Saturday, March 6, 2010

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Stupid Is As Stupid Does...

I pondered that line from Forrest Gump for months. What the heck does that mean I wondered. Then one day it hit me. Labeling someone doesn't really define who they are. Action, behavior over a long period of time, does a far better job of defining a person then a label. Labels are helpful in giving someone a stereotype laden snapshot of a person. Often the label is self imposed in an effort to positively effect a strangers perception of who we are. I'm a Republican. I'm a Volunteer. I'm a Doctor.

Labels are stereotyping. Stereotyping is what we do to quickly assess risk and keep ourselves and loved ones safe. It is also misused constantly. It is an intellectually lazy behavior that keeps us from having to do the hard work of discovering who that other person really is.

So where am I going with this? I touched on this issue in a previous blog entitled "The Real Bible". In it, I talked about the struggle that I have thinking that I have turned my back on GOOD:

"A part of me still clings to this idea that what I turned my back on is actually goodness. Deep inside me I still accept the premise that to reject this system of belief is to throw my lot in with the contemptible, the unsavory. To reject Christ is to turn to the dark side.

That's not to say that I deliberately, willfully made the choice with that in mind. It's more subtle then that, but still just as powerful. I've even argued with my mouth that my choice is not a choice against good and for evil, rather a choice to abandon mythology for rational thought."

But I still worry. So I've given this a lot of contemplation. We are born into the belief system of our parents or guardians. This system includes ideas of good and bad, right and wrong. For many of us in the West the notion of good and evil is inextricably bound to the notion of Yahweh -vs- Satan. There is little discussion or consideration of a middle ground. You either align yourself with Good (god) or Evil (Satan). I know these are generalizations, but I think they speak to the issue I have.

So if you're going to choose good, you really have no choice but to choose god. That's the default good position in our world. If you even pretend to raise the notion of evil, words like Satan, Witchcraft, Idolatry and Atheism are quickly brought to mind. It's what we are taught to believe. Most folks don't have the time or inclination to question these ideas. If you say you're an Atheist, you might as well say you are anti-good or pro-Satan because that is EXACTLY what people hear.

But what is the truth? Or, at least, what is closer to reality? Atheists simply reject the idea that goodness has to be bound to a god. I don't know, nor have I ever read of, a single person who would call themselves atheist as a way to renounce good. It is simply not true. Atheists deny the notion of a god. They embrace the notion of good and evil. They embrace the majority of social ideals of good and evil. To a person, they accept and live by some version of the Golden Rule. They just don't give credit for the Rule to a god.

I recently read an article by Steven Pinker. His paper was written in response to a question put forth by the Templeton Foundation: Does science make belief in God obsolete? Early on he explains:

"Traditionally, a belief in God was attractive because it promised to explain the deepest puzzles about origins. Where did the world come from? What is the basis of life? How can the mind arise from the body? Why should anyone be moral?"

He has much to say about each of this questions but what really struck me was his argument about the origin or basis of morality:

"This leaves morality itself - the benchmarks that allow us to criticize and improve our moral intuitions. It is true that science in the narrow sense cannot show what is right or wrong. But neither can appeals to God. It's not just that the traditional Judeo-Christian God endorsed genocide, slavery, rape, and the death penalty for trivial insults. It's that morality cannot be grounded in divine decree, not even in principle. Why did God deem some acts moral and others immoral? If he had no reason but divine whim, why should we take his commandments seriously? If he did have reasons, then why not appeal to those reasons directly?"

I believe that each of us has to stop and think about this issue when we hear the word Atheist. Rather then take the lazy route and dismiss the person as lost or evil or morally bankrupt, take the time to consider the merits of this argument. People can be, and have been, moral and good without god. To embrace atheism IS NOT to embrace the dark side. Conversely, to embrace god is not necessarily to embrace good. It comes down to deeds.

It is no wonder that there is such animosity so often between atheists and religious folk. But there need not be. Consider the complete person, their body of deeds before deciding if they are stupid, good, or evil.

Stupid is as stupid does...

Good is as good does...

Evil is as evil does...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

You gotta have faith!

I was talking to my friend in California recently. Maria is a Christian. In many ways she is the closest thing to a "real" Christian that I know. By that I mean that Maria struggles constantly to avoid the verbal facade of Christianity while engaging in behavior that she believes is consistent with what it means to be a Christian.

But Maria is human too. By that I mean that we always tend toward ideas and beliefs that support our foundational perceptions of the world. Maria is no exception.

So back to my story. Maria and I were talking and she suddenly announced to me that she really envied my capacity for faith. When I asked her what the hell she was talking about, she told me that she believed it required far more faith for me to believe that we all evolved from apes or primordial ooze then it took to believe that we were created.

One more quick aside before I continue. It was here in our conversation that I refer to when I say that we tend toward ideas that support our fundamental beliefs. What I mean is, Maria gets her arguments by attending church and meetings with like minded people. In those environments the memes of the group infect them all. That's not to say that they necessarily can support the belief, just that they are quickly, efficiently exposed to all the latest "defenses" of their belief.

So, my response. Any time I hear an argument like this, my instinctive reaction is that it stinks. Maybe that's my own prejudice, my own defensiveness of my belief system. Maybe it's an awareness, not yet defensible, that the argument is inherently weak. Whatever the case, I generally will hold my tongue until I have the time to explore the argument and test it's validity.

I could throw terms like "false analogy" or "red herring" or "straw man fallacy" out, but I think I'd rather try to explain it in simple terms. I said to Maria that my acceptance of the theory of evolution was based on the opposite of faith. The scientific process is the antidote to mythology. Before humans contrived the rules of scientific discovery, we were subject to the untestable notions of those we elevated to positions of leadership. In spite of the underlying motives, the effect of creating policy based on faith in something have proven disastrous throughout human history.

My belief in evolution rests on the mountain of evidence that supports it. Only on that. And I don't defend it beyond that. That is to say, if another theory evolved that eventually dismantled evolution by natural selection, I would not hesitate to turn my back on the flawed notion and embrace the new belief until such time that new science dismantled it.

Now consider the difference between a faithless acceptance of scientific proof and a belief in something that only exists because I profess faith in it. In other words, there is nothing anywhere at anytime for any people that supports the idea of the existence of a god except the unsupportable, concocted framework of men without an ounce of demonstrable cause and effect fact.

To believe in evolution you gotta have a testable hypothesis that lets you predict outcomes accurately and lets you repeat the results of tests successfully over and over again. Nowhere in the equation does faith enter in.

To believe in god you gotta have faith.

Friday, July 3, 2009


I got an email on my website the other day. The message was concise and to the point:

In the spirit of brevity I replied:
"For what?"

Within a day my mono-syllabic friend had countered with:
"athiesm, anti calvinism, the whole song and dance."

His relatively verbose response compelled me to an equally expansive reply:
"Calvinism argues that the die was cast long before I was born. What sense would it make to repent?"

In a reply that can only be characterized as escalating, my theological friend had this to say:
"Calvinism also argues the elect to come back, if then you are an elect repent. If not, then so be it, and God's hate abidith upon you."

Ah...there it is at last...the ultimate trump card. If you don't see things the way I do, God's hate abidith upon you.

I have so many different thoughts about this remarkable dynamic. I once heard someone make the argument that sports is an outlet for social aggression. Our favorite football team steps onto the field to do battle with the enemy. The sports fan cheers his representative warriors to victory, screaming for them to kill the other guys. If that sports fan were to walk down the street and threaten to kill another individual, he would be arrested for assault. At the arena we are joyous in victory, crestfallen in defeat. But the violence within us is quenched for a time and society is safer. Or so the argument goes.

It seems to me that religion sort of acts the same way. I have all this aggression in me but I don't dare tell someone to their face that I hate them and wish they would suffer eternally. But if I deflect it and make it about some big equalizer in the sky, I can tell you all day that god hates you and you will be punished for eternity. I feel better about myself and can dismiss you completely as another sentient creature.

Any way, I digress from the story line. I thought about his reply for awhile and decided to ramp up the rhetoric. It's not that this poor fellow was the first to insult me with his simplistic, self-righteous, judgment. It's just that this one followed a more interesting path, so he gets the brunt of my anger.

My reply:
"So it's a bit of a waste of my time and yours, not to mention incredibly presumptive, for you to tell me to repent. Your world view includes an entity that I have clearly indicated I don't believe exists. This is a belief that I arrived at after years and years of searching and agonizing. Were I to postulate the existence of, say, a dragon like creature inhabiting the catacombs of long dead volcanoes, you would justifiably demand extraordinary proof before you would accept my belief.

It's fair for me to require the same of you. For you to circumvent that entire process and arrogantly demand that I repent...too whom would you have me repent? For what? Why? The answer to all those questions presuppose, assume, facts that are simply not in the evidence.

I will repent to those real life people on this earth whom I have wronged. I will be held accountable to those in my life whom I agree to have such a relationship with. I will love those whom I love without the threat of eternal suffering as the impetus. I will NOT permit another moment of my life to be controlled by the fear of a mythical being.

If you feel you have earned some special treasure in heaven by contacting me and making such a rude demand of me...well, that's unfortunate for you. Where do you plan to spend that treasure...Hypocrites-R-Us?

I know that I have a tendency to become a bit caustic when my ire is raised. That's something I should repent for, but just now I don't much feel like it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Over the Top Fluffy Words

Richard Haynes' "Life Without Faith" website has been chronicling the salient events since I spoke at the American Atheist conference in April. Recently he featured a comment that my sister Shirley posted in response to my blog "Why Isn't That Man in Jail".

Within a few hours of reading it I was so angry I sat down and wrote for several hours. Then I walked away from it. Over the next 24 hours my mind went from fury to uncertainty to fear to intimidation and self-loathing to an apathetic resignation that left me physically weak and depressed. This is just one of the manifestations of growing up in that environment. Every step of this journey I fight through some version of that cycle. I’ve come to recognize it and am learning to work past.

In that spirit, I offer the following point-by-point response to Shirley’s comments:

SHIRLEY: “The arrogance of this man. Every rebel has a sob story to justify their disobedience. Richard the rebel I’m sure has a story of his own that he would palm off. But alas, you change nothing!”

NATE: It’s not clear who “this man” is. Maybe me, maybe Dr. Dawkins. Regardless, it says nothing except that we have a difference of opinion. To call someone disobedient is to imply an authority over them that you simply don’t have.

I’m not trying to “justify” anything. The WBC is quite active in telling people its message, and then letting others decide what the value of that message is. I am, in turn, telling my side of the story, and letting people reach their own conclusions. If those people conclude that I am a disobedient rebel, that’s their decision. However, since the WBC seeks to preach “the truth”, why is it that you are so afraid of the truths that I am telling? Why is it that so many responses from people in the WBC complain about “airing dirty laundry” or talking about “private family matters”? If you truly are the voice of God, following in God’s footsteps, then surely you would have no objection to having your lives submitted to the light of public scrutiny? These reactions seem to indicate the opposite; that you, and others in the family, fully recognize that the truth of the ‘inner workings’ of the Phelps household are shameful, and worthy of condemnation.

Denying the rest of the world their story is the hallmark of why your “ministry” is an epic failure. Your obstinate insistence that you’re right and the rest of the world is wrong has reduced your campaign to an international laughing stock.

SHIRLEY: “God set his standard in the earth. Fred Phelps was determined to serve God in truth. That means that you spank your children.”

NATE: Nobody said anything about spanking Shirley. No reasonable, rational person would argue that a child should be left to their own devices, without discipline. I don’t think I have ever used the term spanking in any of my writing or comments. It is deliberately deceitful for you to use that term for what our father did. I was careful in my speech to avoid words or phrases that might mischaracterize the nature of our father’s actions. I simply related the specifics of what he did. In fact, I only presented a small fraction of those specifics.

In light of your efforts to soft peddle it, I’m obliged now to counter your characterization. What our father did was violent child abuse. His actions were criminal. His actions today are a reflection of the same insensitive violence that he visited on his wife and children. You can shroud his deeds in robes of righteousness, with “over the top fluffy words”, and the plain stench of it is still there. He repeatedly, viciously beat us with that mattock handle, his fists, his knees, and his feet. That’s plain English and that’s my indictment! Bring your bible and your formidable legal army. It changes nothing.

SHIRLEY: “The truth of the matter is that Nathan Phelps was determined that he would go after mischief and criminal mischief as he grew older, with both hands. A further truth is that the vast majority of his deeds were never known by his dad. The body of his crimes was so big that his closest siblings were left some days in jaw-dropping amazment [sic] at what he might think of next to do that he had NO BUSINESS DOING!! By ANY standard, you don’t do the things that Nathan did. I know, I was the next child up from him. I lived up close and had a front row seat to the trauma that was the dark heart of disobedience called Nathan Phelps.”

NATE: Yes, I rebelled, and yes, I have done things that were wrong. I know of no human being who can claim otherwise. If you are arguing that this is the standard for determining the ‘truth’ of a claim, or the ‘right’ of a person to speak up, then our father – who abused drugs, and lost his license to practice law due to unethical practices – likewise deserves to be held to the same standards.

You’re big on the whole “connect the dots” rhetoric Shirley so let me speak in your own language for a moment. Please connect the dots between our father violating our mother by chopping her hair off and my mischief. Connect the dots between my misdeeds and the image of our sister Margie lying semi-conscious at the back of the church while our father repeatedly kicked her and brandished a frying pan over her head. Connect the dots between my misconduct and the distended lump at the top of your leg caused by the “spankings” you received from our father. Please Shirley, set your bible aside for a moment and lets play a little game of connect the dots.

Oh, one other point that may be lost on our readers. You mentioned that the old man wasn’t aware of “the vast majority” of my misdeeds. Why is that Shirley? In fact, why is it just as true that the vast majority of all our misdeeds were kept from our father? That’s not the behavior of a loving, properly functioning relationship between a man and a woman. Perhaps so much was kept from our father because our mother was terrified of his violent over reactions. Try finding some bible verses to support that.

SHIRLEY: So at the end of the day, you can multiply words and you can call the standards of God cruel, but you are just another rebel that will spend eterntiy in hell.

NATE: The Bible tells me that I should stone a woman who has a child out of wedlock. Would you support that Biblical standard, Shirley? What of our father’s beliefs that not only is homosexuality wrong, but that homosexuals should be put to death? That’s a side of ‘the message’ that you tend not to proclaim so publicly…why is that? The Bible says that murdering unarmed women and children is fine, as is taking virgin women as slaves. How exactly should we apply that Biblical standard to modern times?

SHIRLEY: However, you should STOP lying about these matters. Further, if you truly want an answer to why Fred Phelps is not in jail for properly raising his children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord their God, well - that would be because it is not a crime to do that. Just because you have reached a day where your rebellion is full of over the top fluffy words where you call a spanking child abuse or where you whip out selective memory about events to justify your disobedience, you change nothing. Nathan did leave when he was 18 because he was not going to obey. Good. He had to do that. Then, I bet he left out the part in his little story where he came back.

NATE: As to your charge of lying. You have an army of lawyers at your disposal Shirley. If I have lied, utilize them. Otherwise, dispense with the vacuous rhetoric.

And…”over the top fluffy words”?!? Is that kind of like being a wordsmith? The very title our father so eagerly embraces.

And what of this charge of “selective memory”? Do you mean to say that there are other memories that, in combination with these, justify or excuse our father’s abuses? That his ‘success’ in the legal practice justifies beating us with his fist and a mattock handle? That the times he was nice to our mother justifies brutally chopping off her hair? Your very statement that it is a ‘selective memory’ belies your claim that what I say is not true. If Fred Phelps is the man of god that you claim, then neither you nor anyone else in the family should object to having the truth of our childhood told publicly. You are, of course, welcome to add whatever other information that you feel may ameliorate or justify his actions; but denying them is an act of deceit.

One final item deserves a response. You mentioned the fact that I came back. You’ve raised that issue before and once again, I’m puzzled. You raise the issue as though you think that mitigates the truth of me leaving on my 18th birthday. I’m not sure how. Do you perceive that as a lie of omission? Does my having come back for a time demonstrate that our father wasn’t abusive? I’m honestly confused.

However, I do think it’s fair to the reader to address that issue since you’ve raised it. In 1979, nearly 3 years after I left, I began communicating with you and Margie. My brother Mark and I had started our first print shop in Prairie Village, Kansas. Mark had been forced to leave the operation of the business to me because of a threat of legal action by his former employer. Mark moved back to Topeka and started another shop there while I attempted to run the first location on my own.

I was living alone in the Kansas City area and struggling with that isolation. You and Margie began to suggest that I come back home, work in the law office, and go back to college. The desire to be connected to my family was very powerful. And it should be noted, one very important aspect of that whole drama was the constant reassurance that both of you gave me that our father was no longer physically violent. Eventually, I made the decision to return home. That decision was very destructive to my relationship with my brother Mark.

Once home, I learned very quickly that my work at the law office was not going to be compensated. I had debt to service so I went out and found a job that was actually providing an income. This violated my father’s expectations and created tremendous tension. Although the violence did appear to be far less, my father had plenty of weapons in his arsenal to insure compliance. Eventually he called a meeting to discuss my disobedience. I refused to attend. The outcome of that meeting was that I was required to leave…immediately.

Nothing about that chapter in my life speaks to the essence of the story as I’ve told it; except to highlight the fact that the only way that you were able to get me to come back was through promising that our father’s violence had decreased; a violence that you now seek to deny or justify. If that violence were untrue, or were justified…then why would a decrease in that violence be a desirable thing?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Crushing on Ida

How many more discoveries our out there, yet to be made? This is what excites me.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The most hated family in America