Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving for me, like most people in the US, is an extended family affair. Since most of my mother's family passed away before I was born or when I was quite young, Thanksgiving revolves around my step-dad's family. Despite the fact that my step-dad's family is devout Southern Baptist, our Thanksgiving is not very religious, something I consider fortunate, since my religious beliefs are so different. Unfortunately, that is where the good fortune ends. My step-dad's family is dramatic, argumentative, and manipulative. Without fail, every Thanksgiving eventually disintegrates into a family argument. My mother and I, the only two "outsiders", always attempt to stay out of it, but we do not always succeed. I find the inevitability of a fight extremely frustrating, since I just want to enjoy the holiday.

Don't get me wrong, I know that every family fights. I think the idea of a "normal" family is, at best, a myth and, at worst, a joke. When people live in close proximity, conflict is inevitable. But I think the level of manipulation, pettiness, and vindictiveness in my step-dad's family is way beyond the average family. Every year before hand, my step-dad gives my sister and me a long list of things we are not allowed to mention to his relatives. Much of it is completely mundane, like the fact that we replaced the floor tiles in the bathroom of the master bedroom, or that my cat Precious has been sick, or anything about my current medical condition other than "I'm getting better", because it will start an argument, usually about money. Having seen how his family reacts to events other families would consider unremarkable, I agree with the necessity of staying silent, but, at the same time, I find it absolutely absurd.

By far the worst is my grandmother. She enjoys playing people off each other and criticizing everything and everyone. Although my family is ignorant of my religious beliefs, I do not make my liberal political beliefs a secret, something my grandmother has a field day with. She also hates where I go to school (they are brainwashing me with their liberal ideals), my boyfriend (he is one-quarter Hispanic and my grandmother is quite racist), my choice of clothing (I prefer comfortable clothes in dark, cool colors and refuse to wear skirts or dresses) and my hair (I never wear it up and occasionally dye the bottom couple inches blue). She has also accused me in the past of being a pagan and a Satanist, which, in her mind, are pretty much the same thing.

Thankfully, the main target this year was my little sister, not me. That might sound heartless, but my little sister takes after my step-dad and his family and so is able to hold her own with them much better than I can. The main argument this year was her plans to move out to California with her boyfriend when she finishes school in the spring. While I disagree with her plans for several reasons, I also recognize the fact that my sister is an adult with the right to make her own choices.

Despite the family drama, I always try and remember the actual point of Thanksgiving, which is giving thanks. I think it is important for everyone, regardless of their religious or political beliefs, to realize how lucky we are compared to many people in the world. I am thankful that, although the recession has been hard on my family, we can afford to put food on the table, including a nice Thanksgiving dinner. I am thankful that I have a decent house to live in, even though it needs quite a few repairs. Most of all, despite being ill and struggling to pay medical bills, I am thankful that I have medical insurance which gives me access to good medical care. I am thankful for these things because there are almost 2 billion people in the world who do not have even these basic necessities of life. And I think that is something everyone should remember on Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Incredible Time-Lapse Video from ISS!

The Expedition 28 and 29 crews shot this amazing time-lapse video of the Earth from the International Space Station from August to October of this year. It shows different parts of the Earth at night, with city lights, random flashes of lightning, and absolutely stunning auroras. I know it's 5 minutes long, but it is well worth it. I couldn't resist posting it here. I loved trying to figure out which cities they were flying over.


Earth | Time Lapse View from Space, Fly Over | NASA, ISS from Michael K├Ânig on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Earthquake!

I just felt my first earthquake! Very exciting!

USGS: 4.7 Earthquake in Oklahoma

I was sitting on my bed, reading an article about cold fusion when my bed began shaking and I heard the objects on my dresser start rattling. I also heard a dull roaring noise from outside. Shaking lasted about 10 or so seconds. Gave me and my cats quite a scare.

Update: It's been about 3 hours since I first posted. The original earthquake was large enough to cause about half a dozen aftershocks so far, several of which I have felt. There are all much smaller and shorter in duration than the first quake, but it's still unnerving to randomly feel everything start shaking. I feel sorry for people on the West Coast and up in Alaska, if this is what they have to go through all the time.

Update: So, it's now 11:30 at night. About half an hour ago, we got hit by a 5.6 earthquake, which is almost 10 times stronger than the one this morning. It's the biggest recorded earthquake in Oklahoma history. The shaking was much more intense this time. I was sitting down when it started, but as the shaking got more violent I stood up and could feel my whole house swaying slightly. Several objects fell off one of my shelves. All of our animal are quite upset.

USGS: 5.6 Earthquake in Oklahoma

Spain's Stolen Children

 From BBC News: Spain's Stolen Babies and the Families Who Lived a Lie

I am actually surprised this story hasn't received more of a response. The sex abuse scandal, which the Catholic Church is still dealing with, was bad enough, but this takes it to a whole other level. The Catholic Church, according to the leaders within it, is supposed to be a force for good in the world, the organization which represents God on Earth. Well, I highly doubt God wanted them to steal babies away from their mothers as soon as they were born, tell those mothers their babies had died, and then sell the infants to "better" families. It's beyond disgusting.

I have stated here multiple times that I am not a fan of organized religion, is this is just one more reason why. An organized religion might begin with the best of intentions, but once they gain power and money, those good intentions, more often than not, go out the window. As the saying goes, power corrupts. Organizations like the Catholic Church have a duty to protect the innocent, the persecuted, and the oppressed, but instead they exploit those very groups in order to gain more power and money. And as soon as their terrible acts become public, they jump straight into denial and cover-up.

Even if the Spanish government does do the right thing and begin an official investigation into this atrocious practice, nothing can fix the terrible injustice done to the mothers of the up to 300,000 stolen children or the children themselves.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Kitty Issues

Once again, I must apologize for taking an unexpected break in posting. The past few months, it seems like every time I feel like I will be able to write on a regular basis, something else happens to screw my plans up.

This time it was because one of my cats, Precious, has had some serious health issues. Every night, I open my window so that my two kitties can go outside for awhile. To reach the window sill, my cats have to jump about 3 feet. About two weeks ago, I did this at around 11:30 pm and then sat down at my desk, with my back to the window. Several minutes later, I heard Precious fall, hard, from the window sill to the couch below. I ran over and picked her up, placing her on my bed. Immediately I knew something was wrong. She couldn't stand. Her head was twitching back and forth and her eyes were darting everywhere. She looked like she had had a stroke. I panicked. I raced downstairs, woke my mother, and we rushed Precious to an emergency animal hospital.

The entire ride over I was crying, thinking I was about to lose her. I have had her for 11 years, since I was 11. I got her as a birthday present when she was only 6 weeks old. She has been with me through a lot and I love her more than anything.

When we got to the hospital, the doctor immediately started looking her over. She quickly determined that Precious had not had a stroke, but was suffering from labyrinthitis due to idiopathic vestibular syndrome, which is swelling of the inner ear for no obvious reason. Precious was going to be fine. Those words were some of the best I have ever heard.Unfortunately, there was not much the doctor could do to speed up the recovery. Precious would get better on her own, but it would take time.

Since then, Precious has needed much of my attention. Her legs were wobbly and she would frequently roll over onto her side. She couldn't jump without falling. Her head was constantly tilted to the right and her eyes continued to occasionally dart back and forth. Every time she sneezed or shook her head, she fell over. For the first few days, she couldn't walk at all. I had to help her to her food and water bowls and to the litter box. She would throw up 2-3 times a day from the nausea caused by vertigo. While she wasn't in any pain, she often got frustrated, understandably so. Even though she is considered a "senior" cat, she is extremely active. She has never been seriously ill (before this, the only time she had to go to the vet outside of regular check-ups was when she broke her jaw when she was 6 months old), so she is not used to having such limitations placed on her.

Slowly but steadily she has been improving. As of today she can walk on her own with only a little wobbling. She can make short jumps onto large surfaces (like from the floor to my bed) without falling most of the time. Her eyes aren't randomly moving around anymore. She still cannot jump very high or onto small or narrow surfaces and her head remains slightly tilted to the right. However, I am optimistic that she will be back to her old self within a week or so. I am beyond happy to know that she is going to be alright.

Here's a picture of my beautiful Precious, taken a couple weeks before her fall. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The World Is Ending!...Or Is It?: Harold Camping Is at It Again

Remember Harold Camping, who made international news by declaring that Judgement Day would occur on May 21st, 2011? Well, he is at it again.

For those who do not remember, or are a little fuzzy on the details, Camping claimed that Judgement Day would happen on May 21st, with massive earthquakes occurring all over the world at 6:00pm local time in each time zone. Then, all "true" Christians (i.e. those Christians who agreed with everything Camping said) would be Raptured into heaven, beginning a five month period of "fire, brimstone, and plagues" on Earth, culminating with the end of the world on October 21st. Family Radio spent over $100 million dollars on advertising in order to spread the word of the upcoming deadline.

Well, to the shock of almost nobody, May 21st came and went without millions of Christians disappearing, leaving their empty clothes behind (I guess heaven is a nudist colony) as an omen to all us sinful heathens of the horrible agony God was about to inflict upon us. Damn.



(Video via Unreasonable Faith. While I am not an atheist, it is an awesome blog. I recommend checking them out.)

Afterwards, in his typical delusional fashion (this was his third failed prediction for the end of the world; the others were in 1988 and 1994), Camping announced that the "judgement" had been spiritual, not physical. Instead, the Rapture of "true" believers will occur simultaneously with God's destruction of the Earth, which Camping still believes will occur October 21st. The only difference this time around is that Camping is not spending millions of dollars on advertising. While most believe this is because Camping spent all his money proclaiming his previous date, Camping says it is because there is no point, since May 21st was Judgement Day. Basically, if you were not saved by then, you are screwed. God will annihilate you when He destroys the Earth on October 21st.

Now that October 21st is approaching, he is back in the news again.The only thing I am grateful for is that, since Camping's last prediction failed, he is not getting anywhere near as much media coverage this time. At least, not so far. We can only pray it stays that way.

I have written about end-time prophecies and why they are so popular before. To put it bluntly, I think they are a bunch of crap. I am no more worried that the world might end on October 21st than I am worried that I might be abducted by aliens tomorrow. What does bother me, though, is the enormous amount of money spent because of these predictions. As I mentioned above, Camping's group spent $100 million dollars in the weeks leading up to May 21st. Think of all the good that money could have done. How many hungry people could have been fed? How many free or low-cost clinics could have been supported so that the uninsured could have access to desperately needed medical care? How many inner-city schools could have been renovated, giving kids a better chance of succeeding in the future? How much aid could we have sent to areas all over the world struggling to recover from natural disasters? How many teenagers from low-income families could have been put through college, giving them a better chance at breaking the cycle of poverty? How many houses could have been built for low-income families? How many shelters could have been built to help the homeless?

I could go on and on. The sheer waste of it makes me sick. Instead of being so obsessed with when the world is going to end, why can we not be obsessed with making this world a better place, with helping those less fortunate than ourselves?

To be honest, this is something I do not understand about many conservative Christian churches. In the Bible itself, Jesus reveals what is truly important:

When an "expert in the law" asked Jesus "what must I do to inherit eternal life?", Jesus said "Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all you mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself". Jesus then goes on the define "neighbor" as everyone around you (Luke 10:25-37).

In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which is extremely popular with conservative Christians, since they take it as evidence for the existence of an eternal hell (as a universalist I obviously disagree, but that is a discussion for another day) Jesus determines who is a sheep (good) and who is a goat (bad) by asking whether they gave the hungry something to eat, gave the thirsty something to drink, invited the stranger into their homes, gave clothes to those who needed them, looked after those who were sick, and visited those who were in prison (Mathew 25:34-40). 

Jesus did NOT say you needed to hold the "right" beliefs, or follow the "right" rules, or belong to the "right" denomination, or go to church every Sunday morning and Wednesday night, or anything like that. Jesus did NOT ask whether you knew the date of the end of the world, including the exact timeline of the events that will encompass it [e.g. the Rapture, the Tribulation, Battle of Armageddon, the Millennium, the Second Coming, the Resurrection, etc. (disagreements over the order in which these events will occur have actually caused churches to split apart, but, again, that is a discussion for another day)].

Yet all those things are what conservative Christian churches pay the most attention too! A couple of years ago, I was having a conversation with an acquaintance with mine who was a fundamentalist Christian. I brought up a similar argument and his response was that there was no point on spending all there time attempting to "fix" the world since the world was going to end soon anyway. Better to work on saving souls before it is too late. While I know that my acquaintance was a good person, his answer disgusted me. All of this "End Times" crap disgusts me. I can only hope that when October 22nd dawns and the world is still here, people will recognize that Harold Camping is nothing but a fraud and maybe begin to realize that we have more important concerns to focus on than attempting to predict the end of the world.

Apologies both for the long post and a month long disappearance. I have been struggling with terrible writer's block, but hopefully that is ending.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

10 Years Later...

For the past week, I have been debating with myself whether I should write about 9/11 here. Even though it has been ten years, my emotions about the terrible events that day are still very raw. Any time I see photos or videos from that day, I feel both devastated and extremely angry, and I didn't even lose any loved ones that day. I cannot imagine the pain of those who did.

Unfortunately, 9/11 was not my first experience with terrorism. When I was five, Timothy McVeigh parked a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. At 9:02 am, it exploded with such force that my house, 12 miles away, shook. At first, my mother thought it was an earthquake or a natural gas explosion. She turned on the TV and the first thing we saw was a building with one side totally blown off. 168 people were killed that day, including 19 children. I have several friends who lost family members that day.

The morning of September 11th, 2001, I was in my first class of the day (Life Sciences) at my Jr. High School. I was 12 years old and in 7th grade, right about the age where I started to pay attention to what's happening in the world. My teacher had handed out something for us to do silently. I don't remember exactly what it was. He then went over to his desk and started working on his computer. After a couple of minutes, he got up quite suddenly and walked out of the classroom without saying anything.

Several minutes later, he walked back into his room. He looked terrified. He told us that planes had flown into the towers of the World Trade Center and that a car bomb had gone off at the Pentagon (I didn't find out until later that it was another plane, not a car bomb, that hit the Pentagon). He then said he was going to hook up the class TV so we could watch the news. Just before he turned it on, our principal walked in, whispered in his ear, and then quickly left. He looked terrified as well.

Seeing the adults so scared was scaring me and my classmates. While I cannot say for sure, I believe the principal told my teacher not to let us watch the news because it was showing people jumping out of the windows of the World Trade Center Towers. Instead, my teacher started reading us news articles from his computer. At one point he said "Oh God" and ran out of the room. It was because the first tower had collapsed.

The rest of the school day passed in much the same way. When my sister and I got home from school, we immediately turned on the news. My mother joined us when she got home from work. We watched for hours. I didn't fully understand what was going on, but I knew it was bad. We live near an Air Force base, and military jets flew over every few minutes. This scared my sister. I was trying to be calm for her sake, but I was scared too.

So much about our lives was changed by 9/11. I remember asking myself a few months after the attacks "When will everything go back to the way it used to be?". It never did.

9/11 is one of the defining moments of my life. What was let of my childhood innocence disappeared that day. For the first time, I saw true evil. But, at the same time, I also saw true good in how Americans came together on that terrible day, despite our many differences. I was, and still am, proud of the fact that 9/11 did not tear us apart, but brought us closer together.

A few weeks after I started school in New York City, I visited Ground Zero. While the debris was long gone, it was still just a big hole in the ground. It was a depressing sight. However, I visited again two and a half years later. By then, construction had begun on the 9/11 memorial and several new World Trade Center buildings. It's hard to describe how happy the construction progress has made me. After ten years, it is a reminder that, no matter how much damage terrorists do to us, we will always recover and rebuild.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Ungodly Discipline

This past weekend, I watched a special on CNN called Ungodly Discipline. It spoke about two topics:

First, how a 7 year old girl from Northern California was spanked/beaten to death by her foster parents in early 2010. The foster parents were followers of Michael and Debi Pearl, authors of the book To Train Up A Child, who believe the Bible commands parents to discipline their child with"spiritual spanking" and the need to break a child's will.



Second, allegations of physical, mental, and sexual abuse at group homes (usually for adolescent girls) run by Independent Fundamentalist Baptists. Specifically, the Hephzibah House in Winona Lake, Indiana.



Needless to say, I found those videos extremely difficult to watch. Children being abused in the name of God has popped up in the news multiple times in the past couple of years. In the United States, it is almost always affiliated with fundamentalist Christianity. In my opinion, this is probably one of the worst practices of fundamentalist Christianity. It's absolutely disgusting.

Over the past few decades, there has been a fierce debate in the United States over the legality of corporal punishment. Many parents still spank their children for misbehavior. However, while I disagree with any use of corporal punishment against a child, there is a difference between spanking and beating. The "spanking" seen in fundamentalist Christian group homes and advocated by the Pearl's in their book and implemented by thousands of fundamentalist Christian families is nothing but child abuse. Implements such as paddles, rods, and canes are used to hit children so hard that they leave welts and bruises. Often, children are hit on their legs, arms, back, and buttocks for hours at a time. The goal of these beatings is to break the child's will, so that they will be entirely submissive and subservient to their parents.

The worst part (which is not in either of the videos) was when a father describe beating his son with a rod because the boy had hit him. They father said, completely seriously, that "spanking" the boy would teach him it was wrong to hit other people. The sheer hypocrisy was astounding. I assure you that boy did not walk away from his punishment believing it was wrong to hit people. Quite the opposite. He walked away believing that hitting people smaller than you is completely acceptable, as long is it is done in the name of God.

It infuriates me that, in the United States, the only people we can legally hit are children. If you beat an adult in a similar fashion, you would be arrested and charged with assault. More than likely, you would spend time in jail.

The video was also upsetting for personal reasons. While my parents were Southern Baptist, not Independent Fundamentalist Baptist, they still believed the Bible command them to spank their children in the name of God. Their "discipline" could be quite harsh. My step-dad would hit me on the back and legs with a belt or a flyswatter, leaving stripes of marks and, sometimes, bruises. Afterwards, it would be painful to sit for days at a time. I have permanent scars from those years. I got quite good at keeping any marks and scars hidden though, for fear that a friend or teacher might notice them. My of my friends in high school would tease me about how modestly I dressed. I would only wear long-sleeved shirts or t-shirts whose sleeves went down to my elbow, never tank tops or anything strapless. Still do, actually. This was in order to hide the scars on my shoulders and upper back from having a glass lamp thrown at me.

Because of my personal experiences, I know the damage that physical and metal abuse can cause when couple with fundamentalist religion. Kids grow up thinking that they are evil sinners, repulsive to and loathed by God, who wants nothing more than to torture them eternally from hell. The fear it induces, both for the present and the future, makes it extraordinarily difficult to question your beliefs. Accordingly, many of these abused kids grow up and end up doing the same to their children.

For me personally, the worst result of growing up in such a home was the twisted view of God it created, one I've talked about on this blog before. Believing that God hates you and is going to abandon you to hell forever creates a hell here on Earth, one that I wouldn't wish on my greatest enemies. While time and a new perception of God has healed some scars, some blemishes will never fully disappear.

What happens to us in childhood stays with us throughout our lives. While I am committed to the idea of freedom of (or from) religion, I am also committed to protecting our children. Group homes like the one from the video should have more government oversight, so that abusers can be caught quickly and the children or teenagers affected can get help. I also believe that corporal punishment of any kind should be illegal. If hitting an adult is unacceptable, than hitting a child should be doubly so.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Belief-O-Matic

A few days ago, Andrew from Hackman's Musings (an awesome blog by the way), posted a link to the Belief-O-Matic, a quiz which asks you 20 questions about your religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and determines how close your beliefs are to 27 different religions or belief systems. I found it to be quite fun and interesting, so I thought I would share my results.

  1. Liberal Quakers (100%)
  2. Reform Judaism (98%)
  3. Unitarian Universalism (95%)
  4. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (90%)
  5. Baha'i Faith (85%)
  6. Neo-Pagan (84%)
  7. New Age (81%)
  8. Mahayana Buddhism (74%)
  9. Sikhism (74%)
  10. New Thought (65%)
  11. Secular Humanism (64%)
  12. Jainism (61%)
  13. Orthodox Judaism (60%)
  14. Theravada Buddhism (56%)
  15. Taoism (55%)
  16. Scientology (55%)
  17. Islam (54%)
  18. Orthodox Quaker (53%)
  19. Hinduism (50%)
  20. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (42%)
  21. Nontheist (35%)
  22. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (30%)
  23. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (29%)
  24. Eastern Orthodox (26%)
  25. Roman Catholic (26%)
  26. Seventh Day Adventist (25%)
  27. Jehovah's Witness (14%)
Overall, my results didn't surprise me too much. The only unexpected part was the 55% for Scientology. I guess that is mostly because I have just never thought of myself as having anything in common with Scientology, but I only know about some of their more controversial beliefs. 

Back From a Little Break (Literally!)

So, you might have noticed I disappeared for about a month. I had been contemplating taking a break from the internet in general and just focus on catching up on reading a backlog of books as well as working on some other projects. However, a few weeks ago, before I could make a decision, it was made for me. With a little help from my family's 75 pound dog, Ralph, my right hand was smashed by our rather heavy back door, breaking my index, middle, and ring fingers. It was completely an accident: Ralph didn't mean to hurt me and wasn't punished. Unfortunately, all three fingers ended up in splints, which made typing any significant amount both tedious and time consuming. The last of these splints (the one on my index finger, which had a more severe break than my middle or ring finger) was removed on Monday. While my fingers are still a bit stiff, I am able to type normally again.

Here's a picture of our dog Ralph:


He is almost 2 years old but is still a total puppy. He is extremely rambunctious and loves to play, which can sometimes get a bit rough, since he doesn't know his own strength. His favorite toys are ones that squeak and he can (and will) make them squeak for hours, which is not always pleasant for the human family members. While he likes to act tough and barks loudly, in reality he is a big baby. Thunderstorms scare him and any time we get one, he comes upstairs and crawls into bed with me, much to the displeasure of my two cats. He felt extremely bad for breaking my fingers. When I got back from the hospital, he immediately came up to me and started to lick my hand. He even slept with me in bed that night even though there were no thunderstorms.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Space Shuttle: End of an Era

Ever since I was a young child, I have been completely captivated by and utterly fascinated with outer space. My earliest career ambition was to be an astronaut. I actually still possess my journal from kindergarten, which contains a page where my teacher had us write about and draw what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I drew myself (rather poorly, unfortunately, as I lack any artistic skills whatsoever) jumping around on the Moon in a green and silver spacesuit. I absolutely loved watching the Space Shuttle launches on TV.  When I was around 8 or 9, I even attempted to convince my parents to take our summer vacation in Florida so that we could visit Cape Canaveral and attend a shuttle launch . Although I was unsuccessful, probably because I was the lone member of my family truly interested in manned space flights, I continued to dream of eventually being one of the astronauts blasting off on a magnificent Space Shuttle.

Regrettably, it just wasn't meant to be. By the age of 11, I realized that my aspiration to become an astronaut was wholly unrealistic. First, I had moderate asthma which was not well controlled by my medications at the time. Second, I was rapidly approaching legal blindness in my left eye due to severe amblyopia (lazy eye), which has left me with almost no depth perception and an enormous tendency towards clumsiness. I was just not good astronaut material.

Despite being extremely disappointed, I was still mesmerized by the perplexing wonders of the universe. One day in sixth grade, we took a class trip to the school library. I quickly dashed to the non-fiction science section as always because, even at the tender age of 11, I was a hardcore science nerd. Having been at this elementary school for four years, I had already read practically every single book in that section, so I instantly noticed that there were several new books.  Excitedly, I seized one which appeared especially intriguing and deposited myself into one of the comfy, upholstered chairs.

The book was about the Hubble Space Telescope. I cracked open the book and began to flip through the pages, looking at the amazing images the telescope had captured of our universe. However, when I reached the now-famous image of the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, my breath was literally taken away. I stared in pure awe at its extraordinary beauty. Before we left that day, I checked out all the library's books on nebulae, as I was fiercely desperate to learn everything I could about these astonishing and majestic phenomena.

Only a couple months later, I was enjoying my final night at a week-long Girl Scout camp in western Oklahoma. One cool tradition was that, weather permitting, we would spend our last night at camp on the tennis courts, instead of in our cabins. Once all the girls were settled in their sleeping bags, the camp counselors showed us constellations, asterisms, planets, star clusters, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the edge-on band of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.  They wielded green laser pointers, in order to indicate and/or trace out the different celestial objects for us, and passed around pairs of night vision binoculars, so that we could better observe the compact objects, like the planets, the star clusters, and the Andromeda galaxy.

The incontrovertible highlight of the night, though, was that a minor meteor shower was taking place. Over the span of 3 hours, I got to see about 20 meteors (although we called them shooting stars at the time). Even better, this was the first time in my life I had ever I had ever witnessed meteors. It was absolutely spectacular.

Those two events are what sparked my interest in astronomy and inspired me to dedicate my life to it, in order that I might unravel some of the countless mysteries of the universe.

However, despite exchanging my dream of being an astronaut for my desire to be an astronomer, I have maintained a profound enthusiasm for the Space Shuttle Program and eagerly followed each mission since I was 12, celebrating triumphs and grieving for loss.

In my opinion, the Space Shuttle's most outstanding accomplishment is the still continuing construction of the International Space Station.  Throughout my Jr. High, High School, and College years, I have watched intently as the astronauts, whom I tremendously admire, have gradually erected the International Space Station, a monument both to human scientific achievement and international cooperation.

Of course, I was immensely devastated by the Columbia disaster in 2003. I distinctly remember watching the news, thinking "how could this have happened?" and softly crying for hours as more and more details trickled into newsrooms across the country. NASA, however, was able to come back from this tragedy and continue to advance the frontier in space and manned space flight.

Last Friday was the very last launch of Atlantis, the very last launch of any of the Space Shuttles. I woke up early in order to watch Atlantis propelled into orbit on a colossal cascade of roaring flames. Knowing I will never see another Space Shuttle launch, I could not stop myself from shedding a few tears.

This coming Thursday Atlantis will return to Earth from its final mission and land, most likely at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, or else at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California, finally bringing about the end of a glorious era, which has not only significantly influenced my own life, but also the lives of millions of American's. I know chances are good that I will cry even more as the Space Shuttle program I have followed for ten years finally reaches its completion.

So, I must now say my final goodbye to Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis. Thank you for all your incredible contributions to science, as well as all your totally awesome launches (especially the ones at night!)! You will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Ease of Dehumanizing Strangers

A couple weeks ago, Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology wrote an interesting post titled Tales of the Demonic. In it, he discusses how the bureaucratic structures of institutions can dehumanize human interactions.

As an example, he shares a story where a worker from the electric company comes to shut off his electricity due to non-payment. Beck, knowing that he has been paying his bill, becomes understandably upset. Obviously, the electric company has made an error. However, despite the fact that this mistake is not the fault of the worker in his backyard, and that the worker is merely doing his job, Beck directs his anger at him. Instead of seeing the worker as another human being, he sees him solely as the agent of the faceless electric company.

All of us have been in a similar situation at one time or another. Just last week, I became quite frustrated while speaking to a representative of my cell phone company. I had a $40 charge on my bill I knew was wrong and the representative did not seem to know how to assist me. I was rather impatient with him, which I now regret. Although he was not the one who messed-up my bill, just a guy working in the call center, I focused my anger on him, just as Beck did with the electric company worker.

Beck points out:
Consider the stories above. In each of the cases human beings are not interacting directly. We are, rather, interacting through the power structures of the world. I don't know the name of the man in my backyard about to turn off my electricity. And he doesn't know my name. Our relationship is, rather, defined by our locations in a bureaucratic power structure. He's an agent of the electric company. I'm an address on his work order. That is how our relationship is defined. A relationship stripped of its humanity. And as a consequence I have to work mightily to treat this man with respect. He isn't to blame. But everything about this dehumanized interaction makes me want to yell at him. To direct my anger at him.
I think Beck makes an absolutely wonderful point. However, I do not think this effect is limited exclusively to bureaucratic power structures. Certainly bureaucratic structures make it disgustingly easy to dehumanize people, but human beings have been demonstrating for thousands of years that we are terribly efficient at dehumanizing people on our own. We dehumanize those who are different from us. We dehumanize those whom we disagree with. We dehumanize those whom we are angry at.

Sometimes, it's obvious. The Nazi's dehumanized the Jews, first taking away their civil rights and then exterminating them en masse. American whites dehumanized blacks in order to justify slavery, and we still have not escaped the curse of racism in the US. Throughout world history, one religion has dehumanized the adherents of another religion, leading to countless wars. While there were often bureaucratic institutions, particularity governments, behind those examples of dehumanization, I believe the feelings originated on an individual level. The governments came later, specifically created in order to carry out the discrimination of the dehumanized groups.

However, often the dehumanization is not so obvious. What is your first reaction when someone cuts you off on the highway? Or when someone bumps into you hard at the store and then walks away quickly without even glancing at you, let alone apologizing? Or when a clerk at the bank treats you discourteously? Or when we hear someone expressing political/religious/social views completely opposite of our own?

We become angry and indignant. We think that these people are idiots or thoughtless jerks. Sometimes, we retaliate, give them a taste of their own medicine. Most of all, we think "I would never do/believe such a terrible thing".

Basically, we dehumanize them. We believe their behavior to be base, below us and that we, being better people, are above such behaviors.

But that is where I see a major problem. 

Can you honestly say that you have never done something unintentionally idiotic or rude? Maybe you were distracted. Maybe you just got some bad news and were upset. Maybe you were in a rush to get somewhere. No matter what it is, we usually find a way to justify our actions, to explain it away. We do the same when a family member or friend does something foolish or mean. We know there are extenuating circumstances.

Of course, if we admit the possibly that we might have unintentionally committed stupid or inconsiderate acts, we must also admit that the people who are rude to us might also be acting unintentionally. Perhaps the guy who cut you off is heading to the hospital because his father is sick. Perhaps the person who bumps into you at the store and just walks away is in a daze because they just lost their spouse. Perhaps the clerk at the bank was rude because she was having an awful day.

Too often, I believe we make assumptions about people we are not familiar with; assumptions which allow us to dehumanize them.

Over the past few years, I have become quite sensitive to the human tendency to disparage people they do not personally know. I have worked to recognize when I am doing it and to remember not to harshly judge people I do not know on the basis of a single negative interaction.

The reason I have become so cognizant of this came from watching my step-dad. Anytime I go somewhere with him, he find reasons to insult the strangers who cross our paths. Every person in a parking lot is a moron too stupid to watch where he or she is going. Every person in a suit and tie is a worthless administrator who spends their days firing people who actually work for a living. Every person whose children aren't absolutely quiet are bad parents.

While I realize my step-dad is an extreme example, once I began to pay attention, I was amazed at how often I or others would harshly scorn others for actions which probably had no ill-intent.

I believe it is extremely vital that we remember the inherent worth of each person we interact with, even if our interaction with that person is not positive. While at times it can sound trite, we are all human beings deserving of respect, no matter our race, age, nationality, gender, political ideology, or religious beliefs. If we have to choose between condemning a person or giving them the benefit of the doubt, I believe we should always choose the latter. We will become better people for it.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Busy month!

I just wanted to let everyone know that I haven't disappeared. I have not been home for most of the past month.

My best friend's family recently bought a new house about 20 miles outside the Oklahoma City metro area on the shore of a nice lake. It needed quite a bit of work before they fully moved in, so I spent most of the first two weeks in June helping them out and spending some quality time with my best friend. Ever since I've had to take a break from school, we have seen little of each other, especially since she spent the spring semester in Sicily. Unfortunately, Internet access is quite sparse out there.

Subsequently, my best friend and I traveled to Iowa for 5 days for the wedding of one of our closest friends. I am incredibly happy for her and her new wife. I only wish that we could have celebrated this wonderful event at home in Oklahoma, but, disgustingly, like the rest of the Bible Belt, Oklahoma has banned gay-marriage.

After that, I had only 4 days of rest at home before leaving for a vacation with my family. We are spending the week in San Antonio and Corpus Christi, Texas. Hopefully I will be back home this weekend and will resume regular posts next week.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Tornado Outbreak

As anyone in the US who has paid even the slightest attention to the news the past week knows, there was an enormous, multi-day tornado outbreak last week over much of the Midwest and South. Unfortunately, I got caught in the middle of it just a few hours after my last post.

When I woke up that morning, I knew there was a good probability of tornadoes. I grew up and currently live in central Oklahoma, where there have been more tornadoes per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. I've witnessed more than I can count, including the strongest tornado ever recorded (the Tri-State tornado of 1925 was probably stronger, but no meteorological data was recorded). The reason I suspected we were in for tornadoes that day is the "feel" of the atmosphere. The air was extremely still and the humidity was oppressive. It's actually a hard phenomena to describe, but anyone who has lived here for more than a couple years knows what you are talking about. It's almost as if the atmosphere is pressing down on you and every breath feels like you're in a steam room.

A quick glace of the morning news confirmed my suspicions. Meteorologists were predicting a tornado outbreak for the afternoon. So, my mother and I made preparations. We collected all of our important papers, valuables, and photos and placed them in the master bathroom, the only completely interior room in our house. We also gathered first aid supplies, just in case, and carriers and leashes for our pets. This is our routine every time an outbreak seems likely. That way, if a tornado does come our way, the only thing we have to worry about grabbing is our pets.

It wasn't until 3 o'clock that thunderstorms began to develop and move in. Around 4 o'clock, a tornado formed about 30 miles southeast of us. I wasn't immediately concerned because tornadoes do not usually stay on the ground that long. But the damn thing kept getting closer and closer. My entire family was watching the meteorologists on the local news and their prediction of the tornado's path. At first, it looked like it was going to pass through the relatively rural area between my town (Moore) and the town just south of us (Norman). Unfortunately, it began to turn to the north. Soon, the projected path went right through my neighborhood. I knew we were in for a direct hit.

Typical of Oklahomans, at this point I went outside with my dad. Because their was so much rain, we actually could not see the tornado as it approached, but the wind began to pick up quickly. We ran back inside the house (much to my mother's relief) and took shelter in the bathroom. And then we waited. For a couple of minutes, it was extremely tense. We knew it was coming. We continued to wait. And wait. And wait.

Nothing happened. I opened the bathroom door so we could better hear the TV we had left on in the living room. It turns out the tornado lifted right after it crossed into the city. The immediate danger was over. Quite reveled, we went outside. Our yard had quite a bit of debris in it, mostly insulation.

Over a week later and I'm still amazed at how lucky we were. That tornado was given an EF 4 rating. If it had stayed on the ground for just 5 more minutes, it would have devastated a densely populated area, including my neighborhood. 

I wish I had some pictures to show, but we never actually saw the tornado from our house. I apologize for taking awhile to write about this. I have spent a good part of the past week helping out friends whose farm was badly damaged by the same tornado.

I'm not exactly sure why this tornado season has been so active and violent. There has been 3 major outbreaks in the past 6 or 7 weeks, not including the tornado-producing storms in Massachusetts 2 days ago. I deeply hope  we won't see another outbreak this year.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Destructiveness of Religious Judgement

Last week, I accompanied my mother to a doctor's appointment. While she was back in the exam room, I hung out in the waiting room. It was a typical doctor's office waiting room and I got bored rather quickly. As I looked around for some magazines to read, a shelf near the check-in counter caught my eye. I walked over and realized it was display of different books you could buy. Most of them were rather small and looked like they had been printed by a local budget publisher. Not poor quality or anything, just plain. These books mainly dealt with medical issues, like healthy meal ideas for diabetics or an exercise guide for people with arthritis. However, on the middle shelf of the display, there was a thin book of inspirational stories.

Just for the record, I usually avoid books like that. While I generally consider myself to be an optimist, I generally find these types of books to be just a little irritating. The stories always seem either too good to be true or totally cheesy and unrealistic. But, since I had nothing better to do, and was suffering from neither diabetes nor arthritis, I grabbed the book (unfortunately, I do not remember the title), opened it to a random story, and began to read. The story I ended up with was about 12 pages long, so I've written out a short synopsis. Before I begin, I want to note that, while the exact Christian denomination the couple in the story belongs too is never disclosed, I think it is safe to assume they were conservative Christians, possibly even fundamentalists. You will see why I believe this as you read my synopsis, but please feel free to disagree with me.
The story begins with a devout Christian couple. This couple had a son who became extremely unhappy and increasingly distant during his teenage years. He rejected his religious upbringing and refused to continue attending church, which greatly upset his parents. As soon as he graduated high school, he left home without reveling where he intended to go.

Over the next few years, they had sparse contact with their son. During his rare phone calls, they attempted to convince their son to come home and return to the church, saying that no matter what his sins were, Jesus would forgive him. Not surprisingly, their son spurned their invitation to return home and declined to give them any information about why he had disappeared or where he was. Soon, the phone calls ceased all together.

Sometime later (I forget exactly how long, but it couldn't have been more than a few years), the phone rang in the middle of the night. It was their son. He confessed to his parents that he was gay and that he was in a hospital in San Francisco, dying of AIDS. He said he wanted to tell them so that they would know what happened to him, but that he did not wish to see them. He had directed the nurses not to allow his parents to enter his room if they appeared at the hospital. He said goodbye and hung up.

Being devout Christians, the parents instantly called their pastor, who agreed to meet them at their church. Once at the church, the parents explained what their son had admitted to them over the phone and asked their pastor what he thought they should do. The pastor told them that they needed to immediately fly out to California and attempt to see their son. He said that their son was still unsaved and that it would be their final chance to preach the Gospel to him and save him from his life of sin.
At this point, I should note that his homosexuality is never explicitly mentioned as being the reason for his "life of sin", but that was the vibe I got from the story. I would not have been surprised if the pastor had interpreted the son's AIDS as a punishment from God for the son's homosexuality.
The parents promptly left for San Francisco, arriving that evening. Once at the hospital, they requested to see their son. A nurse showed them to a waiting area and then departed for the son's room. She returned several minutes later and informed the parents that their son had refused to see them. This news deeply distressed the parents. However, they asked the nurse to tell their son that they would not leave and that if he changed his mind and desired to see them, they would be waiting for him. This entire exchange was overheard by another nurse. She approached the parents and offered to go talk to their son for them. She thought she might be able to convince him to see his parents. Of course the parents were happy to let her try and persuade their son. 

The nurse was gone for quite a while. As the parents waited, they prayed to Jesus for their son's salvation. When the nurse finally reappeared, she told the parents that their son had consented to see them. The parents rapidly made their way to their son's hospital room. When they saw him for the first time in numerous years, they were shocked. He was pale, thin, and appeared incredibly ill. His arms were covered in bruises and needle marks (I believe the point of that observation was to show the reader that the son had been using drugs). Despite this, the parents were overjoyed to be with their son. 
At this point, I would like to note two things. First, while not much is mentioned about the nurse who goes to talk with the son, it is implied that she is a Christian with beliefs similar to those of the parents. Second, I believe the comment about the son's arms was meant to inform the reader that the son was a drug addict, another "sin" on top of his homosexuality. While the bruises and needle marks could have been from medical treatment, the tone of that passage suggested otherwise.
Over the next couple hours, they talked with him. Their son told them that he had left the church because he was gay. He had tried many many times to change, but each time he failed miserably. Because of that, he loathed himself and was tremendously angry at God for creating him this way. He could not go back to the church because he thought Jesus would never accept him, since he had led such a sinful lifestyle.

His mother listened to her son's story with tears running down her cheeks. After he was finished, she told him that it was not too late; Jesus still loved him and would accept him. All he had to do was ask for forgiveness, renounce his former lifestyle, and let Jesus into his heart. Then he could die in peace, knowing he was saved and that he would be granted eternal life in heaven. The son, with his mother's support and encouragement, did just that. He prayed the sinner's prayer and became a Christian in the final hours of his life. He died later that night, happy in the knowledge that he was saved through his faith in Jesus Christ. 
When I finally finished the story, I was in almost a state of shock. This was supposed to be one of those inspirational, feel-good-about-the-world stories. But I didn't feel good at all. Quite the opposite. I felt sick. I felt angry. I wanted to cry. It took every ounce of self-control I had not to chuck the book across the room. My first rational thought was "I hope to God this story isn't true". But I had a nauseating feeling that it was.

Throughout the story, the assumption is that the son was so miserable because he was gay. But I think the real reason he was miserable because he was raised in a religious system which judges homosexuality to be a sin and condemns homosexuals themselves as immoral and depraved. This religious judgement convinced him that God both hated him and was disgusted by him. He was an abomination. Even worse, when he died, God was going to throw him into hell to endure horrendous, conscious torment for all eternity. Of course, if you truly believe that God hates you, you are going to hate yourself. I am sure that is what led to the drug abuse and other problems not mentioned. 

From the story, it is obvious that the parents loved their son very much. I met conservative Christians who, if they found out their son was gay and dying of AIDS, would have just hung up the phone. But these parents did not. They desperately wanted to save their son. Yet they were absolutely clueless it was their own religious beliefs that had done so much damage.

This story breaks my heart so much because those same beliefs, which had produced so much destruction in his life, were being shoved down his throat while he laid on his death bed. What he actually needed to hear was that his homosexuality did not make him evil or wrong, that God loved him completely and unconditionally, and that he had nothing to fear, for God would never abandon him to hell for being gay. Instead, once more he was reminded of how evil and wrong he supposedly was by being told he had to beg God for forgiveness and renounce his former lifestyle in order to be saved. My only hope is that he was able to die peacefully without fear. It was the least he deserved after the hell he lived through on Earth.

This story demonstrates the reason why conservative Christianity's (or any other religion's/denomination's/sect's) beliefs in an eternal hell and an angry, petty, and conditionally loving God makes me so angry and why I am so passionate about universalism and God's unconditional love. Despite the parents best intentions and their substantial love for their son, their conception of God totally destroyed him.

These beliefs must be challenged and changed. Even in the hands of good, loving people, they can cause immense suffering. In the hands of depraved, power-hungry, and manipulative people, they can wreak entire families, tear apart whole communities and utterly devastate an individual's soul. 

People often act like the God they believe in. If their God doesn't love unbelievers and either tortures them forever or annihilates them, why should the believers in that God act any differently? How could it be wrong to harm or kill someone whom God is just going to torment and/or exterminate anyway? Their souls obviously have little value to God, so why should their lives be valuable to other people? But if their God is genuinely a God of unconditional love who will not stop until every single one of His children is saved, everything changes. Suddenly, harming an unbeliever becomes equivalent to harming a believer. Suddenly, life isn't about how many souls you can "save", but about self-sacrifice in service to others. Suddenly, unworthiness and fear are replaced by trust and love. Suddenly, the world becomes a better place for all of us.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Comments

The past month or so I was using Disqus for the comments on my blog. Unfortunately, it was giving me more problems and limitations than benefits. Also, I have gotten some e-mails expressing concern about how Disqus' handles private information. So, I've decided to just revert back to Blogger's built-in comment system.

I was able to import all of the comments submitted to Disqus for this blog in the past month and submit them through Blogger, so no comments were lost. However, I did lose all the date and time information from those comments. So, if you happen to see a comment of yours you wrote a couple of days ago to about a month ago, but it is dated May 7th, don't worry.

I hope this switch does not inconvenience anyone. Please feel free to e-mail me any questions and/or concerns. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Death of Osama bin Laden

It's been four days since President Obama announced the death of the most wanted man in the world. Many of the bloggers I follow have already posted their thoughts and feelings. I have delayed discussing Osama bin Laden's death because, honestly, my feelings were extremely mixed. It has taken me several days to sort them out.

My first reaction, upon seeing the headline on the Yahoo homepage about ten minutes after the President's speech (I had been on the phone with my boyfriend, so I missed the live announcement) was shock. After ten long years, I had become skeptical that we would ever find bin Laden. Once the information sunk in though, I was unsure of what to feel.

Part of me wanted to be happy, to celebrate like those gathered outside the White House or at Ground Zero. I was merely 12 on 9/11, a child just out of elementary school. Osama bin Laden took away much of my innocence that day. Before that, major news stories meant little to me, the same as most children. But, even at my age, I knew instantly that 9/11 was different. I knew things would never be the same. For weeks, I watched the news with my parents and saw images of utter destruction and grieving families. Even today, the memory of those images brings up an intense anger at this man.

Osama bin Laden is one of those rare people who go beyond normal "badness". He's not grouped with the everyday bad guys. He's grouped with Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, and Pol Pot. He was a mass murder who spilled the blood of tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

Despite all that, I cannot forgot that Osama bin Laden was also a human being. He was a human being with thoughts and feelings, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, secrets and regrets, dreams and fears. He was a human being just like I am a human being. Just like you are a human being. I cannot forget this fact because, at the very core of my soul, I know it is wrong to rejoice in the death of another human being. 

In calling myself a universalist, I am saying that I deeply desire the redemption of all human beings and believe that a God who is love will eventually accomplish this task. One of the unexpected side-effects of my "conversion" was that I began to see people in a different light. Growing up in fundamentalist Christianity, I was taught that all people fit into one of two categories: the saved or the damned. The saved are good and the damned are bad. But when you begin to believe that all are saved, you cannot help to begin to see the good in every person.

Universalism has shown me that no person is entirely evil. There is always something worth saving in every soul, so every soul is worth saving. Even Hitler's. And even Osama bin Laden's.

I know there are many out there who would disagree with me. Some might even be disgusted that I would say such things about Hitler and Osama bin Laden, assuming it means that I am not sickened by their acts. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am not trying to white-wash these men and others like them. They are mass murders. But they are also human. They are children of a God who is love. Just like me. Just like you. Just like all of us.

Yes, my feelings are mixed. Part of me still wants to celebrate. I cannot deny that. But that part is small in comparison to the part of me that grieves for a fellow human who became so twisted that he believed God wanted him to kill thousands of innocent people.

Osama bin Laden and those like him are far beyond the help of any other person. But I pray for their souls because I know they are not beyond the help of God. I don't know how long it will take or how it will be done, but I believe, at the very core of my soul, that the God who is love can, and will, save every last one of His children, including Osama bin Laden.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Misconceptions About Universalism Part 2: Absolute Inclusiveness

As I mentioned in the first post of this series a month ago (I apologize for the long delay), the theological concept of universalism has gained considerable attention in the media lately, due to the publication of Rob Bell's book "Love Wins". Unfortunately, universalism is consistently misunderstood, especially in the religious circles where it is considered a heresy, such as conservative Christianity. Personally, I think a majority of people who believe and transmit these misconceptions are just ignorant of the actual concepts behind universalism. However, there is a minority which deliberately propagates these misconceptions, despite knowing they are false, often in order to deceive and confuse that uninformed majority. This minority tends to contain the religiously educated, such as theologians and pastors, who possess hostility towards universalism. This intense hatred can have a multitude of bases, of which I discussed here.

The first misconception I will examine is that universalism is absolutely inclusive; that is, universalism advocates the theory that all life paths are equally good and that every single path leads to God.

The origin of this particular misconception probably arose from the fact that universalists are extremely inclusive in general. We believe God's love and redemption is all inclusive (i.e., everyone will eventually be saved). We attempt to be all inclusive in our love and respect of people. Universalists are frequently religiously inclusive, believing that there is not one religion or sect/denomination which contains absolute truth and is the sole path to salvation, redemption, enlightenment, or whatever else you happen to call it. Many of us are inclusive in that we do not reject people because of their race, gender, sexuality, or religion.

Since exclusivity is usually the rule in organized religion, all of this inclusiveness is shocking. As an example, fundamentalist Christians strongly believe that the only path to God is through their specific denomination of Christianity and that all others will be condemned to an eternity of torment in hell. It's an "us versus them" mentality. God is with them and against everyone else. With that type of world view the inclusiveness in universalism appears both extraordinarily radical and immensely heretical. Given that, it's honestly not surprising some would assume that this inclusiveness would apply to everything.

However, that is blatantly false. Although I believe that there are countless paths which lead to God, including paths in organized religion, individual spirituality, and even agnosticism and atheism, I do not believe that all paths do so. Unfortunately, there are people in this world who have dedicated their lives to certain goals and created paths to attain those goals which actually push them away from God. These negative paths include a penchant for violence, an obsession with amassing vast wealth and material goods, a desire for absolute power (over one person all the way up to a country or even the world), and unrestrained narcissism.

While universalists believe that God completely loves the people who are currently navigating those negative paths, that does not mean we believe those paths to be acceptable. Those paths guide the people on them to be hateful, judgmental, and selfish.  In short, those paths do not lead the people on them to God. This is because, in each of those paths, the individual is focused solely on him or herself. Those paths which do lead to God teach the people on them love, forgiveness, and selflessness. As I said earlier, there are countless paths leading to God. But these paths are not equal. Even though they are heading in roughly the same direction, some are longer and bumpier, while others are shorter and smooth. It is up to each individual person to discover the best path for him or herself. 

I believe this misconception is harmful because it encourages the idea of exclusivity. The underlying message of this misconception is that inclusiveness is evil because universalism is evil, and since inclusiveness is evil, exclusiveness must be good. I know that reasoning sounds rather simple, but I have witnessed it, and similar lines of reasoning, at several Southern Baptist churches. Exclusivity is exceptionally dangerous. Those who are "in" see themselves as righteous and superior, while seeing those who are "out" as depraved and immoral. Taken to its extreme, those who are "out" become perceived as sub-human.

The inclusivity of universalism, although not absolute, does endeavor to extinguish the "us versus them" thinking and believing.  Too frequently does the doctrine of an organized religion call for non-violence and peace, yet violence, which can be physical, mental, or emotional, is employed to settle tiny theological deviations. We spill human blood over matters that hardly matter. It's disgusting and pathetic.

Instead, by resisting our natural instinct to group together and fight those who are different from us, we can eliminate much of the suffering in the world today, making a better and happier world for every single person.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Case for Hell?

Several days ago, conservative blogger Ross Douthat wrote a piece for the New York Times called A Case for Hell. According to Douthat, belief in hell is diminishing among religious Americans. This is evidenced by the enormous media attention recently received by Rob's Bell's new book, Love Wins", and its subsequent popularity. Douthat suggests there are two primary reasons for the waning influence of hell. First is escalating religious pluralism. In the United States, where Christianity claims the most adherents by far, more and more people are struggling with the condemnation of their non-Christian friends and neighbors to an eternal hell solely for "wrong belief". Second is that "our sense of outrage at human suffering...has grown sharper". With the recognition of how terrible suffering can be and how wide-spread it is in the world today, it becomes more problematic for people to believe in a God who subjects some of His own children to even more heinous suffering in hell.

For the most part, I agree with Douthat on why belief in the concept of hell is shrinking. Earlier in American history, Christianity was practically universal except in urban sectors. In rural areas of the country, it was possible to live your entire life with little or even no interaction with non-Christians. With the advent of globalization, Americans were increasingly exposed to people from various religious traditions outside Christianity. Today, new technology has allowed news to travel around the world in a matter of minutes. Wars, political strife, famines, and natural disasters we wouldn't have been aware of 200, or even 100, years ago are now available at the push of a button on our phones or computers.

Of course, I believe the rise in those who are rejecting hell is a fantastic development. Douthat, on the other hand, does not. He believes that:

Doing away with hell...threatens to make human life less fully human. [...] [T]o believe in God and not hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there is no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no's have any real meaning either. [...] In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real [...] The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.
Basically, Douthat thinks that, without a hell, our choices have no significance because there is neither punishment for our sins nor a way for an individual to truly reject God. While Douthat makes a valid point, I believe he has misunderstood the beliefs of universal salvation.

Yes, the doctrine universal salvation does affirm that all souls will eventually be reunited with God, and I am a staunch believer in that doctrine. But, it does not indicate that our negative choices have no consequences or that it is impossible to repudiate God. Universal salvation merely asserts that hell is not of an eternal duration, not that it does not exist not exist. Actually, I, and most advocates of universal salvation that I know, do believe in some form of hell where sins are punished, although the form this hell takes varies widely.

I do not believe in eternal punishment because there is no finite crime an individual can commit that is deserving of eternal punishment. Nor do I believe that God punishes a person out of wrath or a sense of revenge. Those are human weaknesses. But, as I said, I do believe in punishment. You cannot live a life of evil and selfishness without consequences. Instead, I believe God punishes in order to redeem a person, just as a loving parent must sometimes punish their child in order to help them mature into a good person. Our all-loving God uses rehabilitative, spiritual correction, not eternal, physical torture in order to help us become the people we were created to be.

Since I do believe in a form of hell, I also believe it is possible for a person to reject God. God does not coerce anyone to come to Him against their will. A forced relationship is beyond worthless; it is anathema. An individual is free to rebuff God for as long as they desire. Theoretically, they are free to reject God forever, if they so choose. However, as a believer in universal salvation, I believe that God will never give up and abandon anyone. He will never cease pursuing and attempting to guide and comfort those who have rejected Him. I am a universalist because I believe God's love will ultimately triumph and that He will eventually convince every soul to come home.

Personally, I think Douthat's belief in hell "makes us prisoners of God". How can there be any legitimate meaning behind your choices when you have the threat of everlasting damnation hanging over your head? If you honestly believe in the reality of endless, conscious, and physically agonizing torture for all those who believe or act "wrong", all of your "right" beliefs and "right" actions will be done out of fear, not free choice. How could any of your actions be considered "good" if you are only doing them to avoid eternal hell? Would you genuinely love God and desire a relationship with Him, or would you only be pretending so that you would not be thrown into the fiery pit of unending and relentless torment?

Such a dilemma reminds me of an image Bruce at Fallen from Grace (an awesome blog, by the way, and highly recommended) posted yesterday:


Universal salvation does not make us prisoners. On the contrary. By freeing us from the fear of unending hell, universal salvation frees us to choose our own path. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Does Thinking Make It So?

Regular readers of my blog will know that it was during my high school years that I broke away from the fundamentalist Christian beliefs which had defined much of my life since young childhood. This time in my life was challenging for a multitude of other reasons as well, including family problems and the fact that I had always been considered by my peers to be "weird" (i.e., I didn't really fit in).  However, I was extraordinarily fortunate to find an amazing mentor in my 11th grade English teacher. She, probably more than any other person, helped to mold me into the person I am today, and consider her to be one of my best friends.

Whenever I was experiencing one of my frequent bad days, she would rattle of a short quote from some great work of literature, which would encourage me to contemplate my situation from a different perspective. The most frequent of these snippets was a little gem from Shakespeare's Hamlet, as the eponymous protagonist speaks with two of his courtiers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

"For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (Act II, Scene II)

This quote has stuck with me and flickers through my mind often. Of course, I believe it makes a significant point about how we perceive good and bad: much of that perception is not based on external events, but on our internal thoughts concerning those external events. My mentor's purpose in reciting this quote was to remind me that, despite the upsetting and frustrating circumstances of my life at that moment, I could feel better about my situation simply by altering my thoughts. I found this suggestion beneficial. As I said, it continues to flicker through my mind often. Sometimes, humans have a tendency to overreact to our problems. We take small issues and blow them up into larger ones. We become deeply emotionally invested in things that do not truly matter. We let small negative experiences disproportionately impact ourselves and those around us. The way in which we choose to think about a situation, especially a negative one, can greatly modify our discernment of it, hopefully transforming it into something more positive.

However, Hamlet's quote is absolute. He uses the word "nothing". For Hamlet, our perceptions of the "goodness" and "badness" of absolutely everything is determined by our thoughts. Absolutely nothing contains any inherent "goodness" or "badness". It is all a product of our minds.

But is this true? I'm not so sure.

Yes, I am willing to stipulate that our thoughts can, and do, greatly color our moral opinions. We formulate judgments based on mental criteria we have created over time, and these criteria are dependent on our genes, our upbringing, our memories, our knowledge, our beliefs, and our current circumstances, to name but a few. We do this precisely because we are conscious. Precisely because we are human. Our ability to conceive and theorize about morality is, in my opinion, one of the most essential qualities which separates us from other animals.

But does that mean "goodness" and "badness" are only arbitrary definitions existing in the human mind, not actual qualities which exist in their own right? Again, I'm not so sure.

Of course, I am sure that this debate has been held, in slightly different variations, since the dawn of civilization, if not earlier. A Google search will probably take you to hundreds, if not thousands of different answers, each with their own justification(s). In these types of profound enigmas, where no wide consensus exists, I must follow my gut instinct, which is that there is some intrinsic "goodness" or "badness" in particular actions. Case in point, I believe that the murder of a human being is intrinsically wrong. Even if someone twists their thoughts to somehow legitimize this action, to give it "goodness" in their own mind, it does not change the fact that the murder of a human being is intrinsically wrong.

That is my conclusion, anyway, for the time being. However, in all honestly, I must say that I am not entirely certain. It is a question I have been pondering for a while now, and while I lean towards the hypothesis I presented above, my mind is by no means permanently made up. This is a topic I plan to continue researching extensively, in the hope that I might be able to better understand this puzzle our species has been discussing for thousands of years.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with Hamlet, that good and bad are only illusions of our minds? Or do you believe they are inherent properties, existing beyond the human mind? Or do you conceive a totally different answer? Please, I would love to hear everybody's thoughts on this issue, whether you have a strong position, a hesitant idea (like me), several different theories, absolutely no freaking clue, or just want to comment on the issue itself.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Update 3

I'm sorry I haven't posted in the past couple of weeks. I'm pretty far into my second round of chemo. Unfortunately, the drugs have a cumulative effect. I do not just feel crappy after one dose and then start to feel better until the next dose. Each subsequent dose makes me feel even crappier and weaker, so I don't have much energy right now, and what little I do have has been needed for other projects. My best friend is about to submit her undergraduate thesis and I am her editor. I don't know if any of my readers have submitted a thesis of any kind, but they require quite a bit of tedious editing. I am also a writer for my university's undergraduate science journal and am currently putting the finishing touches on a new article. If everything goes as planned, I should be able to return to regular posting in 1.5-2 weeks, although I might find time for a post this weekend. I am still reading everyone's blog and commenting when I feel like I have something to say, so I haven't totally disappeared. Thank you for your patience, and for those who have sent e-mails of concern. :)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Religion vs. Science (Part 3)

The past two centuries of human civilization has brought about a myriad of scientific discoveries and technological inventions. As we embark on the second decade of the 21st century, the pace of progress is only accelerating. However, these advancements have incited some profound and contentious questions. Many of these questions arise from the discrepancy between ancient religious ideologies and recent scientific theories. These disparities have instigated religious, social, and political animosity, particularly in the United States. Why has this conflict developed? What is the most controversial issue? Most importantly, can religion and science coexist?

I will endeavor to answer these questions in a three-part series. Today, I will examine “Can religion and science coexist?” Note: Because I will be concentrating substantially on the United States, the primary religious doctrine scrutinized will be Christianity.

Religion in the United States, and Christianity in particular, is extremely diverse. There are thousands of denominations of varying sizes, each of which has had to confront the questions produced by modern science: Is the Book of Genesis in the Bible a literal guide to the creation of the universe and humanity? If so, how do you explain the contradictory evidence presented by science? If not, how do you understand the Book of Genesis in light of modern science?

In my experience, the conflict between science and religion has been "solved" in three distinct ways, with a majority of Christians advocating for one of these three solutions.

The first solution is a rejection of all scientific theories which contradict a literal reading of the Bible. Christians who advocate this position tend to be the most conservative and incredibly anti-cultural. They believe the Bible is inerrant and the literal word of God. Science which does not disagree with Scripture, such as the theory of gravity or atomic theory, is usually accepted. Obviously, theories such as evolution and the Big Bang are resolutely denied and dismissed. Evidence for such non-Biblical theories is discredited in a multitude of ways. The most prevalent explanation is simply that the scientists are wrong and that the evidence has been misinterpreted. Another, much less common, explanation is that the scientists are being tricked by Satan, who plants the evidence in order to deceive them and lead them away from God.

The second solution also rejects all scientific theories which contradict a literal reading of the Bible. However, these Christians do not just dismiss the scientists. They actually attempt to prove them wrong by concocting their own scientific theories, such as Intelligent Design. These Christians tend to be conservative, but not completely anti-cultural. They believe that the evidence for non-Biblical theories is being misinterpreted, oftentimes on purpose by scientists who (they believe) are striving to disprove God. Reinterpreting the evidence into a theory which does not contradict the Book of Genesis allows these Christians to compromise between keeping their religious tradition of an inerrant Bible and continuing to be relevant in the 21st century.

Unfortunately for them, this method has been largely unsuccessful outside their churches. Only a handful of school boards across the United States have voted to include, in varying degrees, Intelligent Design in the standards for high school biology. Of those, several school boards later had elections which ousted the members who voted to include Intelligent Design, and the new board promptly overturned the modified standards. Even worse was the court case I discussed in the second post of this series, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, in which the judge determined that:
"overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory" and "the Board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom, [is] in violation of the Establishment Clause." 
Since the United States Court system relies heavily on precedent, it is unlikely another court case would find in favor of Intelligent Design.

The third solution holds that the Bible does not necessarily have to be interpreted literally and that the Book of Genesis is a metaphorical story about how the universe, Earth, and life was created. This view tends to be held by moderate and liberal Christians. Not being restrained by a literal Genesis allows these Christians to believe in the validity of scientific theories such as evolution. These Christians are often criticized by their more conservative counterparts for believing parts of the Bible are metaphorical. They (rightfully) claim this begs the question "How do you decide which parts of the Bible to take literally and which parts to take metaphorically?" (however, that is a debate for another day). The most common justification I have heard for taking the story of Genesis metaphorically is that God gave the ancient Hebrews a creation story they could comprehend, since the reality was too complicated for humans of that time to understand.

As a scientist myself, I am closest in view to the liberal Christians. I believe religion and science can coexist. For me, they are complementary, not contradictory, because they are answering different questions.

According to the Britannica Online Encyclopedia, science is:
"any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation"
Basically, science answers questions like: What is the universe?  How do galaxies form? Why does the Earth have liquid water? How did humans evolve? All of these questions concern the physical world which we live in, and all can be answered through observation and experimentation.

Religion, on the other hand, asks questions like: Does God exist? Is there something beyond the physical world? Do we have an immaterial and immortal soul?  What is the meaning of life? Science cannot answer these questions and others like them because they do not concern the physical world. You cannot observe and measure such things in a laboratory. These questions are completely meaningless to science.

However, they are not meaningless to us. These questions, and others like them, reveal the deepest hopes, dreams, doubts, and fears of humanity. We have endeavored to answer them in nearly countless ways through religion. At times, this has led to violence and death. At other times, it has led to peace and progress. Obviously, the very nature of these kinds of questions means we can never have incontrovertible answers. Yet, these questions are one of the few universals of human life. We have contemplated them before and we will contemplate them time and time again, no matter how far scientific progress takes us.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Misconceptions About Universalism Part 1: Introduction

Before I begin this new series, I just want to say: yes, I am aware that I have not yet completed my last series, Religion vs. Science. I have attempted several times to write the final post, but each effort has been thwarted by writer's block. Therefore, I have decided to initiate my next series early in the hope that focusing on a new and different topic awhile will cure the writer's block.

The past couple months, universalism has been an extremely heated topic in conservative Christian circles, all because of one book: Love Wins by Rob Bell. The controversy began when Bell released a promotional video for his book. Many who watched the video believed Bell was promoting universalism. Even a full 6 weeks before Bell's book was released, fierce arguments transpired on social networking sites, especially Twitter, and condemning articles were posted on a multitude of Christian sites. Ironically, those individuals blasting Bell's book the heaviest are doing nothing but procuring more attention for it, which will probably just result in much better sales.

Unfortunately, in conservative Christianity, universalism is considered one of the most atrocious heresies to embrace. Anyone who professes a belief in universalism is immediately shunned and exiled. It is irrelevant if you hold this belief but remain orthodox in every other doctrine or if your universalism has transported you to a more liberal theology; you are rejected just the same.

An example of this is Bishop Carlton Pearson. He was the pastor of one of the largest churches in Tulsa, Oklahoma (sometimes referred to as the Buckle of the Bible Belt), which, at its height, had over 6,000 members. After publicly announcing his belief in universalism, membership at his church rapidly declined and the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops declared his teachings to be heresy. As Pearson writes in his book, The Gospel of Inclusion:
I was slandered and libeled every day-and still am by some of these paranoid religious zealots...[who said] "He's crazy. He's of the Devil. He's the Antichrist. He's a heretic. He'll lead you into hell."...Five or six thousand people walked away from the community we had built. I basically lost my ministry. I lost everything. (p. 269)
For my readers who are not universalists, please do not think those kinds of insults are a rare phenomenon. I, as well as most of the universalists I know, have been subjected to them at one time or another.

Bell's book was finally released last week. I received my copy Monday and quickly read through it. So, is Rob Bell a universalist? Based on what's in the book, no, he is not.* While Bell does advocate an extensively inclusive theology and his book is loaded with universalist themes, he stops just short of claiming that all souls will be saved in the end. Honestly, I was not surprised by that in the least. If Bell did cross the line into universalism, few, if any, conservative Christians, who are his target audience, would have even picked up the book. By staying a step away from universalism in Love Wins, Bell has a substantially higher chance of reaching conservative Christians who are having doubts about a supposedly all-loving God who throws His children into a perpetual eternity of conscious, unimaginable torment if they were not fortunate enough to be born into a conservative Christian family. 

*N.B.: I am not the only universalist who has arrived at this conclusion. Brian at The Beautiful Heresy agrees with me in his book review of Love Wins. Richard from Experimental Theology briefly concurs in passing while discussing evangelicals.
What frequently aggravated me in the countless disputes over Bell's book were not the cruel insults towards universalists. I am mostly used to those. It was the shameless misrepresentations and  misconceptions of what universalism is by church leaders and/or prominent theologians in the conservative Christian community, many of whom wrote articles for major publications, in print and online, concerning the universalist themes in Love Wins. Outright lying to disparage a group's beliefs because it bolsters your own viewpoint and/or attempting to disprove a group's theology of which you are entirely ignorant is shallow, malicious, and, if done from a position of power (e.g. a church leader or a theologian), unethical and unprofessional.

It is these misconceptions I desire to address and correct in this series. I will concentrate on the six I estimate are the most prevalent and pervasive. These are:

  • Absolute Inclusiveness: Universalists believe that all life paths are equally good and that every single path leads to God. 
  •  No Hell: There is no hell of any variety, including eternal conscious torment, and every single person immediately goes to heaven after they die, no matter how evil there are.
  • No Justice: Since there is no hell of any variety, including eternal conscious torment, evil people are never punished for their sins, and there is no justice for their Earthly victims.
  • No Incentive to be Good: Since there is no hell of any variety, including eternal conscious torment, and everybody goes straight to heaven, individuals have no reason to choose good over evil. 
  • Why Believe?: Since there is no hell of any variety, including eternal conscious torment, and everybody goes straight to heaven, why believe in any particular religion and/or spiritual philosophy?
  • Un-Biblical: Universalism is not supported by the Bible.
Each color corresponds to one post in the series. In each post, I will explain the misconception(s), disprove the misconception(s), and examine why the misconception(s) is/are so prevalent and/or harmful.

I hope that all my readers, regardless of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), will find this series is enjoyable and insightful.