Archive for August, 2009

Why Atheists Love Breasts

The title of this blog isn’t a joke. I really am going to explain why atheists love breasts.

Of course, it’s also a shameless attempt to improve my blog stats by mentioning two of the hottest topics on the Web: atheism and breasts. I admit that. Sue me. My aunt is a lawyer. She’ll eat you alive. Come to think of it, I haven’t had breakfast yet and I’m kind of hungry.

But back to our topic. Breakfast can wait.

You will be happy to know that I have scientifically verified my hypothesis. I once dated a guy who claimed to be an atheist, and he really did love breasts. I’m not saying anything more about how I know he did, because I’m not writing that kind of blog. I admit that my sample size (one atheist) is kind of small, unlike my … no, I’m not going to go there. It’s not that kind of blog.

By the way, I say that the guy “claimed” to be an atheist because there’s some doubt about whether he really was one. On several occasions, I heard him cry out “Oh, God!” Never mind which occasions. It’s not that kind of blog.

Anyway, why do atheists love breasts?

Basically, it’s because breasts are material objects and atheists are all about materialism.

Atheists usually believe that nothing exists except material reality and its effects. Of course, they define material reality kind of broadly, to include things like energy. But the essence of their viewpoint is that if physical science can study it, then it’s real. Otherwise, it’s just a fairy tale that we tell ourselves because we’re afraid of dying.

Based on scientific evidence, nobody can prove that atheists are wrong. But what atheists try not to admit is that nobody can prove they are right, either. Atheism and materialism are not scientific conclusions. They are philosophical viewpoints.

It’s like the old saying that if your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. Atheists are impressed (as anyone should be) by the achievements of physical science. But they then leap to the conclusion, unsupported by scientific evidence, that every problem is a suitable nail for the scientific hammer. Okay, that was a pretty lame metaphor, but you get the idea.

Physical science studies physical reality. If it fails to find anything except physical reality, that fact shouldn’t surprise anyone. And it shouldn’t be taken to imply that only physical reality exists. But that is the core of the atheist argument. There are other factors, but that’s the main one.

Any thinking person has to consider the possibility that atheism is true, even though it’s an essentially negative idea: that God does not exist. But when you think a little more, you realize that science is neutral about God’s existence. And there’s plenty of other evidence from history, people’s lives, and our own personal experience to suggest that God really does exist.

What it comes down to is free choice. The evidence doesn’t force us to decide one way or the other. Based on the evidence, we can conclude that God exists or doesn’t exist. When we make our choice, it’s as much a statement about who we are and how we see the world as it is a statement about whether or not God exists.

And now, please excuse me. There’s some coffee cake in the kitchen that looks just Heavenly. I’ll have to pray for the strength not to eat two pieces instead of just one. πŸ™‚

Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.


The Spirit Catches You – Notes Part 3

I’m posting some of my thoughts about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman in case anyone finds them interesting or stimulating. It’s a wonderful, enlightening, but sad book.

As I write up my notes, I’ll post them in future blogs. But READ THE BOOK! Your big sister has spoken. πŸ™‚

Chapter 3

Lia Lee was the three-month-old daughter of the Hmong couple Foua Lee (her mother) and Nao Kao Lee (her father). This chapter recounts Lia’s first epileptic seizure and how language barriers prevented communication between the Lees and Lia’s doctors. The chapter title is the same as the book title. In Hmong, “the spirit catches you and you fall down” is the literal translation of qaug dab peg, which Hmong-English dictionaries translate simply as “epilepsy.”

Translation is interpretive: Note that Hmong-English dictionaries do not give the literal translation of qaug dab peg, which embodies the Hmong view of the disease and its cause. They translate it into English in terms of our world-view, concepts, and assumptions. Even between languages of similar cultures, translation is an interpretive rather than a literal process. And the more two cultures differ, the more distortion will inevitably occur in translating words, phrases, and sentences from the language of one culture to the language of the other.

Parents aren’t perfect: The Lees believed that Lia’s seizure was a symptom of “soul loss.” They thought that when her older sister Yer had loudly slammed a door a moment before the seizure occurred, it had frightened Lia’s soul into leaving her body. Anne says that the Lees doted on Lia but blamed Yer and were somewhat distant from her as a result. Many of us have had similar (though less heartbreaking) experiences with our parents.Β  The Lees did their best but they are human beings.

Anne says that studies of Hmong parents have found they are more attentive and affectionate toward their children than Western parents. They showed this affection toward Lia but not as much toward Yer, though again, I’m sure that they did their best.

Sacred disease: The Hmong think that epilepsy shows a person has psychic powers suitable for becoming a shaman, and that the illness gives a person more sympathy for other people who are sick. They think it might show:

that the person (who is usually but not always male) has been chosen to be the host of a healing spirit, a neeb. (Txiv neeb means “person with a healing spirit.”)

It’s not clear from the text how we got from epilepsy indicating soul loss to its being evidence that the epileptic is host for a healing spirit. The dab peg that catches your soul is supposed to be an evil spirit.

At any rate, Lia’s parents were alarmed by her illness but also proud because of its suggestion that Lia was supernaturally talented.

The first two times Lia had seizures, the hospital had no one who spoke Hmong, and the Lees spoke hardly any English. By the time they arrived at the hospital, Lia’s seizures had ended. The Lees couldn’t tell the doctors what had happened and the doctors didn’t know how to ask. The doctors diagnosed Lia as suffering from pneumonia, so they prescribed antibiotics and gave the Lees instructions that they didn’t understand. The third time Lia had a seizure, it was still going on when they arrived at the hospital so they got a correct diagnosis that time. They also got a sympathetic doctor (Dan Murphy) who would work with them from that point forward.

What caused Lia’s seizures? The Lees and Dr. Murphy still weren’t able to communicate, so they didn’t know that they had arrived at different — but not inconsistent — explanations for Lia’s seizures:

Dan had no way of knowing that Foua and Nao Kao had already diagnosed their daughter’s problem as the illness where the spirit catches you and you fall down. Foua and Nao Kao had no way of knowing that Dan had diagnosed it as epilepsy, the most common of all neurological disorders. Each had accurately noted the same symptoms, but Dan would have been surprised to hear that they were caused by soul loss, and Lia’s parents would have been surprised to hear that they were caused by an electrochemical storm inside their daughter’s head …

What makes an explanation “the right one”? The explanations given by the Lees and Dr. Murphy do not contradict each other. They agree about the symptoms of Lia’s illness, and neither explanation makes it impossible for the other explanation to be true. In addition, it’s always a little arbitrary when we pick out “the” cause of an event in a complex situation. There are usually lots of causes at different levels.

Why do we think that our Western neurological explanation is better than the Lees’ spiritual explanation? We would probably give several reasons.

  • First, we believe that it enables us to control physical reality better than the spiritual explanation.
  • Second, our neurological explanation is supported by its connection to a vast amount of scientific knowledge and testing. The idea that epileptic seizures are caused by misfiring neurons is linked to knowledge in neuroscience, chemistry, pharmacology, and many other disciplines. Of course, those are our sciences. The Lees could probably list all the spiritual beliefs and theories that support their explanation.
  • Third, we would argue that our explanation can be verified by observation, while the Lees’ explanation can’t be. The Lees would probably disagree, arguing that our notions of “scientific verification” are too narrow and don’t give the whole picture.

Most interesting of all was that Dan ultimately said yes, Lia was having epileptic seizures, but he couldn’t explain why:

None of the tests revealed any apparent cause for the seizures. The doctors classified Lia’s epilepsy as “idiopathic:” cause unknown.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the cause was soul loss. But it’s certainly the explanation that the Lees would have given.

Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

The Spirit Catches You – Notes Part 2

I’m posting some of my thoughts about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman in case anyone finds them interesting or stimulating. It’s a wonderful, enlightening, but sad book.

As I write up my notes, I’ll post them in future blogs. But READ THE BOOK! Your big sister has spoken. πŸ™‚

Chapter 2

Everything is connected:The Hmong seem to see everything as connected to everything else, just like both religion and philosophy tell us that everything is ultimately “one:”

The Hmong have a phrase, hias cuaj txub kaum txub, which means “to speak of all kinds of things. It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point; and that the storyteller is likely to be rather long-winded.

The Hmong might understand the Jewish prayer Adonai echad, “God is one,” or the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity (God is three persons united in a mystical oneness that transcends human understanding). Though I admit that the business about religious ideas being mysteries used to drive me crazy in confirmation class. It seemed like every time I asked a really good question, the priest would say that the answer was a “mystery” and we couldn’t understand it. I prefer mysteries that have solutions, though I’m now a little more at peace with the idea that we will never understand some things. The male sense of humor comes to mind. πŸ™‚

Oy vey, but the Hmong sound Jewish: Anne’s history of the Hmong reinforces how much all human ethnic, national, and religious groups have in common. Sometimes, it sounded like she was talking about the Jewish people; at other times, she could have been describing the Scots (as seen by the English) or the Germanic tribes as seen by the ancient Romans. At still other times, she could have been describing the English or the American colonists.

Here, the Hmong sound like the Jewish people:

For as long as it has been recorded, the history of the Hmong has been a marathon series of bloody scrimmages, punctuated by occasional periods of peace, though hardly any of plenty. Over and over again, the Hmong have responded to persecution and to pressures to assimilate by either fighting or migrating …

Leave out the part about fighting, which Jewish people try to avoid (with limited success), and it sounds like my grandmother describing the history of the Jews: persecution, pressure to assimilate, followed by migration and occasionally by war.

Here, the Hmong sound like the Scots (as seen by the British) or the Germanic tribes (as seen by the Romans):

The Chinese viewed the Hmong as fearless, uncouth, and recalcitrant.

Here, the Hmong sound very, very parliamentary, like the English:

… the power of their kings was limited by a complex system of village and district assemblies. Though the crown was hereditary, each new king was chosen from among the former king’s sons by an electorate of all the arms-bearing men in the kingdom.

And only men can vote: that’s also very English (and American, etc.).

Mythical, or crazy? Some of Chapter 2, I just don’t believe. I’m sorry, but I can’t believe that

In 1730 or thereabouts, hundreds of Hmong warriors killed their wives and children, believing they would fight more fiercely if they had nothing to lose.

Maybe one crazy warrior would do that, or even two, but hundreds? It’s … I can’t even come up with the words to say how horrifying it is. I don’t believe that any large number of people could do that to their own families. To get people to kill strangers in warfare requires a lot of training and let’s call it what it is, “brainwashing.” I’ve read that even after that kind of training, many soldiers in war still shoot to miss their “enemies” in the opposing army. And we’re supposed to believe that from some perverted kind of patriotism, a large number of Hmong men would kill their families, who they love? I don’t care if they’re from a different culture. They’re still people. I would more easily believe that Hmong soldiers grew wings and flew over their adversaries to drop water balloons on them.

Folk hero – the Orphan: Anne says that a common character in Hmong folklore is “the orphan,” who is persecuted because of his poverty but ultimately triumphs because of his courage and goodness:

The Orphan … is clever, energetic, brave, persistent, and a virtuoso player of the qeej, a musical instrument highly esteemed by the Hmong … Though he lives by himself on the margins of society, reviled by almost everyone, he knows in his heart that he is actually superior to all his detractors … The Orphan is, of course, a symbol of the Hmong people.

Folk characters and heroes provide us with a kind of shortcut for who we feel that we are and what kind of people we want to be. Instead of having to think through a lot of principles to decide how to act, we just picture our heroes and try to imagine what they would do: the Orphan, or Jesus, or (in my case) Rachel Maddow.

Those pictures probably influence our behavior and our thinking a lot more than the principles we’re taught. In fact, I’d bet that we choose our principles based on our hero-pictures, not the other way around. That’s all I’ve got to say about it. If you want to talk to someone who actually knows something, wander into Skinner Hall and look confused. Someone will help you right away. πŸ™‚

Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

How to Honor Senator Ted Kennedy

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) has died. It wasn’t unexpected, but he will be missed.

We all have flaws, and we all make mistakes. Senator Kennedy was no exception. But we should remember him for the ideals he defended: universal health care, women’s rights, workers’ rights, civil rights in general, support for education, and humane immigration policies.

The best way for us to honor Senator Kennedy is to continue his work for a just and compassionate society.

Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

The Spirit Catches You – Notes Part 1

I’m posting some of my thoughts about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman in case anyone finds them interesting or stimulating. It’s a wonderful, enlightening, but sad book.

As I write up my notes, I’ll post them in future blogs. But READ THE BOOK! Your big sister has spoken. πŸ™‚

General comments

  • The insights and beautiful ideas come so fast that I could hardly keep up. Even Anne’s side-comments are thought-provoking.
  • One of Anne’s recurring themes is that we all share a common humanity and it’s tragic when we let cultural or linguistic differences separate us.


Insight: Difference is one way that we learn the true nature of things, including ourselves:

I have always felt that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet. I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting frictions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one. This is especially true, I think, when the apposition is cultural.

It’s through diversity and intellectual challenge that we discover who we are. New experiences and perspectives shed light on our own. New ideas, especially if we disagree with them, motivate us to define more clearly what we believe and why. Sometimes, they motivate us to change our beliefs.

Insight: We all share a common humanity and should not let superficial differences divide us from each other.

When I play the tapes late at night, I imagine what they would sound like if I could somehow splice them together, so that the voices of the Hmong and the voices of the American doctors could be heard on a single tape, speaking a common language.

The language of our hearts is always the same, no matter where we are from. It’s the language of our heads that sometimes gets in the way.

Chapter 1

Birth story: Artistic license? Exaggerating details in service of the larger truth? Like what scholars believe about some of the biblical stories, or the writings of ancient historians such as Herodotus who made up details in order to tell a story that was true in a larger sense. I told my mother about the birth story and she didn’t believe it. Dad is a doctor and he expressed the same opinion more vigorously: I won’t repeat his exact words here. πŸ™‚ Some people have said that elder women in the village would have been allowed to help her.

Hmong beliefs about fertility:

  • Infertile couple might call a shaman, txiv neeb, who might suggest that they sacrifice an animal. He would then perform a ritual to bind the demon that was preventing the baby’s soul from coming to its parents for birth.
  • The Hmong believe that another kind of demon lives in a cave and can make women sterile by having sex with them. (A way of blaming the woman if she can’t have children? Maybe that’s too harsh an interpretation.)

Hmong beliefs about pregnancy:

  • When pregnant, a woman must follow her food cravings. If she doesn’t, her baby might have various defects, such as a blemish or an extra finger.

That seems to be a way in which people can feel more in control and thereby reduce the anxiety of dealing with a world that is somewhat mysterious and unpredictable.

Hmong beliefs about labor:

  • If labor is long, the birth canal might be locked. The mother should drink water in which someone boiled a key. That unlocks the birth canal. It’s a little hard to accept that the Hmong take that belief literally. It seems pretty obviously symbolic. But I wonder if there’s some mystical point there. Something about that belief is nagging at me, telling me that there’s more to it than I see right now. And I suppose that “taking a belief literally” means different things in different cultures. There could also be a “placebo effect” — if the mother believes that drinking the key-water will work, then it does work — because of her belief in it, not because of the key.
  • Except for prayer, the mother must remain silent during labor. Any sound might stop labor or cause it to go wrong somehow.
  • After birth, a woman should not eat or drink any cold foods because it would “make the blood congeal in the womb instead of cleansing it by flowing freely.” She would have itchy skin or diarrhea when she got old.

Many of the Hmong beliefs about fertility, pregnancy, and labor seem to be “useful myths” that help dispel fear by making people feel that they have at least some control over the situation. It’s like today in Western countries, when people pretend that if they just eat right, take vitamins, and exercise, then they will never die. It’s a myth, but if it helps them be happy and follow a healthful lifestyle, then I guess it’s okay.

Every society has its myths — things that we believe without evidence because they make us feel better about ourselves and our lives. Of course, the “myths” can also be true: it’s just that we have no scientific evidence for them. Many things are true for which we have no evidence (just as many things for which we have evidence will eventually turn out to be false).

The placenta is buried under the parents’ bed for a female baby, under the central pillar of the house (“a place of greater honor”) for a male baby; I guess that sexism isn’t an exclusively Western invention. πŸ™‚

In the Hmong language, the word for placenta means “jacket.” Hmong consider the placenta to be clothing that a soul wears into this world at birth and must wear out of this world at death. When a person dies, her/his soul must revisit all the places it has lived until finally returning to its birthplace and donning its placenta to return to the spirit world “beyond the sky.” In that world, it re-unites with its ancestors. Eventually, it will come back to earth to be re-born as a new baby.

Interesting parallel: Death’s journey home and the Western idea of “life review.” The Hmong belief about the soul’s journey after death, to all the places it has lived and finally to its birthplace, sounds like the “life review” that Western people believe in: “When you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes.” Except, of course, that the Western life review starts at the beginning and goes to the end, instead of starting at the end and going backward to the beginning, as the Hmong believe that it does.

  • This, again, points to our common humanity.

OCD Americans and filling out forms: The Hmong usually do not know their exact dates of birth, so they invent dates to satisfy the OCD obsessions of Americans who insist that forms be completely filled out.

The Hmong have strange beliefs about demons living in caves; we have strange beliefs about the sanctity of paperwork.

Illness: The Hmong believe that lots of things can make you sick, some ordinary (such as eating the wrong food) and some supernatural (such as being cursed or a demon sucking your blood). But the most common cause is soul loss. Hmong disagree about how many souls people have, ranging from one to 32. But the most important soul is the life-soul, which is also most prone to get lost.

The tendency of the life-soul to get lost is why in the christening ceremony (they call it the “soul-calling ceremony”), the soul-caller (priest) blesses the baby to ward off illness before each person present ties a string around one of the baby’s wrists to bind the soul to its body.

Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

The Hmong, Education, and Gossip Girl

“Hias cuaj txub kaum txub.”

I thought of that saying (don’t ask me to pronounce it) while I was watching an episode of the teen drama “Gossip Girl.” I don’t know if I should be pleased or alarmed. Maybe a little of both.

The saying comes from the Hmong, people from Southeast Asia, and it means “to speak of all kinds of things.” According to Anne Fadiman in her wonderful book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, it means that everything is connected to everything else. Anne writes:

The Hmong have a phrase, hias cuaj txub kaum txub, which means “to speak of all kinds of things. It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation …

The Spirit Catches You is the “common read” at school this year. Even though I’m not a firstie, the common read books are always worth a serious look. This one is no exception. Its insights come so fast that I can hardly keep up with them.

What made me think of the Hmong saying was a scene in “Gossip Girl” showing a hurtful argument between Serena and Blair, the two central characters of the show. As much as they love/hate each other, they are connected: neither would be the same person without the other. When their relationship changes, they become different people. When their relationship is cut off, both of them suffer.

Our personalities don’t end at the edge of our skin. Part of us is in us, for sure, but part of us is in all the people we know and love, who know and love us. It’s in the people to whom we turn when we have no one else. When those connections are strong, so are we. When those connections are broken, something inside us is broken, too.

Our personalities are also distributed among the people with whom we share experiences. Part of our selves is inherent, but part of them is built from our experiences. Just as our biological families share our DNA, our spiritual families share our life experiences, whether just going to class or being a Big Sister/Little Sister. We are independent people, but also connected: Part of us is in them, and part of them is in us. None of us would be the same person without the others.

The fact that I watch “Gossip Girl” and find myself connecting it to the Hmong and their philosophy shows how much my education has changed me. When I started college, an uncle gave me a book called The Uses of a Liberal Education in which the author, Brand Blanshard, states:

To educate a human mind is not merely to add something to it, but to do something to it. It is to transform it at a vital point, the point where its secret ends reside.Β  (pp. 42-43, “The Uses of a Liberal Education”)

Real education isn’t about getting a good job, as important as that is. It’s about giving us a deeper, more connected view of the world, society, ourselves, other people, and the effects of how we live our lives.

Real education changes you from what you were before. You see the complex in the simple, and the simple in the complex. You see how important it is to do your share in the human project — in knowledge, in love, and in connecting with others. You learn to recognize and bypass the false barriers that we put up to separate ourselves from each other.

I’m not sure that Serena or Blair on “Gossip Girl” would understand. But I’m pretty sure that the Hmong would.

Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

Gossip Girl, Set in Small-Town Manhattan

I was explaining to a friend why I love the “Gossip Girl” TV show, and I suddenly realized something that I haven’t seen anyone else mention:

Even though it’s set in New York City, “Gossip Girl” is a small-town drama.

Think about it. In the small towns where our grandparents and some of our parents grew up, everyone knew everyone else. And everyone talked about everyone else. If someone was having a baby, hooked up with someone, broke up with someone, had a drug problem, or just bought a new dress, everyone heard about it very quickly. There are a lot of old movies and TV shows that deal with exactly that situation.

Now consider “Gossip Girl.” Gossip Girl sends hot gossip to people’s cell phones, so just like in a small town, everyone instantly knows what everyone else is doing.

In one first-season episode, for example, someone saw Serena at a drug store buying a home pregnancy test. Via Gossip Girl, everyone at school instantly knew about it and assumed that Serena was pregnant. Of course, she was actually buying the test for Blair, who she thought was pregnant but in denial. That’s the kind of drama that might have occurred in a small town 50 years ago. The only difference is that the characters on “Gossip Girl” have cell phones and the fashions are better. πŸ™‚

Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.