Monday, December 29, 2008

Michael Novak, Religion, and "Blicks"

I recently finished Michael Novak's book "No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers." One of the questions Novak seeks to answer in this very cordial book is, "Why do atheists and religionists scream past eachother? Why are arguments that are so convincing to the one never convincing to the other?"

I've often wondered this myself. I am quite read and "up on" the publications made by both the "new atheists" like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and the religious interlocutors like Chris Hedges and David Berlinski. In so being, I have noticed two things: (a) each side, whether deliberately or not, caricatures the other by misunderstanding the other's point of view; and (b) each side rehashes the same arguments that seem so convincing to them, but are never adequate to convince their opponents.

In attempt to explain this, Novak explicates an interesting concept, borrowed from philosopher RM Hare, but fleshed out by Novak himself: the concept of the blick.

In short, a blick is a worldview replete with necessary presuppositions. In Novak's words:

"A blick is part of an intellectual habit, the part that shapes one's pattern of judgment concerning what is real or not real, true or false, credible or lacking in credibility... A blick is a way of viewing reality that is not usually overturned by one or more pieces of countervailing evidence." (Kindle Edition, loc. 2267)

A blick is not only a set of propositions, but the groundrules each of us uses to decide what is to count as a valid proposition, and the type of phenomena which can be seen as evidentiary. A blick is not only, then, the view that god exists, but the belief that emotion and intuition be allowed as satisfactory undergirdling reason for the claim. On the flipside, a blick is more than the view that there is no evidence for god, but includes that atheist's 'groundrule' that only what may be observed can be existentially real.

To make it even more direct, my fiancee is earning her masters in Professional Writing with a specialization in rhetoric. One rhetorical theory she was explaining to me - I don't recall its title - suggests that when one is seeking to argue to another, one needs to make sure that one is using the type of argument that the OTHER would find convincing. It does little good to argue that something is experimentally corroborable to a postmodernist with zero trust in science. It would also do little good to argue the morality of x because of its fit within a capitalistic framework to a socialist.

This is very close to the idea that, to be persuasive, one must attempt to argue within the matrix of the other person's blick, or else - as evidenced by the current debate between theists and atheists - you will talk right past eachother.

To my eyes, this makes much sense. Why do all of the books by 'new atheists' and their opponents seem to make the same arguments over and over again that are convincing to those making the arguments but never to their opponents? Becuase the arguments, more often than not, hinge on assumptions - presuppositions - that one side holds which the other side does not. God cannot be real because its existence cannot be verified? This will hold little sway to a religionist that imagine's god to be outside of space and time. Our strong intuition about the 'perfect fit' between us and the universe is excellent evidence that there must be a god? This will not do against the atheist that already dismisses intuition as evidence for an existential claim.

Interestingly, the rhetorician Stanley Fish has written on his blog about this very phenomenon. In an article called "Atheism and Evidence" he writes:

"What is and is not seen will vary with the faith within which observers look... Those who have not found the arguments of natural selection persuasive will not see what Dawkins and his colleagues see, not because they are blind and obstinate, but because as members of a different faith community – and remember, science requires faith too before it can have reasons – the evidence that seems so conclusive to the rational naturalists will point elsewhere." (paragraph 11)

The message that I, an atheist, take from all of this is, "Like it or not, we are all presuppositionalists." The biggest 'heat' that Fish took about this article was from atheists suggesting that there is no faith necessary to believe in science and/or atheism. Even as an atheist and believer in science, I beg to differ.

In order to be a believer in science you have to have several "faiths" (all of which, though, can be justified by their pragmatic efficacy). First, I have to believe that the scientific method is a reliable one for capturing the truth of things (even if I acknowledge that science is tentative, I have to believe that it's attempts are better than guesses.) I also have to believe in the integrity of the scientists and the enterprise; as many of the experiments done and results gotten are technically beyond my ken, I have to, contra some extreme theists, believe that the participants are not simply part of a grand conspiracy and can be trusted as truthful and ojective.

Lastly, in order to be an atheist that claims scientific grounds for my belief, I have to hold to the rule that that which is not testable cannot be claimed as an existant. In less philosophical terms, I have to hold that "God exists," is a testable claim that only pans out when god is detected via the senses, or that "God exists" is NOT a testable claim, in which case, it is beyond talking about.

This is my blick. And this explains why I find it infuriating to talk with the theist, as the theist doubtless finds it infuriating to talk with me. I cannot begin to enter into their mindset as I am sure they cannot begin to enter into mine. Our blicks are simply so deep and deeply rooted that oscillation between the two is difficult. (Generally converts "think themselves out of" one blick and enter into another, but this type of conversion is rare.)

The idea of the blick has helped me articulate a feeling I have always had about the difference between atheists and theists; we simply see the world and interpret experience differently. The theist regards their strong intuition of design, purpose, and goodness as evidence for God (where the atheist regards intuition as insufficient). The atheist regards the scientific evidence as making the "god hypothesis" unnecessary and absent-looking (while the theist rejects the use of sceintific reasoning as exhaustive of all there is). Either way, the two will seemingly never agree because they disagree on groundrules.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Letter from Senator Barb

Recently, I wrote a fairly angry letter to my Maryland Senator, Barbara Mikulski (D). She "wrote" me back recently (sending my fiancee the same letter, which leads me to suspect that - gasp! - Barb did not actually write the thing.)

Below are excerpts from her letter followed by the reasons why she is wrong on her "points."

We need to do everything we can to save jobs during these difficult economic times. I am a champion of the jobs in the automobile industry. I don't champion an industry. I champion the jobs in the industry. I will do all I can to save these jobs.

What we have here is a misunderstanding of markets. "Saving the jobs" is much different than "saving the whales" in the sense that while the latter is a finite group that can die out completely, the former is not a finite group. If jobs are lost in the auto industry, others will very well open up to 'take their place.' More specifically, if Ford goes under (and their suppliers follow suit), other car companies (Toyota, Honda, Hyundai) will experience an upsurge in consumer demand (from former Ford customers). Thus, those companies would need to hire more people.

The basic idea here is that when jobs close, other jobs tend to open. If a person gets laid off, that person can look for another job and more often than not, will find one. Nor does the found job HAVE to be in the same field as the lost job. When linotypist jobs dried up (because the advance in computer technology made the physical printing press methods obsolete), jobs in the computer market opened up. Linotypists simply went out and computer typesetting came in.

Of course, it can be argued that a recession (or depression) will likely mean that fewer jobs are created to replace the dying jobs. Certainly it is true that if the Failing Three go under, the number of jobs created at other auto companies to 'fill the void' may not be as many as jobs that were lost.

But the ultimate point is that we are achieving nothing by delaying the inevitable, postponing the death of companies that have been near death for years.

The responsible economic decision is to let companies succeed and fail on their own, and if this means that there are fewer jobs as a result, then this is the the economy's way of saying that production is outstripping consumption and that a scale-down is needed. If Ford has more hired help than their revenue will support, then it does little good to 'prop up' those jobs by forcing tax payers to support what the economy will not support on its own. (It is better to let those jobs die and let the market, not the government, command how many jobs are created to take their place, and where.)

It seems to me that the big bias here is not against losing jobs, but losing jobs in AMERICAN companies. I fail to see, though, any justice in forcing the taxpayers to subsidize companies that offer inferior products to foreign counterparts, if Americans have demonstrated that they would rather buy the cars of the foreign counterparts. Economic protectionism, whether it be in the form of subsidies or 'bail-outs,' do not do anything to "protect" consumers, Barb!

The American automobile industry is one of the biggest drivers of the U.S. economy. One out of every 10 jobs in America is auto-related. The American automobile industry is one of the biggest drivers of the U.S. economy. One out of every 10 jobs in America is auto-related. A collapse of GM, Ford or Chrysler, would cripple the American economy, given the huge network of suppliers, dealers, and other businesses and communities that would be affected., given the huge network of suppliers, dealers, and other businesses and communities that would be affected.

I have no idea where this stat was found, but let's assume it is accurate. 1 in 10 equals 10%, and while that is a fair percentage, it stil leaves 90% of the economy unscathed. Second, even if 1 in 10 jobs are auto-related, that does not mean that all of these jobs are linked to Ford, Chrysler, and GM. (Many foreign companies do a lot of their production in the US and utilize American parts.)

Once we get beyond that, though, I cannot figure that what Mikulski says, that a "collapse of GM, Ford or Chrysler, would cripple the American economy, given the huge network of suppliers, dealers, and other businesses and communities that would be affected." Frankly, the only persons I have heard say this are politicians and auto lobbyists.

Now, I COULD imagine the economy being significantly crippled by the going-under of Wal-mart, Target, and Kohls. Think of all the businesses that depend on these retailers for the majority, if not the totality, of their business. Now, ask yourself whether you think that three car companies who fail to turn a profit year after year would have anything CLOSE to the same type of effect on the economy.

As for suppliers, dealers, and other businesses, that rely on the Failing Three, it is true that some may struggle and see a decrease in business. First, that is simply the nature of business. When you depend on other companies to buy your products and those companies struggle, so will you. But beyond this, it is like I said before. Any gaps left by the failing of the Failing Three will quickly be filled by other companies. Thus, I cannot imagine that many companies that rely on Ford, Chrysler, and GM will not find new acquaintance with other car manufacturers who suddenly witness a spike in demand.

Next to the purchase of your home, the purchase of your automobile is your next big ticket. And if you buy a car, someone's got to make them, someone's got to sell them, and someone has to service them.

True! But it only proves my point, not Barb's! When it comes to cars, someone has to make them, someone has to make parts for them, and someone has to service them. So, if the Failed Three go under, other companies will take their place. If suppliers cannot sell their parts to the Failed Three, then they may end up selling to other companies that pick up the slack left by the Failed Three. And companies that once repaired Fords might now try and repair Fords and Hondas.

Leave it to politicians to prove the opposition's point in such rhetorical way as to mistake it for proving their own!

That's why I've introduced legislation that would make interest payments on car loans and state sales tax on cars tax-deductible for new cars purchased between November 12, 2008 and December 31, 2009.

A bail-out coupled with a tariff?! Double whammy. Wlhat if the consumers would rather buy a Honda (as they have shown). If the consumer decides in a way that disagree's with Barb's preferences, she will do what is in her power to induce them to make a different decision. Economics by fiat.

Knowing of your views was helpful to me, and I will keep them in mind as Congress continues to address the current state of the automobile industry

Do YOU believe her?

Nice going, Barb.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How To Enjoy Music - the Authoratitive Explanation!

In the middle of 2005, I reviewed Philip Glass's ablum North Star on The album, consisting of short pieces with keyborads, winds, and voice, was recorded in the late 1970's and as such, the recording is quite dated. The lack of a sync track, in particular, made for a very discombobulated recording (particularly with as many syncopated rythms as the pieces have). Because of this, I gave the CD a mixed review (3 of 5 stars).

Recently, an amazon shopper has left an interesting comment on my review. He suggests that I, and other listeners, should "prefer the magic of being fully engaged in the listening experience instead of merely critiquing a performance." His suggests that " inspiration and creativity should trump a less than perfect performance," because an overperfect execution may well result in music that is sterile and less-than-human.

Let me be the first (maybe not the first, but certainly not the last) to say that I agree with much that this critic says. I would much rather hear a flawed but beautifully soulful piece of music than a perfectly crafted piece by John Cage or Arnold Schoenberg. I could not imagine Tom Waits sounding as good if he were over-produced and lost the soulful grit in his voice.

But I do think that this critic takes things too far. First off, inspiration and creativity do not AWLAYS trump musicianship and technicality. No matter how creative the tune or original the melody, it can be performe4d well and it can be performed poorly. I could not imagine hearing Allen Hovanhess's Guitar Concerto's (a recent favorite) performed by a high-school band...and saying that Hovanhess's originality and creativity were able to overcome a dismal execution. And I have heard some great jazz tunes positively botched by inept soloists and accompanists. Thus, I have to say that while originality DOES often trump poor execution, to say that it ALWAYS does is an overstatement (as are so many things that use the word "always").

The main thing that struck me about this critic's crtiticism is his thought that by "merely critiquing a performance," I somehow could not have been "fully engaged in the listening experience."

I never realized that these two things - listening to a performance and critiquing the performance - were mutually exclusive things. In fact, I cannot see how paying attention to musical execution does anything but ENHANCE the listening experience. Look at any liner notes to any classical or jazz CD in existence and you will see not only a rundown of the compositions, but detailed attention to the performance. And as any music composer knows (I was a songwriting major at Berklee College of Music in my younger days), a composition is absolutely only as good as the performance of it. If it is played poorly, then for purposes of that performance, it IS poor.

So, while I see the author's point that one does not want to OVERanalyze a peformance - that can certainly get in the way of appreciating the music holistically - I don't see how one can be "fully engaged in the listening experience" while not paying good attention to the performance. In the case of Philip Glass's North Star CD, the music definitely suffered because of performance-based things like the lack of a click-track and some less-than-stellar vocals. Were I only judging Glass's score, I would say that critiquing the performance is besides the point. Since I was listening to a sound recording, I felt that I must appraise not only the score, but the recording of the sounds.

So to anyone who might suggest that the "listening experience" should not include appraising the performance of the music, I would suggest that this is much like trying to think about the "reading experience" with a blind eye to an author's ability to write.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Religious Case for Gay Marriage - A critical response

Last week, Newsweek sported a cover story to do with “The Religious Case for Gay Marriage.” I wanted to like this story. As a libertarian, I am appalled that the State feels that one of its proper duties is to sanction and encourage one type of partnership among consenting adults while obstructing others strictly because of a moral objection. (“Gay marriage is icky!!”) And as a non-believer, “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” does nothing to convince me that its utterers are capable of spelling, let alone, explaining their statement.

But anyone wanting to convince the unconvinced that the Bible does not frown on homosexuality will face a problem; the Bible DOES frown on homosexuality… in several difference passages. [] This tiny fact makes the read very awkward: like someone trying to convince me that the “Eat Whatever You Want” diet works, I want to agree with it, but my brain won’t let me.

The author’s case can be summed up like this: while the Bible may seem to condemn homosexual marriage, it should not be taken literally. It’s anti-homosexual message owes more towards the customs of the PEOPLE that wrote it, than any real truth. To use the author’s own words: “A mature view of scriptural authority requires us, as we have in the past, to move beyond literalism. The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it's impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours.”

To an atheist like myself, such a tact was predictable. In fact, I remember thinking to myself before reading the article that I hope the author would not pull the old, “The Bible doesn’t mean what it says,” line. Well, she did. What about the Apostle Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality as an “abomination?” it is “is really a critique of the worst kind of wickedness: self-delusion, violence, promiscuity and debauchery” and not homosexuality (as it says). What of the Book of Common Prayer’s mention of marriage as between “the man and the woman?” “Common practices change.”

The author "bolsters" her case by pointing out that in the Bible, "the concept of family is fundamental, but examples of what social conservatives would call "the traditional family" are scarcely to be found." True enough! Polygamy was all over the Old Testament. Jesus was (despite rough speculation to the contrary) willfully non-married. And beyond that, "[t]he Bible endorses slavery, a practice that Americans now universally consider shameful and barbaric. It recommends the death penalty for adulterers (and in Leviticus, for men who have sex with men, for that matter). It provides conceptual shelter for anti-Semites. A mature view of scriptural authority requires us, as we have in the past, to move beyond literalism. " Thus, anyone who argues that scripture condems homosexuality are taking the Bible at its word, and (as evidenced by the above moral missteps in the Bible) doing that would be taking a human-produced document as Divine Law.

Now, I am not fan of the Biblical literalist Ken Ham, but I remember something he said once that might help us here. On the PBS series " Evolution, Ham was asked why he fights so hard to prove the Creation story of the Bible contra evolution and modern physics. His answer: if the Bible gets it wrong on the origin of the universe, species, and humans, then is there any reason to believe that it gets it right about morality? (Of course, Ham and I have VERY different answers to this rhetorical question!)

His point is my point in reverse: if we believe our Newseek author, the Bible got it wrong about slavery, punishment for adultery, and homosexuality. Is there ANY reason, then, to suppose that the Bible got it right about any other moral pronouncements, let alone metaphysical statements? (If so, it must be explained how we know what sections are correct when we know that other sections are wrong.)

So, if the author is correct and the Bible is a human-made document created by human minds to give voice to their version of how things should morally be, then why should I not just get my morals from Aesop's Fables? By telling us that the Bible's moral proclomations are made by humans, rather than God, then why do we have any reason to suppose that it is correct in any moral capacity?

All of this is deeply strange because we constantly hear people claiming that the Bible is a moral guide and/or authority. When pastors give sermons that wax about the teachings of Jesus, we are told that Jesus - the authority - is telling us how we should live (rather than that a guy who lived many thousands of years ago is offering his debatable opinions). The author herself suggests that, "We cannot look to the Bible as a marriage manual, but we can read it for universal truths as we struggle toward a more just future." Read: while we should realize that the Bible has gotten quite a few ethical proclomations dead-nuts wrong, we need to realize that the Bible has much to offer us in moral wisdom. But, how can we say that the Bible gets a lot wrong ethically while claiming that the Bible can lead us towards "univeral truths" in ethics? The author does not say.

I have an idea on that, though. I believe that the very fact that we can say, "The Bible got it wrong here," MEANS that our sense of morality is indepenent of what is said in the Bible. The author is correct in suggesting that "we struggle towards a more just future," but is wrong to suggst that we do, or should, read the Bible in our quest. Instead of reading the Bible to help us progress morally, what we more likely do is progress morally and then read the Bible and cherry-pick those quotes that can "justify" our new moral positions. (A great instance of this is that during the Civil War, both the abolitionists and the pro-slavery forces quoted the Bible and held that theirs was the Biblically-endorsed position. In reality, no one got their moral views on slavery from the Bible; rather, they only used the Bible to justify their already-held opinions.)

Lastly, the author points out that Jesus's overriding message was that of acceptance and inclusion. "The practice of inclusion, even in defiance of social convention, the reaching out to outcasts, the emphasis on togetherness and community over and against chaos, depravity, indifference—all these biblical values argue for gay marriage."

I think this is simplistic. While it is commonplace today to suggest that Jesus's love is unconditional, it does not take much to see through this. Jesus's love WAS conditional; conditional on acceptance of him as the son of God. And I have heard many a anti-homosexual Christian argue, Jesus may be accepting towards those who love him, but one could not be gay and love Jesus at the same time (as these folks believe that loving Jesus means repenting for sin, and repenting for sin means renouncing one's gayness). I disagree with these folks passionately, but it is hard to see the flaw in their logic.

To close, it seems to me that the Newsweek author is pushing the same "pick and choose" Christianity that most Christians today practice. (It would be awfully hard not to, considering the idiocy of the alternative of literalism). The problem is that she will not do much convincing with this,. Biblical literalists have heard the "Bible is a document written by fallible humans" before, and they don't seem to be buying it. The only people, then, who will be receptive to her arguments are those who are likely ALREADY non-literalists who do not need convincing.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Are There Objective Criteria for Evaluating Art?

A friend of mine, Benjamin Hayek, and I are engaged in a discussion on his blog. One of the side issues brought up there is whether or not there are objective standards for evaluating art (or anything for that matter.) Ben believes there are objective rights and wrongs in terms of evaluating art. I don't. So as not to sidetrack the debate on his blog by exploring this side issue there, I will say something on it here.

On the blog, he writes: "Indeed, I believe that it is almost always an easy task to weight one peice of art against another, such as deciding the value of Jacques-Lious David's The Death of Socrates (1787) (which is one of my very favorites) vs. Andres Serrano's award-winning Piss Christ (1987), or comparing the complete works of Smetana to those of Snoop-Dogg. There is good art and bad art."

Of course, he does not go on to outlay the objectively correct criteria for judging Smetana superior to Snoop Dog or The Death of Socrates superior to Piss Christ. And if he did, my suggestion would be that those are simply the criteria he prefers. Two people disagreeing on art are most likely the result of (a) the two people chossing different critieria to judge the competing works by; or (b) the two people agreeing on the same critieria to look at but disagreeing as a matter of taste about who meets the criteria more.

Let me give an example here. Benjamin's musician of choice is Smetana. My musician of choice (if I have to name just one!) is Esbjorn Svensson, the recently decesased jazz pianist from Sweden.

Now the music of Smetana and Svennson are quite, quite different. Smetana's music is a very Slovakian flavored romantic concert music with a lot of heavy string orchestration, meandering melodies and lush exploration. Svensson is very multi-dimensional jazz drawing on bebop, electronic, and minimalistic influences - terse and frequently-repeating melodies, sparse melody lines, and no real "orchestration" to speak of.

Now, I am not sure how in the world Ben and I, when disagreeing over the superior musician or works, could come up with any type of objective criteria for adjudicating. In fact, the two styles of music are so completely different that it is difficult to figure out what their commonalities are aside from being performed in a Western 12 note scale.

But even if we chose music that is more similar (I will now pick Allen Hovhaness to his Smetana so that both are in the classical orchestrative tradition), Ben and I will doubtless disagree on the criteria for choosing who is superior. Hovhaness is shamelessly tonal, avoids modulation quite studiously, very Eastern in influence, and - many would say - boringly minimalistic. Smetana is very much the opposite of all of these.

Quite simply, I think the best we can do is judge one of the other superior BY CHOOSING A CRITIERIA SET ARBITRARILY and sticking to it. But it must be acknowledged that in music, or any art, there are too many criteria one can judge by to think that one criterion or set of criteria is the default best one to go with.

I think the fact that Ben says it is "an easy task" to weigh one against the other means that, when only he is doing the judging, it is easy to agree with himself that Smetana is better than Snoop Dog. Were he to have to defend his choice to a hip hop connoiseur, and he would quickly realize how non-easy the task is, and in turn, how relative his criteria for decision was.

Interesting Talk With a Pastor

Last night, my fiancee and I went to a Christmas party with members of her church. I had a most interesting conversation with the Pastor, who ws at the Christmas party. Before I share, let me give those who don't know, some background info.

I am an atheist; my fiancee is a liberal Lutheran. She sings in the church band, and I volunteer my drumming services for the band. Thus, I am an atheist who goes to church every week. I have gotten to know the church members quite well and they know me quite well. I don't make my atheism a secret but always remain respectul and careful not to needlessly offend anyone.

I have had many a conversations with the Pastor of the church, a very nice woman in her late twenties. Since we both love reading in theology and religion, our conversation was very pleasant but, unlike many other conversations we've had, this one got uncommonly deep.

The conversation started with her describing how she met her now-husband and me describing how I met my now-fiancee. The issue of religion came up, as she was curious to know how we handle the diifference in our beliefs. I responded by explaining that my fiancee and I are both very tolerant and mindful that different people will believe different things, and that neither of us have any desire to convert the other.

This got the pastor and I talking about atheism and Christianity. In particular, she expressed curiosity about my simulteneous atheism and fascination with religion. I love reading in religion and cannot fathom how one could be an atheist at all without knowing about religions (in order to be an atheist, you have to know enough about religions to reject them.) To me, religion is a human-invented belief system that cleverly "answers" all of life's major questions; how can one NOT be fascinated by such a sytem. How did we get here? Answered. What is life's purpose? Answered. Why does everything look so designed? Answered.

So how can I be, she wondered, an atheist who regards religion as having answered these questions? Quite simply by holding that religion's answers are too easy, I responded. "God did it," is an answer only insomuch as "Someone did it," is an answer to the question of how the airplane was invented. I can't help but feel that religion makes up its answers (without, of course, knowing that the answers were invented).

And here was a point of strange agreement between the Lutheran Pastor and myself: the human tendency is very much to AVOID being put in a position where one has to answer with "I don't know." To her Christian eyes, this is seen by all the people who claim knowledge of God that they couldn't possibly have. ("Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? It would be pompous to say that we can know God's motivations.") To my atheist eyes, the same thing is evident in the Christian's appeal to God as a substitution to the dreaded "We don't really know the answer."

This is why, I think, most people are not atheists. It is the more strenuous and sometimes unsatisfying option because there are many things that we do not know the answers to. To say that the Big Bang is the reason why we are here is only to push the "But what created..." question back one step. And if we answer the question of what created the big bang, we have only succeeded in pushing the question back ANOTHER step, ad infinitum. To be an atheist - at least one who takes science seriously - is to be forced to admit that there will ALWAYS be many unanswered questions. And I think that part of the reason for religion's popularity is the unwillingness of many people to handle not knowing (much less ADMITTING their lack of knowledge).

The conversation ended very interestingly, with her admitting that my presence in church has, at least occasionally, made her think about her sermons differently. (I wonder how Kevin would respond to this? I wonder if this would anger him?). Of course, I told her that this should not be a concern, as I am a 'guest' in the church, and her responsibility is to speak to members. (She objected, pointing out that the very nature of being an 'evangelical' is to evangelize., but understood my point.)

In the spirit of honesty, I told her of the one recurring message in her (and her colleage's) sermons that "gets at me." We often hear in sermons the idea of the "nonbeliever who has turned away from god," or of "those who fail to acknoweldge your presence." As a life-long atheist, I wanted to point out to her that the common idea that the atheist as one who refuses to recognize the obviousness of God, or one who turns away from a God they refuse to admit is there, is wrong. In my experience, atheists are ones who simply do not believe there is a God to turn away from. Much like a disbeliever in unicorns, a disbeliever in God is simply a person who does not see any good evidence to believe in a deity that sounds very made up.

After hearing this, she acknowledged my point, but pointed out that "the nonbeliever who has turned away from God" is generally meant to apply to the type of "believer" who doesn't believe, so much as follows certain traditions by rote without the Passion - the believer who goes to church when it is convenient and only follows God when it is easy or in their immediate interest to do so.

We ended this way: both of us have a healthy respect for the other. In this pastor, I see a woman who holds her beliefs with passion tempered by a healthy ackowledgement that others can believe differently. She has made a life where she can share her beliefs and passion with others, and obviosuly is very happy in this endeavor. I think she respects me for much the same reason; I am passionate but respectful in my beliefs whle still taking tremendous joy in the plurality that comes from different people being free to make up their own minds.

If only every conversation could be as enriching, enjoyable, and fruitful as the one between a Lutheran pastor and an atheist.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Reasons Why the $17.4 Billion Bailout Pisses Me Off!

Apparently, our boy George W. is making good use of his lame duck status.. Today, he decided to give a $17.4 Billion dollar bailout to the 3 big failing auto manufacturers.

How does this enrage me? Let me count the ways.

(1) I am not sure how our country got so far off track that the federal government can be used as a money lender to companies just becuase they are friendly with politicians!

(2) If the auto companies are going under, that is their own fault and a sign that they are not generating sufficient revenue to maintain their costs. It sounds to me like the consumers have already decided that these companies need not be around. (If they thought otherwise, the companies would not be in serious financial straits.)

(3) It is absolutely absurd that a bill which failed in the senate can be simply revamped as an executive order (fiat) by the president. (Nowhere in our constitution is there allowance for executive orders; making laws is what the legislature is for!) If the president can command anything s/he wants into law, then what is the whole point of congress??!

(4) Bush states that the motivation for this bailout (handout, you mean?) is a failing and ailing economy? If that is so, what sense does it make to take money from most of us to give to an isolated few that - it seems to me - have been offering the general public nothing that they want to buy for years? (It would be like giving money to companies that produce nothing and arguing that the justification for doing so is the saving of jobs. THAT only helps the economy if the jobs being saved are economically beneficial. Since no one is buying Fords, I can't see how saving the jobs of Ford's employees is helping the economy.)

(5) Per what the House and Senate talked about, this bailout (er...handout?) comes with strings attached. Barack Obama said, for instnace:

"The auto companies must not squander this chance to reform bad management practices and begin the long-term restructuring that is absolutely necessary to save this critical industry and the millions of American jobs that depend on it, while also creating the fuel efficient cars of tomorrow."

Can you read between those lines? Obama is saying that now that we are paying these companies good money, they are expected to do (x), (y) and (z). How are we so far gone that government officials are telling businesses how to run??

(6) Haven't we already given enough government "loans" (loans in theory, as they have never and will never be paid back) to the auto industry? It is time to give up. If they can't make it by now, they CAN'T MAKE IT!

Those are a few of the ways in which the bailout (there I go again, misspeaking) makes no sense and actually hurts the American tax-payers (the ones who are struggling in a bad economy and AREN'T recieving their own bailouts because they can't afford to give government officials gifts).

To close, Bush suggests that "The time to make hard decisions to become viable is now, or the only option will be bankruptcy." Maybe what he should have said was, "The time to make hard decisions to become viable is long past and the only option IS bankruptcy."

But then again, he never was too good at that economics thing.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

50 Rules Kids Won't Learn in School (review)

Bel0w is one of my recent reviews of Charles Sykes recent book, "50 Rules Kids Won't Learn in School: Real-World Antidotes to Feel-Good Education" [


I work as a high-school special educator and, as such, I can attest to two things: that the advice offered in these pages is GREAT for teenagers, and that they certianly WILL NOT learn it in school! Today's youth grows up an in an "entitlement" world where the prevailing view of self-esteem is "feeling good for no good reason," rather than "earning the right to feel good." They grow up in a fantastical world where they can have instant satisfaction without going though the rigors of hard work that NO ONE is telling them is fantastical. Except for Charles Sykes.

While this book is a collection of maxims such as "Life is not fair. Get used to it," followed by several-page elaborations, the themes of this book can be summed up thusly: live modestly, accept that hard work needs to be put in to get anything out, and live with the knowledge that to get ahead in anything, you have to earn it. Sykes writes in simple and direct language that, while likely meant for adults to read, the average high-schooler could easily absorb.

To be honest, I would love to use this with some of my classes, discussing with them such ideas as "You're not going to the NBS, so hold off on the bling and spare us the attitude," or "You are not immortal" (just two of the mythes prevalent with the high-school crowd that this book so correctly corrects). Students need to hear it, and teachers (and parents) need to say it. I doubt, though, that I would be able to get very far with some of them ("Looking like a slut does not empower you," and "No, you cannot be everything you dream," may get me in trouble with parents.)

Even so, it doesn't mean that YOU can't teach YOUR kids this stuff, and I highly reccomend that you do. If you don't, they certainly aren't going to learn it somewhere like school!

Special Educators as Professional Enablers

It is a unique feeling to feel as strongly as I do that the field I am working in is destined to implode. I have this thought most frequently at IEP meetings (where we discuss the special ed 'services' that a child will recieve from the school).

Why do I feel this, and why at the IEP meetings in particular? Because it is there where we discuss whether to read tests to kids that have trouble reading, give calculators to kids that struggle with math, and figure out other various ways to garauntee that students never have to deal with or learn in those areas where they are doing poorly.

Now, what, you say, is wrong with giving a struggler in math a calculator? Because that simple act virtually ensures that the child will never actually have to learn the math she dose not understand. One can (a) learn what "2x2" is and how to perform the act mentally, or one can learn simply that to multiply two times two, one simply plugs in "2x2" into a calculator to retrieve the result. The former way teaches how to understand multiplication (so that when one does it on a calculator, the doer can explain what is being done). The latter does nothing to improve a child's number sense. It only teaches her how to perform steps she has no idea the purpose of.

Well, I am sorry to say that when a high schooler that does not understand decimals (in many cases precisely BECAUSE they learned on a calculator, rather than having the arithmetic concepts explained to them), us teachers decide to throw up our hands and let the student have her way. She will never again have to learn anything about math aside from how to plug in numbers into a calculator.

It gets worse. When a student comes to high school reading on a low level - and don't ask me how someone on a third-grade reading level can even get to high school! - we offer them a bevy of accomodations that ensure that they will not have to actually read things. We offer to read tests and quizzes for them, we offer them the use of software that can read their entire text-book orally, we give them audiobooks of the novel the students are working on in English 10. Anything to get 'em through! (And I am not sure it is entirely fair to give a student a grade in English class who did not actually read, but listened to, the book that everyone else had to read. But such is "differentiated educaiton.")

Why do I think that special education will implode on itself? Two reasons. First, special educators are inadvertently creating a student body so dependent on us that it only gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Like government programs, once accomodations are in place, it is dang near impossible to remove them and the likelihood is that they will only get larger and more robust. (Once I actually tried to suggest that a student no longer needed tests read to him, as he had made good progres in reading. Everyone just stared at me. The accomodation stayed.)

Secondly, I think special ed will implode because we are requiring so many services for so many students without any thought to how we can properly staff for all of these things. My supervisor today informed me that any high-schooler who is reading at a 7th grade level or below shall recieve "verbatim reading" for all tests and quizzes (and lengthy classroom readings). I resisted the urge to tell her that that would mean that about 1/4th of the entire high school (and just about the entirety of the special ed population) needs to have a one-to-one assistant so that they can be read to whenever a big assignment pops up. Obviously that is not workable. But the world of special educators doesn't care if an idea is workable; that takes second thought to whether it sounds good.

My final reason for bloviating on this topic (at length) is that I strongly feel that the field of special ed is in an inadvertent paradox: we are supposed to help people who need help, and instead we are harming them. By providing readers for students, we are telling them that they do not have to read. But in the real world, they will get no readers; no one will be hanging around waiting for them to raise their hand and ask for a piece of information to be read to them. By high school, the goal should be to prepare kids for the world, and that means teaching them TO read, rather than getting them used to someone reading for them. It means teaching them self-sufficiency rather than dependency on others.

I apologize for the lengthy post, but if you are still reading, then either you share my opinion or you are a fellow special-educator. If you are the latter category, I am sorry in advance for voicing an opiniopn that most probably disagree with.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Joseph Confronts Mary About Pregnancy

"Mary, I've been meaning to ask you something." (I must maintain my cool. I must maintain my cool.)

"Yeah, honey. Anything."

"Well, you've been looking rather...."


"Rather...pregnant. I didn't want to say anything, because I don't want to offend. But, the signs are unmistakable. Between your increasing appetite, your strange moods, and your increase in girth, I have begun wondering..."

(Oh dear! What do I do? What do I do?)

"I mean, I trust you, Mary. I really do. But lately I have gotten the feeling that there is this strange vibe between you and the neighbor, Ezekiel. I have seen the way you look at him, and after that last carpentry job, two of my colleagues were gossiping and... So, what's the deal."

(Oh, dear. He knows! He knows!! He has figured out that I am pregnant and that I am not the virgin he thinks I am. I have to lie. Act calm.)

"Joseph... I have, um, something to tell you. It's just hard to get the words out, so give me a second." (What do I do? What do I say?")

"Okay. As long as you tell me what is going on. Take your time, baby."

"I know it is not going to sound good, so I will just... I will just out with it. I AM pregnant, Joseph."

"WHAT? I knew I shouldn't have trusted you. And just think; I stood up for you. I told everyone that you were a good Jewish woman, despite the rumors. I should have known better."

"No. Joseph. I swear. It is not what you think. It is not what you think at all."

"What do you mean, Mary? How could it not be what I think? You are freakin' pregnant with some other man's child!"

(I got it! I know what to say! Thank you, God.)

"Joseph, listen. It is not Ezekiel's kid. It is, uh, God's kid! It's cool. It's God's kid! And you...(gulp)... thought it was Ezekiel's kid! Ha ha! What a thought."

"For real?"

"Yes. Yes. It is God's kid. God impregnated me in my sleep. He chose me to bear his only son! Ezekiel had NOTHING to do with it. It's all God!"

"What? That is great. That is the coolest. And just think; I thought that you were having an affair with Ezekiel. I thought that all of my friends, including those who claimed to eye-witness you holding Ezekiel's hand and kissing his face, were telling the truth. Wait 'till I tell them that they were wrong. Wait 'till I tell him that your baby is God's child, and not his."

"Yeah. They must have been mistaken. Maybe they just saw Ezekiel with a woman that just looked a lot - an awful lot - like me. I am sure that they did not see me with Ezekiel, especially at the party last week. That was definitely NOT me with Ezekiel. No sir. That must have been some other woman they saw."

"What? How did you know about the party? Are you trying to fool me?"

"No. The only baby I am carrying is God's; not Ezekiel's. We can test the baby's DNA if you don't believe me."

"DNA testing isn't around yet, Mary."

"Oh, you are right. You will just have to trust me, then." (Whew! I am glad he bought it.)