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So I’ve had a couple of new comments on my evolution blog of last week (both on Xanga and WordPress), so I’ve been revisiting that thread (both here and there), and unfortunately I am no closer to understanding why so many people think evolution is THE litmus test for whether or not you are a reasonable person in general. It is a premise that I find curious, but I suppose it is because I’ve never lived in the Bible Belt and been surrounded by religious righty kooks. (The closest I’ve come is southern Virginia, which is pretty religious, but doesn’t really count.) I live in the Pacific Northwest, where I’m surrounded by lefty secular kooks, and I can tell you, mes amis, that these cats don’t understand science any better than Sarah Palin’s pastor, or whoever the bogeyman is these days.
You don’t have to be religious to mistrust any scientific theory (or fact!) that collides with your personal worldview. And I don’t buy that not buying into evolution makes you less likely to buy into other science-related stuff, like vaccines. I know religious people who don’t believe in evolution or vaccines; I know religious people who don’t believe in evolution but think vaccines are extremely important; I know religious people who believe in evolution but don’t believe in vaccines. I also know non-religious people who don’t believe in vaccines, but it’s never occurred to me to ask if they have problems with evolution–because if you don’t believe in God, why would you?–but that’s neither here nor there.
The fact is that evolution is a generally accepted scientific theory–I mean, so accepted that it’s considered a virtual fact in the scientific community–but it doesn’t really have any bearing on anyone’s life unless they want it to. So not “believing” in it doesn’t really make you less likely to believe in other stuff that the scientific community pretty much agrees on. I know plenty of people who claim not to believe in evolution; I don’t know anyone who doesn’t believe we went to the moon or that we can’t really take pictures of Mars. And granted, I don’t live in the Bible Belt, so I can’t possibly understand what those lunatics are really like, but I think the fact that I know so many non-Bible Belt people who don’t give a flying fig about evolution but are perfectly reasonable about other scientific matters supports my theory that correlation is not necessarily causation.
I mean, for me the litmus test of someone’s intellectual seriousness is how they feel about math. You may not realize this, but there are a ton of people out there who don’t like math–otherwise well-educated and even non-religious people who actually hate math and, further, don’t believe there is any point in studying anything more complicated that arithmetic unless you’re planning to be a rocket scientist or something. These are the kind of people who say, “I have never had to use algebra in my entire life!” I tell you, it is frightening, these people’s attitudes toward math. If they hate algebra so much and think it is so useless, they might think it shouldn’t be required in school. They probably want to outsource all our rocket science to India, where people can actually do math. This is leaving aside the very real possibility that if they don’t understand calculus, the probably can’t understand the complexities of our economy. “Us need jobs. Me spend more.” That’s all these Einsteins understand. Ha!
I say that if we’re going to ask presidential candidates about evolution, we should also ask them how they feel about math–maybe even ask them to solve a problem or two (and show their work, obviously).
Of course, I would also ask them how they feel about shoes in the house. If they don’t allow shoes in their house, they might not support my Constitutional right to wear shoes in my house–or my right to refuse to remove my shoes anywhere. My body, my choice. Do they respect that? Well, do they? And if they won’t defend my shoe rights, who’s to say what other rights they won’t defend? Not to mention the implications their personal preference may have for our relations with other countries that don’t share our shoe-wearing norms. There could be a host of diplomatic embarrassments in our future if we do not ascertain now whether a presidential candidate is a shoe-wearer or a shoe-hater. Are they prepared to go barefoot in the Oval Office? How will that reflect on the dignity of the office? I want to know!
I have discovered a new theme for this blog. From now on, everything will be analyzed in terms of what it means for the President of the United States. At least until the election, and then I’ll stop. (For four more years.)
Here’s a thing: Mormon Candidates’ Pro-Science Stand.
For those of you who don’t want to read the article, or want to read it less than you want to read my blog right now, it’s an article on Daily Beast about how Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney are the only two GOP candidates who “embrace mainstream science” on the issues of evolution and global warming, and the author tries to make the case that their Mormonism has something to do with it. I don’t really have an opinion on that. I’m more inclined to think it’s a coincidence. But it’s an interesting coincidence.
Of course, I am a Mormon. I’m married to a scientist (also a Mormon) and I grew up as the daughter of a scientist (also a Mormon). Scientists aren’t exactly overrepresented in the Mormon community, if you get my meaning. Dentists and accountants, yes, but not so much scientists. But not many people go into science in the first place (unfortunately), so that’s to be expected. I’m just saying that being a scientist makes you kind of special among Mormons. And Mormons, unfortunately, are not immune to the notion that science and religion are at odds with each other (regardless of what Brigham Young said). As this article mentions, Mormons are, according to a 2008 Pew study, among the religious groups least likely to believe in evolution. Of course, I myself am not even sure what it means to “believe” in evolution. There’s evolution and there’s speciation and there’s the Big Bang theory and all kinds of stuff that people usually lump all together under the label “evolution,” as if one word can explain everything about how life as we know it came to be. So I don’t know what it really means that only 22 percent of Mormons “believe” in evolution, but in any case, it’s not a surprising number to me.
I recall sitting in a Sunday School class with my dad when we were studying Genesis, and the lesson was on the Creation. The teacher turned to my dad to get the “scientific view” on the subject. I don’t remember much of the lesson except that the teacher asked my dad how old the earth was “according to scientists,” and my dad said, “At least hundreds of millions of years old.” (Or maybe it was hundreds of billions of years old. Once we start getting into illions, does it really matter?) And at some point somebody said that God gathered the waters together because He knew that He was going to have to flood the earth eventually, so He needed to get His water ready, or something. I don’t know, it didn’t make any sense, but my dad turned and whispered some smart-aleck remark to me that I wish I could remember because it was awesome. But what I remember most was my dad’s odd mixture of amusement and annoyance. He didn’t seem to like being singled out as The Scientist, but he also didn’t have much patience for people trying to explain science with the Bible. (Or explain the Bible with science, or whatever that cat was trying to do with his water-gathering story.)
I also remember the time we had the missionaries over for dinner, and when my father revealed that he was a scientist, one of the elders immediately asked, “So what do you think of evolution?” My father, non-plussed, said, “I don’t think of it much.” To this day I have no idea what my father thinks of evolution, other than that he doesn’t think of it much. There’s no reason why he should, since the theory of evolution has no bearing on his work. (He’s a chemist, not a biologist.) I assume he has an opinion, and I reckon it’s all rational and fact-based because that’s how my dad rolls. But I’ve never asked him what he thinks about it because I’ve never felt that evolution was something I had to worry about unless it was going to be on the biology test, or if I converted to one of those churches that believes the earth is 6,000 years young. I remember learning about evolution in high school, but I don’t remember being tested on it. And I’m still a Mormon, so as far as I’m concerned, the earth is as old as my dad said it was in Sunday School.
I’ve never understood why religious people would feel terribly threatened by the theory of evolution. I think most people, religious or not, don’t particularly understand what evolution is. A lot of people hear “evolution” and think “descended from monkeys,” which is an oversimplification at best. A lot of people think that if you accept the theory of evolution, you also have to accept that everything is the result of random chance and therefore there is no God. I’m no scientist (full disclosure!), but that’s always struck me as a pretty big leap. I mean, maybe there is no God, but the main reason I would think that is because I’ve never seen God, not because a bunch of scientists told me that they think humans evolved from lower primates or an amoeba or whatever. (Did I mention I’m not a scientist?) I’ve just never seen what one had to do with the other.
I suffer from an awful lack of curiosity about the origins of the universe. I’ve always been more concerned with the universe as it is, because that’s the part of the story I’m in. I can’t think of a single scenario under which I would need to know how the universe began—unless, of course, I wanted to create my own universe, but I’m not convinced that’s an opportunity I’ll ever have. I figure that if I’m lucky enough to meet God someday, maybe I’ll ask Him (or Her…or Them) a lot of questions, and maybe if there’s a lull in the conversation, I’ll ask, “So, ah, God, how did You create the universe?” and regardless of what the answer is—if it’s “well, I started with some primordial ooze and worked My way up to intelligent life” or “I just waved My magic wand and poof! There it was”—I will probably respond, “Huh. Interesting.” And then I’ll move on to my next question because actually it probably won’t be that interesting to me. (I know. I’m a terrible human being! But at least I’m self-aware.)
Alternatively, if there is no God, then I will just be dead and it won’t matter anyway, so why should I care?
This is why I get so frustrated when we have presidential candidates talk about their views on evolution. Why does it matter if the president “believes” in evolution or not? You’re President of the United Damn States—don’t you have something more important to think about than how the universe began or how old the earth is? I tell you, I don’t even care if the president thinks evolution should be taught in public schools or not because what does the president have to do with what gets taught in public school? Or rather, what should the president have to do with what gets taught in public school? Answer: NOTHING!!! (I used the exclamation points for emphasis!!!) My dream is to be watching a presidential debate and have one of those idiotic questions about evolution come up and a candidate finally says, “It doesn’t matter what I think about evolution because the federal government shouldn’t be in charge of writing your stupid biology syllabus anyway.” Actually, I’m sure that Ron Paul has already said this. But my dream is that someday somebody not Ron Paul will say it, and then I will vote for that person.
There’s a reason none of our presidents have been scientists. [EDIT: Actually, sportsgoddess has corrected me on this: Herbert Hoover was a geologist and mining engineer, and Jimmy Carter did graduate work in nuclear physics (before going into peanut farming, I guess). Which just goes to show that you can’t trust physicists. I never have. But there’s still a reason why most scientists don’t run for president.] It’s this: Scientists like to do science. Presidents don’t have time to do science. Therefore, scientists don’t run for president. They have enough trouble getting funding for their science; they can’t be worrying about funding political campaigns, too. So I don’t know why we expect our presidential candidates to have the correct answers to scientific questions, especially when most of the rest of us aren’t scientists either. It’s alternately amusing and annoying when politicians claim that they’ll make policy decisions based on “science,” as if science is the only relevant factor when it comes to shaping policy. Even with something like global warming, where understanding the science might actually help you make a decision about the relative threat, the climate-change facts are only part of the equation. There is a point at which you have to consider economic and political facts, too. There are people who believe in global warming who don’t consider it the imminent threat that Al Gore does. There are people who believe in global warming but don’t believe that human behavior can influence it enough to make drastic changes in energy use worth the economic cost. So whether you believe in global warming or not, what I really care about is your energy policy, not your scientific opinion (which, frankly, isn’t worth that much when you’re not a scientist).
And when it comes to stuff like funding medical research, I certainly hope you don’t base your decisions on science alone. I hope ethical considerations enter the picture at least occasionally.
So this is just my long-winded way of saying that science is good and all, but it’s not my measuring stick for deciding whether or not somebody’s qualified to be president. I don’t care if the president thinks dinosaurs walked the earth with humans. I know that’s hard for smart people to wrap their heads around, but I just don’t see how it’s relevant. My theology doesn’t require me to believe that dinosaurs walked the earth with humans, but it does require me to believe some other pretty wackadoodle things, and I don’t see that those things are relevant to whether or not I should be president, either. Fortunately, I’m not running for President, so you don’t have to worry about what wackadoodle things I secretly believe or not. But if I were running for President, I wouldn’t tell you what wackadoodle things I believed; I would only tell you about my wackadoodle policies, and just let you wonder if my secret belief in angels and golden plates were behind all of it.
I’m Madhousewife, and I approve this message.
I had the radio on for a few minutes today, long enough to hear part of a talk show where the host was interviewing some cat from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Now, I didn’t listen for very long because I can think of few things more tedious than a conversation between a religious conservative who thinks religion is an important part of public life and an atheist who thinks religion is the most destructive force in public life. I suppose someone has to have those conversations. I’m just glad it isn’t me, and I’m glad my radio has an “off” button.
But it reminded me that I’ve been missing the atheists at the Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe as of late. They used to meet the last Wednesday of every month, but they haven’t been there for a while. I was curious, so I went looking for them on the internet, and I found out that they now rotate their meeting locations. I know you’re all as relieved as I was to learn that the group hasn’t split up; they’re just broadening their horizons. Maybe they’re collectively trying to lose weight, too, who knows? Anyway, it’s too bad. I’ll kind of miss them. I mean, I could never get much writing done while they were in the cafe because, you know, of all the talking. Groups of people tend to talk. But at least their conversations were interesting–to me, anyway. Because you don’t often see a bunch of atheists getting together to share their secular-ness.
So I guess the PC term for atheist is “Freethinker.” That term sort of makes me roll my eyes, but as Freethinkers have been rolling their eyes at the likes of me for centuries, I’ll just suck it up and deal. So these Freethinkers in our fair suburban city have started a community to support secularist people living and raising families in a society greatly influenced by religious beliefs. I think this is very smart of them. I for one don’t know how I would get by without my religious community. All spiritual issues aside, religious communities are very handy things to have, for the purposes of making friends and finding babysitters and receiving practical support in times of need. Also, they give you something to do. But you don’t see a lot of atheist get-togethers, you know? Not like the churches, which are always having barbecues and hosting AA meetings and whatnot. Probably because a) there aren’t as many atheists as there are non-atheists, and therefore, b) atheists have a hard time finding each other, because c) if you find it difficult being an atheist in a non-atheist world, are you really going to bring up the subject in polite company? I wouldn’t.
The atheists at my chocolate cafe were talking about starting a school, last I heard. I think this is an excellent idea. This country needs more Freethinkers united for a common good. I hope to see many Freethinker schools and homeless shelters and 4-H clubs as time goes by. Because once the Freethinkers have carved out their collective niche in society, they can stop boo-hooing about how alone they feel in their rationality. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Seriously, though, organized Freethinkers can only mean more competition in the marketplace of ideas. And that’s good for everyone, wouldn’t you agree?
It was interesting to hear the atheists Freethinkers discuss their obstacles when it comes to forming these coalitions and completing ambitious programs. As one of them said, churches wield great power over religious people because they can always threaten you with hell if you don’t do what they say. (I’m paraphrasing. I promise you the Freethinker said it nicer.) Religious people have the threat of eternal punishment and the promise of eternal reward for doing x, y or z. This Freethinker also said, “Even in groups of atheists, you have people waiting to be told what to do. They’re not all rude and obnoxious like me.” (Haha. We all laughed at his self-deprecating remark. Who says the godless have no sense of humor? Not you. Not anymore.)
They talked about the unique opportunity atheists have to promote greater awareness of a reason-based worldview and how this would not be accomplished by sitting around kvetching about religion, but by doing things that are affirmative and positive. People are turned off when you ridicule others and oversimplify their beliefs. Atheists need to attract people in more positive ways. At this point I marveled at how much like a missionary training session this meeting was turning out to be. Well, that’s the way you do it when you’re in a movement. What do you expect?
Then somebody said, “Well, I’m ready for a eulogy. Who wants to pray?” And we all laughed again, because atheists praying is pretty ironic.
They didn’t pray. Instead they made arrangements to meet again and wished each other Reasonspeed. Or something like that.
So I’ll be missing them, my Freethinking, cocoa-swilling brethren (and sistren). I hope that they find success in their endeavors, but I do wonder how they will overcome the inertia that plagues all too many human beings who otherwise have the best of intentions. Someone at the meeting said that
only 1 percent interested in non-religious philosophy seek out others and get involved in organization, and that atheists need to figure out why this is. Religious organizations have the whole carrot-stick/heaven-hell routine, and people fall into line. Seriously, if other religious people are like me and the religious people I know personally, the flesh is often weak–but where the flesh is weak, the spirit is willing to open up the can of whoop-a** known as Crushing Guilt and keep wailing until the flesh stops making Baby Jesus cry. (Or, you know…Abraham, or somebody…depending on your faith tradition.)
Not that people without religion don’t have guilt, but where are their guilt enablers? Well, perhaps Freethinkers are so awesome, they don’t need guilt enablers. Maybe all they need is Barack Obama. (But what if they’re Republicans? Children could be left behind!) As the self-deprecating Freethinker said, “All we have is reason.” Is reason enough?
We went to church with my sister on Sunday. Princess Zurg went to Primary (children’s Sunday School) with her cousins. Princess Zurg has a love-hate relationship with Primary. On the one hand, she finds it a lot less dull than the sacrament service. On the other hand, it is still a little too “churchy” for her tastes. She likes the classroom portion, when they discuss the application of religious principles to real-life situations. She doesn’t enjoy when they read from the scriptures because there aren’t enough girls in them. (She has particular disdain for the Book of Mormon, which is heavy on war stories and mentions only three women by name, one of whom is a harlot of no consequence. That really galls her.) She likes the singing…sometimes, when they’re not singing “annoying” or “childish” songs. In other words, it’s really more of a tolerate-hate relationship.
I feel her pain. I wasn’t too fond of Primary at her age, either. I wasn’t too fond of church, period, and the feeling didn’t become warmer or fuzzier when the teen years hit. I found the church youth programs alternately dull and condescending. Or perhaps both simultaneously. I was probably around thirteen when I decided I just wasn’t going to go to church anymore, because what were my parents going to do, make me? Well, actually, it turned out they could. I think so, anyway. It was a long time ago, and I remember them putting up with my crap for about three weeks, and then the jig was up. I don’t remember exactly what “changed my mind.” I suppose I was just a people pleaser at heart. Anyway, that’s another story. My point is that I sympathize with PZ’s frustration, but at the same time, she’s only ten and not a very responsible ten, and I’m not going to let her just stay home by herself. I don’t think she even wants to stay home by herself. I think she wants us to change religions. That’s not apt to happen. And like I said, we need to take her with us, if only to keep her off the streets.
Historically, PZ has acted out in very loud, very public ways during various portions of the worship service, starting when she was about, oh, two? Two-and-a-half? We were walking into the chapel one day when she suddenly threw herself down on the floor and started screaming, “No! No church! NO JESUS CHRIST!” The incident was all the more remarkable because PZ at that age was more or less non-verbal much of the time. It would take more motivation than I currently have to provide you a laundry list of PZ’s childhood impieties; suffice it to say that the above anecdote is representative of the rest of the iceberg.
We don’t “allow” PZ to disturb other people’s worship–not any more than her school teachers “allow” her to disturb other students’ learning experiences–and in the last couple of years, she’s made great strides in the Appropriate Church Behavior department. In the last several weeks, though, she’s been particularly vocal with her complaints. This Sunday was no exception. Girlfriend was not hip to strange church nurseries, so I was walking the halls with her and happened to pass by the Primary room, where the kids were learning a new song called “Home Is Where the Heart Is.” (Technically, it’s not “new,” but this generation of kids did not know it.) The second verse goes like this:
with strength and wisdom true.
Home is where there’s Mother,
and all the children, too.
Out in the hall, I did my mental Marge Simpson grumble–“Hrmmmm”–and hoped that I had just misheard the lyrics. They didn’t actually set up Father as Mr. Strength and Wisdom whilst lumping Mother in with the rest of the household members who needed his righteous dominion, did they? Well, probably they did, but I was reserving judgment for the time being. Right about then, my sister (who happens to be the Primary president in her ward) came out to the hall and told me that PZ had been quite disturbed that Father got strength and wisdom, while Mother just got stuck with the kids. Yes, we chuckled over it, but I also said, “Good for her.” At least that’s what I was thinking. Inside the Primary room, they were still practicing the song and the music director was telling the kids, “This time, sing it like you mean it.” PZ burst out, “But I don’t mean it!” And at this moment, as much as I wanted her to suck it up and not make a scene or embarrass her cousins, I also couldn’t help but think, “That’s my girl!”
For those of you not up to speed on your Mormon Minutiae, the LDS church has a fully correlated curriculum–it’s a by-product of the David O. McKay era as documented in David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (fascinating read, I assure you)–which means that Primaries all over the world teach their kids the same lessons and the same songs. This “Home Is Where the Heart Is” song is, unfortunately, part of the 2008 Primary program set to take place in October, in every Primary on the face of the earth, including ours. So this was not the last time PZ will have to be affronted by this song, as well she knows. She’s written (and mailed) a letter to the General Primary Board, hoping that the lyrics to this song will be changed by prophetic mandate before the October program. No, we have not yet begun to see the end of PZ angst over this topic. And I have to tell you, this time I’m grateful for my daughter’s utter inability to let stuff go. It may be sad and wrong, but part of me is actually looking forward to her complaining every week about this song. I hope she complains good and loud. It’s nothing new–folks in our Primary are used to PZ’s feminist rants–but it has the potential for something big. Like what? I don’t know. It’s just so rare that I can support my daughter’s righteous anger, and I’d like to relish it, if you don’t mind.
I realize how silly this must sound, making such a big deal out of a little song–really, only a little part of a little song–as though I didn’t belong to a patriarchal church with a treasure trove of gender disparities that are hard to reconcile with my basic sense of justice, not to mention logic. You’re probably wondering, all things considered, if Madhousewife doesn’t have bigger theological fish to fry. Well, yes, ordinarily I do. But this is not a theological fish fry. It is a cultural fish fry. Where the fish are sometimes coated in theological batter. I’m going to abandon this metaphor before it destroys me. Next paragraph, please.
I know I belong to a patriarchal religion. I’ve come to terms with that, in a way. I had to find a way to live with it, so I did. Find a way, I mean. And the fact is, most Mormon women don’t feel oppressed by the church’s patriarchal structure. I don’t feel oppressed by it. It is more an intellectual annoyance than anything–because, in fact, there is much in the religion that is empowering to women. Some Mormon women don’t even find it difficult to reconcile those aspects with the patriarchal ones. I am not one of those women, but that is neither here nor there. The church continues to evolve on gender issues. Some things really have changed; others really haven’t. But the fact remains: back when this “Home” song was written, it was not controversial to assert that men had authority over their wives and children, but these days no one would get up in church and say that without ducking. Today there is an increased emphasis on wives and husbands being equal partners, even while the church refuses to repudiate the patriarchal order.
This is frustrating for most Mormon feminists, who would rather deal with open sexism than this political correctness, but I’ve chosen to take the church at its word. We believe in both patriarchy and equality–fine. It may not make sense, but neither does a lot of other stuff; it’s religion, not rocket science. I can dig that. What I can’t dig–won’t dig–is the notion that this doctrinal paradox mustn’t produce cognitive dissonance. Some folks don’t have the cognitive dissonance; I appreciate that. But they need to understand that their lack of cognitive dissonance is attributable to faith, not reason. Not that reason doesn’t inform faith; it does. But religious mysteries cannot be “solved” by reason alone. That is why they are mysteries. I don’t want to remake church doctrine to suit my personal sensibilities, but I insist on acknowledging the mysteries, so I insist on acknowledging the cognitive dissonance.
This is why I’m happy to have my daughter publicly object to this silly Primary song–not because I think it’s a hill worth dying on, but because I know it’s not a hill the church is willing to die on either. It’s just a tiny thing that niggles at me, and so I niggle back. It’s easy to say, “Well, it’s just a song, and there’s a rhyme scheme and a rhythm to maintain, and it doesn’t mean that Mother doesn’t have ‘strength and wisdom true,’ just like Father, but there just wasn’t enough room to say it that way, and for the love of Mike, it’s just a song, what do you want, Madhousewife/Princess Zurg?” But it’s also just as easy to point out this: A hundred little things add up. My daughter hears this song and thinks it diminishes women. I think it infantilizes them. It’s not devastating; it’s not abusive; it’s just annoying–nothing more than annoying, in and of itself. But if the church wants its patriarchy-equality paradox, maybe it should stop teaching my children songs that undermine its professed value of male-female equality. It’s a little thing, precisely. That’s why it’s not too much to ask.
Make no mistake–I labor under no illusion that the church is going to change this song or have it removed from the children’s songbook, nor will I be embittered because of that. I just want other people to think about it, about its implications. Something they won’t be able to help doing when my daughter runs out of the room screaming every time they sing it.
I’m mourning the passing of Gordon B. Hinckley, the late president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s a strange thing to be so emotionally affected by the death of someone you never met, though I suppose this case is no stranger than perfect strangers mourning the death of Heath Ledger. I’ve seen exactly one Heath Ledger movie (10 Things I Hate about You), so while I appreciate the tragedy of a promising and talented actor (and father) dying at the young age of twenty-eight, I don’t feel a sense of personal loss.
There’s nothing tragic about the death of a 97-year-old man. Pres. Hinckley lived a full life, active and relatively vibrant pretty much until the end, and now he can rest and be reunited with his dear wife, whom he lost a few years back. It’s not sad that he is dead, but I am sad because even though I didn’t know him, I did know him. He was president of the church for twelve years, but he’s essentially been the public face of the church for the last almost-thirty years. Most of the men who preceded him in that office became severely ill and incapacitated in their final years, and the burden of leadership fell on Pres. Hinckley as a result. I’m not qualified to give his eulogy, and this isn’t a religious blog, so I’m not going to say anymore, except that I will miss his humor and Christ-centered leadership. And thus am I melancholy today.
On a lighter note, it would appear that I will shortly be mourning the passing of Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign, a most unfortunate demise that is all the more regrettable insofar as it was avoidable. (I know Iowa was a lost cause, Rudy, but why did you forsake New Hampshire and Michigan? Why did you forsake me, Rudy? Why? Why? Why?) With Fred Thompson gone and Rudy not long for this world–and not so much as a Duncan Hunter to kick around–all I’ve got left is Romney and McCain. A sorry state of affairs, indeed. Insert heavy sigh here. Oh, well. Things could be worse. Bob Dole could be running. (Insert bad Viagra joke here.)
Which brings me to another point: Whichever one of you cats ends up winning the nomination, DO NOT pick Mike Huckabee as your running mate, no offense to him. And by “whichever one of you” I really mean you, John McCain, because I think the Mittster is too smart for that numbskull idea. (I’ve taken to calling him Mittster in an attempt to inject some humanity into him. Is it working? Well, at least I’m doing something.) No offense to Gov. Huckabee, who seems like a nice enough guy, and he’s folksy and plays the guitar and whatnot, but like the original cast of Saturday Night Live, he is not ready for prime time. Some of you in this race–who shall remain nameless–are 72 years old, and that whole one-heartbeat-away issue should figure heavily into this particular decision. Don’t blow it. And by “don’t blow it,” I really mean, “You don’t blow it. You don’t blow it, John McCain.” That’s all I have to say. (Except P.S. Sylvester Stallone would not be a good choice either.)
In other news, Elvis inches ever-so-slowly toward toilet-trainedness. Sugar Daddy reports that on the last couple trips to the Safeway, which has wheelchair-accessible automatic doors on its restrooms, Elvis has joyfully pushed the button to open the door to the men’s room, gone inside and used the potty, washed his hands, and returned triumphantly, proclaiming, “I had privacy.” I asked SD how much he thought it would cost us to put one of those automatic doors in our house, but he insists on sticking to that six-month moratorium on home improvements. Not one to pander to special interests, that SD.
It snowed last night. The kids have the day off school anyway, so it was kind of a waste, that snow. And you know, several weeks ago I made a special point of buying all the kids new gloves because whenever it snows, I can never find their gloves. And so here we were today, snow on the ground outside and kids home from school, wanting to play in said snow, and where were the gloves? Heck if I know. Stupid snowy day.
This comment was left by TR on my post Tuesday:
Church membership is only voluntary for adults, and questionably so, for those who were raised that way.
I don’t know if this is implying that the social pressure to remain in a faith community compromises an adult’s free will, or if the religious indoctrination they received as children compromises their ability to think independently. I wouldn’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but neither do I want to go to the trouble of asking what exactly she meant by that, because that would go contrary to my agenda for this blog. Regardless of which spin I put on this statement, I actually agree with it to some extent.
Church membership, technically, is always voluntary, except for children who are baptized as infants, but being raised under the spectre of a particular dogma is not. I was raised by Mormons, and it is no accident that I continued to identify as a Mormon even after I left my parents’ home. Some people call this sort of thing “brainwashing.” Which is not an inaccurate term, just a pejorative one. But we all brainwash our children to some degree. I mean, I hope so. What’s the point of parenting if you aren’t going to pass on your values to them? Oh, sure, there’s that whole clothing and feeding thing, but basic survival tools can only take you so far in life. Most parents feel obligated, even privileged, to steer their children on whatever path they consider the Road To Being A Decent Person. Lots of people use religion as a means to this end, but secular humanists also indoctrinate their children for this purpose, i.e. churning out decent human beings. They just have different arguments.
But parental brainwashing is about more than instilling ethics. We also teach our children what we believe about the world. One might believe a particular thing about the world for a religious reason, or one might have some non-religious reason–but still believe the thing with a religious fervor. You could believe that the world is only 6,000 years old. It would be pretty hard to believe that for a non-religious reason, unless you were just pulling random numbers out of the air. But alternatively, you could believe that humans evolved from lower primates. You could believe that there’s no such thing as a “lower primate.” You could believe that Chinese people have a natural facility for mathematics. You could believe that white men can’t jump. You could believe that women are irrational because of their menstrual periods and that this has something to do with why they can’t parallel park. You could believe that homosexuality is genetic. You could believe that sexuality is a matter of free will. You could believe there’s no such thing as “free will.” You could believe that women are innately more nurturing than men. You could believe that gender is a social construct. You could believe that there is life on other planets. You could believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. You could believe that the Constitution is a “living document.” You could believe all governments are illegitimate. You could believe that violence never solves anything. You could believe that the toilet paper should always roll over rather than under. You could believe that Republicans hate the poor. You could believe that Democrats eat their young. You could believe it’s okay to mix plaids with stripes. You could believe that you should talk to your kids openly about sex. You could believe that clothing is oppressive. You could believe that it’s essential for everyone to learn a second language. You could believe that it’s wrong to eat animals. You could believe that people suck. You could believe that Wal-Mart is a major source of the world’s suffering. You could believe that Jews are the cause of all the wars in the world. You could believe that air travel is safe. You could believe Sudoku is a waste of time. You could believe that there’s no point in trying because the Man is always going to keep you down. You could believe that aspartame kills.
Growing up in a millennialist religion during the cold war era, I was convinced that I would not live to see thirty. Either the U.S. and the Soviets were going to blow us all up, or Jesus was going to come, or both. I was well into adulthood before I could wrap my head around the possibility that the end of the world was not immediately at hand. To this day I have difficulty making plans for the distant future, e.g. retirement, even though I now lean toward thinking that the Earth most likely has a few hundred more years left in her, global warming notwithstanding. Rationally I know that living to see my golden years is a distinct possibility, but in my bones I feel that it is a moot point. What is responsible for this world view, which I can’t seem to shake in spite of my best efforts–religion, nuclear power, or mental illness? Most likely all of the above.
Who I am and how I got here is a very complicated story. Fifteen years ago I was a Democrat, which is somewhat subversive in Mormon culture, at least in the Western U.S., but I would have told you then that my religious beliefs absolutely shaped my political views. They still do, even though my political views are drastically different now. The reason is that both my religious beliefs and my politics have been informed by my personal experience.
My mother was a very religious woman, though she was not a pious one. She swore like a sailor when she got angry, but her specialty was sins of omission. I inherited that from her. I did not inherit her strong, natural inclination toward faith in God. My father was religious–a very obedient, religious Mormon–but he was also a scientist and an independent thinker. Some might wonder how one could simultaneously be religiously obedient and think independently, and those people will just have to trust me. One of my favorite stories about my father–and I’m sure I’ve told it here before–is when he was impanelled for a jury and the defense attorney asked him how he made judgments. “If someone holds up this ball and says it’s blue, and someone else says it’s green, how do you know what color it is?” Dad said, “I look at it. If it’s blue, it’s blue, and if it’s green, it’s green.” Interestingly enough, he was not selected for that jury. I did not inherit my dad’s facility for science. But I was profoundly influenced by his unrelenting logic and insistence on seeing things as they really were. I lived with it and saw it every day. I have to tell you, it was frequently as annoying as the religious indoctrination was.
I have never been fully at ease with my religion. There have been times when I thought it was less nutty than others, but I don’t pretend that there isn’t a high level of irrationality involved. At one point I thought I would chuck the whole thing and start over from scratch, but I found that I couldn’t really do that. I would have to forget everything I’ve ever learned, including the stuff I’d rather remember. It’s all so intertwined. Instead I’ve taught myself to work within the intellectual framework that’s been foisted on me–by my church, by my culture, by my parents, by my DNA–and I consider every act of faith, such as it is, a voluntary one. But am I as free, philosophically, to not choose Mormonism as I would have been if I’d been raised differently? Theoretically, yes. In reality, probably not. But ultimately it must be a choice, or else nothing is.
There’s a popular saying that goes, “If you’re a conservative in your twenties, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative in your thirties, you have no brains.” It’s frequently attributed to Winston Churchill, but I don’t know that he ever actually said it. I don’t really care, because it’s actually a popular saying only among two groups of people: those who were liberal in their twenties and conservative in their thirties, and those who have always been conservative and aren’t offended by the implication that they’re heartless.
I belong to the first group, but I’m not fond of the saying. I didn’t like it in my brainless twenties, and I don’t like it in my heartless thirties. Looking back on my twenties, I’m not terribly proud of my track record as a humanitarian, even though I had all the so-called bleeding-heart ideals. Actually, I have a hard time thinking of them as ideals anymore. They were more like fantasies. That’s painful to say, but heck, I’m heartless now, so I can take it.
The interesting thing is that as my opinions have been re-shaped by experience and a healthy dose of reality, I am still frequently accused of being an idealist. The truth is that I feel more like an idealist now than I ever did before, and as much as humanity depresses me sometimes, I’m more hopeful about the future than I’ve ever been in my life. I recognize that my hope is based on a religious faith, so–being incapable of purging the cynicism that’s flowed through my veins since childhood–I’m not terribly optimistic about persuading others to share that faith. My evangelistic streak is sadly deficient.
One episode from my twenties that I cannot export from my consciousness, no matter how hard I’ve tried, happened while I was working as an editorial assistant at my old newspaper. As the low (wo)man on the totem pole, I edited a column called “Helping Hands,” which consisted of a series of short blurbs on volunteer opportunities in the community. It ran on Saturdays, if we had space. And because I was the low (wo)man on the totem pole, I was also in charge of fielding calls from individuals who wanted to be profiled in the Helping Hands columns, to solicit donations from the community.
This isn’t unheard of in the newspaper business–it’s called a human interest story, and we’ve all seen stories like that in the newspaper. Unfortunately, stories of that nature weren’t in my domain, nor were they in the domain of my department, which was the Lifestyles section. Stories about plucky orphans with cancer who needed bone marrow transplants usually fell to reporters in Metro. But the reporters in Metro were too busy to listen to every sob story in the naked city, so such phone calls inevitably found their way back to me, the person in charge of telling people in crisis that we were terribly sorry but we just couldn’t help them. We were a newspaper, not a welfare office. (I wasn’t supposed to say that last part out loud.)
There was one caller that made my job extremely unpleasant. She was an older woman, a diabetic, who had myriad medical and financial issues, the most pressing of which was that her refrigerator wasn’t working properly and she had no place to safely store her insulin. She called every Monday. If I wasn’t in, she left a message. If I didn’t respond, she’d call again on Tuesday. She didn’t take I’m-terribly-sorry-but-we-can’t-help-you for an answer. When I came back to work after my honeymoon, there was a message from her, informing me that while I was off galavanting, she had spent the weekend in the hospital. She just wanted me to know that.
I talked about this woman several times to my editor, who said that yes, this was indeed sad, but you know, there are organizations out there for helping people in her situation, and the newspaper just isn’t the appropriate institution to render assistance of this kind. She did not, however, offer to explain this personally to the poor sick woman who was stalking me and my stupid column.
That I’ve forgotten this woman’s name is no great mystery. I didn’t like her. I felt sorry for her. I felt frustrated over my inability to think of a way to help her, even if it wasn’t, technically, my job. But she wasn’t one of those unfortunate souls that just endear themselves to you. She was a mean, cranky pain in the neck, and every time she called to inform me that she’d lived to see another Saturday (no thanks to me) in which her plight did not appear in the Helping Hands column and that she hoped I could sleep at night because she certainly wouldn’t be able to if she were in my place, I found myself wishing that she would just go ahead and die already. Not a pretty moment for the bleeding-heart liberal or the self-professed Christian, but that’s how it was.
Because I don’t like feeling guilty, and I certainly dislike feeling unrighteous, I felt obligated to help, but I was young and inexperienced in poverty management. If I didn’t know where this lady was supposed to turn for assistance, why should she? The few paltry ideas I had did not pan out–one was a dead end, and the others I just didn’t follow up on. I was pre-occupied with other things, like so many of us are. One Monday she called, and when I heard her voice, I laid the receiver on my desk and continued working. A few minutes later I picked the phone back up and dropped it in the cradle. I would never hear from her again, but at the moment I was too relieved to be ashamed of myself.
In an ideal world, every diabetic would have a working refrigerator to keep her insulin in. We don’t live in an ideal world, of course. People have needs, and the needy are not always sympathetic creatures. In fact, they’re frequently not. It shouldn’t matter. Just because you’re mean and cranky doesn’t mean you should die alone. Everyone I spoke to about this woman said the same thing: that there were programs and organizations out there for helping people in her situation–weren’t there? In my most frustrated moments, I would wonder, didn’t this woman have any family? Friends? Concerned neighbors? A church? Any sort of community she could turn to for support? Obviously not. When you’re calling a snot-nosed editorial assistant at the local paper to vent spleen about how no one cares about you, you obviously have no one else to turn to. And whose fault is that?
A recent post at Feminist Mormon Housewives brought up the topic of appropriately accommodating diversity of beliefs in a family setting. The author’s sister-in-law had a Muslim husband who of course didn’t celebrate Christmas and didn’t want his children celebrating Christmas, but the sister-in-law still wanted to celebrate Christmas with her extended clan, and so what ended up happening was that the sister-in-law brought her little family to the big family Christmas gathering and celebrated Christmas herself while her grumpy husband and disappointed children stood around and watched everyone else open presents and have fun. Seemed odd to me. I think if you’re a Christian married to a Muslim and you agree to have your children raised Muslim, maybe you shouldn’t celebrate Christmas so conspicuously yourself. Do we get to hear our children cry so infrequently that we must make gratuitous efforts to have them do so? I don’t know.
Anyway, in the comments the author said that historically her family has bent over backwards to celebrate Christmas in as Muslim-friendly a way as possible, e.g. not singing Christmas carols, so as not to offend the Muslim husband. (I think they even fasted when Christmas fell during Ramadan, or something like that.) Someone else commented that their atheist relative had similarly ruined Christmas for them by being snide and grumpy and impatient with any expression of religious faith. That seemed excessive to me. If I were visiting people of a different religious tradition during a major holiday, I would not expect them to modify–or abandon–their rituals to suit me. Actually, I don’t think that behavior seems excessive. It’s patently offensive and unreasonable any way you slice it. Some people should just stay home on Christmas. The world would be a better place.
But all of this discussion reminded me of a recent series of letters in the Ask Amy column about a couple who were non-religious and took umbrage at their religious relatives praying out loud before a meal in their (the non-religious couple’s) home. The couple had no problem sitting respectfully through a prayer at their relatives’ home(s) but thought that their own home should be their secular castle, as it were. People responding to the original letter had vastly different opinions, and I wasn’t sure how I would rule on this if someone wrote to Ask the Giraffe with a similar issue. Our family prays before eating in our home, but we don’t take the reins of mealtime ritual in other people’s homes.
As a teenager, when I ate at my Catholic friends’ homes, everyone did the sign of the cross before saying grace. Well, everyone but me, because a) I could never remember what you did in what order (this was before I learned the spectacles-testicles-etc. mnemonic) and b) it seemed, I dunno, silly for a Mormon girl to fake Catholicness. But I certainly bowed my head respectfully and remained blissfully unoffended by a ritual gesture I didn’t happen to be practiced in. When I eat with friends who don’t, for whatever reason, say any prayer before eating, I don’t feel a need to do so myself. But perhaps I’m overly laid-back in this regard. It wouldn’t be the first time.
My husband says that when he was a missionary, this business of praying in public before eating was an issue because Mormon missionaries are so conspicuous to begin with. If you pray aloud over your Big Mac, people think you’re some kind of exhibitionist. If you don’t pray at all, people think you’re a hypocrite (or whatever). So for them the happy medium was to make this ambiguous gesture which involved putting your hand to your forehead and closing your eyes for about 1.5 seconds. They called it the Missionary Headache. It could mean whatever you wanted it to mean. Silly Mormons. It seemed to work for them, though.
I’m sure other people of various religious bents feel obligated to pray before mealtime and would be upset if asked specifically not to pray. I can’t really imagine having someone over to my house and then, when they start to pray, saying, “Hold it right there, bucko! Not under my roof!” Unless they had to be naked or pick their noses or something while they were praying–that I might have to factor in, I don’t know. Anyway, I don’t like confrontation, so if a guest got out her crystals and lit incense before eating, I wouldn’t think to object. (If she had to sacrifice an animal, I’d probably ask her to do it on the patio.) But still…it seems somewhat impolite to insist on your particular prayer ritual at the table of someone who has made it clear that they don’t share your beliefs and aren’t comfortable with the attendant practices.
What do you all think?
I’m getting really self-conscious about bringing up Dennis Prager all the time, like I’m his disciple or something. Perhaps I do qualify as a disciple–as a missionary, really, because I encourage everyone to listen to Dennis Prager’s radio show. The world would be a better place if everyone was as obsessed with it as I am. But today I’m using the excuse that it is Dennis Prager’s birthday–okay, he told us it was his birthday today; it’s not like I…looked it up or something, so get off my back–so I can bring up something he said the other day about God. He said that logic leads him to believe that there is a God–specifically that it isn’t a leap of faith for him to believe in God–but that it is a leap of faith to believe that God is good.
I’d never thought of it that way, but I think that pretty much sums up my religious life as well. I think it’s logical to believe in God. If somebody tells me he doesn’t believe in God, I don’t think, “Gee, that’s illogical.” I actually think of Han Solo saying, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff. But I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls MY destiny.” Yeah. That’s what I think. I mean, there’s no way of actually knowing either way, so it’s a moot point, fact-wise. You can use logic to justify either position. (But logic alone won’t make you right, of course. That’s why religion is religion and not physics.)
What you can’t justify logically is the character of God. A quick rewind to PHL 150 and the Problem of Evil: If God is a) all-powerful and b) all good, then why does evil exist? All religions attempt some kind of response to this question, and some responses are more compelling than others, but ultimately it is a matter of faith to assume that God is good. You have to choose to believe that, and I don’t believe it’s a purely rational choice, scripture notwithstanding. Hence unit seven of PHL 150.
Why do I believe in God? Because I find it highly improbable that the universe and human life is an accident. That could be wishful thinking on my part, but given the complexity of our existence, I don’t think it’s an irrational conclusion, even though it’s unprovable. The same goes for atheism–which I can’t give a rational explanation for because my own experience has not led me to that conclusion. I couldn’t read the map for that destination. But obviously others can and do. The veracity of either position is a separate issue.
Why do I believe in a God who is good? I’m not sure, but I do know it isn’t because I’ve been trained to believe that. I’ve been taught to believe it, but for many years the teaching didn’t take. I had too many reasons to believe in a God who was not particularly good. The world is a cruel place. People get cancer. People are mentally ill. Innocent people suffer. Justice doesn’t prevail. Plus, my religion tells me to believe stuff I think is kind of lame. (And no, it’s not what you’re thinking, so no smart-aleck comments, please. Thank you.) So I fought belief in a good God–not because I wanted to fight it, but because I thought faith must be something in one’s DNA because it sure didn’t come naturally to me. But at some point I realized that it didn’t have to come naturally. I could adopt it, just because I wanted to. And I wanted to, so I did. Nothing in my perception of the world has changed. It’s my perception of God that continues to evolve.*
Tell me, because I really want to know, why you believe in God or why you believe there is no God. If you believe in God, do you believe that he’s good? If so, do you know why? I’m not looking to debate any religious issues. I make a really poor evangelist for anything other than Dennis Prager’s radio show. I’m also not looking to incite any religious debates, so in the spirit of your Gentle Giraffeblog, please a) use reasonably respectful language and b) don’t take offense easily. I’ll try to do the same.
* For some hardcore evolution talk, visit S__Diddy’s site.
My husband feels that I owe the world an explanation of the true Mormon doctrine regarding Hell. For the record, that South Park clip was a joke. I don’t even watch South Park because 1) I don’t have cable, and 2) I’m kind of a prude. I still think the clip is funny because a) it’s so not what Mormons actually believe about Hell, and b) we Mormons are such attention whores that we get positively giddy at any mention of us in the media, no matter how rude, immature or inaccurate it may be. We spend so much time saying LOOK AT US! LOOK AT US! LOOK AT US! that when the otherwise uninterested world pulls our name out of the Religions To Poke Fun At hat, we feel like we’ve won the lottery. In our book, any publicity is good publicity because it’s an opportunity to talk about ourselves, now that you’ve brought it up and all. This is one of the many ways in which we differ from, say, Seventh Day Adventists (with whom, incidentally, we have absolutely nothing in common with). Did I mention that Mormons and SDA’s are nothing alike? Because they’re totally nothing alike.
I think most contemporary Mormons can laugh at themselves. Many of us can even laugh at other people laughing at us. This is probably because a) we can’t drink alcohol, so we have to get our kicks somewhere, and b) compared to having our homes burned, our families murdered, our women raped, and our children dying of exposure on the long trek west to Utah, being the butt of some crude jokes is as close as you can get to a walk in the park without actually leaving your home.
To be sure, though, there are some of us with less-evolved senses of humor, sensitive types who will sniff that they are misunderstood and you have no right to judge what you don’t understand–but I think Jesus put it best when he said, “If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” (It’s in the Gospels, look it up.)
There is, of course, the inescapable fact that Mormons are weird. Sugar Daddy’s best friend is a Christian–you know, a real one–and I think his assessment of Mormons is fairly spot on: “They’re wonderful people, but they have a really messed-up religion.” Not only is bona fide, thoroughly documented, standard Mormon doctrine messed up, but add to that the personal opinions of people who are attracted to messed-up religions, and you’re going to have way too many shards of theological craziness to sweep up in a dustbin. Generally speaking, I am done and done with trying to convince people that I don’t believe what they say I believe. If someone says to me, “Isn’t it true that Mormons believe Jesus is an alien and Joseph Smith injected a sleeping nun with cocaine to bring forth the Kingdom of God on earth?” I am inclined to say, “Sure, Mormons believe that. Mormons will believe any whacked thing, isn’t it obvious?” Because man, I just do not have time for this stuff.
Technically, Mormons, like other people, can believe whatever they like, even if it’s wrong. They’re just not allowed to get up and preach it in the middle of Sacrament Meeting or Sunday School like it’s, you know, not wrong. BYU professors of religion, on the other hand, can pull whatever wigged-out doctrine out of their rear ends and still keep their jobs because…well, that’s what Stephen Robinson does and no one’s fired him yet. (And they say the Cougs have no academic freedom–psh. That only applies to, like, science and junk.*)
* For the irony deficient, this is also what’s known as a joke. BYU has terrible science programs, but it’s mostly because smart science students don’t want to go to BYU and they definitely don’t want to teach there, and not because of the Man.
So I don’t often try to state definitively what Mormons do and don’t believe because sure as the sun rises, somebody’s going to pull out some obscure text from the King Follet Discourses or some verse Brigham Young sang in the shower and prove me wrong. But to paraphrase e. e. cummings, there is some bleep we will not eat, hence my following definitive statements per my own religion that I was raised in and have been practicing more years than any sane person would tolerate:
1) People don’t go to hell for being the “wrong religion.” No, not even the Moonies. Satanists, maybe, but theoretically they don’t mind, do they?
2) A faithful LDS woman is not rewarded for her diligence and long-suffering on earth by being forced to spend eternity a) in a marital relationship that is odious to her, or b) in a perpetual state of pregnancy, complete with nausea, water retention, varicose veins, sciatica, stress incontinence, uterine contractions, and the ever-popular Ring of Fire. Remember the part where Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”? That’s in our Bible, too. Really, sisters. There is so much actual Mormon doctrine that makes no sense. Must we additionally make up stuff that makes no sense? Are there Mormon women who sincerely believe that they are destined to spend eternity birthing babies? Probably. But they’re hysterical. Maybe if you slapped them, they’d snap out of it.
*Sigh.* Sermon’s over. The Diaper Chronicles return tomorrow.