Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Yeah, once again it's been awhile since my last post--I've still been busy with the acting thing, and haven't had as much time to post as I've wanted to, but there are several things I've been meaning to post about once I could find the time. In the meantime, though, there's one thing I want to post about that's, well, acting-related.

Years ago, I happened to see part of an episode of the George Carlin Show. This wasn't a show I watched regularly--in fact, I think this one partial episode was all I ever saw of it--but I think this was while I was an undergraduate in college, and my roommates were watching the show one day. Anyway, that particular episode involved George Carlin's character being brought in front of a judge on charges of obscenity. He managed to get the charges dismissed by goading the judge into letting loose with some choice expletives himself, making him look like a hypocrite if he punished Carlin's character for doing the same. George Carlin's point--or the point of his character, and/or the writer of that episode, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that Carlin himself probably agreed to at least some extent, since it was his show--was that everyone swears sometimes; the right, or the wrong, circumstance can bring out the blue language from anyone. It's human nature, and it's unavoidable.

George Carlin was wrong.

Profanity is not, of course, an inevitable part of human nature; it's not like we have some instinctive drive to periodically utter certain Anglo-Saxon monosyllables (or whatever the equivalents in our native languages might be). People use those words in difficult situations out of habit, and if you never develop the habit it's easy to avoid. I went through thirty-four years of my life without ever uttering any word that would have been unwelcome on network TV. No (excuse the pointless censoring) sh*t, no *ss (except to refer to the ungulate), and certainly no f*ck. The closest I ever came to foul language was when as a very young child I said "crappy", having heard my grandfather use the word frequently and not understanding what it really meant.

That brings us to last week.

Now, in acting, as it turns out (and I didn't know this until recently), one of the most important things for new actors to do is meet casting directors. Casting directors remember actors, and they tend to call on actors they know. Of course, it's not always easy to meet a casting director, but one of the best ways to do so is at a workshop. Ostensibly, the purpose of these workshops is just to let the casting directors improve the actors' auditioning techniques, but in reality they're mostly there to let the casting director meet actors and see them in action. This benefits both the actors--who get to be seen by the casting directors--and the casting directors--who get to find new actors they might want to cast. To avoid wasting the casting directors' time with actors who aren't really ready to be seen, though, the workshops generally require actors to pass an audition before they're allowed into the workshops.

Which, as I said, brings us to last week. Last Monday, specifically. I was at an audition for a workshop, and I was paired up with an actress and given a "side"--an excerpt a few pages long of a script to a television episode or, as in this case, a movie. Specifically, it happened to be an excerpt from The Bachelor.

And it happened to prominently feature the word "sh*t". Three times. (Plus the word "hell" at the end, which however for some reason I don't feel as much need to censor in writing.)

Now, as I said above, I had never uttered this word before in my life. So I had to make some quick decisions. And what I decided was--eh, the heck with it. Sure, I didn't really like using that kind of language, but here I was playing a character, and you know, if I continue into acting, chances are I'll come across other parts that require this kind of language. And really, at this point, I don't really have a moral issue with saying those words. Maybe when I still considered myself a believer, things would be different, but now--it's a matter of taste. I don't particularly like that kind of language; I probably won't use those words myself (when I'm not playing a character); but it's not like speaking those words is inherently evil.

So I performed the part as written. Sh*t and all. And after thirty-four years (getting closer than I'd like to admit to thirty-five) of completely clean language, I uttered my first profanity.

Fast forward to this Wednesday. This was in a different workshop; I'd auditioned that afternoon (this time the audition didn't involve any profanities) and gotten in, and had decided to attend a workshop that very evening, present at which was a casting director who worked on a number of independent movies. And I was handed a side...which included several repetitions, in various conjugations, of the word "f*ck". (Plus one "sh*t", but hey, I'd already crossed that Rubicon.)

Now, okay, this is a profanity of a different magnitude here. Sh*t is one thing, but f*ck is another, rivaled in its intensity only perhaps by a certain four-letter word that rhymes with bunt. Still, again, even if I don't see the point in using that language in my everyday life, I don't now see that just uttering the words when playing a character is inherently evil or anything, so...I did it.

So what would I have done had I gotten into acting a year or two earlier (or taken a year or two longer to deconvert), and had this happened while I still considered myself a faithful Mormon? Honestly...I don't know. I was pretty zealous about things like that--never having uttered a profanity may be a minor virtue, but it's one virtue I had been living perfectly, so I'd cling pretty hard to it. So I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have said the words, but I'm really not certain how I would have tried to get out of it. Maybe I would have tried to substitute euphemisms and hope they went unremarked upon (though in both these particular sides that really wouldn't have worked); maybe I would have requested a different side...but both of those would have certainly gone over very badly, and certainly not made me look good to the workshop people and the casting director. So all in all, I'm quite glad this didn't happen while I still considered myself a believer.

So how did it go? Well, one might think that my first time in my life uttering a profanity, after completely avoiding them for so many years, would be a little awkward--but, apparently, it wasn't. Anyway, in the first case I passed the audition, and in the second case the casting director responded very positively to my performance, and several people complimented me on how funny it was. So apparently I'd managed to make the profanities seem natural, even though to me they were anything but.

Which I guess maybe just gives more evidence that this sort of thing--as odd as I feel writing this, after having assiduously eschewed any such language for so long--really isn't a big deal. When it came down to it, saying those words really didn't mean much.

Either that, or maybe the fact I managed to make it seem natural just means I'm a pretty good actor. Well, hey, I'd like to think so, anyway. ;)

Monday, June 11, 2007

Two Carnivals

I'm once again a day late with this post, but there were two carnivals yesterday: Carnival of the Godless #68 at Action Skeptics and the third Humanist Symposium at Black Sun Journal.

I have a post in the former; I'd submitted a post to the latter, but it didn't make it in, probably because I cut it too close to the deadline. (In fact, I guess technically, depending on what time zone the editor of Black Sun Journal is in, it might have arrived past the deadline for him.) Ah, well; I've got to not cut things so close next time...

Anyway, open thread, but I'll supply an optional topic of discussion: What's your favorite species of worm?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Moral Decay

The world is in an unprecedented state of moral decay. People lack the ethical guidance

So say the prophets and preachers of many religions. To many Christians, this moral decay is evidence that we're living in the last days before Christ's second coming, that the sinful world is ripening for the harvest at any moment now. Some others may not necessarily be convinced that Armageddon is quite that imminent, but agree that the moral state of the world is worse than it's ever been before. And, of course, they blame it largely on secularists. The godless and the impious, they say, are destroying the world's morality.

Well, in a way--and choosing certain definitions--they're right. And it's a good thing, too.

First of all, what immoral acts are they talking about, that are supposedly so prevalent nowadays? Violence? Murder? Well, as much as some people like to claim that youth violence, for example, is a dire threat, the statistics really don't bear that out. Despite the high-profile calamities like Columbine and Virginia Tech, on the whole it seems there isn't really more youth violence now than there was in the past. These events make the news precisely because they're unusual, because this sort of thing doesn't happen all the time--and, alarmist rhetoric to the contrary, doesn't show any real signs of increasing in frequency.

What about deception? There's certainly plenty of fraud and deceit going on today, in business and in politics most prominently. But that's always been the case, and, again, there's no real evidence that it's increasing. American history books tend to do some whitewashing of the country's past, but the truth is that earlier presidential campaigns were no more free of scandal than those today, and certainly there's always been plenty of corruption in business and industry. Here, again, there's no real evidence of any precipitous slide toward increasing immorality.

But it's not murder and mayhem, nor mendacity, that the lamenters of moral decay are really decrying. As I've remarked before, when the religious speak of immorality, usually it's sexual immorality in particular that they're really referring to. And that definitely seems to be true in this case. When the religious demagogues get down to specifics about the indications of the world's supposed moral decay, it's this kind of sin they refer to. They point to things like increasing acceptance of homosexuality and tolerance of premarital sex, cohabitation of unmarried couples, glorification in the media of sexual promiscuity. These are their signs of moral decay, and their proof that America's morals are going down the tubes. (Well, not just America's, of course, but here I'm focusing mostly on America, because that, of course, is the place I'm most familiar with, and also because most of the fiery religionists who speak of moral decay are also Americans, and focus on America themselves.) there really that much more sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, and so forth today, or are people just more open about it? I'm not sure--though of course moral crusaders would argue that the fact that people engage in such acts more openly is itself a sign of moral decay. Even if there is more of such things going on than there has been in the past, though, is it really immoral in any meaningful sense, or just called so because of old arbitrary religious doctrines? While these are certainly valid questions, for the moment, let's grant, for the sake of argument, that there are more sexually immoral acts going on in America today than there have been in the past, and that it is really immoral and wrong. (I'm not saying I really believe this--as I said, I'm just granting it for the sake of argument.)

Now, it may seem I've just ceded the whole game to the proclaimers of moral decay, and that there's nothing left to argue about. But there are some important matters that are still being overlooked. Even assuming that sexual immorality has been on the rise in America over the last few centuries, and that there's more of it going on than there has been at any point in the nation's past--well, what else is different?

Let's look back to America shortly after the Revolutionary War. The preachers of moral decay would have us believe that people then were much more chaste than now, that there was much less extramarital and homosexual sex going on. Again, I'm not really convinced this is true (rather, it may have been just hidden better), but as I said, let's grant the point for the sake of argument. So there was less sexual hanky-panky. But then again--there was also chattel slavery. People kept other people as property. That seems to me to be pretty darn immoral. And even if one does hold that premarital sex and homosexuality are immoral, it's hard to make any sort of coherent case that they're worse than depriving human beings of all rights and treating them like animals. So...on balance, I don't think there's really much basis for saying that we're less moral then than we are now.

It was nearly a century before slavery ended, and even then segregation and other forms of institutionalized racism continued until only a few decades ago. It was commonly accepted that some races were just intrinsically nobler and worthwhile than others, and that was that. Of course, today racism is, unfortunately, far from dead, but at least it's no longer written into law, and we don't generally pretend that it has any scientific basis behind it. Again, even if there is more sexual immorality nowadays than before, is that really a worse evil than the devaluation and mistreatment of an entire race? And if not, then is it really true that, overall, the world is less moral now than it was then?

But of course, we may recognize slavery and racism as evil now, but back in their heyday there were all sorts of alleged moral justifications advanced for them--often from the pulpit. Preachers thundered about how God had made the black race to serve the white, and about how everyone must seek his proper place. Not all preachers, certainly--it would be a drastic oversimplification to claim, for instance, that all religious people in the late 1700s supported slavery, or that atheists opposed it. Still, to many, though not all, theists of the time, racism was considered a moral virtue--and opposition to it was considered secular immorality.

So from that vantage point, from the mindset of some of those theists of bygone years who extolled racism and bigotry as positive principles, yes, the irreligious have indeed been responsible for the country's moral decay. But if "moral decay" means greater freedom and equality for oppressed people, means better treatment of man for fellowman, then hey, personally I'm all for it.

Friday, June 08, 2007

No More NOMA

I used to have a lot of respect for Stephen Jay Gould as a science writer. I still do enjoy his books, but more recently I've come to recognize a tendency he sometimes had for oversimplification of debates and distortion of other points of view. The first thing I read in his books that bothered me, though, was his espousal of what he calls the NOMA principle.

"NOMA" stands for Non-Overlapping MAgisteria--the principle, according to Gould, that science and religion deal with discrete subjects, and cannot come into conflict simply because, when properly treated, they do not overlap. Science deals with facts. Religion deals with morality. As long as they are properly confined to the appropriate spheres, there's no reason there should ever be a disagreement between them. Gould made much of NOMA, which he called "a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to...the supposed conflict between science and religion". He claimed it "follows a strong consensus accepted for decades by leading scientific and religious thinkers alike"--and cites as an example Pope John Paul II, whose suggestion that elements of the creation story may be best taken figuratively marks him, according to Gould, as a proponent of NOMA.

Now, at the time I first read this, I still considered myself a faithful Mormon, and Gould's NOMA argument struck me as absurd. Of course religion purports to deal with matters of fact. Whether or not Jesus Christ ever existed historically (quite apart from the issue of whether he really was the son of God) is a matter of fact, and one that's very important to Christianity. If a prominent historian claimed to have proven that no such person existed, I'm quite sure that few if any Christians would shrug their shoulders and say that, well, it doesn't really matter; that's beyond the scope of their religion. The (alleged) fact that Jesus Christ existed is quite important, and indeed fundamental, to Christianity. Claiming John Paul II as a proponent of NOMA is preposterous; conceding that one particular story in one's religious texts may be largely symbolic is not at all the same thing as conceding that all the stories in one's religion are symbolic or allegorical and that the church will confine itself to morality. He may have made some allowances on creation, but I assume John Paul II still supported the idea that Christ was born of a virgin, that miracles can and do occur, and so forth--questions of fact that entirely violate Gould's NOMA principle.

Gould was not, of course, alone in espousing these ideas, though he's the one who gave them a catchy(ish) name. Michael Shermer, for instance, makes much the same mistake in his book Why People Believe Weird Things, when he writes that creationists, by interpreting Genesis literally, "missed the significance, meaning, and sublime nature of myth", and "took a beautiful story of creation and re-creation and ruined it". Their literal interpretation of scripture, Shermer says, is "an insult to myths, an insult to religion, and an insult to science". Now, again, when I first read Shermer's book, I still considered myself a faithful Mormon--but I certainly did not consider myself a creationist. (Well, more specifically, I may have believed in divine creation, because that's what the church taught, but I recognized the evidence for evolution enough to try to reconcile the two rather than denying that evolution had happened.) So I wasn't among the group Shermer was attacking, those who denied evolution because it contradicted their scriptural account. Still, it seemed to me Shermer was speaking nonsense. Myths (in the religious/mythological sense) were originally meant to be, on at least some level, believed--that's what distinguishes a myth from a mere story. Literal interpretation of scripture isn't an insult to religion, if that's what the religion teaches, and if the scriptures are meant to be interpreted literally. The "beautiful story of creation and re-creation" that Shermer refers to was originally intended to represent a factual account (even if different denominations today may quibble on the details of just to what extent), and if taking it as literally true is ruining it then it was already ruined from the get-go.

I think to some extent it's clear what Gould and Shermer were trying to do. They were trying to keep religion from attacking science, while still ceding it a place of its own in the hopes that the religious would be mollified and accept the limitations that NOMA imposed. And certainly the goal of fending off religious attacks on science is a laudable and important one; today, in America in particular, the fundamentalist attacks on evolution and cosmology and an ever-expanding set of scientific theories are relentless, and their success would mean a scientific stagnation and regression with dire consequences for the well-being both of society as a whole and of the individual. But fighting religious advances by trying to convince the religious that fact isn't part of their "magisterium" simply won't work. Religion has always dealt in fact--or in what the religious believed to be fact--and it presumably always will. It has never been only a matter of morality. And any attempt to suggest that it should be only a matter of morality cannot help but be perceived by the religious as an attack. It's not going to help, and it's only going to come across as dishonest, or even as a threat--"you stay off our turf, and we'll stay off yours".

Now, so far, I've been talking about my impressions of NOMA from a religious perspective--what I thought about it back when I still considered myself a faithful Mormon. Now that I'm an avowed atheist, though, I have other reasons for thinking NOMA is dangerous. As I said, religion does purport to deal in fact, but of course its track record for getting the facts right isn't very good. The problem is, its track record when it comes to morality isn't much better. Christianity had no problem in this nation's youth coexisting with the evil of slavery. The atrocities committed by the "chosen people" in the Bible hardly need recounting. And, of course, today, on "moral" principles, the religious right fights gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research, and other matters that would ease and improve many lives. If we claim that morality is the sole domain of religion, we're ceding religion the right to decide all these issues, since the religious consider them moral matters. I don't think we really want to do that.

Now, obviously--contrary to the bizarre assumption some theists seem to have that all atheists think as a group, and that what one atheist says all atheists must believe--NOMA isn't a principle that's managed to catch on as widely as Gould hoped it would, even among atheists. Dawkins--while I'm still a little undecided what I think of him (and one of these days I probably ought to read The God Delusion)--deserves some credit for distancing himself from such wishy-washy views and staking out a clearer stand. But some shadows of NOMA still show up occasionally, like those in Shermer's book previously cited. I think we'd do better without such pretense.

Religion does purport to deal with fact, and that isn't likely to change. Pretending otherwise is not only useless, but counterproductive, as it both offends religionists, and gives them more ammunition to use in their attempt to impose their own version of "morality". If we're going to try to resist the impositions of religion on all aspects of life, we're much better off being honest about exactly what it is we're opposing.

So please. No more NOMA.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Last Time In The Temple

So, this preceding Saturday (and yes, I've been meaning to make this post much earlier; still been busy) I went to the temple for what will probably be the last time. I used to be a regular temple-goer, back when I still considered myself a faithful Mormon, going on average once a month or two. Now, of course, I've decided I have better things to do than sit through a two-hour mildly interactive film that I've seen so many times before and that really isn't very interesting to begin with. (And yes, that is what a typical temple visit comprises; I may make a "Mormonism 101" post about that later.) And, as I've mentioned before, my temple recommend--the slip of paper that allows a Mormon to enter the temple--expires in August, and when it does I have no intention of renewing it, since doing so would require telling the bishop and the stake president that I believe in God and believe that the leaders of the church are real "prophets, seers, and revelators", among other things.

So why did I go this last Saturday? Well, because it wasn't a typical temple trip. There was going to be a special meeting in the rarely-used priesthood assembly room. Most Mormon temples don't have such a room; the Los Angeles temple was the first temple built outside Utah to have one, and remains one of only two temples outside Utah that do (the other being the Washington D.C. temple).

I had never seen the assembly room--and besides I was curious just what this special meeting was all about--so I decided that, since my temple recommend was still good for another few months, I might as well take advantage of that and go.

It turned out to be a letdown in pretty much every way. Not that I was expecting any spiritual enlightenment, of course, but I thought, with all the hype and hoopla surrounding this meeting and the stake's fervency in encouraging everyone to go, that maybe there was going to be some big announcement or some supposed "revelation" given there. Nope. It was a standard meeting in pretty much every way, distinguished from the usual chapel sessions that often precede endowment sessions at the temple only by its length and by the presence of a choir. Apparently this "special meeting" had been called not because anyone really thought they had anything important to say, but just to commemorate the temple's "jubilee"--at least, that's what they called it, though I don't know why; it's presumably supposed to be a reference to some kind of anniversary, but since the temple's construction was started in 1951 and completed in 1955 and it was dedicated in 1956, 2007 doesn't in fact mark any noteworthy anniversary of anything in particular. (It's the 70th anniversary of the announcement that a temple was going to be built in Los Angeles, and the purchase of the land, but that would seem like an odd thing to commemorate. Anyway, it seems they're commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the temple's dedication, but why they're doing it a year late I'm not sure.) There was a talk or two recounting the history of the temple, but beyond that it was the usual pap about how this was the House of the Lord, how powerful the Spirit was here, the joy of helping the dead who weren't baptized in life escape from Spirit Prison (through the ordinances performed for the dead in the temple), and so forth. I had considered smuggling in a small voice recording device to record the events of this much-ballyhooed special meeting, but in the end hadn't really felt comfortable doing so; as it turned out, I didn't miss anything, since nothing happened worth recording.

As for the assembly room itself...well, my first surprise was when I took the stairs to get there. Every bit of space I'd seen inside the temple was lavishly decorated and lovingly appointed--until last Saturday. Those stairways were completely unadorned, plain cement stairs that wouldn't have been out of place in any old utilitarian building. Evidently they weren't used enough that anyone felt the need to make them look nice. The assembly room itself, of course, was more ornate...but still wasn't anything really special. It was big--it seated twenty-five thousand, someone said--but it wasn't anything more than a big empty room with an organ and a stand--some tiered seats and a podium--on either end. The attendees were accommodated by filling the bare floor with folding chairs. One of the speakers mentioned that the room had been recarpeted and otherwise extensively renovated before its use this year, which means that previously it was apparently even less impressive.

Ah, well. Still, now I've been in the assembly room and know what it's like, so I won't say the trip wasn't a total loss. But I wasn't really planning on going back to the temple again after last Saturday, and that utterly unimpressive special temple jubilee meeting certainly did nothing to change my mind.

Friday, June 01, 2007

My Kind of Atheism

So, after seeing it on a post in King Aardvark's Kick in the Nuts, I decided just for the heck of it to take a "What kind of atheist are you? test. Here's what I got:

You scored as Scientific Atheist, These guys rule. I'm not one of them myself, although I play one online. They know the rules of debate, the Laws of Thermodynamics, and can explain evolution in fifty words or less. More concerned with how things ARE than how they should be, these are the people who will bring us into the future.

Scientific Atheist




Spiritual Atheist




Apathetic Atheist


Angry Atheist


Militant Atheist


What kind of atheist are you?
created with

Now, obviously, this kind of online multiple-choice test is anything but rigorous, and I went through it pretty quickly, without giving a lot of thought to my responses, but I think in this case the results are probably more or less accurate. Considering my currently semi-clandestine atheism, I'm certainly anything but a militant atheist, though sometimes I think maybe I sort of should be. It's not surprising that "Scientific Atheist" came up first; I'm a physicist, after all (well, a doctoral student in physics, who's done some physics teaching, anyway), and I think I do have pretty much a scientific mindset. I was mildly surprised at first that "Agnostic" came up second, but after some thought it kind of makes sense--it doesn't exactly fit, but it probably fits better than anything else on the list other than "Scientific Atheist". After all, it's not as if I'm 100% committed to the idea that there cannot possibly be a god--it's just that I'm not aware of any good evidence toward such a being's existence, and in the absence of such evidence it's more reasonable to conclude that probably no such being exists.

(Okay, I guess what is kind of surprising is that "Theist" came up as high as it did, tied with "Apathetic Atheist" and "Angry Atheist". I may not be much of an "Angry Atheist" or an "Apathetic Atheist", but those probably describe me better than "theist". For that matter, while I may not be much of an "Angry Atheist", I'm probably more of that than an "Apathetic Atheist". Ah, well; I guess there's little point in quibbling too much about the exact ordering of the lower-ranking choices.)

Anyway, I guess that's what kind of atheist I am, more or less. Anyone else?