Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Atheist Morality

I hope everyone enjoyed the Memorial Day Weekend as much as I did. Now that I’m back, I’d like to continue in my series comparing my made up religion against Christianity. Before I get started, I would like to reiterate my policy on posting. There are only two ways to get a post deleted: either make absolutely no sense whatsoever or make a threat of violence. So far, only one post has ever been deleted. I don’t agree with MJD, The Listener, or Bible Student that often, but I’m glad that they are here otherwise there would be no worthwhile discussion.

I have seen many theists state that we need a higher authority in order to have morality. I’d like to share a personal story. About three years ago on the day before Thanksgiving, I was running late to a meeting. I pulled into the parking lot a few minutes before 10AM. I looked forever and finally saw a spot. It was tight, but I thought I could fit in it. It turns out that I couldn’t and I scraped up a beautiful new Lexus in the process.

The lot was unmonitored, no one was coming into work, and no one was leaving for lunch. Absolutely no one saw me do it. I backed out, found another spot, and then looked at the damage I caused. I had hit a parked car! There was no one to blame but myself. What was an atheist to do?

I grabbed a piece of scratch paper and hastily scribbled out a brief apology, my name, and my phone number. I invited the owner of the Lexus to contact me and left a promise to take care of the damage that I caused. I placed the note under the windshield wiper and left for my meeting.

I’m not nominating myself for a morality medal here. I’d like to think that anyone – atheist, Jew, Christian, or Muslim would have done the exact same thing. The point of this story is that I don’t believe in heaven or hell and there was absolutely no reason for me to do it from a reward/punishment perspective. I have heard over and over again that there can be no morality without God. I am an atheist, a heathen, a heretic, and an infidel. There is no Holy Ghost which guides my actions, yet I still know right from wrong. In this case, leaving the note was morally right.

Lest anyone think I was following Jesus’ teachings of “do unto others as you would have done unto you” (which, by the way, existed before Jesus and does not depend on “Judeo-Christian” values) I dare you to slap me in the face. I assure you, I would not “turn the other cheek” but respond with a swift kick to the gonads followed by a quotation from Clausewitz, “Violence tends to escalate.”

Back to the story… I was expecting a mild rebuking from the owner of the vehicle as well as to pay a few hundred dollars in restitution. Later that afternoon, I received a call from the owner – thanking me! The owner stated that her faith in humanity was restored by my note. Funny that she would thank me considering this country is 90% Christian. That is not to say that a Christian would not have done the same thing. I’d like to think that they would. What surprised me was that the owner believed that most people wouldn’t have left the note.

I didn’t feel that I had a choice since I answer to myself. I am able to tell right from wrong and I would have to live with the knowledge that I had caused harm to someone else. A Christian, however, would have another option available to them. It would be possible for a Christian to hit the car and not leave a note. They could then go ahead and feel bad about it, pray to their imaginary friend named Jesus, and receive forgiveness. This option would be a heck of lot cheaper. Again, I’m not saying that all Christians would chose this option, but it was an option that Wagerism doesn’t offer. Not believing in heaven and hell actually thinks help my sense of morality. Morality is about doing the right thing when no one is watching.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Christianity vs. Wagerism Part II: The Gift of Reason

I have laid out the origins of Wagerism, which is not a religion it’s just my own personal way of looking at the world based on the observations from the time I’ve been able to enjoy here. I fully admit that I’m making this up as I go along. I hope I’ve established how this differs from the origins of Christianity which was made up by a whole bunch of people over thousands of years, translated multiple times, and claims to be divinely inspired but with any skeptical inspection appears to be made up too. My writing is not inspired by the Holy Spirit because I have cheerfully committed the unforgivable sin and deny the Holy Ghost.

I would like to address the way I make my decisions. There is an economic concept called utility that varies from person to person. I try to maximize my personal utility while not taking away utility available to the world or my family, friends, co-workers, etc. My perfect day, utility wise, may not look like your perfect day. That’s OK so long as your perfect day, utility wise, doesn’t interfere with my utility. Still with me? Maximizing utility and making good decisions™ is difficult. A lot of thought goes into the bigger decisions and there is a huge burden to being wrong.

For every big decision; I have to really think of how much utility I would get from other options (opportunity costs), how my decision is going to affect other people, the opportunities that this decision will create, etc. Being in charge of your own life may be empowering, but it’s also exhausting!

Hypothetically, what if I got a great job opportunity in Chicago? I’d have to really think about it because it would have a huge impact on my wife and her family. Before even bringing it up with her, I’d have to make sure it was something that would benefit our family and would be good for both of us.

If I decided this is something I really wanted and the opportunity was so good that it would have to be at least considered, I would bring it up to my wife. My wife may disagree with me. Her concept of maximizing utility may be way out of line with mine in this case. This decision to move or not could be the most significant decision that we will face for years. All other decisions will be a result of this decision. The pressure!

I write a lot about the need to rely on oneself, but sometimes it really helps to talk to someone. I might call up The Kiwi to chat over a pitcher of Mac and Jack’s. I would not ask The Kiwi to make my decision for me, but he could certainly help me understand my wife’s reluctance and also understand how difficult the decision may be for me as a married guy. Even after one or more pitchers were consumed, I doubt any resolution would come from my conversation with The Kiwi, but undoubtedly some good would come of it. My understanding of the decision that I will need to make will be expanded and I will have a different viewpoint on the pros and cons of the decision.

During the decision making timeframe, my wife may also contact The Kiwi. The Kiwi is her friend too. They may eat lunch together and discuss the decision. The Kiwi may help her to understand my position.

After we both talked to The Kiwi independently, I may reference something The Kiwi said. My wife may then be startled and say, “Really? Because when I talked to The Kiwi, he said the exact opposite.” If our decision was going to be heavily influenced by advice provided by the neutral Kiwi, we could suspend our conversation and consult him together. All we would have to do is provide an offering of a case of Redhook and The Kiwi would gladly talk to us both and help us analyze this decision.

That’s how difficult decision making that affects the family looks under Wagerism. Wagerists may find themselves in a position where consulting trusted advisors becomes necessary to help broaden the perspective of a decision. That’s what making good decisions™ is all about. As much as I am a rugged individualist, consulting with other people on important decisions can be incredibly useful.

What if, I wasn’t a Wagerist? What if instead, I had an invisible friend that I like to talk to and I named this invisible friend Jesus? I bet I could talk to my invisible friend Jesus and get some pretty good advice. Jesus’s advice would probably side with me, since he is, after all, my invisible friend. It would be hard for Jesus to be neutral or to understand my wife’s side of the argument.

What if my wife also had an invisible friend and she named her invisible friend Jesus? What if my wife talked to her Jesus about our decision? In all likelihood, her Jesus would give her a different answer than my Jesus. Too bad our Jesuses can’t come to us in the physical world and listen to us together. Basing our decision off of the advice provided by our invisible friends named Jesus is not a good way to go about making decisions.

Sometimes, invisible friends named Jesus provide good advice. President Bush’s invisible friend named Jesus told him to stop drinking. That’s good!

Sometimes, invisible friends named Jesus provide bad advice. President Bush’s invisible friend named Jesus told him to invade Iraq. That’s bad!

When it comes to the Gift of Reason, Wagerists realize the importance of their decisions and try as hard as possible to make good decisions™ that will provide the most benefit to the world around them, their families, and finally themselves. On really difficult decisions, sometimes Wagerists may find that they need to talk to their friends and family to help understand all aspects of the decisions they may need to make. Finally, Wagerists feel that consulting invisible friends does not help in the decision making process and instead provides a disingenuous rationalization for doing what they wanted to do in the first place.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Christianity vs. Wagerism Part I: The Origins

A few days ago, I got tied up in a meeting and the group of folks I normally eat with tired of waiting for me. I grabbed something at the cafeteria, ate at my desk, and discovered I had half an hour between meetings. In that time, I hastily sketched out the guiding principles of my life and what I base my morality on. It was nothing earth shattering and it could be improved upon and expanded, but it was a decent starting point. We’ll call this post the foundation of Wagerism. I’d like to point out how Wagerism differs from Christianity.


Christianity: Christianity begins with Creation. Man arises in the Garden of Eden, sins, and is cast out. God is upset with his Creation and floods the world sparing only Noah. The world repopulates. God strikes a strange bargain with Abraham trading the descendant’s of Abraham foreskins for the land of Israel. The only problem was that there were people there already called Canaanites. God assures Abraham his descendants will be many and he is establishing a mighty nation. From the beginning, the Hebrews struggle, even with The One True God on their side. Abraham himself was forced to leave Israel, which belonged to him as promised by God Himself, not once but twice. Abraham’s great grandson eventually is sold to Egyptians and prospers there. A famine hits the divinely blessed Israel and the Jews are initially welcomed in Egypt until they are enslaved. Four hundred years go by and God decided to free His Chosen People. Instead of having a conversation with Pharaoh and pointing out the immorality of slavery, God instead decides to “harden his heart” and bring death and devastation upon the Egyptian people. Even though the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews for four hundred years, their fate is nowhere near as bad as some of the other pagan tribes the Jews encounter on the way back to the Promised Land which flows of milk and honey (funny that these are not pictured on the Israeli tourism brochures). Along the way, God hands down the complete book of morals which form a pretty good foundation for hating homosexuals, slavery, and female repression. The Jews even after witnessing the power of the LORD firsthand can’t seem to stop their desire to worship idols. God commands the Jews to remember that He delivered them from slavery and this rite continues today as the Passover Seder.

Once in Israel, the trials of being the Chosen People do not end. Israel is invaded time and again and the Jews invent blame the victim mentality. For every failure of the Jewish state can be traced back to intermarriage and idolatry. So, that’s Judaism for you: circumcision, possession of Israel, xenophobia/racism, genocide against non-Jews, and blame the victim. Not much of a religion, huh?

It does, however, get better. After thousands of years of being pissed at Adam and Eve, God came up with a way that we can ALL come to know Him. The simplest way to accomplish this would be for God to forgive us once and for all, show Himself, and provide a clear and moral set of rules to live by. That’s not what happened. Instead, God had a virgin impregnated (one might say raped) and brought His only begotten son on Earth in the form of Jesus. Jesus was both fully human and fully God at the same time and managed to exist in two places at once so Christians are not polytheists (are you still with me?). Jesus taught by making a bunch of metaphors called parables, worked a few miracles, abstained from sex and masturbation, and then was cruelly tortured and killed. His death is cause for celebration because it opened the gates of Heaven to everyone, even a sinner like you!

The whole Jesus phenomenon is best described in this article:

The only thing I don’t like about this article is that I didn’t write it and therefore can’t take the credit. It sums up exactly what I think of the Christian mythology, except I might have called God an asshole instead of a dick but that’s just splitting hairs.

So Jesus died and all was forgiven if we just accept Him into our hearts. Forty years or so after his death, people finally got around to writing down all of His teachings. How much was corrupted through oral history forever remains unknown. Also along the way a one-time Jew and Christian tormenter named Paul met Jesus in a dream and began to spread the good word to everyone. That’s right – Paul never once talked to the living Jesus. Paul is considered to be one of the most influential people in the spreading of Christianity to non-Jews and NEVER ONCE MET THE MAN HE BASED HIS FAITH ON!

Paul made a lot of key decisions early on like making circumcision optional. This made it easier to convert the pagans. I can easily see The Great Kiwi’s distant ancestor contemplating Judaism until he was told he would need to be circumcised whereupon he responded with a, “You want me to do what to my what now?”

It should also be noted that at the time Christianity took root, the Jews were horrified to be living under Roman occupation. The idea that foreigners could govern them on holy land rocked the foundation of their religion. They were absolutely DESPARATE for something to believe in. If God could not keep Israel for them, was God real?

Enter Christianity which promised a desperate people a new deal. And it spread. Eventually the Roman Empire was divided into Christians and Pagans until Constantine I decided to adopt Christianity. Before forcing the religion on the entire empire, there was a little pow wow at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, approximately 300 years after the death of Christ, where extremely important theological decisions were made and establishing a Christian theocracy.

The early founders of the Church warned of the End Times believing it would happen in their lifetimes. Two thousand years later and fear of the End Times is still a fear technique used against unbelievers. Jesus and God haven’t been seen in 2,000 years I don’t think we have much to worry about.

So that’s Christianity. Pour a foundation of a corrupt religion (Judaism), sprinkle in mythology, human sacrifice, and a promise. Threaten people with hell. Tell those who do not see the Truth in the Word that they have not received the Holy Spirit. Meanwhile, it’s entirely possible that everything Jesus said was misinterpreted or made up. One of the most influential people in the early Church never even met Jesus, but we’re supposed to believe that his dreams were guided by a Holy Ghost?

Based on the observations of a sole skeptic who spent too much time reading a Christian discussion group at work. All ethics and morals of this made up way of life were admittedly not divinely inspired but based on the principles that as a species we should strive to not hurt each other at a minimum and leave the world a better place. Wagerism respects individuality, does not rely on faith, and does not claim the miraculous or the supernatural.

That’s how the origins of Wagerism differs from Christianity. I ask you which one seems more credible?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Intermission Time

I have presented my understanding of the Christian concept of hope and as well as my view of hope. I have done so without comparing the one to the other which I plan to do shortly. Before I get into the comparisons, I would like to share a quick conversation with a friend of mine.

I have friend, we’ll call him The Kiwi. The short version of how I came to know His Kiwiness is that I sold him a TV two years ago and have not been able to get rid of him ever since. The Kiwi and I don’t hang out as much as we used to because we both have little ones at home. Every so often, during the work day, we have little IM exchanges. This happens a few times a week. The Kiwi pinged me the other day to show me this article. I eventually got around to reading it and got a good laugh. He then asked for the URL to this blog. I gave it to him and there was no immediate response. That is the nature of these conversations. They start but the end point is ill defined. One of us usually gets interrupted by real work and all communication abruptly ends. That’s what I thought had happened.

Several minutes later, my IM window popped up again and The Kiwi quoted from the comments section of my blog, “Yes, for an atheist, you have written a pretty good synopsis of the idea of the hope Christians have.”

I proceeded to tell The Kiwi that I was actually disappointed by that comment. The general indication I got was that my little synopsis of Christian hope was accurate. I really do understand it and that kind of bummed me out. The Kiwi got a laugh as he had the same thoughts as well. We discussed for a while it’s not our lack of understanding that drove us away from religion; it’s actually our understanding that makes us atheists.

The Christian notion of hope, to me anyway, seems to be based on having low self-esteem and belief in the supernatural. Really, that’s all that’s being “offered”.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Life is Random, Get Over It

I have been blogging for a month or so about what I don’t believe in. It’s time to take a stand and state for the record what I do believe in. I would like to state, for the record, that I do not speak for all atheists – just this one. I truly believe that life is random.

In a comment, Bible Student states that I worship a religion of common sense and reason. Thanks for the compliment. I fully admit to being a polytheist and I worship the gods of rationality AND probability. Even though I believe life is random, I do have hope. The decisions that I make affect the randomness. I am not an alcoholic and I am not a Christian, yet the serenity prayer makes so much sense to me (modified for atheists):

I need to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

That’s what I base my hope on. There are things that I can control and things that I can’t. If I focus on the stuff that I can control by consistently making good decisions, my life seems to go pretty well. Every once in a while, bad things seem to happen, but I can will my way through it by making good decisions. Over time, I like to think that I have learned from my experiences and these lessons guide me to help make better decisions.

The rough patches of my life were not predestined in order for me to learn a lesson. They were either a result of bad decision making or random. I do not need to believe in the supernatural to feel better about myself or my life. My faith in myself , my family, and my friends carry me through.

OK, so I’ve laid out the concept that stuff happens and I am in control of my destiny, how can this possibly compete with heaven? What do I have to offer someone? Here are the gifts I plan to give to my son:

The Gift of Life

This is the only life we get and it could end at any time. I could get ill or hit by a bus tomorrow, so that means today counts! Life is wonderful and meaningful. If I do not like aspects of my life, I have to make decisions for change. My happiness is my responsibility and I accept that. I have the power to make myself happy and to care for my family. There is no afterlife, so this life must fully be appreciated in every moment.

The Gift of Reason

Since I am responsible for my decisions, I need to make my decisions carefully. I need to be comfortable with this responsibility. I need to constantly learn to ensure that I make the best decisions possible.

The Gift of Morality

I know right from wrong and it’s my responsibility to raise my children with good values.
It is my responsibility to ensure they know they need to leave this world better than they found it.

The Gift of Forgiveness

Strange concept for an atheist, huh? I do have experience with forgiveness… When I was a younger man, I dated a girl who was pretty and nice and sweet to me. I was a dick to her. I know this. I lacked the maturity and the honesty to say to her that I couldn’t give her what she wanted. When I broke up with her, I was spiteful and hurtful because I lacked the emotional intelligence and honesty she deserved.

I met this girl in a chance encounter years later and I looked her in the eye and said, “Hey pretty lady, I’m sorry that I was jerk to you when you were so sweet and nice to me.”

And she smiled and said, “I understand. You were young. You didn’t know how to handle yourself. You have said you were sorry, and it’s OK.”

She hugged me and kissed me on the cheek and I was forgiven with no supernatural interference. It happens all the time. I can be a jerk to my wife in the morning and then IM her in the afternoon and she says, “It’s OK. I forgive you.”

Sometimes I get too hard on myself. I make a decision and the outcome isn’t what I expected. I analyze and analyze to try and figure out how I got to the outcome that I got. If I made a mistake, I forgive myself and move on.

The Power to Change

Life throws curveballs and one path may seem right at the time and then later it’s not. I do not ask the supernatural for intervention or guidance. I am responsible for change. Nothing in this life is written in stone and there are always options if we look for them.

All five of my gifts are observable and open for analysis by a third party. My gifts will guide my son to be a good person and reach his potential. They will guide his life and empower him to make the difficult decisions that he will face in his life. None of my gifts require the divine. All of them should give him hope. They are all free to him so long as he is willing to accept the awesome responsibility of being in charge of his own life. Life is random, get over it – take responsibility and make good decisions.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Christian Hope?

In my very first post, I told a story that involved a Believer asking me what my world view offers, what kind of hope I could pass on to my children, and the reward that would be given by living life on my terms. I’m going to answer all of those questions… in my next post. First I would like to address the Christian message of hope and see what it can do for me.

If I were Christian, I would have to believe that I am a sinner, brought into a sinful world through a sinful sexual act, and that I have zero chance of being sin-free. That’s OK though, because even though I would have to see myself as a wretched excuse of flesh – I can be loved unconditionally and all I have to do is ask. It’s that simple. If I just open my heart to Jesus, accept Him as my Lord and Savior, and follow His teachings all of my sins will be forgiven.

My horrible wretched sinful life can be redeemed by the sacrifice Jesus made to save us all. It doesn’t matter if I am rich or poor in this life because what happens here on Earth is for only a few short years. If I follow Jesus, I can have an eternity in Heaven. None of the pain, sorrow, or loss here on Earth can equate to the joyous Heaven that awaits for me by accepting Jesus.

If my wife leaves me, if my toddler son dies, if I lose my job – that’s only temporary. Heaven is forever. Anyone can get to Heaven by seeing the truths inherent in the Bible. This gift that Jesus gave humanity should be cherished and kept close to our hearts and carry us through the hard times. This gift gives us hope even to a wretch like me.

So that’s Christian hope. I may not be a good person, but Jesus is. If I love Him, he will give me an eternity in Heaven next to God. This gift is free and all it requires is faith. The faith I have in God’s plan can carry me though the worst trials of this Earthly life. I’m deliberately making this post short because I want to be sure that I have accurately captured the notion of Christian hope. If any of this is wrong, please correct me.

Monday, May 14, 2007

An Unlikely Mormon Apologist

I managed to watch “60 Minutes” last night and the lead segment covered Mitt Romney. For those unfamiliar with this candidate, Mitt is a Mormon running for president as a Republican. He is credited with being a very successful businessman, saving the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, and as a governor of Massachusetts balancing the budget every year without raising taxes. Those three points are often overshadowed by his faith.

The problem with his faith has more to do with running as a Republican considering how active the evangelical community is in the party. I am a member of a Christian email group where I work and I constantly see Christians of all denominations attack Mormons. They say that they are polytheists, Joseph Smith was a fraud, and the religion is founded on lies. I would have a hard time disagreeing with any of those points. Anyway, after weeks of Mormon bashing, someone posted an email to the group that basically said, “Hey, didn’t Jesus say doctrine should be judged by the fruits it produces? Mormons typically have great families, lead good lives, and their communities are great. Let’s leave them alone because the fruits are good.”

I’ll go a step further. I grew up in Arizona, attended USAFA, and worked in Utah for over six months. I have met and befriended plenty of Mormons in my lifetime. I believe that we shouldn’t propagate stereotypes or try to classify people and that most behavior fits into a bell curve. Some people of one classification are good. Others are bad, but there is a huge spectrum and most fall in the middle. I will go on record and say of the hundred or so Mormons I have met, the vast majority were great people. Working in Utah was one of the best experiences of my life, there is nothing quite like the Mormon work ethic. The Mormons I did work with worked extremely hard, were very focused, and went home at 5:00! They were able to accomplish so much during the day and didn’t care about face time that they were actually able to create work life balance. In my line of work, leaving at 5:00 usually resulted in snide remarks about working a “half-day”. In Utah, it was not only acceptable but encouraged! Sign me up for any other project there!

OK, back to the email chain. Some other Christian responds with (name removed to protect the stupid):

“I could not disagree more (respectfully of course). If the doctrine is not a Biblical, Christian doctrine then the culture surrounding the false doctrine does not justify that false doctrine. We can all agree that the Mormon culture and societies are good things, but so are many other religions around the world. Are their doctrines good too? Looking at the culture’s fruit is not the right thing to examine. We must look at the object of the religion’s faith and if it not Christ then, by definition, it is false and not good. This statement applies to any religion.”

This “Christian” is saying the Mormons are heretics and it doesn’t matter if their religion producing good results because they are not worshipping God correctly. Results don’t matter – dogma does! So let’s take a look at where Mormon beliefs and mainstream Christian beliefs differ…

Jews, Christians, and Mormons start with the common story of the Old Testament. God creates the world, gets pissed at his creation and floods it, changes His mind, chooses a group of people for the Promised Land, leads His Chosen People out of Egypt, gives them Mosaic Law and the 10 commandments, works a few miracles, watches a temple dedicated to Him built and sees it destroyed, watches Israel invaded a few times, sees the second temple built, and then Christianity enters the picture (you try summing up the OT in a paragraph!).

Christians then believe that God came to earth via an impregnated virgin. Jesus was both fully God and fully human at the same time. Jesus had earthly temptation and desires but was absolutely free from sin. He worked miracles including walking on water, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, and curing the sick. He never had sex. It’s also implied that He never masturbated, but it’s not outright claimed because no one could possibly believe this. That would be the greatest miracle of them all. Far more unbelievable than raising the dead – that a man could live for over thirty years without sex or jerking off even once! But alas, I digress…

So the most perfect man ever known, flawless in every way, is then brutally tortured and killed. Jesus knew that he was going to die, that it was part of God’s plan, had the power to stop it, and went along with it because he loved humanity so much he was willing to sacrifice His life for the greater good. Three days after His death, he came back from the dead and provided all of us a way to enter heaven by accepting Him into our hearts. By praying to Jesus and having a personal relationship with Him, we can all be saved now. Yeah!

So that’s Christianity – the Old Testament plus the New Testament. Mormons come in saying that during the three days between the death of Jesus and His resurrection, Jesus went off to North America and established a ministry to the native peoples there. His ministry in America was recorded on special golden discs which were translated by God’s prophet, Joseph Smith.

Mormons believe that every individual can have a direct communication with God and that God speaks to the prophets of the LDS Church. God apparently is not very decisive because he told Joe that polygamy was cool and then reversed himself with a “revelation” to the lead prophet right when Utah was applying for statehood. Go figure on the timing of that one…

However, if you can believe all the tall tales of the Old and New Testaments, how farfetched is the Book of Mormon? You’ve already swallowed miracle after miracle, life after death, and resurrection. Why couldn’t Jesus come over to America? You buy the premise and you buy the bit, it’s the fundamental rule of comedy.

So even if Joseph Smith was a complete fraud, the cult – I mean religion he founded really does produce good communities and good families. The basis of the belief system is no more crazy than Judaism, Christianity, or any other mainstream religion. No one is getting hurt by it, so why don’t we leave them alone? Better yet, since most skeptics will agree that it was all made up, why can’t we just make up an even better religion based on common sense and reason?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Reflections on Baby Wager's First Birthday

It’s a very big week for Mrs. Wager and myself as our son turns one on Saturday. Baby Wager has now fared much better than the multitudes of fish and plant life that have had the misfortune to be placed in my care. I am enjoying the fatherhood experience more than I could have possibly imagined, but I’m afraid that I’m starting in the middle of the story again.

About nine years ago, I was working on a project with a guy in his thirties (and he seemed old to me at the time). Let’s call him Ego Maniac (not his real name). One day, he had just got off the phone with his wife and was shaking his head in disappointment. I tentatively asked if everything was alright.

Ego Maniac sighed and said yes, it’s just that his son was a bit of a disappointment to him. I was blown away by this statement. I pressed EM a little further. “How so?”

“He’s just more into video games and band than he is into sports.”

“Is he healthy? Does he get in trouble? Is he doing OK in school?”

EM shook his head at me condescendingly, “You don’t understand, we’re just nothing alike.”

I was horrified. “Why should he be an exact clone of you? Shouldn’t he find his own way in life so long as he isn’t doing stuff to hurt himself and others?”

Ego Maniac paused and asked me, hypothetically, if I had a son, would I have him circumcised? I immediately answered yes.

He gained confidence. “See? You would want your son to look like you!”

I didn’t even hesitate when I countered with, “That has nothing to do with it. I’d just like for him to have the opportunity to get a blow job in sixteen or seventeen years.”

I was a long way off from becoming a parent at that point in my life, but I started to think about it a lot after that conversation. I decided that my goal as a parent would be to help my child learn how to make good decisions. Good decisions do not need to be the decisions that I would make, but decisions that would lead him or her down a path towards their own happiness.

I happen to really like sports. I feel that my high school life was enhanced through sports. I gained confidence and grew my social network by being involved in a sports program. However, should Baby Wager not like sports and choose to participate in band – that’s OK with me. Band is a good decision. He can learn confidence from band, be around other students with common interests, interact with other adults, and it looks good on a college resume. It might not be what I want for myself, but so long as he makes good decisions, I am successful as a parent.

I wholeheartedly believe in discipline. My son will learn that his decisions have consequences. The more good decisions he makes, the more freedom he will be given. If he starts making bad decisions, he will find he has less and less privileges. If I am successful, he will leave our home equipped to find his way in the world and care for himself.

I will not, however, threaten him with “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.” It’s stupid, cruel and not true unless I’m willing to face murder charges. I will not expect him to revere me. His respect will be earned. There will be times when he will not like me and I’m sure those will be the most difficult times as a parent. It’s part of my job.

I guess that’s how me and the fictional Yahweh differ. Yahweh created humanity so that they could revere him and he constantly gets disappointed with His own creation. The moment they stop worshipping Him, he’s ready to flood the earth or commit some other act of genocide. Yahweh plays favorites amongst His children and wants to keep them from attaining success. See Tower of Babel. As for me, my child and I have years to figure out who he is. It is my goal to ensure that he is successful on his terms and reaches his potential, not mine.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Two Young Atheists Test Their Faith

From my freshman year in high school until the end of my junior year, I probably spent as much time on a skateboard as I did in a classroom. Azmodeus wound up living about fifteen minutes away from me and we frittered away a lot of time skating at a nearby junior high school. At first, we utilized the benches and walls and just skated around. The more we hit this spot, the more “hell ollie” began to call to us.

At the school, there was a basketball court that was raised about five feet from a walkway. In between the court and the walkway was about fifteen feet of dirt. Azmodeus was the first person I ever knew that believed it was actually possible to clear the fifteen foot horizontal gap with the five foot vertical drop. He then proceed to do it. He could make it look effortless.

The feat was not technically difficult. All you had to do was go really fast, ollie, and stick the landing. Simple. Once Azmodeus started doing it, others followed. The first few times I tried it, I didn’t really commit to it. I’d go through the motions like I wanted to clear it, but I was phoning it in. I’d kick my board out from under me as soon as I took off and made sure that I landed on my feet. I kept on looking at the worst case scenario – if I landed in the gap on my board I was going to take a nasty fall due to the speed. If I landed in the gap the best case scenario was a bad fall. The worst case was going to be a broken bone or a concussion.

My phoning it in and Azmodeus’s mastery of hell ollie continued for months. It got to the point where I wanted to avoid skating that spot. Eventually, we wound up at the school with a large group of guys. Azmodeus attempted to clear hell ollie and missed.

Before he had a chance to try it again, I made up my mind that this was going to be the day. There were only two obstacles that had to be overcome – physics and fear. I knew I could handle the physics. I had been skating for a few years and had the physical ability to clear the gap. I had to put trust in myself that I was going to be able to clear it and just do it. I stopped looking at the worst case scenario, cleared my mind, and did it.

After clearing it on the first try of the day, I had one of the best feelings of my young life. I had faced fear, put my faith in myself, and accomplished a feat that only the best skaters were even trying. There were guys who we skated with every day who never did it. I did it in front of multiple witnesses and no one could take it away from me.

Now Azmodeus and I were friends, but this is/was one competitive dude! He barely acknowledged my accomplishment and went to try it again. And failed again.

On it went for the next hour. I would go and clear it. Azmodeus would watch, try, and fail. The more he missed the gap, the angrier he got. After an hour had gone by, he stopped skating and started flinging his board at the ground shouting obscenities. The rest of the group was amused by it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that anyone enjoyed watching him fail, it’s just that Azmodeus was one of skating’s alpha dogs and every now and again it’s nice to see an alpha get his comeuppance.

If you’ve read this far, you may be asking why the hell this little anecdote is being written about in an atheist’s blog? The answer lies partly in response to MJD’s question of whether or not I still talk to Azmodeus. The answer is yes and I bring up this day at every opportunity! It took his worst day of skating and my best day for me to be better than him, but for one glorious afternoon it did happen. In a lifetime skateoff, I’m sure the record would be 666-1, but I did manage one victory and he’s such a competitor that it’s fun to remind him.

The other part of the answer that actually relates to the purpose of this blog is a matter of faith. Azmodeus and I had radically different family lives and experiences during the first fifteen years of our lives. We had both come to the same conclusion - that there is no God. Every time I failed to clear hell ollie, it was not a matter of not praying hard enough. It was a matter of believing in myself. When I did manage to clear it, God Almighty did not intervene on my behalf. The rules of physics were not altered. The difference was I trusted myself and I made it happen.

On the flip side, Azmodeus’s sudden inability to clear it was not divinely inspired either. He was having an off day. For just a moment, one afternoon, he lost faith in himself. It had nothing to do with not sacrificing the right animals or saying the right prayers. He just lost his focus. It happens to everyone.

Good and bad things are going to happen to everyone. Some of the things are random. Some of them we control. Through it all we are served well by believing in ourselves and the people with whom we chose to associate with. After twenty years of scoffing at God and trusting myself, my life is going just fine.

Monday, May 7, 2007

My Friend Azmodeus

My last post concerned a time in my life that was difficult and how I made it through, without God. Miracle posted a personal story on how he made it through a difficult time, with God. His story can be found at http://www.altnoise.net. Without trivializing the details, Miracle believed that in high school he felt alone as friends and family chose to smoke pot over his friendship. Apparently, the two are mutually exclusive. Through faith, Miracle was not alone as God was with him through his trials.

I have to admit, I can’t completely relate to Miracle’s story because I had a lot of advantages growing up. My dad never offered me a joint nor did I ever live in a trailer. I am the product of middle-class educated parents and a planned pregnancy. My parents provided a great home and were supportive growing up and emphasized education.

That being said, I have a friend. Let’s call him Azmodeus. Like me, he is a confirmed atheist. I met Azmodeus when we were fourteen. By the time he enrolled in my high school, he had been moved to over fifteen different schools. He had grown wary of befriending anybody because the moment he had become comfortable, he would move again.

I have been able to piece together the following facts of Azmodeus’s life. His mother was a teenager when she became pregnant. She may or may not have dropped acid during pregnancy. His biological father was not in the picture and apparently he tried to kidnap little Azmodeus at some point. His father’s current whereabouts are unknown. Azmodeus’s mom took up with a real loser that we’ll call Log. Log was physically and mentally abusive as well as an alcoholic. Log never had a real job and always sort of existed. Life altering family decisions (like moving across the country) were decided at random.

To escape his home life, Azmodeus was into skateboarding, guitar playing, and art (specifically drawing). With absolutely no structure or guidance, he was VERY good at all three. Azmodeus and I spent hours after school skating. I had been over to his house many times and can verify the story.

Without putting words in his mouth, I am sure that Azmodeus felt very much alone. At fifteen, he was more mature and much smarter than his mother and step-father. He had very little control over his life and needed some way to get through high school. His way of getting through it was to find stuff he was good at and channel his energy into it. It comes down to believing in yourself and doing things that build up confidence and self esteem rather than creating an imaginary friend.

It is possible that the imaginary friend can get you through a difficult time, but it’s not a long term solution. Focusing in on the things you can control, developing skills that will be useful later in life, and dealing with adversary seems like a better way to handle the situation.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Who Needs God?

I had an offline conversation with Miracle and we agreed to cross pollinate to each other’s blogs. He proposed that we could write an article about something in our lives and we could learn from each other by showing how our faith or lack thereof affected this pivotal moment. I proposed the first article should be about how we got through our lowest point in our life. Me without God, Miracle with Him. Anyway, here is my posting. Miracle’s post will be up on Friday. I will probably respond on Monday and let miracle respond to me whenever he is ready. Check out Miracle’s site when you have a chance: http://altnoise.net.

Also, there was a great article about gaining/losing faith while in a war zone. Check out: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18367801/site/newsweek/

And Finally, here is the first post in the series of conversations between Miracle and I entitled “Who Needs God?”

When I talk to Believers and ask how they know God exists, the most common answer I get is a personal story of how God helped them through a difficult time. Unless someone leads the most charmed existence, some tough times are in store for everyone. It’s how we handle them that determines our fate. In the midst of a crisis, I would be the last person to criticize one’s ability to get through the ordeal. However, many Believers cling to their faith years later. It seems to me that they give God far too much credit.

At the age of eighteen, I was enrolled at the United States Air Force Academy. I had literally dedicated six years of my life to reach my goal of being accepted. Once I was accepted, feelings of triumph quickly turned to fear. The day I left for the Academy, I was afraid to be exposed for a fraud. I thought I was going to learn that I was a big fish in a small pond. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to hack it academically or physically. I was afraid of failure.

I made it through Basic Training all the same and my fear subsided quite a bit. I arrived in shape and mentally prepared and had earned a certain degree of respect from the upperclassmen. The school year started and to my surprise, I was thriving academically. The fear was being pushed aside and was being replaced with confidence. I started to believe that I wasn’t lucky to be there, but I belonged there.

A month into the academic year, I woke up feeling sick. Nothing too bad, just a cold. I decided I could tough it out, except it didn’t get better. By Friday, I decided to go to the clinic hoping that I could be put on bed rest. Several hours of uninterrupted sleep, I was convinced, would get me over the sickness. If I could get off duty Friday, I would have the rest of the weekend to recover and be fine by the next week.

Except, I didn’t get bed rest. I got handed a prescription for Amoxicillin and was told that I had a sinus infection. I dutifully took the antibiotics, as prescribed. Several days later, I was actually feeling much better but still taking the drugs. I was instructed to finish the bottle of two doses daily for ten days.

On the eighth day of the cycle, something strange began to happen. I had a rash all over my chest and neck and my eye swelled shut. I went to the emergency room on base and was treated. Amazingly, I was told to finish the cycle. The very next day I went into anaphylactic shock. I spent the next three days in an Intensive Care Unit on base under constant observation.

On the third day I was discharged. I had just came through a very near fatal medical condition and was sent back to my squadron with one week’s worth of “academics only” restrictions and then it was back to full duty. The only problem was that when I was sent back, I was nowhere near the condition I was before the incident. Physically, I was ruined. My knees refused to straighten all the way and my shoulders were so swollen that I could barely do pushups. Even worse, I was put on a regimen that included taking prescription level Benadryl five times a day for the next six weeks (chief side effect: extreme drowsiness).

The transition from high school to college is tough. The transition from civilian to military is tough. Doing it high out of your mind is extremely tough. In my mind, I had two choices which included dropping out or beating this problem. I was singular in my focus but determined and made up my mind not to fail. I averaged about five to six hours of sleep a night (I like to get eight hours if possible) and taking huge amounts of Benadryl. I had to stand up in all of my classes to stay awake and whatever free time I had was dedicated to studying. I was away from my family, I didn’t know anyone coming into the Academy, and had so little time to socialize that I didn’t have many friends. I was alone.

I never once even thought to turn to prayer. This was my problem and my problem only. There was one way to solve the problem and that was through sheer force of will. No matter how tired I got, no matter how much abuse was heaped on me, I refused to quit. I never once used my illness as an excuse. On a Friday night, I fell asleep at 6PM and didn’t wake up until 9AM the next day. When my roommate told me he went to get pizza, I was indignant that he didn’t invite me. He told me that he and two of my classmates were literally shaking me at around 8 and I refused to wake up. He figured if I was THAT tired that they should leave me be.

By the time finals rolled around, I was off the drugs and mentally much clearer. I finished my first semester making both academic and military honors – the majority of the time completely high. It wasn’t faith in a deity that got my through, it was unwavering faith in myself. To credit God with this accomplishment would negate the effort and willpower I put into making this happen.

The predicament I found myself was not a moral judgment. My illness wasn’t caused by stupidity, addiction, or bad life decisions. It was random bad luck following an expert medical opinion. My severe drug allergy is rare and the vast majority of people would have been fine following my course of treatment. This was not a life lesson – I don’t know what I would learn besides never take Amoxicillin again. To think that my life was pre-planned by the divine, to me, would be the height of arrogance. I do know that I made up my mind to get through it and I did on my own.

In American football, the most thankless job is that of the field goal kicker. The kicker is a specialized position that may play only a very few downs per game. They do not advance the ball or defend the field. They come in only when their specialized skill is required. They do not make or break tackles and they rarely even break a sweat during the course of a game. Since they do not take the physical punishment that virtually every other position doles out on its players, they are often underappreciated by their teammates and the fans. If a kicker makes a field goal, they are not celebrated and are thought to be just doing their job. If the kicker misses – then they are a worthless bum who should be fired. It’s a very difficult position to be in. The Believers have somehow turned God into the opposite of a field goal kicker. If they pray and they’re prayers are answered then they give credit to God. If they pray and the prayers are not answered, then they convince themselves that God had other plans for them.

Instead of prayer and faith in the reverse field goal kicker, why not turn to hard work and faith in oneself? If experience has taught me anything, it’s that I am far more dependable than God.