Praying is Selfish

Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t post a request for prayers on my Facebook page.  I want to ask them why they don’t solicit something more useful, but of course it is not the proper time or place.  I’m not going to enter into a religious debate with someone who is suffering, whether it is because their parent died, their pet died, or their car died.  It’s all pain and I don’t want to add to it.

I suppose most people don’t really think that praying is going to have any tangible effect, they just want to know that people care.  “I’m praying for you” has been shorthand for “I am sorry for what you’re going through and hope things will get better.”  So why don’t we skip the praying part all together?

It might be because by praying the person thinks that they are doing something positive.  Perhaps praying absolves them of having to do anything else to help.  After all, the person has put the problem in God’s hands, so it’s up to him/her/them to help now.  That might make the prayer feel much better, but it does fuck all for the person in pain.

Telling someone you’re praying for them may be a good first step, if they are religious.  It means you are thinking of them, even if the actual praying is a waste of time.  But you know the cliché, talk is cheap.  Instead of just praying, why not do something practical?  Sure, not much besides time can help ease the pain of a loved one’s death, but you can still bring them food, send flowers, write a loving note, donate to their favorite charity, take their kids to the zoo or mow the yard. 

Don’t bother telling an atheist you’re praying for them when something bad happens.  If the prayer knows you’re not religious, it’s basically the same as saying, “I’m going to do something to make myself feel better, too bad about you.”  When I’m dealing with bad news just tell me you care and that you’re thinking of me.  And bring me a casserole.

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Going There

There are few subjects that polarize Americans more than abortion, but I’m going there.  I don’t think there is much point in talking about the subject because people on both sides are unlikely to change their minds.  I know the issue seems very clear-cut to me and can’t imagine why people on the other side don’t see it the same way.  No doubt they feel the same.

Michele Bachmann has predicted that the elections in November will end the right to a legal abortion within a year.  I think it’s mildly amusing that she thinks it will end abortion.  Sorry, Michele, making it illegal won’t end it, it will just mean more women will die.  Which fits right in with your “we will stand for life” statement, right?

If she was really concerned about life there are so many things she could be doing.  What about making sure all citizens have health care?  That would certainly save lives.  What about reducing the pollution in our air and water, making our food supply safer and ensuring all children are vaccinated?  That would save many needless deaths.  What about helping to feed the children of the world who are starving at the staggering rate of 15 million per year?  Or maybe those children don’t count since they are already born.

The only sure way to reduce the number of abortions is to make sure every pregnancy is a planned one.  We should increase sex education, make contraception available and affordable to all, fund research into better contraception, and empower girls. 

So Michele irks me with her hypocrisy, but I’m not too concerned about her prophecy that the Supreme Court will repeal Roe v Wade.  I don’t think the country would stand for it.  It would be like repealing the Voting Rights Act (yes, I know some Republicans would like to do that as well.)  The right’s desire to return us to the 1950’s will never happen.

To me, the abortion argument comes down to this:  No one has the right to use another person’s body without their permission.  That’s it.  The woman must consent or the fetus is out of there.  It has no rights until it can live on its own outside the womb.  Women are not incubators.  We are not slaves. 

I do respect that other people have different opinions, even if I don’t fully grasp why.  I absolutely agree that if you think abortions are morally wrong you shouldn’t have one.  But I fail to see why your belief should impact my behavior.

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It surprises me how many times I have a blog post all ready to go and I check out one of my favorite sites and find someone else has just written about the same subject.  This wouldn’t be unusual if it was referring to a news story, but often it’s not.  In the most recent case, I was ready to write about heroes and how I’ve learned to accept them as flawed.  Elyse, on Skepchick, wrote it first though, in the post “Heroes We Deserve.” 

One of the things that I’ve come to realize (and about time, since my life is more than half over) is that people we admire don’t have to be perfect.  Which is a good thing, since of course no one is perfect or even close.  We don’t expect our family and friends to be perfect, and we damn well know we aren’t perfect, and just because someone is in the public eye doesn’t automatically mean they receive a mantle of infallibility.

I used to be so disappointed when I found out one of the well-known people I liked had made a mistake.  Now I am much more likely to say, “Look at the stupid thing So-and-So said,” and weigh it against his or her body of work.  Of course sometimes someone will say something that is unforgivable (if they go on a racist rant, for instance) or the weight of errors they make is so overwhelming that it buries the good that they’ve done. 

One of the first big reality checks I had was with Bill Clinton.  I campaigned for him and was excited when he won the presidency.  I even, believe it or not, thought at first that he didn’t have sex with that woman.  I know, I was very naive.  I was not so much disappointed about the sex but about how he lied about it.  Lying or refusing to admit you’ve made a mistake always makes things worse.  A sincere apology, not one of those “I’m sorry if I offended anyone” with a subtext of “But I’m not sorry I did it” types, goes a long way in restoring trust.

I’ve finally learned not to put people on a pedestal.  Many of the famous or semi-famous people I most admire are scientists, writers, musicians and activists.  I admire them for their intelligence, humor, compassion, and for being really good at what they do.  And now, when they do something less than admirable, I treat them like I would a friend.  I roll my eyes and quote Wil Wheaton, “Don’t be a dick.”

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While I Was Gone

In October my mother was hospitalized and received a diagnosis that no one ever wants to hear. This knocked my world off its axis, not surprisingly. It is made more complicated because we live so far apart and our relationship, while unwavering in its love, is sometimes difficult.

I won’t go into any details because of privacy concerns, but the amount of conflicting information, errors and inconclusive test results frequently makes me want to hit something.

I’ve found it hard to concentrate on anything other than my mother, but have realized that I need an outlet for my frustration. I am hoping that this blog will provide that.

I’m going to write about whatever strikes my fancy, which will mean a lot of ranting. It will include some political diatribes, because as hard as I try I can’t avoid hearing the idiotic things politicians say. It may also include rants about things I read on FaceBook or Twitter, things I see in my town and the dog that shits in my flower bed (I will try to restrain myself from that last one.) I promise to not post cute cat photos or yummy recipes, though. I actually like both of those things, but I think they’re already adequately covered on the internet.

Happy New Year.

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God, No! by Penn Jillette


I recently finished the book God, No! by Penn Jillette.  Jillette is the large guy who talks in the Penn & Teller magic duo.  I also saw him speak in the Indianapolis area last week. 

The book has a framework of the “Ten Suggestions,” which is an atheist response to the Ten Commandments of the Bible.  There are many anecdotes to illustrate the suggestions and they also give us a lot of insight into Jillette’s life.  Except for the infamous “cock in the hairdryer” incident, it has been a remarkably happy life but definitely not dull.

God, No! doesn’t have any new insights into atheism and it’s not great literature, but it is compelling and at times hilarious.  If you’re religious, I think you will look more kindly on atheists after reading it.  Or perhaps you’ll think atheists are all crazy.  If you’re already an atheist (and Jillette’s premise is that almost everyone already is), you’ll enjoy a fun, fast-paced read that will give you some food for thought.

Jillette differs from the average atheist in that he is a Libertarian.  I think he’s wrong, but I respect his convictions while thinking they are a bit naive.  I also disagree with his position on proselytizing, though I do understand his point.  He says that if you truly believe someone is going to burn in hell for eternity, your moral obligation is to do what you can to prevent that.  I still don’t want to hear it over and over again.  But maybe I’ll be a little more patient the next time someone tries to “save” me.  Nah, probably not.  I think Jillette is kinder and more patient than I am.

If you ever have a chance to see him speak or perform, go.  He knows how to connect with an audience and how to entertain, even when he’s speaking on serious subjects.  If you’re looking for a book that’s amusing, thought-provoking and more than a little bizarre, read God, No!

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One Story, Two Versions

When researching my ancestor Joseph Greer I was amused to find two different versions of the same story.  After the revolutionaries were victorious in the Battle of King’s Mountain, Greer was chosen to take the news to the Continental Congress.  Wikipedia summarizes it as, “Joseph Greer (born 8 August 1754) also known as the Kings Mountain Messenger, is most known for his delivery of the message of victory against the British at the Battle of Kings Mountain to the Continental Congress in 1780.”

The Daughters of the American Revolution in Tennessee have a chapter named Kings Mountain Messenger in honor of Greer.  Their version of the event includes a few more details.  It explains that he was chosen by Col. John Sevier to deliver the news of the victory and “It took him some thirty days on foot and horse while enduring the wilds of the country, the threat of hostile Indians, and the snow and rain of a severe winter to arrive with musket and compass on November 7, 1780 at the session of Congress, a 600 mile trip. It is said that the Indians shot his horse from under him and on one occasion was hiding inside a hollow log while the Indians sat on it.”

When he finally got to Philadelphia, “His entry to the Congress was restrained because he was unknown, however he pushed his 6 foot 7 inch frontiersman stature through the door and delivered his message to a stunned and disbelieving Congress. Seeing his size and courage, they were heard to say ‘with men of his size and strength, no wonder the frontier patriots won.’

There is also a chapter of the lesser-known Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) named for Joseph Greer.  Their version of the story has some differences, though.  This is where you need to put on your skeptical glasses.  When relating the journey through the wilderness, the SAR says, “During the journey, Greer had several horses shot out from under him by Indians.  One night Greer hid in a log while hiding from a group of Indians chasing him.  One account said the Indians even sat on the same log resting their feet while Greer remained immobile inside the log.  Greer also had to cross several streams, some covered with ice, and walk through deep snow along the trip.

In the SAR version, when Greer got to the Continental Congress, “A Continental soldier guard refused to let Greer enter the meeting. This didn’t stop Greer. He had already been through too much to be stopped now. If Indians or the weather couldn’t stop him no soldier was about to keep him from his mission. One account says Greer hit the guard with his bare fist knocking him out and then Greer picked him up over his head and slammed him to the ground. Greer then kicked the door down where the Continental Congress was meeting. A Stunned Congress looked in awe at Greer, a big man standing six feet seven inches tall while he gave his account of the battle on how Ferguson was defeated.” It also repeats the “With men his size and strength, No wonder we won the battle” exclamation.

I thought it was funny how the SAR seemed to “punch up” (pun intended) the details.  I’ve been trying to find the original source material without luck so far, so I don’t know if the second version started out as the first version and just naturally changed over time as stories do, or if someone intentionally changed it to make it more interesting.  It’s also possible the second version is the one straight from Greer’s mouth (which doesn’t mean it was completely accurate, of course.)  It is yet another example of how we need to be skeptical genealogists and never stop looking for more information.

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The Skeptical Genealogist

One of my hobbies is genealogy.  It doesn’t appeal to me for the usual reasons.  I have no desire to discover illustrious ancestors.  I don’t have children who I wish to teach about their heritage.  I don’t have any burning questions about who I am or where I came from.  I just like the research and the organization.  It’s very exacting, time-consuming work, which I find relaxing in a weird way.

I’m also a history buff, and there’s nothing that makes you feel really involved in the past like knowing your ancestor was there.  It’s a cliché, but it makes the past come alive.  I try to picture what it was like at the battle of Petersburg during the Civil War, where one ancestor died.  I like to imagine the early days of Massachusetts, Virginia and North Carolina, when my ancestors were carving a life out of what had been wilderness.  I feel awe when I read about women in my family having 12 or 14 children, especially considering how many of my ancestors died in childbirth. 

I try to approach genealogy from a skeptical viewpoint, which means I am all about the evidence.  I love finding records, anything from census records to marriage registers to property transfers.  I especially love stories, even though I take them all with a grain (or pound) of salt.  I like trying to find the kernels of truth in family lore and figuring out how the story changed through the years.  Of course just as family stories are not always true, neither are records.  Even birth certificates and marriage logs have errors. 

So doing genealogy can give you a good education not only in basic research techniques, but in judging evidence.  Just as you look at a medical study and determine its reliability by taking into account the size of the study, the length of the study, the funding, etc., you look at a historical record and find out who provided the information, when they provided it, whether it matches other evidence you have and so on.  It’s impossible to ever say positively that something is a fact after you get back two or three generations, but you can be fairly certain.

We have an abundance of records in the U.S. for the last 100-200 years (longer in cities, less so in rural areas.)  It’s easy to trace your family tree when you can use census records, death certificates, the social security death index, newspaper archives, court records, wills, and marriage certificates, as well as the memories of your elderly relatives.  With luck, maybe there will even be a family Bible with records inside or a tree someone made up long ago.  It’s when you get farther back than 1700 or 1750 that things get tricky. 

Surprisingly, after a period when records can be few and far between, things actually get easier if you can get back far enough.  That’s because someone else will have done the work for you already.   You’ll have so many ancestors once you get back to the 1600’s or 1500’s, that some of them will be the same as those of genealogists who have worked everything out. 

That can be wonderful, but it can also be a minefield.  While the internet has made things much easier for researchers, it’s also made it easier to pass on errors.  Sites like and programs like Family Tree Maker are wonderful tools, but they make it the work of a moment to copy someone else’s typos or wrong assumptions into your tree. 

One of my pet peeves is people who don’t check for simple mistakes.  In my own recent research I’ve found ancestors who lived for 160 years, ancestors who lived in the United States in the 1400’s (who were not Native Americans) and ancestors born after their children’s birth.  It’s possible that someone was married when they were 13 or died when they were 102, but it’s not bloody likely that they had a child when they weren’t alive yet.  If you’re a genealogist, do the math!

I think some people are so excited to find out that someone famous (or even infamous) might be an ancestor, that they accept some very questionable results.  Yes, most of us are descendants of someone famous (more on that in a future post) but proving it is a different story.  Please remember to be skeptical and consider the sources.

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