Monday, June 29, 2015

The epistemic bar

Sometimes I read comment debates between atheists and Christians.  It's less fruitful than one would hope.  Every time, it devolves into an epistemic debate -- where they argue, not about the facts, but how strong a proof a person should need.

The atheist position is, "I disbelieve unless I am given very strong evidence for belief."  The Christian one is, "I believe unless it is categorically proven false."  Then they fight with each other about what the proper level of evidence needed really is.

The trouble is, as long as the question is in any way uncertain, there is no solution to this debate.  There is no categorical proof available.  That's sort of the point of religion -- it's about spiritual realities which you can't see or touch.  And the human mind is not capable of easily grasping probabilities.  Ignorance is something it has a lot of trouble with.  It is not really possible to be 20% sure of something.  How do you act when you are 20% sure?  To deal with this reality, you round down to nothing, usually, but you could round up if you really wanted to.  When I look at the weather forecast, I generally think of any lowish chance of rain (like 30%) as "not going to rain" and any highish chance (like 70%) as "going to rain."  Only at a really ambiguous number (like 50%) will I admit that I actually don't know.

So the real question between atheists and Christians is, which way do we round?  If we are 20% sure Jesus rose from the dead, should we act like it's true, or false?

Christians make the argument that they want to believe anyway, because of the benefits of belief, because the possible reward (heaven) is so high, and because they don't want to take the risk of disbelieving if it's true and perhaps going to hell.  (Now some people don't say that -- they say they wish it weren't true because being a Christian is hard.  But that means this argument doesn't work for them, and they should require more proof than the one who wants to believe.)

It seems to me that complete certainty is not possible in our current situation.  Therefore, depending on how you round, you could go either way.

The trouble, for the religious side, is where to place the epistemic bar so that you can believe all the truths of the Christian religion and none of the things that you don't want to believe.  That is, you have to come up with a standard of proof that Jesus' resurrection passes, but the resurrection of Proteus fails.  You want to set the bar so that the sun dancing at Fatima passes and the sun dancing at Medjugorje fails.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have to be credible witnesses, but not Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or L. Ron Hubbard.

For the atheist side, the problem is that they come up with a standard of proof that wouldn't allow them to believe in, say, Hannibal.  Hannibal has no contemporary attestation either.  On the other hand, no self-respecting historian really does believe the odd bits of the Hannibal story -- miracles, prophecies, and so forth.  It's not well-attested enough for that, and anyway the existence of the supernatural is usually taken as negative evidence in a text -- I sure discount that stuff when I read history.  And historical figures like Alexander the Great, Pontius Pilate, Socrates, and so forth do have multiple independent contemporary sources about them -- including critical ones.

The reality, which no one seems willing to face, is that historical "truth" is really no better than an educated guess.  This link says it very well (I recommend the whole thing): "The historian's 'truths' are derived from analytical evaluations of an object called 'sources' rather than an object called 'the actual past.'"  The past itself is not available; all we have is what is written down.

So we could have an amount of proof which isn't really good evidence of anything.  Jesus lived among mostly uneducated people in a place that wasn't the center of literacy.  It is quite credible that he should live his entire life without anyone writing a contemporary letter about him, without having become the subject of a satire by one of his enemies, without having been mentioned by Philo of Alexandria or Pliny the Elder.  It is entirely unsurprising for the new founder of a religion to be noticed exclusively by the members of his own religion during his lifetime.  Who else cared enough to write?

On the other hand, it is also entirely credible that a new religion could be founded on a falsehood -- most religions have to have been, if only one can be true!  It's credible that, within the fervent atmosphere of a new religion, myths could spring up and be encoded in sacred books within a very short time.  Regnum Christi had a little book called Perspectives on a Foundation which would seem like a credible source.  It was written by Legionaries, within the lifespan of the founder, from primary sources (mostly the founder himself).  But it was pretty much total fiction from beginning to end.  I, as a member of that movement, had no way of knowing it wasn't true and no reason not to believe it.  There's no popular rebuttal published, because only movement members cared about it!  All of us would normally discount anything said about L. Ron Hubbard by Scientologists, anything a Mormon told us about Joseph Smith, and anything Muslims say about Muhammad.  We know that their faith and zeal prevents them from being skeptical and objective.  When you take that standard and apply it to the sources about Jesus, the whole New Testament is suspect and you are down to two references to him in the historical record -- neither of which is very informative.

And we know that, a few short centuries after the birth of Christ, zealous Christians deliberately destroyed all anti-Christian writings they could find, as well as heretical material like the gnostic Gospels.  So who knows. maybe there was good evidence against the Resurrection that no longer survives.

Honestly I find both stories credible, and neither case rock-solid.

So, given that, what do you go with?  Like I said, you can't actually be 30% sure Jesus rose from the dead, because the mind doesn't work that way.  And how can you be 30% of a Christian?  "I don't know" gives no guidance about your life choices.

There are two possible answers.  Round up is what religion demands.  Take a small amount of certainty and round it up to total certainty.  Eschew doubt.  When someone asks you if you believe, don't say "maybe," say "yes," even though you aren't sure at all.

The other option is round down, to say that without good evidence you will not believe.  That's what you would do if someone told you 9/11 was an inside job, or that the government is poisoning us with chemtrails, or that you live inside the Matrix.  You would say, "Interesting theory, but you haven't proved it yet.  I'm not going to change the way I live until I'm sure."  But then you have to go on in your life, wondering if there is a more out there, a beautiful reality which you are missing out on.

There's just one thing that gets me: if God is real, if Jesus saves, if the main concern of Jesus is to get us to believe in him, why would he leave us in a state like this, where our entire salvation hinges on a rounding error?  You would think he would be very careful to make it clear.  While it's credible on a natural level for there to be as little evidence as there is, if the whole thing is of supernatural origin, it would have been quite simple for God to make sure we had better sources.  Why didn't he?

The best answer I've heard to this is that God doesn't leave it to the historical facts.  He inspires each individual separately, giving us our own evidence for belief.  If you pray to him, he will give the gift of faith, or a miracle, or a fantastic coincidence -- something that lets you be really sure it's true.  After that, it's up to you -- believe or not, having been given exactly the evidence that you need.  The only flaw to this is that it has not happened to me.

As a result, the only possibilities I can think of are as follows:
1.  Christianity is false.
2.  Christianity is true, but it's a Calvinist version, and I am predestined to hell.
3. Christianity is true, but God is waiting till a better time in my life to reveal it to me.  A correlate is that he's okay with my not believing now.
4.  Christianity is true, but God knows it would be harmful to me personally.  He knows I'm obsessively conscientious and will make myself miserable trying to follow it all.  So he withholds proof so that I will not feel pressured to live that way.  He thinks I'll live better without knowing about him, and then he can clear it all up with me in heaven.

Can you think of any more? Anyway, that answers that objection.  The  one answer I won't accept is, "Because God wanted to give us the chance to believe without evidence," because God also didn't give us evidence that it was a good thing to believe without evidence.

Emotions might be a substitute for certainty.  If you feel God is out there, that could be enough.  But it seems to me this conclusion has two correlates: first, when you stop feeling God is out there, you should stop believing; and second, if your interior sense of God conflicts with something organized religion tells you, you should go with your feeling, since it's your ultimate source of belief in the first place.  Sure enough, there's plenty of religious people who believe in this way.

There is no real answer to the question, "Where should you put the epistemic bar?"  That is, what is the point at which you stop rounding down and start rounding up -- what amount of proof is enough to go ahead and assume it's true.  It comes down to a choice -- and that's why believing or disbelieving is almost always a choice.  If something is proven, you have no choice but to believe it.  I can't believe the sky is green.  But if there's any doubt at all, any wiggle room for disbelief, you can always make that choice.  That is why Christians say that if atheists wanted to, they could choose to believe (just set the bar lower!) and atheists say Christians are choosing to believe what they do because they prefer it (because they could always set the bar higher).

However, is one choice better than another?  Scientific thought suggests 50% is a good level.  If you are more sure than unsure, you should believe while leaving an open mind in case you learn more information.  If you're less sure than unsure, you should disbelieve.  And you should always be aware of the possibility that you are wrong.  Science has no room for "faith," because the very definition of faith is taking insufficient evidence -- something that doesn't lead to unavoidable certainty -- and treating it as if you were sure.

In fact, I can't think of a single area outside of religion where this is a good decision.  When I chose not to vaccinate my kids, it was with the understanding that I wasn't sure it was the right choice, I should keep an open mind to further information, and reassess as appropriate.  (I'm thinking it's probably about time to give at least Marko a few shots, by the way.)  When I was convinced by the evidence for evolution, I kept in my mind that it's not a sure thing and I shouldn't act like it is, even though the evidence is pretty good.  With religion, we are urged to take any evidence, even if it's not at all close to overwhelming, and stop considering other possibilities as soon as we have it.

If the common ground between atheists and Christians in this argument is "you should use the same epistemic bar for religion and other things," I think the atheists win.  Christians do not actually use the same epistemic bar for religion and other things, and if they did, they would be excessively credulous and much too stubborn about changing their minds when they were wrong.

But is it really agreed?  What do you think?  On what grounds can religious truth require a lower epistemic bar than other things?  The potential rewards are huge, yes, but so are the costs.  Religion requires of us many things that are painful and difficult, and sometimes it requires things which would be seen as immoral from outside its perspective.  And what if one religion is true, and it's not the one you're currently in?  Surely in that case you are obliged to keep looking.

Is there a level of evidence at which it is the right choice to switch from rounding down to rounding up, and if so, where is it?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Guns and virtue ethics

After every mass shooting, we get another replay of the gun-control debate.  One side says, "This would have been prevented if only we didn't have legal guns."  The other says, "This would have been prevented if only everyone there had had a legal gun."

I'm not going to address that, because honestly I don't know.  I think that guns should be kept out of the hands of criminals if at all possible, but at the same time it seems unreasonable to keep guns out of the hands of hunters, people living in remote areas, and so forth.  And really I have no idea what the statistics really show, whether it is possible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals or whether armed civilians prevent crime.

What I want to talk about is my own personal choice not to use a gun.  It's something I've struggled to explain to others for years, and lacked the vocabulary to explain until I read about virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics, in the words of my friend Seeking Omniscience, means that "virtue is fractal," or in the words of Jesus, "the one who is faithful in small matters will be faithful also in large ones."  That is, you don't make ethical decisions based on a one-time, logical consideration, but based on your habits.  If you have the habit of treating others with respect, you will become a respectful person.  It will be against your nature, after awhile, to be disrespectful.  Aristotle tells us that the most virtuous man isn't the one who does good things with immense effort, but the one who does them easily, because they are habitual.

I've understood this for a long time, though I couldn't explain it.  I know that every action I take is a choice to shape myself in a certain direction.  Even the thoughts you think, the things you let yourself imagine, shape your future actions.  You can't make a decision in isolation that doesn't affect the sort of person you are.  So when utilitarian ethicists or Catholic death-penalty promoters try to explain the sort of scenario when taking one life is morally acceptable, all I can think is, "But what is the effect on the person who has to take that life?"

There are different virtues, and different ways you could shape yourself which could all be morally good.  A soldier might be habitually a violent man without being a bad man.  We ask him to make the sacrifice of forming violent habits because we need that in some cases.  But when he comes home, he is going to have to struggle to form new habits which work better in civilian life.

As a mother, I desperately need to be gentle and non-aggressive.  I have a nasty temper, but through constant practice I have trained myself (for the most part) not to lash out defensively.  Instead I hesitate before acting and try to think before I speak.  I train myself to think of hurting people, by word or action, as completely beyond the pale.  It's a daily struggle, but I think I'm doing okay at it.

But last year, John suggested we should get a gun for home defense.  I told him that I didn't have a problem with it, provided I would not be expected to use it.  He was confused -- don't I believe in self-defense?

I do, in the abstract.  I think that if a violent person breaks down my door and threatens to hurt my kids, I would be well within my rights to shoot him.  It would be a morally good action.  However, I also don't think I would be capable of doing it.  I would hesitate, and the invader would easily overpower me, take the weapon, and train it on me.  I know that's how I am -- being naturally a timid person plus having trained myself to be nonaggressive at all times.

"Okay," said John, "so why don't you go to a shooting range and practice with the gun until you felt you'd overcome your hesitation to firing at an invader?"

I couldn't give a good answer to that, so we ended up abandoning the conversation, but let me try to explain it now.  I think that if I practiced shooting a gun, visualizing scenarios where I would need to kill someone, I would be changing the sort of person I am.  I would be making myself more suited to be a home defender but less suited to be a nurturing parent.

Now, that's not a bad thing in every scenario.  If I lived in a wartorn nation plagued by roving gangs, I would get the gun, practice with it, and if it made me worse at keeping my temper, that would just be the price my kids would have to pay for safety.  But in reality, home invasions are extremely rare.  If I spent a single hour of my life preparing for it, I would be spending a disproportionate amount of time, compared to the risk.  If I want to save my kids' lives, I should instead take a first-aid course, learn CPR, learn defensive driving, buy top-rated carseats, cut sugar out of their diets, teach them how to cross the street carefully ... there is no end to better uses of my time, when it comes to reducing risk to their lives, than learning to shoot a gun.

But besides all that, I think that it is impossible to train for combat without changing the way you see the world.  Some gun owners I know have told me that they constantly survey their environment for dangers and make contingency plans.  Is this a good use of their mental energy?  Are they more likely to need to shoot someone in a crisis or to develop a stress-related illness from their constant vigilance?

It seems to me that if you carry a hammer everywhere you go, more and more problems start to look like nails.  Certainly we've seen that with the police. When they make a mistake and shoot an unarmed person, their defenders remind us that they are trained to react quickly and have no way of being sure the person is not armed.  Perhaps it would help if they spent fewer hours shooting human-shaped targets and more hours walking through scenarios with harmless civilians, especially children and the mentally ill.

Doctor Who is another example.  The Doctor would be a lot more efficient at taking care of alien threats if he would carry a weapon; but on the other hand, with a quick fix like that available, would he realize the many situations when weapons aren't called for?  Considering that he is a time-traveling supergenius of incredible power, there is nothing more important than for him to practice virtue.  No matter how tempting it might be to commit one little atrocity here or there for a really good reason, it would send him on a course which he might not be able to correct.  And then the whole universe would be threatened, as a Time Lord without a conscience goes marauding around.

A negative example is found in the show 24.  In season one, Jack Bauer only tortures really bad people, when it's really necessary.  By season three, he's torturing everybody, all the time, even people who seem quite obviously not guilty of anything.  It's become a habit with him, so that he isn't capable of seeing what the viewers are, that the prisoner is not a threat and doesn't know anything.

So I've made the choice that the sort of person I am is the sort of person who does not use a gun.  Others might make a different choice, based on the sort of person their state in life requires them to be.  My point is just that it's not as simple as saying "Self-defense is morally legitimate, therefore I should own a gun."  I do believe self-defense and the defense of the innocent are morally good, but I don't believe that a situation that requires it is likely enough to merit changing the sort of person I am.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Traditional and progressive religion

I wrote awhile back about two kinds of Catholics.  Since then I've realized that Protestantism has the same thing -- and so, as far as I can tell, do Judaism and Islam.

It's pretty natural that religions should branch into a strict interpretation and a broad interpretation, just as nations easily divide into political parties.  This is especially true considering the problems of the founding documents (the Bible, the Torah and Talmud, and the Quran).  In all of these cases the scriptures were written in a cultural context very different from ours.  Morally speaking, that context seems a bit primitive -- it was a time of greater violence, stricter social norms, and a strong emphasis on punishment for wrongdoing.  The prevailing morality of the modern age is different -- more forgiving, more tolerant, and less violent.

There are two responses to this.  You can say that the bronze-age morality of the Old Testament is the right way -- that it's objectively the best, because God is clearly seen to support it.  Or you can say that modern morality is more likely to be right, and therefore whatever part of scripture seems to contradict the message of peace, love, and tolerance isn't to be taken literally.

What you can't do is be morally progressive and a biblical literalist.  Some parts of the Bible are morally progressive -- some of the prophetic literature, for instance, and quite a bit of the New Testament -- but some parts are emphatically not.  If God really did destroy Sodom with fire, if he punishes children for the sins of their parents, if he commanded the death penalty for worshiping the wrong religion, he is not a progressive being at all.

So the argument, among progressives, is that the scriptures aren't inspired that literally.  It's the story of God's gradual revelation to men, and they got it very wrong at first.

The traditionalists have a great answer to this: if God is all-powerful, he surely should have the ability to get his message across as he intended.  If there is some part of the bible that seems wrong to you, the problem is with you.  Don't want to beat your children?  Don't believe in slavery?  Think the death penalty should be abolished?  Remember, God's ways are not our ways.  You need to let the scriptures form your conscience instead of trying to use your conscience to inform your reading of the bible.  Maybe the modern world has corrupted you and that's why you think what God did in the bible was bad.

It's such an ironclad argument that the only response progressives can make is "but that would be a terrible way to live."  And it is, as you can see by anyone who takes the traditionalist argument to its logical conclusion -- fundamentalist Protestants, ultra-trad Catholics, ISIS.  Yet progressives cannot explain what their authority is, if scripture is fallible.  How do they know for sure that any part of their religion is true?  Do they just pick and choose, keeping the things that feel like what an all-good God would say and do, and ditch the rest?

The Catholic Church has a good solution to this problem.  It replaces the fixed root of Scripture with the slightly more flexible root of the Magisterium.  When modern morality changes, it has the job of figuring out what innovations are good and which are not.  That's how the Catholic Church can ditch the death penalty, women's subjugation, damnation for unbaptized infants, while still sticking to the things that are worth keeping.  It has a living authority rather than a dead one, so it can adapt.

However, it still has a problem.  How can it explain how the same God we worship today was in charge and actively revealing things way back in the bad old days, if He revealed different things at different times?  If the death penalty is so bad, why did God mandate it in Biblical times?  If torture is intrinsically evil, why did God not reveal that until after the Inquisition was over?  It's not nearly as useful a revelation now as it would have been then.

This little point is the main job of theologians and professional Catholics, as far as I can see.  They spend their time explaining, point by point, each specific problem and how it can be resolved.  There is no single over-arching explanation for these problems, so if you raise them (as I so often do) you get a lot of "which particular passage are you talking about?"  Sometimes they claim it was never meant that way, sometimes they say that a certain statement wasn't infallible, and sometimes they just go back to the old "God's ways are not our ways" argument.  Maybe these things could be good for God to do even if they'd be bad for us, or maybe they would be good for us too and it just doesn't feel right because our consciences are badly formed.

And within the Church there are many different factions based on the specific answers they give to specific problems.  On the question of the mutating teaching of "no salvation outside the Church," for instance, a regular conservative Catholic will answer, "The original teachings either weren't infallible or can be interpreted as not in contradiction with the new ones."  An ultratraditionalist will say, "Vatican II contradicted a previous teaching, so it is not infallible or is proof that the smoke of Satan has entered the Church."  And a progressive Catholic will say, "The fact that the teaching has changed is proof that Church teaching is mutable, and surely the next thing to change is my pet issue."

Still, from where I'm standing it looks suspiciously like denial.  No one wants to admit that an all-powerful, unchanging God, who should be able to get the same moral truths across from age to age, has somehow not been entirely consistent.  It's like that country song where the girl admits that sure, it looks an awful lot like her guy is cheating on her, but she swears it's not what it looks like.

Between progressive and traditionalist religion there's a constant two-way current, some traditionalists becoming more progressive as they realize that's an awful way to live, and some progressives becoming more traditionalist as they realize that if you want to be serious about surrendering yourself to God, you have to take seriously the things that he said.

I am stuck, myself.  I have a strong moral impulse against traditional religion (whether Catholic or any other kind) because so much of the Old Testament is morally objectionable.  But I don't find progressive religion (whether Catholic or otherwise) stands up intellectually, because it's never come up with a good argument for why people can pick and choose what to believe, or why God didn't reveal better moral codes at the outset.  If you don't acknowledge the authority of the magisterium or of scripture, how do you know God is out there in the first place?

The conversations I tend to get in with people often go like this:  I espouse a progressive idea.  The other person will prove my idea isn't Catholic, and that I'm a heretic if I believe it.  I say, "True enough, but the conclusions you get with your viewpoint are awful, and that's why I'm not sure about being Catholic in the first place."  At that point they immediately about-face and say that I should please keep up with believing what I am, because, well, cafeteria Catholic beats not at all Catholic.  But I think their initial argument was convincing.  Catholicism is the religion of the bronze age, of the patristic age, of the middle ages.  It is not my own peace, love, and tolerance religion, no matter how much I would like it to be.

But I can't blame them for trying, because in a way I'm trying to do the same thing back to them.  "X belief is really harmful," I say.  "Maybe it's bad to be in a religion that teaches that."  They'll insist that they love their religion (whether Catholicism or some other one) and they get so much good out of it.  So I'll say, "Maybe a more progressive one, without belief X but with all the things you like about religion?"

Ultimately, the compromise that is progressive religion seems doomed to fail.  On an individual level, it works for awhile, mainly because people aren't that concerned with truth.  They're looking for something that feels good to believe, and a community that they like worshipping with.  But if you're going to confront progressive religion on a factual level, you're going to have to face the reality that every single source that could be a proof of the parts of religion that you like, is also bound to be a proof of the parts of religion that you don't like.  That's how more secular Muslims get radicalized, and how evangelicals set up their megachurches. 

So I hardly know how to treat progressive religion.  Do I encourage it as a less-harmful version of the same thing, something that has all the good stuff and none of the bad stuff?  Or do I point out the internal contradictions, even though it will force people to make a choice between two bad options, atheism (which many people fear won't fulfill them emotionally) or traditionalist religion (which can be harsh and harmful)?  I fear too many would choose the latter, because the former is so unthinkable.

And that's why I don't go around saying "radical Islam is the real Islam" or "bible Christians who don't support slavery are dishonest."  I fear people would pick terrorism and slavery over abandoning a religion that they're attached to.  Yet again, Catholicism seems the only possible compromise -- because it has a firmer intellectual foundation than progressive religion and has arguments for why we don't have to support slavery or stonings or whatever.  But even there, the same problem echoes .... why are these compromises necessary?  Why does an all-powerful, all-good, unchanging God keep looking as though he's changing?

That's what I would like to know.

Saturday, June 20, 2015



Perhaps I should rename this "Saturday Seven," seeing as I can hardly do "Seven Quick Takes Friday" if Friday is my no-internet day.

I did try, yesterday.  I was going to stay off the computer altogether, but there was an important thing I really had to do.  So I did that and then I thought "while I'm here, I should try to shut down some tabs."  But you can't shut down tabs without reading them, can you?  So I read them, but there were some important links on there I had to follow, and now I have more tabs open than I did before.  C'est la internet.

Then I thought, the whole point is that I should be doing Other Things.  So I decided to make a chart for Marko that he's been begging for for days -- a chart showing the three periods of the Mesozoic (Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous) and which dinosaurs, plants, theraspids, etc., were alive at which times.  I didn't get very far before needing Wikipedia.

Oh, Wikipedia, how I do love thee.  When Marko can read and navigate Wikipedia, I don't suppose he'll need me anymore.  Like his father, all he wants in life is to find out All The Things.  I was the same when I was a kid, but I had to read through the encyclopedia, wherein "see also" is a much bigger hassle.

Here's the chart:

Now I have been commissioned to draw one each of the Paleozoic and the Cenozoic.  Because my kid is a nerd.  (Squeeeee!) 


I am very happy to follow my kid's interest here -- I mean, unschooling is great and I'm learning as much as he is and this is what I've been dreaming of for years!

But .... it is hard to draw mastodons when you are holding a fussy baby.  Miriam is very unpredictable, as always.  One day she takes two two-hour naps, and the next day one half-hour nap.  I spend all of my time waiting for her to take a nap, and then trying to get the kids to be quiet while she takes it.  When she doesn't nap, she's horribly fussy.  Put her down and she screams, pick her up and she thrashes and grabs everything.  I can't read books because she tears the pages.  I can't eat because she dumps it in my lap.  So I put her down and she climbs on Marko's bedside table and then stands on top of it screaming to be helped down.

But when she has gotten a nap, she's sweetness and light -- and getting into trouble, OF COURSE.  She turns ten months today and has been walking pretty much everywhere she goes for about a week now.  Of course she walks like a drunken zombie, but she does it fast!


I have started using progesterone cream for luteal phase insufficiency.  If you don't know what that is, don't worry, it's not interesting.  If you are a woman and think you might have it -- or severe PMS or very heavy periods -- they tell me it really works.  And it's available without a prescription, which is important to me, because if I had to wait till I had time to see a doctor, it would probably be years.

Too soon to tell yet though.  All I know is it stinks to high heaven and is gloppier than sunscreen when it comes to rubbing it in.


I have had a marked improvement of overall health in the last month, though, and I'm sort of embarrassed to tell you why.  I have been run-down, exhausted, cranky, tired.  Just figured that's how it is when you've got three little kids and the baby doesn't sleep through the night.  But I haven't been taking vitamins, because I ran out and didn't think it was super important.

Finally decided to go to the health food store and buy some vitamins, and it is like night and day.  I feel like I'm alive again, for the first time in months.

Seriously, that was it?  Vitamin deficiency?  I feel very stupid for going months and months without thinking of that possibility.


The way I like to read is to find a single author I like and then read everything I can find that they wrote, all at once.  My current binge is Father Andrew Greeley.  I picked him because he's Catholic, but he's also liberal enough that I didn't think he'd make me run screaming.

So far, so good!  I really enjoy his writing.  It's very Catholic, but in a ... hm.... a very open-minded sort of way.  There's scads of romance in every book (which makes it a little awkward when you imagine it was written by a priest) but along with the romance is an emphasis that love is of God and brings us closer to God.

Almost all the characters in his books are Chicago Irish; there's a lot about the quirks of Irish people and Irish-American people.  Some of the books are mysteries, with his character Monsignor Blackwood Ryan as the detective (explicitly echoing Father Brown).  They're not bad.  But the really good ones are the other ones -- particularly a series I started about the O'Malley family.  The first book, A Midwinter's Tale, covers the Depression and World War II; the second, Younger than Springtime, covers a couple years after the war.  I love the hero, a methodical kid who wants to be an accountant but winds up having a much more adventurous life than he intended.

Downsides?  Greeley fairly drenches his work in benevolent sexism -- every single woman is amazingly gorgeous, intelligent, and wise.  The male characters struggle their whole lives to figure stuff out that the women apparently were born knowing.  When needed, the women suddenly reveal that they know martial arts.  They rarely have any faults.  There are worse kinds of sexism, but it's rather annoying -- the women don't seem like human beings at all!

Also, if I met the author in person, I would want to be wearing a burka.  Because, I swear, every one of his male narrators is so obsessed with looking at and fantasizing about women (respectfully, they always insist!) that I can't help but believe the author himself is the same way.

 But, with those caveats -- plus a warning to orthodox Catholics that Greeley isn't one, in a few particulars -- the books are enjoyable and definitely get me thinking about things like love, and God, and personal growth.


The other day, I was inside and the kids were outside, when suddenly I heard a lot of loud cheeping.  I figured the birds were up to something, no worries, but when the cheeping coincided with maniacal laughter from the kids, I figured I'd better check up on them.  Sure enough, Michael was holding a baby bird and zooming it around the yard.

I confiscated it, because Michael is not to be trusted with live animals AT ALL, and interrogated them about where they'd gotten in from.  Marko said it had just been sitting in the middle of the lawn.  I looked everywhere for a nest, because I know the right thing to do is to put the bird back.  (It's a myth that the parents will reject a baby bird that's been touched.)  But I couldn't find one.  I set it up in a stockpot with a cozy dishtowel and did some research.  Surely I could raise this bird to adulthood with worms and stuff, right?

Wrong, apparently.  It's actually illegal to raise wild birds.  Now I'm not one to be hung up on legality, but when I read about the complexity of what they need to eat and how they need to be reintroduced to life in the wild, I got a bit overwhelmed.  Then I read that it was supposed to be fed every hour.  I'm sorry, I already have a baby that needs to be fed about that often!  Plus two more that seem to eat almost constantly.  Forget about it.

So I kept it alive with moistened dog food, fended the kids away from it, and the next day we all took a nice drive to a wildlife rescue.  I was never so happy to be rid of a pet.  I felt a little sad that I've come to this -- me, the kid who always dreamed of finding a baby bird and raising it, just like they do in the books -- but I guess when you're all burned out on having children, you do what you must.  And this way I know the bird will be okay and not meet an early grave because of Michael's aggressive affection.


Lately I am really struggling to find the right balance between staying home and going out.  All this time I've thought it was the lack of a car that was keeping me at home, but even now that I have a car, I'd often rather stay in.  One day for grocery shopping, one day for the library, one day for a playdate .... that's a busy week there!

Partly it's just the difficulty of dragging my kids anywhere.  I tell Marko to go potty and he doesn't want to go until he finishes telling me everything he knows about pteranodons.  I tell Michael to go potty and he falls on the floor crying because he wanted to go first and Marko has already gone.  I rustle up four socks and two pairs of shoes.... and watch Marko fiddle around with them for what feels like hours, while I put on Michael's shoes myself, which is often a rodeo.  I shut the dog in the laundry room, put a diaper on Miriam, and we're off!  

No we're not.  Halfway to the car Michael realizes he does not have his dinosaur, Dilly the dilophosaurus.  So we go back into the house for Dilly.  Of course this is only his most treasured toy, why would he have the faintest idea where it is?  Eventually we find it, but now Marko needs his dinosaur, Tricey the triceratops, and it's nowhere to be found.  We check every room -- not there.  Check the front yard -- not there.  Troop through the laundry room and out into the back yard -- there he is!  But now the dog is out of the laundry room because Michael forgot to shut the door.  So we shut the door and head out again.

By this point everyone is hungry, but no way am I stopping to make them a snack, so I grab apples, buckle everyone in, and give them each an apple and their chosen dinosaur.  Car in gear, off we go.  A block from home (if I'm lucky) I realize I forgot my wallet.

Wherever we go, we always have a great time.  The kids are decently behaved in public places.  I often find myself thinking, "Why don't we do this more often?  This is wonderfully relaxing."  But then I get hungry.  And I think, if I'm hungry, surely they're hungry.  It's been hours.  We should go home.

So all the wailing, protesting, and hunts for dinosaurs happen again, in reverse.  I drag the kids away from whatever they were enjoying and muscle them into the car.  We head home, the baby falls asleep in her carseat, and I imagine how nice it will be to let her sleep in there while I get lunch for the boys.

But in reality, it's a great big NOPE, because as I approach the front door, lugging Miriam's heavy carseat and trying not to joggle her awake, the boys get in a massive pinching-and-biting fight over who gets to open the door.  Their screeches wake the baby.  We tumble inside, the house is a mess, no progress has been made (obviously) on the chores, the baby is fussy and hungry, the kids are quarrelsome and hungry, and I want to lie down in a dark room with earplugs in.  Seems it takes at least an hour to recover from the outing we had!

I think the right balance is to go out 2-3 times a week, and to make most of those times brief, even if we are having fun, so that we don't overextend ourselves.  But even that much, no matter how the kids enjoy it, can get pretty exhausting!  You see why I'm such a hermit?

How's your week been?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Marking time

Summer solstice is coming up.  I don't have any traditions for the solstice, but I think maybe I should start one.  Perhaps summer solstice could be the day I take the kids out for ice cream, as I always want to do but responsibly never do.  Holidays are great, because they're a time to do things that you shouldn't always do.  They're special enough that you know it's not going to start a trend -- they come but once a year.

Rituals that mark time, as opposed to socially binding rituals, don't have to be done in large groups.  Sometimes you want to do it that way -- what better time than a holiday for a peak group experience, like carol singing or shooting off fireworks?  But some of my favorite rituals are solitary: reflecting on the past year and writing resolutions on New Year's Eve, or counting my blessings on my birthday.  There are daily ones too -- a quiet cup of tea in the morning and an indulgent bowl of ice cream in the evening.  Each week I try to do a really good job of cleaning on Mondays, and for awhile Friday was my no-internet day.

What is the point of this sort of thing?

For me, it's just nice to mark time.  Unchanging expanses of time are hard to keep track of; I like time in discrete chunks.  That way you notice it passing.  Sometimes I am struck by how close something is if I can measure it in the right chunks -- "Wow, I only will go to the grocery store three more times before this baby is born!" or, "It's the Feast of Christ the King -- it'll be Christmas before we know it."

The Catholic Church is good with marking time.  There is the liturgical year, with its funny rhythms --the fixed dates and the movable feasts, colliding in different ways each year.  Will the solemnity be on a Friday?  Will it be transferred?  Will it land in Holy Week?  Does Annunciation trump a Sunday of Lent?  Who knows?  And then there is the weekly rhythm (Mass on Sunday, fast on Friday) and daily rhythm (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline).  Just like secular time, ecclesiastical time is divided and subdivided into useful chunks.

Anyway, the rhythm of the Church's time has been described to me as a spiral staircase.  Every time you pass the window, you know you're one level higher than you were before.  And each time you go through, say, the Easter season, you're a year older.  It's a good time to notice if you're a year wiser, a year kinder, a year stronger. 

In a way, holiday time, ritual time, is outside of regular time altogether.  It's sacred time.  It's a moment that coexists, not with the moments before or after it, but with all the other times you've done that ritual.  Easter is all Easters at once; Sunday Mass is all Masses.

All my life I've coasted along with the Church's rituals, but I think that I should add more of my own.  I'd like to start making personal traditions, like I did this year with Pi Day.  Maybe I should always plant something on the spring equinox, or always write in my journal on the first day of school.  It would help give shape to my time -- shape no longer given by school years or work schedules.

And yes, I seriously should go back to internet-free Fridays.  That was a great tradition which I never should have let go.

Do you have any special rituals, traditions, or holidays that are meaningful to you?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Parable of the absent father

Once upon a time, there was a mute woman who lived in a small cabin the woods, far away from civilization.  She had six sons whom she cared for all on her own.

As long as he could remember, every single day, the youngest son would ask his mother, "Mother, do I have a father?"  His mother would just smile mysteriously, because she could not speak.

He searched long and hard for any sign of his father.  Failing to find one, he decided to ask his brothers, "Do we have a father?"

His first brother said, "I have studied science, and I've learned that it is impossible for children to be born without a father."

The second said, "After all, we are male, so there must be something about us that doesn't come from our mother."

The third said, "All of us are able to speak, while our mother cannot.  So our father must have taught us, even if we don't remember."

The fourth said, "It is impossible that we would have a notion of what a father is if there wasn't such a thing."

The fifth said, "Besides, all of us desire to have a father, and it would be absurd if that desire was for something that didn't exist."

The youngest son thought about this for awhile.  Then he asked, "What is our father like?"

The first said, "He is tall and has dark hair and eyes, like I have, only he is much taller."

The second said, "He is fair and broad across the shoulders like me, only much broader."

The third said, "He intelligent like me, only even smarter, and he loves hunting and fishing like I do."

The fourth said, "I am certain that he is a powerful, strong, and rich man."  All the brothers agreed with this.

The fifth said, "And he must love us very much, since we are his sons."  This statement too brought nods from the other brothers.

The youngest son thought about this.  It seemed not all of his brothers could be right.  "How can you be sure he cares about us, if he never visits?" he asked.

The first said, "I feel certain in my heart that he is near.  He isn't far away at all -- he hides behind trees, under the beds, and in the closet just to get a look at us.  That's how much he cares."

The second said, "I went out alone into the woods one day and I saw a bit of his cloak disappear behind a tree."

The third said, "Every day I walk alone and talk to him, and I feel he is listening.  Once I even felt he had answered, though of course I didn't hear his voice with my physical ears."

The fourth said, "Every morning when we wake up, there is breakfast laid out.  Surely our mother wouldn't be able to manage that by himself.  Father must visit us by night and supply us with what we need."

The fifth said, "There is a book inside the cabin that said Father is real and loves us."

At this the youngest boy was sad.  He said, "I have called upon the wind, I have written a thousand letters, I have sent paper boats sailing down the stream and attached messages to the legs of pigeons.  I never stop looking for Father when I am out in the woods, and every morning I look for a sign that he has been there.  Many mornings there is a fine meal laid out, but other days there is only a loaf of bread, and the rest of you eat it all before I wake up.  Why would Father show his love for you, but not his love for me?  Why does he expect me, a child, to do all of the work seeking him?  He should have been there to rock me in his arms when I was a baby, to help me tie my shoes, to teach me to shoot a bow so I didn't hurt myself so many times trying to teach myself.  A good father would provide food, not some mornings, but all of the mornings.  He should protect me against you older ones when you torment me.  Why doesn't he do all those things a loving father would do?"

The first brother said, "It's because you aren't looking hard enough."

The youngest answered, "But he is more powerful than me, shouldn't it be easy for him to make up for my limitations?  He should know that I can't see him or hear his voice, that it's up to him to make sure I know he loves me, not up to me to make excuses for him when he fails to show up!"

The second brother said, "It's because he wants to test your love for him."

The youngest answered, "How does he expect me to have any love for him at all, when he doesn't show up?  I am thankful that I exist, of course, but it's a very strange father who thinks it's ingratitude for his child to expect to see him even once in a lifetime."

The third brother said, "Perhaps he is prevented from coming.  He has been captured by an enemy."

The youngest said, "Then he cannot be as powerful as you think.  His love for us ought to motivate him to overcome all obstacles to come back to us."

The fourth brother said, "He's an adult, a few years seem like nothing to him."

The youngest answered, "But he knows a few years are an eternity to me!  Is my childhood unimportant to him, that he doesn't mind missing the entire thing?  Don't my loneliness and longing for him matter to him at all?"

The fifth brother said, "You should be ashamed of yourself.  Here you are, in a fine cabin, in the most beautiful forest in the world.  Every morning there is food for you to eat, and if that isn't enough, you are able to go hunt a rabbit for yourself.  Without Father, you wouldn't even have the breath of life.  You have no right to demand anything of him.  He is a noble, good man and you are only a worthless child."

The youngest answered, "That may be so, but I cannot believe that he loves me as you say he does if he has no interest in speaking to me or spending time with me.  There may be fathers whose involvement is limited to creating their children, maybe buying them a meal, but I don't call them good men or good fathers!"

With tears in his eyes he left his brothers and went out into the woods.  For the whole of the afternoon he searched, looking behind trees and in dense thickets, calling his father's name.  But there was no answer.

At last, voice hoarse and eyes red with weeping, he returned to the cabin and curled into his mother's arms.  "You at least are always here for me," he told her.  "And I think you must love me."

The mother gave only her sad, mysterious smile, and did not answer.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Public ritual in America

As I like to say, religion is not a single thing; it's a whole constellation of things.  I had a post where I said that America has a shared moral code which stands on its own, apart from religion.  But there are many other cultural phenomena that have some of the traits of religion and not all of them.  Can you have ritual without belief?  Can you have transcendent experiences without community?  That sort of thing.

Today we went to a baseball game, Cubs vs. Nationals, to celebrate my birthday.  It was the kids' first ball game, and though they didn't follow much of the game itself, they liked the experience.

It got me thinking, why do we love going to baseball games, even though you can easily catch the game itself on television, and have a better view too?

The reason is that it's a public ritual, but a nationalist one rather than a religious one.  It's a way that anyone at all can participate in ritual, without needing to share any specific beliefs.

What do I mean by "ritual," and why do people like to participate in them?

The first characteristic of ritual is memory.  Rituals are the same throughout time, and so they give us a sense of continuity with the past.  When my in-laws open Christmas presents, they wad up the wrapping paper and throw it at my sister-in-law Iris.  It's just what they do.  The first year it was a joke, but now it's a tradition.  Every time they do it, it brings back memories of Christmases past, and it gives the family a feeling of stability.  "Ah, back pelting Iris with wrapping paper!  Some things never change."

In the same way, on the way to the game, I was thinking, "Oh, there will be cracker jacks!  We'll sing 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game'!  Just like when I was a kid!"  Cracker jacks are not particularly good and the song is kind of cheesy, but it's wrapped up in my mind with good things.  Being little and being taken out by my dad, just him and me.  Going to a Phillies game with John the first year we were married.  All past, present, and future ball games are experienced together as we go through the ritual the same way.

Rituals bind groups together.  Each stadium has its own rituals, so at this one we got the traditional race of the presidents.  (Oddly, it was actually a dance contest.  Abe won, but that is ridiculous -- Thomas Jefferson was CLEARLY the better dancer.)  It's a tradition that binds all Nationals fans together, where they can turn to people who don't know or aren't from the area and say, "This is what WE do.  We have the race of the presidents."  And of all the cheers, the most popular was when a guy named Wilson stepped up to the plate and the whole crowd called in unison, WIIIIIIIL...SOOOOOOON!  It's their tradition, they own it and feel possessive about it -- it's the one they won't miss participating in.

When I was a kid, I felt that the more people got into the cheers and traditions, the better.  How could some people not do the Wave?  You have to do the Wave or you ruin it for everyone!  And when the tinkly organ plays the little tune, you have to yell CHARGE! at the top of your lungs.  The more involved people were, the better I liked it.

I realize now that participating in things like that with a big group can be a big emotional charge.  To do stuff with 10,000 fans, even goofy stuff, seems to take on extra importance.  And when you feel things with 10,000 fans -- like when you put your ball cap over your heart for the National Anthem and feel patriotic feelings -- the emotion seems magnified. 

There is a kind of peak emotional experience that can't be had alone.  When a group of people get whipped up into a shared emotional experience, it reaches a level of intensity very different from what you get alone.  I've had it singing on buses, singing around campfires, singing in a choir, singing at charismatic prayer services, and of course at Mass.  (Singing is just one way to do it, but it's the way I know best -- it's physical, emotional, and also can be beautiful.)  When these experiences are good enough, it can be like a drug -- you keep coming back to the people who you had that experience with.  You feel bonded to them.  And when you've participated in the ritual according to the rules and got the emotional reward for doing it, you're in a good position to follow or believe whatever the group leader says.  In a way, you've opened yourself to the group's influence.

I'm making it sound creepier than it is.  Humans are social creatures.  We sometimes need to be bound together with one another on a deep level, and that's what rituals do.  After singing "God Bless America" with the drunk lady behind me, I felt a bit less of the urge to turn around and tell her to shut up.  And she must have felt it too, because she started telling me she thought my kids were adorable.  This means even more at times of group stress -- after 9/11, baseball games often became a time for 10,000 fans to cry together.  That, too, is just what it should be.

I'm more cagey about this stuff than I used to be.  I didn't cheer a whole lot.  (Especially since I was in the position of outgroup member, wearing a Cubs shirt.)  I noticed when the announcer went on about veterans and thanking our troops.  (Well, it was the anniversary of D-Day.)  I thought, "Is my suggestible emotional state being taken advantage of to force unthinking patriotism on me?"  I'd come a long way from the kid who got mad if people didn't cheer enough.  But it also seemed to me no one cheered as much as they had when I was a kid.  Is America becoming more individualist, less eager to throw themselves headlong into a communal experience?  Or perhaps that's only my perception, because I have become more individualist than I was then.

Either way, baseball seems a public ritual that, so far as I can tell, isn't actually forwarding anyone's agenda.  No one is trying to brainwash me; no one is dangling emotional highs as bait to get me to join anything.

No, America's public ritual is much more simple than that.  To participate, you don't need to be a member -- you just need to pay for it.  And people do, through the nose, because ritual really is worth it to them.
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