The Commencement Address No One Asked Me To Give

The below guest post was written by Matt Shipman, a science writer and father of three who lives in Raleigh. You can follow Matt on Twitter at @ShipLives or connect with him here on Google+.

Driving home from work recently, I heard a story on the radio about commencement addresses.

This made me wonder what sort of commencement address I would give, in the unlikely event that anyone asked me to give one. I think it would go something like this---

Greetings, graduates!

I am not going to spend a lot of time talking about whether you are special.

Some of you are probably special, or will be; most of you, by definition, aren’t. But (and here’s the thing), even if I said that none of you are special, every single one of you would think that you were the exception. See how normal you are?

Your class is also diverse: men and women of different races, cultures, religions, sexual orientations, and fields of study. What on Earth can I say that’s relevant to all of you?

Here it is: don’t be an asshole.

I am entirely sincere when I say that.

It sounds obvious, yet every day an astonishing number of people fail to follow that simple advice. So allow me to suggest some useful tips.

Be kind. Say please and thank you. Do nice things for people. (But don’t expect anything in return, or get in a snit if no one thanks you – if you do those things, you’re being an asshole.)

Now, being nice can be tricky. If you start running up to strangers and offering to help them, they may assume that you are planning to mug them.

So here’s an example of something nice you can do that will rarely scare other people: if you’re ever in line at the grocery store and the person behind you has a screaming child on their hands, offer to let them go ahead of you. They may not take you up on the offer, but they’ll probably appreciate it.

That’s about it.

Oh, and you should also work hard, engage in critical thinking, appreciate the roles of innovation and scientific research in economic development, and try to understand (though not necessarily admire) the perspectives of other people.

But mostly, don’t be an asshole.


One of those Inevitable Facebook Debates: Religion, Agnosticism, Time & Space

I recently had one of those inevitable FB discussions with some right-wing conservative Christians in which I was lumped in with atheists. I tried to explain that my lack of religion is no more a rejection of a deity than an independent voter's lack of party association is a rejection of government.
Here's part of that discussion in which I explain how my appreciation for the vastness of time and space tends to make it difficult for me to accept any form of religion as we know it:

Many people don't quite understand why people make a conscious decision to not identify with or follow a particular religion -- or no religion at all. Most of us did not reach this point without a great deal of contemplation. Many of us simply can't reconcile any of the existing religions with our understanding of the cosmos -- not with good conscience, anyway. We are not bad people. Morality can and does exist outside of religion.
13.8 billion years condensed into a calendar year
There have been many belief systems throughout time (and possibly throughout the cosmos by other intelligent beings millions of light years away from us), and there will be many other belief systems, possibly arising long after our likely inevitable extinction.
To discount such an acknowledgment is to deny the realities of the history of the cosmos and any and all life within it. We're a tiny blip on the timeline of the cosmos, as well as on the map of the cosmos, which contains at least 300 sextillion suns. That is a 3 followed by 23 zeros.
Perspective is a good thing.
I don't deny the existence of a deity. I simply acknowledge the reality of the vastness of time and space, and logic dictates that one religion which has only existed for a very brief sliver of time on one of billions (trillions, more?) of potential life-supporting planets, is probably not the one 'true' brand of religion. If it is, it's a very strange thing for a deity to do -- to drop a needle in an infinite haystack -- the one needle that will guarantee eternal life -- yet it is only available to the tiniest sliver of living beings (and only a portion of those, since many of them follow another religion due to geographical and historical influences, heritage, etc.), who happen to live on this one very extra-special planet (one of sextillions, likely many more) during an incredibly minuscule sliver of time -- also, let's drop this nugget on a small group of isolated desert-dwelling people who don't (can't) write things down.
If you were a deity, that would maybe be the absolute worst way possible to inform a cosmos (which you created) about your existence. It's hard to imagine that a deity, if he/she/it exists, would be that short-sighted, or that bad at marketing him/herself.
And if a deity made it possible for me to think logically about these things and it led me to being open-minded about the possibility of other paths of being a moral creature in this world, and I honestly gave it a good go for a good decade and a half, and continue to be as moral and ethical as I was then, why would he/she/it punish me eternally? Wouldn't he/she/it appreciate a well lived life of philosophical contemplation, empathy, and a determination to reduce suffering?