Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I spent a lot of time in the school library when I was in high school. I had an unreliable dial-up Internet connection at home, (boop boop boop)-boop boop boop-boop boop boop boop kshkshkshksh ptang ptang ptang kshkshkshksh, my parents wanted to avoid paying for Internet access, so we used NetZero, surfing the web with an adbar at the top of the screen for a maximum of forty hours a month. So, every morning during homeroom, I would get a hall pass and go to the library and use the computers there and check my email and play Tank Commander on Pogo.com.

My classmates enjoyed my theory about the library computers. (You must know that the computer desks in the library were quirky. They were glass and the monitor would sit underneath, so, rather than the monitor being at eye level, one had to look down through the desk at the screen.) I suggested that the glass desks with the monitors underneath, sitting in neat rows in the library, were actually an array of lasers designed to annihilate Soviet satellites. For this laser bank to be useful, of course, the library needed a hinged roof that could open to expose the laser monitors as the enemy satellites would pass overhead; this secretly hinged roof would prevent our enemies from finding our secret laser battery.

People would ask me questions about the hinges and the lasers and whether the Soviets were still active at the end of the nineties, when I was in high school, and I would contrive answers to keep the story afloat. It was a great conspiracy theory in that we all felt that it explained some things about the deviousness of our school establishment, it captured our sentiment and expressed our shared symbols and values, with the advantage that none of us actually believed the story about the hinges, and, thus, suffered none of the ill effects that accompany delusion.

I would go to the library at other times, too. The library was where you would go if your parents didn't sign the permission slip saying that you could be exposed to controversial course material. For example, my parents pulled me from health class for the unit on human reproduction and sexuality, and so I sat in the library, alone or perhaps with one classmate, and did bookwork instead.

My English teacher transcended her humanity and represented all of secular culture to me, a conservative Christian kid who had been homeschooled. People like her are the reason that devout Christian parents send their kids to Christian colleges and teach them about having a Christian worldview. One time, my teacher wanted to show The Breakfast Club, an R-rated movie, in class, during our unit on "Young Adult Literature", and Mike the Jehovah's Witness and Dave the Baptist and I sat in the library and had to read a short story about an Asian teenage boy dealing with issues of race and generational difference with his parents, and then we each had to write our own continuation of this story. We were in the honors class; the students in the next-most-prestigious English class got to watch Star Wars.

My English teacher also had us read Of Mice and Men, which supports euthanasia. Another time, she taught us about ethics. We had to consider, for example, a situation in which there are ten people in a cave, and they're trying to get out, and the fattest goes first and obstructs the opening to the cave and cannot be extracted from said opening. Would the people in the cave be justified in blowing him up with a stick of dynamite if it were necessary for their escape, supposing they would die of hunger in the cave, otherwise? We had to write essays giving our opinions on such contrived scenarios. I had been taught, in my Christian worldview education, to be wary of such lessons, because they are designed to erode belief in an absolute moral truth.

Basically everyone agrees that my high school's library doesn't have hinges on the roof for the anti-Soviet satellite lasers. Basically everyone agrees that water flows downhill and the earth is round and Amway is a scam. I dismiss flat-earthers out of hand; I don't even trouble with rhetoric. So many people believe so many wacky little things that it's not worth the time, generally, to investigate something that only a few people believe. Most people aren't existentially troubled by Jehovah's Witnesses because they know that the Jehovah's Witnesses are a cult and there are oodles of cults, and they can't all be right and it's not worth the effort to do a lot of research on every cult that exists to see if it might be right, so it's probably not worthwhile to investigate the beliefs of just one cult to see if that one happens to be the lucky one. I'm not saying that the majority's always right, but it's often passably close enough to being correct.

Growing up, I had many opinions that conflicted with the majority viewpoints in American culture, I was pro-life and creationist and anti-feminist. I didn't have many opinions that diverged from those of Dr James Dobson of Focus on the Family. I felt like I was part of a persecuted minority as an evangelical. The persecution was minimal, but evangelicals who take stances as extreme as mine are, indeed, a minority among Americans.

People are biased and easily swayed and duped; when we form opinions, our attitudes and desires play as much of a role as observation and reason, but I like to think that I'm better than average at observing and reasoning and being impartial. I bet you feel the same way about yourself. I bet most people do.

I'm a vegetarian, and not just to be stylish. I object to the way in which animal agriculture is conducted in America. Most people aren't vegetarians, and I think I need a good reason to justify to myself why my minority viewpoint isn't a wacky one like belief that colonic irrigation is helpful. I've looked into how animals are treated on farms, and it's bad in a handful of ways, and I think that if most people knew how we treat animals, they wouldn't eat meat, either, unless the conditions would improve. I think that most people are uninformed about the horrors of modern mass animal agriculture. The only pop culture reference to factory farms, that I can think of, is the scene in Napoleon Dynamite in which Napoleon works at moving chickens from one cage to another.

When I believe something unusual, but I know that it's because I happen to have some extra information, I can understand why people would disagree with me. As a creationist, I had trouble believing that evolution is a false but popular belief simply driven by factual errors. I knew that most biologists are evolutionists, and that they are more educated than I was. I needed a way to distrust them to be justified in disagreeing with them. I needed to believe that evolutionists believed in evolution because they were rebellious and wanted to avoid God. I needed quotes like this one by George Wald:
"There are only two possibilities as to how life arose. One is spontaneous generation arising to evolution; the other is a supernatural creative act of God. There is no third possibility. Spontaneous generation, that life arose from non-living matter was scientifically disproved 120 years ago by Louis Pasteur and others. That leaves us with the only possible conclusion that life arose as a supernatural creative act of God. I will not accept that philosophically because I do not want to believe in God. Therefore, I choose to believe in that which I know is scientifically impossible; spontaneous generation arising to evolution."
(Wald, George, "Innovation and Biology," Scientific American, Vol. 199, Sept. 1958, p. 100) [It turns out that this quote is fake. I had seen it as a creationist and it was important to my thinking, though.]

I grew up in an environment that distrusted the majority. I remember one gathering of homeschooling families, at which some kids taught others to make fortune tellers; my parents don't mind fortune tellers, but some of the other parents were afraid their children would become occultists, and there was a brouhaha. On the other hand, I wasn't allowed to watch Captain Planet or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because they espoused eastern mysticism. Before I saw Pochahontas, I was given a disclaimer that trees and rocks do not, in fact, have spirits in them.

I dismissed the pro-choice movement as a bunch of eugenicists who wanted "sexual freedom" outside the confines of marriage. I saw feminists as women who just wanted to push men down out of greed and thirst for power. I believed that Catholics and Muslims were basically hell-bound, they chose wrong beliefs because they were trying to earn their salvation by works, they wanted a sense of ownership of their destiny. Hindus were right out.

I am the oldest of six kids; the next oldest is Spencer. He told me tonight that he used to think that people with acne had it because they had AIDS; we were under the strong impression that people with AIDS got it from having sex outside of holy matrimony. I'm glad that Spencer was corrected about the cause of acne before I had my first outbreak.

Growing up, we were taught that our media is driven by things that are cheap and corrupting, and we were banned from watching The Simpsons and The Golden Girls as a result. I didn't even want to watch The Golden Girls, but we had a rule against it just in case. We were encouraged to listen to Christian rock instead of secular rock.

One time, Spencer was at a friend's house, the friend happened to be the son of our pastor. He played "All the Small Things" by Blink-182 for Spencer, he'd downloaded it off of Napster. Listening to it, Spencer thought, "There's not a single bad thing in this." He realized that he'd been taught to distrust secular music, as a uniformly corrupting influence, and he thought that maybe it's not as bad as he had been told. He downloaded a lot of songs on Kazaa, (boop boop boop)-boop boop boop-boop boop boop boop kshkshkshksh ptang ptang ptang kshkshkshksh; that's how I got introduced to the Barenaked Ladies. Spencer had been previously satisfied with Christian music, but, comparing it with the mainstream music, he realized it wasn't nearly as good. He noticed and reconsidered other ways in which he had been taught to disagree with mainstream culture, and it wasn't long after that that he stopped believing in God altogether.

The summer after I had my big existential crisis in which I got a haircut and a cellphone and became a vegetarian, I realized that I had drifted, over the previous two years, from being an avid young earth creationist to not caring very much one way or another about evolution. I went to the library and got a big stack of books about evolution, written from various perspectives. I was in the mood for change.

People trust the beliefs of their own tribe over those of another tribe, even if they don't have any good reason to think that their tribe is more honest or better at logic. When Spencer started listening to secular music, he was learning this. My problems with anxiety, and my realization that I had faulty motives for having long hair and not having a cell phone and so on, led me to trusting myself less, in a good way. I was humbler. I am prone to thinking that my opinion is correct simply because it's mine, I suppose a lot of people are like this, but at that point in my life, this tendency was weaker. I had trusted myself a lot when it came to having opinions about politics and doctrine and evolution, and I found that trust in myself to be limiting because it could only be as big as me. I wanted to find something else that I could trust, with more insight than myself about these things.

I read the big stack of books about evolution. I realized that the scientific community strongly affirms that the universe is very old and that there's a fossil record that's consistent with evolution and that biology has some good answers about where the first cell came from and how mutations occur and percolate through populations. What was more important to me, I think, was that I stopped seeing the scientific community as having insidious immoral ambitions; I saw no signs of a mass conspiracy to hush creationists so that abortions and gay marriages can be so common as to be passe. I started believing in evolution, and not even liking that word "believing" in "believing in evolution" because evolution is scientific and I don't talk about believing in gravity or neutrons. I had changed my opinion about evolution because I figured that the scientific community is more trustworthy than my own intuition when it comes to things that I'm not an expert on. I was looking for experts on other things too, like how babies should be baptized and how miracles work and how to become holy and why a lot of my fellow Christians act like wingnuts and how I could know that I'm not a wingnut.


  1. If you are so educated. How is it that you do not know the definition of a cult?

  2. Great writing Alex. Here's a question: You wrote "I'm a vegetarian, and not just to be stylish. I object to the way in which animal agriculture is conducted in America."

    If you came to New Zealand, where cattle and sheep are allowed to graze freely in open fields, and eggs are gathered from chickens that wander freely in large barns, would you stop being a vegetarian?


  3. I'm not sure, Brian. I have gotten accustomed to not eating meat, so even things like leather shoes seem strange to me; that's not to say that it's wrong, it's just against my habits now. I'm also concerned about the impact of animal agriculture on people around the world: I don't think it's possible for everyone to eat as much meat as Americans do.