Toastmaster Speech #1 - The Ice Breaker

[while pointing to imaginary newspaper]
"This is SO ME!!... again"
"And this one also. !"

Those were my words one October 2nd morning when I was first shown my birth certificate. I was a bit over 14 years old, the age when Romanian teenagers need to apply for ID cards. My grandmother took me aside and told me:

Grandma: Dan, I need to tell you something. September 2nd is not your birthday, it's October 2nd.
Me: WHAT?!
Grandma: Listen. The cut-off date to start kindergarten was September 15th. So I told them that your birthday was September 2nd, and since I wasn't sure that you weren't going to just tell everyone otherwise, I started to tell you that your birthday was September 2nd. But don't worry, Dan, you were so ready to start school, and it saved me a lot of trouble with our teacher neighbor you used to annoy with your crazy questions. Like "Why is the sky blue?!". Now be a good boy, go to school, and you'll have a re-run of your birthday tonight, with cake and all!

The first thing I did in the break after the first class was to get the local newspaper and look at my trusted new horoscope. I had been a Virgo and had read my horoscope for years, and IT WAS SO ME! Now I was a boring Libra, but when I read my horoscope, it was again, SO ME. !? I read Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, and they were all SO ME! I got a national newspaper. Leo, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn - there I was again!

What was this? A massive industry of deception? People were actually guiding their lives based on horoscopes that applied to everyone, and equally dubious biorhythms. If your "intellectual" was at a low, you'd skip a job interview. If you were a guy and your "emotional" was high, you'd hit on all the women in sight. And resort to a cheesy old pickup line because your "intellectual" was low.

That was an eye-opening moment. It was the start of my journey towards truth, and away from superstition and unsupported beliefs. I started reading critically about astrology. I read that the reason why our lives are supposed to be influenced by the stars is the subtle gravitational attraction between their mass and our brains at the moment of birth. However, other people pointed that given the enormous distances to those stars, the mass of the maternity building exercised a much greater influence. The beauty about this last statement was that it was verifiable: all I had to do was to use Newton's law of universal gravitation, and look up the estimated mass of a typical star and hospital building. I did the calculations. It was true.

I found out that the biorhythm theory for some reason rarely matched the days when victims had accidents or heart attacks. The Backster effect - plants reacting on a polygraph test when a human was about to burn their leaves - was proven untrue, and never properly replicated. Satanic backward messages in rock music were little more than practical jokes. Chain letters compelling you to forward them to become incredibly lucky in 10 days, or else die a horrible death - now really, who would believe those? Yet, there were enough people who would. A 2007 Harris poll showed that among Americans, 41% believed in ghosts, 29% believed in astrology, and 21% believed in reincarnation. It became increasingly clear to me that the popularity of a belief had nothing to do with its validity. The next step was predictable: what were the most popular beliefs? Religion and God.

I had been raised an Eastern Orthodox, and had gone to church regularly, although I didn't exactly know why. I was just doing what I was told. Until I realized that the popularity of worshiping an unseen being had nothing to do with said being actually existing. Rather, if you think about a supposedly all-powerful and all-loving deity, what stops Him from preventing a big chunk of the evil in the world? Yet evil exists. I was wondering: how vast would a catastrophe have to be to shake the world's faith? The Holocaust didn't do it. Neither did the genocide in Rwanda. 500 million people died of smallpox at the beginning of the century, including millions of infants. At this point, which is more likely? That there is an all-powerful and all-loving God who doesn't care about genocide and infant deaths, yet concerns Himself with issues such as gay marriage? Or that there is no God?

I don't believe in God. I believe in life, love and passion. I don't believe in a religion. I believe in reason, learning and community. I don't believe in an afterlife. I believed that when we die, we die. Which makes THIS life, here on Earth, much more precious and worth fighting for! Let's make the most of it!

Note: the "wrong birthdate" story was inspired by Julia Sweeney's excellent TED talk Letting Go of God. The other events depicted in this talk have indeed happened to me.

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