Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oh Hell, No!

Recently I learned that the annual conference of Southern Baptists has affirmed that Hell is a real and actual place, where God sends everyone who fails to accept Jesus Christ as their savior to be tortured for all eternity.  Yikes!

I make no bones about the fact that I'm an atheist.  It was not always so.  I was raised in a devout Roman Catholic home.  But my thoughts about Hell probably made me take my first step towards atheism.

When I was 11 years old, I spent a good part of every Sunday morning and Wednesday afternoon studying the Baltimore Catechism for my upcoming Confirmation.  For those unfamiliar with Confirmation, it is one of Catholicism's seven sacraments, and is analogous to a Jewish bar mitzvah -- it celebrates the coming into adulthood of a young Catholic.  At Confirmation you are asked questions from the catechism about the Catholic faith by the bishop or archbishop who presides over the district (called a diocese) in which your church functions.  Once confirmed, you have reached the "age of reason" and are now fully responsible for the state of your immortal soul.  It also means that you are now capable of committing a Mortal Sin -- the kind of sin which, if left unconfessed and unforgiven, means that you will go to Hell when you die.

So to get through confirmation, I studied and memorized the answers to questions that began as quite simple -- "Who made me?  God made me." -- and evolved into more detailed and complex questions and answers.  Which you had better know cold when the bishop calls on you to see if you deserve to be confirmed.

I remember having my first misgivings about Hell in that catechism class.  I told our instructor, Sister Virginia, that I was having some problems with the whole idea of mortal sin and how committing one would land me in Hell forever.  I was quite logical about it all, I think.  If God was immortal, and omniscient, and all-powerful, why does he need his own personal torture chamber?  Why would I be condemned to such a place forever if I committed such a sin and then died before I could make it to a confessional?  Why would a sin committed in the span of less than a blink of an eye to God have to be punished for all eternity???  It made no sense.  To a being Who had always been and always would be, our lives must seem terribly fleeting, mere momentary flashes of light in the dark.  Why, then, is the disposition of our entire immortal existence -- our souls are supposed to be immortal, after all -- why is that decided by what happens in the blink that is our lives on Earth?

And why can there be no possibility of forgiveness or reprieve once our bodies die?  I was already having trouble reconciling the angry, jealous God of the Old Testament with the gentler God of the New Testament -- the one I thought of as "Jesus' Dad."  Why is the first of the Ten Commandments not something like the Golden Rule, but "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me?" Clearly, this is the most important thing of all to God -- He put it first on His list!  But it has nothing to do with living a good or an ethical life, it's just an admonition to stay away from any other temple but Yahweh's.  Jesus is all, "suffer the little children to come to me," and "my Father's house has many rooms."  But God in the Old Testament is turning people into salt for sneaking a peek over their shoulder.  And He's ordering the Israelites to go to Midian and kill everybody, including livestock -- except of course for the young, virginal, female children who are to be kept as slaves and given to the Israelite men.  And He's telling Moses that no, he can't come into the Promised Land after all because he banged twice on a rock for water instead of once.

I mean, really -- what is wrong with Him?

In time-honored Catholic tradition, Sister Virginia's response to my questions was to whack me across the knuckles with a ruler.  I am not making this up.

So I guess it makes sense that Someone with that big of a personality disorder would build a place like Hell, a place which exists for no other reason except to torment and torture those who did not obey the rules and accept Jesus as the Messiah.


Frankly, I can't believe that we are even having this sort of discussion in the 21st Century.  Why are we arguing over whether or not Hell is a "real place" when what we should be doing is ensuring that all people live together in peace and respect for one another, living according to the universally accepted tenet of "Do nothing to another that you would not have done to you."

Really, if everybody just applied that simple philosophy to their lives, we could have, you should pardon the expression, Heaven right here on Earth.

So to clarify -- I don't believe in Hell as a real and actual place.  I don't believe in any god, much less one whose religion teaches that we are born into original sin, and can only be saved from eternal torture by following His rules.  Because if you don't, there's no chance of forgiveness, reprieve or parole from Hell.  Not from this loving All-Father, anyway.  (That's why I like Odin.  If I had to pick a God, I'd pick one who at least had a sense of humor.  But I digress.)  In point of fact, I believe in no kind of afterlife whatsoever, certainly not Pearly Gates and harps and halos for the good and lakes of fire for the wicked. I think that just like a dog or a squirrel or an oak or a dandelion, when I'm gone, I'm gone -- so I had better make the absolute most of my time while I have it.  I should try to live a life in kindness and spend it bettering myself and others where possible, and doing as little harm to others as I can -- in short, to treat the rest of the world the way I would hope and wish to be treated by them myself.

So if the Baptists want to debate Hell, it's their time to waste, I guess.  I'll settle for a good book, or a good deed, or good times with the people I love.

Everybody else can ... well, you know.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Message To Rick Santorum

Sir, as a resident of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which you once represented as Senator (albeit without ever receiving my vote for your office) you need to know how deplorable your behavior and your rhetoric have been lately.  I am also greatly concerned by your seeming complete lack of knowledge about the Constitution of our great country.

The First Amendment to that Constitution -- the thing our Founding Fathers wanted to include first of all, before any other changes or amendments -- states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

So when you say that we get none of our rights except from God, and that our government must therefore abide by and respect Christian law as stated in the Bible, you only show how incredibly ignorant you are of our history, our heritage, our Constitution, and our beliefs.  Even a cursory examination of the writings of our early leaders will show that they believed that our government must have tolerance for the God of every faith, even "those of the Hindoo and the Mohammedan."  And in 1796, the U.S. Congress UNANIMOUSLY approved the Treaty of Tripoli, which was then signed into law by President John Adams.  That treaty proclaims, "The United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."  Clearly, the founders of this nation believed wholeheartedly in the separation of Church and State.  As should anyone who wishes to be President.

By the way, which of God's laws, specifically, are we going to be incorporating into our government, should you be elected?  The Ten Commandments?  Jesus' admonition to love our neighbors, a.k.a. the Golden Rule?  The various, contradictory rules in the Old Testament?  Should we ban the eating of shellfish, force men to marry their brothers' widows, or go find some Midianites to slaughter?  (Excepting the female virgins, of course, which should be set aside as slaves.  Duh.)  

I think we have the right to ask just which biblical laws did you have in mind?  And more importantly, WHO GETS TO CHOOSE?

Probably not me, I bet.

No, I think it best if we stick with a secular system that guarantees the same exact treatment under law by everyone, regardless of their race or gender or faith.  So do most other sane people.

And as long as I'm giving you advice, Rick, let me advise you of this:  when it comes to any issues regarding women's health, contraception or rape, you need to SHUT UP.  Seriously.  Just don't open your mouth.

Rape is not a "blessing in disguise" or a "gift," ever.  And it's a damned sight more than a "bad situation" that you "need to make the best of."  My sister and my mother were both raped.  We were very lucky that neither of those crimes resulted in a pregnancy.  They were both devout Catholics, just like you claim to be, and I guarantee you that, if there had been a pregnancy from either of those rapes, that fetus would not have come to term.  Their gynecologists would have come up with a pressing reason for them to have the procedure once known as a "D and C."  Catholics used it to terminate pregancies under the mask of an examination and scraping of the uterus.  The loss of any fetus was simply a sad side effect.

Moving on to contraception, you said, and I quote you directly:  "It's not okay.  It's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be."  "Supposed to be" according to whom, exactly?  You?  Your pastor?  By what right under the laws of the United States do you get to force anyone to abandon contraception?  Or to have the government ban it?  This manages to be both arrogant and idiotic.  But that's you all over, isn't it?

Seriously, when Monty Python sang, "Every Sperm is Sacred"?  IT WAS A JOKE.  

And please, for You-Know-Who's sake, stop obsessing so much about gay marriage and gay sex.  Just let it go.  This is a civil rights issue, plain and simple.  It will ultimately be decided in the courts, perhaps not in my lifetime, but it will be, and not the way you hope.  If we left the franchising of women and blacks to public opinion and public votes or referenda, neither of those groups would be allowed at the polls today.  Fortunately, the courts decided that women and blacks were all equal to white guys, and society was dragged kicking and screaming into equality under the law for all sexes and races.  Sexuality is just next on the list.  WE ARE ALL HUMAN BEINGS.  As such, we are all entitled to the same rights and protections under the law.  This includes gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.  Since you are such a fan of the Bible, let me give you some advice you may understand:  Worry about the beam in your own eye before you try to pluck the splinter from out your neighbor's eye.  You think about gay sex wayyyyy too much.

Lately you have been calling out our sitting President, Mr. Obama, by stating over and over that his is an elitist theology which influences his political decisions on a daily basis.  First of all, you are using the word "theology" when what you mean is "philosophy."  I personally find your attacks on the President cheap and below the belt because of what I suspect is your deliberate misuse of the word "theology."  And secondly, I would hope that the guy you are running against does have a differing philosophy.  Of course he stands for different things than you do.  It's why you are running against him.  But it's not about theology.  Theology is the study of religious truth.  Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems such as those connected with existence, reason, values, mind and language.  If I'm telling the strict truth here, your differences with Mr. Obama are more properly defined as politics, i.e., the process by which groups of people make collective decisions.  Probably not philosophy, but I can let that one slide.  It's definitely not theology, though.

Rick, I will end by giving you the same advice that I would give to a radical or fundamentalist of ANY faith, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Zoroastrian:  Yes, your faith gives you a code of behavior in which you strongly believe.  That is wonderful.  Go and live by it.  You believe contraception is against the will of your God?  Then by all means do not use it.  You believe women should never be allowed to display their forms in public?  Then by all means, cover 'em up.  Go and live your beliefs, and hope that by doing so you may inspire others to do the same.  But please do not assume that your beliefs are the only "right" ones.  Please do not force your beliefs on the rest of us.  This country was founded in part by people fleeing the kinds of governments which sought to impose their code of values on them.  Governments which cited "Divine Law" and tried to impose their will or their code or whatever on people who dissented.  (Remember the Divine Right of Kings?   The one that says a king is a king because God wants him to be king?  Because if God didn't want him to be a king, he wouldn't be?  So that king can therefore do whatever he wants?  Because if God is down with it, everybody else should be, too.  Well, guess what?  NOBODY BELIEVES THAT ANY MORE, EITHER.)  If the women I love want to wear bikinis instead of burkas; if I believe that contraception or gay marriage is okay -- YOU HAVE TO LET ME.  If you're right about God, She will deal with me in the next life.

So to quote from that famous billboard:  
"Religion is like a penis.  
It's fine to be proud of it.  
But please don't whip it out in public and start waving it around.  
And PLEASE don't try to shove yours down my children's throats."  

It's good advice, Rick.  Try it.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

My Gun Control Dichotomy

I wanted to take a second to clarify my feelings about something I briefly -- and strangely -- texted about with my daughter a few days ago.  I'm an old hippie liberal.  I admit it.  I think one of the biggest problems the United States has is the plethora of guns.  They are entirely too plentiful.  And I believe them to be unnecessary.  We live in a society that, for all its flaws, is pretty well protected by those in authority.  Home invasions are still rare, although street corner muggings, sadly, are not.  But I truly believe, with all my heart, that society as it is now would benefit greatly if we could somehow make all our guns go away.  Hell, if we could make HALF of our guns go away, things would be better.

But.  All my highfalutin' beliefs about gun control and such unfortunately go right out the window if (or when) society starts to break down.  I honestly don't think my wife and I would last ten seconds if the meteor hit and some roving gang of armed scum decided they liked our house.  My ideas on gun control and gun ownership basically go away as completely irrelevant once we as a society no longer have that veneer of respect for the law and for each other (and no longer have the fear of the potential consequences of violating that law and respect.)  When nobody is on the other end of your call to 9-1-1, you are on your own, brothers and sisters.

So I don't currently have a gun in my house for lots of reasons.  In our present society, I think it would be wrong.  I think it would be more dangerous to have one than to not have one.  (But I do have a razor sharp machete as a compromise.  I also have a belaying pin -- that fine old club that pirates used to tie off sails and beat the brains out of each other -- in the bedroom.  But I digress.)  When you have a child in the house, all the gun locks and high closet shelves aren't worth much.  That kid is going to find that gun, load it, figure out how to turn off the safety, and shoot either themselves or their little friends.  Or both.  Count on it.  Also under our present system of society, I think it's far more likely that the gun would be turned against me, or otherwise do harm to me or my loved ones, than it would serve us as protection.  

So we don't have a gun.  A gun is the only tool whose purpose is solely to take life. Even machetes can chop branches, and belaying pins can, uh, belay.  Or something.

BUT.  I pay attention to the news.  I hope my daughter will, too.  Because if they spot that giant asteroid heading for us ...  if Mahmud Ammadinnerjacket over in Iran gets the atomic bomb he so desperately wants (and when he gets it, I honestly believe that he WILL decide to use it on Israel, thereby starting World War III) ...  if any one of a dozen other things should happen; any of those major indicators that things are about to change, and not in a good way...  I will get us that gun, if only protect what's ours, for the simple reason that nobody else is going to do it for us.  Once I am sure that society's collapse is only a matter of time, I will be on line at the gun store.  And even more importantly, on line TO LEARN HOW TO PROPERLY USE THE DAMNED THING.  People who buy a gun and keep it under their bed or in their purse "because it makes me feel safe" but who don't know how to use the bloody thing are IDIOTS.  And I am not an idiot.

And yes, I do know how to use my machete and the pirate club.  And I never even mentioned the superb L.L. Bean hunting sling I also keep in the house.  Drove a bear off with that sucker once ... but that's a story for another time.  

My point is, I could still seriously mess somebody up with any of those things, should the need arise.

Unless they shoot me.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Goatee Or Not Goatee (You Call That A Question???)

From the time I was 19 years old until my daughter was age 7 or 8 -- in other words, about 12 years ago, when I was 46 -- I wore some kind of facial hair.  I just liked how I looked with it.  I had the mustache first, and then graduated to a full beard by the time I was 29.  I always kept things short and very neatly trimmed; if Disney had been allowing facial hair of any kind back then, they would have loved me.

Then one day I was eating lunch with my daughter in Wendy's and a lady who I'm sure was very nice came up to us and asked me how old my granddaughter was.

That's when I realized that I had too much gray in my once all-dark beard, and it was time for it to go.  I never once considered that beard dye that's "Just For Men" and I never will.  I shaved it all off that night.

Since then, my hair thinned out and grayed out to the point where, to my eyes at least, I look better with a shaved head than with the classic male bald guy tonsure (which I hate.)  So I started shaving my head.  Then I had to go on corticosteroids for my Crohn's Disease, and the end result is that I look very much like...Uncle Fester.

Yes, Uncle Fester.  Jackie Coogan from the old television show The Addams Family, not Christopher Lloyd from the movies.  Vintage Fester.  Classic Fester.

It made for a great Halloween costume last October, but it's a lousy way to traipse through life.  So I'm thinking about growing a goatee.

I'm about ten days into it.  What my friend Bill W. calls the "Lost Weekend" phase of facial hair.  Not enough to look like anything, but just enough to make me look unkempt and scruffy.  I have been able to shave around where the goatee might be, but there still isn't enough of it to give me a sense of what I'm going to look like.

Whether or not I decide to keep it will depend on two things:  One, how much does it add to my apparent age?  So far, only a few threads of dark are in there; this is going to be a predominantly white feature.  I have to confess right now, that if it comes in the way I think it will (and the next four or five days will tell for sure) the extra gray on my face will make me look closer to 70 than 60.

And of even greater concern to me -- Two, how much does it make me look like my father?  For reasons too many and varied to go into here (I'll just mention the "a" word that rhymes with "babusive") his is not a face I care to see in the mirror, now or ever.  He has worn a mustache since about the time I grew my first mustache (only, Universe help us, he waxes his into a handlebar) and some sort of scruffy chin fuzz has been on his face lately as well.  So if I ever get that cold chill of seeing his face in the mirror in the morning, the goatee will become a gone-tee.

I'd rather see Uncle Fester.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Story of Sliding Lock Man

I just published another toy review at Action Figure Times which can be found here:

and I thought perhaps a brief explanation of my nom de plume might be in order.  Years ago, when my daughter Olivia was still a toddler, we went to Hershey Park with my very good friend Gary S.  One of Olivia's favorite rides was the old-timey carousel there.  She even had a favorite horse, which she had named, given a back story, and so forth.  Even then, she was a handful with an amazing imagination.

So we got on the carousel, raced to get to "her" horse, and when the ride was over, we headed for one of the exits.  Now the exits at this particular carousel are several waist-high gates which are held shut by sliding bolts of this simple variety:
The gates are locked during the ride so that nobody can sneak aboard, and unlocked by the attendants as the ride is ending so that riders can exit.

Simple, right?

Now a brief detour which I promise will make sense later:  If you have seen the movie Animal House you will remember a scene at the end of the movie where the Animal House guys hijack the homecoming parade.  One of the guys, Stork, replaces the drum major and leads the marching band down a blind alley.  They get to the end of the alley and just keep on marching into the brick wall and bouncing off before trying once again to march forward like the mindless automatons they are.

As our carousel ride ended, the attendants must have missed unlocking the gate at which we arrived.  I swear, the people were just marching into the locked gate, bouncing off, and marching forward again.  And bouncing off.  And marching forward.  It was ridiculous.  I have never before or since seen such mass idiocy, excepting perhaps at a Tea Party gathering.

In any event, I managed to get myself up to the gate, I threw back the bolt, and my family got the hell out of there.  At which point my friend Gary yelled out, "There's no need to fear; it's Sliding Lock Man to the rescue!"  The name stuck and I have been Sliding Lock Man or SLM to him ever since.  He is the one who introduced me to Action Figure Times -- we are both avid toy collectors, and it's one of the best, and friendliest, collector sites -- and I picked SLM as my sign-in handle.  Now that they've asked me to do some reviews from time to time, I'm kind of stuck with it.  But it has a great "origin story."

And remember my mention of my daughter's vivid imagination earlier?  Well, it wasn't too long before she decided that she wanted to be my superhero sidekick.  The name she came up with for herself?

The Latchkey Kid.