I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Good without God?

One argument for for God is that, even if he's merely a creation of human imagination, he still serves some useful functions. First, by creating an imaginary parent of all mankind to dish out punishments and rewards, there's an incentive for people to be good. The world is full of personal testimony of people who will tell you they were hard-drinking, wife-beating, mother-robbing, dog-kicking scoundrels until they realized God didn't approve and changed their ways. Convicted murders, rapists, drug addicts, and congressmen emerge from prison testifying that they've found the Lord and from now on will walk the straight and narrow path, and often they do. Even if fictional, God keeps us from being up to our eyebrows in wickedness, one may argue.

Second, God offers hope. The doctors come into the room and tell you there's an inoperable cancer the size of an apple growing in your brain. Prayer might be your only source of hope. Even better, perhaps, is the hope that death isn't actually death. On the latest Mountain Goat album, there's a song with the lyric, "I won't get better, but one day I'll be free, for I am not this body that imprisons me." There are circumstances where life feels like a trap, and God is the best hope of escaping the trap. Hope isn't a valueless commodity. For instance, if you are unemployed and have hope, you will keep applying to jobs and going to interviews, increasing the odds that you will be hired. If you have no hope, you won't even bother to apply for the job that you might have eventually landed.

Faced with these tangible values provided by even a fictional God, what's an atheist to do?

Let me deal with hope first. Nothing about being an atheist eliminates hope from your life. When the doctor tells you about your inoperable tumor, you can turn to the stories of thousands of people who received similar diagnosis and went on to live fulfilling lives for years and decades. Stephen Jay Gould was told he would likely die in six months when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and he lived another twenty years, working right up to the end. Even if you don't believe in a God who will intervene to cure your cancer, you can believe, based on evidence, in spontaneous remissions that seem to arise at random in any given population of cancer. One might argue that placing hope in randomness doesn't seem as hopeful as placing hope in God. I think there are more lotto ticket buyers than church goers, so apparently it's not without appeal. And, for me, it removes an unintended ickiness of God-based hope. You pray, your wife prays, your children pray, and still you die. In the room next door, people pray, and the patient lives. The rather random outcomes of prayer based interventions might lead to the stress of people wondering what they did to displease God. Why weren't they worthy? Remove God from the equation, and you're left with statistics. Things happen in certain proportions, and you hope that today won't be the day your luck runs out.

Not, of course, that it all needs to be left to luck: If you believe there is no interventionist God, then perhaps you place your hope in men. Men are building an increasingly good track record in all manners of cures. God guided healing, such as we've had for most of human history, produced average life spans under fifty. Evidence based healing, where humans have studied the functions of the body and the origins of disease to ever greater levels of understanding, is populating our world with octogenarians. Suppose I told you that, twenty years from now, you would go into a hospital and be told you have a tumor. Would praying now be the best strategy for dealing with it? Or would donating money to cancer research and building your financial resources to allow for top notch health insurance be a better strategy? Going back to the unemployment example, are you more likely to get a job staying at home and praying for one? Or going out and filling in applications? Placing hope in God seems like a strategy that might limit your hopeful outcomes. Placing hope in your own actions, and in the actions of your fellow humans, seems like it might increase your odds of hopeful outcomes.

But, of course, there's the point where all hope is lost. The tumor has killed you. Bluntly, I don't think, at that point, hope matters to you in the least. I don't think you are you any more. Still, isn't it useful for the survivors to have hope that they will one day be reunited with you? I suppose. But, as someone devoid of this hope, I can tell you that I don't miss it. For me, the value is in a person's life, not their afterlife. And, if you want a person to survive after they are gone, the human brain is equipped with this wonderful thing called memory. When Laura passed away, I'd find myself wondering what she would think of certain choices I was making in life. When I selected my new house, I wondered if she'd like it. Luckily, her opinions on houses weren't a mystery to me. We'd sat and watched home improvement shows side by side for years. I think she would have approved of my choice of a cosmetically impaired dwelling that was structurally solid. Your loved ones can have an afterlife of sorts as you carry them with you in your memory and still consider them as you make your decisions in life. If you live well, and try to make a difference in the lives of others, then you can have hope that, when you're gone, you at least won't be forgotten.

Which leaves us with the argument that God is useful as a source of morality. The evidence that some people embrace God and go on to live lives that benefit mankind as a whole is incontrovertible. This is the "heads" side of the God-based morality coin. The "tails" side is that there's a lot of harm done in God's name as well. People strap on dynamite vests and blow up buses, or pull out a gun and start gunning down fellow men. Doctors get murdered in cold blood while sitting in church pews. By the millions in some nations, women are kept illiterate and treated as property. In our own nation, it wasn't so long ago that prominent Christian voices celebrated AIDS as God's judgment on homosexuals. Today, fundamentalists actively attempt to squelch the teaching of evolution, fearing that Darwin is dangerous to the human soul. The danger of having an imaginary God as the font of morality is that it leaves morality in the hands of human imagination.

I would argue that it's much safer and more beneficial to strip God out of the moral equation and base our ethics on reason. Altruism is an excellent strategy for advancing the interests of you and your loved ones. The world is full of problems that can be solved by humans working together. Maybe some people need God to tell them to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. But, these things are good even in the absence of God. Just because I'm an atheist doesn't mean I want to see people suffer. I'm surrounded by people I love who suffer misfortune. Even if I'm a selfish bastard who sees nothing beyond my immediate friends and family, among those friends and family I have people who are sick, people who are unemployed, people who are disabled and disadvantaged. It's in my own interests to work to mitigate the sources of human suffering. I don't need God to tell me I don't want to lose any more loved ones to cancer in order to drum up money for cancer research.

If we wish to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and clothe the poor, I would argue that we can accomplish more by focusing on science than on God. Prayer probably won't cure your cancer, but surgery and chemotherapy have a real shot. Praying for rain might not increase your crop yields, but America produces more food than we can eat thanks to our studies of genetics and the engineering prowess we've shown at bringing water to deserts. As for clothing the poor, we've produced such a surplus of clothing in this country that there are probably 60 billion shirts to clothe the 6 billion people on the planet. Involuntary nudity just doesn't seem to be a major source of human misery anymore.

Mankind is capable to doing good without God. I would argue we've been doing so since we first started walking on two legs. Letting go of God as a source of goodness seems to me to be a natural part of growing up as a species, just as letting go of Santa Claus as a rewarder of good behavior is part of growing out of childhood. The question we should be asking ourselves isn't, "What would Jesus do?" It's "What should I do?"

Right now, I should go eat some lunch.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My Experience Buying a Casket Online

In a perfect world, everyone would be prepared for death. You'd have the funeral arrangements made in advance, the headstone selected and paid for, and the coffin purchased and stored, waiting for the right moment of use. In the real world, even when people have been in declining health for months or years, death still comes as a moment for which the survivors are usually ill prepared. A lot of life's big decisions you can take your time on; I spent a couple of months on my last search for a house, and the last time I bought a car I made my choice after several weeks of research, reading reviews and visiting lots to look at models. But, when someone dies, the family is is often forced to make a lot of financial decisions in a span of days, and sometimes even hours.

You'd be an idiot to buy a car without at least looking at two or three competitors, but it seems unrealistic and perhaps a bit crass to "shop" for a funeral home, going to two or three and getting quotes while the deceased is left in limbo. However, having twice been closely involved with planning a funeral, there is definitely one area of the burial that you can have a lot of control and choice over: the casket. It may seem a bit shallow to worry about cost when you are getting ready to bury your loved ones. But, unless you are financially well off, the funeral often comes just as you are hit with eye-popping bills for medical care, not to mention lord knows how many financial loose ends that are left at the end of a person's life. If you can save significant sums of money and get exactly the same quality product, I don't think anyone should think ill of you.

My father's funeral was the second time I've purchased a casket online. Both times, I've been very pleased with the price and the product. This time, I looked online before I went to the funeral home, with my siblings and my mother at the laptop looking at different designs and options. One nice thing about the Internet is that you have plenty of choice. I was leaning toward a steel casket, but my mother thought a wooden one was more suited to Dad's personality, and we soon narrowed it down to a solid cedar casket in a natural wood grain finish. The casket, with express shipping, would cost us $1500. Then we went to the funeral parlor. They showed us their caskets, and the least expensive wooden casket they had started at $4000, and the one most similar to the one we liked online was $6000. Needless to say, we decided to go with the online option.

The funeral director did his best to dissuade us, but, legally, at least in North Carolina, you are free to purchase a casket from whoever you wish and they have to use it. We ordered from bestpricecaskets.com. I made the order on a Saturday night, and the casket was at the funeral home by 9am on Monday morning. The customer service department was excellent; I called back Sunday for tracking information and they had the information in seconds. The following morning, when the driver left the airport to deliver the casket, he called me on my cell phone so I could meet him at the funeral parlor to inspect it on arrival.

I was more than a little paranoid Sunday. I was worried because I was buying something online without actually having seen anything but a small photo. I worried it might arrive scuffed or damaged, or show shoddy workmanship that you wouldn't be able to spot in an online image. Instead, the coffin was lovely. The attention to detail was exceptional, and, as advertised, it was solid cedar. It had a wonderful cedar odor, and polished finish that practically glowed. All during the visitation people commented on how nice the casket was. This matched my experience with purchasing Laura's casket online: a bit of anxiety while it was in transit, but an excellent product once delivered.

I'm writing this in hopes of soothing the nerves of anyone out there who has had a loved one pass away and is thinking of buying a casket online, but is worried it might not work out. Several of the casket websites have personal testimonials, but, of course, you assume they are only going to post their positive comments and not their negative ones. I'm an objective third party who will testify that, in my two times as a casket shopper, I've gotten a good product for a fraction of the price the funeral parlors were going to charge. The only downside has been the completely self-inflicted anxiety in the hours between making the purchase and seeing the product. I can see how some people might buy a coffin at a funeral parlor just because they can actually see it, touch the bedding, etc., and skip the worry that the little photo you saw online won't match the product that arrives at the funeral home. Still, paying $2500 to $4000 extra to avoid that anxiety is a pretty steep price. Hopefully this will be a useful data point in making your decision.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Obvious Truths I Finally Understand

When Dad passed away earlier this month, I did what I could to help with the expenses by buying the coffin. I had to put it on a credit card, largely due to the fact that I've managed to reach the no longer youthful age of fourty-five pretty much flat broke. On paper, I look okay. With the 401k rebound of the last year and some aggressive debt repayment, plus the equity in my house, I'm nicely in the black. Unfortunately, most of this is because of the 401k and home equity; it's not money I can actually put my hands on in an emergency situation.

But, I really have to accept the fact that Dad's funeral was an emergency situation only because I made it one. Dad had about four time bombs ticking away, health-wise, that I was completely aware of. He'd had heart attacks, strokes, didn't manage his diabetes well, and had almost died once before from internal bleeding. Mitigating this were the fact that he was relatively active and engaged with his life. He had reasons to get out of bed in the morning, no matter how bad he felt.
So, when the day came that he passed away, it was a shock, but not a giant shock. Yet, I'd done nothing to prepare for it, financially. The same was true when Laura passed away. I'd been so focused on immediate financial problems, I'd done almost nothing to plan ahead. I've never built up a pool of money to have on hand not for myself, but to help other people.

Part of my financial blindness comes from what I can only describe as a self-centered world view. Since I have no children and, for large chunks of my life, no spouse, I've managed my money strictly with an eye toward my own comfort and goals. This is a very "Ayn Rand" worldview; other people aren't my problem or responsibility. But, events of this last week have slapped me in the face and completely flipped me around. If they aren't my responsibility, then who who, exactly, is responsible?

The liberal view would seem to be that government is responsible, though this could be restated more felicitously as we are all collectively responsible. But, my libertarian instincts still distrust this answer, based on the simple, inarguable truth that the US government sucks at about 99% of everything it tries to do. The few cases where they acheive a good outcome, they do so by spending such outrageous sums of money that it makes your head spin. Few would argue that we have a fantasticly powerful military. Few would also argue that this military chews up a massive amount of our tax dollars (or worse--our borrowed money) and that congress every year increases its expense and decreases its efficiency by funding weapon systems and keeping open bases the military hasn't asked for and doesn't want. And, of course, places like Afghanistan, Vietnam, Somalia, and North Korea are constant reminders that even the most powerful military in the world faces limits on what it can achieve. So, I distrust turning over to government any further responsibilities until we demonstrate as a people that we can operate our government in a responsible fashion.

On the other extreme we get back to the objectivist version of the world: A man is responsible for no one but himself. He is under no obligation to care for the poor or the sick or for children; the greatest good he can achieve is to pursue his own dreams and self-interests, asking nothing from anyone, offering nothing to anyone. This world view made a lot of sense to me when I was in my twenties. Back then, of course, most of the people I knew were healthy. While I knew a lot of poor people, I could still see fairly clearly that most of the poverty I was personally aware of was self-inflicted. Bluntly, I knew a lot of people in their twenties who would quit jobs they didn't like at the snap of their fingers then gripe about how broke they were. Frequently, these people had strong safety nets to fall back into, families who would keep them from going hungry or homeless. It felt easy to extrapolate that the safety nets were creating a moral hazard. Many people, maybe even most people, just don't like to work all that much. The more their basic needs are met, the less motivated they are to do anything. As a society, we don't want to see people go hungry or homeless. But, once some people get free food and free shelter, even if it comes at the most basic level, they lose all motivation. Their basic needs are met, so why push themselves? It's pretty easy to follow this line of thought into a rather hard-hearted libertarianism.

But, of course, the world looks one way when you're twenty-five, and a different way when you're forty-five. I've seen people get sick with diseases that weaken them year after year, leaving them unable to work, but still nowhere near the ends of their life. I've seen other people work hard to become highly paid, stellar performers at their jobs, only to lose those jobs because the owners of the company make a decision that they are going to shut down a plant here and build their product in Mexico. If you're twenty-five and your employer shuts up shop, you can shrug it off and move on. If you're fifty-five and your entire industry is collapsing, things can be a little rougher.

So, I've reached a stage in my life where I'm keenly aware of the difficulty and suffering of others, and want someone to help them. When I look around wondering who should be responsible, I find myself staring in a mirror. I care about these people. Why aren't I helping them? Of course, the main limit on my ability to do good for other people is that I don't have much money. If I had a time machine, I'd like to tell my twenty-five year old self: "Start saving now. I know it seems very far away, but twenty years from now, you're going to want to have cash on hand to help the people you love get through difficult times."

And, of course, I do have a time machine. Alas, it only goes forward. I'm being carried into the future, and the further I go into that future, the more people I care about will face difficulties. I am ill prepared today to give people the assistance I know they need. But, I have the power to change this in five years, and ten years, twenty years, and--who knows--maybe fifty. Five years from now, I should at least be able to pay for a funeral without going into debt. Ten years from now, if I had a friend about to lose a house due to unemployment, I'd like to have the power to step in and help them through a difficult year. And twenty years from now, I'd like to have the money to write large checks to causes I'm passionate about, like medical research. This year, I was happy to help raise a thousand dollars for cancer research. Twenty years from now, I want to be able to add a lot of zeros to that sum.

It's such a simple, obvious truth that I don't know how I didn't understand it until now. It's common wisdom that, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. The caveat is, if you want good done in the world, you are the person ultimately responsible for making that good come to pass. We are all moving forward in a world where our friends and loved ones will one day suffer misfortunes and tragedies. We don't need to know the dates and circumstances in order to start preparing now to help them.

So, I have long term goals to do good. But, I also plan to begin to take action right now. I give relatively little to charity. Starting today, I plan to set aside at least a few dollars from every paycheck specifically to help other people. I know the world is full of people who've been doing this since they first started working. I'm embarassed it's taken me so long to join the club.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sidney W. Maxey, Jr.

Sidney W. Maxey, Jr.

February 20, 1940 - November 7, 2009

You were once a presence full of light upon this earth,
and I am here to witness to your life and to its worth.
--the Mountain Goats
My father passed away yesterday a little more than a month after he suffered a severe heart attack. The days that followed were mostly spent in hospitals. There would be promising news one day, discouraging news the next. Earlier this week, I was certain he would still be coming home, definitely not to the same life he'd lived before, but at least healthy enough to sit in his recliner and talk to people.
Dad's great gift was his ability to talk to anyone. There were no strangers in his world. It wasn't just that he would go up to people and start talking to them. There was some strange pull he had that caused complete strangers to navigate through crowds to find him in order to strike up a conversation. There was just something about his face that said, "Talk to me," and people responded to this.
My cousin Tony told me on the phone last night that, due to a variety of factors, he wouldn't be able to make it to the funeral on Tuesday. But, he said, while he wouldn't be able to be there for his death, he felt fortunate to have been there for his life. And, I think that's mostly what I'm feeling today. A sense of loss, yes, but also a sense of gratitude that I got to spend time with Dad when he was alive. I fished by his side, ate dinner with him in restaurants, held drywall while he set the nails, went swimming him, handed him wrenches while he worked on cars, pulled weeds with him in his garden, and sat on the couch with him watching television.
Dad had one moment to die. But he had 69 years to live. I'm here to tell you, he lived it well, and well-loved.