Blog Archives

Moderate Theism: A Defense of Self-Delusion

delusion

Whenever a non-theist points out the less than stellar history of religion, whenever its past (or present) crimes and prejudices are mentioned it’s defenders and followers tend to respond with objections like “Well I’ve never tortured anyone!” or “I don’t know anyone who’s for killing homosexuals!”  These apologists act as though their personal enlightenment of attitude somehow cleanses their faith of its responsibility for and history of atrocity, bigotry, prejudice, purposeful spreading of misinformation, and the fostering of ignorance.

The fact of the matter is that most religions, and certainly all of the Abrahamic faiths, contain in their holiest and most central texts specific injunctions to do violence, spread hatred, foster division.  The core teachings of these religions justify and even demand the judgement, segregation and often persecution of those who do not believe and practice in exactly the same way as everyone else.  Any objective reading of the three main texts of the Abrahamic faiths bares this fact out.

The enlightened attitude of the modern moderate theist cannot cleanse their faiths of the evils done at their insistence and in their names because regardless of the intellectual gymnastics used to reinterpret the teachings over the centuries the teachings haven’t changed. The modern moderations in attitude that make the continual reinterpretation and apologetics necessary  are not a result of the graces and glories of faith but rather they are the result of the advancement of secular morality, the evolution of societal ethics. As we grow as people our morality and attitudes evolve our laws advance and society grows, and while all of this happens religion remains unapologetically unchanged.

As an example, was it the teachings of Christ or Muhammad that taught us the evils of slavery? No, in fact neither holy personage seems to have had any problem with the practice at all. Did the bible or the quran declare women the equal of men in society and grant them equal protections under the law? No of course not, in fact both texts demand precisely the opposite treatment for women. Yet today slavery is almost universally viewed as an abomination and all modern moral systems recognize the female as the equal of her male counterpart.   It was secular lawmakers and society as a whole who banded together to demand equality for all people, and in the cases of both slavery and sexual equality they were (and in some cases still are) adamantly, and sometimes violently, opposed by the followers of the world’s three largest and most powerful religions.

The primary problem with the outlook of the modern moderate theist is this:  it is not possible to be a moderate theist without dismissing or ignoring certain passages and ideas of their faith. One cannot honestly profess to believe in the teachings of the bible and simultaneously approve of gay rights. Just as it is not possible to honestly believe that the Quran is the perfect word and will of god while deploring the killing of the infidel and championing the equality of women. In each case the propositions are mutually exclusive. If you honestly believe the bible is the manual for human morality then homosexuality is actually demonstrably a purposeful evil that is worthy of a grizzly death. If that aspect of the teachings is unworthy of devotion what makes the rest of it better, and if the moral standard comes from the book itself how are you determining which parts of that book to follow?

The attitude of the modern moderate theist seems to require either an atmosphere of purposeful ignorance as to what their faith entails or an environment of institutionalized lack of conviction which allows them to dismiss those teachings they find unpleasant while clinging to the remainder as absolute Truth.

To defend religion by saying “Well I’ve never stoned a homosexual!” or “I’ve never tortured anyone is roughly the same as a Clansman who says “I only belong for the sense of community, I’m not into all that cross burning stuff.” Or “You can’t judge us all! I’ve never lynched anyone!” A moderate theist acts as a collaborator in the crimes and prejudices of their fundamentalist cousins. By using their labels, displaying their emblems or defending their beliefs they give tacit approval to their chosen group’s stated beliefs, all of them. As well they give power and cover to the fundamentalists they profess to deplore. It is the droves of moderate theists who give the fundamentalists their power, it’s the unthinking devotion to these outdated traditions by otherwise modern intelligent people  that makes it impossible to deal with the root of the problem of fundamentalism.

We can only profit from the discarding of the outdated taboos, prejudices and rituals of long dead ancient cultures that enslave so many of us even today. We have surpassed the teachings of the ancient prophets in every area from our knowledge of the world and the wider universe to the morals and ethics which guide our society.  The fact is that the strictures and biases of these ancient mythologies only survive through ignorance, prejudice and most often apathy.

So Mr. Moderate Believer it’s true you probably haven’t stoned a rape victim or bombed an abortion clinic. You’ve probably never dragged a family from their home and killed them because of how or whom they worship but you DO support and defend a system of thinking that not only allows but demands these things. To pretend that the violence, hatred, and division that riddle the history of theism are a perversion of religion is to betray a fundamental lack of understanding of the specific demands of faith. To cling to the form and ritual of faith and dismiss the substance is worse than hypocrisy, it is to smile delightedly at the pretty colours of the flames while a fire consumes your house.

Advertisements

Wrong Again Religion!

marriage

I’ve noticed a growing trend of Christians complaining about being “attacked” for their beliefs about the “sanctity” of what they call “traditional marriage”. My first impulse is to point out the fact that Christianity is not the oppressed minority under siege from a massive and powerful conspiracy to destroy and deny it its rights. It is not the victim in this situation, but the victimizer.  I’ve tried that tack however and had very little success with it so I’m going to try something a little different.

Since I’m trying to build an argument to make Christians understand, it seems only right to start with the bible. It is, after all, the Christian instruction manual for life; it must contain their concept of “Traditional Marriage” and lay it out plainly, right?

Shockingly however, in the Bible, marriage is not limited to a consensual union between one man and one woman. There are, in fact, any number of acceptable forms of marriage laid out in the pages of the Bible and most forms of marriage it mentions don’t even require both parties to consent! Not only is consent not required but there are SEVERAL variations of non-consensual marriage.

Genesis tells us of Judah, who forced the wife of his dead son to marry and sleep with his other son. (Genesis 38:6-10)  In Deuteronomy 21 we learn that soldiers who are attracted to enemy women are allowed to take them as their wives so long as the soldier in question waits a month between taking her and raping her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-13) In the next chapter we learn that rape is considered an acceptable form of marriage proposal so long as the man is willing to pay his victim/fiance’s father the required fifty shekels. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) and in Exodus we learn that a master can force his slaves to marry regardless of their will. (Exodus 21:4)

However the Bible isn’t all non-consensual rape marriages, as I said it is open to many interpretations of nuptials. For instance, according to the Bible, Yahweh has no problem with polyamorous or polygamous relationships. According to (1 Kings 11:1-3), King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Christians today make the claim that God punished Solomon for his polygamy, yet the fact is the Bible says quite plainly that Solomon was punished for marrying foreign women who lead him to worship other gods (1 Kings 11:1-2, 9-10). According to  (1Chronicles 3) King David had seven wives. Regardless of modern spin on the situation both men are generally regarded as paragons of scripture and high in god’s favour, and nowhere in the text is there any question about whether their version of marriage was a correct one.

Christian apologists will tell you that Jesus defined marriage in (Matthew 19:4-6) “Haven’t you read, he replied, that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh So they are no longer two, but one flesh.’ Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” yet this is not a definition. Christ never condemned the previously mentioned forms of marriage or said that this was the only acceptable form of union. At most what you’ve got here is yet another form of marriage in the text further demonstrating the elasticity of the term in the scriptures. And a careful reading of the passage and his concluding statement “let no one separate” reveals that Jesus’ primary intent in those verses was to forbid divorce—something which modern Christians readily ignore.

There is, I assure you, much more than can be said on the subject of biblical marriage but suffice it to say that the modern conception of consensual one-man-one-woman marriage is, by the lights of the Bible, a new and radical departure from what the fathers of the faith would call a traditional marriage.

As for why conservative Christian views come under scrutiny from secular society the answer to that is simple. When one looks back through history the positions of conservative Christianity are, almost without exception, horrendously  backward and bigoted positions based largely on personal bias, ignorance, and of course selective interpretation of the scriptures. Let’s look at some examples.

SLAVERY

Perhaps the most striking example of conservative Christianity’s failure to evolve with the times is the conservative defence and fostering of the practice of slavery. The abolition movement met constant and often violent opposition from the faithful when it came to the question of freedom for slaves in America and England. The Reverend Alexander Campbell one of the founders of the Restoration Movement famously  said: “There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral.”

That is an opinion that was shared by Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of the Confederate States of America as evidenced by the following quote:

“Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency of the arts.”

                How did they justify this position you ask? They turned to the ultimate authority on law and morality of course. They delved into their bibles and came up with examples like the following to show that God wanted slaves right where they were.

 “Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” Genesis 16:9

“There were still people left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perrizzites, Hevites, and Jebusites. Solomon conscripted the descendants of all these people remaining in the land whom the Israelites could not exterminate to serve as slave labor. As it is to this day”  1 Kings 9: 20-21

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.” Ephesians 6:5-8

WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE

Female equality in our society was a long fought battle that met with strong opposition from both men and women. One of the groups strongest in their opposition to this equality was, inevitably , Conservative Christianity. The idea being that it was unnatural and sinful for women to reach above the subservient, weaker position they’d been given by god. This position, they assured us, was upheld by holy scripture and they used bible verses like those that follow to anchor their prejudice.

 “For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”  1 Corinthians 11:8-9

 “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands.” 2 Timothy 3:1-7

                Now I hear the Christians screaming “There were Christians fighting for suffrage and abolition too!!” and they’re right. There absolutely were Christians working for abolition and suffrage, and their work would have gone a whole lot easier if it hadn’t been for the Parties of God pretending they have some unique understanding of morality or private warrant to decide “right” for all mankind.

I’ve written it before and I’ll likely write it again. Religion provides no unique benefits to the world, it does how ever have unique pitfalls which make it an unnecessary and dangerous extravagance. The Christian viewpoint has been on the wrong side of every major social change in history. The “gay marriage debate” shouldn’t be a debate. Once again the bible has provided, as it always does, a justification to cling to outdated stigmas and stereotypes. The rest of us, secular society, will once again drag you kicking and screaming toward modern morality and basic humanistic consideration for your fellow humans. We’ll do it because you don’t get to choose how we live, and when we’re done and we’ve finished all the work you can all sit around and declare that, just like the Church freed the slaves and gave women the vote,  the Church brought equality to “the gays”.

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

Pascal’s Wager…A Sucker’s Bet.

pw

“Why not believe in god? If you’re wrong and he’s real you go to hell whereas if you believe and he’s not you lose nothing.” Does this sound familiar? How about “I’d rather believe and go to heaven then chance eternity in hell.”? Ever heard that one before? I bet you have. These are modern variations on a principal of theological philosophy called “Pascal’s Wager” and variations on the wager have been kicking around since Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées” was published in 1669.

The wager as written by Pascal is a little over five hundred words so I won’t share the whole thing but at it’s core Pascal’s principal is this: God is unknowable, reason can tell us nothing of the existence of god and so one is forced to make a wager, a coin flip one way or another. If you pick belief and you’re right you get the ultimate reward: Heaven. If you pick belief and you’re wrong you lose nothing. Conversely if you choose disbelief and you’re right nothing happens but if you’re wrong you get eternal damnation and torment. So according to Pascal’s treatment the best thing to do is to choose to believe. (Or even to feign belief in order to prevent the possibility of eternal damnation, but I’ll come back to that.)
There are a great many flaws with the position of Mr. Pascal and his latter-day adherents. I would like to hope that is obvious from the outset, yet I know for some that is not at all the case. I will attempt to lay out some of the more glaring problems with the kind of thinking advocated by Monsieur Pascal here in the hopes of clarifying the issues. The first problem I see, by no means the most glaring problem, just the first that occurs to me, is that this kind of thinking seems to imply that we are free to choose what we believe and don’t.

Our belief is not entirely subject to our will. Belief is “Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.” You do not choose what to believe, what you believe is a combination of your mental capabilities, education, social environment and psychological needs. Either a given precept is plausible to you or it’s not. If this were not the case you wouldn’t hear “de-conversion” stories where the subject says they were no longer capable of believing despite their wish that that was not the case. Nor would you hear testimony from Atheists and Agnostics who say they wish they could believe but just cannot.

Mr. Pascal’s advice to these people is, in effect, “fake it til you make it”. That one should feign belief in order to avoid hell:

“You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it…. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.” Pensées Section III note 233, Translation by W. F. Trotter

Here it would seem that Pascal is either a) trying to dupe his own All-powerful all knowing deity or b) simply trying to devise a way of making the disbeliever quiet and docile. Regardless of which option you choose this line of thought is inherently dishonest. It also completely dismisses the idea of a creator who rewards intellectual integrity and honesty. I think this demonstrates the character (or lack thereof) of Pascal’s god. That such an entity would prefer feigned devotion to honest doubt is very telling about this supposed entity.

Also this presents an oversimplified version of the choice in question. It pretends that the choices are limited to belief or disbelief, as if there is only a single conception of “god”. There have been thousands of religions and tens of thousands of gods. A great many of them are jealous and demanding gods who require complete and exactly proper shows of devotion and who punish failure with grisly (and often eternal) punishments. How is one to choose which god, goddess etc to worship? The simple truth of the matter is that if the god hypothesis is true there is still not enough reliable information out there to make your “coin flip” a sure thing. As Homer Simpson famously put it:

“What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”

Taken into account these simple facts make it no safer to be a professed believer in ANY one faith than to be a disbeliever in all of them. Yes you may believe in Yahweh with all your heart but what if Olympus is watching? You’re already signed over your afterlife to eternity in Tartarus. Also when you note that even Jesus himself did not preach of an eternally torturing hell, only a permanent death for the unrighteous, and that the idea of an eternal “Hell” is a later addition to one specific mythology, the whole absurdity of Pascal’s Wager truly reveals itself.

Perhaps the largest problem with this “wager” and its modern offshoots is the idea that belief is free, a zero cost proposition; this is quite simply not true. We have only one life that we can be certain of, spending any of its finite amount of time in contemplation or discussion of this being is a cost, giving of your money to this being’s organizations is a cost. Most importantly though the disagreements between the various sects of believers and between believers and disbelievers, the conflicts, struggles wars, and social problems these disagreements lead to are most assuredly a cost. Belief costs lives; it costs quality of life, freedom and unity. The price of belief is the suspension of self determination, the abdication of personal responsibility, and the subornation of intellect. The cost put simply is that we must prostrate ourselves before an entity that there is no reason to believe exists in order to stave off a punishment there is no good reason to expect.

Pascal’s Wager is a not so cleverly veiled threat. It demands belief (or at least conformity and the miming of belief) in order to stave off eternal torment. It is an effort to silence dissenting opinions, theological bullying. More than that it is a blatant oversimplification of a much more complex issue, propaganda for a being that Pascal himself admits is unknowable, before going on to say quite certainly who and how that being is.

Atheism is Impolite

227

Atheism is impolite. We’ve all heard some variation on this idea whether it’s “Atheists are rude” or “Atheists are overly aggressive.” Or “Atheists have something to prove.” Most often you’ll get this from theists who are threatened by the conversation or from some non-theists; those who have no particular faith but disapprove of discussion and debate on the subject. What I find most difficult and frustrating about this position is that it’s not actually wrong. That they aren’t wrong isn’t especially frustrating, the frustrating part is that it’s only so because the religious have somehow managed to change the rules of discourse. They’ve managed construct a social bulwark around their beliefs that is entirely unique and completely unavailable to beliefs or assertions made in any other category of human experience. It has actually become impossible to challenge the beliefs of the religious within the bounds of civil discussion.

First things first, a slight correction is necessary in order to proceed. When I say Atheism is impolite I should be more specific, Atheist activism is impolite. It is not inherently impolite to be an atheist, the problem only arises when one chooses to speak about the subject, or dares to question anyone else’s beliefs. There are a great many atheists out there who would be regarded as perfect pillars of good behaviour. They don’t question anyone’s beliefs, don’t challenge irrational statements, or demands for special treatment, and will in fact castigate those of their fellows who are too “militant” about their lack of belief.

I say that the theists and “polite” non-theists aren’t wrong because it actually is impossible to politely point out to someone that their core beliefs are false. You cannot, within the bounds of good manners, tell someone that they have devoted their lives to a sham. No matter how soft your language, or how gentle your manner it is impossible to broach the subject without being rude. This is because it has somehow become the height of high-mindedness to assert that “people should be able to believe whatever they choose.” But should they? Really consider that.

Should people honestly be able to believe whatever they want to believe simply because they want to? What if I want to believe 2+2=5 for instance? Should I be free to assert this as truth? In spite of the mountainous pile of evidence to the contrary should I be free to teach it to my children? What if I can convince others that 2+2=5? Should we then be free to demand that “fiveism” receive equal teaching time in math class? Does basic mathematics then become a matter of opinion, and does my right to hold this nonsensical opinion trump your right not to have to put up with said nonsense?

In every other area of human endeavor you have to have reasons to think the things you do. Your beliefs have to be grounded in some kind of verifiable demonstrable truth. If an engineer decided to forgo measuring and instead provided his builders with figures that came to him in a dream the project they were building would fail and the engineer would be censured. If a history student declared that he felt deep inside himself that Napoleon was in fact an Asian woman rather than a French Caucasian man he would be told quite plainly that regardless of his feelings the evidence did not support such an insane claim. We spend a great deal of time teaching our children to defend their opinions with evidence. Any statement that begins with “I think” is often met with the response “Why?”

How many of us heard as children or have said to our own children “‘because’ is not an answer”? Yet it seems that it is a perfectly acceptable answer when discussing theology. “How can you possibly believe in spite of piles of evidence that the earth is only six thousand years old?” is met with “Because.”  “How do you know that this book you esteem so highly has divine origins?” “Because.” And yet asking the obvious next question “Because WHY?” is the height of impropriety. “How dare you challenge my right to believe that the universe was created just for me and those like me!” the theists shriek. “Why do you have to be so unpleasantly forceful?” the politically correct hand-wringers whine. Why? Because theism claims answers they don’t and can’t have. They claim privileges and exemptions from rationality that no area of human interest should have, and they claim that reason and rationality is somehow inferior to blind belief or “faith”.

It is that last point that makes Atheist activism so necessary, regardless of how impolite it may be. More of us need to put aside the politically correct idea of respecting someone else’s opinion and question the value and virtue of “faith”. More of us should be asking loudly why it is better to believe in spite of evidence. Why is it better to ignore or bury evidence in favor of tradition? Why isn’t it ok to question this one particular area of human experience or to measure it against the rest of reality as we understand it when it is not only ok but absolutely essential that we do so in all other areas?

Don’t be afraid to be thought rude or impolite. Question, challenge, and seek. That is the most important freedom you have. It may be rude to challenge someone’s most personal beliefs but that’s only because we, the secular minority in society have allowed our opponent to weight the dice in their own favor.  As Sam Harris says:

“When considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t  Religion is one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.”

I contend that there is no “other standard” there is what is demonstrably true, what is verifiably untrue and that which we do not know. Nothing else, and no area of our experience should ever be beyond discussion.

The Price of a “Right”

Today another gunman climbed out of wherever it is these people come from and shredded the ever tenuous peace of the United States. This time it happened in Connecticut, once again a heavily armed citizen of that country took up those arms and vented his rage, frustration, anger, inferiority, madness, or some combination of those things on his fellow citizens. Reports are saying that the body count of today’s insanity is at twenty six people, eighteen of those being children between the ages of 5 and 10 years old.  How does a person walk into a grade school with weapons and start shooting at anything in sight you ask? I honestly have no idea. If you’re wondering what could possibly be wrong enough with a person to make such an action possible my guess would be: quite a lot.

I’m a new parent, my son is just over six months old and seeing this today I can imagine all too clearly the horror, anguish, rage, and helplessness experienced by every parent of every child at that school or in that community. It’s too easy for me to imagine my boy huddled in a corner with a bunch of other young kids, all of them panicked, confused, terrified, and at the mercy of some angry, broken, crazed individual who has decided to avenge themselves on the world. I can imagine the horrors, the nightmares and the traumas that he’d have to deal with for long years following that ordeal, and I can imagine the even darker possibilities and it makes me sick to my stomach. My deepest regrets and sympathies go out to those who have lived what I have just been imagining.

In the days and weeks that are coming there will be calls for tighter restrictions on weapons. There will be renewed calls for stronger gun violence laws. There will also be those people who will argue that these measures are unneeded unnecessary and ultimately will do little to prevent horrendous acts like those we’ve seen today and so many other times in the recent history of the United States. There will be those people who will  trot out the Second Amendment to the U.S  Constitution. They’ll state that the law protects their ” right to keep and bear arms” and there will be those who will say that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Both of these positions are technically correct but deeply flawed interpretations.

The Second Amendment of the U.S Constitution actually contains the words ” a well regulated militia” the amendment’s purpose was to ensure that the citizens of the new country would have the ability to defend themselves from tyranny by the new government. It was not designed to ensure every citizen’s right to keep an m-16  in the hall closet, or to collect enough firepower to turn a US street into downtown Beirut. It also has to be pointed out that the amendment was written when the height of firearm technology was the musket. The framers of the constitution never envisioned a world where one man could devastate an entire building in minutes, they couldn’t have.  Should we perhaps look at this “right” through the lens of it’s modern effects? Should we not ask ourselves if the cost of this “right” is too high?

Am I saying ban all firearms? No, I’m not. What I’m asking is why does any civilian need more than a handgun? Or at most a hunting rifle? Why does anyone need more than say two guns maximum? Why is it easier to buy ammunition than it is to board an airplane? Why doesn’t a firearms licensing require at the least an annual mandatory psychological examination? Why, if you’re going to be granted the ability to carry a weapon, shouldn’t you have to demonstrate regularly that you’re capable, knowledgeable  responsible, and sane enough to be trusted with that privilege?

As for the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument, absolutely true. I agree. If every gun on the planet disappeared tomorrow there would still be stabbings,  bludgeonings, poisonings, and any number of other forms of one human killing another. However,  does anyone honestly think that if we limited the number of guns, or more realistically the number of bullets in the world, that the number of violent deaths wouldn’t drastically decrease? Does anyone think the death toll today would have been near as high if a twenty four year old man with a cavalry saber had burst into a grade school? Of course people kill people, but it’s a bunch easier to do when you’ve just got to reach out for your semi-automatic, squeeze the trigger and spray a room.

It should be harder to get a weapons license, harder to keep that license, harder to get a gun, and easier to  track a bullet. The simple fact of the matter is that most citizens have absolutely no need to be armed. The war is over, the red coats aren’t coming, and while I understand defending your rights I also understand that the “right” to bear arms shouldn’t be a right. “Rights” are for everyone and clearly not everyone should have a gun. Gun ownership should be a privilege, a privilege that has to be constantly earned by those who would have it. How many times are we going to wake up to the news that a lone lunatic has decimated a structure full of people before we come to the conclusion that this power needs to be regulated and controlled much more tightly than it is?

I apologize, I know this is not my usual subject matter but it feels connected to me. For me it’s all about looking at what’s in front of you rationally,  and trying to understand not just what happened but why that is what happened. It’s about looking at reality as it is, not as we would have it be and perhaps most importantly it’s about  discarding outdated ideas, traditions, and even “rights” when they don’t fit the realities of life any more.  As I see it today twenty six people died because we haven’t adapted to the changing realities of the world fast enough. It hurts me that it’s so, and it breaks my heart that this time it had to be our children that suffered the consequences of our failure to evolve. My heart felt regrets to the victims of today’s insanity. I’m sorry.

Selling the Dream

321

“…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.