Evaluating Sources with My Parents

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yes, I did miss my usual post date (Sunday). I had a recital to play in, and my parents visited my school to hear me play. It went well, and we went out to eat together afterwards. Unsurprisingly however, I got a post topic out of the experience. During that meal I became increasingly aware of my parents’ tendency to fail to evaluate sources. Worse, they seem to not even have a clue how to do that, or why it’s important.

My parents are in their 50s, and they get a lot of advertisements for medical or pseudo-medical products. They tend to come in the form of dietary supplements, although other products do occasionally appear. “This will boost your memory,” says one advertisement. “This will increase your energy,” promises another. Some dietary supplements do genuinely help your body, though sometimes what they do and how frequently you should take them may be exaggerated. Fish oil, for example, is definitely good for you. Vitamin C is a good vitamin to make sure you have. Multivitamins help ensure that you’re getting certain vitamins your diet might not cover. With that being said, sometimes the claims made in these supplement advertisements are questionable, and they almost never cite the source of their purported facts.

If I’m reading an article about a scientific study that concludes that a certain type of food in your diet is bad for you, I’d like to be told who did that study so that I can look it up myself and make sure the author isn’t misreporting it. That also proves that the author isn’t lying and there actually was a study done in the first place.

Over the summer, I remember picking up what looked like a miniature magazine on my parents’ table. It stated that osteoporosis is being treated in a way that actually worsens the condition. It went on to explain that a doctor found the solution and it’s some dietary supplement that everyone with osteoporosis should take. I was willing to believe the part about the current treatment being wrong based on the explanation they gave (which seemed pretty detailed), but when they started to list a supplement that could be purchased–surprise surprise–through them, I realized this source needed to be evaluated. Who was publishing it? I couldn’t even find a clear affiliation. What studies did it cite to back up its claims? None. Who even wrote the damn thing? No author listed. I did some Googling using key words and found literally nothing on what I had just read. I turned to my parents and said, “Please recycle this garbage.”

“I don’t know,” my mom said. “I want to read it. It looks interesting.”

“I know it does, but I can’t find anything to verify that it’s a valid source. It looks like an advertisement for a scam to me.”

My parents read it before recycling it.

Flash forward to yesterday, when my parents started telling me about medical “facts” they’d learned from a chain e-mail. Worse, upon further questioning they revealed that it was a chain e-mail that contained not a link to a website that cited valid sources, but a video advertisement. You know, the kind that you can’t hit pause on that a lot of older people like to pass around in e-mails? I once sat through one that claimed that the Bible contains everything you ever need to know about your finances, and by buying someone’s book, you can glean that information from it too.

Or, I quickly realized, you could Google “Bible AND Money” and see what you get if you really think it will be helpful to you. The best part is, you can do that for free.

When I start talking about evaluating sources with my parents, it’s as if I hit a wall. The ideas they’ve already bought into, such as, for example, my mom’s belief that chiropractic neurology is practically a cure-all and will stop her migraines–something she’s believed and tried for YEARS without success–are beyond scrutiny. These ideas–beliefs–are treated the same way they treat religion. Do not put your god to the test! Do not call your chiropractic neurologist out on his hoax treatments!

This isn’t a healthy way to treat information, especially medical information, which can have a huge effect on our lives and livelihoods. Incorrect medical advice can lead to a range of bad outcomes, from obsession over something that’s not actually important to a belief that leads to bad decisions that harm your health. I recently read an article about Dr. Oz stating that only about 4 out of 10 of the “facts” on his show are actually true. That’s horrible! Women my mother’s age (and some other demographics) tune into his show expecting sound medical advice! What they get instead is no better than an infomercial. (Want to evaluate that article I just gave you? Some Googling led me to the study it mentions. Want to go further? The study comes from the bmj, a peer-reviewed source. Here’s their “about” page: http://www.bmj.com/about-bmj.)

Back when it was harder for someone without credentials to publish anything, evaluating sources wasn’t as important a skill for readers. Once upon a time, if something was in print, it was probably true. But we live in a world where publishing is getting easier and easier thanks to technology and the internet. On the one hand, that’s a very good thing; it means that there’s more information available than ever before. On the other hand, it also means that more people who have no idea what they’re talking about are able to spread false information. Just look at the “Vaccines Cause Autism” idea, which has been thoroughly debunked many times. My mom was the first person who told me about it, and she presented it as a very real possibility. Today, I’m afraid to ask her whether or not she still thinks it’s true.

Please, for the love of life, evaluate your sources! I don’t want to read an article about how cotton clothing causes cancer because some scam artist liked the alliteration.

Have you encountered any scams or faulty information, or had an experience with friends or family who just don’t know how to evaluate sources? Feel free to leave a comment. As always, all opinions are welcome, just be respectful of everyone and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!


Religious Freedom and Privilege

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Discussions of religion often don’t include the topic of privilege, but the concept does apply to some extent. Dictionary.com defines privilege as “a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich.” The idea of privilege is often applied to discussions of race, wealth, and/or gender, but here I’ll be examining how it can apply to religion.

In the United States, where the majority of the population identifies as some kind of Christian, to identify as a Christian yourself comes with a positive connotation. I remember watching a recording of some old Red Skelton shows with my dad, during which the comedian said something like “God bless” to the audience. I’ll never forget the way my father’s face lit up when he heard that. He gasped cheerfully, “He believed in God!” At the time, I too took that realization as a positive fact about the old comedian. Now, I’m more neutral. I’m glad celebrities and other people feel confident and comfortable being open about their beliefs. However, since I no longer hold an association with the religion, such a proclamation does not change my opinion of that person positively or negatively.

Proclaiming one’s Christianity is not simply an exercise in a religious freedom in the United States; because it is the religion of the majority here, it’s also a great way to gain a huge following and support. Just look at Tim Tebow, and the vast majority of US politicians. For a person in the public eye, calling oneself Christian can lead to personal gain. It’s a way of utilizing the privilege that comes with belonging to a majority group. This doesn’t mean that everyone who proclaims his or her Christianity is doing so for this purpose, nor does it mean that these people shouldn’t be open about their faith. However, many politicians make their adherence to Christianity a fairly big deal as part of their campaigns. I suspect they do this because they know it will win over a significant number of voters.

With this in mind, I instantly thought about privilege the other day, when posters plastered in my dormitory hallway informed me that the Catholic club on my campus will be hosting a “Religious Freedom Workshop.” I don’t know for sure what will go on there, but the fact that it is being held by a Christian religious organization makes me concerned that they don’t realize that their club isn’t the one that needs to be especially concerned about religious freedom. My only hope is that they will welcome religious minorities into their “workshop” and consider their fears. I’m tempted to show up and see what happens, but might not have time or the energy.

My main concern is that this workshop will turn into a bunch of Christians getting together and whining about how they’re being persecuted, complaining that there’s a war on Christmas, and asking questions that ignore very obvious reasons for the status quo. I can’t help but picture them asking why so many people are against the teaching of creationism in public schools. Will they waste time bemoaning the fact that many also oppose allowing public school teachers to teach religious doctrine or lead a class in prayer? I’ve addressed several of these questions in my post Thoughts on Prayer in Schools so I won’t answer those questions in depth here, but they really are pointless. When your faith is the majority, your fears of persecution are minimal compared to other faiths.

If the Muslim student association or Hillel held the same event, I would have a slightly different expectation. Smaller groups have smaller representation, and have reason to fear being ignored, mistreated, or ostracized by the majority. Muslims especially have to deal with this right now due to the current problem of terrorism. As an atheist, I’m part of a minority group too when it comes to religion. To my knowledge, my school does not have a humanist or secular student organization, but I would hope that if one existed, it would consider participating in, or co-sponsoring this event, in order to steer the conversation in a useful direction. For atheists and other religious minorities, violations of religious freedom can mean things like this happening. For Christians, as the majority, concerns about religious persecution tend to come down to this question: “Why can’t everybody be expected to learn about and practice my religion since most people follow it anyway?” For religions with fewer followers in an area, concerns about religious freedom are very different. They have to ask: “Will I (or my kids) be forced to pray to or worship a god I don’t believe in, or prevented from worshiping the one(s) that I choose?”

You may be wondering why I care about this as an atheist. After all, atheism is technically not a religion; it’s a lack of belief. I care because there aren’t many of us compared to other groups, and we rely on religious freedom in order to simply live our lives the way we choose. Religious freedom, contrary to some clueless politicians, includes freedom from religion. This is because separation of church and state means the government can’t require you to follow any religion, or promote one over others. That’s not a bad thing. It’s what allows Catholics to continue to practice Catholicism, while Buddhists can be Buddhists and atheists can just not have religion. We live in a time and place where legally, all of that is OK. Let’s keep it that way, please. Let’s not whine about nonexistent persecution, and just work to promote the idea that if we’re OK with people having any religion they want, we should also be OK with them not being forced to practice ours. Just as I would never support legislation that would require students to pray in schools, I also would not support legislation that would punish someone for praying by him or herself in public. Leading prayer can be inappropriate in some situations, but sitting down and folding your hands before a meal is not and should not be against the law. However, nor should digging in and chowing down immediately with a thought to thank your mom who actually made you that sandwich.

What do you think about religious freedom and privilege? As usual, feel free to comment. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!


Godspell: An Unexpected Source for Doubt

Image courtesy of franky242 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of franky242 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Confession time. I’m often somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but I’m absolutely crazy about musicals, and some of my relatives are too. A few years ago, during the years that I was only beginning to doubt Catholicism, my mom got very excited that Godspell was coming to Broadway. It was worth the trip to New York to see it, she promised, and bought several tickets, intending to take me and my brothers with her. Somewhat skeptical and not particularly interested in seeing a play that would, I assumed, portray the same Jesus story I’d heard retold in a million different ways throughout my life, I came anyway.

I had seen musicals on Broadway before, but I didn’t know what to expect with Godspell. What I discovered was a musical comedy with very little plot, based on the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament and, as I suspected, the Biblical story of his life. As far as musicals go, this one is far tamer than the ones that criticize religion, such as The Book of Mormon. Godspell is actually very Christian friendly. There are certainly some Christians who can’t stomach it because of the amount of popular culture it contains, but it doesn’t really do anything that conflicts with Christian teachings. Frankly, it does an awful lot to promote them. Many of the songs are actually song versions of Jesus’ parables.

The performance I saw was phenomenal. Corbin Bleu played Jesus, and damn, that guy can sing (I always thought Disney stars were auto tuned because they all sound so similar. Another Disney star, Anna Maria Perez De Tagle, was also on the cast, and she too had notable talent. I take back my former distrust of Disney). The humor had been updated since the original version of the show, with jokes about Donald Trump, Obama, and other such contemporary figures. While I wasn’t particularly into the subject matter, I was definitely entertained.

This show did something surprising for me, though. As I began to question my faith, I began to return again and again to some of the show’s lyrics. Those lyrics wound up propelling me into further questioning, and further thinking.

The lyrics in question come from the show’s opening. In it, the cast enters, singing a song in which each person takes the role of one or two philosophers. The song they sing is titled “Tower of Babble,” and it’s one of the few Godspell songs I’ll still listen to on occasion. It represents the different ideas of philosophers by having the various cast members sing paraphrased versions of their thoughts, many of them about God. My favorite by far from the moment I heard it was a paraphrased version of what I later realized was a Galileo quote. Originally, Galileo said:

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

The Godspell version of this idea is as follows:

“God endows us with sense and intellect. God endows us with reason we neglect. And despite the abolition by the current inquisition of any intuition that they don’t choose, when it comes to God I find I can’t believe that he designed a human being with a mind he’s not supposed to use.”

Those lyrics stayed in my head for years, and kept coming back to me. Partially because of those words, whenever I stopped myself from questioning religion, I began to change my mind and question it anyway. Galileo was a brilliant man. As I mentioned in my last post, I’d already begun to think religion and intellect didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. To find that Galileo had come to the same conclusion gave me hope that I wasn’t crazy–that I wasn’t the only one. It was, for me, a subtler version of the goal of the atheist billboards humanist groups occasionally put up, like this one:

Sometimes, the most important thing a person can hear is that other people have similar ideas. Knowing that got me thinking that maybe I’d stumbled upon some sort of religious truth. I thought there might be theological reasons to support the belief that intellectualism wasn’t contrary to the Bible. If one does some cherry picking, it’s certainly a plausible idea. Genesis says “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Hypothetically, if God created man, and man was good, then everything about humanity is good. That should include natural bodily functions, the human sex drive, and perhaps most importantly of all, the human intellect.

I later realized just how much cherry picking I was doing, and that for every verse supporting my opinion, there was another one telling me to close my mind to any dissenting thoughts. For example, Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight [Emphasis mine].”

After a while of this, I realized I needed to choose between faith and intellectualism, and that’s when the faith that had always come naturally to me started slipping away.

As usual, feel free to comment! All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!





Beginning to Question: Thoughts on Catholic Priesthood

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Why can’t women be priests?” my friend asked, sitting across from me at a table in the food court. We were at the mall, a few blocks away from the Catholic school she attended, which I had just recently left. I always assumed she followed Catholicism to a T like so many people I knew. Then again, this friend was very different from most of those people. She had some quirks I hadn’t encountered in anyone before. She considered herself emo, joked about alcohol, and one of her closest friends was genderqueer.

I knew the standard Catholic answer. “It’s because Jesus didn’t make any female priests when he started the priesthood, so the church can’t.” I explained, “They don’t know if He would approve.”

“That’s dumb. Of course there were no female priests back then.” My friend flicked her jet black hair behind her shoulders. “No one would listen to a woman in Jesus’ time. Now though…it doesn’t make sense to not allow women to do it. It’s not like the job requires you to pee standing up.”

I understood her thinking. There really was no reason I could think of for women to be banned from priesthood. The job requires devout religiosity, good people skills and studiousness–all traits plenty of women had. I had never questioned it before, though. This was new to me:  the idea that some aspect of my religion could be examined for validity. With it came the idea that religion had to stand up to the test of reason. It literally hadn’t occurred to me before that day. I was in high school, and had taken Catholicism without question for my entire life. That friend and I are no longer in contact with each other, but I’ll never forget that conversation.

If the idea had come from anyone else, it probably wouldn’t have had as much impact. I had plenty of acquaintances who openly questioned Catholicism, but didn’t practice it, and didn’t seem to have ever practiced it consistently. I didn’t trust them to make intelligent observations about something they hadn’t experienced. But to hear another Catholic who was both a friend a very cool peer criticize religion suddenly made criticizing it seem OK. It opened me up to the idea that I didn’t need to reject reason to be Catholic, and that I didn’t need to accept everything the church taught to keep my faith. I could love Jesus and support the idea of female priests. I could pray for God to reveal the need for this to church leaders.

During my last few years of Catholicism, the priesthood was probably the first thing I began to question. I didn’t just wonder why women were banned from that position. I also wondered why priests were forbidden from marrying (later, when I learned what sex was, I saw the connection and wondered why sex, even in marriage, was off limits to priests). I had met married Protestant ministers, and I had friends whose father was a Ukrainian Catholic priest. (They don’t follow the same rules as Roman Catholics). Those religious leaders in similar roles did just fine with wives. In fact, it could be argued that they do the job better.

Priests are often called upon to advise couples. They meet with them prior to marriage to help them prepare for the wedding ceremony and their future together. Priests will also counsel married couples. It was this second duty that irked me the most, and I began to raise a new question: why should married people accept relationship advice from someone whose job title forbids him from experiencing romantic relationships? Maybe that part of the job description should be changed.

Seriously, who do you go to for dating advice? Your friend who has never dated and has zero interest in dating, or your other friend who’s dated six people and finally settled into a solid, long term relationship? Given that choice, I’m definitely going to the second friend. When I asked my parents how a priest was supposed to give sound dating advice, they said, “Well, maybe he’s had past relationships before becoming a priest. He can also draw from his experience having been raised by a married couple. Priests are very well versed in religion, so they can help with matters of faith.”

I accepted her answer, realizing I wouldn’t get anywhere with this line of questioning. Privately, I wondered, what about non matters of faith? If a couple is arguing frequently because all the household chores have been falling to one person, or because sex sucks due to both people’s inexperience, I sincerely hope the couple chooses to seek council from someone with actual relationship experience. If the situation is bad enough, a professional councilor should be sought out. Not a priest. I’m not saying that all priests attempt to council couples in this way, but I honestly think that counseling married couples shouldn’t be in their job description at all, unless they are allowed to get married themselves. I’ve never been married, so I wouldn’t dare try to council a married couple. Romantic relationships are very delicate, and marriage is challenging. I don’t know what that’s like. Who am I to start insisting that I have all the answers to their problems?

Eventually, this train of thought led me to question other things. It set a new standard for religion in my mind–the same standard I held in other areas of my life. Why do something for no reason? Why make something, even religion, the focal point of your life it it doesn’t make any sense and its rules are arbitrary?

I don’t know if that friend of mine wound up staying Catholic, but I appreciate her honesty. I appreciate all peers who are willing to say what they think. Religion is a very serious thing. Sure, respect it–but don’t be afraid to actually think about it. Respecting something can also mean taking it seriously enough to think critically about it. There’s no shame in that. Additionally, there’s no shame in not knowing what you believe. I’ve been there.

As usual, feel free to comment! All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!