Sunday, December 30, 2012

It's almost over!

Well, doggone it, there goes another perfectly good year, down the drain.  When we could have used it to fix the economy, end world hunger, cure cancer and AIDS, advance the cause of women and children, begin the process of ending illiteracy around the world and landing on Mars, we wasted it on a stupid Presidential election.

Damn those Republicans, anyway!

As a sort of consolation prize, I’ve compiled a list of some of the most interesting, or influential, or courageous, people who died this last year.  These people were actors, politicians, entertainers, a king or two, and a smattering of pioneers in science, art or most interestingly, civil rights.  Some of these people braved certain death at the hands of political opponents to champion their causes and thus helped oppose dictators and evil in various places worldwide.  Some were successful, others not so much.  Some of these folks worked in the shadows of the better known or in a faceless bureaucracy, but they still made our lives a little bit better for having done what they did.  Some were simply interesting people.

My favorites (so to speak), and the ones I was most sorry to see go were Neal Armstrong and Sally Ride.  Pioneers, indeed.

So, scroll down and read.  Just in the short description of who they were and what they did, you will learn a thing or two.

So, without further ado, here’s the list:

Andy Griffith, 86. He made homespun Southern wisdom his trademark as a wise sheriff in "The Andy Griffith Show" and a rumpled defense lawyer in "Matlock." July 3.
Ernest Borgnine, 95. Beefy screen star known for blustery, often villainous roles, but who won the best-actor Oscar for playing against type as a lovesick butcher in "Marty" in 1955. July 8.
Eugenio de Araujo Sales, 91. Rio de Janeiro's former archbishop who provided shelter to thousands opposed to the military regimes that once ruled Brazil, Argentina and Chile. July 9.
Stephen R. Covey, 79. Author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" and three other books that have all sold more than a million copies. July 16. Complications from a bicycle accident.
Jon Lord, 71. British rocker and keyboardist whose driving tones helped turn Deep Purple and Whitesnake into two of the most popular hard rock acts in a generation. July 16.
Kitty Wells, 92. Singer whose hits such as "Making Believe" and "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" made her the first female superstar of country music. July 16.
William Raspberry, 76. He became the second black columnist to win a Pulitzer Prize for his widely read syndicated commentaries in The Washington Post. July 17.
Forrest McCartney, 81. Retired Air Force lieutenant general and former director of Kennedy Space Center who was crucial in getting NASA's shuttles flying again after the Challenger tragedy. July 17.
Sally Ride, 61. She blazed trails into orbit as the first American woman in space. July 23. Pancreatic cancer.
Sherman Hemsley, 74. Actor who made the irascible, bigoted George Jefferson of "The Jeffersons" one of TV's most memorable characters and a symbol for urban upward mobility. July 24.
John Keegan, 78. British academic whose studies of men at war are counted among the classic works of military history. Aug. 2.
Ignacy Skowron, 97. Last known Polish survivor of the opening battle of World War II. Aug. 5.
Bernard Lovell, 98. Pioneering British physicist and astronomer who developed one of the world's largest radio telescopes exploring particles in the universe. Aug. 6.
George Hickman, 88. One of the original Tuskegee airmen and a longtime usher at University of Washington and Seattle Seahawks games. Aug. 19.
Phyllis Diller, 95. Housewife-turned-humorist who aimed some of her sharpest barbs at herself, punctuating her jokes with her trademark cackle. Aug. 20.
Jerry Nelson, 78. Puppeteer behind a delightful menagerie of characters including Count von Count on "Sesame Street" and Gobo Fraggle on "Fraggle Rock." Aug. 23.
Neil Armstrong, 82. He became a global hero when as a steely-nerved astronaut he made "one giant leap for mankind" with a small step onto the moon. Aug. 25.
Juan Valdez, 74. Land grant activist who fired the first shot during a 1967 New Mexico courthouse raid that grabbed international attention and helped spark the Chicano Movement. Aug. 25.
Michael Clarke Duncan, 54. Hulking character actor whose dozens of films included an Oscar-nominated performance as a death row inmate in "The Green Mile" and such other box office hits as "Armageddon," ''Planet of the Apes" and "Kung Fu Panda." Sept. 3. Heart attack.
Joe South, 72. Singer-songwriter who performed 1960s and '70s hits such as "Games People Play" and "Walk A Mile In My Shoes" and penned songs including "Down in the Boondocks" for other artists. Sept. 5.
Verghese Kurien, 90. Engineer known as "India's milkman" who helped revolutionize the country's dairy industry despite his own dislike for milk. Sept. 9.
Chris Stevens, 52. U.S. ambassador to Libya and a career diplomat. Sept. 11. Killed during an attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya.
Peter Lougheed, 84. As Alberta's premier, he turned the province into an oil-powered modern giant and an equal player in Canada's confederation. Sept. 13.
Andy Williams, 84. Silky-voiced, clean-cut crooner whose hit recording "Moon River" and years of popular Christmas TV shows brought him fans the world over. Sept. 25.
Barry Commoner, 95. Scientist and activist who raised early concerns about the effects of radioactive fallout and was one of the pioneers of the environmental movement. Sept. 30.
Norodom Sihanouk, 89. The revered former king who was a towering figure in Cambodian politics through a half-century of war, genocide and upheaval. Oct. 15.
E. Donnall Thomas, 92. Physician who pioneered bone marrow transplants and won the 1990 Nobel Prize in medicine. Oct. 20.
George McGovern, 90. Former U.S. senator and a Democrat who lost to President Richard Nixon in 1972 in a landslide. Oct. 21.
Antoni Dobrowolski, 108. Oldest known survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, he was a teacher who taught defiance of his native Poland's Nazi occupiers. Oct. 21.
Russell Means, 72. Former American Indian Movement activist who helped lead the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee and also appeared in Hollywood films. Oct. 22.
Milt Campbell, 78. First African-American to win the Olympic decathlon in 1956, he went on to play professional football and become a motivational speaker. Nov. 2.
Ewarda O'Bara, 59. Miami woman who spent 42 years in a coma. Nov. 21.
Larry Hagman, 81. Actor whose predatory oil baron J.R. Ewing on television's nighttime soap opera "Dallas" became a symbol for 1980s greed. Nov. 23.
Joseph E. Murray, 93. Doctor who performed the world's first successful kidney transplant and won a Nobel Prize. Nov. 26.
Oscar Niemeyer, 104. Architect who recreated Brazil's sensuous curves in concrete and built the capital of Brasilia as a symbol of the nation's future. Dec. 5.
Norman Joseph Woodland, 91. He was the co-inventor of the bar code that labels nearly every product in stores and has boosted productivity in nearly every sector of commerce worldwide. Dec. 9.
Galina Vishnevskaya, 86. A world-renowned Russian opera diva who with her husband defied the Soviet regime to give shelter to writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and suffered exile from her homeland. Dec. 11.
Maurice Herzog, 93. He became the first person to scale an 8,000-meter peak but lost all his fingers and toes to frostbite on the way down. Dec. 14.
Richard Adams, 65. Same-sex marriage campaigner who helped begin the push for gay unions four decades before the issue reached the center of the national consciousness. Dec. 17.
Charles Durning, 89. Twice nominated for an Oscar, he was dubbed the king of character actors. Dec. 24.
Jack Klugman, 90. Actor who made an art of gruffness in 1970s and 80s TV in "The Odd Couple" and "Quincy, M.E." Dec. 24.
H. Norman Schwarzkopf, 78. General who commanded the U.S.-led international coalition that drove Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait in 1991. Dec. 27.

These people often influenced the lives of countless human beings, now and in the foreseeable future.  To those and all the brave notables here, I bid farewell and give them a hearty “Thanks”!   It is so little compared to what they gave us.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Prophecies,'s just an excuse not to learn the right lesson.

Some people have no clue.  Not only do they have no clue, they miss the point even when they are smacked over the head with the truth, let alone the clue.

Take the election.

Throughout the entire election, beginning with Romney's nomination, the right wing pundits - and it turns out, Romney's own campaign staff - were telling each other and the world that their guy was going to win.  Yeah, yeah, everybody has to say that in an election to keep from bleeding support.  Gotta stay positive!

But internally, you have to keep on top of what is real.  You've gotta know what is really happening so you can respond with the right actions to ensure you really do win.  In other words, your campaign staff has to live in reality.

Romney's did not, as it turns out.  Neither did his money bags.  Remember the famous Karl Rove meltdown?

This is not the reaction  of a man whose fingers were on the pulse of the country.  I think he had his fingers on his own wrist and just didn't see it.  There have been a lot of characterizations of the right wing as living in another world, or another universe altogether.  These reactions to the election are proof positive that at the very least, they were swallowing their own propaganda!  At the worst, Fox News has built up an entirely different worldview that closely resembles another world not at all like the one the rest of us inhabit.  Many of us call it the planet Wingnutia.

Take this preacher, Rick Joyner, for instance.  He takes this whole pre-election period where all kinds of right wing religious nuts were predicting a Romney win and turns it upside down:
I know a lot of prophetic people who fully expected Romney to win the election. Of those I communicated with about the election, I do not know of any who gave a prophecy that Romney would win, but it was an almost universal opinion. I did not even seek a word from the Lord about it myself because I felt that I already had His opinion. That was a huge presumption.
Yep, you presume that your god cares enough about you and your self importance that he will give you his opinion about anything at all.
Bob Jones had an encounter with the Lord on January 16, 2012 in which the Lord asked him what he thought about having a Mormon for President. This was long before the Republican nomination had been decided, and Bob’s response was that he did not think very much of it. Bob held to that opinion until after the nomination was won by Romney, and then he believed that he must have been wrong and that Romney must be God’s choice. After the election, he realized how he had let his own opinions cancel out what the Lord was trying to show him in the first place.
Interesting.  The lord asks him this question and he just answers?  Assuming his god just was curious and didn't have some reason for asking?  Talk about presumption!  I guess Bob is so important the creator of the universe has to ask HIM about the election - one that creator already knows the outcome to...
Bob is the most seasoned and wise prophetic person I know, and in great wisdom, he embraced this correction. Even the greatest prophets still see in part and prophesy in part. We have had many prophetic words come true exactly as they were given, but we misinterpreted them until they were fulfilled. I still consider interpretation one of the greatest weaknesses in the prophetic ministry, but it was also this way throughout history, including biblical history. Even so, I believe we must do better with interpreting what we are being shown prophetically.
Oh, yes, the most seasoned - he's been around so long his "prophesies" don't just stink, they reek...
This past election was too good of an opportunity to learn to sweep it under the rug. I feel that I have learned something profound almost every day since the election. Wisdom and understanding are worth much more than gold or silver. I am sorry that we did not do better in understanding this election, but I love the correction because of what I’m learning. If we learn our lessons from this, they could save us in far more crucial times to come. I hope this is helpful, and I have a bit more to share next week.
Lessons?  What lessons?  How to make better prophesies?  If he'd said that joining the real world and understanding that your ideals, values and policies are not what the majority of Americans want, like, and are willing to vote for, I'd think he was on the right track.

As it is, he still lives on the planet Wingnutia.  Pitiful at best.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Greetings for the Season!

To one and to all, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Merry Happy Solstice, Merry Human Lights, Happy Kwanza, Happy Hanukah, and whichever seasonal holiday floats your boat!

In the meantime, it's snowing in Rockville!  Weather Service says we may have 1-2 inches by 8 pm tonight...

Ok, so you've gotta look real close to see the flakes, but hey, it is snow!  Better than we've had in years.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Winter Celebrations - What if you’re an Atheist?

I’ve had several people on Facebook recently ask me a question.  Gently, carefully, and making certain they weren’t being somehow insulting or hurtful, they’ve asked me in several different ways either how I celebrated Christmas or wanted to wish me “Merry Christmas”, but were uncertain of how to approach it, knowing I am an atheist and don’t celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I am extremely appreciative of the manner in which these folks, some of them very religious, have chosen to show their concern about my beliefs and their desire to wish me well and a happy holiday without being somehow clueless about it.  It is a welcome counterpoint to the public “defense” against the so-called “war on christmas” by right wing pundits.

It shows that to private citizens, the attempts of the modern atheist movement to become better understood has had some affect, in short, a victory of sorts.  Yay!

And, frankly, thank you.  To those of you showing this concern, please know that I appreciate it and hope I can return that personal consideration, while still moving forward with my own poor attempts at communicating my beliefs.

Speaking of which, let me explain a bit about just what I do believe and how I celebrate this holiday season.

Friday night was the third Friday of the month, and nicely coincided with both the date for my monthly discussion group of atheist and humanist friends and this year’s winter solstice.  This was a fantastic confluence between two things closely related, and allowed us to begin what we hope will be an annual tradition.

A frequent question from religious folks is, “Just what do you believe in, since you reject god?”   A good question, the answer to which is often either misunderstood or just made up.

To reject the theology of a heaven is to reject the idea of an afterlife, as I noted in my last post.  This life is all you get, and as such, we believe you’ve got to make the best of it you can.  This makes life itself much more important, since there’s no encore, no curtain call and no cast party afterwards!  One shot is all you got.  (I could go on, but you get the picture!)

Therefor, life becomes very important, and the things on this earth which support and nurture it are paramount, if we want to sustain not only our own, but the future as well.  There are many things which fit that description, but at the very most basic level is the earth itself, which is the environment life must adapt to fit.

One of the most basic things about the earth and its environment is its orbit and the angle of its rotation.  Put those together, and you’ve got climate and most importantly, seasons!  Now, there are countless species to whom the seasons and the ebb and flow of temperature differences are the essence of their life cycles and ability to procreate.  The Earth has a defined seasonal progression which is the defining fact that determines the life cycle of the entire ecology.

It is, therefor, worthy of attention!  Our ancestors paid that attention by celebrating the four equinoxes, which together define the Earth’s orbit and thus, the life cycle we depend on for life itself.

The Winter equinox is the more celebrated, because it is the one which heralds the lengthening days and the return of life to the earth’s surface.   The celebration of the return of the sun is an ancient one, and while today, we don’t fear that the sun won’t come back, the shortening of the long nights and the lengthening of the daylight hours is a welcoming thing!

The cycle of life is what sustains us.  It provides us with all that keeps us alive, it gives us the endless fascinating parade of life forms around us and is the one thing we can surely pass on to our children which we can be sure to last.

We don’t really have any set or “traditional” ways to celebrate.  The methods and ideas are so new and our ability to openly celebrate is still dependent on our location - some parts of the world, and the US, are not safe yet.

 So, we are still feeling our way, and many of us just have a party.  Others have candlelight vigils at what they feel are appropriate places.  The music, of course, is quite basic and not at all attuned to the atheist way of thinking.

But we’re working on it!

So, as we’ve been starting to say lately,  Happy Solstice - or maybe Merry Solstice!  The jury’s still out on that one...

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Mall of Eternity

The Mall of Eternity

Hey!  Let’s go shopping!  It’s almost Christmas, so let’s go!  I’ve got this great new place I found in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy called the Mall of Eternity!  Come on!

Now, this place is great, it’s got just about every religion listed in the Mall you could possibly think of!  Of course, the Directory’s kinda long, and most places are kinda small, but there are some really great stores if you know where to go, it says, right there on page 26 ½…

Oh, here’s the Directory:
  1. Catholic Church
    1. Roman Rite - also known as the Roman Catholic Church - minor variations by Country
    2. Eastern Rites - also called Orthodox - 781 denominations
  1. Anglicans
    1. High Church
    2. Low Church
    3. A total of 168 variations or denominations have been counted
  1. Protestant Christians -major ones listed
  1. Christian Cults, Sects and invented religions
    1. Unitarian
    2. Jehovah's Witness
    3. Seventh Day Adventist
    4. Mormons
    5. Scientology
    6. Christadelphian
  1. Judaism - Jewish - variations are mostly in practice, not beliefs
    1. Reform
    2. Orthodox
    3. Hasidic
  1. Islam - a few major versions
    1. Sunni
    2. Wahhabi Sunnis - dominant in Saudi Arabia
    3. Shia
    4. Khawarij
    5. 72 other variations per the list here.
  1. Eastern
    1. Hindu - a wide range of practices and beliefs that are only loosely linked.
    2. Buddhism - many variations depending on locality - includes: Theravada, Mahayana, Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana  and Zen
    3. Sikh - mostly variations in turbans, rituals etc
    4. Confucianism
  1. Pagan
    1. Druid
    2. Wicca
    3. Satanism 
    4. Greek Pantheon
    5. Roman Pantheon
    6. Incan
    7. Aztec
    8. African (various)
    9. Caribbean (various)

Ok, geez, I didn’t… dang, that’s a lot!

I’m confused.

Ok, shopping trip over, let’s go back to reality.

I know that there are folks who read this blog who have some very basic disagreements with my views.  No problem.  I don’t agree with yours, either!  So, now lets’ take a look at the possibilities, by examining that list above.  It isn’t an imaginary Mall directory, but it is a list of the religions people around the world pretty much believe in.  (Yes there are folks who still adhere to the old Greek and Roman pantheons.)

You see, from your perspective, things are pretty cut and dried.   You go to church, read your study guides, listen to the preacher or priest, and you’ve got one pre-cooked, spoon fed religion, ready-to-eat.  You can study or read up on it or just coast along, getting advice or prompting from that nice preacher any time you’ve got a question.

But from where I sit, it isn’t so easy.

Without the easy belief of my childhood, I am subject - should I decide to shop around - to the cacophonous blaring of that multitudinous list of religious theocrats.

Not to put anybody down!  I know that each religion surely has any number of sincere, honest believers who really, truly believe the teachings and dogma of their religion, and who would gladly spend the number of hours it would take to convert me.

The problem each one of them has is the same one you have.

Who is right?

Each one has wildly divergent beliefs, values, customs (which often vary even within their own religion from country to country) and holidays.  They are each sincerely honest in their belief, at least some of their believers are.

But they can’t ALL be right!  There are two possibilities - either none of them are, or just one of them is.  There are no other possibilities.

So.  At some point, after examining all of this, one gets to where it is time to make up one’s mind.  But how?  What criteria do I use to determine which one to believe?  Sincerity?  Honesty?  All of them will have adherents with plenty of both.  Holy books?  Some of them have holy books much older than christianity, do we go by age, or do we go by volume?

Do we go by number of adherents?  Sorry, that’s a logical fallacy.  There are plenty of beliefs that are widespread, but hardly true.  People once thought George Washington cut down a cherry tree, but we know for sure that’s a fabrication.

There just isn’t any way, short of someone actually coming back from the dead...and there just isn’t any proof that’s happened.  Lots of different religions have claimed it has, but truthfully?  No.

Some have claimed to have died on the operating room table and been brought back to life.  Yes, there is a phenomenon where people have clinically died for a period of some few minutes short of brain damage levels and were revived.  Some of them, like Dr. Eben Alexander, have claimed that their experience has changed their lives.

The odd thing, though about these Near Death Experiences (NDE) is that they almost always tell a story which parallels the teachings of their birth religion.  Now, if Dr. Alexander were to come back and convert to Buddhism, claiming that his experience backed up the teachings of Buddha exactly, that might get some attention, but that has yet to happen, to my knowledge.

No, I just can’t get my head around the idea that after over a hundred thousand or so years and the invention of literally thousands of gods and hundreds of religions, there isn’t any kind of a resolution to the central obsession of the human race.

Maybe its time we got a new hobby.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Trigger Warning! Taboo Subject! Run for Your Life!

Today, I am going to talk about a subject that immediately puts most Americans in a cold sweat.  No, I said cold sweat, not a hot one, I’m not going to talk about sex!  Not today, anyway.

Death.  The Long Sleep.  The Great Equalizer.  Nirvana, Valhalla, The Eysian Fields.  Heaven, Hell and The Wheel of Life.

Nothing is more guaranteed to put your average American in a state of the jitters.  It makes us nervous, it puts us on edge and causes our eyes to wander helplessly, anywhere but in the eyes of the speaker.

There is nothing in the field of the supernatural (which of course, includes religion) with a wider field of possibilities or a longer list of crazy, wacko and nonsense beliefs.  Ghosts, goblins, devils & demons, somewhere in America, somebody thinks they’re real.

As an atheist, I think it’s all a bunch of wacko, crazy far out strangeness.  Yes, including all of the major religions.  Why?  It’s simple.  We live in the 21st century, we’ve been studying the human body for over two hundred years now, seriously, in a scientific manner.  With modern electronic sensors and equipment, we can see inside the body as it works, we can learn from the now huge body of scientific study that clearly shows us that the seat of the human mind is in the frontal lobes of the brain.  Right behind the forehead.

Remember Terri Schiavo?  Her case ignited a battle royal over long term care and when it is appropriate to shut off life support.  Some folks wanted to shut it off, her defenders said she was still alive.

An autopsy after her death shows clearly that her brain had deteriorated to almost a third of its proper size, and there was nothing of that part of her brain left which would have housed the essential Terri - she’d really been dead for quite a while, even if her body had still breathed.

My own experiences with death, accounts of death by accident, disaster or combat clearly show that once the brain is gone, so is the person.  

Life...ends.  There is nothing left but what we Americans call the “remains”.  As if using the term dead body jinxes you or something.

Yeah, that’s a bit morbid.  But, life ends.  It does.  Death is only a part of life.  Living means that one day, you will die.  None of us are getting off this rock alive!   

Aaaaahhhh!!  Run!  Hide!  Zombies!

No, levity won’t prolong life by much, but they say laughter is the best medicine, so maybe it will after all.  Consider yourself medicated!

The American attitude about death is curious, at least to an atheist.  Christians claim that this is a Christian country, but when death is mentioned or after a terrible event like Newtown, things get somber, people get afraid and fill up the churches.  Not to celebrate the transition of a faithful adherent to the arms of Jesus, but to pray for salvation, to pray for the soul of the dead and for the violence to end.

Why?  Why do we preach one thing but act out another?

Christianity is, culturally speaking, fairly new.  Humans have lived on this earth, as humans, for over a hundred thousand years, even as much as half a million years, developing culture, language, and religion all the while.  Archeologists have even found evidence that Neanderthals might have believed in an afterlife.

One of the oldest cultural customs is hospitality.  The belief that a stranger, come to your door in need and hunger, had the right to food, shelter and sanctuary while under your roof is so old and so strong, that the story of Lot in Sodom, as he offered his daughters to the mob if they’d only leave the angels alone is illustrative of how powerful that stricture is.  That custom was old then, and is probably one of the oldest human customs to survive to this day.  A lot of other customs survive, too. 

Most so called “christian” customs are older pagan customs taken and repurposed by the Church as christian holidays and celebrations, both to keep local populations happy by not taking away their long loved holidays and to introduce christian stories and traditions into a newly “converted” culture.

Christmas is a wonderful example of this, with most of the “traditional” emblems of Christmas being older customs of pagan cultures in Europe that have survived to this day.

In Mediterranean culture of the First Century, christianity was unusual.  It was one of what the Greeks called “Mystery religions”, so called because there were mysteries of the theology which were only given to the inner circles to know and were not widely disseminated to the public.  Most of these mystery religions had as a central tenet the idea that a “savior” deity, somehow killed ritually by supernatural enemies, had returned triumphantly to life and any of that deity’s adherents who underwent certain rituals reminiscent of that triumphant rebirth would benefit from eternal life in a happy, wonderful existence in the company of that deity.

Prior to that time, most religions didn’t have a very happy afterlife.  Vikings believed in Valhalla, where vikings went after death in battle to be served by the men they’d killed in an eternal drinking and feasting binge ended only by a final battle between their gods and their supernatural enemies.  Greeks and Romans believed in an underworld, where the shades of the dead spent eternity in a ghostly existence ruled over by the eternally jealous Hades.  Not exactly heaven, was it?

it was, however, life of a sort, and if one was very lucky, one could actually meet up with a loved one there, maybe.  No promises, since the gods were fickle and actually a pretty nasty bunch.  Religious rituals consisted of ceremonies meant to propitiate the gods into either favoring you or, at the very least, ignoring you.  Some rituals could be counted on to, perhaps, persuade the gods to smite one of your enemies, but, these could backfire if your enemy was better at wooing the gods than you were!

But, in general, there was no dogma of heaven or hell, no eternal reward or punishment for one’s behavior on earth.  In the end, unless you were a viking and died in battle, you were just kind of out of luck.  Some religions believed that one’s shades wandered the earth and religious ceremonies were meant to just keep these poor wandering souls away, lest they steal away your life energy or something equally nasty.

In other words, for the first few hundred thousand years of man’s existence, life was short, brutal and nasty, and the afterlife wasn’t much better.

Being so new, christianity (and Islam, which also has a happier heaven), had to borrow a lot of rituals, symbols and traditional holiday customs to get any traction to grow, even with the lure of a happier afterlife.  After all, the christian and Islamic dogma require you to enslave yourself to god (yes, they do, just read the words, people, you can quibble about the meanings today, but back when things were newer, slavery is just what they meant), so the afterlife had to have compensations to make it attractive.

Today, many of these customs survive as customs and values which transcend christian belief.  A fractured, widely differing conglomeration of beliefs in differing kinds of afterlife is the result, I believe.   Even christianity differs in some very basic ways.

Some denominations think one must be buried intact, so when the Second Coming is here, you will “rise up” out of your grave to join Jesus.  Others teach that we will receive new bodies, and still others teach that our new bodies will be spiritual bodies and not physical at all!

I call bull pucky.

I mean, come on, after hundreds of thousand of years, billions of deaths, with death and an afterlife being a central, obsessive focus of human attention for almost all of that time, one would think that nature would screw up at least once.

Come on, just once!  One single guy or gal to actually, provably and verifiably die and return to tell us all about it.

But no.  Nothing, nada, zip, bupkis!  Not so much as a fairtheewell or a single solitary postcard.

Lots of charlatans, though.  Lots of so called mediums who say they can talk to the dead.  Lots of people who say they almost died, but were sent back to tell us all about it!

Funny thing is, these things happen all over the world.  And just about every one tells us about the afterlife in a manner which tracks almost exactly with the religion that person was born into!  You’d think that if there was a real afterlife, and each religion had a piece of it right, that all of the stories would mesh together into some sort of common idea, a picture of what the real heaven looks like.

But they don’t.

Which is why the bull pucky.

I waited to write this until after the tragedy in Newtown had been past for a while.  When it wasn’t so new and raw.  I waited because this really is a subject that many of us are close to because we have recently lost a loved one, or may be about to - or just can’t get past the long ago death of a parent or spouse.

It is painful, and it is why so many people cannot let go of the comfort of believing that the loved one lost, or the one about to be, will be again before you, smiling and holding out their arms for that hug.   Just like old times, after you die and are reunited, in heaven.

But I can’t believe it.  I am an evidence kind of guy.  I am that doubting Thomas who must be shown to believe.  If it can’t be proven or demonstrated through scientific methodology, it can’t be real.

I sat there, watching the body of my mother, finally gone after several years of slowly wasting away just like her beloved aunt, of Myasthenia Gravis, laid out in her bed at the nursing home.  Like so many people in a similar position, both sad to see her gone, yet glad to see the pain, the suffering, finally at an end.

She’s gone.  Like all of the others, and like I will be some day.  It is hard to contemplate that some day, you will also be gone.  That you will no longer be here, that you will not wake up and just carry on as if you’d been asleep.  

But there was a time when I wasn’t here once before - before I was born.  It didn’t hurt.  There was no pain, and the world carried on just fine.  

My post from yesterday came before this one on purpose.  If you’ve not read it go read it now.  Because deep inside you, you have the resources which will allow you to go on, to move forward after the death of that loved one.  You have the strength, and you don’t need to pray for it from an outside source.

You are human.  You are strong.  Humans have been carrying on after the deaths of loved ones for as much as a half million years since we became human.   Billions of us, billions of deaths, billions of lives.  We have been building our civilization, year after year, decade after decade, century and millennium after millennium, during good times and bad, feast and famine.

Your ancestors, in a line unbroken from Africa to wherever you are now, lived, died and carried on, gathering that inner strength which all humans have in great unmeasured amounts.

They did it, you can do it, because in the end, life is what we make it out to be.  Life is of the purpose we give to it, by how we live, by how we love and by how we teach the next generation to do the same.  It has to be, because this life, here, now, on this earth, is all we’ve got.  No second chances, no rehearsals, no curtain calls.

The greatest waste is a human life.  Don’t waste yours waiting for the second life which will never come.  Pursue a hobby.  Travel to someplace you’ve never been.  Eat escargot!  Dance like you’ve never danced and love like there’s no tomorrow.

Because, for any of us, there may not be.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Your Inner Strength - of Divine Origin or Completely and Magnificently Human?

Today, I read a very interesting post at FreeThought Blogs, entitled, Jesus, the First Responder? I Don’t Think So!, which made the point that:
Throughout history, it is not imaginary beings who respond to human suffering, rather it is and it always has been the actual presence of freedom fighters, real, live human beings, who have taught us what means to be human and thus humane.  Jesus, or any other spiritual deity does not deserve this credit!  The credit goes to those of us who are willing and able to struggle for justice and human dignity in the face of cold-blooded killers.  It is we, not Jesus, who are the first responders!
While I agree completely with this sentiment, that isn’t exactly the point of my post today.  I want to take that a bit further and approach it from another direction.

One of the hardest things for many christians (and thus, I’d guess, the adherents to other religions as well) to give up is the comfort and security of knowing that there is this all powerful, loving god who, basically, has your back.  Someone you can turn to for strength and comfort when things get a bit rough.  After all, one of the most reliable predictions you can make about the people of this country is that when disaster strikes, especially something like the Newtown massacre, the churches fill up fast.

One of the biggest beefs I have with modern American idioms is the one where someone says, “Thank God!” whenever they hear that a family member or someone famous recovers from an illness or has a successful surgery - or is rescued from a burning building or sinking boat.

I want to shake them and say, “No!  It wasn’t god, it was that great doctor and his surgical team that did it!” or tell them that they should be thanking the Firemen/women or the Coastguard for rescuing their friends or family.

Which is the point of the old joke.  You know, the one where the guy trapped in his house during a flood and refuses rescue from an SUV, a boat and a helicopter, telling the rescuers that “god will save me”, but drowns anyway.  Upon confronting god in heaven, he is told that of course, god provided - an SUV, a boat and a helicopter!

God doesn’t do rescues.  He doesn’t do surgery.  He doesn’t magically put the answers to that tough test in your head after you failed to study last night.  If those answers are there, it is because YOU studied and remembered them!

People do these things.  Doctors go to school for almost a decade, including working extremely tough schedules in residencies and incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of loans to learn how to perform surgery on that cancer that got removed from Aunt Sally’s throat.  God didn’t do that, the doctor did, supported by an entire team of highly trained, professional and very dedicated specialists without whom no doctor could succeed.  Firefighters go through a tough training school which takes a very special very tough person to succeed in.  Not everybody has the guts to enter a burning house to rescue a dog or a child or an old person unable to exit themselves.  But they do it every day - let’s start giving them the credit, instead of this invisible guy that, if he’s even there, stays pretty invisible.

How do these remarkable people do what they do?  Is it the hand of god which guides their footsteps or their hands?  No.  It is hours and hours of training, practice and experience which allow these remarkable people to save your life.  It is an internal fortitude and strength that keeps them going and helps them to do things the rest of us marvel over.

Is that strength rare?  In some cases, perhaps.  But in most of us, that strength is always there, and we can tap it at will if we but try.

You can do it too.  Have you ever prayed before an especially tough experience, like a board examination or a test or perhaps before running a marathon for the strength to make it across the finish line? To get through without cracking up under pressure?

Somehow, you made it, didn’t you?  And at the end, you said, “Thank god!”, right?

Did it never occur to you that the strength you tapped that time was always there, you just needed a way to tap into it?  That prayer did it.  God didn’t give it to you, you looked way down deep inside of yourself and tapped an inner wellspring of strength and came through in the end, because somehow, you knew you could.  The prayer was just a way of expressing yourself and your determination.

One of the most terrible and demeaning ways that christianity harms people is its dogmatic teaching that human beings are all sinners.  That we are weak, susceptible to temptation, with no will power to resist wrongdoing.  That we need the strength that god or Jesus can give us, if only we ask.  I am always with you, the bible says he tells us.

It is a classic method of, believe it or not, the abuser making their victim dependent on him/her.  One of the telltale signs of an abusive relationship is that the abuser tells his victim, constantly, how weak they are.  How they are stupid, weak and helpless.   He/she then constantly berates their attempts to prove themselves, putting them down, rejecting their overtures unless the victim accepts their abuse and characterization of them.

Sound familiar?  “None shall reach the kingdom of heaven except through me”  “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”.

If you experience this training through out childhood, its no wonder you turn to someone else for strength!

The toughest thing about becoming an atheist is realizing that, in reality, there’s nobody home when you send out that prayer.  That there’s nobody “with you” when you are asking for strength.  (Except, of course, friends and family)

But, slowly, you also realize that, on the other hand, in spite of there being nobody there, somehow, you got through anyway.  You passed that test, you were accepted by the board, you made the finish line.  You begin to see that the strength to persevere, to keep going, to win, was there all along.  Inside you.  Just waiting to be tapped, to be used and recognized.

Just like those brave firefighters, cops and Coastguardsmen/women, you too, have the strength which you can tap and call upon in times of need.  That intestinal fortitude, the guts, it’s there, it’s all yours!

Everybody has it, but not everybody knows how to tap into it and call upon it at need.  That takes effort.  That takes the confident knowledge that the strength is there and requires the ability to reach down and call upon it.  That strength is there and is demonstrated every day.

Remember that young teacher who concealed her class in closets and cabinets, then sat down to wait for the shooter?  The courage that young woman displayed was equal to, even superior to, that displayed by even the bravest Medal of Honor winner.  Usually, they are armed, she was not.  But sit she did, to ensure that she could fool the shooter into thinking her class was somewhere else and she was alone.  Knowing that she would most likely be shot herself.

That took tremendous courage!  The strength she showed was remarkable.  But utterly, entirely human.  Magnificently human!  God didn't stop the shooter from killing her children, she did.  She reached deep down inside and drew out the strength she needed to sit there and wait for certain death.  She had a purpose, and she knew how to succeed at that purpose.

People do that every day.  Unremarkable people, perfectly normal people save friends and neighbors from burning buildings, auto accidents, sinking ships, and just about any other dangerous situation you might imagine.  Every day, perfectly average people pass tests, sit through board examinations, endure imaginable hardships - and do it purely on their own, without the slightest help from invisible beings.  They do it by tapping on that internal strength, and often through knowing that they are supported by family, or friends or a professional network of associates and coworkers.

It’s called being human.  Magnificently human!

Is it really possible to get any stupider?

I am happy to inform you, dear cyber-readers, that the Conservatives in America have finally allowed their crazy feminine side to show!  Yes, folks, the crazy, nut bag idiotic statements made by right wing male idiots has been topped - not simply equalled, but topped - by a woman!

National Review, whose in-house editorial suggested Newtown was the price of the Second Amendment, published a piece on Wednesday from anti-feminist Charlotte Allen suggesting the reason the shooter was able to kill so many students was because Newtown was a “feminized setting:” 
There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred. In this school of 450 students, a sizeable number of whom were undoubtedly 11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K–6 school), all the personnel — the teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the “reading specialist” — were female. There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees. Women and small children are sitting ducks for mass-murderers. The principal, Dawn Hochsprung, seemed to have performed bravely. According to reports, she activated the school’s public-address system and also lunged at Lanza, before he shot her to death. Some of the teachers managed to save all or some of their charges by rushing them into closets or bathrooms. But in general, a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak — but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel. Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza.
(emphasis mine)

So, of course, to make up for their slip at allowing a woman to publish anything of note, it had to be an anti-female screed.

Regardless, this is simply beyond ridiculous.  In shooting after shooting, males died as quickly and as easily as women.  They were, quite honestly, unarmed.  Even if they had been armed, they likely would never have been able to have gotten to their firearms in time.  What school teacher, in today's atmosphere, would walk around in school with a loaded piece on his/her belt?

Ignoring the stupidly obvious bad example it would set in inner city classrooms, or in any classroom, why would you want to carry a weapon that could be taken from you and used against you or anyone else in your classroom?  Statistically, weapons bought for protection are more likely to be used against the owner than against an intruder.  Teachers are not trained security guards.  They have other, more pressing duties which would distract them from being able to use that weapon in an emergency.

If you absolutely, positively must have an armed guard in your school, PAY FOR A POLICE OFFICER TO BE THERE FULL TIME!!  Don't be chintzy, don't be cheap, if you are that alarmed by the danger to your kids, do it right.  Stop this crap about teaching teachers to handle guns and making them carry in class.

You'd simply be giving the next mass murderer free access to his tool.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Old School Shootings prove the utility of modern assault weapons

The battle of words rages:  "Guns don't kill people, people kill people!"  vs.  "Ban guns!"

Well, I thought that perhaps a bit of historical perspective would shed a bit of light on the subject.  Of course, who did I turn to for that historical perspective?

Chris Rodda, of course!  Her work on debunking the christian lies and hypocrisy of David Barton is legendary, so I thought that her post on this at FreeThought Blogs might be informative.

Boy, was I right!  (I love it when I'm right...)

In her post entitled, "No, Mr. Huckabee, It’s Not Because God Has Been Removed From Schools", she provides an interesting perspective on his remarks.  But, more importantly, she also provides a detailed list of past school shootings - going back to 1840!

The list ends in 1962, when Huckabee says we kicked god out of our schools.  Not only does this list prove Huckabee wrong, but it conveniently shows something else - that when firearms had slower rates of fire, held fewer rounds and were harder and slower to reload, the casualties of these attacks were considerably lower than after more rapidly firing and reloading weapons began to hit the markets.

This is critical to the current conversation, when we need to limit the damage that can be done by limiting the ability of shooters to be able to kill rapidly by denying them the rapid firing military style weapons.

Go read it, and prepare yourself to be amazed at the differences between the shootings now and then - and the similarities.

A sampling.

First on the list:

November 12, 1840: Charlottesville, Virginia. University of Virginia student Joseph Green Semmes shot law professor John A.G. Davis when Davis attempted to unmask Semmes and another student, both of whom were wearing masks and carrying pistols. Professor Davis died three days later.

Last on the list:

October 17, 1961: Denver, Colorado. Tennyson Beard, 14, got into an argument with William Hachmeister, 15, at Morey Junior High School. During the argument Beard pulled out a .38 caliber revolver and shot at Hachmeister, wounding him. A stray bullet also struck Deborah Faith Humphrey, 14, who died from her gunshot wound.

Obviously, learning about god in school didn't stop the killings, nor did god take a hand in preventing tragedy.  Even where he was very welcome.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Stupidest Excuse.

Of all the stupidest excuses for not passing stricter laws against the spread of firearms in this country is the "If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns" argument.


Because, in spite of the cutsie little play on words there, the principle is that outlawing guns is useless, because criminals won't obey the law.


Let me get this straight.  You've taken a poll pulled an imaginary number out of your ass, and because you feel that some number of Americans will willingly disobey a particular law, it would be a failure, so we just shouldn't pass it?

Let's look at a statistic.  I could use more than one, for the sake of drama and histrionics, but for my purposes, one will do - plus, I HATE statistics.  I think that the total number of murder victims in the United States in 2011 was 12,996, according to Wikipedia.

I do hate math, but in my dimly remembered high school math, that number, compared to the total population of the US at over 350 million people, would come to somewhat less than a fraction of 1%.

So, you are saying that because a very tiny fraction of the American population is likely to fail to obey a law, it shouldn't get passed?   Really?  Are YOU some special kind of stupid?

That principle, if spread out over the entire Justice system, would simply shut it down.  We'd have no reason to pass laws.  Look, let's get something straight, for those of you who failed to take civics because your ultra-right wing christian school board forgot to fund it that year.

The justice system exists to set in place a system of laws intended to inform the populace of the general expectations we, as a society, have for the behavior of those who live here.  It is not a set of general guidelines, but a system of rules - with requisite punishments for those who violate them, in keeping with the severity of the violation.  They are passed using a system of democratic representation which ensures (supposedly) that the population supports the laws as passed.

Yes, we DO expect you to obey them.  Yes, we WILL take you to court in order to impose those punishments on those who fail to do so.  That is the way we set it up.  That is the system that the right wing and most Republicans revere so much they'd like to send even more people to jail if they could.

And yet, in this one particular instance, we have this glaring, bright, nasty exception.

It puzzles me.  The proposed law, like the one which expired in 2004, is NOT a general outlawing of assault weapons so that cops will come take your guns.  It is a ban on the SALE of assault weapons.  That is intended to reduce the possible outlets for getting one to zero - legally speaking.  This would have a couple of salutary  results - it will reduce the availability of these weapons drastically - to those who are willing to risk Federal imprisonment or to private sale.  This would, in turn, in accordance to economics 101, cause the price of said illegal items to skyrocket in price.

Good news if you happen to own one - a private sale could net you as much or more for a used weapon as you may have paid for it new!

Bad news if you are a Federally licensed firearms dealer.  One less item to sell and profit from.  REALLY bad news if you are a prospective buyer before the ban goes into affect.  You'll need a LOT of additional money to get one - and THAT ensures that fewer people with homicidal tendencies will be able to afford to buy one.

So, let's reduce this to a Facebook meme: