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Big Hairy Goofy Guy's Journal: I'm a rational being

Journal by Big Hairy Goofy Guy

I'm a rational human being. I'm an analytic thinker. I have a (magna cum laude!) degree in Mathematics from a respectable private university in the US. Both my parents are college educated, and they have both raised me with an ethos that reveres education, thinking, and moral behavior based on two things: 1) As a child, I was to follow the rules because they are the rules, and 2) The rules always have (some) reason.

My Dad is a great guy. I really like him a lot; I'm proud of his accomplishments. Get this, after he got his bachelor's degree in Mathematics on a Navy ROTC scholarship, he had a 30 year career in which he qualified in nuclear power under Adm. Rickover; he qualified for command and received two command tours, one in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic (where he got a juicy Mediterranean tour!); and his final tour was at the Naval War College where he participated in qualifying the school for accreditation by the regional recognized accreditation agency. The NWC got accreditation to offer a Master degree in International Studies. I would like to point out that at the time time the other US Armed Forces' postgraduate schools were accredited, nor had they begun the process.

And then, after all that, my dad retired as a Captain (O6 grade, equivalent to a Colonel) and cashed in his GI education benefits for a Ph.D. in a dual Math/Ed program at the University of Arizona. The important part about that is that he passed the qualifying exams in Mathematics.

My dad, clearly, is also an analytic thinker! But in the process of getting that degree, he spent a bit too much time studying and not enough time being *retired* with my mom. So she divorced him. It was quite a shock to get that letter from my dad, telling me of Mom's decision. For the better part of 5 years afterwards, he referred to the event as "The Disaster" and groused about how the law made it possible for his wife to "discard him like used kleenex" and other bitter phrases. He never tried to fight it legally, as his attorney pointed out the futility of preserving the legal arrangement of marriage if Mom was determined. And he and I (and anyone else who knows her) can both attest to Mom's stubbornness. I come by it honestly! :-)

My father was changed by the experience, as well you might imagine. But in some other ways, it has not changed him. For example, he has always been a social conservative in some ways (e.g. he's a bit homophobic) but progressive in other ways (he also "had a dream" about people being judged by the content of their character). But I never knew him to be a religious man, and that's what seems to have changed.

I should back up a bit. I'd like to speak about this in the order I came to understand it, which is not chronologically. My father was a law-and-order kind of guy who respected the notion of "chain of command". And the way he saw it, my mother was in charge of raising the children (I have an older brother and a younger sister). He did not countermand any maternal instructions, ever. If we tried to ask him for permission for some activity, his first question was usually "What did your mother say?". And if we had asked her first (which we siblings learned quickly NOT to do!) her ruling stood, and we would usually get in trouble for trying to play Dad against Mom. And truthfully, doing it in the other direction, I mean asking Dad first and trying to get him overruled by Mom, well, that didn't work well either. If Dad said 'No', chances were good that Mom would say 'Absolutely Not'.

Surprising to me now, I knew growing up that my Dad was the permissive one. Whenever he 'got the chance' to set the rules, he was always much more lenient than standing orders from Mom. And often it included some explicit horse-trading: we kids make Dad look good by getting 'task A' done while Mom is out, and we'd get to have 'good-deal B' too. Not always a bribe (payment in advance); not always a reward (payment afterwards); sometimes no good-deals were on offer; but he was usually a softer touch.

Next fact: we kids went to Lutheran school. St. Mark's Lutheran School in Kaneohe, HI. It was my mother's choice; she had been a first grade teacher before she got married (more education focus in my family!) and was appalled when my brother wasn't being taught to read in Kindergarten in the public schools. So she went shopping, and found someplace that did. But she did ask, respectfully, to make sure that we didn't have to be Lutheran, or even Christian, to send our kids there. We did not.

There are some strange things about going to a religious school in a country that values "separation of church and state". And there are some strange things about going to a school in a state that is racially desegregated in a country just off the chain-gang of Jim Crow. I was taught to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (*with* the "under god" part, of course) with the Principal leading the school over the PA. And he would then hand the mic to Pastor Gundermann (Mrs. Gundermann ran the Kindergarten which did teach me how to read). Pastor Gundermann would lead the school in "The Lord's Prayer". As a first grader I never realized that I was performing two separate recitations. For years I had been putting my hand over my heart for the Lord's Prayer and clasping my hands and bowing my head for the Pledge until Mr. Hess (3rd grade) corrected me.

One of the strange things is that I had chapel every Wednesday morning and a weekly bible verse to memorize. Every Friday was the spelling quiz and the bible verse test. I wasn't very good, and I would get in as much trouble for not memorizing my bible verse as I would have for not doing my math homework. Get in trouble, that is, at *home*; get in trouble with my mother for not following the *rules* (do your homework). My mother who, it turns out, feels that religion has done more harm in this world than most other human activity.

I didn't know this at the time. My mother didn't teach me her religious views explicitly, and so I was left to form my own. Over the years my brother and I would have some long conversations after school with Pastor Gundermann, probing the meaning behind his sermons. Over the years, I watched my classmates on the playground and learned how Christian children behave when left to their own devices. I still have the strong, singular memory of Jesus Christ speaking to me, out loud. He said "I'm sorry" and I knew exactly what he meant, and my ears heard the words and my heart felt the meaning -- it was a powerful event.

And by the time I was in the fifth grade I knew for certain one thing: God did not exist. Mrs Huffman, my teacher at the time, sent me to sit outside the classroom door, held me after class, and talked to me about some rebellious behavior. Somehow (I don't remember how) she referred to how Christ would want me to be, to which I retorted "I don't believe in *him*". I remember with a bit of smug self-satisfaction the stunned look on her face. It was shock beyond surprise; it was almost horror. "What," she gasped, "what are you doing here?"

I looked up at her, honestly confused. "I get up in the morning and my mother drives me here. Do I have a choice? Can I go somewhere else?" Because, honestly, Mrs. Huffman, I could really use a different approach than the one you're using here. Ok, I didn't say *that*. But it was in fifth grade, under the tutelage of my classmates under Mrs. Huffman, that I penned my mantra for many of my subsequent religious debates: Religion is a crutch for the morally incompetent. If you aren't smart enough to figure out what is good, moral behavior by yourself, and you aren't smart enough to debunk the human charlatans around you who would gladly lead you astray, you are reduced to looking to a religion to help. Maybe it's better than nothing, but I'm not sure of that.

Boy! Was I an arrogant and combative fifth grader! Needless to say, I got beat up on the playground. Actually, I rarely got beat up -- but I lived in constant fear of it. I ran, and I was teased for it. Mostly when I was beat up, it was by the public school kids I rubbed elbows with outside of school. Sometimes over the summer holiday, sometimes during the school year at the bus stop. But I digress.

The whole Lutheran School story is to cement in your mind what my mind had as a child: going to a religious school does NOT make a child religious. I assumed this was the rule, not the exception, and I still believe that what the parents believe can have a far greater impact than any teacher.

So my dad went to Catholic school. He was studious. He was beat up in the playground, a lot. He sympathized with me and my playground troubles, but he had no good, effective advice. He could only counsel, "It gets better, much, much better, in college". In school he behaved, learned his bible verses and was almost made an alter boy before the Catholic hierarchy discovered his congenital defect: he was Protestant. His family was Anglican!

Now these are old "sea-stories" that my dad tells about growing up. I've heard some of the a thousand times if I've heard them once. I think they are funny, and sad, and entertaining. And of course, they are parables of my dad's teachings. Just like Jesus used stories to teach. And I always assumed that my dad, so like me in so many ways, had come to the same conclusions about what a church is, about what a church means for it's congregation, how it is essentially a power and control structure. And so after my dad was divorced, he changed. He started going to church. It seemed like a big change to me!

Before he left the navy, when he had a desk job, he'd come home at the end of the day sometimes to a glass of scotch and soda, and sit in a recliner and read things like Dirac. Paul? Dirac, who completed some of the theory of quantum mechanics, some of the really weird, highly mathematical parts of the theory of light and matter. My dad settled on being a math major in college; he started at Tufts as Chemistry major, and getting C's in class (A's on all the exams F's on all the lab work) finally convinced him that he oughta get outta chem. Mathematical or Theoretical Physics was what he really wanted, but by the time he figured it out, it would have been too hard to get all the requirements. You know, that was my experience in college: mathematics degrees are always the easiest degrees on campus! They have the fewest number of requirements, and many of the them are things you take anyway to prepare for all those other, harder, degrees. So if you want to experiment, you end up with a math degree.

Back to my dad: sitting there reading his unreadable book, drinking his undrinkable drink. I know, I tried both as a child. He would turn to me and say things like "A literal interpretation of the bible is stupid. I would no more turn to the bible to decide how the world works, I mean *really* works, at the level of atoms, electrons, and photons, than I would turn to Dirac to figure out how to be a good person. There are good lessons in the bible, stories that will teach you how to live your life and be a good person. But it won't teach you everything you need to know, and there is room this house for more than one book. Read them all."

That's not a direct quote, but if I get brave, and show this to my dad, that sentence won't be the controversial one. "There is room in this house for more than one book" -HA! Our house groaned under the weight of books of many kinds, most especially sci-fi/fantasy paperbacks; it was a family obsession for all of us (except my sister, adopted). On occasion it would get out of hand... my mother had to ban reading books during Christmas morning or the three males would never finish emptying our STOCKINGS much less get to unwrapping presents under the tree! And it had to become an explicit rule... no books at the dinner table. Although my mother would bend that rule, or perhaps you'd say it was carefully phrased for flexibility. Books were allowed at the dining room table, when dinner was not being served. She would read her paperbacks in the kitchen. We also had a "bed-time" when we had to be in bed, but could read (or, earlier, be read to) that was 30 minutes before a "lights-out" time.

He never said "read them all" either: it simply wasn't possible. As Heinlein once wrote, "If I had learned anything, it was that they could print it faster than I could read it". Our house was living proof of that.

So, I've finished reading Dawkins' "The God Delusion", and had a conversation with my dad about it. He'll read it and get back to me, and we talk a bit about what he finds useful about going to church every Sunday. And as anti-theistic as I really am, I love my dad enough to accommodate this affectation. I cheerfully and enthusiastically drove him to Canterbury when he visited me in London. It's a real highlight for an Anglican to celebrate Mass in Canterbury Cathedral. But I didn't attend service with him, not there. It seems disrespectful (and awkward) to follow the motions in such a setting. Every other adult there can perform these maneuvers with aplomb; I don't want to make a spectacle of myself.

Oh, and I don't believe in the divinity of Christ, the existence of God, the resurrection, the virgin birth, the holy spirit, existence of souls, heaven, hell, limbo, purgatory. It's hard to attend church with integrity without faith.

And my father still goes to church, every Sunday. He feels it's good for him to do so.

I still don't understand.

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I'm a rational being

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When I left you, I was but the pupil. Now, I am the master. - Darth Vader