The Aftermath of Terror: Understanding ISIS and the Future of Our World

Last weekend France’s Prime Minister François Hollande declared a state of emergency and made the unprecedented decision to close off all of France’s borders after a large-scale terrorist attack was perpetrated in several spots in Paris leaving scores of dead and wounded.

As expected, soon after, a rush of condolences started pouring in from many heads of state and citizens from around the world who also expressed their rage at the situation and offered support for the victims.

In social media, many others whose countries had also been victimized by terrorism, sympathized with the French people by showing their support in different ways. And even hacktivist group Anonymous did its part by taking down Twitter accounts of people who sympathized with ISIS, including many of people who took to the social platform to hail Friday’s attacks as a great victory.

French Flag waving atop Caen Memorial- Nov 15th 2015 French Flag waving atop Caen Memorial- Nov 15th 2015 for the Nov-13th victims.  (Author: Benoit-Caen. Artist does not endorse this work. Creative Commons License. commons/wikimedia.org)

With the painful memory of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January still fresh in our memory, it seems France, and possibly other European countries, is now experiencing another wave of terrorism as leaders of those nations ramp up efforts to combat extremism in their own countries and abroad. Now it’s apparent that these tactics are having an adverse effect in European cities. ISIS for one isn’t having it.

But are we correct to say that these attacks are simply a balancing act of retaliation on the part of ISIS for France’s meddling in Middle Eastern affairs? Or is there something else that many, including progressive-leftists and moderates (including Muslim moderates) seem to be missing?

From the many reports circulating about the identities of the attackers and their motives, what happened in France this past Friday was neither an isolated incident nor amateur hour. It was a highly-coordinated, deliberate attack in response to, once again, not one or two things, but a myriad of events that coalesce to form a situation that can only be described here as a clusterfuck of global proportions.

It’s important to understand that some of these reasons carry more weight than others in determining the motives behind these vicious attacks which, as always, kill more civilians than they do elements of the infrastructure of the target group or country–and to be perfectly fair here, that goes for both sides.

But we also cannot ignore another important fact that most people often overlook, and that is that the repercussions from these attacks–meaning the rain of bombs that will continue to rain on ISIS strongholds–are as coldly calculated into the model of the act of terrorism as the act itself. Meaning that ISIS, who has already claimed responsibility, not only expects vengeance but they in fact welcome it.

Why, you may ask, would they want retaliation.

As far as I–in my limited knowledge–can see, there are a few valid reasons that perhaps you may not be aware of.

Off the Fringe

It’s quite easy to label ISIS as murderous lunatics. And it’s equally simple to say that ISIS is just a bi-product of geopolitics gone wrong. However, while you may be right about one, or both, the facts actually point us in the other direction.

Ever since ISIS (initially an offshoot of Al-Qaeda) stemmed away from the root organization in the early 2000s, it has worked hard to establish “legitimacy” among the local players in the region. At times, this has not been easy. But with the escalation of war activity by the US-led coalition in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria that left entire regions ungoverned, and the abundance of civilian sympathizers both events created, ISIS, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has not wasted any time in recruiting a large force for the purpose of creating the Caliphate he said he would build. By taking full advantage of the governance vacuum in Syria, ISIS under the replenished leadership–including many who had served under Saddam Hussein, including generals and commanders who now oversee military operations–began successful offensives in Iraq and Syria and very quickly began to gain ground.

Of course this is a very simplified explanation of the ISIS-AL-Qaeda alliance, but for the purpose of this post, it’s more than enough.

Although this all sounds like clockwork we cannot ignore the sad reality that the main motivation behind what can only be described as openly-clandestine acts of war (a terribly ambiguous term) has turned out to be more religious than political at this point. So, once again, while you may be right that ISIS is the product of foreign affairs as the United States and our allies armed and disarmed insurgencies in the Middle East during and after the Cold War, and that they truly are murderous lunatics, at this point the religious radicalism in this organization has become so pronounced that the political reasons have effectively ceased to exist.

Unlike their Muslim counterparts in other areas of the Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah, who have clear goals in mind, such as the liberation of Palestine and the eradication of Israel, and even Al-Qaeda, who is more theologically-based, although still political–ISIS is unique in that more than anything it seeks to establish a Caliphate (essentially an absolute theocracy) that will follow the exact model of ancient Caliphates dictated by the literal interpretation of the Quran.

So for us to say that ISIS’s motives are purely political, it makes liars out of all of us.

ISIS has for some time now, worked very hard to establish themselves as even more extreme than all other groups cataloged as terrorist organizations by the U.S., the U.N., the E.U., and others. The strategy here, if there ever was one, is to play into people’s fears and emotions, and up until now it seems to be working wonderfully.

"Escenas de la Guerra contra ISIS"- Trans. "Scenes of war against ISIS." Leopoldo Christie. Creative Commons License. commons/wikipedia.org

“Escenas de la Guerra contra ISIS”- Trans. “Scenes of war against ISIS.” Leopoldo Christie. Creative Commons License. commons/wikipedia.org

Since before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, countries and individuals started censoring themselves and each other for fear of offending an invisible enemy that could strike anytime, anywhere. Many of us have made it our business to condemn those who point out the faults in Islam and Islamic extremists by labeling them Islamophobes or “racists” (a term that wouldn’t even be applied correctly), but what those so-called “progressives” don’t seem to realize is that this is perhaps the biggest disservice we could be doing for our communities and our way of life. There is, after all, a way to discuss bad ideas without alluding towards derogatory or hateful undertones regarding a whole population (Islam as opposed to Muslims).

At the same time we give the bad guys a free pass on our freedom of speech. Emphasis on the “our” because of the history of our own societies and our acceptance that speech should indeed be free. This is precisely what ISIS and other terrorist organizations are working towards: a collective psychology molded by fear.

But they also play into people’s emotions  by making use of something so elemental in people’s hearts and minds that it transcends politics, alliances, and even reason: religion.

Other groups with specific goals in mind operating in different parts of the region, groups like Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, et al., are the products of history and of very specific circumstances derived from foreign policy blunders. They are also good PR firms in their own right, and they have only gotten better and better at it. These yahoos are not only crazy, they are also highly organized and very adept at manipulating social media to recruit members, which has worked very well for them in recent years. But while these other groups use religion as a lightning rod to attract extremists, even if they believe what they profess, ISIS seems to take the religious rhetoric to heart, leaving all the political baggage that defines all other groups among the rubble of their conquests. This makes ISIS unique. They have taken the Al-Qaeda model and perfected it.

ISIS is peculiar in that they are not an organization so much as they are the embodiment of an ideology. Its leadership not only understands the endless power religion has, but knows how to tap into that well, and the reason is simple: they believe every word they say to their very core.

There’s a movie called “The Siege” (very apropos in this situation) where one of the characters, a C.I.A. officer investigating terrorist cells in the U.S. along with an F.B.I. agent, tells her partner, “In this game, the most committed wins.” That rings true every time you hear the news.

When al-Baghdadi announced that there would be a new Caliphate on Earth, most dismissed the claim as nothing more than extremist mumbo-jumbo. What people at that time did not realize was that their radicalism was so beyond what we had seen before, something so ingrained into their very psychology, that they truly believed–whether the leaders knew otherwise or not–that they were the messengers of god sent to Earth to bring about an apocalypse, and that only as the Earth was engulfed in fire, could every “innocent and moral” being ascend to heaven.

I’m not making shit up here. These guys have taken the most literal interpretation of the Quran and applied it to the real world. Scary isn’t?

If we have learned anything from history is that literal interpretations of holy books usually lead to disastrous consequences. Google “Holy Wars,” if you don’t believe me. But their plans go further than that and I’ll explain what I mean in the next section.

ISIS knows that it doesn’t have the capabilities, yet, to fight a large-scale war with any country, especially countries who have powerful allies on their side (think the EU), which initially was the reason why they limited their aims only to the local chapters they created as they opened way inside Iraq and Syria. Unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIS did not plan to engage their fighters in foreign soil. Note that this doesn’t mean they did not support stand-alone acts of terrorism by home-grown extremists who were loyal to their ideals. But instead it seemed less-than-clear that they would devote all of their energy towards expanding their hold in that region before operating abroad.

It is more than evident now that they have radically shifted course.

Now, as the world braces for what seems to be a new type of warfare, we are finally beginning to understand how ISIS operates and what they have in mind.

Three major outcomes will stem from deliberate acts of violence and terrorism, which in some countries will converge and feed off of each other in a symbiotic relationship that will centralize gubernatorial power and strip away citizen rights. Not to mention radicalizing the other side.

Retribution and Endless War

The first of these outcomes is that retribution will envelop the Middle East in conflicts for decades. These conflicts will spread, as they already have, into quasi-guerrilla wars that will be taken to the streets of the places we deemed “safe” at one time, which is exactly what groups like ISIS want.

As France vamps up military action, and its allies join in, the world will begin a second wave of wars that will go on for the rest of our lifetimes. Atrocities and injustices will happen on both sides as defenses and attacks are passed back and forth, with civilian populations bearing most of the casualties.

ISIS will undoubtedly continue its attacks on the world’s cities in order to provoke a self-fulling prophecy of apocalypse as dictated on their holy book. And as more attacks and threats unfold, future leaders will inevitably be forced to protect their own populations by any means necessary. This will follow the second outcome which has been happening for some time now.

Totalitarianism: The All-Seeing Eye

As the world becomes engulfed in obscure conflicts with irrational actors, governments will find in a scared and willing population the means to tighten their grip of control with the valid excuse of protecting their countries and their citizens. Valid to a very limited extent.

As 9/11 has proven, clandestine government programs designed with the aim of gathering intelligence at the global level will effortlessly expand to monstrous sizes, giving these governments the tools to police their own citizens faster and easier. These are not sensationalist claims, it is already happening as we have seen with the PRISM and MUSCULAR programs run by the American N.S.A. and the British G.C.H.Q. agencies, not to mention all other intelligence agencies around the world, and with help from major tech corporations like Google, Facebook, and others. With some luck, a portion of these programs will be monitored (although the chances are slim). In reality most of these clandestine surveillance programs will be so secretive that in the future–as it is today–they will not even be known by lawmakers and the general public.

Eventually, fear will work just as good for this side as it does for the other side, and most nations will enter a new era of governance where most central governments will hold immense power and sway over their own populations. But why convince your own people that what you’re doing is for their own good if the enemy can show them more effectively? This is the beginning of the third outcome.

Radicalizing the Other Side

It’s already happening. As I type this, scores of lawmakers around the world have vowed to end the radicalization of Islamism. A few others have vowed to do this the only way they know how, with “good old Christian values” and their own brand of crazy.

One of the (un)intended consequences of what ISIS is doing is radicalizing the other side in hopes that this will bring about the last holy war, where the soldiers of god (which one?) will fight the final battle against the infidels and defeat them. I’ll admit to you that I’m not sure which side I’m talking about here.

Not to make a direct comparison between these two parties, but more and more Greece’s Golden Dawn Party, an ultra-right fascist organization that openly calls for the rejection of immigrants, non-whites, and non-Christians–and the American Republican Party are starting to sound very much alike. And what’s more, people are listening.

These, and many other, organizations advocate for the eradication of Muslims. At the same time, they build up and spread the idea that only Christianity can end this evil. To these people it has never occurred that they are only the other side of that coin.

Even friends of mine have expressed their humble opinions that “their god is a false god, and ours is the only true god.” Please take a moment to understand that logical dilemma.

Racism, bigotry, and xenophobia will increase to exorbitant levels–unfortunately it’s not only the religious who will be turned, but even the fragile moderate base will begin to collapse as fear sets in. We can already see it in our own countries and communities as people often conflate the terms “Muslim” or “refugee” with “terrorist”, and reject these people fleeing war-torn areas where many of them have been victims themselves of atrocities by ISIS or even their own governments.

There have already been reports that terrorist sympathizers might have infiltrated the refugee wave that landed on Europe a few weeks ago and even ISIS has said as much. So it’s not a baseless fear that governments and people have that at some point in the future their cities will be attacked. Unfortunately, many people whose homes and lives have been ruined by war will once again be the victims of hatred and discrimination in a whole new land, all because it plays well into ISIS’s plans that the infidels fear and hate Muslims, whether they are their Muslims or not.

Damages

While it is true that Islamism is at the forefront of these recent troubles, it would be unfair to paint all Muslims with the same brush. However, to dismiss this as an entirely extremist problem is also not accurate either, after all, the tenets of Islam do support the literal interpretation given by ISIS, even if most Muslims don’t. The problem is not Muslims, the problem is extremists and our failure to speak out against them for fear of offending or being labelled as bigots or Islamophobes. As far as the refugees who flee war-torn nations in the M.E. and North Africa, they are hardly to blame for these terrible events.

The world stands united with France in this terrible moment. But before the bombs rain and we unanimously decide that all Muslims are evil and we are the good guys, a few things to ask ourselves: Where is the compassion for the victims of other terrorist attacks throughout the world and why hasn’t there been an outcry for victims of similar atrocities like the ones in Beirut and Kenya? Where are the flags on Facebook and the hash-tags? What are we as individuals doing to combat extremism of all kinds?

One essential question to ask is whether strong nations only support strong nations; whether we only support our allies; or whether we are prepared to repudiate acts of terrorism wherever we find them.

As far as France goes–our oldest ally–we stand with them. We shed the same blood and the same tears. We have similar values and similar views. And at this terrible time, we are all French just as they were Americans on 9/11. But if there’s anything that I can leave you with today is that we are also all Kenyans. And Beirutians. Hell, we’re all humans! So when will we start acting like it?

Speak out, and encourage others to speak out, against extremism of all kinds, otherwise our future might be a lot shorter than we thought, and the apocalypse the other guys are striving for might come sooner than we would want.

It’s a good thing that you show support for the victims of these terrible tragedies. It’s good that you pray, but… Well, I will let the Dalai Lama end this with some words he said following this tragedy, words that are wiser than any I could conjure:

“We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

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“Why Do You Care?” – The Roadblock of Social Progress

Why do you care?”

If I haven’t been asked this question enough lately, I could definitely do without for the remainder of this year.

Depending on the context of the situation, the question can be asked defensively or it can be phrased offensively. In the specific context of my situation- and more specifically in the situation of millions of other people  also- it was a mixture of both.

A couple of weeks back when the news that the SCOTUS (that’s Supreme Court of the U.S.) declared that marriage in the United States was to be allowed for all persons of legal age regardless of gender, race, or creed, I, like millions of Americans and millions of people around the world, was ecstatic! Before that day, America was slowly moving in the right track toward social equality, city by city and state by state. However, I’m sure that like me, a lot of people never anticipated that it would come this soon and this fast. In my mind this was a process that would drag on for years to come only to culminate in some far away date no one would predict. Imagine our surprise. But once it came, as you know, the wave of euphoria spread throughout the land. There wasn’t a news channel, newspaper, or social media platform in the United States where the decision did not make news, and those who did not support it made their voices known only to be drowned out that day by those who did. A major part of that wave of positivism was the product of progressive social media campaigns, sometimes pushed by social media giants themselves such as Facebook and Twitter. That day, for example, millions of Americans from celebrities to politicians to regular people alike all took to Facebook and Twitter to show their support by either Tweeting about it or by adding the rainbow flag as a background on their profile pictures.

A few days later, a friend of mine asked me in earnest curiosity why I- a straight man- was celebrating something that clearly did not affect me in the least bit. The question was funny to me for several reasons and at that point I was thinking that perhaps he meant marriage in general, since aside from being straight, I also don’t wish to ever be married. But I understood the point as I understand it now.

That’s when it dawned on me that when it comes to civil rights issues- or many other everyday issues for that matter- there is still a very deep disconnect in our understanding of other people’s suffering; but also that we often do not question the things that truly matter and we do the things that don’t.

With utmost sincerity I explained to my friend that this huge change that had just happened in America had to be celebrated by everyone because essentially it pertains to everyone’s interests in the way that the Civil Rights Movement of last century pertained not just to African-Americans (or rather just Americans) but to humans. In effect, this was a victory for humans, not just for some humans.

If you are offended by the comparison I suggest you get your head out of your ass. I am well aware that the suffering for both black Americans and the LGBT community has been different in many ways, as well as their respective socio-political movements have been. But there is no doubt that where we are concerned they are both social issues where people have suffered as a consequence of other people’s ignorance and indifference, and therefore they should be addressed.

The problem I see regarding social and political movements nowadays is that people have taken too much trouble to compare one to another. The bigger issue here is learning to realize that a social movement that aims to create progress is never over and it’s continually progressing. In fact, it’s in any social movement’s ethos to continue that progress essentially forever.

To know the history of the LGBT movement in America we really don’t have to go that far back, merely a few decades- almost a hundred years to come to an honest timeline proximity.  However, if we wind back the clock a bit further we find that even though the attitudes towards homosexuality and hemophilia are dependent on specific historical settings, we see that in general, homosexuality has been frowned upon by more societies than we can count.

One could make the case that unlike the suffering of black people throughout history, LGBT members of any society have been less marginalized simply for their ability to blend into that society easier, having no discernible exterior features that give away their innate condition other than their sexuality. But playing devil’s advocate for a second, are we not wrong in making such distinctions, or even dismissing the suffering of one group by comparing it to the suffering of another?

Although tolerance lies in the objective mind, there is no doubt that it is also a subjective experience. It’s then that we begin to see that social change is not so much going in circles as it is spiraling upwards as far as progress is concerned. To compare one progressive movement to another is to denigrate the very meaning of social progress, precisely because it’s social, meaning it affects society as a whole, and it’s progress, meaning it moves society forward.

Just from common sense alone you might infer that every “race” as we know them today (and even every race within a race) has been, at some point in human history, victimized by another. Take a look at the history of military conflicts and you will see that it is always the losing side that gets pulled down to the bottom of the social scale. This even happens in modern times. Where in the 1800s and early 1900s Chinese, Italians, and Irish immigrants were the “flavor of the month” as far as the most persecuted races in America, now Hispanic immigrants are. Of course there are a few groups that throughout history have been more hated than others, Jews for example who have had to endure antisemitism for over two thousand years. But to say that because Jews have had a hard time throughout history to really care about any other group of humans, would not only be a blatant disregard of social order, it undermines the kind of morality we are trying to instill in future generations and it is exactly the kind of potentially harmful learned social behavior that breeds ignorance, hatred, racism and the propagandist vitriol that disseminates it.

Do we have to be one race or another to ONLY understand their suffering?

Granted, most educated people in the world now don’t see it this way. But there are still those that make the comparison with a certain degree of animosity.

It seems to me that the reasoning behind the alienation of supporting cooperative social progress is flawed, and in fact it is downright illogical.

Saying that a group or a person should only offer their support for one of the things they believe advances social well-being, and adhere to what it is only their concern due to race or creed- or any other self-serving reason really- is discrimination at its finest. That mentality narrows conversations and excludes others who are of a different race or creed or sex to be part of a positive change that’s being created for the world and for the future of the human race as a whole.

Imagine for example if the hatred of Jews had evaporated just as soon as it began, there is no doubt we would have different problems in the world right now, but not that specific problem to try to fix. In fact, imagine if hatred of any race had never existed in the first place, where would we be?

It is a waste of time to study history in the hopes of “what would’ve been,” so instead we should study history in the hopes of understanding how we can, once and for all, eradicate hatred now that we have a deeper understanding of the social structures that we create and the tolerance that we have come to acquire through much pain and suffering.

 

Selective Urgency/Selective Tolerance

Sometime before the SCOTUS announced equality in marriage I announced in some social site or other that equality in marriage is basically, or should be, a non-issue and that more urgent matters required our attention.

Of course from everything you read in the sections above it might sound hypocritical of me to even say that there are more important things to think about than gay rights, or ridding our world of racism, sexism, classism, etc.

By this I did not want people to confuse the intention- I don’t believe we as an entire nation should be discussing something that is so foreign to our national priorities. But I also don’t want people to confuse the underlying message- the fact that we are discussing these matters effectively proves that we have been ready for quite some time to move past the kind of social roadblocks that prevent us from creating a near-perfect society.

At first reading it sounds as though I don’t consider human rights to be part an urgent matter to discuss. I’m saying that given how much we’ve known about ourselves historically, the issue of human rights is one that in today’s day and age should take no longer than a coffee break. It is imperative that we force each other to recognize that human rights is for all humans- not for some, not for the best, but for all. And it is something that, in brutal honesty, should have been resolved by now.

One of the reasons why this moment hadn’t arrived sooner is because of selective tolerance.

We as individuals do not devote all of our attention to one unbelievably huge problem, one that seems to be out of our reach (e.g. the imminent death of our galaxy, the existing threat of nuclear war, or even global warming) especially when our lives are already buried beneath an avalanche of problems of our own that we must worry about. Instead we limit the laundry list of problems to what we can carry individually and devote decreasing slices of our time to those problems that seem to be out of our reach (e.g. gay rights, and within that bracket, gay marriage; drugs, etc…) Unfortunately in this case the problem comes about when in the interest of self-preservation we often run contrary to the benefit of the whole “colony” to benefit ourselves, in smaller and smaller numbers.

A little thought experiment.

Whether you are poor, middle-class, or filthy rich- provided you have had some kind of education- you know it’s a fact that mass poverty is something that affects millions around the world everyday, and that in some countries poverty is so extreme that people die by the millions because of it and because of the slew of social consequences it produces. You are aware that poverty affects some percentage of the total global population, and depending on the country we’re talking about you know that some areas are more affected than others, maybe even in your own town. Of course you know this.

But when TV ads about the poor, dying kids comes on television do you jump to the chance to donate money to sustain a child in some poor faraway nation?

Congratulations to those who said they do/would. But how many of you asked yourselves in this hypothetical scenario what their own financial situation was before donating- or even whether you should? Doubtless there’s a moral echo going off in the back of your head while you guiltily check your bank account. But don’t worry, I would- and have- asked myself the same thing. The point is that the majority of us have done it practically on cue. While intrinsically altruistic people do exist in the world, they don’t by any means constitute any majority- intrinsically selfless people being an even smaller circle.

However, there are obvious evolutionary advantages for that kind of selfish attitude, and we have done well to translate them to our modern times; we just cannot help but weigh out how helping others will shortfall us in some way. This is something we all do regardless of anything. We are, to a certain point, selfish. Of course the situation is not as black-and-white as it sounds, and you are not selfish as I made you seem. Perhaps you donate to Amnesty International, or you devote your time to recycling programs, or you anonymously bought the next table over their meal. Maybe you’re even more selfless and you donate time and money to a cause- and maybe religion is a big part of that course of action. But the fact remains that there are degrees of selfishness and reasons to be so. For example we are selfish enough not to give to those faraway starving children, but selfless in that we would provide for our own children before we provide for ourselves. Our altruistic motives only go as far as we allow them to.

Coming back “to the gay thing,” it appears that logically we cannot all care about all the issues that happen so we select those that affect us in closer social proximity. It is a logical step to take and it would make sense that most people would consider equal-rights as being something more important that something that appears extraordinarily complicated and long- something like global warming per se. But ask a starving person if they consider global warming a pressing issue, or gay rights for that matter. I’m quite sure they would disagree with you while trying to instill enough urgency in you to feed them.

It is important that you as the reader understand that by this I am neither shaming you, nor pushing a hidden agenda here- I actually do believe global warming is the more important issue here-but people would benefit greatly by understanding the ridiculous comparison between one issue of overdue resolve to one of yet-greater potential damage to us as a species and for the planet itself.

Think of it this way, if homophobia (and sexism and classism and cynicism) suddenly vanished from the human condition- think how much could be accomplished. Without straying far from the context, the amount of time humanity has been talking about sexuality- or people’s personal lives for that matter- is far too long for us to have conceived any honest notions of planet colonization a thousand years sooner.

Perhaps, the pats in the back we give ourselves for our great achievement of finally advancing social reform  will show us just how capable we are, as a thoughtful, tolerant society, of moving past ignorance while at last revealing just how tedious the subject actually is.

Of course not talking about it isn’t as easy as it sounds, after all entire ad campaigns have been formed around issues that shouldn’t be pressing and not enough time is being devoted to issues that truly are a matter of life and death for all of us (but that’s for another blog). However, until our collective understanding of social equality catches up to this future we’re living in, talking about human rights for that matter is one of the most important thing to think about. Ironically if we want to fix the world we inhabit we must first fix ourselves.

 

The Role of Religion

Think hard about the following question: How does gay marriage affect me?

The short answer is that it doesn’t.

The long one is that you want it too. And over time it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy that you have made it affect you. Am I not talking about it now?

The fact is that same-sex attraction exists within all species of living creatures in the planet. It’s natural because we are part of nature itself. And it’s not abominable because sexuality- even if it’s practiced responsibly- will always carry some kind of risk no matter what, homosexual sex is not exclusive. Think how slower AIDS would have spread had we as a society been more tolerant. Instead of shaming our kids for being who they are, we could’ve informed them to practice sex and love, safely.

This is where our other prejudice comes from, and in this case it is deeply rooted not in our DNA but rather in our voluntary convictions- something much more terrifying.

If we haven’t presented a voice to speak for those we alienate in society, we might get away with it by putting it on our very own intrinsic selfishness. But if the human race is already alienating towards those we don’t’ like, there is one thing I can think of that puts those doubts into overdrive- voluntary conviction, and nothing does a better job at it than religion.

Just in the same, but opposite, way that we are selfish not to give to those children in Africa, sometimes it is to our advantage to make other people’s lives miserable. If you don’t believe that, read up on… pretty much every single war ever.

Even if you consider yourself a good person, it serves some purpose to enslave people, or at the very least deny them the same rights that you’d grant yourself. In the case of financial motivation I can at least understand its nefariously logical ways to make us be a bit more selfish with others and a bit more selfless with ourselves or our own.

But a more curious- and hopelessly lost situation- is when we enslave others, or deny them rights, with the inviolable conviction that what we are doing is a good thing. There is no moral ambiguity here, the only way any human will adhere to morally reprehensible ideas while keeping a clean conscience, is either by being medically psychopathic or by being devotedly religious. You can see for yourself when you ask a question like: should gays be allowed to marry?

If you were one of the few who said no, I would challenge you to think of a valid reason why they couldn’t that was not based on religion. Without wasting anyone’s time I will say that outside of religion there is no valid reason for why gay people shouldn’t marry or form relationships, and those who insist on quoting scripture should do well in reminding themselves why they have just denied a human the right to love.

Once on Facebook I debated a person who believed that without a doubt all human life should be respected and that all humans should have the right to live free and happy lives. The caveat here was that as long as they weren’t gay they should be.

I can think of only one way in which an obviously intelligent and decent person would get it into their heads that happiness is not deservedly equal unless blank.

The simple fact is that religion has taken too much of our time in idiocies that not enough people would believe had it not offered some kind of reward that is “too big to fail.” Or in fact, too big for us not to take notice. Something so large that it can only be received in the one life we are not even sure exists- go figure.

So it seems that religion while in some contexts is benevolent, at the root it is just as selfish as our natures can go, and then some.

Global warming- yes again with that- is a problem that is significantly more urgent, although more distant, in scope if not in time. This is one of those pressing issues that if we fuck up, has the potential to annihilate not just the human race but pretty much everything else. And yet, we approach it with the same patronizing urgency we show kids.

In the subject of religion, decency, like public discourse, seems to go only as far as the word of god allows, it appears. Whereas in any other context the diminishing bubble of religious influence allows our decency to go much further, even if it’s not as far as it should be.

John Lennon once said, “Imagine all the people living life in peace…”

Lennon used to beat his wife. And while some have elevated him to near mythical status, Lennism isn’t a religion- that I know of. That should tell you something about the fanaticism of some, while reminding you of the objectivity of most.

Lennon was truthfully an incredible human being- but he was no god and in fact he was very flawed . And the rest of us, like sheep, are smart, and perhaps a bit selfish as a few, but very idiotic and corruptible as a flock. The moment we realize that we are betraying our own humanity for ideas people had about how to live two thousand years ago, the faster we can start talking about the things that will take us, quite literally, to the stars.

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Instead, check this out:

 

School Me: America’s War On and For Education Pt. 1

The year is 2015 and America is fighting a war that has nothing to do with WMDs, drug-lords, or crazy religious fundamentalists in some remote country. Nope. The war is at home and we’re fighting it for and against ourselves to win and lose even though we’re doing everything we can to lose it (to win it) while fighting to win it (to lose it). Confusing isn’t it?

Just like any war, the battles we’re fighting each and every day leave collateral damage behind, only this time the victims are not enemy combatants, or traitors, but our children. Our what? Yup, kids. But even more importantly what our children represent- the future.

If this sounds drab, dark and slightly apocalyptic, is because it kind of is. I might be a bit melodramatic, that at least is true, but that’s only for effect. But we can at least agree on one thing, that the education system in America is failing from the bottom up and soon this war that our politicians, our corporations, our religious institutions, ourselves and each other are fighting will set us on a path that eventually will lead us to one of many eventual demises.

So, sit back and relax, and let’s explore how the war on education is rotting the core of what America is. A war that is unnecessary and easily winnable, but a war that we seem determined to keep fighting for better and for worse.

 

First Steps

 

Think for a moment about how you raise your children, or if you don’t have any children just daydream for a second about how you would raise kids if you had any. It’s a scary thought, I agree. After all, going to any Chuck-E-Cheese anywhere in America will make you think twice about having kids if you don’t have them, or make you re-think your choices if you do. And although making kids is probably the most fun you will ever have, raising them is no picnic- at least not a sunny one. Each stage of raising a child has a different level of difficulty that no one expects. Life is uncaring as to your early baby-planning or your college fund, and it’s something that not even the wealthiest parents in the world can prepare for. Remember that having money doesn’t exactly mean that they will turn out to be the best people in the world- in fact, sometimes it’s quite the opposite. It’s then that the old adage fits perfectly: No one is ever truly prepared for kids. That’s just one of those inescapable universal truths that every parent learns one way or another.

But think about how you were raised. You turned out fine, right? Kinda? Don’t feel too bad if you still live with your parents, or if you’ve been to juvie, or at 30 you don’t have a stable job, or haven’t gone to college yet or blah blah blah. All you have to do is turn on the news and you’ll immediately feel better and realize that “kinda” maybe isn’t all that bad. Agreed, it’s a half-assed way to live life, but in context, “kinda” is just the space between good and bad and nothing else. You are at the center of the balance and only you have the power to tip it one way or the other.

But what got you there? Sure, a lot of people talk about genes and outside influence. But if you pay close attention, you will notice that while DNA plays a huge role in who you are, for the most part, what you do is closely related to how you were raised. And this is where we start.

You’ve probably heard the saying “education begins at home.” People don’t just say it for nothing, the path to education begins from the moment you come out of the womb and continues throughout those first fragile formative years. By the time formal education begins (meaning school), kids are already walking and talking, and like it or not they have also adopted some of their parents’ ways of thinking including basic forms of thinking and prejudice. And you can’t really blame the way they are- at least not during the first few years of school- on their schoolmates, seeing as how they spend most of their time behind school walls, because the behavior had to have come from somewhere in the first place. So being totally frank, if your kid is an asshole in school it’s mostly not his/her fault. Then again, it’s not mostly your fault either- although you did raise them. No excuses to be had here Biebs.

But that really is an interesting question to ask, whose fault is it for children’s bad behavior? Is it the parents’ fault; is it the schools’ fault? Is it no one’s fault (genetics)? Environmental? Chemicals in the food? Media content? Someone has to bear that responsibility, but who? In my non-expert opinion I believe the problem to be an unequal combination of all of these factors with two being the main culprits- the parents and the education system. “Why me?!” I can hear parents and teachers yelling in unison. Well, again, child-rearing begins at home. It’s simple, if your kid watches Jersey Shore and acts like the douchebags in it, it’s only because you allowed them to. If your kid curses it’s not her fault, she probably doesn’t even know what it means. If your kid punches some other kid, it will inevitably be part of his genes to be prone to anger, but it’s learned behavior that dictates how he will behave in the future given the appropriate instruction and/or punishment. In other words, morality is instilled at home. Technical instruction is given at school.

Consider this, conventional wisdom- and science- tells us that the perfect age to have kids is in your 20s. Too young (20s-) might mean an unstable financial situation and too old (30s+) could mean more of a burden on your body.  Of course there are more things to consider than just a good job and a good uterus, but for the most part you’d want both to be in good condition. But the thing that no one really thinks about is that no matter at what age you get pregnant, the thought of becoming a first-time parent can be a daunting and scary thing to prepare for. It’s only logical that you would need help with that responsibility, not only from other parents but also from experts in child-rearing and education. After all, you want to give your child the best possible start.

This 2008 report by statesmanjournal.com, details how 95% of funds going towards education are allocated only for formal education, which means that what the state spends on education is only relevant until after children have already been acclimated to their parents’ way of thinking. Forget sponges,  during those formative years children’s brains are more like powerful (and fragile) machines that react to nurturing just as much as they do to nature-ing. In fact, there’s research to suggest that due to neural interactions, a child learns much faster than you do.

What this is all saying is that between the age of 0 and 5, a child’s brain develops faster and stronger than it will ever do in that child’s life; during those years the information it acquires is essential for his/her psychological development and it is crucial in establishing a well cemented base for future learning. And yet- at least in the U.S.- less than 5% of the educational resources are going towards this age-group. Why?

I’m not sure exactly (or maybe I’m too incompetent to find out why- thanks school!) but it seems that those in charge of the money do not consider this to be a priority even though amounting research suggests that more money should be put to good use in this area. It appears the government trusts YOU too much with your own child not to offer much help.

In my opinion, more resources should be allocated to implement government-subsidized child-rearing classes that continually evolve with new research, to help young parents and/or first-time parents raise their children better until they start school. I’m sure there is something like that already, but is it enough? It’ll take a whole generation to find out.

Of course, education has changed in the classroom. If we read into that history and compare educational methods, say, from 100 years ago, then even the poorest of nations has a lot more information to impart in the classroom than they did before- and hopefully better methods also. That they don’t want to or don’t care to is another matter. That also varies by country, by region and even by school.

 

Resources: Substance and Style

 

But education is dependent on more than one factor, not only on what we know. For example, children who live in poor nations, in conflict-ridden areas, and girls more than boys are much more at risk of missing out on the kind of education that children are afforded elsewhere. This is something we know, but still not enough resources are available to help with children’s educations besides a few charitable organizations and UN programs. Food availability, distance,  parent’s marital and social status, social conflict, etc. These are all factors, among many more, that can greatly affect the chances of a child going to school.

But what about here in America? Surely we don’t run into issues like those. Do we?

If you’re naive enough to think so, you are dead wrong. Recent studies show that the link between poverty and children’s educational development is strong stateside. And with poverty come a whole slew of other problems: family instability, domestic violence in some cases, and behavioral problems.

For example the Bible Belt, which is the Southernmost area of the United States, is the poorest clump of states in the nation. Not coincidentally it is also where students K-12 are the least educated. This interesting report by the Huffington Post finds the connection between what each state spends on education and children’s education ranking by state, among other criteria.

But lack of money is not the whole problem. Ironically, having it and not using it properly can be just as detrimental.

Look around you. Most people now have more than three devices to use to watch their favorite shows, download music, read stuff on the internet, watch cat videos, blog, vlog, etc. Just now I’m sitting at my desk watching Netflix on an iPad. My laptop is sitting right in front of me, my phone is in my pocket, my TV five feet away from me, and my roommate’s TV ten feet away. Each and every one of these devices capable of doing all of those things I mentioned and more. So in a fifteen feet radius I have more computing power at my disposal than all of the computers in the world combined during the 60s. You see where I’m going with this?

Somehow we haven’t realized that the future so many sci-fi writers wrote about in past decades is now! We are not making use of the technology that we have at our fingertips precisely for the most noble purpose there is: the advancement of education. Or at least, we’re not doing it enough. Any parent should walk into a classroom and see their tax-dollars at work (or at least a bigger chunk of it) in the form of a personalized computer for their kids. We have enough resources to provide every child in America with an iPad to use and to learn from.

Schools should prioritize what they teach our kids. Cursive writing is not a priority, computer science is. For the sake of our future generations, it is imperative that we get rid or minimize non-essential subjects and replace them with advanced sciences and skills that they will need in the future.

This very day, most countries are sitting on endless mines of information and we simply do not use the tools at our disposal to get to the treasure. Like the likable character Roman on the film Ocean’s 13 once said, we are “…analogue players in a digital world.” The children in our classrooms are still using notepads and pencils when they should be using iPads and stylus pens. And even poor nations have these capabilities, if they spent more on education that is.

The internet came at a time of vast technological advancement and that advancement doesn’t seem to be slowing down but rather speeding up. Not only has technology caught up with the power of the internet itself, but it’s now helping it grow faster and stronger. That’s something to exploit to the maximum.

The perfect analogy to use here is a dam. We are like fish, living in a little puddle of information while water trickles down from a wall. On the other side of the wall is a vast lake that we just can’t get to. I suppose I don’t have to tell you that what any of this represents.

This knowledge that I talk about is universally beneficial. But is knowledge even enough? With the amount of information that we now have at our disposal, it is more than just an excuse not to impart it correctly. We have come far from when used the abacus to make simple calculations, now we use calculators. Perhaps it’s time we upgrade, and not just what new technology we have available, but also in our right to use it. Teachers should encourage children to use the technology at hand to acquire as much information as possible; but we as parents also need to learn Information in bulk is not necessarily education. Another problem I see today with the way schooling (institutionally and at home) is done is that we are too preoccupied teaching children what to think, and not necessarily how to think.

 

Making the Grades: The Evolution of Teaching Methods
Image source: www.topeducationdegrees.org

 

Scoresheet

 

Considering that the United States is still a technological, military, and economic superpower it’s only logical that we should also reign as an educational giant as well. And yet, in terms of primary and secondary education we’re not in even in the top 10 in two of the most important areas!- science and math. By now it’s probably been drilled into your head from several different sources how education in America is lagging behind other countries in K-12 education, especially in the mentioned disciplines.

This research by pewresearch.org, with data from PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), shows that improvement in areas like math and science for American students has been a slow one, and we still shadow many countries, including most industrialized nations.

The average scores indicate that for all 15-year-olds from various nationalities who participated since the triennial survey was last taken in 2012, the United States scored in 27th place in mathematics, just above Sweden and Hungary but lower than any of the major industrialized nations in the world with Singapore taking the top spot. As far as science goes Americans fared a little better in 20th place, scoring well ahead of Italy, Norway, and Russia.

It’s encouraging to know that we are doing better than we did a couple of decades ago, but let’s not pat each other’s backs just yet, we’re not that well off. If we take into account our massive budget, we should be spending much more on education that we give ourselves credit for. There is no excuse why these scores shouldn’t be much higher.

The 2014 federal budget  provided $71 billion in funds to the Department of Education, or 4.6% of national spending. Yeah this is a huge number, but it’s nothing compared to the gigantic $526 billion allocated to the Department of Defense.  That’s seven times more than what the DoE gets! You would think that those 71 billion dollars would put us ahead of little Singapore in something as small as math and science education, a country with a relatively small GDP of $298 billion compared to America’s $16 trillion, but somehow something just doesn’t fit. Of course, Singapore doesn’t have nearly as many enemies as the U.S. and their budget doesn’t allow for much international expenditures as our does, but… come on! 71 billion dollars! If Singapore can subsidize its entire education system and pay its teachers better than we do ours, then surely we can move some money around and give the DoE a couple more billion dollars and do the same or something similar here. It would not only make sense, it’s the right thing to do.

This is a noble competition in which every country should strive to take the top spot. Education is nothing to compete over, except when we’re doing it against ignorance and the countries that can afford to do so are helping themselves by coming to the aid of those at the bottom and helping them rise.

 

Put To the Test

 

We talked about outdated technology. Now let’s talk about outdated methods. In the post-internet era, we are still teaching children with the same methodology that schools used from before even the fall of the Soviet Union, despite psychiatry, psychology and neuroimaging making new important discoveries every year, including child rearing and child behavior. And unfortunately one of those areas in which we don’t seem to be advancing but rather regressing, is standardized testing.

Children today in the United States get tested on as if they were all about to colonize Mars! You might be thinking “what’s the big deal? So they get a few tests here and there.” But they don’t just get a few tests here and there. While testing is an important part of learning, just like everything else, in excess is counterproductive. Kids today get tested on English, Math, Science, Physical Education, History (one of the few subjects that actually evolves merely for its content, or rather by its content). They get tested two, three, five, sometimes even ten times per trimester. They get federal testing, state testing, school testing and on top of that, they get regular periodic tests. Dozens of hours are spent on just testing these kids; and you as a parent are left thinking, “What the hell are they teaching them that they have to test them so much?” Mars huh?

Many parents- perhaps even you yourself- are now wondering if we are overtesting kids. A lot of them are wondering if all this testing is actually leading us somewhere or if we’re just walking to the edge of a cliff. And many are starting to push back.

Well, it didn’t take long for the issue to become political. Now Congress is also starting to ask the same questions parents around the nation are asking- “Is there a benefit?

To get to the root of the problem we have to observe our own kids. When they get ready to take a test, are they doing everything they can to learn the information and use it on the test, or are they doing everything they can to pass the test no matter how they do it? And if it’s the former, is the information even being retained?

Where I’m going with this is that if school is supposed to be beneficial in the sense that it’s meant to be a knowledge machine, why are we throwing nuts and bolts into it thinking it’s helping when it’s just breaking everything inside?

But don’t be too quick to blame teachers. Many of them also think that testing- or rather administering tests the wrong way- is bad for our students; psychologists have taken careful notice of what goes on when we overtest and have arrived at the same conclusion- when it comes to testing, or more importantly, to learning, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

 

Homework? So 1900s

 

“Oh no, don’t mess with the homework dude! That’s my off time.” Some parents are undoubtedly thinking this. Kudos to you if you actually help out your kid with her homework, or with that science project that we all know will turn out to be a papier-mâché volcano.

Well while it will help you bond better with your kids, making them bury their noses in a notebook for three or four hours a day will not necessarily do anything.

Just like exercising the muscles, working out the mind also has a resistance limit after which there is no beneficial gain to keep pushing. Well, it turns out that contrary to what you may believe (possibly arrogantly about yourself), humans have a rather short attention span of just minutes. For adults it happens to be between 15 and 20 minutes while children have much shorter attention spans.

What does this tell you about homework? Yes, you might be walking by their rooms and they’ll be pretending to read the book. Hell, they might even actually be trying. But I- and more importantly, psychologists- assure you that while their eyes are scanning the words, their brains are flying far far away.

Like over-testing, spending too much time doing homework seems to have a negligible result in standardized testing, and in more cases than not, it directly hurts the chances of a better score. This study from researcher Jose Muñiz from the university of Oviedo in Spain says as much- while effort, parent aid, and [daily] frequency of homework helps a lot, spending more than two hours a day on homework doesn’t.

The alternative is much simpler- school should make learning much more accessible by allowing students free expression and help mold the young mind into something desirable to pursue. While parents need to devote the time to fine-tune that learning at home, and not necessarily doing homework.

Let’s not kid ourselves (pun not intended), homework will not go away anytime soon- although it should. However, the way in which homework is done can have a great impact in how well your kid advances not in class, but in understanding. Psychologists and sociologists have concluded that the manner in which you as a parent help your kid with homework makes more of a difference than you taking direct control. This just plays into the whole idea that kids need to be allowed free rein and explore imaginatively, rather than being dictated to and limited.

 

Invisible Roadblocks

 

If you thought I wasn’t going to mention religion in this one, you are dead wrong.

Already too many states in the United States (guess which ones) teach creationism along with evolutionary biology by local political mandate, despite the 2005 landmark Supreme Court case Kitzmiller v. Dover, where the court ruled against the teaching of creationism, or the word-savvy intelligent design, in public schools.

In the first link provided (in the hook “too many states”) you will find an interactive map of all the states that have, in some form, a creationist curriculum that openly challenge evolution science as something more of a fable and not completely testable. The fucking irony.

As if it wasn’t enough to have kids recite a Pledge of Allegiance (something bordering on creepy and Big Brother-y), and one created in part to sell flags, Eisenhower added the word “god” to counter the godless Communist threat back in 1954. As if being godless was actually what inspired Stalin to kill 100 million of his countrymen… or as if adding the word “god” to the pledge actually helped.

The point is that since the pledge and even before it, schools still have the nerve to question hundreds of years of data without base. These people are more than eager to teach their absolutely unverified and untestable version of the “truth” to all children alike, without regard or consideration for children’s backgrounds, something which puts everyone behind. And on top of that, the children of secular parents are being punished for something which they have little control over.

If you know this blog then you must know that my feelings towards religion are ones of suspicion and contempt. I, along with millions of others, feel that religion is in its most intrusive,  most harmful, and most illogical form when it is taught in the classroom.

Personally, I see no useful purpose for religion in today’s world, not even- and especially- as a moral yardstick. Contrary to popular belief, science can now explain morality thoroughly without the need of superstitious rituals. Yet, a lot of people don’t see it that way. They hold on to the old beliefs and what’s worse, the religious are playing the last card they have to play, children. Because they are innocent and thus impressionable, it is easier to manipulate a child to believe in abnormal things.

I would be understating the issue if I said that religion has absolutely no place in public schools, not just legally but also in terms of relevant information. And before we get into a theological debate, you should note that I said religion, meaning all religions. What is especially troublesome about an imposition of religious rituals or religious teaching in school is that you can’t possibly accommodate the thousands of religions that exist in the world in a place that intends to make use of the most down-to-Earth (pun intended), verifiable, and impartial information there is. Which is why science is there to save the day.

While religious fundamentalists argue about whether the Earth is 6,000 years old or 10,000 years old based on nothing else than Bible interpretation, the core of science has gone out and researched endlessly and compiled all known data into verifiable textbooks that kids now use in the classroom. It is unfair, not to mention arrogant, for religious parents and teachers to force distorted views of the world as they see it to kids who will very much grow up believing this stuff. What they fail to realize is that everything has a connection to something else. For example, teaching a kid that the Earth is younger than some known tree species we know might not make much of a difference if the child grows up to be a musician or an actor. But if that kid wants to become a biologist, or anything science-related actually, he or she will be the laughing-stock of academia a la Waterboy. 

I’m not saying that you don’t have the right to believe in whatever you want to believe, just not in a public taxpayer-funded school. The Constitution of the United States expressly prohibits the teaching of religion in places funded on the taxpayer’s dime, so in the interest of fairness, or at the very least for the sake of your child’s future, keep the Bible at home or at church where they belong, not in the classroom.

 

Okay, Einstein, what’s the best thing to do?

 

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” – Albert Einstein

The concept of school is an ancient one. For thousands of years people have been teaching each other what they know about the world. It hasn’t always worked the way it should, but it has worked- case in point, we know a lot about a lot today. So it would only make sense that school should be an institution where knowledge is born and not merely cascaded down. However, it seems that’s actually the way it is. The institution has come to a point where individuality is repressed in favor of mass instruction. Something especially apparent in testing- which we mentioned before.

Do you remember that part on Forest Gump where Sally Fields’s character tells young Forest that he’s the same as everyone else, but then when the principal tells her that her son is different she comes back with, “Well, everyone’s different…” Of course it sounds way funnier in the movie, but it’s true, we’re all different and we’re all the same in different contexts obviously. Yet, school seems to want to make us all the same. At least in the way that we learn.

Like I mentioned before, now we know with proof what we’ve always known subconsciously, that kids learn at different rates and with different techniques. Some kids learn best by reading, others by looking at pictures, others are better at math than they are at history. The point is to instill in students a sense of comfort. To play their strengths and work their weaknesses, but what tests do is assume that every student is the same. Again, benchmarking is important because there definitely needs to be a basic average level that every student needs to be in every subject, but it seems that we’re only stopping there. Where’s the individuality? Where’s the push for greater knowledge?

You might infer from what’s being said that exclusion will lead to kids becoming territorial- even more so- but what we’re trying to achieve is just the opposite- inclusion. And inclusion is key. Due to many factors, some kids will learn faster than others. That’s just one of those things not even a teacher can control. However, taking into account those earlier things I mentioned about psychology, psychiatry, and technology, surely we can devise ways to measure kids’ performances without having to burden them with endless homework assignments, stressful rounds of testing, and outdated teaching techniques that don’t do much more than make kids loathe school, and as a consequence possibly even learning. They have enough to worry about in the recess yard to make them worry about what goes on inside the classroom.

 

Graduation

 

Let me conclude by saying that I am no education professional, medical professional, or an expert in any of the fields mentioned here, so do read this with a grain of salt. I merely offer my personal opinion on an issue that I consider to be one of the most important ones in our time, but more importantly for the future.

Of course there are many more things that can affect child behavior and learning capabilities: nutrition, bullying, outside influence, etc. I will probably touch on these subjects later on in other blogposts. But for now I just wanted to go a bit more in-depth about how education is not being given absolute priority in our country and elsewhere in the world.

The question to you is, do we really want to stress our kids out? School is undoubtedly necessary for our children, it’s not only a right of passage, it will prepare them at least in an academic level for the things they will need to know in the future. In the courtyard they will get a taste of what’s to come in life in terms of social connections; while the classroom is supposed to make them wonder about the bigger things. Children are supposed to go in to school with a hunger for learning, not to be afraid to do so. We need to demand, as well as help forge the better way to make the former happen and avoid the latter. Is stressing them out more important, or teaching them? Is showing them more important, or letting them discover? Is it more important to tell them which problem to solve or teaching them how to solve it? Are we hoping to build robots, or thinkers? Do we want them to come out of high school reading about the future or writing it? It all starts with learning. But learning is also a process. I guess the most important question of all is: are we doing it right?

 

fascinating book

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In part two I’ll be talking about college and the roadblocks students encounter while trying to continue their education at the next level in America and abroad, the consequences of these limitations, and what we can all do to help each other and ourselves.

And please leave a comment, a question, or curse me out if you want to if I missed something you believe is important or if any of my information is wrong. I welcome all feedback! And if you’re a teacher or a parent, I don’t mean to step on any toes, I welcome your thoughts as well.

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Interesting Reads:

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/07/09/36jouriles.h33.html

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/spending-too-much-time-homework-linked-lower-test-scores-180954814/?no-ist

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/15/cutting-through-the-stupid-on-annual-standardized-testing/

http://www.thedailyriff.com/articles/21-things-that-will-become-obsolete-in-education-by-2020-474.php

Religio Ad Verbum: How Literal Interpretations of Holy Books are Destroying Our World, Pt. 2

Churches and religions pride themselves in having compiled in volumes all the rules by which humanity is supposed to live by and what our roles in society should be. However, what little morality can be found in the Quran can also be found in the cheapest crime novel you can find at your local gas station. The rest of it can be derived simply from common sense and from the connection people form with their fellow human beings. Unless a serious mental illness is preventing someone from acting rationally, there is no way to miss simple moral acts that enrich human experience, i.e. being kind to others, helping those in need, minding others’ fears and feelings, etc. Why? Because we can relate to all these things solely by our own experience of being alive.

Unfortunately, there are those who don’t see it this way and for them, their own interpretation of things is the only interpretation. Belief, based on these interpretations, becomes a dangerous tool to wield. Ideas can be molded into anything, and detrimentally to everyone, in the minds of those whom religion already provides a preemptive answer to everything, interpretation is not born out of logic of differentiating patterns, but rather it is the mental equivalent of muscle memory, a learned behavior with only one intended consequence- hegemony.

In religion, mainly the monotheistic Abrahamic religions, when a bad idea is sanctioned by the text from which it comes from, it is standard procedure not to question it or its origin, but rather accept it and love it as having providence in the mysteriousness of a deity almost as obscure and unknown as the people who claim to have been the messengers of it. When does it become inconvenient for us to question it or outright reject it? How far must things go before we realize that the things we are made to believe really cause pain to people? Certainly not far enough if people truly believe in this day and age that the actions of Abraham were appropriate and warranted simply because it was god’s word. How far can we go if people will be made to believe that subservience is the way to heaven? After all, not more than half a century ago people still believed that the separation between races was divinely mandated. This is an example of how diluted our common sense can become when we are made to believe things that many generations before us could not concretely explain. Must we destroy the entire world before we start to question things?

Christianity has “evolved” over thousands of years from a small insignificant rebellion to the leading form of organized “consciousness” (for lack of a better word in this context) that humanity has ever participated in. It is essentially the most deadly self-imposed psychological experiment that in one way or another has changed the world, sometimes for the worse. In its infancy Christianity was harmless, just another cult, but as its numbers inflated violently for the very first centuries, Christians were known as terrorists, rebels, and racially inferior beings (sound familiar?). They were despised, persecuted, tortured and executed. It should be funny to note that during those first centuries, the desperation of pagans seeing their gods being replaced by a foreign one must have been quite a culture shock.

Following the Constantine decree that Christianity was to become the official religion of the Roman Empire, the cult then sought to infect nations and radicalize them either by “the word” or by the sword. Early Christians experienced a sort of either-you’re-with-us-or-against-us attitude and committed atrocities in the name of unreason. Of course I can’t say this is exclusive to Christians, for earlier religions much did the same, imposing their own mythologies onto other groups of people. This new mythical thing of incredible proportions became faith. Faith then turned out to be the invisible lighthouse in the shores of reason, a place where all sailors wanted to be drawn to but that clad in obscurity it took an enormous amount of effort to find. Not surprisingly, over the centuries many ships have capsized in this place.

Star and crescent icon

Much in the same way that Christianity spread its message by blood, and occasionally by peace, Islam and radicalized Muslims do the same today. Historically speaking, the spread of Islamism was much quicker and much more brutal than Christianity ever was, at least in the first centuries of its creation. Compared within the same time period, no doubt Islam would have been far more effective at indoctrinating the masses. But that is only possible admitting that Islam was born out of the sword of an illiterate warlord who sought to conquer over his oppressors come what may.

The thought that Islam under the caliphates was at one point the better of all evils, and that it advanced mathematical and scientific advancement, is one of the most recycled untruths (not lies) that we tell ourselves during our time. It is no more true than saying that we now have a deep knowledge of the universe because of Christianity. People of science and logic can be found anywhere and everywhere, it only takes the right incentive to provoke them to share their curiosity with the world. However, I cannot overlook the fact that indeed thinkers under ancient Islam were not as restricted under the banner as Christians were under Christianity. Sadly, I can’t say that about “modern” Islam. The brutality with which purely Muslim governments enforce Shari’a Law is the same with which Inquisitors enforced the canon of the Catholic church, and as a result what we have is a new inquisition period, the new Dark Ages. What’s so surprising is that heads are still rolling for imaginary crimes in an age when we can peer into the darkest spots of the known universe. Seeing the events unfold, we have the responsibility to ask ourselves and each other, “How can this possibly still be going on?”

Under the current modus operandi of Islamic nations it seems that the Quran is not taken out of context, as some might believe, but something much worse, it is understood by the most literal interpretation it can be given. If at some point we thought it was a hypocritical thing to cherry-pick the Bible to find passages that conveniently suited our moral needs, then I suggest we go back to that and try to convince our Muslim brethren to do the same. At our demise, the phrase “Beware what you wish for” comes to mind. Then again wishing that it wasn’t so is basically the secular equivalent to praying it wasn’t so.

Islam it seems has inherited the proverbial scepter of unreason. But let me clarify before I start receiving hate-mail. It is not Islam that I have a problem with, but rather literal Islam that I hate. Before we begin to convince ourselves of the fairy-tale illusion that there are many moral passages in the Quran to constitute a moral rule-book to follow, let me tell you that often in the same passages of the hadith where a moral passage can be found, an equally immoral one can also be found. The greatest problem we come across it seems is recognizing what is moral?

As if it wasn’t enough to see women clad in black and knowing that they have been genitally mutilated as children (prominent practice in some Muslim countries and also in some Christian ones), it has become the job of some cynics to declare that the people doing this sort of thing are just radicals and misunderstand and twist the word of the Quran and the Bible. What they continually fail to realize is that these “radicals” are not a band of illiterate sheepherders as they sued to be, or warriors as Mohammad himself was, but rather people of broad-reaching influence such as heads of state and religious leaders. It is not the ignorant who dictate policy, it is the learned. The radicals that we mention command armies and lead nations, these are not gangs, these are people who truly believe every word they read down to the last punctuation mark and they use it to maintain a strict control upon their populations. Whether or not this oppression exists solely for the purpose of near-total hegemonic social control, such as in the case of societies like Saudi Arabia, is something that changes from country to country, from tribe to tribe, and even within the same religion (i.e. Shia Muslims vs. Sunni Muslims, Catholics vs. Protestants, etc.) The fear that we have is not with moderate Muslims, although we should be cautious of their beliefs much in the same way that we are cautious of the beliefs of others such as Christians, Jews, and indeed my fellow atheists- our fear should be grounded in the radicalizing of these moderates as ISIL and other warring factions have effectively managed to do by spreading propaganda with the message that to wage holy war against infidels (everyone who is not a Muslim) is glorious. And what’s more, that to die is immensely better than to live. This is a highly dangerous position to take and defend. As philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris has said, “These people love death more than we love life.”

 

And if none of this convinces you of the severity of the problem then perhaps you will be more sympathetic when you realize that ISIS tortures and kills children, and all we can do is impotently watch in our computer and television screens as it happens. Does any reasonable person dare say that this is not the work of Muslims but rather the work of psychopaths misled to think this is the path to heaven?

This oppression that exists, not only of the body but mainly of the mind then becomes like a poison that kills the fertile ground of thought, and lets nothing grow. The most passive verses of the Quran are continually ignored while those which spell out in detail how to punish and control people are followed to the letter, and they work very effectively. If you thought Communism was bad, theocracy is much worse. Children are brought up thinking that this sort of behavior should be tolerated, celebrated, and repeated. In consequence we have generations upon generations and waves upon waves of faith-fighters willing to die as martyrs in defense of their twisted ideals. Teaching kids that infidels are only good for killing, or that the opinion of a woman is only half of that of a man, does not make children moral, it makes them immoral, or if anything it makes them amoral. To push the envelope a little bit further (perhaps not exaggerating), whole generations are being indoctrinated and groomed as reserves for some future holy war that some are praying, and praying hard, that will one day come. How can we hope to win a war against those who willingly walk to their deaths to defend nothing more than the right to die gloriously as we fight to defend life? It seems almost impossible. Within those circles, the interpretation that is given for men to follow has perpetuated an endless war with the perfect breed of warriors willing to die happily.

Much like the Roman Catholic Church in the Dark Ages, these Muslim theocracies appear to be highly organized even in the face of auto-radicalism. Is there a shred of doubt that they would all wish to see Israel, or the U.S., or the E.U. in ashes rather than form a peaceful world? Of course not. And it seems that money is basically the only thing keeping some of these societies at bay from erupting into war. But how long will this strategy of showering these countries with gold last? When the oil dries up and there is nothing more to sell, what will happen then? If greed fails, what other cards do we have to play?

Even within our nations it seems that the squalling within misinformed liberal groups is giving the enemy the advantage of ideological warfare. While we question what constitutes criticism of religion and indeed freedom of speech, radical Muslims have no problem using social platforms created by Western countries such as Facebook and Twitter to shamelessly (and cowardly) recruit among our own populations. For now it seems their strength lies solely in pushing propaganda, not in their numbers or even in the hope to fight established nation. But for how long? Can we allow this to change? These are questions that must be asked now.

Morality is a tricky thing sometimes. Occasionally it’s difficult to assert correctly what is moral, after all not all moral decisions are good and not all good decisions are moral. But in order to enjoy the benefits of living in a society where its citizens are happy, the freedom to speak one’s mind is paramount to the contribution of that happiness and the cornerstone in building that type of nation. Although I believe that morality is rooted in what we find pleasurable and good without the need to affect others, I also believe that it is corruptible. Some moral things that were considered good and moral before are not any longer and so we have to be able to make that distinction correctly. In that sense, morality has to derive at least in part to the freedom to let your mind be known, for only then can people be aware of other people’s true intentions. And when that right is infringed upon, it creates a domino effect that is very hard to get away from unscathed.

Before the European Enlightenment brought reason back into the minds of people, awakening them from a long slumber, nations had to fight each other for ideological supremacy but also for freedom from oppression which they themselves created. History became a vicious cycle hard to break away from, and men perpetuated this cycle by fueling it with ideas that did not benefit the group en masse, but that only satisfied their own desires. It would be unfair to say that collective reason was completely absent during these times, for even during the Dark Ages there were people who dared to think. If that sounds surprising to read it’s because it is. Yet, from the heap of garbage that myth and unreason originate, sometimes we can find something of great value there.

But while we waste our time looking for these scattered moral passages, ISIL (or ISIS or IS) will have already executed several thousand people, most of them innocent, most of them Muslim, and some of them foreign nationals. ISIS will have also brutally  killed thousands of children and tortured many more people for crimes that should only be judged in an Inquisition court. All of it done in the name of Islam and to defend the honor of a “prophet” long gone. We can go on and on how Islam is a religion of peace, but until we get our hands dirty and dig into these passages ourselves will we know just what exactly is being taken out, or read into, context. And if you are religious, I urge that you do not make comparisons between your religion and Islam, for if taken literally, the Bible is just as violent and damaging as the Quran, and perhaps even more.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking at a conference.  photo credit: RA_Sun_286 via photopin (license)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking at a conference.
photo credit: RA_Sun_286 via photopin (license)

It is true enough that we must not blame the wrong people for these atrocities, and it is equally true that only those who commit these crimes must be held accountable. I believe we can all understand that no person wants to be blamed for the crimes of another- even if they subscribe to remotely the same beliefs. But what is imperative for us to realize is that these crimes are not perpetuated in defense of reasons that are beyond their control (race, nationality), instead they are the deliberate result of manufactured beliefs that unfortunately are also shared by those whom are affected most by them, innocent people who also read the Quran or the Bible whose innate morality leads them to reject the obvious immoral passages of these books. The most effective way for moderate Muslims to distance themselves from those who use their religion as a scaffold to greater crimes is simply to weed them out. I admit, it is only simple in theory. The responsibility falls on the moderates to reform Islam, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has declared, or to edit the Koran itself to reflect 21st century views. Muslims should not fear for that portion of history to be lost, like the Magna Carta- another very important ancient text, and one of the many documents from which the Constitution is based on- the original Quran will never be lost, but it can be updated.

And it is the job of reasonable people to collectively denounce injustice wherever we see it. We should speak out the truth in defense of reason and common sense and be fearless in our resolute goal of condemning censorship of any kind. Admittedly, there will be times when there is little we can do in the adversity, but when we prove to them and ourselves that we are united in this goal, we can surely make some kind of change, even if it’s in our own communities.

Like Christianity, Islam will eventually be reformed. One should hope that it happens by “the word” and not by “the sword,” as religions have done to spread their message. But that, it seems, for now at least, that is our of our control.

Personal interpretation based on our own understanding of the contents of whatever it is we’re reading sometimes is not much more dangerous than blindly following someone else’s interpretation of it. But it is a good place to start. It’s possible we will never rid the world of unreason, of violence and fear, of injustice. But if we shake the foundations of everything we know- or rather everything we think we know- perhaps we can make this one world we have a better place. To question everything should be a mantra to follow.

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In Memory of the victims of Charlie Hebdo and the victims of radicalism.

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For more information please check out the following interesting links:

http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/02/islam-will-not-have-its-own-reformation/

http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/fgm_reinfibulation_central_Sudan/en/

http://nation.com.pk/blogs/28-Dec-2014/jack-in-a-box

http://www.pewglobal.org/2010/12/02/muslims-around-the-world-divided-on-hamas-and-hezbollah/

Religio Ad Verbum: How Literal Interpretations of Holy Books are Destroying Our World, Pt. 1

It’s very possible I might be murdered over this post, after all, freedom of expression- as we have seen in the case of Charlie Hebdo- is not a bullet-proof blanket that can protect everyone from the injustice and evilness of others. It’s a fragile intangible thing that under severe pressure can have the potential to become as dispersed as ash or as hard as diamond. It is the intangible nature of ideas, and to some degree also of afforded freedoms, that they are at the mercy of the wielder to shape them at his pleasure.

Interpretation, or rather misinterpretation, is perhaps one of the most effective killers in human history. From an evolutionary and behavioral point of view, the way we interpret things can have huge advantages, but interpreted wrong it can also have dire consequences for ourselves, for the people close to us and indeed for the world as a whole, and consequence is not something the universe seems to be lacking, in fact just quite the opposite, it thrives on consequence and it moves forward because of it. How we interpret things can either save our lives or drive us to our own dooms. From a psychological standpoint, interpretation is the recognition of patterns to suit a certain framework in our minds; it is the meaning we give things. And of course, emotional need is one of the driving forces behind how we come to interpret something and what context best to use for it.

But due to the fact that interpretation is a personal thing, not bound by anything other than our own understanding of the input we are receiving, it mostly always lacks a solid base and it is for its lack of rigidity and concreteness that ideas prone to a myriad of meanings are certainly doom to fail one way or another.

To better illustrate how interpretation can have a great impact in our world I will use two different historical documents in comparison to one another and then use different comparisons for the same document.

United States Documents

The Constitution of the United States was written nearly 240 years ago. It is one of the best composed communal documents in the history of mankind put together by philosophers, scientists, politicians, businessmen, religious men, rebels. It is nearly flawless in its dictation of the law that covers not just the rights and freedoms of Americans but comprehensible laws that should be extended to every human. It is the first of its kind to make a clear separation between the church and the government, and in its account of the law is fairly straightforward with little room for interpretation. Yet, being a lawyer in the United States and elsewhere, and perhaps especially a Constitutional lawyer, is one of the most lucrative and competitive careers to graduate from today. It is simply so because even though the laws were written in a manner that is concise and easy to understand, they still depend on the best judgment of those who read them. And sometimes even that is not enough.

In the United States there is still pending litigation over what most people would consider trivial matters simply because there wasn’t a broad enough definition of some specific law. Thousands of lawsuits will arise because different interpretations of the law- at times even by lawmakers- were used in different contexts. Perhaps the most famous example would be the interpretation of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which dictates that: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The law seems to be straightforward in this regard, and yet an interpretation of the language used has caused more than a fair amount of controversy regarding what exactly the framers had in mind. As explicit and direct as the law is, there is simply no way to know for sure what exactly the different parts of the amendment mean as it applies to today’s society (i.e. “being necessary,” “Security of a free state,” “shall not be infringed”).

Laws such as this last one are substantial throughout the Constitution and the way these laws are interpreted can sometimes lead to what it may seem as different versions of one single document.

Now imagine documents that precede the Constitution that contain language that is no longer used today or historical details that we may find impossible to corroborate. Imagine trying to make sense of documents written by obscure characters from which we know absolutely nothing about and thus have no basis on how to judge them based on their prejudices, unreliable documents such as the Quran or the Bible before it. These books- or rather a collection of books- that have amassed great power and influence over the centuries have, for so long, been given carte blanche over a great many human elements such as how to live, how to behave, what to eat, what to think, how to act towards others, and certainly over the morality that we are supposed to uphold and pass on to future generations, a morality that has been instilled in us and forced upon us from birth. These documents owe their mysticism to fantastical stories retold over several generations from original versions that were doubtless not as fantastical or as mystical- or indeed as interesting- as the versions we know today. It has been the job of of the ghostwriters of history (some of them illiterate as in the case of Mohammad) to add colorful elements to chapters of known history and compile them into volumes, again, long after the culmination of the actual events- if they happened at all. But the documents that we so venerate nowadays seem to have been inscribed metaphorically, or have been given a varied interpretation that is difficult to discern today; or at least one hopes they are, otherwise only a psychopath could believe half of the things that have been written on them.

A good example of this is in the case of the Biblical story of the virgin Mary. As the writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins mentions in his book “The God Delusion”, and from discussions with historical scholars before Dawkins’ time, the word used in the Greek translation of the Bible “almah” literally means “young woman,” not “virgin” as it is usually believed. Provided that this was indeed a clerical mistake, then it seems the “young woman” that gave birth to Jesus was indeed not a virgin but simply a young woman. I don’t need to point out that over thousands of years, people have been mistaken to believe that Jesus was born out of a virgin when in fact it is not so for obvious reasons, not to mention that first-century Christians probably did not even believe that themselves.

Now, that is not such a grave mistake. It is indeed stupid of anyone to think that parthenogenesis could actually happen with human beings, stupid but not of grave consequence. From believing such a thing, it appears the only thing people have sacrificed here is their common sense- or at least one would hope. However, there are passages of much graver importance in the Bible and in the Quran that through a mistranslation, misunderstanding or misinterpretation (from the many they have received) have incited conflict among individuals, groups and countries that at one point of another have had severe consequences for the human race sometimes thrusting whole nations into endless wars.

There is an arrogance here to recognize. This arrogance from blind believers to think they perfectly understand the supposed creator of the universe when most of the time they have a difficult time understanding half of the things their politicians tell them, is not only part of the problem, it is the problem. Blind belief it seems is anything but innocuous, in fact it is more like a grenade without a pin, burning in our hands while we happily go about our lives believing its a water balloon, harmless and even beneficial. At no other point in our lives would we trust blind belief to carry us through any process, why then would we trust it to hold the reigns of the most important part of our lives, morality. One wonders why it was that this obviously bipolar, and apparently misanthropic, creator chose such confusing language to dictate his/her laws to humanity? Why do we hold on this arrogance that we know better than the god we have created?

The question begs, if people still have difficulty avoiding the pitfalls of a near-perfect document such as the Constitution of the United States, then what hope could we have of interpreting books that were conceived centuries ago by men whom we know very little about, and what little we know of them cannot be confirmed by anything other than each other’s account of the “events”?

The comparison between these two documents reflects the gap between understanding and interpretation. It is there that we arrive at the logical conclusion that we cannot, and should not, trust with certainty any interpretation. Does it mean that we should disregard them? No, we shouldn’t. But we should look at them with a skeptical eye, indeed a much much more skeptical eye. We should reject illogical arguments, illogical statements, and illogical ideals and embrace what we know in our science to be true, simply because we haven’t seen any different.

Let’s do a small thought-experiment. Imagine you are playing the telephone game with just one rule to follow, and that is that whatever the person before you says, you have to act out. For example if the game begins with “I like to eat a grilled cheese sandwich with pickles” then that’s what you should do. That’s it, you and the people playing the game simply have to act out what they hear. Now, let the experiment run over thousands of years, over several generations, with dozens of languages, and all across the world. You don’t necessarily have to have psychopaths in the game- or be one yourself- for it to go horribly wrong, the law of probability dictates that it just will.

I admit, it’s a bit hard to believe that an instruction as simple as “Eat grilled cheese sandwich with a pickle” can go wrong, even over thousands of years, but if you factor in people’s prejudices, people’s histories, people’s educations, interpretations, fears, and understandings of what a grilled cheese sandwich is, while they add their own personal twist to the story, it wouldn’t be surprising to see people eating other people, if they are in fact still eating.

This is the same game that we have been playing for centuries only the instructions are a bit more sinister and have perpetuated some of the most heinous crimes humanity has unleashed upon itself (slavery, infanticide, genital mutilation, torture, war, racial extermination, etc.); and what’s more, the texts from which these instructions come from have allowed us to look at ourselves in the mirror remorseless.

Members of the Nazi Party and Vatican Officials doing the traditional Nazi salute. photo credit: tortuga767 via photopin cc

Members of the Nazi Party and Vatican Officials doing the traditional Nazi salute.
photo credit: tortuga767 via photopin cc

From the text alone we can infer as to the frame of mind of these ancient peoples or to their way of life. Written instructions on how to maintain, train, and trade your slave- or your daughter for that matter; how to subjugate your wife while claiming that she’s your equal and getting her to believe it; how to become submissive yourself to another human or to a invisible deity- all these instructions were written to guide these ancient societies and to offer some sort of explanation to the way the world was at the time and to offer a theory (although not written as such) of how the world worked. We could very well say that these people were simply speaking in a metaphorical context reflecting on the views of their times, and perhaps that actually is the way it is. But two problems swiftly arise. First, the alternative is much scarier to contemplate. What if- as history strongly suggests- these were actual instructions on how to live a first-century life, much in the way that modern magazines (loosely) portray the our way of living today. I’m sure that one or two centuries from now our magazines will become absolutely irrelevant to the way future Earthlings live their lives. The second problem we come across is that people in religious nations (principally the United States and those in the Middle East) are happily running to the mouth of the mouth of the lion, trying to follow first century rules, 22 centuries later. I cannot much call that progress. The question is simple, why are people so eager to accommodate their modern lives to the way people lived 2000 years ago?

I could see the case that some people might make by saying that these ancient texts provide some very good moral advice, and they’re right, they do. But the moral advice they provide is no more assertive than what humanity has come up with over time. We should strive to create the best moral framework there is, in part by getting rid of old moral rules that are no longer necessary. It is like writing computer code, in order to have an optimal program that always works as it should the code needs to be updated and bad lines of code have to be deleted.  Unfortunately, books like the Bible or the Quran also offer some terrible advise that is still being taken into account today. It is a good thing then that common sense is not entirely lost and that the majority of people can see the obvious distinction between “Thou shalt not kill” and “Five easy steps on how to train your slave”, but there are always those that don’t, or wish not to. Even worse, there are some who not just blur that distinction but that make dangerous conjectures of their own based on these somewhat-direct-somewhat-abstract rules. Of course killing is bad. I’m sure that early homo-sapiens and even Neanderthals (just a couple among many species of bipedals) realized that going around killing one another was a bad thing to do. Let’s remember that these ancient tribes were nomads and started no bigger than your average small family. Imagine if all they did was kill and rape one another because it was simply a fun activity to engage in. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that they would’ve perished very quickly under their own irresponsibility. We should find it insulting to believe that humanity knew nothing of morality before first century sheep-herders decided to concoct fantastical tales from divine providence to say that killing is wrong and stealing is bad. Has it never occurred to us to think that perhaps early humans understood that killing each other was bad for the tribe, as the number of hunter/gatherers or providers would decrease leaving the tribe to fend for itself? Has it never crossed our minds to think that they too understood emotional and physical pain, or that perhaps they were capable of abstract thought and that they understood morality at least at a basic level? Like Christopher Hitchens once remarked, “…I don’t think humanity would’ve made it that far if they hadn’t known that.” We give ourselves much more undeserved credit by unabashedly believing that because we invented written language that nothing existed before us. This type of Orwellian thinking insults our species and spreads misinformation about our origins, indeed there is more to us than that.

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Credit: Tumblr (origin unknown)

Credit: Tumblr (origin unknown)

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In part two I will delve briefly and broadly into the “evolution” of Christianity and the threat that radical Islamism poses our world today, as well as our fears of what the future might hold for humanity and for reason.

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For more information please check out the following interesting links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_and_Nazi_Germany

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2014/07/08/there-are-states-where-you-technically-cant-hold-public-office-if-youre-an-atheist/

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/08/19/an-incredible-interactive-chart-of-biblical-contradictions/

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/16/in-graphic-videos-and-on-twitter-isis-members-record-and-tout-executions-of-gay-men.html?via=desktop&source=facebook

 

The Gays, the Atheists, and the Government

Gay Marriage Concept with Rainbow Rings.

 

As the fight for marriage equality among same-sex couples rages on in the battle-ground of America, and more states join the 35 that already made marriage for the LGBT community legal, there are still those that hold on to old stigmas and refuse to join the progressive consensus that yes, after much deliberation, gay people are still humans and as such they also have the right to marry whomever they please.

As of now, six Southern states are waiting for a “pro” ruling on continuing litigation, while another four await the decision from appellate courts for an “against” ruling. While this is going on, five other states have a strict marriage ban that is expected to be challenged in court soon as more lawsuits pour in. [1] But while these numbers seem optimistic for the LGBT community as the long fight for marriage-equality begins to wind down, the real fight that few talk about is being waged against our own family and our own friends in schoolrooms and in the living rooms of America, and one can’t help but wonder, why is there so much hatred towards homosexuals?

 

LGBT

 

Have you ever heard of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot? No? Well the Russians have, and Putin never did like punk music.

The band, a group of seven raging feminists, came under severe government scrutiny after they staged a series of unauthorized concerts with strong anti-government, anti-religion, anti-anti-sexism, and anti-establishment messages that, no doubt, infuriated Putin and his government. Two of the members were arrested and following several protests and other arrests, high profile human rights organizations became involved claiming that the government had crossed a line by imposing anti-gay laws.

On  December 29, 2014, Dmitry Medvedev, the Prime Minister of Russia (Pretty much Putin’s puppet), signed into law a proposal that bans homosexuals in the country from driving on the grounds that they are “sexual deviants” with “mental problems”. Now, that of course sounds absolutely ridiculous and, if it could even be possible, makes our bigots sound like liberals, but it’s true. [2]

photo credit: Rasande Tyskar via photopin cc Feminist protestors demanding the release of incarcerated Pussy Riot members

photo credit: Rasande Tyskar via photopin cc
Feminist protestors demanding the release of incarcerated Pussy Riot members

That kind of stuff is not so rare in Russia as it is in Europe. But Russia is also not the worst place to be if you’re a homosexual. For example in most countries in Africa and the Middle-East, being gay is not only illegal, it is life-threatening. Most (or should I say all?) theocratic Muslim countries make it punishable by death to be a homosexual, and most people netted under these laws are not only killed, but many are tortured and imprisoned for several years beforehand. This Wikipedia page has a very good graphic on the legality of homosexuality around the world- don’t get your hopes up, humanity is still pretty fucked up.

Here in the United States though, with marches and demonstrations and letters to policy-makers and celebrities coming out of the closet, there’s plenty of attention being focused on this issue of sex-equality and same-sex marriage. The movement is beginning to see light at the end of a very long tunnel that for many will remain dark and stretch on indefinitely simply because it is a fight they do not want to be a part of and would rather remain silent.

Right now, there is still a large number of people that do not and will never identify themselves as LGBT, whether it is to conserve “family values”, because of societal pressure, fear from recrimination from their parents and friends, due to the current state of the law, religious affiliation, etc- for any of these reasons and many more there are people who are not willing to speak up for their own rights, or those of others and wish to remain anonymous; and truly who could blame them? The horrible torture that is having to live with that type of discrimination is something that should be considered psychological abuse, and something which not a lot of us can relate to.

Last month transgender teen Leelah Alcorn killed herself after feeling like there was absolutely no way out of her struggle. I will not elaborate further on that story which you can find here. But I will say that if brave people like Leelah are still discriminated to the point of suicide in such a “progressive” society as many claim the United States to be, then there is something inherently wrong with us as a country that we have to mend immediately.

The struggle for marriage equality and gay rights goes beyond politics, it is at its core a debilitating struggle in the search of human dignity and compassion between those who are right and those who are wrong. When the question begins to explore human suffering/well-being in this particular subject, there is hardly ever an in-between gray area where conformists and opportunists go to hide, there is just a plain black-or-white field between those who wish to subjugate humans and those who fight for equality.

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Copyright © (2014) Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved. The content is used with permission; however, Gallup retains all rights of republication.

Copyright © (insert year of original publication) Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved. The content is used with permission; however, Gallup retains all rights of republication.

Copyright © (2014) Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved. The content is used with permission; however, Gallup retains all rights of republication.

 

But when the last gavel eventually allows same-sex marriage in all fifty states, not only will it be a huge victory for the LGBT community, but it will be a victory for everyone.

It is hardly a secret that the fight for and against gay marriage is built on two platforms that basically wind down to secularism versus religious ideology. After all, there is not a significant portion of the secular majority who are against marriage-equality; all fingers seem to point then to a Christian-based bunch who see gay marriage, and gay rights in general, as an abomination dead-set on defying god’s law and the word of the Bible. And while a large portion of the gay community is also religious, the type of religion that they interpret and the kind that the other half practices is very different. But this religious defiance goes beyond the shortened-reach of organized religion in an increasingly secular America, it affects politics to the core.

 

The Atheists

 

As more and more regions of America wage a war of ideologies to put the final dot in the last chapter of the separation of church and state, it seems that that religious defiance will boost yet another platform that is gaining ground all over the world and especially here in the United States. That is the new-atheist movement.

The differences between homosexuals and atheists are wide, but there are also many similarities that tie both groups together. For example, gays are born gay and the only thing they can choose to do is to either come out or stay closeted. Atheists have a similar problem, however their ideas are based entirely on logical conclusions and they can choose to either voice their disconetent or not. Although as an atheist I could make the case that we, too, are born atheist and are only indoctrinated by force.

Just like homosexuals, atheists are also fighting a battle for their rights, and it is hard to know which group is more hated in the U.S. right now, homosexuals or atheists. Although I think it’s safe to say that both are undesirable here and abroad. To this day, atheists in some states are not allowed to hold public office. And in many countries atheists run an equal risk of being detained, tortured, and murdered for their beliefs, or rather lack thereof as homosexuals.

All of this does not mean that the atheist movement is hijacking the noble purpose that the LGBT community is fighting for- the recognition of human rights for all humans- but it also doesn’t mean that the atheist movement is devoid of content, it just means that without adding too much emphasis on one or the other, both issues are civil rights issues and in many ways also human rights issues.

In the political world however, the way these things unfold will determine just how much power the government has at its disposal to interfere in the lives of ordinary citizens, and where it sees itself in the future as more people seem to juggle between the need for the government to protect their individual rights and liberties, and the claim to want a smaller government.

Republican elephant over bright background

In the United States, the bloc that wants to keep marriage “pure and traditional (one man one woman)”, is represented by none other than the Republican party, which is religiously composed of mainstream Protestant Christians who see no shame in denouncing homosexuality as “an abomination” to defend the views of their constituents in public forum. These are also the same people who claim to be the defenders of small government and who ideologically despise government intrusion while at the same time they seek better ways to expand government watch over citizens and expand influence quite callously. This hypocrisy is exacerbated by the PR arm of the Republican Party which is of course- and you guessed it right- Fox “news”. We all know this. What we don’t communally realize is that every time there is an attack on this establishment, we move forward towards a state of prosperity that has nothing to do with religious rule (which is to say religious bigotry) that shouldn’t be there in the first place. This opens the door to discuss other issues of great importance and impact: the right for women to control their bodies, drug legalization, the environment, etc.

 

The Government 

 

But the question remains burning in our minds: how is it that in this day and age, we are still fighting for civil rights when not fighting for them only benefits a minority- to the detriment of the rest of us? What does the government gain in all this?

At first, the question seems a bit offensive. Indeed it’s a disappointing question to ask for two reasons. First, what we are implying is that not everyone’s wishes or opinions count in a democratic society, merely the majority’s. And second, we are admitting that that there is something fundamentally flawed in our society that the national conversation has to remain fixated on a fight that should have been settled long ago, and that is only still alive by means of societal discrimination. As for the government gaining anything, well anyone that poses the question of “What does the government want?” is sure to lose that fight, even with himself.

photo credit: theslowlane via photopin cc LGBT Rights around the world in protest

photo credit: theslowlane via photopin cc
LGBT Rights around the world in protest

In most non-Muslim countries, the institution of marriage goes beyond that of a religious ritual. Legally speaking, it’s a way for a two people to be represented equally as an entity. It gives people the legal right to represent each other or to conduct each other’s affairs should one of the parties ever becomes incapacitated. It’s a way to recognize your legal right to choose your life partner based on your own decision as an adult. And it is a way to designate a legal guardian of all your assets and possessions. And of course, one of the most important reasons, to have the ability to adopt and raise children with the full backing and knowledge of the government. Whether you choose to get married by the church or not, in the eyes of the law those who marry by civil court only, are afforded these privileges. However, in America and many other Western countries, where the separation of church and state is not a complete process, or doesn’t appear to be fully implemented, it seems that religious bigotry affects the legal status of millions and the right for those law-abiding citizens to exercise the same rights everyone else is not afforded to them.

It is an insult that there is an uproar when two consenting and conscious adults of any sex want to marry because they violated the rules of “traditional marriage” when Utah’s libidinous Mormon pastors can fool congregations of men and women into thinking that they are entitled by divine ordainment to have more than one wife or to sleep with the wives of their congregations. It is a disgrace that soldiers coming back from whatever duty their country required them to perform are met with hostility and have to fight for their rights when they already fought for ours. It is a applauded that the military (a very conservative organization) has openly welcomed homosexuals into their ranks and we still can’t stand to see two men or two women get married.

And for the government to have any role whatsoever in how these consenting adults conduct their private business is the epitome of big government.

My question is, what seems to motivate politicians to take the uncomfortable position of “defenders of morality” and stand in front of the proverbial entrance of equality to block the way for homosexuals to claim their full rights under the law? If we think about it, holding this type of bold position would seem to be political suicide, so why aren’t they all rushing to join the ranks of the other type of politicians who support marriage equality even if they don’t agree with it themselves? Could they hope to sway public opinion of their own constituents, even if the majority of constituents calls for change, merely to satisfy their religious leanings; or are the church’s political contributions just way too juicy to pass up?

According to this Pew Research (which I will invoke again in other blog posts), 151 members of the House of Representatives in Congress (87 Democrats and 164 Republicans) identify as Protestants, 138(68 Democrats and 70 Republicans) denominate themselves as Catholic, while the remaining 41 memebers of the House claim other denominations of Christianity and other religions. In the Senate 55 are Protestant (17 Democrats and 38 Republicans) and 26 members are Catholic (15 Democrats and 11 Republicans), while the rest identify themselves as Mormon (7), Jewish (9), and Buddhist (1). By showing you these facts, I am not in any way indicating that religious affiliation has anything to do bigotry, but I’m merely pointing out that those who are heavily influenced by their religions tend to make irrational decisions that otherwise would be logical conclussions to very simple issues: homosexuals are human beings and they deserve to have the same rights as everyone else. Period.

 

Reformation

 

I am not oblivious to the fact that all over America there are still pockets of discrimination towards certain groups of people (i.e. homophobia, xenophobia, classism, anti-semitism, all-out racism, etc.), and I understand that bad habits die hard, but I would imagine that as a fairly young nation- both in terms of the age of people and historically- we would be fairly more progressive and open-minded. But it seems that we are falling behind Europe in this issue. I would imagine it’s because the religions that migrated from Europe took a strong foothold here in America, while the Europeans started to see what a sham they all were and progressed faster towards equality, but that’s just my opinion.

But let’s also not take away the successes of homosexuals in bringing about change in policy all by themselves. They have fought hard battles in and outside of the political arena to get people to identify themselves (not that they should) so that we can truly know their numbers and where they stand as a slice of the population. Harvey Milk himself was hailed as a hero in this fight, and to be completely honest, had it not been for the movie, a lot of people including myself wouldn’t have known about him and his work.

But the fact is that now a younger and increasingly left-leaning population is taking account of the situation and wanting to do something about it. These are the progressive youth that spearhead a movement of equality and change in all arenas of national conversation. More and more we are seeing change happen all over the United States and in many other parts of the world as the fights for equality rage on. Even the Catholic Church under Pope Francis (a rather amiable Pope if I may) has brought about a sudden reformation in its ranks that it hasn’t seen for many years; whether it is to appear amiable and reformed in light of all the recent church scandals (child-abusing priests, money laundering, etc), or to counteract dwindling church attendance, it is clear that they are being forced to adapt to a world less and less dependent on organized religion. Will we see the same type of reformation in other denominations of Christianity here in the U.S.?

But even though I am against marriage as a whole, let’s look at the arguments posed forth against same-sex marriage:

1. The traditional family is threatened with same-sex parents

First of all, that’s a stupid positon to take since there is no evidence that a “traditional family” model even exists. The traditional American family is an illusion created by the media in the 1950s and 60s. But if the people taking this position mean a traditional family where you find a mother, a father and kids, then it is still a vacuous place to start.

There is extensive evidence to show that homosexual marriages are just as effective at raising competent, law-abiding citizens as heterosexual marriages (which half of them end in divorce), perhaps even more so due to the fact that they voluntarily decided to be parents. Although there are studies out there that contradict these findings, most of the science is correct in this issue.

Oh and then there’s this…

If it’s good enough for god to weigh in on, then it’s good enough for me!

2. Gay marriage will hurt children and turn them homosexual

This is perhaps the most backwards argument that people have against gay marriage. Even if homosexuality was something you could choose, what business is it of people to decide what they do with their own bodies provided they are not hurting anyone else?

But besides this stupidly-held position, there is absolutely no evidence to show that the children of gay couples will grow up to be gay (provided that it isn’t in their genes to begin with). Besides, children are already extensively bullied by other children, why would they voluntarily give bullies just one more reason to get picked on, and no it’s not a learned behavior.

According to Dr. Michael Bailey, professor of the Psychology Department in Northwestern University in Chicago, and his study on the genetics associated with homosexuals, have confirmed, or at least re-confirmed, that “Genetic factors account for between 30% and 40% of what decides whether a man is gay or straight…” while other factors such as chemicals in the womb and prenatal care can affect the sexual orientation of a person. Choice, it seems, is not a part of any process of a man or a woman’s sexual orientation.

3. The Bible clearly….

I stopped right there simply because anything that points to anything religious is bound to fail. I can, and will, provide several rules also observed in the bible and in the Koran that point to crimes much more severe perpetuated in the name of religion that null the entire argument altogether.

I find it interesting how people usually rush to quote the bible but many don’t even know the ten commandments, let alone any other rules.

Just for fun, let’s go over some of these. Oh and if you truly observe the Bible as the unerring word of god then the women reading this can never teach or have authority over a man (Timothy 2:11), and you as a man cannot go into church if you have a wounded penis, no testicles, or erectile dysfunction for that matter (Deuteronomy 23:1)). Just saying. Okay here we go:

“Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.” (Luke 16:18)

Better not get divorced or you’re sure to land in hell after death.

“A bitched shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 23:2)

A bitched in this context refers to someone born outside of wedlock, what they used to call bastards in the good ol’ days. So if you or anyone within ten generations was born out of wedlock, you’re fucked. Oh and if your kids were born outside of marriage, your family will be doomed until your great great great great great great great great-grandson or grand-daughter are born. Unless they get divorced or have malfunctioning genitals or have a vagina.

“If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, 28 then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. 29 You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters.”(Leviticus 26:27-30)

This one I actually agree with and plan to exercise as soon as I have kids. Basically if your kids are unruly… eat them.

And with that I rest my case.

4. It is unnatural

What exactly is unnatural? Because if we are talking about homosexuality, then simply by being something that we do as humans and creatures that are part of the natural world, then it is natural. Same sex unions are found in every species throughout the animal kingdom. And I know what a defender is going to say next, “But we should know better!” Why exactly? Aside from the religious bullshit that they are going to diarrhea out of their mouths then I have no intention on listening. I am more interested in the scientific reasons of why it happens. This is a completely normal behavior to engage in and in no way does it affect or degrade the human body.

This is a very common position to take when the minority does not act the way the majority does. Yes it has happened throughout the ages with people that are not part of the majority, with people of dark complexion, homosexuals, women, even left-handed people- they all suffer from the discrimination of the masses around them. Left handed people are even fewer in numbers than homosexuals, would you say that’s unnatural? “No because they can’t help it.” Good thing you admit that. Neither can homosexuals.

5. They will turn everyone gay

How exactly? Again there’s no evidence to show that people who aren’t born already gay will magically turn gay. Obviously gays aren’t allowed to multiply so that’s ruled out. However, if you start feeling a little gay, go on and act on it, just to make sure. But please, for the sake of being a human, leave people alone.

Next time you encounter a homosexual please be decent to them, just like they have no idea about the struggles you have been through, you also don’t know about theirs. If you disagree with the ugly parts of your religion, then please adhere to the good messages of the Bible or the Koran or whatever holy book you choose to follow. We all have opinions of people, but unless you are asked or harmed, keep those opinions to yourself, after all we are all human and we all want the same things for ourselves and for ours: respect, love, opportunity. It doesn’t mean that you have to be friends with them, or even like them, just stay out of their way.

Decency to others is nothing less than our highest most admirable trait, the very thing that makes us human, it is the essence of it expressed through peace.

And now I leave you with one of my favorite bits by the great philosopher-comic Louis C.K. Enjoy!

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Bibliography

[1] http://www.freedomtomarry.org/states/

[2] http://auto.ndtv.com/news/transgenders-and-homosexuals-can-t-drive-in-russia-725614

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For more info check out these links:

https://gaycenter.org/

http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

http://news.yahoo.com/idaho-governor-appeals-gay-marriage-case-us-supreme-202150225.html;_ylt=A0SO80r8m6lUnKgAmDJXNyoA?_sm_au_=iVV65bRF4QrkknHH

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2014/10/06/legal-argument-over-gay-marriage-is-all-but-over/

1 (800) 273-8255- NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE

An Atheist Guide to Surviving the Holidays

Composite image of merry christmas message with santa

 

So, you’re an atheist. You are sitting on your couch watching Rocky II about to eat a baby when all of the sudden you hear a knock at your door. Who could it be at 8 p.m. at night? You were not expecting company and your Satan-worshiping orgy is not scheduled until 11 p.m. What do you do? Do you get up and answer it- or do you wait until they leave? You are obviously confused because it’s not Halloween and besides it’s a school night. What’s going on? You are reluctant, but you finally decide to see who’s pounding at your door as if you were stuck in some hellish Edgar Alan Poe story. Right as you’re opening the door, you peer over at your calendar depicting an upside-down crucifixion and you see that it’s December 24th- Christmas Eve! You regret opening the door, but it’s already too late, for even though you’re an atheist you are not rude, contrary to popular belief. In front of you there are a dozen people standing around in neat little rows wearing ear-muffs and dressed in bright colors. They hold torches and they are yelling at you ferociously. What have you done!

As you stand there, you are sure your life is going to end, but then something twisted happens, you start feeling a warm tingling in your chest. The yelling continues but as it goes on, curious things begin to happen and soon you realize that what these people are holding are not torches but candles, and that the shouting is not shouting but singing. Carolers! These people are singing Christmas carols! You stand there awkwardly watching them rape you internally with their harmonious chanting until at last they leave. There is nothing you could have done. And you’re just standing at your door defeated, destroyed, stripped away of all pride. Your baby waiting to be eaten, is on the carpet. Rocky is living out his life on screen. Your desire to have that once-pleasurable Satanic orgy gone. Once again Christmas won.

If this has ever happened to you, don’t feel bad, you’re not the first atheist it has happened to. Which is why, I have written The Atheist Guide to Surviving the Holidays. With this guide, you and all your god-forsaken friends will be able to enjoy the holidays free from people interrupting you while you’re trying to eat a baby, have a satanic orgy, or free from any shitty Kirk Cameron movies within a 10 mile radius. Actually I wouldn’t even want to subject my worst enemy to that last one.

So hopefully you don’t find yourself in one of those we-interrupted-your-baby-eating-party situations that often, but if you do then perhaps you as an atheist, or a theist (if you guys actually read this blog), can relate at least in the most superficial of levels. And hopefully you have some kind of sense of humor because as many differences as we have as believers or non-believers, we have one major thing in common, and that is that we both know you’re full of bul… errr… I mean we’re both human and we all share this planet, so we might as well get along. Or learn to stand each other. Having said that, we got some shit we have to square off.

 

The New Atheists

 

From a very early age, most people are taught that beliefs should be respected, that they are sacred, that they are to be listened to and honored, and it is easy to see why most people would expect this logic to be perfectly rational, after all, beliefs are just ideas that have been passed down from generation to generation to become tradition. However, when these beliefs are questioned by people outside of the scope of those traditions, instead of taking a double take on those beliefs ourselves, we usually resort to the route of offense, we scream and fuss and we tend to insult the beliefs of others in spite. It seems that the society that we have grown up under has made us believe that the beliefs we hold have some kind of blanket immunity over them and they are not inscrutable or question-proof and that we not only have a right to spread them, but that we must protect them at any cost no matter how ridiculous those beliefs might seem. In fact, by the time we reach adulthood, whatever it is that has become a family, or societal, traidition is so well-grounded in the psychology of our being that it is often hard to critically think about them from a third-party persepctive and look at them with a critical eye. By the time we reach adulthood- which is the time when we’re supposed to think critically about the world- whatever it is we believe, is so ingrained in us that it often seem easier to just take these thoughts and ideas at face value than to uproot them, reevaluate them and plant new ideas in the still-fertile grounds of our minds. So usually when someone does the job for us, we tend to fuss and throw a fit instead of giving the question a chance. This is more evident in ideas that have been passed down for thousands of years and hundreds of generations, ideas that even as dangerous as they are, have had the opportunity to brew and grow their ugly roots in our minds to invade not only our very humanity but also our reason- ideas such as religion.

Regardless of what the boring constitution of our country might say, or who our forefathers were or what they said, most people still hang on to a misplaced belief that a country like the United States was founded on Christian principles, and we grow up believing that to have some form credibility with the people around us we are expected to have these beliefs and exhibit them whenever possible, precisely because the majority of the population think just like us. Unfortuately this is not the case, and some people definitely picked up on that- we’ll call them atheists.

photo credit: smiteme via photopin cc Christopher Hitchens

photo credit: smiteme via photopin cc
Christopher Hitchens

Ever since the dawn of man there’s been two kinds of atheists, what I like to call “night atheists” and “day atheists”. As you no doubt have guessed, the former kind are the type of atheists that are passive, non-confrontational, these are the types who hate the bible-thumpin’ crowds and who hate anything to do with god, or gods for that matter, but that wouldn’t raise any alarms to make themselves known. Whether it is to keep some form of civility, or because they don’t care enough to change the status-quo, these are the type of non-believers who are content enough being in the shadows, hence “night atheists”. Now I am not blaming these people for the kind of bullshit the rest of us have put up with, because after all, being an atheist in a few eras in history got you hanged- if you were lucky- and tortured horribly until death if you weren’t. But I will say that their silence has allowed some of the worst human rights abuses in history to continue unchecked.

But then there is the other kind of atheists. These are the kind that you have heard about lately; these are outspoken individuals who use smart counter-arguments, who use reason and who back up their findings with science and proof, and some of them even have written important documents that many nations still base their laws upon, like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These are the “day-atheists”, people who no longer have to be afraid to be persecuted or who simply don’t give a shit to be. They consider reason and the right from religion a part of what’s written in these important documents and they believe that we all have a right to not believe in bullshit.

photo credit: Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc via photopin cc The New-Atheists (The Four Horsemen) From Left to Right: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

photo credit: Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc via photopin cc
The New-Atheists (The Four Horsemen)
From Left to Right: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

They also go by another cute, little moniker that a lot of people of faith are already pre-emptively attacking for fear that this new “thing” might spread further than they’d want it to- they are called the “New Atheists“. Outspoken men and women who no longer put up with religion for the sake of civility, in other words, guerrilla fighters on paper who are waging a war on religion in favor of reason and to destroy the dogmas that it creates and the progress that it stifles. Men and women like the group some hilariously dub the “Four Horsemen” – Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and now Ayaan Hirsi Ali– are part of this new wave of counter-culture that has been a growing movement to denounce the influence (mostly counter-productive) of religion in our society. And with them, a growing swarm of people willing to join the ranks and “come out of the atheist closet” sometimes against their own families to fight for what is also their rights as well as non-believers, and non-confromists.

Now, if this sounds a little alarmist, it isn’t, and I will explain why.

 

A History of Christmas

 

Sometime back in the year 0, a white Middle-Eastern Jew was born out of wedlock when Mary, the mother of Jesus, or Yeshua before he changed his name, had an affair with the all-powerful, all-mighty god creator of the universe. As they engaged in this libidinous relationship- much in the same manner the earlier Greek god Zeus laid all the women (mortal and immortal) at Mount Olympus some two thousand years earlier- Joseph, Jesus’ adopted dad, worked hard as a mechanic…err… carpenter at his shop to sustain the poor family. As a virgin (although I don’t know how since she was already married to Joseph), the young Mary suddenly became pregnant much to Joseph’s chagrin. But convinced by Mary that it could be possible, Joseph then willingly accepted young Jesus as his son sharing the responsibility of co-fatherhood, with the omnipotent, omnivore god- who by the way never paid Mary child-support, but who did make up for it by giving him a third of the universe to be shared between all three godly figures (YWHW [pronounced Yaweh], Yeshua or Jesus and the White Dove or Holy Spirit, essentially the same deity).

Nativity Scene

Nativity Scene

Meanwhile, as Mary was about to give birth in a rather rural hospital,  the lord our god was up in heaven looking for other virgins to deflower. Just then, something wonderful happened to young Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus was born on September or May or June of the year -7, or -2 or 0 or something nobody can now agree on. All alone in that barn, the newly-born Yeshua, was visited by three men- the so-called Wise Men- who were thought to be sorcerers or kings from far-away lands. And without giving it a second thought, the new parents received them and the gifts they brought with them which were myrrh, frankincense, and gold. What a show-off the guy who brought gold, or what stingy motherfuckers the other two who brought myrrh and frankincense, but anyways that’s what they brought the young little Jew. And thus the tradition of Christmas was born. A little weird that Christmas- derived from the word Christ, itself derived from the word “cross”, derived from the fact that he was crucified- is still celebrated as the giving of gifts on the day of Jesus’ birth.

Many years later, around the year 300 A.D., a man known as Nicholas (now Saint Nicholas) inspired by the tale of Jesus and the Three Wise Men, began to secretly give gifts to the people in his village. That tradition stuck over the years, well past his death, and continued to evolve into the monstrosity that it is today, which has been hijacked by corporations to sell more and more junk to the parents over-caffeinated spoiled little brats who expect the gold when they deserve the myrrh.

Statue of Saint Nicholas in Turkey

Statue of the historical Saint Nicholas in Turkey

Anyways, over the years, various countries celebrated the tradition differently but always sticking to the rule-book set by the Vatican. Eventually symbols were added, and meals were prepared. Some of those symbols represent Christ’s suffering such as the green wreaths that you hang on your door which are supposed to be his crown of thorns; while other symbols are pagan symbols stolen, or “borrowed”, by the church such as the ubiquitous Christmas tree which represents the pagan adoration of nature. Bet you didn’t know that shit, did you?

And voila! Christmas happened!

 

Why Should You Care?

 

Well you shouldn’t really. But if all of what I just mentioned doesn’t come across as silly or unbelievable then perhaps there is no hope for you already. However, if I have sparked your interest just a little bit with my history of Christmas (available on tape and CD), which by the way I can verify and document thoroughly…by going to Wikipedia, then maybe there is hope for you, my secretly closeted atheist. Don’t worry, unlike being gay, being atheist is not something you’re born with… or perhaps it is, before beign indcotrinated.

What you consider Christmas, or other holidays such as Saint Valentine’s Day, Saint Patrick’s, or the very, very pagan Easter Day which in it of itself is a godly mess, has become nothing more than tradition. A celebration of shit we don’t know and couldn’t care less about in order to sell/buy stuff. There is no clearer example of how our understanding of these “sacred” traditions have become twisted than in the way we shop. Because nothing says “I’m thankful for everything I have” after a plentiful Thanksgiving meal than to bunch up like cattle at a slaughterhouse at 6 pm that same day ready to kill the person who puts their greasy hands on the only 52 inch tv that was advertised just for you.

The tradition of Christmas has gone so far off the rails from what it originally was supposed to be, or what was intended to be, that to insult the institution is no more wrong than for theists to insult the winter solstice- perhaps less wrong, since the winter solstice is a verifiable natural phenomenon. But does that give anyone license to become a grinch to what other people hold dear? Well, I think the rule of thumb here is “Don’t be an asshole”.

This has never been asked to me personally, but I do know atheists who have been posed this question- “If you’re an atheist, why do you celebrate a Christian holiday?” The answer is not only simple, but it’s also amusing. We as atheists celebrate Christmas for the same reason Christians celebrate the pagan holiday that you know as Halloween or All Hollows Eve. It has become so common for this melting pot of a country to engage in foreign celebrations that it’s not necessary for anyone to be of any specific race or creed to celebrate anyone else’s holiday- or not celebrate it, after all, not a lot of people outside of the Vietnamese community celebrate the Vietnamese New Year. So, really to say that we can’t celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day because not all of us are Irish, it’s irrelevant. Besides, I’m pretty sure that like Christmas, Saint Patrick’s has changed a lot over the generations and what we now associate as a holiday to get completely plastered perhaps it was once something actually worthy of celebration- perhaps I’m wrong and that is the point of Saint Patrick’s. It is allowed to celebrate Christmas and Saint Patrick’s at least in a superficial level, after all who doesn’t like getting presents! And for free! Besides, celebrating holidays is a great way to interact and bond with other humans of different backgrounds and to learn the traditions of other cultures.

photo credit: dansheadel via photopin cc A Pi Day Pie

photo credit: dansheadel via photopin cc
A Pi Day Pie

Another reason why we celebrate Christian holidays is simply because there aren’t enough scientific holidays to celebrate, or ones that have been sanctioned to be celebrated with the same level of enthusiasm as the ones already in place. There is no Marie Curie Day where you get to take off work and eat atom-shaped candy, or Copernicus Day where you give the people you love brand new telescopes. We do have Pi Day but that’s still picking up steam as of the time of publication of this blog. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t push to institute scientific knowledge into our every day lives. We simply need more holidays to celebrate the scientific achievements and we need to make them universal because scientific discoveries do not just benefit one or two countries, they benefit the entire human race. But there’s not a strong enough effort to get these holidays established- yet.

If you, however, don’t wish to celebrate the holidays, it’s not okay to go up to people on the street and pick a fight; or to yell out the nonexistence of Santa Claus in a playground, that’s just not cool. It is okay to express your opinion when asked. By this I’m not being a traitor to the cause. As an outspoken atheist, how I would wish to inform everyone that the ritual they hold so dear to their hearts is based on a myth, and a ridiculous one at that. But for the sake of peace, I am willing to keep my mouth shut until I am engaged in that conversation. And if the point was to celebrate the birth of Jesus, then the least we could do is be honest and celebrate the birth of a great man, not a god, not the son of god, but just a man. A man who erred, a man who held secrets, and a man who despite living in a very violent time, wished for the world to unite through peace- so far as we know- but a man nonetheless. How fucking ironic that millions have died in his name, but that’s for another day.

 

How to Celebrate Christmas

 

And now I think it’s time we get to the highly anticipated issue of what to rename the holidays. Do we say Merry Christmas, or do we say Happy Holidays? What could we possibly do about this? Honestly, who gives a shit! In my opinion, modern atheists are devoting too much time to things that do not really matter in the grand scheme of things. We do not have to be going around changing everything around the world we don’t like if it doesn’t affect us in the most personal of levels, after all nobody would dream of changing Cinco De Mayo just because we’re not Mexican- then again, I don’t know a lot of Mexicans who actually celebrate it.

Unless we are being forced to stand up in front of a full classroom and recite the words “under god” (a ritual that borders on ultra-nationalism), there’s no reason to kick up a fuss about saying “Merry Christmas” during Christmas or “bless you” when someone sneezes, this will not betray your atheist principles, trust me. More than being actual signs of religiosity, they are phrases of politeness- but you as an atheist are not forced to say them. Similarly, others should observe our right not to be involved in religious rituals, especially those which concern the mixing of church and state institutions, such as schools. These are the types of battles that we should be fighting instead of trying to rename holidays. It is much more important to fight for the rights of atheist children (or “freethinkers” since the word “atheist” is usually given a bad connotation) than to go around and bash every person who wishes you a merry Christmas.

Instead of engaging every person you come across with not merely your atheism but your anti-theism, I suggest we focus on the big-picture stuff, like how to wage a better war on Christmas. Ho ho ho. I joke of course. Then again, there are people who still suggest that Christmas is being threatened by the atheists who only make up about 14% of the American population. I say, bollocks! If you see the latest figures on how much money is being spent on Christmas, I’d say the only thing that is threatened around this time of year, is keeping a full wallet.

And what about this gift-giving? No one needs a holiday to do a good deed for someone else. If you can find it in your heart to be generous, you will be generous no matter what. I do agree that holidays serve an important role in the way that humans interact with each other. The purpose of Christmas doesn’t have to be materialistic in the least bit, you don’t have to give your family and friends the most expensive gift you can find, for the only thing that would prove would be that you are more concerned with the material aspect of it; in the same context, if you as a person expect to get an expensive gift, then even you are missing the point of Christmas. I suggest that instead of teaching kids to be expectant of expensive gifts, we should teach them the value of things, and especially the value of those things that are not material, like charity and patience, dilligence and kindness. I’m obviously not suggesting that kids shouldn’t expect to see anything under the tree, but they also need to know that there are people less fortunate than them and that it is only human to be charitable when possible while working hard to earn what you have earned. Depending on how you celebrate the holiday, it is better to focus on the fact that your family is together for the sake of being a family. And if you have a dysfunctional family, then what better setting to bring everyone you hate together in one place to finally break it to them. Am I right?

Santa Claus... in case you didn't know

Santa Claus… in case you didn’t know

“But what about lying to my kids about Santa Claus?” you may ask.

As an atheist I understand the conundrum of letting your kids believe in ridiculous concepts like Santa Claus or the equally ridiculous history of Christmas, or the dozens of other elements centered on holidays that will make your head spin if you think about them longer than 10 seconds. And as always, the best solution is critical thinking and common sense.

Kids need certain fantastical elements in their young minds to associate a new and changing world to the reality, and yes, sometimes to cope with child-related stress. This is no different than what adults do every single day by seeking comfort in things like music, television, books, or simply by talking to themselves. It is a way to relieve your already cluttered mind and letting it rest from the perils of reality. No reason to deny it, we all do it, on a daily basis. However, this doesn’t mean that you as a parent are forced to blatantly lie to your children. If asked by a child if Santa Claus is real, you dont have to be cruel about it, or lie about it. A well-tailored truth will suffice, but a truth nonetheless. Follow the same logic you would use if your young child asked you about sex- be truthful but mindful that it is a child asking not a college student (Perhaps you should explain it to both of them the same way). Instead teach your children- and yourselves for that matter- about critical thinking, and let them make that decision by themselves based on the evidence they have found. If you give them the tools to discover the world, trust me that they have the capacity and drive to do it by themselves.

This seems simple enough, but I assure you, it will test your own interpretations of your beliefs and it will force you take that old thinking cap out of the the proverbial closet and make you wonder if it still fits. But in the end, the reward of looking at the world outweights whatever fantasy you can conjure, for reality is so much more beautiful than the myth.

So, this Christmas, stay safe, don’t drink and drive and if you do… no, fuck that! Don’t be an asshole, don’t drink and drive! But besides that, whether you’re an atheist or not, whether you believe or not, be with your family and/or friends, and try to look and to give a little bit of compassion for those who need it and want it, not because you’ll get something in return, but because you found it in your heart to do so.

Merry Christmas to you guys!

olden Merry Christmas greeting card

 

And for the rest of you guys who don’t celebrate it, here’s to you!

xtm_lett_09

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For more information please visit:

http://theahafoundation.org/ – The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation for women

http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas