Thursday, July 01, 2010

Why I Am An Atheist

Subtitled: Why Ron Rosenbaum Really Gets Under My Skin

I just finished reading through this gloriously misguided article over on Slate advocating for a "New(er) Agnosticism" to supplant the rise of us "New Atheists." "Us," seems a little presumptive, doesn't it, I mean, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris...Thompson? Er, not quite. But for whatever it's worth I throw in with those gentlemen.

This isn't really a new argument, theists have been using it for years. It goes something like this: "Well, you atheists are just the same as us. You have faith in something springing out of nothing. You just have a different kind of faith! Blah blah blah..."

Rosenbaum puts it thusly:

"Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence."

hate to be one of those guys, but I need to step in right away and criticize Mr. Rosenbaum for his word choice. "Worship?" "Worship a certainty?" You lost me right here, Ron, in paragraph three of your missive.

This alone seems to demonstrate that you misunderstand atheism. Atheists worship nothing. It may be true that atheists have the hope, or even the expectation, that eventually the greater mysteries of the universe will be solved, but it is not true to say that atheists have a "childlike faith" in its inevitability. Atheists rely on science, art, literature, philosophy...essentially all of those things which stem from education; these are relied upon in the search for truth. But they aren't "worshiped."

It is true to say that in our heart of hearts, most atheists believe their probably is no God. In fact, that's near to how Richard Dawkins phrased it in his book, as I recall. "Why there almost certainly is no God," something like that. But that isn't faith. That's a reasonable judgment based on an examination of the evidence at hand. Nevertheless, and Professor Dawkins would be the first to say this, were credible evidence presented manana that God's really up there in the clouds, we'd be happy to examine it and internalize it and then use it to reevaluate where we stand.

Atheism, the word itself, is a symbol of the depths to which religious dogma reduces us. I do not require a word to identify myself as NOT believing in fairies, or in the magic of Peter Pan, or of witches. But because of the pervasive influence of religion it is necessary to have a term describing someone who lacks faith in something s/he has never seen, heard, or experienced: God.

But just because this term exists, and even though it seems to suggest a sort of dialectic with theism, they are not opposites sharing a foundation; theism relies on faith, atheism does not. It's just common sense. It's just the natural conclusion an educated, reasonable, unrestrained person should make. In much the same way that I don't believe in Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness Monster. It just seems reasonable to me to not believe in those things.

Rosenbaum apparently sees things differently. He would counter: "Ah! But you're placing faith in your disbelief of the Sasquatch. How can you say with 100% certainty that it doesn't exist? You're just as absurd as those who believe sans evidence."

Well, Ron, no...I'm not. I'm just being reasonable.

"Well, there's a world of difference between Bigfoot and God. Atheism makes claims against knowledge of creation, of existence itself."

If you're nodding your head now, shame on you.

No, it doesn't. I don't claim to know how/why/by what means the universe was created. I have neither the intelligence nor the education to understand why, and to the best of my knowledge men and women much smarter than I who've studied this all their lives are pretty much in the same boat.

Nor have I ever seen, experienced, witnessed, caught scent of, heard legitimate rumor of...God. So I don't believe. That is why I'm an atheist.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hitch 22

There was a time, oh, say pre-9/11, pre-youtube, when being a Christopher Hitchens fan was akin to being part of a noble minority, like a member of the House of Lords or a Mensa member. No more. He's as (un-)popular and (in-)famous as ever these days, and the publication of his memoirs was met with much excitement and praise.

It's always been one of my more persistent personality flaws that I am incapable of enjoying something or, in this case, someone, as much as I normally would if he/she/it is popular in the mainstream. I'm sure has covered this at some point, and it's absolutely true. I want to feel hip. I want to know what's cool before others do. I want to appreciate it on a deeper level than others (see: The Onion's article on appreciating the Muppets), and I want to do so before anyone else gets wind of it, but what's most important is that I want to be appreciated for appreciating it. I want my foresight and good taste (do we have a word that combines the two? I'm sure the Germans do) to be admired/envied.

So even though it may seem I'm jumping on the bandwagon, let me assure you, dear reader, I was there from the start, perched on the back enjoying every bump and dip in the road from the get go.

Hitch 22 is a fantastic read. If you have an open mind, if you enjoy good writing, if you're interested in art, literature, politics, and culture, and let's add to that travel as well, if you enjoy a good debate and can consider arguments from both sides, and if you are at your core an optimist about this world and its civilization(s) (after reading this one cannot doubt Hitchens is an optimist) then this is the book for you. If not, well, then, fuck off.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Messages From God

It's test week, which is wonderful because I basically go in for a couple of hours, help proctor once or twice, and am out the door by 11. Today was no different.

What was different about today was that god spoke to me. I know, he speaks all the time, in the whisper of the winds, the laughter of a child, blah blah blah. But this was more of a burning bush kind of experience.

Well, if by "bush" I mean "Korean lady manicurist" and if by "burning" I mean "painting someone's fingernails" then that statement holds water.

So, no, god didn't really speak to me. One imagines it would be difficult for him to speak, as things/objects/deities which speak usually also exist. That is a necessary a priori condition. Forgive me, I've been reading Will Durant's proto-"Philosophy for Dummies" which is available at every Korean bookstore with an English section up and down this entire peninsula, and to which I finally gave in not long ago and decided to pick up. Besides, I'm sure I misused my Latin there, but you get the picture.

Anyway, back to the story. First, let me just say that this sort of thing happens to me all the time, and it never ceases to freak me the fuck out. Basically what I'm talking about is when two completely unconnected events in your life suddenly match up at the same instant. If there's a word for it I don't know, but it'd lie somewhere between deja vu and kismet, I'd say.

I was in the Shinsegae Department Store downtown, post-lunch, with the aim of browsing through some ridiculously overpriced polo shirts. I was on the escalator heading up to the 6th floor. I had my iPod on, and I was listening to an Adam Corolla podcast. All was well.

I came off of one escalator and turned the corner to the next. My eyes fell on a little niche between the escalators where a Korean manicurist was chatting up her customer whilst adorning her nails with some sort of garish paste. Simultaneous to this, and I do mean simultaneous, dear reader, what does Adam say? "And another thing, howabout Asian nail ladies, and their blah blah blah..."

I can hear you now. "That's it?" But this sort of shit happens to me all the time. I'll be listening to David Bowie sing and he says "and I looked at my watch and it said 9:25 and I think oh god I'm still alive," and I look at my own, and sure enough, the man in white got it right. I'll be reading up on something one evening, and the next day at school one of my co-teachers will ask me about that exact arcane subject. These bizarre coincidences seem to happen to me all the time.

Now, yes I've read White Noise (twice actually) and I realize it's much more likely that I've been infected by some poisonous gas, that I have a brain tumor, or that I'm just plain crazy than it is that god's speaking to me, or I'm caught in some sort of bizarre Star Trek-like phenomenon. And when I say, "this happens all the time," I mean in actuality that it happens a few times a year. But to say it's memorable would be an understatement.

But it does make you wonder...

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Doris Lessing - Time Thief

It took what seemed like centuries, but I finally got to the final page of The Golden Notebook today. I picked it up in an ambitious mood a couple of weeks ago, read it steadily for a few days, and then was taunted by its weight in my bag daily as I struggled to push through the mire of the last couple hundred pages.

If that sentence sounds terribly forced, or if you're alarmed by my very British-like use of "terribly" there, forgive me; I've been reading a "serious" novel.

I do this to myself every now and then. I challenge myself to finish some massive tome rubber stamped by the academy as "important" because, well, I think I ought to. The Brothers Karamazov nearly killed me a few years ago, for example. And yet I'm glad I read it, and I suppose I could say the same of this novel.

It wasn't all bad. The technique was brilliant. There's a moment late in the novel when a character says to Anna, our heroine, something along the lines of "every now and then I come across a story that accomplishes something and I think, 'great, I don't have to write this, because you did.'" I suppose by that he meant it has a new idea, or a new form. The conceit of this novel is, well, novel: four notebooks in which separate facets of Anna's life are recorded (her youth in Africa, her politics/involvement with the Communist party, her creative side, and her day to day diary) which are eventually synthesized in the titular "golden" notebook. It's one of those things you come across and think, "hey, wish I'd thought of that."

The early portions of the story, especially the events in Africa and the drawing room parody of Anna and Molly, two "free" women who've given up on marriage, were interesting. Even the thousands of words devoted to Anna's daily affairs, which felt somewhat like reading the blogs of today, were at times compelling.

But why will people turn to this novel in years to come? Perhaps to educate. We read Austen and Dickens and others because they tell us about the times in which they lived. Certainly we learn something about post-war proto-feminism in this novel. I think the novel failed for me, in part, because I didn't really learn, or need to learn, anything about that period. It's not far enough removed yet. And its flaunting of conventions and frank discussion about sex, which may or may not have been scandalous when it was published, no longer seemed like that big of a deal. Historically, it's not old enough to be relevant yet, and ironically it was too forward thinking, or too modern, in its conventions to seem out of place now.

Well, anyway, it's back to pop lit for me. I've got another Le Carre lined up and I'm anxious to get to it. Le Carre and writers like him are the best of the literati, in my opinion, and they leave the navel gazing of the Doris Lessings of the world behind them trailing in the dust. But that's another day and another blog.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Our Korean Word For Today: 쓰다 (sseu-da)

Yes ladies and gentlemen, I am so fucking bored I actually studied Korean for a little bit today. In so doing, I came across this verb (쓰다 / sseu-da) which has what I consider to be a hilarious series of extra meanings a talented sitcom writer could use in an episode full of comic misunderstandings.

It means, primarily, "to write," which is how I encountered it. I realized that I kinda already knew that, because I'd heard some of my co-teachers use "써세요" ("please write" - I'm sure I misspelled that, but let's persevere) before, and may have even aped them once or twice myself.

But it also can mean, in order: "to use / employ," "to be bitter," and "to put on a hat."

I wonder how this sentence would sound in Korean: "He wrote that she'd bitterly put on her hat"??

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

More Evidence of Acclimation

So Sunday was Easter, and as I work at a Catholic school, we got Monday off (they take it kind of seriously: as one of my students said on Tuesday, after I'd asked him what he did yesterday during the holiday [anticipated response: "I went to the PC room" // "I sleep long time"] :: "I cried for our Lord" <-- major classroom buzzkillage, btw).

So anyway I had a long weekend and on Monday I spent most of the day shopping for things I needed in my apartment.

So I took a bus a coupla clicks north up to Mia Samgeori to hit up the E-Mart and Hyundai Department store and get my fill of 9,000 Won peanut butter and 15,000 Won oatmeal. Mission accomplished, btw. But on the way back, something interesting happened.

I was standing at this massive bus stop in the middle of the street (we have mid-road bus lanes with partitions and whatnot in my hood, holla!), but I'd moved down the stop a little bit away from where most people were congregated, because, well, I just felt like it, get over it.

Anyway, the buses all come in at once, and my bus, which I'd expected to be at the back of the line (ok, so that's the real reason I moved away), actually wound up first in line. So naturally people start pushing by each other and kicking and shoving to get to their bus, and I'm no exception. Whilst thus engaged, I somehow got in the way of this little old grandmother, who before I knew what was even happening had punched me right in the arm, presumably because my blunderings had impeded her progress.

Did I punch her back? Did I stop mid-step, mouth agape, eyes wide in contemplation of the horror I'd experienced? Did it even faze me for a moment?

Reader, it did not. And it hit me, later, once I'd boarded the bus ("hit me," get it? huh) that I'm more or less completely acclimated to living here. There was a time, oh, there was a time when getting punched by an old lady on the street would have been cause for alarm. But no more.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Gay Catholics

Got your attention? Nice. Let me explain.

So, I've started a new job. I wrapped up things at CIS mid-January, spent a month in Thailand (yeah, it rocked), then headed back here mid-February for my friends' going away bash. After the tears were dried it was off to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE hereafter) orientation week for day after day of tedious explanations on how to use the subway and write hangeul and come up with classroom activites and blah blah blah. Thank the maker I had some roomies and met some cool folks who were up for sneaking off campus and whetting our whistles from time to time.

At the end of orientation, I was given my assignment. I got a Catholic (score!) high school (score!) teaching all boys (damn!) in Hyehwa (score! - trust me on this one). But what's most interesting about my school is its name.

First, some background information. The Korean language has been heavily influenced by Chinese, and indeed for most of its history Chinese characters were used for everyday correspondence. Hangeul (Korean script) wasn't commonly used in Korea until (checking wikipedia...) the late 19th century. Nowadays, it's ubiquitous and almost exclusively used, Chinese characters rarely show up and when they do it's usually on offical documents, building names, things like that.

As such, many Chinese characters are written in Hangeul in modern Korean, and this can cause confusion because the Chinese word may mean something entirely different than its Korean counterpart. In other words, there are a lot of double/triple/quadruple meanings, just as in English.

Still with me? Wow, what a trooper.

Which brings me to the name of my school. In Hangeul, it's written as such: 동성(Dong-Sung). I have no idea how to write in Chinese, so that will have to suffice. The Chinese characters mean "East Star," referring to Venus. Not a bad name, right?

But then we have the vernacular Korean. "Dong" can also mean same, and "Sung" can also mean gender, or sex. So...follow me?

Basically, the name of my school is "Catholic Gay High School," at least in everyday Korean. So, well, there you go.