Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Growing Up and Getting a Job

I'd like to take a moment to comment on an article I read recently on the New York Times. This article, like many I've read before, tries very hard to answer the question on their readers' minds. What the hell is wrong with young people these days?

They phrase it more politely than that of course, but it's pretty clear what they're driving at. They want to know why young people won't settle down, finish school, find a job, get married, and have kids. I've read dozens of articles in major newspapers with this exact same question, this exact same complaint.

I'm going to focus on the issue of finding a job, because that's the issue I happen to be the most familiar with (and also one of the most common complaints). I also think that most of the other issues are tied in with that one.

This article is actually slightly encouraging in that it acknowledges that the economy is doing poorly, and expecting young people to just go out there and find a job right away isn't exactly realistic. This realization comes a little late in my opinion. Even when the economy was doing well, there was always a real shortage of entry level jobs.

I graduated with a computer science degree in 2005. I was surprised at how little help I received with finding a job. No one pointed me in the direction of companies looking for interns or entry level programmers. Nobody gave me any advice on how to design my resume or interview well. I went online looking for advice, but I found most of it to be either obvious, unhelpful or contradictory.

I applied for several companies that I never heard back from. The one interview I did get didn't go anywhere. Since then I've been applying for programming jobs off and on without any success.

I signed up with a temp agency and managed to get a few different job placements. None of them were amazing jobs, but I would have been glad to stay with them if they had hired me full time. None of them did.

While I was a temp I worked at a lot of different places for a variety of different bosses. Some of them were okay, but some of them were downright capricious. I remember being told by one company that the person I was working for was an impossible man with unrealistic expectations. I wasn't the first person who had been let go with little to no reason, and the HR person was getting frustrated trying to find someone who could satisfy him.

Most of the time I would work hard and finish an assignment much earlier than was expected. My reward for finishing my responsibilities in a timely manner was a swift return to the unemployment line.

At which point I would come home and read another article about how young people are just too lazy to find a job.

As the economic meltdown continues, we're going to have to learn how to solve these problems. If we're ever going to return to full employment, companies are going to have to suck it up and start hiring inexperienced workers. They can't rely on some other company to train their workforce for them.

At the same time, middle aged men and women are going to have to get over their naked hatred of lazy twenty-somethings. They'll have to learn how to put aside their prejudice and understand that, properly employed, we can be valuable and productive members of society. They just need someone pointing them in the direction of a job that needs doing.

I don't think we're going to solve any of these problems anytime soon. I expect this financial crisis will continue for quite awhile. In the meantime I expect that the older generation's disdain for the younger generation will continue unabated. Of course, this disdain is only reinforcing the economic crisis that hurts all of us, but I don't think the older generation has quite figured that out yet.

Here's to hoping they figure it out before unemployment hits 25%.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Miracles and Signs

Most of the time, when people use the word "miracle" they're talking about an event that is clearly impossible. Something that violates the laws of physics. Something that defies everything we know about the world works.

Sometimes the term is used differently. Sometimes the word is used to describe an event that is entirely possible, even expected, that still manages to evoke a sense of awe and wonder in us. As an example, people often refer to the miracle of childbirth, even though giving birth to a child is the natural result of pregnancy.

The reason we have this second usage is because miracles don't merely refer to unlikely or impossible occurrences. It refers to events that reveal God to us. It refers to events that demonstrate God's power as well as his character.

Sometimes these events are called signs. That term is helpful because that's what these events are. They are signs that point us to God. They show us who God is and what he is like.

Everyone loves a flashy sign, an extravagant miracle that displays Gods power and majesty. Unfortunately the smaller, less visible signs are often overlooked. We don't always recognize or appreciate the smaller ways in which God reveals himself to us.

Partly this is because those smaller signs are so often lost in the noise and confusion that the world generates. However, I think a large part of the reason why this happens is because we learn to take those little signs for granted.

As wonderful as it can be to experience a truly incredible miracle, we must be careful not to lose sight of the less spectacular, but far more commonplace miracles. We should be mindful of all the little ways that God makes his goodness, his righteousness and his majesty known to us through everyday occurrences. If we can learn to do this we will never lack a reminder of who God is and what he has done for us.

Friday, August 27, 2010

TGD: The Miracle of Belief

Back in chapter two I talked about how Dawkins uses an appeal to ridicule to advance his argument. I suspect this appeal is effective for a lot of people because they share his assumption that religious beliefs are silly, especially any kind of belief in miracles.

In the preface Dawkins said that he hoped this book would convince even religious readers to become atheists. I can see it working in some cases. There are, after all, quite a few people who don't believe in miracles, but still cling to religious beliefs for any number of reasons. I can see such individuals deciding to become atheists after reading this book.

However, I don't think the book will have much of an impact on people who seriously believe in miracles. The only message that this book offers such people is captured perfectly by the title. The message is this, "If you believe in miracles, then you're delusional." I don't think that's an argument that most religious people will be able to accept, especially if they've experienced a miracle themselves.

On the other hand, for people who haven't experienced a miracle and who have no religious background, Dawkins' argument works fairly well. If you accept the basic premise, then you'll probably find the central argument of this book persuasive. I have done what I can to show that there is still good reason to believe that miracles do occur, but I realize that those arguments aren't entirely persuasive.

I know that in my case, I only started to believe because I had the good fortune to experience the power of God in a miraculous way. As such, I'm sympathetic to people who don't believe that miracles are possible at all. I was that way for a long time. For most people I suspect it's one of those things you have to see to believe.

I know I'm not likely to convince my more skeptical readers, but I hope that I can at least give them some understanding of where religious people are coming from. It's easy to read a book like The God Delusion and come away with the impression that religious people are all gullible or delusional or just stupid. Hopefully, by reading these posts you can gain a slightly broader perspective on what religious people are actually like.

Next week I'm going to get started on chapter four of The God Delusion. We finally get to take a look at Dawkins' argument against the existence of God. I hope you'll stick around.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Is the "Food Court Gangster" a THQ Customer?

I'm doing something a little unusual with this post. I still plan to write about The God Delusion this week, but today I want to write about a recent Penny Arcade strip and the controversy it generated.

Recently, the video-game developer THQ decided to include some extra features that would only be available to first time buyers. They announced that they don't care about upsetting people who buy used games. The webcomic Penny Arcade made a hilarious comic and wrote a news-post commenting on the situation. (For those who don't follow the comic The "Food Court Gangster" is the name of the character in the comic who buys his games used).

In both the comic and the news-post, the author makes the point that THQ has no problem upsetting people who buy used games because those people aren't their customers. They are customers of Gamestop, a retail outlet that, in addition to selling new games, buys and sells a large volume of used games.

Now there's a lot of truth to this. Game publishers and developers don't make any money from the sale of used games. If that was all that they had said, I probably wouldn't have felt the need to comment, but in the news-post Tycho goes further than that. He writes that buying used games is equivalent to piracy. "From the the perspective of a developer," he writes, "They are almost certainly synonymous."

That statement is problematic for two reasons. One, because it equates the legal act of buying a used game with the illegal act of downloading that game from a file sharing network. Two, because it ignores the economic impact of buying and selling used games.

While it is true that the "Food Court Gangster" isn't a THQ customer, Gamestop is. In fact, if I had to guess, I would say that Gamestop is probably one of THQ's biggest customers. If Gamestop makes money buying and selling used games, that's money they can use to stay in business and buy more games. Remember, without the sale of new games, there is no used game market for them to make money on.

Additionally, the sale of used games has an indirect effect of selling more games. Let's say Bob is thinking about buying a game, but isn't sure that it's worth the $60 price tag. If Bob knows that he can resell the game later for five or ten bucks, he's more likely to go ahead and spend the money. Plus, the money Bob makes selling used games can be used to buy more new games.

Let's put it this way, suppose video game companies could stop Gamestop from selling used games altogether. How many Gamestops would be able to stay in business after one of their primary revenue streams is cut off? Let's say that half of the Gamestops are able to stay in business. Would this be a good thing for the game industry?

I know that game developers and game publishers would like to make money on the sale of used games. The recording industry would like to make money on the sale of used CDs, and the publishing industry would like to make money on the sale of used books, but that's not the way copyright works.

If you own the copyright on a particular work you get to control who gets to make copies of that work. You don't get to control what a person does with their copy after it's been made. We might feel bad that Gamestop makes a lot of money on the sale of used games, but that doesn't make it wrong or illegal.

Going back to the original event that sparked the discussion, I don't think THQ's decision to make some content available only to first time buyers is so bad. However, I think game companies need to be careful. If they punish people who buy their games used too much, they might find out that those people are their customers after all.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Lost Art of Lament

What do we do when we've lost hope? How do we respond when the one person we thought we could count on lets us down? Where do we turn for comfort when we feel certain that God has abandoned us?

The answer is simple: we cry out. We cry out to God whether he is there or not. We cry out to God whether he is listening or not. We cry out to God whether he rescues us or not. Even though we feel certain that he's not there, that he isn't listening and that he most certainly is not going to rescue us, we cry out anyway.

This act of crying out to God is called lamenting and it is something of a lost art, especially in the evangelical church. Even though scripture is full of laments, most Christians are unwilling to share laments of their own. Many are skeptical of laments, even the ones that appear in scripture.

I can understand why. Laments are so often filled with difficult questions, either asked or unasked. Most people come to religion looking for answers. The last thing they want to encounter is more questions.

As a result, most churches don't spend a lot of time lamenting. This is unfortunate, because I think a good lament might be just the thing we need.

In the world we live in, not every question has an easy answer, and not every problem has a straightforward solution. In fact, I suspect that there are a few important questions that don't have any answer, and some problems that simply defy solution.

In any case, religion certainly can't provide all the answers or all the solutions, no matter how hard it tries. We need to be honest about that. And if we want to be honest about that, then we should learn how to lament properly. We need to learn how to ask the questions we don't have the answer to, instead of pretending we already have all the answers.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Scott Pilgrim

I realize that I haven't been terribly consistent with my posting lately. This post and last week's post were both late, and I haven't done a post on The God Delusion in the past two weeks. I'm sorry about the delays. My life has been a little bit crazy lately. Hopefully I should be back on schedule next week with a post on Monday and another post on The God Delusion by next Friday. In the meantime, I hope you'll be patient with me.

Short Version: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the best movie to come out in a long time. If you have any interest in video games, offbeat romantic comedies, or highly original movies, you should go see it right now.

Longer version: This Friday I went with a group of friends to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. A few weeks prior I got the chance to borrow the graphic novels from a friend. I enjoyed the books, but I was skeptical that the movie would be able to condense the story enough while still preserving the spirit of the comics. In fact, the movie did an even better job than I had dared to hope.

The movie takes all the weirdness of Scott Pilgrim's world and puts it on the screen, without trying to rationalize it or explain it away. It adopts the conventions of comic books and video games in new and interesting ways. I feel like this movie is pointing the way forward for comic book and video game adaptations.

More importantly though, the movie has excellent writing and a great story. Beneath all the silliness and absurdity the movie has a surprising amount of depth. The fights may seem unrealistic, but the way the characters interact and grow and change is very authentic.

Scott Pilgrim is a great movie. It's also a movie that groks contemporary geek culture. I honestly didn't expect to see a movie like this for at least another five or ten years, if ever. I'm so used to mainstream culture demonizing gamers that I'm surprised that a movie like this, which celebrates gaming culture, got made.

Of course, getting a movie like that made is one thing. Getting it to be successful is something else entirely. Although it got great reviews (excluding a few people who decided to review the audience instead of the movie) the movie isn't doing that well in the box office.

I'm hopeful that the movie will end up being successful. Once word of mouth gets around, I expect a lot more people will come and see it, and in any case it's pretty much destined to become a cult classic. So I think that in the long run the film will definitely be a success.

Still, I would like to see the movie do well in the short term. For one ting, the people who made it deserve a solid return on investment. For another thing, I'd like to see how the reviewers who panned the film react when it becomes a much loved classic.

We will see what happens. Only time will tell.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Hardest Subject

Today I'm going to talk about something I've never talked about before despite the fact that it is a central aspect of the Christian religion. I'm going to talk about God's judgement. More to the point I'm going to talk about Hell, whether or not it exists, and who ends up there.

I've never talked about this subject before for two simple reasons. One, it's an incredibly sensitive topic for obvious reasons. Two, I don't have many strong convictions in this area. I have some strong opinions, but I'm not entirely sure of those opinions.

However, as long as I remain silent, most people will probably assume that I hold the traditional protestant view. Namely, that Hell is real and terrible and that anyone who doesn't confess their faith in Jesus during their life will spend eternity there. I may not be entirely sure that my beliefs are correct, but I strongly believe this view is wrong. If only for that reason, I should probably let you know what my beliefs concerning the final judgement actually are.

First of all, I have a hard time believing that every single adult* who isn't a Christian at the time of their death will be judged. Far too many people have lived and died having never even had an opportunity to become Christian. Many more people only know of Jesus through the message spread by crusaders and conquistadors, men whose actions contradict and pervert the message of Christ.

It seems far more reasonable to me to assume that they mercy God has shown through Jesus on the cross isn't meant only for Christians. I don't claim to know exactly how far God's mercy extends, but I am very uncomfortable putting limits on it. I am especially uncomfortably limiting it only to those people who hear about Jesus and believe in him while they are still alive.

As I write this, I know that many evangelicals who read this would probably cringe at this suggestion that God's mercy isn't reserved just for them. "If God's just going to let everyone into heaven anyway, then why bother evangelizing?" they would probably ask.

Simply put, I believe that being Christian is about more than merely reserving a seat in heaven. I think that following Jesus has something to do with participating in the Kingdom of God, which has begun and even now is growing silently and invisibly all around us, but I'll save that discussion for a future post.

Second, I have a hard time believing that God would send anyone to an actual, eternal Hell. I once had a discussion with a friend at church who said, bluntly, that the only reason anyone believes in Hell is because of Dante's inferno. This is an exaggeration, to be sure, but it's probably more true than we'd like to admit. I also think Pascal's notorious wager has something to do with why so many people continue to believe in Hell. For many people, fear of Hell is what convinced them to become Christian in the first place.

In addition, there are some deep philosophical reasons why many Christians believe in an eternal Hell. Most Christians believe in the immortality of the soul. In fact, most Christians assume that this belief is a core part of the Christian faith, even though the Bible doesn't make that claim.

Because they have this assumption, when they read about God punishing the wicked, they assume that the punishment must be eternal. They don't consider the possibility that the person's soul could die, even though this punishment is referred to as, "The second death." They ignore the obvious interpretation because of their belief in the immortality of the soul.

A great book to read if you're interested in learning more about alternative views about Hell is The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. It's written for a popular audience, which makes it an excellent antidote for The Inferno.

So, what do I believe concerning the final judgement? I believe that God is merciful and his judgments are just. I trust that God won't be harsh or unfair in his judgments. For that reason, I have hard time believing the traditional view. The traditional view may provide certainty, but if we really trust God then I think we can handle a little uncertainty.

* Most evangelicals believe that children under a certain age are exempt from judgment. This is called the "Age of accountability". There isn't much basis in scripture for this belief, but most people are uncomfortable with a theology that condemns infants to Hell just because they weren't baptized.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

TGD: Chapter Three - Science, Gambling, and the Odds

In the last three sections Dawkins deals with arguments for God's existence that, in my opinion, aren't terribly convincing. In this post I'll try to go over all three sections so we can be done with chapter three and move on to the heart of Dawkins' argument.

In the first of these three sections Dawkins writes about the "appeal to respected scientists". The gist of this argument is that many well respected scientists have believed in God, therefore you should as well.

The argument is a kind of appeal to authority, and not a very good one. Scientists aren't in a better position to know whether or not God exists than anyone else.

In any case, Dawkins points out that these days very few notable scientists are religious in the traditional sense. Quite a few are religious in the 'Einsteinian' sense, which Dawkins decided to lump in with atheism back in chapter one.

This argument seems more relevant to the question of whether or not religion and science are compatible, but I'm not going to bring up that subject again. For now let me just say that the belief, or lack thereof, of scientists has no bearing on the question of whether or not God exists.

In the next section Dawkins discuses Pascal's wager. This isn't an argument for God's existence so much as an argument for why you should believe he exists.

The wager works like this. If God doesn't exist then it doesn't matter one way or the other if you believe in him or not. On the other hand if God does exist then you'll be better off if you believe in him than if you don't. So you should believe in God, in case he does exist.

Dawkins points out to problems with the argument. First, the argument assumes that there is only one possible God that might exist. The argument doesn't deal with the possibility that you might choose the wrong God to believe in.

Second, Dawkins points out that deciding to believe something is not simply a matter of choice, at least, not for him. In order to believe something you need to have some evidence for it. Otherwise you're just paying lip service.

I hate to pile on old Pascal, but I have a few additional problems with the argument. First, it assumes you have a traditional view of heaven and hell, which is not a belief I'm committed to (and it's certainly not a belief I want to promote for the sake of a bad argument).

Finally, the wager only works if you assume that believing in God doesn't cost anything. If, on the other hand, believing in God is something that could potentially cost you your life or your freedom, then the argument doesn't work so well. The argument certainly doesn't convince us to obey Jesus when he tells us to give up everything we have and follow him.

The final argument that Dawkins brings up is one that I've never heard of before. The argument comes from a book called, "The Probability of God". In it, the author uses Bayesian methods to determine the odds that God exists.

I am fond of Bayes' theorem, but this argument doesn't sound like a very good one. Based on Dawkins' description it seems like the man took a very informal argument for God's existence, assigned numbers to various factors that make it more or less likely that God exists, and then used Bayes' theorem to come up with a final probability.

Since I'm not familiar with the argument, I have no way of knowing if Dawkins misrepresented it, but it didn't sound very convincing to me. If you're curious, you can always buy the book. If nothing else, you'll learn how to use Bayes' theorem, which is worthwhile enough.

In any case, we're now finished with chapter three. In a few weeks I will return with chapter four.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Morality Clubs and the Kingdom of God

As you may recall, awhile back I talked about the Kingdom of God; specifically, I talked about a few of the more commonly held views of what the Kingdom of God is. Since then I've talked about how the Kingdom of God relates to politics, religion, and society. Today I'm going to continue the series by talking about how the Kingdom of God relates to morality.

The view that the Kingdom of God is essentially an ethical system is very common. Many people believe that the Kingdom of God is just a moral code that people are obligated to follow. People who hold this view usually try to ensure that people obey the moral principles which they equate with the Kingdom of God.

In principle this is a nice idea, but in practice it often leads to the creation of "morality clubs"; groups whose sole purpose is to make sure that everyone (or at least, everyone in the group) follows the correct moral code. These groups are usually manipulative. They use shame and guilt to control people's behavior. They also lead people to become very judgmental towards each other and even towards themselves.

If you're familiar with the gospels, you will probably recognize that this is not how Jesus treated people. Jesus was kind and affectionate to even the worst of the worst. Strangely, he was the most critical of people who were working hard to be paragons of virtue. Jesus did not look favorably on the morality clubs that existed in his day.

Obviously, Jesus did present a set of morals in his teachings, but at the center of his teachings were several teachings on mercy and forgiveness. God's mercy and forgiveness, which Paul described as grace, lies at the heart of Jesus' ethical teachings. If we understand Jesus' teaching on this matter, we will see that it is the perfect antidote to morality clubs, both in our time and in Jesus' time.

According to this teaching, being completely wicked is not the worst thing a person can do. The most evil thing that we can do is be good and consider ourselves superior to the people who aren't as good as we are. According to Jesus, this judgmental attitude is always worse than the evil deeds done by the people we judge.

If we follow this teaching, if we put forgiveness first, then we lose the right to control or manipulate others. We cannot use guilt or shame to get people to behave the way they should. Instead, we are asked to freely extend forgiveness to everyone and trust God to do what is right.

If we follow this teaching, it will free us from these kinds of manipulative morality clubs. It will also free us from the deep injustices of our society. Of course, if we follow this teaching, we will also come to understand that no one follows it perfectly, and we don't have any way to force them to comply.

That lack of control is a problem for many people. That's why so many people prefer their morality club to the true kingdom of God. Such groups are safer and easier to control. But they aren't truly God's kingdom, and they never will be.