Monday, February 28, 2011

Public Service Announcement: Dihydrogen Monoxide

I was recently reminded of the dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide. (My wife was exposed to its gaseous form and burned her forearm Saturday morning.) Since some of you may not be familiar with this critical issue, let me take a moment to warn you about this dangerous and unregulated substance.

According to the Dihydogen Monoxide Research Division, "Although the U.S. Government and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) do not classify Dihydrogen Monoxide as a toxic or carcinogenic substance (as it does with better known chemicals such as hydrochloric acid and benzene), DHMO is a constituent of many known toxic substances, diseases and disease-causing agents, environmental hazards and can even be lethal to humans in quantities as small as a thimbleful."

Professor Donald Simanek explains, "Dihydrogen monoxide is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and kills uncounted thousands of people every year. Most of these deaths are caused by accidental inhalation of DHMO, but the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide do not end there. Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage. Symptoms of DHMO ingestion can include excessive sweating and urination, and possibly a bloated feeling, nausea, vomiting and body electrolyte imbalance. For those who have become dependent, DHMO withdrawal means certain death."

Professor Simanek supports a comprehensive ban of this dangerous substance, and Penn and Teller have also lent their celebrity status to this important cause:

Educate yourself, and be careful out there. This stuff is everywhere.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Don't read the map, read the terrain

Okay, one final parable to finish off the week's discussion of Things You Shouldn't Say To Unbelievers:

I was... I don't know, fourteen or fifteen when I finally decided that I'd had enough of the Boy Scouts. There were a lot of things that contributed to the decision, but there was one particular incident that served as the tipping point.

It was a camping trip. I don't remember (if I ever knew) the location, but it was a reasonably woodsy area. The landscape was not so much hilly as it was a series of ridges and valleys. A couple of the adults had hiked in a week or two earlier and found a good place to camp, which they had helpfully marked on the topographic map. A week later, our scout troop hiked in for a weekend campout.

Thus it was that my best friend and I found ourselves standing on the top of a ridge, holding the topographic map, while our Scoutmaster stared perplexed at his compass. Being thus engaged, we glanced at the map, studied the landscape, and looked at the map again. So, given the shape of the hill and the presence of that creek over there, we must be standing on this ridge, right about here where it turns. That would mean that the campsite is...

"It's over there," I said, gesturing off to the right.

"Can't be," said the Scoutmaster, barely looking up from his compass.

"Look," I showed him the map. "If we're here, then the campsite is there." I pointed about eighty degrees to the right of the direction he was facing.

"No, no, it's this way," he insisted. Then he boldly led us forward, and completely failed to find the campsite. Needless to say, I was not especially surprised by this. We made camp anyway.

Much later, he came striding back and loudly announced that he'd found the spot where we were originally supposed to camp. He conspicuously failed to mention that he'd found it exactly where my friend and I had said it would be. I was, of course, not the least bit irritated by this. Who would be? Nevertheless, I withdrew from the Boy Scouts soon after.

As you might expect, there's a moral to this story. If you want to keep people in your organization, try not to be an utter prat. Well, okay, that wasn't really what I had in mind, since it was the conversation with the Misguided Christian over on Ken Pulliam's old blog that reminded me of this incident. So maybe there are two morals. Anyway, here's my point:

Your compass may be in perfect working order, and your map may be correct in every conceivable detail, but if you're not looking at the terrain you're still going to get lost.

Also, while you're at it, try not to be an utter prat.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bertrand Russell Redux, or Why I am not a Christian

So... The interminable conversation with the misguided Christian is (at the time of this writing) still ongoing. I have now used that conversation as the basis for two complete posts, each describing an argument that would-be evangelists really ought to avoid. One of the problems with both of these arguments is that they deal with nonbelievers not on the basis of their actual beliefs and experiences, but on the basis of what the would-be evangelist believes those beliefs and experiences must be, which is generally based on a reading of the scriptures.

So, since I've just spent several pages insisting that would-be evangelists would get better results if they'd talk with real unbelievers about why they don't agree (rather than arguing as if we were the embodiment of the Straw Men they've been taught to expect), it occurs to me that this might be a good time to explain why I'm not a Christian. Also, it may make for a handy reference if I find myself in this sort of conversation again.

Naturally, if you're one of my Christian friends, you're welcome to skip over this. In fact, I'd prefer if you did. I don't have anything against Christianity per se, and I'll do my best not to condescend or insult, but still... reading a detailed description of why I don't share your beliefs could be kind of awkward. So if you do decide to read on, just bear in mind that this is not meant as a blanket condemnation of religious belief, and you weren't the intended audience anyway.

I was going to talk about my religious background, but to be honest that's just a distraction. So we'll skip that, and move on to why I'm not currently a Christian. My reasons can be divided into two basic categories: intellectual and spiritual.

Intellectual Reasons:
On a fundamental level, Christianity doesn't make sense to me. This isn't any one element, unfortunately, but a whole combination of things. As a result, I'm not really sure where to start, so I guess I'll just pick an example and go...

The Doctrine of the Trinity was one of the first things that I tripped over when I first started putting things together: the belief that God the Father, Jesus (the Son), and the Holy Spirit are simultaneously three separate entities, and different manifestations of a single entity. While an all-powerful deity should be able to do things that would be impossible for lesser entities, this seems to me to pass beyond miraculous and into the realm of absurdity - something akin to creating a square circle. Also, there are several sections of the Bible ("My God, why have you forsaken me?") that only seems to make sense if Jesus is not part of God. However, accepting this doctrine isn't strictly necessary in order to be a Christian, so let's move on to more fundamental things.

Original Sin is another concept that I don't really accept. I've tried, perhaps unsuccessfully, to lay out my objections to the idea, but let's focus on my two main problems. First, if you read this literally, it means that all of humanity is being punished for a mistake made by a very distant ancestor. Second, the notion that we are subject to Earthly death, a sinful nature, and eternity in Hell as a "natural consequence" of sin seems completely incompatible with the idea of an all-powerful God. While it has a certain poetic appeal, the concept of original sin does not (in my opinion) provide a particularly accurate description of the human condition.

Penal Substitutionary Theory is the idea that Jesus' death on the cross paid the price for our sins. I learned the name decades after I came to reject the doctrine; my objection was that I could not - and cannot - see how the death of one man, two thousand years ago, could possibly make any difference to my sins. (This was something that confounded Dr. Pulliam also; a very great deal of his blog was devoted to examining various views of the issue.) This question is further complicated if you accept the Doctrine of the Trinity; at that point, you have God sacrificing Himself to Himself in order to satisfy His need for justice, which is just bizarre.

There's an additional problem which only occurred to me much later. The price of sin is an eternity of torment in Hell, right? But Jesus was somehow able to pay this - for everybody - in a couple of days of Earthly suffering? How does that work, again?

And, of course, my inability to accept the idea of Original Sin means that I don't really see any need for this sort of sacrifice to redeem people. That's not to say that we don't need forgiveness, just that we ourselves can repent, apologize, and try to make amends to the best of our ability. To me, that sort of personal attempt is a lot more meaningful.

There are some other issues floating around - for example, the Bible looks to me far more like a record of mankind attempting to communicate with the divine than the other way around - but that ought to be sufficient to illustrate what I mean when I say that Christianity as whole simply doesn't make much sense to me. Those aren't minor doctrinal quibbles that could be fixed with better discernment of the Scriptures; Original Sin and Penal Substitution are the core of Christian belief.

Spiritual (Revelatory / Emotional) Reasons:
I have felt the touch of the Divine. It came to me as a sense of transcendant calm, and peace, and renewal. It was also a sense of Presence, of something unseen but powerfully alive. It didn't seem to want anything from me, or have any particular message; it was just this unexpected and unasked-for gift of grace.

Considered in retrospect[1], I have no particular reason to believe that this was something done to/for me by an outside entity. Intense and unexpected as it was, it might have been nothing more than an aesthetic, emotional reaction. But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that it really was the touch of the Divine. I have no particular reason to believe that it wasn't.

I've experienced this twice. In both cases, I was fairly isolated: once alone, once with one other person. In both cases I was out in the woods of eastern Tennessee - the Cumberland Plateau area, which is overflowing with natural beauty. Both experiences came from being close to nature, without anything in the way of civilization to offer distractions. And both were... "meaningless" isn't quite the right world, but if there was some deeper meaning or higher purpose or life-altering message that I was supposed to take away from the experience, I missed it.[2]

I've never felt anything like it in a church. Oh, the great cathedrals at Chartres and Notre Dame stirred a somewhat atavistic sense of awe, with their strange combination of deep forest and cavernous stone; but it was nothing like that sense of presence and peace that came to me in real solitude, with real trees around me.

I've never felt anything like it while reading the Bible - or any other book, holy or otherwise, for that matter. Not even close.

I've never felt anything like it among any group of people, no matter how kind or friendly or moral they were. Nothing.

So, putting it all together:
I'm not a Christian because Christianity doesn't work for me. It doesn't provide me with a particularly accurate or even useful way to examine the human condition; it doesn't offer any unique insights into the nature of the physical world. And insofar as I have any experience of divine or spiritual matters, it doesn't accurately describe those, either.

Again, if Christianity accomplishes any or all of that for you, that's fine. I'm not trying to argue that it's worthless for everyone. But please accept that what I've said here is... well, that these are my reasons. They aren't just excuses to cover my rebellion against God; if God exists, I genuinely don't perceive Him. (And even if He does, I don't see any reason to assume that Christianity accurately describes His nature.) Believe it or not, I really don't have a "Jesus-shaped hole" in my heart - or if I do, I can't find it, which amounts to the same thing.

So when I say that I can't be a Christian, this - all of this - is what I mean.

[1] I didn't give it much actual thought at the time. There didn't seem to be any need, and I was enjoying the experience too much to interrupt it.

[2] No, not rejected it. Missed it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Reflections on Adjustments

Claire and I went out to dinner last night. We couldn't really afford it, but we did it anyway. We needed some time with each other, and we needed to know that nobody was listening in on us.

So we went to Sydney.

I can't tell you how we managed it - I mean, even if I could tell you everything, I really couldn't explain how we found our way to a place that neither of us had ever visited before, on the far side of the globe. I'd been working on using that shortcut method of travel that saved my life before, and if I could take my clothes with I could surely bring other things along as well. And Claire had shared the dreams with me; she didn't have any trouble with the transition. So there we were... in Australia.

It was about 1:30 when we arrived - I mean, it was still 7:30 at night back in Austin, but there in Sydney it was early afternoon. I hadn't thought much about the temperature, but in the event it was very pleasant. We found a restaurant on the harbor and sat down to eat... and talk.

The first thing we talked about was the dreams. Yes, she'd had them around the same time I had. She even remembered that night when we met each other in the dream. No, they weren't any part of the Snake Cult's lore, any more than they were part of mine. Whatever the dreams were, and whatever they'd done to us, and whatever beings or forces might be behind them... well, they weren't anything to do with either of our backgrounds. Maybe, just maybe, they were the result of the two of us being together, but if that was the case we couldn't begin to imagine why.

We moved on to other topics before we'd even finished our appetizers. I started as simply as I could: "I don't want you to go."

The expression of relief on Claire's face was almost painful to see. "Good," she said. "I don't want you to go, either."

We didn't say anything for... I don't know, but it felt like a very long time. We just enjoyed the food and each other. "It doesn't change that much, you know." This was Claire's observation. "You have a lot of things that you can't tell me. I have a lot of things that I can't tell you. We were doing that anyway, it's just that now we both know that we're doing it."

I thought about that, and really couldn't find fault with it. How much had really changed in our relationship? Everything and nothing. Okay, so now we actually knew that there were things we couldn't talk about. We'd both gone into the relationship expecting that. I was willing to bet we could work around it.

I said, "Someone could still order me to kill you."

Claire shrugged. "Someone could still order me to kill you."

I nodded at that. "I guess we'll burn that bridge when we come to it."

Claire nodded back, then looked off towards the front of the restaurant. The server was coming with our food. When she'd delivered it and left, Claire said: "I hadn't planned to tell... my people... that you know about me."

I chuckled. "I hadn't planned to tell my people that I know about you. Or that you know about me. I think they have their suspicions, but I'm prepared to let 'em wonder."

She thought about that for a moment. "I'd be surprised if they didn't," she admitted.

We talked about other things as we finished our meal. After what we'd already said, everything else was trivial - reminiscences, gossip from work, stories about some of the people we (sometimes) went to church with. It was so completely comfortable that it was almost weird.

But only "almost." Weird is a matter of perspective, after all.

I paid with my credit card - a small risk, but after such a wonderful experience I couldn't bring myself to leave without paying, and I was pretty sure they wouldn't take the bills in my wallet. Then we walked around the harbor for the while. We even considered visiting the aquarium, but as much as it was afternoon in Sydney it was still evening for us. I admitted that I was tired ("exhausted" would have been more accurate) and Claire took us home.

I had to go back for our clothes, but I didn't mind at all.

I have no idea where this is going, but for now we're still on track. I don't often have this feeling, this irrational sense that all is right with the world, so I'm just going to enjoy it while it lasts. I think we need to make a few more fallback plans, but - amusingly - the war between my people and the Snake Cult provides an excellent cover for that sort of thing. As long as we act separately, I doubt anyone will even notice.

Meanwhile, however transitory and fragile our world might be, life is good.

Reflections of a Deranged Cultist is a work of fiction. F.B.I., N.S.A., and Customs agents can all rest assured that everyone is staying where they're supposed to be. Please don't put me on any watch lists. Thanks.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Anyone having trouble with comments?

At the moment, pretty much anybody who feels like it ought to be able to leave a comment on this blog. I mean, blogger has its spam filter, and I do have the "prove you're a real human being" text enabled, but otherwise commenting is completely open.

However, at least one commenter has mentioned having difficulties leaving comments from work, and I've heard one or two people (elsewhere) complain about problems with comments on Blogger. So I thought I'd check and see if this is an isolated instance, or if there's a problem that I need to address.

Obviously, if you can't comment, you aren't going to be able to tell me here. In that case, send an email to michael mock {at} mockwriting dott comm. (The name is all one word, and I assume you're all clever enough to translate the URL back into computerspeak.)

How NOT to talk to unbelievers, part II

As an atheist, I know perfectly well that nobody really believes in God. It's all a giant game of make-believe, where the self-described "believers" spend a lot of time reinforcing each other so that nobody accidentally drops out of character. The goal is to get as many people as possible into each like-minded club, and use those numbers to gain special advantages for the group. The thing is, though, even if they won't admit it, even the most outwardly devout "believers" secretly know that it's all pretense. That's why they get so mad at Atheists - pointing out that it's just a game "breaks the frame" and makes it that much harder to stay in character.

Now, if you're a believer and you just read that, you're probably a bit boggled. I mean, I suppose you might feel insulted, but I'd bet that a lot of you are still stuck on, "He thinks what?" And possibly you're giggling just at bit at how comically wrong I am about religious folks.

That's pretty much the way nonbelievers feel when we hear (or read) things like this:

"As a Christian, its my position that God has revealed Himself to all mankind so that we can know for certain who He is. Those who deny His existence are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness to avoid accountability to God. It is the ultimate act of rebellion against Him and reveals the professing atheist's contempt toward God."

This is the same person I quoted last time, and in an odd way that's actually a compliment. Yes, I take issue - rather seriously - with his views, but he is at least reasonably friendly and quite well spoken. In addition, he is willing to put into words some attitudes that I frequently encounter as unspoken assumptions.

Like the last example, this is something that you should probably never say if you're a Christian talking to unbelievers, former Christians, or even believers of other faiths/religions. It displays the same fundamental arrogance as the last assertion I examined, but (for me, at least) it's so laughably misguided that I can't even bring myself to be offended by it. Still, as a favor to everyone[1], I'm going to break this one down, too.

So here goes. Why is this view a problem?

I know more about you than you do. This is another situation where someone has told you something about their life and/or their experience, and your response is to tell them that you know better. It's an arrogant assertion that you have the right and/or the knowledge to tell someone else what they really believe. As you might imagine, this is not an especially winsome or effective approach to sharing your testimony.

It's ridiculous. Look at that middle sentence again: "Those who deny His existence are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness to avoid accountability to God." Um, what? Seriously, have you thought about this? There's an all-knowing, all-powerful God. The fact of His existence is unmistakable. His judgement is inescapable. (That's what all-powerful means.) And yet, there is a significant portion of the human population who claims that He does not exist because they think this will... accomplish what, exactly? Allow them to avoid His judgement, even though He is all-knowing and all-powerful? That makes no sense.

No, if the nature and existence of God are as truly unmistakable as this sort of Christianity would have me believe, and if the consequence of unforgiven sin is an eternity of torment, then the only sensible response would be to do whatever it takes to obtain that forgiveness. Contrariwise, if people claim not to believe, then the obvious conclusion is that[2] the nature and existence of God is not so obvious to some people as it is to others.

It denies any possibility of disagreement. If you insist that people only refuse to recognize God out of selfishness, anger, or rebellion, then you completely deny the possibility that people might have honest doubts or disagreements. This has (at least) two ill effects on your argument - first, for those of us who do have honest doubts or disagreements, it makes Christianity looks silly[3]. Rather than providing witness for the Good News, it offers further evidence that Christianity doesn't know what it's talking about. And second...

It effectively ends the conversation. I might point out that the nature of God, and even the existence of God, is not at all apparent to me. This is true, but what's the point in trying to tell you that? You've just stated that anyone who says that is, by your definition, either lying or delusional.

At this point, you've lost any further opportunity to share the Good News. You can't address my doubts, because you don't believe that I actually have any. There's no point in telling me about how wonderful God is, or how insanely cool it is that Jesus died for my sins, because you already "know" that I'm in willful rebellion against Him. There's no reason for you to continue talking to me. And for my part, you've demonstrated that you're either unwilling or unable to deal with me as I actually am, so there's no reason for me to continue to talk to you.[4]

My advice to evangelically-minded Christians? Take it easy. More to the point, take nonbelievers - or those who believe differently - at their word. I don't look at the world and immediately think, Wow, that's so incredibly wonderful, there must be a God, but I do look at the world and think, You know, if there is a God, he sure loves variety. And beetles. But definitely variety. And that variety extends to people, too.

So please, do us the courtesy of assuming that our beliefs - or lack of beliefs - are based on the best of our understanding. Trust us that we are being honest when we say that we do not believe, or that we believe something different. Deal with us as we are, instead of how you think we must be.

And when people disagree with you, don't assume that doing so is clear evidence of their moral failings.

[1] For unbelievers, it's a great relief if we don't have to listen to people insist that their understanding must be correct because it's based in scripture, even though it's laughably inaccurate when compared to observable reality - i.e. our own experience. For believers, it's a chance to avoid doing something that actively works against you when you're evangelizing, proselytizing, or otherwise sharing the Gospel. That bit in the Sermon on the Mount about how you're blessed when men revile you? Yeah, that only works if they're reviling you for the sake of Christ. If men revile you because you come across as a self-righteous twat, I'm pretty sure it doesn't count.

[2] ...for whatever reason...

[3] At best, it looks silly. At worst, depending on the interpersonal balance of power, it's directly threatening: you will be judged according to what I say about you, and what you say about yourself does not count. You are at my mercy.

[4] The usual next step in this exchange is for the would-be proselytizer to say something like, "I pray that God will soften your heart." I'm sure this is meant well, at least for the most part, but it seems to contain some rather disturbing implications. If I can't perceive God because my heart has been hardened, who exactly is responsible?

I can say with some certainty that if my consciousness continues after death, and if there are things I can do to ensure that it continues into paradise rather than torture, then I'd very much like to know about it. So I don't think I'd be the one hardening my heart. The alternative, of course, is that God Himself must be hardening my heart. While this is somewhat flattering - after all, Pharaoh got the same treatment - it also seriously calls into question the idea that God is just, let alone merciful.

Dreaming of a Coastal Resort

I had a strange dream just as I was waking up this morning.

Yeah, I know. Me. Strange dreams. Who could have seen that coming? But I digress...

I had come to a hotel (somewhere) for a real-life get-together with a bunch of the regulars over at Slacktivist. I found a certain handbell-ringing member and her husband, but apparently nobody else was there, yet. So I/we left. (Sometimes my wife was there with me, but she kept fading in and out of the background of the dream - sometimes we were doing things together, sometimes it seemed like I was alone.)

I went to a renfaire, and I was trying to get dressed for it, except I kept having to put on more clothing because the weather was getting worse and worse. So finally I went back to the hotel, where I found that everyone had left to go attend a performance. Apparently they were expecting me, because someone had "sent another limo." So of course I'm all like, "Hey, nobody ever sends limousines for me, I'd better get in there." Except I'm still in my ragged multi-layer renfaire clothes, and I haven't been to my room yet, so I don't have anywhere to put my bag.

It turns out that the front desk was willing to store my bag, so I hopped in the limo and off I went. I was hoping to keep dreaming long enough to see some of the performance - there's a good chance that handbells were involved - but the insistent voice of the alarm clock denied me the opportunity.

Now, as far as that goes, it's just a strange dream - interesting enough, but not especially meaningful. But the hotel itself...

Well, I've dreamed about it before, at least once. It's right on the coast - though whether that's the edge of the mainland, some sort of peninsula, or part of an island, I'm not sure. It occupies one side of a sweeping sea cliff, with a swimming are below and a dock (or docks) on the other end of the cliff. The drive leading down to it is narrow and winding and cut right out of the rock, so a lot of way has rock faces on one side or the other.

When I first dreamed of the place, the hotel wasn't particularly clear; my wife and I rented a boat from the docks and went out into an area of lakes and small islands set in a maze of high cliffs formed by larger islands. There might have been zombies in this dream; I don't remember. This time, though it was distinctly the same place, the docks and the swimmers were just part of the background, and the focus was very much on the hotel itself - particularly the lobby and the (huge!) restaurant. The rooms were all on the upper floors, and I remember taking an elevator, but not in enough detail to be worth describing. (If I ever write this setting into a story, I'll steal those details from a middlin' opulent hotel not far from where I work.)

So there it is: the coastal resort of my dreams.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Real Work Conversations: Man Eating Daffodils

Human Resources: "Why does it say 'finish making man-eating daffodils' on your list of major projects?"

Me: "Because if we don't get the man-eating daffodils finished, how will we get them planted in time for Spring?"

Human Resources: (blinks) "..."

Me: "Hey, you wanted to know."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Your Day As A Sitcom Episode

Michael Mock has survived another day of work, but can he get the kids in bed before he passes his window and can't get to sleep himself? Tune in for tonight's exciting episode of Parenting Limits Your Options.

How would you describe your day if your life was a TV show? Are you living in a Sit-Com, or is your life more of a Drama? Something else entirely?

Reflections on Weirdness

It's been two days, and I think I'm finally starting to calm down. That's good. I've also come to the firm conclusion that weirdness is very much a matter of perspective. Consider:

Last year I spent an evening stumbling through the woods while looking for a stray Bumbler. That didn't strike me as strange - unusual and unwelcome, but not really out of the ordinary. More recently, I... coordinated a ceremony... while running a medium-high fever. The fever gave the whole experience a slightly surreal tinge, but the the presence of... well, of things that don't exist on Earth on their own... that didn't seem weird at all.

Even the idea that Claire worships the Father of Serpents doesn't seem all that weird. I mean, it was a shock; but I've known about her group in general for a long time. And her being one of them is certainly disturbing. But, weird? Not so much.

Right now, though, we're tip-toeing on eggshells around each other, while pretending that everything is still normal - at the same time. And that's weird. Really, really weird.

We're going to have to talk about this sometime. I think Claire knows it, too - she's just waiting for me. And I'm... not quite ready, yet. I mean, I think I'm done panicking. I just need to work through everything: see what has changed, what hasn't changed, and whether I can deal with those changes. Questions like "how" and "what if" will figure prominently in those thoughts.

Now, though, I have to get to work, so - once again - the important stuff will have to wait.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

They look like us now

I have a theory.

Most of you are familiar with the recent Battlestar Galactica show, which as you know was a fictionalized retelling of an earlier pair of documentaries produced in the late seventies and early eighties. The first documentary told the story of the survivors of the Twelve Colonies and their search for the fabled "lost" thirteenth colony, Earth. The second documentary examined their arrival on Earth and their attempts to keep Earth safe from the Cylons - the same robotic forces which had destroyed the Twelve Colonies.

What the Colonials didn't know was that the Cylons were already on Earth. Apparently their hostility was reserved for the humans of the Twelve Colonies. Earth humanity was considered harmless, blameless, or simply too ignorant to merit destruction. So, while the crew of the Galactica struggled to keep Earth safe from the Cylons, the Cylons worked quietly in the background to save Earth humanity from itself.

They set up front companies to disguise their influence, and either found or created human(-seeming) proxies to be their spokespeople. Probably the best known of these was Knight Industries, which developed a very effective working partnership between a human and a Cylon under its FLAG program.

No, I'm not making this up. The FLAG program had its own documentary, though it was more of a PR exercise than the ones devoted to the Battlestar and its crew. Let me find a sample...

Here. Look at this, and tell me it's not a Cylon:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Reflections on Shock

I was still sitting in the dark when Claire came home last night. She came inside, locked the door behind her, and set her backpack on the desk. I didn't move, and I don't think she saw me.

Hector the Cat twined himself around her legs, and she reached down to pet him.

I said, "Why haven't you killed me yet?"

She stopped in the act of petting the cat. "Why haven't you killed me yet?"

"I didn't know you worshiped the Father of Serpents until today."

There was a long pause, while she continued scratching the cat. "It shouldn't have mattered," she said. "You sent that thing to Toby, so I reported it. The serpents considered, and decided that it might have been a message meant for them. So I was set to study you, but you gave me... nothing. No threats, no warnings, no information. It was as if you thought I was a normal girl... and I liked that. I liked you."

"I thought you were a normal girl." I'd like to say I paused to think, but in truth my brain just couldn't seem to get going. Apparently it's not just certain of the Ancients which threaten human sanity - there are perfectly ordinary events that the human mind refuses to cope with.

As a species, we kind of suck.

Anyway... After a moment, I added: "I liked you, too. This has been really great."

She stopped scratching the cat and looked at me. "Do you want me to go?"

I don't know! I opened my mouth, then closed it again. I should have waited - I should have gone somewhere until I'd gotten over the shock, instead of trying to talk to her now. Now we were waist-deep in the most important conversation of my life, and I couldn't frame a coherent thought.

Claire came over and sat down on the couch beside me. "I can go," she said. Her voice wasn't steady, but at least she could talk. "Or you can go. Or we can stay together." She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. "You don't have to decide right now."

So... I didn't. I made myself a stiff drink and fell asleep there on the couch. And... I still don't know. We're acting like everything is still the way it was. And... I'm glad about that. I think I just need a day or two to finish freaking out, so I can think about what to do. Until then, I'd better just leave everything on hold.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Further Reflections on the End of the World

You know, when I first started writing these reflections, I opened with some thoughts on how exciting it was to be living in expectation of the end of the world. I didn't realize just how close to it I really was... But then, I hadn't realized everything that the end of world could mean until tonight. It doesn't have to be the physical destruction of the planet Earth, or even the horrific death of what we laughably consider the "higher" life forms. The world can end in all sorts of ways.

Take tonight, for example. Claire went to class, and she was going to stay after - she said she found some people to study with.

So, while I had the opportunity, I summoned... an entity... to watch for me, and sent it over to watch one of the snake cultists who tried to kill me on the Mo Pac. The timing was perfect: I caught him in his apartment. Not only that, but both of the others were there, talking with him, and none of them seemed to notice my spy. The only thing that would have made it better is if they had been alone, but of course they weren't.

Claire was there with them.

And they were talking as if they'd known her a very long time.

As if she were part of the Snake Cult. As if they suspected her of warning me that about their attack. She denied it, of course. And now my world is over. There might have been more to learn, but I called my spy back and dispelled it.

All the lights are off in our apartment. I'm typing entirely by the light of the monitor. When Claire comes home... well, I'm honestly not sure what I'll do. I don't... I can't process this. I can't make it make sense. Claire belongs to the snake cult?

But she does. She has all along. And I'm a fool.

Maybe, if I'm lucky, the Whisperers will take me before she comes home. I've betrayed my fellow believers; I know that now. Even if I never told her anything, her cult must have learned who I knew and who I visited. Maybe that's even why we're at war: the two of us living together must have made people on both sides very nervous. It's easy to picture our fellow worshipers deciding that one or the other of us must have switched allegiances. Or maybe they just weren't sure, and someone started killing people to find out. I could see that, too.

Someone always gets impatient. The end of the world always comes too soon.

How NOT to talk to former Christians

A couple of days ago I dropped by the blog of the late Dr. Ken Pulliam. Dr. Pulliam passed away from a heart attack, but he had apparently written a number of articles in advance, and set them to post automatically on his blog. So, in a sense, he was still publishing new material for several months after his death - which was both confusing and more than a little creepy, but that was why I was dropping by: I wanted to see if anything new had shown up since my last visit, and (on a more melancholy note) I wanted to see what had become of the blog since his passing.

By his own account, Dr. Pulliam was "born again" in 1978. He earned a Ph.D. in Theology, and took a position at an evangelical Bible college, teaching and preaching. Around 1994 (sixteen years or so later), he started having doubts. In an attempt to bolster his wavering his faith, he began a thorough study of the issues that were causing him doubts. Despite this, by 1996 he was forced to admit that he no longer believed. He was an ex-Christian; he had fallen away; he was apostate.

Now, there is a certain variety of Christian for whom that sort of story is simply unacceptable. They read it and immediately think, That can't be right. So they go to the comments section, and post something along the lines of this:

Your post name caught my attention and I just wanted to help you understand better. Keep in mind, there is no such thing as an Ex-Christian because Christians don't Fall Away. People are not "De-Converted from Evangelical Christianity", they were simply never Christians. Its hard news at first but there is a promising outcome.

This is not the true Scotsman fallacy either. There are fundamental criteria set by Christ Himself to determine who is, or who is not, a Christian. You have just not met that criteria. Essentially, you have never been saved. But actually, that is great news! Its not that it was a hit and miss, but that you never have yet been at bat yet. There is still time while you're alive.

I'm using this particular example because, to be honest, it's one of the more polite phrasings of something that is, at heart, an extremely condescending thing to say. Most of them are more along the lines of "You shouldn't call yourself an ex-Christian. It's obvious you were never a Christian at all."

This is not, to be sure, a typical Christian response - insofar as a "typical" Christian response is possible at all. It seems to be a fairly small minority of Christians who react this way. However, it is common enough to be recognizable pattern: I can think of at least three occasions where people showed up on Dr. Pulliam's blog to make this assertion, and at least two which happened elsewhere. Also, the folks who do espouse this view tend to be very insistent about it. Interestingly, I don't see this very much on atheist and agnostic blogs; it's something about defining oneself as an ex-Christian or Former Christian that seems to trigger it.

...All of which brings me, finally, to the point of this essay: if you're a Christian, and you feel that evangelism is a moral obligation for you, telling self-described ex-Christians that they were never Christian to begin with is not how you should do it.

But why not? You may be asking. I'm just trying to share the Gospel. What's wrong with that?

The problem isn't with you trying to share the Gospel. The problem is that this particular approach is arrogant, disrespectful, and fundamentally misguided. Those are not qualities that make for especially winsome or effective evangelism. I don't want to be approached this way because it's obnoxious, and you don't want to approach people this way for exactly the same reason.

Now, I realize that some of you may be scratching your heads and wondering, What's so bad about it? Well, let me unpack it for you a bit.

  1. I know what you were and what happened to you better than you do. The simple act of telling someone that they were never really a Christian to begin with puts you in the position of asserting that you know more about that person's life than they do. See a problem, here? No matter how politely you phrase your accusation, the underlying assumption makes you look like an asshole. This is probably not the impression you want to make when you're trying to share the Good News of Salvation through Christ.[1]
  2. It's an irreducible argument. For a Christian who holds as an article of faith that true Christians cannot fall away, it's perfectly obvious that the former believer must not have been a true Christian. For someone who no longer believes in the truth of Christianity, the idea that "true Christians never fall away" just looks like something else that Christianity was wrong about. As a result, arguments on the topic tend to be nit-picky, repetitive, and unconvincing - to both sides.
  3. Even if you're right, you're still missing the point. Look, if someone is having doubts about their beliefs, then suggesting an alternate approach or a new viewpoint might be helpful. But, by the time someone starts defining himself as an ex-Christian, he's reached a point where Christianity as a whole no longer makes sense to him.[2] Even if you somehow manage to convince him that he never was a Christian, so what? Christianity still doesn't make sense to him. Your efforts would be better spent trying to address the actual issues that make Christianity seem nonsensical to him, than quibbling over whether he was a Christian in the first place.

    If your goal is to bring someone (back) into the flock, debating whether or not they were Christian previously is a pointless distraction.
  4. What kind of God would do that? If you insist that the former believer was never really a Christian, then you're also acknowledging that God was willing to let him go on believing - for at least sixteen years, in Dr. Pulliam's case - that he was saved; when in truth he was bound for Hell. This makes God look like a bit of a bastard, frankly. It doesn't seem at all compatible with the idea of God as either merciful or just. Again, probably not the impression that you really want to make - especially on behalf of the Almighty.

So here's my advice, for anyone interested in effective evangelism: don't go there. It doesn't help, and it makes you look bad. If you want to share the Gospel, do it by your actions; if you feel compelled to tell people about it, use a soft sell. Be humble and be ready to back off the moment the person you're talking to indicates disinterest. We will know you are Christians by your love, after all.

Melissa, over at Permission to Live, has a very good response to this question.

[1] Most Christians would be understandably wary of going up to a Christian of another denomination and telling them that they aren't really Christian. Why would you think that former believers would react any differently from current believers?

[2] Otherwise, they just switch churches or find a more compatible denomination. When that happens, they don't define themselves as ex-Christians, though they may think of themselves as "ex-Catholics" or "ex-Fundamentalists" or something along those lines.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Real Work Conversations: Used Zombie Salesmen

Me: "So I'm thinking: used zombie salesman."

Co-worker One: "Wait. A salesman who's a zombie, or...?"

Me: "A seller of used zombies. They'd have to be voodoo zombies, obviously."

CW1: "For, what? Cleaning your house? Yeah."

Me: "And manual labor, that sort of thing."

CW1: "Okay."

Me: "You'd need to find a reputable dealer. I mean you'd hate to get your new zombie home and find that it had a broken leg, and they'd just splinted over it."

CW1: "Yeah, you wouldn't want your zombie trying to mow the lawn with a broken leg. Too hard to walk in a straight line."

Co-worker Two: (Appears, hands paper to CW1, looks confused) "What was that?"

Me: "We're talking about the difficulties of buying a good used zombie. I mean, you go to a disreputable used zombie salesman, and the next thing you know your zombie has all sorts of wear and tear that they didn't tell you about at the dealership."

CW2: "Oh, I see. Like, two days later he's falling apart - the dog's running off with his arm..."

Me: "Exactly... And this is why I love working here."

While we're on the subject, here's something to help you celebrate Valentine's Day:

Friday, February 11, 2011

Real Work Conversations: Presidential Aspirations

Me: "So apparently, the President of Egypt has finally stepped down in the face of overwhelming public protests. In an effort to restore balance to the cosmos, Donald Trump is apparently planning to run for President of the United States."

My boss: "..."

My boss: "...You're fired."

Movie Ghosts

If there's one thing that I've learned from watching horror movies (lots and lots of horror movies), it's that adult ghosts really aren't that scary. Threatening, maybe, and often dangerous, but not that scary.

The ghosts of children, on the other hand, tend to be creepy as hell.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reflections on Esoteric Ways to Travel

So, the big piece of news for this week: that odd business where I avoided being in a nasty car wreck because I was suddenly relocated to the living room of our apartment? Well, that was me doing that. I know, because I've managed to reproduce the effect. Twice. (The second time, I managed to take my clothes with me, which was helpful.)

It's... well, it seems to be less teleportation than a sort of translation. I push my way into another space - don't ask me how, I don't think I could explain it in terms that make any sort of sense, and this already sounds more than enough like delusional ravings, thankyouverymuch. Anyway, I do my traveling there, and then push my way back into our world.

And yes, if you're wondering: it's the world from my dreams, with its drifting mists and its peculiar, hexagonal landscape.

The process isn't perfect. It isn't even close. For one thing, I don't always end up where I want to be. Part of that is a matter of correspondences, I think: not every place in our world has an equivalent in that other place, or maybe they do and I just can't find them. But part of it is also that while I'm there, I'm a part of that place - a drifting, silver mist - and my thinking doesn't work the same way it does when I'm flesh and blood, here. It's... not so much like my mist-self is some separate entity with ideas of its own. It's more like when I'm there, I think like a mist... and mist-thinking is different. I'm not entirely sure how different, or in what ways, though.

It's also a lot of work. Some of the shaking and exhaustion that I'd attributed to shock (after being run off the road) seems to be a consequence of traveling this way. There may be other side-effects, too, that I just haven't seen yet. So I need to be very cautious about how I use this.

Which is almost a shame, because it's actually kind of fun.

I've been trying to keep an eye on the three snake cultists who ran me off the road, but it's been difficult. I've know the one ritual that can be used to spy on people, but if they happened to notice the spy it wouldn't be very difficult to trace it back to me. That was why I went to Mbata about them in the first place. I'll have to see if he knows anything else I can use; otherwise it's going to be more research in the archives. Or I could do it the mundane way - go and watch them myself - if I were fond of plans that seem designed to backfire.

And other than that, things are going pretty well. I mean, the weather's still all over the place, and work remains insanely demanding, but Claire and I are still together and still having fun, and nobody's tried to kill me in a couple of weeks - or her at all, which is even better. All in all, life is good.

Reflections of a Deranged Cultist is a work of fiction. Please don't put me on any F.B.I. Watch Lists. The Whisperers wouldn't like that.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Notes From The Mad Science Lab: Minor Accident

The ice storm last week cracked the containment seal on the Transbio room in the mad science lab. I was able to repair it, but not before some of the microorganisms escaped. Unfortunately, the organisms in question were flesh-eating bacteria. Even more unfortunately, they were part of one of my current projects. Most unfortunately, by the time I was able to deal with them, they had grown to three feet across and occupied most of the city.

So that's why I'm a little behind on updating the blog. I'm still monitoring to make sure I got them all - a lot of them got frozen under ice or snow, which makes them effectively invisible until they thaw out and start trying to eat people again.

(Actually, I've just been sick... again. Or still. Or both. Anyway, normal blogging should resume with the Deranged Cultist tomorrow.)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Wild, wild west

I just finished watching the movie adaptation of Jonah Hex, who was one of the more interesting (if obscure) comic book characters I remember from my youth. Jonah occupied a "Weird West" setting, with odd technology and supernatural elements, but he was very much a gunfighter at heart. (And distinctively scarred, for which reason he's distantly-but-perpetually associated with the character of Grimjack in my mind.)

Is it wrong of me to want a sequel? And after that, a Jonah Hex / Zorro crossover?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Reflections on Restraint

I was going to write this earlier, but I ran out of time. Now I'm glad I didn't.

The Elders called me in. So, after a very long day at work - Austin isn't snowed in, or even icy, but the power companies have hit us with rolling blackouts while they try to provide enough electricity to keep everybody in the rest of the state from freezing to death - I had to take a long detour before I could go home. Fortunately, Claire had a class to attend... but still, I barely made it back ahead of her.

Meeting with the Elders is... Well, for one thing, it's hard to describe. I mean, I can't tell you where I went; I can't tell you who was there; and I can't tell you too much about what was said. At least, I can't be too specific, and that makes it hard to record some of these events.

The other thing about meeting with the Elders is that it's terrifying. If your boss drops by and says, "I need to see you in my office when you get a minute," well, the worst you're likely to be facing is getting fired. Yeah, you probably worry, but you don't sit there wondering if you should change your name and leave the country instead.

The worst part is that they never tell you why they want to see you until you're there.

Anyway, the meeting: it was in a small conference room, with a big table in the middle, a flatscreen television on one wall, and a whiteboard on the other. There were five people there: myself, Mbata, and three of the Elders. Two of them still looked human - or human enough to pass, in their business suits. The third waited until the door was closed and our privacy was assured; then he let his features slip back to their natural configuration. Every once in a while, while the others were talking, he would wipe his eyebrows with his tongue. This was every bit as disturbing as it sounds, but it seemed to be an absent gesture. If it signaled anything in particular, I couldn't see what.

So the Batrachian watched, and the other two spoke. They were pleased, they said, that I had identified my attackers. The trio who ran me off the road were all three members of the snake cult, and at least one of them we'd known about already. Or rather, the Elders had known. Obviously they hadn't bothered to tell me.

Only the Elders don't want me to act against the snake cultists. They said I could observe them, as naturally I'd want to know what these people who'd tried to kill me were up to. If I learned anything interesting or identified other members of their cult, I was to inform Mbata. And if they did attack me again, I was permitted to defend myself. But that was it. I was not to make any sort of attack, mundane or occult, against any of the three.

I was not entirely happy about this, and I said so. That was when the Batrachian finally spoke up, in a horrible rasping croak. He said, "We do not require your happiness. Only your loyalty."

Well, they've got that. I'll watch, and if there's anything interesting, I'll report. And if I learn that the three of them - or any of them really - are going to take another shot at me, I'll be ready.

Because that will be self-defense.

Reflections of a Deranged Cultist is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any actual cultists, living or dead, is purely coincidental.