Sunday, October 31, 2010

Jon Stewart's speech at the Rally For Sanity.

I would have loved to go to this. If I could've gotten down there, I even had a place to stay with my daughter down in Annapolis. Sadly, like Stewart said when he first announced the rally, the people that this would appeal to often have too much shit to do.

Ah, well. I caught the good bits on TV and the 'Net, and it didn't get better than Stewart's closing speech.

I'd say "amen" if, y'know, I said amen.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Open Comments

I changed the settings here so people can now post without having to register with Blogspot or its affiliated programs.  I initially set it so you had to head off spam and anonymous hit and run abuse, but in retrospect that's probably putting the cart before the horse, and all it does right now is prevent some people from letting me know what they think.

If the spamming begins, I'll worry about it then but until then, the door's completely unlocked. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What I WILL and WON’T do

I've engaged in conversations online where the other party will express concern that I, an atheist, am teaching impressionable youngsters. I've been told that I am a living example of how students in public schools are being indoctrinated in humanistic, atheist dogma, but students are (and I kid you not, one person told me he KNOWS this happens) being expelled if they show up in school wearing a crucifix around their necks. While I have never encountered this attitude in my own town yet (by and large my community is very accommodating), I thought it might not be a bad idea to break down what I will and won't do in the performance of my job.

I WILL stand quietly during the "moment of silence" at the beginning of the day. I don't usually bow my head, and I never pray, but I do take the time to collect my thoughts for the morning. If other teachers and students want to pray, groovy. As long no one is required to pray during that time, I don't have many issues with it.

I WILL say the pledge of allegiance, but I'm not crazy about it though. I'd rather pledge allegiance to the principles of the Constitution. No one has written that pledge yet, or it hasn't caught on if they have, so the point is moot. Either way, I don't include the "under God" when I say the pledge. It wasn't added to the pledge until 1954, and it's patently unconstitutional.

I WILL teach religiously themed literature in my English classes, up to and including sections of the Bible. First, there's some damn fine poetry in the Bible. I love parallelism in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, and I admit I enjoy the surprise on freshmen's faces when they recognize it as the lyrics from a song they've heard on the annoying oldies station their parents listen to. Second, it is impossible to know where we are without looking at where we come from, and much of the most powerful works humanity has produced were focused on the religious beliefs of the time. I don't have any more of a problem teaching Milton's Paradise Lost and all its illustrations of the God, Satan, angels and Demons to my seniors than I do teaching Homer's Odyssey with its descriptions of Zeus, Athena, Hermes, and the Cyclops to my ninth grade. I don't shy away from questions the works raise in my students though. If after reading Milton's explanations of God allowing Satan to work his evil in the universe, a student openly questions the flawed logic, I don't shut down the train of thought as long as the class discussion remains civil. I'm not there to dissuade students from their beliefs. I am there to promote critical thinking.

I WON'T proselytize for atheism in school. There is no place for anyone in a position of authority in public schools to promote any sort of religious belief whatsoever, and that includes the promoting of non-belief as well. I'm quite proud of comments I've received over the years from my students that indicate they have had no bloody clue as to my personal beliefs. I've has students who've praised me as "highly spiritual" (and are amazed that the school lets me get away with that), and a few who have returned after a few years to tell me they only just figured out where I stood (even then, they're usually not one hundred percent correct). Yeah, I realize the cat's out of the bag if they read this blog, but I will still make every effort possible to not bring my theistic beliefs into the classroom with me.

I WILL do everything in my power to make my students think critically about what they read in my class.

I WILL require them in their written work to back up their points clearly and rationally, avoiding logical fallacies at all times.

I WILL treat my students' right to believe as they choose with the utmost respect, even if I may not respect those beliefs themselves, and I will fight to protect that right with all my power. The most effective way I feel I can do that is to continue to actively defend the separation of church and state.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Temple of Gloom

I mentioned previously that I started packing my up my books and moving slowly towards the exit from theism once I realized how much of theistic belief is predicated on maintaining an aura of fear in believers that keeps them tractable. I probably should clarify that point to avoid future conflict and confusion. I did not become an atheist because of the actions of a single pastor or the beliefs of a solitary rural church. In order to explain the effect properly, though, I guess I'm going to have to don my teacher clothes and take you back to British literature class for a few minutes. 

Don't worry—I wear a Hawaiian shirt when I teach, too.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the premier poets of the Romantic era. He and William Wordsworth's book of poetry Lyrical Ballads both kick started and defined the romantic movement in literature for a generation, and his poems "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan" (which beats out the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" for the title of best literary drug trip) are still taught today in high school. My high school, anyways. What is less well known is how that he coined the term "willing suspension of disbelief." A lot of people are familiar with the phrase, but few seem to understand what Coleridge actually meant by it. He was referring to a writer's ability to weave a the imaginary and fantastical in a story in a realistic enough way so as to get the reader to put at least part of his abilities to discern the difference between real and unreal on hold long enough to be entertained by the unfolding narrative. Recent years have seen the popular conception of the term twisted a bit, however. It's been reinterpreted in the past few decades, however. Now most people define it as the audience's willingness to consciously leave common sense and reason at the door and simply accept what is presented as credible. The difference may seem subtle, but the definition is completely altered. The original requires the story to have enough logical ties to the real world to keep the reader believing. The more modern version puts all the responsibility for pulling the story off on the audience.

Yeah, It could happen

The revamped version of the phrase irks me to no end because it's used to shift the responsibility for a crappy story to those it's meant to entertain/inform/enlighten. For example, I remember rolling my eyes at the scene Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom years ago when Indy and the most annoying sidekicks in a movie ever (pre-Jar Jar Binks, at least), survive a parachute-less leap from an airplane by inflating a life raft climbing aboard, falling thousands of feet, hitting a mountain, sliding down the mountain and off a cliff, falling several hundred feet more, hitting a raging river and navigating the rapids therein. When I first rolled my eyes, then laughed out loud at the absurdity, I was chastised by friends for lacking the willingness to "shut off my brain" (their term) and roll with it. My response was that it's not my responsibility to do that. A quality story will accomplish that for me without me even realizing it.

Not only could I not buy that scene, but its absurdity shattered the illusion of the rest of the movie for me. My friends may have enjoyed it, but all I got from the visit to the theater was some overpriced, albeit delicious, popcorn between my teeth.

If you haven't seen the connection I'm forming, our experience at the Baptist Church we visited where everyone was praying to a loving God to help them believe in him before they were killed via nuclear annihilation and condemned to an eternity of torment was my religious leaping-out-of-an-airplane-in-a-rubber-raft moment. They took it too far, and the suspension of disbelief they had lulled me into up until that point was shattered by an absurd and obvious left turn from reality. And once it was broken, all the other illogical and irrational aspects of belief that I had willingly ignored to that point now stood out like they'd been highlighted with a bright yellow marker.

And like that movie, many people who know about my lack of belief now tell me that the fault lies with me. I'm not willing to believe. My heart isn't open to the word of God. If I would simply put a little more effort into it, I could regain my faith.

I wish people would at least be as honest with themselves as my buddies were after The Temple of Doom and say what is really required.

I'm expected to shut off my brain and roll with it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

My slide into non-belief

At one point I was very much a believer. My mother was a former Catholic and my dad was a non-practicing Presbyterian. They didn't really like the Presbyterian Church in town when they first moved here about fifty years ago, but because she married outside of the Church, they couldn't go to the Catholic services either. As a result, my brother, sisters and I didn't really go to church at all growing up. Christianity, however, was still the default position, though I always have had a sneaking suspicion that neither of my folks was truly that sold on the whole proposition of religion at all.

I would pray and do all the things a Christian is supposed to do (outside of going to church) most of my life, but my real knowledge of what Christianity (or any religion, really) taught was limited to what I saw on television or read in books. That changed when I met my wife Dolores. She was a Southern Baptist (a fact that shocked everyone in my family as they expected a second generation Mexican to be a devout Catholic) and I started going to church with her.

Oh, did I get into it.

We went to Sunday school every week. I studied the Bible. I listened to Christian radio to and from work each day, and I made a point not to miss James Dobson's Focus on the Family addresses when they came on. We also made some friends in the church and had some good times with them, though even then I never really quite got the proscription against dancing. That really bugged me, as it was the 80s, and I looked sharp in my white jacket, pants, pastel T-shirt, and deck shoes sans socks.

We moved back to Pennsylvania when my mom started going downhill after holding her own against her cancer for over a decade. One of the first things we did, of course, was try to find a new church home. The Baptist Church in town was…nice…though it was tad too geriatric for us, so we ended up going to a smaller church outside of town. It was a huge change for us; we were used to the Hoffmantown Church of Albuquerque which sported congregation just about as large as the population of my hometown. Now we were at a church where everyone could probably fit in my house if nobody tried to sit down.

Though they were friendly enough, we were appalled by what was being preached. The pastor would talk about KNOWING certain people were going to hell as if he had an inside track on these things, and Patrick's older brother and sister were terrified of Sunday school because they were being told to make sure they were "saved" before the Russians nuked us into oblivion...and that could be at any second. That was when I realized how much religious indoctrination is centered on FEAR. Take away the fear, and there's really nothing left. Gradually, all the incongruities and flat out logical inconsistencies I'd encountered reading the Bible and glossed over as the work of an unfathomable God came back to nag me more and more urgently. After a number of years of wandering around calling myself a deist or an agnostic, I came to terms with the fact that I was truly an atheist.

Since then I have not prayed, nor have I wanted to. I've certainly wished there was a way out of some predicaments that I couldn't see available, but at no time have I prayed. I guess the only way to describe it is that it may be similar to wanting something I can't afford, but still not being tempted to write a letter to Santa in hopes of getting it because I recognized the futility.

I'll likely be touching on my atheism quite frequently here, though I stop short of saying this blog will be dedicated to discussing it. I don't claim to be an expert by any stretch, nor do I think I'll necessarily be able to say things with any greater clarity than others who have been plugging away on the topic for years now. All I'll be able to offer is my own spin on the subject. I do welcome discussion and honest debate on the subject from friends, acquaintances, and those who feel differently.

The doors are open, so come on in. Foods on the table, and if you want to dance, knock yourself out. I don't mind.

Sticking my toe into the pool again

This is my second try at a blog. A few years back I had one I updated fairly regularly for few months that dealt with teaching, and I was pretty happy with it. The problem was that I felt pretty constrained there. It felt like I was at work each time I published a post. Don't get me wrong; I love my job, and I enjoy interacting with other teachers and fellow educators, but, c'mon…everybody needs to let their hair down and be themselves once and a while.

So while I didn't close the doors on the old blog (I may get the urge to post to it again sometime), I've decided to fire up another one where I can talk about things that matter to me.

Starting with my next post, I'll get into just exactly what those things are. It should be interesting. I know I'm dying to know what they are.