Tuesday, September 08, 2015

What I Mean When I Say That I am Pro-Choice

A friend of mine posted this little gem on his Facebook page today.

The original poster said something about the "pro-abortion" people.

Let's get something nice and sparkling clear here, kids. Pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion.

I'm pro-choice but I'm not pro-abortion. In fact, I'm not in favor of abortion at all.

However, it's not my decision. I'm not the person who has to make the determination if carrying an embryo to term is in mine or anyone else's best interest.

It's none of my damned business.

As to the picture itself, nobody on either side of the debate has ever said that something with a prenatal heartbeat isn't alive. The question arises as to whether or not that little bundle of cells is a human being.

If you are "pro-life," then you had damned well better be vegetarian (eating a cow stops a beating heart, y'know) and in favor of comprehensive and accurate sex education.

As for the latter, I can bring that pretty close to home. My grandmother had 10 kids. Among them, they had 28 kids.

Of my grandmother's kids, one was a pretty vocal fundamentalist. You know the type: tries to get books banned from schools, thinks that evolution is a myth, and thinks that the best way to protect her children from the evils of the outside world and the flesh is to provide them as little information as possible.

Of my 26 cousins, can you guess who was the mother of the only one to give birth out of wedlock? And can you guess who was the mother of the only one to be killed in an alcohol related traffic accident?

I don't know much about what happened with the young man who was killed but his sister and I spoke about her child and pregnancy. Apparently, at the age of 17, she had never been told where babies come from. Her mother had so effectively shielded her from this vital piece of information that, when she and her boyfriend had sex, she didn't know what it was they were actually doing nor any of the potential consequences such as STDs and pregnancy. This wasn't all that long ago but in the 1990s (this cousin is about 10 years younger than I am).

Monday, August 10, 2015

Although I Could Be Wrong

As a little Gedankenexperiment (German for "thought experiment"), I've decided to try to ask about climate change and the potential consequences if the side you support is wrong.

I'll start with the climate change deniers. Suppose that they come to power and, to their chagrin, find that their stance on climate change is wrong. What are the potential outcomes?

  1. Global temperatures continue to rise causing various environmental problems including increased drought in some regions, increased hurricane activity and rising sea levels.
  2. The Middle East (not known for its large numbers of stable political leaders) maintains its tight grip on a major energy source for the United States.
  3. The polar ice caps continue to dwindle in a potential feedback loop (less ice means less heat reflected back into space which means less ice, etc.).
These are just three potential outcomes.

Now, to the side of those who think mankind is responsible for climate change. Suppose they come to power and, to their chagrin, find that their stance on climate change is wrong. What are the potential outcomes?

  1. Air pollution above our cities diminishes greatly and oil spills become a thing of the past.
  2. The United States has invested huge amounts of money into alternative energy sources creating new sources of revenue, new industries and they become the world leader in energy production.
  3. We have lessened the grip that the Middle East has on us politically and economically which would potentially stabilize that region of the world or, at the very least, lessen our role in what are clearly internal issues.
I guess the point I'm trying to make here is that by moving away from a petroleum based economy, we have little to lose and a great deal to gain. And it's not a partisan issue. It's a logical, reasonable issue to consider. 

If we're wrong about climate change, all we've done is improve the world for future generations and helped our country maintain its status as the world's economic and technological leader for the 21st century.

If we're right about climate change, it's possible that we can save the world from our past mistakes.

Monday, July 13, 2015

So, What Are You, Really?

I'm taking a break from posting chapters from my book to ask a simple question of people, whether they are religious or not.

What are you? Really?

When we are born, we are a clean slate.* We know nothing beyond the instinctual and reflexive (crying, suckling, etc.). From that moment on, we become products of our environments.

Like it or not, we become subjects of indoctrination. We may be taught that where we live is the best place to live. We may taught that our form of government is the best form of government. We are taught that the gods of our ancestors are the only true gods. Sometimes, we're even taught that the sports teams from our locality are the best sports teams.

We are molded and educated by the world around us.

Many are content to stick closely within that mold. It's comforting. We can bond with others who were molded in the same manner. We can get a sense of community.

Others break out of the mold. We look at the world beyond what we've been taught and it causes us to question the validity of it.

This often leaves us as outsiders, alienated and shunned by those who haven't broken out. In some cases, there are some who would do us harm because we're perceived as a threat to the status quo.

So, what are you? Have you dared to look beyond your indoctrination to see what the rest of the world has to offer? Can your indoctrination stand up to scrutiny when viewed from without? Can you look upon it objectively? How often do you question it?

For me, this kind of questioning is a daily thing. I challenge what I think and, from time to time, I find that my assumptions (which are based on my world view) are wrong.

I did this as a young person and now that I'm in my mid 50s, it's becoming increasingly important. This kind of introspection keeps me honest with myself and those around me.

Try it as an exercise. Read other perspectives. Travel. Talk with others who don't believe the things that you do.

You may find it reveals a great deal about the world in which you live... and even more about you.

*Ignoring the concept of original sin, one of the most heinous doctrines to plague mankind.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

With Eyes Wide Open: Chapter 2

Coming of Age: Tending the Garden

To say that my late adolescent years were unpleasant would be akin to saying that the 
people on the Titanic experienced a problem with moisture but I won't tell you that they were entirely without joy. I had some friends and discovered that I could be funny when I wanted to. But now that I look back at the experience, I'm often surprised that I managed to survive.

Imagine this scenario: a young man who has just lost his faith and his first love. The time was the late 1970s and all the turbulence that went with that. School was a hell of bullying students and apathetic teachers. Church was a memory. The home he occupied was virtually loveless and two of the three other occupants in that home seemed hell bent on making it as miserable as humanly possible. He spent a great deal of time at friends' homes because that was his only escape.

I don't have to imagine it because I was that young man and I know where he went. It wasn't a good place. It was a place of doubt, despair, hatred and, very often, failure. I was hard wiring my brain for destruction. I hated myself, the world and almost everyone in it.

First, I stopped caring at all about my appearance or my health. I figured that I was destined to be the lonely, fat slob so I was just going to live that life. I was the target of bullies and that was my lot in life. There was no god to bail me out so there I was.

I still went to school because my mother wouldn't let me quit. At one time, I had planned on going to college to study electronics and mechanical engineering to enter the field of robotics. But my math teacher took me aside and said, “You should really consider another career path. You have no grasp of mathematics.”

There was another plant in the garden: a toxic nightshade of self loathing and it was threatening to choke out everything else.

Life had lost every scrap of meaning. Every morning I wondered why I bothered to get out of bed and every evening, I contemplated ending it all. Yes, there was an attempt but it was stopped by a friend, probably the best friend I've ever had. As he saved me, he screamed at me, “I don't have many friends and nobody is going to take one of them away from me! Not even you!"1

After a while, I tried dating. It didn't work out, though. I had a prom date when I was a junior but she was a bit older and she was already looking for a husband. As a 17 year old high school student with few prospects for the future, I wasn't about to go down that road.

During my senior year, I met a very special girl and fell deeply in love with her. She was fond of me but she didn't feel as strongly for me as I did for her. I was “such a good friend.” I know now that I wasn't the right guy for her. I needed to get my head straightened out before I could be worthy of anyone, let alone her. She did help me get into a somewhat better place in my head and for that, I'm grateful. She made me feel that maybe I'd get through all the problems and that I might even have a fragment of charm. We're still friends and I'm still crazy about her but in a much less desperate way now.

My whole situation finally came to a turning point on the day I turned 18. Before this day, unless I was running an errand or on my way to school or work, I had to ask my mother for permission to leave the house with, “Please, may I...” followed with a detailed description of where I was going, who would be there and when I'd be home. When permission was granted, she tried to act magnanimous about the act as if letting me leave the house was a tremendous favor. 

Often, it was easier to stay home than endure this humiliating ritual.

On this day, however, I decided that, as an adult, I'd simply say I was going and when I'd be back. The same information was there but the method in which it was delivered had changed.

My mother was resting on the couch dressed as she always was when she napped: in nothing at all but covered with a blanket. As I walked by and grabbed my coat, I said, “Dave and I are going to the Circle K for a Coke. I'll be back in about an hour.”

What happened next were not the actions of a sane person.

As I reached the top of the stairs, she came running out in pursuit. No, she hadn't bothered to grab as much as a pair of slippers. Suddenly, I had a crazy, naked woman chasing me, pummeling at me with her fists and screaming, “Since when do you tell me you're going out?”

To add to this madness, it's worth noting that my birthday is in the dead of winter. It was late December and it had been snowing since before Thanksgiving. There was at least a foot of snow on the ground with deep drifts all around.

I still couldn't bring myself to hit her in self defense but I needed this to stop. So I just picked her up and flung her over my shoulder. I thought that only a complete lunatic would hit someone holding her like that.

She drove the side of her fist into the small of my back so I dumped her in a snow bank which at least covered her. I turned and walked away, intent on continuing the trip I'd started minutes before.

When I returned, my grandmother asked me what I had done as if this incident were somehow my fault. She said that my mother had decided to spend the evening talking with friends which meant that she was sulking at her favorite bar, drinking a great deal and telling anyone within earshot, whether they wanted to hear it or not, how her ungrateful son had turned against her. 

I moved into a camper that we had parked in the back yard and went into the house as seldom as possible. In that camper, there was a nearly constant pall of marijuana and cigarette smoke in the air. The cupboards were filled with junk food and the refrigerator had store brand grape soda so my weight increased yet I was still malnourished. I worked after school and kept my eyes on graduation from high school simply so I wouldn't have to deal with that dreadful place any longer.

Because I had “no grasp of mathematics,” I decided I'd study art. Before I could head to college, though, I worked for a couple of years after high school. But I had a short fuse and would quit a job over the least little thing. I had to move back into the camper parked in my mother's back yard while I tried to figure out what I was going to do with my life.

During this time, I did an intense study of world belief systems. I read as much as I could about religion, the occult, philosophy, flying saucers, the supernatural and all aspects of what people use as guidelines for their lives. I felt the need for something but I didn't know just what it might be.

When I was 20, I met another young woman. I'd just wanted a brief fling but I got in another argument with my mother and was given the choice of crawling back home or moving in with this young woman. I chose the latter simply to salvage any scrap of dignity I had left. It's not what I wanted but I was in desperate situation. So I moved in with her until I could start school in the fall at Boise State University. I was also convinced that I was in love with her because, somewhere along the line, I'd learned to equate sex with love. In retrospect, I'm pretty certain I didn't love her at all but she was fair looking and biologically accommodating.

I'd arranged to live with relatives while in college but my mother had different plans. She wanted me to join the Navy. My aunt, who didn't want to get caught up in this argument, said that it would be better if I didn't live there. So I convinced the aforementioned young woman to move to Boise and we lived together.

We were beyond poor. Sometimes, we collected cans to make rent. I sold plasma. We were on every kind of public assistance available. Her two children from a previous marriage and her brother living there made it an even tougher situation. So she decided to go to work. I just didn't realize what she was doing.

She said that she was going to work for an escort service. In my naiveté, I thought that it simply meant that she'd accompany businessmen and the like so they wouldn't be lonely or be seen alone at functions. I now know the entire truth. She became a prostitute.

My male ego was now wounded so badly, I wasn't sure it would recover.

I stopped attending classes and just worked when I could. Because I was working two jobs in hopes of allowing her to quit whoring, I was constantly tired so I went to a clinic where I was given a prescription. Before long, I was addicted to amphetamines. I dropped nearly 70 pounds in a very short span. I knew had to get out of that situation but I couldn't afford to live on my own. So I moved out of our shared bedroom to live in a closet under the stairs of the apartment. I had to figure out my next move but I had no idea what that was going to be. My mother's scheme to get me into the Navy had poisoned me against that idea.2

Many of my friends still attended the university so I'd go on campus from time to time. On the afternoon of February 13, 1981, I ducked into the science building before waiting for my bus. It was miserably cold outside so I'd ducked in to get warm. As I sat on a bench, I noticed a piece of notebook paper with a great deal of writing on it. Instead of throwing it away, I decided to read it. It was the moment of clarity I'd been seeking since that rain soaked night on my grandmother's roof. Things finally fell into place and started making sense.

I don't remember everything it said but there are some quotes I remember even after more than 30 years:

          Religion is bunk!

               Thomas Edison

          I don't believe in God because I don't believe in Mother Goose.

               Clarence Darrow

          But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

               Thomas Jefferson

          Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.


At the top of the page, was a single word that I'd never heard before: atheist. I forgot all 
about my bus and ran to the public library across the street to learn as much about this word as I could find. Outside a brief definition in the dictionary, there was surprisingly little information so I looked up some of the names I read on the page, one of which was Mark Twain. There had been a quote from his book, “Letters from the Earth,” so I found a copy and read it voraciously. This was the absolute end of my faith and my need for it. I suddenly realized that not only was faith unnecessary, but it was as binding and cumbersome as any chains. It kept me from experiencing on the universe on its own terms.

If I may switch metaphors, having faith was like viewing the world through the thickest, darkest glasses imaginable. There was an occasional flicker of how majestic the world was but I wasn't going to know that as long as I wore those glasses. To compound the horror, I was promised the most unimaginably cruel tortures if I even peeked over the tops of glasses. I would be delivered into the hands of these tormentors by the one who was supposed to love me more than anyone else possibly could. To be fair, the glasses had largely protected me from seeing how truly ugly the world can be but I still wasn't seeing the truth.

I didn't feel any sense of loss any more than a person shackled to a stone would find the removal of his chains a loss. It was as if I'd lived my entire life in a dark cave and, after years of groping in the darkness, had found my way to the entrance to see a sunrise. It was liberating and invigorating. It was also a little scary. It caused me to look back on my life, really contemplate what I'd been through and how I'd come to believe what I did as a child. Things made sense in a way I'd never understood before. My fate had been entirely in my hands and not the whim of some capricious god. The only way things were going to get better for me was for me to make them better.

One of the first things I decided to do was get myself out of the situation in which I was living because it was definitely not a good place. So, I enlisted in the Air National Guard. This was Ronald Reagan's America and I was certain we'd be at war in Central America within a matter of months so I figured it would be the smart thing to do. Besides, the US had just reinstated draft registration and I figured if I was going to wind up in the military, I wanted to pick where I'd be stationed.3

While in basic training and tech school, I did as much reading as I could about the nature of belief systems and the world's various religions. I also encountered my first discrimination as an atheist because those who didn't go to church on Sundays were required to pull extra shifts of dorm guard duty. But it was easy duty and gave me more time to read.

As much as it might pain me to admit it, the military was good for me. It got me in better physical condition than I'd ever experienced. I'd had a level of success I'd never achieved before. When I graduated basic training, it wasn't about getting it over with but it was about achieving a goal and moving to the next. It was invigorating and, rather than dreading the day ahead, I looked forward to it.

When I returned to Boise after basic training and tech school, I still needed to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. For the first time ever, I had a fair amount of self-confidence although there were still many things I needed to get straightened out with myself. I'd worked in kitchens and landed a job as a cook in an Italian restaurant but my interest in the sciences was reemerging after being dormant for years. But it took some time for it to come to fruition.

I still wasn't any great shakes as far as relationships went. After dealing with the prostitute, I was pretty desperate and wound up marrying a woman I probably loved but now realize I didn't really like (the distinction is very important). We shared few common interests and seemed to be together only because neither of us wanted to be alone. It only lasted about two years. We lived in California where I landed a job selling video equipment and computers. After we split, I returned to Boise and continued to work selling consumer electronics.

After my grandmother died, the last familial feeling I had that kept me in Idaho went with her. A large box electronics store put the store I worked in out of business so I moved to western Oregon. I have never felt such an affinity for a place as I did there. About two years after moving to the Eugene area, I landed a job in a museum and loved the work. One of the people who worked there showed me that I actually could grasp mathematics. I'd just never been taught how to appreciate it for what it was. This inspired me to return to college.

Just before college, I met a smart, charming, unique, patient and loving woman. I proposed to her less than three months after we started dating. But it wasn't because I was desperate to be with someone. It was about a connection. Something about being with her felt right. She didn't say yes right away but after less than a year, we were married.

We made ends meet as well as we could and things were going pretty well, especially compared to where I'd been just a few years prior. When we discovered that she was pregnant, we decided that was pretty great, too. No, we didn't have much money but we realized that poor folks had kids all the time so we could manage.

About three months into the pregnancy, we got a scare. It looked as if my wife might have a miscarriage. It turned out to be a small problem and the outlook was good. The experience made me decide to call my father. We'd been estranged for the better part of 15 years but I figured that if I had some feelings for this tiny creature, maybe my father might have some feelings for me. It was a great call although it would be years before we got things worked out between us.

Six months into the pregnancy, things took a very bad turn.

I was tutoring in the math lab at the school when my wife called me. She was at the doctor's office for a routine prenatal checkup. Her blood pressure had skyrocketed. She was suffering from toxemia and had to be transported to Portland. We were told that they might have to deliver the baby to save her life.

My son was born that night, three months before we were expecting him. He weighed only two pounds at birth. When I first saw him, I really didn't expect him to live. On more than one occasion, I heard people talk about what a miracle it was that he survived. But what they saw as miraculous, I saw as a triumph of modern medical science. Because countless biochemists, doctors and other medical researchers had worked so diligently, medicine had caught up with us and saved my son's life.

Almost 19 months later, my daughter was born and rounded us out to a nice, balanced family. A little more than a year after that, I graduated college with a bachelor's degree in physics.4  In the span between June 1989 and June 1993, I went from being a bachelor with 6 months of failed art school to being a married college graduate with two kids. It was a whirlwind four years.

A few years after graduating, I found a job as an astronomy educator in North Carolina.

Firmly fixed in my atheism, I knew I was going to have trouble fitting in as a science teacher in the Buckle of the Bible Belt. 

For a long time, I stayed pretty quiet about my lack of faith. I'll admit to completely copping out on a few occasions when asked, “What church do y'all go to?” I'd smile and say that my family had belonged to a local Methodist church for over 100 years. It wasn't exactly a lie but it wasn't the whole truth.

Only when people would come to my door to talk about religion would I let my real nature be seen. After all, I don't go to their houses to try to teach them physics so what right do they have to intrude on my home with their Iron Age belief systems? I'm civil but firm.

It wasn't until the 2008 elections that I got considerably more vocal about my atheism. At the time, Elizabeth Dole was running for reelection to the US Senate. She used a deplorable tactic. Her opponent, Kay Hagen, had met with a group known as the Godless PAC and Dole used that against her in a campaign ad. What Ms. Dole said to me with that ad was, “You don't deserve any kind of voice in the American system because you aren't one of us!” I'll be blunt about this: it pissed me off something fierce.

I decided that if I was going to fight this in any way, I'd need to find like minded people. I had my doubts about how well I'd succeed with this but was surprised to find that there was a large and active group in Charlotte. Since then, I've been involved with an internationally famous (or infamous) billboard campaign, been interviewed in the press and made my feelings on these issues known.

Above all, I've been a strong advocate for science. Science didn't lead me to atheism. Atheism lead me to science. I found the calm humility of saying, “Gee, I don't know the answer to that question.” But I also found the exhilaration of following that up with, “Why don't we see if we can find out?” 

Science gave me a way contemplating the universe on its terms, not mine. I came to realize that the universe didn't care about what made me comfortable or happy. It didn't even have a mechanism with which to be indifferent. The universe was what it was and I'd have to accept that if I was going to live in it.

I also realized that nobody was responsible for my happiness except me. I no longer had relationships because I needed them but, rather, because I wanted them and this was great. If I wound up alone in my life, I could accept that. If I had someone to share it with that was all the better. For the last 25 years, I've shared that with my wife and don't see any sign of that changing any time soon. We're together not because either of us needs to be with the other person. We're together because we want to be with each other. It's far better that way.

Our children are now reasonably well adjusted adults who caused us minimal grief as they matured. There were incidents but because they've lived in a home with logic tempered with love, we all get along quite well. There were no threats of a capricious god who would punish them eternally for their transgressions and I have to think that has helped to keep them a bit more sane than their religiously raised counterparts. The greatest signs of rebellion my children have shown involve hair color and hair length.

So this has been the beginning of the journey.

If you're not a person of faith, I hope you'll see that you're not alone and that we all have different paths to where we are. I do hope you'll find a group of like-minded people as I did. It can be a lot of fun. If nothing else, it's nice to have people with whom you can converse without the need to peek over your shoulder first.

If you're undecided about faith, I hope you'll see that there are options available to you besides what the mainstream has tried to convince you is the absolute truth. I hope to convince you that there is no absolute truth. But above all, I invite you to openly investigate all the options and question them vigorously.

If you're a religious person and you're still reading at this point, you're made of pretty stern stuff. It's been my experience that people of faith don't want to hear the message I'm conveying. I don't expect to convert you, convince you that you're wrong and smash your faith on the rocks of enlightenment. That's not my purpose here. But what you will find, after this personal history, is based on the contemplations and rumination of my more than 30 years as an atheist. Maybe you'll have a better understanding of why I reject all religions, yours included. At the very least, I hope you realize that the claims you make won't go unchallenged. Maybe you'll give some serious consideration as to why you believe what you believe.

It's the last that I hope most fervently. If your belief system has any validity, it should be able to withstand the most intense scrutiny.

Nothing is beyond question. 

1 He and I are still good friends. I don't know if he understands just how important he is to me. I've got to work on that. 
2 This is no reflection on the Navy itself. But I don't think they'd have wanted a man who'd let his mother force him into enlisting.
3 Little did I know at the time that I was less than a week too old for draft registration. Oh, well.
4 Which only goes to show that my high school math teacher had no idea what she was talking about. Now when someone offers an opinion about my abilities, I take it as a personal challenge to see just what I can do. 

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

With Eyes Wide Open: Chapter 1

A Bit of History: Where the Seeds Were Sewn

When I talk about my childhood, it's not to whine about how unfair or horrible my life 
was. I know many who had it much worse than I did. It's not to make anyone feel sorry for me. Without looking back, though, it's impossible to create a complete picture. You can't really know how far someone has come unless you know where he started.

I grew up in a rural Idaho town. When my mother, sister and I moved into town, the population number on the sign was changed from 503 to 506. Yes, it was a very small town but it grew over the years and is now a bustling metropolis with a population of over 3000. This was after my parents were divorced and we went to live with my grandmother in her small house. My mother worked sporadically and my grandmother didn't have much money so we were fairly impoverished. For a few years, my sister and I shared a room. The room didn't have a door but a blanket hung as a curtain and the closet was a large plywood box that had a length of plumbing pipe attached as a clothing rod. But, as the only male in the house, I wound up with my own room when my sister reached the age of 10, a source of delight to me and a point of contention with her because she had to share not only a room with my grandmother but a bed as well.

To be charitable, I will say that my mother demonstrated many symptoms of mental illness based on numerous unresolved issues from her own childhood including abandonment by her father. She was very masculine and, quite probably, a lesbian who couldn't come to terms with her own sexuality in 1960s Idaho. She spent a great deal of time among women who she told us were lesbians so I think this is a fairly safe assumption.

She felt the need to demonstrate how strong she was and how much she was in charge, emotionally and physically. To my sister, she was verbally abusive by constantly deriding her about her weight problem that our diet created. To show her physical strength, she would engage me in wrestling and other physical contests. The irony was the amount of trouble I'd face if I dared to fight back. One of her favorite games was to have me on my hands and knees, hold my head between her knees and squeeze until I cried. This would be followed with a torrent of abusive language putting me down for being a “candy ass.”

I could fill volumes showing the many ways my mother damaged my sister and me but I think this will suffice for now. But it will play a pivotal role later.

As for my grandmother, I know in many ways she meant well but if there is a hell and the road to it is paved with good intentions, she had the paving contract. My mother didn't mean well. She was looking out for herself and we were just along for the ride. When any meat more expensive than ground beef or the occasional chicken came into the house, it was meant for her, allegedly to help her fight anemia. My sister and I grew up on a diet of macaroni, potatoes, rice and other starches. To this day, three words can cause me to run in fear: corn meal mush. I can't say how much I despise that stuff. A diet that's lacking in protein and vegetables isn't conducive to building healthy, strong bodies. Instead, you get fat, malnourished children. This might have been easier to deal with except she'd often throw tidbits of steak, turkey, bacon and other meats to our cats.1 

Grandma was a Christian. I'm not sure if I could say she was devout. She certainly wasn't rabid about it. When we were very young, we said prayers over our food on holidays but I don't recall ever being required to pray at other times. She made sure we had a collection of Bible story books but we also had numerous sets of encyclopedias on the shelves as well. I was well acquainted with both. She did have an odd sense of decorum which meant I started attending funerals when I was five years old. If there was any kind of relationship with the deceased or his survivors, no matter how tenuous that relationship was, she'd make sure that we attended the whole affair from the viewing to the burial. By the time I was 10, I'd seen more than my share of dead people in boxes.

One block to the east of our house was the Methodist church which would become, while we were attending, a United Methodist church. Every Sunday morning, we'd dutifully dress in the nicest clothes we had (which were not that nice) and trot down the street behind Grandma to attend Sunday school and the main sermon so we were there from 9:00 to noon.

The church service itself was an exercise in tedium. We had two different pastors while I attended the UMC and neither of them could be described as a riveting speaker. I enjoyed Sunday school and, when I got older, the Methodist youth organization. When I joined the Cub Scouts and moved up to the Boy Scouts, we met in the basement of the church.

I attended this church from the time I was five until I was fifteen at which time I spent a half a year with my father on the other end of the country. Ironically, despite his Catholic parents, he, too, attended a United Methodist church most likely because my stepmother had grown up in that church. When I returned to Idaho, I returned to the Methodists.

The first time I met someone who I knew was an atheist took place when I was in the fourth grade although I didn't know there was a name for this kind of person. A new kid, Steve, had joined us at the beginning of the year and we became good friends because we both were fascinated by anything of a scientific nature. We both had chemistry sets, microscopes but he had a much better telescope. He also had a big collection of books about dinosaurs, a topic that still fascinates me.

At lunch, we'd often discuss topics in science as if we were learned scholars who had more than a fourth grade understanding of these subjects. Maybe we did. But he introduced me to the idea of evolution. I was intrigued but wasn't sure I bought into it. To the mind of this budding scientist, it made sense but it ran counter to what I'd been taught in church.

While we were having this discussion, some other kids overheard us and started asking him about “people coming from monkeys.” Steve did a pretty good job talking about the subject but, inevitably, someone asked him if he believed in God. He said no.

The next few days of school were like a miniature version of the Scopes monkey trial. He tried to stand his ground as fellow students were literally shoving the Bible in front of him. I remember this distinctly because it was the first time I'd ever seen a Bible with the words of God and Jesus printed in red ink. The teachers stood by and did nothing to help Steve in any way.

Finally he relented and told them that he now believed. When I asked him if he really did he said, “Of course not! But do you think I wanted to hear another day of that?”

He came to church with me from time to time but only to be seen in church. He was also in my Cub Scout pack. I'm pretty sure his parents didn't want him there but they understood why he went. I can't count the number of times I found myself wishing they'd adopt me because they were some of the first adults I really trusted. The family moved to Boise just before Steve and I were to start high school.

In this small town, there were three churches: the one we attended, a Church of the Brethren and an Assembly of God church. Most people attended the first two. As for the third, everyone I spoke with said that the Pentecostals of the Assembly of God were insane (it was what we called a “holy roller” church). My friend Kevan and I peeked in the door one Sunday evening to see their services and decided that the people who'd told us about these folks were right. 

The Mormons and the few Catholics in town drove to a city to the north to attend services.

When I was 16, it was very important to be cool and I noticed that all the young, cool people went to the Church of the Brethren while all the old people went to the United Methodist church. I was a curious young man so I asked my grandmother why we were Methodists. She said, “The other church is too far away.” It was a three block walk while the UMC was only a few hundred feet away. That was the main determining factor in which faith we would follow. I still attended the UMC but the seeds of doubt had been sewn. All they needed was something to make them sprout and grow.

Even with everything else I was going through, I managed to find love. Her name was Elaine and we were both smitten. We lived in different cities but neither of us had a car. She wasn't allowed to get phone calls from boys (this was the 1970s, after all) so the only way we could see each other was when she came to visit her cousins. Other than that, ours was a love carried by the United States Postal system. I wasn't a particularly good correspondent but I did my best and we carried on our long distance romance. This would have been difficult as it was but there were other complications: her mother hated me and my mother hated her, both for reasons that still elude me.

My mother knew I was a determined and somewhat stubborn sort who simply would have found a way around any means she could devise to keep us from communicating. If, for example, I'd found that she was simply intercepting the letters, I'd have had Elaine mail me in care of one of my friends. So Mom needed a foolproof plan.2

One Saturday afternoon, she sat me down and told me that Elaine had stopped writing because she was in the hospital and wasn't expected to make it very long. When I insisted that I needed to see her, she told me that because I wasn't family, I couldn't visit.

I went to church when I wasn't in school and prayed in the sanctuary for God to save her or to take me as well so we could be together. I know the pastor was trying to comfort me but the idea of her impending death wasn't something that could be alleviated.

About a week later, I was told that she had died. I'm not sure what was supposed to be the cause although I think it was supposed to be leukemia or the like.

Naturally, I was inconsolable.

Just as naturally, I had to put up a brave front because I wasn't about to have my mother deride me for being weak and I still had to attend school. I'd been picked on for being the fat, poor kid so I knew the last thing I wanted was for the gang of bullies to see me cry. When I wasn't around anyone else, I cried a great deal and I prayed almost constantly. I needed some comfort and some answers but they simply weren't forthcoming. Now the seeds were germinating and starting to take root.

My self esteem wasn't great shakes and when I wasn't comforted in prayer, I figured it must be some defect in me and I was somehow unworthy of God's grace. After all, God was perfect so if he felt that I didn't deserve comfort, I must be doing something wrong or that there was something terribly wrong with me. For a while, I was convinced that the only reason that God had put me on this planet was because he'd promised mankind that he'd never punish them the way he did when he flooded the world so he had a few select people he used to vent his frustrations with mankind and I was one of them.3

At the same time, I'd noticed that when I prayed, on the times that I thought I heard the voice of God, he always spoke in my voice. I also became aware that he never said anything that I didn't already believe or anything particularly helpful. There were no great revelations or insights. There were times when a little tough love from God might have helped.

Finally, this built up to a showdown between the angry kid and his indifferent god. In a fit of rage and sorrow, I climbed on the roof of my grandmother's house during a fierce storm (imagine the scene in which Lieutenant Dan confronts his god in “Forrest Gump” and you'll get the idea). I cursed God. I screamed how much I hated him for making me suffer so much. I wanted to know why he'd taken the one love in my life away from me. I dared him to strike me with lightning or blow me off the roof with a gust of wind. I begged him to make the heartache stop. Fortunately, the only witness to this bit of adolescent lunacy was my very understanding grandmother. Looking back on this event, I know that I must have seemed pretty unhinged. When I came down, I looked over my shoulder up at the sky and said, “Yeah, that's what I thought. You haven't helped me because you aren't there.”

The seeds had matured into the full plant but they weren't yet ready to bear fruit. My belief in the god I thought I knew had died on that roof and I was more uncertain of life than ever.

Here I was at a crossroads. At that point, it became obvious that the direction that I'd followed for the previous 16 years wasn't the right one. But where was I to go now? 

1At one time when my sister and I were talking, I told her that Mom didn't have us as children, she had us as pets. She shook her head and said, “No. The pets got meat.”
 2There are even more problems involving my mother and my older sister but this isn't the place for them. Suffice to say, I had some pretty deep issues so having this girl love me was like water to a man dying of thirst.
 3Remember that this was the perspective of a fairly messed up kid. I look back and realize now how ridiculous this all was but at the time, it seemed to be the most reasonable explanation.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

With Eyes Wide Open: Introduction

Thanks to the advice of David Silverman, I have decided to post my autobiography as an online text rather than try to pursue professional publication for it. I am not yet well enough known to make it very compelling reading to a large audience.

However, I think that I've got some points to make and issues to discuss. That's why I'm posting it here.

Over the next several weeks, I'll post chapters as I edit them. 

I hope you'll find what I've written here interesting.


Let's cut to the chase: I'm an atheist. That word carries a lot of baggage with it largely because most people don't really understand what it means. The root of that word is theist, a person who professes a belief in a god, gods or other supernatural conscious being. Add the prefix “a” and it means a person who doesn't profess such a belief.

It's as simple as that. But some people, who don't really understand what it is to be an atheist, have ascribed all manner of meanings and attributes to atheism. So here are some things I need to clear up before we go too far into the topic.

I don't say categorically that there is no god. I simply say that no credible, independently verifiable evidence exists to demonstrate the existence of a god. As Delos McKown said, “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.” But this goes beyond the invisible. Electrons are, to the human eye, invisible. But they are detectable by using various instruments. No means has been made to objectively detect the existence of any god or gods.

Before delving too deeply into what I am, let's take a look at the many things I am not. I'm not a devil worshiper. If there's something I find less likely than the existence of a god it's the existence of any devils, imps, demons, succubae or other creatures whose whole reason for being is to cause people to misbehave. From what I've seen of humans, they can manage this quite nicely without any assistance.

I'm not an atheist so I can be free to sin without guilt. First, I don't believe in the concept of sin. There is right and there is wrong. But I'll delve into this more later.

I'm not angry with any god. The followers of gods are a different story. I've seen them conduct themselves in the most reprehensible of ways all in the name of their gods. Again, I'll examine this more closely later.

This isn't about rebelling against my parents and it never has been. My mother has been dead nearly 20 years and if I'd wanted to rebel against her when she was alive, I'd have become a rabidly evangelical Christian minister preaching temperance. I'm not sure my father cares one way or another about my belief system as long as I treat him decently and call him from time to time to make sure he's doing OK. Religion is a topic we simply don't bring up.

I'm not an expert on religion or theology. I won't pretend that I am. I've got a bit more background than most people simply because I've investigated a bit more thoroughly than most people. For me, it's not enough to believe; I have to know.

My worldview is very simple: numerous groups and societies throughout human history have claimed the existence of a god or gods. All of them claim to be true yet there is no evidence of these beings that can be systematically and objectively examined to reveal the truth of these claims. The late Carl Sagan used to advise us “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The claim that any kind of god exists is the most extraordinary that can be made yet the evidence is, at best, mundane. However, to be completely fair, absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. So with these two ideas put together, I can't bring myself to believe in any kind of god until someone brings forth the kind of extraordinary evidence that would prove that the claims are true. And that evidence is going to have to be of such magnitude that there will be no denying it. No book produced on a human printing press, no images of holy figures appearing on sandwiches and no remission of cancer will be adequate.

What follows is a personal journey. It explores how I came to atheism, my own history with religions and my observations about the world and the nature of belief. I've written this largely for myself but if anyone wants to come along on the journey, you're welcome as long as you behave yourself. I've tried to anticipate some of your questions, as you'll see later.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Adventures in the Twitterverse Part 1

It's been an interesting time over in Twitter. Seems that some folks get a bit cranky when you challenge their belief systems. Sadly, 140 characters is hardly adequate to point out the flaws in their logic (if I may call it such). So, I brought it here and I'll provide them links. I expect the comments below to be filled with invective, erroneous logic, attacks on my character finally ending with the hoary chestnut, "I'll pray for you."

Unlike many, I will not hide the names. You go on to Twitter with no expectation of privacy so take your lumps.

Here goes:

Here we go with a classic theist dodge: use the Bible to prove the Bible as if that is somehow going to sway the ideas and opinions of an old atheist like me.

Now on to the burden of proof. Mr. Miano's assessment of modern cosmology is, at best, incomplete. At worst, it's entirely misleading. I know of no astronomer who works in cosmology who claims that the universe came from nothing. We do not yet know the origins of the universe but to say that "something exploded out of nothing and became everything" is complete drivel and Miano knows it.

Speaking of what people know, he then says that men deny what they know is true. Naturally, he is referring to the Bible. He has now stated the Bible is true. I challenge him to prove it. From that point on, he disappears from the conversation and a guy who goes by Ancient Theology steps in.

Do you see that easy dodge? Rather than prove a statement has been made, he has attempted to shift the burden of proof to me. And, again, he has said that the Big Bang has no cause. I still say that this is a gross misunderstanding of modern cosmology.

My second statement to Ancient Theology sums up my feelings on the issue pretty nicely. At one time, gods were the explanation for everything that occurs in nature. As we learned more and more about the world around us, some of those gods vanished. Today, god has become nothing more than an answer for people who are content to be satisfied with incomplete answers. Once gods enter the equation, inquiry withers and dies.

And he's right. I have no guile. Guile implies craftiness. Nope. Not me. I just make my statement flat out with no attempt to use emotion or coercion to demonstrate what I say. It's out there and you can accept it, refute it (with evidence) or ignore it. It's all the same to me.

The conversation continues... so more later.