Archive for July, 2010

What I learned from my Grandfather

Monday, July 19th, 2010

My Grandfather Newt died a year ago today and in some sort of divine happenstance, I literally just came across the notes I took before I said a few words about him at his memorial on the back of a sticky that had addresses for trophy places. I thought those notes were worth memorializing:

Ten things I learned from my grandfather:

  1. Always bring a joke: My grandfather always had a joke for whenever we got together. Some of them were corny; Some of them were hilarious. But it always set the right mood to have a joke to tell. Even when he had prostate cancer, he couldn’t help himself from humorously asking his doctor before deciding on whether to undergo radiation or chemo “Doesn’t radiation CAUSE cancer!?!”
  2. Learn from others: My grandfather was a big proponent of learning from others. He always wanted to share his knowledge and he always had questions for others when he met them. It didn’t matter if it was some engineering or technical question for someone like me or if it was a language question for my wife, he always wanted to learn more.
  3. There’s nothing wrong with a unique look: My grandfather spent most of his adult life with a curled mustache and a generally jovial look. He also had the sort of personality that no one would ever think to criticize his unique look. He had a quiet confidence and a light-hearted attitude that said, “This is what I want to look like, I think it’s fun and I even enjoy that you think it’s a bit odd.”
  4. There’s nothing wrong with a unique collection: My grandfather collected hats. LOTS of hats. I ended up with the bulk of them. I’ve got 58 brimmed hats and 117 baseball caps from his collection, which I’ve got mounted in a ring around the wall in my study. I’m missing another 57 that other family members took as their favorites to remember him by. Yes, you did the math right, 232 total hats in his collection. And it’s got everything from formal military hats, to dual beer-can drinking hats, to umbrella hats, to golf hats, to sports hats, to straw hats, to just about anything you could think of.
  5. Give your wife a caddy: My grandfather wasn’t very wealthy when he was young, but the company he, my grandmother and my uncle founded made him quite wealthy. He didn’t live a lavish life, but he always made sure my grandmother was very well taken care of, including the bright red Cadillac that she drives. Always take care of your wife.
  6. In-laws are family: My grandfather isn’t even my biological grandfather. My grandmother was married briefly to my biological grandfather and they had my dad before religious differences in the family split them up. But my grandfather was MY grandfather just as much as he was my Dad’s dad. We were no less family than his three biological children, so much so that when on a family reunion trip about 10 years ago, it was a surprise to my cousin that my Dad was not her dad’s full brother. That sort of “everyone’s family” attitude was obvious in how he treated everyone from my wife to my step-sister.
  7. There’s no such thing as a “step”: This is the other half of the previous one. My step-sister was not a “step” anything. She was another grand-daughter.
  8. The past is in the past: I can’t think of a time I heard my grandfather bring up something negative from the past. I also didn’t hear him endlessly relive some sort of glory days from the past. That was the past and he lived life moving forward. Right up until the day he died, he was always looking forward to the future and making the most of it.
  9. The head of the table is important: My grandfather’s humor was always a bit self-deprecating, so hopefully this joke he used to tell comes across right: “When I married your grandmother, I sat her down and said, ‘Look, I love you, but I’m the man of this family, so when it comes to any big decision, I have to make it. But since I love you, I’ll let you make all the little decisions.’ And you know what? In 60 years of marriage, there hasn’t been a big decision yet.” While he was never a man to lord his role over anyone, you knew who was the patriarch of the family and he took that responsibility (and yes, it’s a responsibility, not a privilege) seriously.
  10. Life is worth living: As I briefly mentioned earlier, my grandfather had prostate cancer about 10 years ago and the doctor honestly told him that it wasn’t very far along and it would probably take another 10 years to kill him. Considering he was already in his mid-70’s it might be wiser to just let it take its course because the treatment often takes more years off ones life than the cancer will. But there was no doubt in my grandfather’s mind that treatment was the way to go. Life was worth living and he’d fight on. That radiation treatment took a lot out of him, but he never lost his zest for life.

I miss you grandpa.

TGD – Chapter 10

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Dawkins wraps up “The God Delusion” with a wide ranging chapter titled “A Much Needed Gap?” He starts off the chapter with a discussion of childhood imaginary friends and tying them to the belief in God. At first he goes with the paedomorphosis suggestion, that what children do that adults should not do but some don’t grow out of. There’s no need to even rebut this idea as it clearly comes from his biased position. Then he spends some toying with the opposite, that imaginary friends are the evolutionary left-overs of the instinct to believe in God, which assumably we no longer need. But you can tell Dawkins himself doesn’t much buy into this theory, at a minimum, it has the problem of suggesting it was valuable at some time.

The next section is titled “Consolation” and it’s Dawkins attempt to rebut the idea that even if God doesn’t exist, he’s worth believing in because he gives comfort to others. He addresses two aspects of it, both suggesting that just because something feels good, doesn’t mean we should endorse the idea irrelevant of its truth (I wholeheartedly agree with him on that) and that there’s little evidence that belief in God is of any comfort.

On that I entirely disagree as a former atheist. The thing the atheist has to come to terms with is that this life will be all there is. Dawkins touches on this idea, suggesting that it’s a thrilling challenge that makes life more enjoyable. There’s some truth to that, but there’s also the opposite, that mistakes are far more unforgivable. If you make a mistake that prematurely costs you your life, that’s it. So the atheist is left with the very difficult challenge of living life to its fullness but doing it in a way that is as mistake free as possible. It’s a very difficult balance. Should I go sky-diving and get the thrill of that or should I avoid it because it could prematurely end my life? I personally found it very uncomforting and am far more at peace since discovering God’s existence. Am I perfectly at peace? No. I still question things and worry and do all the things that my faith tell me I shouldn’t be concerned with. But I recognize that as part of my human nature and try to turn away from it. Overall, I’m still at far more peace than I used to be.

There’s not much notable in this section of the book outside of that, but there was an odd diversion to talking of purgatory that I feel obligated to rebut. The first point is the justification for purgatory. Dawkins rightly points out that the high level justification is that without it there would be no purpose in praying for the dead, as a soul would be either in eternal paradise or damnation from the moment of their death without a place in the middle. But then he dismisses it saying that all it shows is that prayer for the dead is meaningless. There’s a whole thread of building blocks that would need to be laid to justify the following statement, and I lack the time to lay all that out, but the key statement is that we’ve been given by God assurance that prayer for the dead is efficacious. Of course, Dawkins would reject that evidence, but the point is that within our boundaries, it makes perfect sense. What Dawkins is attempting to do is use this example to further disprove the worldview because it seems so ridiculous to him, but in fact, he’s using circular logic, since from within our worldview it makes complete logical sense.

He also spends a fair amount of time picking on the Church for “selling” indulgences, a topic of which there is much confusion and perversion of what happened in the past. The perspective of the Church is that by doing good, one can shorten the amount of purification that one needs in purgatory. It’s a pretty obvious concept. If we get our act in gear on earth, there will be less need to do so in purgatory. And if one thinks about it, generosity is one of the key tenants of Christianity. So telling someone that by giving of their wealth to a good cause they are reducing their time in purgatory is similarly uncontroversial once one thinks about it. What stepped over the line was the over specific nature of the indulgences given based on very specific sums of money. There’s no doubt that this cheapened what is fundamentally a sound idea and turned a spiritual truth into the “selling” of something that the Church has always taught can not be sold (and even did so at the time despite engaging in a practice that implicitly undermined the idea). But this is wholly different than what the Church is accused of in general and Dawkins plays right into that stereotypical misunderstanding.

Dawkings wraps up the chapter and the book with an oddly “spiritual” section titled “Inspiration”. His main point is that the world is an amazing place. He talked about the frequencies of light we can’t see being far more abundant than those we can. He talks about how the space between atoms is so huge that what seems solid is effectively empty space. He talks about the wonders of quantum mechanics. He talks about all of things things in a “wow, they’re all so amazing. It’s amazing how little we know and understand about the universe!” kinda way. It honestly had me scratching my head. All of these things are so complex and far beyond our comprehension yet he’s so absolutely confident that there’s no “god” lurking amongst these unknowns? He’s had so much confidence and so much clarity that science has all but shown that God doesn’t exist, but when he wraps things up, it’s an amazing world that we know so little about.

It left me thinking that Dawkins and his ilk are the close minded ones. They’ve decided what science has to say on the matter, heck, they’ve gone so far as to try to define science in such a way that basically excludes the possibility of a deity, but yet they freely admit how little they know. Sure there are other ways that many religious are close minded, but when I look at God, I’m left with the same sense of wonder and awe and the confidence that I know so little.

Finally, it all comes back to his early assertion that in his mind there can be no “NOMA” (Non-Overlapping Magisterium). I find everything he talks about as amazing in the universe just as amazing and wonderful as he does. I’m excited to see where the science takes us as we learn more and more about these things. His assumption that faith and science are incompatible is complete hogwash and he’s done nothing to prove otherwise in his book. So while Dawkins looks at the universe and is marveled by it, I too am similarly marveled by it. I too want to learn more about it. In addition I’m marveled by that which extends beyond the physical universe to the meta-physical and am similarly as marveled by it as I am by the physical universe and I’m eager to learn more and take the evidence where it leads me in both realms.

In the end, I don’t think I’m the close minded one.

TGD – Chapter 9

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

Chapter 9 is titled “Childhood, Abuse and the Escape From Religion”. It’s a chapter I’ve somewhat been looking forward to both because Dawkins has referenced it a number of times in previous chapters and because having 3 children myself, I’m keenly aware of the importance of bringing one’s children up well and very protective of my right, and I do believe it is one of the most fundamental rights that exists, to raise my children as I see fit.

Dawkins starts off the chapter with the story of Edgardo Mortara. As Dawkins tells it, and I have no knowledge of these events but considering Dawkins track record of distorting events regarding religious people I wouldn’t be the least surprised if there’s more to the story than Dawkins suggests, Edgardo was a Jewish boy who was taken from parents when he was 6 by the government of the papal states (what is now Italy). The reason he was taken, according to Dawkins, was that he had been secretly baptized at some earlier point in his life. As Dawkins rightly points out, baptism is the defining sacrament of Christianity, and according to him the reason he was taken was that so now as a Christian he could receive a proper Christian education.

The story alone wouldn’t be too troubling to anyone if it were truly an isolated case, but according to Dawkins this was both a common practice at the time and in his words, “the attitudes of mind that it betrays are lamentably current, even though the practical details are not.” Dawkins uses this slight of hand all the time and it’s worth pointing out again that slight. He doesn’t suggest what “attitudes” he’s speaking of… is it just religious attitudes? Or is there some large scale Christian desire to kidnap children and educate them in the faith? Dawkins doesn’t say and I think it’s entirely intentional. He wants to let the mind think the latter without saying it explicitly or having to defend an outlandish claim like that.

Similarly, he suggests it was quite common at the time, but then points to the international uproar over this specific event, things that are nearly mutually exclusive. As with the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, we don’t talk much about specific cases because the issue is one of the magnitude of it. The same would have been true here if it were so common as Dawkins suggests. In fact, later in the chapter, long after he’s made the emotional point he’s after, concedes that “it is surprising that cases like Edgardo Mortara’s were not more common than they were.”

In either case, the key point is that Dawkins would have a hard time suggesting that there’s any significant movement anywhere in the Christian world to kidnap children from people who are going to raise their children in some other faith (including atheism).

Dawkins finishes up the section with an odd aside, suggesting that the parents of Edgardo were just as stupid because they didn’t “[accept] the priests’ entreaties and agreed to be baptised themselves.” He suggests that “a splash of water and a dozen meaningless words” were all that stood between them and their child and they were foolish to not do it “with their fingers crossed”. Seriously? Could you IMAGINE the uproar Dawkins would have if he were expected to be baptized to get some benefit? There is NO WAY this man would submit to “a splash of water and a dozen meaningless words” and he would starkly describe why he wouldn’t do it as a matter of principle.

The next section is titled “Physical and Mental Abuse” and it is mostly about Dawkins suggesting that raising one’s child in a specific faith is worse than a priest sexually molesting children. I wish I were making this up, but to quote him specifically so there’s no confusion on the matter: “horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.” He even defends the Catholic Church who is being attacked by a bunch of vigilantes whereas any sane person, even us Catholics, know we deserve 95% of the criticism we’re getting and it’s extremely important that we stop it (which, at least here in the US, we have (annual cases of abuse in 1975: approx. 800. 2009: 6)).

He spends the rest of the section sharing excerpts of letters of people who were traumatized by their religious upbringing, specifically about hell and associated nightmares. Of course there’s no mention of the fact that tons of children have nightmares about all sorts of things, from finding out meat comes from animals to that when Uncle Bob dies that’s the end of his existence and he will be no more. (I personally know of a few cases of people who came to faith because of near panic over that realization of the atheist viewpoint). It matters not if it can be terrifying to a child, what matters is whether it is true.

The next two sections are titled “In Defense of Children” and “An Educational Scandal” and are the closest Dawkins comes to saying what he would suggest as an alternative to the religious and parental freedom to raise our children in the faith of our choosing. He starts out by attacking freedom of speech in this regard. Quoting Dr. Nicholas Humphrey, Dawkins suggests “In short, children have the right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it.” It’s at this point Dawkins attempts to address the obvious objection to any of this. Who determines what is nonsense? His lone defense is that this is about “how” to think not “what”. If you’ve been reading the rest of these reviews, you’ll know how ridiculous of a claim that is. I’m quite confident that Dawkins wouldn’t limit himself to just teaching kids how to think and his very strong opinions would be front and center if he were setting the world wide curriculum of schools.

But beyond thinking that public schools shouldn’t be able to teach any religious principles, something he focuses on an example of in Britain in the “Scandal” section, Dawkins doesn’t suggest what kind of policy he’s actually after. Even though he makes it clear that children should be free of religious education “especially the education a child receives at home”, there’s no mention of what exactly the policy should be. Should the state be able to kidnap (term chosen based on the Edgardo story from earlier in the chapter) children from religious families to be brought up by the state? He doesn’t say. Or perhaps jailing those parents in the better solution? Fines? One can’t have a law without a punishment and I think Dawkins refuses to address the matter because he knows how crazy any suggestion would sound.

Overall, I think that Dawkins completely misunderstands the nature of freedom. I believe he thinks of it in terms of betterment of society because it allows people to challenge outmoded ideas that were prevalent to date. Beyond that, I think he sees it as a detriment. To some extent he’s right. Freedom, whether it be to raise a child as you wish or in some entirely different respect, has it’s problems. Everything from having the freedom to yell “FIRE” in a crowded movie theater to the freedom to have specifically disingenuous television ads, has certain negative affects on society. At the same time, a lack of freedom has tremendous downsides as well. It is the reality of these downsides, how quickly what seems like reasonable limitations on what one can say, do or think, can transform into a highly restrictive dictatorship, that has made western society so resistant to any significant restrictions, particularly on freedom of speech.

One need only look at Soviet Russia to see how this happens. What started as a way to free them from the supposedly repressive religious state quickly turned into a state where religion was effectively outlawed. And the way they did it was eerily similar to what Dawkins seems to be suggesting: compulsory state education free (really antagonistic to) of religion and making it illegal to share the faith with children until they’ve reached the age of reason. The result was that they became a totalitarian state that controlled far more than just religion, but matters across the board.

Are there people who abuse the freedom to raise their children in their ridiculous beliefs? Yes, there are, and Dawkins points to a few of them. However the cure to that disease is far worse than the illness. This is something that is a lesson the whole world has learned over the last 1000 years, even the Catholic Church who’s supposedly been the stick in the mud on the subject, but apparently something that Dawkins is at least somewhat oblivious to.

Dawkins wraps up the chapter with a section titled “Consciousness-raising Again” where he repeats his oft-stated mantra that kids should not be called “religious” but “children of religious” and then a section on his lone concession, that biblical literacy should be taught because of how important it is to understanding literature in the final section titled “Religious Education As A Part of Literary Culture”.

Overall, the chapter is a disappointment both because Dawkins effectively refuses to state what his solution to the “problem” is and that he’s mostly ranting against the most extreme example and not taking a more nuanced view of the realities of the situation.