Saturday, June 22, 2013

What is our final recourse?

What is our final recourse?
by Dane Manuel

            Recently, the Texas House State Affairs Committee bypassed the will of its constituents and voted on an abortion bill without allowing all who wished to testify to speak. This bill would force all but five abortion clinics in Texas to shut down. The bill, name House Bill 60, would require any clinic providing abortion services to meet several costly requirements. Requirements such as active admission privileges to a hospital that provides ob/gyn services, forcing compliance with standards for ambulatory surgical clinics, and requiring medications to be administered in person.

            The controversial nature of the bill aside, the committee played an underhanded move to get what they wanted. Byron Cook (R), the chairman of the committee, was deluged by a small army of individuals who opposed the bill and instead of allowing each to testify as is their right, he ended the session. Normally this wouldn't raise any eyebrows, especially since they stopped in the early hours of the morning, however the committee quietly reconvened on Friday, without letting anyone know, and passed the bill. I want to say it again, they cleared the room by ending the session, then reconvened later without letting anyone know so they could vote. They bypassed the filibuster, they denied citizens and right to testify before their government.

           If the bill was one that was supported by the people, then there would have been no filibuster and the day would have proceeded normally. However, these committee members knew that at least the vocal minority would stop them so they resorted to trickery to get their way. A trickery that goes far beyond the chicanery of day to day politics. If this were a bill for gun control being proposed by an all democratic committee, there would be no place for those members to hide because the NRA would hunt them down, but because this bill is nowhere near touching the second amendment, they are allowed to do as they please. There is hope that the bill can be defeated on the floor of the house because the laws were not followed, but I am more skeptical. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst has the power to suspend rules as he sees fit in a special session and I do not doubt that he will use that power to quash any attempts at stopping this bill.

           So here is the rub, if the government, whom we have placed our trust in, is deliberately passing laws to oppress a group and nothing can stop them, then what is the final recourse of the people? If I were as adamant about gun rights as I was about other subjects, then I would simply do as many of the far right leaning would do and call for an armed overthrow of the government. But I am not, nor do I support the idea of an armed revolution. I, unlike too many, choose to use my words. I write, I speak, and I debate. How can I call myself civilized if I have to rely upon the tip of the sword to do what the pen should do in its place? How can we be an intelligent and informed electorate if those in power do not research the facts and disregard the hyperbole? How does one respond to deception in a civilized way?

            We vote. We run for office ourselves. We get involved in the political process. The companies may pay for the campaigns, but in the end, the voters are the ones who decide. When the voters are informed and not idly sitting and believing all the politician says, the true nature of  those who seek the power to represent you are revealed.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Christianity from the Atheist's Point of View

I thought that in today's world of being P.C. I should do what few feel comfortable doing and grab the social "third rail". For anyone unfamiliar with that term, it was derived from subways/electric trains. The third rail is the rail that is electrified and is deadly. The social third rail is referring to subjects that tend to kill your social life, the two biggest being politics and religion. So today, I grab the third rail and talk about religion. I want to stress that this article is not in any way a scientific report, nor is it designed to bash any specific group. I went at this with the desire to just talk about things I have observed and the kind of questions, moral, philosophical, etc. that it raised for me. I hope you enjoy reading and as always, like, share, +1, comment and discuss!

There are a number of Christians who have made their opinions about atheists known, and I think it would be a good way to foster some understanding between the two groups if Christians were able to get an "insider's" point of view on atheism.

Atheism, at its heart, isn't that complex of an idea. Atheism at its most fundamental level is simply the belief that there is no deity (ie: God, Zeus, Ra, etc.). I want to stress that this is all it is. The concept is a very open format, how DO you go about "practicing" this idea? Well, this is where the disagreement begins.

Three types of atheist

In my my experience I've met several different types of atheists and I'll describe a bit about each and how/why they behave they way they do. This list is in no way complete, it's only meant to illustrate a few types that have stood out to me. I've chosen the names based on what I feel best describes them.

The high school militant atheist
Where to find them: High School
I call them militant atheists because they are the most aggressive looking, but in practice are pretty easy to ignore. These are mostly teenagers that are desperately trying to find a path in life and have read too many Richard Dawkins quotes. The main appeal of atheism to these kids is that their parents don't like it. They'll also be huge believers in anarchy (specifically the type that glorifies destruction and chaos). This combination of beliefs is one of the old cornerstones of teenage angst screw everyone, there's not a god and no law, I'll make my own world my way! In many cases this way of life is only temporary and they'll grow out of it. They're generally poorly educated on what the people they've quoted actually said and, like poorly biblically educated Christians, will cherry pick only what they need to make as many viscous statements as possible supporting their ideals. How do you deal with them? Just politely ignore them, don't fight them, just ignore them.

The combative athiest
Where to find them: debates
These folks are typified by being highly educated and very focused on proving they are absolutely right. I have some sympathy for them because they are honestly not doing it to be mean, they just do what they think is right (like most people). A prime example is Richard Dawkins, he will argue someone into the ground, doing everything he can to try and get you to understand his point. I enjoy reading his books, but I also take it with a grain of salt. He has good things to say, but you have to make sure you don't get caught up in the rhetoric. Don't confuse the combative atheist with a scientist, scientists only follow the evidence to their conclusions. I want to stress that there is a huge difference between someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins. Mr. Tyson is not bothered with religion unless it is used to try and attack science, Mr. Dawkins deliberately goes after religion for his own moral reasons.

The quiet atheist
Where to find them: anywhere
These are the folks who don't say anything about being atheist, they just go about their lives and don't bother with making their beliefs known. There's two reasons for this: first, they may believe their personal feelings are theirs and theirs alone and they shouldn't inflict their ideologies on others who may not want to hear it. Second, persecution. Persecution against atheists is very real, whether its done through pity or hate it is there. Such persecutions range from attempted conversions, to verbal attacks, or even as small and simpe as a look of disdain. The quiet atheist has learned that to avoid the discomfort of the next door neighbor offering a prayer for your finding the light of Jesus, just don't say anything.

Atheism is not organized

It isn't. We're not the catholic church. With a simple, one sentence idea "There is no God" comes immense flexibility in its execution. Many of them have the similar feelings to Christians about wanting to know the world they live in, but since God  is not the answer, they turn elsewhere for info. The vast majority turn to science. Why? Because if science says something, they have to prove it, they have to document it, others will tear it apart to try and find deception and when they can find none, only then will it be accepted. What stronger way is there to be proven right than your detractors admitting that they can not a flaw in your claim? The person who is trying their hardest to prove you wrong, must admit that in their honest efforts, reviewing the facts, they can not prove you wrong. That aside, there are atheists who just plain don't bother with it, they just carry on with their lives. There is no central organizing system that tells atheists how to behave or what to do, it's all up to the individual. The same can be said about any religious body, catholics, baptists, evangelicals, each group uses the same bible yet interprets and acts on it in different ways. There are organizations for atheists out there, but they tend to be filled with combative atheists.

The actions of one atheist is not indicative of all, just as the same can be said about Christians. To cite extreme examples on both sides, one of the arguments I hear against atheists is that of Stalin. On the other side there's the crusades, Spanish inquisition, Salem witch trials. Both sides of the argument have plenty of examples but that's not the focus of this article.

There is a large spectrum of atheists and they are trying to figure out what to do. I remember hearing someone say "Atheists pick and choose their morals" (Pope Benedict XVI), well, there's some truth to that, but the same can be said for anyone alive. Morals are partially taught and partially inherited (I will write an article on that some other day) and it is up to each of us to choose which ones to follow. Atheists are honest with this idea where I have found some dishonesty among the Christians.

How do I see Christianity?

Now that I've said all of that, I can finally get to what the title of the article SAYS I'm going to talk about.

Before I start, I want to give a few simple details about where my opinions are coming from. I grew up in the bible belt where the number of churches could compete with the number of gas stations. I've never been a believer in any religion, but up until a few years ago I would have put myself at 75% atheist 25% theist (now I am 100/0). As a child, I would be honest with my beliefs whenever asked, so I have experienced some persecution across different age groups. I bear very little ill will to anyone who has done that to me because it's all in the past and people change.

The religion
I will freely admit that I have not read the whole bible. Now that isn't for lack of trying, I've sat down with one several times and made a serious attempt at it. However, after one page I find myself desperate to stop. The material is dry and I imagine its because I'm spoiled by the wealth of fascinating literature I've read over the years. However, I CAN claim to have read the gospel of Judas, I found it to be interesting and left me wondering if it affects that context of the crucifixion story. As a whole, I find a disconnect between the religion and the practice of the religion. The bible says many things that I find morally questionable, things concerning the treatment of others, violence, gender disparity just to name a few. I also find it rather intriguing that there are so many translations available, yet they all seem to be very different. How strange is it that the bible is said to be the word of god when we humans keep re-translating it and changing the words and thereby changing the meaning. I would think that to best understand what was written, one would study the culture that the particular chapter came from, study the language, and then read it. It is fairly well established that each chapter was written in a different time in a different language and so a different mindset must be applied to each chapter. I also find it intriguing that while the bible was considered to be written by god, then why are the gospels named after the people who wrote them? If Mark wasn't written by mark, rather by god, why not call it "God[ch:verse]"? Now, while you may think that I am trying to bash the bible, I want to emphasize that I'm only pointing out things I find inconsistent with the idea of the religion. A thorough read of the bible will yield many good morals. Loving your parents and neighbor, kindness and charity, working together, all admirable traits, all worth teaching. My favorite is a line by Jesus of Nazareth in which he tells a group of people that they must sell all of their belongings and give everything they own to charity. If more people would do that, the world would be a better place, but that's a lesson that has fallen by the wayside.

As a whole, the religion is much more strict than is practiced today, parts of scripture are ignored because it would conflict with laws or because our sense of morals has evolved past that, which leads me to my second subject:

The people
The people who practice the religion are a wide and varied bunch, some are genuinely good, some are morally grey people, some are truly bad folks who hide behind their beliefs as a way to either justify their actions or to use as a tool for their own ends. Of all the people who do this, I find the pastor/preacher/priest to be one of the strangest from a moral perspective. What does it say about a congregation when the person who is charged with spreading the word of God is taking home a yearly salary that would pay the salary of 2 or 3 teachers? I once met a man who was a single father, he was the pastor for a small church and yet he was able to pay in cash a brand new $70,000 Mercedes Convertible. I fully understand and embrace the idea that someone should be compensated for their full time work, but isn't it a bit morally ambiguous to preach that one should be humble and charitable when the person in question is probably earning more than anyone else in their congregation?
I have met a lot of people who do good things, but for the wrong reason. Doing something good is nice, but when it is done with ulterior motives then it is no longer good. Case in point: a child gives her food to a hungry boy at lunch, a teacher notices and give her a piece of candy as a reward for such a kind gesture as the young boy she gave the food to is in a poor family who can't afford meals. The next day, the young girl gives her lunch to the boy again and this time looks at the teacher expecting her candy. This same concept can be applied to members of a congregation that do constant charitable acts (giving, volunteering, etc.). Are they doing it to be nice or are they doing it to be rewarded in their afterlife? The prospect of eternal paradise after death is a very tempting thing and with the christian culture's MASSIVE obsession with death, such behaviours can be expected. I wish to be clear, this is not an all inclusive statement, but more of a self reflective tale of caution. I only wish to give you, the reader, an idea to evaluate yourself with as I have done in years past.
Now on the topic of ulterior motives, I want to touch upon something that I've heard many people say about their churches: Church Cliques. Like public school, I have learned that churches have cliques too and I would claim that these cliques can be more damaging than what one might find in a high school. From the stories I have heard, the ones who are usually the most corrupt are the ones in charge of various organizations within the church. Their power within the organization usually means that if anyone wants anything done, they have to buddy up with a particular board member that can make it happen. Politics at its finest. Again, this isn't all board members/leaders, but this is what I have heard from most that I have talked to on this subject.
The second strangest part of people who are religious is: leaving. As I live in an area where there are 3 churches in 1/2 a mile's distance from my home and another 6 in 2 mile's distance, I've had a great deal of time to observe people leaving after services. What I've noticed is interesting, a great majority drive like they're trying to get the hell out of dodge. They will cut each other off in the parking lot, sit absolutely bumper to bumper, and the moment the tires hit the street, they're flooring it, usually going 15-20 over the speed limit. It raises the question, if they wanted to leave so badly, why did they go in the first place? The running for it really does indicate a desire to not want to be there, so I have to ask. It also raises the question, if they are there because "they have to be there" (ie: paying lip service), isn't that more dishonest than just saying "no, I don't want to go because I'm not a big believer?" Years ago, I had a girlfriend who wanted me to attend church with her even though I wasn't religious, I told her I couldn't. She complained, she was angry, but I told her the truth, I could not go because it would be a lie. I was not a believer and I will not lie about who I am. What does that say about me versus those who DO pay lip service? Does it make them superior because at least they were there or am I for my honest and resolution to not lie?
The number one strangest thing I've noticed about Christians is their ability to be mean or rude and justify it to themselves by saying God will forgive them. I see this daily, be it on the road, in the classroom, in the supermarket. How do I know they're Christian? Could I be wrong? Possible, but I can honestly say I don't know a single person who wears crosses just because they like the look, nor do I know anyone who decorates their car with religious memorabilia as a vehicular fashion statement. I've seen and read situations where some one is in the hospital and the whole family gathers there to pray. I know this is offensive, but I find that whole process rather absurd. If the family really believed in the power of god to heal someone, then why are they in the hospital? The doctors are the ones doing the actual work, the scientists are the ones creating new medicines, equipment, and techniques to save lives sometimes with the religious groups protesting outside the gates. On the road, I have found an inverse correlation between the amount of christian paraphernalia on the vehicle and how polite the driver is (using blinkers, proximity awareness/consideration, adherence to speed limit, obeying traffic lights/signs). These kinds of behaviours relate to my last major section:

There's little things, instances where the religion or the people do things that just cause me to do a double take and whether its bemusement, fear, or revulsion, it draws my attention. First there's the issue of holidays. Its very well established that the Christian religion has taken their major worship celebrations from other religions. They celebrate Christmas, but we all know Jesus wasn't born on December 25, Easter wasn't really the day Jesus was resurrected, but that day is celebrated anyway. Why? Simplicity. As the religion grew, they had to make their celebrations easy to remember, so they matched them up with existing celebrations (winter solstice and vernal equinox). Its not a bad thing, it just means that we need to be real with our holidays, Christmas isn't really a Christian exclusive holiday, many religions have a winter solstice celebration, same with the vernal equinox. Next is the relationship Christians have within its sects. There is a general agreement that they are all Christians, but I have seen a my Christ is better than yours kind of attitude which always perplexed my, if all Christian sects worship the same things then why not unite into one organized group? I understand that people wish to practice their religion in different ways, but even in the catholic church, different priests will run their services according to what they feel is important. Finally  large churches. I understand that some churches grow huge because the church goers enjoy the services put on by the leader (pastor/priest/reverend/etc), but in the bible Jesus of Nazareth tells people that their prayers should be done in private and not in large congregations. Isn't the idea of a mega church directly against how the founder of the religion instructed its believers to practice it?

Final Thoughts

All in all I've made many observations through my life trying to understand a wide array of traditions and quirks that make up the Christian faith. From the, at times, dangerous actions of the fundamentalists, to the indifference of those who simply pay lip service, Christianity is made up of a dense and complex spectrum of people. I don't believe that the religion is inherently good nor bad, it has many examples of great leadership and true good peppered in with acts of evil committed by the same God to the same degree. I have come to see that people will take from it what they desire reaffirming the idea that the hardest lessons are the ones we must learn ourselves. And while I have, by my own means, gone through my own self improvement, it is far from me to dictate what will work for everyone. If I were to make any kind of request to the Christian faith as a whole, I would request that they take time to step into the shoes of those who do not believe as they do to try and understand why others believe what they believe.