Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Molestation of Pachyderms

I was recently offered an old Indian parable by a theist as an attempt to befuddle me into accepting that different religions are all part of the same god.  You know the one about the three blind me (or men in the dark) who are asked to describe what an elephant looked like by feeling it.  The first man feels the leg and says an elephant is like a tree.  The second man feels the tail and proclaims it to be a length of rope.  The third feels the tusk and decides this long and sharp object must be a spear.  You've probably heard it differently; there's many forms of the story.  But the point is that this argument was presented to me as an attempt to show how we all see the same thing in reality, just from different perspectives.  This particular theist was using it to further illustrate how science is just another blind man feeling around in the dark.  The analogy may sound flowery, philosophical and convincing, but it is fundamentally flawed.

Religion is Blind
The point that was lost on my theistic friend was that religion is like those blind men.  It feels around for something and immediately sticks to it's interpretation of what it finds (demons cause disease, anyone?).  But science keeps going.  It doesn't just proclaim "it's a spear" or "it's a tree trunk".  It says, "well, this part resembles a tree trunk, but we need more data".  Religion gives up.  It has no reason to continue searching or to keep asking questions because it thinks (nay, knows) it has all the answers.

Another point the analogy makes is that the blind men are all wrong. Not only do they get the description of the elephant wrong, but they get the animal itself wrong as well (if you follow the version that is asking the men to describe what they're feeling).  Religion says, "yep, it's a spear alright".  Science says, "it might be a spear, or spear-like, but we don't yet know".

My theist friend failed to realize that the parable was not meant to be about how religions are the same, but instead about how religion knows nothing.  As John Godfrey Sax's poem about it ends:

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen! 

Not The Same
Further points can be made against the New Age view that all religions are parts of the same whole.  While this view is relatively harmless, I don't see it as intellectually honest, and would rather argue on the side of religion for the sake of religious integrity (however frail that may be).  As my friend Todd Allen Gates points out in his book, Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer, the reasons for thinking "all religions are one" fall into five categories.

First, perhaps different religions fill different needs.  God made all the world's religions, but he modified them to suite the needs of different regions.  This might sound at first to be well and good, but flaws appear after a few moments pf thought.  Does this mean that people who, say, travel to India, should observe the caste system? What about people whose divine directives say they should kill all who practice witchcraft?  What happens when they travel to a country where the practice of witchcraft is believed to be a commandment from god?  The bigger point here is: where do you go for guidelines?  Who writes the standards for which doctrine gets observed when overlaps or contradictions occur?

Second is the "corrupted message" view that we see conflict in religions because God's original True Word(TM) has been corrupted by humans.  This boils down to, as Gates says, something of a CEO who is too inept to keep unauthorized subordinates from editing the text and -- even worse -- a CEO who stands by idly when the corrupted messages are forged and spread even more widely than the original, true message.  This give a contradictory view of God; he's powerful enough to create the universe, but can't seem to keep his mission statement from being tampered with.

Third is the "paradox hypothesis".  God made different religions to confuse us on purpose, because those bewildered by conflicting doctrines will reap the benefits of expanded spiritual perceptions.  This idea that God purposefully confused us might be supported by a small number of people who feel their spiritual lives have benefited, but when we look at the history of violence and bloodshed caused by this confusion, it makes a caring Creator who wishes such bloody disorder look inept and not so caring.  As Gates so eloquently puts it, "it makes little since to believe that such a deity who could so successfully calculate the different respiratory needs of gills versus lungs, would have so badly calculated and miscalculated the effects of inspiring consecrated contradictions".

Fourth is the "emanation hypothesis", that the Creator of the universe didn't set out to inspire any religion, but holy truth simply emanates from it, and different humans in different time periods tap into these emanations.  The idea is that there's one divine source, people just pick up on that source in different ways depending on their culture.  This too falls into the same basic contradiction-quagmire as the previous two categories: that an all-powerful, all-loving being cares enough about us to want us to be delivered, but offers no way of preventing us from making up our own mind about which is the True(TM) way, however wrong it turns out to be.  This deity continues to emanate truths without care as to how those truths are being interpreted and what violence it begets.  This position may not exclude a deistic god, but it certainly discredits a personal one.

The fifth and final way in which New Agers claim "all religions are one" is that even though we humans perceive differences and contradictions in religions, that's only due to our limited, finite, or broken human understanding.  But this cop-out answer is not the sole property of New Age spiritualists; fundamentalists will use this same rationalization to nonbelievers in their religion.  Any difficulty can be explained away by it, but how is it that "we don't know" something can turn into "therefore we know"?

Can't We All Just Get Along?
It would be nice if religions were all parts of the same elephant.  Even though they're not, those who wish peace between religions can only want a good thing.  The bigger point is this: we don't need religion -- any religion -- to have a peaceful, loving, and productive coexistence.  We're better off putting aside religion, or at least cutting out the "love your neighbor" bits and throwing away the rest.  One thing is for sure: we're all in this boat together, and we're all a little blind.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reasons for Everything

My mother is fond of saying, "Everything happens for a reason."  I agree with her, but not in the way you'd think.

She, unlike myself, is a theist.  The "reason" she attributes everything to ultimately boils down to nothing short of a divine plan authored by some all-knowing being.  As a loud, snooty man on Fox News is fond of saying, "the sun goes up and comes down", and that's enough to ascribe an invisible father figure to it all.

I'm somewhat of a determinist.  Now I don't think there's an ultimate plan for anything -- I'm no fatalist.  But I do think things happen for reasons we can either explain, or can't (yet?).  Say, casting a handful of dice.  Natural forces determine how the dice will fall; everything from the strength and angle of your hand, to its height above the table, to the material makeup of the dice and the surface, to air pressure, to the tilt of the earth, and any number of other factors.  But that does not mean that it's written somewhere ahead of time "On March 21, 2011, STA will throw a 2, 4, and 5 on 3d6."  We can't really process all the factors in a seemingly random event, like a dice throw -- that's why we use them to determine random outcomes.  If we really could process it all, it wouldn't seem random.

Therefore, I don't really believe in randomness. We might not know or understand all the circumstances for an event, but I don't think we can accurately say a thing just randomly happens.  Even quantum mechanics might have some extenuating circumstances that lie beyond a certain complexity boundary for its seemingly random goings-on.  I see randomness as a label that we put on too-hard-to-calculate events.

Sure, things happen for a reason.  But those reasons have reasons themselves, and they've nothing to do with gods or magic.  There may be a reason for everything, but it's just a whole lot bigger than you or I can comprehend...without the need for God.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

More Pointless BS from DC

H.Con.Res. 13 is up before the House of Representatives.  This proposal, with 66 co-sponsors, seeks to allow government buildings and public institutions (including schools) to be plastered with "In God We Trust".  Let us see what is in this very much needed proposal, shall we?

The overall goal is stated as, "Reaffirming `In God We Trust' as the official motto of the United States and supporting and encouraging the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions."

Here's their confounding arguments why:

Whereas `In God We Trust' is the official motto of the United States; 
Not before 1956.  How short-term is this right-wing pundit memory of theirs that we have to keep reminding them of that fact.  The injustices of the McCarthy era weren't justified then, and they're not justified now.  These days, instead of a big "fuck you" to Russia and the scary Communists of the world, they want to give the finger to Muslims and us non-religious types.  It may be "official" but that doesn't make it right.  Besides that, do you really need to be reminded that you trust God so badly the phrase be everywhere?

Whereas the sentiment, `In God We Trust', has been an integral part of United States society since its founding;
What this issue (and all the others like it) really comes down to is the incorrect assumption that the God of our deist founders equals the God of the Christian bible.  As I've explained many times before, many of our founders didn't believe in a personal god, and they certainly didn't believe in Jesus's Daddy.  The vagueness of the word "God" makes it easier to spread this religion, because it generalizes the idea of deities.  Thus, if a man 200 years ago says something about "God", people 4000 years from now can interpret it by the God of their understanding.  Simply, our founders weren't talking about YOUR god when they referenced "our Creator" (read: nature).

Whereas in times of national challenge or tragedy, the people of the United States have turned to God as their source for sustenance, protection, wisdom, strength, and direction; 
In times of great strife, people turn to whomever they can to seek help.  But let's look at the facts: God didn't send people into the burning World Trade towers to get people out.  God didn't send food, medical supplies, and water to Sudan or New Orleans.  God didn't send aid to Japan, and God didn't take down the Tucson shooter.  However you want to define it, "God" hasn't helped with any national challenge or tragedy.  People have.  Humans provide sustenance, protection, wisdom, strength, and direction.  It's demonstrable.  And even though many do look toward a higher power for those things, they don't all turn to YOUR God.  So presupposing that all Americans trust in YOUR God is arrogantly presumptions.

Whereas the Declaration of Independence recognizes God, our Creator, as the source of our rights, `We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'; 
The Declaration of Independence isn't a founding document.  It could say, "Jesus Christ is the nation's Lord Almighty" and it wouldn't matter.  This nation was founded based on secular documents meant to keep the government out of everyone's personal beliefs.  But again, that Creator they're talking about isn't the biblical God.  It's the idea of how humans arrived (again, read: nature).

Whereas the national anthem of the United States says `praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation . . . and this be our motto: in God is our trust.'; 
The motto could be, "We are a White Nation" and it wouldn't be true nor accurate.  And it wouldn't matter if it were our national government-approved motto because again, it may be official but that doesn't make it okay.  That's why we try to put away official ideas when we realize they're not honorable (slavery, anyone?).

Whereas the words `In God We Trust' appear over the entrance to the Senate Chamber and above the Speaker's rostrum in the House Chamber;
It doesn't matter how many injustices they cite, they're still trying to inject religious beliefs into government -- our collective government.  Government isn't a private business that can reserve the right to serve who they like.

Whereas the oath taken by all Federal employees, except the President, states `I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.'; 
The phrase, "so help me God" is purely optional, as mandated by Article IV, paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution.  It doesn't matter what imaginary being someone wants to seek help from to tell the truth or uphold an oath to.  And what if the "God" someone swears by are the Pseudologoi?  How would you know?

Whereas John Adams said, `Statesmen may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.'; 
Those who would think that their God is the god of everyone in America also think that morality comes from God.  Morality isn't the property of, nor authored by, religion, and it certainly holds no monopoly over it.  It's demonstrable that non-religious people are quite capable of being moral.

Whereas if religion and morality are taken out of the marketplace of ideas, the very freedom on which the United States was founded cannot be secured; 
Our Constitution makes it clear that government is meant to stay out of religion for the sake of freedom.  Do you really want the government to start endorsing religion?  It might seem great, but which religion?  You can't get members of the SAME CHURCH to agree on everything, so how do you propose we get government to do it?  How free do you think we'd be if, say, they started plastering buildings with Mormon ideals (like God punishes people by darkening their skin)?  Even if they keep the vague "God" sense, there comes a point when their God isn't your God anymore, but government's claws are in too deep. I'm an atheist and don't think religion is a good thing, but I wouldn't want my government telling a religious person how to worship.  Freedom is the distance between Church and State, for ALL OUR SAKES.  I see this Whereas as saying "if you don't have God then you don't have morality, and we can't guarantee your Freedom of Speech or your protection under the Fourth Amendment".

Whereas as President Eisenhower said and President Ford later repeated, `Without God, there could be no American form of government, nor, an American way of life.';  and
Whereas President John F. Kennedy said, `The guiding principle and prayer of this Nation has been, is now, and ever shall be `In God We Trust.'
It wouldn't matter if the current president said, "Those who have no God should be shot".  If these clowns would read the Constitution and the words of those who helped create it, they'd see the reasons for keeping religion out of a secular government.

So to recap:
  1. "God" doesn't always mean your god, and for our government to assume so makes us all look like asses.
  2. Government is meant to be kept separate from religion.  You don't want Washington telling you what prayer to use over dinner, and I don't want my public school to feature a prominent statue of Brahma.
  3. Presidents and other members of government can be as religious as they want, as long as they leave their religion at the door when making policy that affects our nation (roughly sixty million of which aren't Christians).

The House needs to kill this bill.  Get in touch with your representative today and politely let them know -- even if you're a Christian -- that this type of legislation doesn't' belong in a government of our kind, and that you support everyone's right to see God how they want to.

If you want to go further, write them a snail mail letter (sometimes more effective than an email) and tell them how you would instead like to restore "E Pluribus Unum" as our national motto, because it more accurately reflects America: "Out of Many, One".


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Atheist Ruins Another Christian Holiday

Today is day when we collectively mark the remembrance of Ireland's patron saint.  He spent nearly forty years converting Ireland to Christianity, and today is his feast day...

And I'm gonna ruin it!

That's right, I'm not going to remember St. Patrick for his spreading of religious dogma.  I'm not going to attend church service, and I didn't practice Lent, so I don't have this day of lifting restrictions to cherish.  No, just like every other Christian holiday (and those they think are theirs), I'm going to celebrate it without celebrating the religious meaning behind it.  I'm going to do what a majority of Americans are doing.  I'm going to dress in green, pinch those who aren't, and drink GREEN BEER (or perhaps beer from green bottles):

God bless the Irish!


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

For God So Loved The World

...He Stood By And Watched
The recent crisis unfolding in the island nation of Japan is frightening and heartbreaking to witness.  In this age of hand-held computers and instant communication, we are able to see first-hand the destruction our planet is capable of.  We can use our phones, netbooks, game consoles, and other devices to offer monetary aid and coordinate relief efforts.

Yet, there are many who use this technology to do something that is a lot less helpful.  Twitter tweets, YouTube videos, and Facebook comments have exploded with droves of prayers.  The religious-minded in all countries have looked at this tragedy and in lieu of lending money or a helping hand to clean up, have instead turned to -- in their mind -- a deity who has all of this under control.

As an atheist, I get laughed at when I ask the simple, "Where's your God now?" questions to theists.  They don't seem to appreciate the logic and instead take it as an emotional attack.  But I'm serious...where was God when the Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami slammed Japan, killing 20,000 and washing away entire villages?  You'd think that for a being of unequaled love, keeping that way of reaching the shore would be a no-brainer.  If you could have stopped it, would you?  I know I would, and yet an All-Loving being is supposed to be overseeing -- or at worst, planning out -- this kind of destruction. 

And yet, religious people everywhere seem to perform backbreaking mental gymnastics to rationalize to themselves that the All-Powerful creator of the universe has His/Her/Their reasons for not intervening.  Free will and mysterious ways are high up on the list, for not only things like earthquakes, but also rape victims, or those afflicted with childhood leukemia.  For an All-Loving God, he seems to be on the sidelines a lot.

...He Commanded Hatred
Since I'm in the bible-belt of America, I'll address what I hear most about this "God" thing everyone seems so keen on sharing.  More importantly, I'm to aqueous to His love for me and my fellow man, and "trust only in Him".  But love and trust are earned, and so far God's track record does not show a loving being.  (It actually shows a world operating without such a deity, but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

The testament to this God's supposed love is found in the Holy Bible.  A book where, even a cursory read should show atrocities that would anger a rational person.  Genocide, mass murder, and other forms of hatred are not only committed by God, but are commanded by him.  If God loved the world so much, why did he drown nearly every living thing in it?
...He Created Atrocities
But many of the religious will holler, "That's not my God!".  Indeed, many theists don't profess the bible has any bearing on the nature of their deity -- even if they do call themselves "Christian" or "Jewish".  But even if your god is a Magic Hamburger in outer space, you probably subscribe to the idea of a deity who created the world.  This deity created rainbows, gravity, puppies, and the laughter of babies.  But this deity would then also have had to create birth defects, cancer, and scores of viruses that can kill us in ways that would give you nightmares.  Perspective again seems to be lost on the theist.

...He Never Existed At All
So instead of falling victim to a fallacy or wearing yourself out trying to jump through the hoops it takes to make a 100% Good God do evil things, instead comfort yourself with the thought that there was never any divine plan for it in the first place.  You'll see that the universe wasn't made for us, but we have what it takes (so far) to be in it.  You won't have to try to come to grips with why God won't heal your dying mother of cancer, something that is truly comforting.  It's nice to know that no one's intending for bad things to happen, or that someone is deserving somehow for the ill that befalls them.

We're in this boat together, and it's up to us -- not any gods or magical creatures -- to do what's right, to help, and to provide.  Please, give $5 to help the people of Japan, or find other ways to help.  We don't need God, we need you.

Happy 3/16


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Future Looks Bright

Greetings friends!  Due to enumerable setbacks, including family emergencies, computer trouble, house-hunting, and the preparations for a new addition to the family, I've been unable to contribute anything of value as of late.  But do not fear...family members' members are mending, computers have been upgraded, and houses have been located, and after a few more days I will be able to post more, make more videos, and continue to educate and discuss all things atheist-related.  Thanks for your patience and understanding, and don't forget to read the back-catalog to keep yourself sated on STA.

And here's a fantastic video to ease your sorrow: