Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Reason

It's that time of year again, isn't it.  The time when we come together as family and friends and express our love and appreciation toward each other.  Many of us celebrate family traditions of one type or another in a festive and happy atmosphere.  There are some, however, who are frothing at the mouth and angry over how others choose to spend these several weeks in the middle of winter.  They are the ones who rant about "the reason for the season" and how everyone is ruining the "true meaning of Christmas".

What these folks fail to realize is that most of what they believe constitutes the "true meaning" is actually an aggregation of many different traditions and rituals from multiple religions, pagan customs, and secular sources.

Deck the Halls
Take for instance, the iconic Christmas tree. The practice of cutting down a tree and bringing it indoors during the cold winter nights is derived from several solstice traditions. The Romans decked their halls with garlands of laurel and placed candles in live trees to decorate for the celebration of Saturnalia. In Scandinavia, apples were hung from evergreen trees at the winder solstice in remembrance that spring and summer will come again. The evergreen tree itself was the special plant of their sun god, Baldor. In fact, the Christian bible expressly forbids believers to practice this tradition or act like the pagans do.  As late as 1800, devout Christian sects like the Puritans forbade the celebration of Christmas because it was thought of as a pagan holiday.

Mistletoe, another iconic "Christmas" tradition, finds its roots as an ancient Druid custom during the winter solstice, complete with the concept of kissing underneath it. Mistletoe was considered a divine plant and it symbolized love and peace.

The Scandinavian solstice traditions had a lot of influences on our celebration besides the hanging of ornaments on evergreen trees. Their ancient festival of Yuletide celebrated the return of the sun, during which the Yule log (the center of the trunk of a tree) was dragged to a large fireplace where it was supposed to burn for twelve days.

Oh Holy Night
The "birth of the sun" was an integral part in ancient times, because the concept of year-around food was unattainable. The hope of an early spring and the return of long days of bright warm sunlight were things anyone eeking out a meager existence in freezing cold climates with no central heating would wish for.  The early Christian church was tired of trying to get the pagan believers to stop celebrating the birth of Mithras, the Persian sun god (a deity of light and truth). So in 320 C.E., Pope Julius formally selected December 25 as the official birthday of Christ, to circumvent Mithraism.  If Jesus was born at all, it would likely have been some time midsummer.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Even our traditions of Santa Claus have little, if nothing, to do with Christianity.  The 14th century St. Francis of Assisi is the likely model of Santa, a benevolent character who is popular for giving gifts to the poor and needy, mainly women and children. The name Santa Claus is derived from the Sinter Klass, which is the Dutch pronunciation for St. Nicholas, who is said to be the patron saint for many groups of people including children, orphans, thieves, sailors, students, pawnbrokers and countries like Russia and Greece. He did a lot of work to spread Christianity among the people of Rome.  This may be part of the reason why Santa Claus is similar in nature to the stories of Jesus, and the legends and myths that expound from such historical events can easily become pseudohistory for those who do not wish to investigate it.  Flying reindeer too likely come from Norse legends of Thor flying through the sky in a chariot pulled by magical goats called Gnasher and Cracker.

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
The Roman celebration of Saturnalia provides a large part of our modern traditions, including large feasts and gift-giving.  The pre-Christian holiday of merriment honored Saturus, the god of seed and sowing. The festival was marked by the exchange of good-luck charms and other gifts, and great feasting in which even the slaves would be allowed to participate.  God bless us, every one indeed.

The Reason
Many of our current traditions began more than 4000 years ago, and even their beginnings were more than likely the result of other superstition and traditional beliefs that came before them.  So the next time you hear about how Walmart or atheism is destroying the meaning of Christmas, remember this: the SEASON is the reason for the season, not a bronze-age myth that has been formed out of the debris of myths that preceded it. After all, you're not a Celtic who takes to animal sacrifice to ward off evil spirits, right? So why celebrate Halloween? And, you don't hunt colored eggs or eat chocolate bunnies to celebrate the fertility and advent of springtime in honor of the Saxon goddess Eostre or the Norse equivalent Ostara, do you? So why celebrate Easter?  And even if you don't want to celebrate the birth of America, having a reason for picnicking and shooting fireworks is enough to party on July 4, isn't it?

For whatever your holiday, for whatever your reason, at the bare minimum you should acknowledge it as a time to be close to the one's you love, because we're all only here for a little while.  Have a great solstice, everyone!  And may the New Year bring you joy, peace, and reason.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Season's Greetings

I just wanted to stop by and wish everyone a festive and happy holiday season.  I've got a lot on my plate, not counting the additional stress/workload of the holidays.  I'll be writing again before long, but in the meantime have a look through some of my past holiday blog posts, like

Be safe, be happy, and take care of each other.  I'll talk to you soon.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Pickin' Cherries

Do you like Red Lobster?  What about homosexuals?

Most bible-believing Christians don't realize that the same chapter that condemns homosexuality also prohibits eating shellfish.  The point being that many Christians (as well as believers of other religions) pick and choose what they believe.  They'll say "well, that was the Old Testament" whenever atrocities such as genocide, rape, incest, slavery, or murder are brought up.  Yet, they'll cite things such as the Ten Commandments or the condemnation of homosexuals without care that they're referencing the very same Old Testament.

I've been thinking a lot about this buffet-style approach to faith recently, and I'm sorta on the fence.  One the one hand -- and this is probably due to an afterglow of my once held faith -- but I generally tend to look down on wishy-washy believers.  (Here's an old semi-tongue-in-cheek post on moderates.)  They can't commit to the whole meal that they ordered with their chosen faith.  It's like saying you're a KKK member only because they have great barbecue parties, and ignoring "all that bad stuff" they do.  They can't stomach the evil or idiotic doctrines in their faith, so they pretend like they're not there.

To me, you should be aware of the where and the why for the things you believe about your god.  Those who claim to be "not religious but spiritual" come to mind here. It's strange to think that someone can have all these words, phrases, and ideas without realizing where those things originated, regardless of how much the believer alters them on their own.  In a way, it's just rebooting and rebranding a story, and I guess that tends to irk me (thanks, Hollywood).

On the other hand, I see it as the only possible way a sane human being can live in this day and age and still believe in the nonsense of religion.  As Matt Dillahunty frequently points out, science has dragged religion kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.  Just look at Galileo, the man that proved the earth rotated around the sun and was not, as the Church vehemently claimed, at the center of the universe.  Now, in the modern world where things like the germ theory of disease and the heliocentric theory are practically common knowledge, you see religious people trying to claim that they had it right all along, and that those other people weren't True Believers™.  Religious people in the modern civilized world are bearing such a huge cognitive dissonance that they almost always have to cherry-pick parts of their faith's cannon in order to function.  Imagine a religious doctrine that goes something along the lines of "Water can't freeze.  Everything in this book is the word of the creator of the universe, and is 100% correct."  Now think of the mental hoops that someone living today would have to jump through in order to adhere to that belief and still be an otherwise rational, sane person.  When you know for a fact that certain claims made by religions can be proven wrong to a monumentally high degree of certainty, but you believe with all your heart that the evidence is contradicted by what you think is the direct word of God, there are only so many ways the situation can resolve itself.

For many, realizing those claims are a mix of fairy tales, folklore, misunderstandings, allegories, and attempts by ignorant people to explain nature is enough to drop the "100% Truth" label altogether.  For others, their interpretation concludes with some of it being allegory and some being truth, and the current unknowns get to remain "true" until science show them to be otherwise, then they get become "allegory-all-along" in the believers mind without skipping a beat.  The moment science advances and shuts a gap that God had previously filled, the believer must either accept reality or ignore it.  Often enough, once ignoring it becomes impossible, they claim their religion had it right all along.

So yeah, I find myself coming down on both sides: you should be a fundamentalist if you're going to believe in a thing.  Don't half-ass it; try to understand everything it encompasses and do everything that entails.  On the other hand, it's a good thing to be a moderate believer.  You're showing that you're not a complete nut-ball, and that you understand how reality can be determined.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

It's The Cheesiest!

Do you watch Glee? I do...religiously. (What I did there, did you see it?) While I would consider myself a Gleek, I realize that the show doesn't appeal to everyone.  The cheesiness over-the-top caricatures are too much for a lot of you.  So if I'm going to talk to you about Glee, I'll need to be sensitive to those who are not fans.

But why am I talking about Glee?

Well, last night's episode dealt with religion, a topic that many successful television shows either fail to tackle or handle so incredibly poorly that you're left screaming at the TV.  The Glee episode in question had potential that wasn't entirely fulfilled and at the same time wasn't entirely horrendous.  Since the show's staples are an often grating mix of satire and blunt honesty, I was prepared and able to decipher the parodied character types and stereotypical situations to get to the messages in the episode.  And those messages weren't all that bad.

NOTE: There will be spoilers, so if you're a fan who hasn't seen the episode yet, you might wanna skip this post.  Try this one instead.  Also, I realize this is a long post but hey, I've barely written in a while.  Be happy!

I knew that the episode had potential when I read its title: "Grilled Cheezus".  Finn Hudson, co-captain of the high school glee club, makes himself a grilled cheese sandwich upon which he thinks he sees the face of Jesus.  After eating half of it (he was hungry, after all), he makes three wishes to the remaining Cheezus. I told you the show is over-the-top with the zaniness.  When these wishes start coming true, Finn professes his belief in Christianity and asks that he give praise to God through the glee club song selections.

Meanwhile the show's openly gay character, Kurt Hummel, is devastated when his father suffers a heart attack.  Most of his friends in the glee club are of some faith, so they immediately set upon him during this trying time, urging him to seek comfort in God.  It is at this point we learn that Kurt is also an atheist (by some definitions, a "strong atheist" -- he says he knows there is no God).

Let me step back and address some of what's already running through my mind at this point.
  1. The satirical situation of Finn finding Jesus on a sandwich is hilarious and a great way to show that the writers of the show find that sort of idea ripe for parody.
  2. Oh boy, they're portraying an atheist on prime-time TV!  Too bad that usually leads to gross misrepresentation.
  3. The believers on the show are already coming at this situation the wrong way, in my opinion.  But they're believers, that's what they do.
Since the show constantly makes stereotypical characterizations, I'm so far okay with the way the religious and non-religious characters have been depicted.  Not all believers behave in this fashion, and neither do nonbelievers. Yes, I said "nonbelievers"...plural.  Cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester is an atheist too!

Holy shit!  Not only one but TWO nonbelievers on a popular show?!  WOW.

Yeah, let's not get too happy just yet.  Let's see how they handle themselves first.

We atheists don't believe for different reasons.  While many, like myself, are nonbelievers for intellectual reasons, some don't believe out of being misinformed, misanthropic, or having had something terrible happen in their past.  Sue seems to be the latter kind.  Her sister has Down syndrome and Sue's personal way of handling the problem of evil is to, in effect, "blame God" for letting her sister contract (or inflecting her with) her condition.  Like I said, we're atheists for different reasons, and while I think the problem of evil is truly a valid philosophical issue that is irreconcilable with a loving god, Sue's rejection of belief isn't couched in philosophy.  She can't explain the reasoning behind why such a problem is indeed a problem that points to evidence against a traditional idea of God.  Instead, she's angry with the idea that such a god would even do such a thing, and as a child her prayers for her sister went unanswered, therefore there must not be a God.  Sue doesn't want to be a nonbeliever.  Her sister tells her "God doesn't make mistakes" and offers to pray for Sue, to which she happily agrees.  She wants to have this same peace that her sister has.

So while I'm not going to go into a no-true-Scotsman rant about how Sue isn't a true atheist, I will state that this portrayal of atheism in entertainment media is as old as time.  No wonder we nonbelievers are bombarded by religious people asking questions like "so what happened in your past that made you so mad at God?" or "who hurt you?" or "why do you feel like God let you down?"  Makes me wanna scream.

But back to the recap.  So Kurt's dad is in the hospital, comatose.  Kurt has been pelted with pleas to find strength in faith, as the other kids sing gospel and spiritually-laden songs.  Kurt pushes his friends away, asking them to keep their views to themselves.  Coach Sylvester urges Kurt to make a formal complaint to the school, citing church-state-separation issues.

Here's where the show makes a gross error in judgment.  Either due to Sue's own personal take on First Amendment rights or by ignorance on the part of the show's writing team, Sue claims it's a violation for the children to sing about Jesus in public school.  This is not the case.  While they do have a problem if a student complains, there is no law against such a practice.  It would only be against the law if it were teacher-lead, and we see the glee club teacher, Mr. Shue, realize this and try to tone down the religion-specific songs to just "spiritual" songs.  (If you'll recall my previous post, 67% surveyed said that teachers are not permitted to read from the bible as an example of literature, something the law clearly allows.  A lot of right-wing conservatives I've talked with falsely claim that kids can't even pray in school.  I'm wondering if Sue's tactics are based in this line of thinking.)

Throughout this episode, the views of both sides are expressed through characters' actions and dialog. There are characters who express new-age beliefs like "God is all religions" and "God exists, just not in any man-made religion".  Here are some other examples:
  • The show attempts to show different views of religious theology.  Puck and Rachel are both Jewish, Mercades and Quinn are Christians, Kurt hires a Sikh acupuncturist, and he also makes a reference to the FSM. Oh, and Kurt's version of Russell's teapot not only had me in stitches but also applauding the writers, some of whom surely either are atheists or have had intelligent conversations with one.
  • Yes, Kurt hires an acupuncturist!  I was pissed off at first, but I've come to see it like this: he's still just a kid!  He's in high school for crying out loud, and he's not (yet) a full-fledged rationalist.  And you should all know by now that being an atheist doesn't automatically make you a skeptic or critical thinker.
  • There are some great quips in the dialogue:
    • After simply stating his nonbelief, Kurt is barraged with questions like "Why don't you believe?  You can't prove there's no God!" and "We shouldn't be talking like isn't right!", Kurt politely says to his friends, "You all can believe whatever you want to, but I can't believe something I don't. I appreciate your thoughts, but I don't want your prayers."  It's also funny to see that the simple act of one person saying "I don't believe" causes an entire room full of people to start claiming they're being oppressed or silenced.
    • When guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury sits down with Sue Sylvester to ask her why she's trying to take away the other children's means of comforting Kurt in one of the shows best scenes, Sue responds with, "Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, isn't a moral thing to do.  It's cruel."  Emma retorts with, "Don't you think that's a little bit arrogant?" and Sue hits back: "It's as arrogant as telling someone how to believe in God and if they don't accept it -- no matter how openhearted or honest their decent -- that they're going to Hell.  That doesn't sound very Christian, does it?"  (I'd have to disagree here and say yes, it's perfectly Christian, as Christ is supposed to have delivered the doctrine of eternal hellfire for infidels himself.)  The riveting scene ends with Emma saying, "If that's what you believe, fine, but please keep it to yourself" and Sue replying with, "So long as you do the same."  High-five Sue!
  • Finn's eventual confession to Emma that Grilled Cheezus has granted him wishes is met with healthy skepticism and a round-about explanation of coincidences and self-fulfilling prophesy.  If only she could apply that ALL of her beliefs...oh well.  Finn finally "loses his religion", probably becoming/returning to colloquial agnosticism, and eats what's left of Grilled Cheezus.
  • Kurt finally gives in to Mercades's pleas and goes to her church with her.  This scene is important on several fronts, mainly for the episode's surprising conclusion.
As Kurt's father lays comatose, several members of the glee club ignore Kurt's wishes to keep their religion to themselves and show up at the hospital to sing gospel songs and pray.  As Mercades says, "We're each from different denominations and religions, so we figured one of us is bound to be right!"  And we're the arrogant ones?! Kurt is of course outraged and asks his friends to leave.

So far the show has been building up to a familiar pattern and I was fearing the worst.  [sarcasm on] Here we have a kid going through one of the worst times of his young life, and his friends are only trying to comfort him with their religious beliefs.  But he harshly refuses them (soooo close-minded), pushing his friends away every time they bring it up.  He obviously doesn't believe in anything, and we all know that if you don't have God then your life is an empty, hurtful void of meaninglessness.  If only he'd just give prayer a chance!  [sarcasm off]

Then comes the scene where the atheist goes to church.  From the pulpit, Mercades tells him, "I know you don't believe in God or the power of prayer and that's okay, to each his own.  But you've gotta believe in something...something more than you can touch, taste, or see, 'cause life is to hard to go through it alone without something to hold on to, without something sacred."  She and the choir then sing as Kurt ponders her words.  Oh no, I'm thinking, here we go...the immenient conversion.

At the show's conclusion, Kurt is sitting at his father's bedside, holding his hand and crying.  He tells his comatose father that he should have let his friends pray for him the other day.  Any minute now, he's gonna start praying.  But he doesn't.

I told you the conclusion was surprising.

If I'd been paying closer attention I could've caught it sooner.  The clues in the dialog...the writer's tricks laid bare for all to see, but I was too caught up in this valid attempt at a network show to seriously address religion.  You see, just before his heart attack, Kurt's dad was scolding him for planning to miss out on family dinner night, something he said was "sacred".  That word was the key, and it was planted in the first few minutes of the episode.  Kurt does believe in something sacred: love.  The love for his father, who accepted his homosexuality, and who was there for him when his mother died.  Kurt tells his father, "I don't believe in God, dad.  But I believe in you; I believe in us."

I couldn't have been more happy in that moment.  And I'm really not too let down with the show as a whole.  Like I said, I don't like how some of the arguments were handled, but I think that both sides were equally portrayed.  Nobody's ideology "won", and for every argument there was a counter argument.  Kurt says he should have let his friends pray for his dad; that it wasn't about himself, but about his father, and it was a nice gesture.  I feel the same.  When most believers say they'll pray for someone, they're not trying to be snide or arrogant, they're doing it from a place of love.  It's a nice gesture, but please, do it on your own time -- don't force it on us.  And that's what I think Kurt meant at the beginning of the show, when he told them he didn't want their prayers.  If they would have prayed in their own church services or on their own time, it would have been fine.

A lot of ideas got at least partial treatment, and for that I'm thankful.  No one converted or deconverted (except maybe Finn, but his "faith" was more of a parody to spring-board into the topic).  Of course I personally think that the believer's best arguments could have been easily crushed if the atheist characters actually put forth their own, but obviously that's not the show's goal (think of the number of viewer's they loose...and the hate-mail!).  I'm happy they at least got some of our arguments out to the general public, and that they didn't rely on the usual, misinformed portrayal of atheists.  I'm happy that it showed that atheists don't all "believe in nothing" but that we seek out the love of our friends and family in times of trouble.  And that's something we can all do, whether or not there is a god.

Since this is a show about music, I'll leave you with the apt words of Rush (from their song, Faithless):

I don't have faith in faith
I don't believe in belief
You can call me faithless

   you can call me faithless
But I still cling to hope
And I believe in love
And that's faith enough for me

   that's faith enough for me


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

We Know What We Don't Believe

A new survey given by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has shown something I have found to be pretty much the norm: atheists know more about religious than believers do.  Yeah, we know about the claims of religions -- that's why we're atheists!

Questions were asked to people of all faiths, including atheists and agnostics.  While most of the reports I've seen stat that on this survey label "atheists" as "people who say there is no god" and "agnostics" as "people who just aren't sure".  If you're a long-time reader (or someone who's remotely familiar with the issue), you'll know that those definitions aren't entirely correct.  But for the sake of this survey I'll let it slide.  The study found that that on average, most atheists and agnostics scored higher on all questions (average 21 correct out of 32 questions), while religious people scored poorly on questions about their own religion and even worse on questions about other faiths.  These were multiple-choice questions where things like, "What religion was Mother Teresa?" or "In what city was Jesus born?".

We atheists tend to be a thinking bunch.  We are generally well-educated and highly analytical.  As Pew director of research Alan Cooperman said, "[Atheists] are people who thought a lot about religion," he said. "They're not indifferent. They care about it."

And we do.  We care more about whether or not what we think is true rather than if it makes us feel good.  We want to know how the world works.  We listen to claims of religions (and scientists, politicians, ghost hunters etc.) and we think critically.  Most religious people either can't be bothered to -- or have been trained to -- not analyze what they're being told.  The just accept it as truth and repeat it.  In Brian Flemming's documentary, "The God Who Wasn't There", he asks random church-goers questions like "Have you ever heard of Dionysus?" or "Who was Mithras?" and the believers just respond with umms and aahhs and "All I know is Jesus, man; it's just all about Jesus!"

Some believers also seem to think that they can spend two minutes on the internet and are thus qualified to tell a field scientist he's wrong.  This is particularly popular with Evangelical creationists, but no believer is immune. 

So if you are a believer, ask yourself why.  Ask yourself if you can name one of Hinduism's holy texts.  Do you know who Joseph Smith is?  What were the first Ten Commandments given to Moses?  In what century was Mohammad born?  You don't have to be highly intelligent or all that educated, just learn when you don't know something, and learn how to look into it.

Actual survey here (PDF) or test yourself here.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Second Nature

Now, Tell Me What You See Here
We are pattern-seeking animals -- we have to be.  It's what keeps us alive as a species.  Avoiding danger and finding food are our rewards for successful detecting patterns.  Take Pavlov's dogs for instance.  Once they could recognize the bell had a direct correlation to food, they salivated upon hearing the bell.  They, like many sentient beings would, had a reasonable expectation that BELL = FOOD.

We're so good at detecting patterns that we can find one even where none exists.  The more certain among us are called superstitious.  Studies have shown that people tend to be more superstitious when they are in situations where they lack control.  We do what we can to influence the outcome, however trivial it may seem.  The greater the perceived lack of control, the more superstitious people tend to become.  Humans aren't the only animals to experience this, either.  Take for example Skinner's pigeons.  B. F. Skinner ran an experiment in which he placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to them at random intervals.  The birds, however, began to exhibit signs of superstitious behavior.  They appeared to think that they were somehow influencing when the treat would be delivered based on what they were doing right before the previous drop.  The pigeons were soon performing all sorts of "rituals", such as turning two times counter-clockwise, then bobbing their head back and forth and pecking the cage twice.  The birds behaved as if there were a causal relation between their behavior and the presentation of food, although no such a relation existed.  But the pigeons believed it.  I'm sure if they could talk, many would probably stand by their strong convictions even in the face of evidence.  Sounds familiar, huh?

Humans have evolved not only to perceive patterns even if there are none, but we've also evolved a sort of upgraded version of that pattern-seeking software that specializes in faces.  Again, this helps us survive.  If we can detect a face hidden in the bushes, as well as discern the faces of our family (our tribe), we stand a much better chance at survival.  Pareidolia is the phenomenon whereby we see patterns where there aren't any.  How many times have you saw a face in the wood grain of a door, wall, or desk, or seen faces in the clouds?  How many times has the likeness of Jesus or Mary appeared in toast or other places?

Oh, I See What You Did There
Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine, has coined the term "Patternicity", the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.  When doing so, two types of errors can result.  Type I errors are false positives, believing a pattern exists when it doesn't. Type II errors are false negatives, not believing a pattern isn't real when it actually is.

We want to believe, it's evolutionarily our default position.  Consider and early hominid hearing a rustle in the the hominid skeptical and thinks it's just the wind, or are they cautious and believes its a dangerous predator?  We listen when we're told by our parents or elders that, for example, don't swim in the lake because there are snakes.  We automatically listen to and believe what we're told -- we can't afford not to with a risk as high as death.

Shermer has discovered that you'll find meaningful patterns in things when the cost of making a Type II error is less than the cost of making a Type I error.  It's easier to not believe in Bigfoot (especially if you live in the city) than to not believe in Hell, because the perceived cost or personal danger is much higher.  We evolved down a path in which the more cautious survived.  In the earlier example, if the rustle in the grass was indeed only the wind, then the cost to assume it was a dangerous predator is low -- you just move away and be more observant.

It's the Everywhere
We tend to attribute agency in scenarios like this as a result.  The major difference in assuming an unknown sound in the bushes is another animal as apposed to thinking it's harmless wind is that the latter is inanimate, the predator is an intentional agent.  This is why we attribute agency to many unknown things, and why our lives are filled with ghosts, gods, angels, demons, aliens, and even malevolent government conspirators.  Things that confuse us or baffle us by their complexity often get ascribed to an agent.  And it's easy for such a thought to arise -- "She can run faster than me, and he can run faster than her...there must be someone out there that can run faster than all."  Powerful beings beget powerful ideas, and before long you have a being of ultimate speed, might, and power.  And if it's that powerful, then it must be responsible for this currently unexplained phenomenon.

These reasons make it difficult to use skepticism and science, because they're against our nature.  Studies have shown that children start to apply purpose-based meanings to things at about the time they begin to recognize man-made tools that really do serve a purpose, such as cell phones.  But science has proven itself to be the best tool we can use to determine reality.  If we can understand ourselves, if we can recognize the places where we are more prone to these kinds of errors in thinking, then we can start changing for the better.  After all, if we can find patterns so well, finding the patterns in our error-making habits should be...second nature.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Day In The Life: The Long Goodbye

A Great Loss
These past couple of weeks have borne many emotions for me, many of which I still find myself trying to deal with.  I have recently shared in the suffering of a great loss for my family.  While the passing of a loved one is never an easy thing to abide, the surviving family members can often make matters worse simply by attempting to console one another.

My stepfather's mother finally succumbed to cancer last week.  Having exhausted all medical options, she was sent home to await the inevitability we all knew would come soon.  It was both a comfort and a curse, for while the family knew that her time was short, it was good for her to be in her own home surrounded by her loved ones.  We each had the opportunity to say our final goodbyes in those last days, and this too was comforting.  It was also the hardest thing I've ever had to experience.  Nothing can compare to the heartache of leaving the room of a cognizant person whom you (and they) know you'll never see again.

MASSively Unnecessary
Yet most (I dare say all, save my wife and I) think that we will indeed see Grandmother again.  She belonged to a catholic church for the last 40 years of her life, an obvious venue for her funeral.  The large church was complete with the trappings of the catholic faith: the holy water, candles, lavish alter under a huge statue of Jesus nailed to the cross and solemnly looking skyward.  The three priests wore their adorned coats and were catered to by alter girls while they performed their sorcery and chanted their rituals.  All of this I held in silent contempt for the respect of my family and their loss.

On that day, I didn't abhor these religious people for their belonging to a group of respected pedophiles, nor for their tedious adherence to strict, formal worshiping practices, nor for their ignorance .  On that day, I detested them for their complete disregard of the loss this family had suffered.  If you've never been to a catholic funeral, here's what to expect: a few amazingly beautiful and sad songs, several readings of scripture, each followed by a collective "Thanks be to God" from a seemingly entranced congregation of sheep.  Then the priests will perform a long ritual whereby they take turns putting this ingredient into that chalice, kneeling, saying magic words and gesturing like a Vegas performer until finally they transform a cracker into flesh and then eat it.  Once you realize how sick that sounds, you'll understand the discomfort of someone like me watching all this play out.  Then the congregation may come up and partake in this cannibalistic practice -- that is, those who've had the proper training.  Apparently, if one were to engage in any of these sacraments without the said training, one's head may just catch fire (or some equally frightful thing).  Afterward comes more chanting and praying, until finally the casket is brought up and is blessed with smoke in a fashion similar to what a jungle shaman might employ.

In all of this, you're lucky if you get five minutes worth of mentioning the deceased and what their life meant.  I will say that what the Monsignor said about Grandmother was apropos and brought tears to my eyes.  But this brief mention was overshadowed by the rites and practices of making sure you bow this way and say these exact words and do this and that to make sure YOU get into heaven and don't piss God off, that it might as well not have even been considered a funeral at all.

Of course, the reason for all this hullabaloo was, as I said earlier, was because they believe this is not the end for Grandmother, and that she either is in Paradise, was going to be there as soon as we put her in the ground, or would return on the "Last Day" (I don't think they ever decided which one it was; or like the Trinity, it was all at the same time).  I suppose that if you thought this way, then all this would be better than simply sitting around telling stories and remembering the life of selfless, kind, caring woman -- a woman who put others before herself so much that the day before she died she used the last of her strength to fill out birthday cards to friends and family up to the end of the year.  That kind of selflessness wells me up even now.  The faithful cannot claim that this is due to her catholic beliefs, for this is just the kind of person she was.  More mention of that would have been nice, instead of awkwardly sitting through a Eucharistic liturgy.

Once the procession was moved to the cemetery, there was another short ceremony where the priest of the church related a story whose moral summed up Grandmother's life, and I suppose the idea of it was apt.  After this, the priest went on to "ask God to bless the place of her burial", but I had had enough.  Me and several others went to the cemetery's family center for food and conditioned air while the rest of the throng went to watch the matriarch of the family be placed in the ground.

That Grim Specter
Throughout each of these religious ceremonies, we were asked by the priests to "comfort each other through words of faith" -- translation: "lie to each other and fill the heads of the mournful with wishful tales".  The priest also used the very familiar technique of letting the faithless know that we have no hope and that our lives are worthless without Jesus Christ.

I'm not about to launch into that triad (I'm sure you can find out what I think on the matter somewhere on here, and if not, email me).  I'll just close by reiterating the point I made earlier.  To those of us who cherish life for the special thing it is, filling the last occasion in a person's life with droning prayers and mindless rituals misses the point of the exercise entirely.

And this ties in with the second point I made regarding doing more harm by attempting to heal with religion.  It's a helpless and lonely feeling to realize that what people in this situation do to try to cope with death only makes things worse.  The fact that they can't deal with death or finality is draped across their tear-shined cheeks and soak the words they use.  These kind of situations ultimately end in self-reflection for many people in which they search their own hearts for meaning and confront the realization of their own future demise.  None of this is helped by religion.  It's not an easy thing to do by any means, but telling someone they'll see their loved one again and that they suffered and died because of some grand plan is the least comforting thing you can do.  It should be obvious that the best course of action is to look it in the face and try to understand it, not shut your eyes and ears and think of your happy place.

When I die I don't want anything remotely compared to the farce of a memorial I was present at.  Come, pray if you want (there will be no formal group-led prayers), eat crackers and proclaim they're someone's flesh, do whatever religious exercise you feel you need to -- but do them on your own time.  I simply want a small ceremony in which I am remembered.  Perhaps some writings of my could be shared, along with tales of past deeds and memories from those who wish to share.  After all, that's what it should be about, and that's the only way I'll "live on"...through the memory of those I touch.

As for Grandmother, while she held many beliefs that are at odds with my own, she certainly touched my life, and I am thankful to have known such a thoughtful, kind, loving person.  She will be missed.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Jesus is Anti-American

Well, it's the time of year when many Christians in this country become neocon patriots focused on letting everyone know how important Jesus and his daddy are to the creation of our country.  (If this generalization doesn't fit you or your situation, please tell me where you live so I can move there.)

What most Christians fail to realize, unsurprisingly, is just how anti-American Jesus actually is.

1) Jesus Is Your "Lord"

When the colonies declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain on July 4, 1776, they ceased bowing to lords.  And while many people still had "masters", the practice of subjugation was whittled down and stripped away because of the very ideals the nation was found on: the right of every human to seek happiness in life, and to have the necessary liberties needed to attain it.

The Christan religion, however, teaches that Jesus is a master and ultimate overlord to his subjects. This antiquated, small-minded idea is clearly against American values. We are a free people.  We have no lords, no masters.

2) Jesus Pervades Everything

With Jesus, it's an all-or-nothing deal.  As Bush would say, "Your either with us, or against us".  Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23 share the same sentiment.  This all-consuming approach to your religious ideologies are what drive vehicles like the Religious Right and, more importantly, becomes so pervasive that it starts seeping out into daily life.  People in power many decisions based on their religious beliefs (with exceptions, a personal favorite being JFK, who truly understood what it meant to put personal beliefs aside for the bigger picture).  But with the tunnel vision such a mind-frame puts you in, it's obvious that if God is your whole life, you'll be spreading it around everywhere you go...and indeed the practice is expressly encouraged.

The founders of America understood this.  They had been the subjects of British religious intolerance.  They didn't have a choice.  They also understood that the only way for all men to be free was to keep the business of governing separate from the business of the church -- from any church.  We can't have freedom of religion without having freedom from it, and America's separation of church and state makes that fundamental dream a reality.  It's sad and sometimes a little scary to think just how many ignorant citizens are working to change that basic idea.  They rant and rave about the men who died to give them liberty and freedom, but then bitch and moan when we want to undo the polarization effects of removing "IN GOD WE TRUST" from our currency or striking "Under GOD" from the allegiance pledge.  Do they truly know what "freedom" is?

3) The Ten Commandments vs Founding Documents

Once we get past the argument about which ten commandments are "the" Ten Commandments, we're left with the inane drivel that the nation's laws were derived from these ten lordly decrees.  I have a lengthy and perhaps vitriolic post from a few years back that deals with this very issue, so I'll direct you there.  Suffice it to say (for those of you who might be skimming these lines between rolls of your eyes) that there are zero "commandments" that became law because they were commandments.  The ones that did, such as not killing, did so with stipulations and conditional requirements -- something kingly overseers fail to consider -- and they just happened to be good ideas.  But just because a crackhead mentions it's good to put water out for your dog, does that mean you'll let him babysit you kids?  Sure, the bible got some things right but that doesn't give it a free pass to scrutiny, nor does it entail some privileged information.

The Christian nation myth will most likely abound right now, just look around.  Be sure to check local businesses for signs saying "God Bless America" too.  I just saw a local news channel show some redneck blubbering about how the nation was founded on God.  Did the "news" station provide any opposition?  What do you think?

These were just three reasons, but being free from religion, to me it's clear: the Christian religion -- the one claimed by so many to be the foundation of the United States -- does not secure the blessings of liberty to anyone.

Happy 4th!


Monday, June 14, 2010

Languidly Persisting

It would seem the New Year's high has worn off and this blog, my YouTube channel, and all my other online endeavors are suffering from a stagnation.  The lack of content is not the result of any change of heart, a sudden conversion, or angry Muslim payback; sorry to disappoint.  It's merely my apathetic nature coupled with a lack of topics.  I have pages of ideas for topics, but it seems I'm always finding time for other things in my life.  Life gets in the way occasionally, and at least for me, "real life" will take precedent over the virtual realm any day.

This is not a goodbye of any kind.  I'm simply on another indeterminate hiatus.  I appreciate the comments and views on all my internet outlets, and thanks especially to Fastthumbs and other constant readers of the STA blog.   There will be more to come...and perhaps soon.  I've been mulling over a future YouTube video, so if my computer cooperates and I can get the words to come out of my mouth correctly (it seems my fingers like to talk a hell of a lot more than my mouth does), I'll be uploading that before long.  Thanks again for the support, and always feel free to drop me an email or hit me up when I'm on Stickam -- you can now do that right from this blog!

Stay skeptical,


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Draw Muhammad Day

(It's Muhammad, the prophet of the Muslim faith.  He's really, really far away.)


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Put Down Your Old KJV Red Letter, The Good Book Just Got a Whole Lot Better

The Holy Bible.  It's been translated into 2400 languages and over 300 English translations alone, but when you get right down to it, they all contain the same boring, outdated, hard-to-get-through dry text.

But not any more!

How Many Meters in a Foot?
Now there's a way to read about the loving power of the Ultimate Father-Figure in Kyle Holt's "The Bible in Rhyme".  Yep.  Rhyme.

How many ten-year-olds can stand to sit through a dreary sermon that involves phrases like: "Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee."

Ugh.  Can't you feel your eyes glazing over?

Now take a gander at this little ditty from Genesis 3, with rhyme:

"Never will your kind view Eden again.
All are shut out for your cognizant sin.
Man, you shall toil and work in the earth.
And woman, your pain will come giving birth.
You’re banished! Get out! All three of you go!"
Then God set a guard at the Tree of Life so
we’d not be let in, but always we’d know
that this was how woman and man fell so low.

You can't help but try to sing it as you dance and smile, reading about God's wonderful forgiving spirit.  Be sure to pick up your copy today, and get your kids involved!  They'll have a great time learning how to regurgitate doctrine while beginning a long-lasting emotional attachment to ideas that make them feel good.  'Cause come on, I dare you to read this and not feel good:

Though everyone knew of the things God had spoken,
the men muttered angrily, "Our God is broken!
Why worship Him? Can He not see our power?
We're greater than Him. Come, let's build a tower
and show Him that He should be worshiping us."
But God saw their plan, and was filled with disgust.
"Man never changes, so I must change him."
So he twisted their tongues and confused all of them.
And he scattered mankind, confounding the rabble
and that's why it's called the Tower of Babel.

(From page 7, Genesis 9:18 - 11:32.  And remember kids, the perfect word of the Living God contains ZERO contradictions or errors because it was inspired by a god who does not author confusion!)

I dread how they sugar-coat the Numbers conquests.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Why Some People Need A God: Ignorance

In conclusion of this three-part miniseries, we take a look at what is most likely the main reason for some people to need gods or god-like figures in their lives: ignorance.  I call it the main reason because it ties together nearly all other reasons.  In part one, we discussed the fear of the unknown that drives some people to seek invented and unsupported answers -- in other words, being ignorant of the causes and reasons for those unknowns.  Part two discussed companionship, bred from ignorance of the unknown future, and the need for father-figures and "soul-mates".

You Don't Need Empty Answers
Staring into the maw of the unfamiliar and trying to make sense out of it is something we humans do pretty much constantly.  It should be no surprise that there should then arise a grand answer to fill those unsettling gaps. There are those who chose to remain purposefully ignorant of scientific knowledge and understanding, and that's a shame.  But there are a large portion of moderate believers who are clinging to religious beliefs in order to not have to learn or attempt to learn the answers to life's deep questions.

But once you remove yourself from the realm of religion, you begin to see the reality of the world, and fear actually diminishes.  You start realizing that the world is what you make it, how you behave and live your life is ultimately up to you, and the way you treat others matters in this one and only life you get.  Sure, we'll all be ignorant about something at some time or another, but it's how we handle that fact that determines the course and nature of our lives.

You Don't Need A God
If you've read this series and are a believer of some kind, I encourage you to challenge yourself with the following exercises.  Think about what you would need to change in order to live without God.  Think about what God actually "does" in your life that you can't find any other way of accomplishing.  Try taking off the theist mindset and view the world -- perhaps only momentarily -- without the need for your deity.  Imagine you and your family and friends having to live and help one another through hardships on your own, with the help of only each other.  Hopefully you'll find that you do much of this already, you only give God the credit.  Maybe you'll grow closer to becoming a person who doesn't need a god.


Friday, April 9, 2010

Why Some People Need A God: Companionship

We are by nature social creatures, and when we are young sometimes it's difficult to find other children to play or "practice" with.  Just as our brains create dreams probably to function as training grounds for exploration of situations and emotions, our brains also dream up daydreams and imaginary friends to help us learn to socialize.

Talking to Yourself
Or perhaps it goes a little deeper than that.  Perhaps the child with an imaginary friend needs said friend for companionship.  In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins reprinted the classic poem by A. A. Milne, "Binker", to illustrate the point of how children create and use imaginary friends to serve needs for companionship.  The child in the poem plays with his imaginary friend, teaches him to talk, and shares sweets with him -- all the while realizing that grown-ups don't "get it".

This deep-seated need for companionship gets expressed in the embodiment of so-called spiritual things.  Gods, Great Spirits, and other deities serve the basic social needs of some people.  Once we see a god as nothing more than an imaginary friend, we realize the same power exists: to comfort, to commune.  God fills the gaps in people's lives who need someone to talk to; to understand what they're feeling or explore questions.  God relieves the tension we feel and supports our natural desires for companionship.

You See it Too
Not only that, but another layer gets added on when believers fellowship with each other.  Suddenly, a very real person with the same imaginary friend becomes a companion, and subsequent stories can be shared that reinforce the feelings supplied by the deity.  Where the imaginary entity fails (in the lack of physical embraces, for example), the other believers succeed.  This is a powerful social reality that has direct, lasting consequences and effects in the lives of real people, and is not to be overlooked. 

Even if you, reader, are a believer in a god (or perhaps an imaginary friend), I encourage you to think about the idea that your deity is nothing more than a concept you invented.  Think about what that would entail, and note the similarities if that were the case.  I think you'll find, probably initially to your horror, that the similarities are immense.  Your God hates the things you hate, loves the people you love, and will understand you deeper than any other person.  How is that any different than Binker?


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Why Some People Need A God: Fear

In this, the first post in a three-part miniseries exploring some of the common responses from theists to the question, why do you need a god?

Help Me...Someone?
Many of those responses include, at least in part, a desire to be safe and secure.  We all need a Superman every now and then; someone who can "take the wheel" as it were.  Even those of us who have no illusions of magical beings that interact with or even guide our day-to-day activities occasionally yearn for a break.

At the heart of it all lies fear -- generally of the unknown.  People are afraid of death, afraid of not knowing what tomorrow will bring, afraid of being helpless in any given situation.  To a lot of these people, their deities come to the rescue.

As with most of the reasons theists give for being theists, however seemingly innocuous, this reason hinges on the idea that you cannot help yourself.  How many of you (theist or otherwise) have heard phrases like, "put it in God's hands", or "God has it all planned out"?  It is true that there are certain situations in which we all find ourselves unable to cope or do something to better are predicament.  Those helpless situations reveal two distinct types of people: those who resort to fanciful ideas and talk of magic, and those who find comfort and strength in themselves and their fellow humans.  While it may not be easy to be the latter, it is certainly more honest and, I think, ultimately better than wishful thinking. 

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying nobody should ever hope for anything.  I'm saying stop lying to yourself and saying that you can't get out of bed without Jesus, or you could have never ran that obstacle course without the strength of the Lord.  Start doing things for yourself.  Find self-confidence and throw away these primitive notions of doom and antiquated doctrines that tell you you're worthless and undeserving of happiness.  You don't need that bullshit, and you don't need a God to find help, happiness, love, peace, or an end to your fear.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Divine Slang, or How "Soon" Means "A Really Long Time"

You Better Watch Out...
When I was a Christian, I was swept up into the idea that I was living in the "end times".  The Son of Man would be flying in on clouds of glory, probably in just a couple years.  This was back before Y2K, and so we all thought that sounded like a date Jesus would pick.  So we all got ready, prayed, and stayed awake, fearing and waiting.  And waiting.

And waiting...

Okay, so not the turn of the century.  That's fine -- but it will be soon!  Just look at all the wars, earthquakes, death, pestilence, and hardships around the world!  Kids are listening to heavy metal and cutting themselves!  You can't leave your front door unlocked anymore!  The world is turning to shit!  The end is neigh!!!!!!!!

It wasn't until I escaped Christianity that I realized this was an ongoing thing.  Really.  Since the dawn of Christianity, believers have been claiming the end of the world was just around the corner.  I love browsing the website "A Brief History of the Apocalypse" whenever I hear a doomsday preacher on TV or read an end-times blog post.  The phenomenon of predicting the end of the world is almost as old as the world itself.

Back In 5 Mins  --J.C.
Examining the bible without my Jesus goggles, I started to understand things a little clearer.  Things like Jesus's quotes in Matthew.  "Immediately after the distress of those days 'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken'... Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door...I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened...I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes...For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."

That's a pretty clear indication that Jesus expected to return within his follower's lifetime.  I find it both amusing and startling how every generation thinks of itself as the quoted "this generation".  I guess it makes since to want to be "the generation" that gets to see Glory coming.

Even the apostles of Christ felt similar sentiments. James (5:8) instructs his fellow believers to "be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near."  In fact, a lot of the New Testament is full of this sort of "be ready to go" language.

"For in just a little while, 'He who is coming will come and will not delay'." -Hebrews 10:37

"The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed." -Romans 13:11

"...time is short...For this world in its present form is passing away." -1 Corinthians 7:29

"The end of all things is near." -1 Peter 4:7

Dude, You are Soooooooo Fuggin' Late!
The looming threat of Judgment Day is held over believers by one another and by themselves.  The other day I drove past a peeling, weather-worn church sign and I though, It never crosses a Christian's mind when they have to pay for a brand new billboard that says, "Jesus is coming SOON!" when the old one is decrepit and broken and has been sitting there for the past 20 years.  Let's face the facts, people: Jesus promised to return soon and very soon, and that was nearly 2,000 years ago.  I'm not really sure why Christians need to keep that sense of urgency, though it may have something to do with the fact that their god died 2000 years ago (if he ever really existed in the first place).  Otherwise, it's a moot and unostentatious ending.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Treaty of Tripoli in Modern Terms

It's common to hear from Christian revisionists that America is a "Christian Nation" founded on Christian values, and other unsupported claims.  I've already covered this in another entry, so I won't go through it again.

Instead, today I wanted to take a look at the document known as the Treaty of Tripoli.  This was a peace treaty between the US and the Bey of Tripoli in 1797.  The treaty was unanimously approved by the Senate and signed by President John Adams and proudly proclaimed to the nation.

The relevant part of the treaty is Article 11, which states in its entirety:
   "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

America is not a Christian nation -- it can't be.  The laws of this country are at odds with the laws the Christian God.  If the above isn't clear enough, let's break it down in modern terms:
   "The USA is NOT a Christian nation. It has laws that protect all religion, Christianity, Islam, or any other. America welcomes people of all faiths with open arms and does not actively engage in prejudice or hostility based on religion or creed. Both parties signing this treaty of friendship agree that actions and diplomatic discussions will not be hindered by matters of religion or faith-based opinions."

Doesn't that sound like a great place to live?  Whether or not Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Ray Comfort, or George Bush agrees with sentiments expressed in the treaty, the Constitution backs it up.  America was founded on freedom.  Anyone can be an American.  Any American can have any religion they want, or none at all.  The government can't and should not uphold one religion, because doing so pushes all others down.  Equality, freedom, and opportunity is the name of the US game, not the laws of Jesus or his Heavenly Father.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Fallacy Friday: Ad Hominem

Back by popular demand, we continue the Fallacy Friday series with the often misunderstood ad hominem.

Simply put, it's attacking the person rather than the argument.  It's saying that the person's claim is wrong
because of the person, and not because of reason or facts.  It might seem obvious to avoid attacking the character of a person rather than their ideas, but it happens all too often in the heat of an argument.  Sometimes a person might refuse to accept another person's statement and justify that refusal by criticizing the person.  This fallacy serves as a Red Herring because it drives the attention away from the actual argument at hand.

"You claim that atheists can be moral, yet I happen to know that you beat your wife and children!"

I said that this fallacy is often misunderstood.  What I mean is that calling someone names or otherwise being generally abusive toward them doesn't make your statements fallacious.  It's not an ad hominem to malign your opposition -- as long as the maligning is not the basis of your argument.  It can sometimes be subtle.  Just pay attention to what is being objected to.  Essentially the difference is "you're wrong and you're an idiot" versus "you're wrong because you're an idiot".  The latter is fallacious.

Don't be abusive to try to win arguments.  Remember, the truth of a statement isn't dependent upon the virtues, character, actions, or motives of the person making the claim.  All too often, it seems, people justify their stance on issues based solely on what they think about the character of their opposition.  That's another type of Argumentum ad Hominem: circumstantial.  It's usually phrased as "Of course, that's what you'd expect him to say." We need to be careful with this kind, however. If someone is a known perjurer or liar, that fact will reduce their credibility. It won't, however, prove that their testimony is false in this case. It also won't alter the soundness of any logical arguments they may make. It's not always invalid to refer to the circumstances of an individual who is making a claim, but there are some cases in which it may throw extra skepticism onto their position.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Unholy Word: Slaughter the Infidels, Rape the Girls

The God of the Old Testament is extremely bloodthirsty.  All over the bible, we can find stories of tribe murdering tribe in the name (or usually by the direct command) of God.  Here's just one example and this one makes a great bedtime story.

Bathe Her, And Bring Her To Me
Read over Numbers 31.  In it, Moses is instructed by God to have the Israilites kill all of the Midianite children, any child still in the womb, all of the men, and every woman who as slept with a man.

Let's ignore all the problems involved with an all-loving God ordering these "hits" and look at how the story plays out.  After the Israilites kill all the Midianite men, they take the women, children, livestock, and plunder back to the camp. But Moses is furious with them. "Kill all the male children! And kill all the women who have had sex with a man!' Moses orders.

And the best part of the spoils of war..."But spare the lives of the virgin girls. Keep them for yourselves!"

I can raise the issue of keeping other people as property, but I won't.  I can raise the issue of men doing as they please to virgin girls, but do I really need to? I could ask, "How would they know who the virgins were?" but my imagination brings dark imagery.

The story claims there were 32,000 virgins that were divided up among the camp. Half were assigned to those who fought in the war and Moses gave the head priest the portion set aside for God (32 girls), as ordered by God himself.

Again, as with all stories brought to light in this series, the immorality is stomach-turning.  Every time I read these stories I find it inconceivable that the book which contains them is lauded as the pinnacle of human morality and a guide for how we should live our lives.  The fact that we've learned that the kind of behavior taken by Moses is wrong is not due to God (for he is supposedly the one ordering such massacre), but rather due to where we actually get our morality from -- not from any gods, but from society, observation, empathy, media, upbringing, history, and instinct.


Saturday, January 9, 2010

Why And How To Worship God

In recent talks with theists I've once again come across the question of what I would do if "God" showed up to me.  While that is a big discussion in itself, another aspect arrives from contemplating the question: worship.  Why should we worship a reveled God, and what exactly does it mean to worship it?

Brown-Nosed And Rolling Over
Assuming the God in question is the all-powerful creator of everything, several factors reveal themselves in this scenario (at least to an armchair psychologist), the first of which is fear.  We are naturally (be it by evolution or intelligent design) submissive to those with greater power than our own.  We create hierarchical social structures and our treatment of others reflects our perceived level of dominance of them, among other things.  From an evolutionary standpoint, it's a survival mechanism.  Sure, we could all just fight to the death but that would help anyone, especially ourselves.  So we push as far as we can, gaining and giving as much as beneficially possible.  Therefore, should a mighty creator being suddenly plop down and begin issuing edicts, we'd most likely obey out of fear and a desire to live and remain unharmed.

The other side to this is the protection such a being would offer.  Just as the tiny fish seek protection and food from a shark, so too would many humans begin to suck up to the regnant deity.  True, some may also seek companionship and an honest exploration of the previously unstudied.  But I think that most would simply bow out of fear and respect to power unlimited.

Here I Am, Now Entertain Me
That might be the why, but what about the how?  What does it mean to worship a being?  Is it unquestionable love and veneration?  Is it reverence in the form of consent?  I wouldn't expect to automatically love any being just out of awe, surprise, or fear.  Love is earned.  I might be able to respect the deity's authority and powers, but love is an entirely different ball game.

I suppose too that it would depend on the demands made by the god.  Will it stand before us and proudly exclaim, "Bow down to me or be crushed!"?  I'm willing to bet that the best form of "worship" would be the actions, words, and behaviors that the god did not ask for.  Many people may solicit the being to gain protection, companionship, a freedom from responsibilities, or to share in the power.  I would rather worship (and be worship by) beings that love or respect me enough to want to make me happy -- not out of fear of punishment or hopes of reward -- but just out of the goodness of the heart.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means To Me
I can hear the religious people now, "But that's just exactly what God wants!  He wants you to love him out of your own free will, and he wants to be worshiped by you and share his glory with you."  I'm sorry, but it would depend on the character of your God.  If, as I've said before, the deity is the actual Yahweh from the Old Testament, I wouldn't worship him if he threatened me directly to my face.  Might doesn't make right.  I don't care how powerful it is or how much right it has to me as its property, being my creator and being stronger than me doesn't give it the prerogative of my respect, honor, love, worship, or even acknowledgment.  The content of its character and its actions toward others determine where it would sit in my book.  I'll obey the might only if I accept its justifications for the requests it makes, and only if its standards meet those worthy of devotion.  The Gods of people today do not warrant my respect, and they are not worthy of worship by anyone, including you.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hollywood Atheism

Happy New Year!  We've said goodbye to one of the worst decades in living memory and we look hopefully forward to what awaits us in the years to come.  But hey, the holiday celebrations are over and you're ready for some more deep insight from a small-town atheist, aren't you?  :oP  Well, I plan on getting out more, writing more, producing more videos, and engaging in more debates this year.  As always, your comments, emails, and criticisms and support are what drives these projects, so keep 'em coming.

Now, as I am the inquisitive type, I thought I'd start this year off with a question: why are atheists portrayed so badly in movies and television?  It's a subject that I've written on before, but I just want to revisit it because I think it's important.

Ain't No Such Thing, And That's Final!
The wiki has several pages discussing the literary devices and deceptions used by writers to portray the skeptical and the nonreligious.  Most often, atheists are depicted as self-loathing, bitter, lawless radicals who stick to their materialistic ideals even though the Sci-Fi monster is eating them alive.  And this is what irks me.  Some of these writers (and viewers) seem to think that if a skeptical person is shown direct evidence, they will still remain skeptical.  As if that's the way questioning things really works!

I've stated numerous times in my articles and videos that if someone can provide the sufficient evidence to prove a god exists, I'd be an idiot not to believe.  And yet screenwriters continue to create fantasy worlds where vampires, aliens, demons, and psychic monsters abound and yet they portray the nonbeliever as a overzealous doubter who just won't accept the "reality" of what's going on.  For some it may be a way to take jabs at skeptics in the real world, but in doing so they're just missing the point of skepticism altogether.

God-Shaped Hole
Not only are they portrayed as being unwilling to believe in anything, even if it's biting them on the ass, atheists are also shown in movies and TV shows to be unkind, bigoted, immoral, lonely, and cranky.  Let's make one thing clear if it isn't already: being an atheist does not nor cannot "lead to" any of these.  Atheism isn't a positive thing in itself; it's simply a response to an assertion.  You can't get from "I don't believe in a god" to "I hate myself" or "I want to rape, kill, and steal from others".  That being said, you can find an atheist with just about any disposition there is.  It's akin to finding a bald person with just about any disposition there is.  But have you ever seen a happy atheist in a TV show or a movie?  While a lot of atheist characters offer incredibly deep and satisfying stories, I've yet to find a nonbeliever who isn't suicidal or a drug-user or or an overly-opinionated crone.  Maybe that's how the rest of the world sees us.  We complain too much.  We seek to hurt others' feelings.  We lead unfulfilled lives.  The funny thing is that for a lot of us, these accusations couldn't be further from the truth.  Being loosed from the shackles of superstition gives us freedom, and consequently, happiness previously unfathomed.

While this is a topic for another day, I should also clarify something else:  although atheism and skepticism complement each other, they are not synonymous.  I've used them nearly interchangeably above, but not all atheists are skeptical, and not all skeptics are atheists.  The distinction is important and we will discuss it in detail in the future.

Elementary, My Dear Theist
Over the holiday break, I was taken happily by surprise by the feature film Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr.  His character flaws make him both though-provoking and enjoyable to watch, and Holmes gives audiences a rational, evidence-seeking skeptic faced with seemingly overwhelming evidence of the supernatural and the existence of magic.  So as not to spoil it for you, I've hidden the next few sentences.  If you've already seen the movie, or don't care about spoilers (it's not a hugely significant one anyway), then highlight the next paragraph with your mouse.

In the movie, Holmes is faced with an opponent who appears to be a resurrected, black magic-practicing sorcerer.  Using deduction and physical evidence, Holmes eventually learns that all the supposed tricks are nothing more than just that; tricks.  Rational explanations win out over superstition and faith.  Holmes even leaves open the possibility of a supernatural explanation, examines first-hand the incantations used by the antagonist (though this is probably done more for getting into the head of the opposition rather than actually testing if the magic really works).  Watson admits that he's seen things in his lifetime that he cannot explain, and says to Holmes, "a supernatural explanation to this case is theoretically possible."  The lead character replies in my favorite piece of dialog from this film, "Agreed -- but, it's a huge mistake to theorize before one has data.  Inevitably one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts."  To date, this is the best representation of a skeptical mindset I've seen in a feature film.  I had a awful feeling that since the movie started out so well, it would devolve into "Haha skeptic, you were WRONG! You think you know everything, don't you?  Well, suffer my supernatural wrath!" as they inevitable seem to do.  But surprisingly it worked out in favor of the rational.

Why can't more writers figure this stuff out? Data, data, data!