Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Ethical Atheist

My mother was raised Catholic; my father was raised Jewish.  So perhaps it was a bit of a surprise the day in second grade when I announced to my predominantly Christian classmates that the Greek pantheon of gods was the one I wanted to follow.  I’m not sure if I really believed it or if I was just set myself apart from my classmates (if the latter, mission accomplished, as they reminded me for the rest of the year).  It also could have been the only way I knew how to let my classmates – and by extension the world – know I didn’t believe in their Judeo-Christian God.

My penchant for atheism only grew from there.  Later in elementary school I would desperately try to crack the arguments of my classmates that hinged on the simple truth “the bible was written by God, so anything written in it is true.”  In middle and high school, I had many friends who were devout Christians, though I never quite felt I could relate. When I got to college, I got particularly adamant about my disdain for religion.  I remember in one class when the teacher asked why many pagan holidays lined with with Christian holidays, I proudly replied “because Christians like to convert things.”  I started making plans to rewrite the Christmas carols with secular lyrics instead, and every year I avoided the dreaded “Christmas Sing” in the main hall of my school.

After 9/11, I became even more convinced that religion was a misguided and deleterious institution.  Certainly I was horrified that the hijackers would murder thousands of innocent people in the name of their god, but I was also disgusted by the jingoistic Christian-led backlash in the United States.  Watching people with supposedly Christian values demonize and call for the extermination of Islam invoked the memory of a history we were doomed to repeat.

At the height of my atheist zeal, I was asked to play a show with the band overlord at the Godless Americans’ March on Washington in November 2002.  It was a rally on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in which atheists, humanists, and freethinkers spoke about subjects such as creating a national identity for atheists, the separation of church and state, and the harmful effects of organized religion.  It was exhilarating to finally be surrounded by people with whom I could identify, in a context where we could rebuke the religious.  I had a great time laughing at the ridiculous religious people who believed in the “invisible man.”

Lest you believe I wasn’t actually there:

So there are a few things I want to point out in my rhetoric to this point.  Things like my “disdain” for people who follow the tenants of a religion, and how I “rebuked” the religious.  I was trying to “convince” my classmates that their blind faith in the bible was misguided. I’ve even used the word “zeal” to describe my passion for the subject.  It kinda sorta sounds a little like I was doing and saying the same things that irritated me about organized religion.  And while I do believe that atheism is attacked most frequently by a cultural machine that equates “no god” with “no morality,” I also think we atheists do ourselves no favors by sinking to the same level.

This has become increasingly more apparent with the development of social media and Facebook arguments.  For one thing, the ad hominem arguments against the religious are vicious.  “Jesus freak idiots who can’t think for themselves believe in an invisible man.”  “Faith is a waste of time, as science subsumes and disproves every piece of fiction the believers come up with.”  The slightly tenable arguments of those statements are hidden underneath a pile of insults.  It’s no wonder no one ever gets convinced to change their minds in these situations.

Indiana Jones with Sousaphone

Throw me the idol, I throw you the sousaphone!

While we’re on the subject, why do we try to change people’s minds?  Certainly when I’m directly affected, I may need to persuade someone to “book my band,” or “put down that hacksaw,” or “throw me the idol.”  There are so many great ways in which one can go about his or her life.  Your belief in a higher power does not threaten my lack of belief.  There may be specific times where this isn’t true, such as if a law were passed making prayer mandatory in school.  But that’s not the fault of organized religion.  That’s the fault of organized people, as my depiction of vehement atheism demonstrates above.  There is plenty of space for both belief systems, and plenty of overlap of lifestyles outside that single pillar.

These days I’m as much of an atheist as I’ve ever been.  I still don’t believe that a higher power exists, and I still don’t see the appeal of faith over facts.  However, my disdain for religion and the religious has been replaced for an admiration of the beauty of a belief system outside my own.  That something so delicate and intangible can be the source of so much happiness is delightful to me.  I find the discussion of why we believe what we believe to be an incredibly exciting and interesting exercise, as long as both parties are treated with respect.

I regret that my younger self couldn’t see when he was saying things about religion that hurt other people’s feelings.  And also that he couldn’t see that he was so threatened by the implications of what atheism meant that he had to show disgust towards the institutions of religion just to make a point.

Last Christmas I was surprised to come to terms with the fact that there are things about the holiday that I absolutely love.  I love the music (and the religious lyrics that come along with it), I love the lights people put up, I love the traditions that bring people together.  I even love the story of Christmas, regardless of whether Jesus was really born in the summertime, regardless of what race he was, and regardless of whether the holiday came together as a way to co-opt the Winter Solstice.  Sure, the false sense of righteousness about the War on Christmas makes me crazy, and I’m not really into buying presents.  Overall, though, I really do love the season.  I wish I could have been so brave when I was younger.

I don’t like the term “Ethical Atheist,” as it implies that the natural state of atheism is unethical.  What I mean by it, though, is that we can overcome the cultural perception of atheists as lawless selfish people.  We can also overcome the cultural perception of atheism as a nihilistic and vindictive way to give Christians a “taste of their own medicine.”  The tools of elitism, condescension, and ridicule don’t get us anywhere.  Let’s instead be tolerant, respectful, and perhaps even engaged with the fundamental stories in the lives of our fellow humans.  Let’s be ethical in our approach to religion and open up the door for others to be ethical in their interactions with us.

Mozart is Closer

This week we have a guest blog written by my good friend Chris Hahn.  I asked Chris to talk about the study of music from the perspective of an entrepreneur. 

light bulbThe light just burned out in the room in which I do so much of my creative work at home.  As a result, I’ve been forced to turn on a much less powerful, non-fluorescent, environmentally crushing, incandescent light.  At first I was enraged by this change, I can’t see anything properly, not my practice piano’s keys, nor my computer’s keyboard, nor the stuff on the floor that I trip over now from time to time.  I have to admit to myself that I’m wasting so much more energy for so much less light.  And yet, something has changed.  When I play the piano something feels softer.  I can move slower.  I don’t have to think as much about the mistakes I was making before.  Mozart is closer somehow.  The space is new.

Outside of this light-burned-out creative space I have done much over the last fifteen years.  I worked for Microsoft for a while, worked for various startup companies, and founded, built up, and sold a software company with some really incredible people.  I have spent my entire life focused on technology, writing software, designing systems, and solving problems that improve people’s lives.

About a year ago, I decided to start studying classical piano with a teacher who has helped me tremendously.  Before that, I tried to teach myself piano for two years (big mistake, find a teacher/mentor!).  So what made me decide to embark on the journey of learning piano at all?  Truthfully, I was influenced by reading Eric Kandel’s book “In Search of Memory“.  In this book, Kandel opened up my eyes to the idea that the human brain is a lot more plastic than I had historically believed.  This made me think that it’s never too late to pick up something new.  I had always wanted to be a great musician, but I was assuming that I was past the right time to study, I was too old.  In a moment of potentially hubristic clarity I said to myself, “I’m going to play every day, for 10 years, study hard, and at the end of that, I will be playing with an orchestra.”  Knowing that my brain could still change in radical ways, and knowing that neurons learn and grow slowly, over time, with mixtures of repetition and breaks between repetition, I figured it was only a matter of time and dedication.  When I combined that thinking with my experience in business, where failure is the norm, and perseverance is the differentiator between those who win and those who don’t, I felt that this choice to become a pianist at a later age wasn’t stupid, it was entirely logical.

What I have learned up to now is that I continue to surprise myself in studying piano.  Furthermore, studying has had benefits in other aspects of my life.  For one, using the piano has helped me to find a way to slow down and focus more.  This enhances my ability to work with people and to write better software.  It has enhanced my knowledge of history and humanity.  I was surprised to learn that Franz Liszt was pretty much the Justin Bieber of his day.

    Justin Bieber & Franz Liszt - Successful Heartthrobs of their Time

Justin Bieber & Franz Liszt – Successful Heartthrobs of their Time

I started reading Mozart’s letters where I learned about his sister Nannerl.  I learned how Nannerl was a talented composer crushed by the treatment of women at the time.  It is a tragedy to think that there was a 2nd Mozart, and all of humanity has lost something for its ignorance.

Mozart and Nannerl from the movie “Mozart’s Sister”

Mozart and Nannerl from the movie “Mozart’s Sister”

I have been surprised by how much I can play only one real year into my studies.  Things like Chopin’s Nocturn No 20, Mozart’s Fantasie KV 475, or Franz Liszt’s Libestraum No 3 all come from memory now, proving to me that my brain is capable of changing in remarkable ways given time and effort.

I suppose the moral of this whole story is that, when the light goes out in your creative space, it is helpful not to think of it as a setback.  Truly “talented” people pick themselves up from this kind of thing and find another way.  They trust that failure isn’t an exception it is the rule.  And they know, consciously or instinctively, that achieving anything of merit requires nothing more than time, effort, and desire.

Chris HahnChris Hahn is a technology executive at IMS Health/Appature building applications using huge amounts of data for customers in the healthcare industry.

Best Glöggs!

Glogg bottle

Actually, this is the best Glögg, but my guest blogs are a close second.

As you may have noticed, in my blog I try to bring many different facets of my life together.  Whether it’s practicing tuba as it relates to classical philosophy, Minecraft as a metaphor for building a new life, or improvising a solo versus improvising a recipe, I take great joy in exploring my many areas of interest.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have friends in my life who also have plenty of pots on the stove, dishes spinning overhead, and flaming chainsaws to juggle.  Quite naturally, their lives are filled with their own interests separate from mine.  Sometimes though, I’ll find connections through my conversations with them that I find delightfully relatable to my own situations, but with their own unique twists.  Tragically, their stories have been relegated to a far and distant corner away from this side of the Internet.  That is, until now.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be featuring a series of best Glöggs (guest blogs) here.  For each blog, I’ve given the writer a topic that connects some of their different areas of expertise, and then let them run wild with it.  And wild they have run!

So check out the first one tomorrow from my good friend Chris Hahn.  After that, they’ll come out every 2 weeks or so, interspersed with my own rants and rambles (and Photoshoppings).

Enjoy!

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