Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Virtue of Friendliness

Visit Calamities of Nature!!! They Rock!!
We're coming up on National Ask an Atheist Day (April 13th), and the release of the Atlas Shrugged movie (April 15th), so I think it's a good time to address a topic I've been wanting to write about: my reasons for being a "nice" atheist and fan of Objectivism.

Growing up, my Mother would often admonish my not-so-nice outbursts by referring to the line Thumper is taught in "Bambi": "If you can't say something nice, don't say nuthin at all."  Now, this failed for a number of reasons, the main reason being that I am human.  The second reason is one I learned later in my childhood - for practically every statement one can make, there is at least one person in the world who will take offense.  Some statements garner more offended people than others.  Still, I was trained to at least hear an opponent out.  Of course, you can learn a lot from listening to a point of view that you might come to adopt yourself, but just as many lessons can be taken from those points of view that you will never adopt yourself (like a strategy to win the argument).

Do I passionately want a secular world filled with rational people and no superstition?  Yes!!  Do I think the world would be a better place without religion? Absolutely!!  Do I feel that I should play an active role in bringing such a world about?  Certainly, and I personally feel the best way to do this is is by presenting rational truths in an approachable and kind way.

This is a big point of contention in Atheism.  I love Richard Dawkins, and when he talks about "taking off the kid gloves" when dealing with religion, that really appeals to me.  In principle, I do think that the subjects of religion should be boldly approached and discussed, and not considered beyond question out of an undue respect.  Sometimes offense is necessary for change.  And, yes, sometimes I look at some religious people and think that their ridiculous ideas deserve nothing more than to be laughed at.  But, in reality, it's people I'm dealing with, not computers or proofs, and laughing goes beyond necessary offense and crosses into the realm of unnecessary disrespect.  Laughing and violent criticisms (even if they are true!) just polarize, and, in my experience, do NOTHING to promote the world I want.  What it does promote is the false impression that most atheists are closed-minded brats.

The same goes for discussions about Objectivism.  Am I an Objectivist?  Probably.  I share a majority of the collection of values titled Objectivist, and enough so that the term could describe nearly the whole of my personal moral structure.  Still, I cannot see any real part of Ayn Rand's philosophy that requires people to go out of their way to proselytize or tear apart others.  It's an egoistical system, and is beautiful in the way that it is intended to reign over the only thing that really is in your control as an individual - yourself.   Altruism is discouraged, but giving freely out of one's own desire is a natural part of the philosophy.  Selfishness is a virtue, but stealing from others is one of the worst vices.  The Aristotelian influences of her writing make me think that whatever Rand's natural demeanor, or any bitterness she may have harbored and redistributed at will due to her personal struggles, she would not have completely rejected his virtues of friendliness and magnanimity. (Pausing here a moment for the oft-forgotten explanation of magnanimity, as illustrated in the Nicomachean Ethics: the virtue possessed by someone who has a "great soul," their priorities in pristine order, and is truly deserving of the highest praise awhile having a correct attitude towards the honor this may involve.  This does not mean over-the-top selfless generosity, and does not require self-deprecation.)  Some hard-line Objectivists, I think, forget the fact that a life philosophy such as Objectivism is still intended for the human good.  Dogmatism in pretty much any form is disastrous because I don't know of a system that exists that can account for every complexity of the human experience. A flexible reed can survive a storm when a dried-up rigid stick is snapped in half by the wind.

Life is an evolutionary experience.  People change constantly as we process the world around us, and because of this, I prescribe kindness and patience in situations where we encounter those people who are religious or don't understand Objectivism.  Part of allowing people to grow is allowing them to express their views to you.  Besides the seed of trust that is planted from your respect, you can learn how to address their questions and concerns in a way that they can understand, process, respond and learn.  I'm not sure that any atheists yet exactly understand the heart of the existence of religiousness, the very human reason that it exists, and until we can diagnose that, we shouldn't be yelling out "cures" blindly.  We should be sharing what we know, what we've learned, and how we learned it.  Ask an Atheist day is a wonderful opportunity for this dialogue.  The release of Atlas Shrugged is an extraordinary opportunity to illustrate the ways in which Objectivism contributes at a happier, healthier human existence instead of spending way too much time calling everyone else "looters."

Some people may perceive a desperate and immediate need for change, and this may be sparking the stunningly adversarial reactions I often encounter in those who share my beliefs.  I do agree that there are extreme instances in which the need to react strongly is necessary, such as a child dying because religious parents refuse to take them to a doctor.  However, I would assert that acting this way all of the time is counterproductive to achieving the overall goal we share, for the reasons I mentioned above.

I don't doubt that saying this could earn me a few enemies, or entice people to say I'm just trying to avoid conflict or that I don't have the ovaries for the fight.  I hope that I can express that I want this just as badly as everyone else, but I see a different, maybe smarter path to the goal.  I'm not about self-sacrifice, and I don't intend to waste my life screaming wildly when I see a more productive option.  I want to take into account that humans have amazingly complex emotions and intellects, and I want to work with that!  I want a world in which I don't have to overcome the stereotype of being a dogmatic, mean, radical before even engaging in conversation.

I really hope that my open, honest and friendly attitude toward those who disagree with me makes a difference.  I hope I can be an example to how others can deal with conflict in a healthier and more effective way.  But if it doesn't, it still makes me a happier person with lower blood pressure and a more joyful life.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Philosophy of Charlie Sheen

Yeah, just when you think religion has cornered the market on strange, we are graced by the wisdom of this new philosopher who clearly has all of the problems of the world worked out.  My friend Susan so awesomely put this together, and then put it on YouTube just because I was dying to share it on the blog!

Remember, if you get hooked on the drug called Charlie Sheen, just blink and cure your brain...


And "stay away from the crack... unless you can handle it socially."


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Evolution of Me


Sometime last year, I wrote about how I felt relationships were built on an idea that two people evolve in harmony with each other, and I believe I also acknowledged that this view doesn’t guarantee “forever” or “to death do us part” the way that other conventions might claim.  If there is a dramatic change to the environment, both may adapt in ways that weaken the connection between the two.  I wonder if that’s happening to me now.

Things have been great and stable and relatively calm for years, but I really think that things between Joshua and I have changed since I made the decision to go back to school.  I mean, that kind of decision has real, practical effects on life in the household.  I have almost no time for anything – between work and school, I’m occupied an average of 16 hours a day.  That means less time together, less time for me to do things like make dinner or bake goodies.  Josh reconnected with old friends and began spending more time with them.  Soon, when I actually found free time, I would find he was busy - out with the boys.  Then, as I think is natural, the more I learned, the more I wanted to talk about school, my classes and my theories.  Now, Josh is really well-educated – went to an exclusive school, earned a few degrees, so I thought he would appreciate and be able to relate to my enthusiasm.  Instead, as I began another year of school last year, his luke-warm interest became none, and he insinuated that the whole idea of me going back to school was ridiculous.

I’ve felt lonely and crushed that I’ve lost my dialogue partner.  I even feel like I’ve kind of lost a friend.  Then I feel myself getting annoyed when he just works his 8 hours and parties with his newly rediscovered college friends, and I’m exhausted, trying to read a text book while doing the dishes.  Eventually, I just accepted that while he might love me, he doesn’t care at all about my new ambitions in life and wants nothing to do with it.

It’s hard to admit to Josh that when he rejected my ambitions, he rejected a really big part of me.  Maybe this is a hint of the Objectivist in me coming out.  While the contexts are really different, I think, right now, I’m reminded of a scene in The Fountainhead where Dominique asks Roark to give up architecture and just make his life about loving her, and the idea was impossible for him.  Would she have really loved him had he said yes?  For how long?  How much time would pass before he left?

So, anyway, I made new friends at school.  I occasionally flirt with a classmate I met a few years ago when he was a student in the seminary.  I seek out people who are interested in philosophy who have interesting things to say!  I talk poor Dixie’s ear off.  I write my blog!  But mostly I just hold my thoughts in my own head and heart.

But now to the reason I’m banging my head incessantly against my desk. 

An old love and I happened upon each other again, and he suddenly gave me an outlet for all of my pent up thoughts and theories.  Through letters that resemble those between Descartes and Elizabeth of Bohemia, I finally feel like I’ve connected to someone again on that really intimate intellectual level that I normally reserve for those few all-trusted lovers – the ones with whom I share philosophical pillow-talk, my hopes, dreams, theories, and most-hidden feelings. My heart flutters with each word when I read his stories and theories, and I pour my heart and mind into each reply.  It’s all “innocent,” but it’s also incredibly intimate for me, on both an intellectual and personal level.  The whole thing makes me feel happier, more fulfilled, and more excited about my future.

I just wonder if it all adds up to the beginning of the end for Josh and I, or if this will eventually pass.  Maybe it’s not even a big deal, but it just feels like it now.  I just don’t know.


Friday, February 18, 2011

24-Foot Light-Up Cross: Godly or Gaudy??

(Link to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette below)

A Pennsylvania man erected a 24-foot lighted cross on his year in retaliation for his neighbor calling the police over his construction vehicles.  LOVE the story and the coverage on this.  I was going to blog about it on the first day I heard it, but it works out that I waited – he is taking down the cross due to the “fame.”

Personally, I would’ve but up a big red “A” facing his window.  But that’s just me.

I’ve posted a few stories below because this has to be some of the funniest town-level religious drama I’ve read in awhile.  I’m guessing Pittsburgh doesn’t have a lot of these controversies by the amount of attention it seemed to have gotten, but I loved the headlines that called the cross “annoying.”

Man Annoys Neighbors With Giant Lighted Cross:

The in-depth newspaper exposé of the feud:

The local leaders tell the man it’s gotta go:

The Fame Monster gets the guy; the light of Jesus is snuffed out once again:


Thank you, by the way, to all of my new friends on Facebook!!  Hopefully I can catch up on my greetings and postings soon!


Friday, January 28, 2011

Pro-Life or Die

This piece from the New York Times really highlights the biggest logical problem with the pro-life stance: people will stand behind it to the point of death.

The Catholic Church is severing ties with St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix.

The hospital’s offense? It had terminated a pregnancy to save the life of the mother. The hospital says the 27-year-old woman, a mother of four children, would almost certainly have died otherwise.

Bishop Olmsted initially excommunicated a nun, Sister Margaret McBride, who had been on the hospital’s ethics committee and had approved of the decision. That seems to have been a failed attempt to bully the hospital into submission, but it refused to cave and continues to employ Sister Margaret. Now the bishop, in effect, is excommunicating the entire hospital — all because it saved a woman’s life.

The real consequences of this seem to revolve around the fact that mass can no longer be held in the chapel, which seems a little silly since, like the article points out, Catholic mass is held in generic chapels of non-affiliated hospitals and airports all across the country. I suspect some funding may be in danger too, which would be unfortunate for a hospital that clearly will put everything on the line to save a patient’s life.

I’d love to ask this bishop why this already-living woman’s life means to little to him and God? Isn’t there a good chance that the baby would have also died if the mother died? What life is being saved by letting the mother die in that case?
This sad, backward decision should be shocking not only to skeptics, but also to people claiming the Catholic faith. And good for the nun who chose that woman’s life over her membership to the church - she at least has her priorities straight.


Monday, January 17, 2011

The Best Idea That My 17-year-old Self Ever Had


Really, I must ask this: What is it about High School that traps and changes people for the rest of their lives?  Why is High School so important to people?

Part of me wants to say that the idea that high school is the “most important four years of your life” is really just a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If enough people around us stress its importance, in many cases we will also eventually assign it value.  Since it has no exceptional inherent value beyond being the middle years (for most) of formal education, maybe we stuff it with whatever value we can easily grab: “I’ll have these friends for the rest of my life!” “This is the last time we can REALLY have fun!” “I’ve defined my whole identity here!”

But, really, do ANY four years of our lives have such a formative impact on us?  Maybe the period of 0-4 years old holds such importance, when we go through some of our most quick and dramatic developments as humans.  I think college would far-overshadow high school as formative since this is usually a period of being on one’s own for the first time, choosing the first solid steps of one’s life path, transitioning into a self-reliant adult human.  It just seems silly to me that people probably couldn’t remember all of their 7th grade teachers or 5th grade spats, but people cling to high school like it’s the last life preserver flung from the titanic.

Yes, I have a reason for my rant!  I was apparently the one who missed the memo that high school was a turning point in my life.  Since I was a little girl, I dreamed of jobs and college.  College, I thought, must be incredible!  You get to pick your classes in things you’re interested in, and your classmates usually share your interests!  You’re free to come and go as you please, because, of course, you’re living free of your parents.  No one will “make” you go to church, or “make” you do anything, really!  High School just seemed like a glorified 8th grade in a new building – four more years of waiting for that magical school called “college.”  During my senior year of high school, I had already found my way into college and pulled double-duty with night classes – I had a semester of college classes finished when I got my high school diploma.  Maybe that is why, when I walked out of high school in my cap and gown, I decided there was no reason to look back.  I was only really close to one high school friend, and since we went to the same college, we kept in contact for a few years before drifting off into our own endeavors.  I simply had no interest in anyone else, I think.  When I was a junior in college, I was offered a career at the company I’m still working for now.  By the time I graduated from college, I had a new set of “work” friends, and my priorities were already reset for a corporate ladder climb and adult-style life.  I didn’t even show up for the whole cap-and-gown ordeal that time.  College was fun, I learned a ton, and it’s where I met Dixie, so I loved those aspects of it.  I keep those things with me.  But when my 10-year High School Reunion came around a few years back, I politely declined, out of lack of interest.

But, now, we are in the wonderful world of the internet, and I received a friend request on Facebook fro m a girl from High School.  To say we didn’t get along with each other may be an understatement – we were just polar opposites that clashed often because we happened to be stuck with a number of mutual friends.  I decided to accept, since she seemed to just want to be friendly, and I held no ill will.  I made it a conscious decision on graduation day to leave all of my bad feelings and bad words I might have had for anyone in high school exactly where they belonged – in high school.

It has been interesting seeing what she is up to, and we shared a few comments.  Then, this morning, I noticed a status from her about a famous guy I’ve always liked.  I began to read the comments that followed between her and some other people we went to high school with.  They were all about me.  My high school locker, my high school crushes, all in a mean and cliquey light.

You have GOT to be kidding me.  More than a decade later, they were STILL discussing these things?  And now, they’re doing it while I’m in the virtual room.  I thought about defriending her right off the bat, but there was something that seemed just as high-schoolish about that, and I really don’t feel like getting dragged into the drama I left behind so long ago.

I clicked “like” instead.  The “like” was personal - for the decision I made on graduation day to let go of it all, which may have been the best idea my 17-year-old self ever had.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

“Dear School, Why Don’t You Teach? Love, Sam”


You may have seen this story about things the next generation will live without. (I know I forwarded it to at least a few people, and received it from two others.)  Dixie and I were talking about it yesterday, and she surprised me with this fact.

“Do you know it’s true - they don’t teach cursive writing anymore? It’s not even a part of my kids’ school curriculum!”

At first it didn’t process that this was any big deal.  I pointed out that while she prefers her beautiful feminine loops and curls, the closest I ever get to writing in cursive anymore is failing to pick up my pen between hurried printed letters.

“But, you DO sign your name! How are these kids going to even have a legal signature?”

Wow, um, good point!  Maybe they practice signing like their favorite baseball players and musicians?  Then again, if that’s the case, the situation may be worse than I thought.  I haven’t seen a player sign his name legibly since Mickey Mantle.

“And, you know, I inquired more about the curriculum – I can’t believe I’m paying to send them to a private school and THIS is considered a good education now!  They don’t teach kids how to write business letters or any letters at all!  The school said that writing business letters will be outdated by the time these kids graduate.”

Are you kidding me??  I draft formal letters at least a couple times a month, and Dixie, who works with a lot of legal matters, drafts them almost daily.  We’re talking about those letters that start with your return address and contact information in the upper right-hand corner and then the contact info of the addressee below that, and then format your letter in a formal style.  You really mean to tell me that in 10 years there will never be a need for formal style of written communication of any kind?  Maybe the transition explains why one of my local city council members recently sent an extremely crucial communication that started with the awkward and childish, “Dear Mayor, I hope you got my last email.”

Concerned that maybe Jonah and Lily were unintentionally being sent to some bizarre neo-hippie school, I asked a colleague who has kids around the same age about cursive.  He said his school told him the same thing!  He was clearly angry about this, and resorted to teaching his children cursive and the like at home.

Still, this seemed so hard to believe.  I did some research to see how many people were uncomfortable with this shift, and found this article from the Boston Globe:

"It's a very disturbing problem," said Kate Gladstone of Albany, N.Y., who has a website specializing in handwriting improvement. "I see people in their 20s and 30s who cannot read cursive. If you cannot read all types of handwriting, you might find your grandma's diary or something from 100 years ago, and not be able to read it." There are practical concerns as well. Sometimes we don't have a computer, or the professor won't let us bring it to class to take notes. Or sometimes, as happened in New Orleans hospitals during Hurricane Katrina, computers lose power and medical orders and records have to be written out by hand.

Wait – people can’t even READ cursive anymore?  Are you kidding me?

I love technology, but let’s not forget the basics!  After all, we might accidentally leave our Smartphone at home for a day, or lose our purse, or break our laptop… and we shouldn’t be SO tied to these things that we would literally be lost without them.