Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fantastic! Cosmos is on Hulu!

All thirteen episodes of Carl Sagan's fabulous TV series "Cosmos" are now available for view on Hulu:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

For ID proponents (creationists)

It has been my consistent experience that anti-evolution people (as well as anti-Big Bang, anti-abiogenesis, etc.)---such as ID creationists---are atrociously ignorant of the scientific facts, and are inexcusably intellectually dishonest in their behavior toward such topics. They behave as if they are experts in the area when they are not (which is easily discoverable, even by very superficial questioning). It is one thing to disagree with the conclusions of experimental data and observations, after having carefully examined them, and for specific and solid reasons; but, it is quite another to claim such things are clearly wrong without ever even taking the time to actually look at them (and behaving as if you have)!** This is especially egregious when 99.9% of all relevant (i.e. "within their area of expertise") scientists agree that evolution is a fact---so overwhelmingly well-supported by the evidence that it is about as certainly true as anything CAN be (like, "the Earth is a spheroid").

And, I'm not the only one who has noted this simple fact of "self-assured ignorance". I've heard it stated by many people I personally know, as well as some whom I do not know (e.g. watch this short clip). I am not trying to be offensive here, but seriously: how on Earth can a person even dream of claiming to know what they're talking about when it comes to understanding evolution and its supporting evidence when they have read literally ZERO publications by the likes of such scientists as Ernst Mayr, or R. A. Fisher, or Richard Dawkins, or John Maynard-Smith, or E. O. Wilson, or W. D. Hamilton, or Sean B. Carroll, or even Charles Darwin?! (Or even completed a General Biology course in college, for that matter!) These manifestly grossly uninformed people (would you deem this acceptable in any other field of expertise?) behave with such arrogant certitude in their ideological stance that they uncompromisingly insist that the experts (who devote their entire lives to studying and understanding these things) are engaged in nothing more than vacuous folly. And, all without ever taking a serious, open-minded look at the topic (a topic from which they benefit daily, by the way---through medicine, agriculture, and more).

So, here are a couple of quotes for you to consider---carefully and soberly, hopefully.

The first is from St. Augustine [De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim (The Literal Meaning of Genesis) translated by J. H. Taylor, Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, 1982, volume 41; Book 1 Chapter 19 Paragraph 39]:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although "they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion." [1 Timothy 1.7]

The second is from Moral Minds, pp. 59-60, by Marc D. Hauser:

...the great 1860 Oxford debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley. Having read Darwin's Origin of Species and seen its potential for undermining religious stricture and its moral regulations, Wilberforce launched an attack, armed with sarcasm and rhetorical flourishes. As the the story goes, he concluded his diatribe, then turned to Huxley and asked whether it was through his grandmother or grandfather that he should claim descent from an ape? Huxley responded: "[A] man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling it would rather be a man---a man of restless and versatile intellect---who, not content with an equivocal success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice."

So, what you are doing is completely unfair and ridiculous. Immoral. Deceitful. And damagingly counter-productive, by hiding the known (and useful) truth with ignorant lies. But, it is clearly nothing new.

I just think that the least you could do---if you're going to disagree at all---is to do so honestly! (Exodus 20:16)

** I am speaking of "typical" ID creationists---which is fair to do, since it seems the number of "biology experts" in their group can almost be counted on a single hand.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Piercing the Myths of Time

Ok, I just must share one more chapter (26; this one's about four pages long) from Dan Barker's book, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist. It's just too priceless to keep bottled-up. (Don't worry. There are many other wonderful chapters in the book. And, I'm not going to share them all; I want to encourage people to support Dan by getting the book, and reading it for themselves!)

Chapter Title: Cross Examination

The Freedom From Religion Foundation used to be located on the eighth floor of a building facing the Wisconsin State Capitol. People who walked into our offices were treated to a wonderful view of the largest capitol dome (by volume) in the United States, situated on a spacious, manicured concourse, with a glimpse of Lake Monona through the treetops.

The panorama would have been perfect except for one thing. Across the street from the Capitol is a lofty golden cross, perched on the towering steeple of 130-year-old Grace Episcopal Church, staring at us as we worked for free-thought. Our line of sight was directly between the two buildings, which was fitting for a group that keeps an eye on the separation of church and state.

Crosses are all over the place. There is probably not a city on the continent that does not have a cross in plain view. An organization in West Virginia called “Cast Thy Bread” (of course) erects huge Calvary scenes along roadsides. In 1986 they had “just over 320 clusters now installed” and were sending crews into five more states.

An attorney here in Madison “jokingly” makes the sign of the cross when he sees me, warding off the evil atheist. The cross is deeply meaningful to some, but to others the T-shaped symbol is merely a social punctuation mark. It is more “in” than the American flag. People wear cross earrings and necklaces as if they were beautiful!

A cross is not beautiful. It is an emblem of humiliation, agony, and death, no matter how you look at it. It represents a public execution, like a gallows, guillotine, or gas chamber. Approaching a cross is like walking into a firing squad. Try to picture a steeple supported an electric chair; or imagine people wearing noose jewelry!

“Easter was always a time of horror for me,” said Ruth Green in the Foundation film, “A Second Look At Religion.” “I wanted to retire from the world. I shuddered at any mention of torture or crucifixion. I feel that this Christian torture symbol, the cross, is being imposed more and more upon our landscape.”

Suppose someone saved your life by blocking a terrorist's attack, but died from the bullets. Would you hang little gold machine guns on your ears? Would you want to be confronted with the grisly details, day after day? Instead of dwelling on brutality, wouldn't a healthy person rather take action to prevent such atrocities from happening again, forgetting the horror to live a normal life?

Yet the most popular Christian hymn says:

In the old rugged cross,
Stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see;
For 'twas on that old cross
Jesus suffered and died
To pardon and sanctify me.
So I'll cherish that old rugged cross...

Referring to the blood running from Jesus's pierced side (reported by John only, perhaps in confusion over the exact manner of death), another favorite hymn drones:

Jesus keep me near the cross,
There a precious fountain
Free to all, a healing stream
Flows from Calvary's mountain.
In the cross, in the cross
Be my glory ever...

A sow's ear, to me, is a sow's ear. But look at what believers have done in these lyrics:

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o'er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime

When the sun of bliss is beaming
Light and love upon my way,
From the cross the radiance streaming
Adds more luster to the day.

Swaggart and Bakker took that “luster” business a little too seriously, but however you look at it, the cross is offensive. Ten thousand psalms might deaden the senses of the average pew sitter, but they can't turn lead into gold. (Note that even in these lyrics, the real message of Easter---spring, light, the sun, the vernal equinox---is not completely disguised.)

The gold-plated cross which glowered at our offices sits on a forty-foot spire resting on a six-story steeple. Even as a minister I had known that there is no spire in the bible: spires are phallic architectural structures borrowed from paganism.

[This is where it really starts getting interesting!]

But I just learned something about the cross that absolutely astonishes me, something that makes me embarrassed that I ever believed. Most freethinkers know that Christianity is borrowed mainly from earlier religions. There is nothing unique about it. Other myths have their virgin births, saviors, and resurrections. The Babylonians, Egyptians, Aztecs, and others, had cross symbols. But what I never knew before---and it is still hard to believe---is that there is no cross in Christianity. No cross at all!

The enduring emblem of atonement is an impostor. There is no cross anywhere in the bible.

Christian apologists, when pressed, often resort to the “true meaning of the original language,” but this is one case where they are better off ignoring the Greek. The words which have been translated “cross” and “crucify” in the New Testament are σταυρός (pronounced “stau-ross” or “stav-ross”) and σταυρόω (“stav-ro-oh”). All translators, even fundamentalists, agree that a σταυρός is not a cross.

Liddell & Scott's A Greek-English Lexicon defines σταυρός as “upright pale or stake. Of piles driven in to serve as a foundation. A pale for impaling a corpse.” Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon, a “King James” reference much used by believers, agrees, and says that the English word “staff” derives from σταυρός (citing Skeat, Etym. Dict.).

W.E. Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, another Christian resource, reports that σταυρος “denotes, primarily, an upright pale or stake. On such malefactors were nailed for execution, Both the noun and verb ... are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiastical form of a two beamed cross. The shape of the latter had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) ... By the middle of the 3rd cent. ... pagans were received into the churches ... and were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols. Hence the Tau, or T, in its most frequent forms, with the cross-piece lowered, was adopted to stand for the cross of Christ.”

The verb σταυρόω means “to affix to a stake.” Herbert Cutner, in Jesus: God, Man or Myth (The Truth Seeker, 1950), says, “A stauros was a mere stake, and horrible to contemplate; it was used in the cruelest fashion to execute criminals and other persons ... It was sometimes pointed and thrust through the victim's body to pin him to earth; or he was placed on top of the stake with its point upwards so that it gradually pierced his body; or he was tied upon it and left exposed till death intervened; and there were other methods too. There is not a scrap of evidence that a stauros was ever in the form of a cross or even of a T shape.” If Jesus had been executed, mythically or historically, it would not have been with outstretched arms on a cruciform structure.

Cutner reports that scholars have been aware of the error but have been unable to resist the traditional mistranslation. In the eighteenth century some Anglican bishops recommended eliminating the cross symbol altogether, but they were ignored.

There is no cross in early Christian art before the middle of the fifth century, where it (probably) appears on a coin in a painting. The first clear crucifix appears in the late seventh century. Before then Jesus was almost always depicted as a fish or a shepherd, never on a cross. Constantine's supposed fourth-century vision of a cross in the sky was not of the instrument of execution: it was the Greek letter Х (chi) with a Р (rho) through it, the well-known “monogram” of Christ, from the first two letters of Хριστός, the Greek for Christ. (This is where we get the X in “Merry Xmas.”)

Any bible that contains the word “cross” or “crucify” is dishonest. Christians who flaunt the cross are not only unwittingly advertising a pagan religion, especially if it sits on a spire, but they are also breaking the second commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image...” (Now I know why many Christians are so cross!)

Most Christians, if confronted with these facts, will claim that the cross has a “spiritual” meaning beyond its physical appearance. They might point to Matthew 16:24, when the New Testament Jesus character said long before his death, “If any man will come after me, let him ... take up his cross [σταυρός] and follow me.” (Freethinking scholars realize that this anachronistic phrase is historical nonsense. It could not have had any meaning to the disciples before the cruci-fiction.) To the believer, the cross represents self denial, and salvation from sin. But there is no such thing as “sin.”

Or maybe there is. The threatening cross that brazenly stared into our windows---that is a sin.

Freethought Today, March, 1989

The Chi-Rho symbol, representing the monogram of Christ.


Now, to be fair, I must admit that I (having nothing in particular to lose for believing this) had a similar reaction to that of Barker's, when I heard this news---that is, incredulity.

However, I already knew that religions intermix and adopt each others' rituals, symbols, and stories. I already knew that a tremendous amount of Christianity was borrowed from other (pagan) religions of the time (e.g. virgin birth, guiding star, water to wine, resurrection, etc.).

So, while some additional research may be warranted for such a strong claim, I am very much inclined to believe Barker on this point. I think his own shock at this discovery, followed by the supporting evidence he cites (from Christian resources, no less!), indicates that he carefully researched this before publishing the discovery; and that, therefore, this is probably exactly what has happened with the cross.

And, I find this “revelation” to be quite hilarious (although pathetic, too). Calling it the “cruci-fiction” is even more apt than I already thought it was!


After a bit of my own research, I discovered that, unsurprisingly, this issue is not entirely crystal clear for either “side”. In summary, Barker is (mostly) correct in stating that the meaning of σταυρός is “an upright pale or stake”. This is its primary definition, which is stated in all the various lexicons, and upon which scholars agree; but, it appears that some lexicons/scholars include a secondary definition, indicating that it can be used to designate more complicated shapes (such as crosses). (What I have not uncovered is when the alternative meaning(s) came into use---which is, of course, of some relevance. And, also, why do some lexicons/scholars include it, and others do not?)

It is known that ancient executions were carried out on both stakes and crosses (of varying configurations, including an X-shape); and it is known that the Romans (specifically) did, sometimes, execute people on crosses. However, there is evidence that even this was (at least at times) a “hybrid system”, whereby the upright portion of the cross was a sturdy pole set in the ground prior to any execution, and then the victims were bound to the crossbar portion (like a yoke) and forced to walk, carrying only this piece, to the upright pole (sometimes being whipped/beaten along the way)---whereupon the crossbar was affixed to the upright stake, and they were left to die (often, simply due to exposure). I'd personally venture a guess that this offered increased re-usability of crosses (the upright part), while additionally increasing the security of transporting the accused to his place of death. (The potential to resist/escape would be reduced by being bound to the “yoke”.)

(Some of this description may sound remarkably akin to the “crucifixion” story told in the New Testament. Of course, this is not surprising, since such methods would likely have been reasonably well-known and therefore easily written about (at a much later date, by the way), whether fictitiously or not. (I could write a vividly descriptive story about someone being executed in an electric chair, or by hanging, or by lethal injection; that would not mean it actually happened. But, it would make it more credible than if I claimed they were executed by alien ray-gun dematerialization.) And, Barker enumerates in another chapter an amazing list of similarities between Jesus' story and other religious stories---such as that of Simon the Cyrenian sun God who carried pillars to his death. Compare this to “Simon the Cyrene”, who allegedly carried Jesus' “cross” to his death, and most Christians now worshiping on Sun-day (along with many other Sun allusions), and it seems quite clear that this is yet another case of story-blending and creative narrative.)

Nevertheless, it is also known for a fact that executions were carried-out by attachment to upright poles bearing no crossbar (and by impaling upon them, as well).

The Romans spoke Latin, and used the word crux for “cross”; the word in question for the New Testament is from Greek, and its primary definition remains “upright pale or stake”. In fact, one of the major modern bible translations, New World Translation, even translates σταυρός as “stake”, instead of “cross”!

So, it seems to me that the very best a Christian could realistically and honestly claim is that there is insufficient historical/biblical evidence to decisively conclude that Jesus was executed on a cross. (It seems more likely than 50/50, but... He may have been; he may not have been.) If one reads Barker's assertion that “there is no cross in Christianity” to mean that there is no reason to decide conclusively that Jesus' σταυρός was a cross, then I think it stands as reasonable (especially in light of the fact that many other pagan ideas were adopted by Christianity, and the issue with Tammuz still nags).

I just find it amusing that the cross has gained such outrageous status within Christendom, considering such tenuous underpinnings.

Talking to Christians (and Other "Faith Heads")

I have been reading a book entitled Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, by Dan Barker, and I am nearing its completion. All in all, the book is pretty good. It reads a little rough, and repeats itself some, but that is due to many (but not all) of the chapters being reprints of articles he wrote for "Freethought Today". (One would expect such a collection to read less smoothly than a usual book, written chapter-by-chapter FOR the book.) An advantage of this, though, is that the chapters are almost all short and to-the-point (52 chapters; 383 pages).

Anyway, I feel that Chapter 16 almost perfectly captures many (most) of my experiences with talking to Christians. So, here it is, in its entirety (about 2 pages).

Chapter Title: An Open-minded Discussion

One minister offered that the reason I am unable to see the truth revealed by the precious facts of Scripture is that I am depending on my own reason rather than trusting the Creator of the universe, by faith.

"The human mind is limited," he said, "and it is arrogant for you to try to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and proclaim what can't possibly be proved: that there is no God. You are lost if you use your own mind and intelligence."

"Well, whose mind do you suggest I use? Yours?" I asked. "Are you suggesting that I should never evaluate any data? Are you telling me to turn off the analysis and just swallow what some authority feeds me? Would you willingly do the same thing if approached by the flat-earthers or the Zoroastrians, or the Rev. Jim Jones?"

"You are not being open," he responded. "You have already closed your mind to Jesus." He said this in spite of the fact that he knew that I had once been a minister and have demonstrated that I am able to bend.

"But I will change my mind," I said, "if you give me some evidence. Are you willing to change your mind about Jesus if the facts warrant?"

"No," he replied quickly, "because I know Jesus personally. I can't possibly deny what I know to be true."

"But those are just words. They point to an intangible image in your mind, to something that no one else can verify. What if it could be pointed out that there is no possible way for anyone, yourself included, to distinguish between your 'knowledge' of Jesus and the mystical delusions of shamans? What if it could be shown that your inner experience is just normal psychological creativity? Then would you be willing to admit you might be wrong? Can you admit at least the possibility that you are participating in a near-universal tendency to embrace fantasy?"

"I can't do that," he answered.

"Then I think I have proved that I am open-minded and you are not," I said.

"Oh, no. I am definitely open," he added. "I am open to the truth of the Bible, and that is all that matters."

"Well, so am I. I am open to the possibility that the bible might be true. I am willing to read it, to study it, to read any books you recommend on the bible, and to listen to any of your explanations and arguments. How does that make me close-minded?"

"Because your attitude is wrong. You look at the bible and you don't see its beauty and importance. Since the bible is true, and since you haven't accepted its truth, then there is something wrong with you."

"What is wrong with examining the bible in the context of the entire human experience, learning how it compares with other myths, and how it differs?"

"See! You called it a myth," he said. "That is prejudice that you bring to the bible before you even start reading it. You can't possibly know its truth if you are treating it like any other superstitious book."

"When you read Virgil's Aeneid, do you keep your mind open to the possibility that the Cyclops was a real creature?"

"No one has ever claimed that the Cyclops was real, but millions of people claim that Jesus is alive and real. Since you have never met Jesus, you are hardly in a position to criticize us or to know what the Bible is all about."

"Just like you, I used to believe that I had met Jesus personally, but I now know that such an argument is purely subjective. It would be like saying that the only people who are qualified to make a decision about the existence of leprechauns are those who have met a leprechaun personally. Have you met a leprechaun personally?"

"No, but I have met Jesus personally."

"You haven't met any leprechauns, but I bet you have an opinion about their existence."

"Leprechauns are irrelevant. We're talking about Jesus."

"Let's put it this way. Do you agree with me that the human race has exhibited an immense propensity to believe errors?"

"What do you mean?"

"There are millions of people who devoutly worship Allah, millions who fear primitive superstitions, millions who think the Angel Moroni spoke to Joseph Smith, and I am not so sure that no one ever believed in the existence of the Cyclops. All of these people are not right, are they?"

"They have been deceived!"

"Then you agree with me that there is something about human nature that makes most of us susceptible to error."

"Yes, I would have to agree with that," he conceded.

"Then what makes you exempt?"

He was silent for a moment, then answered, "Well, somebody has to be right. I believe I am right. I believe that I have good reason for my faith."

"So do the Moslems."

"But none of those other religions have anything like the bible, or anything like the unique message of salvation through Jesus," he triumphed.

"You have not done your homework. Any serious student of Christianity, who does not ignore the context of myth and human experience, would never make such a claim."

"It would be a waste of my time to study those other myths and religions when I already know that I have the truth."

"And if an atheist said that it would be a 'waste of time' to study the bible, what would you think?"

"That would not be open-minded," he concluded, without a flicker of embarrassment.


(If you like what you've read, look-up the book! The link is at the top.)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Fallacious Ethics Foundations

For the umpteenth time, I have heard, yet again, a "faith head" make the ridiculous claim that (paraphrased) "without belief in God, all of society would break down into a chaotic orgy of murder and mayhem." Or, succinctly, "no God, no morals." To be entirely fair to the person, here is his full post, unedited:

Author: Sanity01 [Oh, the irony of the name!]
Post: The day that you are sucessful [sic] in convincing everyone that there is no God, there will be no reason for anyone to follow any of man's laws. If I am held accountable only to others like me, I will revert to a "survival of the fittest" mentality. Civilization will implode. This movie [talking about "Expelled"] is about the lack of willingness in the science community to even allow me to have my opinion on this if I am a fellow scientist or a teacher. What you are telling the people that attend church in any religion [is] that they are living in a fairy tale and are wasting their time. I wouldn't want to be here when they believe you.

Ignoring the fact that this anti-science passage is a complete lie (there are many scientists who believe in God; even eminent ones, such as Francis Collins), let's consider what this "no God, no morals" claim really means.

This person is implicitly admitting that he personally feels no empathy toward others, no remorse about wrong-doing, no desire to help humanity; the only thing that keeps him "doing good" is his belief in God (and associated retribution/reward). That is it. No conscience, no emotions, no ethics, no anything except belief in God. Such a person, who lacks an internal moral compass, is called a sociopath. (Judging by how often I've heard this claim, there must be a lot of sociopathic Christians---or else dimwitted simpletons, who don't really understand what they're saying.) This person thinks atheists and agnostics are amoral, simply because they don't believe in God.

So, let's ignore the fact that this claim is already disproven by the modern world, simply by examining American prison populations: atheists/agnostics represent a dramatically lower proportion in prison populations (~0.21%), compared with their proportion in the population at large (~8-16%). (Christian population proportions are about equal, in and out of prison.) [reference] Let's ignore the fact that the most secular countries in the world are the least violent, and have the highest societal health indicators, and that "Christian America" is staggeringly more violent and societally dysfunctional. [reference] (The same is true on a smaller scale, for red vs blue states, and conservative/liberal cities. Even divorce rates are highest amongst the most devout, such as in the so-called Bible Belt, and lowest amongst atheists/agnostics. But, don't take my word for it; look it up!) Let's just ignore all this, and more.

I have repeatedly heard Christians argue against atheism on the basis of "moral relativism", that there is no such thing as absolute good and bad. The problem, of course, is that this argument could be leveled against anyone of any creed, because we're all just doing the best we can, making things up as we go along. We're all in exactly the same "morally relativistic" boat together---atheist, muslim, christian, jew, hindu, buddhist, agnostic, baha'i, etc.

At this point, I'd expect most Christians to gut-react in disgust, without first really reflecting upon what I just said, and instead loudly protesting that, "no they don't, they use the Bible for guidance!" Well, did you ever ask yourself why you chose the Bible? (Or, did you even choose it? Maybe you just "believe it because that's what you were taught growing up". And, how exactly do the Councils of Nicaea fit in here, anyway? And, the Apocrypha?) That was you making that decision, choosing a particular set of codes amongst the many available. And, just because you believe it to be true, doesn't actually make it true. You decided.

But, even if we ignore the fact that you have arbitrarily accepted the Bible as the word of God with no good evidence to support its extraordinary claims, you still have problems. Either you're in the minority and believe you can read the Bible literally, exactly as it is written (in which case, you are so out-of-touch with reality that you might as well just stop reading now, since the Bible is riddled with glaring inconsistencies and self-contradictions; hundreds of examples exist; e.g., David's census in parallel accounts---commanded by God or Satan (2 Samuel 24:1 vs 1 Chronicles 21:1), results (2 Samuel 24:9 vs 1 Chronicles 21:5), who/where (2 Samuel 24:16 vs 1 Chronicles 21:15), how much (2 Samuel 24:24 vs 1 Chronicles 21:25)... Satan and/or God?!), or you're in the majority and believe there are at least some parts of the Bible that must be read metaphorically in order to be sensible, or are "just outdated" and can be ignored. But, which parts? And, who decides?

Again, the answer is: you decide. Oh sure, you can claim that God told you this or that, gave you a vision, or whatever. But in the end, it is still you who decides for yourself what is right and what is wrong, exactly the same as everybody else. It is no more absolute than an atheist's ethics, and it is much more dangerous because it is not as well thought-out and---far worse---it is attached to the false claim of absolute authority, even if it is obviously and horribly wrong. It is through this mechanism that atrocities can be thought to be the highest of good deeds. (Enter the Inquisition, Conquistadors, Crusades, suicide bombings, etc.---not just awful events, but awful events specifically performed in the name of God. Slavery was vigorously defended using the Bible---and understandably so, because it doesn't denounce it. Not even Jesus does so.)

Furthermore, not only is everyone in the same "relativistic boat", but because those claiming absolutism haven't developed their moral codes through reasons of their own (haven't "made them their own" by personally internalizing them), they are less likely to follow their claimed rules; and even when they do follow them, it is for all the wrong reasons. Basically, there's a huge difference between behaving a certain way because "you don't want to get caught" and because "you think it's the right thing to do". Example: speed limits. If you believe speed limits facilitate improved public safety and public safety is a good thing (i.e., you agree with them in principle), then you are far more likely to abide by them than if you simply don't want to get a ticket (in which case, you'll likely speed at every opportunity, so long as there is no cop in sight). The concept of an absolute, dictated code of rules, augmented by heaven and hell as reward and punishment, is fraught with fatal problems from the get-go. Humans have a very low tendency to adhere to rules simply "because I said so". (Hence, I believe, the discrepancies in prison populations and societal health.)

One of the final defenses often thrown-up by Christians after all of this is that the Bible contains many profound and revolutionary teachings, and is therefore still a great book. Again, the problem is that Christians (and other religious people) are so commonly and severely ignorant of "the outside world" (and their own, for that matter) that they don't even realize that the Bible is really not that special. It doesn't contain many, if any, particularly original teachings (and, it does contain a plethora of horrific teachings). The single rule that Christians most commonly cite as the best simple distillation of the Bible is the Golden Rule.

Well, guess what? The Golden Rule was around before the Bible even existed, and its basic principles were independently discovered in other civilizations and religions around the world. In fact, the ethic of reciprocity (Golden Rule) is one of the most common ideas underlying the various world religions. Jesus did not invent the idea. So, while the Bible may contain some interesting ideas, and even some beautiful passages, it is, nonetheless, a very flawed ancient text that should be treated as such. (It does, after all, contain some truly abhorrent teachings.) Can you learn lessons by reading it? Yes, of course. But, you can also learn lessons by reading the Odyssey and Iliad and all kinds of other things---like the stories of Icarus or Pandora or "The Little Engine That Could" or the lyrics of "It's Not Easy Being Green".

The bottom line is this. Like it or not, we're all in the same "relativistic predicament", trying to do the best we can collectively, working out "how we should behave". But, pretending we have absolute answers, and making bigoted, un-thought-out, ridiculous statements such as I opened with is counterproductive to progress. The truth is that absolutism is a curse, not a blessing, because it instantly precludes any communication and compromise amongst those of different thinking, and it shuts down self-reflection, or even entertaining the possibility that you could be wrong. (And, who hasn't been wrong?) Is anyone really so completely arrogant as to think they have all the answers---that they know everything and don't need to listen to others?

After much reading, listening, and thinking, I am convinced that reciprocity---empathy---lays the fundamental foundation to our understanding of ethics, both good and bad. (Incidentally, it also helps explain the evolution of ethics. But, that's a somewhat different story...) Not religion; not belief in God. Empathy.

(Note: I used Christianity in this blog entry because I've interacted with it by far the most. But, exactly the same sort of thinking and argument applies to other religions.)


It is interesting to point-out that I have repeatedly noted that the most intolerant people online BY FAR (e.g., in forums and discussions) are generally the religious; they censor disagreeing views and block/ban the users (e.g., the Discovery Institute, youtube, myspace, etc.), harass and threaten people (e.g., ERV's blog, and pretty much anywhere else), participate in "ballot stuffing" negative votes (e.g., youtube, amazon forums, etc.), and the list just goes on and on. You wouldn't believe how many times I've had these "loving Christians" curse me out, gleefully delighting in the thought of my burning for eternity (and repeatedly expressing as much). Three cheers for Jesus, meek and mild! PFFT!

Wake up, people! We all have the same basic needs. Learn to empathize and understand. Learn compassion and fairness---which, if you listen to Christians, even Jesus thought were pretty good ideas.

I've made it my personal policy on my blog entries to never censor anyone's responses, no matter how completely idiotic I might think they are. (Others clearly don't hold this view, as my responses to others' blogs/posts have several times been censored/denied because they disagree with the blogger's/poster's ideas.) I might tell them I think their ideas are stupid for reasons a, b, and c; but, I will leave their posts intact, uncensored. Free speech is a good thing, not bad; it is, again, the opposite of absolutism. And stupid things said through free speech are best countered, not by censorship, but by ... wait for it ... more free speech! (Basically, you have the right to say anything you want; but, you don't have the right to not be called an idiot as a result of what you say.)

Friday, October 26, 2007

For Mr Wright

I've been participating in discussions over at the amazon religion forum. (My handle there is "Esk".) One thread discusses the "scientificness" of evolution, and the original post mentions Pleochroic Haloes as potential evidence for creation. I have been trying to get a short paper to be accessible from there, but have encountered problems. (The paper provides a perfectly reasonable naturalistic explanation of Pleochroic Haloes.)

So, hopefully, this will work: Page 1 and Page 2 of the two-page article.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My Blog Name

I suppose I should clarify my blog name since there is the potential for significant misunderstanding (although probably not if you actually read many of my blogs, lol).

Usually, when a person changes beliefs---and particularly in the case of religious beliefs---he or she is said to have been converted to the new system. Unfortunately, Islam completely inappropriately describes those converted to Islam as being reverted. (To revert is to change back, or return, to a previous state.) The reason they do this is because they claim that everyone is born a Muslim.

I vehemently disagree with this absurd (and self-evidently false) assertion. No baby "believes" anything. It is no more appropriate to describe a baby as a Christian or Muslim than as a Capitalist or Marxist. It is simply too young and inexperienced to form a belief one way or the other.

Atheism is the "absence of belief in the existence of God or gods", or "disbelief in the existence of God or gods". The former exactly describes the state of a newborn on the topic of god(s). Newborns are atheists.

I was an atheist at birth. I subsequently spent many years believing Christianity. Through honest, rational examination of the available evidence, I eventually returned to atheism (this time leaning more toward the latter definition).

I am reverted.