Saturday, June 14, 2014

CRAIG EDWARD KELSO, Witness for Jehovah

Fester was a neat guy.

He was given that handle due to his uncanny resemblance to the Addams Family television program character. Lunky, chubby, and naturally geeky he committed a crime white geeks often do, and for that he was sent to state prison for nearly a decade. Still in his late 20s, early 30s, Fester lumbered around the yard with his copy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publication, Watchtower, trying to interest fellow inmates in what the group chauvinistically refers to as The Truth. Who would not be compelled to find The Truth? 

Gosh, not me. 

A family on the outside was convinced all I needed was a good pointing in the right direction, and that direction was the Witnesses. The gal who wrote me for a while was a sweetie, but ultimately she was intellectually lost and very impressionable. She believed whatever was in fashion, and whatever the guy she liked happened to believe. So she swung from crazy ideas like the JWs to kooky self-help gurus, and even dabbled in toothy Protestant preachers with goofy quotes … to out-and-out atheism (Voltaire struck her as particularly profound, for some reason). She never stuck to anything for long, but having been raised in The Truth she would continually return to the JWs and then lovingly attempt to push me that way as well. I humored her and her family because they at least took the time to write. My heart was never really into it, as I’d long since abandoned religion and religiosity (I told her this all the time, but she was way too self-centered to really care what I thought about anything). But the serendipity of events, her writing me and sharing JW publications and Fester’s approach to me on the yard, peaked my curiosity.

Hey, it was something to do.

Fortuitously, Fester handed me a JW publication on evolution. I think it’s fair to say that even though the JWs fall flat on theological grounds in their attempt to influence the mainstream, their views on evolution ARE more or less in accord with pseudo-science and the average American’s understanding of evolution. It isn’t that people hold JW ideas about evolution necessarily, it just happens that both are in large agreement, in accord. I hope that makes sense. In any case, reading the JW booklet on evolution provoked laughter, riotous laughter, from me almost instantly. How do I put this? The arguments were base, banal, and curiously brain-washy. The article’s UNnamed author continued to ask the same question over and over, allowing the reader to drown in the JWs assumptions. There wasn’t even the hint of debate. It was very much a sales pitch in the manner of a 1950s vacuum door-to-door salesman.

I handed the booklet back to Fester, asking rhetorically, Have you ever bothered to read Darwin or any of the biological works following him for the last 150 years? A lot has gone on, you know: mapping of the human genome, antibiotics, etc. Are you aware of formal science at all?

Blank stare.

Say what you want about the Roman Catholic Church, but they’re not anti-intellectual nor anti-science. Some of the best scientists ever have worn priestly vestments. And when I dabbled in Catholicism, it was this cosmopolitan outlook and air that kept me interested even when the theology got a little thick for my liking. Chances are, if I ask an ordained Catholic churchman the same questions, he’d be able to hold a nice conversation, perhaps challenging my assumptions on stem cell research and so forth.

Intellectually, the average JW was about as well put together as a Mexican Space Shuttle. Hahahahaha.

Oi vey.

Fester had absolutely no defense. To his credit, he said so. And that golly gee, aw shucks attitude is what a lot of JWs rely upon to get them over the hill when speaking with an intellectual superior. When they’re stuck, they say things like, I may not be the smartest guy, but Christ never praised intelligence, and so on. It’s our heart condition, etc., etc. Nice stuff, but horseshit of the most odiferous sort.

One instant confusion for the JWs, and for lay persons generally, when it comes to evolution is the false dichotomy of design/intelligent design or chance. Throughout all of the JWs publication, over and over, the phantom article’s author kept asking if such-and-such animal or plant, after having been described thoroughly in the JWs’ estimation, could have been a product of chance. Leading the reader along, it wasn’t too hard to guess the right answer. Design. Intelligent Design. It must be! These wonderful flora and fauna could not have been assembled … in the same way an airplane couldn’t just become assembled by chance. The only acceptable alternative? You guessed it, design.


That means, logically, a Designer. God! Of course!

Now, of course, that does not mean the God of the JWs. No. But that was less important to the JWs for this pamphlet. Most people reading it would already be inclined toward Christianity (thanks to the Roman Catholic Church having done the heavy-lifting for nearly two thousand years before the JWs fragmented their way into nominal organizational existence), and so all the JWs had to do was piggy back on the hard work of mainstream Christianity, and the reader would do the rest. And thanks to the outrageously hideous science education in American public schools, the JWs were also the beneficiaries of widespread evolution illiteracy. The combination is intellectually lethal. A credulous, lost person, like the poor gal who wrote me for a while, would latch onto the JWs with all her might.

Here is where I inserted a little intellectual anarchism, to paraphrase Russell, into the JWs tidy scheme.

Okay, there’s a Designer. That’s on the surface satisfying, I’ll grant. But then, if the JWs are stepping into the ring of logical inference, deduction, and induction, then doesn’t it follow that a Designer Himself has a Designer? And then, still further, on and on into infinite regress? Logical absurdity? Doesn’t the Designer insertion over chance become UNsatisfying?

I waited for a response. Nothing.

The JWs could not follow me. I understood why. It is because they’d not read Darwin’s elegant, sublime (to me, anyway), solution: Natural Selection.

Darwin solved the riddle.

The choice was not between design and chance. It was between a Designer and Natural Selection.

Logically, a Designer doesn’t hold water (as I just showed), and Natural Selection has been proven as a mechanism over and over and over again. It might be safe to argue nearly all of medical science as we understand it rests on Darwinian assumptions (pray all you want for Jehovah’s intercession, but more often than not you’re going to ingest antibiotics). Sure, much of what Darwin postulated he got wrong. That is good science. But the core of what he found holds true as much today as ever. There is considerable debate within biology about Darwinian ideas, but the foundation is firm.

Evolution is no longer a theory in the sense of it being a fringe idea. It is an established fact, and the details and evidence for it are overwhelming.

Game. Set. Match. Winner? Chuck D, baby.

And Darwinian assumptions have flooded into all the empirical sciences, from astronomy to cosmology to physics and chemistry. Psychology has made its greatest scientific gains as it embraces the biological sciences steeped in Darwinism. The debate is over, folks. No one seriously considers the JW argument any longer. No one. No one, that is, except for the average American public school graduate. Hahahahaha. But, thank your non-existent god, the average grad can’t really even read … so not to worry. Hahahaha.

Fester was a good, good dude. And I really didn’t seek to make a convert of him. To be honest, the JWs kept him in line – as they did the gal (without the JWs telling her what to do, she went nuts). Much as I hate it, much as I see it as a complete abdication of what it means to be fully human, such controls do work for some people. Heartbreaking. All I wanted to do was keen Fester in on the ways of 21st century science. It’s so fucking unbelievably exciting, and it was a shame how Fester was missing out on incredible discoveries during his lifetime (he hadn’t known about the genome’s mapping, and he didn’t even know about the genome). I had Crick and Watson’s paper (it’s only a page or so long) sent to me, outlining their ideas of the double helix. I read it with Fester, and I pointed out the beauty, the awe by which they made their arguments. I then used that as the jumping-off point to give him a synopsis of the Venter versus Collins drama of the 90s (during the rush to be the first to map a mostly-complete human genome).

He appreciated my efforts, I think.

Truthfully, if he were a good JW, he would have shunned me instantly. INSTANTLY. They’re not allowed to read apostate literature, and I can only imagine the type of junk I was feeding poor Fester fell into that amorphous category. But because we were behind the walls, the JW inside had a bit more freedom (ironic, no?). Fester could playfully dabble without the fear of another JW storm trooper catching him.

The long hours, hours and hours, Fester and I spent walking the track of the prison’s yard were ones well spent. I was able to exercise parts of brain left dormant for quite some time, and Fester’s questions were so good, so basic, that they also helped me to better hone my dying analytical skills.

A dude in my housing unit was taking a basic symbolic logic course, and I asked to borrow the textbook. Out I brought it to Fester during our daily constitutionals, and I introduced him to syllogism, fallacies, and the glory of an Aristotelian mind. Fester ate it up.

He’s still there, and I felt a twinge (a very, very small one) of sadness when I left that gorgeous Sunday morning. And sometimes, when I am out and among the living, I think of Fester and the walking dead of the California state prison system. It took at least two horrific events (his arrest and mine) to bring us together, to bring me into contact with him. He chose to retreat away from life as a result of his incarceration. He clothed himself in the safety of Big Daddy Jehovah. I didn’t, of course. I left that world months and months before my formal fall, returning to my lifelong love (rationalism), but here we were: exchanging ideas on the most profound questions of life. Here I was, teaching again.

I am not sure who got the better end of our relationship.

And I mean it.


Craig Edward Kelso is the author of Anarcho-Capitalism (2014), a primer on the philosophy of peaceful, stateless cooperation. His curriculum vitae include a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from San Diego State University, and a Post-Baccalaureate secondary education credential in both Social Science and English Language Arts. Kelso taught for nearly a decade in the American public school system, and was voted by colleagues Teacher of the Year, twice in his short tenure, earning numerous accolades from chambers of commerce, mayors, state assembly persons, governors, congresspersons, senators, and even Wal-Mart. Currently he struggles to earn an opportunity to be employed, working as a laborer, dishwasher. He is deliriously happily married to Myra Kelso, living in Southern California with their adorable children. 

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