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Friday, December 16, 2005


Bathroom Humor

Abe (age 2): I have to go to the bathroom.

Me (age 34, getting potty seat): Pee or poop?

Abe: Both!

Me: Here you go.

Abe: I wish I could poop standing up.

Me: No one can do that.

Theo (age 7): Only a professional.

[thinks for a moment]

Or a giraffe!

Monday, December 12, 2005


This Things I Believe

Last night Anne and I (avowed atheists) had a long, interesting talk with one of our best friends (a liberal Christian) about religion. I'm not sure how the conversation started, as I was in the kitchen making brownies, but instead of playing cards, we ended up going around for about two hours trying to understand each others' point of view on all matters spiritual. Today I see a Christmas essay from Umberto Eco which could have served as notes to much of our discussion (albeit much more eloquent than I was.) While some of what Eco says is inarguable, I do take issue with this point, by way of G.K. Chesterton:
G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: "When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in anything."
While it may be true that we live in a credulous age, I don't see Anne, myself or most of the other atheists/agnostics we know in either of those possibilities. Then again Chesterton seems to make the same definitional error that I tried to dispel last night--that atheism is a "belief" akin to "believing" in God or Santa or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Rather--and I insist that this is an essential distinction--atheism is not an affirmative belief in "no God" but rather a lack of belief. I simply don't think in those terms. For me, the very question's not valid. Eco says:
Human beings are religious animals. It is psychologically very hard to go through life without the justification, and the hope, provided by religion. You can see this in the positivist scientists of the 19th century.
I think he makes too many assumptions here, seeing something biologically or socially inherent and permanent in a few thousand years of human history--much of which happens to contain huge swaths of people who have lived and died without religious faith as we conceive of it. While it may be very hard for many of us to "imagine there's no heaven/no religion too," that doesn't mean that religion is a preferable or unavoidable endstate of human understanding. Who knows how our social systems and ability to process life's mysteries will evolve? To point to credulity in 19th century scientists is merely to point to people in a time when sorting out genuine scientific fact from entrenched superstition was very difficult. Who was to say that discovering a new element was any different from possibly discovering the means to communicate with a ghost, given the right equipment? Famously, Newton was an obssessive alchemist. But so what?

Last night our friend asked us if atheism didn't invariably lead to nihilism. I'm not sure we gave him an answer that satisfied him, but from my own experience I have to say certainly not. Granted, given my understanding of the factual nature and origins of the universe/our planet, I find it impossible to ascribe any greater or eternal "meaning" to our particular assemblage of atoms in this backwater of the Milky Way, 14.5 billion years into cosmic history. That would imply something outside the system generating that meaning, all for the benefit of a very, very tiny bit of time and space. That the truth, via religion, would be revealed to an even tinier sliver of one species in that time and space rests on an arc of improbability approaching infinity.

Despite my utter absence of supernatural belief, however, I don't--and can't-- consider human existence meaningless. Whatever way we got here, the fact is here we are, and we must make our own meaning. As such, we should make the best of it. And here is where I think I can be in complete agreement with my friend, who himself puts aside questions of the supernatural to focus on the ability of religious thought and experience to help people find faith in themselves, to answer their existential question about what their lives ultimately mean. This reminded me of reknowned atheist Douglas Adams' point that religion exists as possibly the first and most powerful "virtual reality". Because so many people believe in it, for them and for the rest of us, it becomes effectively true--at least to the extent that people make decisions and live with their consequences as if it were true. As our friend pointed out, this breaks down at the level of the faith-based invisible bullet-proof vests "worn" by technologically overwhelmed Native Americans facing US troops. Then again, I tend to think that much of religious belief is but a slightly more subtle version of that invisible vest.

Eco, caught between his conception of Christianity as essentially an effective, proven tool for coping with death, and the narcotic, destabilizing effect of soulless commercialism as its opposite, doesn't acknowledge another possibility. He apparently concludes that humans are inevitably ruled by irrational fears; that without commonly recognized religious traditions most people will fall into the absurdity of weird, commercialized private notions, cults and subsects; and that at least Christianity's absurdity is widespread and orderly. So it comes down to a choice between absurd chaos and absurd order? Who's the nihilist here again? I may not have any religious faith, but I have more hope that that.


It's My Action Move

If you show your 3-year-old the movie Popeye, don't be surprised when he starts punching you in the nuts.

If you read superhero comics to your 3-year-old, don't be alarmed when he tears off his clothes while yelling "Naked Jet Pack! Naked Jet Pack!"

If you take your 3-year-old to the store, and he sees you buy his 7-year-old brother a bag of toy stretchy body parts (hand, nose, ear, foot) don't be at all surprised when you go to get the brother from school and the 3-year-old starts hollering in front of all the other children and parents, "Dad got you a sticky penis! Dad got you a sticky penis!"

If you announce a dance contest between your children with the intent of tiring them out for bed, don't act shocked when the 3-year-old runs around in circles bellowing "It's my action move!" then runs up to you and punches you in the nuts.

If your 3-year-old promises not to punch you in the nuts anymore, don't believe him.

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