The Season, Now with Reason

The Season, Now with Reason

“Would you even celebrate Christmas?” asked concerned family members when considering December plans. Though my first publicly, this will actually be my second Christmas as a self-admitted atheist and there have been several as a skeptic.

Surprisingly few of the traditions I cherish most about Christmas have anything to do with in-a-manger Jesus. Time with family, the tree, gifts, egg nog, Will Ferrell’s Elf, fruit cake (I like it, shut up), and egg nog are all Savior-neutral. It is only song lyrics where the nativity holds sway — I still greatly prefer the carols in the hymnal to Santa-themed sing-alongs.

Much like the 2015 red Starbucks cups, the Bible itself is quite silent on the topic of Christmas. In fact, Mark — the earliest-written gospel — doesn’t mention the birth of Jesus at all. What the subsequent gospel writers do claim is historically impossible, having Jesus born during the time of King Herod (who died in 4 B.C.) and also at least ten years later in 6 A.D. (the first census of Quirinius).

It was actually fundamentalist Christians who first educated me about the pagan origins of the modern Christmas celebration. For thousands of years, December 25 hosted the birthday celebrations of both the Roman sun god Sol Invictus and the Rome-adopted Persian god Mithras. When emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official state religion around 313 A.D., an entire empire was reluctantly forced into the doors of the church, bringing favorite pagan practices with them. Heathen feasts became church festivals with little more than a name change… and Christmas was born. (The fir-tree worship of god Ba’al-Berith may have come along for the ride.)

I’ve come to learn that such borrowing, melding, adapting and revision has been integral to the Judaism and Christianity since their earliest beginnings, but that is a topic for another time.

In any case, I intend to spend this Christmas season as I always have — adhering to traditions made meaningful because of those I love who I’ve spent them with.

(Image – Not a nativity scene, but a second-century artful relief depicting December 25-born Roman god Mithras surrounded by animals in a grotto. Courtesy The Tertullian Project.)

 

Testing 1, 2, me

Testing 1, 2, me

As I wrote about a week ago, the end of my radiation therapy was less of a celebratory time than it might have been. Upon investigating my personal observation, my doctors agreed that my sarcoma appears to be growing and not shrinking.

I have joked about getting what one pays for with free healthcare, but I must hand it to my team at Tom Baker Cancer Centre. That simple check certainly spun wheels into motion. Their sense of urgency across the board immediately shifted to my sense of urgency.

My lead oncologist jammed me in to his about-to-leave-for-holidays schedule on Monday. While his words were characteristically optimistic that this was no big deal, the tests he ordered and sternness with which he instructed the staff about timeliness indicated that he wasn’t leaving anything to chance.

I was immediately walked over to the front of the line on a biopsy, where they jammed a scooping needle into the mass to pull out cells. The location where it was, freezing wasn’t practical. Good thing needles don’t phase me.

Tuesday morning I was woken at 7 a.m. with phone call from the hospital letting me know that my CT scan originally scheduled for mid-December had to happen that day. I rushed the kid lunch-making process, trusting them to get out the door for school on-time, and took my seemingly-daily trek to Foothills. The night before, I had work prepped for my absence as it felt like this would be a week of needed flexibility.

Unfortunately, when I arrived, the scanning department was surprised to see me. Apparently my rush appointment was at a facility across town, and such a detail had not sunk in to my pre-coffee brain. (Though I stubbornly contend that no location was given to me, since this unprovable claim allows me more dignity.) However, the nurse flashed me my paperwork which had a big “Urgent” stamped on it, so she just put me in the queue where I was. This is not the best way to earn VIP treatment.

The CT scan is the one with a table that slides back and forth through a big suspended ring. There is no enclosure, so claustrophobia doesn’t kick in. Of course, there was a radioactive dye injected in to me… because it had clearly been a few days since I glowed in the dark. Going back and forth, I couldn’t help but think of Homer Simpson being teased by an out-of-reach larger-than-life donut.

This particular scan is more general and had two purposes. The first was to see if the cancer has spread anywhere else it’s not supposed to. The second, and cooler, purpose was to look to see if I have any vestigial tendons in my body. Apparently, some of us are less evolved and have extras around. This is precautionary in case they need to remove any tendons from my hand when they are cutting out my cancer.

But the worst news of all was the ordering of a new MRI scan. Being a man of severe enclosure-based panic attacks, I had sworn that I’d rather just die of the cancer than be entrapped in the tomb of an MRI machine. Now I’d need to live through a second. Long-story short, I took the sedatives offered, fought through the attacks that came regardless, absorbed more radioactive material and lived through it even though the loss of an entire day was my result.

And so now I wait for results of all these tests. If any of them come back as concerning, I will hit surgery quite quickly. (The surgical team involved is quite large, so I am at the mercy of multiple schedules.)

I went through all the pre-op prep on Thursday and have to live my foreseeable future on surgery protocol. The protocol is strange… no aspirin or Advil (to avoid blood thinning), no vitamin supplements, no herbal supplements, no green tea. Once I get the call, no alcohol… until then, something has to take the place of my vitamin D pills, right?

I was originally scheduled for post-Christmas surgery due to my body’s need to recover from radiation and also due to limited staff availability in that time. I’m completely fine with having it sooner, but I must confess… if life-saving surgery means missing out on my Star Wars: The Force Awakens tickets, I might have a difficult decision to make.

 

Why are you writing this?

Why are you writing this?

A good friend sent me a list of questions. With their permission, I am answering them here.

And wow to the blog post. I’ve read it a few times. I don’t question your beliefs, but my question is why are you writing it?

It was my sister’s pleas that pushed me from having a vague idea that I’d like to do a blog, to actually having one. She urged me to document what was going on in my head, for others, herself and for my children to understand. I suspect some of this is from a place where my cancer has a very real chance to turn on me quickly.

I used to use social media as an outlet in a way that is no longer available to me. What I did there and what I do here are very different things, but you know that it takes writing our thoughts to release them from our minds.

The blog isn’t specifically about my beliefs about the supernatural, but those are some of the first topics that have been begging to burst out of my head.

This need to disprove God – are you trying to convince others or yourself?

First… I have no need to disprove God. The existence of a god is a positive claim that needs to be proven. I once believed in God, but later realized I had no good reason to. There may well be some kind of deity, but if that figure is not leaving evidence in the world, then it has no impact on my life.

You might be able to argue that I am attempting to disprove the Christian Bible. I believe the Bible is a false and falsifiable claim.

I may be failing to convey, but the intent of this blog is not to convince anyone at all. I am merely attempting to document my personal thought processes over the past few years. (Though I am aware that the non-linear approach may be giving a skewed view.) Some of the things I’m sharing are things that I didn’t feel I could share with anyone when they were happening.

From private responses to the blog so far, my writing is helping a few people who are already invested in me understand me better. But by far more satisfying are the responses from a surprising array of people who were raised similarly to me who tell me my process reflects topics they are struggling with. That hearing me talk about them helps them with their own situation, one way or another.

If what I write purely for myself is making others think or talk, that’s a bonus.

And for what purpose?

I think I’ve answered above, but specifically when it comes to atheism I have read and listened to those who have deconverted before me and followed their path. They blazed trails and gave me courage to be honest. Though not in the same scope or scale, I think “coming out” as an atheist has parallels to coming out as a homosexual. Each person who walks down that path makes it ever-so-slightly smoother for those that follow.

Do you believe you are saving others if you destroy their faith?

It is my opinion that my life was limited, damaged and ultimately hurt by me allowing a set of false indoctrinated beliefs to manipulate and dictate my emotions and actions. I do wish that someone had saved me.

I understand that this is not the case for some people… some are very happy in their beliefs. I particularly respect those who have stared down the difficult questions and consciously made a different choice than I.

I don’t need anyone to agree with me, but I think everyone is better off if they have good and solid reasons for believing what they believe and in acting how they act. This is only possible when all the information has been presented and been analyzed with skepticism.

Will it make them better off?

Better off is obviously open to broad interpretation. Would my life be better right now if I didn’t know that I have cancer?

There is a comfort that comes from religious beliefs. It can be comforting to think that we will continue to exist beyond this life. It can be comforting to think that we will be reunited with loved ones who have passed. It can be comforting to think that there will be some sort of justice handed out to those who do evil. It can be comforting to think that there is a master plan where everything is going to work out, that a perfect being made you with purpose and that you are unconditionally loved.

That’s all comforting. But something being comforting does not make it true.

I do think that everyone would be better off living the one life that we KNOW we have here on Earth as the one single life we get, instead of merely as an opening act for a second life that we cannot know about.

And if that’s the case, then aren’t you simply the same as them, but just evangelizing from the opposite side?

I like to think that I am merely passionate about teaching others about new information and ideas that I have only recently been exposed to. Nothing I say is new, but I like to think that I am presenting these ideas in light of the impact they had on me or my thinking. Because I feel like I didn’t make informed choices, I wish for others to be in a better position than I was, regardless of what conclusions they come to.

I could easily be deluding myself on how effective I am being on any of those points.

If you want to talk evangelizing, get me started on iOS vs Android or Mac vs Windows.

Or is it ego? Just simply wanting to be right…

I cannot rule out ego. You know I want to be right and I’m unreasonably competitive. I admit to a bit of a rush in being informed where I once was not. I can’t deny a taste for winning a debate makes my brain salivate.

At the same time, and whether it comes across, I feel incredibly humbled by the whole process. I know that my IQ has not gone up a single point since becoming an atheist. I know that I spent most of my life resisting the ideas I now hold, so I completely understand and empathize with anyone holding any position. That is still fresh.

… and hold a mirror to their hypocrisy? If so, what purpose does that serve?

I’ve never actually been personally bothered by hypocrisy, if you mean the gap between what a person professes to think / believe and how they act. Part of the doctrine I held for so long was that it is completely impossible for anyone to live up to moral standards. That’s why Jesus had to come.

I’m not out to change anyone’s actions. Most people’s actions reflect their true internal morality anyhow.

If anything, I want to hold a mirror up to what they believe. I don’t think that enough people have closely examined what they believe or why. I’d love to encourage that in everyone.

Of course, if one’s beliefs and actions are consistent, then there is no hypocrisy.

(Photo credit – me!)

(Adam)ant Doctrine

(Adam)ant Doctrine

When the preponderance of evidence forced me to accept the fact of evolution, it was a short trip to discarding the Bible I had studied, memorized and believed all my life.

Until that point, I held firmly to Biblical inerrancy. In my view, the Bible itself asserted this with claims like “all scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16), and “every word of God is flawless… do not add to his words.” (Prov 30:5-6). I would have agreed with Answers in Genesis that “the Bible is God-given (and therefore without error) in every part (doctrine, history, geography, dates, names) and in every single word.” It was quite black-and-white for me.

But the truth of evolution means there was no historical Adam. No first man, specially created. At no time did a primate ancestor give birth to a human. We formed from the well-understood shift in genetic alleles across an entire population of tens of thousands who eventually speciated. If God watched and chose some dividing moment between not-in-his-image and in-his-image for our hominid strain, it was after hundreds of thousands of years on the African plain and billions of years of death… no tree of life in sight.

No historical Adam means no “original sin” and no need to send a divine Jesus to die for it.

I’m aware that many can hold the Eve-and-the-talking-snake story to be metaphorical of a sinful nature that God needs to cleanse, but the problem is that the New Testament writers accepted and preached historical Adam.

A literal Genesis reading is affirmed by the epistles. “The first man Adam became a living being” (1 Cor 15:45), “for Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner” (1 Tim 2:13-14).

Then the authors double-down by expressly linking Jesus’ salvation plan to historical Adam. “Death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses” (Rom 5:14), “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people” (Rom 5:12), “for as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Cor 15:22)

The trouble with the claim of inerrancy is that a single crack will destroy it. It is all-or-nothing. A plain reading of the New Testament asserts a historical Adam who didn’t exist, so that perfection is shattered. My black-and-white options left only black in the failure of white.

The trouble with picking-and-choosing parts of the Bible to accept and other parts to ignore as figurative is that there are no compelling reasons to accept any of it one doesn’t like. Such an activity is to merely make a god in one’s own image. In fact, this seems to be what many people do.

With the greatest respect to those who find meaning in interpreted readings, I see no reason to abandon my life-long binary view of the scriptures. My quest for truth has yet to uncover any new reasons to believe the claim that the Bible holds any. In fact, the investigation has revealed many more substantive reasons to believe that it does not. (Stay tuned for that.) But this extra evidence merely supports my lack-of-belief that started with Genesis chapter one.

(Image from Christian Publishing House)


I’ve been reading The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins by Peter Enns (PhD, Harvard). Enns works for BioLogos, an organization dedicated to the integration of science and Christian faith. I am impressed with this group’s tone, intellectual honesty, scientific understanding and forthrightness in presenting the quite-human literary history of the Bible.

The author failed to convince me that his contextual figurative reading of difficult passages was more apologetics than apologies, but this would provide plenty of food for thought for someone looking to reconcile Biblical writings with non-denial of science.

Have you read it? What do you think?

 


I’ve been letting the blog reflect momentary snapshots of non-linear fragments of my forefront thoughts, and it will likely remain thus. But if you have any topics you’d like me to cover or questions you’d like me to answer, please let me know.

Zap to it

Zap to it

This morning I finished the last of my radiation treatments. As I described earlier, each of the ten sessions had me laying front-down on a metal slab with my hand clamped down in a three-phase apparatus. I had a technician take some pictures for me one day, which you can see above.

My sister, the curious dentist, asked me to keep the rig for her to check out. Moderately surprisingly, they let me keep the wax overlay and the fiberglass mesh. The blue base, however, accumulates radiation and has to be disposed of in some special environmental protection manner. Do they not know I was putting my hand on there?

Over the course of radiation, I got the constantly-sunburned feeling they said I would get, eased with specific safe lotion. Each treatment also felt a bit like a punch in the gut, and each layered upon the last in terms of a period of fatigue and fuzziness of mind. While not fun, each was tolerable knowing the goal of reducing the number of cancer cells in my hand before a surgery.

So you might imagine my concern and denial when the same white dot that started my whole journey back in summer appeared on my knuckle on the weekend. I brought this to the attention of my doctors yesterday, and a visual and tactile inspection is enough to convince them what I feared… despite all the chemotherapy and radiation, my tumor is actually re-growing rather than shrinking.

And so, this last day of treatment is somewhat anticlimactic. There was a schedule in play for my surgery, and that was already based on a timeframe to allow my body’s immunity to recover from radiation. If surgery needs to be stepped up sooner to avoid full re-growth, I’ll be less able to accept the necessary grafts and to recover afterward.

There are no good answers. For now, I just wait.

 


s_1485_xtbf5npaurk8ktt3dkuwwagkvjkkkdblack_grandeWith my semi-voluntary exposure to gamma rays and the mutant thing that keeps growing inside me, there has been no shortage of Hulk teasing going on. Most people are most familiar with the TV show-era tag line, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

As I’m opening up here, I will admit that most of my life I’ve felt a little like Bruce Banner keeping many things suppressed, with the events of my past few years making it even more acute.

But the movie line that rings most true to me comes from The Avengers. Captain America politely suggests, “Dr. Banner, now might be a really good time to get angry.”

“That’s my secret, Captain,” comes the reply. “I’m always angry.”

The Chromosome that Broke the Camel’s Back

The Chromosome that Broke the Camel’s Back

I’ve been asked what the tipping point was for me to accept the Theory of Evolution after resisting it for most of my life. As I researched, the weight of the evidence was cumulative, so the fact that flipped the switch for me was more a function of timing and the order I just happened to have discovered things, as opposed to necessarily the strongest or best argument. That said, I do happen to remember what it was.

(Quick aside: I’m aware that millions of people around the world accept science like evolution, geology, cosmology, paleontology and the big bang while at the same time believing in a God. In fact, this is the official position of the Catholic church. This is one reason I will be attempting to keep discussion of science and religion separate on my blog when the topic doesn’t require conflation.)

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, while all the other great apes have 24 pairs. If evolution proposes that apes and humans share a common ancestor, this difference must be explained. It was hypothesized that a mutation fused two of the ape chromosomes creating just one in humans. And that is what modern genetics has found.

In 2005, a paper was published comprehensively identifying where two analogous chromosomes of the non-human great apes fused end-to-end to create human chromosome 2. Our chromosome has end markers (the telomere) in the middle, and two middle-sequences (centromeres) laid out in the pattern that is consistent which such fusing. The first centromere of human chromosome 2 lines up with chimp chromosome 2p, while the second centromere matches chimp 2q.

I’m not a geneticist. The last time I was in a formal biology class, the technology to sequence these genes was a far-off science-fiction dream. So rather than embarrass myself further, I’d point you to this short video that explains the finding much better than I could.

 

This initial finding has been corroborated by significant research in the years since.

If you are feeling curious and ambitious, I would encourage you to dig deeper into the science yourself, as I did. Much of it is over my head, but it was enough to conclusively convince me that our chromosome 2 is a fusion of two common ancestor’s chromosomes. (And amazed me at what has happened in the field of genetics while I was off marketing space movies.) The evidence is difficult to explain by any other mechanism.

I was so convinced, I named this blog after it.

As you research this yourself, you may also find amateur authors attempting to use jargon to paint minor cherry-picked disagreements (some since settled) among geneticists about the “how” this happened as some kind of scientific doubt about the “what” happened. I find this trend unfortunate, as scientists publicly refining the work of other scientists is what gives science its power, not its weakness.

I’m happy for you, Star Wars. I am.

I’m happy for you, <i>Star Wars</i>. I am.

In just a month, Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in movie theaters.

In October 1999, my life-long fandom and involvement with the popular Star Wars website TheForce.net landed me at a lunch on Skywalker Ranch which lead to my recruitment to take over the efforts at StarWars.com. I picked up my family, moved to the Bay Area, and for seven years was part of Lucasfilm’s marketing team through the remaining Star Wars prequels. I look back at that time as the best professional experience of my life for many reasons, but most of all the sheer uncompromising excellence of every person I had the pleasure of working with.

In 2006, I was burned out, missing my young children, and facing the gauntlet of Indiana Jones 4 with no further Star Wars in sight. I left my position at Lucasfilm to move back to Canada and start new life chapters.

In 2012, it was announced that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm and that a new wave of Star Wars films would be made. From my desk in Calgary, I had decidedly mixed emotions. As a fan, the prospect of a breath of fresh air in my beloved franchise made me giddy. On a professional level, my heart sank. There will be more Star Wars, and I will not be involved.

In the months that followed, many Lucas friends and colleagues ended up losing their jobs as Disney consolidated operations. I consoled myself that, in all likelihood, I would not have kept my position in the new efforts even if I had stayed. That said, a handful of those I worked with closely kept their positions and continue to guide the company and the story. So… maybe I could have done the same? I can talk myself into either possibility, depending how I want to feel about it.

I am proud that there are hints of the legacy of what I was trying to accomplish with the online marketing that have carried forward, even if such hints are in my mind only. I am proud of the team that I fought alongside who are still at Lucasfilm making a difference.

I am sad that the trivial blips I was able to contribute to official Star Wars lore were swept away in the expanded universe reboot… even though I am strongly in support of that housecleaning. (And advocated such a move while at Lucasfilm.)

I worry that the new Star Wars films will be amazing, and my time with Star Wars will be further tainted with some kind of asterisk because I was on board for the bad films.

If I could sum it up best, I feel like the girl who said “see you later” to Avril Lavigne’s Sk8er Boi and now stands in the concert crowd looking up at the guitar-playing Star Wars that I turned down.

That said, I will never be able to experience Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith as a fan. I will think of the scenes I was off camera for. I will remember scene development and behind-the-scenes turmoil. I will remember alternate edits and creative choices. I wouldn’t trade it, but it’s something I can’t experience purely even these years later.

And so, with a month left to The Force Awakens, I’ve decided to make the most of it. I’ve avoided much of the speculation and spoilers. The day-to-day news. I’m avoiding all the new footage in commercials.

When I walk in to the first showing (not even a special screening) in my city on opening night, I will do so as a regular fan. Enjoying my trip to a galaxy far, far away just as the creators intended. Where I began.