Monday, September 30, 2013

My Afternoon at the Mall

I was at the mall the other day to take my computer to the Apple Store. My Macbook has been having problems, and I figured it was time to let the Geniuses handle it. I'm not being snide, here; that's what the employees at the Apple Store are called: geniuses. I had an appointment, and I was about twenty minutes early.

I parked as close as I could, which — as usual — was at the Belk store closest to the Apple Store. I successfully threaded the competing displays of Halloween and Christmas (Honestly, does this not make anyone else sick?) and made my way upstairs so I could go directly from the Belk just around the corner to the Apple Store.

As I walked through the mall, I noticed a big crowd of people downstairs from me. There was a lot of murmuring, squealing, and flash bulbs. But I didn't have time to loiter.

I made it to the Apple Store just in time for my appointment. I gave The Shiny (my MacBook) to the nice, bearded young man (Is there some rule that male Apple Geniuses all have to have beards?) named Paul. I explained what was going on with the computer and he said he would plug the diagnostic tool into it and let me know if it was something easy, like the graphics card or a bad USB port. Something fixable.

The Apple store was crawling alive with people. Must be something about the end of the month or back to school or something. He told me it would take about an hour if I wanted to wait. Well, of course I want to wait. I can't leave The Shiny overnight.

The withdrawal would be unbearable. :)

I couldn't stand being in the Apple store with all those people, so I wandered back down toward where there are some couches to sit and read on my phone.

I heard that crowd down below again, and figured, "Eh, what the hell. I have time to at least take a look."

There was a large crowd of mostly adults, but some older kids, and frequent flashes from cameras and squeals of delight. "Gotta be puppies or kittens or something," I murmured. "Maybe the ASPCA is sponsoring adoptions."

Then I saw the bright pink sign. A big cartoon close-up of a smiling, toothless baby, its blue eyes practically luminous. Underneath, it said, "PHOTOGRAPH WITH A BABY - $15"

"What the . . . ?" I edged a little closer to see what was going on.

There was a large, fenced-off enclosure. Inside there was a floor that looked like Pergo or linoleum of some kind. The floor was scattered with assorted toys, all brightly colored. Also inside the cage were a bunch of babies.

Yes. Naked babies of all races and both genders. They all looked to be of crawling age, although quite a few of them weren't crawling. Some of them were piled together, dozing, in a big pile of stuffed animals. Others were crawling lazily around on the floor. Adults wearing pink shirts were on their knees cooing to the babies, shaking toys at them and trying to attract their attention.

Dumbfounded, I pushed in a little closer, and got called a very unpleasant name by an older lady whom I apparently offended. I was just in time to see a woman with a couple of older teenagers point at a little Asian baby girl hesitantly crawling away from one of the pink-shirted adults with toys toward the pile of dozing babies.

A man standing in the gate gestured to the baby the woman had pointed at and raised his eyebrows. "That one?"

"Yes!" the woman exclaimed, bouncing on her toes. The man turned away and I heard her say to her two children, "Oh, isn't she just the most adorable little thing?" The boy rolled his eyes.

The man went over to the baby girl and unceremoniously picked her up. She started crying, but the guy held her under her arms, bouncing her up and down, and blowing in her face until she grimaced toothlessly.

"I don't want that one if she's going to be crying," said the woman with the two kids. She was frowning and both of her kids were starting to complain.

"Mom, what if she spits up?" one of them asked.

"Hush," she said. "These people know what they're doing, honey."

The man inside the cage must have overheard her. He smiled. "Don't worry, ma'am. I'm resetting her, now. She'll be ready for your picture."

I looked at the baby girl more closely. I could see her ribs, and it was clear from her pallor that she wasn't healthy. Snot ran out of her nose, and from the look of it, she was either drugged or so sleepy that her eyes were barely open, and her head lolled.

Meanwhile, other people were pointing at other babies. Some of them were waked from a sound sleep and, if they cried, given the same treatment as the little Asian girl. A couple were slapped on their bare buttocks or on the face to wake them up.

At one end of the cage was a mock-up of an idealized nursery. Rocking chair, toys, building blocks — it looked like a perfect baby's perfect room, right out of a movie set.

The woman and her two teenagers were led into that end of the cage and the teenage girl sat in the rocking chair, first.

"How do you want her?" asked the man, still holding the feebly protesting baby girl.

"Ew. I don't want her all naked. Can you put a dress on her, maybe? Or a bonnet? Her hair is ugly."

Her hair was, indeed, ugly. Matted to her skin and patchy.

I watched while the man expertly draped a too-large "dickie" of a bright pink, frilly dress around the squirming baby, and then tied a bonnet over her hair. It looked to me like he tied it too tight.

He roughly wiped the snot from the baby's face with a towel of questionable cleanliness and handed the baby to the girl, who held her awkwardly under the arms with both hands, a look of terror in her eyes.

The man stepped up and said, "No, like this." And he showed her how to hold the baby on her lap so that her face was toward the camera. "Do you want a bottle, or just go like this?"

"Like this," the girl said firmly.

The baby's head lolled and I could tell even from where I was that she was sleepy. The man grabbed her roughly and bounced her until she opened her eyes and blearily looked back at him. He then handed her back to the girl, arranged the dress and bonnet, and quickly stepped back to operate the camera.

Just a second before he snapped the photo, the teenager shrieked. "Ew! Oh, my God, mom! She peed on me!" The girl shoved the now-dripping baby away from her at arm's length.

The man sighed and came and took the crying baby. "Do you want me to get another one?" he asked.

The mother looked ready to spit nails. "No, we do not want another one!" She grabbed her daughter's hand and said, "Come on, Chelsea. Let's go get you cleaned up." She practically dragged the girl from the cage, followed by her younger brother.

The guy inside the cage ripped the dress dickie off the baby, pulled off the bonnet, and tossed the sodden pair into a bin. He handed the now wailing baby to another man, who held her up by one arm and sprayed her with a hose. I could smell the disinfectant from all the way across the cage. The baby was now wailing and crying loudly. I guess the water was cold.

I felt faint and ill. What the hell was going on, here? Was this even legal?

I elbowed my way back out of the crowd and worked my way around to the side where another employee of whatever this place was stood. He was wearing a pink shirt like all the others, complete with a grinning baby-head logo on the pocket.

"Excuse me," I said.

"You'll have to go to the end of the line, like everyone else, sir," he said without even looking up.

"No, I'm not in line. I just have a question."

He looked up at me, annoyance clear on his face. "Yeah?"

"Where are these children's mothers? I mean, are they — ?"

"It's all in the brochure." He shoved a glossy brochure at me. I backed out of the crowd and went to stand a few feet away near a support column and took a look at it.

"VAN DUREN FOSTER HOME" was emblazoned across the top in neon blue lettering. I quickly thumbed through it. Pictures of happy, grinning, fat babies being held and fed by what looked like older teens. Nothing like what was going on scant feet from me.

I started reading. They claimed to rescue homeless teens. They provide them sanctuary — a safe place to live, medical care, room, board, and clothing. Help them kick drug habits. Educate them. And any children born to them during their stay are taken to foster care, and also "displayed for public education and entertainment."


So that's what this was. I wondered if the parents of these babies even knew what was happening to their children. I felt sick to my stomach. I ripped the brochure in two and looked for a trash can. How on earth can they legally keep this up? Why aren't there laws?

"Sir?" I turned around to face the voice as someone tapped me on the shoulder. An older woman smiled at me, crows feet around kind, brown eyes. "You look like you could use this." She held out a cup of water.

I took it. My hand was shaking. "Thanks," I said, then took a sip.

She held out a hand and I took it. "My name is Tricia Phillips. We're here protesting." We shook hands and she gestured toward a small group of about seven people standing over to one side, carrying signs. And being ignored.

She led me over to her group. They all welcomed me warmly, then showed me pictures they had of the Van Duren foster home. Teenagers living in barbaric conditions, not much better than packing crates. Barely big enough to move around in. No heat or air conditioning. Mud everywhere. Open latrines swarming with buzzing flies. It looked like a third-world refugee camp. No trees or any kind of shade. The teens' eyes looked dull and lifeless in the photos. Haunted.

"Those were taken about a week ago," Ms. Phillips explained. "A couple of former employees of Van Duren smuggled the pictures out to us."

As I flipped through the pictures, I noticed that most of the girls were pregnant. I commented on it.

"Yes, well . . . where do you think these babies come from?"

I felt sick again. "They're breeding them?"

She nodded, compassion in her eyes. "Some of these poor children are related, but Van Duren doesn't even care. They encourage them do whatever they want. We suspect they're drugged most of the time and aren't even aware of what they're doing."

"Holy shit," I said. "Isn't this illegal?"

She smiled sadly. "Well, of course it is. There are all kinds of laws, but they're seldom enforced."

I couldn't take my eyes off the pictures of the pregnant teenagers. So young. "What happens when, when . . . ?" I choked on the bile in my throat.

"Turned back out onto the streets. The infants used in these awful mall things end up in foster homes or wards of the state or worse. There are child pornography rings that pay good money for children as young as eighteen months."

I'm going to stop here. At what point did you figure out I was writing fiction? Are you appalled? Disgusted? Infuriated? Do you want to call me terrible things for being sick enough to come up with something this disgusting?

Because guess what? Take out the human babies and the homeless teens being raised as breeding stock and substitute tigers, and it's all true.

You read that right. All true.

There are places that set up in malls that allow the public to pay to have pictures taken with tiger cubs. Cubs that are very young and need proper nutrition, enough sleep, and whose immune systems aren't strong, yet.

These poor, innocent creatures are bred ruthlessly by people who claim to be "rescues" who operate "sanctuaries" for big cats. They claim to be working with conservation efforts, and that the only way to raise money for their good work is to take these cubs around for public display.

They claim that the cubs enjoy it. That blowing in their face calms them down. That holding them dangling from under their front arms and bouncing them up and down "resets" them. (What does that even mean?) That constantly being poked, prodded, handled, and grabbed by dozens of people, day in and day out for weeks at a time isn't harmful to them. That bright lights and flash bulbs aren't harmful to their sensitive eyes. They claim that they're well fed. That's it's 100% safe for humans and the cubs.

That the exhibitor is doing this to "teach people" not to have exotic animals as pets.

And they tell people that the cats will go to good homes when they get too big for petting.


The reality is very different. They're kept in tiny cages, forced to breed constantly, and since white tigers are popular, they inbreed their stock to produce more of them. When they get too old, the cubs end up in roadside "zoos" where they are forced to lie on hot concrete in direct sun year round in a cage barely big enough to stand up or turn around in. Fed insufficiently and incorrectly. Given no shelter.

Often, they are killed for their fur and the body is cut up and sold illegally. There is good money to be made on the black market selling tiger parts, where they are prized for their supposedly magical properties. There are still countries in which the fur trade has no limits to the types of animals that can be used.

These cubs are torn from their mothers too early, causing distress to both the cubs and their mothers. They're not allowed to imprint naturally on their mothers, but instead imprint on their human captors. Babies of any species need lots of sleep, but these are not allowed to get enough. They are constantly poked and prodded to be kept awake. Tiger cubs want to explore instinctively. But when they try, they're restrained. They spend hours in small cages inside trucks being carted from place to place so people can have their pictures taken while petting or feeding them.

The cubs are constantly sick and often have diarrhea, which goes untreated, so the cubs are irritable and in pain from the constant wiping by their human captors. Those cute little "roars" are screams of pain.

I get apoplectic with rage over this. I've been trying to come up with a way to show how awful it is, and I finally came up with this. I hope it makes you think, next time you hear of one of these events. If you've ever been to one, stop. If you know people who do, show them this post. If a mall near you advertises such an event, contact the owners. Let them know what is really going on. Encourage them to pass.

And hopefully, everyone who reads this will follow this link to an article entitled "The Truth About Tiger Cub Petting Displays in Malls" from Big Cat Rescue, which is where I got most of the details for my little story above. No infringement is intended. Any mistakes in facts are mine, not theirs.

I'm not affiliated with BCR in any way other than that I contribute to them, and try to spread the word like I'm doing right now. I love big cats, and it makes me furious to hear how they're being mistreated. They're such beautiful, powerful, amazing animals, and yet . . . we treat them like garbage. But I believe it's mostly out of ignorance that we still permit this kind of thing to occur. We still want to believe the best of people, and when we're told that it's safe for the animals and that they're being taken care of, and all the money is for research and conservation, we want to believe it.

There is actually one part of the fictitious tale of human baby petting zoos that is complete fiction and is not based on the plight of these tiger cubs. There are few laws against this, or very few. There are laws, for instance, that regulate the ages at which these creatures can be exploited: 8 weeks to 12 weeks. Yet it is commonplace for these tiger petting zoos to ignore the regulations, because resources for enforcement are limited.

But there are bills in Congress to prevent any private ownership of several species of big cats. You can help get these laws passed. Contact your congressperson and representative.

Thank you for indulging me this far, and I do hope you'll keep this in mind for the future.

Thank you for reading.

Disclaimer: All names used are fictitious and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is unintentional. The names Belk® and Apple® are used to set up the framing story and are in no way affiliated or associated in any way with the kind of practice portrayed herein. As far as I know, there is no such place as Van Duren Foster Home, and the fictitious name was picked at random. If any such place exists, I apologize and will change the name. Big Cat Rescue does exist, and as stated, I am not affiliated with them in any way whatsoever. They had no prior knowledge of this post and were not consulted before publishing.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Not the Message You Were Aiming for, Perhaps?

Bible by Zanthia, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Zanthia 
Shortly after I got up yesterday morning, I was sitting in my chair reading, and there was a knock at the door. It was Saturday, and I wasn't expecting anyone. I scrambled around looking for the key. (I have one of those doors that requires a key to open from the inside and outside. Convenient until you misplace the keys that are supposed to be in a certain drawer in the kitchen.)

Some people give up and walk away by the time I make it back to the door with the key, but not these.

I looked out and there were two people standing slightly off the porch and one standing on the porch at the door.

As I got the door open, I saw that it was a man on the porch and a woman and child on the sidewalk. I propped the door open and placed myself firmly inside the opening, blocking the entrance and sending the message, "You're not invited in."

The man — a Latino probably somewhere around 40 dressed in a snappy, navy blue suit complete with tie — introduced himself. I don't remember if he said he was a preacher or not, unfortunately. My housemate says he did not. She thought he was probably starting a new church. I don't know. But I did notice that he was carrying what looked like a magazine in one hand. He gestured to the other two. "And this is my wife Maria and my son, Matthew." [Not their real names.]

The woman, younger than him, was also dressed nicely in a matching navy blue dress, and smiled in a friendly manner, if a little shyly. The boy, maybe around 9 or 10, wore a matching suit as well. But he was not smiling. He was scowling. He was not happy to be here. He was probably wishing he could be anywhere else.

The man launched into some sort of lead-in I don't remember, and then asked me if I thought the situation in the world is going to get better. (It was smoother than I'm indicating; I wasn't taking notes at the time.)

Now, I'm no idiot. I recognized the open-ended, leading question immediately. If I were to say, "Yes," he has one script to follow. If I were to say, "No," he has another. Both of them would lead, inexorably, to whatever point he was here to make.

So I said, "I really have no idea," and smiled.

He once again launched into something that sounded rehearsed, and then I noticed that the "magazine" he was holding was something else entirely (it was a tract of some sort, but was very much not an issue of The Watchtower, which would have earned him a very fast exit from my yard). It was concealing a much thicker book.

A bible, in fact.

He whipped out said bible and began rifling the pages, clearly looking for something he had marked. He asked me if he could read me a piece of scripture that would answer my question (that I hadn't asked).

I said, "I'd really rather you didn't, actually."

That seemed to throw him a little. I glanced at the wife and son and saw the light go out in the wife's eyes. Similar to the last time this happened (see below), the bystanders seemed to get it before the main player did. The son's expression never changed.

The dad started to ask a question, and I said, "I'm really not interested, but thank you. And have a nice day." I smiled, and gently shut the door as they turned and began to walk away. I heard the man say, "Have a nice day," back to me. The wife and son never uttered a sound.

The last time this happened, it was two older men, both dressed in casual clothes, who knocked. The spokesman told me they were from some Baptist church up the road and wanted to know if I was interested in coming to their church.

"No, not really," I replied.

Spokesman asked, "Why not?"

"I'm an atheist." At this point, I saw the same look in the eyes of the second guy that I saw in the woman from yesterday: Let's just move on. 

These were probably three words he was not expecting to hear. I mean, there are hardly any pentagrams in my yard, and no chicken bones or backwards Latin written in blood. But he had read his How To Talk to Atheists About Christianity tract (a real thing that exists), and was ready with the standard reply, guaranteed to trip up atheists: "You don't believe in God? Well, aren't you afraid you're going to Hell?" He said this with a big grin on his face, as though he were telling a joke that he was just so darned amused by.

"Not really. See, atheists don't believe in that, either. Or in Satan. But you guys have a nice day." And I closed the door as they walked off. My friends, who had been inside listening to this entire exchange, were having a hard time keeping their laughter down.

The one yesterday reminded me of that earlier one a lot.

Except for one thing. Instead of another man, this one brought his wife and kid with him on his proselytizing mission. There are a couple of interpretations that I, as a card-carrying cynic, have on that topic.

First, he's much less threatening if he has a woman and child with him. As a Latino man in a mostly white suburb, this could have been a consideration, and that in and of itself makes me sad.

Second, they were all dressed for church. Again, people are generally more trusting of people who are nicely dressed.

Third, he was carrying a bible. Again, usually not something your average home intruder does. (Although the intersection of the set of 'people with bibles' and 'people who want to take advantage of you' is far from empty.)

Finally, as a cynic, I couldn't help but think he brought along his wife and kid because people are far less likely to be dicks to him if he has his wife and kid along. Call me a jerk, but . . . I think it's true.

But what struck me about the entire incident, and made me want to make this post, was what message this sent to his child.

He dressed his family in their Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes and took them door to door, peddling . . . whatever it was he intended to peddle. It's clear from the kid's facial expression and his body language that he didn't want to be here. He wanted to be . . . I don't know, watching TV, playing with his Nintendo, or playing soccer with his friends. The last thing he probably wanted was to see his father have door after door after door closed in his face. I really can't imagine anyone letting a strange family with a kid into their house on a Saturday morning, so I don't know what the father was hoping to gain.

I wonder if what the boy took away from all this was what the father intended. I'm sure the intention was to spread the word of Whatever and bring people into the fold, etc. To preach his gospel and all that.

But to a kid that age, what he probably got was, "This is stupid. I'd rather be playing Lego City Undercover."

And I couldn't help but think, "Keep that in mind, kid. Keep that in mind."

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What Faith Means to Me

I've written before about what I believe might be the first, tentative steps into realizing what I consider to be one of the defining truths of my life: that there is no God or gods.

But that's only part of the story. There's also that moment when I realized I wasn't alone. That there was a name for people such as myself. And that there were a lot of us out there. And that word was "skeptic."

I have always read voraciously. It started at an early age. We'd get The Weekly Reader at my school, and a couple of times each year, they'd have a page where you could go through a bunch of books they offered and check them off. The teacher would collect everyone's order sheet — and a check from their parents — and send them off. A few weeks later, we'd all get our books.

The other kids in my class would get one or two. I'd get eight to ten. And I'd read them almost as soon as I got them home.

At around age nine, I became fascinated by the occult. Ghosts, aliens, poltergeists, bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle, Atlantis, the Nazca lines . . . you name it, I probably believed it and read at least one book about it. (Well, except vampires and werewolves. Those were never on my radar.)

I scared the crap out of myself. Convinced myself that my house was haunted. That aliens were abducting people left and right and I might be next. That Bigfoot might be wandering around in the forest right behind my house. That every sound in my house at night was something unspeakable coming specifically to get me.

I didn't sleep a lot. :)

I eventually expanded my literary palate to include science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I read my first Steven King novel (The Shining) at age twelve. My pendulum swung all the way over in the other direction from belief and I started to realize that the things that seemed so plausible at nine or ten were silly and rather childish from the vantage point of the advanced age of twelve. I mean, come on. Erich von Daniken's ancient aliens were about as likely as . . . as a plesiosaur alive after 65 million years in a murky lake in Scotland.

I got completely away from non-fiction1 and consumed only fiction for many years. I must have been in my late twenties or early thirties when I picked up two books written by Carl Sagan. I had done another one of those turn-arounds and was now heavily into non-fiction2: science, psychology, self-help (I know, I know . . . skepticism is a process), that kind of thing.

Then, I read a book called The Demon-Haunted World, and the world made so much more sense. I had a category to put myself in. Not only could I confidently say, "I'm an atheist," I could also now confidently state, "I am a skeptic."

And then I read Pale Blue Dot.

There's one passage from the book that never fails to bring a tear to my eye. It is so beautifully, passionately written. It transcends science and literature and speaks directly to the heart, as it were.

But first, some background. The year was 1990. The Voyager 1 spacecraft had completed its primary mission after twelve years and was about to depart the solar system forever. Dr. Carl Sagan, realizing that it was likely we would never again get the chance to get a "family portrait" of the Solar system from that vantage point, managed to convince NASA that they needed to turn the craft around and have it take a picture of all visible planets (Earth, Venus, Neptune, Uranus, Jupiter, and Saturn) from the perspective of six billion kilometers away from Earth.

That's 6,000,000,000 kilometers — approximately 3.7 billion miles. So far away, messages from Voyager 1 to Earth took nearly 5.5 hours to reach us at the speed of light.

NASA agreed. They captured images of the outer planets first, fearing that by aiming their cameras too close to the sun to include Earth and Venus, they would damage the camera. And then, finally, they aimed their camera at Earth.

The resulting image is the one we now call The Pale Blue Dot. You can see it up at the top of this post. Click it and you'll go to a larger version of it.

That brown streak is an artifact of how close to the sun the cameras were aimed in order to capture Earth. It isn't a real structure.

What is real is that tiny blue pixel in the streak. That tiny blue point of light — smaller than a full pixel — is Earth.

Here are Dr. Sagan's words. The ones that bring a tear to my eye.

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

To me, those three paragraphs pretty much sum up my view of our place in the universe. Why it's so important to further our knowledge and turn away from unprovable beliefs and ideologies that do nothing but stifle progress in the name of petty arguments over what amounts to nothing. Belief isn't going to save mankind from whatever our species' eventual fate might be, whether it's extinction by our own hands or something we have no control over, like a new disease, environmental disaster, or a big rock hitting our planet.

Science might. There are no guarantees. But there is no evidence that anyone is watching over us, ready to save us if we just know the right words to use when asking. Or ready to punish the entirety of our species for the infractions of a small percentage because of some foolish, petty whimsy. "You don't deserve to live, because you ate meat on a Friday. Pushed a button. Wore two kinds of fabric. Ate meat from the wrong animal. Loved the wrong person. Didn't bow to the east to recite your prayers. Listened to the wrong leader. Drank the wrong drink. Thought the wrong thoughts. Believed the wrong things."

If we're going to survive, it will be because men and women of science, not faith3, figured it out. And that is what I have faith4 in.

Today's post is inspired by GBE2 (Group Blogging Experience)'s Week 115 prompt: Faith.
  1. I realize now that categorizing these books as 'non-fiction' is laughable, but at the time, that is how they were marketed. Which is one reason I probably had such a protracted period of time when I believed whole-heartedly in such nonsense: after all, "They" wouldn't allow a book to claim it was non-fiction if it wasn't, would They?
  2. Actual non-fiction! Like Carl Sagan's books and stuff by people with real edumacashuns and degrees from universities that aren't made up. People who have Science and Data to back up their claims instead of a lot of supposition and things they have extracted from their own asses.
  3. As in belief with no evidence — or even in defiance of evidence to the contrary — which is what is usually meant when used in this sense.
  4. Evidence-based trust, as in, "I have faith the sun will rise tomorrow," because we have scientific evidence, not because someone sang it into the sky or sacrificed a virgin to it or prayed it out of the darkness.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

You Done STEPPED in it Now

Earlier this week, Pope Francis I made history by announcing that not only do all good people go to heaven (stating that, basically, good acts are what count), this included, of all people, atheists.

Gasp! The scandal!

A lot of atheists were quite amused by this. “Yay, we’re not going to the imaginary happy place instead of not going to the imaginary bad place!”

I, personally, view the Pope’s announcement as roughly equivalent to Bugs Bunny telling me I’ll go to Los Ang-ga-leez after I die, but only if I take a left turn at Albuquerque.

But not long after the Pope made his announcement, the Vatican contradicted this.

[T]he Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who know about the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.

(Translation: Atheists are going to Hell if they don’t accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.) [emphasis added]

I’m mighty glad the article provided that translation, because otherwise I might have thought he was implying something else altogether. If you know what I mean. Nudge-nudge.

But let’s ignore that. As I said, I find the whole thing kind of amusing. Sort of the same way a Christian would if a Native American shaman told them they would not be able to enter the Happy Hunting Ground because they were not Cherokee (or whatever). “Oh, that’s nice.” <polite smile>

What I’m curious about is this whole papal infallibility thing. You know, the doctrine that states that whatever the Pope says is what the church believes?

From Wikipedia, the bastion of all knowledge:

Papal infallibility is a dogma of the Catholic Church which states that, in virtue of the promise of Jesus to Peter, the Pope is preserved from the possibility of error "when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.” [emphasis added]

<insert screeching tire noise here>

So, how does this work, exactly? The pope, Il Papa, The Dude with the Funny Hat himself, comes out and proclaims, “Anyone who does good can get into Heaven,” this should mean that from that point forward (Or is it retroactive?), this is the doctrine of the entire Catholic church. (Until the next infallible Pope says the opposite, anyway.) No ifs, ands, or buts about it:1 if The Pope says it, that’s the way it is.

Except that then the Vatican – represented by a priest who is not the Pope – comes out a few days later and says, “Wait, no. The Pope was wrong.”

<insert sound of game show buzzer here>

“Oh, I’m sorry. You forgot to state the doctrine in the form of a papal proclamation.”

To me, this is a much more interesting question than whether people who don’t believe are or are not going to a place they don’t believe in after they die. Is the church abandoning papal infallibility? Was it ever a thing? Am I misinterpreting something?2

Or is this, indeed, a big doctrinal, dogmatic deal?

What are your thoughts?

  1. I believe this is the basis for papal infallibility, or at least that’s what Professor Wiki tells me: Matthew 16:18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. [emphasis added, clearly]
  2. I am quite aware of this, also from Wikipedia: "A doctrine proposed by a pope as his own opinion, not solemnly proclaimed as a doctrine of the Church, may be rejected as false, even if it is on a matter of faith and morals, and even more any view he expresses on other matters." So, yeah, all they have to do is say it was his opinion or that he was not making a binding claim and they're off the hook, but I find this loophole kind of hypocritical. Don't you think? I mean, a Pope either is or is not infallible. If he can make one mistake, doesn't that mean he is, pretty much by definition, fallible?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Follow my blog with Bloglovin I'm trying out a new service that should allow me to replace Google Reader. Perhaps. This post is just to get that link on there, because this is how I claim MY blog. :) There is no actual content, here. Sorry.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

It Gets Better

I read something online earlier today that inspired me to write this. This post is for one young man named Noah, to whom I just want to say one thing: Dude, it gets way better. Seriously.

I was bullied when I was in school. It was a small school, and I was the one everyone seemed to choose to pick on. A lot of kids from my own class and from grades ahead of me. Even some of the popular kids younger than me got in on the action. I never fought back, so I was a particularly easy target. It never got physical other than one time when I was de-pantsed in the locker room after PE and thrown outside in my underwear, yelling for the coach the entire time. But as I'm sure you know, the physical stuff is only a small part of it. I think maybe being punched in the face would have been easier. At least it would have been something visible that the teachers and principal couldn't ignore.

I don't know your situation, Noah. I don't know what reason the bullies are using to justify making your life miserable. I don't really care. Because it doesn't matter. I can tell you what it was in my case. I was a geek, unathletic, got straight A's, and liked learning just for the sake of learning. I was a bit of a late bloomer, as well. I liked reading more than sports.

But that's me. Your situation may be similar, or it may be entirely different. But here's the thing that I want you to understand.

Whatever. They're. Saying. Is. Wrong. Don't let them define who you are. Don't let them make you feel bad about enjoying or not enjoying something. Don't let them convince you that you deserve how they're treating you. Don't let them take away who you are because they demand that you be something else.

And please, don't let them convince you that the world would be better off without you in it. Because it won't.

I was constantly harassed: during homeroom, some classes, recess, lunch, and especially PE. I was not invited to parties. Or if I was invited, it was obvious that it was because their parents had made them. I was called names. I once had a "kick me" sign taped to my back, and even one of the teachers found it so funny that she had to laugh.

I wasn't laughing. It was awful. I wanted the people who were doing this to me to suffer the way they were making me suffer.

Somehow, though, I made it through. I had a couple of friends and we hung out and did our own thing. I found things I liked to do and people to do them with. In my case that was art classes after school. Piano lessons. Writing. Reading. Dungeons and Dragons. When I was doing those things, I didn't have those other people around me. The people who were constantly calling me stupid names and making me feel less than worthless.

After a particularly bad few weeks where the constant harassment got really bad, my mother came into my room after she got home from work. She said she needed to talk to me. She sat down on the edge of my bed. I sat next to her, my head down, sure I had gotten in big trouble for something.

What she said to me was that she knew some of what was going on at school (teachers talk). But that I should rise above it. Not listen to the people telling me I was worthless because I didn't do or like the same things they did. To "march to the beat of a different drummer." To do my own thing and not worry about what other people said or thought.

I know now that my mother was hurting, too. She saw what was going on, and she felt the pain, too. But she didn't want to make it worse. I still remember that conversation. I still think about it, and I still try to follow that advice.

Your mom is hurting, too. She wants desperately to help. She would move Heaven and Earth to make everything better for you.

But you know what? It got better. Things got a little easier as time went on. Maybe because I managed to stop caring so much what those people thought. Maybe because some of the people who'd been picking on me actually grew up a little and realized that what they were doing was hurtful, and stopped. Not all of them, but a few. It helped. I went to the prom with a pretty girl. We danced. We had fun. We went to a party afterwards and didn't get home until 2 AM. I was in the school play. I wouldn't trade any of those memories.

And then something truly awesome and amazing happened: I graduated from high school. And do you know what that meant?

I didn't have to be around those people anymore! I could choose to hang out with who I wanted. To do the things I wanted to do. I went to college. I made a bunch of friends who liked me for who I was. And here's the crazy part: they liked me for exactly the same reasons those kids in middle school and high school had picked on me, teased me, and harassed me.

I have incredible friends, now. I'm still very close to a lot of people I was friends with in college. But you know what else? I don't even remember the names of most of those kids in school who picked on me. I look at my yearbooks, and I think, "Who are you? Why did I care so much what you thought of me?" I haven't seen those people in 30 years (I'm old). And it doesn't bother me in the least. Those people are less than nothing to me, now.

My friend, you have some amazing things in store for you. Sure, there's going to be some awful stuff, too. And chances are, a lot of it is going to hurt. I'm not going to lie to you and try to tell you it's all laughs. But that other stuff is going to make up for it. Big time.

It gets better. It really, really does.

Friday, January 18, 2013


"The universe is so fined-tuned for intelligent life that there's just no way all that could have 'just happened' randomly! There had to be a guiding force!"

Take a deck of 52 standard playing cards (remove the jokers and any ad cards), or, if you have them handy, you could use a standard deck of 78 tarot cards as well. If you want to be evil and possibly murder some random person.

I keed, I keed! You won't cause random murder with a tarot deck. Probably.

Shuffle them at least six times to ensure a more random order. (Seven if using the tarot deck.)

Cut the deck. Or don't. I don't really care.

Now, deal the cards out one at a time, face-up, on a table, floor, or other flat surface so that you can see all the cards.

When you're done, carefully examine the order of the cards that you've laid out, from left to right.

That particular sequence of cards that you laid out was so improbable that it was impossible, by all practical definitions of the word. It had roughly a 1 in 8.06582 x 1067 chance of occurring! (Or 1 in ~1.13243 x 10115 if you used the tarot deck.) If a machine that could sort and deal the entire deck of cards in one second were to start doing so at the moment of the big bang, it still would not have exhausted all the possible combinations of cards in the 52-card deck, much less the 78-card tarot deck. The universe is only a bit over 432 quadrillion seconds old. That's ~ 4.3233 x 1017 seconds. You'll notice that 17 is much smaller than both 67 and 115.

And yet, this extremely improable event occurred right before your eyes. You watched it unfold before you! How astounding! You've just witnessed something that has almost certainly never occurred before, and will almost certainly never occur again in the history of the universe.

Do you feel privileged? As though you've witnessed a miracle that requires a "guiding hand" from elsewhere so that it aligned just right?

Eh, probably not. I mean, it's just random card order, right?

People tend to ascribe higher "impossibility" to sequences of events that mean something to them. Like flipping a coin a hundred times and coming up with heads every single time. In reality, any sequence of a hundred flips of the coin is equally unlikely as a hundred heads, a hundred tails, or fifty of each, intermingled (HTHT . . .).

Admit it: if you did the shuffle-then-layout thing and the cards managed to be in order from ace to king by suit (spades, hearts, diamonds, then clubs), or in a similar order for the Tarot cards, with the minor arcana first by number and suit, followed by the major arcana, you'd be much more likely to get a cold chill up your spine. But those "special" arrangements are exactly as likely — or as unlikely — as any other one.

Or if you shredded a catalog into confetti, then tossed it all up into the air over a fan, and as the pieces drifted to the ground, it happened to form an image that looked like Jesus or the virgin Mary, suddenly, it's a miracle! Whereas, if it formed the equally unlikely picture of, say, Flo the cashier from those Progressive Insurance commercials or Pepe le Pew, the Loony Toons skunk, it would be kind of neat . . . but hardly miraculous. They only seem miraculous because the image formed means something to us.

If it actually formed the unmistakable image of anything, I'd be highly suspicious. That our brains see patterns where there aren't any is called "pareidolia," and it's a well-known explanation for such things as Jesus-tortillas or Virgin-Mary-grilled-cheese-sandwiches.1

This is why I tend to be scornful when I hear things like "the universe has to have had a creator because there's no way everything just happened to line up to allow our kind of life!" If you look into it a bit, you realize that there's more beauty to the universe without a guiding intelligence than with one, or at least that's how I see it.

  1. Frankly, the Virgin Mary grilled cheese (see the image at the top of this post) doesn't look like much of anything to me, but sometimes I can sort of see an image of Tracy Scoggins, if I look slightly to one side and squint. And it's dark enough. And someone tells me I'm supposed to see Mary/Tracy.