Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Religion’s Double Bind

All religions are caught in a bind. A bind none can escape and dooms them whichever option they chose. The bind is at the core of all practicing religions and cannot be ignored. The bind is over the unignorable question of what to do about non-believers. How should churches view those who do not agree with them? It is considered cruel to threaten them with Hell yet if they do not they are implying their rules do not matter. There is no third option that is both compassionate while maintaining the integrity of the church. Either way, religion loses.

Non-believers were traditionally persecuted and it was assumed they were all going to Hell. Apparently punishment in the next life was not enough, so people who did not match the ruler’s religion were persecuted and suppressed. Christians persecuted Muslims, Muslims persecuted Christians and everyone persecuted the Jews. The history of the Middle Ages until the Age of Enlightenment is essentially a history of religious wars. It is for this reason that most countries had only one religion. The Inquisition is the most famous example of the suppression of non-believers with public burnings, but there are countless others.

From the 19th century or so onwards, the persecution eased up and moved to less violent forms of repression. Laws were still based on the dominant religions teachings and minority religions often had fewer rights. To be a non-believer justified poor treatment, harassment and second class citizenship. Even into the middle of the 20th century, Catholics were still told that Protestants were going to Hell for not belonging to the “One True Church”. This is still believed by many fundamentalists of all religions and persecution is still rife in many parts of the world.

At this point many religious people may object, saying I am relying on the common Atheist tactic of focusing of the extremes. They argue that while the Church in the past could be brutal and repressive, the modern Church kind and tolerant, willing to embrace all walks of life. This modern religion claims love as its central doctrine. It holds little against Muslims or Jews anymore and instead embraces diversity. Many priests now say that God loves all people and even people from other religions can go to Heaven. Pope Francis even went as far as to say that Atheists can go to Heaven if they are good people.

However, this causes a serious problem for religion. You see the whole point of organised religion is that interprets holy books and provides rules for people that supposedly came from God. If being a member of that religion is not important, than you are implying that its rules are not important. If someone who isn’t Catholic can still go to Heaven and enjoy all the same benefits in the afterlife, then what is the point of the Catholic Church? Surely you can then disregard everything the priests say and ignore all the rules without being any worse off. If being a good person is the only requirement for entry to Heaven, then religion is obsolete.

Of course, a religious person would contest this and argue that it is necessary to obey at least some of the rules. They would believe their church plays some necessary role that requires some obedience. However, to do this we must then assume that non-Catholics (or whichever religion) cannot enter Heaven or at least not on equal terms. For organised religion to have any validity there must be some degree of exclusion.

Of course this is grossly unfair (as most religious people would agree). Religion is like nationality, it is almost never chosen but rather inherited from your parents and based on where you live. People are Catholic or Muslim or Hindu, not because they have examined all the religions of the world and found one that best suits their worldview, but because they were born in Colombia or Libya or India. Most people know next to nothing about other religions and thus it would be exceedingly cruel to punish them for something they never encountered. To say everyone who is not a member of your religion will go to Hell, is equivalent to condemning 85% of the world to eternal suffering just due to where they happened to be born.

So religion is stuck between a rock and a hard place. It would be horrendously cruel and intolerant to condemn all those of different religions to Hell due to the luck of birth, yet to fail to do so undermines the sacredness of their rules and teachings. Religion must be exclusive or meaningless. Either intolerant or irrelevant. Religious readers, take your pick.

Evelyn McHale: A Beautiful Death on 33rd Street

The Empire State Building shortly after its completion in 1931.
When the Empire State Building officially opened in 1931, it was an engineering marvel: by far the tallest structure on the planet, and built in just 16 months during the depths of the Great Depression. Though the weak economy caused it to sit almost empty for many of its earlier years, the building’s lofty observation deck drew crowds in immense numbers. In fact, the building’s owners made roughly as much in observation deck ticket sales during its first operational year as it collected from office rentals in the tower itself.

Women on the Empire State Building’s 86th floor observation deck in the 1940s. Note the low guard rail.
The observation decks on the 86th and 103rd floors were an instant hit. Tourists and locals alike happily took rides in the building’s sleek high-speed elevators hundreds of feet above the street to absorb the breathtaking views, which on clear days, stretched all the way to Connecticut.

NY Times, November 5, 1932
But the building also became rather quickly known for something far more tragic. One by one, people in their darkest moments ascended to its upper decks, climbed over the railing, and threw themselves to the ground far below. Many ended up landing on the roof of one of the building’s many setbacks on their way down. At least one woman was actually blown back onto the observation deck by a strong gust of wind, and survived. But some cleared the building completely and sailed all the way down to the pavement, more than 1,000 feet away.

Evelyn Francis McHale
Evelyn Francis McHale was born in Berkeley, California, on September 20, 1923, the 6th of 7 children born to Vincent and Helen McHale. In 1930, the family moved to Washington D.C. for Vincent’s job, but within a few years, Helen moved out of the house for unknown reasons. Vincent retained custody of their 7 children, and later moved with them to Tuckahoe, New York, where Evelyn attended high school.
After graduation, Evelyn joined the Women’s Army Corps, and was stationed in Jefferson, Missouri. It was reported by friends that when she left the Corps, she burned her uniform. She moved to Baldwin, New York, on Long Island, where she lived with her brother and his wife, and she got a job as a bookkeeper at the Kitab Engraving Company on Pearl Street in the Financial District of Manhattan.
During this time, Evelyn met a young former Airman by the name of Barry Rhodes, who was a student at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, about 90 minutes west of New York. The two were soon engaged, but a shadow seemed to hang over Evelyn. In the Spring of 1946, she served as a bridesmaid in Barry’s brother’s wedding. After the ceremony, she ripped off her dress, declaring, “I never want to see this again,” and burned it like she had done with her A.W.C. uniform.
On April 30, 1947, Evelyn took the train from New York to Easton to visit Barry for his 24th birthday. All seemed well between the couple, and the next day, Barry kissed his fiance goodbye as she boarded the 7:00 AM train to Penn Station. “When I kissed her goodbye, she was happy and as normal as any girl about to be married.” Their wedding was set to be held at Barry’s brother’s home in Troy, New York, that June.

The Hotel Governor Clinton, ca 1932
(Columbia University Library)
What was really running through Evelyn’s mind that morning, no one will likely ever know. Upon arriving in Manhattan, she left Penn Station and walked across the street to the Governor Clinton Hotel at 31st Street and 7th Avenue. She obtained a room, and set about writing a note. It read (strike-throughs included), “I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me. My fiance asked me to marry him in June. I don’t think I would make a good wife for anybody. He is much better off without me.  Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.”
She folded her note, and tucked it into her small purse along with a few dollars, her make-up, and some family photos. At 10:30 AM, she walked to the Empire State Building, and purchased a ticket to its famous 86th-floor observatory. She slipped off her coat and placed it along with her pocketbook on the floor against the railing. And she jumped.

The entrance of the Empire State Building, 1931
That morning, Patrolman John Morrissey was directing traffic at 34th Street and 5th Avenue. At 10:40 AM, he noticed a white scarf fluttering down from the upper reaches of the tower. Just a moment later, the day’s serenity was interrupted by a terrific crash that sounded like an “explosion.” A crowd formed on 33rd Street beneath the building as pedestrians swarmed to see what had happened.

Robert C Wiles
Lying on her back, clutching a strand of pearls at her neck, Evelyn looked to be resting peacefully. Were it not for the fact that she was nestled snugly into the crushed roof of a United Nations Assembly Cadillac, she could even be mistaken for being asleep. But the poor woman, just 23 years old, was dead. A young photography student by the name of Robert C. Wiles happened to be across the street at the time of her demise. Stunned by her beauty, even in death, he snapped a photo of her just 4 minutes after her crash. Almost overnight, she became a pop culture icon: a symbol of tragic beauty.

Evelyn incorrectly labeled as 20 years old.
NY Times, May 2, 1947
Evelyn’s sister, Helen , fulfilled the task of identifying her body. Per her wishes, she was cremated and there is no grave dedicated to her. But she lives on through that iconic photo of her final moment. First published in the May, 1947 issue of LIFE Magazine, it has been discussed and reproduced for decades. Even Andy Warhol produced a series of pieces inspired by Robert C. Wiles’ photo of Evelyn.

Andy Warhol, from his “Death and Disaster Series,” 1962-67
Evelyn was the 5th suicide or attempt from the Empire State Building within a 3-week period in 1947. In response to her death and its publicity, the building erected a much taller fence to deter would-be jumpers, and they now train security guards to recognize the signs of a potential suicide case attempting to climb the building. Despite everything, more than 30 people have ended their lives in this way since the tower’s construction, including one distraught construction worker.
It seems that Evelyn’s wish for there to be “no remembrance” of her is never to be fulfilled. The romance of her story and her morbid glamor live on in the imaginations of generations who, perhaps, see a little bit of themselves in this tragic bride-to-be.

Evelyn’s photo in LIFE Magazine, May, 1947

How Did All The Animals Fit On Noah’s Ark?

If anyone ever claims the Bible is completely true and a book to be taken seriously, I’ll point to the story of Noah’s Ark. This story demolishes any claims Christians may have that the Bible is true, that God is just or religion makes any sense. It is a ridiculous and preposterous tale that is almost too easy to knock down. But it shouldn’t be. Christians aren’t idiots they should recognise how little sense the story makes and drop it. We shouldn’t teach children this daft story based on the extermination of humanity. We shouldn’t blindly accept the story, but instead question it and ask, how did all the animals fit on Noah’s Ark?

The story begins on a strange note that sets the scene. Apparantly the “Sons of God” married the “daughters of men” and also “there were giants in the Earth in those days.” I’m sorry but no story involving people marrying giants or angels or whoever the sons of God are (isn’t Christianity based on the belief that Jesus is the only son of God?) can possibly be taken seriously. This apparently meant everyone on Earth was evil and doing wicked things (no explanation was given of what these things were so we can only guess). God decided that the only way to solve this vague problem was to kill every living thing on Earth! Talk about over reaction. Could he not simply have given them a talking to? After all this was supposedly before the time of Moses and Abraham so God hadn’t given any rules or commandments. Was genocide really the only solution?

It should be obvious that not every single person on Earth was evil. Were the children and babies evil? Did they deserve to die? How can you look at an entire people and declare them all evil? Isn’t that what Hitler did? He decided that all the Jews were evil and had to be exterminated. So did God. Not only that but all the animals who obviously weren’t evil would also die. Surely he could have destroyed people in a less crude way then a flood? Surely it would be less barbaric to simply convince people of the error of their ways than exterminate all life? Who thought this would be a good story for children?
God made an exception and decided that Noah and his family would be spared if they built an Ark and took two of every animal on board. (This is complicated by the fact that the Bible contradicts itself and says that he brought seven of each clean animal and seven of each bird, forgetting that God hadn’t yet distinguished between clean and unclean animals.) Now it should be obvious that are some problems with this story, namely that there isn’t a boat big enough to fit all the animals of the world on board. First of all how did all these animals reach Noah’s Ark? How did the penguins or the kangaroos (who can’t swim) arrive? Christians claim that all the animals came to Noah through some God given migration instinct. But how did they survive the journey? Animals have specific diets, so if they moved location they probably would not have access to it and starve. Travelling the length of the globe is a journey few animals could make, they simply don’t have the endurance. They would have to travel through foreign climates and expose themselves to diseases and animals that they had no defence mechanism against. Surely it’s obvious to point out that having the entire animal kingdom converge on a single spot is going to cause lots of problems?

How did all the animals fit on board? Scientists have named almost 2 million species, but all agree that this is only a tiny fraction of the true amount as there could be between 5 and 30 million species. Obviously they couldn’t all fit on the boat, especially when we know how big it actually was. How were the animals stored, after all many animals eat each other and therefore would have to be kept separate? What about the vast quantities of food that would have to be stored to feed them. What about the carnivores who will only eat fresh meat? Some snakes only eat living animals, was there a stock of live mice on board as food? What about herbivores who only eat plants, how was there food kept fresh for the entire year they were at sea? What was to prevent food from spoiling? What about cleaning up after the animals, how could only 8 people tend to thousands of animals when zoos have staffs of hundreds to deal with smaller numbers? What about ventilation and sunlight? Thousands of animals tightly packed into a confined space is a situation rife for disease. Few animals are able to adjust to captivity even where it mimics their natural life. How could they survive in dark, cramped conditions? How were animals from incredibly cold climates stored together with animals from incredibly hot climates? If a single animal died, that entire specie would go extinct. If the margin of error is zero, what happens if something goes wrong?

Christians try to get around this by claiming that insects were not brought on board (as most species are insects this greatly reduces the number). However, if they weren’t on board then they would have drowned and we wouldn’t have any insects today. They claim that the animals were infants when they were brought on board, therefore taking up less space. But infants need their parents to mind them and teach them how to survive. How else will they know what food to eat and how to avoid predators? Infants are also the most likely to catch disease and be the victim of predators, so are not the best choice for the future of a species. Christians also argue that not every animal was on board but rather one from each family group. So instead of the hundreds of different varieties of snakes, there was simply two snakes. In order to believe this you must believe evolution can occur in an extremely short space of time, only a few thousand years in this case. Evolutionary scientists know this is impossible which is why it is strange to hear creationists argue evolution didn’t happen, except in this case.
Another pseudo-scientific argument is based on comparing how many sheep you can fit into a rail carriage. The author fails to realise that not all animals are sheep. Sheep are docile and do not fight even when in confined spaces. Most animals are not like this and will probably fight. The necessity of separating animals means you cannot squash them together. While you can compact sheep for short journeys, you cannot keep them like that for a year. Animals need to move around, have fresh air, and sunlight or they will die. A year of no movement, possibly in the dark, would leave them in a greatly weakened state and prone to disease.

There are various other problems. For example, it is claimed that sea life would be fine as they would not be affected by a flood. This ignores the obvious fact that some fish live in fresh water and others live in salt water. A giant flood would upset this balance and kill a great many of the fish. The rising ocean level would also significantly change marine life’s environment and cause great disturbance. Life that bases itself in shallow water would also probably be destroyed. What about bacteria? Most bacteria cannot survive under water so it must have been on the ark. Likewise for disease, many of which require a human host. Noah and his family must have been riddled with disease.

Wooden boats are not that resilient and sunk quite easily by modern standards. What are the chances that a wooden boat built by a single family who may not have had any experience could survive the greatest flood in history? The Bible says that the flood covered even the highest mountain. If the Ark was higher than Mount Everest, then no one on board would be able to breath as the air is too thin. They would also freeze to death (ever wonder why there’s also snow on top of mountains? It’s extremely cold up there). Where did all the rain come from? The Bible says the window of Heaven was opened, but what does that mean? After the flood where did the water go? Enough water to cover Mount Everest could hardly just soak into the ground or evaporate. (There is also a scientific point that that much water would completely mess up the atmosphere and make it impossible to breathe).

What happened after the flood? When the animals were released, how did they know where to go? How did they get from Mesopotamia to the Amazon? What did they eat considering all the plant life would be dead after a year under water? What did the carnivores eat if killing a single animal would cause that species to go extinct? How could anything grow if the entire Earth is covered in sediment? There would have been no fresh water anywhere on Earth so all life would have died. Scientists reckon that any species that contains less than 20 members will go extinct, so how did only 2 animals in each species repopulate the Earth? Surely this would have required mass inbreeding that would genetically destroy a species? If Noah’s family were the only humans left, did they have to commit generation of incest to repopulate the Earth?

The best creationist response I could find was that the Earth was very different back then. They argue that there was only one continent and one climate that allowed easy migration. Or that animals had different features back then, so sloths may have actually have been fast at migrating (otherwise it would have taken generations for them to reach the Ark). Animals that have very specific diets now could have had broader palates. There is a lot of preposterous nonsense like the claim that kangaroos could have already been living in Mesopotamia. There is a strong hint of desperation and clutching at straws.

There is one possible answer to this. God could have used magic. He could have used magic to bring all the animals to the Ark, magic to make them fit on the Ark, magic to keep them alive for the duration, magic to feed them and magic to help them repopulate the Earth. The problem is that if every single step of the story requires magic, isn’t it more likely that the story didn’t happen? If he is going to use magic why build an Ark? Why not create a force field around what he wants to save and then kill the rest, instead of waiting a year? Why not just give all the evil people a heart attack and save the trouble? If everything has to die, why not recreate it afresh?

The story ends with Noah sacrificing some animals to God (what was the point of keeping them for a year). God then decides that exterminating all humanity in the world’s greatest genocide isn’t such a good idea and promises not to do again. As a reminder he creates the rainbow. This might have made sense to whoever wrote the Bible, but scientists know that rainbows come from the refraction of sunlight, if before the Flood, light didn’t refract sight would be impossible as that is how we see.

So there we have it. The most ridiculous and preposterous story that cannot possibly be taken seriously. It is a silly story about genocide and mass extermination that for some reason some people still take seriously. It didn’t happen. The Bible is not true. If this story isn’t true, then there is a good chance a lot of the other stories aren’t either. If God commits genocide he probably isn’t a loving being. It’s time to face facts, Noah’s Ark wasn’t real.

If you want to see more creationists attempts (and failings) to explain the flood see Answers in Genesis and Creation.com. For the most detailed and through criticism of every aspect of the story of Noah’s Ark see Problems With A Global Flood, while Atheism wikia is also good.