My Homeschool Story

My Homeschool Story

The Thinking Atheist had a podcast about homeschooling last Tuesday. I wish it had been a day that I could listen to the show live, because I might have called in if it was.

I was a home schooled kid during high school. I had been in the public schools from K to 8th grade. I strongly suspect my parents wanted to homeschool me since they had been listening to Focus on the Family shows about how horrible the public schools are. I jumped on the opportunity because I was having social trouble at school. My peers were a total enigma to me. I didn’t know how to deal with the middle school meanness except to run from it, I was totally ignorant when it came to the music and shows my peers liked, and I couldn’t get why anyone would care all about what clothes I wore or how I did my hair. So I was eager for the chance to stay at home to study and get to take walks at lunchtime when all the neighborhood kids were away at school. Sometimes I think having the socialization of high school would have been helpful to me, but it wasn’t being home schooled that made me an introvert. That’s just the way I was.

Most people whose stories I’ve heard about homeschooling reference a mother who was a housewife and who spent the whole day teaching the kids lessons. That is not how it was for me. I was more self-taught than parent-taught. Mom was the primary breadwinner in our family, and while Dad was the stay at home parent he wasn’t heavily involved in my studies. I would check the assignments on the curriculum list, do the work, and get Dad to supervise if I needed to take a test. I also required his assistance for spelling tests. I did well when it came to things like grammar and reading and book reports. When it came to things like Algebra I barely learned anything…I seriously needed a teacher who was trained to teach math. I didn’t catch up in Algebra until I took some remedial courses in college. But that did not stop me from scoring all A’s in High School, whether I’d truly learned the material or not. Somehow I still managed to score a 27 in the ACT exam, mostly riding on my advanced (for my grade level) reading and vocabulary skills.

My school curriculum was decidedly of the Christian fundamentalist sort…and I mean more fundamentalist than my parents or church. In subjects like math and physics, this mostly meant there were quotes in the introduction of each chapter about how things like math and logic and physics came from God, blah blah blah. The actual material on math and physics was still the same as I probably would have seen in a public school textbook. However, that was not the case for biology. I can’t remember if the curriculum was strictly six-day creationist, but it treated the idea of theistic evolution as a dangerous “compromise with the world.” Almost needless to say, I learned no good information on the theory of evolution but I did read a lot of creationist propaganda. In fact, there was a sizable section of my biology text that was all about how evolution is a lie. It’s a shame that I never had been exposed to much real scientific information about evolution at the time so I didn’t know any better than to buy into the propaganda.

The things I remember from my history lessons were about how George Washington was a devout Christian (highly in doubt) and included a film by David Barton called “America’s Godly Heritage”. What is really funny when I think back on it is that David Barton seriously had me convinced that all of America’s problems started in the 60’s with the sexual revolution and the liberal takeover. When I first saw the film Walk the Line about Johnny Cash, I was shocked to learn that drug abuse existed in the 50’s. This film came out in 2005, six years after I had graduated high school and 2 years after I realized I was an atheist. This is an example of just how sheltered and misinformed I had been. I also recall that my economics textbook was based in the Old Testament, mainly around the leadership strategies of Moses. However, even if it were truthful at all, it was so dense and boring to read that I never understood any of it. Economics was another subject I had to wait until college to learn.

So do I regret having homeschooled, and do I think I would have done better had I stayed in the public schools? Honestly, I don’t know. It’s hard to say what would have happened if we had made a different decision. I liked homeschooling in that I could work at my own pace and not have to sit around and wait for the slower learners in a classroom setting to catch up. In most subjects I am perfectly capable of reading and researching on my own. In others, such as Algebra, a good teacher would have helped greatly. Of course, it would have been much better if I had a real biology textbook rather than the Christian Fundamentalist propaganda textbook from the Christian Liberty Academy Satellite Schools program.

For anyone who is interested, here are some picture of my class ring from high school. The images were of my own choosing when I was 18 years old.

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Why I am An Atheist: Science is better than Faith

Why I am An Atheist: Science is better than Faith

Since I am recently talking about The God Virus, it bears mention that religion is not the only viral idea out there. In my youngest years the “god virus” (to use the metaphor) was not the only viral idea I was exposed to. I was also infected at a young age with a high regard and respect for science and for logic. For a long time I thought these two ideas, the religious idea and the scientific and logical idea, were in no conflict with each other because, naturally, Truth cannot contradict truth.

Throughout my life I have been driven by the search for answers. Not just any answers, but answers that make sense, answers that I can understand well enough that I can competently explain and defend to another person. According to the evangelical religious tradition in which I was raised, it was my duty to “witness” to anyone that I could to bring them into the fold of Christianity so that they would be saved. But I had a problem….even at the point when I most deeply believed, when I tried to speak the ideas out loud I felt a conflict, like there was something unfathomable that was just not right. I didn’t really understand this thing that I was trying to convince others to believe, and I could just imagine all the ways in which a non-believer could shoot down every argument I had in my arsenal. This bothered me immensely. I had to resort to just parroting what others had told me, or just skip the theology completely and just invite my target to come to church with me. My lacking witnessing skills guilted me tremendously, and I prayed fervently that God would grant me boldness and tell me what to say.

So, in my search for sensible answers, I dug into apologetics books by authors like C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, Ravi Zacharias, and Max Lucado. Without going into the details of each one, I found the following pattern nearly every time: I would read the book and it would bolster my faith and make me feel good about what I believed. Then, a week or two later the doubts and uncertainties would creep in again and I would read another apologetics book and feel good again…then go back to doubting again in about a week. I ran to the apologists and gobbled up their encouraging words, but didn’t really examine the arguments they were using. I so wanted to believe their conclusions that I didn’t really care if their arguments made sense or not. So when I tried to explain to myself what I had learned from them later I remembered the conclusions and good feelings, but still couldn’t reconstruct the arguments behind the conclusions. So back into doubt I would slide. After several cycles of this I started to get really frustrated. 

Little did I realize, I had two conflicting viruses vying for dominance in my mind. I wanted verifiable, scientific, logical answers and I just was not getting what I needed from the previously mentioned apologists. Then I got into creationist literature, including my heavily anti-evolution home-school biology text, and thought for a while that I found what I needed. That science really did support the Bible and Christianity.

I found bits of the truth about evolution and creationism later in college, with the help of Astronomy 101 which explained to me about the Big Bang, and showed me a timeline of the universe including that of life on Earth. That piqued by curiosity and lead me to read more on my own. I was furious at first and felt I had been misled on clear scientific matters by Christian authors I had trusted in the name of God. I gave up on the apologists and creationists and started perusing the science section at our small local library. That is where I found the book form of Cosmos by Carl Sagan, and River out of Eden by Richard Dawkins. And I was hooked.

Cosmos (book)

I started checking out all the books in the local library I could find on both cosmology and evolution. I would bring them home read them guiltily in my room, hiding them under the covers when my parents knocked at the door for fear of their disapproval (I was a bit paranoid perhaps?). This was my rebellion, searching outside the family religion to find my explanations in science. Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins and other science writers I discovered didn’t simply rush to a desired conclusion. They actually explained each step in the progression of their arguments in a way that I could grasp, slowly building up to the conclusion while I followed along. And it made sense, and still made sense a week later (though I usually had to go back and review.) I was actually learning new things when I read, unlike when I read the apologists, and the new understanding I found was intoxicating. The more I learned, the more my former supernatural beliefs fell away in favor of natural scientific explanations, all the way back to the origin of humanity and the origin of the universe. I could see that there were still gaps in scientific knowledge of course, but science had replaced the supernatural explanations so many times in the past. I couldn’t see any sense in posing supernatural explanations for what we didn’t know yet. To insert “God did it” anywhere in the natural world just made no sense.

The viral idea that truth cannot contradict truth lead me to embrace science and reason over faith.

Happy Darwin Day!

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IUS Darwin Day 2011

Last night I had the great pleasure of going to a Darwin Day event with the Freethinkers for Education and Morality at Indiana University Southeast. Yep, now that I am four years out of college new campus Freethought groups are sprouting everywhere, and I am excited! I am particular proud of this event since I introduced the idea and helped plan it.

There were actually two events. At lunchtime, the students set up a booth in the cafeteria to help educate and inform students while they were hanging around between classes. Unfortunately I was busy at work and could not go. However, Ed did go, and from what I heard he was a wonderful source of information and conversation. There students who came to the booth ranged in their responses from “this is cool!” to “Isn’t Darwin that evil guy?” to “Who is Darwin?” It really was a wonderful opportunity to reach out and promote scientific literacy and knowledge of the world.

The evening event included a presentation on the evidence for evolution by Ed, including a discussion of some of the best books to read to satiate one’s curiosity on the topic. Amber, president of the IUS Freethinkers group, talked about the lunchtime event and lead a discussion on learning and educating others in evolution. It was a lot of fun, and I am looking forward to participating in more groups like these in the future.

I have posted pictures of the event at my facebook page: The Skeptical Seeker. Perhaps soon I will have the pictures from the lunchtime event, and I will post them too.

Next, to plan Darwin Day with the UofL Society of Secular Students!

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Sentience more important than Life

When I was growing up, I used to watch “Star Trek: The Next Generation” with my parents almost every Saturday. The shows that appealed to me most were the ones that dealt with some deep philosophical question, and I would keep thinking about these shows long after the episode was over. My favorite character in the show was Data, because he challenged my thinking about what is human, and what is a person. What is life? These sort of questions grabbed my imagination and have never let go.

Just the other day I saw a rerun of one of those episodes, one that I don’t recall specifically having seen before (I seldom remember the individual episodes as I wasn’t paying attention to that as a child.) This was one where the Enterprise was assisting with the setup of some fancy mining apparatus on some planet or other. A female alien had developed a robot to help with repairs and maintenance on the mining equipment. The robots were capable of learning, and could evaluate the situation and create the proper tool to deal with it in an extremely fast period of time. Data was working with her on the project and observed that one of these robots behaved in a way that he interpreted as being as self-preservation by “breaking” itself to avoid being sent into a dangerous situation and then repairing itself later when the danger was over.

This observation leads Data to start wondering if these robots are self-aware and if they may be considered to be life forms. This is a moral problem for him, since if the robots are life forms they should not be used as mere tools and put into dangerous situations without their consent. He goes to the ship’s doctor and asks her “What is life?” It’s an interesting question since he himself is an artificial life form, and she wonders about why he is asking. I liked the way that she answered. She says that no one has ever really answered the question of exactly what life is and what makes a being alive.

While I was going to the University of Louisville, I developed a strong interest in evolution and I registered to take a class called “Unity of Life” which was a class for biology majors on that topic. Since I had a full-time load of 12 hours for the semester, I could take on additional classes at no extra charge. (Unfortunately since I was starting to take difficult upper-level CIS classes, I had to drop my biology course for lack of time.) I did attend the first class though, and I recall clearly the opening discussion for the class. The professor opened the class by asking “What is life?” As it turns out, “life” is not nearly as easy a concept to define as you would assume. In grade school I learned that is something is alive, it means that it grows, metabolizes, reproduces, and passes hereditary material to its offspring. The reason a rock is not considered alive is because it does none of these things. But what about a virus, which is little more than some hereditary material, a protein shell, and a means of transmitting that hereditary material to a host cell? Is that alive?

We have developed our definitions of life by observing things that we consider to be living and describing what they have in common. But that is not a definition, any more than trying to define gravity as that which pulls objects to the ground. That is describing the effect of gravity, but it doesn’t tell us anything about what it is or what causes it. According to the understanding of modern biology, there is not a clear defining line between life and non-life. Look at our own bodies: we are live, our cells are alive, and I suppose the organelles inside the cells are alive. But these things are all made of atoms and molecules, and how could an atom of carbon or oxygen be said to be alive? All living things are made of non-living things. We evolved from the non-living, and we are still made of non-living material. Life is a manifestation of a particular organization of non-living things. When that organization breaks down, we die.

Data was concerned about the definition of life, and whether or not the robots designed to repair the mine were alive. I think he was asking the wrong question. The things that should be considered when determining if a thing should be considered morally is its capacity for sentience. Plants are biologically alive, but very few people would argue against killing them for food or other uses for that reason. What makes a person, a being to be considered morally before we use or kill it, is an ability to think, suffer or feel pleasure. Those are the things that matter.

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What does atheism have to do with evolution?

In actual fact, very little. Let me explain.

At the American Atheists convention I wrote about in my previous post, I got a hear a few very good and thought-provoking speakers. One was Massimo Pigliucci, a scientist and professor who has advanced degrees in both biology and philosophy. There was something he said in his talk that was not shocking at all to me, but does disagree with the statements of some other big atheist names. That is, that atheism is a philosophical conclusion, not a scientific one. You can not infer that there is no god by looking only at the natural world. Which is not to say that he disagrees with the atheist position. He is one himself, and calls atheism a “imminently reasonable” conclusion, but a philosophical rather than scientific one.

I have put some thought into working out how evolution and religion have been set up against each other, and can offer some insight from my experience. My first exposure to the words “Theory of Evolution” was in a book called It Couldn’t Just Happen. I found it on a table at a convention for the Church of the Nazarene that I went to with my parents. I loved science, and this book had pictures of planets and animals and had beautiful glossy pictures like the science books I used at school. So I got my parents to buy it for me, and proceeded to practically memorize the entire text. I remember major points out of it even today, though I’ve not cracked the book open in about twenty years.

Here is the gist of the book: Life on the earth is far to special and complex to have just happened by chance. The theory of evolution is therefore impossible and is nothing more than a rebellion against God. Either the Earth and universe evolved (which we have demonstrated is absurd) or God created it. The God of the Bible, of course.

It was not until years later, in my college years, when I learned about the big bang and then read about evolution on my own that I discovered how totally wrong this book was. One of the multiple huge disillusionments I had about Christianity is that I realized I had been lied to and mislead about the scientific facts of the matter by a Christian author, for Christian purposes. And is was to me a huge betrayal of my trust.

My point here is that it was not authors like Richard Dawkins that linked science and evolution with atheism in my mind. It was authors like Lawrence O. Richards, who very early in my life linked evolution with rebellion against God. Richard Dawkins just confirmed what I had already been taught. And I think it bears some mentioning here that for fundamentalist believers, religion is a matter of scientific fact. If you take the biblical stories literally and seriously, it has to be. It’s not like it is that way for everyone, but the point needs to be made.

Now, if you are a non-fundamentalist Christian believer don’t get it into your head that since I accept that a religious believer can also be scientific that I’m going to convert back. There are lots and lots of other issues that would have to be addressed before I would give any religion even a sideways glance. Atheism may be a philosophical conclusion after all, but it is still one that is well informed by and consistent with scientific fact. In a way that religious belief is not.

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