Observations: Enjoy Working on a College Campus

I recently read a post about some hate filled mail a fellow blogger received. Reading the post got me thinking about the last month or so at work. My conclusion: there are a great many things I like about working on a college campus (and wish I could continue doing so, if that whole eating, paying bills, etc. thing wasn’t an issue). So, in the last month, I have:

 1) chatted about meditation with a psychology student of unknown faith, including Buddhist, Sufi, Zen, Christian, and secular methods (for a philosophy paper).

 2) discussed pirates and ISIS with a Somali Muslim student (someone else started the conversation somehow, I came in for the tail end; all parties reached the same conclusion).

 3) discussed the Epic of Gilgamesh with an Ethiopian Muslim student, including the dangers of applying modern monotheistic biases to interpreting ancient polytheist stories and cultures (particularly regarding the essential nature of divinity; for a history paper).

 4) worked with an Israeli Jewish student and Palestinian Muslim student back to back, with them chatting amiably between sessions (turned out they were classmates, knew each other, and worked together often in class; composition classes).

 5) discussed the Iliad and Greek mythology with a Hindu doctor (MD; after looking over his philosophy paper).

 6) discussed early Christian philosophy (Augustine, Aquinas) with a student of unknown faith.

 7) worked with students from: various states in the U.S., China, Korea, Iran, Palestine, Israel, India, Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Argentina, Jamaica, and parts of Eastern Europe.

And before that, two of my more memorable class moments and students:

 1) A Sikh student from India who was just plain awesome to talk to before and after class (upper level composition class).

 2) A Christian (?) Marine vet fresh back from Afghanistan. There, he was involved in combat missions for the majority of his tour. He was also the first person in the class to speak up against disinformation regarding Islam and atheism, defending both repeatedly and respectfully (composition 1 class).

Social Equality: Fact & Fiction

I try not to get too political here, but something’s been driving me nuts lately. Even so, I’ll try to tie it back to writing and fiction.

Let’s get something straight: feminists, atheists, LGBTs, and non-Whites in Western society do not want “special treatment” or believe they are “better” than men, Christians, straight & cis folks, and Whites. None of these movements—feminist, (racial) civil rights, LGBT rights, (religious) civil rights—are bad things. None of them are trying to destroy freedom or equality. In fact, they are all fighting for freedom and equality.

Here’s the thing:

Western society clearly tells us that straight, white, cis, Christian males (SWCCM) are better than others.

This can be seen in our courts, in our boardrooms, in our legislatures, on our streets. We see examples every day, from racial profiling to catcalls directed at women. But, most SWCCM are blind to this, because they aren’t the ones being derided.

The LGBT Rights movement is not saying that LGBT individuals are better than straight, cis individuals. Nor that they want to be treated better than those individuals. Rather, the LGBT Rights movement says they want LGBT individuals to be treated the same as straight, cis individuals both socially and legally. Right now, they aren’t—see marriage laws with attendant tax benefits and visitation rights (hospitals).

Non-Whites are not saying they’re better or want to be treated better than Whites. They’re saying they want to be treated the same as Whites, both socially and legally. That means an end to racial profiling for one thing—ex. that Hispanic guy stopped in Arizona and asked for his papers, his family’s been living on that land for 300 years (since before Arizona or the U.S. even existed), but he was stopped because he “doesn’t look American”, oddly the same sheriffs aren’t stopping White people to check their papers.

Likewise, atheists and non-Christians aren’t saying they want to be treated better than Christians. They are saying that they want to be treated the same as Christians, socially and legally. Right now, for instance, Christians make up 80% of Congress, less than 5% are non-Judeo-Christians and there are no non-theists in the legislature. Courts (the legal representatives of the State) make witnesses, jurors, and others swear an oath on a religious text (the default being a Bible). Elected officials are sworn into office on a religious text, typically a Bible. In both of the latter cases, the Constitution (or state constitution or city/town charter) ought to be used to demonstrate that the official is a citizen first and theist (generally Christian) second. (Typically, left wing Christians seem to remember this better than right wing Christians do.)

Feminists are not saying that women are better than men or that women should be treated better than men. They’re saying that women should be treated the same as men, socially and legally. Today, if a man goes out a buys contraception (to use a hot topic right now), he can do it over the counter and he’s congratulated by other men. If a woman tries to buy contraception, she needs a prescription and she’s often subjected to being called “baby killer”, “slut”, and/or “whore”. Tell me how this is equal.

The same really applies to the poor to middle class folks as well. Those of us speaking about income inequality are not saying that the poor are better than the rich (though for conserva-Christians out there, Christ says the poor are better, something about a camel and the eye of a needle). However, when the average CEO is paid (not earns) 394 to 415 times what the average employee in the same company earns, something’s very wrong, especially when that average employee is paid so little that (s)he needs to apply for food stamps and other assistance.

Racial, religious, orientation, poverty, or whatnot inequality in society and law are great, in fiction. They create tension, drama, and plot possibilities. In reality, they are decidedly not good because real lives are, sometimes quite literally (lynching, anyone?), on the line.

(Note: Yes, there are exceptions to the above statements. Every movement has its fringe. Case in point, not all Christians are awful people, but people on the Christian fringe, such as Pat Robertson, are.)

Musings on Faith, or Lack Thereof

First, a warning, I suppose.

I’ll be very surprised if anyone reads this the whole way through. Shocked even. It’s a bit long and more introspective than anything else. But there you have it.

I’m not trying to convert anyone. I’m not trying to challenge anyone’s beliefs. I’m simply musing on and considering the roots of my own lack of belief, as the “War on Christmas” (as fictional and a waste of time/effort as that is) folks start to come out of the woodwork. If you find my lack of belief a threat to your own beliefs, though, I’d suggest that you examine your own faith because it would seem to be pretty tenuous if it can be threatened by one person’s lack of faith.

Anyway, most of this is simply collecting and organizing my thoughts, one of the key purposes of writing in general. Perhaps some of it is explanation as well. I’m still thinking through some of these things, so they may be half formed thoughts or ideas that are still being revised. And there are probably few, if any, formal transitions between ideas here—sorry if that makes for a confusing piece.

To set the stage, I am a Catholic school survivor. I’ve studied, at least briefly, many sects of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism (and chatted with members of all five faiths). I’ve even touched very briefly on Shinto, Confucian(ism), and pre-Confucian Chinese faiths and chatted a little about faith with Sikhs. I’m well versed in Norse, Greco-Roman, and Celtic mythology, with a smattering of Egyptian thrown in. Comparative religion is a bit of an interest of mine.

But, I digress in setting the stage. I don’t want to get bogged down there.

Agnostic-Atheist
Under religious beliefs, I call myself “Agnostic-Atheist”. What does this mean?

To me, this term means that, personally, I have no belief or faith in a “higher power” and therefore don’t believe that any such being(s) exist(s). However, I don’t think that my belief or lack thereof really has any bearing on the existence of any such beings (e.g. they don’t need me to believe in them in order to exist). Nor do I think that my own lack of belief necessarily invalidates anyone else’s faith or belief (if you disagree, see the third paragraph above).

I think that principle is important: just because I have never felt faith in a higher power and therefore do not believe that a god or gods exist in no way invalidates anyone else’s faith or belief. Nor does it necessarily mean that divinities don’t exist. It could mean they don’t exist, or that they do exist but don’t want me to believe in them. Now, I may be somewhat arrogant in certain respects and there are probably a few people I know who would level that charge, but I’m not arrogant enough to say that my own beliefs ought to be the standard for the remaining 5,999,999,999+ people in the world. Not to mention the potentially many more in the universe (yes, I do believe in intelligent extra-terrestrial life, as Carl Sagan once wrote: if there aren’t other species out there, the universe is an awful waste of space – paraphrased). Nor am I arrogant enough to say that the entire possibility of the existence of divinities is dependent on my belief. It could be cool if such things were true, but it would also be incredibly scary to possess that kind of power.

Reasons
After thinking about this for a while (nearly 20 years really), I think my reasons for my lack of belief/faith break down into two categories:

Intellectual

I’ve studied a lot of history and a fair amount of comparative religion. This study has led me to a definite intellectual distrust of organized religion. The faiths themselves, in principle, are generally good (there are exceptions – such as Judeo-Christian-Muslims’ Leviticus). However, when an organization forms around the faith, and it acquires leaders, hierarchies, and bureaucracies, the faith almost invariably gets twisted (one exception here being the various branches of Buddhism, most of which have no definitive hierarchy anyway). That’s when highly negative things start to be done in the name of the faith—ex. the Inquisition, car bombings (Ireland, Israel, Palestine, etc.), sectarian in-fighting about how some prophet 2000 years ago said something (the Albigensian Crusade, Ireland, the Sunni-Shiite divide), and murders of those who do not follow the same faith and refuse to convert (which we still see today in more subtle ways—like “we’ll give you medical aid for your malaria, but only if you convert”).

On the last note, all of the top three major faiths have very bloody histories. I don’t wish to get bogged down in a “Who’s more violent” discussion or debate, in part because all three faiths have probably equally bloody histories and are continuing in that tradition—some more blatantly than others. Ironically, two of the three (Christianity and Islam) claim to be faiths of peace, only their predecessor (Judaism) does not. Some of the Eastern faiths, yes, also have associations with violent histories, but perhaps not to the same extent—and many, such as Buddhism and Taoism, have bloodless, or virtually so, histories (can’t think of anyone who has started a war or violent persecution in the name of Buddha or Lao Tzu).

From observation (8+ years of Catholic masses, a few years of Protestant services), it seems to me that most People of the Book (Judeo-Christian-Muslims)—and probably some of the more ritualized Eastern faiths—are simply going through the motions. That is, they follow ritual blindly, completely uncertain as to why they go through the rituals (if they even ask themselves). This is, I think, another flaw of organized religion: it becomes empty ritual devoid of meaning and true faith. Christ saw the potential for this problem himself—”And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. [. . .] when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret” (Matthew 6:5-6)—Zen Buddhists, I think, also see this potential and try to avoid it. Why do people do this? The charitable answer, I suppose, might be that they’ve been conditioned to do so, in other words, they do what is expected of them. Another possible answer, I would guess, is that they fear what others might think of them or do to them should they stop—by “do to them” I don’t mean physically, although that has happened, but rather socially, whether ostracism, disowning, or whatever. There are, I suspect, quite a few people who do not truly believe in the divinity they claim to while going through the motions of organized religion, but go through the motions for the social interaction and sense of security in belonging to a group. But, I could be mistaken.

I also think there’s a genetic component to faith. By this, I don’t mean to imply that a person can be genetically a Christian or Buddhist. Rather, I mean that I think there may be a genetic component to whether or not a person possesses “faith” or something genetic which influences whether or not faith manifests itself in the individual. Obviously, I’m not a biologist or a psychologist, so I have no major background in this area beyond freshman college biology/psych (17 years ago), but it seems to make sense based on observed experience.

Emotional

Honestly (not that I’d consider being dishonest), I have gut-level problems with the idea of a single omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity. I’m not sure why. I have no logical reason for that. It’s just a gut feeling. Besides which, if one divinity exists (say Jehovah-God-Allah), the odds are good that every other divinity ever conceived in the history of the world exists, thus removing the “only one, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, deity exists and there are no others” thing. I’ve often thought that if I had any sort of faith in a “higher power” I’d be more likely to go Buddhist or Norse pagan . . . as oddly opposed as those two are from each other (one focused on peace, serenity, and introspection; the other involving and afterlife of eating, drinking, and waiting for the big battle at the end of the world), but I digress.

The most important part on this level is that I’ve simply never felt any connection to any “higher power”. Therefore, with no such evidence that one exists, I have to conclude that no such being is out there. Either way, I don’t see that the existence or lack thereof has any bearing on my daily life, nor do I see any reason for such a being (if it existed) to care about what I do, since I’d be rather insignificant in comparison. That gets into some thoughts I’ve had on morality, especially in the context of religion, but that’s another set of thoughts for another time.

Miscellaneous

A few quotes I’ve liked over the years come to mind as well:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” –Stephen F. Roberts

“There is no conclusive evidence of life after death. But there is no evidence of any sort against it. Soon enough you will know. So why fret about it?” –Robert A. Heinlein

Atheism

I came across this piece a few weeks back and finally got around to writing about it. This will tie back to writing and argumentation, eventually.

http://m.theweek.com/article.php?id=241108

First, I’d like to take a look at Linker’s claims. As I read them, they are: atheism is inherently tragic and terrible, “honest” atheists suffer unto nihilism, and no god is akin to no meaning in life. These are all common arguments against atheists and atheism, as such they’re likely familiar to anyone who is open about his/her atheism. They’ve also been argued ad nauseum (I can present the counterarguments, if desired, just ask).

More important, I think, are Linker’s underlying assumptions. Although he doesn’t directly state his assumptions, they are key to his argument. First, he has the assumption of absolute forgiveness, the idea that no matter what a person does, no matter how horrible, everything can be forgiven. Second, he has the assumption of absolute justice. Third, he assumes that all atheists must inherently be despondent, a common assumption on the part of many, particularly conservative, religious people. Fourth, he assumes that atheists are just people who have had a crisis of faith and are looking for a way back in, also a common assumption amongst conservative religious people. Finally, he assumes there is, must be, an intrinsic fear of death.

Each of his assumptions has some notable flaws. Absolute forgiveness has always been a sticking point for me, particularly in regards to Catholicism and Baptists (and I spent eight years in Catholic school). In theory, a person could commit genocide and still get into the good afterlife because they repent on their death bed. This doesn’t sit well with me. It also causes a problem with absolute justice: absolute forgiveness inherently undermines absolute justice (assuming that we don’t accept the later Catholic invention of Purgatory). I think Robert Heinlein said it best, noting, “TANJ” (There Ain’t No Justice). I’ll hit the other three assumptions in my own take on atheism next.

I find atheism to be freeing, rather than depressing. There is a definite freedom in not having a reward-punishment cycle and in the lack of empty ritual. And I have yet to meet an atheist who is looking for a way back into any religious faith. I think one of the interesting aspects of atheism is the acceptance of death, the acknowledgement that there is nothing after. This frees people to live in the present, to live for this life not for some imagined reward or to avoid some imagined punishment in another metaphysical place.

I think atheism, the lack of reward-punishment, also frees people to true morality. Admittedly, morality is in many ways a social construct (e.g. without society, there’s really no need for morality, since morality is basically a code for getting along with others). Without a deity, I argue, people achieve true morality: they aren’t performing, or not performing, acts because of an expectation of reward or fear of punishment (which is conditioning, or self-interest, not morality), they perform acts because they are the right thing to do or don’t perform them because they are the wrong thing to do. This also means that the atheist bears personal responsibility for his/her actions, (s)he can’t claim “god (or Satan or whoever) made me do it.” Perhaps that is one thing that scares a lot of people.

On that note, the promised tie to writing and argumentation. Linker’s piece is an excellent example of the importance of ethos (authority), understanding counterarguments, and understanding the positions of others in debates. His piece fails on all three. It fails because of Linker’s initial assertion that all of his opponents in the debate are dishonest if they do not fit perfectly into the mold he wants them to fit. Obviously, this assertion causes problems for true discussion or debate, since one party comes into the debate assuming the other is lying.

For a more reasoned discussion of the subject see:
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201402/why-are-educated-people-more-likely-be-atheists