Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Christian Fundamentalist Nation - Ideological Disaster

In the eighteenth century the West shifted from mercantilism to capitalism. Mercantilism was an economic system that gave governments wide-ranging regulatory powers over commerce, mostly to ensure a positive balance of trade. It also allowed for strong guild structures and protection for domestic industries. However, the Industrial Revolution ended mercantilism and brought to power a business class that wanted to be free to operate without government oversight.  

As the capitalist worldview evolved, it made a fetish out of the “free market” and viewed government as, at best, a necessary evil. Any sort of regulation was seen as the equivalent of slavery, and the proper role of officialdom was reduced to maintaining internal order (police), defending the realm (military) and enforcing contracts (the courts). Any government involvement in social welfare was disapproved of because it allegedly promoted laziness among the poor, but this was just a convenient myth. The real reason for keeping government activity to an absolute minimum was the rising business class’s fear and loathing of taxes. 

In Europe the rationalizations for capitalism remained primarily secular, looking to the maximization of efficiency for the sake of profit. In the United States, however, where little good happens that is not ascribed to an overseeing God, secular rationalizations were soon complemented with the notion of divine will. God wanted unregulated economic freedom and minimalist government to prevail. 

This religious view continues to exist. Today’s struggle to return us all to minimalist government and maximum economic “freedom” is led by a collection of fundamentalist Christian right-wingers and Tea Party mad hatters. Chris Hedges lays out a worst-case scenario of the drive for power by the Christian right in his recent article “The Radical Christian Right and the War on the Government.” He tells us that “the public face” of this political force is “on display in the House of Representatives” and its main ideological aim is to “shut down the government.” Hedges also points to Texas Senator Ted Cruz as the archetypal fundamentalist politician leading the charge against big government. Hedges thinks this is just the first step toward the real goal of men like Cruz, which is to make the U.S. a Christian fundamentalist nation. 

The Ensuing Struggle 

In the struggle that has ensued, the radical conservatives’ enemy is the Democratic (or “big government”) Party in general and President Obama in particular. As an indication of just how isolating and distorting ideology can be, focus groups of conservative Republicans have revealed a deeply held conspiracy theory. According the researchers who conducted this study, “What drives the Republican base . . . [is] a genuine belief that Obama has a secret agenda to drive the country in a socialist direction.” They also believe that he is the head of a cabal. He seems to be a politician who “came from nowhere” and therefore is “propelled by some secret forces.” The focus groups revealed  this belief to be held by “two out of every three self identified Republicans.”  

In the 2010 election a combination of gerrymandering of voting districts to help elect Republicans and a high conservative turnout gave Republican Party control of the House of Representatives. It also brought a strong plurality of radical right-wing conservatives into the House. Both these radical politicians and many of their constituents shunned the sort of compromise that is, or should be, at the heart of democracy. For the radicals principle was more important than compromise. That attitude led to the recent political confrontation with its shutdown of the federal government and the near default on the public debt.  

Within days of the shutdown, moderate Republicans began deserting the radical conservatives and expressed their willingness to end demands for such things as the defunding of federally subsidized health care, popularly known as “Obamacare,” the elimination of the government deficit, and a radical reduction in government programs and regulatory power. However, it was only when Republican majority leader John Boehner finally allowed a vote on the floor of the House that these moderate Republicans could join their Senate colleagues on a resolution which restored the flow of funds that reopened the government and saved the nation from default. In so doing the moderates split the Republican Party in two.  

Victory Denied 

What the moderate Republicans did was deny the radical conservatives their victory. For that was what a shutdown of the federal government and a default on the debt represented to the conservatives. Ideologically the goal of these radicals is to reduce government’s role in society to a minimum. They hoped the ability to shut down the entire federal operation would position them for negotiating its eventual minimization. Second, the campaign to reduce federal taxes to a minimum through the creation of a bare- bones balanced budget was to be aided by their ability to push the Treasury Department to the brink of default. All the conservative Republicans had to do was sustain these two tactics long enough to make the Democrats concede. That was what they could not do, thanks in good part to the desertion of the moderate Republicans.   

The battle is not over. The resolution supported by the moderate Republicans opens the federal government through December 2013 and allows sufficient funding of the debt through February 2014. So we may well face a second round of disruptive confrontation.   
In the long run, however, things do not look good for the Republican Party. Many radical conservatives have come to see their moderate compatriots as worse than any liberal Democrat. They see them as traitors to principle – as politicians who ran scared in the face of the Obama’s “socialist” agenda. Under these circumstances most of the party’s energies might well be taken up with self-destructive infighting. The Republican Party now runs the risk of shrinking down to its radical base while its moderates are defeated in primaries, flee to the Democratic Party, or stake out positions as independents. Democratic voters may now be motivated by the recent spectacle of disruption to turn out in higher numbers to win back the House from the Republicans. If that happens, the Republican Party will be hard put to stay alive as a single entity.  


Ideology is a form of debilitating shortsightedness. It replaces reality with an idealized version that usually has too little to do with the real world to be workable. The economic aspect of radical conservative ideology is fatally anachronistic. Earlier, in the nineteenth century, it led to devastating business cycles of boom and bust and left much of the population without basic services. The Great Depression should have been its death knell. As to the size of government and range of its activities, we must keep in mind that there are nearly 317 million people in the USA. Going back to a pre-Great Depression (much less an eighteenth- century) government structure would undermine social stability by withdrawing all the protections that keep destitution at bay and unleashing all the prejudices that present federal law discourages. Ignore these facts and eventually you will have real revolution on your hands. The radical conservatives are stubbornly blind to these problems because they call in doubt their “principles.”  

All such shortsighted ideologies, be they of the right or the left, have proven unrealistic, and so have failed. Unfortunately, they have wreaked havoc in the meantime. We have only seen a shadow of the potential for damage of the present ideological challenge. Let’s hope we can avoid its full force. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Morality and God : If you don’t believe in a God, why not go around killing people, why not rape ?

Someone asked meIf you don’t believe in a God, why not go around killing people, why not rape ? After all, there is no one to judge you right ? My observation is that, often these types of questions are asked by people who tend to view the world in a very narrow minded perspective. I often redirect the question at themselves, “If you believe there is no god, will you go around raping women and killing people ? ” You’d be surprised to notice how many people would actually nod their heads saying “yes”. These are the type of people who are very dogmatic in their beliefs, and not willing to think over it. One might even say, Ignorant. An educated person would likely not to shoot these type of questions, because he/she will have recognized the implied message here. As great minds like Einstein pointed out, “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”. Even this, is an overstatement. Religion does not use fear to motivate a person away from bad and towards good. Religion, uses Punishment and Reward to motivate fearful human beings away from “Sin” and towards “Religious Virtues“. As you continue reading you can discover, Good does not mean “virtue”. This is precisely why religious cults like the suicide bombing community consider themselves to be “good” with respect to their beliefs. In their perspective, It’s a virtue to blow things up. These cults literally brainwash and reprogram the minds of the followers.  It’s a “Sin” to consume alcohol, but mass murder is perfectly fine. Why ? Because it’s a “Virtue”. These ignorant religious extremists honestly believe that they are doing ”good”. After all, they’ve got god on their side. They have the Devine permission. Perfectly normal human beings can be brainwashed into thinking in terms of sin and virtue instead of Good and Bad. Therefore, any sadistic deed can be rationalized and reverse engineered to fit their beliefs.
Atheist funny
Isn’t it crazy that people are willing to blow people up, based on their ignorant, selfish, and foolish religious cult based on nothing but “faith” ? My point is, religions and religious cults can program perfectly normal human beings  into doing the worst imaginable things, and make them believe that they are doing good. After all they are simply fighting for a bigger cause, aren’t they?  The reward is unimaginable. Good and Bad has nothing to do with Sin and Virtue.  Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and other religions are not much different from these cults. If you go back in history, you’d see exactly the same “virtues” as the suicide bombers now do. Fortunately religion was smart enough to evolve.  Religions can’t wait to overpower the majority. And when they do, the very next thing we might notice is, every woman will be wearing a black veil. This is not morality, this is stupidity. Our cousins who share 99.5% of our DNA, they do have morals and rituals. Where do they get their morals from ?  The Devine scriptures and ape like prophets ? Human beings are not evil. We can be selfish, ignorant and foolish. Nonetheless, we always have a positive intent in everything we do. Even the suicide bomber has a positive intent. After all, seventy-two virgins in heaven is a big reward, don’t you think ? Now thinking of commenting ?
The answer is No, I won’t run loose raping women. Hence i don’t require my women to be covered in veil.  I want to be as good as I can be. I don’t mind being a sinner, because one can be a sinner and still be a good person. Consuming poke, Drinking Alcohol, homosexuality are all considered to be sinful deeds in most of the religions. In Islam, even  music and art are forbidden. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism,  condemns protective sex.  Protective sex ? Oh yea, this makes perfect sense to me. The more children  can mean more followers, the more followers will give them more power. Protective sex means fewer followers, and therefore no wonder it’s a sin.  But does that make you a bad person ? Non-belief and doubt is a sin. Does that make you an immoral person ? Morality does not come from religion. If you answered Yes, in the absence of god you will go around shooting people and raping women, you must be ashamed of yourself. You are not a free thinker yet. You are being brainwashed into thinking what you believe is the truth, and everything else is simply untrue. How do you know ? The worst part about being brainwashed is not knowing it’s been done onto you. My advice for you is to study how cults operate. Study human behavior and belief systems. Beliefs are like programs installed inside your mind. You can uninstall them.  First, You must be aware of it. It doesn’t make sense to run a thousand year old program inside your head. These belief systems are unconscious. It takes thinking to overcome your limitations.  It doesn’t cost you to think your own thoughts, and form your own opinions. This is what makes us truly intelligent as human beings.
Once again, No, I won’t run loose raping and murdering . If I did, you’d probably notice a lot of dead bodies next to the churches and mosques. I’m just kidding. I try to have true morality. I do good not because I expect a heaven, and I stay away from bad not because I’m afraid of an angry and insecure god who will punish me for eternity, but I do good because I want to be a good person. It’s inside everyone of us. It’s in my nature, because I’m a product of nature. I’m not afraid of god. Fear is not what makes most people good. If you are a good person only because fear and wishful thinking motivates you to be one, have you really been a good person all your life ? You’re just another religious person. It’s just too easy. It’s not fear that can makes us good, it’s understanding reality and acting in harmony with it, that makes us truly good.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Atheists vs. Agnostics (Yet Again)

People who claim agnosticism as their theological position are basically admitting they don't know what they're talking about. It's a lame cop out. Do you believe in God? Yes or no?

No= atheist
Yes= theist

"I don't know" is an answer to a different question.

All agnostics are either theists or atheists. That's true. Either you believe in a god or you don't. There's no tertium quid. However, I think atheists pick on the self-proclaimed agnostics way too much. Yes, for many, the label "agnostic" is definitely a cop out, because they would rather not admit their non-belief in a god.

There is a distinction that should be made between lack of belief and the positive belief that there are no gods. "I don't believe in a god" is much different than "I believe there is no god." While the latter implies the former, the former certainly doesn't imply the latter. "Atheist" simply means "no god," as in, "no god in my current belief system." A lot of people think the label atheist necessarily implies "I think there is no god," but that's not the case. I am certain many agnostics shy away from the atheist label because they don't want to deal with incorrect assumptions and baggage that goes along with the label.

Relevant to this is the distinction that should be made between descriptive labels and cultural labels. A descriptive label is meant to describe or help other people understand a person better. "I'm a vegetarian." "I'm pro-choice." "I'm a Christian." Labels are often used in an attempt to help other people know where we stand or how we think. Sometimes labels confuse as much as they clarify, and oftentimes they help segregate members of society, but the pure intent of a label is to communicate a position or a belief. A cultural label has connotative associations, and like-minded people use a cultural label to identify each other and form bonds of community and shared social norms. "Atheist," for example, as a cultural label implies a group of people who usually take issue with religion, uphold evolution and the scientific method, and promote skeptical inquiry. Of course, not everyone who uses the atheist label uses critical thinking or skeptical inquiry, but I'm referring to a generalization. "Christian" as a cultural label carries its own presuppositional baggage as well. We use such labels to identify ourselves as "card-carrying" members of a group or movement. A lot of self-proclaimed agnostics don't use the atheist label because they don't see themselves as associated with that particular subculture. Neil deGrasse Tyson is that kind of agnostic.

Our language fails us in our present time to provide a clear distinction in our labels. People have used the adjectives "strong" or "positive" to describe the atheism in which one holds a positive belief that there is no god, and "weak" or "negative" atheism to refer to simple lack of belief without the belief or conviction that a god does not exist. Moments like this one are when I like to dig up this old chart, dust it off and put it on display, because it continues to be relevant:
Here we see that "agnostic" and "atheist" are not different options in the same category, but different labels referring to different categories altogether. "Atheist" deals with the realm of ontology, or reality, whereas "agnostic" deals with epistemology, or what we know (or don't know) about reality. Agnosticism says, "I have no knowledge about a god." Atheism says, "my view of reality doesn't include a god." There might be - and often is - correlation between one's agnosticism and one's atheism; i.e., "I don't know, therefore I don't believe." But calling oneself an agnostic doesn't answer the question of whether one's current view of reality contains any kind of god.

Likewise - and as an aside - agnosticism can be separated into two categories: "strong" agnosticism, in which one believes no one can have adequate knowledge of the divine, and "weak" agnosticism, in which a person simply speaks for oneself - "I don't know" - without claiming that knowledge of god is impossible. One could say that weak agnostics are agnostic about strong agnosticism.

Then we must consider what I call the "God Grading Scale" (GGS), which is a way of taking into account how we view the varying god concepts out there, and the idea of a god in general. For example, most people in our world today are strong or positive atheists vis-à-vis Zeus and the other gods of Olympus. In other words, most people have a positive belief in the non-existence of such deities. All the people I know rank Zeus pretty low on their GGS. Christians, Muslims, and Jews rank the God of Abraham highly on their respective GGS, and rank gods like Zeus, Vishnu, Baal, and Quetzalcoatl fairly low on their GGS. Some atheists rank all god concepts low on their GGS, but not all do. I met an atheist who was a strong atheist concerning the God of the Bible, yet said he "wouldn't be surprised" if he were to discover that the divine concept found in Hinduism were true. Clearly, my friend ranks Yahweh much lower than he does Brahman on his GGS.

More often, atheists either give all god concepts a similar (or similarly low) grade on their GGS, or they grade the current competing god concepts low, yet leave room for at least the possibility of the existence of a god of some sort; thus, they may give this "unknown god" of the Areopagus (ἄγνωστος θεός) a somewhat higher grade than the other "known" gods of humanity. Many atheists are strong atheists concerning the known god concepts, yet weak atheists concerning the idea of god in general (the unknown god, si vous voulez).

I began this entry by voicing my opinion that atheists pick on agnostics too much. I understand why: many atheists feel like they're on the front lines, enduring the negative stigma associated with the label while they feel agnostics are hiding behind their label. I can sympathize with agnostics as well. Many of them want people to understand why they think the way they do. They want their label to communicate what matters most to them; namely, the search for knowledge, and the conviction that belief should be based on logic and evidence. Labels carry with them the intrinsic property of generalization, which runs us close to the edge of overgeneralization. I think people on either side of the label fence can do better, given a little more effort. I think more understanding and more open communication is in order.

Friday, November 22, 2013

How To Be Atheist Without Being Arrogant

First, a disclaimer. While attending a boarding school that proudly called itself non-denominational , I became an atheist when I came upon the realization that I saw little difference between Greek myths and Biblical stories, both painted with ancient age and mysticism. Jesus gets a bloody ode to guilt and sacrifice from a pre-crazy Mel Gibson but Hercules gets a cartoon musical with the comedic stylings of Danny Devito from a pre-3D Disney? What made Jesus so special? Did Jesus defeat a Hydra on a flying horse? Didn’t think so. So I made it my mission to pour over Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to prepare for what I saw at the time as a cosmic battle between a logical reality and a collection of fairy tales told by dead men who didn’t even know what a germ was or how babies were made. I got in a lot of arguments with students and faculty, the sort of debate where both sides walk away feeling as if they’d won. It was a bit like that episode of Hey! Arnold where he learns karate for self-defense only to beat the hell out of a guy who was asking for directions to the bus stop. In short, I was an asshole.
I was reminded of my juvenile ways recently while overhearing an Evangelical neighbor discuss the current state of the world with a friend. They professed a belief that Obama was a sign of the end times (and that this was a good thing because they could finally “go home”) and “all that going on in the Middle East” lined up perfectly with what their Left Behindbooks had taught them. While at that boarding school, I actually read theLeft Behind series in its entirety. It consists of 13 books following a group of people who only found Jesus after the Rapture had taken their friends and loved ones, thereby being forced to live through the major steps of the Apocalypse as laid out in the Book of Revelations. The books were actually really exciting to read and had enough background and myth to make George R. R. Martin jealous, what with the invisible cavalry army torturing non-believers and the plague of locusts screaming out the name of their creator (“Absalom! Absalom!”), not to mention Nicolae Carpathia, the Antichrist stand-in who uses charisma to win over the UN and form both a world government and a world religion only to die then resurrect in front of millions. I took these as works of fiction and at best speculation of what Revelations means or predicts. Little did I know tens of millions across the country (the books have failed at finding an audience outside the US) were reading them as a survival guide.
But as I leaned against my door and snickered at my neighbor’s theologist tomfoolery, I was reminded of the feeling I got in high school when my Catholic best friend would attempt to disprove evolution by saying macroevolution was impossible (meaning a single-cell organism doesn’t just grow feet) and therefore there was a divine creator. Before attempting to respond I would laugh uproariously at his naivete, much like I was on bended knee giggling at my kooky neighbor. With both scenarios the internal thought was nearly schadenfreude at their stupidity, getting joy from how much smarter I felt. In short, I was an asshole.
Being an elitist atheist can be all-too easy. You get to use words like “science” and “logic” with the full belief they are on your side and your side alone. This is why a popular meme amongst theists is atheism is a religion. It’s not because it relies on the same style of faith and belief (it doesn’t), but because the dogma that comes to surround it makes the argument seem even-keeled. As an atheist, you are not going to win any hearts and minds calling religion the root of all evil or comparing believers to herd animals. You’re attacking something deeply personal. That’s not to say it should go without questioning, but a little tact can go a long way. In short, don’t be an asshole.
Find some things within religion or that were inspired by religion you enjoy. Read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the poor? The meek? The peacekeepers? Realize that you are not immune to the same self-satisfaction theists get when they feel they will be saved while your sinful body will burn. Listen to “Ode to Joy” at top volume, or for that matter “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison. Realize your religious parents or neighbors had as much to do with 9/11 or the Crusades as you did with Stalin’s gulags or the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Realize that war is first and foremost a product of economic issues, not dead men in robes. It’s okay to be inspired by the story of Joan of Arc. The chick was 14 when she led victories against England. Who cares if she heard voices in her head? Admit to yourself that at least some of what intrigues us about atheism is we may be able to get away with what they may call “sins.”
But what to do if a theist confronts you on religion? I actually dated a Christian girl in college who loved to engage me in these debates years after I had tired of them. My most useful response was “Do you have any proof for a god?” Sure, you can get some platitudes about proof being in sunrises and the smiles of infants. But is there any actual proof? A typical response to this is so much of science relies of faith and assumption, and this is at least somewhat correct. Humble yourself with a simple phrase: “I don’t know.” A lack of knowledge is certainly not an excuse to make up things about talking snakes and whale-dwelling men, but one of the core differences between science and religion is the phrase “I don’t know.” Scientists happily admit when there are gaps in information, seeing them as an opportunity for more exploration further down the line. Religion is finite, eventually relying on only the original texts or interpretations. If a theist gets huffy and demands an answer from you on how life was first formed, remember that the smartest men and women in the world don’t know that answer, but any of the dozens of theories out there seem far more likely than the Book of Genesis. You can memorize as many quotes from Bertrand Russell and Benjamin Franklin as you like, but few will put the argument to rest as quickly as “I don’t know.”
You’re not going to change anyone’s mind. Remember that. There’s a reason society frowns on talking about politics or religion or the end of Lostand it’s because few have a full understanding of what they are saying and even fewer are open to new positions. Opinions this inset are changed by months of reading and research and thought. I used to be a libertarian before I spent five months in 2008-09 watching the free market stick its Invisible Hand up its own Invisible Ass. I had the intellectual curiosity to do the research I failed to do before and reach new conclusions. Belief and nonbelief are separated by a two-way door, and it’s even possible you the elite atheist may someday find yourself on the other side, but about as likely I’ll see my neighbor at my next Christopher Hitchens book club meeting. So relax. It is not up to you to de-convert the masses and save them from themselves. In short, don’t be an asshole.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

God and Science - Incompatible

Geology diametrically opposes theism in one word: meteorites. Did a deity really go through all that trouble to meticulously plan billions of years of development specifically to have a few thousand years of existence for humans? 
Intelligent Design generally ascribes to the “anthropic principle”. The strong anthropic principle (SAP) states that the Universe is compelled, in some sense, for conscious life to eventually emerge. Critics of the SAP argue in favour of a weak anthropic principle (WAP) which states that the universe’s ostensible fine tuning is the result of selection bias:  i.e., only in a universe capable of eventually supporting life will there be living beings capable of observing any such fine tuning, while a universe less compatible with life will go unbeheld.
In short, sophisticated theists who support the concept (knowingly or not) of Intelligent Design, maintain that the evolution of life and more importantly intelligent life was inevitable and indeed planned and executed by a supernatural being in the past and at present. Humans are the Raison d’être for the very large scale and elaborate design of the universe, solar system and earth.
Mass ExtinctionsThe geologic record has much to say about our being here. We know that approximately 99.9% of all species that ever existed are already extinct.  It’s impossible to determine the precise reasons for each species going extinct suffice to say that they simply lost out in the ceaseless dynamic (ever-changing) natural system.  Many millions of species disappeared in 5 well recorded mass extinction events as follows:
·         85% of species at the end of the Ordovician (~440 Ma);
·         80% of species at the end of the Devonian (~360 Ma);
·         96% of species at the end of the Permian (~252 Ma);
·         76% of species at the end of the Triassic (~201 Ma); and
·         The most famous of all ~75% of all species at the end of the Cretaceous (~66 Ma)
Many hundreds of small scale extinction events, some global and others local, are also recorded in the geological record.
Some of the causes of the mass extinction events are not known and are the subject of some debate.  So let’s consider the most famous and arguably best studied extinction event – the one that ended the 165 million year reign of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, 66 Ma.  It has now been fairly well established that an impact by a sizable projectile from space caused the abrupt end of the dinosaurs. Mammals co-existed with dinosaurs, but the removal of the dinosaurs from the ecological niches resulted in dramatic changes and the emergence and eventual dominance of mammals.
Suppose the projectile from space had missed earth instead of colliding with it? What would the earth be like today? Chances are that mammals would either be extinct or still eking out a precarious living on the fringes of a dinosaur dominated planet.  Now ask yourself, has a deity ever been observed pushing minor projectiles around in the cosmos/solar system?
This raises a profound question: how inevitable was the evolution of an intelligent mammalian life form, Homo Sapiens Sapiens?  Humans are quite literally the product of a cosmic accident (the impact of the Cretaceous projectile) 65 million years ago, coupled with literally hundreds of other chance events before and after the impact over millions/billions of years. The long geological record of extinctions and mass extinctions tells us in no uncertain terms that in the grand scheme of things Homo Sapiens are not the centre of all things and that extinction can happen tomorrow to any species.
And so, to get back to theism! In order to be a theist, someone who believes in an intervening, governing, organising deity, this is what you have to believe. You have to believe that 65 million years ago a deity steered on purpose, with full knowledge of 66 million years of evolution still ahead, a projectile of precisely the correct size, speed and energy, into precisely the correct spot on earth, at precisely the correct time in the evolutionary trajectory of species on earth, knowing that in doing so this would result in Christian, Islam, Hindu and thousands of other deities being worshipped by an intelligent mammalian species who would all “know” for sure their version of deity was the one who did the deed.
Tyrannosaurus rex, Palais de la Découverte, Paris
Tyrannosaurus rex, Palais de la Découverte, Paris
Now you need to apply your mind still further. Take the example above from the Cretaceous mass extinction and multiply that by the orders of magnitude of time 66 million years out of 4 500 million years of earth’s history (never mind the preceding 9 300 million years of universe history) and you will comprehend the staggering array and vastness of chance events that resulted in the existence of intelligent life on earth.
To think that some deity (and it appears no one knows exactly which one) had a hand in helping this along  at every step of the intricate path on a second by second basis is incomprehensible and nonsensical, even more so given the sheer immensity of the universe with over 200 billion stars in our own galaxy (Milky Way) and the billions of galaxies each with their billions of stars, most as it now transpires, with a multitude of orbiting planets.
Maybe geology does not provide conclusive proof that there is no God, but it certainly shows that the existence of a deity is highly improbable.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Imagining Unbelief

My grandmother was a sturdy soul.  Her life consisted of taking care of her demanding German husband, incessant cleaning of a spotless house, speculating about the conjunction of rain clouds and her arthritis, and calling the church rectory for updates on mass times and confession.  She came from a large, loud, tuneful Irish family, pronounced film as “filum” and laughed at jokes three minutes ahead of the punchline.  ”Hey Nonnie,” I would say, “Did you hear the one about the priest and the chiropractor?”  The laughing would start ere the words were out of my mouth.
She was patient, gullible, superstitious, carping and kind.  She didn’t like dogs or most of her neighbors, squinted at dust, sermons about Mary, and occasionally at me.  If she had secrets or dark corners to her existence they were buried with her and will remain forever unknown.
She now exists in photographs–often with the image of my grandfather standing in the background with a slight frown–not wishing to be in the picture but unwilling to move entirely out of range.
The photographs are important because when they were taken–mainly in the 1960′s–pictures were a bit of trouble: camera models, film, exposures (as in number of), light and focus were part of the vocabulary. No snapping your cellphone at any stationery or moving object that caught your fancy and then uploading images of you and your best friends by the dozen for the delectation of complete strangers.
I have a theory that the less complicated picture-taking and image- making have become the less sophisticated our memories and imaginations have become–a complaint some social theorists have leveled at “comprehensive” museums and zoos.  Imagination is not stretched.  Memory is not exercised.  Connecting impressionistic dots, sometimes captured years apart, is not required.  We live in the eternal present of the utterly familiar and the easily available Now. History is not needed to explain the familiar.  We know all about it. Thus history is a primary casualty of the widespread feeling that the unfamiliar–especially the past–is alien to the Now.
The tandem growth of religious illiteracy and EZ atheism emerges from the same matrix, one where what is “new” is regarded as good and what is old, or requires time, patience and interpretation, is regarded as irrelevant.  As the cultural gospel of America has always cherished this principle anyway (“A country without history for a people without memory”) the imagination crisis is especially prevalent in the USA.   Religious crudity is nowhere cruder or saturates politics more thoroughly or with greater dull predictability.  Discount atheism, especially of the new and in-your-face variety, is nowhere more disagreeable or less philosophical.

Henry Ford: "History is bunk."
It is enough for the American Catholic to know when the pancake breakfast begins (“after the 9 o’clock”), never mind the aesthetic torpor that his church offers as a sedative for his under-active conscience or the essentials of the faith he never bothered to learn.  It is enough for the liberal protestant to know that a collection is being taken up for Tsunami victims and for the conservative Christian to live in the cozy knowledge of Jesus’ saving grace–which entails the belief that abortion means killing babies and that Democrats want to demolish churches and put up mosques. It is enough for the atheist to see the deformed opinions of the religious majority as proof positive that he is right: God doesn’t exist and religion is for imbeciles.
The fact is, all four of the above have developed their beliefs through packthink.  Stem cell research does not entail killing babies.  America is not a Christian country.  Believing in God is not the same as belief in elves, fairies, and the Loch Ness Monster.  To be fair, the Catholic did not arrive at her position by reading Aquinas or the Protestant by reading Jonathan Edwards or the Muslim fanatic by reading Ibn Rushd or the atheist by reading Julian Huxley (an atheist supporter of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit whohad read Aquinas).  They got there by reading pamphlets and the back end of cars.

Julian Huxley
What each group seems to be happy with is the discounted version of the “faith” they have chosen to embrace.  Coming “out” atheist, a mildly cool social stance similar to coming out gay in the nineties, requires the same level of intellectual commitment as coming out Christian, a mildly cool stance of the 1970′s when unseen forces (in Washington) convinced the believing masses they were in for a new persecution by neo-pagans, secular humanists and freedom-hating liberals.
Our presentism, symbolized in the free flow of limitless images and text messages, no longer needs ideas to survive.  That is why bumper stickers have replaced chapters in books as the all-you need-to know summation of belief and unbelief.  ”My Boss is A Jewish Carpenter,” “I Support a Baby’s Right to Choose.” “‘Worship Me or I will Torture You Forever’-God,” “Organized Religion: The World’s Biggest Pyramid Scheme.” The hostility among groups and even within groups is not about ideas but about what one side is prepared to believe about the other: fakery not fact, histories robbed of historical location and philosophical positions devoid of premises and analysis.  It is a contest for followers lifted out of the Forum and plonked down into the Colosseum–where both sides will eventually lose.
Which brings me back to the lessons we can learn from photographs.  It isn’t the case that religion has not evolved.  But it is the case that religion has been, in evolutionary terms, unsuccessful in explaining itself to the twenty-first century–and to much of the twentieth. The increasing drowsiness of the flock when it comes to core doctrines may be a blessing for beleaguered theologians who otherwise would have to go on defending what the faithful have ceased to care about.  ”Average” believers have defaulted to ground where they are more comfortable–to social issues and sexual ethics, buoyed by a thin belief in scriptural authority and a woeful lack of information about the warrants and religious justification for their commitments.  As religion can only thrive when its explanatory mechanisms are coping with change, its explanatory failure will ultimately prove to be catastrophic, and no new theological idiom will arise to save it.  In my opinion, this has already happened, and not only in liberal and radical circles.
This should serve to make atheism triumphant, but it doesn’t.  If theology has lost its voice and credibility, atheism has lost its imagination and coherence. It has done this by offering, instead of a vision of the godless future, the absurdities and atrocities of religion as the sum total of its own rectitude.  There is nothing wrong with itemizing the failures and hypocrisies of religion; but it does get repetitious after a while, and then the question becomes the Alfie question: What’s it all about?
And there is this detail: The errors-of-religion-motif does not originate with atheists but with religion.  It goes back to the reform movements of the late Middle Ages, and to the Reformation itself, unique among the chapters of western civilization in its brutal treatment of popes, doctrines and sacraments.

Reformation cartoon of the Pope as Antichrist
Religion has traditionally been the best ensurer of reforms within religion, controlling the excesses and extremities of the religious appetite for a thousand years.  It did this and was successful in keeping the beast from devouring its own tail by offering better ideas, different “truths,” a simplified diet and an accommodating attitude towards movements that would finally grow up, leave home, and not write back–secularism and humanism to name two.  What it never did, or was never prepared to do, was to offer no religion in lieu of bad religion.  It has survived into an era where many opponents have joined the chorus that all religion is bad religion.
Yet for atheists to assume that their rejection of God is anything more than an opinion based on snapshots of what they know about Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Protestants is a misshapen view of their accomplishment.
The aggregate outrages of religion do not constitute a proof of God’s non-existence, nor establish a moral case for atheism.  The accumulation and “sharing” of snapshots of things that are plainly ridiculous about religion does not enhance the claim that unbelievers are smarter than believers.  The documentation of error is not the same as the discovery of the truth.  Ridiculing the beliefs of our distant faith-obsessed ancestors or the profanity of violence that seems to soak the pages of the Hebrew Bible, and more recently the Qur’an, belongs to other centuries: it’s been done.  It’s good for a laugh, or a gasp, not for a lesson.
And a final thing. If the contemporary atheist is really interested in the harmful effects of religion, he is up against two truisms that run counter to evolutionary wisdom: the adaptability and survival of religion, despite texts and practices assumed to be harmful to human society, and the fact that atheism has so far struggled unsuccessfully to replace religion with a new diagram of human values.  Unlike Alvin Plantinga, I don’t regard these phenomena as real facts, as “evidential” of the truth of religion, or as reliable justifications of religion based on common sense.  This is because I haven’t the foggiest idea of what it means for religion to be “true” in the sense analytic philosophy comprehends the term.
But I do have idea of what values religion expresses idiomatically and crudely in ways that have occasionally challenged the human imagination.  If religion has a survivability quotient, that can be expressed in evolutionary terms, it is a human quotient.  In their independent ways, the atheist Julian Huxley and the believer Teilhard got that much right.

Blessed are the peacemakers...
I personally believe that the survival of religion can be explained in purely rational ways, and with no guarantee of lifespan.  I also happen to believe that atheism, if it is an informed and historically critical atheism–aware of its own past as well as of the religious past from which it artificially emerges–can develop new templates for human value that test the imagination in the same way that the interpretation of images and artefacts from the human past test, and are resolved in, the imagination through religion.
The elevation of atheism from opinion to something of much greater consequence begins when we see that belief and unbelief are aspects of the same reality.   Looked at in the starkest light, belief is only the other side of unbelief.  It is not a distinction that has the valence of right and wrong. It is pretty clear which came first, what images became dominant, which ones were lost in wars, through subjugation, and by assimilation.  Just like your family album when images were scarce, real and not easily improvable, the total picture of religion that the atheist is called upon to interpret is complex and requires a thoughtful charting of the distance between the rarefied image and the inquirer, a conversation between past and present which is more than an indictment of crimes.  It requires, as Gauguin said about imagination, “shutting your eyes in order to see.”

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Arguments Against Atheism

As an atheist, you will occasionally meet a non-atheist who wishes to argue against your belief system. If you are interested in discussing the matter, you may want to prepare yourself by learning these simple responses to common anti-atheist arguments.
The Bible says that atheism is wrong.
"The Bible also says some guy's donkey talked."
If you believe in God and are wrong, then it's no big deal, but if you don't believe in God and are wrong, you'll be punished eternally, so it's not a good idea to be an atheist.
"What if you're wrong that God prefers unthinking self-righteous toadies to honest people who try and live a good life?"
Deep down you really believe in God.
"Deep down, you really don't believe that."
You're only saying you're an atheist to rebel against authority.
"And if the Beatles grew long hair to rebel against authority, then they really had no hair -- is that what you're saying?"
You probably are an atheist because you had a bad experience as a child.
"You probably worship God because you hate your real father."
There are no atheists in foxholes.
"Probably because we have less excuses to start wars."
If you don't believe in God, you'll go to Hell!
"If you don't stop believing in God right now, I'll punch you in the face."
Why are you mad at God?
"Because he's supposed to be all good but he doesn't even have the common decency to exist."
Atheists are Satanic.
"Just like theists are agnostic?"
Without God there is no morality.
"Are we talking about the God that ordered Moses to kill babies and asked people to set animals on fire because he liked the smell?"
God is perfect, and He couldn't be perfect if He didn't exist, which proves that He exists.
"No, it just proves he isn't perfect."
People who follow Jesus are good, so you should follow Jesus.
"Chemotherapy can cure cancer, so everyone should have chemotherapy."
Jesus was either a liar, a crazy person, or the son of God. He spoke against liars, and his behavior wasn't crazy, so the only remaining possibility is that he was the son of God.
"So you're telling me that if a polite, honest-looking, well-spoken, nicely dressed man walked up to you on the street and introduced himself as the earthly incarnation of God, you'd figure he probably is? Have you considered the possibility that you're the one who is crazy?"
There were eye witnesses that Jesus worked miracles.
"There are eye witnesses that Bigfoot exists, Uri Geller works miracles, and aliens abduct people."
Most people who know about Jesus believe in Him.
"If most people jumped off a bridge..."
I know from personal experience that God exists.
"No he doesn't. He told me so himself."
God wants you to believe in him without rational proof.
"Then he's certainly doing a fine job of not tempting me with evidence."
You say you don't believe that God exists, but the word "God" is meaningless if there is no such thing, so you are admitting that God exists even as you deny his existence.
"That reminds me, I don't believe you owe me $100."
Hitler was an atheist.
"I don't know about Hitler's religion, but I do know that he was heterosexual, so can I assume you're against that, too?"
Einstein believed in God. Do you think you're smarter than Einstein?
"If he believed in God, yes."
The founding fathers intended the United States to be a Christian nation. Atheists aren't welcome.
"Are you sticking with the whole 'slavery' thing, too?"
The universe is so complex that someone must have designed it.
"I don't know -- that sentence was fairly complex but there was obviously not much thought behind it."
Atheists believe in evolution, but if we teach our children evolution in public school they will believe that they are no better than animals and will grow up immoral.
"I've met public school children. Most of them aren't any better than animals."
Evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.
"No, but God does."
Well, evolution's only a theory.
"So's your old man."
How can you not believe in Jesus Christ when the evidence is overwhelming?
"Well, Jesus's divinity is only a theory."
There's proof that God exists, like the Bible and miracles.
"If your twenty-year-old son still believes in Santa Claus because he read a book about Santa visiting and presents magically appeared on Christmas morning when he was a child, would you praise him for having faith in the face of overwhelming evidence or call him an idiot?"
My parents raised me to believe in God. Are you calling my parents liars?
"Can we talk about the Tooth Fairy for a minute?"
There are so many wonderful things in the world, how can you say there is no God?
"It's really pretty easy: 'There is no god.' See?"
There is so much beauty in the world that only God could have created it.
"My wife's beautiful, and my mother-in-law made her."
If there is no Heaven, then where do you go when you die?
"The same place you were before you were conceived, I assume."
You can't prove God doesn't exist.
You don't know everything.
"Do you?"
You can't see air, but you believe in it.
"I can't see ignorance, but I can smell it. Right now, in fact."
You can't see love, but you believe in it.
"And I agree that god, like love, is just a concept."
God made His image appear in this tortilla!
(Eats tortilla)
You call yourself an atheist but you have faith. Everyone has faith in something.
"I have faith that this conversation isn't going anywhere. Bye!"