Jason’s Ranting & Raving

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Archive for March, 2009

Losing my religion

Posted by jaystile on March 23, 2009

The Beginning

I was raised in the Catholic tradition. More specifically the Polish Catholic tradition. That means everyone was nucking futs over Pope John Paul II. We ate paczki (PAUNCH-kee) on fat Tuesday (the last day before the start of Lent, 40 days before Easter). We gave up things for Lent to make us better people. We kicked off Lent by putting ashes on our foreheads to signify that we are sinners. We didn’t eat meat on Fridays. We attended midnight mass on Christmas eve and attended the Easter Vigil. For those who are not in the know, the Easter Vigil is like 3 hours long and starts with a bonfire. Afterwards, we would get together all 500 relatives and eat kielbasa and sauerkraut until it came out our ears while great uncle Leo would play polkas on the concertina. The uncles would drink and play cards and the aunts would get together and gossip and get into everyones business. This was also the time for the ‘outsiders’ (our significant others) to undergo the modern Inquisition by the Aunts. We had a good time.

The Transition

I ended up moving from the Midwest to the Western United States with my wife for work. I’m an engineer by trade so I work with a bunch of highly educated professionals. The first step on the road to atheism for me was to that of skepticism. I have to attribute this huge turning point in my life to one man who asked me. “Do you believe that aliens have visited Earth?” Like any good geek, I answered with an enthusiastic, “Yes! Absolutely”. Then I went on to quote all the Roswell evidence that is being suppressed by the government. He responded with, “Yes, like so many other people that we work with. I’m surprised that so many people can believe without any evidence. You know its OK to be skeptical.” That was it. Just a little thing. It’s OK to be skeptical.

I Was Setup!

As our relationship grew we had many more discussions about the non-existent. A lot of people believe in ghosts, but again, there is no concrete evidence for ghosts. We also discussed religion. He grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home, the kind where the Holy Spirit overcomes you and you shout stuff out in church. But the stuff you shout is all in the style of the King James version of the bible. His stance is that he is agnostic. Which is the politically correct way of saying he leaves open the possibility of religion but hasn’t seen any evidence to support it and doesn’t want to offend you. Anyway, we started talking about books he had read and he recommended The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins. I was being setup. We talked about ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ in respect to evolution and how it destroys any argument for the need for creationism. For those not familiar with Richard Dawkins he is an evolutionary biologist, atheist, and outspoken critic of religion. In the book about evolution Dawkins takes well placed shots at religion. My friend was trying to convert me to agnosticism through evolution biology.

Deciding for Myself
With my newfound skepticism a few things changed. First off, my belief in aliens that visited the Earth went away. I firmly believe that life exists on other planets and that we will never see it because the distances are so vast. The basement and dark places got a lot less unnerving because there is no possibility of ghosts. By what physical mechanism would they travel through? The ether? Scary movies lost a lot of potency. So I asked myself why am I Catholic? Well, that was due to brainwashing I received since I was a baby starting with my baptism. I don’t blame my folks, they were just doing what they thought was best for me. Why were they religious? Because their parents were and raised them that way. That tradition goes back a really long way. Most people do not choose their religion, it chooses them through their parents. I finally, determined that religion was just silly. But do you how hard it is to kick off years of dogma that was taught to you as fact since before you could speak? Do you know what I had a hard time with? The Blasphemy Challenge. I had to do it the first time in private. It took me fives minutes to let it all go. It seems silly and weird now, but back then it took a lot of rational thought to overcome my upbringing. I accepted the challenge.

Coming Out
The first person I had to talk to first was my wife. She was raised in the Polish Catholic tradition too. She had an even larger family and they were more devout Catholics than mine were. My wife and I hadn’t missed a mass since we were married. We attended the Catholic mass on the cruise ship on our honeymoon. We stopped in York, Nebraska on our way moving out west to attend mass. We parked our car full of possessions and walked inside the church a half hour late. You get the point. Once we started talking, it turns out my wife was very conflicted too. I made a deal with my wife which I stick to today, I will always go to church with her if she wants to go. I would not be doing it for god, I would be doing it for her. We haven’t gone in a very long time now. You know what is great? Sleeping in on Sunday mornings or doing something like going for a hike instead of sitting in church and wasting half your day.

I was getting pretty comfortable in my point of view of being an atheist. But we hadn’t told our family. Then something happened. I updated my myspace page from Catholic to Atheist. It turns out people actually read those things. My myspace page was listed in my e-mail signature and my mom read it. She was pissed! She called me up on the phone and bitched me out. It was bad. I stayed calm and responded to her insults and barbs. She said I was repulsive like atheist Hitler and Stalin. Additionally, she threatened to call the police and get them to take my children away. Next, my brother was on the line. At one point he was considering to be a deacon. He is still very active in the church. He is convinced that you cannot love without Jesus in your heart. It turns out he is wrong. So everyone knows now and they do not appreciate it. They try not to talk about it, but my mom brings it up on occasion.

A few years later I was having a conversation about Infidel (read my review) with my mom. I bought her the book for Christmas. In the book Ayaan gives up her Islamic faith. Her father writes her a very nasty letter denouncing her. It was pretty painful to read. My mom could not believe that a father would treat his daughter in such a way. I was thinking, “Do you remember calling me Atheist Hitler and threatening to take away my kids?” Instead, I just said, “Yes, I cannot believe a parent would treat their child that way.”

What is it like now
Those who are open to other points of view might ask, what is like now that you are an atheist? To be honest, not too much has changed. I still love my family and am a good citizen. I feel the same. Life goes on. But let me tell you a few things that have changed. First, I enjoy life more. I am more open to new experiences because I know this is the only life I get and variety is the spice of life. Second, I try to take better care of myself because I want to stretch this life out as long as possible. I’m still overweight, but I managed to get a long bike ride in and go for a run this weekend. Specifically, I was running when I would normally have been at church. Next, I find it difficult to write in sympathy cards. Instead of the generic Christian “I’ll pray for you” response, you need to think of something real to say. Finally, the biggest change is that religious people really bug me. I attended mass while my sister-in-law was in town as a favor to my wife. The priest sounded bat shit crazy. All the religious texts register as pure utter nonsense. People tend to be blissfully unaware that their over the top Jesus loves you crap is really annoying.

I am a parent now with my daughter attending preschool where they say the pledge of allegiance. All I can say is, fuck the Knights of Columbus and their anti communist crusade for putting me in the position that I have to teach my daughter to either abstain or not say the words under god in the pledge. She is only 4 for Christs sake. The pre 1951 version was just fine when we were ‘one nation indivisible’. Now 15% of the population says we don’t agree with you. Wheew… I kind of went on a tangent there.

The challenges of being an atheist parent mostly revolve around the holidays. Yes, we are still celebrating Christmas and Easter. Want to know why? Because kids love to open presents and be with their parents and color eggs and eat candy. That is good enough for me. It is important to form your own traditions. And no, we are not teaching that Santa Claus is real. He is only in books and on TV. Some traditions do die hard, I could go for some polka, paczki, and kielbasa.

I actually have a lot to say on this subject, but I doubt anyone has even read this far. Don’t waste your time praying for me, life is short, go enjoy it.


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Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Posted by jaystile on March 8, 2009


Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is a book discussing why some societies became more advanced than others. Mr. Diamond brings together multiple aspects of science including archeology, anthropology, linguistics, biology, botany, and chemistry to point to the most likely causes of success of certain peoples. Guns, Germs, and Steel is published by W. W. Norton and is 512 pages long. The book starts with a question

Whites had arrived, imposed centralized government, and brought material goods whose value New Guineans instantly recognized, ranging from steel axes, matches, and medicines to clothing, soft drinks, and umbrellas. In New Guinea all these goods were referred to collectively as “cargo.” Many of the white colonialist openly despised New Guineans as “primitive.” Even the least able of New Guinea’s white “masters,” as they were still called in 1972, enjoyed a far higher standard of living than New Guineans, higher than charismatic politicians like Yali. Yet Yali had quizzed lots of whites as he was then quizzing me, and I had quizzed lots of New Guineans. He and I both knew perfectly well that New Guineans are on the average at least as smart as Europeans. All those things must have been on Yali’s mind when, with yet another penetrating glance of his flashing eyes, he asked me, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

Defining Success
For the posting, we are defining success to be the end result of a society having a state (instead of a band, tribe, or chiefdom), having the written language (not just oral traditions), having technology (metallurgy and seaworthy vessels), and having a large population supported by agriculture.

Success is like a good family
A society is successful if and only if all the parts are working in harmony. Like a family, if anything is out of balance the family is dysfunctional. One key to success comes from food production. Those who were able to establish villages and grow an abundance of food had larger populations. It did not take everyone in the village to grow food like a band of hunter gatherers. Because of the abundance of food certain members of the village became specialists advancing the technology of the people. Those specialists made more complex tools like nets and fishhooks and shaped stone tools.

The Fertile Crescent

The Fertile Crescent

Next, comes selection of food. All native people learn the properties of their flora. Those peoples with a large selection of domesticatable plants were ready to have a successful farming culture instead of a hunter/gather culture. The Fertile Crescent, the heart of modern civilization, had the most native flora that were able to be easily converted into domesticated crops. These plethora of crops allowed the people to have an abundance of food and a healthy diet. This increased the societies population, which in turn led to more battles won against their hunter/gatherer competitors.

Sharing is another key to a successful society. It was not just the Europeans that were successful. The Chinese were prolific and populated most of south east Asia and developed advanced technology. Technology and crops were shared across and Europe and Asia. The East/West migration was easier on the crops shared due to similar seasons and daylight hours. North/South migration was hard in the Americas due to the desert in Mexico and the tropical zone. Additionally, the narrow isthmus of central America connecting north and south America was a natural boundary. Africa has its own natural barrier to the North and South with the Sahara desert. For example, corn domestication took place in Mesoamerica, around 5-6,000 B.C. It wasn’t until thousands of years later that it was domesticated in the Eastern North America. Whereas the spread of wheat from the Fertile Crescent in 10000 B.C. took only hundreds years to spread across Europe and Asia.

Animal Domestication
Another tenet of success is the domestication of animals. Draft animals allow tools to break through the tough ground and provide a source of protein for a people. Animals that evolved and adapted with increases in human technology allowed them to survive. That is why Africa, Europe, and Asia have a lot of large mammals. You might notice that the Americas and Australia lack large animals that could have been domesticated like the major five: Sheep, Goat, Cattle, Pig, and Horse. Humans migrated to the Americas and Australia around 14000 B.C. In the fossil record there exists animals that met the criteria to become domesticated. There are some theorists that say climate change led to the extinction of these large animals. (However, I don’t see why they would survive 23 ice ages and then die out on the 24th) The more likely scenario is that human hunting technology ran into animals that had no previous experience with humans. They were quickly slaughtered and eaten. Why farm when you can just go and kill yourself some woolly mammoth, giant sloth, or giant kangaroo? The high technology humans killed most of their potential draft animals. The only draft animal to come from the Americas is the Alpaca and Llama.

Disease kills better than a Gun
Along with the domestication of animals, comes close interactions with those animals! The animals most easily domesticated were herd animals and had been herding in large groups for millions of years before humans had large populations. Viruses learned to spread in these large populations (one of those nice evolutionary traits used to survive). However, like good microorganisms a small variation in their genetic structure allowed them to also infect humans that are interacting with their new domesticated animals. Here is list of deadly gifts from our animal friends

  • Measles – cattle (rinderpset)
  • Tuberculosis – cattle
  • Smallpox – cattle (cowpox) or other livestock with related pox viruses
  • Flu – pigs and ducks
  • Pertussis – pigs, dogs
  • Falciparum malaria – birds

These diseases when brought to an unexposed people caused untold hardship and misery. An average of 9 of 10 people were killed by diseases out of the native populations.

However, disease and crop production is a two way street. There is a reason why Europeans had a very difficult time populating the tropics. The first being malaria. There are 5 common genetic traits found in tropical people that help protect them against malaria. One evolutionary change, sickle cells instead of round globular red blood cells protect against malaria. While a negative trait in temperate zones due to anemia, it does a good job keeping you alive in the tropics. The second reason is that the Europeans crops did not translate well from the European climate to the tropical growth zone so the Europeans had a hard time growing their food.

Guns, Germs, and Steel is not a page turner. It beats you into submission with facts. While all the content if very useful everyone might not find it interesting. (especially Creationists, i.e. those who prefer ‘Truth’ instead of facts). I personally had a difficult time finishing the book because a 100 pages of how crops migrated can make you quite sleepy. However, it does repeatedly demonstrate with examples the theories that Mr. Diamond has formed. Overall, I think this book is worth reading if only to destroy the arguments of those individuals that might suggest that your skin color has anything to do with the success of your society. But it would take a long time to divest all the required information to your opponent. People tend to prefer easy answers like ‘genetic defeciency’ instead of it all begins with food production, availability of domesticatable crops, availability of large draft animals, disease resistance, large populations, natural resources, and technology.

Updated 2009-08-26
It must be back to school time. There have been numerous searches for ‘Fertile Crescent’, did someone not finish their summer reading list? Anyway, one might ask, “Why did the people in the Fertile Crescent with their head start in agriculture and livestock not take over the world?” The answer is pretty straightforward. The fertile crescent is slightly more arid than that of northwestern Europe. When the Fertile Crescent peoples cut down all their trees to make things it led to desertification, whilst Europeans had wood as an easily renewable resource.

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