The God Question

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During my 4th period class today, I got asked one of my least favorite questions by one of my students: “Do you believe in God?”

It’s a science class, and I want us to stay on-topic. Discussing my views on the existence or non-existence of a deity isn’t going to help with that. I sighed, and said what I always say in this situation: “That’s a personal question, and I don’t answer personal questions.”

The students then remembered that I have a Bible on the bookshelf in my classroom, and concluded, on the basis of this single shred of evidence, that I am, indeed, a believer. (The Bible is there as one of many options for my students to read during their designated reading time, just before lunch.)

Since then, I’ve been to Amazon, and ordered an English translation of the Qur’an, which I will place on that same bookshelf — probably right next to the Bible. I wonder what my students will make of that? 

Reading: It’s What You Do

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I have observed many families where reading is simply what people do. In one, a favorite family story is of a little girl (a toddler) whose parents and older brother were sitting in the living room, reading. No one told anyone else to read; this was simply something people did. The little girl was so young that she was holding her book upside-down, but she was doing her best.

This family does not consent to be identified by name, but I do have permission to describe the scene above. There are thousands of families like this — in the USA alone. May they increase in number.

When reading is simply what you do, it has a huge impact on who you are.

A Scenario I Would Like to See: Friendly Competition, Between Teachers’ Unions and School Administrators, to Help School Libraries Everywhere

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During the Cold War, the usual way nations compete (direct warfare) was taken off the table by the invention of the hydrogen bomb. With the alternative being mutually-assured destruction, the two sides, led by the USA and the USSR, had to find other ways to compete. Some of those ways were harmful, such as proxy wars, as happened in Vietnam. Others, however, were helpful, such as the space race. The United States put men on the Moon in order to beat the Soviet Union there, as this iconic 1969 photograph makes evident (source: NASA).

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We are all still reaping the benefits of the technological and scientific advances made during this period, and for this purpose. The most obvious example of such a benefit is the computer you are using to read this blog-post, for computer technology had to be advanced dramatically, on both sides, in order to escape the tremendously-challenging gravity-well of the Earth.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if other conflicts in society took beneficial forms, as happened in this historical example?

This could happen in many ways, but the one that gave me the idea for this post is the conflict between teachers’ unions and school districts’ administrators, now taking place in school districts all over the place. I think it would be awesome if this previously-harmful competition changed, to take a helpful form: book drives, to help school libraries.

Please do not misunderstand, though: I’m not talking about taxpayer money, nor union dues. My idea need not, and should not, affect the budget of any school district, nor union budget. All that need happen is for individual people — teachers and administrators  — to go home, look at their own bookshelves, and help students directly, by donating some of their already-paid-for books to school libraries.

While I make no claim to represent any organization, I am a teacher, and a member of the NEA (the National Education Association) in the United States, as well as my state and local NEA affiliates. In an effort to start this new, helpful way to compete, I will give books to the school library where I teach, next week, which is the second week of the new school year. That’s a lot easier than, well, putting men on the Moon. 

This is something we can all do. All of us in the education profession, after all, already agree that we want students reading . . . and this is something we can easily do, to work together towards that goal. School libraries need hardcover books which are student-friendly, meaning that they appeal to a young audience, on a wide variety of subjects. Both fiction and non-fiction books are helpful.

Lastly, in the hope that this idea catches on, I will simply point out one fact: helping turn this idea into a reality is as easy as sharing a link to this blog-post. 

A Proven Method for Getting Teenagers to Read

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Although I am a teacher, I am not an English teacher — but I also believe that, as a teacher of anything, I have an ethical and professional responsibility to promote literacy.

Many such methods for doing so exist. This is the one I use. The authors I have gotten teens reading most often, with this method, are Richard Feynman, Robert Heinlein, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jung Chang, Flannery O’Connor, and Stephen Hawking. If a teenager in a science class, a subject I do teach, completes his work from me, with a high level of accuracy, and in an unusually short time, I keep books by these authors on hand as my set of “emergency back-up teachers.” Turning bored students into engaged and interested students is, I am learning, the key to avoiding teacher-burnout — at least for me.

Next on my list to add to the books I use for this ongoing project: multiple copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I haven’t read it since I was in high school myself, and its impact still lingers.

Why I Do Not Write Books

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It’s very simple: errors in writing, of any kind, horrify me. If I wrote a book, and it were published, some would likely slip through, such as the one in the image above. If a book with my name on the cover had been published, and I then discovered an error, I would end up trying to get corrected copies to every buyer of the first edition, eating all profits, and then some. I also just don’t need that type of stress.

Please do not misunderstand: I love books.

Therefore, I do two other things, in lieu of actually writing a book (which has been suggested, to me, more than once). First, I read other peoples’ books. I seek higher-quality books to avoid those irritating typos, for they actually cause me pain when I see them. Even so, some slip through — ouch! — but at least the mistakes aren’t mine. I am almost immune to conventional causes of embarrassment, but this isn’t a conventional cause, and I certainly have no immunity to it.

The other thing I do is to blog, which is, of course, another form of writing. It’s a perfect forum for someone with this writing-quirk — because, when I discover a mistake in my writing, even months or years later, I can edit it away in seconds. This is why, for me, blogging > writing books. However, I am grateful that there are good writers for whom the inequality symbol points in the other direction.

At Least for Me, Blogging > Writing a Book

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I’ve been asked, more than once, if I’ve ever considered writing a book. The answer: writing a book, as compared to maintaining a blog, would drive me crazy. The reason is simple: every book I’ve every read has at least one typo in it — somewhere. If I wrote a book, got it published, and then found writing mistakes in it, I’d be mortified. With a blog, on the other hand, I can edit mistakes away, months, or even years, after making them.

There aren’t many things that embarrass me, but making errors in writing is definitely one of them. If others can see the errors, then having committed the “sin” of writing incorrectly feels like being caught naked in public — eeeeek!

In Anticipation of Sam Harris’s Newest Book

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Sam Harris has already written these five books, all of which I have read. I wasn’t crazy about the first one, but thoroughly enjoyed all the others. They are presented here, in order, by publication-date.

  1. The End of Faith (2004)
  2. Letter to a Christian Nation (2006)
  3. The Moral Landscape:  How Science Can Determine Human Values (2010)
  4. Lying (2011)
  5. Free Will (2012)

This month, he has a new book coming out. It’s called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. I have already pre-ordered it on Amazon, and am looking forward to its arrival. 

Here is a link to a book review of Waking Up which was published in The New York Times, yesterday:  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/31/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-between-godliness-and-godlessness.html?_r=1.

This link is to the page on Amazon where you can order Waking Up: http://www.amazon.com/Waking-Up-Spirituality-Without-Religion/dp/1451636016/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1409584480&sr=8-1&keywords=waking+up+sam+harris.

My Four Favorite Authors

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Whenever people ask me to name my favorite author, I always have to ask them to be more specific, for I cannot bring myself to choose just one. If gender is specified, and either fiction or non-fiction is, as well, then I am able to choose a favorite author in each of the resulting four categories.

My two favorite writers of fiction, Flannery O’Connor and Robert A. Heinlein, are shown at the top. Flannery O’Conner was often described as a Southern gothic writer with an excellent ability to describe the grotesque, mostly with short stories, while Robert Heinlein was often called the greatest of all writers in the genre of science fiction. I wish it were possible for them to write even more, but, unlike the two authors described next, they are no longer living.

Shown below O’Connor and Heinlein are my two favorite authors of non-fiction, Jung Chang and Sam Harris. Jung Chang writes about Chinese history, eloquently, from the perspective of someone who actually was a Red Guard during the utterly insane period known as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as a teenager, but later managed to get out of the People’s Republic — and, crucially, she was also able to mentally escape the powerful cult of personality which surrounded that nation’s leader for over two decades, Chairman Mao Zedong. She has gone on to become one of Mao’s harshest critics.

Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, began his career as an author by writing books criticizing religion, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. He has since moved on to other topics (and writing better books than his earlier work, in my opinion), such as the corrosive effects of lying, the question of the existence or non-existence of free will, and a scientific approach to dealing with issues involving good and evil. He also has a new book coming out in September.

Other than their amazing skill at the difficult craft of writing, these four have little in common . . . but who wants to read the same sort of books all the time? If you aren’t familiar with their work already, I recommend giving each of them a read, and seeing what you think of their books. For one of them, Sam Harris, you can even give some of his writing a try for free, for he maintains a blog you can check out for yourself, at http://www.samharris.org.

For the other three, it isn’t quite that easy to get started, but their books may still be found in any decent public library, or, of course, websites such as Amazon. For O’Connor, the best place to start is with her collected short stories (Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/The-Complete-Stories-Flannery-OConnor/dp/0374515360/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1405366654&sr=8-2&keywords=collected+short+stories+of+flannery+o%27connor). For Jung Chang, I recommend starting with the story of what happened, against the tumultuous backdrop of Chinese history, to her grandmother, mother, and finally herself, in Wild Swans:  Three Daughters of China (see http://www.amazon.com/Wild-Swans-Three-Daughters-China/dp/0743246985/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405366792&sr=1-1&keywords=wild+swans). Heinlein’s works are numerous, and there are many good starting places to be found. Among the best books with which to start reading Heinlein are Stranger in a Strange Land (his most famous work), Friday, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and Job:  A Comedy of Justice. Amazon’s Robert Heinlein page may be found at http://www.amazon.com/Robert-Heinlein/e/B005GDIOHM/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1405367065&sr=1-2-ent.

Enjoy, and, if you have book recommendations of your own, I invite you to leave them in a comment to this post.

The Evolution of Sam Harris’s Writing

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The Evolution of Sam Harris's Writing

Sam Harris is my favorite author of non-fiction, but this has not always been the case. He is usually classified as one of the “Four Horsemen” (along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens), to the point where he has remarked that some treat them as “one creature with four heads.” I’ve read books by all four men, and they are very different. Harris started as my least favorite of the four, and has become my favorite. How did this happen? Well, it took some time.

Sam Harris began his career as a writer with a book called The End of Faith, written in the wake of, and largely in response to, the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

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Despite my atheism, I did not care for this book. It bashes Islam too much for my tastes, and Harris is still criticized for this fact, generally by people who have not read the rest of his work. Reactions like mine to this book are rare among atheists, for one simple reason: most atheists have a far less favorable view of Islam than I do. For more on that, please see my previous blog-post, and the earlier one it links to.

Islam is not the only religion criticized by Harris in his first book — not by any means. As someone who has never had a Muslim attempt to harm me, but who has suffered greatly at the hands of certain Christians, I was far more receptive to his arguments against the Christian religion. Many members of that religion noticed those arguments as well, and Harris was deluged with hate mail, much of it from enraged Christians in the USA. He wrote his second book as a response to this torrent of criticism.

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This second book paid much less attention to Islam, and far more, as the title implies, to Christianity. I enjoyed it more, but admit that this likely has as much to do with my personal history as anything else. Still, Letter to a Christian Nation remains the only book I have ever read in a single sitting; it was so compelling that I was unwilling to stop reading it until the last page.

Both of Harris’s first books may be described as “beating the drum of atheism,” an activity which is interesting and useful only up to a certain point. To his credit as an author, he realized that writing more books which repeat this process would be waste of time. He therefore decided to move on to other subjects — and, in my opinion, his books improved greatly as a result of that decision. Here’s his next one:

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The Moral Landscape is not a book about atheism, nor religion. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, and this book considers human values from a scientific point of view:  questions of good and evil, and whether or not such questions can be addressed scientifically. Ethics and morality are things for which some people consider religion essential. Rather than belaboring the fact that he disagrees with this, Harris, in this book, simply makes a compelling case that such topics can indeed be addressed using the scientific method.

This was Harris’s first book after he made the excellent decision to move out, beyond his previous focus on atheism and religion. Were it not for this decision, I would not name Harris as my favorite non-fiction author. The arguments in this book are compelling, I learned much from reading it, and recommend it highly.

Harris’s fourth book tackles the topic of honesty, and its opposite:

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Is there ever a situation in which lying is justifiable? Most people would say “yes.” Harris disagrees, and, in this very short book, makes a compelling argument for honesty. His move away from the “drum of atheism” continues in this book, and the rule with Harris is simple:  the further away he goes from his original topic of choice, the better his writing becomes.

This brings me to his fifth book, the amazing Free Will.

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Do I have free will?  Do you?  Does Harris?  It certainly seems as if we do, but Harris takes the point of view that free will is an illusion, and supplies ample evidence to support this position. Denying free will is a dangerous game, of course, for, without free will, how can anyone be held responsible for their actions? Harris does not avoid this problem, but tackles it directly. Reading this book has had a powerful impact on how I view a great many things.

There is more of Harris to read, for those who are interested. I follow his blog regularly (http://www.samharris.org), and he has a new major book release coming soon, as well. Since he keeps getting better with each new book, I am looking forward to it with anticipation.