The benefits of religious diversity: a case study

My move to Fort Collins brought me into the heart of a social group that is quite unfamiliar to me. My roommate is an atheist and a skeptic, as are his boyfriend and his brother (my other roommate). All of this means that atheism and skepticism (not the same thing, but two related movements) have been a lot more on my radar than they used to be.

It’s a curious position for me to be in, because while I disagree with very few of the principles these people hold–I don’t practice any religion, I think science is a good thing, and I don’t really believe in God, per se–my worldview continually comes into conflict with theirs.

It’s mostly a result of my education, I think. My family would like to believe that college turned me into a godless liberal–in most cases, that’s simply untrue, but it is true that my liberal arts education is at least somewhat responsible for the fact that I am, when all other labels fail (and they usually do), a relativist. Basically, it really matters very little to me whether I believe the same things that you do–in fact, I feel like the world is a better place because you believe different things than I do. I care a lot less about Truth than I do about the richness that results from a world in which different people believe different, crazy, beautiful things.

That last bit is the part that drives my skeptic friends crazy. What kind of crazy person will outright announce that they don’t care what’s true?

I’m never quite sure how to respond. It’s been hard to work up a defense, because I’m . . . simply not troubled by the fact that Truth doesn’t matter that much to me. I’m still working on fine tuning my defense. But, while I’m working that out, I’d like to offer up a case study.

Howard and Sandra Tayler are the creative machine behind the very successful webcomic Schlock Mercenary. The comic has updated continuously (every single day without fail) for ten years. A few years ago, Howard quit his corporate job, and now Schlock Mercenary is what supports their family. They have four children, and they are Mormon.

Now, Schlock Mercenary is not a very Mormon comic, in my opinion. By that, I don’t mean that it’s full of things Mormons would object to–not at all. But, you know how you can pick up practically any book that Orson Scott Card has ever written, and just smell the LDS wafting off it? Schlock Mercenary doesn’t have that.

But this comic is a full time job, and not an easy one. You only have to spend a little time on Sandra Tayler’s blog to get a sense of what a massive undertaking it is. It isn’t easy being self-employed in a creative field. It’s even more challenging to do so while attempting to raise four children and keep a healthy marriage. But all indications are that the Taylers have been successful on all fronts.

Now, could a secular couple in the same situation succeed? Absolutely. I’m not trying to say that religion is sine qua non here. But, this kind of creative partnership, especially one that demands so much from both members, cannot help but benefit from the peace and strength that Howard and Sandra draw from their religion.

That’s not something I’m making up, either. Have a look at this recent interview with the couple. It’s intended for Mormon audiences, but I think that helps provide a better sense of how their faith matters to them. (They tend to be very tactful when discussing their faith before mixed audiences. They don’t preach–in fact, they just plain don’t talk about it all that much, at least online. In my opinion, their lives give a far better testimony than any preaching, anyway.)

Sometimes, atheists like to imply–or, hell, outright state–that the world would be better without religion. (I feel like I should make it clear that that’s a general “atheists”, not, say, my roommate, with whom I have had numerous very interesting and challenging discussions about the merits of religion.) That anything that’s good with religion would be better without it. That the drawbacks of religion far outweigh the benefits.

I say, maybe more of us would be better off like the Taylers.

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Found story: All from a sweater

I’ve worked at Walmart for the last six months. Yesterday was my last day. It was a terrible job in many ways, but one thing I did love was gathering stories and characters–fleeting glimpses of people that stuck with me. I think of them as found stories. Mostly, I see just a brief image–an Asian woman, herding her tiny, round grey-haired mother into the store, or a man with wild grey hair and a wild grey beard and his all fingernails rotted away–but every once in a while, to my delight I get more details.

The other day, an older gentleman came up to me from the pharmacy and asked to borrow a pen so that he could write down his blood pressure. He was just turning to go when I asked, rather unexpectedly, “Did someone make that sweater for you?”

The sweater in question looked to have been made out of bright blue Red Heart Super Saver–solid, except for a couple stripes made out of matching variegated blue yarn. It had a crocheted hem and button band, and a zipper. There was a bit of dried food crusted onto the button band, by the zipper. It was obviously handmade, but also quite well constructed. It’s pretty rare to see someone in my town wearing a handknit sweater, so I felt it was worth asking.

I had to repeat myself before he understood, but then he brightened and told me his wife had made it; she’s Navajo, and her craftmanship, he told me, is superb.

I smiled, and told him it was a beautiful sweater. And then, I don’t know what it was, but he started talking to me.

He told me that because of his wife’s handiwork is so fine, he hasn’t needed a belt in thirty years. He used to teach school, and he favored jumpsuits, which his wife made for him. He saw her making them, once, and realized that she made the pants and top separately and sewed them together, so he asked her if she couldn’t make them out of different materials, so it looked like a normal shirt and pants.

So, he went around for all those years wearing jumpsuits that looked like normal clothing. He told me, people used to say, “How is it that Mr. Queen is the only teacher here whose shirttails are always tucked in?”

He told me how he earned the respect of the people on the reservation by eating their food without disgust or disdain. They would invite teachers into their homes, and feed them. One of the things they fed them was blood pudding–the other teachers would refuse to eat it, but he ate it.

(I could have told him how I had a similar experience, how I was initiated into my Vietnamese family over a dish of congealed duck blood, but it didn’t feel right to talk about myself; he was on a roll, and I was enjoying listening.)

The other teachers justified their refusal to eat it by saying that the Bible says not to eat blood. But, he told me, most people don’t understand what it means to be Christian. He took on an instructional tone. There are only two principles at the heart of Christianity, he told me. He asked me if I knew Matthew 6:14. I confessed that I didn’t.

Matthew 6:14, he told me, says that if you forgive, you’ll be forgiven. That’s all. And if you don’t forgive, you won’t be. That’s the first principle at the heart of Christianity. The second is love your neighbor as yourself. Those are the only things that actually matter.

I nodded, and listened. His Christianity had its heart in a very different place than the Christianity I grew up with, and I liked his quite a lot more. The Christianity I knew said that it didn’t matter what you did, you were condemned if you didn’t confess Jesus as savior. In his, though, there was more emphasis on attitude and action. It would have made my Sunday School teachers shake their heads, but I liked it.

He was clean-shaven, but he had long, wild, grey eyebrows, like down feathers, and his eyes leaked tears as he talked; not from emotion, he told me, but because he has a disease (his word) that makes his eyes tear up at odd moments. Every so often, he’d reach up and wipe a tear away from the weathered skin under his eyes.

I listened to him until I had to step away to help someone else, and before he left, he thanked me for talking to him. It was good, for once, to listen to someone else instead of talking about myself. I came away from the conversation with little pearls of beauty, and I think he appreciated having an welcoming ear for a few minutes on a Sunday afternoon in Walmart.

A wordy post on yarn identification

So, one of the coolest and most challenging things about my recent stash adventure was determining what the yarns were made out of, and, when I could, what yarns they were and who manufactured them.

A lot of them still had the ball bands and tags, so that was pretty easy. Everything that was mostly intact and still had a tag went into my Ravelry stash, so if you have a Ravelry account, you can see them–mostly with photos!–here. (And if you don’t have a Ravelry account, you’re probably not an obsessive knitter, so you wouldn’t find that interesting anyway. No worries!)

And there was also this:

That there is a large collection of ball bands and tags. Each one has a scrap of the yarn wrapped around it, to make it easier to match the tag to the yarn. Many of them even have notes saying where they were purchased, or what project they were meant for.

I mean, dude, I didn’t think ANY knitter was that organized. Personally, I let my ball bands fall into the desk drawer where I keep my knitting, and every so often I clean out the drawer and throw them away. (I don’t feel too bad about this–my living situation is unstable enough that I can’t afford to store things like sacks full of ball bands.)

Still, even with all this information at hand, there was a lot of yarn that was not instantly identifiable. And since I was sorting for fiber content–I knit almost exclusively with natural fibers, so anything acrylic went into the “donate” pile–I had to figure things out.

Now, I’m pretty good at judging fiber content by touch. For example:

In this photo (click to embiggen! I just love that word, embiggen), we have three different yarns, all fingering weight tan mohair-style yarns.

The two on the ends have ball bands. The two in the center do not. Now, the ball bands tell me that the ball on the far left is 100% acrylic, and the one on the far right is a mohair blend (Sears Blend 131, 50% mohair, 50% acrylic, to be precise).

My fingers tell me the rest. It’s pretty obvious that the ball second from the right is exactly the same yarn as the Sears Blend 131. So, at this point, it’s that ball second from the left that’s still in question.

The photo exaggerates the colors, but in person, these balls are all almost exactly the same color. But that ball second from the left has the unmistakable soft hand and plastic-y feel of an acrylic yarn. You probably know the feeling–if you go in Walmart or Target and finger one of those incredibly soft, vaguely fuzzy cardigans, that’s what we’re looking at here. (Don’t be taken in, though! They’re soft at first, but as they wear, that fine brushed finish on the yarn will go pilly, and it will become more and more obvious that your sweater is made out of plastic.)

So, there were the yarns that I could instantly sort just by touching them. But, not ALL acrylic yarns are super-soft–some are quite rough to the touch. (Incidentally, not all wool yarns are scratchy. That’s a common misconception.)

So, in the cases where ball bands were absent, and my sense of touch failed me, I turned to the most awesome method ever: the burn test.

Essentially, the burn test involves literally lighting small samples of yarn on fire. I know, right? How awesome is that? You can tell a lot about a yarn by burning a bit of it and observing how it burns, how it smells, etc. There are details here, but basically, wool smells like burning hair and self-extinguishes when removed from flame; acrylic melts, burns quickly, and reeks of burning plastic.

Of course, things get complicated in the case of blends–and if I couldn’t judge the fiber content by touching it, chances are good it was a blend–but the test is good enough to at least give me an idea of which is more prominent, the wool or the acrylic.

(I wasn’t worried about cotton and other fibers, here–cotton is VERY easy to pick out by touch, and there isn’t really any way I know of to tell animal fibers apart in a burn test–sheep wool vs. mohair vs. alpaca, say. All I really cared about was whether it was an animal fiber or not.)

There were actually quite a few nice acrylic yarns in this stash–there were more than a dozen balls of that yarn second from the left above, in various colors–but since I very, very much prefer knitting with and wearing natural fibers, and since I’m very low on space right now, all the acrylic went into the donate pile, even the nice stuff.

There’s a local alternative school that’s collecting yarn to teach the kids to crochet–I think they’re making blankets for Haiti–and that’s where it’ll be going. (Admittedly, I personally think Haiti is probably better served by monetary donations at the moment, but I think it’s good for the kids to learn a new skill and to get involved in a charity work, and hey, the blankets can’t hurt anything.)