Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Profile of a prophet

I think I'm losing readers.  At any rate, I haven't had a lot of comments lately, and that's discouraging me so I don't feel like posting, which of course only makes things worse.  I think people don't like reading the sort of stuff I've been posting lately.

But you know what everybody loves?  Cult stuff!  Admit it, you do.  That's why Sister Wives is popular despite being weird as heck.  You would think I would hate it, that I'd find it triggering or depressing, but actually I eat it up.  Half guilty pleasure, half scientific curiosity.  I'd love to study group psychology -- though we don't know a whole lot about why groups of people act the way we do, it's possible to see all kinds of patterns across different groups, despite different ideology and the varying motivations of the people inside the groups.  Surely there's a dissertation to be written there.

Anyway, I've been realizing that all cults -- in fact, all new religious movements, even ones that later grow into more impressive churches like the Mormons -- seem to have the same cast of characters.

First is the prophet.  This is the charismatic guy that the whole cult is built around.  I haven't heard of a cult that didn't have one.

Sometimes this guy is larger than life -- there are stories of him performing miracles, pictures of him on all the members' walls, a conviction he's the reincarnation of somebody special like Buddha or Jesus.  Fr. Maciel noticeably imitated the style of St. Paul in his letters, and we were often told he was very much like Paul, the same personality type and so on.

But often the hero-worship is hidden behind a heavy curtain of humility.  For instance, L. Ron Hubbard often said he was just an ordinary guy who happened to have discovered a science which unlocked the secrets of everything.  No magic, no prophetic powers -- except, of course, what his science gave him, but anybody could do that if they just knew how.  There was one prophet I read about recently who claimed that he'd gotten all his revelations from a homeless guy who was 1000 years old and really was from outer space.  The idea is that we shouldn't focus on the prophet, because he himself is just a humble servant of whatever.  Or that he's the forerunner or successor of someone more important -- Warren Jeffs started out as just the assistant of his conveniently-disabled father.

But, being the only one on the scene, he is the closest to the secrets of the universe of anyone available, so it's really not so bad if his followers would like to build him a gorgeous throne room, offer to sleep with him, or whatever.  It's really just honor given to the amazing things and people beyond him.

And here's the interesting part -- the followers take over from there.  They're the ones who heap honor on him, feed his megalomania, and vouch for his honesty.  You see, once the group gets big enough to have an inner circle and an outer circle, people realize that the way to power is by propping up the leader.  They have a vision or a prophecy about him, confirming him in the sight of outer-circle members.  In return, the prophet elevates them to power within the cult.

At this point, it is possible that everyone believes the charade.  The cult leader may have some doubts that he's really a prophet, or maybe he straight-up knows he isn't.  (It's often hard to tell with these guys -- they are so convincing and sincere sounding that reporters who know the prophet's a fraud from their independent research find themselves tempted to believe.  So the prophet type is either a great liar or good at convincing himself of his own delusions.  Sometimes both.)  But even if he had his doubts about his ideas, those doubts are undermined when followers start coming to him saying they've had visions about him.  "I guess it's not just me," he might think.  "Here are all these other guys have visions too!"  Meanwhile the followers "having visions" know they're faking theirs, but they assume they are faking a real thing that the prophet and other members are really experiencing.

But it is also possible that none of the inner circle is really convinced -- when the gullible followers are around, they play their parts, and then take the mask off in private.  Some cults certainly do have evidence that this is the case, but oddly enough, most don't.  You can have members get to the very top before leaving, but still their testimonies written afterward don't include any mention of the prophet admitting his cult is a scam.  So we have to leave room for the possibility that the prophet really is that delusional.

And this is why ex-members often report being sidelined in a cult.  True believers who aren't hoping for glory, who have a love of honesty, aren't going to say the right things to propel them to success.  They won't fake a vision or prophecy, and when they are told that the prophet is humble, they believe it and don't flatter him.  The development of a cult is a sorting process -- the most ambitious and duplicitous rise to the top.  That always puzzled me when I was in Regnum Christi -- I knew scads of super-holy people, but Fr. Maciel's inner circle wasn't at all like that.  They were kind of rude and full of themselves, despite the many stories within the movement of how holy they were.  I couldn't reconcile my experience with the legends.

Sometimes I tell stories of the amazing success cults have, and someone invariably says, "Well, I'm in the wrong line of work!  I should go start a cult!"  Not that easy.  First, you need to be extremely charismatic.  Could be a down-home sort of charisma, you can pretend to be plainspoken, but you have to be the sort of guy (and it's pretty much always a guy) that people are drawn to.  If you're not cool enough to win an election, you're not cool enough to start a cult.

Second, you have to be a little unbalanced.  If you weren't, you'd go be a politician or a great salesman, right?  The prophet has delusions of grandeur and not much of a conscience -- a classic narcissist.  He knows how to boast and be believed, probably because he easily convinces himself of any story, provided he's the star of it.

Part of it is the sort of personality that you sometimes see in conspiracy theorists or mystics.  You know the person who will take you aside at parties and rant about some crazy notion for an hour?  I once knew a guy who thought he could read souls.  I'm pretty sure he couldn't, but because he was humble and a decent guy, it didn't much matter.  He wasn't a cult starter, just a person capable of believing strange things.

The cult leader has the crazy ideas and the charisma to make other people believe them too.  On top of this, he's usually extremely bright and a natural at manipulation.  He knows how people tick and what will get each individual to sign on.  If you've read any Lois McMaster Bujold, he's Miles Vorkosigan -- the guy who leaves home to visit his grandma and comes back the admiral of a space navy, using his people skills alone.  (Miles even starts a cult in one story!  And I would believe it.)

Sometimes it's hard to get through to this picture because the cult mythos covers over the prophet.  There will be stories of how he was incredibly holy from a very young age and spent his early years searching for the truth.  In reality, in his pre-cult life he may have been a salesman, con artist, or even nobody in particular.  Joseph Smith dug up Indian mounds, L. Ron Hubbard was a novelist.  Maybe they're raised in a religion where they realize it's their best road to success -- like Warren Jeffs, son of the previous prophet (but not the eldest -- he probably isn't who his father would have chosen to succeed him) or Maciel, whose uncle was a bishop.  Oddly, they may not even really mean to start a cult.  Some of the less-well-known prophets I have read about simply were super excited about some nutty idea, and found that people were gravitating to them.

However, in most cases a cult starts within a pre-established religion.  Gnosticism grew from Zoroastrianism and Platonism, Islam from Christianity.  There are no end of weird Mormon sects -- it sort of lends itself to that, because it's mutated since its founding and you can claim to be a return to its roots.  But there are Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Buddhist cults too.  Anything will do, provided it's respectable enough that you can mask your weirdness in it.  It will provide a ready stream of converts for you.

You see, respectable religion is low-demand: that is what distinguishes it from a cult (also called a high-demand group).  It doesn't expect you to spend that many hours a week on it, and it's assumed that you'll mostly make your own decisions without asking your priest.  This is satisfactory for most members, because they don't want to give too much to their religion.  But there will always be those (cough, cough, like me) who can't see a justification for acting that way.  There's eternity on the line, right?  So why are we ranking our religion somewhere between mowing the lawn on Saturdays and Monday night football?  They want to get serious.  They want to give everything.

And there's this earnest holy man who's there ready to take everything!  It all fits together.  The prophet can construct a justification, using scripture verses or a new revelation to himself, for his version of the religion being the Real Deal.  Easy enough to do, because most religions fudge some bits or have changed something over the years.  Fundamentalist Mormons point to polygamy, fundamentalist Catholics go for the Latin Mass, fundamentalist Protestants focus on spanking and wifely submission, and fundamentalist Muslims ... well, you know that one.  The believers are told, "Your religion is lax and corrupt.  People are lazy about it.  They gloss over teachings they don't like.  But we're going to go back to the original form."

And that's why cults have such amazing energy, why they grow in leaps and bounds while respectable religions have trouble coaxing new members in the doors.  They're composed entirely of the people who couldn't be content with one-hour-a-week religion.  Cults often demand hours of your time every day, either on group activities or personal growth.  The true believer is likely to say, "Finally, people who take religion seriously!"  And there are benefits -- if religion provides structure and a supportive community, cults provide ten times the structure and community.  If you talk to a cult member, they will tell you their fellow members really do pitch in and help them out.  However, they don't benefit all that much, considering what they sacrifice.  The cultist usually lives a life that would not make a whole lot of sense outside of the cult's beliefs.  That's the whole point -- they don't want to live a life that would be just the same without their religion.  They want to gamble for high stakes, and sadly they lose.

Returning to the cult leader's qualities, the last one he needs is a lot of good old luck.  He has to be in the right place at the right time.  Just like a politician will only get elected when his ideas are on the upswing (look at Trump -- that's not all Trump, that's a wave of Trumpishness he's surfing on, which was here before he arrived on the scene), a prophet will only be successful in proportion to how ready people are for his ideas.  There's a huge groundswell of fundamentalist Protestantism going around now -- why?  Well, a lot of churches have liberalized, allowing women ministers and gay marriage.  People leave those churches hoping to head rightward -- and there are Gothard, Phillips, Dobson, Pearl, and so forth, ready to meet them with exactly what they are looking for.  Cult leaders reap a rich harvest among people who feel disenfranchised or left behind.  Not all are conservative, either -- some are about bringing something fresh and new into the old, stale religion of the past, like much of Transcendentalism was.  Scientology and many other mid-20th-century cults had a harvest field among post-Christian liberals who needed something to replace the religion they didn't have.

End times prophecies are the cherry on top -- to those who feel everything's headed the wrong way, apocalyptic scares seem very credible.  And it gives a wonderful energy to any cult.  You can always find signs of the apocalypse -- if nothing else works, fall back on "everything's getting worse all the time," there are always people who agree with that.  Oddly, when the apocalypse fails to arrive, it doesn't end a cult.  Some members walk, but the rest, purged of the lukewarm, are even more galvanized.  (Remember the Millerites, who, when the world failed to end in 1830, became the Seventh-Day Adventists.)  They set a new date, or just say it's right around the corner, literally any day now.  No point in saving your money, donate it to the cult!  No point in going to college, get married at sixteen to the prophet!  It's pretty rare to see a cult that didn't profess to be living in the last days.  Listen to the Jehovah's Witnesses next time they visit -- "Do you know what times we are living in?  That's right!  The last times!"

What does the cult leader get out of it?  Money, power, and a volunteer army to build his pet projects are only side perks.  The real thrill, I think, is the attention.  It's like crack cocaine to a narcissist.  (Though plenty of them go for literal crack cocaine as well.  Drugs, adoring women, children to abuse, access to celebrities -- there's no end of rewards for the unscrupulous leader if he makes a real success of his cult.)  If he truly believes, it's sure to be wonderful to have all these people backing him up, instead of calling him a wacko like his friends and family used to do.  He eats up the praise and becomes ever more convinced that God (or whoever) loves him special.  His claims become ever more grandiose -- he's the reincarnation of Joseph Smith!  Of Jesus!  Of God!

When his back is finally against the wall, he usually does not recant.  Joseph Smith didn't; Jim Jones didn't.  Warren Jeffs goes back and forth, as he gets more and more confused in prison.  It's hard to say why that is.  In part, I think it's because the prophet really does believe his story.  He's often a bit delusional from the start, and the years of telling his story and being believed have to have an effect as well.  Partly, they just have their backs against the wall.  There's nothing to be gained by recanting -- is anyone seriously going to let them escape after all the crimes they've committed and the lies they've told?  And as long as they don't recant, they have their followers' loyalty -- perhaps they think their team will pull through at the last minute.  (Narcissists are known for extreme optimism; they can never quite believe they've lost.)  And if death is certain, better to be remembered as a prophet than as a con man, right?  There's no memory so glorious and certain as the founder of a religion -- your followers' descendants will be looking up to you as a hero for generations, if you are lucky.

It's only after the death of its prophet that a cult can become respectable.  The charismatic leader is replaced by a capable administrator.  It's often the guy who has kept the cult going despite its leader's increasing disconnect from reality and his unpredictability -- the guy who keeps the illusion of a saint going even as the prophet is lifting off in a gold-plated helicopter with half a dozen gorgeous acolytes.  Things stabilize, there are no wild fluctuations of dogma, no new revelations.  That heady feeling of starting something new and exciting fades, people are less committed, especially without the thrill of working for the charismatic prophet.  But very often the second leader of a cult is a smart guy who reached the number two spot for a reason.  He is able to organize his group into something durable -- if the cult is lucky.  If you don't have a guy like that, the cult dies; it was all about the leader, and with him gone (especially if he promised the end times in his lifetime) there's no reason to continue.  But if you do, the sky's the limit.  A really successful cult stays culty for another generation or two, especially if the conditions that got it going persist.  But eventually the energy starts to peter out; you get Sunday-only members and then Christmas-and-Easter members.  People talk about it as a respectable religion instead of a fringe group.  It's much more comfortable and healthy to be a member now, though how healthy depends on the structure of the organization and beliefs.

If you reach this point, congratulations -- you played the cult game, a game with very long odds, and won.  You founded a lasting religion.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Three myths about atheists

I don't think of myself as an atheist.  An unbeliever, sure, because I quite literally don't believe in the stuff that Catholics are supposed to, but I still show up to church, and I still hope there's a God out there.

However, I've read the same tired accusations against atheists time and time again, and I don't think they're true.  I want to tell you why.

Myth #1: Atheists have to have faith

It goes like this: How can anyone be sure there is no God?  They must have a lot of faith to believe a thing like that, when no one could ever disprove the existence of God!  I mean, you can't prove a negative, and maybe he's hiding somewhere.

Well, there are atheists and atheists.  "Strong" or "gnostic" atheists, who say they are sure there is no God, prove it philosophically, just like many theists do.  Generally it's some permutation of the argument from evil -- no omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being can exist, because otherwise this world wouldn't have so much evil and suffering in it.  That's not really a faith-based argument; they just find it illogical.

"Weak" or "agnostic" atheists don't claim to know one way or the other.  They just don't believe in God.  They've looked over the evidence of various religions, don't find any of them convincing, and so they don't have a belief in God.  They choose the word "atheist" to describe themselves like the others do, but it doesn't imply that they're sure about it.

Either way, it doesn't require "faith" to think that way, because faith is about maintaining a belief that is stronger than the evidence for it -- it's what bridges the gap between the uncertainty of the evidence and the certainty you are supposed to act with.  But atheists, in general, don't act like they're sure -- they say they're acting on the best information available and they'll change their mind if they get better information.  Most religious people don't say this.

Myth #2: Atheists have no rational ground for morality

I'm not talking about the tendency of people to say "atheists are evil sinners."  That's easy to disprove once you know a couple.  What I mean is the argument that atheists should be evil sinners, that if only they took their beliefs to their rational conclusions, they'd be killing people at random.

The first argument against this is that it's not a good idea to try to convince someone their ideas require them to do evil, because they might start doing evil rather than abandon their ideas.  That's why I don't try to convince progressive Muslims that ISIS is the real Islam, or tell Biblical literalists that they ought to be stoning gays.  I think they're too attached to their ideology to abandon it, and given that, I think if they've found a way to reconcile their ideology with a set of actions that don't hurt anyone, great.  I don't see how they can reconcile these things, to be honest -- if, to believe in a divine revelation, you have to pick and choose which parts to listen to, I don't see how God can be the author of it.  But perhaps there's something I'm missing.  The same goes here -- if an atheist is living a morally upright life without believing in God, why would you try to convince him not to?

The second argument is that following the Bible without listening to your conscience is just as disastrous as atheism without a conscience -- I mean, there's some awful stuff in there.  This is a good presentation of this argument; I highly recommend it.

The third argument is that, of course, there are some very clear grounds for morality even in atheism.  To put it simply, moral behavior is good for everyone.  We all benefit if we can trust one another to follow certain rules.  And if an individual wants to earn those benefits, the easiest way is to start by following those rules himself.  Not everyone needs to think about it that much -- we all have a conscience, Christians agree, so it shouldn't be a big surprise to learn that atheists don't generally want to do bad things in the first place.  I've written a lot about morality elsewhere.

Myth #3: Deep down, atheists know there is a God

This is the one where people say, "The Bible says that everyone knows that God is real!  So atheists who claim not to believe, deep down they know that God is real.  They just pretend to disbelieve so they can be justified in sinning."

That's just offensive.  You can look at someone who has struggled, prayed, wept, tried so hard to find a way to keep believing, and say "You're just lying."  It boggles the mind.  Obviously I don't know for certain that others aren't lying, but I know I'm not lying.  I can tell you that deep down, I don't know that God is real.  I would like there to be a God, but that's not the same thing.  

You could choose to disbelieve me, I suppose.  But why would I lie?  What do I gain from not believing?  The Catholic faith is not particularly hard for me -- it's comfortable.  95% of my friends are Catholic.  My family is Catholic.  Disbelieving means disappointing everyone I care about and gaining nothing.  Also, I would very much prefer to believe that someone powerful is watching over me, that all the suffering in my life has meaning, and that I will see all my loved ones again in heaven.  And what do I gain from it?  The freedom to watch porn without guilt?  I don't even want to watch porn!

The only reason I don't believe is because I am not sure believing is the right thing to do.  I have no emotional reason to believe, and I have no rational reason to believe.  I can't make myself believe, in the absence of either a feeling it's true or a rational conviction it's true, just from wanting to.

It just undermines all hope of a respectful conversation if you start from this approach.  To discuss anything with anybody, you have to assume they are telling the truth about their own experience, because you can't actually read minds.  If you're going to have a dialogue with an atheist, assume that they're a well-meaning person who wants to believe the truth and will believe you once you demonstrate the truth of what you're saying.  You might have to talk a long time, to figure out what sort of evidence they're looking for, and why they haven't sought out belief on their own.  And you should reassure them that you, too, are open-minded and will change your mind when offered sufficient proof.

Or is that something that you, as a religious person, are unwilling to say?  Do you have a sneaking suspicion that your religion is false, but you force yourself to believe because you're getting something out of it, or because you'd have to make big changes in your life if you allowed yourself to question?  Do you require an opposing viewpoint to meet an extremely high standard of evidence that you wouldn't expect your own views to pass?  If the answer is yes, how can you ask an atheist to be more open-minded than you are?

Now I hope that you, my readers, whether religious or not, do continue to engage with people who disagree with you.  Those conversations can be valuable both in increasing our understanding of one another and in reaching for the truth.  But please, if you're religious and want to talk to an atheist, leave these misconceptions at home.  They won't get you anywhere.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Surviving a one-year-old

Sorry about the recent lack of blogging.  I have a one-year-old.  Need I say more?

Twelve to eighteen months is, for me, the most hair-tearing stage there is.  Babies need a lot of holding, but I kind of like holding babies and so I don't mind so much.  Plus, they normally (except of course for MY kids) nap a lot and can be left in a safe place for a minute if you want to pee alone.  Eighteen-month-olds, meanwhile, are starting to communicate a little better and to understand concepts like "no."  They'll throw a fit about it, sure, but they do begin to know what you mean.

But one-year-olds -- they don't understand much of anything.  But, of course, they can walk and get into stuff.  I'm sure this is made a bit more difficult by the fact that my kids are mobile early, but I imagine even crawling one-year-olds get into stuff all the time.

On the bright side, thought, I've done this a couple times before so I have learned a bit about what to do, and not do, to survive a one-year-old.  I decided to share some of that wisdom here, before I again forget about the craziness that is one.

1.  Part of what makes one-year-olds so hard is the big letdown from the expectation that things were starting to get easier.  When a crawling baby starts to walk, that's all they want to do, so you get a month or so off of constantly holding the baby or pulling them off things they're climbing.  You think, "Hooray, babyhood is over!  Things will be easier from now on!"

But actually, that's a false expectation.  Give them a month, they will either cut molars and stop sleeping at night, give up a nap, or discover some really dangerous thing that can't be moved out of their reach.  Only now, they're harder to keep corralled, plus they get bored in your arms and just want to grab at everything.  They're actually harder than before.  I don't know what to advise other than "roll with it."  And know that sleep is always two steps forward, one step back -- they will regain any progress they've made, eventually.  Probably after those molars pop out.

2.  One-year-olds need, as far as possible, an entirely childproofed environment.  If they find something forbidden, they'll just keep going for it all day.  All you will do is drag the child off the thing.  No amount of attempts at "consequences" will work, because the baby has not developed long-term memory.  What they have is habit, and they've now developed a habit of climbing for the thing, every time they see it.  If you can childproof before they've made that habit, you'll be much better off.  If it really cannot be childproofed, do yourself a favor and take baby with you into another room and shut the door.  In five minutes, they'll have forgotten the thing and you might get some time to get them busy at something else before they notice it again.

3.  They might be less interested in nursing for a bit.  Do yourself a favor and don't try to wean at this point.  They'll regress a bit in a month or so and get crabby and cranky, or cut a tooth, or get a cold, and nursing will be all that will cheer them up.  Also, nursing is a break from the exhaustion of pulling them off of stuff.  Though, be warned, they will stick their foot in your mouth or pinch your belly fat the whole time.  And you'll put up with it because they're letting you sit down.

4.  That said, food makes excellent bribery/distraction.  Who knows how much actually ends up inside the baby, but it's fun for them anyway.

5.  One-year-olds try to communicate!  This is awesome.  They don't have good control of their mouths, which is not so awesome.  Baby sign can help a lot.  Teach a couple signs and when you see they've picked them up, add more.  Stick with signs they might actually have a need for, like milk and cracker.  They can learn elephant and purple when they've mastered the essentials.  The point is to give them something to do when they want something besides the Banshee Shriek.  They might make up their own signs; roll with it.

6.  One-year-olds like nothing in the world so much as playing directly with you.  Piggies, tickles, peekaboo, patty-cake.  Miriam's favorite (as well as one of her first words) is "row row."  Name-the-body-parts is another good one, though she hasn't yet mastered it.

I can't play games all day with Miriam because I have other kids, and I didn't with Marko because I wanted him to learn to play independently.  (And also because patty-cake got old for me long before it did for him.)  But I sort of wish I'd done it a little more.  There are so many hours in the day, there's plenty of time for independent play.  If you get a quiet moment with your baby to play Baby Is Going Up and Down, you won't regret it.

7.  Sleep is always a little fraught.  No longer do you have a baby who can sleep in bits and bobs all day and still sleep at night.  Now you have to carefully ration naptime and not let them fall asleep too close to bedtime.  First they go from "naps whenever" to "sometimes one nap and sometimes two."  Then it's "only one nap, never two," then "sometimes a nap, sometimes not," and eventually "you can't let them nap or you'll be sorry."  My kids fly through these stages.  You might get lucky and stick with one nap for years.  Either way, as a child gets closer to giving up a nap, their bedtime starts inching backward.  It takes longer and longer to get them to sleep and you're doing more and more outlandish things to make them do it.  With Marko we walked him around the neighborhood in a stroller for hours.  One day, with fall coming on, we walked him around till 11 pm.  And that's when I realized it was time to drop a nap.

Here's my rule of thumb for bedtime: let it creep backward up to two hours past when they're used to.  Say, aim for between 7 and 9, or 8 and 10.  If they are not going to sleep within that window, you need to either drop a nap or put the baby to bed much earlier.  (That is, they are staying up that late because they are overtired.)  A baby has a new sleep cycle every two hours, so if baby almost falls asleep at seven, but not quite, play patty cake for two hours (I KNOW!) and try again at nine.  A good clue to bedtime is the evening meltdown.  Does the baby have a huge meltdown reliably at five every evening?  Then bedtime should be seven.  That meltdown means almost-but-not-quite ready to sleep.

Routine is your friend -- if baby ALWAYS naps at 11, stick to it like glue.  Do not schedule anything then, because nap affects the whole day.  However, if the baby isn't sticking to any routine, just try to roll with it.  Right now I am putting a lot of effort into making Miriam nap before noon -- like, planning a drive right about 11 so that she will get at least a little sleep, because if she doesn't nap then she'll wait till one or even three, and three is quite disastrous for bedtime.  Usually she goes to bed at seven, but sometimes

Your mileage may vary -- this is just how my kids are.

8.  One-year-olds do not like to be still for diaper changes.  If you always play the same game at changing time, or sing a song, it's likely to help.  Miriam likes to clap her feet.  Marko played peekaboo.  You could also try the standing diaper change -- that's when you really level up at changing skills.

Or just potty train the kid.  About 14-16 months is supposed to be a good window.  You let the baby run around naked and when they start to pee, whisk them over to the potty.  Or, keep them in diapers but sit them on the potty when they wake up in the morning and after nap.  Clap for them when they go in it.

Michael was trained about this time.  The others, not.  So don't worry, there are other good windows.

9.  One-year-olds have big feelings.  When you watch a one-year-old flop down on the floor and howl dramatically, you may think, "My child is advanced!  I thought tantrums didn't happen till 18 months!"  Well, let me warn you.  The drama level is fully developed, but the attention span is short.  So baby's tantrums will get longer as they get older.  Sorry.

This is a good reason to keep things thoroughly childproofed, and don't take them to places where you're going to spend all your time hauling them out of trouble.  They're going to go limp, or flail, and scream like banshees.  That's no way to spend your day.

10.  One-year-olds are easily bored with toys, so it kind of helps to have a million of them.  On the bright side, they think toilet paper tubes and old keyrings are toys.  Favorites include gross motor stuff (push toys, mini slides, big bouncy balls), soft stuff (dolls, stuffed animals), and sensory stuff (rattles, playdough, mud).  They especially like stuff that isn't meant for them, like pots and pans.  They love to play outside, even if the weather is awful.  They love magic tricks and goofy games and tickles.  They enjoy helping you do chores, though they undo most of it so you might want to call that playtime instead of chore time.  They're starting to get so you can say "put this toy in the cupboard" and they actually do.  Then they clap for themselves.  It's so cute.  But when your back is turned they will take all the toys out so they can play again.

11.  One-year-olds are freaking adorable.  That is a survival tactic for how difficult they are.  They're learning new skills all the time, babbling first words, and growing cute little curlies on the backs of their necks.  They look like little angels even when they are spilling your coffee.  It's great.  Don't forget to enjoy your one-year-old.  Take thousands of photos, snuggle them, kiss their little noses, make up games.  They laugh maniacally about the dumbest joke.  You're never going to have such a delighted audience for silly antics.  Drop a block and laugh about it.  Make silly faces and noises.  Don't, whatever you do, pay attention to them only when they are trouble -- you'll miss the good parts.  Even though it means you never get to drink your tea when it's hot and the laundry stays unfolded in the basket, play with your one-year-old.  It seems to last forever, but it won't.

If you have a one-year-old, you're in for it -- lots of good, lots of bad.  Just lots.  Good luck and enjoy.  Both the good and the bad won't last.

*This post has been interrupted 957 times so that I could drag Miriam off John's desk.  Any incoherence can be blamed on her addiction to pushing the power button on his computer.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Opposing arguments

My last post, and some of the comments to it, got me thinking.  I was noticing one of my least favorite things, the contradictory argument.  That is when someone argues in favor of their position using one argument, and then at a different time argues in favor of the same position using an exactly opposite argument.  Like a climate change activist who on a cold day says "Climate is not a matter of daily weather patterns; the fact that it is cold is no proof the climate is not warming," and then a hot day says, "See how hot it is?  How can you continue to deny climate change?!"  They can't both be right, and one starts to get the impression that they will grab any argument they think will convince you, without regard for logic or truth.

The arguments that I keep seeing (not just here) are as follows:

1.  Life as a Catholic is an objectively positive way to live, so the risk of being wrong about it is very low.

2.  The martyrs and other saints lived in a way that would make no sense at all if their faith was not true.  This makes them an admirable witness for the truth of the faith, because if they weren't really sure, they wouldn't act that way.

Now both of these actually can be true.  That is, they can apply to different groups of people:

1.  These people have an easy time being Catholic.  It makes them happy to go along with what the Church teaches -- some things take some effort, sure, but it always pays off in visible ways.  It helps them keep their marriage together, encourages them to give to charity, and gives them comfort when they feel anxious.  They're not really that sure it's true, but they don't bother looking into it that much because, heck, if it's not true, they haven't lost anything.  I've made this argument before.

2.  This group has complete certainty about the Catholic faith.  Maybe they've had visions, or seen an actual miracle with their own eyes.  They've studied Church teaching and read opposing views, and in their most objective judgment, the Church teaching still seems most reasonable.  Because of their certainty, they are willing to give up a lot for their faith.  Even when it makes their life miserable, they stick with it -- and it seems not so bad, because they have a firm conviction that life is short, heaven is forever, so why fuss about some momentary pain?  They are even willing to be martyred.

But is it right to take a person with the certainty of belief in (1) and demand of them the level of commitment in (2)?  I can't see any way in which it could possibly be.  If you aren't sure a drug works, but it has no side effects, go ahead and take it, right?  But if there's a 50% chance it might cause serious damage to your body, you're not going to take it unless you're pretty sure it works.

And yet the Church (or any religion) seems to put a huge emphasis on being as committed as (2) with the knowledge of (1).  That's what faith IS -- acting like you're more sure than you rationally could be.  That is why the perfectly rational choice of a person who's not super sure of his religion, following it when it's comfortable and breaking the rules when it starts to get hard, is derided as sinful.  The reason most people act this way is because they're not all that sure, so they're going to give it a good try, but not everything.

And that's why I constantly see these two opposing arguments switched back and forth rapidly: I say "Catholicism causes suffering," and they say, "That's okay, because we are absolutely sure it is true and worth it."  So I say, "All right, show me the evidence that it's true," and they answer, "You don't need it, because being Catholic is an obviously great way to live!"

It can't be both, at the same time, to the same person!

And the really problematic part is that martyrdom isn't even the thing that requires the most certainty.  Because it's your life, if you want to spend it, that's your look-out.  What requires the most certainty is doing things that could harm others.  For instance, if the Catholic faith is not true, I can't see a thing wrong with birth control.  In some cases, it could really be important for someone to have access to it.  So using your faith to make sure someone else doesn't get birth control seems unwise unless you have complete certainty.  Or, when you find a suffering Catholic whose suffering is caused by the Church, telling them to stick with it.  Are you sure they should stick with it?  Or is the only reason you stick with it because it's easier for you?

This past week I read a book called Escape, by Carolyn Jessop.  It's the story of a polygamous wife's escape from the FLDS.  Some people find this stuff too dark, but I find it tremendously uplifting -- it's a reminder that there is no mental conditioning so harsh that people do not sometimes break free.  The human spirit is a powerful thing.

Anyway, this woman believed that if she didn't obey her husband, she would go to hell.  But it also became clear to her that if she did obey her husband, who didn't believe in medical treatment, one of her children would die.  And she decided that her son's life was worth going to hell for.  She asks one of her sister-wives, "You may get a reward from [our husband] in your next life, but what about the abuse your children are getting in this life?"  The point being that no one has the right to put other people on the table in Pascal's Wager.  It is your choice to spend your whole life working for salvation on evidence as scanty as you choose.  It might not be the best imaginable decision, but it's your right to make it.

But hurting other people in the name of your religion, when you don't even have any sort of certainty that your religion is true?

I'm sorry, you don't have a right to do that.

And that's the whole understanding of religious freedom in this country.  To follow your own treasured beliefs, you don't need to be able to defend them in a court of law.  You don't need proof.  All you need to do is show that you really do believe it, and as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, you can go ahead and follow it.  However, as soon as your choice does hurt another person, a higher standard of evidence is needed.  You need something that will hold up in a court of law, with actual proof.  You can't say that you believe something unprovable, but demand the right to force others to abide by it.

And I feel like that's what a lot of the people I run into want to do.  They insist that we all must follow the teachings of the Catholic faith, even when they hurt, because we should be that sure .... but when you ask for the evidence, the answer is always, "You don't have to be sure."  It can't be both, not for the same person, at the same time.

Which is it for you?
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