There Are No Sides Because The Earth Is Round

(originally published in: http://www.sunstar.com.ph/davao/opinion/2013/03/22/uyboco-freethinking-me-274152)

Photo by zenpixel
Photo by zenpixel

One of the very first things ingrained to me when I was young was not to question my beliefs (or the beliefs handed down to me). There was one God and the Bible was his Word – divinely inspired and without error. I grew up in a family, church and community that sincerely believed, taught and lived out this truth. In fact, I would like to say that those who know me should in no way feel that they have been inadequate or that they are somehow at fault for the way I am now.

Before I was 10, I had already learned to defend my faith. Against my wishes, my dad enrolled me in the Ateneo for Grade 1, instead of the church-run school where most of my friends were, because it was too far from where we lived and therefore inconvenient to their daily routine. Perhaps he was confident in his ability to raise a Protestant son who went to a Catholic school.

After all, he lived by example, served his church wholeheartedly as an elder, and would quote the Bible to us when he wanted to teach us something important. Every day, he would wake us all up early in the morning and we would sit in a small circle. We would each take turns reading verses from the bible passage of the day.

My dad would then expound on that verse and give a mini-sermon. After that, we would kneel down and pray and each of us would have to utter a few words, not memorized, but from our hearts.

I remember coming home from school one day, eager to show something new that I had just learned. Before dinner, I led the prayer and made the sign of the cross. My dad promptly, but gently, told me that we don’t do that, and I got my first lesson in how my belief was different from almost all the others in my school.

And so the battle-lines were drawn. I resolved to learn all I could about my particular belief so that I could better defend myself in the “hostile” environment I was in. I listened intently in Sunday School. I participated in church activities like fellowships and Bible Quizzes and would marvel at the older kids who seemed to know a lot and I tried to emulate them.

I learned to read at an early age, and found a number of books in our house that talked about how to defend ourselves against Roman Catholicism, and I devoured these and memorized the arguments and the verses that countered them.

The Christian Life Education (or CLE) classes we had, however, rarely dealt with the topics I read about in my books, but rather focused on doctrines commonly held by both Protestants and Catholics alike — Jesus as the Savior, the Trinity, Original Sin, Loving Others, and so on. So I had no opportunity to show my teacher where he or she was “wrong” without waylaying the topic and looking like a total jerk.

I think I was around 12 when I gathered a couple of friends and went to challenge an old priest about why it was wrong to pray to Mary. I found Fr. Brugger seated on one of the stone benches overlooking the “front field” as we called it. I asked him, “Father, why do we need to pray to Mary?” I hoped to bait him into one of the arguments presented in a book I had just read, and planned to use certain verses to show why praying to Mary was idolatry and why it was a sin to do so.

His answer caught me off-guard, “You know, my boy, we don’t really need to. Some people just find it comforting to do so. It’s like talking to a friend who knows someone really important. But sure, you can talk directly to Jesus if you want.”

While I was still collecting my wits on how to convert this seeming stalemate into a win, he said something else, “You know what? People think that prayer is about you talking and talking and talking to God. But prayer is really about listening. When I pray, I just sit still, close my eyes and listen to what God is trying to tell me.”

And that totally floored me. I had no arguments against that. So I mumbled my thanks and left. I learned then that perhaps there was more to this whole thing than “Us versus Them.” That they are not the
“enemies,” as I always thought they were, and that it was very possible to have meaningful discourse and dialogue that leads to better understanding across beliefs and cultures.

We are all humans, after all, and there are no sides because the earth is round and the universe is vast.

*****

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. You may email him at andy@freethinking.me, but if you just want to point out that earth isn’t actually round but spherical, well, I already know that.

False Dichotomies

Photo by GiniMiniGi
Photo by GiniMiniGi

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a dichotomy as “a division into two especially mutually exclusive or contradictory groups or entities.”

If we were playing chess, for example, you would either be black or white. If you were black, then I would be white, and vice versa. There is no ambiguity about it. The simplicity of it appeals to our minds because it provides a neat and tidy solution to a dilemma.

Many people like to make statements and arguments that present a dichotomy, then proceed to demolish the other position, thereby leaving their chosen position the only logical choice to make.

Reality, however, is not quite so neat and tidy. If one digs deeper, one can find alternatives other than the arguments presented. Hollywood director, Ridley Scott, once said, “Life isn’t black and white. It’s a million gray areas, don’t you find?”

Heroes and Villains

I believe we acquired this black-and-white thinking from the stories of our childhood where characters are neatly divided into heroes and villains – Prince Charming vs. the Witch-Queen, or the X-Men vs. the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, or Dora vs. Swiper, or Harry Potter vs. Lord Voldemort and so on.

Look at Filipino soap operas which usually features a rich and bitchy amo (master or mistress) vs. the poor, downtrodden servant or employee.

These stories have conditioned our minds to think that people are either good or evil. Some Catholic bishops have used this in their Team Patay – Team Buhay campaign, cleanly (and unfairly, if I may add) dividing political candidates solely based on their position in the RH Bill.

These are false dichotomies and we must be wary about them. Learn to look for alternatives. Life is usually not just about two choices but many more. Just because a person has made bad decisions in the past does not mean he is a bad person. But we are often so comfortable with black and white thinking or we are simply too lazy or judgmental and we rarely think outside the box anymore.

Pascal’s Wager (And What’s Wrong With It)

French Mathematician and Philosopher, Blaise Pascal, made a statement known as Pascal’s Wager which goes like this: Either God exists or he doesn’t. If God actually exists, then believers have infinitely more to gain (eternal life) and nonbelievers have infinitely more to lose (eternal punishment).  However, if God does not exist, both believers and nonbelievers will have lost only something finite (some temporary pleasure or gain in this life). Since there is greater gain in believing in God, it makes more sense to believe in Him than not to.

Many people still use this kind of thinking to justify belief in God. But let me show you why this is a false dichotomy and why the choice may not be as simple as you think.

First, it assumes the word “God” refers to the Christian definition of God (as Pascal was reportedly a Christian). But what if in reality, “God” is not the Christian God at all and the Muslims happen to be right, or the Deists, or Hindus, or Pantheists, or Zoroasters, or the ancient Greeks? Then you would still go to whatever “hell” this god has decided because you placed your bet on the wrong one.

Second, it assumes that the afterlife refers to a Christian view of the afterlife (heaven or hell). But what if it were the Buddhist concept of reincarnation and Nirvana? What if the ancient Chinese have it right and that you would bring your riches with you? They make and burn model houses and paper money so that the one who died would have these comforts in heaven. Or what if there were no afterlife at all and this life we have is our only shot?

The appeal of a dichotomy is that it makes thinking easier because you only have to analyze between two alternatives, but it is often not a reflection of reality.

Worry and Faith

I saw a Facebook meme going around a few of my friends’ walls which says, “There isn’t enough room in your mind for worry and faith. You must decide which one will live there.”

Sounds like a perfectly good quote to “like”. But I replied on one wall and said, “Reason, please show both of them out the door.”

Life offers so much more than two choices, and for that I am glad.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. You may either email him at andy@freethinking.me, or not. But that doesn’t mean you can’t treat him for lunch.

Market Madness

(This article was originally published here: http://www.sunstar.com.ph/davao/opinion/2013/03/07/uyboco-market-madness-271797)

Since the beginning of the year, the stock market has hit record highs 23 times – and we are just 67 days into 2013. This has sparked a lot of interest in the stock market and investing. People dive into the market at the advice of friends, relatives, bankers, brokers or business associates.

Many people go in not knowing exactly how it works. All they might know is that their kumpare or kumare put in some money a few months back and it has now doubled in value. Some people simply trust their broker or financial adviser. “Basta ikaw na bahala diyan ha, di ko naiintindihan yan e (I trust you to take care of it since I don’t understand it).” Perhaps they are hoping that the stock market is some sort of magic box where you put one peso in and two pesos comes out.

This type of thinking is what drives the market to go crazy, especially when more and more people start thinking this way. The Law of Supply and Demand starts driving prices up. Since more people want to buy shares of stock, the ones who have them can now sell at higher prices and this keeps going until it becomes so insanely high that nobody is willing to buy at that price anymore. Then reality hits and the market comes crashing back down.

When it does, those who lose the most money are usually the noisiest. They lament and vow never to enter the stock market again. They strongly caution others against it, saying it’s a scam or that it’s manipulated by politicians and the uber-rich.

But these are people who do not understand and did not take the time and effort to understand what the stock market is all about. Think about it. Someone lost a lot of money, but that money went to the pockets of someone else. There was money lost, but there was also money gained.

And those who gained do not trumpet the fact. That is why you read of people who went bankrupt in market crashes, but you rarely hear stories of those who did well, and there are always those who did well. They have studied for this. They have prepared for this, and they quietly go about their business, weathering the storm, waiting for the market to go crazy again.

At the heart of it, one must learn how to value things. As a software analyst, I can tell when a piece of software is worth the price you’re paying for, or if it’s just junk. Years of experience and study have honed my skills in looking at usability, interface design, functionality and so on.

Sadly, many people go into the stock market not knowing the value of the stock they are buying. They simply go with what is popular, with what others are buying, or they blindly take advice from others. Some even just base their decisions on the stock price. For example, if company A is selling at P100 per share and company B is selling at P10 per share. Do you go for A or B?

Whichever one you choose, you chose wrongly because the information I gave is not enough. B is not necessarily better because the price is cheaper. When you buy a share of stock, you are buying a piece of the underlying business. So ultimately you must learn how to value businesses. Suppose you find out that company A earns the equivalent of P200 per share and company B earns P1 per share – then by all means, buy as much as possible of company A because it is at a bargain.

It does not take a genius to understand how to invest. All it takes is the willingness to spend time and learn, the ability to use a calculator (or spreadsheet), and a huge dose of common sense. If you like to read, look for “The Intelligent Investor” by Benjamin Graham. If you like to discuss and talk, I have started a blog and facebook group for this. Go to http://themoneytree.biz or http://facebook.com/groups/themoneytreebiz.

My hope is that less people succumb to emotions and bad decisions, and learn to use reason to make money during the madness.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. You may email him at andy@freethinking.me, but don’t ask for money.

Are You Your Label?

image courtesty of awfullibrarybooks.net
image courtesy of awfullibrarybooks.net

Before, when people asked if I was a Christian, I would say “Yes” and this person would say that he was a Christian too, and we would talk happily away until I found out that he belonged to a particular sect that ours didn’t really consider as Christian. In fact, we considered his sect as a cult or group that had gone astray. I would slowly find myself trying to extricate myself from the conversation as my distaste for his group turned into a dislike for his person – for no other reason than his association with them.

When I started questioning my faith and made those questions public in my blog, some people would ask, “So are you an atheist? Are you agnostic? Are you a Buddhist?” It was complicated. So instead of saying yes or no, I would find myself explaining what I was going through at the moment.

I didn’t want to adopt any label because I knew once I did that, people would immediately see the label and judge me according to it.

But I am not just the label.

I ended up shunning labels and I refused to wear one. Are you an atheist? No. Are you a Christian? No. What are you then? I don’t know. I’m me. Listen to my story. How could I possibly put all my doubts and questions into one word? How could I compress all my experiences into three or four syllables?

I detested labels so much that I didn’t even bother finding out about what each meant. There were so many – deist, pantheist, hedonist, secularist, humanist, skeptic, nihilist, anarchist, and so on. For me, they were just useless ornaments that didn’t mean a thing. I wanted to come to the truth on my own terms and not hide behind the stock definitions of a label.

However as I got to talk to more and more people, it became quite tiresome for me to have to explain myself in such a lengthy manner. People often aren’t ready to listen to a 10-minute speech when they ask, so what do you believe?

So I began to rethink labels and to give them more careful study. I learned their basic definitions, their nuances and the philosophies behind them. And I slowly began to appreciate their value. They served as an efficient method to communicate your belief without boring everyone to death with your life story.

But my initial hesitation with labels also has value. Now, when someone tells me he’s an atheist, I don’t immediately assume certain things about him. Whereas before, the word “atheist” for me meant a creature akin to the antichrist, a character totally devoid of morals, now, the only thing I can assume is that this person holds no belief in a god, or gods. But there is really nothing more I can say beyond that.

Just as you don’t judge books by their covers, so you shouldn’t judge people by their labels. The label is just the starting point. You have to really talk to the person to understand what he or she is all about.  The label simply provides a common ground – a way to get the conversation going. And this applies to any label, not just religious ones.

So before you judge someone for being Catholic, Baptist, Muslim or INC, or black, white or brown, or businessman, employee, doctor or OFW, remember that there is a very real person behind that label – a person who could very well be just like you.

—–

This piece originally appeared in SunStar Davao (March 5, 2013) but was not published online.

Earth and Sun

“IF THE earth were 10 feet closer to the sun, we would all burn to death. And if it were 10 feet further out, we would all freeze.”

Fact or Fiction?

I have seen this posted around the internet, and in the past, have heard quite a few speakers tout this “fact” as a testament to the precision and perfection of God’s design in creation. The listeners are astounded and nod their heads in agreement to the wonder of it all.

The wonder of it all, however, is how this statement can even be believable if we apply a little reason.

If it were true that we would burn if we were 10 feet closer to the sun, there shouldn’t be any buildings taller than 10 feet. There shouldn’t even be skyscrapers, and we shouldn’t we flying in airplanes going 30,000 feet up in the air. Astronauts flying up to the moon should look like burnt bacon by the time they came down again.

Elementary science teaches us that the earth orbits the sun in the shape of an ellipse. Think of an oval-shaped fried egg sunny-side-up with the yolk slightly off-center. That’s what it looks like. That means there are months when the earth is close to the sun and there are months when it is farther away.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The earth is closest to the sun in January, a distance of 147 million kilometers. It is farthest in July, with a distance of 152 million kilometers. That’s a difference of around 5 million kilometers, certainly more than plus or minus 10 feet, so God probably gives himself a greater margin of error than most people do.

People rarely take time to verify what they read or hear, especially if it comes from an authoritative figure or is delivered in a confident manner. For example, a number of you would probably not bother checking if the figures I gave above are correct.

Note also the proliferation of email, Facebook and Twitter scams. How many companies have been victims of smear campaigns? How many people have been falsely thought to have died? How many have been tricked into sending their bank details or even cash to strangers? How many have shared those photos of malnourished children with the hope that Facebook would donate $1 for every click?

Freethought and Me

I discovered the term “freethinker” around 3 years ago through the group Filipino Freethinkers (www.filipinofreethinkers.org). At first glance, I thought the term meant that you were free to think whatever you want and nobody would bother you about it.

I later on discovered that freethinking or freethought is a method of forming ideas and opinions based on reason, logic, experimentation and observable evidence, as opposed to simply accepting them from authority, dogma or tradition. Freethinking doesn’t mean that you can think whatever you want, no matter what.

It means, rather, that you have done some research, reasoning or experimentation in formulating your ideas. It is an attitude of healthy skepticism and doubt, of not immediately believing everything you see or hear without double-checking first.

This kind of thinking emerged in modern times at the turn of the 17th century when people began to look for natural explanations at how the world works instead of holding to superstition and blind belief in people who held positions of power and prominence, for example, those in church or government.

But an ancient advocate of freethought is no less than Gautama Buddha, as recorded in the GhandavyuhaSutra , where he says “Monks and scholars must not accept my teaching merely out of respect for me, but they must analyze and check it the way a goldsmith analyzes gold, by rubbing, cutting and melting it.”

So if this appeals to you as it does to me, then happy rubbing, cutting, and melting!

Welcome to Freethinking Me.

This article originally appears in: http://www.sunstar.com.ph/davao/opinion/2013/02/22/uyboco-earth-and-sun-269510

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