Friday, October 21, 2011

Are You Talking to Me?

A few years ago if you were to stroll by the First Baptist Church in town a sunny Saturday afternoon, you might see two older white-haired gentlemen in dirt-stained baggy slacks, un-tucked shirts, doing simple landscape maintenance around the church grounds. One might easily take them for a couple of homeless men; possibly earning a nights meal in exchange for manual labor around the church.

In fact on this day, as the younger of the two elderly men was flinging fertilizer pellets from a coffee can over the lawn and shrub beds, a nicely dressed gentleman walking by the church stopped to watch. Then man then addressed the two older gardeners in a condescending manner, admonishing them: “You guys shouldn’t be putting that stuff on that lawn.”

Stopping their work, the man continued lecturing the two older groundskeepers, “You shouldn’t be putting harmful chemicals on the lawn; you should be using ‘Natural’ fertilizers instead.”

The two older landscape workers smiled and took off their worn work gloves; holding the coffee can to the face of their self-appointed Sidewalk Supervisor, one of them spoke: “This can contains Carbamide, a synthetic combination of ammonia and carbon dioxide, a Nitrogen fertilizer more commonly known as Urea. Mister, if there’s anything more ‘natural’ than Urea, please correct me!”

Sharing a smile between them the two old men in soiled clothes turned away from the man and went back to their work on the church landscaping. They were Dr. Melvin Westwood and Dr. Albert Roberts, both highly published research scientist and distinguished professors of Agriculture at Oregon State University.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Atheism Is Work

There are many critics of Atheists but one charge one can’t level at atheists is that they are lazy. It is believing that easy – it requires no thought, preparation or investment of time or energy. Believing carries with it a huge payoff; it is comforting, reassuring, and removes the mental discord of stress, doubt and concern. Many believers wrongly think that Atheism comes to us easily; we simply dismiss acceptance of a deity. But this is not true; Atheism is difficult and demanding, quite often lonely and occasionally even disquieting.

On any Sabbath in our small Liberal town with several dozen churches, multiple Mormon ‘wards’, a synagogue and a mosque, hundreds of faithful convene to praise their versions of god. Conversely, only once a month does our local secular society attract a dozen or so non-believers. In The USA, ‘none-of-the-abovers’ are estimated to make up perhaps 20% of the US population. This fact contradicts those who charge that Atheism is, in itself, a religion. If that were true I would ask where is the Atheist Church located, who runs it and what is its tax exempt status? Or as I like to respond to this assertion: if stamp collecting is a hobby, is not collecting stamps a hobby as well?

Many believers hold myths about Atheists: that we are angry or disappointed at god, that we are closed minded about the possibility of his existence. To try to address these myths our little organization hosted two public forums we titled “Ask and Atheist”. Instead of being in lecture format, we would instead open the floor to comments and questions from believers to try to educate them about our position. We conducted two of these public forums, handing out survey forms which attendees turned in at the end of the sessions.

What we found were only a very small number of believers actually showed up. It was obvious who they were; the two or three who quoted from the ‘holy book’. They weren’t interested in why we were Atheists; they were there in vein attempt to save us from damnation. The majority of the audience, we found, were already other non-believers. We were preaching to the choir, it seemed. We had hoped that our little public forum might at least serve as publicity and perhaps draw new member to our group. That was a disappointment as well. Unlike believers, Atheists don’t need to regularly convene to reassure one another of their non-beliefs. It is simply a non-issue.

Like many before me, my path to Atheism has been difficult. It’s work! A recent Pew Research Center poll found that among the general population, Atheists and Mormons were more knowledgeable about other religions than religious people knew even about their own particular religion. Atheists may know more about Catholicism than most Catholics, for example, because they have taken the time and effort to find out. Atheism is driven by their need to find out the Truth. We ask the hard questions and demand answers.

Still Atheists understand people finding comfort in belief. In fact, comfort is the answer most often given as the reason people cling to religious belief. Belief affords the (illusion of) hope; hope that things out of your control are under god's, hope that you will live beyond death, hope that prayer will divert the natural course of events which appear threatening.

There is a comforting social component to being a believer, particularly if one attends church. Churches are communal, convivial; here one can associate with like-minded people with whom you share a common connection and bond – here they are part of your “tribe”.

But there is news recently that religious belief is on the decline. Clearly it was much easier to attribute to god(s) back in a time when man did not understand how clouds, weather and storms were formed; that bacteria caused disease; how the earth, planets and stars were formed and move throughout the universe.

Every day science adds to the body of man’s knowledge regarding the context of our existence – religion adds nothing new. Man is driven toward knowledge... and to achieve this, one must venture away from the desire for comfort.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The photo at the left is of a five inch high stack of unsolicited (junk) mail credit card solicitations accumulated since the start of this summer. This is not all the junk mail I have received; the stack pictured represents ONLY bank credit card solicitations, primarily from Chase and Citi banks.

Pictured next to the pile of credit card junk mail is a coffee mug gift from our former mortgage company, Washington Federal Savings and Loan. Not to be confused with Washington Mutual Bank which was the largest bank failure in US history in 2008 and eventually taken over by JP Morgan Chase, the much smaller Washington Federal Savings and Loan has completely survived the financial mortgage breakdown of 2008 and continues to prosper during these tough financial times. They haven’t taken a cent of government stimulus buyout or been acquired by another company; to my knowledge they are not hemorrhaging under the cloud of excessive home foreclosure nor have I heard of them laying of a single employee. Why?

A bit of personal history first – During the first half of my professional career I worked in banking. My entry level job with the bank was repossessing cars from people who couldn’t make their car payments. The idea behind that training path was to ensure that future loan officers had intimate knowledge of what a bad loan was… so as not to make any themselves.

Later one of the first loans I ever made was to a couple who had previously declared bankruptcy. Each morning the branch manager would review the loans made by his officers the previous day. When he saw the loan decision I had made he sternly asked me to justify my decision. I explained that even though this couple had had their loans forgiven in bankruptcy, once back on their feet, the repaid their debts even though they were no longer required to. The sense of ethic this customer had shown convinced me they were a worth risk; my branch manager accepted my decision.

Back in those days interest rates were controlled by Federal and State regulations. There were “usury” laws on the books; it was illegal to charge excessive amounts of interest, fees or penalties. If you bought a car from a car dealership, you needed 20% of your own cash down for bank financing. A mortgage loan on a home required 10% down unless it was a federally guaranteed loan; 20% if it was not owner-occupied. There were strict debt-to-income and loan-to-income ratios in which a loan applicant needed to fall within for the loan to be approved.

Savings and Loans (like Washington Federal) carried mortgage loans on their own books as long-term investments. Banks such as my employer sold their mortgages on the “secondary market” at a discount for funds which they could turn around and lend out commercially for shorter term at higher interest rates. The system worked, and more importantly, it was stable.

But after I left the banking industry, the whole financial industry changed radically. “Whatever the free ‘market’ would bear” became the new rule. Usury laws were scrapped; credit card rates soared to amounts that “Loan Sharks” previously extorted from hapless debtors. Banks dropped completely out of car lending as the car companies (GMAC, General Motors Acceptance Corporation, Toyota Credit, etc.) could provide new car financing for 0% down over five years. Mortgage brokering took off as brokers, hungry for lucrative commissions, helped unqualified borrowers “fudge” their applications to make them appear that they qualified. Housing prices soared as demand from a new class of borrowers flooded onto the market. People were “flipping” houses, buying and reselling them for a profit a mere month or two later. It was the Wild West of Finance – the rule was that there were no rules.

Washington Federal Savings and Loan still makes loans the “old fashioned” way. They recently gave my wife and I each a lovely coffee mug as a thank-you gift for the half-dozen or so now paid off loans we have had with them over the years. If we ever need another loan or another mug, we know exactly where we are going to go.

The other day there were only four items received in our mail box; two pre-approved credit card solicitations from Chase Bank, two each for my wife and me. I added them to the recycle pile pictured above. I am going to keep adding to the pile until the November 2012 election.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

My few followers may have noticed a gap in my usually regular posting. I confess I have been going through somewhat of a “why bother” phase. I have written down some thoughts but have discarded them as not truly worthy of your consideration. During this period I have not visited my follower’s blogs as well.

Of late my mind has been occupied with pondering how both lucky and unlucky sets of incidences had brought me to, and pulled me back from, the brink of death. These experiences has jelled within me with certain finality that any belief in a “higher being”, god, whatever one wants to call it, is both extremely infantile and monumentally ludicrous. Any sense of awe and appreciation and wonder and purpose in my life I find most profoundly among the people who make it WORTH living – my wife, my children, my friends and more. And it is the ultimate finality of those important relationships that makes them so critically vital and worth embracing NOW.

I recently stumbled upon a talk by naturalist, Sir David Attenborough. He was speaking about the eminent extinction of various animal species, specifically about the number of reports and studies which have pointed to these causes; global climate change, destruction of habitat and so on. But what he found remarkable in each and every report was the one basic common contributing factor NOT mentioned:

Fifty years ago (when I was age 12) there were 3 billion people on this planet. Today there are 7 billion, more than doubled IN MY LIFETIME – world population increases by 250,000 people a day, by 10,000 an hour. Each and every one of these individuals will require space – room to live, eat, survive. But as a Naturalist, Sir David points out in stark and undeniable truth: “there cannot be more people on this earth than can be fed”. Sir David refers to the concept of “sustainable growth” as an oxymoron.

True, increases in productivity and food sciences have fed billions; and likely more advances in this area are forthcoming. Yet these advances only hasten the inevitable. Sir David quotes economist Kenneth Boulding:
“Anyone who believes indefinite growth in anything physical on a physically finite planet is either a madman or an economist.”
The key ingredient driving the advances in food production is energy, specifically energy from petroleum. Petroleum provides the chemicals to enhance food production and distribution. Petroleum is a finite commodity the demand for it is increasing and the supply of it is becoming more expensive. The cost of petroleum, and therein food, is manipulated by economic interests. The demand for food will only increase and with it, the cost. Those who will, and are now bearing the full brunt of this inevitability, are the poor… a number which is also steadily increasing world wide.

I note with increasing disgust the amount of time and energy that is wasted on the banality of the political process in this country and around the world. The “N-word” painted on a rock at Rick Perry’s hunting lodge, fear that same-sex people will get married, that elected official, Mitch McConnell has stated his sole purpose in Congress is to ensure against President Obama having a second term… All this meaningless nonsense saps our energy - while these morons fiddle, Rome burns.

Between now and the 2012 presidential election, 98,500,000 (ninety-eight million, five-hundred thousand) more people will exist on this planet. Their fate will be either in the hands of an invisible omnipotent benevolent/malevolent being - or more likely, Not.

Sir David Attenborough’s full talk can be viewed here.