that you really ought to be a Libertarian, and second that such a belief is really a moral choice itself. Make of that what you will.

For most of us, when we try to make choices about how we're going to vote, or what energies and/or donations we're going to give to various causes, we're thinking of moral choices much more overtly. I know a lot of people, usually Christians, who feel that the abortion issue is of tantamount importance, and will invariably vote for whichever candidate most strongly opposes abortions. Of course, there are also plenty of voters who take essentially the opposite tack. For many other people, the choices involve the weighing of various issues and finding the candidate or set of issues that best makes sense. For me, I tend to strongly favor propositions that support public transportation, and while there is a proposition on the ballot supporting the building of a new rail system here in California, in this case, I've been getting the feeling that the benefits may not warrant the amount of money being proposed for the cause, nor the manner in which the money is to be raised and spent. Even pet issues have to be tempered with an understanding of the bigger picture. At the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, I'd like to point out that Hitler was against abortion; this is not to say that banning abortion is immoral, but that no matter how bad you think abortion is, I hope you realize there is potentially an overriding issue. (That does, of course, go for the other side, as well as potentially any other issue.)

Well, what is it about same-sex marriage that supposedly makes it one of the few cut-and-dry issues? The belief that the Bible treats it as such, saying that homosexuality is unambiguously immoral. If the Bible doesn't mince terms, then why should we, as believers in the Bible, do any less? Well, it's tough, because there are a lot of things that the Bible unambiguously calls immoral, and if we're going to deal with one, we have to deal with all of them. When I talk about this, I'm not taking the tack of some skeptics who point out that the Bible bans the eating of shellfish and wearing of mixed-fiber clothing; that's a red herring. Whether skeptics choose to recognize it or not, there are some parts of the Law (referring to rules given in the first five books of the Bible by way of Moses) that apply only to ancient Israel. I would argue that most of these laws still apply to Jews, although the manner of enforcement may be questionable; many of these laws do not apply to gentile Bible-believers. (One of the rules that I would argue still applies to all people is that blood should not be ingested, but I'll readily admit that I'm guilty of enjoying a bloody steak or a bit of gravy from time to time. Feel free to skewer my hypocrisy.)

One of the areas where the moral code of the Old Testament carries over to non-Jews is in sexual morality. While homosexuality does seem to be a part of this, I think a lot of people get very worked up over the supposed evils of homosexuality while winking at heterosexual sin. I do believe that if a married man in my church were to run off with another woman, his friends within the church would encourage him to break off the affair, and (if his wife was willing) to return to his wife and be reconciled. If the same man ran off with another man, I do think a few people would react in the same way, but suspect that there would be more than a few that would write him off as a loss. Depending on your point of view, it may be either a shame that people give up on such a person, or a shame that they don't simply accept his newfound sexuality. Anyway, people of many a personal philosophical bent find themselves unable to treat homosexuality the same as heterosexuality, even if they don't accept the spiritual concept of "sinfulness", although intellectually it's been assented (by some) that there is no difference.

Anyway, sometimes it may seem that there is some inequality in law as well. After all, heterosexuals are pretty much allowed to marry any member of the opposite gender, but homosexuals are not allowed to marry members of the same gender, or at least they weren't until recently, and they won't once again when Proposition 8 passes (assuming it does). If you take this from a conservative Christian point of view, there is some small validity to this claim of inequality, but very small. Marriage between two people of opposite gender can be used in the Christian view, to legitimize their sexuality, whereas homosexual sex is never legitimate. Where the sliver of validity comes in is in the fact that there are no laws banning, say, heterosexual cohabitation or extramarital sex. That's only a sliver, though, at least in California, as I believe that the only thing homosexual couples have been banned from doing is getting married. In states where homosexual intercourse is banned, it perhaps seems that it might make sense to give the same penalties to "illicit" heterosexual intercourse. I don't know though, there may be places where this is the case. (Actually, I could be wrong about California law!)

I think one of the real problems with letting our morality inform our political choices is that it's hard to avoid being hypocritical. On some level, I can actually accept the logic that we should vote against homosexual marriage because the Bible says it's bad, but this presents a conundrum. I can be in danger of overgeneralizing, I suppose, but it seems to me that when it comes to the issues of banning homosexual marriage and abortion, your supporters are largely going to be Republicans, conservatives, right? Okay, no surprise there, but what happens when we talk about issues like welfare?

The Bible teaches far more unequivocally than it teaches about homosexuality that we should be doing all we can to reach out to the needy and less fortunate and help them. Shouldn't we be voting for expansion of welfare programs, helping out the homeless, single parents and needy children? The argument I seem to most commonly hear is that the church should be taking care of this, and it's not the business of the government to be "redistributing wealth". Am I the only one who sees the problem with this logic? Once again, in itself, there's something to it. While a lot of us agree that something should be done about people on the low end of the economic spectrum, it does seem there ought to be something voluntary about the solution. If someone has no interest in helping out the homeless, then taking his money and giving it to a homeless person is hardly going to make him more sympathetic, and in addition to helping people out, increasing the general level of sympathy for those less fortunate seems like a good thing. If the rich (or the middle class) are being stolen from, or at least feel like they're being stolen from, there's something wrong with that on some level.

It comes together with the more overt moral issues to create a clash of rational viewpoints. If we are so adamant that it should be left to individuals and various benevolence organizations such as churches to determine how and in what manner the needy are to be helped, why can't we leave it to the same to determine sexual morality? If my church wishes to not recognize same-sex marriage, and the church down the road is just fine with them, can't we agree to disagree and leave the government out of it? The truth is, we're happy to let individuals and localities decide for themselves how to live their lives so long as we're convinced that they'll probably decide in a way we approve, aren't we?

This is a hypocrisy we all share, both Republicans and Democrats. The breakdown in logic goes both ways. Democrats believe in freedom: freedom of individuals to make their own choices in how they live their lives, but they'll raise taxes to make people with more money pay for the freedoms of those with less. Republicans believe in freedom: freedom of the market and allowing businesses to make investment choices, but they don't like people making individual choices that threaten the conservative values that they treasure, and their freedom to live life as they see fit. Both groups want to have their cake and eat it too, but it tends to feel like, "We want to have our cake and eat yours!"

Perhaps that's the real reason that despite the fact I've been a fundamentalist Christian for over 10 years, I'm still a Democrat. Like many of my friends, both Christian and non-Christian, have realized, neither party is really going to serve exactly the causes that you as an individual want them to serve. Every single individual among Obama, McCain, Palin and Biden has positions on issues that I respect and agree with, but none of them is exactly what I want in my government. Furthermore, while we tend to view the President as the single most powerful individual in the nation, to be responsible for the overall wellbeing of our nation, the federal government has two other branches that keep the President's power limited, and even the perfect Presidential candidate who agreed with me on every single issue isn't going to transform government into utopia in a single four-year term.

Furthermore, individual issues and propositions are in many ways in the same boat. If Proposition 8 passes, next year we'll see some group of people bring about Proposition 18 (or whatever) to repeal Proposition 8. If it fails, the same group that brought this one will bring Proposition 8 (with a new number) right back and try again. There will always be homosexuals that want to get married, and there will always be people who think they shouldn't be allowed to do so. Same-sex marriage may be a cut-and-dry issue with individuals, but I highly doubt it will ever be a cut-and-dry issue in the political arena within our lifetimes. My condolences to homosexuals and fundamentalists alike.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


Tuesday night, Bill Maher was on The Daily Show to promote his new documentary Religulous. Based on what I know of Maher, it's probably going to be a very entertaining movie, but it's probably, no make that definitely going to be extremely offensive to a lot of people. As is often customary for such talk show appearances, his visit was preceded by a showing of a clip from the movie.

In the clip, Maher pretends to be a crazy homeless person standing on a street corner, ranting about how all of us are possessed by the spirits of space aliens that were killed on earth billions of years ago by being dropped into a volcano by an evil being named Xenu. Some will of course recognize that he's really giving the foundational doctrines of Scientology, presented in a manner to make them seem extra silly. Shortly after the clip, Maher makes an interesting statement:

...[W]e laugh at this because that's the new religion, Scientology, but it's not really that weirder, more crazier than Christianity, I hate to tell you. We're just used to that one. But if someone came to you today and told you that story, you'd never heard that, and said, God had a son. He's a single parent. And He said to his son, "Jesus, I'm gonna send you to Earth on a suicide mission, but don't worry, they can't kill you because you're really me. But it is gonna hurt for a hot minute, I'm not gonna lie about that. You're gonna hate me, but it's the best thing for you, son--I mean me, it's best thing for me; I'm you, you're me! So here's the plan, son: I, God the Father, (wink-wink) I'll go down to Earth first! We'll split up the work, because we're two people! (Not really!) And I'll see if I can find a Palestinian woman to impregnate, so she can give birth to you--I mean me!" It's just the silliest thing you'd ever heard, and this is a monotheistic religion.
I'm not sure what monotheism has to do with it, but I think Maher is right nonetheless: When you really think about it, Christianity is sort of silly. Really. I mean, even the Bible says so, as a friend of mine pointed out when I asked his opinion on this. So score a point for Maher, I guess, but...a point for what?
Maher chose Christianity no doubt largely because it's the most popular religion in this country. To pick on Christianity is to be more controversial (as one potentially offends a greater portion of one's potential audience), and so often it's controversy that gets people in the theaters to watch a documentary. Actually, while I of course don't know whether it plays a role in the movie, the fact is that Maher made the statement that he doesn't think so highly of atheism either, since there's something nearly as presumptuous in claiming that one knows God does not exist as claiming to know he does exist. I'm guessing it's not in the movie, at least not much, since, despite the fact that a statement like that may be as offensive to the average atheist as the anecdote above would be to the average Christian, pointing it out doesn't tend to be quite as funny, and Maher's aim is as much to entertain as enlighten.
Scientology is easy. It really is a funny religion to just about everyone outside of it; you don't have to try so hard there. It's also a much smaller religion in terms of number of adherents. The fact is, however, that pretty much every religion has some ridiculousness to it (and I do get the impression that Maher tries to cover many different religions within the scope of the movie) and he could probably pick one out of a hat. Any one. So what's the point?
Seriously, I'm not sure where this is supposed to be going, at least so far as being informational, which one tends to expect of a documentary film to some degree. I'm finding myself once again in a position of more or less reviewing a film I have not actually seen; who knows how I end up here? I really do expect that the movie will be quite funny and entertaining, even the parts that should be offensive to me, but how is it going to enrich my life, or anyone else's?
Call me a strange theist, but isn't claiming that religion is ridiculous almost a tautology? Think about it. "Religion" is defined by as "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs." Basically, when we talk of religion, we're talking about things that are outside the normal, natural, scientifically observable domain of physical reality, aren't we? We're talking about a higher power, be it personal or impersonal, singular or multiple, human-like or somehow beyond our understanding; isn't such a being or beings bound to be unusual by nature? (Or should one say "by supernature"?)
It's been said before that the Bible starts to get mind-blowing only four words into it. "In the beginning, God..." One pastor I heard teaching on Genesis paused here and said, "If you can accept that much, the rest of the book is easy." It tends to be the nature of religions, with very few exceptions, to believe that there exist powers of some sort that somehow predate the existence of the universe itself. It seems to me that even without such beings actually interacting with and influencing human history, just existing is remarkable. Is it silly for God to die on a cross? Maybe, but is it more or less silly for Him to become a human? Is it more or less silly for him to interact with humans at all? Or to have created humanity? To have even created a universe in which humans come to exist? To a Christian, none of these things are unthinkable, but to an atheist, every one is just as silly as any other, isn't it? "Hey, my atheist friend, I'll admit it: the whole Jesus Christ thing is just a fable. Still, you really should consider becoming a Jew. Or at least a Deist, maybe?" That wouldn't float.
Of course, at the same time, I just don't see that this kind of thing will have much of an impact on those of us who are of the religious bent. Surely Scientologists have heard it all, over and over again. As for Christians, does anyone think that there will be too many people who won't fit into one of two groups: the offended Christians who will turn away and not even watch, and the bemused Christians who will laugh in a lightly self-deprecating manner and go on believing exactly the same as before?
That's the thing of it: Maher is right, but so what? I can't help but see this film as coming across as a sort of anti-religious The Passion of the Christ, with controversial ridicule in the place of controversial violence. The people who are going to see this film for the most part are going to be those who already believe its likely conclusions, and didn't need a hundred minutes of footage to be convinced. It will be interesting to see how well it does at the box office, but I can't imagine it's going to change the world in the slightest. (Well, it got me the closest I'm ever likely to be to defending Scientology; I suppose that's something.)