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Evolution of Illusion: How Biology Bamboozles Believers

brain

We’re being lied to. Our entire species is being repeatedly tricked, constantly misled and most of us are falling for it. We’re tricked into superstition, supernaturalism, and mysticism and not just by scientific ignorance, adherence to tradition or testimony of authority figures (well meaning or otherwise). The fact is that our own makeup betrays us. Some of the very evolutionary adaptations which have allowed our species to survive and thrive also leave us open to drawing false premises, accepting deceiving conclusions and following the leads of others in order to be accepted socially.

Research into how the brain works and why it works the way that it does has led to several theories about how religious thinking came to develop in the human mind. The most widely accepted outlook is that religious attitudes are a by-product of existing cognitive developments which serve other purposes. The “By-product outlook” suggests that a great many of the adaptations which our species evolved in order to survive life on the Serengeti actually combine to make us susceptible to ritual, superstition, mysticism, in short… religion.

Decoupled Cognition is a perfect example of a useful adaptation on which the “mind virus” of religion has piggybacked.  This is our ability to think of something that happened in the past, or that will happen in the future, all while paying close attention to what is happening around us. We are uniquely adapted to evaluate the thoughts and feelings of others who are not directly in front of us.  Decoupled Cognition is the key to social interaction. Imagine if you had to have another person in front of you in order to conceive of what might be happening in their mind! Social interaction as we understand it would be impossible. We all rehearse conversations; imagine the likely responses and others and posit possible outcomes. Our ability to implement a complex interaction with an unseen second party inside our own minds and completely independent of our external reality is key to our social abilities, but it is also a prerequisite for religious thought. Without it the whole enterprise collapses from conception.

Another essential mental development for our survival is what psychologists call Hyperactive Agency Detection Device or HADD. This mental development once served to keep us on our toes, to keep us mindful of the possibility of predators and wary of danger. HADD is the mechanism responsible for human tendency to perceive agency or intelligent intent where there is none. It’s why we mistake shadows for burglars or wonder who slammed the door before we consider that it might have been the wind, and in our animal past it was surely a valuable survival mechanism. After all it’s far better to jump at shadows and flee from the wind than risk the pouncing predator.

HADD allows for and even favors the interference of unseen intelligent agents. In other words we’re hardwired to see design where none exists. If you presuppose an unseen agent where there is none is it that far a leap to the idea that that agent is all-powerful, or that it will grant you wishes if asked? When this trait is combined with the mechanisms which provide our sensitivity to the detection of human-like forms and faces we can begin to see human forms almost anywhere from ghosts and apparitions, to Jesus appearing in food products the world over, The Man in the Moon, or a smiley face in punctuation marks.

Perhaps the most obvious cognitive adaptation that results in religious belief is the human need for attachment. As a species we crave community, acceptance, and fellowship. Neuroscientists studying the brain’s workings today believe that whole networks of neurons in our brains are dedicated to our need for attachment.  Helpless children instinctively seek out a caregiver to help ensure their survival and when they grow the need for attachment manifests as romantic love ensuring the passing of genes and the survival of the species. It also takes place in other adult relationships. Attachment is, in fact, the basis of community.

Just as the attachment centers of our brains urge us to seek relationships with corporeal life forms religious people are attached to their deities. The fact is we never lose our urge to seek a caregiver and religions offer us a caregiver who will provide for all of our needs, love us unconditionally and forgive us any transgression. Most religions are designed to appeal strongly to the most primal and frightened parts of our brains. They offer us a community of like-minded individuals, a sense of safety and security and an all-powerful caregiver figure who will keep the predators at bay. The driving need for attachment is what makes the concept of religion so appealing to begin and also what makes it so difficult to leave.

I’ve only touched on a few of the aspects of our minds which allow for religious and supernatural thinking. There are a great many more adaptations which contribute to the human proclivity toward religion. There are a number of excellent sources out there for more information. I recommend starting with Dr. J. Anderson Thomson’s “why we believe in god(s)” it is a concise and very approachable book on the subject and will serve as an excellent primer. Understanding how our minds work, and why we’re susceptible to the faulty logic, fuzzy reasoning and backward tribalism that results in supernaturalism, mysticism and religious thought is key to fighting it. We grow through exploration, both of the world around us and perhaps more importantly – the world inside us.

Atheism: One Step Toward Salvation.

Stairs

“Do you have anything positive to add? You don’t like god or religion or theism, we get it. Where is your proposal for fostering peace and unity? How does your belief encourage acceptance and connection with our fellow humans? Where are the inclusive ideas that make Atheism better for everyone?”

The above is me paraphrasing something I read recently, though it wasn’t new or unique and I’ve read or heard many versions over the years. It is something Anti-theists, outspoken atheists and non-theists hear a lot of.  The implication that we’re cold angry people mad at the world and content to kick sand out of spite is not an uncommon viewpoint. Unfortunately there are those Atheists out there that actually do fit this view. I’d say however that by and large this depiction of atheists and especially activist atheists is an overly simplistic falsehood maintained to marginalize and dismiss an uncomfortable point of view.

It’s true, I don’t like the ideas of god, religion or theism, but as for “we get it” it doesn’t seem as though you do. I don’t take this stance to rebel or offend. It’s not because I’m an anarchist or due to my corrupted or absent morals, and it certainly isn’t because I imagine myself smarter or in any way superior to the believer. The considerations that make me an atheist are numerous and varied but the primary drive of my anti-theism is the very fact that religion, and indeed all faith, divides, deludes excludes and insulates. I am an atheist because I seek those virtues listed above, and because history demonstrates that faith and religion are the single greatest barriers to acceptance, unity and education that our species has ever faced.

I reject any idea that requires the suspension (or compartmentalization) of critical thought. I distrust any system that can look down on reason as a lesser thing than assertion or faith. I oppose any view which has the inherent ability to allow it’s adherents to pretend that there is some inferiority between the genders, or asserts that a person’s sexual preference marks them out as evil or damaged. Perhaps most importantly I recognize that to decry these acts and attitudes while supporting belief systems that promote and profess them is hypocrisy.

How does atheism promote unity and acceptance you ask? It doesn’t, not on its own anyway. Atheism is a gateway, it’s the path to the acceptance of the fact that there’s no magic secret, no ghost in the machine. At its finest, in my opinion, Atheism should lead to the twin truths of Humanism and Rationalism. It should lead a person to understand that only through the acceptance of evidence, the cultivation of knowledge and the taking of considered and rational action can anything of worth actually be accomplished.

Quite simply acceptance and inclusion are encouraged by accepting responsibility for ourselves and our world and by levelling the playing field, making the criteria for “truth” and “right” the same for everyone. Humanism shows us that we are the architects of our reality; that change, reform, and salvation must come not from some outside source but from ourselves.  Rationalism requires that we open ourselves to accepting reason and science as our guides. By these methods we are more likely to take proactive steps, and come to more uniform and consistent conclusions. Thus we are more in control of our circumstances and more united ideologically. By holding to testable, verifiable truth rather than declared (and utterly subjective) divine revelation, we declare ourselves open to having our views challenged and our conclusions falsified. These ideals can only lead to a more elevated group consciousness and a more cooperative, peaceful coexistence with our fellow humans. When we base our views on reason rather than faith it helps us to see the world for what it is, it allows us to better match our solutions to the actual world.

There are those who advocate pretending beliefs don’t matter or that all opinions and ideas are equally valid and plausible. This is their answer for and guiding our species into the future, to just let anyone think whatever they like and to pretend that beliefs don’t have consequences.  It seems to me however that the best way to unite, uplift and heal our species, and our world is to judge our ideas, our beliefs and our actions by the light of fact and the criteria of reason and commonsense.

Paley’s Watch is Broken

broken watch

A person walking along a beach stumbles upon a watch lying in the sand. Without even knowing what it is this person recognizes that this object is complex and has a purpose and so this person will determine that the watch didn’t spring up by itself it must have a creator. Similarly the universe (or life on this planet) is complex and demonstrates purpose so must have a designer.

     That’s a variation of the Watchmaker Analogy, or the Watchmaker Fallacy depending on which side of the divide you’re on. In 1802 a Christian apologist named William Paley published a book called “Natural Theology” where he laid out his case for the existence of God as the only rational explanation for the existence of life on this planet. The Watchmaker Analogy is Paley’s most famous contribution to apologetics and has survived more than two hundred and ten years despite the fact that it is quite simply riddled with flaws and assumptions.

The idea that someone can determine whether something was designed by a designer simply by observing it is an outright assumption with no factual basis. In reality we recognize a watch as being designed because we are intimately familiar with watches. We know that they don’t occur naturally, we’re familiar with machinery and with the concept of metalwork. Also we know for certain that watchmakers exist. They are an actual verifiable group of people who can be definitively shown to produce watches. The same cannot be said of any universe creator.

We recognize design by its superficial complexity. By that I mean the obvious “unnatural” order that stamps our creations. For instance when you compare an office building to a mountain the artifice, the engineering, in short the design of the building is immediately apparent. This brings up another flaw of Paley’s argument. We recognize design by comparing it to naturally occurring phenomena. According to Paley’s own argument the very complexity of the watch points to its having been designed but one has to ask: complexity when compared to what? The rocks? The trees? The sky?  The watchmaker analogy is attempting to show that all things are designed by comparing the apparent complexity of human creation to the apparent simplicity of natural phenomena. It undercuts its own central thesis.

The Watchmaker Analogy states that complexity requires design and by expansion it declares the obvious truth that design requires a designer. Yet it ignores the simple fact that any designer with the power and ability to design all life on earth (let alone the entire cosmos) must be a being of surpassing complexity in and of itself.  By the logic of the analogy the creator itself would require a creator of its own, as would that creator and so on infinitely.

The analogy is often used to attempt to hold up a specific theology (Christianity, Islam, etc) yet it doesn’t actually make any  attempt to define who or what the designer may be. Even if you accept the Watchmaker in its entirety it doesn’t get you any closer to proving any particular theology. It can, at best, get you to deism. On it’s own Paley’s analogy is insufficient to draw any conclusions whatsoever about the designer. Within the bounds of the analogy there is actually no reason to assume it’s a single designer rather than a series of cooperating entities (for example). The Watchmaker supports equally the idea that reality was formed by an army of magical pixies as it does the idea of any all-powerful monotheistic god.

This analogy has survived as long as it has because it is a clear and concise phrasing of what seems, on its face, like a reasonable supposition. It survived unmolested for almost sixty years until it was completely destroyed by, ironically, a student of Paley’s works named Charles Darwin.  Darwin’s evolution by natural selection showed us (well most of us) that complexity does not in fact require design. It showed us that complexity can and in fact does result from gradual adaptation and mutation over long periods of time. It demonstrated that deity is not necessary and provided an actual answer without the endless regression that the god hypothesis always results in. Despite the efforts of generations of apologists, theists and religious “scientists” natural selection remains the best answer we have ever developed for the “how” of existence while The Watchmaker analogy has become a sound bite for those too invested in their preconceptions to take an honest look at the realities around them

Selling the Dream

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“…And when I sleep I dream of a great discussion with experts and ideas and diction and energy and honesty and when I wake I think “I can sell that”…  ”

The quote is from Jed Bartlet the imaginary President played by Martin Sheen on the TV show “The West Wing.” I think of it every so often because I’ve had the same dream, and because of the way Sheen says the line. There’s an excitement, a longing in the character as he discusses it that I can relate to. The problem is it’s a much harder dream to sell than one would think. It constantly astounds me how many people have no interest in the discussion our fictitious president from above outlines. Ignorance doesn’t astound me, not the run of the mill kind that is simply a lack of knowledge, but the conscious willful type? The kind of intellectual complacency that runs so deep as to not only retard the natural human urge to seek and question but actually deride and dismiss it? I will admit that particular strain of the disease boggles me to no end.

Now I won’t go as far as saying that I feel the debate between atheists and theists is the most important debate we face as a species, after all  we have a great many urgent problems and conflicts that all need to be discussed and worked through just as expeditiously . How to minimize our negative effects on the environment, how to build the just city, how to ensure an honest shot at the promise of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness not just for one group or one country but for every person everywhere. These are just examples of some of the stunningly important and vital conversations that need exploration.

I think of the debate between theists and non-theists as “The Conversation” though, and when I say it in my head I can hear the capital letters.  For me, The Conversation is the longest running and best example of why the other issues mentioned above go unresolved. Only look at how hard some people will work to maintain their ignorance of evolution in favor of creationism, how they’ll stoutly cling to a religious belief even when faced with empirical evidence that points to the strong probability of its being entirely nonsensical. That single example illustrates why we’ve made no significant changes in the way we interact with our environment, even in the face of overwhelming data showing the harm we continue to do.

As a species we’re both incredibly stubborn and incredibly prone to habit. These two things when combined can be mortally detrimental to progress and growth.  When you add to that the fact that most people just do what they’ve always done for no other reason than “because that’s just what you do” and the fact that in both religion and other forms of big business there are bodies of people who control immense fortunes and wield huge amounts of power who actively work to ensure that people won’t evolve in their thinking, it’s astounding that we’ve managed to gain the small progresses forward that we have. That goes for both The Conversation, and our thinking toward the other issues I mentioned.

In 1963 Martin Luther King gave his famous speech about his dream that America would live up to the promise that all men are created equal. Dr King inspired a nation and as a result his dream has come a long way toward being realized. Of course I’m no Dr. King, and I don’t think I’m likely to inspire a social revolution of my own, but like Dr. King I have a dream.

In my dream I see an endless audience, reaching back to the horizon in every direction. People of all races, and creeds, all colours, and social backgrounds, of all levels of material wealth and intellectual ability mingle without distinction or division. There is a buzz of excitement and constructive energy in the air. The world’s greatest minds, thoughtful and educated experts from any number of disciplines, gather before this great host to present and discuss, to share theories and ideas, and outline policies and plans. I see a grand discussion by informed and rational participants based on solid well thought out and well-organized evidences. In the great noise of discovery and exploration the petty self-interested bickering of special interests is washed away. People grow together, united not by fear or ignorance or a need for comforting mythology, but by curiosity and the search for honest to goodness answers. In my dream “right” promotes the best possible good for everyone and “bad” is that which detracts from that best possible good. The careful study of those experts leads to real world action by those in power, and as a result lives are bettered and positive change is realized.  In my dream eyes are opened and blinders cast off. Ancient prejudices, superstitions and artificial boundaries between people melt away in the face of education, understanding, and cooperation. In my dream the thoughtful intelligent work of those first experts spawns exponential cascades of thought study and new research, the boundaries of knowledge are pushed back, the frontiers of understanding are opened up and humankind begins to answer its long-held promise at last. Each new experiment, idea, and discovery ignites a pinprick light; soon those little lights grow to fill and illuminate what was once a vast and daunting darkness. I see a people lifted up, not by the hand of some external god, or on the backs of winged angels. I see a people elevated by its own long ignored ability to band together, to discuss rationally and reach a reasonable accord together, and to overcome the baser, more primitive aspects of our nature.

Unfortunately unlike our imagined president I don’t wake up and think “I can sell that.” I wake and think of the people who are called “Doctor” who believe that the world is only 6000 years old, the parents who refuse treatment for a sick child in favor of prayer, or the college student who straps on a bomb vest in the name of jihad and I despair for the future of the species…

An Issue of Indoctrination

Indoctrination, the word comes up all the time in conversations between theists and non-theists but let’s actually look at it closely; what is indoctrination? Is it necessarily a bad thing? Or is it just a matter of what we indoctrinate people with that’s the problem? Well first things first let’s define the word. Merriam Webster defines indoctrination as follows:

Indoctrination: 1) To instruct especially in fundamentals or rudiments.

2) To imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view, or principle.

So looking at the definitions given one can see that a case could be made, without much difficulty, that there are cases where the first definition of indoctrination is a good and necessary thing. Someone might argue, for instance, that children should be indoctrinated with proper fire safety lessons, proper respect for the dangers associated with sharp objects and the risks of crossing the street.

I disagree with this argument for the simple reason that I personally prefer education over indoctrination in all cases and situations. What is the difference? Well there is, at least to my mind, a huge amount of difference, though it can often be subtle. Indoctrination is, very simply, teaching someone WHAT to think, it is the implantation of sound bites into a person’s head, propaganda. It is “teaching” through repetition and rote without the benefit of multiple viewpoints or considered study. Education on the other hand encourages the person in question to study everything they can from every perspective they can, to take it all in and THEN judge what they’ve learned according to their own intellect, morality, sense of right and wrong and so forth in order to form a worldview.

Religion uses the indoctrination model over the education model for very specific, and quite obvious, reasons. Those reasons boil down to the simple fact that everything we actually KNOW demonstrates that their worldview is often factually wrong and always at the very least highly improbable. If theists were to send their children into schools without any previous indoctrination and allow them to study and learn and draw their own conclusions I honestly believe that the number of theists in the world would drop off sharply, and so do they (that’s why they don’t do it more often). Would they endanger the existence of their various theologies doing so? Sadly, no probably not, because for every person who is freed by study and considered rational thought there are two more who are more than willing to suborn their reason in favor of a collection of comforting promises that no fellow human is actually qualified to give them.

If you look at the growth in atheism and non-theism in the last century there is, I am certain, a correlation between it’s rise and the enhancement of global education systems. It becomes harder and harder to insulate and isolate oneself from the proofs of science and the considerations of reason. Oh it can be done, and as a matter of fact it is done regularly by a great many people but in order to accomplish it you have to do one of two things A) Actively segregate yourself from any topic or content that might challenge or infringe upon your faith (as my wife’s creationist friend who I’ve previously mentioned does) or B) To compartmentalize yourself in such a way that you can accept all of the gifts and truths of science, history, and the other secular disciplines with one part of yourself and with another still fully embrace whatever your particular set of ancient myths, precepts, and strictures are.

This second kind of person is by far the most prevalent form of theist on the planet. This is the personality type of the “religious moderate” who is, in every other facet of their life, a perfectly rational, reasonable, capable and intelligent human being. If you were to insist to this type of person that the local river had spontaneously turned to tomato sauce they would not believe without some sort of evidence, and would tell you so in no uncertain terms and yet at the same time they will admit unapologetically that they subscribe to a system of belief based on nothing more than a two thousand year old collection of writings and an ill-defined personal feeling.

These moderates are as much a product of indoctrination as the less frequent fundamentalist. In the case of the fundamentalist the indoctrination is total, becoming not just the core of their worldview but the entirety of it. There is nothing but the indoctrination. The bible says god hates fags (and it does) and so it is the simple unvarnished truth and, as in the case of the Westboro Baptist Church, the people who believe and spout this ignorant, hateful rubbish will tell you quite unashamedly that they are doing so for your benefit, and even out of their love for you, that you may come to see the truth. As terrible, sad and shocking as this outlook is it’s the moderate group that shocks me more however. Their indoctrination is a more subtle, quiet, and insidious kind. They don’t present the loud mouthed, wild-eyed frenzy of their fundamentalist cousins, they don’t spout the ill-considered rhetoric or shoulder the garish and offensive signage, or even dismiss the benefits of modern technology and medicine yet somewhere inside them there exists an invisible but impermeable wall that no amount of fact, or reason or evidence can penetrate.

Coming back to the question I started with: Is indoctrination necessarily a bad thing? Or is it just a matter of what we indoctrinate people with? For myself, I do think it is always inferior to education for making intelligent, thoughtful, considering people, but then again that’s not really the aim of indoctrination is it? So yes indoctrination is always a bad thing. Encouraging mindless following of any precept or principle regardless of any altruistic or well-meaning intent is, in my opinion, wrong. Indoctrination robs people of the ability to truly learn, it kills the impulse to question, and shrivels the drive to discover. These abilities impulses and drives are the most fundamental right and responsibility we have as human beings and should be treated with more respect.

The Ghosts of Theists’ Future?

                 How we think is, I believe, much more important than what we actually think. The most important aspect of the change in thinking that needs to occur in our society is how we arrive at truth. The importance of critical thinking, of reasoned study, and of rationality cannot be overstated. Superstition, mysticism, and religious thinking are not really the disease; they are merely a symptom of a more serious problem. The human condition seems to consist, at least in part, of an all-consuming desire for easy answers, a need to simplify the complex and deny the unpleasant aspects of our reality at all costs. It is these aspects of the human personality that are the real enemy of progress and true understanding. If these problems are not addressed even the complete abolition of all existing theological systems wouldn’t be a solution. We’d simply find new myths to replace the old.

Imagine a distant future where humanity has forgotten us and our civilization. Where our great cities exist only as ruins and our history is only vaguely and partially recalled. Without an evolution in our thinking it’s all too easy for me to imagine the effects.

Consider what would happen if future archaeologists unearthed ancient documents that depicted an account of a being who descended from the heavens, was raised by human parents, displayed superhuman powers and abilities,  used those abilities to combat evil and protect the innocent, died to protect his people and returned from the dead to continue his struggle.

                     

              Would this story be likely to become the basis of a religion?  Would people be likely to believe these documents even if no other historical source gave them any validity or even mentioned the events in question? I think it is quite likely. What if other digs around the globe turned up more accounts of this being and artifacts related to these tales? Would apologists claim that the sheer amount of things that mention this being serves as proof of its reality regardless of the fact that science and history show no evidence for such a thing?

       

                   Is it likely that people would devote their lives to the idea of this savior and his exploits building massive monuments and congregations in his honor? Could a concept with no objective basis in reality really become so important to people, so pervasive that it would become the basis of entire communities?

           

                Could other finds from history lead the followers of this new religion to have their beliefs tested by others with a different belief system? Would these various groups of followers feel strongly enough about their beliefs to argue and even fight over them?

   VS  

What would be the result of all of this struggling between groups of people who each hold beliefs that have no basis in anything but the interpretation of partial accounts of events that science and reason tell us never actually occurred?

           

                  How do we avoid such a fate? We teach critical thinking, and live according to the principles of logic and reason. Require a rational basis for the things you believe. Find out about the realities of existence, find out why things are the way they are rather than just accepting someone else’s interpretation of fragmentary source material. Judge your beliefs not according to whether they’re comforting but according to their validity in the face of the reality around you. In a nutshell, question, study, explore and always challenge your conclusions.

Apologize for Apologetics

The following a a piece of a Facebook conversation I had recently with a theist arguing for the historicity of the bible. I got caught up in other things at the time and didn’t respond to it but some of the things in it have been gnawing at my brain for a couple of days now so I’ve decided to respond to it here.

The point is that people are evil by nature, mixing whatever they want to believe about the world good or bad. We all need to push on purpose (and I would argue divine intervention) to be decent people or by default we end up justifying our own selfishness. Next…the criteria for historicity. 1- Supporting docs. 2-Conflicting docs. 3- time after event info is recorded. The bible not only meets this standard but is the best example of the ancient world. Go look it up, I’m not writing as much as you guys. Homer, Alexander the great’s biography, Julius Caesar and so on…all considered rock solid with anywhere from 10 to 643 supporting docs and written 400 to 1000 years later. The new testament alone has over 24000 supporting docs and were written 15 to 40 years after the fact and some by eye witnesses. I’ll even give you 70 – 100 years if you want because that’s a common claim but the writings clearly talk about life in Jerusalem before the destruction in 70 AD. Either way, to doubt the historicity of the bible is to do so based on an irrational bias and not on scientific historicity (partially quoting EM Blaiklock). Historians around the world don’t seem to have the problems you’re having with the bible. In fact, it has been said by many that if the bible was considered a secular writing, this discussion would never come up. As far as extra biblical sources there are plenty. Some you have named (good job) but there are many others talking about the life, death and even the Resurrection and the expansion of Christianity as if it is common knowledge. Some were considered enemies of Christianity  You know what we don’t find are writings disputing these events though.

First off the major problem with the opening of this comment would seem to be obvious, if people are evil by nature, as this comment’s author states, and we are the creation of a god who created us in it’s image then it follows that an evil god created us as evil beings on purpose. While I’m sure this isn’t the position the author would take, it would explain quite a lot about the measurable effects of  Christian Theism on the history and sociology of the world. If you assert that god is real, and god is perfect the idea that god is evil does fill in quite a lot of the logical holes that pop up when you propose that god is real, benevolent and perfect.

That wasn’t my major problem with the comment though, that was just an interesting aside. The major problem is with the argument for historicity. The author’s criteria for historicity are correct. He’s also correct when he says there is a huge amount of extra-biblical writing regarding Jesus, the New Testament, and the spread of Christianity. Where the problem is is that he’s making this an argument for the veracity of the biblical account based on these things. The problems with these assertions are huge. First, there are no first hand accounts of the events laid out in the bible. They were all written at at least second hand years after the events in question. Second,  the extra-biblical accounts of Christ are all at least a century after the fact. Most of them are simply reporting rumors and talk, and most importantly  just because a non-biblical source mentions that there was talk of a person called Jesus who’d built a following and was credited with miracles doesn’t mean that that author is saying that the talk is true. Third, corruption by the christian church of extra-biblical accounts specifically to create the image of historicity. Almost every extra-biblical account of Christianity from Josephus on has had allegations of interpolation by later Christians. When combined with the fact that Christians spent  hundreds of years and millions of man hours hunting down and destroying “heretical” documents is it any surprise that there are no period documents “disputing these events”?

Finally, comparing the historicity  of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to that of the bible is just madness. Both Alexander and Julius Caesar were well documented humans who (and this is the important part) are credited with completely human and probable (if extraordinary) accomplishments. Comparing the terrestrial accomplishments of  exceptional human beings with the catalogue  of magic myth and superstition laid out in the bible is insanity. If there were an account of Julius Caesar taking a spear in the chest, pulling it free and then summoning lightning to destroy his enemies I would require a great deal more evidence than I do to accept the history as it is laid out. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The amount and quality of evidence needed to be convincing is directly related to the extraordinary nature of the claim. If I read a single account of Queen Elizabeth travelling from London to  Cairo in an airplane I’d be willing to accept it. If I read the same account but the airplane was replaced by a flying horse I’d be less likely to accept the story, regardless of how many authors mentioned the fact that the original account existed or talked about the growing masses of people who’d accepted the account.

This comment embodies, to me, the very worst aspects of Christian Apologetics. It combines a touch of factual statement and understanding of reality with the usual religious supposition, distortion and faith to create an argument that on it’s surface seems rational, well considered and probable.

I appreciate the fact that this isn’t my best post to date, I apologize to the reader but I just had to get this out of my head. Thank you so much for your patience. I promise better in the future.

Just a Quick Rant

I have a great many beefs with the theistic way of thinking, I can’t help it, it’s just the way that I’m built, but there are only really two reasons that make me feel the need to speak out against it. The first is that it is simply too dangerous, in this day and age, to allow any system of belief that not only allows but requires a suspension of rational inquiry, and even a suspension of secular moral judgement in favor of some “higher” mandate. As Christopher Hitchens liked to say “The suicide bombing community is entirely religious.” In my view it is not alright for people to believe whatever they want, not when what you believe requires you to act in a way that is detrimental to others.

When someone has a physiological imbalance that causes them to act in dangerous ways they are treated or at least sequestered away from the healthy population. When someone has a psychological problem that causes anti-social behaviors they are treated with drugs in order to bring them back to the realm of the real, yet there are absolutely no constraints on a person’s philosophical outlooks. You’re absolutely free to believe whatever you want to, even when it can be demonstrated that those beliefs themselves are the root cause of various inequities, bigotries, falsehoods, and in a great many cases even acts of great violence. I’ve said this before but I think that at our current state of technological ability we’ve lost the right to maintain our illusions about existence. Can anyone really argue that the world is made safer by the practice of religion? Can anyone really say that the world is more united by it’ various faith systems?

My second major beef with theistic thinking is this: It makes otherwise intelligent people say and do incredibly stupid things. Here are a couple of recent examples:

http://www.arktimes.com/ArkansasBlog/archives/2012/10/08/republican-candidate-fuqua-endorses-death-penalty-for-rebellious-children

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/06/paul-broun-evolution-big-bang_n_1944808.html?ncid=webmail1&utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false

http://thinkprogress.org/election/2012/10/09/975021/arkansas-state-rep-if-slavery-were-so-god-awful-why-didnt-jesus-or-paul-condemn-it/

In each of these examples you’ve got educated, accomplished people, all of them either holding a place in or seeking election into, the government of their nation and yet every one of them holds terribly bigoted, hateful, and verifiably  false things as absolute truth and right for no other reason than because it says so in their holy book. Paul Broun is a doctor, and a member of congress’s house science and technology committee. This incredibly educated, and one has to believe, mostly rational human being professes to believe that the planet is only 9000 years old, and that the theory of evolution by natural selection is “a lie from the pit of hell.”  Loy Mauch, a state rep from Arkansas makes a case FOR slavery, his position based solely on the fact that his bible has NOT ONE WORD to say against the practice. Mr. Fuqua is in favor of the biblical law which requires that rebellious children be stoned to death! These are only three examples. There are many more, from the woman who kills her child because “god told her to.” To the nation that declares “holy” war against the infidel because they are mandated to spread their faith.

Theistic thinking is a breeding ground for falsehood, bigotry, and hate. It is a block to unity and progress, and a danger to every man woman and child on this planet. As a justification for monstrosity, ignorance and atrocity it is unparalleled in history. It is a system of thought in which rational argument and discussion are made impossible and truth becomes so subjective as to have no valuable definition.  It’s the conversation between children where one asks “why” and the other says “because” on endless loop.

I honestly and fervently believe that the only hope for mankind to survive and grow as a species is for us to put aside our fables and wishes and approach the world from a place of reason and rationality. To concern ourselves with the world we live in and the fellow creatures we share it with should be the only goal of a united humanity. We should point all of our energies toward enhancing the experience of living in this world for everyone and stop concerning ourselves so much with otherworldly claims rooted in the natural human fear of death and the unknown. We only get one life, shouldn’t we spend it more fruitfully than concerning ourselves with the wishes and dictates of supernatural creatures that more than likely aren’t there anyway?

A Letter to Humanity

 Dear Brothers and Sisters.

Please forgive the presumption of my writing to you as a group but there are just a few things I have to get off of my chest. I grow daily more concerned and alarmed with the state of our world and so I’ve decided to address myself to you, my fellow citizens of earth. It is my (likely misguided) hope that perhaps my single voice might generate a thoughtful pause, a calm moment of rational introspection in what appears to me to be a widespread and tumultuous orgy of self destructive, unreasoning, thoughtless chaos.

Right now, as I write this there are religious extremists in the Middle East rioting and killing people because another group of religious extremists here in North America made a video mocking the Muslims’ prophet. In retaliation for this “grave offense” these Muslim faithful have already had days of protests, angry riots, public violence and destruction of property. Here at home debates surge about what constitutes freedom of speech, whether people should be allowed to make this type of movie, and whether or not this movie constitutes a hate crime.

In Nigeria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Israel, and many other places around the world there is violence right now. Violence started, fueled, or at least exacerbated by religion in one form or another. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that a great deal of this conflict has roots other than religion, indeed religion and religious sentiment is often used for political and financial purposes but there’s a reason for that, and that reason is: BECAUSE IT WORKS! BECAUSE YOU LET THEM DO IT! The vast majority of you out there believe in a system with no objective basis, a system so open to interpretation and corruption that it can be used to justify anything at all!

I know, I know, a great many of you can’t read, and haven’t had any education whatsoever except in whatever your particular god demands of you. I understand your faith, you have nothing else, and no reason to believe thereis anything else. What about the rest of you? What about those who do have access to knowledge and information, the ones not forced by starvation and ignorance into the glorification of nonsense? What’s your excuse?

There are places in the western (so-called) civilized world right now where text books teach that the Loch Ness monster is real and what’s more that its reality “proves” the falsehood of the theory of evolution. There are educated people in my own part of our benighted globe that believe they have the right to deny basic human rights to a segment of our population because their stated sexual preference is in opposition to the teachings of ancient “holy” books. Important life-saving research in the area of stem cells is consistently blocked by religious groups because the material needed to do the research is judged by them to be life, regardless of the fact that said material is in no way viable as life. Contraception and abortion are anathema because only “god” gets to choose when life occurs or doesn’t. These issues are only the tip of a large and senseless iceberg.

I am an Atheist, but more importantly I’m a Humanist. I can’t prove absolutely that the deity you believe in doesn’t exist but ultimately that is immaterial. I think it’s apparent that your particular deity isn’t going to fix the massive problems of our world so I ask you this: Please, for your own sakes and indeed for all our sakes, put down the old books, get up off your kneelers and prayer mats, and let’s focus on the secular world for a little while. Let’s start acting as though we are one species, not many disparate enclaves composed of “the righteous” and everyone else.  There are roughly seven billion of us on this tiny blue dot in the universe. We have capabilities and powers of creation and destruction undreamed of by the ancient prophets , perhaps it’s time to stop worrying about what happens in the “next world” and start concerning ourselves more seriously with this one. Who is really harmed by a movie maker’s opinion? Who is harmed by same sex couples? Who is harmed by allowing a woman to make her own choices about her body? No one!

I beg the following things of you: Please act as though this is the only world you’ve got. Turn your energies toward making it a more peaceful, more united, less divisive place to live.  Act as if you yourself are responsible for the betterment of the world; don’t expect supernatural intervention or support.  Forget what you think you know about the origins of the world and of life and find out what we can prove is true. Educate yourselves, fight for the education of others. Put the ghosts and spirits of yesterday from your mind and focus on tomorrow. Lets deal with what we know is real and true. I think you’ll find that once we put aside the divisions and prejudices and biases engendered by our various “faiths” we’ll be several steps closer to the paradise promised, but never delivered, by those systems.

Thank you for your attention.

Yours in Reason

Adam.