Neil deGrasse Tyson Brings Radio to the Bronze Age

I convinced Neil deGrasse Tyson to learn Kushitic Akkadian. After some fierce debate about the ethics of temporal mechanics, I then sent him back in time to explain to Abraham how things really work. Then when God commanded Abraham to kill Isaac, Abe sat quietly in a grove and told the voice in his head to go piss up a rope, that he loved his son and would not kill him, no matter who was telling him. When Neil came back, little had changed. God had found some guy named Shmuel willing to do the deed, so the story came down to us as Shmuly and Iggy. Neil said we obviously needed some mass communication. So he brought radio to the Bronze Age. Then everybody learned to deal with the voices in their heads from voices in little boxes. But the world was still fucked up. Apparently Rush Limbaugh’s family goes way back.

[2017]

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God is a Loaded Term

I’m a regular reader of CNN’s Belief Blog. More often than not, the blog’s contributors have refreshing takes on the role of faith in American life. They also don’t shy away from addressing the subject from the point of view of non-theists. (CNN in general has become a magnet for theist/atheist arguments; they seem to crop up in the comments section of many of their articles, even when the article isn’t about religion.)

This past week, the blog highlighted the response to an iReport by Deborah Mitchell, a Texas mother of two teenagers. (iReports are stories sent to CNN’s website by users — an exercise in citizen journalism). Mitchell’s report has garnered the second highest number of page views of any iReport, and the most comments of any submission.

The title? “Why I Raise My Children Without God.”

Predictably, there was considerable backlash in the comments section. Some tried to have the report flagged as inappropriate in an effort to have it removed. But many others — including more Bible-belt moms hiding in the atheist/agnostic closet — applauded her bravery. Yes, bravery — because non-believers may well be the most hated minority in the country.

I have quite a bit of sympathy for freethinkers (the term I use for atheists, agnostics and all manner of religious skeptics). This was the road I took to Zen Buddhism. It was Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian that helped me shake off the last vestiges of my Catholic guilt. Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll are two of my heroes, freethinkers unjustly ignored by American history. I am truly saddened that Christopher Hitchens is no longer among the living.

Like Deborah Mitchell, my wife and I also decided not to raise our children with organized religion, and to be free and open with them concerning questions about God and spirituality.

When our daughter was born, we did not have her baptized. Much to my relief, this did not cause any problems with the more devoutly religious among our friends and family (perhaps one of the perks of living in New Jersey). In fact, my wife’s grandfather, who had been an officer in the Knights of Columbus, never once questioned us about it, never tried to sway us, and never changed the way he treated us. I found this so incredibly decent that I decided we could meet him half way. We had our daughter baptized when she was eighteen months old (which I know pleased my mother-in-law as well as her father) and also our son shortly after he was born. But that was the extent of our involvement with any formal church.

As our children grew, questions about religion would come up. I would always try to answer them by starting with “In the Christian tradition” or “In the Jewish tradition.” When they would ask what religion we were, I would tell them we were all baptized Roman Catholics but we don’t go to church, and that I was now a Buddhist. I told them they could claim to be either. As near as I can tell, they usually told their friends they didn’t have a religion. And again, this doesn’t seem to have caused any problems.

Questions about God were trickier, because “God” is such a loaded term. When I was younger, my stock response to the question “Do you believe in God?” was “Define your terms.” Of course it was always God as they imagined him in the Bible. I say imagined because I’ve found that a good many people who profess to believe in the God of the Bible have actually read very little of the book. And then my answer is “no.” I’ve felt for a long time that whatever God may be, he or she is in desperate need of better PR.

I have told our children what others believe God to be while admitting that I just don’t know (and that no one else does, either). I’ve always found agnosticism to be the only intellectually honest position, since theism and atheism both seem to require a degree of certainty that I feel is unwarranted.

My children are acquainted with the basics of the Tao and of Buddha-nature. This is how I’ve approached the idea of God, and this seems to make sense to them. One day I’ll also tell them about Emerson’s Over-soul. I know our children don’t believe in a God that sits in judgement up in the sky, dishing out rewards and punishments. They understand that doing good, that acting from a kind heart, doesn’t require these.

I’ve also tried to teach them to appreciate the value others find in religion, and the difference between private faith and religion-based social policy. There is a time and a place for understanding personal needs of the spirit, and a time and place to defend freedom of the mind and heart.

I really do miss Hitchens.

[2013]

We Are What We Consume

WHEN MY daughter was very young, we were watching TV together. I don’t recall the program, but it wasn’t a cartoon, and at a certain point, one character hit another. It wasn’t slapstick; it was mild TV violence by my standards.

Not by my daughter’s.

She was horrified. She had never seen anyone do that to another person. I felt like the worst parent in the world. I turned the set off and did my best to explain that what she had seen wasn’t real; it was acting.

But even then, I knew her reaction was the right one, the true one.

Today, her reaction to the massacre in Newtown, Conn., is like so many others: Wouldn’t the world be a better place without guns?

Once again, her reaction is the right one, the true one.

When I was a younger man, I wrote impassioned letters to the editor of my local newspaper about the need for gun control. I’ve had little personal experience with gun violence, other than the story of how my paternal grandfather had accidentally killed his younger brother when they were mere toddlers with a pistol found under their father’s pillow. I can only imagine the effect on him and his family. The only clues of which I’m aware: His parents divorced, he named his first child after his slain brother, and he died a hopeless alcoholic and rests in an unmarked grave.

No, most of my experiences with gun violence come from the news. I’m old enough to remember the Kennedy assassinations. Dr. King. John Lennon. And far too many special reports of carnage in every corner of America. In other countries as well: I haven’t been this shaken since the slaughter in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996.

I would love a world without guns. But time has made me realize that will never happen. I do believe in strict gun laws at a national level, so one cannot circumvent one state’s laws by simply going to another state.

The Founding Fathers could not have imagined the weapons that are now our reality. It was a simpler time, and the means of defense were much simpler, too. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was meant to ensure a well-equipped militia in lieu of a standing army, which was seen as an instrument of government tyranny. But now we have a standing army, and the idea that armed citizens could reasonably do battle against it is laughable to me.

In that regard, the Second Amendment is almost as quaint as the Third, prohibiting the quartering of soldiers in private houses. As for self-defense: I have no quarrel with it. And sports? If you need a 100-round magazine to hit a paper target or take down a deer, you’re no marksman. Limits must be set. Just about every other industrialized democracy on the planet has shown that reasonable gun regulations reduce gun violence. Surely, we can follow suit.

For the record, I am a gun owner, of the kind the Founders would actually recognize. I have no use for the National Rifle Association.

So why do I find it so difficult to write another angry piece to a newspaper editor about gun control? Because the problem is bigger than just guns.

We are what we consume. That doesn’t just go for food. It means books, movies, television, games, music, magazines, websites — everything we take into our minds and hearts, and everything we allow into our children’s. Garbage in, garbage out. This is a dark side of the free market: Sell the people what they want. Satiate every impulse and desire, and we end up valuing the wrong things. More than wealth, status, appearance, possessions, ego — we should value each other.

Granted, in a free society, we cannot condone censorship. We can, however, exercise discretion in the marketplace: Turn your back on junk culture, and it will whither away. That seems as likely to happen as getting rid of all guns, but if we at least move in that direction, things can only get better. Not perfect, but better.

Some have claimed the increased violence in our society stems from driving God and religion out of public schools and the public square. I disagree with that reasoning, but not with the larger point.

There is a spiritual aspect to our nature. We neglect it at our peril. We don’t necessarily need to get religion, but we each need to acknowledge that part of ourselves and care for it as surely as we need to care for our physical, intellectual and emotional well-being. It’s the part of us that knows we’re all connected. We’re born with it.

My young daughter’s first reaction to violence was the right one. We’re born with that awareness, and we too easily let it slip away. We need to honor that awareness every day.

[2012]

Originally published under a different title in the December 30, 2012 edition of The Record.

Election 2012

We were relatively lucky in our confrontation with Sandy: Two days without power and a vent cap torn from the roof. My wife and I work from home, so gasoline is not an issue for now. Far too many people fared far worse. The photos from our beloved Long Beach Island are heartbreaking.

That everyone has rallied together to help one another is truly inspiring, but not surprising. This is what I know is in us at all times.

Halloween was postponed until Monday. I’m surprised there’s still any candy in our house to give out. We still watched “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” on the day. I am always dismayed by the editing that is done to make more room for commercials.

In the coming weeks, I will change the name of this blog to reflect broader interests. Parenting is still job #1, but there is so much more to write about.

Below is something I posted to Facebook concerning the upcoming election. Don’t worry, I have no intention of turning this blog into some wonky political screed. In fact, after this I will most likely avoid political topics here. I can’t make the same promise when it comes to religion.

Wherever you are, whatever your politics, please vote. And if you can, please send a little hurricane relief to your friends here in the northeast.

My dear friends —

I have tried — and reasonably succeeded — to keep politics and religion out of my Facebook postings. So now, with the election just around the corner, I’m going to throw in my two or three cents and be done with it.

I’m voting for President Obama. Not because he’s perfect. Not because he’s some kind of political messiah. Because I believe he has worked in good faith to do the right thing by the people, and will continue to do so (which is more than I can say of the Republicans in Congress). I’m not happy with everything about the last four years, but I believe he was presented with an enormous mountain of crap from the previous administration, and there are just so many shovels.

I am also voting for him because the Democratic party, while certainly not perfect, better represents my views than the Republicans. In my opinion, the GOP has been taken over by a political and religious lunatic fringe.

I was actually sympathetic to many of the concerns initially voiced by the Tea Party. But like so many grass roots movements before them, they were quickly infected by opportunistic parasites. I cannot help but oppose a group that so willingly harbors bigots, displays such utter contempt for science and reason, and embraces the likes of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann as serious political thinkers.

Then there is Ayn Rand, who is something of an avatar to conservatives, especially the Tea Party. Paul Ryan is a Rand devotee. He has his staff read her books. I don’t know if the same can be said of Governor Romney. I’m not sure he has any unshakable principles beyond saying and doing whatever is necessary to close deals that favor himself. By that measure, he may well be a Randian Objectivist and not even know it.

When politicians simultaneously embrace Jesus and Rand, I’m surprised their heads don’t explode. According to Rand, Jesus was a chump and altruism is an unforgivable sin. I am not a Christian, but like Thomas Jefferson, I believe that the sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth amount to one of the most sublime philosophies of life ever offered to humankind. Buddhism has taught me that self reliance and acts of compassion are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they are both absolutely essential in a world where everything is interconnected.

Rand’s entire career was one big pity party. Her family’s business was confiscated by the Bolsheviks. So instead of coming here and just starting over, she also had to promulgate a capitalist fantasy that, to me, is essentially Marxism turned on its head, enshrining selfishness as a virtue and money as a basis for morality. But her philosophy fails for precisely the same reason Marxism fails: it’s predicated on the notion that people will voluntarily deal fairly with one another at all times. Unfortunately, this has never been the case, which is why we have laws and regulations.

Conservatives have told me that caring for the least among us is the duty of individuals, not the government, that there is nothing in the Bible about the state caring for the poor. Ah yes, but the American form of government did not exist when the Bible was written. Properly regarded, our government is an instrument of the will of the people. If it is the will of the people to do good, to care for the least among us, then it is entirely appropriate to use the government to those ends. If that is not our will, then we should stop the pretense of being a “Christian nation.”

The cries of “class warfare” ring hollow to me. The assault has been going on since the 80s, and only now gets called warfare by the right because the lower classes are starting to fight back.

The Republicans claim they want to restore the “American Dream.” It’s a cynical ploy that amounts to “Yes, we’re wealthy, and you can be, too, if you will just get these burdensome taxes and regulations off our backs.”

By all means, let’s work to achieve our dreams. But the truth is that most of us will never be that wealthy, and chasing that particular carrot on a stick only leads to voting against our own true interests.

It should be in the best interests of the producers in this country to facilitate upward mobility and an expanding middle class so as to grow their consumer base. This is what happened in the 1950s, when the wealthy were taxed at between 70% and 90%: A booming middle class, massive investment in infrastructure, and the rich still partied on. This is what has worked, not the trickle down BS of the last 30 years.

But money is also power, and for the last 30 years, the wealthy — through their bought-and-paid-for proxies in government — have pushed policies that hold the lower classes down while expanding the wealth of the top 1%, thus solidifying their hold on power. And in a global economy, the jobs will go where labor is cheap, and goods will go wherever buyers can be found; it makes no difference to the monied interests. Where is the patriotism in that? It seems they don’t love God or country so much as money and power.

I am suspicious of patriots who feel the need to advertise themselves as such, just as I am suspicious of a “news” channel that needs to trumpet that they are “fair and balanced.” They are either trying very hard to convince themselves they are worthy of the label, or attempting to pull the wool over our eyes. Probably both.

Listen: I know the names of my ancestors who fought in almost every American war since the Revolution. I know which of my ancestors owned slaves. I have a pretty good grasp of my country’s history — the good, the bad, and the ugly. We haven’t always been the nicest kid on the world playground. Sometimes we’ve been the bully, and many times we’ve been the one to slap the bully down. To admit as much isn’t unpatriotic nor an apology; it’s an honest assessment, and a pledge to do better. Blind patriotism fixes nothing.

Many on the right are quick to point out that our unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as written in the Declaration of Independence are not a guarantee of outcomes, only of opportunity. I agree. But I also hold dear the closing statement of that document: “…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

That doesn’t sound like “every man for himself.” It sounds like “we’re all in this together.”

And that doesn’t sound like today’s Republican Party.

[2012]