Friday, January 30, 2015

Reaction: J Warner Wallace and The Case For Truth, Part 3

Okay, I'm watching this video, because someone said they'd be interested in my response to it. The background post is here. I'm almost certainly over-thinking the whole thing, but hey -- if they didn't want over-thinking, they should have asked someone else for feedback.

In our last installment, I went through about the first third of the fifty-two minute video. That took a long time, since I'd spend anywhere from five to twenty minutes responding to things that took Mr. Wallace no more than thirty seconds to rattle off. Naturally, I'm going to stick with the same format for this installment, because I don't have any better ideas and anyway learning from your mistakes is for wimps. Wrong and strong! Full speed ahead! Here we go...

...Picking up at the sixteen minute and thirty second mark:

17:54: Talking about objective vs. subjective truth: "I'm going to test you on this, so be ready." Laughter. "And by the way, most churches and most groups that I work with will fail the test."

18:30: Now he's comparing a mission trip to explain the only medical cure for tuberculosis with the need to share your faith. By implication, he's tying in the concepts that A) his brand of Christian faith is objectively true, and B) sharing your faith is a matter of life and death. Note that he hasn't actually established either point; he's just sort of sliding those assertions in as an aside.

20:20: He's... using a metaphor about a house to basically point out that people commonly confuse objective truth-claims with subjective truth-claims. That seems like an unnecessarily elaborate way to make a relatively simple claim. Also, this is kind of a false dichotomy. Truth claims don't just fall into objective or subjective categories; there are, for example, claims that might be objective but we don't have enough evidence, or adequate methods of testing them, to be sure.

20:50: Considering theological truth as subjective weakens the truth claim, "because opinions don't really matter, if you think about it." No. Just, no. Not everything has to be Ultimately Important to matter.

21:00: "We have to reunite this idea, and get to one total truth, so we understand that the truth claims about God are every bit as objective as truth claims about math." ::sigh:: Are you really sure you want to go there, Dude? I ask because, as you yourself have pointed out, an awful lot of the reasons that people believe are... well... personal. Subjective. Francis Schaeffer has an entire book entitled He Is There and He Is Not Silent -- which, if it were true, would be far too self-evident to require a book.

Also, I'm troubled by the idea of "one total truth". Are we trying to unite subjective and objective truths here? Because that seems... problematic. Or are we just going to discard all subjective truths as unworthy of the label of Truth, and make sure that theological claims don't get discarded with them? That seems problematic too, but in a different way. Precisely which theological claims are we going to establish as independently-verifiable objective truths?

I'm just going to mention again that I have biases, and one of them is a low tolerance for showmanship. If you have a proof that the existence of God and/or the historicity of Jesus is/are real and verifiable, quit dithering around and show me.

23:38: "Now if I made this statement about Hyundais: 'I'm so committed -- Hyundais can fly you to the moon.' Objective or subjective?" Depends on how you meant it, of course, which is precisely the problem with most so-called "literal" readings of the Bible. Yes, I could assume that you were making a claim of objective fact, which in this case is relatively easy to disprove; but honestly, a statement like that is far more likely to be hyperbole, a metaphorical expression of your enthusiasm for the brand -- what you might call a poetic truth -- which would be based on your experience with the cars, and your opinion of the cars, and therefore subjective, and therefore (according to what you said back at the 20:50 mark) valueless.

Except that this also shows why the idea that subjective claims lack value is at best incomplete, and at worst simply wrong. As a data point, "This person has had such good experiences with Hyundai cars that they're willing to say things like, 'Hyundais can fly you to the moon,'" is actually useful to know. It isn't the Absolute Truth of whether you'll like a Hyundai as much as the person who said it, but it's still a useful indicator.

I'm going to un-pause, now, and see how Mr. Wallace answers his own question...

24:30: He's written it off as an objectively false claim. And, almost immediately afterwards, he's confusing objective and subjective. "If I said to you, 'I believe Chocolate chip cookies are the best cookies in the world,' that's a subjective claim." No, no it isn't. That's an objective claim, because either you do believe that, or you don't. It's a changeable objective claim, since your belief might change if someone introduced you to a new, better cookie, but it's still objective. You have to take the qualifier away to make it subjective: "Chocolate chip cookies are the best cookies in the world" is a subjective claim.

I'm pretty sure that if I were, hypothetically, one of the teenagers listening to this talk, he'd have lost me right there. But, again, I was a weird kid.

25:00: "Now, let's take the test together. We're gonna divide all true claims into two sides. On one side we're gonna put all objective claims, on the other side we're gonna put all subjective claims." That's kind of a false dichotomy -- sort of like any idea that starts with, "There are two kinds of people in the world..." Never trust a setup like that. When you're talking about claims, you're talking about things said by people, and when you're talking about things said by people, it's almost always more complicated than that.

Grouping all claims into either subjective or objective categories (while, as I've noted, a very cop thing to do) completely ignores questions of context, irony, hyperbole, exaggeration, sarcasm, humor, and really a substantial portion of all the rich variety of ways that people use to communicate. To make this division, you basically have to pretend that those things don't exist (and, by extension, didn't exist for the people living in Biblical times or the people who wrote their stories). You have to pretend that people don't interact or behave like people, in other words. You have to assume that people only ever communicate with each other in direct, literal sentences which present clear, unambiguous claims.

That's... functionally illiterate, in most cases.

(I'm sorry. I really set out just to explain why this sort of thing might not be all that persuasive to unbelievers. Instead, I'm being... well, pretty harshly critical of what Mr. Wallace has to say. Admittedly, that's precisely why this sort of thing might not be all that persuasive to unbelievers, but it still feels like I'm shading over from pointing out areas of disagreement and into actively debunking his points. Unfortunately, I don't think I can tone down my response and still offer any sort of useful or honest feedback. So just bear in mind that I don't begrudge Mr. Wallace his Christianity, or his belief that Jesus of Nazareth was an actual historical person, or any of that; it's just that I have some serious issues with his methodology.)

I'm going to stop here. (That means that this is definitely going to be at least two more installments, as we're roughly half-way through at this point. I doubt I can cram the next twenty-seven minutes of the talk into a single post; in fact, I suspect we'll be slowing down rather than speeding up. Still, I can hope, right?)

Benchmarks for this point in the lecture:

1. I'm seeing a lot more rhetoric than logic. I mean, Mr. Wallace has laid out the problem as he sees it: young people are leaving The Church in droves (and, I suspect, the occasional Hyundai), because they're going off to college without being ready to defend their beliefs. He's suggested a solution: prepare the young people by showing them that Christianity (and specifically his Baptist, definitely-not-Mormon brand of Christianity) is objectively (and, by implication, provably) true. And then, instead of just laying out this proof -- which ought not to be so terribly difficult -- he changes the subject. We're halfway through his talk, and we haven't done more than touch on the idea that this proof exists; the entire lecture so far is basically just background and build-up.

2. The hermeneutic he seems to be laying out here (at least, so far) strikes me as... well... simple-minded, and precisely the sort of thing that falls apart immediately when you try to apply it to the way actual people actually communicate. That isn't entirely Mr. Wallace's fault; a lot of what he's saying is standard, or at least very common, Christian doctrine.

3. I mentioned in the introductory post that a lot of apologetics seem to be designed more to reinforce the faith of existing Christians than to persuade unbelievers. That's definitely the case here (which, admittedly, makes sense when you consider his audience for his particular talk). Sure, Mr. Wallace has mentioned the vital need for people (and especially young people) to share their faith at all times, and the prospect of having solid proof of the historicity of Jesus seems like it could be really helpful with that; but he hasn't offered any discussion on how to approach people about your faith, how to actually share your faith, or when to shake the dust from your heels and move on to the next metaphorical town. This talk is (I think) building up to his core point about how Christians can know that the tenets of their faith are objective true, but it's building up with an explicit emphasis on keeping Christian young people in Christianity, rather than on bringing in new converts.

On to Part 4!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Reaction: J Warner Wallace and The Case For Truth Part 2

Okay, I'm finally watching this video, because... um... mostly because someone said they'd be interested in my response to it. The background post is here. This is probably more feedback than they wanted, but, well, here we go...

Very, very first impressions: he's a good speaker. He's active, dynamic, charismatic; he's talking about his background, his family, offering some personal info to make a connection. He also talks quickly -- that's part of the "dynamic, charismatic" element, but it also means he's throwing a lot of information at his audience without giving them much chance to stop and assess it.

1:50 "I was the kind of atheist that was really pretty obstinate." I have no particular reason to doubt this, but it's worth mentioning that it's sort of de rigeur in this sort of "I once was lost but now I'm found" story. Lee Strobel was an atheist until he turned his skills as an investigative reporter towards finding out if Christianity was really The Truth; Josh McDowell began his journey as an atheist examining the evidence and seeking the truth. Heck, Mike Warnke was a Satanic High Priest before he found Jesus and became an evangelist -- or at least so he claimed, for years, before Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott debunked pretty much everything he ever claimed. Having said that, I know (and occasionally work with) some police officers; and they tend to pretty black-and-white, clear-cut-categories sorts of people. So assuming that Mr. Wallace was an atheist, he probably was pretty obstinate about it. It's just that any time an apologist starts out talking about how much of an atheist they once were, I'm inclined to take it with a grain of salt.

2:22 - There's a really abrupt transition from "I was an atheist" to "I worked on a lot of high-profile cases" and then some talk about statutes of limitations and cold cases. He's basically setting out his credentials here -- he used to be an atheist, he's done a lot of investigation of things that happened a long time ago.

3:24 - "But now we're gonna take some of those techniques that we learn(ed) doing cold cases, and we're gonna apply them to the Christian worldview." That... seems like some heavy-duty conflation. "A long time ago" in historical terms is very different from "a long time ago" in terms of prosecuting a felony. The past is a foreign country, if you'll permit me to borrow a phrase. Mr. Wallace spends the next couple of minutes talking about how he, and his father, and his son all use basically the same equipment and the same techniques -- three generations! Consistency! -- and how those techniques can be applied even further back... but I'm dubious. So, I'm just going to pause here and point out -- again -- that Baby, It's Cold Outside sounds very different to modern audiences than it did to its original audience, and that's only going back to the 1940s. The idea that you can examine historical documents in the same way that you would look at modern eye-witness testimony or other evidence strikes me as hugely, fundamentally flawed.

That doesn't necessarily mean that he's wrong, of course; but to my mind it's a good reason to be wary.

5:00 - "The problem we're facing with young people ... Christians who attend college leave Christianity in large numbers. It's pretty ugly." This comment isn't exactly problematic, since he's addressing Christian youth at the Summit Worldview Conference, and -- being presumably all Christian -- we can safely assume that they agree that young people leaving Christianity is a Bad Thing. So I don't think he's wrong to mention it here, or to describe it the way he does... except for the part where he seems to be blaming colleges and/or the college environment for their departure. Again, this may be my own experience coloring my interpretation, but "going off to college" also happens to coincide with a point at which young people suddenly become much more free to make their own decisions. (I, myself, quit attending church when I went to college. I hadn't actually considered myself a Christian for two full years before that; it was just that attending church helped maintain the Domestic Tranquility Index while I was still living with my parents.) And there seems to be a social and/or historical trend of young people leaving Christianity right now, quite possibly just because there isn't as much pressure on them to stay as there was for earlier generations.

So while I understand and even sympathize with his desire to help young people remain Christians, I think the assumption that college is some sort of hostile environment may be somewhat (though not completely) misguided. Correlation is not causation.

6:00 "I think there's a simple math to the problem we're seeing... We're gonna add three things. The first thing [is that Christian students are poorly prepared]." Again, there's that belief that college is a hostile environment.

7:15 "Why are you a Christian?" He rattles off a list of answers. "Those are the same answers Mormon give -- they give the same answers as Christians give." So, apparently, Mormons aren't Christians. That's... troubling. First of all, I don't think it's his place to judge. Second, that sure as heck isn't how Mormons see it -- they see themselves, very consistently, as a return to the Christianity of the early church, albeit with some additional revelations given to them. Mr. Wallace has just said that his step-mother is a Mormon, so I find it extremely hard to believe that he doesn't know this. The alternative, of course, is that he knows but doesn't care, which indicates a degree of arrogant disdain that doesn't speak particularly well of him either.

Notice, also, that he's kind of jumping from topic to topic -- he's not laying out his thesis in a neat, orderly set of propositions. Part of that is simply a matter of being a good public speaker; if you just lay out your position one point at a time, it's pretty boring to listen to. But it also makes it easy to just sort of nod along in agreement, since you're only seeing one little piece of things at a time. Hopefully he'll do more to tie it all together as the talk progresses.

8:00 Mr. Wallace supplies another answer: "How about, 'We know it's evidentially true'? They can't say that." Um, yes they can. Maybe if you were talking about Shintoists or neo-Pagans or something, but Mormons? Mormons are working from the same starting point that you're trying to prove is "evidentially true". How do you have a Mormon step-mother and not know this?

8:20 He's finally gotten back to point #2 of the three things he referenced at the 6:00 mark: "Aggressive, antagonistic campuses." (Yep, I called it.)

I dunno, maybe I'm biased -- I mean, I started at an Episcopalian university and finished my undergraduate degree at a University founded and run by the Disciples of Christ. So maybe the public universities are hugely antagonistic to the Christian faith? Maybe it's the community colleges? Except I did my graduate work at a publicly-funded, entirely secular University, and I don't recall seeing anything in the way of Christian-bashing there, either.

"Let's face it: most college campuses are not in favor of Christianity anymore." A) In my experience, that's only true in that most colleges don't seem to care about it one way or the other. B) There's a world of difference between not favoring something -- not granting it special status or special standing -- and being aggressively antagonistic towards it.

9:10 "There's a third thing..."

9:40 Finally, we get there: "Innately fallen humans as students." Whew! Again, this is boilerplate Christian doctrine, so no real problem there.

10:00 "We have a pre-disposition as fallen humans to chase our desires anyway." Okay, I was wrong. I do have a problem with this. The idea that people leave Christianity because they're "in love with their sins" or "they want to be able to sin without being convicted" or just "they want to be able to sin" might hold water if being a Christian seemed to, you know, prevent people from sinning -- or even slow them down in any meaningful way -- but that just isn't how it works. At least, not in my experience, and not in any sort of study I've ever seen.

::sigh:: I think I was hoping that "innately fallen humans as students" meant "we're fallible and we get things wrong"... but, no.

11:25 "We have to move The Church in a new direction. That's why we have something like Summit to begin with. You are The Church. You're the most important demographic in the church." Sure, but just try getting the actual leadership to listen to anything you have to say. (Sorry, that was unnecessarily cynical, but A) I'm hearing that complaint a lot from the sorts of people who get called "post-Evangelicals", and B) I have strong memories of being a teenager, and being regularly assured that my generation had an important role to play, just... y'know... not yet, and in the meantime we should stay quiet and do as we were told.)

(I hated that. And it didn't just come from church-folk, either. Not even close. Dude, you're up there lecturing at the front of the class; you're not a "was", and your students aren't an "is". You're an "is", and if you're lucky your students are all "will-be"s. No, I have no idea how to punctuate that. Otherwise they wouldn't be sitting there listening to you tell them what to do.)

14:00 "This is a stupid missions trip. This is dumb, because this is really a matter of opinion." Nice lead-in. So, at the 14:10 mark, we get "This is the first thing we have to get this morning. You've gotta understand the nature of Truth. If there's no truth, there's no truth about God." We've just hit our first major proposition, our first vital starting point, a quarter of the way through his talk.

This is the difference between persuasive speaking, and laying out a cogent logical argument.

16:30 He's been laying out the difference between objective and subjective, and as an example he's compared a missions trip to preach the superiority of chocolate chip cookies as a desert (subjective) and a trip to explain to people stricken with Tuberculosis about the only effective cure for TB (objective). So he's tying the question of objective vs. subjective together with the question of what's really worth arguing over, at least by implication. He also seems to be making an argument that objective claims are valuable, whereas subjective claims are not -- and I don't entirely agree with that.

However, at this point I'm going to stop. We're roughly a third of the way through this; I have now spent something like four hours to get through sixteen and a half minutes of Mr. Wallace's presentation.

Benchmarks for this point in the talk:

1. I'm extremely impressed with him as a speaker. I think I'd still have disagreed with him, back when I was teen and at least nominally a Christian, but I wouldn't have been bored. A bit impatient for him to get to the meat of his argument, maybe.

2. I'm not terribly impressed with his argument so far, or where he seems to be going with it. It's hard to say for sure, of course, because he skips around a lot and seems to be laying his view out more by a process of accretion than by assembling it into a structure, but that's part of why I'm not terribly impressed so far. It's also, very probably, part of why he's a successful speaker; painstaking logical arguments tend to be boring, whereas persuasive speech needs to be engaging.

3. I keep wondering about the apparent teenagers that make up his audience: are they all gung-ho and inspired, or are there any of them who are more like I was: not responding, but weighing up Mr. Wallace's assertions privately, reserving judgement for later? Useless speculation, but in terms of laying out my biases it's worth remembering that I was a weird kid.

On to Part 3!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Parenting Equation

Here's my Unified Field Theory of Parental Sanity:
S=(T/E) + M - W

S = Sanity
T = Time
E = Energy
M = Money
W = Work
Low results correspond to cluttered houses, hastily-prepared meals, and dark circles under parents' eyes, and various other signs of emotional breakdown. High-value results correspond to neat houses, home-cooked gourmet meals, well-organized and biddable children, and parents who are fit, happy, and energetic (who are completely horrible people, I'm just sure of it).

Monday, January 26, 2015

Music: The Rifle's Spiral

The Shins:

This is one of those that I put up here for the video, as much as (or more than) the music. This is also another song that I know about only because I have some wonderfully weird online friends.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Reaction: J Warner Wallace and The Case For Truth part 1

One of the parents in the Christian Parents of Atheist or Agnostic Children support group asked for my reaction to this video of a lecture by J Warner Wallace, apparently entitled "The Case For Truth". It's taken me a little while to get to this -- the lecture is an hour long, and I have small children, which isn't a combination that lends itself to convenient review and reflection. Since that wasn't working, I decided to try a different approach: I'm going to watch the video in smaller chunks (at a guess, probably four sections of roughly fifteen minutes each; but that depends on how the lecture is structured) and write down my reactions here.

For anyone coming in new, it will help to understand my perspective: I'm an atheist (or an agnostic, unbeliever, or whatever label you prefer, really. "Unregenerate sinner" is not the worst thing I've been called). My role in the support group is to help -- or at least try to help -- the Christian parents get a handle on how non-believers and former believers look at things. (That's insofar as there's any one particular way that unbelievers look at things, which usually isn't the case.) So I'm not going to try to debunk or refute whatever Mr. Wallace has to say in his lecture, but I will almost certainly be trying to explain why his arguments may not be as convincing to unbelievers as they are to believers. (It's been mentioned before that a lot of Christian Apologetics seem to serve more to reinforce believers than to persuade unbelievers; I don't know if that will be the case here, but it seems likely.)

J. Warner Wallace is the author of Cold Case Christianity, which is a book and apparently (unsurprisingly) also a ministry. I have not read the book, and I don't follow the ministry, but his biography says that he was a vocal atheist who used his skills as a police detective to investigate the evidence for Christianity, and became a convinced and passionate Christian (and Christian apologist). That's oversimplifying a bit, but I think it's a fair summary.

According to the blurb on Amazon, "In Cold-Case Christianity, J. Warner Wallace uses his nationally recognized skills as a homicide detective to look at the evidence and eyewitnesses behind Christian beliefs." This isn't an entirely new approach; the basic idea isn't so different from Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands A Verdict (which I've read) or Lee Strobel's The Case For Christ (which I haven't). This... and I say this now now, so you'll understand my bias going into this... this whole approach is one that strikes me as fundamentally flawed, because it depends on treating the accounts given in the Gospels as if they were separate from Christianity. (There are other, nearly-contemporary accounts, but as independent evidence they're not that helpful; they're second-hand, written well after the events they describe, and/or open to question about how much of the text is original, as opposed to being later interpolations.)

Now, none of that may have anything to do with whatever Mr. Wallace discusses in this particular lecture; I don't know. But since I've run into his name and some of his ideas before, I thought it was worth laying out my background and the way it shapes my responses before diving into the video itself. Unfortunately, that's eaten up my writing time for this evening; so we'll actually start watching in a day or two (or three), in the next installment.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

My brain goes strange places, Guardians edition

So, the Guardians of the Galaxy are flying around in the Milano, and as usual things aren't going exactly according to plan. We join our heroes to find Rocket Raccoon and Groot inspecting the shower.

Rocket: "Here it is. The water's getting out between these two tiles. No wonder the harmonic frazistator broke down."

Groot: leans over and runs a tendril along the break between the tiles, leaving a trail of goop behind.

Rocket: "What the hell is that? What did you just do? Did you just seal the leak?"

Groot: "I am grout."

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

That kitty has a plan...

Firstborn: "I think the cat has a plan."

Me: "That seems... not unlikely, now that I think about it."

Firstborn: "I think I know what the cat's plan is."

Me: "What is the cat's plan?"

Firstborn: "The cat plans to stand in the kitchen beside the pantry and act like he's really hungry, so you'll give him treats."

Me: "...I think you're onto something, here."

Monday, January 19, 2015

Music: Obey the Beard


I found this one because, um, well... because I have weird friends. I love having weird friends.

Friday, January 16, 2015


This article. All of it. Read it.
A one year-old just died. Paramedics were called but he was gone by the time they got there,” the resident spoke softly, obviously affected by the news. “What happened?” I asked. She told me that the child had been seen in the ER two days earlier, was diagnosed with measles and sent home. My heart sank. I had sent home a one year-old child with measles two days earlier. Was this the same child? It was. He had looked so good two days earlier, responsive, alert and in no distress. The careful follow up instructions that were given were not followed and the child developed complications and arrested. I will never forget how I felt when he died.

My mother is a survivor of the last major outbreak of Polio in the United States, so this is kind of a personal issue for me.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Real Work Conversations: Website Colors

This was actually several years back, but yes -- this conversation really happened. It was for a local festival, which happens in the fall, so we took the sample they sent us -- a decent layout with nice autumn colors -- and turned it into a web page.

Me: "All right, we've built a sample page for you. Take a look at see what you think."

Her: "The colors are wrong."

Me: "..."

Me: "..."

Me: "...I sampled them directly from the Coreldraw file you gave us."

Her: "Yes, but those aren't the colors I wanted."

Me: "..."

Me: "...What?"

Her: "I want Fanta colors."

Me: "Fanta colors?"

Her: "Open up the Fanta website. I want to use those colors."

Me: "Fanta. Colors."

Her: "Exactly."

Me: Then why didn't you...? No, you know what? Never even mind. "Okay, Fanta colors."

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Science Fair Project, Part Two

Firstborn decided to do his science fair project with his friend, who I'll call Legolas (since that obviously isn't his real name). The plan was for them to write letters to each other using invisible inks, exchange the letters, and then use SCIENCE!™ to decipher the messages. So, Firstborn wrote his message in lemon juice (the lemon in question was happy to offer its life in the pursuit of SCIENCE!™). Legolas, meanwhile, wrote his own message in... I don't actually know. Something that was supposed to be fluorescent, but otherwise invisible. The messages were then placed in sealed envelopes, and the parents arranged an exchange (which probably looked somewhat like a particularly amateurish drug deal, but I digress).

The idea was that each boy would then use his SCIENCE!™ to decipher the other's message. In the event, however, we couldn't get Legolas' message to glow. Our first attempt involved a black light bulb that the Beautiful Woman dug out of one of our closets. I'm pretty sure the problem there was the bulb, which dated back to our last Halloween party... which was a good ten years ago. So, I went out and bought a second black light bulb, and this one actually made things glow. Not the secret writing on the paper, mind you, but other things. Socks, for example. Do black light bulbs go bad? 'Cause I'm guessing the first bulb just went bad.

Anyway, tonight Firstborn and his mother went over to Legolas' (and the rest of the Fellowship's) house. There, they discovered that given a sufficiently strong black light, the mystery letter glowed just enough to be slightly distinguishable from the rest of the page. Then the boys wrote everything up, and assembled it onto the cardboard triptych which is required for its presentation. This was done with a truly laudable lack of wailing and/or gnashing of teeth; I think the chance to see his friend made a big difference to Firstborn.

So, tomorrow morning, the school will receive... their SCIENCE!™ The boys did their own work, so it's a lot less neat than it was last year, but it's theirs. We're very proud of them.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Science Fair Project, Part One

I am now attempting to coax Firstborn through writing out a description of his science experiment for his third grade science fair. So far, we're right on schedule: we started at "This is too long" and proceeded to "It's too hard!" and then "Don't you know I can't do this?!?!?!?" We've now finished the Wailing and Gnashing Of Teeth segment, the "Fine, if you're not going to finish it just go to bed. Now," episode, and the roar of "If you're not going to sleep then GET BACK OUT HERE AND FINISH YOUR PROJECT!" We're right on schedule for "Quit making this harder than it needs to be," so I expect we'll soon move on to "It's one sentence -- stop thinking about it, and just write it." If that goes well, I hope to wrap up right on time with the big, "My real parents wouldn't treat me like this!" finale.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Christian to non-Christian: how the transition happened for me

A little while back, somebody asked me how I got from being raised Christian, to being... well... not. It wasn't a simple process, so it seemed worthwhile to stop and write it out. And it really isn't meant as a defense of my present beliefs, or a condemnation of the beliefs I was raised with. Sill, for anyone who's interested in a bit of anecdotal personal history, here's my answer:

Okay, here goes: somewhere in there, Christianity just stopped making sense to me as a way of looking at the world.

Like I said, I was raised Episcopalian: the sky was blue, water was wet, and Jesus died for my sins. Like any kid in a church environment, I picked up bits and pieces of Christianity as I went along: Noah's Ark, David and Goliath, Adam and Eve, Jesus dying on the cross, Paul on the road to Damascus, Samson and Delilah; all jumbled together in an inchoate mass. I didn't even really think of it as Christianity; those were just the things I'd learned at church, and not much different from the things I learned in school.

(Somewhere in there I picked up the concept of Hell, but that never really frightened me. I think -- though I don't really trust my memory on this -- that almost in the same breath I picked up the idea that Jesus had already undone that for us, and that God expected us to do our best but also knew we'd make mistakes and wouldn't hold them against us. No, the bit of Christian doctrine that really creeped me out was the idea that God was all-seeing. I was -- what? Six? Eight? Five? -- and I was perfectly appalled by the idea of God watching me poop, or seeing me in the shower. Can't a fellow have a little privacy around here?)

Then, somewhere when I was around twelve or thirteen, I started trying to take all those pieces I'd been given and fit them together: stories, lessons, bits of doctrine, and some things that I suspect are more like Bible fan-fiction than actual Christian teaching. And it... didn't quite work. When I started trying to assemble all that into a coherent whole, it just didn't make a lot of sense to me.

I was kind of used to that. I think I've mentioned this before, too, but I was a weird kid. A lot of things that seemed compelling and important to other people really didn't make much sense to me: sports, cars, fashion. Christianity was just another item on the list, and naturally I assumed that the problem -- insofar as it was a problem, which it mostly wasn't -- was with me.

(True story: our priest -- our head priest, I should say, since at any given time we might have had one or two other priests and/or deacons -- our priest, who was a deeply sleazy and I suspect not-terribly-bright man, once took it upon himself to inform the youth group that we could safely ignore beliefs about things like walking under ladders or having a black cat cross one's path. Those, after all, were mere superstitions -- isolated beliefs with nothing to support them. I thought about that for all of maybe two seconds, and then asked him, "So the difference between a superstition and a religion is that a religion is complicated?" Deadpan. Perfectly serious question, in fact. Flustered him completely; I think he answered something along the lines of, "No, because Christianity is true," but I'm not sure. What sticks in my mind wasn't his answer, obviously; what I remember most clearly was how completely unprepared he was for the question -- for being questioned at all, I suspect, by a twelve-year-old.)

I think the first thing I really stumbled over (intellectually) was the Doctrine of the Trinity, and the dual nature of Jesus. Jesus, of course, is the Son of God -- but He is also, somehow, God Himself. Well, y'know, okay: an all-powerful being should be able to do things that would otherwise be impossible. Only, the more I thought about this, the more it bothered me. Not only was the whole idea starting to seem impossible in a way that no amount of Being All Powerful would fix, it also seemed to change according to which section of the Bible I was reading. And after going back and forth (and round and round) about it for a while, I started wondering if maybe it wasn't just me -- it maybe the text itself just didn't make sense.

Shortly after that, the entire concept of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross stopped making sense to me. As a child, it seemed glorious: Jesus dying horribly, but willingly, to save the whole world. To my teenage self, well... What did this have to do with me? How is somebody else dying supposed to affect the things that I'm responsible for?

And then there was the whole concept of Original Sin. If there was a sequence to that one, I don't remember it; but I got a kind of nuanced view of Genesis from a fairly early age. So that could have been before or after either of the other two, or it could have been one of those things that just never made sense to me; I just don't remember. The Christian doctrine that I understood said that, fundamentally, all of modern humanity was paying the price for a mistake made by a distant ancestor. That seemed... unjust. And God, whatever else he might or might not be, was supposed to be just. But if that wasn't the case, if the whole story of The Fall was a metaphor, then what exactly was Jesus' death on the cross supposed to be saving us from? Don't answer that, by the way. I realize that there are good, faithful answers to those questions, but leaping in to provide them would be missing my point. I already know those answers exist, and I already know they don't work for me.

I went back and forth for a few years, between This Is Something That's Really Important To A Lot Of People, Including People I Know And Love, and This Just Doesn't Make Any Sense To Me. I looked at other religions, other belief systems -- or the watered-down versions of them that get marketed to impressionable Westerners, anyway -- but I couldn't really get into them for the same basic reasons that I couldn't stay with Christianity: they didn't match the world I saw around me; they didn't offer any useful new insights or concepts; they didn't resonate. I went through an "Animist, Pantheist, Moon Worshipper" phase (which was only partly tongue-in-cheek), and eventually I settled into a sort of experiental materialism.

One of the issues I have with (some flavors of) Christianity is the idea that we choose our beliefs. In my experience, that's not how it works. We consider the evidence we find; we compare our thoughts and observations with other people; and we reach conclusions, whether we like them or not. (Given what I hear from a lot of former believers, the idea that maybe God isn't out there and never was is almost never a welcome, desired result.)

So, yeah: somewhere in there, Christianity just stopped making sense to me as a way of looking at the world. It's not that I have anything against it; it's that I just can't do it.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Baby's got an atom bomb 'cause it's cold outside.

As I was putting Firstborn into the car yesterday morning, I found myself singing a line -- the title, in fact -- from Baby, It's Cold Outside. Why? Well, partly because I'd just opened the garage door, so we were walking through a sudden wave of chilly air. Also, partly because I've been thinking about the social and historical context of the song lately.

Then we got into the car, and the stereo came up with Baby's Got An Atom Bomb...

...Whereupon Firstborn asked, "Is this song some kind of sequel to 'Baby, it's cold outside'?"

No. No, it's not. But it would be completely awesome if it were. Just imagine that storyline...
The first time I met her, she was a naive young girl, very proper. We hit it off -- boy, did we hit it off -- but she was worried about what her family would think.

When I ran into her again in Paris two years later, it was obvious things had changed. It wasn't just hair -- brunette replaced by a brilliant shade of purple -- or the fact that she'd obviously come into money. What really told me how much she'd changed was when she blocked my purchase of that black-market soviet warhead so she could acquire it herself. A good kid, like she was when we first met, well... she wouldn't have dreamed of doing something like that. Might cause talk.

Nice girls don't buy atom bombs. But she wasn't a nice girl any more. This was going to be... interesting.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Perchance to Dream

"In London there is a man who screams when the church bells ring. He lives all alone with his streaked cat in Gray's Inn, and people call him harmlessly mad." ~H.P. Lovecraft, "The Descendant"

Somewhere in the suburbs of Dallas/Fort Worth, meanwhile, there is a man who really wants to scream at all the little sounds that keep interrupting the night. He'd like to be asleep; he'd like to be dreaming; but his house is far too silent. No buffer exists between his half-dozing awareness and the endless range of incidental sounds that keep pulling him back from the edge of real sleep. A car starts somewhere outside, and he stirs. The cat snores on the chair beneath his bed, and he rolls over, forcing himself to ignore it. The heater starts, pushing warm air through the vents, and he groans silently to himself; he groans again when it stops. A faint tickle comes and goes at the back of his throat, gathering itself each time he nears the sweet release of his nightly oblivion. Across the house, one of the children coughs or grinds his teeth, and he hears that too. His wife's iPad dings (randomly, loudly, somewhere in the darkness) and he twitches fully awake. There is no escape. He has been lying there, eyes closed, immobile, almost sleeping but never quite getting there, for the last two hours.

He changes beds, moving to his son's room where he can turn on an air filter and drown out everything else, but it's too late. He's missed his chance.

The house never settles. The house is never quiet. And while he used to sleep like a rock, for the last few nights every single sound (no matter how tiny or familiar) pulls at his attention, calls him back to the world.

He is restless, unsettled. In his younger days, he might have gone for a walk; but he's pretty sure there's no way he can get out of the house without waking everyone else. He could play video games, maybe burn off a little adrenaline that way, but the console is in the living room and the boys have taken that room over: they've both decided to sleep on the couch. Reading would pass the time, but it would get him no closer to sleep. The same can be said for watching a movie.

He thinks the holidays have about done him in. He worked all the days around them, taking no extra time off, and since the holidays fell in the middle of the week this year... Well, it's a day or two of work, off for a day or two, a day or two of work, a weekend, a day or three of work, off for a day, two days of work, another weekend... He barely knows if he's coming or going. All the holiday events have been lovely individually, but crowded together like this they were just too much. The boys have been staying up later, too -- Why not? It isn't as if they have to get up for school -- so trying to get them to settle down for bed is like being caught in one of those old Bugs Bunny cartoons.

So now he's sitting at the kitchen table, typing -- not working on a story, ha-ha, no, mustn't think we could get anything done -- and drinking a glass of milk. He's wondering if a glass of something stronger might help, but he's already had the two Benadryl; and anyway, he has to be at work in the morning. It's after midnight; so much for getting to sleep early and being bright and rested for tomorrow. So much for doing anything worthwhile, really. He'll just have to push on through, even though that makes it much more likely that tomorrow night will be a repeat of this one.

Somewhere in the suburbs of Dallas /Fort Worth is a man who really, really wishes he could sleep.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Secondborn is back at school, too.

Firstborn doesn't really draw -- or color, or stick stickers for that matter. Secondborn, on the other hand, will cheerfully draw, color, or stick stickers on any available surface. Yes, that's every bit as bad as it sounds.

The alarm clock! It burns!

The boys are back in their school and preschool today, and I have spent all night dreaming about things that keep me from going to sleep. Several different dreams, but believe me -- there was a very definite theme. Now the Beautiful Woman and I are up painfully early, making frozen waffles and refrigerated lunches and trying to get ready. Ouch.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Enough! No more!

Okay, that's it. No more mid-week holidays. With the way the schedule fell out this year, I've lost track of what day of the week it is, whether it's a holiday or whether I need to be at work, and what deadlines, if any, are approaching, and whether I need to go to bed early or on time. Are the kids in school today? Who can tell?

My boss just got back to work today (he had the good sense to take some vacation days and just make the whole stretch one big holiday) and asked me what he'd missed. I had to tell him that I just didn't know.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Thoughts on Ryan Bell's Year Without God

I recently ran across a post (which has since been deleted), wondering what people thought of Ryan Bell, the former Seventh Day Adventist pastor who just finished a "year without God". (Hemant Mehta has a decent overview of the whole thing here.) At the end of his year, he concluded that there really wasn't enough evidence for him to believe that God exists -- which led the author of the post to observe that...
"I've long wondered if he's been an atheist all along and the experiment was just his was of telling his family/friends."
Personally, I rather doubt it. This is one of those areas where the Christian language/perception of "choosing" beliefs becomes, I think, extremely misleading. Beliefs aren't, as a general thing, something we choose; they're conclusions we reach, based on our experiences and the information we gather. Most former believers (at least, the ones I know, including myself) go through a process somewhat like this -- something makes you doubt or question the things you've long expected; you start exploring, looking for answers or alternatives; and, maybe, the answers you find just don't work for you, or make sense to you; and you let go of your old beliefs. It doesn't have to end that way, of course; plenty of people go through much the same process, and find answers that do work for them, and return with their faith strengthened; other find new answers, and return with their faith changed.

Where Ryan Bell differs is that he undertook his exploration in an *intensely* public fashion and explicitly labeled it as "trying on atheism" -- an approach which gave the whole thing an uncomfortable whiff of Publicity Stunt (at least for me, and I presume you as well). But while I think he definitely started as someone who had reached a point where his old beliefs weren't working for him, I don't *think* the whole thing was scripted or that the "ending" (insofar as you can have such a thing, where people are concerned) was a foregone conclusion.

It's hard to tell, of course, when I'm talking about somebody I don't know, and whom I'm only observing at a distance; but I think his exploration was, well, genuinely exploring. I think the publicity-seeking was a separate issue.

I could easily be wrong, of course; I do have a tendency to extend the benefit of the doubt too far. Certainly, one of the comments in his NPR interview ("I don’t think that God exists. I think that makes the most sense of the evidence that I have and my experience. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the most interesting thing about me.") seems a little odd, given that he's clearly put some real effort into making himself publicly known for questioning his faith.