Friday, December 31, 2010

Ode To The Human Spirit

I had the strange urge to start clapping while sitting by myself the other day. I had just finished J. Craig Venter’s A Life Decoded and became overwhelmed with admiration. The book , an autobiography, bears witness to the strength of the human spirit; our addiction to surviving. In A Life Decoded Venter masterfully recounts his childhood adventures as a beach bum and takes the reader through his service in Vietnam as a medic to his humble beginnings as a scientist. You then find yourself overwhelmed with excitement as you see Venter complete the first map of the human genome, beating out his publicly funded foes, and ensuring that his name will go down in the books as one of the most accomplished scientists of all time. Still yet, Venter pushes what were assumed the limits of biology in his attempts to synthesize life in the laboratory and change the world for the better, again.

I idolize Venter - and for obvious reasons. Coming from nothing, he has managed to build an enormous not-for-profit science institute, the J. Craig Venter Institute, dedicated to unraveling the mysteries held in our DNA and further applying that knowledge in ways that directly benefit humanity. Patient-specific gene and drug therapy that could virtually eliminate disease and mutation are on the tips of our fingers, but even that is not our end goal. Venter dreams of a world where a scientist will be able to sit at a computer and ‘program’ the DNA of an organism that has never before existed. I am woefully ignorant of the vast majority of implications this ability would bring upon our world, but I can think of a few. Imagine a world where all of our waste is sent to refineries that use novel organisms to digest the waste and excrete ethanol or another biofuel as a by-product. This, being one of the simplest applications, would have revolutionary effects on energy consumption.

As we prepare to celebrate our planet surviving yet another successful revolution around its star, I’m reminded of our humble origins as a species. It’s impossible to comprehend all the feats we have accomplished since leaving the plains of Africa, but if one could, it would be evident that throughout the drastic evolution of our species one thing has yet to change: We humans have spirit. We are addicted to survival, and as long as this unwavering spirit remains, we will continue to prosper and better ourselves. It is my goal to continue to make us better. It is my dream that we all share the same goal.

Venter inspires a new generation of scientist; my generation. As if the thrill of discovery wasn’t enough, my generation will see humankind transformed in ways unimaginable now. I dream of a world without wheelchairs. A world where an average male can expect to live well into his 100’s and see his great-great grandchildren, all while being an active member of society. A world where our respiratory systems aren’t plagued with smog and other airborne toxins. A world where no man or woman views another as if they were of less worth. A world where in hindsight, these were petty things to dream of looking back on what was accomplished.

With love and respect,

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

From Baptist to Atheist - My Deconversion Story

I am sure it is apparent, as I have made no effort to keep it a secret any longer. I am not at all the boy I once was. This will be my first attempt to put the evolution of myself into words. I have waited until now because of fear; fear of what people would think. However, I am no longer afraid; this is who I am and I how I got here. Enjoy.

I am an atheist. A godless, secular, science-loving atheist. Misconceptions of the word ‘atheist’ and perversions of the ideology it entails have run so rampant that entire books may not suffice to set the stereotype straight. Simply, I deny the existence of god(s). I don’t hate god, and I am not in a celestial pissing match with the big man. I do, however, strongly disapprove of the Judeo-Christian, Islam, and Hindu gods’ doctrine. I also dismiss the existence of the supernatural in its entirety. Many things have brought me to this point in my life and I will do my best to explain. 

First of all, I was raised in a wonderful home characterized by overflowing love and support, one that I wouldn’t trade for anything. My father, an entrepreneur, has been a well-respected man of the church for years. My mother is the poster-child of an ever-faithful, compassionate caretaker. I also have a beautiful and talented sister, Mikayla, who never fails to make me laugh. My family is amazing and I owe everything I am and may ever be to their undying ability to show me love - even when I make it increasingly difficult to do so. I love you guys more than anything and nothing will ever change that.

One major factor that has lead to my disbelief is my education. Being Bible-based Baptists, my parents thought it appropriate to enroll me in kindergarten at Calvary Christian School at four years old. CCS was a quaint school in its prime educating around 750 students K-12. (I say ‘was’ because it is now about half that size.) I remember my kindergarten teacher, Ms. Butler, teaching the ABC’s along side the seven days of creation and the story of Jonah and the big fish. And so on throughout grade school I was taught the normal subjects of reading, history, and math, but most importantly Bible. As expected, an incredible amount of emphasis was placed on educating us in Bible and Christian practices. The school’s motto is ‘Educating youth in the truth’.  Having been a part of the curriculum, I cannot help but see it as childhood indoctrination; the free will of a child to formulate opinions of the world for itself stripped away. A literal heaven and hell, Christians and lost, creation and original sin ideology was pumped into my malleable consciousness as far back as my memory serves. The obvious goal of the school and affiliated church, of which I attended three times a week, was to create super Christian children capable of continuing and growing the faith throughout maturity. They were doing a damned good job.  I, along with a majority of my peers, had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior and committed my life to serving him well before middle school. By this time I was able to recite numerous lengthy passages of scripture, discuss theology in-depth, and fluently lead an unsaved person to believe in Jesus as their own personal savior. Never once did I consider this odd. I mean, why would I? I spent every waking hour surrounded by Christian adults and peers who discouraged me from associating with the worldly (unsaved). I was so engrossed in the faith that I was hardly aware of other beliefs. (Except of course the Catholics who were, by the school's teaching, going to hell for their belief in salvation through works.)

Fortunately, the close-minded teachers started to rub the untapped rational side of my brain the wrong way. In middle school my Bible teacher preached to us his unwavering belief that the smurfs (yes, the little blue elves) were satanic. His entire theory based off the name given to the antagonist’s animated cat, Azrael, was blatantly delusional. (Azrael is the name of the fallen arch-angel of death - Satan’s right-hand man) He also made a repeated point that we would never graduate from high school because we would be ‘raptured’ beforehand, sparking the end times prophesied in Revelation. Ideas like these (there are so many more ridiculous teachings I could put here) planted seeds of doubt in my mind that would lay dormant until high school.

At this point in my life, I was being tormented daily with doubt that I had never ‘truly’ been saved. I was taught that thinking about women in a ‘lustful’ way was equivalent to committing adultery, which was punishable by death in the Old Testament. Being a normal pubescent boy, I was obviously pissing off god a lot with this one. This coupled with guilt over other petty sins bothered me so incessantly that many nights were spent crying to God for forgiveness and begging Him to save me over and over again. This continued for months and is undeniable evidence that Christianity’s doctrine is optimally formulated to trap its constituents in fear and guilt. The Bible says a man is never worthy of god’s love and he can only have a relationship if he begs forgiveness of his sins. This relationship’s strength is solely dependent on Christ-like behavior and any sin unconfessed inhibits such a relationship. When doubting your faith is considered a sin and hinders your relationship with god, one is trapped, unable to question their beliefs without overwhelming guilt.

I eventually moved past this guilt by getting saved and baptized for the second time. Foolish I know, but I could never ‘feel’ a relationship with god and the public demonstration brought me enough attention to fill the god-crafted god-shaped hole in my consciousness for the time being. I was looking for an emotional relationship with god that I saw in the people around me, but could not attain myself, no matter the amount of effort invested. I would read my Bible, pray, go to church, play guitar for the church bands, go to bible study, and more, I’m sure. I was the poster-child of my Christian peers and despite all of this, I never felt loved by god, nor could I see his work in the world around me. I remember being told that god provided for me and loved me.  In reality, I knew my father had worked his ass off every day to provide for me, and god’s methods of showing love were bizarre and empty. Towards the end of my sophomore year I was questioning everything I had been taught quietly inside myself. Not having answers to these questions and being surrounded by people blindly following a god I couldn’t see or relate to led me to be a very bitter person throughout the rest of high school.

During my junior and senior year I took an attitude of indifference. I attended church, mostly so I could play guitar, and I would have claimed Christianity in a debate solely to debate.  In the absence of belief I still followed the motions because it was all I knew. I could never openly question anything out of fear of being scolded or worse, embarrassing my parents. I was always fascinated with science but was deprived of anything resembling an adequate education in the sciences. At school Darwin was portrayed as a pawn of Satan, taking evolution out of the picture and leaving biology practically worthless. Intelligent design was preached along with its lie-filled apologetics. The defenses of ID are hardly arguments, but red herrings taking the focus away from actual science whilst hurling ad hominem attacks at some of the greatest thinkers in history. Ex: ‘Dawin was a sexist, racist, etc’ or ‘Darwinism teaches we are just monkeys. If you teach kids they are monkeys they will act like monkeys.’ Stupid shit like that. Ken Ham and Ray Comfort might as well have been our school mascots. The banana man’s videos were shown in all their glory - and people believed it. Ken Ham actually claimed our church as his home church in the states and being so geographically close to the Creation Museum, CCS took frequent field trips, often behind the scenes.

There is one specific incident that wrecked my already low view of the Christians around me. Every Wednesday our high school student body came together for an hour long chapel. We were in a series where faculty and teachers were put on a panel and students were allowed presenting social and theological questions. One student, braver than I, presented a brilliant question to our administrator. “Would a girl that was raped and pregnant as a result be expelled for being pregnant?” The gymnasium went silent for a few seconds and our administrator responded simply with “Yes, she would be expelled.” He then tried to justify his stance by saying they would do their best to help her through her troubles, but having a child out of wedlock violates the schools code of conduct. How fucked up! I could not believe the ugly intolerance displayed by a human, let alone a Christian. However, I was not the only one outraged and I knew that my administrator's response was not the opinion held by most Christians. However, the situation gives insight into how pulling objective morals from an ancient religious book can dull ones desire and ability to think critically and rationally about current moral issues in our world.

Being thoroughly frustrated with my high school experience I was eager to start school at UC. Initially enrolled in aerospace engineering, my father constantly pushed me to consider biomedical engineering. One of the best decisions of my life was listening to him and switching majors during orientation. I immediately fell in love with biomedical engineering and school was finally enjoyable. Living on campus gave me instant access to the different religious views of others and I was finally able to ask questions about evolution, physics, geology, and religion that were off-limits in high school. I was learning so much and intentionally subjecting myself to foreign ideas. If the lunatics at CCS benefitted me in any way, it was by showing me the detriment caused by having a closed mine. One key enlightening conversation was with my neighbor. He explained that he had never believed in God and didn’t need the Bible or a God to live a morally fulfilling life. The idea was preposterous at first and I was baffled. Another was with a group of friends at lunch where religion was brought up. They were stunned that I had never been taught evolution and encouraged me to research it for myself. So I did.

One of the following weekends I sat in my room, scared shitless with my computer. I anxiously searched youtube for ‘How Evolution Works’ knowing that what I was about to learn had the potential to destroy my entire world-view. A series of eight videos entitled ‘How Evolution Works’ by the user DonExodus2 were the first results of the search. I watched one after another until all eight were finished. Sinking further into my chair I was amazed, awe-struck, delighted, and terrified all at once. I would describe it as a religious experience, but it was more than that. Religion cannot begin to touch the beauty and wonder our earth and universe so readily evoke. Evolution’s plausibility opened countless doors to new realms of knowledge. I became obsessed with studying the amazing processes of evolution and further obsessed with studying the rebuttals to the petty arguments I had been previously taught. The foundations of my prior beliefs soon gave way completely and my new personal relationship with science commenced. 

Here is a link to the videos: 
How Evolution Works Series by DonExodus2

The next couple months were particularly hard.  I was ecstatic about learning more about biology, astronomy, cosmology, geology and anthropology - and every new bit of information brought me further away from religion. This was the most emotionally painful part of my deconversion. Even as I was delighted with my newfound unbelief, I knew my family would be torn over it.  I was constantly plagued with the fear of hurting my family, but I could not continue pretending to be a Christian.  I slowly started dropping hints and before long they were very concerned and started asking question. The truth was soon revealed.

Telling my parents about my deconversion was one of the most emotionally intense things I’ve yet to do.  Being shortly removed from their point of view I knew what they were thinking. I was going to burn in hell for eternity and there was nothing they could do.  Our discussion was heated and fairly awkward. I did my best to kill the stereotypes of atheists that the church had poisoned them with. I would rather not go into details, but they have since been torn over my decision, and the pain it has caused them has not been easy to bear.

Telling some of my closest friends also ended poorly and I have been all but shut out by many of my former peers, even best friends. Few have come to me with levelheaded concern and I have been privileged an engaging, calm, and intelligent discussion with them. However, some are so close-minded and have been so deprived of a science education that the discussion bore nothing but hot air.  This whole process has been emotional and at times very lonely. I remember discussing my new views with a professor when he said, “I realize this is emotionally risky, but growth is not always a picnic - it takes stretching, accommodating and changing”. He has been absolutely right.


It has not all been bad, though. This experience has grown me as a person and solidified my ability to defend my views. I have become very close to other skeptics and atheists with similar views and ideas as my own. It has been these people that I find most respectable, moral, ambitious, and honest. It seems that when a person is not so distracted by trying to live for an imaginary God, they become more sensitive to bettering themselves and trying to make this world -this very real and tangible world- a better place for all of its inhabitants. Since my deconversion I find life more livable. Life is wonderful and everyday is a new opportunity to help others. I wake up in awe of the universe around me and delighted that I get to spend my day learning about the intricacies of its inner workings. The very small probability of our existence that creationists hide behind is what allows me to appreciate my life and time spent here. I refuse to allow my meaning and purpose to be endowed upon me by a malevolent, inconsistent, and petty supernatural being; I make my life’s meaning every day and I take full responsibility for how my actions affect others. I have so much to live for and life holds a new grandeur. I would attempt to elaborate if I was a better writer, but I’m not, and this video is too damn cool.


Science Saved My Soul

I can only imagine the conversations this will spark, and I look forward to them.  Whether we are close or haven’t met, I would love to talk to you about science, philosophy, religion, and/or my deconversion experience. 

With love and respect,

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Awesome Bigots...

Hey guys. This blog is just some thoughts on all of the drama going down in correlation to the "Ground Zero Mosque"  

First of all, I'm a big fan of education. I've found that a very small amount of research will give you a drastically different perspective on this building than the commonly accepted title "Ground Zeron Mosque" portrays. For one, it is absolutely not a mosque. It is a muslim community center. Much like a YMCA or Jewish community center, it will accomodate a 500-seat auditorium, theater, performing arts center, fitness center, swimming pool, basketball court, childcare area, and bookstore. Not to mention the culinary school, art studio, food court, and September 11 memorial. It's even rumored that the prayer space will have separate spaces for Jews and Christians alike. 

Once educated, it is easy to see that this building is not about Islam pissing on their territory like a dog. If anything it's an attempt to show the peaceful side of Islam (yes, it exists) and promote religious tolerance. 

Watching some footage of these anti-Park51 protests will show you how ignorant, bigoted, and annoying the majority of these protestors are. Refer to this:  (Thanks to xxxthepeachxxx)

Ugh, where to start?
Why do these people think they are supporting America by protesting this building? Yeah, extremest muslims flew planes into the WTC. They killed a lot of people, including muslims, in the name of Islam. It was a terrible event -nearly 3000 deaths- but even as terrible as it was, all of Islam can not be defined by or linked to this event. Much like the crusades, which murdered as many as 2 million people in the name of Christ, are not linked to or define all Christians. There are muslim families that have lived peacefully in this country for generations that have every right to exercise the First Amendment and use this community center. I'm not saying that I love the idea of Park51 -I could go the rest of my life without seeing another building associated with religion constructed- but, yelling 'this is merica' and 'I support merica' in no way justifies their actions. It just further proves their idiocy and ignorance of the real issues at hand, namely- racism, intolerance, and dropping IQ averages...

I also wanted to address the Koran burning controversy. What makes people think that burning a Koran supports America? I mean, really?? Our constitution protects the right of every Muslim to read and practice the contents of the Koran. It is what makes the U.S. different. It is what makes us better. I don't like what the Koran teaches, but I sure as hell won't support burning it. What impact do they think it will make? The only thing that could come out of this event is showing the Islamic countries that we are just as intolerant and full of hate as they are. 

On a different note...
I finished On The Origin Of Species this week. I thoroughly enjoyed Darwin's wit and genuine search for truth. I respect his blatant honesty, even when speaking of doubts of his theory. I really did love the book and I'm sure it is one that I return to again. It's weird to think that I was taught this man, now a hero of mine, was satans pawn... Change is good. The last sentence starts with 'There is grandeur in this view of life...' and I have come to agree. The world we live in is beautiful.  Our humble beginnings, time intensive descent, and brief existence makes me value life more every day. I have learned a lot from this book and would recommend it to anyone.

After putting origins down, I immediately picked up The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I've been itching to read this one for a while but was caught up in too many other books. This will be my first Dawkins book and I'm really excited to learn more about his character and thought processes. I'm also about halfway through J. Craig Venter's book A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life. This one thrills me because it recaps his story of how he became the upstanding scientist he is today. His wit and dry humor is entertaining to say the least, but it is his ability to defy the odds placed before him that I love. As soon as and possibly before I finish A Life Decoded I'll start Stephen Hawking's A Brief History Of Time. I'm anxious to start this one. The man is a brain and I have heard nothing but positive about his writing. 

I move back into UC thursday. I'm more than excited to embark on another year, and I'm dying to get back into class (mainly biology) and the lab. I hope you enjoyed reading. 


Friday, August 27, 2010

Bigger Than Us

"The universe is a pretty big place. It's bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it's just us... seems like an awful waste of space."

I laid out under the stars again tonight. This is quickly becoming my new favorite hobby. I sprawl out on a poolside chair with a pillow, an old blanket, and a wondering mind. After taking note of how many more stars were visible tonight and imagining my own constellations my mind took perch on the above quote. I love to think about other life and am fascinated by the thought of expanding our horizons as a species. I feel as the great Carl Sagan did- We humans are capable of greatness. Remembering our incredibly humble beginnings as a species, our short reign here on earth has been marvelous. Just over a hundred years ago flight was scoffed at, and in a blink of an eye we have launched ourselves into space. It's magnificent.

 To think of the ways life has evolved in other atmospheres and conditions is mind boggling. Natural selection on another planet would most certainly select things bizarre and amazing to us. Billions of possibilities. And the chances of them being within 5000 technological years of us is roughly 0! It's a bit unnerving to think that if we are visited by unfriendly beings, human annihilation is inevitable. But it is understandable. Our natural resources are dwindling and we too will eventually have to leave, in a search for a new home. I almost wish I were alive during a later generation where these events unfold. Oh, what I'd do to see, smell, feel, and hear another planet.

Here is one of my favorite graphics of all time:

I teased a friend in high school for wanting to study astronomy. Admittedly, it was very immature. Sorry, Ben. :p I don't fully blame myself, though. I was never in an environment conducive to scientific speculation. Imagine being told from the day of your birth that we are alone in this universe - that dreaming about the cosmos was pointless because "I believe we will be raptured before you graduate!" Thanks, unnamed teacher. You're delusional. This universe is so much bigger than us! There is so much to be learned and science is the gateway to discovery! How depressing it is to look back at how many great minds were wasted and how many kids could have been enlightened by science if given proper stimulation. Science ignites passion in people no other subject can. Nothing is more exciting, driving, and respectable than discovery and understanding.

Going into my second year at university, I feel like I am still playing catch-up in science classes. All my engineering friends took AP bio, AP Chem, AP Calc, AP Stats, etc. in high school. I was not even given the opportunity to learn Darwin's theory of biological evolution. In fact, I was told Darwin was merely satan's pawn. How ridiculous. Being a little over halfway through 'On The Origin Of Species' I find such statements incredibly offensive. It doesn't take long for one to realize how special Darwin was with his attention to detail and fluidity of thought. He was a truly remarkable man driven by the search for truth and understanding. There is a reason his work changed the scientific community forever... I take my first legitimate biology class this upcoming quarter and 'excited' doesn't do my anticipation justice.

 I thank god (insert sarcasm) for my skeptical mindset and the willingness to learn. I mean, how can you truly appreciate the complexity of a cell and its environmental interactions if you believe it just poofed into existence? The struggle for life is beautiful and it is unsettling to think a fraction of our young minds are being polluted with ideas akin to an 8000 year old universe and "billions of dead things buried in rock layers all over the face of the earth". What I would do to go back and have the opportunity to study biology in high school. I'd like to think the passion I feel now would have been sparked back then, but perhaps I wouldn't have fully appreciated the subject without being deprived of it my whole life and having to discover it myself. 

Maybe that is the case. Maybe it was the deprivation of science that made me want to teach myself evolutionary biology and other sciences alike.  For me, the discovery of these sciences was spectacular. If my mind were fireworks it would have put WEBN to shame. So many dots connected and unrequited questions answered. Life is much more fulfilling and meaningful. I feel fortunate to have come out of the intellectual wilderness of blind acceptance and bigotry. So fortunate, in fact, I plan to devote a great deal of time to educating those who are in need. I know I would never have made it through the de-conversion sane without caring people asking thought-provoking questions - leaving a bread-crumb trail for me to follow.

 I know I have barely touched on my experience and much of this may be brand new information to many of you who know me. I may have to devote a blog entirely to my de-conversion experience. I may have to devote a few. But know that I am not at all the same person I was in high school. I am wildly obsessed with science and not afraid to say it. I am a nerd to the core. Maybe I always was a nerd, but at least now I am a nerd with ambition and direction. 

I hope this blog was better than the last and I hope they continue to be more fluid and thought-provoking. I am finding, only on my second blog, that I enjoy writing and it helps clear my mind. So, thanks again for reading.


RIP Carl Sagan. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

An Introduction

Well, hello. If you are reading this you have arrived at my first blog. My name is Jake...or Jacob. That all depends on how you know me. That is, if you do in fact know me. Either way, here is a bit of an intro as to who I am and why I am blogging. Like I said, my name is Jake and I am a biomedical engineering student at the wonderful University of Cincinnati. I'll be a second year student in a little less than a month and I am very excited to get back to school.  As per why I am blogging...I have no solid explanation. I guess the reason every other blogger does this- to put my thoughts on record in an attempt to relate to others. I hope it relieves some mental stress by systematically sifting through my thoughts, possibly allowing my brain to entertain sleep.

I guess this is where I share my thoughts...
This whole blogging idea came to me as I was laying outside tonight stargazing. Stargazing is new to me really. I have lived in a dorm in Cincinnati for the last nine months and stars are quite dimmed by the city lights. Not to mention my fascination with the universe has become much more serious lately. Nevertheless, since I have been home it has proven incredibly relaxing, even inspiring. Not inspiring as in writing a song or poem; or taking a new direction with my life. But inspiring as in refreshing- an anonymous reminder to stay positive. Seeing the specs of light come through the vast blackness of night brings the idea of insignificance to my mind. To think something as massive and extraordinary as a star can everyday go completely unnoticed by most -even me, until recently- is mind boggling. And as bright and massive as each star is, insignificant specs are how we perceive them. The specs in no way affect how we live or what we do daily. Totally insignificant. But when you take intrest in that spec, when it become significant, it can affect the way we live. It has the power to shape thoughts and ideas, it may even inspire you to write a blog. It made me ask myself what insignificance is, if it even exists.

On with the incoherent babbling...
I have been going through some situations recently, ultimately leading to changes in my daily life. Most relatively insignificant, but real and significant to me at this point in time. I know what you're thinking- granted a single soul is even reading this- another kid using a blog as a bitch session, great. I hope to stay as far away from that as possible. But back on track...These changes have made me take a real look at what I value in life. What I should value, and what I do value. Friendship has been on my mind a great deal lately. I have found that friendship's frailty is what makes it so powerful. A friendship with true integrity, honesty, and selflessness is such an anomaly today that I question its existence. It's an illusion I grab at the wind for right now. It's a battle between the desire for a friendship or for a true friend. The latter of which seems so difficult to come by. 

Well, this has been somewhat relieving, but more tiresome. My mind may not be clear but I sure as hell won't be able to stay awake. So I quite possibly have met my original goal of entertaining sleep. Thanks for reading. I hope it was mildly thought-provoking or comically entertaining at the least.