Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Bedtime conversations are the best

Sometimes my five-year old son, Alex, likes to trade beds with his younger brother. He likes to sleep in his brother's car bed and drape blankets over the openings for "privacy". But last night the darkness of the room, exaggerated by the privacy blankets, started to freak him out. He came out of his room and said he felt like there were ghosts in the bed. Frowning, he told me, "Autumn [his older sister] said ghosts aren't real. But sometimes I feel like they're real in here," pointing to his chest.

I said, "That can be scary, huh. Sometimes our feelings tell us one thing but we know it's not really true." I held him for a while and we talked some more. Finally I told him that his mom was baking cookies and that if he went back to bed, I would bring him a cookie when they were ready. I went back with him to his room, and we pulled the privacy blankets off the bed to help him feel less scared.

As he was yanking on an afghan to cover himself with it, I said, "Do you know who made this blanket?"

He said, "Mom."

I said, "Nope, not Mom..."

He guessed, "Grandma?"

I said, "Nope, not even Grandma. It was my grandma. Grandpa Thelen's mom. Her name was Florence, and she was a really nice grandma. I loved her very much, and that's why we named Anita [our baby] after her, with her middle name Florence."

He asked, "Is she still alive?"

I said, "No, she died... probably about fifteen years ago."

Then Alex took the conversation in a direction that I always find a little uncomfortable, because I'm never sure what to say. He said, "My teacher at church said that when you die, then you come back alive."

I said, "That's what some people think, huh. That's what they teach you at church."

And then he asked the salient question I knew was coming. "Is that true?"

I thought about it for a few seconds. I said, "It would sure be nice, wouldn't it? It's a nice idea, and I would really like it to be true. But I just don't know. I think sometimes you just have to say, I don't know, but I hope so."

He said, "I hope so, too."

It was a touching moment for me. I think my son is a lot like me, and he often thinks about these kinds of things. We have conversations about it every so often. Even though I'm never sure exactly what to say, I always love the feeling of helping my kids explore their ideas about this existence we find ourselves in.

Of all the things that one could hope to be true about religion, I think the idea of an afterlife is the one I would actually want to be true. I don't particularly care whether there is a god, or whether Jesus was who Christians think he was, or which church is God's One True Church. I certainly don't care about most of the peculiar doctrines of Christianity or any other religion. But to be able to prolong my own existence, and to spend time with those I love, even after death? Yeah, I could live with that one. It seems extremely unlikely, and I don't have any evidence for it, and I have no good reasons to believe it whatsoever, but I actually do hope that one is true.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Defending genocide in modern religion

Last week I was sitting through a Sunday school lesson about 1 Samuel 15, in which Saul is commanded to slaughter the Amalekites. Men, women, children, and livestock; none were to be left alive, but Saul screwed up. He brought back the king as a prisoner, and he also spared the best sheep and cattle to be sacrificed as burnt offerings. Because Saul failed to kill everyone and everything as he was commanded, the Lord was mightily pissed off.

Somehow the discussion did not center around the question of why our murderous deity would command genocide and then burn with anger when his servants fail to carry it out. Instead, the main thrust of the lesson seemed to be Samuel's words in verse 22:

But Samuel replied:
"Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD ?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams."

Ah yes, obedience. I was just thinking it had been at least seven days since I heard a lesson about that.

At some point, someone in the class did raise the question of why Saul had such a problem killing the best few cattle when he apparently had no problem killing every Amalekite man, woman, and child. And eventually, the instructor asked the class why it was necessary to obliterate every living creature in the rival civilization at all.

Various participants came up with a number of rationalizations. The Amalekites were evil and perverted. They worshiped false gods. They wanted to lead the Israelites away from their true religion or covenants or whatever. Someone said that it may have been the same reason God told Nephi to kill Laban in the Book of Mormon. I think someone said that God has his reasons, and that even if we don't understand the reasons, we just need to obey.

I'm sorry, but these ideas are crap. Not only are they pure speculation, but even if it were possible for every single person in a society to be irredeemably evil, that does not justify the murder of children. The Bible is not the only religious book that advocates slaughtering infidels in defense of the faith. We don't tend to think very highly of other religious folks that perpetrate large-scale violence in the name of their god. Why should we seek to justify genocide simply because the religious text is ours?

These kinds of stories are not what the world needs right now. This is a tale of Bronze Age warfare, not an Information Age life lesson. I hate sitting through discussions about how we can learn obedience from Old Testament war stories, and how we can try to apply it to our lives today. Can we just admit that some things in the Bible just do not apply? Can we admit that some things in the Bible are truly fucked up? Can we please admit that if this story is literally true, then God is a sadistic, twisted puppy? No, you can't say that out loud in Sunday school. So I'm saying it here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Infinity is a funny thing. When I was a kid, my mom always used to tell me that she loved me to the moon and back infinity times. Not long ago, it occurred to me that she might as well have said she loved me to the grocery store and back infinity times, or the width of a hair and back infinity times, or to the edge of the galaxy and back infinity times. It's all exactly the same distance. But I guess some infinities sound larger than others.

My kids, especially my 5-year old son, have started using the word infinity to describe everyday things, which almost always produces an amusing mental image in my head. For example, my son will say that he wants a snack and he would like infinity popsicles please, and of course I have to picture the entire known universe filled with popsicles, and then some.

A few days ago, I fixed our Nintendo Wii, which was making a horrible grinding noise, and today it started making the noise again. I told my son that it shouldn't take me very long to fix it again this time, and I should be able to fix it more permanently because I got some practice last time. He said he hoped I wouldn't be fixing the Wii for infinity days... or worse, infinity years.

Of course, infinity years is not at all worse than infinity days. I asked him, "Do you know when you could use the Wii if I had to fix it for infinity days?" He said he didn't know, and I said, "Never!" And I said the same for infinity years. Then I reassured him that it probably wouldn't take anywhere close to that. Then again, whether it takes me one hour or three days, either possibility is equally close to infinity years, which is to say, nowhere close.

My kids also don't tend to use a million or a billion to stand in for a very large number. They usually say a googol. The other day I was remarking to my wife that a googol is probably much larger than the number of atoms in the observable universe, and she wasn't convinced. I did a back of the envelope estimate and came up with about 10^80 atoms in the universe, which by sheer dumb luck turns out to be very close to the actual best estimate we have. And a googol is 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 times larger than that.

So ten times the observable universe is still nowhere close to a googol atoms. One billion observable universes is still about 100,000,000,000 times less. You have to take one hundred billion billion observable universes to get about one googol atoms. And that is equally distant from infinity as the number of atoms in my pinky fingernail. Infinity is a funny thing.