Notes from a knowledge junkie

The Golden Rule

I am relieved to find myself in good company regarding my reaction to the video below:

Which, I hope you are glad to learn, was not the same response as the throng of “worshipers” cheering on the indoctrination of hate in such an impressionable—and obviously coached—little boy as he sings, “Ain’t no homos gonna make it to heaven.”

I wanted to craft a satirical response to this video, to try to make a little humor out of something pretty terrible. And I had an idea I thought was pretty good.

Since I’m guessing these people consider themselves “Christian” (which, frankly, is debatable), I’m assuming they are familiar with what is probably the crowning message of Jesus: The Golden Rule.

In case you’ve forgotten, it goes something like this: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Or, in modern English: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:31.)

Generally speaking, it’s called the “rule of reciprocity.” Its negative form (“Don’t do to other what you would not prefer to have done to you”) has been around since before the time of Jesus. Jesus just tweaked it a bit to make it an instruction of how to guide your actions rather than your inactions.

Can you see where I’m going with this? I figure, since I’m guessing these fine parishioners pay homage to what is perhaps Jesus’ supreme principle of moral guidance, they must be crafting their actions in a way that they themselves wish to be treated.

So, I figured, I’d give them what they want. Right?

Get some kid to sing, “Ain’t no fundies gonna make it to heaven,” with a congregation of adults standing and cheering him on. Treat them exactly like they treat the “homos.”

That’ll teach ‘em, right?

No. Of course it won’t. It’s just humor at their expense. It just alienates them further. And it does nothing to save that child from the throes of hate he finds himself immersed in.

Is there a way to do just that, to show this kid the light instead of the darkness? I don’t know. We’ve seen how children from these exclusionary, extremist churches grow up being taught that doubt is a weakness, that it is the work of the devil. And unless there is some way to plant a tiny grain of doubt, to let their minds light up with the curiosity that leads to real knowledge, I’m afraid they’re just going to perpetuate this corner of darkness.

Because it will take even just a little doubt— doubt that there is only one way to view the world and its people, doubt that there is only one “right” way to live and think (and by God, it must be the way they’ve been taught!)—to allow them to grow with empathy, to get them to walk in someone else’s shoes for a day. And then, perhaps, they will know what “loving thy neighbor” truly means.

So, I can’t do it. I can’t resort to hatefulness to combat hatefulness. I can’t surrender to humor to deflect my own anger. There is far too much at stake to do that. And it makes me feel ugly to even consider it.

All I can do is try to be a contrasting voice—to speak from love instead of hate—and hope that this child (and maybe even one of the adults who cheered him on) realizes that there are more loving means of reaching out to those who are different.

It’s hard some days to extend love to people who can be so mean, who are so full of hate themselves. But I do understand how some of these people have come to believe this way, because they were once innocent and were spoiled by this kind of hate themselves. Sowing hate against them definitely won’t help them grow in love.

And I definitely don’t think these folks are destined to “burn in hell,” despite their own readiness to so quickly condemn others.

What I do think: If there is some good and spiritually pure place that we arrive at after we die, they’ll be there with me. Right alongside homosexuals and Jews and Hindus and the atheists and everyone else they probably believe won’t make it to their exclusive club. Because my idea of heaven is one that is truly universal (“catholic,” if you will), one in which we are finally liberated from the fears that make us and those like us see “different” as the same as “evil.” Where we find unity not just with each other, but with that which is greater than all of us combined.

At any rate, it’s not up to me to decide. And it’s not up to them either.

The best I can do in the meantime is to try to lead a life of empathy and patience—something I’m not really all that terribly good at, but something I practice every day—and extend to them the same hope for a more enlightened future that I hope for myself and those I hold dear. In essence, to practice the Golden Rule.

You have demonstrated how entropy increases in closed minds…er, I mean, closed systems. After all, increasingly disordered thinking is the only way I can account for a majority of the population acting to punish its own citizens (by effectively dissolving civil unions–even heterosexual ones) in order to slay those imaginary “what if” dragons of “Maybe somebody might one day, perhaps, I’m guessing, try to pass a law allowing for gays to marry, something we despise even if it doesn’t affect us one tiny bit.” Especially considering there’s already a law on the books that you’d think might be keeping that imaginary dragon in its imaginary prison cell. I’m sure you weren’t aware you’d be contributing to the “evil” that is science. And yet, here you are, having added data to my own little scientific experiment!

What’s more, you have also demonstrated that people who speak of “protecting America’s freedoms” are really simply interested only in their own freedom–to force their beliefs on the will of other people, in essence denying others their own constitutional freedoms.

Come on. No one’s forcing your pastor to marry a gay couple. That would clearly be a violation of the First Amendment. (Of the US Constitution, mind you. You know, the BIG Constitution you’re always spouting off about?) But then, so is applying your interpretation of religious texts on the will of other citizens who happen not to read them (or even believe in their divine authority) the same way you do. But who cares if you violate someone else’s constitutional rights, right? You’re the only person whose rights really matter. Sure.

If you’re from North Carolina, and you voted against this law, please comment here and tell me why. As a scientist, I’m always interested in gaining counter-evidence for my studies to make sure my results aren’t flawed. And this is one I’d actually like to be wrong about.

I happened to read this article today, which asks (and tries to answer) many of the questions I asked in a recent post on the apocalyptic imagination. It also lists a few of the many failed predictions throughout history in which individuals have claimed to know exactly when the End Times would arrive.

From the article:

But the worst consequence of apocalypse belief isn’t the waste, nor is it the fear. It’s the insidious attitude that since God is coming soon to destroy the world entirely, it doesn’t matter what we do to it in the meantime. It’s this belief that has so often made fundamentalists an obstacle to averting disastrous climate change, to preserving vanishing wilderness, or to making human civilization more sustainable. Not only do they not participate in these efforts, they actively oppose them, asserting that any political platform which starts from the premise that the Earth will be around for millions of years is a Satanic lie meant to keep us from heeding the warnings about God’s imminent destruction of the world.

I’d love to know what others think. Do you agree? What’s your interpretation? Let us know in the comments!

We better get out of here before it’s too late!

Okay. So the world isn’t really about to end. (At least not that I’m aware of.) I admit to merely trying to elicit your gut reaction to the news. Please forgive me for any racing pulses. (But please note said racing pulse in the poll.)

Chances are, this is far from the first time you have read an article or blog post concerning the end of the world. It’s tempting to say our society is fascinated by it, but that’s not entirely true. It’s probably more accurate to say that all of humanity is fascinated by it. After all, we are (probably?) the only species on earth aware of our own mortality. And we are also aware that the world will end someday–even if that day may be billions of years from now when the sun begins its own slow march toward extinction. If nothing else, this knowledge makes great fuel for the flames of speculation concerning how our individual and collective life journeys will end.

When I was in my 20’s, I was just as mesmerized by the idea of being a witness to the biggest event in history–its end–as anyone I have ever known. But then, I’m an adrenaline junkie who chases tornadoes and loves bringing the sickest, most damaged patients back from the fringe. It’s probably only natural that I would also find it excitingly romantic to live through the cataclysm of the world’s final days. (Live through maybe, but certainly not live beyond, if it is, after all, the END.)

But as I grow older, and hopefully a little wiser, I am less fascinated by the idea of bearing witness to history’s end as I am by the sheer number of my friends and peers who remain preoccupied with it. I look back at my younger self and see this phase as a result of the rather naïve (but not unexpected) part of that youthful, restless spirit that wants desperately to be a part of something unique—to be a part of something important. But I also see that having outgrown it is part of the stabilizing effect of adulthood, and I find some predictability for my future as an asset rather than the doldrums.

So why do so many people—even those who have moved beyond the youthful days of yearning for endless excitement—cling to the certainty that they are living in the End Times, and—more importantly—why do they want to?

If you fall into this group of people who await the End Times with bated breath, I’d love for you to share with us why. Please comment below. And I’d like something more substantial than, “The Bible tells me so.” There are sixty-six books (seventy-three if you count the Apocrypha) and more than three-quarters of a million words in the Bible. I know there are passages that haven’t captured your imagination as much as the visions and prophecies have. So I’d love to hear what, in particular, it is about the apocalyptic literature (e.g., the books of Daniel and Revelation) that has aroused your excitement and curiosity more than other books.

Side note: “Apocalypse” doesn’t mean “End Times.” It is actually derived from the Greek equivalent of the Latin-rooted word “revelation,” which means a great revealing or divine epiphany. It has evolved to the point that most people associate it with the specific revealing of how the current age, or all life on earth as we know it, will come to an end. “Eschatology” more accurately describes a study of how things will end, but the word hasn’t caught on as well as “apocalypse.” (See here for a far more detailed explanation of the terms.)

It may also surprise you to realize that the biblical book of Revelation (please, no “s” at the end!) is far from the only, and by no means the oldest, book describing the End Times. The book of Daniel, in the Old Testament, is an example of apocalyptic literature. In fact, there is a lot of Jewish apocalyptic literature (and also Christian) that was never canonized.

For those of you curious to learn more, here are a few resources I recommend. If you have your own suggestions, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

  • For a very accessible reader on apocalyptic literature that was not included in scripture, please see:

Apocalyptic Literature: A Reader (Mitchell G. Reddish)

  • For a concise (but detailed!) overview of how apocalyptic literature evolved over time, please see:

Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come (Norman Cohn)

  • For a short overview of some popular “doomsday prophesies,” please see the first chapter of:

Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Bart D. Ehrman)

(The rest of the book is very intriguing as well.)

The internet, of course, is also a good resource for discovering more. Here are some good links to start:

Gregory the Grammarosaurus Rex

Gregory the Grammarosaurus rex here. Today we are going to address a plague that pervades our lovely home, the internet: The problem people have with proper use of pronouns.

The problem with pronouns is like the trouble with Tribbles…

…They may seem cute as individuals, but they reproduce at astronomical levels–and do so without the pleasure of sex.

That is, without a good predator to keep it in check, the problem with pronouns might just proliferate to a size even Spock can’t predict. (And the pronouns don’t even get to have any fun in the meantime!)

But that’s why Karl is here with me today. He feeds (rather violently) on pronoun problems.

Watch out! Karl is on the rampage.

As you can see, Karl is not a happy bunny today. He is in the throes of a psychotic break sparked by the overgrowth of pronoun problems. His ire has been piqued because he sees way too many people who simply DON’T GET “IT.” (Namely, how to convert it to its other forms.) You don’t want to be his next feast, do you?Good. Then pay attention.

As you may have deduced, our first “problem with pronoun” lesson deals with the pronoun it.

Namely, the difference between it’s, its, (and its’?).

Remember this about the pronoun it: If there is an apostrophe, *it’s* trying to tell you that something is missing. If the apostrophe is missing, *its* purpose is to show possession.

And please, please, please, whatever you do, never, ever put the apostrophe on the end! The pronoun it never wears a tail! (Think of it like a Manx cat. If it helps, go out and adopt one and name him “It.”)


  • It’s never a good idea to anger Karl.
  • Such wrath is ugly: its end result is usually a maimed appendage of some kind, which is especially troubling if you’re male.

For the first example, since there’s an apostrophe, we know something must be missing. What’s missing? The letter i, as in the first letter of the word is. So we know that we can expand the sentence: It is never a good idea to anger Karl.

For the second example, there is no apostrophe. So nothing is missing. What’s it doing then? Showing possession. It can be reworded (awkwardly) to read: Such wrath is ugly: such wrath’s end result is usually a maimed appendage of some kind, which is especially troubling if you’re male.

But you knew that already, right? Pretty easy to tell the difference. But what’s not so easy is remembering when you’re the one making up the sentence.

A good rule of thumb: If you’ve written a sentence, and it contains either its or it’s, go back and double-check. Read silently to yourself (or aloud, if you’d prefer those around you to think you’re psychotic like Karl) and exchange your word for “it is.” Does it make sense? Yes? Then you need it’s. If not, use its. Not too hard, right?

Now, I know what you may be asking. “If an apostrophe shows possession, then why don’t we use one for the possessive its?” Fine question, it is. And I’m not sure. But my best guess is that it avoids confusion. And if it helps, remember that other possessive pronouns, like hers, his, theirs, and ours, also reject the apostrophe. (I mean, you wouldn’t write, “Our’s is the towel with the hotel name embroidered on it,” would you?)

And this is why there is no such variation of the word as its’. By that logic, the above-mentioned possessive pronouns would be hers’, his’, theirs’, and ours’. I hope those look as Angry Karl-ugly to you as they do to me. Besides, with few exceptions (specifically, certain names), an apostrophe after an s denotes plural possessive. (Example: Karl’s parents’ rabbit hole is lined with sharp sabers.) The pronoun it always describes a singular entity!

I know every one of you would love to pet Karl. And when you do, if you prefer to earn a friend instead of a maimed appendage, I recommend remembering the difference between it’s and its. Karl does understand that accidents happen (he’s made a few of his own, right next to my den), so if you do it once or twice, he won’t bite. But you don’t want to abuse his forgiving nature, either. With Karl, I’ve come to learn, there is no middle ground. Sweet and cuddly one minute, weeping and gnashing of teeth the next. Take it from someone who knows—stay on his good side.

Doubt: so often described as faith’s opposite, existing only where faith is in exile. As something to be avoided, something accompanied by dread whenever it pays us a visit. Something we never address our Christmas cards to, much less ask to join us for Sunday morning service.

Take the following sign I saw at a local church not too long ago:

Generated by Church Sign Maker:

Obviously I’ve recreated it here, but the saying is true to what I’d read that day: your doubts make you weak. Faith alone takes strength.

And I couldn’t disagree more.

Rather than faith’s opposite, doubt is faith’s complement. It is the testing grounds, the deep end of the pool, where you prove to yourself that you’re ready to take a swim in the vast ocean of life. This ocean I call “Mystery.”

Faith without doubt is dimensionless, uninspired, immobile. Blind.

It’s nothing more than a sheet of paper with a few pithy (and likely unexamined) sayings on it. It can’t take a breath, and it definitely can’t give you breath when you’re having trouble catching yours. It has no legs with which to take a journey, much less accompany you on yours.

And above all else, faith without doubt is trapped, unseeing, unable to derive solutions of escape from the trials of life. It guiles us into thinking that it is our only hero, until we inhale deeply and test it, and find it toppling. After all, a piece of paper doesn’t see that it lacks legs for standing.

Faith arrived at through doubt, on the other hand, is full-bodied, breath-taking; it is a chariot. A visionary.

Starburst Galaxy M82, Courtesy NASA

It is something that can assume the shape of the entire universe; it may even hide extra dimensions not experienced by our ordinary senses. Its inhales the air of the spirit for its vitality, and gains synergy when we breathe with it. It can take a long, contemplative stroll with us, or it can gallop along with exhilaration. Winged, it can even take flight.

And faith through doubt has a million eyes, discerning truths that underlie (and often form the foundation of) the reality around us, much like the physics of the quantum world that collaborates to create the physical world we experience.

Doubt isn’t what’s left when faith is removed, because doubt is defined not by what it lacks, but by what it seeks. Doubt is the genius of our curiosity, the instrument of our investigation.

Doubt is the question inside of us, wanting to become manifest—to be asked. And because the question isn’t a solitary creature, it wants to be shared—to co-exist with others’ questions—so together they can help us see the shape of our universe, a shape we can discern even if we never do arrive at the answer. And it is the courage to ask our question despite the fear of ridicule from those too afraid to examine the questions inside of them—and despite the fear that if we do discover the answer, it may not be what we had hoped.

Question anyone who requires you to set aside your innate (God-given?) sense of curiosity, who tells you that faith means believing dogma that contradicts your experience of the world or your sense of justice. If you are being told that an all-loving God, created in truth, is deceiving you as a “test” of your faith, question whether this sounds like love or truth.

As with almost everything, doubt is best in moderation. There is little in human experience that is better the more you have. The same is true with doubt. You should have enough to keep you searching, but not so much that you become crippled and your search must end. When that occurs, you may have to find a mentor you trust—that you are willing to put your faith in—to help navigate until you are healed enough to begin your journey anew.

It takes courage to admit, “I don’t know.” Because when we are willing to be humble, we must also be willing to muster courage. This is a lesson I am still learning every day. When someone asks me a question I can’t answer, I get anxious. I get caught up in my ego, searching for a response that “proves” I am worthy of their faith in me to answer. But as I grow older—and hopefully a little wiser—I am growing more willing to answer, “I don’t know.” This often sparks discussion or inspires research until we arrive at a satisfying response. And that is far more fulfilling than feeding my ego with a quick pat on my back when I give a curt answer that will likely be forgotten immediately.

Remember, not knowing isn’t an embarrassment. It’s a start. When we understand what we don’t know, our journey begins.

And what we find isn’t our minds growing weaker, but our spirits gaining strength. By having the courage to test the waters on the deep end of the swimming pool of doubt, we ready ourselves for diving into the vast ocean of faith. We become united with the Mystery itself.

Take a deep breath. Exhale, and take another. Feel free to do it a third time. Now stop.

Now that you’re nice and calm, I’d like for you to think (calmly, of course) about what gases compose that breath you just took…Don’t cheat. Name everything you can think of.

Think about what's in that stuff you're breathing

What did you come up with? Oxygen? Water vapor? Carbon dioxide? Argon? A little methane, maybe? You’re right! But those together, along with a few other trace molecules, only make up about 22% of the air we breathe (and almost all of that is oxygen). A single element (or, technically, a diatomic molecule made up of two atoms of the same element) composes ALL the rest—more than three-quarters of the air you breathe! But I’d wager that, even if you did think of this particular element, it wasn’t the first that came to mind.

Know what it is yet? Nitrogen!

(I hope you’re following the rules. You haven’t taken another breath yet, have you? Good! You can start breathing again now. Phew.)

In case you need a refresher, nitrogen is number seven on the periodic table, sitting right between two elements that get a lot more buzz—carbon and oxygen. And with good reason—they are absolutely essential to life as we know it. But don’t think that just because we hear less about nitrogen that it isn’t also essential for our existence.

Again, take a deep breath. This time hold it. Keep holding! What happens? Your lungs stay essentially full.

The small volume that does escape your lungs is composed of molecules that can diffuse through a membrane surrounding your lungs and then pass into your bloodstream. Most important of these (at this phase, at least) are molecules of oxygen. Your heart pumps this freshly-oxygenated blood on a round trip through your body so that your organs and cells can get the energy they need to function. On the return trip, the blood carries carbon dioxide (the by-product of respiration) back to the lungs to diffuse through the opposite direction and end up in your exhaled breath. (Speaking of which—you can go ahead and let go of that breath you’ve been holding.)

But not everything does—or should—pass between your lungs and bloodstream. And guess what remains behind, what it is that keeps your lungs from completely deflating? That’s right! It’s nitrogen.

This is no small matter. If your body didn’t have a reason for the nitrogen to stay behind, I imagine that it wouldn’t have bothered to come up with a membrane so sophisticated that the nitrogen is essentially “locked in” your lungs. (Technically, nitrogen can get through the membrane, but at a much slower rate than oxygen and carbon dioxide.)

Now think of how much harder it would be to take a single breath if you had to completely re-inflate your lungs with each inhalation. In fact, I bet you’ve probably had the wind knocked out of you before. How much did it suck? Pretty bad, I bet. That’s because, when this happens, the air is forcefully removed from your lungs (most of it nitrogen!), and now you’re having to stop your world in its tracks until you can get that air back in. If it weren’t for nitrogen, we’d be having to do this each time we breathe!

In fact, patients in hospitals who receive pure (or high-concentration) oxygen sometimes get the nitrogen “washed out” of their lungs and suffer from what we call absorption atelectasis—a condition in which their alveoli (the tiny air sacs on the periphery of the lungs) collapse and become difficult to re-inflate. This is not only uncomfortable, but it can lead to infection and pneumonia if the alveoli don’t “pop” back open efficiently enough.

Of course, nitrogen is good for a lot of other things. It’s necessary for amino acid (and therefore protein) construction, and is part of the chemical compound that make up DNA. Thunderstorms also help to bring nitrogen to the surface so that plants can use it in their own lifecycle. (Part of the reason your lawn looks nicer after it rains than after you water it with a hose.)

So, the next time you’re having a conversation and rumors start flying about that “worthless element nitrogen,” take a deep breath and remember what you’ve learned here. And then use that breath to give the smack down to that idiot who dared to disrespect the element that (mostly) formed that big breath of wisdom.