Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Raising California: The rights of a parent

When I wrote about the private Kansas school that would not allow a woman to ref their basketball game, I went on a brief rant about a parent's supposed right to teach their children whatever they want. I promised a more in-depth look at this issue, and here it is.

I was reminded of this issue, and spurred to write about it, by a story out of California about the legality of home schooling. For all the details, you can read the story in the San Francisco Chronicle or the L.A. Times. The gist of the story is that a California appeals court ruled that parents without teaching credentials had no constitutional right to home school their children.

On the story itself, I am not sure what side I fall on. For those of you who don't know, I was home schooled from first grade through high school. While I was certainly deprived of a solid education in science and biology, and generally found my high school education to fall well short of that of my peers, my early education was much better than anything I would have received in a public school. Since I was the only student in my grade, I was able to move at my own pace in math and reading and other basic studies. With no other students to hold me back, I was usually multiple grade-levels ahead of my peers in these areas. So there are certainly potential benefits of a home school education (I knew some home schooled kids who fell way behind in math and reading because their parents were more interested in having them do chores or because they focused upwards of 90% of their schooling on religion, but the majority of my home schooled peers grew rapidly in their early years of education).

Furthermore, I found this statement from the judge kind of frightening: "A primary purpose of the educational system is to train school children in good citizenship, patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation as a means of protecting the public welfare."

When I hear the words, "patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation," I hear a veiled promotion of prejudice, but once again, I'm going to have to save that topic for another day.

Ultimately, I think my feeling is that parents who want to home school their children should be allowed to do so as long as they can show that their kids are getting a good education in all areas. I think this would lead to a lot of parents being forced to put their kids in school at some level, once the level of education is too high and specialized to be taught by an individual parent. After all, you wouldn't expect your high school science teacher to be able to teach you Spanish, and you wouldn't expect your math teacher to be a very good english teacher. At a certain point, the benefits of home schooling give way to the benefits of having several teachers who are experts in their varios areas of education. That's my tenative resolution, but it's not at all what I want to write about in this post. The reaction that I found even more disturbing than the judge's statement was from this home school parent, quoted in the L.A. Times:

"I want to have control over what goes in my son's head, not what's put in there by people who might be on the far left who have their own ideas about indoctrinating kids."

The first part of this sentence, "I want to have control over what goes in my son's head," sends a chill down my spine. If he were talking about not allowing his 14-year-old son to watch a violent movie, or read a raunchy novel, that would fine. But he's not. He's talking about planting his political and religious beliefs in his son's mind, and completely sheltering his son from any opposing opinions.

This begs the question, "How much should parents be allowed to control what their children learn?"

When people talk about tolerence, a common concession goes something like this, "You're allowed to teach your children whatever you want, just don't try to force your beliefs on me or my kids." My contention is that this is conceding too much. But before I go any further, I should give a brief look at the nature-nurture issue.

Recent research of genes and human development has shown that "Nature vs. Nature" is actually a false dichotomy. It is much more likely that nature and nurture work one through the other, in an infinite loop. We are certainly born with natural tendencies, but our nature is only shown in how we react to our environment. Since we are interracting with our environment from the moment we are born (and even before that), it is very difficult to distinguish nature from nurture. Now that's just a crude summary of the theory. For a more accurate, more elegant summary, see "Nature via Nurture," by Matt Ridley.

There are two points to take away from this: (1) Every child, no matter how young, is an individual person with a unique personality and a seperate consciousness (or "soul," if you prefer) than everyone else, (2) Because parents have the most control over a child's environment, they are in a powerful position to affect the child's beliefs and opinions.

Like any position of power, the power of parenting brings with it a responsibility to use it only when necessary. Children are people too. This may seem a tired statement--this is certainly not the first time you've heard it--but it is rarely recognized for what it really means. No person is the property of another person, and since children of all ages are persons, this includes them. But many parents are eager to make the jump from "My kids are my responsibility," to, "My kids are mine." Since children are too young to make important decisions for themselves, legal responsibilties are often passed on to the parents. This further promotes the idea that they are our property: we have to sign release papers in order for anyone else to use them. But responsibility for a person does not mean that you own them and are free to control their lives in any way you see fit.

When I graduated high school, I wrote an open letter to all the home school parents in our home school group. Since I save just about everything I've ever written, I have a portion of it here:

Here is what I think about home school parents: I believe you truly care about your children and you want the best for them (you’re agreeing so far). You also remember when you were young, and all the bad decisions you made; you don’t want you’re sons and daughters to make any bad decisions. Your solution: don’t allow them to make decisions. If they can never be alone with someone of the opposite sex, they can’t make the bad decision to have sex. If they aren’t ever around anyone who would possibly have drugs or alcohol, they can’t make the bad decision to get high, or drunk. As long as you are always watching them, you can always jump in if they’re about to make a bad choice. Wake up. You’re over-controlling. Are you proud that you can say your child has never had sex, drank alcohol, or smoked anything? If someone is never offered a joint, does this mean they have chosen not to smoke weed? If a girl is closely watched every time she comes within ten feet of a guy, does this mean she has chosen to remain a virgin?
Think about this: you can’t watch your child forever. They will eventually escape you’re vision. Sooner or later, they will make decisions for themselves. You say you’re waiting for them to mature enough to make the right decision. Here’s a fact: maturity is accomplished by messing up. Some people only make a few, little mistakes. Some people make huge mistakes. Some people continue making mistakes and never mature. But by sheltering your kids from making their own decisions you are only delaying their maturing process. Earlier, I said I am starting to mature. Do you know when this started? When I was given more freedom to make my own choices. To no one‘s surprise, I’ve made bad decisions. I have learned from them. I won’t do them again. Not because my parents say I can’t, but because I’ve gone through it, and now my conscience tells me I can’t. By the way, while a conscience can always be there, a parent can‘t. If you’re kids don’t make any of there own decisions until they’re away at college, what happens when they do make a bad choice? You, the parents, won’t be staying in their dorms, so they will have to deal with their mistake without your help. All that is assuming that there’s still someone there who will tell them they’re making a mistake.

This is one of the few things I wrote when I was 17 that I still agree with whole-heartedly. This particular letter was written to a specific group of home school parents, but parents in all kinds of situations make the same mistakes I wrote about. We do it out of genuine love for our children, because it is painful for us to watch them make decisions that we know are going to hurt them.

Likewise, it is hurtful for us to imagine our children disagreeing with us on beliefs that we hold close to our heart. If I imagine my son growing up to be deeply religious, a Reagan-conservative Republican, an avid fan of Ben Affleck, and a lover of country music, I want to bang my head against the wall. But I'm not going to use my powers of parenthood to prevent that from happening. I wouldn't say, "I've failed as a parent." I would say, "I can't believe how different my son is from me."

I can understand why parents want to shelter their kids from opposing opinions, especially if their kids start to show signs of being persuaded by those opinions. But this is a blatant abuse of your parental responsibilities.

To me, my job as a parent is to allow my son to discover what makes him happy and who he is. It is my duty to provide basic needs, of course, provide him with the best education I can afford, help him accomplish the things that he wants to accomplish, and perhaps most importantly, how to think for himself.

I also see it as my duty as a human to make sure that other children receive the same freedom to develop without any hinderences from their parents or anyone else. In our culture, a garuanteed way to make people uncomfortable is to talk about getting involved in the development of other people's kids without the parents' permission. Yet, I have never heard a convincing argument that the only people that should be involved in a child's development is that child's parents. That's just the way it's always been, which is a good indicator that the status quo is flawed.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Attacking faith: The impossible siege

When I put an end to my last blog, I explained that I no longer saw any value in trying to convince theists that they were wrong and wanted to go in a slightly different direction. Here, I'd like to expound on that a little bit.

The Impenetrable Wall of Faith

Any major religion that has stood the test of time has survived for good reason, and made the appropriate adjustments in order to accommodate cultural changes throughout history. This is the basic idea of a meme.

If a religion were easily penetrable by skepticism, it would have collapsed a long time ago. Specifically, if a religion's followers were easily convinced to leave that religion, the religion would no longer be with us.

So it is no surprise that religious people are not persuaded by what atheists consider to be irrefutable evidence that God does not exist. As an atheist, you can argue until you're pulling your hair out, saying, "How can you not see this? How can you be so blind? It's so obvious!" Believe me, I've been there.

So why can't they see? Are Christians inherently dumb? Absolutely not. They have a very good reason to refute every argument a skeptic can muster: "He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted." - John 12:40

This verse is all the evidence any Christian needs to ignore our arguments. God exists. That's a fact, and anyone who claims otherwise is either blind to the truth, or in denial (If you're a non-believer, I'm sure you have had someone tell you matter-of-factly that you really do believe in God--you're just denying his existence so you can do whatever you want).

Any argument coming from a non-believer is thus discredited before it begins: "Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith." - 1 Timothy 6:20-21

Our desire to debate is, in fact, a surfire sign that we are corrupt and conceited: "If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain." - 1 Timothy 6:3-5

The Bible is chucked full of verses that make it clear that all non-believers are evil, selfish, conceited, blind, lost and even stupid. For a few (hundred) examples, just do a quick search for the word "understand."
If, despite all of these warnings to tune us out, you are able to break through and get a believer to admit a logical flaw in their faith (such as the trinity, the incompatibility of omniscience and omnipotence, the immovable mover, etc.) there is the powerful final line of defense: "We cannot understand the nature of God."

Christianity has built a powerful wall to defend every believer's faith. When a believer puts up the defense, it is simply impenetrable.

Therefore, the only way for faith to be defeated is if believers willingly open themselves up to skeptics, seeking honest answers to their doubts. But these doubts have to come from the inside. And for those internal attacks, religions have also devised some pretty crafty defenses.

Defending Against Internal Attacks

Some people are more than willing to accept something on blind faith, and for these people a religion only needs to provide the above-mentioned defenses from external skeptics. But other people are naturally inquisitive, and while they may be invulnerable to external skeptics, they will eventually begin to ask their own questions.

If you're like me and have abandoned a religion after once being a believer, it is painfully obvious to you that no major religion stands up to honest doubt and objective inquiry. For a religion to survive, then, it must have an effective way of stifling these doubts and questions.

There are two very effective ways to do this. The first way is to demonize doubt itself. Islam uses this path almost exclusively--to doubt Allah's existence is to commit blasphemy. Christianity condemns doubt to a certain extent as well, but more often uses a second method of deterrence. When a Christian begins expressing doubt, they will usually encounter a response like this Christian's advice, whose essence can be seen in this paragraph:

"In my own earlier struggles as to God’s very existence, it really came down to realizing that my struggle was against unseen evil spirits that were constantly saying, "Has God said?" In other words, it was the same old lie that the devil gave to Eve in the garden. It worked then, and it works now. But, there is no basis of truth in it! The bible is both logical, verifiably accurate, and true in every aspect of life. In short, there is nothing in it that should make us doubt. The real problem is the whispering of the devil(s)."

Christian counselers are less likely to condemn you for doubting. Like "Brother Dean" here, they will assure you that doubt is human. We are weak, and easily tempted. Evil forces pounce on this weakness, and we must pray to God for strength.

Many Christians will even claim that their doubt brings them closer to God, precisely because they have to call on him for the strength to get past their doubts. This should make perfect sense to an outsider: the more doubts you squelch by writing them off as a test, the more reason you have to believe that God exists. After all, if your faith is strong enough to overcome Satan's lies, you must have a pretty good thing going.

While doubt is not directly condemned by most churches, persistent doubt will punch you a one-way ticket to Hell. If you begin to find yourself doubting your faith, that's okay, you're only human...but you better make sure you rid yourself of that doubt as fast as you possibly can. Whenever I questioned my faith as a teen, I was told that I needed to pray for God to lift that doubt, and if my prayers weren't working that meant that something in my life was creating a sort of spiritual barrier between God and me. So doubt itself wasn't a sin, but it meant that there was some other sin in my life. In an indirect way, as long as I was living in doubt, I was living in sin.

I'm sure that I am not the only person who has been taught this reasoning. It was thoroughly convincing to me in high school and I was a smart kid. I cringe when I hear atheists call Christians stupid or gullible, because I understand just how strong the defense against external and internal attacks can be.

What's Left For Atheists?

Assume for a second that I'm completely right, and the only way to "deconvert" from Christianity (or any other religion) is for the individual to bravely embrace doubt and begin a personal search for Truth. Is there still something atheists can do to combat the destructive force of religion? Damn right there is; enough to keep us busy for several lifetimes.

First and foremost, I am not suggesting that people stop making logical and scientific arguments against religion. When believers embrace their doubt, they will seek answers, so those answers better well be out there. Personally, I started doubting God's existence a few years ago, but it wasn't until I read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion that I became confident in my non-belief (weird as it seems, I first proclaimed myself an atheist less than a year ago). With each succeeding generation, there seems to be more and more genuine doubt. Christians see this as the corruption of society; I genuinely see it as an opportunity to save humanity (that seems extreme, I know, but it's how I see it). But the arguments that have convinced me and so many of you need to be readily available for every skeptic to come.

While I think that dedicated believers' faith cannot be changed, public policy based on those beliefs can and should be attacked. As skeptics, it is our duty to keep religion (especially creationism and ID) out of our schools and governments, fight for equal rights, and promote unhindered scientific research.

When you think about it, we are lucky to have minds inquisitive enough to break the spell, to borrow Daniel Dennett's phrase. We really are not very different from many adament believers other than our nature to ask a few more questions. Going public with our non-belief and continuing to live our lives is probably one of the strongest moves for change we can make. The more public atheists become, the more evident it becomes that we are not hopeless, immoral heathens who find no meaning in life.

In fact, we might even find that we all--believers and non-believers--have a lot in common. If we embrace a human community, there will be less of a need to form religious communities. But yikes, that's getting into a whole other topic...for another day.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

My conversation with God

ME (coming to in a haze): Holy shit, am I dead?

God: You’re not dead. I just needed to talk to you.

ME: Who the fuck are you?

God: I’m God.

ME: Really? I mean…really?

God: Yes, you were wrong. I exist.

ME: Oh, fuck me. How is this possible? There’s no way…

God: Look, I’m not here to convince you that I exist. I’m sitting right in front of you, so that should do the trick.

ME: I must be dreaming…

God: Your not dreaming. Here, I’ll use my powers to convince you (folds his arms and bops his head).

ME: Wow, I’m not dreaming. You’re real.

God: Real as Jonah living in the belly of a whale. Now we’ve got some things to talk about.

ME: What kind of things?

God: Well, you’ve been convincing people that I don’t exist. I’m not too happy about that.

ME: Okay. Point taken. You exist. My bad.

God: Well, I’m glad to hear you so readily admit that. Now go and preach my word.

ME: Hold on a second. Can I ask you a few questions?

God: Hmm, all right, a couple. Don’t take too long though; I’ve got a cancer patient to cure.

ME: Well, it’s just…why all the pain and suffering?

God: That’s your own damn fault!

ME: Who, me?

God: Well, all of you humans. You shouldn’t have sinned.

ME: But you created us. And since you’re omnipotent, you created us knowing that we were going to sin. So how is it our fault? I mean, if you already know everything that’s going to happen ever, how do we even have free will?

God: HA! You humans and your logic. You think that your logic reveals the truth of the universe?

ME: Well, I can’t see any other way. I mean, you created us this way…

God: Your logic is flawed. It’s designed to lead you to lies. Reality does not conform to human logic.

ME: Well, no offense, but why did you create us with a mental system that would lead us to conclude you don’t exist?

God: Because the only way you can be truly saved is through faith.

ME: Why?

God: What do you mean, why? That’s just the way it is.

ME: But you’re god (er, God)…couldn’t you have made it different? If you really want us all to be “saved” couldn’t you have made the path to salvation a little bit more within our nature?

God: Again with your logic…I’m telling you, logic only works when you are deciding which car you should buy…and even then, it’s not so good.

ME: Well in your illogical universe, how is killing babies and raping women okay? Because you supposedly told your people to do that. Is there any way you could explain the rationality behind that decision to me?

God: Oh, you go to Hell.

ME: That’s another thing! You’re the all-powerful god (er, God). What’s with the eternal suffering and gnashing of teeth and all that? I mean, conceivably, you could just discontinue the existence of non-believers. Wouldn’t that be a more reasonable-

God: I wasn’t kidding! You go to Hell, NOW!

(God zaps me with his lightning-bolt fingers and I fall into the depths of Hell)

ME (as I’m falling into Hell): God’s an asshoooooooooooooooole!

I actually went on to have quite a pleasant life in Hell. The place has gotten a lot of bad rep, but then again, so did Milwaukee and I loved it there. Satan’s a pretty cool gal (yeah, Satan’s a chick). She got sick of God calling all the shots and generally being a dick (who wouldn’t?) so she decided to bail. She’s turned Hell into a five-star resort, let me tell you…our minds are completely free here, we smoke the best pot and have better sex than you can possibly imagine. And EVERYONE in baseball uses steroids here, so the playing field is leveled out (at a much higher level).
Those suckers in heaven are slaving away for some jerk, and I’m down here having the time of my life. God existing is the greatest thing that ever happened to me.

Digital Reading (The Amazon Kindle)

It's been four months since the Amazon Kindle was released (and four months since I read about it in Newsweek) and I am still completely torn on whether I will buy one once the price goes down a bit. I know that in the long run it would save me a ton of time and money, since I buy books like a junkie buys dope. Thus, every reasonable bone in my body says it would be a great investment. But I have my doubts on whether it would be worth it.

Of course, like just about every other bookworm, I am worried that I will not be able to "curl up" with a Kindle, and reading just won't be the same. And it's depressing to think of a life without trips to the bookstore, sampling endless authors' minds while sitting on a leather couch and sipping on chai tea. I enjoy shopping for books almost as much as I love reading them.

But the biggest reason I can't see myself owning a Kindle at this point is that I know it would become my most valued possession by far. That is a scary notion for me because I have never valued any posession all that much. When I was asked the common question, "If your house was on fire and you could save just one thing, what would it be?" I never knew how to answer since "my library" doesn't count as one thing. My things just aren't worth that much to me. The only possessions I have ever valued have been my books. And my indifference for my possessions has always been a source of great pride for me.

If I owned a Kindle, it would be worth slightly less than my son, and if it were lost, broken or stolen, I would be devastated. I would cry. I would stop eating. I would be an absolute mess.

Now, I don't know if Amazon has a backup of your purchased books; I'm sure they do, or that they will create one. That would eliminate some of the above-mentioned problems, but the Kindle itself is still an expensive piece of equipment, and in order to retrieve your books you would have to buy a new one.

So just be careful with it, right? Well, that creates even more problems. Books are not meant to be handled like fine jewelry. Books are meant to be carried around in your back pocket. Books are meant to be left on coffee tables, constantly in danger of becoming the victim of a spilt drink. Books are meant to be lost in the covers when you fall asleep reading them. You know a book is good when it's littered with coffee stains and the cover is reattached with scotch tape.

So, personally, I can't see myself ever owning a Kindle, despite how much money it would save me. This doesn't mean it won't happen, because I change my mind about all kinds of things all the time. But at this point in my life, I don't see the value in owning one.

All of that said, I think it's a wonderful invention. Hopefully it will motivate a new generation to re-discover the book.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

You're not perfect, and neither is your brain

First, let me apologize for my recent absence. I have been having problems with my internet connection, and realizing just how lost and disconnected I feel without it.

The plus side of my internet-less-ness is that I have been able to read books at an even faster pace than usual. (By the way, I found a new favorite fictional writer, Haruki Murakami). Two books that I have recently read have been stuck on my mind: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson; and Predictable Irrationality, by Dan Ariely.

The basic premises of these books, respectively, are that our brains instinctively justify bad decisions, foolish beliefs and hurtful actions and that we are not nearly as rational as we like to think we are.

The overriding thought that has stuck with me is that our brains are not the flawless, reliable machines that we often view them as. Whether it’s being suckered into paying $3.00 for a cup of coffee after years of paying 50 cents (an example in Predictable Irrationality) or falsely convincing yourself that you are a holocaust survivor (an example in Mistakes Were Made), our brains deceive us pretty frequently.

The more I understand how my brain is flawed, the more I realize the importance of this realization. Our brains evolved according to what was advantageous in our environment. But with the rapid change in environment brought on in the past few thousand years, a lot of our brains mechanisms are simply outdated.

The best example I can think of is our love for sugar and calories. In our hunter/gatherer days, the rare source of sugar provided a much-needed boost of energy and we learned to pack in as many calories as we could when they were available because we never knew when our next meal would be. In today’s first world countries, food is overly abundant and we rarely have to worry about where our next meal will come from. Yet our love for sugar and calories persists, and as a result we’re fat as hell and dying of heart diseases, diabetes and an endless list of other health complications due to our inability to curb this evolutionary addiction.

Now this is just my personal experience and it may not apply to everyone, but I have found that the best way to resist this temptation is to understand why I am so drawn to Snickers bars and fried chicken. By understanding that my desire for these things is irrational, and understanding why that irrational desire exists, I am much less likely to succumb to those desires. Of course, every once in a while I still break down and devour an entire pizza by myself, but I understand that I am succumbing to an outdated addiction and make sure that it is only occasional.

But this post is not exclusively about dieting tips. This mentality can be applied to just about every aspect of our lives. Don’t be so quick to dismiss someone’s story of events just because you remember it differently; our personal memories care very little for truth. Question whether that PlayStation3 is really worth $400 to you, or if that same money could be used for something that would make you happier (or someone else happier!); we have no internal gauge of value except in relation to other things. Question your actions from a third-person view, instead of your biased opinion; our brains will do anything they can to convince us that everything we do is right.

One of the most universal everyday goals of people is to make good decisions. We are constantly making decisions, and the more good decisions we make, the better we end up. I am absolutely convinced that one of the most vital tools to making good decisions is realizing that our brains are not perfect and taking its flaws into consideration in every important decision we make.