Congratulations to My College Freshman

My 18-year-old son will start his first year at University tomorrow! He has been a joy to raise, a hilarious pleasure to befriend, and an honor to learn from. I will miss him immensely but hope that my pride in his amazing transition and new freedom will console my loss.

Besides this salute to my son, this post is also my cheers to the rest of you students moving on and my congrats to the parents, guardians and teachers who helped them get there.



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The Fractal of Life

The Fractal of LifeWe are traveling in volcanic Iceland where ice and volcanic rock cover the vast majority of the country (>98%). I’ve been amazed at what can grow on volcanic rock. Waking early in the mornings, I have had some time read up on this topic. In future posts I hope to write more of my exploration of the confusing categories of lichens, mosses, fungi, algae and more.

Meanwhile, above is a quick diagram I made of one of the common classifications of life into three divisions. Since the early days of the insights of evolution, the relationship between life forms has been seen as a “tree”. But as we escape our human-centered views, and add in the incredible details of molecular and genetic relations (as opposed to only the appearance of organisms), the phrase “tree of life” seems an unsuitable phrase. So for fun, I have labeled this diagram “The Fractal of Life”. But “Tree of Life” is the expression that is here to stay for a while.

From two of my readings today:

1) From Evogeneao: a fun interactive tree of life picture which shows common ancestors, extinction times, the Cambrian explosion and more.

2) From Nature Microbiology 2016: A new view of the tree of life tells of entire huge division of bacteria we have missed. Most tree of life diagrams give an emphasis to Eukarya (our division), yet not only have Prokarya (Bacteria and Archaea) been around longer, they are also much more genetically diverse among themselves and cover many more niches on the planet than Eukarya.  Even our words for the other divisions reveal our bias.

As our understanding of Bacteria has grown and continues to grow, it makes us realize, that when environmentalist scream for protecting “Life” and “Earth”, they really only mean protect Eukarya and specifically humans in their narrow niches — because it is obvious that “Life” is just fine and under no threat of extinction from human causes.  And “Earth” is in no danger.

More on Lava Life coming after we return from Iceland, I hope.

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Heirloom Plants

In the summer you may see some urban well-off gardeners smiling broadly to their friends as tell their listeners about their wonderful heirloom tomatoes or other such vegetables.  The definition of “heirloom” is debatable, but generally it means a cultivar that is more than 50 to 100 years old.  Thus in the proud gardener’s boasting lies the “ancient things are better” argument. But I like to jokingly jab at the boasting urban gardener by saying to their listener that “an ‘heirloom’ plant is only the early version of the plant before they figured out how to make it much better.”


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What sort of Theist are you?

“Atheist” is a word that provokes disgust or distrust in most Americans.  See these studies (there are many more):

1. “: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs” — Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2011.

2.  “Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice” — Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

This distrust and disgust exist because most Americans equate atheism with immorality. This is not because they know immoral atheists, but because they view one of the main functions of their religion (a fear of god) as a check on bad human behavior. So to them a person who does not believe in God is dangerous because they don’t have a belief that will contain their bad behavior.

This sense of disgust makes it dangerous to come out as an atheist in America. But it is far worse in Muslim countries where most agree that “atheists” should be killed (see this Pew research — isn’t theism wonderful?)

So there are many strategies that religion-free people can use if they want to stay out of the disgust category when asked by religious folks, “Are you an atheist?”:

1. Deny your disbelief and just shut them down saying, “Yes, I believe in God.” Perhaps you can just tell yourself that “God” is that warm feeling in your heart when you do something good. Then certainly you believe.

2. Tell them, “Well, I am sort of a Taoist or a Buddhist.” The listener will not be disgusted with you if they feel you believe in some higher power or principles. Again, the reflex of disgust is hard to resist, so don’t tempt them.

3. Tell them you are an “agnostic”, then they will think you are open minded.

But I have a fourth suggestion for today where I suggest you don’t be tricked by the question. Question the question.  Show the believer that their beliefs may be far fuzzier than they imagine. Tell them:

4. Well, if an “atheist” is someone who is not a theist, then I have to know what a “theist” is.  “Theist” comes from the greek work theos which means “god”. So tell me what sort of god you believe in, and I will tell you if I don’t believe in that sort of god. For certainly you don’t believe in all sorts of gods, you just believe in one.  Here is the standard kind of god that I think most Christians believe in:

a) All powerful being/principle/power
b) All knowing
c) All loving
d) Personal
e) Interventional
f) Rewards those who believe in him, punish those who don’t

So, if you are asking me if I am am this sort of theist, I can confidently say “no” because I don’t believe in “e”, an interventional deity because we indeed have no evidence for an interventional all powerful, all loving, all knowing being.  This is the classic theological question of theodicy  But if you want to cut to the chase just point out the most extreme example is the classic “God has never healed a amputee”.

I can then tell that Christian theist that I can’t say with the same confidence that a,b,c,d are false. And as for “e)”, I hope to hell that is wrong. Smile !

So instead of taking the bait of classic questions, make the inquisitioner think about their questions, their words and their assumptions.

Though the questioner may think they know what the word “theist” means, they may be thinking of a specific narrow definition. If all the options are laid out, you may find that you are only atheistic about certain sort of theists, but agnostic about others or maybe even sympathetic to others. For instance, you might like thinking about a power in the universe that informs reality but is not personal, not interventional and does not punish unbelievers.

Remember, their are certainly forms of theism (see here) that other theists strongly disbelieve in.  So all believers, are atheistic about some theism.

With all these explorations you may discover that you and the questioner have more important things in common than either of you can even imagine.


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Don’t even think it !

Let’s start with a quote by Margaret Atwood:

If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged

I have written elsewhere that most Christian don’t believe what they are suppose to believe. Included in those things Christians rightly should not believe is this saying of Jesus:

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  [Matthew 5:28 (NIV)]

The problems with this thinking are obvious.

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The Jewish Bible Stories


Below I will slowly add links to discussions about some of the main stories within the Jewish Bible.

The Teachings (Torah)

  • Creation
    (Gen 1-2)
  • The Fall: Adam and Eve
    (Gen 3-4)
  • The Flood: Noah’s Ark
    (Gen 6)
  • The Tower of Bable
    (Gen 11)
  • Abraham’s Covenant
    (Gen 12-15)
  • Birth of Isaac
    (Gen 21)
  • Abraham Tested – Isaac’s sacrifice
    (Gen 22)
  • Joseph sold by brothers
    (Gen 37-50)
  • Joseph in Egypt
    (Gen 39)
  • Israel Slavery in Egypt
    (Exodus 1)
  • Birth of Moses
    (Exodus 2)
  • Moses and Burning Bush
    (Exodus 3)
  • The Ten Plagues
    (Exodus 7)
  • God Delivery from Egypt
    (Exodus 12, Deut 26:8-9)
  • The Ten Commandments
    (Exodus 20)

The Prophets (the Nevi’im)

  • Israel enters Promised Land – Joshua
    (Joshua 1)
  • Israel rules by judges
    (Judges 1)
  • Israel gets first king (Saul)
    (1 Sam 9)
  • Sampson
  • David and Goliath
    (1 Sam 17)
  • King David — Kingdom forever
    (1 Sam 16, 2 Sam 7)
  • Solomon becomes King
    (1 Kings)
  • Israel divide: Israel and Judah
    (1Kings 12)
  • Kings rule (mostly bad) for 345 years
    (1 Kings 13)
  • The Prophets: warn of Israel punishment.
  • Jew’s (Israel – North) Exiled: Assyria
    (2 Kings 17)
  • Jew’s (Judah) – Conquered by Babylon
    (2 Kings 25)
  • Jonah & The “Whale”
    (great fish)

The Writings (the Ketuvim)

  • Job
  • Ecclesiastics
  • Psalms
  • Proverbs
  • Daniel and the Lion’s Den (Daniel 6)

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Exploring Religion through the Bible (ERB): Introduction

This series ambition is to write posts for religion-free folks (see the table of contents) to offer them basic Bible literacy as an intro to Judaism and Christianity and to explore religion in general.  The Bible is a very long and old text and so expecting even a believer, yet alone a non-believer to read through it is unrealistic.  And reading it without guidance and expecting to understand it, is naive.  For those reasons, there are thousands of books out there to readers over these hurdles.  But this series is for non-believers and it is not meant to be exhaustive, but to offer enough stories to make the reader savvy enough in Bible stories to get a greater appreciation of allusion in common culture, movies and literature to Bible themes.  While doing this, I hope to also offer some comparative religions material but even more importantly, show how religion works, which is more important than what religions say they believe.  To repeat, here are the themes I will pursue:

Religion-Free Perspective: An introduction for non-believers

The terms “non-believers” or “atheists” or “agnostics” are all labels developed from the perspective that “believing” is the norm and thus pejorative.  Here we describe all those people in a positive light as “religion-free”.  This would be much like using the term “Child-free” couple vs. a “Childless” couple.

The religion-free folks I have in mind for these posts are those who really have very little knowledge of Judaism and Christianity — not those raised in the some tradition who then rejected it.  Thus I am talking to those raised minimally as only cultural members of those faiths, or those who were raised religion-free and who have only some exposures to religion. I have a few people in mind as I write these, and hope they and a few others find this series helpful.  Please write ask questions, add points or make objections in the comment section. Believers are also welcome to jump in and comment, but I will not welcome proselyting here.  This general rule for this blog and more are listed here.

Bible Literacy: Understanding Biblical Allusions

The Bible, like all religious texts and traditions, is loaded with stories that are packed with moral messages, principles, and wisdom (good and bad). People who have not read or studied the Bible will miss many allusions in literature, movies and even conversations. So even some familiarity with the main stories can broaden your enjoyment of other material.

Many Christianities:  Understanding Biblical Controversies

There are as many different types of Christians as there are believers in every other faith. And each will tell you that their version is the best, or at least a real good version. And for Christians, they all use the Bible. So I will tell stories and occasionally show the difference in the ways different Christians treat the same stories.

The versions of the Bible stories we have today have changed over time and their are contrary stories out there.  We will explore some of these ideas.

Comparative Religion and Comparative Thinking:  

Broader than just understanding the various kinds of Christianities is understanding how all religions struggle with similar issues.  Actually, all large systems wrestle with similar issues.  I will try offer readers comparisons to help see the deep issues that are often hidden by the superficial explanations offered by any religion or system.  Systems are not the sum of their parts, but how those parts all relate to each other and function.

Religion as a Tool: Understanding how religion works

Religion is complicated.  Christianity and Islam will tell you that correct belief is central to true religion.  But the most important thing to know about a religion is not it’s beliefs (though you will need those), but how those beliefs are used by its believers.

Most Westerners, exposed culturally to Christianity, even if nonbelievers, are subconsciously hypnotized by this idea that a religion is its beliefs.  Most folks feel they will understand a religion if they just read a list of their beliefs and maybe some of their history. But religions use their beliefs like tools to pursue social and personal goals. Mind you, believers themselves may tell you that it is all about correct beliefs, but they are wrong. And thus that will be the bias of this series.

This principle of understanding religion as a tool will be the most difficult to convey. You almost have to understand 3 or 4 religions to start understanding the patterns. In this series I hope to pause and illustrate some of the shared ways religions which have very different beliefs, nonetheless link the ones they have to accomplish very similar things to one and other.


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